My Philosophical Progress



I attended my first philosophy lecture at Victoria University, in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1962. It was the heyday of ‘linguistic’ philosophy and our main lecturer, The Very Reverend Professor George Hughes, had been a pupil of Wittgenstein, the leading figure in the linguistic movement. The core belief of linguistic philosophy is that the traditional Western philosophical problems – about mind and body, our knowledge of the external world, abstract entities, moral values, language and reality, and so on – which have been worrying the wise for more than two millenia, are mere pseudo-problems.

According to linguistic philosophers, the appearance of a genuine intellectual problem arises only because the philosopher interprets the grammar of everyday words such as mind, truth, reality, knowledge, meaning, goodness, in a naïve and simplistic way. For example, the philosopher might falsely assume that, because the above words are nouns, and nouns are names of things, these words must therefore refer to special ‘abstract’ or ‘non-physical’ things. Then he or she might get puzzled as to how or where these abstract things exist. Linguistic philosophy claims that, if one gets clear how the philosophically important words are normally used, in their everyday practical and social contexts, and if one sticks with these accepted everyday usages when doing philosophy, then the traditional problems will not arise.

The linguistic philosophy imparted by our lecturers at Victoria was an appropriately watered down and non-doctrinaire version. The traditional problems were still posed in the traditional way, but we were advised that we could solve or at least clarify them by giving close attention to the meanings of the words in which the problems were posed, and by careful argument about those words. Our first written assignment was an exercise which required us to specify just when, during a process of abstracting its various parts, a table ceases to qualify as a ‘table’. Three legs? Two? (Of course, it can no longer stand on two – or can it?) Can a shelf attached to a wall be a table? If it is used as a table? I got my assignment back marked nine out of ten, with nearly a page of comments in Professor Hughes’ tiny handwriting. I was sixteen. I was hooked on philosophy.

I subsequently got hooked on the mind/body problem in particular. The mind and its workings and contents – mental phenomena such as our thoughts, images, memories, feelings, intentions, etc. — are undeniably real, and apparently non-physical. However, clearly, mental phenomena affect our actions. They often cause involuntary bodily agitations too. And our actions and bodily agitations are physical events. How, if mind is non-physical, can it have physical effects? What kind of thing is the mind, anyway? Encountering the problem put me in a kind of trance. I had to stay very still, so to speak, to hold all the elements of the problem in my head at once. But, right from the beginning, simultaneously with appreciating the problem, I had a vague intimation of the solution.

I was also somewhat disappointed and indignant. Questions about mind, thinking, feeling, communicating, and so on, are interesting and important and I felt that, surely, such a basic problem should have been solved by now. Professional philosophers and psychologists should have at least got to square one. Many of my fellow students lost interest early in what should have been a fascinating subject.

After four years of philosophy I had made little progress on the mind/body problem but still felt the linguistic approach was basically correct. Philosophical problems, and especially the problems about mind, would be eliminated or at least greatly simplified if we could get a clear view how the relevant words, such as mind, are used in everyday speech. It dawned on me early on that mind the noun is only ever used, in everyday speech, in association with metaphors — in expressions such as at the back of my mind, my mind wandered, you must be a mind reader, etc. And yet philosophers proceeded without explanation to use the word in a quite different way, as part of would-be literal descriptions. Several other abstract nouns dear to philosophers seemed to also have a liking for metaphor. I sensed that something particularly deceptive goes on when metaphors and abstract nouns are used in combination. The colloquial mind metaphors were prime examples. Wittgenstein, Austin, Ryle and others had made headway in other areas but, to my mind, not nearly enough attention had been paid to metaphor, and to its role vis-á-vis abstract terms.

I also felt that the mind/body problem was not just a verbal muddle. Behind the naïve disregard, or takings literally, of the colloquial mind metaphors, there was also considerable plain ignorance about the underlying subject matter of those metaphors. It seemed to me that ‘the mind’ is a fiction and that mind talk is really a roundabout and figurative way of talking about thinking – and imagining, feeling, intending, remembering, etc. The ignorance was ignorance as to the nature of thinking. The mind/body problem could not be solved unless we knew at least what general kind of process or activity thinking is.

