I’ve been writing for decades about the mind-body problem, the deepest of all mysteries, and I’m trying to finish a book tentatively titled Mind-Body Problems. And yet only recently have I realized that few people outside philosophy and mind-related scientific fields are familiar with the phrase “mind-body problem.”
I also realized that I knew nothing about the origins of the phrase. Google didn’t provide an immediate answer, so I reached out to David Chalmers, a prominent philosopher of mind. “Good question,” he said when I asked on Facebook who coined mind-body problem. He passed my query on to other scholars. I’ve culled the information below from responses of Chalmers, Galen Strawson, Eric Schliesser, Charles T. Wolfe, Godehard Bruntrup, Victor Caston and Paolo Pecere, to whom I am very grateful.
A Google N-gram on “mind-body problem” shows the phrase spiking from 1910 to 1925, dipping for a couple of decades and then rising again in the 1950s. The earliest reference I can find on Google Books dates back to 1879, when the prominent American scholar Felix Adler lectured on atheism to the Ethical Culture Society. An excerpt:
If then, consciousness, or mind, in something like its traditional sense, cannot successfully be explained away by the new epistemology, we must resolutely face the metaphysical question of the relation of the mind to the physical world in which it has its setting. The central and crucial part of this question is, of course, to be found in the mind-body problem… If we refuse to accept the pan-objective epistemology already considered which would do away with consciousness in the traditional sense, we must recognize that the relation of the mind to the body forms a real and inescapable problem… How can two things so different from each other as mind and body interact? To which, it seems to me, the sufficient answer is to be found in the rather obvious query, Why can they not? Are we so sure that unlike things cannot influence each other? The only way really to decide this question is to go to experience and see. [Bold added.]
Adler, who was born and partially educated in Germany, might have borrowed the phrase mind-body problem from German scholars. By the mid-19th century Gustav Fechner and other Germans were referring to the "Körper-Seele Problem," “Leib-Seele Problem” and "Psychophysisches Problem,” all of which roughly translate to mind-body problem. (“Körper” and “Leib” mean body and “Seele” means soul.)
Scholars pondered the mind-body problem, of course, well before the phrase was coined. In Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, published in 1801, English cleric Thomas Belsham attempted to explicate the relationship between mind and matter. So did Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart in a three-part work, also titled Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, the first of which was published in 1792, according to Wikipedia. In 1714 Leibniz presented this vivid critique of physical, mechanistic explanations of mind:
Moreover, we must confess that the perception, and what depends on its, is inexplicable in terms of mechanical reasons, that is, through shapes and motions. If we imagine that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense and have perceptions, we could conceive it enlarged, keeping the same proportions, so that we could enter into it, as one enters into a mill. Assuming that, when inspecting its interior, we will find only parts that push one another, and we will never find anything to explain a perception.
Descartes often gets credit with being the first thinker to worry about the connection between mind and matter. But according to the Oxford Reference, Descartes only appreciated the problem “after he received a letter in 1643 from Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596–1662), the daughter of King James I of England and VI of Scotland, pointing it out.” The third-century scholar Alexander of Aphrodisias also anticipated Descartes. Alexander wrote in his treatise On the Soul:
In general, it would also make sense to ask those who say that the soul is a form of the body in this way, just what joins and holds the two of them together, given that they are separate from one another and differ in their natures, so that what is composed from them is and remains a single thing? For it is difficult to find something responsible for the unity of such things, both when they first come together and after they have come together.
Socrates, via Plato, posed the mind-body problem even earlier, in 399 B.C.. Talking to his students in his prison cell, Socrates complained about philosophers who explain the world in terms of physical things, such as “air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities.” How, Socrates asked, would such a philosopher explain what he is doing in this prison?
Well, Socrates replied to his own question, the philosopher might point out that he, Socrates, “is made up of bones and muscles… and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture.” But that would be a lousy explanation, Socrates pointed out, because the “true cause” of his situation “is that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence.” Socrates continues:
It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking.
To my mind, that is a clear expression of the mind-body problem, and the limits of physical explanations. Yes, we’re bodies, physical things subject to physical forces. But we also have minds, which have causes--such as our sense of right and wrong, of “the best”--that cannot be reduced to physiology. Viewing ourselves as nothing but bodies leads to what Socrates called a “strange confusion of causes and conditions.”
Science has come a long way since Socrates, and yet the mind-body problem still provokes strange confusion. Or, worse, indifference. One of my goals as a writer is to get people to care about the mind-body problem, to make them realize that it is the central mystery of existence, the one toward which all other mysteries converge. It really asks, What are we? But getting people to care can be hard.
When I told a friend in the publishing racket, whom I’ll call Emily, that I was writing a book called Mind-Body Problems, she got excited, because she assumed I was talking about how we can use our minds to heal our bodies. Readers love that Deepak-Chopra kind of stuff! She was disappointed when I explained what “mind-body problem” actually means. Our conversation went something like this:
Emily: So our minds come from our brains. What’s the big deal? Everybody knows that. That sounds boring.
Me: But, but, our minds are conscious, and consciousness is weird, it’s totally different than anything else in the universe, because it’s not physical, and it’s hard to imagine how to explain it in physical terms. In fact, lots of philosophers and scientists call consciousness “the hard problem.”
Emily: The hard problem? I like that! Why don’t you call your book The Hard Problem?
Me: The philosopher who coined the phrase “the hard problem,” this guy named David Chalmers, already wrote a book with that title. [See Correction below.] And Tom Stoppard, the playwright, wrote a play called The Hard Problem. “Hard problem” is over-exposed, it’s sort of a cliché. That’s another reason I like Mind-Body Problems.
Emily: The Hard Problem would be a more commercial title, trust me.
Me: Well, but my book isn’t just about consciousness, the hard problem. It’s about lots of other mind-related mysteries. Like the meaning of life, which a philosopher named Owen Flanagan calls “the really hard problem.”
Emily: I like that! That’s great! Why don’t you call your book The Really Hard Problem?
Me: Um, because Flanagan already wrote a book called The Really Hard Problem. And my book isn’t just about the really hard problem, either. It’s about the hard problem, and the really hard problem, and free will, and morality, and what makes me me, and you you. It’s about all these different mind-related mysteries. Also we're all different, so we all see the mind-body problem in different ways. That’s why I call my book Mind-Body Problems. With an “s.”
Emily (sigh): It’s your book.
Getting people to care about the mind-body problem is another mind-body problem.
Correction: Chalmers has informed me that none of his books is titled The Hard Problem. Emily would be aghast that he didn't fully monetize his excellent coinage.
Postscript: I would be delighted to hear from scholars who have further insights into the history of the phrase and ideas behind mind-body problem.