Communication and Cognition in One Million BC



Communication and Cognition in One Million BC

[Rewrite of a paper 'Components of the thinking skill' read at DLG symposium in Grimstad, Norway in May 2007.]

Abstract: This paper moots the possibility that homo erectus lacked the brain-based forms of language and mind possessed by modern homo sapiens and had to improvise actional substitutes for them. The Introduction establishes initial plausibility for this scenario. The paper is in the form of a first-hand eye-witness account (by a survivor of the Lower Palaeolithic) of the ‘do-it-yourself’ communication and cognition techniques that erectus employed.



It is taken as given that a genuine language is an abstract structure -- of representations, meanings, logical operators and combinatorial laws -- that is capable of being employed for various pragmatic roles, including communication and cognition. It is also assumed that the modern homo sapiens brain has evolved to the point where a fully-automatic linguistic processing facility (neurologically expectant of a language structure as above) is genetically programmed-in as standard. Mind can similarly be defined in terms of neurological mechanisms innately given in the homo sapiens brain. In the case of mind, the evolved-in mechanism is an automatic internal information-processing and somatic-control facility. We must assume that the relatively puny erectus cranial capacity infers a corresponding lack of brain power (‘available memory’), and indicates that at that stage evolution had not yet begun equipping the hominid brain with modern linguistic and cognitive mechanisms.

These assumptions are supported not only by common sense but by well-established anthropological observations, confirmed in the eyewitness evidence below. Less evolved peoples tend to depend on cooperative, sharing-based cultures and, as well, are much more expressive and ‘overt’ in their interpersonal dealings than are more advanced peoples. Given their communitarian level of economic and cultural development, erectus’ reliance on relatively laborious public, action-based techniques for communication and cognition is to be expected. The cultures of more advanced peoples, on the other hand, are more realistic and competitive, being based on rational self-interest of individuals. Interpersonal transactions in these advanced cultures typically involve prevarication and thus require communication and cognition that is both more complex and (in large part) more covert. Put simply, much of the action in modern social encounters goes on ‘behind the scenes’. The principle of anatomical adaptation to environment (central to evolutionary science) then leads us to infer, in the modern individual, comunication and cognition capacities that are both fully automated (for efficiency) and fully internalised. This is exactly what we find in the homo sapiens brain.

Surprisingly, in the light of the above, I can report no obvious intellectual deficiency on the part of my fictional informant, nor did I experience much difficulty translating his account into everyday English. However, two things should be remembered. First, our Olduwan survivor was tasked merely with giving an account of erectus’ communication and cognition practices. Considering the simplicity of the concerted-action-based culture these practices ministered to, and the simplicity of the practices themselves, the appearance of competence is, perhaps, not so surprising. My informant’s intelligence may well have been adequate to this task. We are not talking brain science here. Secondly, the appearance the text gives of the informant’s ‘understanding what he is saying’ is deceptive. It is a well known side-effect of evolution that behaviour patterns from very different evolutionary levels, and with very different underlying anatomical bases, may, on the surface, mimic one another quite closely. So the appearance of normal homo sapiens intelligence is almost certainly an illusion. Thanks to modern cognitive science, cognitive linguistics and evolutionary theory, we know that erectus cognition and homo sapiens cognition must be very different phenomena.

First-hand accounts of cultural practices in the early stone age are, to say the least, rare. Because this one happens to be entirely fanciful, its historical and scientific value must remain controversial. Unarguably, however, this paper is a salutary reminder of how fortunate we modern homo sapiens are, to have been equipped by evolution with both a sophisticated language-acquisition device and a fully-automatic internal cognitive facility, that is, how fortunate we are to have been equipped with brains powerful enough to generate and operate linguistic and cognitive systems for us – and how arduous it must have been for our distant ancestors, having to devise their own communication methods and having to think for themselves.




Our need to communicate with one another and our need to think both arose initially out of our having opted for a survival strategy based on joint action. In order to implement our multifarious joint undertakings, and control them while they were in progress, we had to communicate. And in order to devise them in the first place, we had to think.

Most of our waking lives were taken up with joint activity of one sort or another. There was concerted activity, in which we all did the same thing, side-by-side together at the same time and place. And there was cooperative activity, an adaptation of concerting in which we worked together to the same end but (some or all of us) contributed in different ways, and perhaps at different times and places. In both, the core element was our doing something together. The pleasure of participating in activity with others was perhaps the strongest motivation in our lives. It was a kind of love. Our infants were born with it in them. From their first moments in the world, they were so keen to get on board the culture, to join in with us, that they would imitate the gestures and the facial expressions of those around them.