Psychology at the time was dominated by Pavlovian and Skinnerian behaviourism, although Hebb’s neurophysiological approach to psychology was becoming influential too. The behaviourists pointedly ignored intracranial goings-on. They were interested in ‘objectively observable overt responses’, and their relation to ‘environmental stimuli’. Hebb began to speculate about what sort of thing goes on inside the brain, what neurophysiological processes might be associated with thinking, and how these processes relate to overt behaviour. Hebb didn’t contribute much towards solving the mind/body problem though. It still wasn’t clear how thinking would be related to any brain processes that might be found to accompany it.

My academic results, which only once or twice regained the heights of my ‘when is a table not a table?’ performance, deteriorated with my increasing confusion and decreasing confidence in the pundits. However, I completed an MA. My thesis was about imagining, which I considered to be the simplest form of thinking, and metaphor. Although I learned a little about both, I still didn’t know what kind of phenomenon thinking is. My thesis portrayed thoughts, and connections between thoughts, as hovering somewhere between the metaphysical ether (their traditional home) and the physical brain (their new accommodation). I found no satisfactory alternative to the traditional assumption that thinking is operations of, and/or in, ‘the mind’.

For the next three decades I made furniture for a living and thoroughly enjoyed it. Furniture-making had things in common with both raising children and writing. I also had time to think. Although I had no direct contact with academia, I continued to read philosophy – mainly books about the brain and the ‘brain/mind’ which my father sent me from New York. Over this thirty year period, the neurophysiological approach to the study of mind and thinking pioneered by Hebb and others took over from behaviourism, and the idea of the brain as a computer arose as a way of construing the neurophysiological data. Accordingly, philosophy of mind became ‘cognitive science’ and thinking became ‘cognition’ and ‘information processing’. Thoughts, concepts, memories, etc., were assumed to be neurally-encoded ‘representations’ of things in the outside world. According to cognitive science, the brain is a biologically-evolved mechanism which forms internal representations of external reality and performs computations on these representations. The results of the computations determine the pattern of neural signals which are eventually communicated to muscles and glands, thereby bringing about a behavioural response to the perceived reality.

During the same period, the view – associated primarily with Wittgenstein – that philosophy is linguistic analysis was almost universally abandoned, even scorned. Philosophers (erstwhile philosophers of mind, especially) were now keen to link what they were doing with science. Philosophy had a theoretical role either within, or ancillary to, hard science. Linguistic philosophers were accused of being Luddites hostile to science. Personally, I was open-minded about science, and about the neurophysiological approach to thinking. I thought Hebb was brilliant and that he and his successors were on the right track. Only, I felt they were possibly jumping the gun a bit. Surely, you can’t do science before your subject matter is clearly identified. And surely, no subject matter can be identified while it is still wrapped up in metaphors and other figures of speech. You must carefully unwrap it first. Scientists are not trained for this.

Although I didn’t feel I got very far over these three decades, I developed four ideas which seemed to me true and important and which were not accounted for by mainstream cognitive science. First, I made a minor advance on the linguistic front by deciding that so-called abstract terms are not really the names of abstract things but are, rather, ‘mock-referring’ expressions – words which give the appearance of referring to something but which in fact have some other function. And I decided that when abstract terms are used in association with metaphors, as mind is, this ‘other function’ is basically to assist the metaphors. Our notion of ‘the mind’ is, somehow, both a product of and a prop for the metaphors. I increasingly felt that mind talk was masking the real nature of thinking.

Secondly, I committed to a definite theory of thinking, based on the ‘behaviour abbreviation’ theories of thinking advanced by James, Washburn, Watson, Jacobson, Hebb and others. According to my abbreviation theory, thinking is a physiological phenomenon – occurring largely in the brain but also elsewhere in the body – best identified as ‘incipient behaviour’. Instances of imagining, remembering, intending, feeling emotion, etc., are all incipient behaviour of one kind or another. Anger is incipient acts of aggression, thoughts are incipient acts of speaking (commenting, describing, querying, etc.), visualising is incipient seeing, and so on. Incipient behaviour is behaviour that is occurring in a particularly inhibited, minimal way, so that only slight vestiges or nothing at all of the relevant overt behaviour – that would occur were the behaviour being actually performed – is externally observable. Incipient behaviour is behaviour that is so reduced and inhibited as to become essentially a brain event. The program of neural firings associated with the behaviour occurs in the brain as normal (albeit, possibly, diminished), only, the motor firings are blocked. The overt behavioural performance stays merely incipient; it stays inside the person’s head.

