Notebook 2006



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(January) I had lunch with Peter Munz yesterday, in Wellington, at The Bach on the south coast. We nattered on about culture and the brain. Peter was able to demonstrate to me – what I had never seen before – the exact ‘Neopolitan gesture of contempt’ that Sraffa used to disabuse Wittgenstein of his illusions about ‘logical form’. Peter also recounted his own going up to Wittgenstein and tackling him about something in lectures that contradicted what he had written in the Tractatus. Wittgenstein replied “Tractatus? What’s this about a ‘Tractatus’?”

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Tom Bestor gave me the idea that, in philosophy at least, there is nothing wrong with endlessly harping on the same theme, endlessly re-hashing and editing one’s descriptions of something, over years, even decades, saying the same thing in different ways, or even very similar ways. I mean, there’s always the possibility that one or other subtly different formulation will do the trick, press someone’s buttons, make them say, “God, so that’s what he’s on about! Why didn’t he say so? That is very interesting. That might actually be right.” And the conviction that constant harping is actually OK is what allows me to believe that the following rehash is excusable.

There are two requirements for the ability to think. The first is that the person must be able to participate, in all the standard roles (including spectator) in a range of concerted and cooperative activities, especially including communicative procedures. These latter include: imitating an action in response to a demonstration, oneself demonstrating an action, being told how to do something (and telling others), describing something, debating an issue, making and/or showing a picture of something, orchestrating a cooperative performance, engaging in idle conversation… It is worth stressing that these communicative interactions are necessarily social, and necessarily involve rule-governed concerted and cooperative activity of two or more people. And it should be noticed that they all have something of an educative role, readying one or more of the participants for participation in some further (often practical) concerted or cooperative undertaking. Coaxed along by attentive, loving caregivers, the normal child acquires these cooperative and communicative abilities easily, in his or her first three or four years. The only innate requirement of the developmental process is an ability to imitate. And even this simple ability, inborn in humans, is subject to vast improvements in range and subtlety of its application, by long experience of interacting with other people. (In fact, most of this fine-tuning of the native imitative facility is achieved via mastery of and experience in the communicative procedures mentioned above.) It should finally be noticed that the key practical ingredient in communicative activity is ‘overt tokening’, that is, the abbreviated and stylised demonstration (evocation) of an action by means of mime, gesture, or speech.

The second major requirement of the ability to think is the ability of the person to, whilst alone, rehearse participation in communicative activity – and rehearse it in a particularly rapid, subtle and ‘abbreviated’ or ‘inhibited’ manner. By ‘covertly tokening’ participation in communicative activity in this way, an individual alone is able to ready him- or herself for actual participation – which future actual participation, in turn, may help ready him- or herself and/or others for further activity.

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Misled by everyday figures of speech and by grammar, we imagine that consciousness is some kind of mysterious object or process. Metaphors hiding consciousness inside people’s heads persuade us of its hiddenness and presuppose (hence persuade us also of) its objectivity, its existence in the world. We feel we are familiar, even intimately familiar with consciousness but, because of the metaphors and the nominalised verbs, we assume that this knowledge of consciousness must be some kind of objective knowledge. We fail to realise that consciousness is essentially an action and that our knowledge of consciousness can only ever be a kind of knowing-how, a practitioner’s, player’s acquaintance. When we look at the physiological phenomena which scientists have discovered actually going on inside people’s heads we are impressed by their complexity, their ‘mysteriousness’ in this sense. And it is natural for us to conflate the two mysterious phenomena – the mysterious thing or process ‘consciousness’ that grammar and colloquial metaphors have persuaded us is in our heads and the amazingly complex neurophysiological phenomena that scientists tell us go on in there. This is a natural mistake to make. Discovering what consciousness really is, realising that consciousness is an activity of the person, a learned activity, is a difficult process. It requires careful attention to figures of speech that are second nature to everyone. And this is difficult. But it’s not that difficult. It’s not brain science.

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Well, actually, it is very difficult to form any kind of useful concept of what consciousness is. It’s not really, as I say in The Act of Thinking, that consciousness is ‘derivative of’ or ‘based on’ or ‘a sophisticated version of’, concerted activity. It’s not that easy. It is rather that, as I also say in the book, consciousness is, it is identical with, concerting. So, what is it that the solo individual has, or borrows, or does? You tell me.

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A nice little notice of The Act of Thinking appeared recently on the ‘publications’ page of a website run by the ‘International Network for Philosophy and Psychiatry‘.

“A genuinely new account of the nature of thought as ‘the covert tokening of the overt tokening of concerted activity’ which draws on and transcends the work of Ryle, Vygotsky, Hampshire, and more recent developmental theory. Melser does not explore developmental psychopathology, but provides an excellent framework for anyone wishing to do so.”

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People tend to turn their noses up or frown at my terms tokening, covert tokening, overt tokening. However:

(1) Surely everyone is familiar with the practice of doing a token performance of an action in order to reassure oneself of one‘s ability to actually perform it. This kind of token performance is appropriate in cases where one is sufficiently au fait with the action for a full rehearsal (with or without instructions from someone else or from oneself) to be unnecessary. One requires merely to ‘go through the motions’ of the action in a rapid, much-abbreviated way - often without making any observable movements - in order to, as it were, attune oneself to the action preparatory to performing it.

(2) And there is the equally familiar practice of doing a token performance of an action, an overt (even ostentatious) but essentialised and perhaps stylised performance, for someone else‘s benefit - to identify some action or activity you want to engage in with them. You want them to have a drink with you perhaps, a cup of tea, and you mime drinking in a particular stylised and ‘inviting’ way - eyebrows raised interrogatively and ostentatiously 'consulting' a watch you are not wearing. This communicative, invitatory kind of token performance is also familiar and unproblematic.

The concept of tokening in The Act of Thinking is synthesised entirely from these two raw materials. My ‘covert tokening’ corresponds to (1) above and my ‘overt tokening’ corresponds to (2). I merely replace the otiose vernacular expression, to do a token performance of action x, with the tidier locution, to token action x. What is objectionable or difficult about that? Admittedly, the use of token as a verb is not (or is no longer) standard English and it counts as a ‘technical term’ in my book Would betoken have been better?

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My suggestion is that ‘mind’ is merely a convenient fiction – of the common type whereby some inner agent in the person is postulated as the cause of certain behaviour of the person. Just as we disingenuously posit a ‘mean streak’ in someone to explain the selfish things they do, so we posit a ‘mind’ in them responsible for their thinking, attending, feeling, remembering, etc. In the case of ‘mind’ the fiction is launched by the simple expedient of converting an already-established verb (the verb to mind, the old name for that range of actions: thinking, attending, feeling, remembering, etc.) into a noun. Mind is a simple ‘grammatical’ or ‘rhetorical’ fiction. In any event, although there is a real personal action or range of them that we call or used to call ‘minding’ and which includes thinking, there is no ‘mind’ or any other inner agent that ‘does’ the thinking, or pulls the strings or whatever, from behind the scenes.