Lovingly raised infants were soon able to engage with their caregivers in simple shared activities such as mutual smiling, mutual greetings, holding hands, cuddling, eating. Gradually joint activity would become more complex. Habits of shared attending, following each other’s gaze and perceiving moving objects together became established, along with numerous subtler attunements, as the child began to master the routine aspects of his culture. Learning to participate in new concerted and cooperative activities was a major concern in a child’s daily life.


Showing someone how to do something

As well as opting for a concerted and cooperative approach, we opted for versatility. This enabled us to venture into and exploit the resources of a wide range of environments but it meant our acquiring and retaining not only a large repertoire of standard abilities. We also needed to be able to adapt these abilities to changing circumstances and to devise and master new skills. Efficient learning was a high priority, especially for children. Learning a skill generally required that it be thoroughly and repeatedly rehearsed. Long-term retention of skills was also largely a matter of their being regularly exercised. Our standard teaching method was ‘pedagogic rehearsal’ – a cooperative interaction between the pupil and an instructor.

The prototype form of pedagogic rehearsal involved the instructor securing the attention of the pupil and then demonstrating the activity to be learned. The instuctor had to perform the activity a special pedagogic manner – the basic practical moves being supplemented with ostensive gestures (such as hand movements, vocalisations and facial expressions), and with slowings down or other dramatisings of parts of the action. Where possible the demonstrator enhanced the effectiveness of  these various pedagogic ploys by simultaneously meeting the pupil’s gaze. The effect of the ostentatious manner of performance and the gaze-meeting was twofold – to direct the pupil’s attention to important parts of the activity, and to encourage him to perform them, to imitate what he was seeing, to join in. Pedagogic rehearsal had the twofold function of (1) showing or specifying a behaviour and (2) encouraging the concerted performance of it.

Pedagogic rehearsal was exploiting for educative purposes the child’s powerful natural desire to copy, or, more exactly, to join in with, what others were doing. The demonstration, and its emphasised parts, were designed to specify exactly, and to elicit, corresponding behaviours from the pupil. Once the specified behaviours were being performed by the pupil, the fact they were being performed in concert with the instructor provided sufficient motivation, sufficient pleasure and excitement in the sharing, to as it were etch that behaviour into the repertoire. In addition, the showing-how procedure seemed to be able to elicit from children and other beginners performances of which they were previously incapable, at least if by themselves. Not only did concerted performances reinforce the new skill in the repertoire once it was achieved, the promise of concerted performance seemed by itself to help the pupil achieve the relevant new abilities.

The number and elaborateness of the rehearsals required to ensure mastery varied according to the difficulty of the activity and the learner’s general experience and competence. Generally, as a beginner’s familiarity with the new activity increased, the thoroughness of the rehearsals could be reduced. Once some parts of the activity were mastered, these could be skimmed over or left out when the activity was being rehearsed. After a while, the beginner could practice the new skill, perhaps in a much-abbreviated form, on his own, without the aid of the demonstrator.

Because they were usually done in association with a meeting of gaze between demonstrator and pupil, and gaze-meeting was itself a rewarding piece of concerted activity, the pedagogic gestures constituted high points of sharing-pleasure within the performance. Once the child had mastered a behaviour to the point where rehearsal could be abbreviated, the pedagogic gestures would tend to remain in the abbreviated version. Accordingly, much of the invitatory, motivating effect of the original full demonstration was preserved in later abbreviated demonstrations. The pedagogic gestures would help preserve the sharing pleasure even when the pupil rehearsed the new skill in the absence of a teacher.


Showing ‘things’


One of the most important broad kinds of activity we taught each other via the showing-how or ‘pedagogic rehearsal’ technique was perceptual behaviour. For us, ‘seeing a hawk’, ‘feeling the warmth of a fire’, ‘testing an adze edge’ were recogniseable actions or activities which a child had to be taught how to perform. What needed to be shown were not just ways of investigating – heuristic strategies and tactics – but also what it was like to experience cold, red, speed of movement, pain, or whatever. The child was shown how to do these perceivings.

The demonstrator took the pupil through the investigative and perceptual recipes peculiar to particular things. What was shared and thus taught in each case was a certain perceptual formula. The children were shown how to recognise a hawk or a cutting adze, and how to tell the two apart.

In the teaching of new perceptual behaviour as in the teaching of any other kind of behaviour, pedagogic gestures played an essential role. Teaching the various ‘things’ involved pointing and other forms of attention-directing, enthusiastic facial expressions, vocal exclamations, slowing down and dramatising the perceptions, strategically-timed gaze-meeting, and so on. The type of ostensive tactic employed would depend on the perceptual faculty or faculties being exercised – visual, aural, olfactory, kinaesthetic or whatever. And the aim of these pedagogic strategems here as elsewhere was to mark out specific actions and encourage a concerted performance of them. As with other abilities, when instructor and pupil were performing the relevant heuristic-cum-perceptual behaviour together, in concert, the resulting pleasure would help lock in the new ability.

