Notebook 2007

 

 

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Several everyday notions simultaneously presuppose the two incompatible heuristic attitudes, objectivity and empathy. These include the notions of mind, consciousness, person, self, the individual, word, language, sign, symbol, representation, and action. Ingredient in all these notions is the requirement that we both view something objectively, as a thing, and empathise (with) it. While the notions of mind, person, word, action, etc., function perfectly well at the everyday level, where we habitually and easily alternate objectivity and empathy as situations require, these notions’ dependence on both objectivity and empathy means that no formal study, and especially no scientific study, of them or their referents (if they have any) is possible.

Here is how I describe (in my website reply to Marek McGann’s review of The Act of Thinking) the situation as regards the notion of person or self:

[There is] …an insuperable obstacle to defining just what ‘a person’ or ‘the self’ is. It’s not just that, like Hume, we cannot find a suitable referent in the world, or in our heads. Nor does the chief difficulty lie in the systematic elusiveness of ‘I’ that Ryle pointed out. It is rather that the notion of a ‘person’ contains two incommensurable ingredients – the idea of an individual human being qua physical entity and the idea of a fellow social agent or, more specifically, a thinker. Descartes’ expression res cogitans is a combination of irreconcilable terms, a kind of catechresis. McGann’s “subjectivity that is grounded in the individual’s own body” is ill-formed in the same way.

The person qua physical entity is, ultimately, a biological entity, a human organism. To contemplate a human organism requires we adopt the objective attitude of the biological scientist. Even viewing the organism functionally, in terms of physiological goings-on rather than just anatomy, requires this objectivity on the observer’s part. And, viewed in this way, the person and the personal disappear. The human organism is no longer a person. The ‘social player’, the performer of recognisable actions, the thinker, is absent in the biological perspective.

On the other hand, if we witness or imagine the individual engaged with others in concerted or cooperative activity – which is ultimately what it means to be a social player – the individual person, as such, disappears again. A concert or cooperation is essentially a group effort, and a to-and-fro. To single out an individual participant is to freeze-frame what is essentially mobile and multiple; it is to screen off the social element. The heuristic mode, the manner of contemplation, appropriate to social activity is of necessity empathic. In order to understand what we are seeing when we are observing social activity we have to imagine ourselves engaged in it. (The same applies to thinking. In order to register what it is P is thinking, we have to ‘do’ – that is, however cursorily, rehearse – that bit of thinking ourselves.) We are absorbed in the activity in question much as the participants are absorbed in it. And this kind of empathic absorption is incompatible with our viewing individuals as such – and certainly incompatible with our viewing individuals as biological systems.

Yet the idea of a person requires both notions, and hence both heuristic stances. It requires a physical individual who is also a social player: it simultaneously presupposes objectivity and empathy. At the everyday informal level, this duplicity inherent in the ‘person’ notion is relatively unproblematic. In everyday social situations, we habitually adopt the two incompatible stances simultaneously. Or we freely and rapidly switch from one to the other. If one stance is dominating, the other is still at the ready and prepared to take over. The notions of ‘person’, ‘the self’ and ‘the individual’ cover over this inveterate duplicity in our dealings with others. Perhaps that’s their main job. This is not to say that our everyday objectivising of other people always, or indeed ever, takes the form of scientific scrutiny. As Buber says, there are many ways to objectivise and distance others. So are there innumerable ways of being absorbed in side-by-side activity with others. My point is that, although the ‘person’ notion is indispensable for everyday purposes, the incompatibility of the two heuristic stances it presupposes precludes its formal definition.

What significance does this observation have? I think it means that all the modern attempts at sciences of mind, language, and action will have to be abandoned. Psychology, cognitive science, linguistics qua science, evolutionary psychology, etc., and perhaps all the putative social sciences should go by the board. The problem is that, to the extent one adopts a truly objective, scientific attitude, to that extent the necessary empathic component is excluded. Philosophical ploys such as using concepts (like ‘representation’, ‘causal underpinning’) in which the contradiction is even better disguised, or attributing agency to the brain, or speaking of ‘levels’ of analysis and explanation (physical vs intentional, or subpersonal vs personal, levels), only prolong the problem. Even ‘cause’ talk is suspect.

I suggest in Chapter 11 of The Act of Thinking that the original form of the problem is the problem inherent in the notion of an action. Grammar and rhetoric disguise and compound the problem. The apparently innocent act nominalisations we need to even talk about actions allow in metaphors which reify the actions (or ‘actings’, ‘doings’) in question. In the case of ‘mind’ and ‘language’ we lose sight entirely of the fact it is people’s actions that we started off talking about.

It’s all very well to dispatch action physicalism to the boundary, but if that reduces us  to the miming and verbal prompting of actions, if we can no longer talk objectively about actions – only enjoin or empathise them, etc. – then that seems to impose a limit on what we can know. Is there such a limit? The mass of reification and metaphor that the social pseudo-sciences have erected between us and the things we do is more a veil than a lens. Or perhaps ‘the things we do’ are not behind it at all. Perhaps our doings have escaped the laboratory, slipped out unobserved during some heated methodological discussion, and are hiding somewhere else entirely...

