Notebook 2005



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Some thoughts about the role of the brain in behaviour. The basic human problem - since we're born with very few instincts and a correspondingly large, plastic and all-over-the-place cerebral cortex - is what to do. This resolves into two problems: finding out what to do initially and then, later on, when the time comes to do it again, remembering how to do it. Well, we find out what to do initially by imitating other people. And this includes all the derivative forms of imitation and doing-in-concert such as being told what to do. And what other people do, what everybody does, helps with the remembering task too. You can see not only what X to do but remember how to do X by just looking to see what another is, the others are, doing. What other people are doing - the functioning culture - is a more-or-less permanently available repertoire, an instruction book, for the individual needing to know what to do. If you had all your imitation apparatus (including verbals, etc.) intact, and the others were always friendly and available, as they usually are, you wouldn't need a brain.

But you do need a brain - I mean a big adaptable cortex - because, one often has to act independently of others. Maybe the brain increased in size to accommodate hominids' increasing need to act as independent, and often solitary, individuals - albeit from a basis of concerting. If you didn't have a human cortex then, although you could still act in concert with others, five minutes later, when you were alone again, you wouldn't have a show of re-enacting whatever it was. The brain is one's record of what happens in sessions of concerted activity. The specially enhanced excitement of concerting uses Hebb's pencil to write down on the cortex what the action or activity involved. The 'programme' of concerted action X is written down. And, part of what is written down is the kind of cue that triggers X-ing, or should trigger it. Later, when those cues occur (in sufficient strength), the X-programme is 'activated'. And this enables the solitary individual to do X again, 'from memory'.

So the brain isn't where it's at, where the action is: that is out in the culture, in cultural practice. The brain is just an individual's notepad, a place where actions echo on, where social episodes persist; it is an instrument designed as a resonating chamber for actions, so that a person can take cultural practices on board and exercise them also when he or she is alone.

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No. Of course, culture itself needs that baggy brain. Although cultural practice is what programs people - and in that sense people are behavioural satellites of culture - it is also true that culture supervenes on groups of individual homo sapiens. Culture has, and needs, an animal body - the human body, in fact. If culture is to take over from biological evolution, there has to be a product of biological evolution for it to start off from. In order to enable the long-term functioning of a human society (a culture) a certain minimum number of different practices are required to be performed, a certain minimum number of personnel need to be involved, and there must be a considerable overlap and/or transferability of performance skills. All these necessitate that the average individual member of the culture must be able to as it were 'store' practices (in a live state, a state of incipient performance, a state of suspended activation). And the behaviour-storing (or social-practice-storing) facility that evolution (or culture + evolution) has equipped them with is this big cortex. Or: culture stores itself.

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So, what is the role of the brain with respect to our actions? Does it have a stateable role? Perhaps: "The body is the 'realiser' of actions and the brain (cortex) is a register of them". Or: "The cortex is a register of and clearing-house for behaviours". Perhaps the brain/cortex 'neurally tokens' behaviours. Human cortex is parasitic on culture. The cortex is just a storage device for culture. Although, it thus makes culture possible.

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There are two arguments in The Act of Thinking against the possibility of the objective scientific study of actions - the empathy argument and the action-metaphors-in-science argument, both in Chapter 11. There are also some arguments which amount to an error theory - to explain why people believe we can study actions objectively. There is the analysis of the rhetoric of action physicalism in Chapter 11. And there is the mention, in Chapter 11 and throughout the book, of rhetorical devices (act reification, metaphor and synecdoche in particular) which have been devised for (giving an objective cast to) talk about actions, reports of them, analysis of them, etc. In the situation examined in the last section of Chapter 10, where one is talking about what someone else is thinking, these rhetorical devices could easily cause one to misconstrue one's (essentially empathic) imagining of the other person's act of thinking as imagined objective scrutinising of something - their thinking qua 'phenomenon', or qua 'event', or whatever.

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Certainly, there are things about us which enable us to think, or by virtue of which we can think. But these things are not inside us and they are not, or not wholly, properties of individuals. The enablers of thinking are: (1) the procedures we have for simultaneously defining and commodifying (making transferable) and making biddable our behaviours, together with the resulting pool of socially-recognised 'actions' themselves, and (2) the ability of individuals - albeit it is a socially-acquired ability, and its practice is greatly enhanced by social instruments such as speech and writing - to ready others and/or themselves for the performance of a given action by performing a merely token, deliberately nugatory and abortive, 'version' of that action.

These two facts about us are the basis of our ability to think and, if mind is by definition inside people's heads and thus exclusively a property of individuals, the basis of our ability to think cannot be our possession of minds. However, as current, 'mind' is an essentially figurative and elusive notion. If we wanted to re-define the notion of mind, pin it to a literal definition that did accommodate features (1) and (2) above, we could continue to speak of mind as being the basis of, the agency responsible for, our ability to think. However, there is no possibility of retaining the brain in this role.

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The human way of behaviour-production, based on concerting, replaces the evolved, biological way which animals make do with. It enables us, and the creatures (such as pets and farm animals) that we control, to do things that are not biologically determined. They are culturally determined.

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The notion of 'what it is like' to be something or do something or have something happen to one is applicable only to persons. The notion of 'what it is like to be a bat' or, even, the notion of 'what it is like to be a person', are unintelligible - even though it is, for reasons I will not go into, easy to be misled into believing these are viable concepts. There is nothing wrong, however, with such notions as what it is like to be a football referee, to kick a football, to smoke cannabis, or break one's leg. We often ask people who have had certain perceptual experiences - generally in the course of performing some identifiable action - to describe those experiences. Often these descriptions are good enough to enable the hearer - though he or she may not have had the experience in question, or any experience very like it - to imagine 'what it is like'.

As well as 'experiences' we also sometimes talk of having 'sensations' as a result of or in the course of doing things or having things happen to one.

How literally can we take this talk of 'having' experiences and sensations? In what sense if any are there - and presumably this means 'are there in the world' - such things as experiences and sensations?

Well, experiences and sensations are not susceptible, even in principle, to objective observation and therefore cannot exist as things in the world. There are no qualia 'out there'.

Experiences and sensations are logically consequent on (they are predicated on) acts of attending - that is, attending whilst doing action X or whilst suffering event Y. Although our metaphors may portray them as such, experiences and sensations are not any kind of accessory (e.g., products) of deeds of attending, or of attentive X-doings or Y-sufferings. They are in fact nothing over and above the successful attendings or attentive X-ings, etc. They are those attendings or attentive doings described qua achievements (vs. task activity) or successes (vs. attempts). The 'experiences' and 'sensations' per se are only grammatical or rhetorical fictions. The terms experience and sensation have no referents. There are no qualia - not only in the world but anywhere, anyhow. However, although their putative products (experiences and sensations) are not real, the acts of attending - of experiencing and sensing, if you will - themselves are very real. Like any actions, they can in principle be demonstrated, imitated, empathised, etc.

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Here are two uses of (practical contexts for) the gesture of mock-writing on one's palm. While I was waiting to use a toilet across the river in Bordeaux, a woman approached me from a nearby phone booth and, after trying with French and failing, used the 'writing on the palm' gesture to request that I loan her a pen. Unlike her French, that worked immediately. Another time, in Agde, after finishing a restaurant meal I raised my finger to catch the waiter's attention across the room. He replied with the 'writing on the palm' gesture plus raised eyebrows. I replied to this by changing my raised finger to a raised thumb. And shortly he came with the 'addition'.

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For convenience, rhetorical ease, we speak of natural processes and events as if they were actions and, for the same reason, we speak of actions as if they were natural processes or events.

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How is speech involved in thinking and why does it have to be involved in thinking? Well, thinking is a sophistication of, a technological advance on, speech. It is also a meta-action on speech. It is covertly rehearsed speech. Therefore, one cannot learn to think without having previously learned to communicate by speech.

One could not think without having already mastered a language, the practice of showing people things, measuring and mathematics, graphic representing, etc.

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A philosophy teacher of S's told him that one can either be a philosopher or teach philosophy, but not both.

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It was perhaps a mistake to have verbalised the difference in terms of 'overt' vs 'covert' tokening. Covert comes from covered and thus implies 'concealed', 'underneath', 'within', etc. Perhaps 'gross' vs 'subtle' tokening would have been better. It is instructive just how important in philosophy is choosing one's words carefully. Philosophies sink or swim by their terminologies.

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TWB was always keen for me not to distinguish tokening ('incepting' as it was then) from its readying effect or function. I think he was wielding Occam's razor. I wanted to see the readying as a physiological effect of the act of tokening. Could a physiological effect be the aim of the action? No, the aim of the action is to ready, enable, prepare me for doing X when the time comes. But is it necessary for the relevant neural circuitry to warmed-up, primed, etc., in order for this readying-for-action to be achieved? Who knows or cares? (Is that the right response?) Anyway, TWB wanted to say that the tokening is the readying.

The task-achievement distinction, including quotes from Locke, Macmurray and Ryle (see Thesis Chapter 5, pp.160ff) may be relevant to this question of the relation between readying and tokening.

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Visiting, and sharing in parts of, another's repertoire of consciousness - his or her 'ways of looking', specialist knowledge, etc. - is one of the things personal love is about.

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To explain the efficacy of gestures, you have to postulate a basic urge in each of us to imitate, to join in with, to entrain with, to act in concert with, the actions of others. And of course, in modern life this impulse must be held in check most of the time. So, the person making the give-me-the-lighter gesture - extending her hand into view and miming the act of repeatedly flicking a lighter - is exerting a magnetic effect on the surrounding company. They all want to join in with her lighter-flicking, or they all at least want to help her realise, to facilitate, her (incipient but) presently abortive act of lighter-flicking. However, only the person who has the lighter can do it. The others must inhibit their tendency to join in. The person with the lighter 'joins in' in a special controlled way.

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Philosophy is difficult but not because it is complicated. The basic ideas are usually quite simple. The difficulty is that the topics of philosophy, and also what philosophy attempts to alter, are our everyday assumptions. It is extremely difficult to raise as a topic and think about, let alone to alter or abandon, what we have taken for granted since childhood.

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The fact that it hurts when you burn your finger is not a fact about the world (about people or fingers, for example). Such 'facts' are not within the purview of any possible science. They are not subject to any sort of scrutiny. You might wish to call them 'subjective facts' or 'truths of human experience', but really they are neither facts nor truths. "It hurts" is simply learned pain behaviour (replacing or augmenting whimpering, etc.) for the audience to empathise, and then actively sympathise with. "It hurts" is not a description of anything

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In everyday contexts, where we are accustomed to all sorts of cavalier and disingenuous ad hoc ways of speaking, conjuring entities from actions is rhetorically effective and charming. We already know well enough what is being talked about. But in the context of serious academic discussion, where a clear appreciation of the subject matter is the goal, talk about meanings, mind, concepts, intentions, beliefs, etc., is incomprehensible and embarrassing. We know perfectly well what it is to see the point of a remark, or make a good point, say. But we would be puzzled and, as I say, amused or embarrassed, if a professor were to start talking about statements having 'points' in them, or attached to them, or to claim he is investigating whether points are contained in verbal statements only, or reside in people's brains too. This is just what philosophers of language and linguistic theorists do when they define their subject matter as 'language' or the study of 'meaning' or (worse) 'semantics' - and talk seriously about 'words referring to objects', 'linguistic items having semantic content' and so forth. One feels like taking them aside and explaining, as one would to someone who is unfamiliar with our language: Ah, but you don't seem to understand... When we say... we don't really mean...

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TWB used to refer to my thesis as my 'manifesto'. I remember that, despite George Hughes' being apologetic when introducing the current theories of mind (that is, theories about what consciousness and thinking are) to us first-years in 1962, I was still a bit appalled at the silliness of the theories. My reaction then, and my subsequent philosophical motivation, was a moral one. I was indignant about their putting such nonsense into our eager young minds...

Most criticisms call me to account for ignoring the relation between people's thinking and goings-on (particularly neuron firings) in their brains. However, the main aim of my book is to deny that there is any (non-trivial) relation between thinking and brain events. I say that thinking is a learned action - in the same sense that swimming, pretending to be a poodle, trumping in with the left bower, identifying a marmoset, getting to the Town Hall and tying one's shoelaces are learned actions.

One can usually describe given actions, though the descriptions are not always all that useful. Describing the key points about marmosets, what to look for, is easy enough. Describing shoelace-tying is more difficult. One tries in one's description to say what is distinctive about the action or activity in question. I try to describe the act of thinking. You are telling me (and you are not alone) that, in order to produce a full and satisfactory description of thinking, I must include descriptions of the physiological goings-on in the brain of the person doing the thinking. I just protest, Why on earth? Is it necessary to include references to brain events in one's description of what swimming is? Then how about brain events in connection with pretending to be a poodle? Trumping with the bower? Identifying a marmoset? Getting to the Town Hall? Tying one's shoe-laces? Why is it any different with thinking? Why is it that, in describing what is distinctive about thinking as an action, as a thing to do, I must mention brain events?