This theory seemed able to account for the bodily agitation often associated with thinking. Phenomena such as trembling with emotion, smiling at a thought, muttering, becoming sexually aroused, etc., may result when, and because, inhibition of the relevant behaviour is inadequate. It also seemed able to explain delayed responses, i.e., ‘thinking before acting’. If, while a behaviour is being held at the incipient level, new and relevant stimuli come in from the environment, these further stimuli may boost the incipient program and trigger it into full performance. Memory could also be explained – by the existence of a hierarchy of sub-performance levels of behaviour (or neural firing program) activation. The person’s whole repertoire is stored ‘live’ in the brain: the firing programs for already-mastered behaviours being kept permanently ticking over at some optimally low ‘storage level’ of activation. And the theory could explain – in terms of the activation level of the incipient behaviour in question – the various degrees of intensity or vividness in our imaginings, memories, emotions, intentions, etc. Abbreviation theory also had the advantage of not needing the essentially fanciful cognitivist ideas of ‘internal representations’ and of ‘computations’ being performed on them.

Thirdly, it gradually became clear to me that, if the term behaviour is to include people’s actions, then there can be no behavioural science, no purely objective study of behaviour. I realised that, to identify actions, to identify what another person is doing, even to perceive that person as ‘doing’ something, it is necessary that the observer empathise. It is necessary for the observer to himself imagine doing whatever it is. Empathy itself is not mysterious. It is simply incipient imitation. To empathise is just to rehearse, in the ‘incipient’ way, what is involved in that action. An essential ancillary part of the empathising process is noting the things in the environment that are ‘accessory’ to the action being observed – the patient of the action, and/or the instrument, product, venue, goal state, etc., if any, that is/are associated with the action. In order to identify the action being performed, these accessory things must be perceived by the observer in much the same way the agent is himself perceiving them. To this extent the observer is necessarily imitating the agent. The important point is that, without our empathising, the other person’s action is essentially invisible to us. Yet scientists are expressly forbidden to empathise or imitate their subject matter. They must remain strictly objective. To lapse into everyday interpersonal empathy would be to abandon science. On the other hand, if the scientist stays objective, actions per se disappear. So, there can’t be a science of people’s actions.

Finally, partly in response to Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, I began to see that the child’s ability to think is some kind of developmental progression from, and a technological advance on, his ability to speak and otherwise communicate. I had already surmised that communication is itself a learned development from a ‘primordial sharing situation’ (a term from Werner and Kaplan’s Symbol Formation) in which mothers and infants deliberately concert their behaviour. (I suspected that our ability to empathise also derives from this early ‘concerting’ of behaviour.) If thinking is in turn a developmental descendant of communicating then, paradoxically, the paradigm ‘private’ activity (or process) is derived from a necessarily public one, i.e., concerting. Where Vygotsky described thinking as ‘internalised’ speech, I thought of it as ‘abbreviated’ or ‘inhibited’ speech.

So there were four main ideas: (1) that mind talk is figurative and needs to be rhetorically deconstructed before its real, underlying subject matter can be identified, (2) that thinking is a brain event identifiable as incipient behaviour, (3) that people’s actions are out of bounds as a subject matter for the scientist, and (4) that thinking is a special, inhibited form of verbal (or other) communication which is, in turn, a developmental descendant of early mother-infant ‘concerting’ of behaviour. These congeries of ideas continued to fulminate quietly in my head – presumably, at just above ‘storage level’.

My slow progress didn’t bother me. The problems I was trying to solve were problems philosophers had been trying to solve for over two thousand years. And three or four decades out of one life are of little consequence. However, when my father died in the mid nineteen-nineties, I decided to set a time limit on the philosophising. I wanted to wrap it all up. I was fifty. Our two sons had grown up and left home. I thought about doing a PhD.