I don’t think there is any question of reforming everyday speech. In theory, the unrealistic objectivising of these essentially empathic, participant notions could be averted if we employed the gerund more – his thinking rather than his thought, his minding rather than his mind – or had words like ‘fellow participant’ (instead of person) or ‘activity-prompter’ (instead of word) which more clearly exhibited the actional provenance of what we are talking about. The rot would still set in. The question I found myself asking in Chapter 11 is: Can we ever genuinely refer to actions?

 

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In performing and witnessing actions we employ empathy. Yet in learning about, and how to perform, actions the lessons we receive involve reference to entities, things in the world, relevant to the action. It is as if the action has to be stopped – frozen in mid-flight – and unpacked, for us to learn about it. When it is unpacked, and its contents or components laid out, we see an array of accessories to the action: the agent, the goal situation, the equipment and tools necessary, the patient if there is one, etc. The grammarian, for example, unpacks speech and we see (or we imagine) piles of ‘words’ here, a ‘grammatical structure’ suspended in the air here, a speaker, a listener, their respective ‘minds’ inside their heads, etc.

 

But the problem is not just that in the case of speech, thinking, etc., some of the accessories are fictional (but aren’t words really there, qua objects, anyway?). The problem is the stance problem. The accessories, being things in the world, require to be inspected objectively. We have to don our ‘looking at things in the world’ hat. However, to look at the action (that the accessories are accessories of), we have to doff this hat, and empathise instead. Looking at the accessories qua things, objects, makes it impossible to contemplate the action. If we do concentrate on the action – if we turn that light on – we empathise and the relevant objects disappear. They are sucked up into the action. So the whole notion of things being accessory to actions is a fraud. The problem is quite general: things and actions require incompatible heuristic stances and cannot be contemplated together, or in relation. So, not only is the idea that a word ‘is used in’ speech a fraud, the idea of kicking the dog is impossible to do also. Eating an egg contains a contradiction. Transitive verbs are frauds. But how else are we to specify actions except by reference to their accessories?

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This schmozzle all started with my reading a remark in the MIT Perspectives on Imitation book (volume 2, page). Someone is being reported as having remarked that “…there is no seeing, only seeing as” and the reporter corrects this, with: “But it’s worse than that: it’s all seeing for”. I want to get in on this too. I want to say that seeing – at least seeing in the context of doing (if not pedagogic, per se seeing) – is seeing-as because it is seeing-for. Action-bound seeing is, strictly, seeing as, for.

Thus I, for example, am seeing seeing as action-biassed for the purposes of my actional account of perception in Chapter 6 of The Act of Thinking.

And what is the relationship between the pedagogical seeing-things-in-the-world type of seeing and action-bound, or intra-actional, seeing? Is there any kind other than intra-actional seeing? In the book I suggest that the concept of things per se, and of seeing simpliciter, objective seeing, is only a pedagogical ploy to help inculcate perceptual skills. As soon as we get out of school and into real life, it’s all intra-actional seeing. It is all seeing as, for.

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My game theory: Capitalist individualism only understands win-lose. Win-win is no go because it means the other fellow gets something, maybe even better than what you get, that you could in theory have got too. But it is win-win that human culture, human life, is founded on. Win-lose is ultimately lose-lose.

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The whole subject matter of social science depends on on people cooperating with one another. And at the individual level this depends on what kind of a day you’ve had, how well-paid you are, your upbringing, etc., etc., etc. How can we be talking ‘science’ when the subject matter can go up in smoke simply by enough people saying (and there’s no guarantee enough people won’t just say) “Stuff this for a lark”. I mean, someone is writing a PhD about a particular law, someone in the union hears about it, and the next week the law disappears off the books...

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Out clipping eye-level hazelnut fronds with Christophe (aged 7) I remarked how cold it was and he replied by saying in English, “I can’t share that with you” – meaning he wasn’t cold.

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A suggestion from a long-time friend and admirer (Anton): I can't remember you talking about this before but you probably have. I think that "soul" is an interesting concept to be put up against "mind". Sure it is much more a container or object rather than venue but it has the excellent property that it is no longer taken seriously. Two hundred years ago this was not the case. People tried to measure its properties and all... Maybe suggesting this is the eventual fate of "mind" might piss off a few cognitivists...

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Reality depends ultimately on language games and forms of social life, on practice – and the latter is negotiable, changeable. This is the Wittgenstein and Kripgenstein view. And possibly the Sapir-Whorf view. It is the pragmatist view. It is my view.

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"Human thought is consummately social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its form, social in its applications." (Geertz).

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‘Tokening’ is an abbreviated way of rehearsing an activity, of preparing oneself for it. I define thinking as the covert tokening of the overt tokening of concerted activity. Covert tokening is, approximately, imagining. Overt tokening is such as miming, picturing, or speech (description, conversation, discussion, etc.). So, in thinking, one is typically imagining some communicative activity (describing something, say). The imagining is a (covert, solo) rehearsing of or preparing for the communicative activity. And the communicative activity is a (social, concerted) rehearsal of or preparing for some terminus of concerted activity – viewing an object together, eating a typical Moroccan meal together, riding the big wheel, or whatever. Thinking is a preparing for a preparing for, or a rehearsal of a rehearsal of, concerted activity. (That is how much we need to do things in concert  with others.)