Certainly, brain events occur during actions. I believe they occur in living people all the time. However, I have never read a remotely credible, non-figurative description of how brain events are related, in general, to actions. (I suspect there are good logical and methodological reasons why there never will be such a description.) Nor have I ever read any convincing account of brain events occurring in connection with any particular action - getting to the Town Hall on time, for example, or flouncing in imitation of a poodle. I can't see that it would add to my understanding of either action if I did have such a description. I can't see how the new information about the brain would have any bearing on my performance, or on my understanding of the logistics or techniques involved, in either action. Generally, people gossiping on the telephone, say, or testifying in court don't add neurological coda to their descriptions of things people did. I don't imagine there's too much neuro-physiologising in history books either, and (according to Collingwood) they are about people's actions.

However, for some reason, everyone who thinks about it for a minute concludes that goings-on in the brain are not just relevant to the act of thinking, but of the essence. Why is this? What am I missing here?

Well, in fact I know why most people believe that there is a special link beween thinking (and perceiving, imagining, etc.) and brain events. It is because - with the greatest respect - their wits have been suborned by numerous colloquial metaphors. Thinking is often a very subtle and inconspicuous activity, difficult or impossible for other people to witness. The colloquial metaphors in question, which I call the 'mind' metaphors, account for the unobservability of thinking by fancying that it occurs inside people, inside their heads. Although they are clever, and convenient, the mind metaphors are still just metaphors and, as such, necessarily fanciful and disingenuous.

If you take these metaphors literally, you end up believing that thinking is not an action at all but an impersonal intracranial process of some kind. If you are ignorant and unscientific, you infer that this putative intracranial process is a supernatural, 'mental' process. If you are educated and scientifically-minded, you think of it as a brain process. Because we know, don't we, that the brain is in the head? I mean, if thinking is going on in the head, it must be going on in the brain. There's nothing much else in there. And we now know that brain events include, for example, neuron firings... "So. Well.You know. There's thoughts in there. There's neuron firings in there. It's obvious there's some intimate connection."

Against this folie à toutes, I retain the belief that thinking is an action. I believe that thinking is not a 'process' at all but, rather, something we do. Thus I also believe, because no-one could possibly perform an action inside his or her own head (it's not even conceivable), that thinking cannot go on inside people's heads. And, if you take away the assumption that thinking goes on inside people's heads, then there is no more reason to think that knowing about brain events is essential to knowing about thinking, than there is to think that knowing about brain events is essential to knowing what posting a letter is.

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Even we want to know all there is to know about thinking, we do not need to know about what brain activity, if any, is correlated with it. Any learned skill can be explained entirely in terms of (the learning of) the subsidiary skills that go into it. Thus we can account for thinking entirely by accounting for thinking's various subsidiary skills and the learning of them. And they are certain social skills - concerting, communicating, referring, etc. It is very probably true that the learning of a given skill (by guided imitation and practice) results in viable neural firing programs' being established (by Hebbian synaptic facilitation) in the brain. But the laying down of the pathways in the brain comes after the learning. The brain is just a kind of action diary, a notebook - which can subsequently double as a how-to manual, if necessary. Probably, the jottings in the brain enable the person, after some practice - and, no-doubt, further detailing-in and consolidation of the action's 'score' - to perform the action in question by him- or herself, without others' guidance. Perhaps that is the main function of the brain (cortex) with respect to our actions: to substitute for the demonstrations of others when the time comes for doing X on one's own. So, could one say the brain's function is to 'internalise' ('take on board') lessons from others?

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The imitation mechanism is the biological motor propelling us up into concerting and the cultural, thence the personal. The rest of the new brain is the imitation mechanism's ancillary system, its storage facility and extender-kit. It records (with Hebb's pencil) and stores, then facilitates subsequent enactments of, culturally-acquired behaviours. And this recording-and-subsequent-facilitation process is iterated until the person is capable performing the behaviour with a high level of autonomy and skill.

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Philosophers, theoretical psychologists and psychiatrists, and other theorists within the humanities and social sciences are tasked with providing, among other things, explanations of those important aspects of the human repertoire that are unique to human beings. I mean our reliance on technology, our communicating with one another using speech and writing, our consciousness, thinking, our knowledge of the world, our religious beliefs, moral values, legal systems, and so on. These are the abilities and practices that define the human. We can group them for now under the heading 'cultural behaviours'.

In attempting to explain cultural behaviours, these philosophers and others tend to assume that the basic term in their explanation is the individual human being. It is usually assumed too that the motivation behind cultural behaviour is the individual's biological survival and successful reproduction. This tendency to take the individual as the given, the starting point for explanations of what is distinctive about us, may be due in part to the success of Christian and capitalist ideologies. Although one function of the Christian church is to preserve a certain level of community feeling within its parish, it also employs what might not unfairly be called a divide-and-rule strategy. It preaches that the most important relationship is the one between God and the individual. In terms of morality, faith, rewards, punishments, this is where the action is. The individual must confront God essentially alone, without the support of his peers. The individual is correspondingly grateful for any guidance the priest might offer. Capitalism's main aim is to preserve and enhance the material advantage of its particular parish. Pursuant to this it preaches, to those outside its interest group, that acquisition of wealth by the individual, any individual, is the ultimate moral good. It is fair to say, however, that underlying - not necessarily justifying - this ideology are certain mundane practicalities of property rights, commerce and law. For the most part, these institutions function much more easily if the responsible agent is the individual.

The tendency to see the individual as ultimate in explanations of cultural behaviour is also abetted by many theorists' determination to extend Darwin's findings about biological evolution into the human cultural context. Not only is it taken for granted that the individual organism is the effective biological unit generally, it is also assumed that in the human case the cultural unit must derive from the biological unit. Thus the prime candidate for cultural unit is the individual person, and a person is thought of as a human organism 'plus something else' - a mind, say.

The question of what general kind of phenomena are cultural phenomena - such as the abilities and practices listed above - and how they are related to biological and other natural phenomena is an important one. The philosophers and other theorists, including some contentiously-titled 'social scientists', cannot begin their explanatory task without some initial understanding of what general kind of thing cultural practices are. Without some such initial broad understanding, there is no knowing what is an appropriate heuristic method to adopt. Certainly, the objective methods of the physical sciences are appropriate, indispensable, in studying biological phenomena - but to what extent, if any, are the methods of the biological sciences appropriate to the study of cultural phenomena, people's voluntary actions? The question as to the broad nature of cultural behaviours is a descendant of traditional philosophical problems, such as the mind-body problem (how are the two related?) and the problem of how our actions are related to causally-determined events, including things going on inside our own bodies. Although there is a growing recent awareness that all the important cultural phenomena (mind, language, ethics, etc.) are actional phenomena - that is, they are reducible to kinds and aspects of actions people perform - this is only a first step. What general category do 'actions' belong in? How do our actions differ from biological events? Is it even useful to compare the two? Our ignorance in this area has been long-term and profound, and it persists.

The persistence of this ignorance and consequent indecision makes it sensible to question assumptions that have not been questioned before, assumptions that it may not seem sensible to question. We can, for example, question the assumption that the individual person is the best starting point, or 'given', in explaining what culture is.

Given the assumptions about the primacy of the individual, interpersonal communication, for example, must be understood as a relation or process established between individuals who are naturally and by default apart and incommunicado. We imagine communication as a coming-together that temporarily interrupts this status quo. My idea is to postulate the togetherness that comes with continual concerted activity (as within nomadic tribes) as the natural, default state. I say communication is a temporary lapse from this full-on togetherness, during which we merely covertly token (imagine) some joint activity, instead of actually engaging in it. Alternatively, we could say that, during communication, there is activity actually being performed in concert - the imagining - and the lapse from prototype concerting consists in the relatively inhibited and unsatisfactory nature of this activity. Against this, the occasional outburst of laughter makes one think there is nothing at all make-do or surrogate about communication.

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The received wisdom is that thinking is a brain event, a 'cognitive process' occurring among the neurons in the brain. But thinking is not about what happens in the brain. That's not where it's at. The cortex is just a sort of notepad, recording what happens, recording what the person does - and facilitating its happening that way again next time, in those circumstances.

Certainly, thinking relies on this storing and facilitating function the brain has, and exploits it. but thinking is not itself a brain activity. Thinking is something the person does - and has to learn how to do. Thinking is an action, and actions represent a whole new kind or level of activity that is not biologically determined at all. Actions are culturally produced.

Thinking is a way the person has of maximising, altering and improving, what the brain does - by revving it up in certain directions, revving it down in others: 'driving' the brain, maybe, steering it. These steering, action-readying effects are achieved in the first instance by speech - people telling other people what to do and how to do it - and then later by thinking, which is really just incipient speech.

The main determinant of people's behaviour is entirely non-biological. It is culture: and the source of culture - which has evolved and been developed in innumerable ways, making culture a kind of actional technology - is concerted activity, our ability to do things in concert. That is the essence of humanity, our special skill. We are made to be in little tribes which act as one. Solo action of individuals derives from concerted action.

Speech taps the tribal, concerting impulse we have in us: the power of "let's do this". I say we have the concerting impulse 'in us' but it is not so much inside each of us as between us, among us. Anyway, with practice, the ability of speech to influence behaviour - by readying and triggering concerted action - can be borrowed by the individual for his private use. Mere token speech - merely incipient (not internal) speech, mere rapid, covert, going-through-the-motions-of speaking, mere 'thinking' - comes to have similar behaviour-readying effects.

But of course, you have to square this idea of thinking as incipient speech with the fact that speech is an essentially social, public activity. How can thinking, which is solo and private, capture the function of a social activity? Read the book.

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Some closing repetition relating to the role of cortex vis-à-vis culturally-acquired behaviour. In hominids there is/was a powerful imitation mechanism wired into the old brain and/or cortex. Operation of this mechanism in hominids living in groups will inevitably result in the concerting of activities, both old and new. Concerted activity is a fundamentally new and non-biological category. Concerted activities are the building-blocks of culture. The large hominid cortex evolves - incrementally, in the classic biological way - in response to, and to foster, concerted (cultural) practices that are economically efficient or just pleasurable. Ralph Holloway says this. The cortex functions as a medium in which the bodily (sensory and muscular) aspects of new concerted activities - learned in demonstration and imitation sessions - are recorded and stored. The stored cortical trace, if there is anything identifiable as such, also functions to facilitate subsequent performances of the activities.

[It is not the concerting that is stored, only the somatic stuff. (???) The concerting happens 'between' people. It is a cultural, not a biological, phenomenon. Well, strictly, concerting is not even a 'phenomenon'. It's something we do.]

How important is concerting for our species, and in our lives? Well, it is what has given us our large heads.

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To get a feel for what philosophy is about, try the following. With two or three other people, go somewhere where there is nothing man-made, preferably as far as the eye can see. You might be hiking, and sit down in a comfortable place for a rest. While sitting, try to 'clear your mind' of everyday thoughts and feelings. Hold your ordinary life - and such mundane anxieties such as those concerning work, success, how one appears to others, relationships, sex, money, possessions, charity work, any 'creative' project one might be engaged on, future plans, family - in abeyance. Don't think about or look at any of the people you are with. If there is anything man-made in the vicinity, try to ignore it. Attending to something man-made involves you in empathising the making and using of it, and this links you back to the network of everyday associations you are trying to detach from. Ideally, everyone should be able to get their gears off. But that would be like dropping the start flag on a motocross race. It might help to fantasise that your everyday preoccupations are actually extremely boring and that it is a pleasure to forget about them, all of them, for a while.

You attend instead to the natural phenomena around you. If you move, it is to see or hear or feel these things. If you talk, it is about them. But you basically try and be quiet. Eventually, whether by deliberate putting out of mind - which sounds impossible, but is only difficult - or by its just happening, the situation simplifies. There is just the group of you, which you are aware of only as 'us', and the place where you are. Experiencing this simplified situation is not especially difficult or 'spiritual'. You don't have to be a zen master. You just have to have the capacity to shut up, and to stop thinking for a few minutes. You can't go to sleep though.

It may come about naturally, with young people anyway. The presence of nature defines 'us' by contrast. But comradeship is not essential for conjuring the philosophical spirit. An unthought, unsmiling side-by-side does as well, or better. You're a group but you are not doing anything. You're just there. Maybe mucking round. Like when you stop for a rest during a tramp, and you wait on a bit after you've recovered.

On planet Nature, with everyday reality well under the horizon, and an infinity of empty space out there, the silence might get to you. To distract from it, you may entertain such thoughts as follow. What you are doing is something that human beings genetically just like us have been doing for around two hundred thousand years. Our hominid ancestors take the practice of concerted sprawling or loitering back at least another two million years. Someone speaks, refers everyone to the rock that looks like a pig's head. This cultural collectible is pretty old too: probably around two million also. Another thinks: "more like your head". One can imagine this thought entertained, with the same downcast eyes, half a million years ago, by someone wearing an auroch calf hide. A member of the group stands up and in the bodies of everyone seeing it this act is rehearsed in miniature, involuntarily, in a parallel to electrical induction that we all suffer. This 'empathy' also happened to, or was practised by, people, or the forerunners of people, millions of years ago.