For us, shared perceiving was a hugely important kind of concerted activity. The shareability of our perceivings created an area of commonality, the place we lived in together, a world in which we could act. It defined the context for all our practical activity. It was the ground we walked on. [I tried explaining to my ancient friend the nature of our modern scientific concept of objectivity, of a real world out there with things in it, existing independently of our perceivings of it. He could not grasp it.]


Minimal rehearsal, for self-readying

I mentioned that as a pupil mastered an activity, the scale and frequency of pedagogic rehearsals could diminish. Once he was competent, a brief going-through-the-motions now and then, without an instructor, was all that was necessary. Ideally, when his education in a given activity was complete, and the erstwhile beginner was thoroughly familiar with it, there would be no further need for rehearsal, no matter how abbreviated or small-scale. However, even when a child or adult was completely au fait with an activity, the fact of the great variety of different activities to be performed everyday, and the frequent need to synthesise new combinations of familiar actions to suit new circumstances, usually meant that a person would have to briefly rehearse his next action – in order to ready himself for performing it. It was necessary to orient oneself for, ‘tune in’ to, any imminent task. It was as if any ability, even a well-mastered one, needed to be retrieved from the repertoire and ‘warmed up’ or ‘primed’ prior to a performance of it. And for this obligatory readying-in-advance, a minimal, essentialised rehearsal was ideal.


Another factor contributing to the need for a minimal rehearsal as a routine precursor to action was the frequent indeterminacy or ambivalence of the circumstances in which one had to act. If the perceived circumstances seemed to call for doing X, but one couldn’t be absolutely sure, as was often the case, then it usually helped to do a minimal rehearsal for X, to attune oneself for doing X, for a while before actually doing it. By readying one’s X-ing abilities for action, including the perceptual abilities required for X-ing, the minimal rehearsal energised and focussed one’s perceptual interrogation of the present situation. It made one alert to features of the situation relevant to X-ing – to features conducive to X-ing and features incompatible with X-ing. The minimal rehearsal sustained one’s X-relevant perceivings and one’s readiness to X while the situation resolved itself one way or the other. It kept one motivated, and enabled a quick and full response when or if a situation fully conducive to X-ing did arrive.

Mostly, the bodily movements involved in these minimal rehearsals were so subtle, and carried out so rapidly, that the act of rehearsing was so inconspicuous as to be unobservable, at least to the casual eye. Often also, however, it would be easy for an observer to see – from a facial expression, or an attentional orientation, or an evident pattern of muscular tension – that the person was minimally rehearsing some action. It was sometimes possible, even, to see what that action was. In some contexts – readying oneself for a certain move during a hunt, for example, or in a few rare interpersonal contests – the inconspicuousness could be an advantage. But the prime cause of the inconspicuousness was the requirement for speed and efficiency. Speed and efficiency necessitated very subtle movements, movements that were, just because of their subtlety, usually difficult or impossible to observe.

The actional detail of our ‘minimal rehearsal’ is difficult to specify. There seemed to be a trick to it. Possibly, this involved the actual commencing of the action being rehearsed – so that overt movement was incipient – quickly followed by the aborting of it. The knack was to get the commencing and the aborting optimally close together, so as to prime the action and render it incipient, without committing to any actual movement. It involved a kind of ‘doing and not-doing’, a mere ‘making as if to’ do something. And the precision of the readying was important too. Part of the skill in minimal rehearsing was to ready just those muscles that would be involved in the anticipated action – and in the right combinations and orders – and no others. At any rate, the ability to rehearse an action in this special ‘minimal’ way seemed to come naturally to us, and children acquired it early.


Soliciting joint activity

Joint action had logistic problems that solo action, such as that of many animals, did not have. In order to initiate joint undertakings one had to muster the participants, ready them in the same direction, assign roles, cue the action and so on. We needed efficient means of initiating sessions of particular activities, and cueing particular contributions within those activities. The task was basically that of soliciting appropriate behaviours from the other would-be participants. For children too, though their concern was pleasure and learning rather than immediate practical necessity, the ability to solicit activity from others was also extremely important.

The default way of soliciting another’s participation in a session of a mutually familiar activity was to commence the activity – to the extent this was possible without the other’s participation – and to do it in a conspicuous and inviting way. The ‘conspicuous and inviting’ manner of performance was borrowed from pedagogy – from from the ways demonstrators ostentated actions in the course of showings-how. The aim in soliciting was much the same: for an ‘instructor’ to specify a particular activity and invite the ‘pupil’ to join with him in performing it.