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Is learning how to play hop-scotch a scientific procedure – involving hypothesising, evidence-gathering, experimentation, use of control groups, statistical analysis, etc.? Is finding out the rules of hop-scotch a scientific procedure? Is judging a hop-scotch performance? Suppose there is a finding that people who regularly dance the tango have lower blood pressure than those who don’t. Is identifying the tango – whether such-and-such counts as ‘dancing the tango’ – a scientific determination?

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Quote from Igor Airevitch:

This revolution is quite inconspicuous and so far not unanimously acknowledged, though not unnoticed, within the broad psychological community. Yet this revolution taps into the very heart of psychology as it suggests a new approach to human cognition. The crux of this new approach is that human cognition is theorized as a social collaborative process that cannot be reduced either to what happens inside the brain or to any individually-carried-out information processing. Instead, cognition is viewed as stretching beyond the individual mind – into the cultural systems of artifacts that allow for the cognitive processes to be accomplished and into the social communities, of which these processes are only a part. The real paradigmatic change is not that additional “social” or “collaborative” variables are simply added to studying individual processes of cognitive reorganization, but that cognition is principally re-located from “within the mind” into culturally constituted human collaborative activity. This change amounts to giving up one of the most cherished, and centuries-old, assumptions that continues to prevail in the traditional modes of thinking – about a separate and self-contained mental realm in which thoughts and ideas exist and develop based on their own internal regularities. Viewing cognition as an activity carried out in social settings and in collaboration with other members of community entails a profound shift in theory, units of analysis, and research methodology.

Given how profound the implications of shifting away from studying solitary information processing are, it really is puzzling that such a revolutionary shift has not yet taken root across the discipline of psychology and remains on the margins of mainstream research.

[‘Collaborative Cognition: On the Way to a New Cognitive Revolution’ by Igor M. Arievitch in Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 49(2), 2004.]

Some comments on the above:

(i).  In the fourth sentence I quote (“Instead, cognition is viewed…”), the phrases “stretching beyond the individual mind” and “only a part” suggest that, according to the new approach, cognition occurs partly in people’s minds and partly ‘out there in the community’, in discussions and so on. This is precisely the impression conveyed by the ‘distributed’ approach to cognition, and by the metaphor of minds ‘leaking’ out into cultural activity (and into the physical environment too, by some accounts). Thus, the cognition process goes on not just in people’s heads but elsewhere, outside their heads, as well. However, this seems to contradict the spirit of the next sentence – in which cognition is ‘re-located’ from its traditional home inside the head to a new home in the social, interpersonal arena. I say “the spirit of” because, if we take the qualifier “principally” seriously, there is no contradiction: thinking takes place ‘principally’ in the social arena and, presumably, also, but secondarily, in people’s minds. But I would like for argument’s sake to ignore the “principally” and, following the gist of the rest of the sentence (and the rest of your paper), commit Igor to the more radical view that the new approach puts thinking, difficult though it sometimes is to observe people doing it, entirely in the public, interpersonal arena.

[The fence-sitting view, the ‘distributed’ or ‘stretching beyond the mind’ theory, is hardly a revolutionary theory or a “profound shift in theory”, nor even, really, a theory at all, but rather a kind of indecision and equivocation. It is an attempt not to give up the ‘cherished and centuries-old’ ‘mind’ and ‘inside the head’ assumption, but merely to qualify or supplement it. And the attempt is illogical. Thinking is either a physiological process in the brain or it is an action performed by a person (in contribution to some joint undertaking). It cannot be both, or a bit of both.]

(ii). I agree that the gulf between the two concepts of cognition – the conventional idea of cognition as a natural function of the brain, and the new idea of cognition as an individual’s private (but in-principle public) rehearsing of (his participating in) public, concerted, collaborative activity – is spectacular. Later in his review Igor mentions reasons (relating to the lack of theoretical and methodological consensus) why people are unable or reluctant to cross over, but I suspect there are other reasons too.

I came to a cultural-actional theory of thinking only after being steeped as an undergraduate in Wittgenstein’s and Ryle’s writings in philosophy of mind, and only after finding out how metaphors work. I concluded that the notion of mind – the notion that people have minds, mental worlds, inside their heads – is a cultural myth fostered by the metaphors (and some other figures of speech) that we have in everyday language for talking about thinking. If we want to see what thinking really is – and presumably the academic psychologist or philosopher of mind wants this – the first necessity is to identify the colloquial metaphors and other figures of speech in question, and set them aside. This is not easy. The relevant metaphors are so habitual as to be difficult to notice. They function somewhat like subliminal propaganda that one has been subjected to, constantly, since childhood. A proponent of the cultural-actional view of cognition who is unable or unwilling to forgo the colloquial vocabulary – or the authoritative-sounding academic version with its use of the mind, mental, inner, on the psychological plane, internalised and so on, and its speaking of mind (or brain) as the inner agent or venue of thinking – will find it hard to believe the very view (the cultural-actional one) he is himself proposing. Certainly, no audience could take the new story seriously.