I approached Professor Max Cresswell, whose logic classes I had attended thirty years previously, and who had taken over at Victoria on George Hughes’ retirement. Max Cresswell referred me to the resident philosophy of mind specialist at Victoria, Dr Kim Sterelny, an enthusiastic proponent of mainstream cognitive science, with whose books on the representational theory of mind and the philosophy of language I was already familiar. Dr Sterelny generously suggested that, as an initial step, I sit in on his third-year philosophy of mind classes once a week to bring myself up to date with recent trends in cognitive science. I did this and it soon became clear to me that mainstream cognitive science (now with links to evolutionary biology) was a big, fast train. If I wanted to get on it, I would have to abandon both my misgivings as to its destination and my personal intellectual baggage. I didn’t want to do either. However, after I had attended two months of his lectures, I went back to Dr Sterelny for advice about the possibility of my doing a PhD with him anyway. I had previously given him a five- or six-page summary of my ideas. He handed my summary back to me and, in the course of his comments – some favourable – he employed the term Wittgensteinian. I knew then that I wouldn’t be doing my doctorate at Victoria. Dr Sterelny suggested philosophers of mind at other New Zealand universities. Most likely to be sympathetic to my ‘Wittgensteinian’ approach, he thought, was Dr Tom Bestor at Massey.

The Massey University Philosophy Department was small. When I began visiting in July 1995, there were six permanent teaching staff. The impression at Massey was not so much of a big train going somewhere but rather of a small group of people standing round flying kites, in pleasant weather. They weren’t aboard anything. Their feet were on the ground. Tom Bestor was an American of about my age, who had studied under Frank Ebersole and John Wisdom. I got on well with him. He seemed impressed and intrigued by the summary I gave him initially and saw no problems with my undertaking a PhD. I was somewhat puzzled, however, by the fact that neither he nor anyone else on the Massey staff seemed interested in the fact that the noun mind is only ever used, in everyday speech, in association with metaphors. My speculations about dead metaphors, ‘mock-referring’ and so on were greeted with polite ignore. Perhaps they all felt such talk was too reminiscent of linguistic philosophy, and they were doing me a favour by ignoring it.

Tom Bestor and I met, for three- to five-hour sessions, probably fortnightly on average, for the ensuing five years. Because my MA was thirty years old, and my academic record before that mediocre, I had to undertake a probationary year (1996) to update my academic skills. But this worked out well. Apart from learning a lot – studying Aristotle for the first time was a highlight – I did well enough in the probationary year to earn a three-year scholarship for the PhD.

The intellectual progress I made over the four years of writing the doctoral thesis was largely due to my conversations with Tom Bestor. As it turned out, he was probably the best person in New Zealand, possibly in the world, to supervise my project. He was able to supply crucial insights – ones I have not seen or heard expressed elsewhere. Before I began my PhD, I had been pleased with my physiological version of the abbreviation theory of thinking as outlined above. I saw no problem with the central idea of the abbreviation theory: that actions could be by degrees reduced down to a point where there was no longer any overt movement, the only remnants being the action’s internal physiological components – the program of neuron firings, slight muscle and gland activations, etc. The action in this reduced, ‘incipient’ form is a purely physiological (and largely intracranial) phenomenon. It is what we experience as ‘thinking’.

The abbreviation theory construes thinking in terms of three main logical components. There is a raw material, namely, actions. There is a process which operates on that raw material, namely, abbreviation (or ‘inhibition’, etc.). And there is an end result or product of the process, namely, incipient actions – readinesses to act which are physiological events, brain states. However, in attempting to justify this opinion in the face of Tom’s persistent scepticism, I began to see the incoherencies in the abbreviation theory.

I had come to Massey convinced that thinking is essentially a physiological phenomenon, which I identified as the product of the abbreviation process, i.e., incipient behaviour in the form of partially-activated neural firing programs in the brain. These incipient behaviours were not actions – having been abbreviated down to mere physiological events – but I was unsure about the abbreviation process itself. Was it an action deliberately performed by the person, something which the child has to learn how to do, as claimed by Vygotsky? Or was it an impersonal process, something which happens automatically when a stimulus is inadequate or ambiguous? I tended to the latter view. Our brains are so constructed as to produce a compromise ‘incipient’ response in the absence of cues that would justify an immediate and full overt response.

Tom listened politely to my spellings-out-in-detail of the steps in the transition from action, to mere vestiges-of-action, to internal physiological phenomena. He remained unconvinced such a transition was possible. His own doctoral thesis had argued that actions cannot be analysed down into anything other than sub-actions, which are also actions. The components of actions, and components of those components, are never anything other than actions themselves. The ‘bodily movements’ which nearly all philosophers believed partly constitute actions – the other constituents being ‘mental’ ones – are really, Tom contended, actions in their own right. At least, if they are not, then they cannot be genuine parts of the action the person is performing.