Demonstrations done for soliciting purposes could be, and for convenience were best, much abbreviated. If it was done in the appropriate ostentatious and invitatory manner, a mere brief show of commencing the activity (then desisting), a token beginning, or a mime of some other distinctive fragment of the activity, would usually suffice. A child would put his arms out entreatingly to solicit cuddling or being picked up. A huntsman arriving home from the hill would turn to his companion and mime the act of drinking. Pointing at things was for us also an example of the soliciting of shared activity. Pointing mimed the act of looking in a certain direction. The activity being solicited was the shared perceiving of something.

Our practice of using a token-performance of an activity to solicit someone else’s participation in that activity could be viewed as a modification of pedagogic rehearsal. It was also somewhat reminiscent of solo minimal rehearsals done for self-readying purposes. The difference here, obviously, was that whereas minimal rehearsals were minimal (and if this made them invisible, too bad) activity-soliciting required a rehearsal that was readily observable by – was in fact conspicuous to -- its intended audience. Soliciting was what you got when you made a display and invitation of a minimal rehearsal. It was a minimal pedagogic rehearsal with its pedagogic dimension cranked back up. Soliciting can be viewed as a minimal-but-still-public rehearsal of an activity – a rehearsal readying both the person doing the soliciting and the would-be other participant(s).


Using vocals for soliciting

We eventually came to use vocal sounds as the main means of soliciting. That is, it came about that the token performances of activities that we produced for soliciting purposes were almost all vocal performances. How was this possible? A great many of our everyday activities were essentially silent – at least insofar as they had no characteristic vocal component. How could vocal performances have ‘mimed’ or otherwise betokened silent activity? Surely something is round the wrong way here.

Vocalisation had several benefits as a soliciting medium. Like the other, ‘dramatic’ kinds of soliciting, vocalising attracted attention naturally but, in contrast to dramatic methods, vocalising was always easy to do and it worked in the dark and over quite long distances. However, as I say, if an activity involved no vocalising, or no vocalising distinctive to that activity, then it couldn’t be tokened by a vocal performance. The solution we adopted, enabling us to use vocal tokening (token performances consisting entirely of vocals) for all soliciting purposes, was to incorporate vocals into all our joint activities. Where an activity lacked distinctive vocals, we simply added them in. The vocals would be grafted on at the showing-how stage. Everyone learning the activity learned its vocals too. And, so they could be used for soliciting later on, different vocals were chosen for each activity. Thus, a particular pattern of vocalising unique to an activity (or to some action or juncture in or phase of the activity) was done as part of the demonstration of that activity (or action, juncture or phase) when it was first learned.

Vocalising already had an important role in showings-how, an ostensive role similar to that of non-vocal gesturing. As I say, like hand-movements and facial expressions, vocalising would attract attention. Vocals done during demonstrations, especially if immediately preceded or followed by a meeting of gaze, would reliably attract attention to the action or action part being demonstrated at the time. And its ease and its compatibility with other actions made vocalising one of the most important ostensive devices used in demonstrations. This ostensive vocalising made use of only a limited range of sounds and tones (and loudness, rhythms, etc.). It specialised in variations on oooo and aaaah. But in order to provide every activity with distinctive soliciting-vocals, we needed a repertoire of vocal sounds that was both (1) significantly different-sounding from the ooo-aaah-type ostensive sounds and (2) articulate and combinatorial, that is, reducible to units capable of being combined and ordered in different ways.

This latter requirement was to enable us to achieve, from a pool of basic sounds small enough so that each could be remembered, a variety of simple permutations and combinations of the basic sounds commensurate with the variety of actions and activities needing to be marked. The first requirement, for the sounds to be distinctive as a genre, and to be recognisably different from simply ostensive sounds, was to signal to the pupils in showings-how having the new vocals demonstrated to them that these vocals were not simply for here-and-now ostensive purposes – that they had some other significance. Certainly later, when the new vocals were being used for soliciting, the nature of that significance could be appreciated. The distinctive ‘formal’ sound of this new kind of vocal would itself be a cue that soliciting was being attempted, or solicited. One would know, if one heard someone making some or other sound of this ilk, that some or other act of soliciting was up.