At any rate, I’m saying that one reason why the cultural-actional view of thinking hasn’t caught on is the difficulty of freeing oneself from idioms prescribing the fanciful ‘internalist’ way of speaking and thinking about thinking.

(iii). In addition, cultural myths have important functions. The ‘mind’ one in particular is important in fostering and preserving the notion of ‘the individual person’ as the basic human reality. This notion is axiomatic in the rationale of modern Western culture. Abandoning the notion of mind, of an inner mental world – and instead embracing the idea of something like ‘culture’, ‘concerted and cooperative activity’, ‘people-power’, 'togetherness', or some such, as the basic human reality – may foreshadow, even help precipitate, cultural change of an unknowable depth and extent. This is not the sort of area a humble worker in developmental psychology would want to stumble into… Cognitive science – the image of scientists in white coats gradually, systematically and responsibly researching how our brains work and, thus, discovering why we do what we do – is a useful, perhaps essential, ideological prophylactic (of the red-herring variety) against the possibility of that kind of change.

(iv). However, there is yet another, even more compelling, reason why an academic theorist should be reluctant to move to a ‘cultural activity’ or ‘collaborative’ view of cognition. This is (what I argue in Chapter Eleven of my book is) the insuperable problem of defining in objective terms just what this ‘cultural activity’ or ‘concerted and cooperative’ or ‘people-power’ or ‘togetherness’ thing or stuff amounts to. I say that we just can’t do it. If science claims to be able to define the cultural basics, or even to be able to point in vaguely the right direction, one can only grin. [That’s right, chaps, you’re on to it. The big breakthroughs are just around the corner. Mirror neurons, is it? All you need is the funding?] The thing is, our actions, the activities we participate in, the very notions of ‘doing’ or ‘participating in’ something, are unspecifiable except from a participant’s or would-be-participant’s perspective. Fundamentally, one can only demonstrate an action or activity (or, of course, empathise it). And, no matter how slack one’s definition of ‘science’ is, demonstrating (or empathising) an action is not a procedure that could ever count as a ‘scientific’ procedure.

Unfortunately, this argument, that actions can ultimately be defined only by demonstration, what in The Act of Thinking I call ‘the empathy argument’, is strong enough to preclude any kind of detached or ‘objective’ study, any formal academic study, of the cultural basics. Certainly, we are aware of these basic realities, the concert and cooperation, the togetherness thing, and we can be brought to an additional awareness of the allegiance our thoughts and actions owe them, but this awareness can only be that of the involved participant, the player. If we attempt intellectual detachment, or affect any kind of formal, cultural-context-free scrutiny, then what we are looking at simply vanishes. I can’t see any way out of this one.

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In his book On Moral Fiction the writer, literary critic and writing teacher John Gardner identifies the two subject matters of fiction – action and the psychological. He defines the latter in parentheses as, simply, ‘preparation for action’.

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The human brain is the result of evolution’s attempts – over the last five million or so years – to keep us abreast of cultural developments. Evolution has done all right. The modern brain makes it a lot easier for our infants and children to get the cultural basics on board. But the idea that the brain is calling the shots in the big picture, or is anything but subservient in regard to our voluntary actions, is science fiction. For people it is culture and the real world – or culture in the real world – that call(s) the shots. The brain has to fall in behind like the rest of us.

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There is a ratcheting effect. (Is this Tomasello’s ratchet?) Culture – working through us via our individual acts of participating, imitating, adapting, communicating and thinking – adapts and organises the effective firing programs in our cerebral cortices. As a result of repeated practice of a new activity (plus communication, thinking, etc.), relevant firing programs get ‘hard-wired in’ and are able to correctly guide the new behaviours ‘automatically’. This leaves us free to think about other things. That is, our thinking and communicating, etc., is freed-up for new learning, new neural-firing-program-installing ventures. Once they are well-ensconced in the repertoire by repetition, new behaviours can be delegated to the brain...

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Look at the following in connection with 12 (i) above:

All the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes - or, more accurately, I should say, processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.

[Nancey Murphy (of Fuller Theological Seminary) in International Herald Tribune, 26 June 2007.]

IHT link

Does the specification “processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems” refer simply to ‘people’? If so, then Murphy’s claim is just: “All the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as socio-cultural phenomena, involving people”, which is, sadly, false. But if “processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems” refers to physiological phenomena, and part of her claim is that these physiological phenomena ‘interact with the socio-cultural world’, then what she is saying is ludicrous. How could physiological phenomena interact with the socio-cultural world? It’s hard enough working out what ‘the socio-cultural’ world is. See entry 12 above.

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In an otherwise very positive review of Barbara Rogoff’s The Cultural Nature of Human Development (OUP 2003), Edward D. Lowe of UCLA comments that:

Although Rogoff makes some mention of biology in the third chapter, there is precious little that specifically documents how social participation shapes biological development, which, in turn, shapes social development. Such an omission leaves an unfortunate and unintended sense that the book's argument is simply another variant of the outdated tabula rasa perspective on human development. Including some specific discussion and examples of the dynamic transactions between biological and social development over the life course would have helped. For example, there might have been a presentation of research on brain development in early childhood that shows how regions of the brain associated with advanced reasoning and emotional regulation are genetically expectant of particular forms of social participation for their typical development (such as attachment-nurturing processes). The development of these regions of the brain then set up important emotional and reasoning pathways that can influence the qualities of later social participation. Unfortunately, this sort of research has only rarely been produced from within the cultural-historical and cultural-ecological traditions from which Rogoff draws.