On the other hand, a whole academic discipline, with ancillary laboratory-based research programmes, has been established to correlate various ‘mental functions’ with neurophysiological events in people’s brains. The practitioners of this discipline, ‘cognitive science’, are presumably all convinced that that there really are minds and mental phenomena in people and that, furthermore, they are somehow tied up with brain events. Presumably also, these academics must have thought long and hard about the rhetorical status of the noun mind (and the cognate adjective, mental) and must have decided that such observations as mine above are totally untrue. After all, it would look pretty barmy to be theorising about and pretending to research (though the expense is real) what is no more than a rhetorical fiction.

If thinking was recognised as being an action of the person, learned in the normal way from others, then no-one would be interested in correlating brain events with it – any more than they would be interested in correlating brain events with walking, knitting or petanque. Well, I don’t know. Perhaps they still would. After all, we have the technology. It must be great fun seeing what happens in a person’s brain when the person says fuck, say, or tries to remember what he had for breakfast. And it’s conceivable you might learn something. About what, I couldn’t say. Some medical stuff perhaps. Not a lot about knitting or thinking, surely.

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There are basically two kinds of explanation for how people are able to perform given actions:

1. something inside them, or to do with their inherent make-up, enables them to do it (or makes them do it) and
2. they learned how to do it over a period of time, largely by other people showing them – and we can in theory go back retrace the learning process and see just when and how and who.

Although it is the correct strategy for explaining all sorts of internal and some external bodily functions, and for explaining many of the involuntary aspects of behaviour, the first, ‘something inside’ kind of explanation is hardly applicable, if at all, to ordinary learned and voluntary actions. We do employ this kind of explanation, and quite often, but almost invariably it is in a jocular, disingenuous way – as with ‘mean streak’, ‘warm heart’, ‘bee in his bonnet’, and the like. Or we might speak of a ‘natural talent’ or ‘instinct’ for something. And in certain contexts we might appeal to someone’s normal and healthy human make-up (vs. that of a disadvantaged or sick person) in order to confirm their likely ability to do or learn any of the normal range of things people do. But for explaining how someone came to be able to operate a top-dressing plane, solve quadratic equations, read Swedish or play petanque you wouldn’t think seriously about ‘something inside them’ enabling them to do it. You would, instead, enquire where, when and how the person learned and/or was taught how to do whatever it is. And, usually, at least in theory, one can give an exhaustive explanation of these whens and hows and by whoms.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible – I would say fairly certain – that one effect of the social-educative programme that the learner undergoes is to install new and active neural firing programmes in his cerebral cortex. Here are ‘brain mechanisms’ that ‘underlie’ actional skills. But such firing programmes in cortex would still not qualify as the ‘something inside’ which enables P to do X. Ultimately, it’s the training, the ‘social educative programme’, which enables the new skill. The neural firing programme is just the carrier, the intermediary, the trace...

And which is the best strategy for explaining our ability to think? Well, it depends whether thinking is an internal bodily function or a voluntary action. If it’s the former then you opt for a ‘something inside’ approach. If the latter – and have I mentioned what side I am on in this? – then you attempt to retrace the social-educative programme that the infant and/or child went through prior to being able to think. And if this can be done in detail and plausibly (there is a book which gets a long way in this direction), if you can show in detail and plausibly when and how and with whose help the thinking ability is acquired, then I would say there is no need, indeed no room, for an inner-agency approach.

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Well, if thinking is a learned skill, then what subsidiary skills contribute to it, and in what order are these contributing skills mastered?

First, the infant learns, by imitating, how to concert his behaviour with that of others.

Second, he learns how to proactively initiate sessions of concerted activity – by performing the activity in question (or some familiar fragment of that activity) in a certain ostentatious, demonstrative and inviting way.

Third, he learns to use, as a more efficient and convenient means of initiating concerted activity, speech instead of the special ostentatious-demonstrative-inviting kind of performance.

Fourth, he learns the imperative use of speech, hortation, to bring about not concerted performances (in which he also participates) but solo performances by the hearer.

Fifth, he learns how to imagine performing an activity – to perform the activity in a merely ‘token’, ‘incipient’ manner, effectively merely ‘readying himself’ to perform it – in response to others’ speech. And he acquires, subsequently, the complementary ability to initiate and control, by means of his own speech, the activity-imaginings of others.

Sixth, he learns to use, when he is alone, imagined speech to initiate and control his own activity-imaginings, his own self-readyings-for-action.

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The ‘representational theory of mind’ on which cognitive science is based – and, strictly, representational, theory and mind should all have separate inverted commas round them – is a taking-literally of the colloquial ‘mental picture’ metaphor for thinking. In this metaphor thinking is portrayed as a matter of looking at images (of external reality) in the mind. The familiar social practice which provides the raw material for this metaphor, and for the consequent ‘philosophical theory’, is the communicative procedure whereby one person draws a picture or diagram of a thing or situation and uses this picture or diagram as an aid in exhorting some course of action on the other’s part with respect to the depicted thing or situation. The idea behind the theory is not just that thinking is like this ‘representing procedure’ in some evanescent but illuminating way – which is all the everyday metaphor says – but that thinking literally is a representing procedure of some kind. It is a kind or version of representing that involves no acts of showing, nor any people (to make, or show, or act on the basis of, the picture), and which takes place inside people’s heads.

Although the representing procedure – making and showing and extracting useful information from pictures – is an extremely impressive and valuable social institution, and although some kinds of thinking do sometimes seem a little bit like it, representing cannot be used as a theoretical model to explain what kind of process or activity thinking is. Indeed, the origins of the theory in the metaphor are so obvious and the extrapolation so lame-brained, the mangling of the procedure that the ‘representational theory of mind’ requires – taking away the people doing things and anything resembling a picture, then putting what’s left inside the head – is so thorough, and the cobbling up of the ‘theory’ is so amateurish that one wonders how anyone could have ever given more than a moment’s credence to it. The fact it has for hundreds of years governed our understanding of such an interesting and important activity as thinking is simply amazing.

Then someone will protest that, although the old mental image theory is admittedly naïve, modern cognitive science has moved us forward. What computers do provides a much more sophisticated and accurate analogy for thinking than simple representing does. The ‘representations’ inside computers are genuinely and significantly like on the one hand, pictures, diagrams and texts (and other ‘information-bearing’ hardware) and, on the other, the patterns of neuronal activity that occur in the brain. Well, I just wind up again, with: “Although the computer is an extremely impressive and valuable technical achievement, and although some kinds of thinking do sometimes seem a little bit like…” And so on.