The purpose of convening a scenario in which a group of people just mucks round 'in nature' is to set quotidian distractions to one side and allow us a view of the human fundamentals: our doing things (including just hanging out) in concert; empathy; communication by speech; our ability to perceive and identify and refer others to things in the world; and thinking, consciousness. These abilities and practices, because they are the fundaments of culture, are all but invisible in everyday cultural contexts. When it is just us in nature they show up. Evolutionary biologists explain what the animals, including the higher primates, are and how they arose. Explaining what people basically are and how they came about is more a job for the philosopher. The task is to explain culture - to explain such 'post-biological' phenomena as concerted activity, empathy, communication, knowledge of the world, consciousness. Philosophers attempt this.

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As a philosopher, you stand in the place that affords you the best view. And this sometimes means you have to visit outer space.

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Why would a professor who teaches philosophy of mind not want to allow that thinking might be a personal action, rather than an impersonal intracranial process? For one thing, he is an expert on what thinking is and he has almost certainly never even considered this possibility. While a great variety of theories as to the nature of thinking have been propounded, no well-known philosopher has ever argued that thinking is a learned, voluntary action of the person. Descartes taught that thinking is a supernatural process that occurs in a supernatural intracranial entity or agent, the mind. Philosophical behaviourists agreed that thinking is by definition a mental process, but they discounted the supernatural and non-physical - hence the mind and thinking - as merely fictional. According to behaviourists there is no such process as thinking, only intelligent overt behaviour of various kinds. Nowadays, every expert in the philosophy of mind - not to mention every psychologist, medical practitioner, psychiatrist and psychotherapist - believes along with Descartes that thinking is real, and intracranial, and an impersonal process. However, they believe thinking is not a 'mental' process but a physical one - a brain process or a function of brain processes. Teachers of philosophy of mind are the best scholars in this area; they have studied hard and now they are the experts. They know best. And what they teach is that thinking is a brain function. To concede that thinking is not a brain function after all would be to concede that they have been wrong about something they were supposed to be the experts in - and that they had been teaching their students something which is not true. The concession would also imply that their hard work and scholarship in this area has all been for nothing. In addition, there has been an investment of probably hundreds of millions of dollars in university cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience programmes and laboratories. To concede that thinking is not a brain process after all, but something the person does, would be to concede that this money has been wasted or at least ill spent.

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People have presumably always been curious about things in the world, including the various animals, and this curiosity has extended to wanting to explain what kind of creatures human beings are, [kinship with and differences from the animals] and how they, we, came to be here. Human beings have distinctive features - such as their abilities and proclivities to concert their activity, to communicate by speech, to cooperate in sophisticated ways, to maintain rituals and other traditions such as games, to make tools, to be conscious and think, to acquire knowledge of the world, to care for one another, to worship together, and so on. These (arguably) uniquely human achievements can be provisionally grouped under the heading 'culture'. To explain what human beings are and how they got here, involves one in explaining what culture is. What kind of phenomena are the above cultural phenomena, and how did they arrive in our repertoire?

Anthropological research done on recently extinct nomadic hunter-gatherer and other non-literate cultures suggests that the ancient nomadic humans often defined themselves in terms of totemic animals. The animals were familiar and vivid, impressive, stylish, and our ontological insecurity, or anyway puzzlement as to our own nature, was ameliorated by our affiliating ourselves - as members of the same clan, say - with the wolf, bear, caribou or whale. Or, groups may have defined themselves in terms of a particular place, as magical emanations, perhaps, or progeny, of that place. Or they, we, cleaved to other natural phenomena, such as geographical features, trees, rivers, the sun. There is also evidence that early humans may have postulated numerous supernatural powers behind nature - spirits or gods who motivated everything, including people. These gods granted us the abilities to speak, think, hunt and gather, make things, etc.

With the advent of settled communities and, eventually, institutionalised, literate, monotheistic religions such as Christianity, it became irresistible for people to define themselves as the creation, the children, and the servants of God. There was just one supernatural power behind everything, a power external to the world and to humanity, an ultimate creator and controller, to Whose will we are irrevocably subject. The religious institutions provided trained experts, priests, who could interpret God's will and instruct us in the details of how to behave, how best to serve Him. Among its many other aspects, organised religion, including Christianity, has always had a political role. It helps to achieve and maintain the docility and biddability of ordinary citizens. The Church's effective monopoly on answers to the big questions, about what we are and where we came from, and the unhesitating, supremely authoritative tone of its answer - that we are God's creatures - was presumably very useful for that political role. The stability of society depended on this answer to the question of what human beings are. For at least one and a half millenia priests pretty effectively controlled what people did and what they believed, by invoking as their authority the will of God.

Our animal, biological nature has presumably been realised since blood and death were first observed. By the time of Galen, medicine was an incipient science. But there was no realisation of the autonomy of organisms. Bodily functions were controlled by supernatural spirits and humours of various kinds, and these in turn were controlled by the Supreme Being. The human animal, like every other animal and object in creation, was seen as the puppet of an external power.

Early in the 17th century René Descartes initiated the first significant move away from the views of human beings as 'God's puppets'. Descartes suggested that a human being is a dual creature: it is, or has, a physical body, essentially a complex biological machine, and it is, or has, a mind. The mind is a real but by definition non-physical phenomenon. It is consciousness; it is what thinks. Whereas an animal is simply a biological machine, a human being is a machine that also thinks. Descartes' nominating the mind as the source of thinking - and hence the source of the rational activity (and other cultural accomplishments) that define human beings - accords individuals a measure of independence of God (and the priests). By virtue of having a God-given mind in his head, an individual has the authority, and the responsibility, to think, and to decide on actions, for himself. God still determines human nature but He influences us indirectly. He, as it were, implants minds in us, and our minds then control our behaviour. Descartes brought it about that, for the first time, people were seen as independent agents - albeit agents of God's will - with their defining characteristic, a mind, being internal to them.

The credibility of God's role as author of the universe was gradually diminished by the advance of physics and, by the end of the 19th century, when Darwin's theory had became widely known, His role as designer and creator of living things was becoming implausible too. In particular, Darwin's account of evolution by natural variation and selection came to seem the most likely explanation for the advent of the higher primates and human beings.

There were three significant 20th century adjustments to the received 'big picture' of our nature and origins. The first was brought about by increasingly numerous paleao-anthropological finds of early human and pre-human remains. These finds demonstrate a rich variety of hominids intermediate between the chimpanzee-like primates of eight million years ago and the modern human beings who first appeared around 160,000 years back. The evolutionary account of human origins now has among educated people the status of fact.

A second major influence on the big picture in the 20th century was the rise of the social sciences. There was an increasing awareness of culture as essential to human beings, and as a phenomenon amenable to formal study. The new disciplines of anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, economics, religious studies, etc., opted for approaches that were as scientific as possible. However, methodological doubts raised early on in the social sciences have persisted. To what extent, if any, are cultural phenomena reducible to physical phenomena, and hence accessible to the methods of the physical sciences? Another set of imponderables orbits the fact that culture is external to individuals. Culture is a social phenomenon; it exists 'between' people perhaps, but is not part of individuals' biological make-up -or is it? What is the relation of culture to the biological individual? How does the individual 'acquire' culture?

The third important 20th century development is the decreasing plausibility of the 'mental' side of Descartes' dualist conception of human nature. Progress in the human biological sciences, especially physiology, confirmed people's animal nature beyond doubt. Logical positivism dismissed as fanciful any entity whose existence could not in principle be scientifically verified. Because mind as traditionally conceived is unobservable, this included 'mind'. Behaviourists explained mind away - as a mere convenient fiction, an extrapolation from various observable behavioural phenomena. However, the acknowledged indispensability of the mind notion at the everyday level led to behaviorism being succeeded by a compromise view. This is the current orthodoxy, 'cognitive science'. Cognitive scientists believe that minds exist but that the mental can be assimilated to the biological and that mind is a property or function of the brain. It is the mind/brain that thinks. That is, the brain is a complex biological mechanism that has mind - consciousness and thinking - among its functions. Because the brain is an organ of the body, it can be studied by physiological science.

Cognitive science assumes that the brain is literally a biological mechanism, one that evolutionary forces have developed in hominids and humans over millions of years. The brain processes mental representations - that is, information about external reality taken in by the sense organs, encoded into neural form, and stored in the brain - just as man-made computers process the information we feed into them. This is the brain's 'cognitive' or thinking function. On the basis of its computations, the brain sends neural signals to the muscles as to how to respond to the prevailing external reality. Descartes' problem about how the mind motivates the body is dissolved. Mind is not a separate ontological category, but just another function of the body - the brain's cognitive function. As the human body is a product of biological evolution, so is the mind.

The new discipline 'evolutionary psychology' is an off-shoot of cognitive science that attempts to source (as much as possible of) culture in mechanisms engineered into the human genome by our evolutionary history. Thus, loyalty to a group, cooperation, linguistic ability and other building blocks of culture are explained - alongside such acultural tendencies and proclivities as exogamy, and our preference for landscapes with trees in them - as hangovers from our formative eons of hunting and gathering (and sharing) in small nomadic groups. Hominids who pinned their faith on cultural strategies survived best, so the appropriate brain mechanisms - guaranteeing, or at least facilitating, the requisite cultural behaviours - were instilled in us, over countless millenia of fine-tuning those strategies. The logic evolutionary psychologists see underlying this acculturation of the human brain is still that of survival of the fittest individuals. Individuals have the best chance of surviving and breeding - they compete best in nature's dog-eat-dog world - when they throw in their lot with the group. For the evolutionary explanation to be plausible, culture must be underpinned by individuals' self-interest. If interests happen to be mutual, and cut-throat competition must give way to caring and sharing, so be it. Basic Darwinian logic still applies. Those individuals are fittest who adjust best to the cultural strategy.

This is about where the big picture of the human is at right now, early in the 21st century. Classic evolutionary theory explains the origins and the animal, physical aspect. And a combination of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology explains the cognitive and cultural aspects. Contemporary theorists share with Descartes the idea that the basic motivator of behaviour, the source of human nature, is internal to the individual person - although the internal agency is now the brain rather than the mind. An external power that instils the inner agent in the person is still being posited too. In Descartes' model God equips us with mind. Nowadays it is biological evolution equipping us with a suitably programmed brain. Now evolution is creator and first cause. In both Cartesian and modern theories, the external agent is at one remove (a considerable remove, in the case of human evolution) from the person, and acts on the person indirectly. In both accounts, the immediate motivator of people's behaviour, and the effective key to human nature, is inside people, inside their heads. For Descartes as for the cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist, the basic unit of humanity is the autonomous, rational, self-interested individual.

The problems with the modern biology-based view are modern versions of those that beset Descartes and, later, the social sciences. First, the view that mind, or thinking, is a genetically-programmed-in, automatic internal bodily function, a brain function, is just implausible. Despite popular and expert opinion to the contrary, thinking is fairly evidently a voluntary action of the person. As such, thinking is a cultural rather than a biological phenomenon. Second, neither cognitive scientists nor evolutionary biologists have come up with any plausible, non-metaphorical and scientifically verifiable account of how brain events are related to cultural phenomena. If it is true, as it seems to a growing number of theorists, that the objective and quantificational methods of the genuine sciences necessarily exclude cultural phenomena, then it is doubtful that there can ever be a coherent, non-metaphorical account of the biology-culture nexus. The mind-body problem engendered by Descartes' theory persists.

The solution I suggest is as follows. Thinking is a learned and voluntary activity of the person. The ability to be conscious and think is not genetically given at birth but has to be learned - largely from others' example - during infancy and early childhood. As a socially-learned personal action, thinking is a cultural phenomenon. The distinctively human is thus not mind plus culture, but just culture. Culture can be analysed down into various action-technological developments of one prototype kind of activity, 'concerted' activity, which consists of two or more people deliberately conforming their actions. At the point where hominids or infants first engage in concerted activity, they can be regarded as genuine cultural agents, i.e., persons. The various basic cultural abilities - verbal communication, divided-labour cooperation, solo action, rule-following, knowledge of the world, consciousness, thinking, use of representations, art and religion, etc. - can be fully explained by observing the developmental sequence by which the primitive concerting technique is adapted for different purposes in different social and practical contexts.

Cultural phenomena (including concerting, and consciousness and thinking) cannot be explained using the objective, quantificational methods of the sciences. Cultural phenomena can be explained only by heuristic methods appropriate to the teaching of and explaining of actions. That is, the only methods (that will ever be) available for understanding concerting, verbal communication, thinking, etc., are methods that depend ultimately on concerting itself - for example, demonstration-and-imitation, empathy, mime, graphic representing, detailed verbal specification of actions and sub-actions, etc. Cultural activity can be understood only from the perspective of a would-be participant in that activity. When cultural phenomena are under observation, the observer has no alternative but to imaginatively (or even actually) participate in the phenomenon being observed. This participant attitude is specifically prohibited in the objective sciences.