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“To a neuroscientist, you are your brain; nothing causes your behavior other than the operations of your brain,” Greene says. [Joshua D. Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard.] “If that’s right, it radically changes the way we think about the law. The official line in the law is all that matters is whether you’re rational, but you can have someone who is totally rational but whose strings are being pulled by something beyond his control.” In other words, even someone who has the illusion of making a free and rational choice between soup and salad may be deluding himself, since the choice of salad over soup is ultimately predestined by forces hard-wired in his brain.

Excerpt from an article by Jeffrey Rosen, ‘The Brain on the Stand’ in the New York Times, 11th March 2007, my insert.

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My argument is not that mind (thinking and language) depends on certain social-actional technology (namely, pedagogic, communicational and other action-rehearsing techniques) – which in turn depends on a basic strategy of concerted and cooperative action. My argument is that mind is this technology.

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What motivates people’s actions? Two theories of human motivation and behaviour-production:

(i) The biological individualist view: According to this view, the individual person (conceived as an autonomous biological organism) is motivated primarily by a biological drive towards maximising self-interest – including survival, sexual or economic advantage, pleasure, status, etc. The effective agent is a biologically-evolved body organ, the brain. The senses take in information about external reality (including the prevailing social situation) and pass it on, in the form of neural pulses, to the brain. The brain then converts the incoming information into a neural representation of reality. This representation is synthesised with other previously garnered representations (possibly being modified in the process). Then, from the resultant representation of the prevailing external situation, the brain automatically computes a behavioural solution which will maximise self-interest. It then issues instructions (neurally stimulates motor nerves and glands) to the body to implement that behavioural solution. The person’s action is what results. The external situation is altered by the person’s action, thus generating new sensory input and further behavioural adjustment. This view or some variant of it is the one taught in all or nearly all university psychology and philosophy departments in the Western world.

(ii) The cultural induction view: According to this view, the prime motivator for people’s actions is an urge (initially innate and biological but subsequently culturally enhanced and channelled) towards participating with others in concerted and cooperative activity. This manifests itself initially as neo-natal imitation and is revealed later as the child’s enthusiasm for participation (including in concerted perceptual behaviour) and the adult’s habitual participation and persistent default empathising. Empathy is minimal incipient participation as a means of self-readying for (possible) participation. The presence of others engaged in concerted or cooperative activity has a tendency to induce (initially as a biological response but subsequently as a learned response) congruent behaviour from an observer. A similar but reduced inductive tendency results from the agent’s witnessing behaviour of another individual. The inductive power of solo behaviour is increased if the solo behaviour is done in such a way as to constitute a demonstration. Pedagogy is the art of maximising the inductive effect of demonstrated behaviour. As well as being motivated by others’ joint activity and demonstrations, the individual may be motivated to act by others’ speech (which is a kind of shorthand, token demonstration of an activity) or by situations confronted alone. In the latter case (the paradigm case for the biological-individual theory), the situation itself functions, believe it or not, as a social scenario – the agent imagines (minimally rehearses) it as a social scenario, partly by imaginatively reprising past experiences of this kind – in which others are performing, or a teacher is demonstrating, an appropriate actional response in this situation. The situation induces the (solo, ex concerted and/or cooperative) response, qua abbreviated or token concerted response, from the agent.

 

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It is evident that thinking involves not only covert but overt acts of self-readying-for-action, self-reminding, auto-pedagogy, etc. Why has cognitive science nothing to say about these actional aspects of thinking? Perhaps because the discussion and explanation of people's everyday actions is not, and can never be, a scientific activity.

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Bert Hodges asks me to be more specific about what kind of progression it is that I trace in Chapters 4-7 of The Act of Thinking and in my Grimstad paper: link Bert wants to know the 'basic logic' of what he calls my 'social-developmental' story (or 'narrative'). He asks, Is it a list of the (Kantian, 'transcendental') prerequisites of thinking? Is it a succession of levels of conditioning such as a behaviourist might identify? My answer is that what I am talking about is a simple technological progression. And corresponding to the technological progression is a pedagogical progression for those who arrive on the scene later, after the technology has been invented and implemented, and have to be inducted into it step by step.

We are so used to thinking of technology as involving hardware that, because concerting and cooperating do not per se involve the use of hardware, we find it difficult at first to recognise them as also varieties, and hugely important varieties, of technology. We might call them 'actional' technologies. However, the concept of solo actional technology – reaching up to pull down a fruit-laden branch, say, or different methods of swimming – might be difficult to justify. It might sometimes be hard to distinguish such behaviours as 'technical' as against other patently clever learned actions of people or animals (crows removing milk-bottle tops, for example). But my intuition is that applying the concept of technology to concerted and cooperative activity is not questionable in the same way. Concerted and cooperative activity are more obviously factitious. And it is this 'social-actional' technology I am talking about: social activity such as two people joining forces to lift a heavy object, one person showing another how to do something, pointing or other gesturing, speech generally, a show of hands to test a consensus, a 'set move' in a rugby game, rugby coaching itself, a collective hunting or gathering strategy, and so on.