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I was reading the other day that some primitive tribes imagine thinking as ‘speaking done in the stomach’ – ‘inner speech’ all right, only not in the head but in the guts. And even us Westerners’ feelings are, or were, in the heart. As an idea, having thinking go on inside the stomach is just as good as having it going on inside the head. The two are essentially the same idea. They offer what is essentially the same figurative ‘explanation’ of the same feature of thinking – that is, thinking’s trademark (or at least frequent) discreetness, inconspicuousness, ‘covertness’. The explanation offered is that the thinking is happening inside the person and that’s why we can’t see it. Once one grasps that thinking is something the person does, albeit it is often a very subtle action, one appreciates the necessary figurativeness of the expression in the head. And one looks at the philosophy of ‘mind’ and thinks ‘My God’.

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The basic philosophical problem, which reveals itself in various guises in the various branches of philosophy, is that we can never be objective about people’s actions, or other cultural items. The cultural is not a ‘world’ in the way the natural world is a world. The cultural is what we do. Certainly we need not participate; we can be mere spectators. But even as spectators, we have to empathise in order to see anything, in order to see what actions are being performed, or whatever. And empathy precludes the kind of objectivity that we can bring to the observation of natural phenomena. There is no chance of an objective science of the cultural. You can see this fairly clearly in the case of ‘language’.

There can be no theory of verbal communication, no objective description of it, because there is no difference (or only a formal and grammatical and not a substantive difference) between describing verbal communications and demonstrating or re-enacting them. Look at: Why did you do that? Please take me. No, I don’t know. There is no way to specify these other than by reproducing them.

There can be no true description of acts of speaking, only a kind of mock-description, a demonstration masquerading as a description. We empathise Please take me and imagine a context for it. It’s status as speech (and as a request) consists entirely in the empathies and other imaginings we bring to our perception of it. It is the same when we’re talking about any speech act (request, complaint, description, etc.). The automatic empathisings and imaginings are habits we have acquired in the course of our (vast) experience of learning and using our language, of speaking to communicate, in practical social contexts. These are the habits of a speaker of this language, a player of this game. They are what an objective, scientific observer would have to eschew. And if we deliberately inhibit this ‘participant’ empathy and imagining, supposing we can, what we see or hear is no longer a verbal communication. It is nothing, not even, really, ‘marks on paper’ or ‘sounds in the air’. So here is a class of ‘phenomena’ – speech acts, verbal communications – which come into existence depending entirely on how we are imagining them. Hardly good fodder for the scientist, one might think.

Another way of putting this might be to say that there can be no genuine meta-language, no genuine talk about talk. The furthest we can go in the direction of objectivity is talk that is done in a certain ‘disengaged’ way, in quotes as it were, to convey to the hearer that the talk in question is being performed (cited, exemplified) merely reportively, or that it is to be viewed from a spectator’s viewpoint. A stop is put on reacting to it in the usual way.

Really, the use-mention distinction is a fraud. If you take away the ‘use’ side of a word, if you inhibit all the automatic imaginings the word elicits from you, the word Stop!, say, then, not only do you not have the word Stop! in front of you, you don’t have any ‘word’ at all. You can’t simply mention a word, because if you forestall all the imaginings associated with the word’s use, it ceases to be a word. [And, as I suggest above, I would also want to argue actually, that it ceases to be ‘a mark on the page’ or ‘a vocal sound’. We use these descriptions for other things.] Not just the raison d’être but the sine qua non of ‘words’ is these imaginings.

Putting quotes around an act of speaking, or purporting to refer objectively to it with expressions like word, language, meaning, reference, expression, etc., is merely formal. It never gets beyond act reification, which is a purely rhetorical convenience. No matter how much objective get-up you squeeze a speech act into, you’ve still got to empathise – you’ve got to imagine a speaker doing something, intending to effect something in a certain context – for the speech act in question to reveal itself, to be what it is. What could be further from real science?

And it’s the same with all personal actions, acts of thinking and all...

On the other hand, there is a crucial need in everyday social life for us to be able to detach ourselves from what we are doing when speaking, to be aware in an explicit way what we are doing when speaking, to communicate about communicating – for purposes of averting or repairing communication breakdowns, among other things. And if, to help enable this species of self-awareness-in-action, we use grammatical devices and figures of speech to reify acts of speaking – and thus encourage the impression that we are objectively scrutinising something laid out in front of us, a special kind of object or other entity (and not an action we are ourselves rehearsing) – this is OK. What is not so OK, what tends to the ludicrous, is philosophers and others being misled by the rhetorical appearances into positing things called ‘languages’, ‘words’, ‘meanings’, and so on – then compounding the silliness by putting them up as candidates for scientific study.

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Perhaps I’m missing the point entirely. Maybe the idea of philosophy (and psychology) as a progress towards truth – or, at least, towards a clearer, more-encompassing view of the human condition – is the lie. Perhaps postmodernist relativism is absolutely true, and there is no absolute truth, no theory better than any other. Perhaps popular appeal is the criterion for philosophical soundness. Perhaps popular appeal dictates where the intellectual action is and where the money goes. And maybe this explains the success of cognitive science. Cognitive science successfully exploits the great charm of the idea of the mind as an inner agent, hidden inside people, peering out through the eyes, interpreting the world, thinking, determining the person’s actions. The image is charming not just in the sense of being attractive and amusing, and aesthetically appealing, but also in the sense of bewitching our intelligence, as LW notes. Descartes was on to it. The philosophy of mind, which depends entirely on the initial dualist vision to get the arguments going, is interesting to people not as a route to finding out about what thinking is, what it is to be ‘conscious’, but as a way of finding out more about this mysterious ‘mind’ thing inside people. (Or the mysterious thing or quasi-thing inside people is ‘consciousness’.) Any kind of debunking of the notion of mind – as undertaken by the linguistic philosophers or the behaviourists, or yours truly – simply misses the point. It doesn’t matter whether mind is a rhetorical fiction or not, or what thinking really is, it’s the notion of the mind that interests people. That is what people want to hear about – this mysterious force inside our heads. It is this picture that has captured our imaginations.

And this is why cognitive science has got it made. It manages to combine no fewer than four compelling images, four images that have ‘buzz’ at this popular, mythic level. One, there is the initial Cartesian vision of the mind inside; two, the idea of the scientist, an expert in a white coat on the cutting edge of knowledge and progress, finding out the hidden facts and explaining them to us; three, that modern marvel the computer, and the brain as our own personal computer inside our heads; four, the idea, the modern descendent of the humours idea and phrenology, that people’s abilities and character traits can be explained by entities and forces – in the case of cognitive science it is innate neurophysiological mechanisms or ‘modules’ – inside them. (Or is this last one just an elaboration of the same ‘inner agent’ concept that mind exploits?).