Once the development of culture from concerting has been explained, using an appropriately actional heuristic methodology, the next problem is to identify where and how concerted activity - as the prototype cultural activity, with the new 'participant' heuristic requirement - could have emerged from purely biologically-determined activity. This is the latest version of Descartes' mind-body problem, replacing the cognitivists' problem of how brain states relate to mental states. The suggested solution to the biology-concerting problem is as follows. A powerful tendency to imitation is innate in the infant and, uniquely in human infants, this biologically-determined imitation develops over several weeks - as a result of assiduous coaxing by caregivers - into imitation that is reciprocal and mutual. That is, genetically-wired-in unilateral imitation develops, as a result of prolonged and intense association with others similarly wired, into genuinely concerted activity. With the occurrence of concerted activity, the human observer is unable to maintain the distance and detachment necessary for scientific objectivity. The activity being observed is now activity that the observer him- or herself performs and a switch to an empathic would-be-participant mode of scrutiny is irresistible. [Hopefully this explanation of the biology-culture nexus is more satisfactory than Descartes' gambit of postulating a specific area in the brain (the pineal gland) where the mind interacts with the body.]

Ethologists allow two main determinants of animal behaviour - genetic predispositions and various asocial forms of learning, including classical and operant conditioning. Hominid species stumbled on concerting, a new, cultural source of survival techniques. Eventually, in modern humans, this new form of learning accounted for nearly all adult behaviours. Given the basic genetic predisposition to imitation (to enable concerting) and a brain capable of storing the necessarily large repertoire of new cultural behaviours, hominid cultural determination of behaviour renders genetic determination and conditioning largely obsolete. Of course, cultural determination does not put a stop to genetic variation. Genetic variation may still advantage a proto-human by predisposing him or her to more efficient learning and/or performance of essential cultural techniques - language, solicitude for others, practical thinking, tool-making, etc. Presumably, basic abilities to act in concert were acquired by hominids millions of years ago and the evolutionary changes in the genome since then have been due to the success of these key cultural innovations in ensuring hominid survival - within the standard small-group, nomadic hunting and foraging life-style. Over thousands of generations, individuals' genetic fitness for learning and implementing them would presumably have significantly increased. Modern humans are thus the result of several million years of genetic fine-tuning for culture - i.e., for the cultural solution to the economic problems faced by small-group, nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The identification of thinking (or 'mind') as a culturally learned activity tends to dissolve the 'inner agent' that Descartes was so keen to install in us - as a way of guaranteeing the individual a degree of autonomy vis-à-vis our external prime mover, God, and His minions, the clergy. Cognitive science gives the brain a role similar to that which Descartes gave the mind: the brain is a sort of master computer that analyses external reality and initiates appropriate behavioural responses. Albeit it is a mere mechanism, the product of an external power - namely, millions of years of biological evolution - the brain controls our behaviour directly and absolutely. However, the new culture-based account diminishes the brain's (or, at least, the cerebral cortex's) role to that of mere recorder and subsequent facilitator of behaviours forged elsewhere - that is, in interpersonal, cultural encounters. In the new story, the brain does not so much allow the individual autonomy vis-à-vis cultural influences as tie him or her to them. The brain, as recorder and facilitator, makes the individual sensitive to cultural practices; it is what enables the individual to participate in them. Of course, the individual's possessing a cerebral cortex - with appropriate cultural recipes already etched on it by past experiences of doing things with others - does enable him or her to go solo, to do things on his or her own. However, qua solo agent, an individual person is never more than a representative of, a mere proxy for, some cultural group.

In place of the earlier-posited external influences, God and evolution, the new cultural determinism posits culture. Concerted activity, the basic form of culture, is not exactly 'external' to the individual. It occurs 'between' or 'amongst' individuals. Individuals are, as it were, what is left over when concerted activity finishes, its radicals. It is interesting to compare things that could be said about culture, or it's first cause and prime mover, the concerting urge, with things said about the earliest-posited determiner of human nature and behaviour, God. The traditional Western God is the creator of humanity, our parent and guide, the creator of the universe, all-powerful, all-knowing, infinite and ineffable, He is the word, morally perfect, loving. And, although terrible things happen in the world, we should never abandon Him. He made us, we owe Him our utter loyalty, and He will save us. It could be argued that many or all of these statements, and perhaps other familiar statements about 'God', are, if taken in a suitably figurative sense, applicable to culture, or the urge underlying it - that which makes us 'us'.

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The cortex is a support system for culture. Complementing cultural practices like demonstrating and speech, which presumably it evolved in association with, it helps enable the storing and subsequent easy accessing of new behaviours. The roughness of the behaviour-storage method employed in cortex has the considerable added advantage that - through firing-programs contaminating other programs - it makes invention of new hybrid behaviours easy, or inevitable.

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Cognitive skills are social skills.

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Cognitive science: Because of the success of everyday language's propaganda campaign, the association of intelligence and thinking with the brain is automatic and 'to study the brain' is already 'to study the organ of intelligence'.

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To add to the 'mind' sample, I should start a collection of idioms in which thinking (in the broad sense) is related to the head and the brain. The ones relating feeling to the heart might be worth collecting too. But to make a start on 'head' and 'brain': I couldn't get it out of my head, I couldn't get it into his head, use your head, a head trip, a voice in my head kept saying, two heads are better than one, it went over my head, off his head, keep one's head, an old head on his shoulders, a wise head, a good head for figures, I can do it (sum) in my head, a hothead, my head said one thing and my heart another, in one ear and out the other, pick his brain, he's very brainy, got lots of brains, has a good brain, use your brains, a bear of little brain, she has sex on the brain, brain-washed, brainless scheme, hare-brained scheme, a brainwave, she's the brains in the outfit...

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I try to define the togetherness (concerting) that gave rise to and sustained mind and culture originally. What fosters the togetherness that sustains mind and culture now, for modern adults? Well, a huge variety of informal and formal practices and institutions foster it - not least among which are Government departments. And what kinds of practice tend to threaten and reduce this togetherness? I would say, crime, cruelty, selfishness, greed and competition, coercion, lying, degraded and corrupt art, limited and biassed information, overcrowding, the destruction of nature, bullying (including by Government), grossly unequal distribution of resources, diminution of public land, education for docility. These things tend to put us right back among the animals. Mindless and alone...

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What general kind of phenomenon is communication by speech? Well, it is in the same family as 'demonstrating an action to teach someone how to perform it'. Communicating is a descendent of demonstrating. What kind of descendent? It also has a resemblance to a make-believe game, using props.

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One of the functions of science is to get us all looking for reality out there - having us shield our eyes and squint into the distance - down the microscope or out into space. But in fact, the most important reality is that which pertains behind us or amongst us: the social reality, the togetherness and concert that we rely on so much, yet find so difficult to comprehend. Science helps distract us from this discomforting circumstance.

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What is the story about (certain kinds of ) words 'referring to' things? Well, someone is trying to draw your attention to X and, he is saying or writing the word to advertise this fact. His saying or writing the word is to let you know that referring you to X is what he is doing, or wants to do. As a well-trained member of the speech community, one's immediate reaction to hearing or seeing the word is to cooperate with the speaker or writer and direct one's attention to X ? which usually amounts to one's imagining perceiving X. One thing that's clear now is that the expression 'the word refers to the thing' is a synecdoche, a shorthand for 'the speaker says the word in order to indicate to the hearer that he wants to refer him to the thing'. The philosophical question 'what is the relation between the word and the thing?' fails to acknowledge the synecdoche, which is basically just ignorant and stupid. However, the question is impossible to answer for another (probably related) reason. It requires the hearer (of the question) to respond to the word in two incompatible ways simultaneously. First, the question relies on the hearer's being a well-trained member of the speech community and his recognising the word as such and automatically cooperating with the notional speaker by imagining the appropriate X. But, second, the question requires that the hearer hold this initial reaction in abeyance and, instead, attend to the word qua vocal sound or graphic. While we are attending to the word qua object, it loses its capacity to indicate to us a speaker's intention (to refer us to something). What happens in fact though, when a philosopher puts this question, is that the two incompatible reactions to the word (reacting to it as to a signal and reacting to it as to an object per se) are entertained in quick succession, or they alternate together. Because the synecdoche is not acknowledged, the philosophy student is gulled into believing that it is an object, a sound or graphic called a 'word', that is doing the referring.

The time-honoured 'use vs mention' distinction in respect of words is a fraud for the same reason. While the word is being viewed as an object - a sound hanging in the air, or a graphic sitting there on the page - it cannot perform its referring-signalling function. It is not a 'word' any more. It is only when we are reacting to it qua 'speaker indicating his intention to refer us to something' that it is a word. But, when we are reacting to it in this way, as to an action of the speaker, the word has ceased to be an object. It can't simultaneously be an object and do its referring-intention-signalling job.

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Then there is our private, solo tokening of this public group activity. My earlier word for tokening was incepting, which reminds us that in tokening the method is to merely commence (but then abort) the parent activity. Also perhaps reprising, or nominal reprising, where reprising reminds us that the activity being tokened is one that we have learned in public sessions (or have had some lesser experience of) in the past, and are now bringing back, bringing back to life. The nominal adds the qualification that that we reprise, we rehearse now, that earlier-experienced activity in a merely perfunctory way - albeit the rehearsing itself (of the perfunctory version) may be far from perfunctory. Taking nominally more literally tells us also that, in tokening, we merely 'recap' the activity, we go over its main points only. Nominal would come properly into its own if nominal reprising were to be applied to that public version of tokening, speech, and nominal were to be taken in its original sense. In speech, the recapping (done this time with others, publicly) is achieved by the sequential utterance of names.

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In a TV documentary about calculating and mnemonic prodigy, David Tammet, Tammet's feats were contrasted with those of eager young Koreans who had been assiduously trained for rapid mental calculating. Each spent at least two hours every day performing difficult arithmetical feats using an abacus. [Here we should remind ourselves that use of the abacus is a public and publicly-taught convention of representation (of arithmetical operations). And we should remind ourselves that arithmetical operations are actions, actions performed by people, not impersonal 'processes'.] The kids then get together for calculation races, in which the calculating (of some difficult product, sum, quotient, sine or whatever) is done without abacuses. In the absence of their abaci, the children make rapid, token, finger-movements corresponding to abacus operations. The thing is, they can go faster without abaci. Only, they need the regular practise with the abacus, in order to be confident and accurate without it.

The documentary voice-over implied a contrast - that, whereas these kids had been 'artificially trained' to perform their astonishing feats, Tammet's (actually much greater) abilities were present 'naturally'. Well, what can I say? Certainly, the number series are conventional entities (or systems). Tammet wouldn't have had those numerical abilities in a culture that didn't have numbers, and conventional operations with them. Tammet 'represented to himself' different numbers graphically and emotionally - with a thousand or so individual numbers (each qua a graphic representation with its own feel) kept in stock and others immediately contrived ad hoc according to apparently fairly stable rules. Certainly, representating things per se is necessarily a communal, public technique, as LW said. One would also like to think that any particular representational system was essentially (originally? incipiently?) public also. Only, Tammet had to tell us what conventions he was using. As well, it seemed that he had to make an effort to discover what the system was that he was using, before he could tell us - as if his technique was already 'installed in his brain'. Gee. In Tammet's case, the possibility of early, public educative experience (in his own, apparently idiosyncratic, number-representing system) seems a bit of a tiddler.

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We are asked to explain what consciousness is - say, self-consciousness and awareness of what one is doing (whether or not these are different), and consciousness of 'things out there in the world'. And we assume that consciousness is an ability of the individual person. My reply that consciousness is concerted activity seems inscrutable, to say the least.

It is in (and in-and-out of) concerted activity that our concepts of a person (a contributing agent, fellow-participant), our concepts of self and other, arise. It is in concerted activity that our concept of an action, of doing, arises. And it is in the particular concerted activity 'perceiving things' that our notion of an external reality, of things in the world, arises. The phenomenon we use the term consciousness to refer to is our ability as individuals to reprise concerted activity in merely token form. Or, it is our ability to reprise these particular aspects and/or species of concerted activity - the personnel awarenesses, the perceivings of accessory things - by tokening them. I have explained to my satisfaction at least how individuals come to have such abilities. It takes a long educative process, occupying a whole childhood, to enable adequate private tokenings. [F tells me that some of her psychotherapy patients literally cannot think, cannot think independently, that is. They were so deprived of togetherness and shared experiencing early on.] Naturally, if you assume that consciousness is essentially an ability of individuals, and you regard it as a natural (or God-given) endowment of the individual - and fail to consider the possibility of an original social ability and a long and socially-midwifed 'privatisation' of the original social ability - then 'consciousness' is bound to seem fairly mysterious.