At any rate, it was not too difficult to come up with a range of vocals that had these two formal properties – and we soon had our own repertoire of them, to rehearse and apply. Introduction of the soliciting vocals into the showing-how context brought about several changes. It was already the case that if, during repeated demonstrations of an activity in the showing-how context, a particular ostensive vocal was consistently done simultaneously with a particular action, then that vocal was taken by the pupil to be part and parcel of that action. The difference was that, unlike the ostensive vocals, which attached promiscuously to innumerable different actions and activities, each of the soliciting vocals would be done in association with just one action or activity. This exclusivity of association was essential for the subsequent soliciting role.

The new formal vocals did not so much replace the ostensive vocals in the showing-how context as provide a new vehicle for them. The formal vocals had their marking-for-later-soliciting function but had little ostensive value. To enable the new vocals to take up the attention-directing burden of the old ostensive ones, the two were synthesised. The formal vocals were delivered where necessary in an ostensive way. Pedagogic loudness, enthusiasm and tone would ride on the formal vocals. Thus, just as the formal vocals could be done simultaneously with facial expressions, and hand and other body gestures and gaze-meeting, so they could be reconciled with the old informal vocalisations. The demonstrator’s stock-in-trade was now utterance of the formal markers in a particular tone, with such and such loudness variation, or repetitively in a certain rhythm, or whatever. Pedagogically-flavoured formal vocals became the new ‘pedagogic gestures’. And, although the pedagogic aspect of the vocalising was common to many of the different actions and activities being learned, its formal content was always exclusive to just one or a few.

It was crude but effective. Like the pedagogic gestures it commandeered, an activity’s soliciting vocal appeared to the child to be part of the activity being shown him. Thus, by virtue of its being a part of an activity, and a distinctive part, the soliciting vocal could be used to ‘mime’ that activity – in the sense of presenting a distinctive fragment of the activity as a token of it – in the same way that dumb-show could. For us, formal vocalising was a kind of dumb-show. Only, it was a much easier and more efficient kind. Instead of the laborious ‘tilted cup’ charade, with the jaw pushed forward and the raised eyebrows, we could just do, Drink?

It is interesting to look, as an example, at the role of formal vocals in showings-how that related to perceptual behaviour. We knew these perceptual showings-how as ‘teaching the child the names of things’. They involved the distinctive vocal marking of specific jointly-performed perceiving-recipes. The vocal, fish, was done in association with a specific kind, package or family of joint perceivings. The same with flower, rain, and so on. And the vocal marking was done in anticipation of our needing to solicit the sharing of these packages of perceptual behaviours again in the future.

As I have suggested, instructors would mark with formal vocals not only whole activities but also their component actions, phases and junctures. The relevant vocals could all subsequently be employed for soliciting purposes – for ‘calling’ those actions, phases and/or junctures. In games, for example, vocalising was used not just to start games off but to invite particular moves within games already under way – to cue particular states of play, to modify or further-specify the existing scenario, to solicit changes of course, and so on. As long as it (or its components) had been previously marked, any activity-scenario whatever could be immediately convened simply by performance of the appropriate vocal. As a method of soliciting, vocalising left any other kind of token performance, any mime, say, far behind.

To summarise: the primary function of our formal vocalising was to make soliciting of shared activity easier. It made both the specifying and the inviting easier. To enable vocalising to play this role, instructors had to pro-actively mark, with distinctive vocal sounds, all the activities that were taught to the child.


Soliciting solo action: ‘telling to’

A valuable variant of the soliciting prototype, and another very useful form of ‘communication’, was ‘telling someone to do something’ or ‘telling to’. Here it was not shared activity being vocally solicited but solo activity by the hearer. The ground for telling-to and solo action was prepared in ordinary vocally-marked showing-how sessions. An activity was always taught initially as a shared performance, in the showing-how context, but then, once the pupil reached a certain level of competence, the instructor could gradually ease out of the proceedings, leaving the pupil to go solo. The solo-isation process involved the gradual abbreviation of the instructor’s demonstration without the pupil’s performance being abbreviated. Eventually, a stage was reached where the instructor performed just the appropriate vocals, appropriately pedagogically toned – and this token demonstration of the activity sufficed to set the child off, on his own, doing whatever it was. For example, teaching children to feed themselves, and to eat (or desist from eating) on cue, was done this way. As with teaching innumerable other solo skills, the instructor made it an imitation game at first, and then gradually withdrew – leaving only the vocal performance as a residue of his original full demonstration. For us, solo action was shared action that had been solo-ised. It was concerted action for one.

The great usefulness of telling-to lay in its enabling the soliciting and expediting of cooperation – that indispensable variant of concerting in which some or all of the participants did different things, albeit to the same end. Many games that the children played together rehearsed and reinforced the telling-to (and being-told-to) skill.