So, cognitive science is a sort of public relations coup. The creative people have really come up with the goods. What a concept! What a fascinating subject – going right inside the mind-brain to expose for the first time the secrets of consciousness and character! How do you sell a developmental approach to thinking with that beauty on the market? Who wants to do painstaking studies of kids learning to talk and that stuff? Worse, in preparation for the developmental work, who wants to spend a year or two analysing figures of speech? How trendy is that? (Not.) Wouldn’t anyone rather be in the lab with the latest technology, finding out people’s most intimate secrets, going right inside their heads, doing actual empirical research?

Has academic philosophy become, since the middle of last century, a public relations exercise? Is the main business still finding out and teaching about thinking, ethics, etc., or is it now getting funds for bums on seats in universities – funds from government, from old private duffers, and from Joe and Joanne Public? Is giving itself some aesthetic appeal the primary goal?

There is a Sufi story about someone losing something, a small object, in a quiet street at night and choosing to look for it not where he lost it but some distance off, under a street light, where it is easier to see. I had often thought about that story in connection with cognitive science, interpreting the street light as science, with its luminous heuristic methods, etc., and interpreting the object ‘lost’ as thinking and the place where it is lost as the cultural, actional, interpersonal arena, which is outside science’s purview. But now that I look up I see that the street light isn’t science at all, it’s the popular imagination...

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‘Us’ is not a scientific concept. (And neither are ‘them’, ‘him’, ‘Jennifer’ or ‘me’ scientific concepts.)

Since ‘us’ is what culture is founded on, ‘culture’ is not a scientific concept either.

One wants to say of cultural events – take the simplest, a mutual smile of mother and infant, say – that a non-objective ‘fellow-participant attitude’ or ‘empathy’ is required in order to perceive them. The phenomenon, the mutual smile, doesn’t appear to the observer, it doesn’t exist for him, unless he imagines (however cursorily) doing it too, joining in. The observer brings the smile into existence by his own imaginative effort. The smile doesn’t exist for anyone without participation or would-be participation. One could speak of cultural events as 'participant phenomena' – except that the word phenomenon already means ‘thing in the world requiring objective explanation’ and cultural events, our actions, are not things (or events or processes) in the world in this sense.

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Thinking is not an information-processing kind of activity. It is an action-rehearsing kind of activity.

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The question whether what you see, or seem to see, is real is the question whether seeing it can be duplicated by someone else. Solo perceiving’s credibility is borrowed from concerted perceiving. If everyone sees it, yes, it’s there. But if you see it but no-one else does, it can be accepted that what you claim to have seen wasn’t really there (or at least that you didn’t see it if it was). Perhaps it was something else that you misinterpreted as an X. The concept of a thing in the world, of objectivity, is the concept of that which everyone can (in principle) perceive.

So look at consciousness, the having of sensations, the seeing of mental images, in this light. If these phenomena are perceptible by one person only, we are entitled to doubt whether it is perceiving going on at all. Most likely, since no-one else can see these things – or, at least, the particular sensations and images P is reporting – they aren’t really there. Probably what’s happening is that P has been pricked by a pin or whatever, or is visualising a blue swan, and he has been led by certain grammatical constructions and figures of speech into misconstruing either or both of these experiences as the observing of something (a pricking sensation or an image of a blue swan). Whereas, in fact, being pricked by a pin is not a case of making an observation, nor is visualising something. They are more cases, both of them, of doing something. When we empathise with P, we rehearse what it feels like to do these things. We might then fall into the same mistake – and misinterpret our empathising as a case of quasi-object-contemplation also.

Certainly, everyone can empathise. But this is not like corroborating a perception. It is corroborating an experience of a different kind (being pricked, visualising). And the conclusion is that though grammar has us feeling sensations, and metaphors have us seeing mental images, neither of those things are really there. At this point the mental world vanishes. Just wait a minute. Just wait. Well, anyway, what it should be doing is dissolving, right now, retreating from the world of things into the actional, the do-able, the empathisable. But there’s still something there, isn’t there? It looks like the experience. The ‘experience’ part doesn’t seem to want to go down the plughole.

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It could be said that mine is a ‘representational theory of mind’ too. In my book, tokening an action – whether in mime, by speech or covertly – is a way of re-presenting the action (in abbreviated and/or stylised form). However, whereas the ‘real’ representational theory claims that ‘information about external reality’ is represented (in neurophysiological structures and processes) by and/or in the brain, I claim that it is actions (more specifically, concerted actions or notionally concerted actions) that are represented, or tokened. And I claim this representing or tokening of actions, this ‘thinking’ (when it is done covertly), is done not by the brain but by the person. Furthermore, I claim it is done by the person not in the brain, his own or anyone else’s, but in the world, where he does everything else – in Masterton, Janustown or Figor Mintis.

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(May) OK, so what about the following, Uncle Dan? Suppose we are doing science. We want to see the world efficiently (with as few descriptive algorithms, inspection procedures, as possible) and accurately. And we want to be able to reliably predict events and devise new technologies. The scientific method is the heuristic strategy we have evolved for doing these things. This time we happen to be looking at neurophysiological phenomena in the human brain. We moot theories (posit entities, processes, systems, etc., and terminology to go with them), develop ancillary heuristic technology, make observations, then moot new theories and terminologies, develop new heuristic technology, make new observations, and so on. What we do in brain science is a product of at least (1), the nature of this subject matter, (2), the established methods of science generally and of brain science in particular as regards theorising, observing, experimenting, documenting, reporting, etc., and (3), the theoretical approach we adopt, the heuristic paradigm in fashion at the moment in brain science. The ontology of brain science is – that is, the phenomena that brain scientists talk about (neurons, firing rates, transmitter chemicals, brain areas, arousal systems, etc.) are – a product of, and logically inseparable from, this area of enquiry, this investigative context, brain science. Like any ontology, the ontology of brain science is ad hoc, related to a particular practice. And this is common sense and obvious. We don’t need the term language-game to help us see this. To speak of neurons, firing rates, and so on is necessarily to ‘invoke’, to invite or signal the inception of, a session (or quasi-session, or amateur session, or imaginary session) of brain science. One must imagine the activity of brain science in order to do appropriate imaginings in response to the words neuron, firing program, etc. That is, in order to comprehend talk about neurons and the rest you have to know a bit about doing brain science and you have to remind yourself of this knowledge, ‘convene it’ for the moment. Hopefully, you can get a quorum.