Most philosophers assumed as I did that the bodily movements of which actions are (at least partly) composed are, like the internal physiological events they are causally continuuous with, physical events that can be objectively, scientifically observed. Tom claimed to have demonstrated in his thesis that this is not so, and that, if bodily movements are part of an action (and not purely involuntary), then they must themselves be actions. This means that, no matter how much you ‘abbreviate’ an action, you are never going to get down to physiological events (whether overt or internal). Whether it was conceived as an impersonal process or as an action performed by the person, the kind of abbreviation that my abbreviation theory needed was impossible. Actions cannot be reduced to physical (physiological) events. In fact, Tom was sceptical that there is any stateable connection between actions and physiological events. His view seemed to be that actions are sui generis, that they belong in their own ‘ontological category’ and have basically nothing to do with physiology.

I already believed – in line with the empathy argument sketched above – that actions are not amenable to scientific scrutiny. However, I was still counting on the ‘abbreviation’ of actions to get me from actions to physiological events, and to allow me to transit from everyday action talk to scientific physiology talk. To accept Tom’s actions-as-irreducible line would be to deny my ‘incipient action’ concept any hope of objective scientific verification. I was very attached to the possibility of scientifically verifying the fact that thinking is incipient action, and to the possibility that advanced brain-scanning systems might enable us, one day, to actually observe people’s thinking, even particular thoughts. Tom and I consistently disagreed and, after some weeks at loggerheads, voices started getting raised, and acrimonious.

Every six months I was required to present the assembled staff with a progress report on my doctoral work. At the time when my disagreement with Tom about action-vestiges and physiological events was becoming a real problem, a report fell due and Tom asked me to use my report to explain how, in my view, the components of actions could ‘reduce’ to physiological events. I had anticipated support against the Bestor line from the other staff but, to a man, they were extremely critical, even scornful, of the details of my argument. I believed my argument was rock-solid and, with increasing exasperation, went through it again – and was, effectively, bawled off the stage. I ‘retired hurt’ and subsequently spent a sleepless night wondering whether I should abandon the PhD. However, by the following morning, I was for the first time seriously considering the possibility that Tom Bestor might be right.

If Tom Bestor was right, then the bodily movements (and other bodily phenomena) associated with actions fall into either of two groups. Either they are sub-actions which contribute to the whole action, or they are by-products or ‘epiphenomena’ of the action (like perspiring whilst running hard) that are irrelevant to the action per se. The latter kind, the bodily epiphenomena, could be classed as ‘physiological events’, but they are not part of the action. The former kind, the contributing actions, are genuine parts of the overall action but they are actions in their own right and hence (by the empathy argument) they are not physiological phenomena and cannot be objectively identified. If thinking is an action, then the bodily movements and agitations often associated with it – such as sotto voce muttering, faint smiles, muscle tensing, eye movement, and sweating, blushing, adrenalin secretion, sexual arousal – could also be sorted into the above two categories. The epiphenomena could be viewed as physiological phenomena but the others, the genuine contributions to the act of thinking, could only be viewed as actions and would never ‘reduce’ to physiological events.

The immediate lesson was that actions cannot be reduced to physiological events by breaking them down into parts. The more important, underlying lesson was that actions can and should be discussed in their own terms, independently of physiology. If thinking is an action and its genuine components are also actions, then it too can be described in purely actional terms. I decided to accept this view and see where it led. Fairly quickly, my various long-term ‘takes’ on thinking began to clarify and unify.

Although I had been confident that mental phenomena, in the form of abbreviated or incipient actions, were physiological events, I had always been vague about how actions got to occur in the abbreviated or incipient form. I tended to the view that the occurrence of an action in the abbreviated form was determined by objective physiological factors – in particular, by the strength of the stimulus from the environment. A weak or ambiguous stimulus would automatically cause a merely incipient rather than a full overt response. I was now contemplating the possibility that thinking is a personal action, something the person does, rather than something which just impersonally happens. Rather than ‘incipient action’, I was now thinking in terms of the active incepting of actions by the person. In the new story, the person voluntarily and deliberately performs the action in the abbreviated, incipient way. Of course, given that thinking is extremely habitual, the voluntary and purposeful nature of the performance could escape notice.