'Mind' will seem even more mysterious. Without considering the social origins and the long learning process, even to understand what is involved in the private act of minding (thinking) would be difficult enough. But the nominalisation or reification of the act of minding into a thing, 'the mind', and the metaphorical identification of mind as the intracranial agent or venue of thinking, makes understanding what the mind is well nigh impossible. On the one hand, of course, there's no such thing as the mind - qua internal agent or venue of thinking. But, on the other hand, of course we adults have these abilities to privately rehearse public transactions. They are very real abilities and you can see how we acquired them, if you look in the right place. If you want to explain how we come to have these abilities you don't look in the person's brain, but in their childhood.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with looking in the brain as well, as a kind of corroboration. One sees what traces the relevant formative experiences have left in cortex. But you can't learn, from looking solely in the brain (of the adult), what kind of activities the formative experiences consisted of - and without this knowledge one is still completely in the dark. And what is it that knowledge of what is inscribed in the brain register adds?

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How is it that person A's demonstrating of an action to person B helps B to perform that action? What must human beings be like, what acquired or natural abilities would be required, for demonstration to be an efficient educative recourse? Whatever they are, these are the abilities that the acquired skill 'thinking' is a sophisticated exercise of.

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It is a fact that the infant and then child undergoes a long developmental process in the course of which he or she acquires abilities in concerting and demonstrating and public and private tokening, and in various combinations of these. If these various related abilities are not the developmental underpinning for the child's eventual ability to think, if they are not the raw materials of 'mind', then what are they for? Why then would we all spend so many years mastering and rehearsing these abilities?

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Conversation is a half-way house between joint inactivity and joint activity.

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Concerted performance (or some derivative of concerted performance such as a lesson) provides not only the instruction but the motivation necessary for solo performance. Mind is the desire on the part of the individual acting alone to convene or reconvene a concerted version of what he or she is doing.

A 'person' is a group creature obliged to behave as an autonomous individual. We are raised in a cocoon of concern and concert - within what appears to us as children to be a tribe - to be team players and then (and relatedly) solo agents. It is on the strength of our imagined 'tribal' affiliation that we are able to act as solo agents. As solo agents we cannot stop harking back to and leaning on the tribe - by 'jollying up', conjuring the group around us. This is thinking. Only, in modern society, in our late twenties, the 'tribe' we were relying on quietly disperses and/or reveals itself as largely illusory. Its role as touchstone, as motivator and instructor for action, is taken over by various other authorities.

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The mistake cognitive scientists make is thinking that one can understand an action that people perform (in this case thinking) by looking at the effects that performance of the action causes in the body. They assume that an action is nothing more than the bodily exertions associated with that action. In fact, however, there is a considerable range of things we need to know about actions. We need to know such things as when and in what kind of situation it is appropriate to perform the action, what the action is for, how its practical logic works, how it is performed physically, whether there are alternative methods or just one, whether it involves special personnel or a special venue, what if any accessory tools or equipment the action involves, what if any social or moral significance it has, how is it taught, what natural or previously acquired abilities if any the learning of it presupposes, what sub-actions it involves (including acts of saying, if any)...

To make matters worse, cognitive scientists seem to believe not only that 'inside the body' is the only place we need look to find out what thinking is, but also that the only bodily events that can ever be constitutive of or relevant to thinking are events in the brain - and, presumably, only certain kinds of event in certain parts of the brain. In fact, one of the distinctive features of thinking is that there is a very broad range of bodily phenomena that may - depending on what is being thought about - be constitutive of or relevant to thinking. Mutterings, rollings of the eyes heavenwards, tremblings, perspirings, genital arousings, blanchings, muscular tensings, facial expressings, arm and hand movements - all these and many other kinds of event may occur in the body during thinking. I argue that thinking is, among other things, the incipient performance of particular actions (especially including acts of saying). Having a given thought or feeling often involves incipient activation of just those neurons, muscles and glands that would be fully active were the action in question being actually performed.

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"But of course thinking goes on in the head. Nowadays we have scanning equipment that enables us to actually see the brain thinking!" And when it turns out that a certain pattern of brain activity reliably appears whenever the host person drinks a glass of water, do we then want to say that we can see the brain drinking a glass of water?

60. _________________________________________________________________

The notion that thinking is an operation of and/or in the brain is an inference from at least two premises.

Thinking has its own dedicated agent and/or venue inside the body.

This internal agent and/or venue is intracranial (in the head).

Either immediately infer that the intracranial agent and/or venue of thinking is the brain, or call the intracranial agent and/or venue of thinking 'the mind' and then infer that the mind is the brain.

61. _________________________________________________________________

Here are two main arguments for the view that thinking does not happen in the brain. The first is:

Thinking is an action of the person (as argued in The Act of Thinking).
Any venue of a personal action must be such as to admit the person. In order to perform an action in place P, a person must first gain entry to and occupy P.
No person can gain entry to and occupy his or her own brain preparatory to performing an action (such as thinking) in there.
Therefore thinking does not happen in the brain.

The second argument that thinking does not happen in the brain is:

Because of the absence of suitable interoceptor nerves, we are never directly aware of events occurring inside our own brains (in the way we are sometimes directly aware of events occurring in our hearts, stomachs, uteruses, etc.).
We are often directly aware of our thinking.
Therefore thinking cannot be an event that occurs in the brain.

62. _________________________________________________________________

There are two similar arguments for the view that thinking is not done by the brain. The first is:

Thinking is an action of the person.
A brain is not a person and cannot perform personal actions.
Therefore thinking cannot be an action of the brain.

The second argument that thinking is not done by the brain is: Grant that the brain 'does things' in the sense that it performs impersonal actions (has functions, etc). Because of the absence of suitable interoceptor nerves, we are never directly aware of the brain doing things in this impersonal sense (in the way we can be directly aware of our heart pumping blood, say). We are often directly aware of our thinking and aware that we are thinking. Therefore, (in these many self-aware cases, at least) thinking cannot be something that the brain is doing.

63. _________________________________________________________________

"So, where does thinking take place then - in the stomach?" Thinking takes place out in the same world in which people perform all their other actions. In fact, thinking is possible in the great majority of the physical and social situations in which we find ourselves.

64. _________________________________________________________________

My concept of concerted activity cannot be summed up as 'learning by imitation'. Concerting is not just a teaching method, it is what is to be learned. The concerted version of an action is not just a temporarily duplex version of an action performed for recreational, ritual, educative or practical purposes. It is not the sum of two (or more) elemental performances. The concerted version is the original, elemental performance - of which subsequent solo versions are an approximation or fraction.

65. _________________________________________________________________

You might want to say that thinking 'specifically involves' activity in the brain, as walking specifically involves activity in the legs. But doesn't walking involve activity in the brain too? Doesn't every action of the person? So, what is special about the brain activity that thinking involves?

68. _________________________________________________________________

A person thinking, prior to undertaking some solo task, is imaginatively involving others - imagining a concerted effort - in order to enhance (or even create) his or her awareness of and motivation for the undertaking.

69. _________________________________________________________________

Not only is perception not a process but an action, it is a group action. Perceiving something is a feat that only a group of two or more can accomplish. We speak as if the individual can perceive things on his or her own. Indeed, philosophy takes the individual version of perceiving as the paradigm. But the individual's 'perceptions' are inevitably incomplete, conditional on others' corroboration. Without that, things threaten to shrivel back into inexistence. Possibly, we aggrandise the individual version as a form of whistling in the dark: we do not want to even consider the possibility that confirmation of our solo perceptions might not be forthcoming. And as for perceptions, so for all our other actions. Without others' complicity, or at least their empathy, our actions are mere motions - without even biological significance.

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You don't have a mind on your own, only a body. You don't have a mind to yourself. Mind is concert, or a culture of concertings. It is something that you participate in, only. You have a lease on it and a stake in it, but you don't own it. It's like the land, I suppose.

75. _________________________________________________________________

To have language in general in common with another person, to be a bona fide participant in the institution of verbal communication, is already to have something big in common with the other person. The institution of verbal communication involves one in imagining activities side-by-side with the other. And to share a particular language is to have even more in common with the other. One has agreed to share with the other even the details of one's imaginings.

76. _________________________________________________________________

Speaking is a way of 'doing and not-doing' some action. Verbal communication is a kind of guessing game, like charades. In the context of the game, well, of course the speaker is not actually doing whatever it is. The question is, what is he 'doing'? What activity is he verbally tokening? And you put two and two together from his words.

77. _________________________________________________________________

What do the rules and theorems of grammar, logic, mathematics, represent? Some abstraction called 'logical form'? No, they represent possible actions. They are laws of activity. ((p>q).p)>q 2+2=4 They describe how we do things. And, naturally, since they govern actions, these laws also govern our 'saying' or 'calling' of actions, our speech.

78. _________________________________________________________________

Descriptions and narratives also evoke, conjure or 'call' activity for us to imagine performing. Here as elsewhere, the primary function of the speech is still imperative. It is saying 'Do this, and notice X, Y and Z in the course of doing it'. In the case of descriptive and narrative speech the activity being exhorted is investigative and perceptual activity. Only, we have recourse to descriptive and narrative speech so often that the explicit imperative has given way to an implicit one. When we hear the grammatical form appropriate to describing, we automatically assume that some (imagined) investigative and perceptual activity is called for.

Consider such intermediate examples as a travel guide, travelogue, dissection manual, operating and repair manual, scientific reports of experiments, good food guide. These are mixtures of imperatives and descriptions. The former are heuristic imperatives, specifying what investigative travails are to be undertaken, and the latter are itemisations of the things one will perceive in the course of or as a consequence of these travails.

I claim that descriptive speech still implies an heuristic imperative. The most common heuristic procedure assumed is simply going there and looking (or listening, feeling, etc.) This strategy is so commonly necessary that it can be taken for granted that it is required and not cued. The items covered in the description are the things one is to perceive in the place in question. In a good description the list is ordered in such a way that, as in a travel guide, the implicit investigative itinerary via which one would encounter them in this order is as simple as possible. One describes the gate, then the path, the façade and door, then the butler, etc.

The speech essentialises as the explicitly imperative cues are forgone. "If you lift up the flower pot you will find the key" gives way to "the key is under the flower pot". The same essentialising process has happened to "The boiling point of H2O is 100ºC at sea level". Heuristic procedures are implicit even in single referring expressions: "100ºC" implies temperature taking and temperature grading, "sea-level" implies going there.

And, as I have said elsewhere, referring expressions are attentional hortations, each evoking a particular smorgasbord of perception recipes and perceivings.

79. _________________________________________________________________

Understandings are readyings of ourselves to act together. Or: Communication is readyings of each other and ourselves to act together. The phrase: "To act with one accord".

80. _________________________________________________________________

Along with one or two other theorists I postulate a basic urge in human beings to do things together, in concert, to entrain with others. This urge to concerted activity and the togetherness achieved thereby is the engine of culture, and perhaps the most fundamental human motivation. The human being is born pretty much a blank slate. He acquires a repertoire or, rather, he acquires participation rights in the group repertoire, not primarily to equip himself with survival skills, but so he can be part of the group, part of the team, whatever they are doing.

82. _________________________________________________________________

The word function is a synonym for the word action which has the advantage of seeming - because of its long history of being associated with impersonal things such as body parts, tools, machines, systems, devices - to refer to some objective attribute of the thing in question. Function seems to bypass anthropomorphism. But the anthropomorphic metaphor is only moribund in function. We cannot take moribund (even dead) metaphors literally any more than we can take new live ones literally. Despite appearances, it is inevitable that we still fancy functions as 'actions' done by the thing in question.

83. _________________________________________________________________

Three separate attempts at a first paragraph for a communication essay:

What broad kind of activity is verbal communication? What are speaker and hearer doing? Most theorists assume that speaker and hearer do basically different things. The speaker formulates and sends a message, say, and the hearer receives and interprets it. However, my suggestion is that communicating is a form of joint or concerted activity - in which, despite relatively minor differences of role, speaker and hearer are doing essentially the same thing.

Theorists usually set about trying to explain interpersonal communication by starting with two individuals and looking for a transaction between them that results in some suitable form of contact or togetherness. My strategy is to start with a paradigm of togetherness, a complete oneness of accord and action, and explain communication as a defalcation from or approximation to that. I find the required paradigm of togetherness in concerted activity.

Most theorists assume that interpersonal communication is a temporary state of contact or togetherness between independent rational individuals, the product of a process or transaction expedited by those individuals. My suggestion, however, is that communicating is essentially a joint or shared undertaking, one which requires the individuals involved to temporarily relinquish their status as independent rational agents and to revert to a more primitive, concerted mode of action.

84. _________________________________________________________________

If we view it sui generis, interpersonal communication looks very mysterious. It looks to have in it things like meanings, understanding, linguistic phenomena, semantic powers, thought-transfer, etc. But, in fact, what we call 'communication' is a derivative, etiolated form of something else. It is a much-adapted form of concerted activity. And concerted activity is familiar and patent and easy to understand. [Easy to understand empathically, that is. It might be understandable objectively too, if we had a mathematics of recursive imitation.]