Then we go home from the lab and we’re playing hide-and-seek around the house with the kids and it transpires at one point that John is ‘he’ (the one who chases). Just as talk of neurons is context-bound relative to brain science, so is talk of John being ‘he’ context-bound here, in the game of hide-and-seek. If we are not playing hide-and-seek or imagining playing it, talk of ‘going he’ does not mean anything. Going he is part of an ad hoc – and temporarily useful – terminology and practice in the same way Broca’s area is.

It almost goes without saying that you cannot both be doing brain science and playing (or imagining playing) hide-and-seek. It is not just that the two activities or practices are very different – hide-and-seek is not a heuristic practice and has no subject matter – but that they are incompatible. There are things you have to do in hide-and-seek that preclude your doing brain science and vice versa. This means that the respective ontologies and terminologies of brain science and hide-and-seek are incompatible too. Well, they are simply incommensurable. There is no conceivable relation between neurons and John’s going ‘he’. And this is because there is no conceivable way of reconciling hide-and-seek with brain science.

Someone’s ‘having feelings about Geraldine’, ‘thinking about Geraldine’, ‘being conscious of her staring at him’, ‘seeing her walk past the window’, etc., is like little Johnny’s going ‘he’. It does not make sense to attribute these doings and experiencings (to someone) outside a certain kind or range of everyday interpersonal contexts. So-called ‘psychological’ phenomena are just as context-bound as going ‘he’ is or the five hop-scotch squares are. Feeling things, thinking things, being conscious of things, perceiving things – not to mention the things in question – are all activities, processes, events or states that have no relevance to brain science and no relevance to the ontology or subject matter of brain science. Just as there is no conceivable relation between John’s going ‘he’ and the hypothalamus or any anatomical or neurophysiological phenomenon that has been poked and parleyed into existence by brain science, so there is no conceivable relation between neurophysiological phenomena and the feelings, thoughts, perceptions, beliefs or inclinations James has with respect to Geraldine, or between neurophysiological phenomena and such ‘psychological entities’ generally. The two terminologies and ontologies, like the two practices – brain science vs the displaying (or concealing), empathising and verbalising of ‘psychological states’ – are simply incommensurable. Playing ‘brain science’ (and all that goes with it, including the neuron talk) is as incompatible with playing ‘thoughts and feelings’ (and the talk that goes with that) as it is with playing hide-and-seek (and that talk).

You always add that little bit of nastiness at the end, don’t you Derek, when you think you’ve won the argument? Well, that’s right, and here goes. The idea of different ‘levels’ of description, or explanation or ontology, is just a hopelessly optimistic metaphor. It is so far from the truth, and so clearly serving not to illuminate any nexus or relationship between neuron talk and thought-and-feeling talk but to obfuscate their incommensurability, that it is a kind of lie. Now look what you’ve done, Derek! The wee homunculus is crying, and those nice functional roles too, and the dear little computer thingy...

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A language is a repertoire of cues for convening, in fact or imagination, specific areas of joint activity. This makes Anyone for tennis? paradigmatic. But, since our perceptual behaviour has also been standardised and parcelled up into jointly do-able procedures (in this case perceptual procedures), the formula also caters for It was a yellow frog. Nor need the joint activity that the speech entertains or initiates be familiar, already-mastered joint activity. It can be a new challenge, as mooted by All in all, there were seventeen yellow frogs, eight blue, and one a kind of cerise. One imagines being with others, looking at this frog array, just as, in response to my saying A language is a repertoire of cues for convening, in fact or..., one imagines being in a group and saying something in order to get everyone to do something together, or imagine doing something together.

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It would be salutary to ask two or three of those who led the cognitive revolution, the great cognitive scientists like Searle, Dennett, Fodor, to explain to us plain folks the meaning of certain centuries-old colloquial expressions we use. I mean expressions like use your head, I have all the information in my head, her head is full of nonsense, he hasn’t a brain in his head, she has a very good brain, it’s a no-brainer (a recent coining), he’s good at brain work, she’s the brains of the outfit, my brain can’t handle it all. Most of us would assume that these are figurative expressions, mining the rich vein of fantasy that attributes our abilities to think and remember to a dedicated agency or organ inside the body – in particular, to the brain we know for a fact resides in the head. Are the cognitive scientists going to tell us that these are really literally true expressions – that we really do ‘use our brains’ when we think? That would be an extraordinary coincidence, like discovering that a person who everyone thinks is a complete swine is actually not a person at all but a pig disguised as a person. And how are we to square the fact that the cognitive revolution – the momentous discovery that the mind (the old name for the fancied inner agent of thought, memory and feeling) is really the brain – happened in the 1970s with the fact that the colloquial expressions are, mostly, hundreds of years old? As well as being cognitive scientists, Searle, Dennett and Fodor are experts on the philosophy of language. It would be fascinating to hear their answers to these questions.

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The contributors to Perspectives on Imitation (MIT Press 2005) are all close to the biology/culture or body/mind nexus. I would say this is the closest Western philosophy has got to the nitty-gritty of the mind-body problem. These Royaumont Conference contributors (Hurley’s Angels?) are on the verge of exposing the social basis of mind. They have in one hand the sketch of a would-be-scientific account of imitation (mirror neurons, etc.) and in the other an informal concept of concerting (qua ‘entrainment’, ‘intersubjectivity’, ‘cultural practice’, ‘theory of mind’, ‘empathy’, etc.). They look from one to the other.

However, a full account of the neurophysiology of imitation, when it arrives, is as far as science can advance on this front of the mind-body problem. Because they are academics and committed to science, the Royaumont group are never going to be able to transit from one to the other. They are like gnus trapped on one side of the river, looking this way and that in a funk of wildebestial indecision. If they want to focus clearly on cultural concepts – including the foundational concept of concerted activity – then their adopting the participant attitude is a sine qua non. In order to even perceive cultural activity, one must first adopt the point of view of an actual or potential participant in the activity.

I have protested often enough that a participant attitude on the observer’s part transgresses the scientist’s self-imposed ‘objective observation’ rules (you’re not allowed to empathise with the homo sapiens you are studying). I now see that, in addition, the participant attitude, involving as it does the recognition of the activity being observed as ‘something one does’, is actually in itself a contribution to the activity. To adopt the participant attitude is to perform a ‘political’ act with respect to the activity in question. It is to identify one’s present interlocutors as potential fellow-agents, and to identify that activity as ‘something we could do (if we wanted to)’. This recognition involves some kind of quasi-political commitment – to the personnel and to that particular activity.