I also realised that the idea of ‘abbreviation’ is far too crude. I began to see that incepting is not simply a matter of performing an action in part. Rather, it involves commencing a performance of an action but then quickly, or even simultaneously, aborting the performance. One ‘makes as if to’ X but desists. And we get so skilled at this incepting, this commencing-and-aborting of actions, that we can eventually do it without overtly moving a muscle. Thus although incepting is an action, it is typically subtle and inconspicuous to an extent that makes it unlike any other kind of action. When a person is day-dreaming, say, he doesn’t look to be doing anything. On my new view of thinking as a particularly inconspicuous act of incepting, it was easy to see why it is commonly pictured as, or mistaken for, an impersonal process going on inside the person.

One of the more notable consequences of thinking/incepting’s being an action is that it cannot be going on in people’s heads – as everyday expressions and Vygotsky’s word ‘internalisation’ imply it is. To perform an action in a certain place, a person must first be in that place. But there is no way anyone can climb into his own head. This sounds frivolous, but it is as relevant as it is true. We are so accustomed to explaining the inconspicuousness of thinking in terms of the metaphor of its being done in a private, internal place, that we are oblivious of the fact that this is just a metaphor. We take it as the literal truth. Certainly, the metaphor of a person doing his thinking inside his own head is apt – and for everyday talking about thinking it may be indispensable – but, like any metaphor, it is not literally true. The truth is that, in the case of thinking, as with innumerable other actions, no special venue is required. One can think almost anywhere.

My abbreviation theory had analysed thinking in terms of three elements – the raw material (everyday actions), the operation performed on this raw material (abbreviation), and the end result (incipient actions in the brain). In the new scenario, the raw material, actions, remains unchanged. The second parameter stays too, only, it is not now an impersonal process but an act (of incepting) performed by the person. But what happens to the third parameter on the new account? Is there an equivalent in the new story to the ‘incipient behaviours’ which, in the old story, lived at various (and changing) activation levels in the brain?

I initially thought so. I decided that there must be an end-product of the incepting performance, i.e., a ‘readiness state’. By incepting action X, a person establishes in himself a state of ‘readiness to X’. I believed this readiness state could be identified physiologically – in the brain and elsewhere in the body. In this way a connection with physiology, and with science, could be preserved. The act of thinking readies the body for action; it brings about particular physiologically-defineable readiness states. The idea of a personal action which brings about a physiological state is not at all mysterious. By thinking, we modify our own brain states. In fact, other people, by saying things to us (to make us think things), can modify our brain states too. I liked this story.

However, I eventually detached this last tentacle of physicalism from my thinking about thinking. The point is, if the concept of thinking is an everyday actional concept then it must be possible to give a complete account of thinking in purely everyday actional terms. ‘Being ready to X’ is in fact a perfectly transparent everyday actional concept on its own and needs no physiological ‘underpinning’. So, one can specify ‘self-readying for action’ as the function of thinking, without needing to invoke physiology in order to explain what ‘being ready to act’ amounts to. It also occurred to me that it might not be necessary to posit a readiness ‘state’.

I had always assumed that there is both an act/process of thinking and a separately conceivable product of it. This assumption stemmed from my misreading of the fact that thinking can be both an episodic event (it may be done at a given moment) and an enduring state (it may persist over time). Given the new actional account of thinking, my first thought was that the thinking/incepting action would explain the episodic side but, to cater for the durational side, some readiness state (brought about by the act of thinking) would have to be wheeled on stage. However, the durational aspect of thinking, the ‘being in a state of readiness to X’, can just as well, or better, be explained in terms of the person’s performing the relevant act of thinking in a sustained or continuous way.

Another important effect of the actional turn, was that thinking’s origins in concerted activity became clearer. Once one abandons the idea that thinking is an intracranial process, and thinks of it as an ordinary, albeit sophisticated and physically very subtle, action – with no physiological relevance (not even brain-coaxing relevance) at all – it becomes much easier to understand its social aspects. I had always been impressed and, while I held on to the abbreviation theory, mystified by the fact that often during thinking one imagines speaking to an audience. One imagines, as it were, someone listening, as if the thinking is an incipiently social occasion. And this seemed impossible to account for in terms of having physiological events, abbreviated actions, going on in one’s head. How could other people’s actions be being rehearsed, even in very vestigial form, in one’s own head? However, if thinking is the act of incepting, and incepting is akin, say, to making-as-if-to do things, or to make-believe, then the notion of incepting other people’s actions in addition to actions of one’s own is not nearly so mysterious. I began to see that the ‘actions’ which we incept in thinking are not so much solo actions as interpersonal transactions.