The same is true, with knobs on, of thinking, 'mind'. It too has proved incomprehensible when viewed as a stand-alone phenomenon, a natural kind. It too becomes transparent - at least, begins to give up its secrets - when it is recognised as a derivative form of something else. Again, the source, the prototype, the matrix, is concerted activity. Thinking is an even more adapted and compromised derivative of it than communication is. Unless we see this derivation it is not at all obvious - especially given the fog of metaphor we have to peer through - even that thinking is an action.

87. _________________________________________________________________

A 'person' is a semi-autonomous bit of tribal. It is a piece of concerted human activity that is functioning (temporarily) with only one body in it.

91. _________________________________________________________________

Here is an idea half-way between cognitive science orthodoxy and the idea in my The Act of Thinking. This seems to be the idea that the 'Booknotes' reviewer of TAOT, Bernard Beckett, came away with. Whereas the orthodoxy has the brain computing behaviour from current (and stored past) perceptual input from the environment, and then triggering it, Melser has the brain simply copying (imitating) others' behaviour. The stock of behaviours available for copying is culture. Initial invention of behaviours is another story (and here Melser might go along with a conventional computational story). But, at least, the individual does not have to invent or compute new behaviour each time he has to do something that is not already in his repertoire. He can copy it from others - or learn it via some derivative of copying, e.g., by 'being told what to do'. So, Melser's imitation-learning story supplies another string to the individual's bow in the suitable-behaviour-production game. His account complements, fills out, the orthodox one.

In the above story, the orthodox assumption of the individual coping in the world on his own is unchallenged. On the other hand, what I want to say is that the 'doing things together', the concerted activity, is where it's at. [Where the action is. Where the source is. Where human life is at.] That is the human life-form to be studied, not the biological individual. (The on-going concerted activity is the best thing to identify as 'culture' too.) The production of solo behaviour by individuals is a temporary and artificial - factitious, culture-produced - adaptation of this basic human strategy.

93. _________________________________________________________________

Maybe it's not that there is just one basic form of human life - social practices based on concerting - with individual biological or personal existence being parasitic on it (developmentally, logically, ontologically parasitic?) and hence derivative and secondary. Maybe there are two basic forms - social practices and the individual biological - and you need both to put together a workable picture of human life. The trouble then is, the two kinds of entity require incompatible heuristic approaches.

95. _________________________________________________________________

Again: The cortex is a biological device evolved to deal with behaviour qua commodity - that is, qua something that can be acquired from others, stored, fabricated from scratch (or, at least, from little unconnected bits), modified ad hoc, etc. A need for something that could do (or facilitate) these things must have arisen once concerting arrived and culture became a survival option. The prime requirement, I suppose, is for a means by which (or a somatic medium in which) specific behaviours and behaviour-bits can be physically recorded, registered, represented, set down, stored. Then they need to be able to be activated to a range of higher levels, to ready them for action, and so on. That's the work that the cortex evolved to do.

99. _________________________________________________________________

A couple of local intellectuals paid me a considerable compliment the other day. BB was reporting on the phone his friend ST's enthusiasm for my book, saying they both thought it constituted, with its demonstration of the community basis of mind, a big new cultural resource.

100. ________________________________________________________________

There is something of a contradiction even in being a person. To be a player in the world, you have to purvey an identity as an individual - you have to preserve a unique set of interests, abilities, associations, an appearance, style, property portfolio, etc. But at the same time you have to cooperate with others, engage in concerted activity with them, put yourself in their shoes, be 'just part of the group', do things side by side with others, love them. To do these latter things you've got to forget about the person you are, you've got to forget about promoting that individual. A person is a competitive unit, a player. The thing is, we are all the time caught between competition and concert, unable to go uninhibitedly either way.

101. ________________________________________________________________

Rom Harré tells us (told us at Massey yesterday) that Wittgenstein distinguished two types of explanation, homogenous and heterogenous. Heterogenous explanations explain a phenomenon (thinking, say) in terms of things quite different (brain processes). Homogenous explanations explain phenomena in terms of other phenomena basically similar. The following is the basis of a homogenous explanation of thinking.

First, a list of various other techniques for accomplishing roughly what thinking accomplishes - namely, readying for action. After that, you would sort out the differences in context of use, exactly what kind of readying is achieved in each case, and how. And you would specify an order in which the various techniques would be learned by a child, which are the least sophisticated, what adaptation is required to advance to the next sophistication level, and so on. Here is a list.

Two people concerting their behaviour for fun;
> being taken through an action by someone more skilled (educative concerting, zone of proximal development);
> practising by yourself - the 200 metres sprint, loading the rifle; going through a rehearsal with a full complement of other personal, with all the props, etc. - the official welcome ceremony;
> doing a brief going-through-the-motions-type mime of laoding the rifle, say;
> making make-believe bears with a child;
> drawing a sketch of a walking route;
> telling someone the route;
> visualising (perhaps imagining drawing) the route; making a list;
> ticking off the items on a list;
> formulating a list in one's head (and ticking it off in one's head).

102. ________________________________________________________________

We have the idea Freud was a dangerous radical in his day - saying we had all those dreadful things repressed inside us, those terrible, unthinkable things. How could he even suggest that? And we think, 'He can't be right. But if he is, even a little bit, thank God for our powers of repression! Thank God for the constraints of civilisation.' But Freud's message is not what it seems. His myth is just the old myth made over and revitalised. The message, the lie, is not about what is repressed inside people. The lie Freud is putting across is that there is an 'inside' in people.

103. ________________________________________________________________

Imagine three people sealing a pact with a ceremonial pile of hands and a shouted affirmative. How is the scientist to approach this event? Presumably he needs to already understand what it is to seal an agreement, and understand that the pile of hands and the shout can effect this. Is equipping him with such understanding part of his scientific training or part of his life-experience as a person? Presumably also, he needs to know what is being agreed – since this is surely germane to the nature of the act the three are performing. This means, he must be in on the pact. He must have this pact in mind as he witnesses the event just as the three must have it in mind as they effect it. How close is ‘being in on the pact’ to ‘being a party to it’? Does he have to also join in the pile of hands? Does he have to know what it is like to make a pile of hands? If so, does he have to have done it himself, in the past? And is this part of his scientific training? Suppose the three speak a language known only to them (they are the last survivors of a tribe) and to understand the pact and the affirmative, the scientist must have first learned this language. Is learning this language part of his scientific training?

I would say that if his science commits him to objectivity then none of these necessary preparations – for understanding (or participating in) the event – is permitted him. And yet every self-aware concerted or cooperative undertaking, every cultural phenomenon, presupposes some agreement-effecting display such as the pile of hands. Agreement-effecting needs to be understood before any cultural phenomenon can be understood.

And how is the scientist to record the event? How could anyone describe what it is to have an agreement with someone? Agreement is concerted imagining, and concerting is primitive and indefinable. Certainly, it is do-able.

104. ________________________________________________________________

“Imitation is the foundational rational response.” “Copying others is the foundation stone of rationality.” “Imitation is the foundation stone of mind.” “Copying others is the foundation stone of mind”. Which one you like?

106. ________________________________________________________________

Perhaps the most interesting thing in TAOT is the picture I offer of the person alone, the account of solo action, perception and thinking, the account of what the alone person is doing. I say that, insofar as what he is doing is conscious, aware, the person alone is imaginatively convening a group of fellow participants, or at least an audience, for the doing, perceiving or (imagined) speaking he is presently undertaking. This is because mind and individual agency are derivatives of concerted activity. Whether or not a person actually has a tribe, they need one, or the illusion of one, when they are out on their own. We select our personal ‘tribes’, our ‘reference group’, from friends and family, teachers, occasional companions, writers of books we have read, film directors, television interviewers, people we have only heard of, God. Seeing this, one naturally infers that, for many people, some of these invocations are well over on the wishful side. And one infers that perhaps, if we want to make individuals and their thinking more robust, we should be making the sense of tribe more robust.

107. ________________________________________________________________

Here it is again: The human creature (brain) is born into the service of culture. Cultures do the genetic hiring and firing as far as human individuals (brains) are concerned, not nature. It is cultures that have to program them with the latest techniques, give them a job, maintain them in an active and amused state, mask difficult contradictions for them, and so on. Nature has nothing to do with it. Of course the employer should have hiring and firing rights.

And again: Human survival is a team sport. It’s not like golf. The individual’s main struggle is to get into the team. It is not natural selection he is the beneficiary or victim of. The selection committee is appointed by the culture, the game’s organising body. He gets picked or overlooked like everyone else. Once he’s picked, there’s no problem. He functions like a well-oiled… it’s his nature. And it’s the team wins the competition, against other teams.

And finally: No group selection? Yeah, right.

108. ________________________________________________________________

If we take hortation (the imperative), rather than referring, as the model of verbal communication, then, for one thing, explaining how verbal communication is learned becomes a whole lot easier. Vygotsky, Bruner, Meltzoff, Kaye, Carpenter, Savage-Rumbaugh, Collis, Stern, Butterworth, the Papouseks, etc., have already done all the relevant empirical investigation. Hortation clearly sits in the developmental progression from instinctive imitation, to recreational concerting, educative concerting, use of mime to cue concerted activity, use of mime to cue solo activity, imitation games like Simon Says, pretending-games with and without props, dramatic re-enactments, and so on.

Wittgenstein’s (and I think Vygotsky’s) ‘replacement’ theory, where speech is brought in as a more efficient means of cueing (or betokening, exhorting) the activity than mime, establishes the connection between hortation and these other activities (and/or meta-activities) that the child is learning. “A thing that is immensely important in teaching is exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. The word is taught as a substitute for a facial expression or a gesture. …We don’t start from certain words but from certain activities.” (Wittgenstein, L. 1966. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp.2-3)

The aim of this developmental progression, which all infants and children are led through, is presumably to equip the child for participation (in both follower and leader roles) in the founding human gambit – that is, speech-mediated, ad hoc, concerted (including cooperative) activity. Efficient hortation is the key to this gambit.

It is then easy and plausible to see referring as a species of hortation – the species in which the activity being exhorted is learned perceptual activity. We cheerfully toss aside the world of things then, as a mere epiphenomenon of our perceptual and other actional hortations. Things in the world become ‘things’ in the ‘world’ and our activities, our procedures (including scientific procedures) become the fundamental realities.

And we are then free to hypothesise that ‘referring to actions’ – descriptions of people’s actions, including all putative objective theorising about people’s actions – is not necessarily a species of ‘referring to things’. That is, despite appearances, referring to actions might not be just a special case of referring in which the thing in the world being referred to is a personal action or activity. our ability to talk about actions rather than simply exhort them, our so-called referrings to actions, descriptions of actions, might in fact have developed directly from hortation, make-believe cueing, etc. My telling you what I did last night might have much more in common with a dramatic re-enactment of last night’s events – an imaginative re-enactment in which I involve you as co-imaginer, empathiser – than it has in common with a statistical report of ‘behavioural events’ (what are they?) or readings on the dial of a measuring instrument. And who is going to argue that it is the business of scientists, to participate in imaginative recreations of people’s activities, to empathise what other people do. Surely that is our business, folk business, something that, as scientists, they must keep their hard noses out of.

The ability to witness an action or activity, to see or work out what is going on, what the people are doing, is an ability one acquires only after having participated with others in activities – and preferably the kind of activities one is presently witnessing. A spectator is ‘a participant who has withdrawn’ to the spectator position. We learn to abstain from participating, and just witness, by getting used to a range of progressively less-involved, progressively more ‘token’, ways of participating. We learn to eventually just imagine participating, that is, we learn to look and just empathise what the others are doing. But the empathising is still a way of ‘participating’ in the activity – a way of participating that the scientist is, by profession, excluded from.

109. ________________________________________________________________

There are three different questions we commonly ask about actions and activities. Any one or more of them could be intended by the question, What is X-ing? There is (1) How is it done? (What is involved in doing it? What component actions, if any, are required to be performed in order to X). Then there is (2) Why do we do it? (What effect is X-ing intended to achieve? What is it done for?) and (3) How does it work? (How does X-ing bring about the desired effect?)

It is very salutary to distinguish, and to answer, these three questions with respect to the act of thinking. Questions (1) and (2) can (only) be answered in everyday terms –eschewing the metaphors if at all possible. This is what I attempt in The Act of Thinking. I describe thinking’s component actions as closely as possible, using as a context and vehicle for the component-descriptions the developmental progress of a child learning to communicate and to think. The answer to question (2), Why do we do it?, is something like: ‘In order to ready ourselves for some (usually problematic) activity’.

But the third question, How does it work?, is extremely interesting too. It is here, and only here, that, given the nature of thinking and its goal, one has to adopt an objective physiological approach and bring in the brain. And this is the question that the whole tenor of The Act of Thinking prevented my addressing. How does thinking (when it is successful) achieve the effect of readying us to participate in a problematic activity? There is an answer to this question, in Chapters 3-7 of The Act of Thinking, but it is more implicit than explicit. The answer given or implied is that rehearsing an activity – doing full practices, first with and then without someone doing it with you and/or helping you – serves, by Hebbian principles, to establish and consolidate a ‘neural firing program’ corresponding to that activity in your cerebral cortex. Once established, this neural firing program enables the activity to be performed more readily (in response to the correct cues), and in a more stereotyped and efficient way. Neural firing programs are stored in the cortex by their remaining permanently active (and thus having their synapses kept operational) at at least a subsistence level of activation. The person goes on ‘doing’ whatever it is, in some minimal-to-the-point-of-notional sense, all the time.