The scientist hopes to create the illusion he is still doing science by using a descriptor like ‘a behavioural interaction of homo sapiens’, or something equally equivocal and abortive. But what he wants to say, we all want to say, what you must say if you want to refer to this, is: they are playing petanque. And if you say this, if you do identify what you see as people playing petanque, you are taking what I am calling the ‘political’ step. You are not going so far as to say let’s play petanque. You’re not advocating it. This would undoubtedly have to be regarded as a contribution (albeit an ancillary, preparatory, contribution) to the game of petanque. But what you are saying is this is a game that people play, that we could play. And to say this is to take a decisive step away from science. It is to recognise one’s interlocutors as potential fellow-participants in cultural activities such as petanque.

Well, identifying what is going on as ‘people playing petanque’ is not like starting a revolution or anything. But it is political in the same kind of way. It identifies an ‘us’ and it recognises at least the possibility of ‘our’ doing something together. It recognises this particular ‘game’ as such. And this kind of recognition is part of what keeps particular games or other practices afloat in a culture. Talking about a game is not much different from actually playing it in this respect. To maintain its currency as a game, the game must be accepted, recognised by people. Searle thinks that such public recognition gives the game (or other institution) ‘objectivity’. And this points us to the fact that the objectivity of ordinary ‘things in the world’ is not that different: it reflects the currency, acceptance, public recognition of the concerting of certain families of perceptual behaviour. But let’s not go there now.

We do this ‘game maintenance’, and thus ‘culture maintenance’, every day and all the time, and scientists qua citizens do too. Only, scientists can’t do everyday-culture-maintenance while they’re doing science, and that includes brain science. Hurley’s lot will have to stay on the far bank looking anxiously left and right. There is no way they will get over to this side as scientists. The great crocodile, Logic, will bite them all in half.

In any event, we don’t want them playing petanque, or talking about or even thinking about playing petanque, at Royaumont. They are scientists. Their job is to peer inside people’s brains. We’ll handle the petanque, thanks. And the ‘politics’, too, if that’s what it is.

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If it’s true, as I suggest in TAOT, that ‘consciousness’ is simply the individual’s private rehearsing of the sharing of some act of perceiving, or the sharing of some other kind of action, then this raises the possibility that the search for a scientific theory of consciousness – the last great frontier of science – is quite closely related to people’s longing to engage with others in concerted activity, and their ‘nostalgia’ for a tribal life (my other harp).

The assumption behind cognitive science’s historic search for consciousness, or for the ‘neurophysiological basis’ of consciousness, is that, by studying brain activity in the laboratory, cognitive scientists will eventually identify a type of neurophysiological event that observably produces – or emanates, or whatever – people’s consciousness, thoughts, feelings… That is, solely by dint of careful lab work, the scientist will be able to discover the secrets of, and eventually be able to control and perhaps even create at will (in robots), this precious commodity. It’s like gold from base metal, only more ambitious. Yet, if I’m right, what he’s really looking for is shared experience. I say: the precious ‘source of consciousness’ is people engaged together in concerted perceiving or other activity. This is what the ‘cognitive scientist’ so keenly wants reliable access to – and wants eventually to have on tap. His lack of it is not scientific ignorance but just loneliness. That’s why he goes back to the lab night after night.

The reason cognitive science seems credible is that we are all in a kind of trance of loneliness. We are obliged by our culture to maintain ourselves as individuals, independent of others, autonomous. Yet, because we happen to be human beings, all our strength, our mind, comes from being with others. Our commitment since infancy to individual identity (and the individualism rationalising it), that we cannot now abandon, makes us incapable of appreciating the extent of our dependence on togetherness. We are incapable of appreciating what ‘consciousness’, this thing that is our essence, really is. Yet we still yearn for it. So, we sit slumped in the lecture theatre of life, with downcast eyes. And when the lecturer, at first hesitantly but then more and more confidently, explains that consciousness is really in the brain – that it is some wonderful, subtle, neurophysiological trick of the brain – we eventually look up.

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My argument from Chapter 11 of TAOT is that you can’t put together in a sentence concepts some of which (such as everyday action concepts) presuppose an empathic stance and others of which (to do with neurophysiology and suchlike) presuppose an objective scientific stance. If you do put them together you get a particular kind of logical incoherence. You get a logical move – an inference from the natural to the cultural – that can only be invalid. At any rate, if what I say is true, a lot of things intellectuals currently say would have to be disqualified as nonsense. The whole of evolutionary psychology goes out the window. You can’t talk about behavioural abilities being ‘pre-wired into the genome’ or whatever, because the latter is scientific talk (or would-be scientific talk) and talk about behavioural abilities, things we can do, is everyday action talk. ‘Mechanisms enabling behaviours’ is nonsense. The idea that we are genetically/anatomically evolved for walking is nonsense. The extension of Darwinian theory from anatomical evolution to (consequent) behavioural abilities is nonsense. This kind of knocks the explanatory stuffing out of Darwinism: if we aren’t allowed to infer from anatomy to behaviour traits, where’s the interest? The notion of a ‘language acquisition device’ pre-wired into the human brain is nonsense. And so on.

This logical mistake is endemic in biology – not just in popularisations of biological ideas either.

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Anatomy does not determine behaviour. Over the long term, it is behaviour that determines anatomy. The preferred behaviour of a species is determined by the demands and affordances of its environment. Given that the preferred behaviour is successful in thriving the species, it is the nature of this preferred behaviour that determines, via genetic variations and preferential selection over generations, a certain average anatomy in a species – an anatomy that well facilitates this successful behaviour. The giraffe gets a long neck because it is successful at going for the high leaves. Our brains may well be filled with ‘neural mechanisms’ that facilitate concerting, communication by speech, cooperation, thinking, memory, etc. However, this is not an explanation of these behaviours. Performance of these behaviours is not compelled by the ways our brains are wired up (or not-wired-up, in the human case). The behaviours have other explanations entirely – to do with best orchestrating the survival of pre-human and human groups in ancient African savannah conditions. For us, that whole technology – concerting, communicating by speech, cooperating, thinking, etc. – was a bonanza. The fact that these strategies were successful for us (for the pre-humans and early humans) explains why our brains are the way they are. Our brains no more oblige us to speak and think, etc., than the giraffe’s long neck obliges it to go upwards for a feed. How we or giraffes behave depends on what current circumstances demand and afford.

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Explaining ‘consciousness’ is a question of getting developmental priorities right – finding out what is learned before what, finding out in what order certain behavioural techniques are mastered by infants and children and, by inference, in what order they were mastered by the hominids. How do we explain the simplest form of consciousness, the one the philosophers are interested in – that is, a person’s ‘perceiving something’, an individual’s ‘perceptual consciousness of a thing in the world’?