Surprisingly, for something usually regarded as quintessentially private, another social aspect of thinking emerged. I was impressed by the fact that actions are mostly learned socially. The primary means of teaching actions is demonstrating them and having the pupil imitate, so that a concerted performance of the action results. As Vygotsky had taught me, the other social means of action-teaching – telling the other person how to do it, for example – are derivatives of the demonstration-and-imitation technique. On my new actional view of thinking, the intriguing possibility arose that thinking is learned in the same way – that infants/children are taught how to think by having it demonstrated to them. I hypothesised a special ‘educative’ version of incepting for purposes of demonstration, a version in which the incepting is done in an overt, ostentatious way. Now, with the concept of overt incepting on the drawing board, it became easier to see how thinking might develop from prototype concerted activity. Communicative activity – gesture and mime, speech, etc. – might be explicable as the ‘overt incepting’ of concerted activity. Thinking might then be explicable as a covert form of this.

Seeing thinking as an action was also immediately beneficial to my speculations about the rhetoric of mind talk. I already knew that the colloquial mentalist vocabulary is full of metaphors, and that these metaphors often occurred in association with certain abstract nouns, which I called ‘mock-referring’ expressions. I also knew that metaphors nevertheless have real subject matters, that they are always about something. I was now clear that the underlying real subject matter of the metaphors in the colloquial mentalist vocabulary is not mind nor brain events but, rather, aspects and varieties of thinking. Once I knew that what the metaphors are about is an ordinary personal-level action, it became much easier to see how the metaphors work.

One very important fact about the rhetoric of our colloquial mentalist vocabulary became clear. I had realised early on, as a good little linguistic philosopher, that ‘abstract nouns’ like thought, belief, concept, feeling, desire, intention, consciousness, etc., and mind itself, are not names given to postulated ‘abstract’ entities or to entities or states of any kind. I now saw that my ‘mock-referring expression’ was not a a particularly useful characterisation either. These expressions are in fact nominalised verbs. They are special noun forms of the various verbs of thinking. They are only honorary nouns. These terms refer – albeit indirectly, and via the apparent reference to an entity or state – to one or other of the same real actions and activities that the original verbs (think, believe, conceive, feel, desire, etc.) refer directly to. The underlying reality, what the colloquial thinking vocabulary is actually about, is not intracranial entities, states or processes but a special range of actions and activities which people perform.

With mind and the other ‘abstract nouns’ revealed as nominalisations of verbs of thinking, it becomes possible to specify just how they interact rhetorically with their associated metaphors. This interaction constitutes what is in effect a distinct figure of speech. I christened it ‘figurative accessory nominalisation’. The details are too complex for discussion here. But what happens, broadly speaking, is that an action of the person is portrayed as an impersonal process, the effect of an unobservable agency inside people’s heads. These composite metaphors and verb-nominalisations seem to have been specifically designed to promulgate the fancy of a controlling impersonal force inside people. At any rate, failure to recognise this particular figure of speech as such has caused a huge amount of unnecessary confusion in the philosophy of mind and in psychology. It might not be going to far to say that this oversight is what has created these disciplines.

I say above that the figurative expressions in question – mind, belief, image, concept, intention, etc., and their accompanying metaphors – don’t refer to intracranial entities, states or processes but to people’s actions, acts of thinking: acts of minding, believing, imagining, conceiving, intending, etc. But really, it is closer to the mark to say they don’t refer at all. My term mock-referring expression is right about this much, even if it doesn’t say what work the expressions in question do do.

When I had first approached Tom Bestor at Massey, one of the main planks in what he called my ‘manifesto’ was that our colloquial mentalist vocabulary refers not to what it appears to refer to, minds and other quasi-supernatural stuff, but to our own and others’ thinking. And at that time I equated ‘thinking’ with incipient behaviours lurking in our brains – in the form of neural firing programs at various levels of activation. I claimed that the colloquial mentalist vocabulary actually refers to these goings-on in the brain. However, I also nursed another, and incompatible, conviction.