We can as justifiably speak of 'prototype forms', 'adaptations', 'progression', 'development' and even 'components' (in the sense of component social skills or techniques) in connection with social-actional technology as in connection with hard technologies. Thus in The Act of Thinking I trace a technological development from neonatal imitation (which is not a technology), to deliberate demonstrating-how (which is a technology), to the use of mime and expressive gesture to facilitate the demonstrating of concerted and cooperative activity, to the use of mime to solicit concerted or cooperative activity, to the use of speech for soliciting concerted or cooperative activity, to the use of speech to facilitate the demonstrating and otherwise teaching of activity, to the use of mime and speech in make-believe play, to the use of speech (in conversation, say) to merely moot activity scenarios, to the ability of an individual to rehearse one or other of the above techniques by himself (in 'thinking what one is doing', say), and thence eventually to the mature thinking skill. Although thinking itself and one or two of its immediate developmental precursors are arguably solo skills, or solo exercises of social skills, the technological pyramids they top are entirely and irreducibly social.

We can infer an original (presumably hominid) development of the above social-actional technology – with evolution from time to time providing helpful anatomical (especially brain) changes, fitting us better for learning and applying this technology, as respective technological advances confer significant survival advantage. And we can observe how modern children acquire and adjust to this technology. Questions of how closely the latter learning-developmental progression parallels the former technological-developmental one are interesting but not crucial for getting a good understanding of either.

 

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Human nature is so steeped in this concerting, cooperating and communicating technology, and our survivial is so dependent on it, that it is (God or evolutionary forces have made it) our basic motivation. Our most powerful and persistent emotion – the sense of togetherness, love – is what results from the successful implementation of the technology, it is what results from successful concerted action, cooperation or communication. We love each other when and because we work well together. This begins at the breast and does not cease until, dying, a person finally relaxes his or her grip on the hand of the person at the bedside.

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My hypothesis about the function of speech is an expanded explanation of certain stages in the technological progress postulated in 22 above. A mime is a much-abbreviated 'demonstration' of an action or activity, consisting of the performance, in an abbreviated and/or stylised way, of a distinctive fragment of the activity. The primary practical function of mime and gesture (abbreviated mime) is to solicit the participation of the audience, with the speaker, in a session of the 'demonstrated' activity. Speech takes over this shared-activity-soliciting function from mime and gesture. The takeover is enabled by (1) the distinctive vocal 'marking' of activities and their component phases and junctures when the activities are first taught and practiced, and (2) the subsequent use of these vocal sounds as mimes (that is, distinctive fragments of an activity that are performed to betoken a demonstration of it) done for activity-soliciting purposes.

Once this basic action-soliciting or 'hortative' function of speech is well-established, its use can be extended from the soliciting of immediate joint performances of an activity, to the soliciting of: future performances, or the mere contemplation (imagined performance) of an activity, performance of solo activity on the audience's part, stages and junctures of activities, etc.  Reportive speech can be plausibly explained in terms of the soliciting of shared (solo, future, imagined, etc.) perceptual activity. We might like to rubric these innumerable soliciting functions as the 'mooting' or 'proposing' of 'activity scenarios'. This concept of speech as an activity-solicitor casts about as much light as it is possible to cast on the general or overall function of speech.

Explanation of grammar and of 'language' qua abstract structure flows from the basic fact of this practical function of speech, and the exigencies of implementing it in groups of people. The limitations of people's ability to remember, for example, necessitates the use of permutations and combinations to maximise the number of differentiable complex vocals while minimising the number of basic vocals to be remembered.

 

25. _________________________________________________________________

What is consciousness? Consciousness is a very subtle, rapid and efficient kind of rehearsal, by an individual, of certain kinds of concerted and cooperative activity – particularly pedagogic and/or heuristic activity such as being shown something by someone or showing someone something, giving or hearing a description of something, asking or answering questions about something, debating some issue, preparing some concerted or cooperative action, issuing or hearing instructions or admonitions or encouragement or discouragement, etc.

 

I am defining consciousness in terms of (as an individual's private rehearsal of) concerted and cooperative (especially pedagogic) activity. Does this mean that we engage in concerted and cooperative prior to having – that is, without – consciousness? I say, rather, that concerted and cooperative – that is, shared, activity – is the original form of, the prototype of, consciousness. It is the matrix from which consciousness is a derivative. Shared activity is developmentally and logically prior to solo activity. I also say that the sharing of activity constitutes the limit, the be-all and end-all and the bedrock of our understanding. There is nothing knowable by us as persons that is developmentally earlier or later than the sharing of activity. There is only actual sharing of one kind or another – or solo rehearsal of it, that is, 'consciousness'.