Whereas the other practices I describe were all ways of fostering and channelling the foundational urge to participate in joint activity, telling-to seems, because its aim was not concerted but solo activity, to have involved a significant departure. However, although the instructed person ended up doing something on his own, much of the feeling of a joint performance, the sharing-pleasure, still accrued. One of the stages in the soloisation process was where the demonstrator was no longer actively participating but was still present and was still attending to and empathising the pupil’s performance. Our tribal life-style meant that many solo performances had an audience (some were specifically intended for an audience) and the presence of an attentive audience, incipiently if not actually participating, was itself a source of sharing-pleasure. The vocals used to solicit the solo performance had accompanied actual shared performance in the past (at least when the activity was originally being learned), and they had been – both originally and in the telling-to – done simultaneously with gaze-meeting. They also induced sharing-pleasure. Generally, because concerted performance was always integral in the learning of an activity, sharing pleasure could continue to motivate even solitary solo performances of it. In these solitary performances the agent would often cope with the absence of instructor or audience by minimally rehearsing perceptions of them, as if they were present, and  would, in lieu of hearing or himself uttering the relevant formal vocals, minimally rehearse these too.

Telling others to do things was closely related to telling others how to do things. Essentially, telling-how was just a more thorough and time-consuming version of telling-to. In telling-how, the instructor separately verbally solicited the component actions of an activity or course of action. Often, the desired activity taken as a whole was unfamiliar to the hearer but its component actions were, taken separately, familiar and available for soliciting. Telling-how was essentially a vocal version of showing-how, a vocal substitute for the ‘demonstration’ component in pedagogic rehearsal.


Minimal rehearsal as an interim response to soliciting

I mentioned earlier that if an action or course of action was problematic (due to unfamiliarity, or ambiguous circumstances or whatever), or even if it wasn’t, it was habitual for us to minimally rehearse that action, as an interim gambit, prior to performing it for real. A situation in which another person was doing an ostentatious token performance of activity X, using formal vocals, say, in order to invite one to join him in a performance of X, qualified as an ‘ambiguous’ situation. The ambiguity lay in the fact that there wasn’t any X-ing currently going on to join in with. The token performance, especially if it was a vocal one, had very little in common with real X-ing. Almost always, when responding to others’ solicitings, a brief self-reassurative pause, a minimal rehearsal of what would be involved in here-and-now X-ing, was appropriate before committing to a full response.

Thus the standard initial response to soliciting, thus the standard initial response to formal vocals, was for the audience to minimally rehearse their participating in the activity being solicited. They would would momentarily ready and orient themselves for the activity in question, delaying for the time being any actual, public response. Later, if the situation became unambiguously conducive to the solicited activity – if, for example, all the others lent their voices to the proposal – commitment to actual participation could happen.


Shared make-believe

Another form of communication we devised, or drifted into, was shared make-believe. We all did a lot of this, especially children. Make-believe games involved ostentatious but deliberately abortive public rehearsing of a chosen activity. Children participating in a mock hunt, for example, would overtly mime or caricature actions distinctive of hunting. There would be appropriate accompanying vocals, formal and informal, facial expressions, the use of props such as toy spears, animal skins, and so on. And someone was the bear. But there was no serious intention to solicit hunting.

The vocal and other ostentatious token performances, the pretendings, produced in make-believe were not intended to solicit from the other participants subsequent actual performances – although setting out on a real hunt was in some cases not entirely out of the question. And, although there was a solo variant of pretending – one that could be done while motionless and which involved minimal rehearsal only (or which alternated from the minimal to the overt) – nor was it preparatory minimal rehearsals of real hunting that were being solicited. In the public version of the make-believe game, the pretend-doings were designed, rather, simply to induce similar pretend-doings from the others. Concerted pretend-doing was the name of the game, concerted shamming. Sometimes the mutual encouragement would prompt ever more outrageous performances and lead to spiralling excitement.


All play was to some small degree a rehearsal or readying of practical skills but, primarily,what was being rehearsed in these public make-believe sessions was not so much the source activity – the hunting or fishing or communal eating or whatever – but the act of rehearsing itself. The participants were rehearsing, displaying, and celebrating together their rehearsal skills. The different kinds of rehearsing that I have been reviewing were skilled practices and, like other skilled practices, required rehearsal. The rehearsing skills that make-believe rehearsed were diverse. For example, experience in public make-believe was almost certainly necessary preparation for participating in what we called ‘conversation’.



Still another ‘communication’ variant, technologically descended, like the others, from the pedagogic rehearsal prototype, was con-versation – doing formal vocals together, reciprocally and/or in concert, as a recreation. A conversation was still a kind of pretending game but it involved much less large-scale non-vocal soliciting, such as miming, and a much higher proportion of formal vocals. And the vocals were  done primarily to solicit minimal rehearsing on the audience’s part. In children’s pretending games the concerted overt pretendings were the main event. In adult conversation and discussion concerted minimal rehearsing was the main event.