I believed that, quite apart from whether thinking was thought of as a ‘mental’ or a physiological phenomenon, the colloquial mentalist expressions did not actually refer to thinking. The vocabulary was not about thinking and its aspects and varieties. I believed that the function of the vocabulary was, instead, to get the hearer to empathise, or actually imitate or duplicate the thinking – the incipient behaviours or ‘mental states’ – in question. To describe Genevieve as ‘absolutely furious’ (or ‘consumed with rage’, etc.) is to invite the hearer to imaginatively re-enact what Genevieve thought and felt. It is not to refer the hearer to anything, let alone to things going on inside Genevieve’s head, in her ‘mind’ or her brain. It is to evoke, to ‘call up’, a certain way of thinking and feeling – for ‘sampling’ by present company. This fact about the vocabulary’s function is unchanged on the assumption that thinking is an action. This just adds another category of items – namely, acts of thinking – to the list of things the vocabulary does not refer to. What this ‘empathy-inducing’ theory claims is that our everyday thinking vocabulary is not designed for inviting objective scrutiny of anything – neither putative mental phenomena, nor brain events nor people’s acts of thinking. It is designed for soliciting empathy. [I found out later that it was my empathy-inducing theory as to the function of the colloquial thinking vocabulary that persuaded Tom Bestor to take me on as a doctoral student. He had never seen anything like it in the literature – although it does owe something to Wittgenstein’s ‘replacement theory’ of pain avowal – and he was intrigued.]

Once I had accepted that thinking is not a physiological phenomenon but a personal action, I was able to integrate the empathy-inducing theory into my other theorising. For one thing, the empathy-inducing theory went well with my conviction that actions must be understood empathically or not at all. If thinking is an action then, like any action, it can only be understood empathically – by the would-be observer’s ‘imagining what it would be like’ to do that, to think or feel or promise that, or whatever. Our descriptions of other people’s thinking, like our descriptions of others’ actions generally, might seem to be objective in the way scientific descriptions are objective. Various figures of speech in everyday language, particularly nominalised verbs and metaphors, work to give us the impression that descriptions of people’s actions are just like descriptions of natural things and processes in the world. But this impression is illusory. To understand descriptions of actions we must rely on an entirely unscientific strategy, namely, empathy.

I came to the conclusion that there is a whole area of distinctively human practices and abilities – including cooperation, verbal communication, knowledge of the world, thinking and personal action – all of which are learned developments of the basic ability people have to concert their behaviour, and all of which are essential ingredients in ‘culture’. These cultural abilities and practices are undoubtedly real and yet they can be understood only from the point of view of a participant or would-be participant in them. One can know them only by doing them – in reality or in imagination. Cultural abilities and practices are therefore, necessarily, beyond the purview of objective science. Furthermore, it now seemed to me that it was just these cultural phenomena – in the guise of ‘language’, ‘meaning’, ‘mind’, ‘knowledge’, etc. – that were the real, though ulterior, subject matter of philosophy. What really interests philosophers is culture and the foundations of culture: our being together, the things we do and make together, concerted activity, the interpersonal, the side-by-side, togetherness, intimacy. But, as their abstract terms and their attraction to science suggests, philosophers attempt to approach this topic from an objective viewpoint, as if concerting were something existing out there in reality, apart from us – as if it were not something we ourselves do.

Some philosophers have attempted to address this underlying topic directly. Vygotsky, Buber, Wittgenstein and others – Strawson, with his ‘interpersonal reactive attitudes’ and even Dennett, with ‘the personal stance’ – have tried their hand at defining it. My ‘concerting’ is also a useful contribution. But perhaps you can’t define it and you can only, as it were, mutely indicate in what direction the sphere of the cultural lies. Perhaps the traditional Western philosophical problems are just various manifestations of the contradiction inherent in trying to understand cultural phenomena objectively. We can at least be sure science will never get there. We can be sure, for example, that any attempt to explain culture in terms of brain mechanisms and/or biological evolution is bound to fail. Togetherness doesn’t register on any of science’s instruments, nor ever will. At any rate, if concerting and imagined concerting is what mind talk is ultimately all about, then it is going to be very difficult to find a useful role for ‘cognitive science’.

I organised and drafted up as much as I could and submitted the thesis, entitled ‘Incipient Action’, in October 2000. The great luck I had already had with the PhD project – finding Tom Bestor, being awarded the scholarship – was continued by the Massey Philosophy Department’s managing to obtain the services of one of the world’s leading lights in the philosophy of mind as the mandatory ‘overseas examiner’ of my thesis. I was also very fortunate in that, although the overseas examiner thought my thesis was “outrageous” and that it “flouted received doctine in the philosophy of mind”, he also thought it merited publication.

— Derek Melser —