Well, we first place this scenario – of a person by him- or herself perceiving something (seeing a rabbit in a paddock, say) – which we can call ‘solo consciousness’, side by side with another scenario. In this second scenario we have two or more people (perhaps mother and child) jointly perceiving a rabbit in a paddock, two or more people laboriously or effortlessly concerting their perceptual behaviour and consecrating the success of their concerting (when it arrives) with a verbal such as it’s a rabbit, or just rabbit. It is the shared performance of this particular perceptual behaviour that is consecrated by rabbit. What kind of perceptual behaviour is it? How is it identified? It is the rabbit kind. It is the kind where we say rabbit. Wittgenstein’s and Quine’s reservations about ostensive definition evaporate if you (a) listen carefully to what Davidson said about triangulation and (b) watch carefully, with your Vygotsky open on the table beside you, how little Murgatroyd actually, in practice learns the names of things.

If you haven’t thought much about it, or if you are a philosopher, you will probably assume that little Murg has to be capable of solo consciousness before he can join in with his mother looking at the rabbit. But I am saying that the second ‘joint perceiving’ scenario is developmentally prior to the solo consciousness one. It must come first. Murgatroyd has to be shown how to see rabbits, he has to do it in concert with someone else, with them leading the way and helping him, before he can do it by himself. And isn’t this how we learn quite a few actions?

Assuming this in the previous paragraph is accepted, and realising now that solo consciousness is some sort of a descendent and derivative of joint perceiving, we are in an excellent position to improve our description of solo consciousness. First, we see that consciousness (dropping the 'solo') is an activity. To see the rabbit is to do something. Then we see that consciousness is really just a solo version of joint perceiving, a make-do version performable by a person alone. It is a performance as like as possible to joint perceiving – considering there is only one person to do it. The person does as much of the actual (perceptual) behaviour as he can and then imagines (covertly tokens, incipiently performs, etc.) the participation of the others.

And we, as observers, in order to recognise consciousness (specifically, seeing the rabbit) as such, must do the same supplementary imagining of other participants. We both, solo perceiver and observer of solo perceiver, as it were ‘mentally convene’ and ‘superimpose’ a social occasion, a concerted performance, on what is actually a solitary occasion and performance.

If you don’t see that (solo) consciousness is a form of behaviour and if, perhaps misled by the fact consciousness is an abstract noun, you imagine consciousness as a ‘state’ of the person, you might be tempted to ask questions like: Where is the consciousness? Is it in the body? Is it an emanation from the brain?

Consciousness is partly an overtly observable behaviour – the person looks in a certain direction, focuses on the object, ‘attends’ to it – and partly unobservable, at least to the naked eye. The unobservable part (though it is observable by machines capable of recording very subtle muscular, glandular and neuronal activity) is the imagining the person is doing, the covert tokening of the others’ presence, their attending, the appropriate speech, etc. And, like any behaviour, consciousness is resistant to objective observation: the observer has to himself imagine performing the behaviour (including imagining notional other participants), he has to empathise, in order to recognise what the person is doing – recognise that that person is conscious of something, say, and what it is.

So, Derek, how is consciousness related to the brain? Well, I’ll tell you that if you tell me how motor sport is related to the brain. Or, if that’s too hard, you can tell me how dressing up as a gorilla is related to the brain.

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(June) Suppose again that the basic problem for people, for human beings, is what to do. At birth, if it weren’t for the few scrimpy biological functions – breathing, sucking and excreting and moving the limbs around, and basic imitation, mewling, puking – we would be completely inoperable and in the dark. Then we discover things we can do in synch with other people. This is the good stuff, the light in that dark. This is what excites us into real life. We have an affinity for this stuff, the equivalent of a phototropism, a kind of ‘together-a-tropism’. We seize on this joint activity and gradually build up a repertoire of it sufficient for us to live in nearly all the time. That is what our lives are about – doing things in concert with other people. We become ‘individuals’ when we have had so much experience of concerted activity that we are able to be solo agents of it. We can ‘do’ it, or do parts of it, act as representatives of it, on our own. We can stand in for the group in some contexts, represent it in its absence. And this ability is ‘consciousness’.

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The key ingredients in our lives, our cultural lives, are: communication by speech, our shared knowledge of the world, our consciousness whilst alone, and our care for others. [Then come the specific institutions – law, religion, art, science, education, trade, etc.] Philosophy is the attempt to explain these basic cultural enablers without acknowledging their source in our own concerted and cooperative activity. It must be felt that, for some reason, acknowledging this would be embarrassing, emotionally difficult, or whatever. Philosophy’s first gambit was to attribute them to ‘metaphysical entities’ – effectively, ‘supernatural powers in the sky’ – called meaning, truth, reality, mind, moral goodness, and so on. That worked all right for a couple of thousand years, until science took over the role of ‘authoritative source of knowledge’ from religion and philosophy. Now, the cultural basics – under the headings, ‘language’, ‘cognition’, ‘consciousness’, ‘social cognition’ – are attributed to mysterious but soon-to-be-discovered neurophysiological mechanisms in our brains, mechanisms installed there by evolutionary forces. The new ‘undiscovered mechanisms in the brain’ explanations are thought to be more plausible than the old ‘supernatural powers in the sky’ ones.

People claim that some of these mechanisms have actually been discovered – mirror neurons to explain empathy (in the ‘caring for others’ or ‘social cognition’ department), for example. But they stop at metaphors of mirror neurons as 'underlying' empathy, 'responsible for' empathy, 'the mechanism behind' empathy, and similar. The fact of mirror neurons can’t and never will explain what empathy is, how we learn how to do it, what it’s useful for, how it guides our perception of others’ actions, its relation to communication by speech, and so on.

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What does the philosopher do? He seeks out and gathers wisdom – truths about the basics of human nature – and makes structures of it, places, for ‘the thinking person’ to inhabit. The philosopher’s creations provide the thinking person with a means of orienting him- or herself in the world, and in society; they provide a sense of direction (of where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going) and hence a sense of togetherness with others, and they provide a basis for moral judgement. Philosophy is not dependent on ‘the latest technology’, nor on science. It’s methods are just percipience about people, long-term mulling-over, and literary skill.

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What strikes one eventually is the sheer hopelessness, the intellectual poverty, of the various theories of mind and the philosophy of mind: Plato’s idea of mind as an abstraction or ‘form’; Descartes’ mind-body dualism; Freud’s mad inventions; the various behaviourisms either denying there are such things as consciousness and thinking or explaining them in terms of a supposed ‘objectively observable physical phenomenon’ called ‘behaviour’; and, finally, perhaps weirdest of all, cognitivism’s idea of the mind as the brain and the brain as a computer which works out (by combining current perceptions and historically stored information) how the person should act and issues appropriate instructions to muscles and glands.