Some overt token-performance of actions was retained in conversation though. An important feature of concerted activity was the fact of the concerting’s being readily verifiable. The activity being jointly performed needed to be readily observable, so participants could compare what they were doing with what the others were doing. Since minimal rehearsing was usually so inconspicuous as to be unobservable, it had to be ‘de-overtised’ if the sharing of it was to be verifiable. As with soliciting, there had to be some overt manifestation or display of it. So what you got in conversations was quite a lot of concerted and reciprocal facial expressions, sympathetic gestures (including murmurs), nodding and head-shaking, special tones of voice, etc. The vocal soliciting itself qualified as a kind of overt token-performance, or overt ‘pretend-doing’. Sometimes the audience would reciprocate by repeating the formal vocals they were hearing.

Minimal rehearsal was originally a self-readying for some imminent action. The concerted minimal rehearsing that the participants in a conversation, however, did not necessarily relate to some imminent action. Generally it did not. The action or activity that was being minimally rehearsed – it was generally the concerted observing or witnessing of something – might have been going to take place at some indefinite time in the future, it might have never been going to take place, or it might have already taken place. In many cases conversation was idle, in that it was a recreation, done for the pleasure of concerting the rehearsal of certain perceptual abilities. In conversations, the minimal rehearsing was not, as it usually was at other times, an interim stage, a buffer preceding and preparing action -- it was a pleasurable exercise in its own right. Conversation was in fact an easy and rewarding way of satisfying the need for shared activity that I say was behind it all.


Thinking what one was doing

From the variety of communication skills we developed, cognitive abilities also emerged. We developed the ability to do things in a self-aware, thinking way – enabling us to cope better with unfamiliar actions and making our habitual actions less formulaic, more sensitive to changing circumstances. We called it ‘thinking what one is doing’. To be thinking what one was doing was, roughly, to be doing a minimal pedagogic rehearsal of an action simultaneously with actually performing it.

To think what one was doing was to do things at once: it was to do X and to also, simultaneously, minimally rehearse one or other of the abovementioned pedagogic-cum-communicative procedures with respect to X-ing. Thinking what one was doing might have involved, for example, minimally rehearsing being shown (or showing someone) how to do X, or being told (or telling someone) to do X, or being told (or telling someone) how to do X. That is, whilst doing X, the person privately rehearsed showings-how and vocal solicitations such as might be used by an instructor teaching or telling someone to do X. The person thinking what he was doing was minimally rehearsing perceiving and interacting with an audience for what he was doing – an instructor or, if he was playing instructor, a pupil. Our solo agent ‘gave himself instructions’ or ‘talked himself through’ his own performance.

Sometimes the rehearsed vocal soliciting was not so well minimised, and the result would be audible muttering or breathing of the appropriate formal vocals. Children found it difficult at first to keep this kind of rehearsing minimal. Adults would sometimes mutter audibly to themselves as well. We called this ‘thinking out loud’. But usually the vocal soliciting, and the other aspects of the notional pedagogic or communicative session, were minimally and unobservably rehearsed. We should be clear that, even in those cases where the rehearsive vocalising was audible, the person was not actually soliciting anyone, not even himself. Soliciting is a social transaction, requiring at least two players. And, of course, if the rehearsal was silent, then any possibility of actual vocal soliciting going on had evaporated. Minimal rehearsals of acts of vocal soliciting, no matter how imperfectly minimised, were not themselves acts of vocal soliciting, but merely preparations, readyings of ourselves, for them.

The vocal and other pedagogic encouragements that the person thinking what he was doing minimally rehearses parallel to his doing of X directed his performance  of X – just as, in real showings-how and tellings-how, the instructor’s actual vocal and non-vocal gesturings would direct the pupil’s groping attempts to X. Much of the pedagogic effect survived even when the lesson is being merely minimally rehearsed by the X-er or would-be X-er alone. How was this possible?

It is easy enough to see how an actual pedagogic session could have directed a pupil’s actions. The pupil’s natural urge to join in was being tapped by the instructor; the carefully enhanced demonstration of the action naturally induces the pupil to follow suit. But how could what we called ‘thinking’ – a minimal, extremely physically subtle, rehearsal of a teaching session, done by a person alone – have had similar action-guiding effects?