Simple anticipatory thinking – which can be cued by one’s noticing certain things in the environment, or by someone else telling one something – consists in one’s voluntarily activating, to a minimal extent, muscles and glands that would be involved in the activity being anticipated, and thus raising the activation level (but not triggering full firing of) the neural firing program for that activity. We can postulate an ‘incipient action’ level of firing of a program. Thus, via its neural firing program in cortex, the activity in question is ‘warmed up’ – primed for immediate, efficient full firing when the situation becomes suitable.

The readying of responses to problematic situations is the same, only it involves the simultaneous ‘warming up’ and synthesis (advantageous combining) of neural firing programs for two or more activities not previously performed together. I don’t know whether the synthesis is something the person does, or whether it is an automatic effect in cortex when respective firing programs for two different activities are aroused to ‘incipient’ level simultaneously.

We simply don’t need the cognitivist model. All that needs to be ‘represented’ in the brain is people’s actions, doings (amongst which are, of course, their perceivings).

Unfortunately, I still haven’t the faintest idea how the two methodological arguments in Chapter 11 of The Act of Thinking can be overcome and we can establish any coherent connection (‘representation’ is figurative and incoherent), even the temporal correlation, between the activity a person is engaged in and the ‘neural firing program’ that one speculates is concurrently going on in his brain.

112. ________________________________________________________________

I read on the computer yesterday, in an article about Fodor’s ‘theory’ of intentionality, the line: “…For thousands of years people have been using one object, “X”, to represent another object, X…”. Philosophers then go on to ask about the nature of the representing relation between “X” and X. When one reflects that these philosophers receive big salaries and are listened to by young people who are eager to learn, and who trust their teachers, it is difficult to stop the lip curling.

The thing is, the above sentence “…For thousands of years…” is just bulging with ambiguity and devious rhetoric. It is classic charlatan-spiel, absolutely the worst kind of talk to deliver to young minds in an authoritative tone. Representing (like referring) is a complex interpersonal activity in which, for various purposes, and by drawing things on paper, making models, etc., people direct the attention of other people, or assist other people to imagine, things in the world. Just how it is that drawings, models, etc., can direct people’s perceivings or imaginings requires a bit of effort to understand – one really needs to read a good book on the subject (I can suggest one) – but it is not that difficult. It is about as difficult as understanding what a metaphor is, or a synecdoche, or an act reification.

You can say, via a modest synecdoche, that the person presenting the picture or model is doing the representing. Strictly, the representing is a function of the activity as a whole. The other person’s participation, certain accompanying gestures, the two parties’ imagining in concert, and so on, are all essential to the representing’s getting achieved. You can even say – but this is obviously a mere figure of speech, a gross synecdoche that has no place in a serious description – that the drawing or model or whatever represents the thing.

The “thousands” sentence is ambiguous as to whether it is people (jointly or solo) doing the representing (and using the “X” to help) or the “X” itself doing the representing. But then, if a ‘representing relation’ between “X” and X is being postulated, which we are invited to define, it becomes clear that it is the grosser synecdoche being assumed. This is where, if it is a paid philosophy professor doing the talking, one could raise questions of criminal negligence. The question of a relation between a drawing, say, and an object (a face?) can only arise if an obviously figurative expression – the synecdoche according to which the picture represents the object – is taken literally. I mean, how can a picture ‘represent’ anything? Can a picture even draw?

113. ________________________________________________________________

It’s quite a complicated story. A succession of cases of ‘letting this action do instead of that one’. The written mark on the page is a permanently visible token of the person’s act of writing, of writing “eagle”, say. This act of writing is, in turn, another way of presenting or performing a certain act of speaking, the act of saying “eagle”. And the job of that act of saying is to remind us as audience of a certain lesson, a certain collective educational experience that everyone in our culture has had. The lesson concerned what to expect in regard to eagles, how to perceive them, what to do and what not do in regard to them, and so on.

And the point of causing us to recollect this stuff about eagles is to assist us in our thinking about something, X, that is topical and being talked about at the moment. The speaker is saying something like, “put this (the ‘eagle’ learning) into your thinking about X” or “take account of the ‘eagle’ learning at this point”. I am assuming that the point of the referring and describing session (or perhaps some other sort of verbal communication) that the written or spoken “eagle” is done in the context of is to help the audience in his thinking about X. The speaker is saying that eagles – but perhaps only a very few bits of the stuff about eagles – are germane.

And other parts of the writing or speaking help the hearer integrate the eagle-related imaginings into his current imaginings about X. This is much the same as what happens with metaphor – only, without the metaphorical twist.

Anyway, it is this sort of layered action-cake that ‘lies behind’ expressions like referring to an eagle, words referring to objects, communicating information, imparting information, and so on. What mixed blessings synecdoche and metaphor are.

115. ________________________________________________________________

A good part of the appeal of cognitive science – and of the social sciences too – is the promise of being able to deal with people at a distance, regarding them as biological systems and viewing them objectively, professionally, rather than having to interact with them at the interpersonal level. (I reckon that, except in relation to medical problems, intelligent personal-level intervention – which we have been working with and working on for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years – is vastly more efficient than an objective approach.) This ties in with the appeal of the modern technology employed to examine goings-on in the brain. The assumption is that the most sophisticated new scanner must give rise to the best, the most professional, science. You can charge more, because the technology costs more. And the person’s face is completely hidden under the machine, so you don’t have to look at it.

Yet surely the whole idea of finding the brain processes ‘behind’ behaviour is a fraud. There has been a lot in the literature (and some follow-up magazine items on the television) recently about the brain deficits – in the pre-frontal, ‘rational control’ area of cortex – suffered by neglected and abused infants and children, deficits persisting in the brains of adult violent offenders and other criminals. I would say that the important link is not the one between the early maltreatment and the victim’s brain, but the link between the early maltreatment and the victim’s subsequent behaviour. Criminals are not put on trial for the state of their brains but for what they do. And what they do is caused by how they have been treated and what they have learned in the past. The brain is just the record (albeit a record which may also function as a script). How a person’s brain looks and functions is relevant only as corroboration of facts about the person’s formative experiences and present behaviour. It’s the latter two kinds of fact that are important.

The fact that almost all villainy is caused by prior maltreatment is not an argument for lighter punishment (or heavier). The scientist, with his notions of ‘innate brain mechanisms’ and ‘causal determination’ is trying to discredit the very concept, of education, on which all society depends. I am not commenting here on the usefulness of legal punishment as a form of education, but on the all-importance of a good upbringing. That villainy is largely caused by earlier villainy is more an argument for also arraigning, and severely punishing, those responsible for the miscreant’s upbringing.

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Evolutionary and other biological theory is, of course, indispensable in explaining the primate origins of the human animal. And, given that

1.culture gave early humans a survival advantage and
2.the more economically efficient a culture is, the better is the survival advantage it achieves for its members, and
3.the larger one’s brain is (up to a point), the more likely one is to be able to invent or participate in an economically efficient culture, then

evolutionary and other biological theory can also explain how we came by our large and plastic brains.

However, evolutionary and other biological theory is incapable of explaining what culture is and how it works. And, since culture is, one way or another, the main determinant of people’s behaviour, this means that evolutionary and other biological theory is incapable of explaining people’s behaviour. Well, there are some biological influences on people’s behaviour. If one is ill, tired, starving, etc., one often behaves differently. Actions may be, as it were, besieged – and sometimes they are overpowered – by acultural influences. To the extent the acultural influences take over, the person’s action ceases to be an action. It reduces to a biological phenomenon?

Certainly, cultural influences must be for the most part compatible with biological imperatives (although often they aren’t), because otherwise we would languish and die out (and some of us do). But this is not to say that it’s biological influences that are, or that are in the long run, driving us. It’s not. It’s the cultural imperatives that drive us. Once the human animal opted for culture as its survival strategy and acquired a brain geared for culture, evolution got left behind. We are post-evolutionary, almost post-biological, creatures. We are no longer animals, and haven’t been for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years. We are cultural agents, persons. Culture is our primary reality, the reality we live in. Culture has tabs on everything about us.

Some comments re. (2) above: Economic imperatives are not equivalent to survival (and hence biological) imperatives. Gloss this some other time. More important, economic imperatives are not all there is to culture. Cultures have to be psychologically satisfying, or else people won’t want to participate in them. There are some purely cultural satisfactions – entirely unrelated to survival advantages. The cultural impulse, the sense of togetherness, the concerting urge is an entirely non-biological satisfaction. It is an epiphenomenon of biology. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be silly to try to explain concert satisfaction in terms of satisfaction of a biologically in-built urge to imitate.

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In his mooting, in the Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics, the concept of man as a social animal, Aristotle is not saying that individual human beings have an innate need for others’ company per se. It isn’t natural gregariousness he is talking about. Nor is it a need to have one or more others as objects of love and friendship. Aristotle is talking about a need to engage with others in concerted and cooperative activity. Particular people come and go, but the practical need for cooperation – or, one could say, the culture – persists. Roberts says Aristotle means to say that: “The political nature of human beings is not directly a matter of emotional attachment either to all others in general or to some particular others, but rather of having a direct need for a certain kind of communal life…” (Roberts, J. ‘Political Animals in the Nichomachean Ethics’, Phronesis, Vol.XXXIV/2, 1989, p.203.) By the way Cooper analyses eunoia, he clearly agrees with her. Aristotle’s insists throughout the Friendship chapters of EN that friendship is inherent in and emergent from, derivative of and dependent on, the shared life. Commitment to and solicitude for particular others and others in general is the product of mutually satisfying interactions with them – the quality of the friendship depending on the quality and duration of the shared activity.

And there are questions as to whether Aristotle thought he was identifying, in this urge to concert and cooperation, a biological characteristic of the human animal. Perhaps he meant that the concerting and cooperating is a logically built-in feature of culture (the polis?), i.e., the distinctive human lifestyle, the game we play – but not necessarily biologically built-in?

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In practice, we attribute responsibility and blame for bad actions according to whether it is going to be possible and useful, in terms of improving the culprit’s future actions, to censure or otherwise re-educate him in basic community values. If he is judged, on the grounds of insanity, say, to be ineducable in this respect, we withdraw his ‘community agent’ status and cease to adopt the usual empathic attitude to him and his actions, and take up instead an objective attitude. The erstwhile person becomes a lunatic, invalid, ‘animal’ or whatever. His actions become, say, ‘psychotic behaviour’ – which is more like a natural phenomenon than ‘something a person does’.

The difficulty with the above is that, whereas empathising is an all-or-none affair, responsibility and censure are usually matters of degree. When P has been judged partly responsible for some morally bad action, we can maintain the empathic attitude so far as the part that he did right is concerned. But, when we come to the action’s infelicitous side, rather than having recourse to an objective attitude – which is altogether too drastic, and assumes total incapacity for responsibility on P’s part – we experience discomfort. The infelicity in P’s action corresponds to a difficulty in our comprehension of it. We find it difficult or impossible to empathise. One cannot imagine oneself doing that. But one has to imagine doing that, and see what would be involved in doing that, in order to get the full picture. The discomfort is because infelicitous actions pose an implicit threat, however minor and temporary, to the viability of the empathic attitude itself. Disagreements can have the same unsettling effect and this is why we take such pains to iron them out. Hume’s theory of ‘moral sentiments’ captures this. For Hume, our primary means of apprehending the actions of others is via our faculty of ‘sympathy’ (empathy, sungome). The uneasiness that sympathy produces in the case of bad actions simply is moral disapprobation (see pp.470, 618 of the 1960 Selby-Bigge OUP edition of Hume’s Treatise). We can appeal to Hume’s concept to help explain the shame felt by one of Aristotle’s ‘good community agents’ if he finds himself to be the author of an akousion action (EN 1110b, 18-24). The pain, regret, shame he feels is his empathising of the unease that would be felt by a fellow ‘good community agent’ who contemplated this action. The good community agent judges himself as others would judge him.

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How is it we have been brow-beaten into accepting even the possibility of an objective (e.g., cognitivist, evolutionary-psychological) account of people’s actions? As Strawson says,

...the participant attitude, and the personal reactive attitudes in general, tend to give place, and it is judged by the civilised should give place, to objective attitudes just insofar as the agent is seen as excluded from ordinary adult human relationships by deep-rooted psychological abnormality – or simply by being a child. But it cannot be a consequence of any thesis that is not itself self-contradictory that abnormality is the universal condition.