My explanation of the poverty and the weirdness is that, although the underlying real phenomenon to be explained is certain abilities of people (to think, remember, be conscious, perceive things, etc.), philosophers and psychologists begin with the assumption that these abilities are operations of an impersonal agency – the mind – inside the person and not actions of and by the person him- or herself. Given that the person isn’t doing these things, that a mysterious internal agent is, the task is to identify the inner agent, bring it to light, and see how it works. The philosophers and psychologists knit their brows and get to work.

Although it is (quite obviously in my opinion) spawned by a figure of speech, the notion that consciousness and thinking are functions of an inner agent is not negotiable. This is just so stupid that one has to suspect some wilful blindness. Why is it not to be contemplated that thinking is a learned action? What sacred cows are discomforted by this thought? All I can think of is that seeing thinking as an action, and tracing its development as such from infancy, exposes our dependence on concerted activity – exposes how our solo agency as individuals is derivative of joint, group action – and thus points up the fundamental importance of concert, cooperation, togetherness, etc., in our lives. But surely that can’t be it. How on earth could that be ‘embarrassing’, or whatever?

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How does this account of personhood relate to the biologist’s idea of the individual animal or organism? Presumably, the individual starfish does not need instruction and a mandate from his fellows in order to set out on his solitary starfishy way. Could it be that the biologist’s notion of the individual organism, like the lay person’s notion of an individual animal, is an anthropomorphic (one kind of metaphorical) extension of our ‘socially constructed’ notion of the individual person? Is it sensible to wonder what sort of residue would remain if one could ‘subtract’ the personification element from one’s perception of individual organisms (including plants)? Can we even perceive organisms if we forgo this initial personification, or empathy – and adopt a purely objective stance? Reid, Collingwood and Strawson suspect that we can’t. (See Where our notion of ‘causation’ comes from)  And, if it is true that we can’t, this makes good sense of Ingold’s apparently bizarre suggestion (at the end of his ‘social relations’ article in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers) that the distinction between the natural and the social is unmarkable. What are we to conclude? That animism and biological science are respective points on a continuum? That objectivity is founded on empathy?

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Any person will be unable to think who has no or too little experience, in both respondent and leader roles, of a certain range of joint activities, including such as: showing another person how to do something; drawing another person’s attention to something; carefully describing something for another’s benefit; criticising and improving a description; drawing and viewing pictures of things; doing a dramatic re-enactment of some past event or enactment of a merely imagined event; debating what to do, which of several courses to take… All these are group activities and all involve speech or non-verbal gestures of some kind. They all involve the guiding of the participants’ attention or imaginings (and thus their actions) – to help them cope in a problematic situation.

The reason why a person who has no experience of these group coping procedures is unable to think is that thinking is the individual’s solitary rehearsing – when he finds himself alone in a problem situation – of participation in (one or other or some combination of) these procedures. One cannot rehearse what one has no experience of.

The ‘solitary rehearsing’ in question is the would-be thinker’s covert ‘commencing-and-aborting’, or ‘pretend-doing’, ‘making-as-if-to-do’, of essential components of the above attention-and-imagining-guiding activities. The effect of the covert pretend-doing is to actually guide the thinker’s attending and imagining in the present problematic situation and this, in turn, readies him or her for a particular course of action, a particular way out.

Someone unable to think, or think properly, would be, when alone, overwhelmed by his own imaginings. He would be unable to appeal (in fact or imagination) to another person as referee. Because he has never become confident in participating with others in the public attention-and-imagining-guiding procedures – showing, describing, criticising, etc. – he could not in all honesty invoke the procedures in private as a means of controlling the imaginings. He would have no plausible ‘reference group’ to call, or call up, to put things in perspective.

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(July) BB suggested I send a letter to the NZ Listener re. Pinker getting on one of their journalists’ ‘ten best books’ list. Here is what I came up with.

David Larsen (June 24) puts Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works among the ten best books of the decade. This is questionable. Although thinking, feeling, consciousness, etc., are colloquially portrayed as operations of a mysterious intracranial agency (‘the mind’) they are actually things the person does – hard-won abilities the child acquires from and with caring others. There is no internal organ, non-physical or physical, that handles thinking for us. We have to learn it and do it ourselves. The mind is a fiction, like Santa Claus. That is why cognitive science, so-called, will never “stump up with a full account of what the mind is and how it functions”, as Larsen puts it. Imagine a science of Santa Claus. How the Mind Works is scholarly and well-written but the idea behind it is farcical – and pusillanimous. To attribute thinking, etc., to the mind, or to the brain cast (absurdly) in the role of mind, is to deny our own responsibility for the thinking we do, and to deny our collective responsibility for enabling children to think – and to eventually think for themselves.

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(September) When are they going to get it into their heads that get it into their heads and suchlike are just figures of speech? They are just fancies. Re-drafting the metaphors more formally – as the brain takes in information and processes it, or whatever – and announcing them in a pontificating, scientific tone of voice is not going to reduce their essentially figurative and fanciful character at all.

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Another kind assessment of The Act of Thinking – this time from an acquaintance of my youth, a fellow-frequenter of the Duke of Edinburgh in the sixties, since then a celebrated anthropologist, now a teacher at Harvard Divinity School, Michael D. Jackson, who says:

Dear Derek, This is a very fine book, partly because I concur with your theory of mind so completely, partly because you've argued the case for deconstructing the false antinomies of speech versus gesture, res cogitans versus res extensa, emotion versus thought, conception versus action so consummately.  I came to the same viewpoint through Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception and Michael Oakeshott's work, as well as certain Indian philosophical traditions, but the point of arrival is similar, and the implications more devastating to the way that academic discourse is carried out than most academics realise.  I admire the way you have built a deep understanding of metaphorical thinking into your work, since this is the modus operandi of ritual action, in which  what one is doing is a form of thought even though the purpose or meaning cannot be verbalised, or even grasped.  And the section on concerted activity is, as you suspected, right up my street, and very useful for thinking through the psychological/empirical material on primary intersubjectivity that has been fundamental to my own work, esp. Minima Ethnographica.  I'm presently writing a book on interconnectedness that embraces things like affect attunement, synchrony, love, rapport, empathy ... a range that, as you argue, sets aside (or should) the question as to where emotion ends and rational thought begins, and is echoed in Kuranko and Warlpiri notions of social relationship as action in concert and actions whose repercussions take generations to work out.  So your book crosses my path/mind at an auspicious moment, and it is wonderful to see how someone else has achieved such creative work at Massey (a place where, in the 70s my Auckland colleagues spoke pityingly of as my Siberia, yet I thought of as a haven).   …If I were you I would continue in the vein of The Act of Thinking, perhaps more empirically and anecdotally, to help students SEE what are are arguing, SHOWING them what you are saying.  This surely is consistent with the pedagogy implicit in your work.


— Derek Melser —