26. _________________________________________________________________

Consider the idea that, whenever someone looks at a picture of Mickey Mouse, there is a particular pattern of neurophysiological activity that goes on in his brain. My query about this is: By what procedure could this conclusion be established? Presumably, to establish the correlation, one has to be able to see the two phenomena – the person looking at the picture of Mickey Mouse, and the neurophysiological activity in his brain – side by side. One has to be able to check from one to the other. That is what it means for there to be a temporal correlation between one phenomenon and another. It has to be truthfully reported (and thus it has to be possible to truthfully report) that: this is happening here and, concurrently, there, this other thing is happening. My comment is that the required correlation cannot be established in a purely scientific way, but only in some essentially impossible-to-perform hybrid of informal everyday and formal scientific observation. To identify the neurophysiological phenomenon the observer must be following the rules of, and using the objective observation methods of, neurophysiological science. There is no problem here. On the other hand, the neuro-scientist as such is incapable of identifying a picture of Mickey Mouse. 'Mickey Mouse' is not a neurophysiological concept and never could be. Mickey Mouse is not definable in neurophysiological terms. Nor, for that matter, are 'a picture of' or 'looking at a picture of' definable by neuro-science. Of course, if he is in the role of 'ordinary au fait participant in popular Western culture', a neuro-scientist would have no difficulty identifying what the person is looking at. But he is not in that role, because he is supposed to be, simultaneously, identifying a certain neurophysiological phenomenon – and for that job he has to have his neuro-scientist hat on.

To those who assume that the use of brain imaging technology has provided scientific proof that thinking is a brain event, I would point out that the above argument applies not only in the case of a person looking at a picture of Mickey Mouse but also in the case of a person who is thinking of, or thinking about, Mickey Mouse or a picture of Mickey Mouse.

 

(“But the scientist can easily change hats. Of course he can. There's nothing wrong with changing hats. All scientists do it. They do it all the time. Ask a real scientist. And what is science, anyway?”)

 

27. _________________________________________________________________

Quote from The Observer, 08.07.07:

Imaginary friends, the mysterious characters who often take up residence in family homes, are hugely beneficial to children, according to new research. A study from the Institute of Education found that the invisible pals offer companionship and emotional support, aid creativity, boost self-esteem and create 'a sense of self'. Parents should not worry even if their child dreams up multiple companions, it said. “Imaginative children will create imaginary friends,” said Karen Majors, an educational psychologist at the institute who is carrying out the research. “Companionship is a big part of it. They can be a way of boosting self-confidence...”

And not just children. For us adults, even our actual friends and confidants are, when they're not with us or on the other end of the phone, 'imaginary friends'.

28. _________________________________________________________________

An extrapolation of the form of Chomsky's argument against Skinner:

Taken literally, as science, physiology is not about thinking or any other kind of personal action. And, taken metaphorically, or 'seen in a metaphorical light' – as the 'causal underpinning', 'physical basis', or whatever, of actions such as thinking – the physiology adds nothing to our knowledge of those actions.

29. _________________________________________________________________

An epigram pinched from a chapter heading in Shlain, Leonard. Art and Physics: Parallel visions in space, time and light. New York: Harper 1991/2007.

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. (James Baldwin) Someone should have said this about philosophy.

30. _________________________________________________________________

Very important in original thinking is the ability to remain still – to not think, to just inhabit for a while, savour, the position one has arrived at. This ability to pause, and mark one's surroundings, and perhaps pitch camp, is what allows the individual to, in stages over time, advance tremendous distances. The individual's intellectual celerity and range (the latter pumped big by discussion) remarked in Chapter 7 of The Act of Thinking, is no use without the ability to take stock.

 

31. _________________________________________________________________

Saying that thinking is a brain function is like saying that a person's job (or other social obligation) is a brain function.

Is going to school a brain function? Learning to play chess? Playing chess? Winning a chess tournament? Supposing there was an identifiable brain neuro-physiological correlate of 'winning a chess tournament'. Is there any chance that this correlation could have been discovered purely from the neurophysiology? I mean, is it conceivable that a brain scientist, seeing this particular neurophysiological syndrome (this particular 'neural firing program') could infer, from the physiology alone, that this was the host person (the owner of the brain) winning a chess tournament? What about a brain scientist who knew nothing about chess? Could he make the same discovery?

32. _________________________________________________________________

Academic philosophers like Stephen Stich (whose odd review of Sterelny's book I read the other day), who still talk about 'folk psychology' and cite in particular our everyday notions of belief and desire (for some reason the central 'folk psychological' notion of mind gets far fewer mentions) and who debate the extent to which the folk have 'got it right' about cognition, invariably neglect to mention one other important popular notion in the cognition area – the fancy that knowledge and thinking occur in, or are produced by, the brain. Have the folk got that right?

 

These supposedly brainy philosopher types should look at, rather than just assume, what us plain folks believe about knowledge, cognition, etc. When you do look at what we say about cognition, about 'mind', 'mental phenomena', and the brain, it is obvious that most or all of it – all our colloquial use of the words brain, brainy, on the brain and brainless, for example – is merely figurative. When you see this basically figurative character of us folk's talk about cognition, you also see that we don't seriously believe any internal organ (brain, mind or whatever) is responsible for thinking. That's just how we talk. It's not us that has 'mind' and 'brain' on the brain. It's these dopey philosophers. Turning the tables and looking at the way they talk about the brain – the way they seriously put it up as a candidate for the non-existent roles of 'ulterior agent' or (even more farcically) 'venue' of thought – the everyday expression that springs to mind is brainless. They're just nuts, crackers, their brains are cracked, you might say.