(Strawson 1968, ‘Freedom and Resentment’ in Studies in the Philosophy of Thought and Action, edited P.F.Strawson, OUP, p.81)

Cognitivist philosophy of mind and action could be seen as an attempt to discredit the very notion of ‘fellow-participant’, or ‘companion’ or ‘person’. The idea that a person is basically, and ‘really’, a biological organism, an evolved mechanism, or whatever, is tremendously dispiriting. And, since humanity is founded on culture, it’s false. But there are numerous subtle deceptions and misunderstandings, some enshrined in our everyday vocabulary, which prevent us from seeing it’s falsity. For example, the expression human being – does this refer to a fellow cultural practitioner or to a zoological category? If the latter, then what of fellow human being?

122. ________________________________________________________________

My aim in The Act of Thinking was to add one more item to the list of ways the West characterises thinking. When I first attended university there were three items on that list:

* thinking is a ‘mental’ process, an operation of and/or in a mysterious, invisible (but introspectible) intracranial agent and/or venue called the mind [this is the traditional philosophical view, the contemporary layperson’s view, and the view of the early 20th century ‘introspectionist’ school of psychologists];
* thinking (qua unobservable intracranial process of and/or in the mind) is a mere convenient theoretical fiction helpful for construing, and for putting a superficial explanatory gloss on, certain kinds and aspects of observable human behaviour [the behaviourist view];
* thinking is a natural, biologically-evolved function of the human brain – specifically, the brain’s computer-like processing of information about external reality taken in by the sense organs [the view of cognitive science].
To this list I have added a fourth item:
* thinking – although fancifully characterised in our colloquial vocabulary as an operation of and/or in ‘the mind’ (a rhetorical fiction) – is no kind of intracranial process but is, rather, a learned action of the person, mastered during infancy and childhood, involving the person’s covertly rehearsing certain kinds of social (specifically educative) activity, and usually performed to help ready the agent for a more or less problematic course of action [Melser’s actional theory].

However true and useful this fourth, ‘actional’ theory eventually proves to be, it certainly appears prima facie, and though I say so myself, to be admirably simple, plausible and robust. An obvious candidate, one might say. So, why did it take so long for someone to come up with it?

123. ________________________________________________________________

Actions vs. events: There is another reason why actions cannot be events, hence cannot be subject to scientific scrutiny. To appreciate it we should first be clear about the ‘achievement verb’ vs. ‘task verb’ distinction. There are two kinds of action verb, prescribing two ways of referring to actions, and two ways of viewing actions.

An action viewed qua achievement is (the fact of) the successful bringing-about, by a person P, using whatever means, of some state of affairs S. The action (achievement) is the fait accompli, the thing done. Thus, we use an achievement verb – like win, find, say, unlock, conceal, solve, arrive, avert, repair, bury – when we are primarily interested in P’s bringing about of the relevant state of affairs or in the state of affairs itself. We use a task verb, on the other hand, when we are primarily interested in the effortful activity by which P brings S about, or attempts to bring S about. These verbs – like walk, inspect, nod, wrestle, juggle, dig, speak – all refer to performings of task activity, to active strivings meant to bring about achievements. We may refer to one and the same action qua achievement (I refrained from speaking) or qua task-activity (I bit my lip). The achievement-verb, task-verb distinction is usually associated with Ryle (in The Concept of Mind), but he didn’t invent it.

... many words which seem to express some action, signify nothing of the action or modus operandi at all, but barely the effect, with some circumstances of the subject wrought on, or cause operating: v.g. ‘creation’, ‘annihilation’ contain in them no idea of the action or manner whereby they are produced, but barely of the cause, and the thing done. And when a countryman says the cold freezes water, though the word ‘freezing’ seems to import some action, yet truly it signifies nothing but the effect, viz. that water that was before fluid is become hard and consistent, without containing any idea of the action whereby it is done (Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Bk II, Chap.XXII, #11.)

The term action is involved in the same ambiguity that recent philosophy has found it essential to resolve in the case of terms like perception or conception. It may refer either to what is done, or to the doing of it. It may mean either ‘doing’ or ‘deed’. When we refer to ‘an action’ we are normally referring to what is done. ... [but] it is inherent in the very notion of action that what is done depends on the doing of it. To act is to effect a change in the external world. The deed is the change so effected (Macmurray, J. 1938, p.74. “What is action?”. Aristotelian Society Proceedings Supplementary Vol.XVII.)

When we refer to an action qua achievement (by using an achievement verb), we do not mention (perhaps because it is irrelevant) what task activity brought that achievement, that state of affairs, about. However, by referring to it as an achievement or deed, we are logically implying that some, albeit unspecified, task activity was performed by someone in order to effect that action. There can be no achievements without prior effortful strivings of some kind. The fact that, when we use an achievement verb to describe an action, we don’t mention (but only imply) the task activity, makes it easier to equate the action qua achievement with an ‘event’. Leaving out the personal striving makes the action look more like an impersonal, objectively specifiable ‘event’. But this appearance is deceptive. As Macmurray explains, an event (in science’s ‘natural phenomenon’ sense) is precisely not an achievement, not the result of any task activity by a person. An event is a state of affairs brought about by some (unspecified) impersonal agent.

If an observed change is recognised as an actum, it is thereby accounted for, and no further question arises. But if it is recognised as an event, it is not accounted for. The recognition amounts to the negative judgement, ‘This change is not the deed of an agent’. An alternative source of the change is then required. (Macmurray, ibid. p.81.)

...the idea of an event having a cause is an attempt to think an event on the analogy of an act, while at the same time denying that it can be referred to an agent. The cause is that which is responsible for the production of the event. It is also something which is not an agent, and therefore cannot be responsible for anything, or produce anything. (Macmurray, ibid. p.82.)

There is an often-quoted Wittgenstein passage which highlights the ease with which actions may be confused with events.

Let us not forget this: when I raise my arm, my arm goes up. And the problem arises: what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm? (Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations, #621)

I believe Wittgenstein intends this as a joke. “I raise my arm” refers to an action, but “my arm goes up” refers to an event. Thus, the first sentence is self-contradictory. Either my arm went up, qua impersonal event, or I raised it, but not both. The ‘subtraction’ metaphor in the second sentence falsely implies that the rising of my arm (the event) is somehow ingredient in or logically implied by my raising my arm (the action). In fact, the two states of affairs are incompatible. Either my arm is going up (event), in which case I am not raising it, or I am raising it (my action). None of this is to deny that we sometimes refer to actions as if they were events. For example, we might say, in describing a vote, a solitary hand went up. But this is just a manner of speaking, a jocose and figurative way of reporting what is literally true – namely, that one person put her hand up.

124. ________________________________________________________________

Do they never give up? They keep coming – Well, if it’s not the brain, what is the mind then, really? What is the self? What is individual consciousness? What can one say? Perhaps, things like the following. The individual mind (self, consciousness) is the echo in the individual human creature of the innumerable past shared activities it has engaged in with others. Mind is concerted activity echoing in the individual creature – particularly in its brain, which is essentially just an echo-chamber for concerted activity.[Did I say “echoing… in its brain”?] The self is a solo-ised version of the über-agent, ‘Us’.

The new ‘I’ emerged from the old ‘we’. The individual broke away from the chorus. But an echo of that chorus still lingers on in every personality. The social or collective element has become subjectivised in the ‘I’, but the essential content of personality is and remains social. (Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Penguin 1963, p.46.)

The statements above are OK, just. But notions such as that of a group mind or our all sharing in mind are definitely misleading. Mind is no kind of entity. It is the reprising, and the anticipating, by an individual person, of the sharing, the concerted activity itself. Mind is itself an activity.

125. ________________________________________________________________

And still they ask: What is the function of the brain, or the cerebral cortex, if it’s not to form representations of reality and perform cognitive functions on them?

Well, the cortex has functions vis-à-vis our behaviour. It has enabling functions – all within its role as handmaiden to culture. First of all, presumably, it plays an important role (probably in association with other, specific, built-in ‘neural mechanisms’) in enabling us to imitate others’ activities. Right from the beginning we can make some sort of a fist of ‘doing what they are doing’. Subsequently, cortex enables us to improve our performances of newly learned activities (including imitating itself) with practice. The new neural firing programs are etched into cortex via synaptic facilitation a là Hebb, with improvements in the efficiency and conductivity of the program being effected with each rehearsal. Cortex allows storage and retrieval of learned skills, and enables their readying-for-performance in response to cues (natural and artificial). All these storage and retrieval (and readying) functions can be attributed to the fact that the cortex allows for the modulated activation of firing programs – everything from ‘minimally active’ (storage level) through ‘ready-for action’ to ‘full-on action’. A person is able, by thinking (in response to natural or artificial cues), by covertly ‘tokening’ or ‘jollying up’ a particular action, to raise the activation level of that action’s firing program in cortex. The action is then ready for performance, should the situation require it.

Finally, the cortex enables ‘creative thinking’ by individuals. A person may ready two or more different actions simultaneously.When two or more previously independent firing programs are simultaneously aroused to ready-for-action level, by a person’s thinking, the two programs may synthesise. The person is then able to perform an entirely new (though its components aren’t new) and appropriate ‘synthetic’ action in response to an unfamiliar combination of cues. This is what Kohler called ‘insight learning’.

It is important to realise though, that cortex doesn’t initiate anything, it doesn’t lead behaviour. It’s only a recording device with certain reproductive and combinatorial properties. The cerebral cortex ‘has a life’ only as a servant of culture. The main event, where the action is, is the cultural stuff going on out there in the world. This cultural activity makes demands of the brain. Go and get the newspaper from the letterbox.

126. ________________________________________________________________

But then, as ever, equally or more compelling is the argument that all attempts, such as in 125 above, to define a role for physiological events in our actions are futile. There’s nothing much wrong with Chapter 11 of The Act of Thinking. And it’s conclusion is that physiological talk (‘neural firing programs in cortex’) and action talk (‘walking to the letterbox’) is simply incommensurable. The reason why we are seduced by talk of brain mechanisms, etc., talk of the cerebral cortex ‘having a function’ vis-à-vis our actions (behaviour) is that our knowledge of the action in question (the one we are finding the ‘neural correlate’ for) underlies and determines, via unnoticed figurative expressions, the way we perceive and interpret the neurophysiological phenomena. We cannot help but as it were ‘empathise the action into’ the physiological data. The physios enable, govern, subserve, make possible, assist, etc. And, as science, this is just ludicrous.

I might happen to have a more correct, or less crazy, notion of what thinking is than cognitive scientists, so my account of ‘the role of cortex’ might seem more plausible. I mean, at least I am not positing ‘neural representations’. And at least I can account for the bodily agitations of various kinds that frequently accompany thinking. But, really, the idea of the cortex as a ‘recording and storage medium’ for actions is equally laughable. When are we (me too) going to get it into our heads that biology is not relevant to people’s actions? The cultural – including our actions and our descriptions of actions – is a whole autonomous world. Thinking, and the concept of thinking, belong in it. There is nothing about thinking that cannot be explained in terms of actions we perform.

127. ________________________________________________________________

Thinking is the covert tokening of the overt tokening of concerted activity.

130. ________________________________________________________________

Consider a person using a matchbox and matches to represent a particular battle – naval, say. He disposes them, then moves them round, and so on. The linguist comes along and, looking only at the matchbox and matches, but scrutinising them very carefully, attempts to explain what it is about a matchbox that is like a battleship, and what is the ‘meaning’ relation between a match and a frigate or submarine, etc. An unacknowledged synecdoche founds a ‘discipline’.

131. ________________________________________________________________

To say you don’t believe in God is like saying that you don’t believe the lion really is the king of beasts. I mean, where are the lion’s crown and throne, his sceptre?

A similar kind of misapprehension is revealed in our giving the job of explaining what thinking (‘brain work’, ‘brainpower’) is to the brain scientist. This is like giving the job of explaining what a ‘social butterfly’ is to the lepidopterist. Or, nearer, it is like expecting a cardiologist to be the expert on affairs of the heart.

133. ________________________________________________________________

So, are people just physical then? Certainly, the body, the organism, the human animal, is real enough, and ‘physical’. But people are not ‘physical’ at all. There are two main kinds of reality – the physical, knowable objectively, by science, and the cultural. The cultural is constituted by the things people do, our actions, and it is knowable only empathically. Empathy is covert, inhibited, incipient imitation. Since our language is geared to objective describing, and cultural things are not amenable to objective scrutiny and description (we must empathise cutural things), we are often reduced to metaphor and other figures of speech when we talk about the cultural. Hence our concepts of ‘mind’, ‘meaning’, ‘the person’, ‘communication’, and so on.

So we are not physical. We are, individually and collectively, people – cultural agents, players in concerted and cooperative activities. Our whole being, as people, is in our culturally-definable doing. It is only as organisms – and people are not organisms – that we are objectively observable and predictable, that is, physical. As people doing things, performing actions, we leave biology behind. We are describable only in culturally-loaded, empathically-informed terms. The things people do are not objectively definable. Not even hop-scotch is objectively definable. Asset-stripping certainly is not.

The opposite of objective is not subjective (in fact, you can throw subjective away) but cultural or empathically knowable, or similar.


— Derek Melser —