Hostname: page-component-797576ffbb-6mkhv Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-12-06T10:35:42.735Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Behind the Mereological Fallacy1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 June 2012

Rom Harré*
Psychology Dept., Georgetown University Linacre College, Oxford


Language based criticisms of the intelligibility of the programme of neuropsychology have made use of the principle that words the meaning of which is established in the context of descriptions of aspects of whole persons cannot be used in that sense to ascribe properties to parts of human bodies. In particular neither human brains nor their parts think, are conscious, imagine, suffer and so on. Recently, Bennett and Hacker have presented the error as a mereological fallacy, because brains are parts of persons. However, while brains are parts of human bodies it is not clear that they are parts of persons. I restyle the argument in terms of fields of family resemblances, in such a way that it makes sense to describe the hippocampus as an organ for remembering, but does not support the claim that neuroscience is core psychology. Such fields are networks of meanings linked by two principles. (1) Taxonomies of relevant body parts are determined by the psychological role they play in everyday human life. (2) Many body parts are also identified by the role they play as tools in human activities including psychological tasks. Arguments are developed to show that objections to the idea that brains and their constituent organs are tools are misplaced. Hybrid psychologies are possible.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2012

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



This paper is based on the Third Marx Wartofsky Memorial Lecture, given at City University of New York, 11 May 2011.


2 Bennett, M.R. & Hacker, P.M.S.Philosophical Foundations of Neurosciences (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003)Google Scholar

3 Rundle, B.Mind in Action (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Coulter, J.Mind in Action (Cambridge: Polity, 1989)Google Scholar

5 Harris, Lasana T & Fiske, Susan T.Journal of Psychology 219, 175181. (2011)Google Scholar

6 Shweder, R.A.Thinking Through Cultures. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)Google Scholar, 265

7 Coulter, J. op. cit.

8 Bennett, M.R. and Hacker, P.M.S. (Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell,. 2003)Google Scholar

9 Hacker, P.M.S. ‘Consciousness’ in Harré, R. and Moghaddam, F.M.Psychology for the Third Millennium (London and Los Angeles, Sage, 2012) Chapter 4.Google Scholar

10 Rundle, op. cit., 25

11 Haynes, J.-D.Deciding and predicting intentions’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1224, (2011): 921CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Wittgenstein, op. cit., §286.

13 Wittgenstein, op. cit., §583.

14 Wittgenstein, op. cit., §284.

15 Coulter, J. & Sharrock, W.Brains, Minds and Human Behaviour in Contemporary Cognitive Science (Lewiston: Mellen Press, 2007)Google Scholar

16 For a contrary view see Cook, J.Locating WittgensteinPhilosophy 85 (2010), 273289CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Bennett and Hacker, op. cit., 73

18 Locke, J.An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1690)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Book 2, Chapter XXVII, §9.

19 Haynes, J.-P. op. cit., 9–21.

20 Gallivan, J.P., McLean, A., Valyear, K.F., Pettypiece, C.E. & Culham, J., ‘Decoding action intentions from preparatory brain activity in human parieto-frontal networks’, Journal of Neuroscience 31 (2011) 95999610CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

21 Laing, R.D.The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (London: Penguin, 2010), New EditionGoogle Scholar.

22 Luria, A.R.Restoration of Function after Brain Injury (Oxford: Pergamon, 1963)Google Scholar.

23 McLeod, P., Plunkett, K., & Rolls, E.T.Introduction to Connectionist Modelling of Cognitive Processes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

24 Ebbinghaus, H.Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Trans. Roger, H. A. & Bussenius, C. E., New Edition (New York: Dover Books, [1885] 1987)Google Scholar.

25 Burton, R.The Anatomy of Melancholy, (Oxford: Clarendon Press [1621]. New edition 19891994)Google Scholar

26 Wittgenstein, op. cit. §172 .

27 Personal communication.