 

33. _________________________________________________________________

Maybe I could have made a stronger case in the Introduction of my book for the propriety of moral evaluation of acts of thinking, thoughts. We talk about horrid, nasty thoughts: 'what a thing to think!' and so on. And there are, by contrast, nice thoughts, lovely thoughts. And there is no doubt at all that someone who entertains, especially who habitually entertains, albeit without any intent to action whatsoever, thoughts of murder or rape, is doing something bad. A penny for your thoughts?

Violence on television and in video games is bad for this kind of reason alone. It inures people to thinking bad thoughts about other people. There are jobs that require this kind of inuring. For example, there are people who design weapons and who study the damage weapons cause with the intention of maximising it in their own designs. The use of guns is just one part of a technological practice in which thinking of a gun and the damage it causes, like making a gun, is an essential component. Maybe you can't entertain thoughts entirely disinterestedly. They are intentions-to-action deferred, baulked, inhibited, but intentions to action, incipient actions, actions incepted, nevertheless.

34. _________________________________________________________________

Here is the abortive 'distributed mind' notion again, another attempt to put some gloss of reasonableness on it: this time in a quote from the New Zealand (Canterbury University) philosopher, Derek Browne, from his (much better than Stich's) review (in The Rutherford Journal Vol 1) of Sterelny's Thought in a Hostile World:

 

Whereas the classical view is that cognition occurs primarily inside the head, there is a lot of recent work that explores the nature of extended cognition (Clark 1997), wherein our human cognitive achievements are attributed not to the naked brain, but to the brain as coupled to various external structure and processes (especially artefacts). Andy Clark himself tends to develop this thesis of brain-world coupling in an individualist way, describing, for example, the way in which our in-board memory is enhanced by off-loading records onto readily-accessible external storage devices. Sterelny gives a cooperative spin to this brand of externalism (see also Hutchins 1995). Not only are our cognitive talents a product of novel forms of close-coupling between brain and world (especially, to repeat, artefacts), but our cognitive talents are also enhanced in novel and powerful ways by being distributed among individual agents (offloaded, as it were, onto other brains). Cognitive divisions of labour and complex forms of cognitive cooperation are now so ubiquitous that we are sometimes inclined to overlook the extent to which they actually, literally, constitute advanced cognition, as distinct from being simply external effects of internal cognitive powers. Cognition ain’t just in the individual head.

So here are the three views on the block:

(1)     mind as a brain function, all 'in the head';

(2)     mind as brain plus cultural practices/institutions (broadly describable as 'cognitive' and/or 'heuristic' practices – pedagogic institutions, conversation, writing, representations, maths, science... ); [This is the distributed view I am so down on – see entry 12 above.]

(3)     mind as an individual's ability to borrow these practices/institutions for private use, to rehearse sessions of them for personal self-readying-for-action purposes – and that's all there is to mind, to thinking, to consciousness – this actional ability. The brain doesn't come into it at all. [My view]

 

35. _________________________________________________________________

Implicit in The Act of Thinking is something like the following.

There are three states or conditions in which we live. Two are extremes and the other is the everyday muddle in between.

The first state is: fully absorbed with another person, or in a group, in some concerted or cooperative activity.

The second is: alone (whether there are others around or not) and privately rehearsing engaging in concerted or cooperative activity with others a là the first kind of state.

And third is the mixture and muddle of these two – that is, engagement (or partial engagement) with others juxtaposed with private rehearsal of some other activity, which latter activity probably involves some different (real or fancied) companion or companions.

The idea of 'mind' – the idea that the second state, the private rehearsing of shared activity, indicates a whole different dimension of reality, so to speak behind the everyday observable social world – is totally dispensable. Admittedly, the solo 'private rehearsing' activity that state two involves is subtle and complicated, and difficult to describe (I have tried incepting, tokening and minimal rehearsing so far). But it doesn't represent a different order of reality. It is still understandable as an action that the person is performing.

 

36. _________________________________________________________________

I am increasingly impatient with the extended/distributed/leaky 'concept' or 'theory' (it is really just a metaphor). I believe that our so-called 'mental' abilities consist entirely of (a) abilities to participate in and (b) abilities to privately rehearse participation in, a range of concerted and cooperative practices. These practices include pedagogic and heuristic activity, make-believe games, all kinds of communicative interchange, etc.

Our abilities in these social practices (the private rehearsal of which constitutes thinking) of course depend, as all our abilities depend, on our each having a brain. The brain is a kind of notepad on which the recipes for these practices are jotted (via operant conditioning and Hebbian synaptic facilitation, yes). Having had these recipes inscribed in/on our cerebral cortices by (social) learning enables us to effortlessly participate in and rehearse the practices. But this is as it is with all learned skills. The brain plays no more (nor less) integral a role in thinking than it does in, say, hop-scotch or fly-fishing. Who would want to calI hop-scotch or fly-fishing 'brain processes'?

— Derek Melser —

 

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