The techniques we had developed for abbreviating pedagogic sessions, for soliciting (or ‘communicating’) in the various ways, and for solo minimal rehearsing of actions, together constituted a technology, a ‘joint-actional’ or ‘cultural’ technology, capable of making our original cumbersome form of action-motivating-and-specifying (full-scale pedagogic rehearsal, or showing-how) not only much easier and more efficient (with vocal soliciting) but portable by individuals, in the form of easily triggered, including easily solicited, minimal rehearsals. This cultural technology of ours effected the ‘miniaturisation’ of action-motivating-and-specifying. That the action-motivating potential was preserved in the miniaturisation process is perhaps not so mysterious. The power of our basic urge as individuals to participate in what was going on ensured that motivation was not a problem. The energy powering this technology was not likely to run out. Getting people to do things was the easy part. The difficult part was specifying what it was they were to do. Full pedagogic rehearsals worked well, but they were cumbersome. Streamlining pedagogic rehearsal -- right down to minimal rehearsal -- solved that problem, but there was still a problem of ensuring that the specification survived the miniaturisation process. Was Yaga doing what he thought he was doing? Was what he thought he was doing what he was told to do? Did what he was told to do tally with how an expert would demonstrate whatever it was?

All that can be said is that the action recipes laid out in full pedagogic rehearsals were usually in fact successfully re-presented in vocal solicitings and in solo minimal rehearsals. The criterion of success was simply pragmatic. Although the point of the technology was efficiency and portability (of action-specifying), reliability was essential. Miniaturisation had to be contingent on the possibility of reversibility of the miniaturisation if necessary. For us, the success of a rehearsal not only indicated but depended on the success of the performance. If an action was coming out all wrong, it might have been necessary to take the agent’s minimal rehearsal right back to an explicit showing-how. In the form of individuals’ solo minimal rehearsals, action recipes could be counted on to stay intact only most of the time and only for so long. Communication breakdown was always a possibility. So, the reliability of our miniaturisation technology had to be guaranteed by the availability of back-up reversibility procedures should they prove necessary. But the fact was, for enough of the time and for whatever reasons, miniaturisation worked. You could tell someone what to do and nine times they would do it, and do it right.

The situation where one was by oneself looking at something, simply being 'conscious' or 'aware' of that something, was also a kind of 'thinking what one was doing'. Here the activity that one was engaged in, and was simultaneously minimally rehearsing, was heuristic-cum-perceptual activity. One minimally rehearsed the thing’s name -- the formal vocal that would solicit concerted attending to this thing in particular, that would solicit just this perception recipe. And perhaps one attended in turn to certain features of it as if one were being instructed, or were instructing someone, or were having a conversation, about this thing. One minimally rehearsed doing those perceivings with someone (perhaps no-one in particular) -- who was absent. The solo perceiving was merely an abbreviated version, a rehearsal, of a concerted attending, and it remained contingent on the possibility (sometime, somewhere, somehow) of a concerted performance. To be absolutely sure what one was seeing one had to get someone else (someone reliable) to look too.


Just thinking

Thinking simpliciter or ‘just thinking’, cognition, was thinking what one was doing but without having got round to doing it yet. There was still some activity being ‘thought about’ but, although that activity could be intended for the immediate future, it could also, as with topics of idle conversation, be intended for the indefinite future, or not be intended at all. Characteristically, a person thinking would be either motionless, or would be exhibiting a selection of a distinctive pattern of behaviours and micro-behaviours involving holding the breath and breathing out only intermittently, walking to and fro, scratching the head, holding the head in the hands, alternately tensing and relaxing certain muscles, sotto voce muttering, narrowing the eyes, adopting a certain concentrated expression, adopting a variety of other facial expressions, or whatever. These were in fact the symptoms of minimal rehearsal generally. But, as with thinking what one was doing, there was an essential pedagogic element in thinking simpliciter. As with thinking what one was doing, just thinking involved the minimal rehearsing of one or other of, or some selection of, the various pedagogic and communicative practices I have canvassed above. Most often, perhaps, the practice being minimally rehearsed was closest to conversation or discussion. At any rate, thinking was not simply the minimal rehearsing of an activity but the minimal rehearsing of pedagogic or other soliciting activity relating to the activity in question.

Another effect of the pedagogic and communicational technology I have been talking about, an effect especially of the efficient soliciting that formal vocals enabled, was to more frequently and more fully expose each individual to the enthusiasm and the practical experience of his peers and elders, and even forbears. Thanks to the chain of techniques linking it back to full-scale pedagogic activity, and thence to actual participation in cultural activity, this minimal private reprising and rehearsing of pedagogic activity, this ‘thinking’, served to avail a person, even while he was alone, of the experience and enthusiasm of his peers and teachers.


 — Derek Melser, July 2007,