Notebook 2009



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In my scheme there are basically just two kinds of things we can do: we can perform actions (with or without others) and we can, with or without others, and in a more or less token way, rehearse actions. That's the lot. Everything we do falls into one or other category. And, of course, rehearsing is also a kind of doing; rehearsing is a performance too.

Here are some of the labels we have for the rehearsing of actions — that is, for different kinds of rehearsings of different kinds of actions in different kinds of everyday context:

Doing things in one's head, the mind working: thinking, remembering, imagining, planning ahead, feeling emotion, deciding, being conscious of something...
Thinking what one is doing, experiencing something...
Understanding what is being said to one, following what someone is saying, (understanding) the meaning of a word, referring to something, discussing something, asking a question, saying things (using language)...
Doing mathematics, conducting a scientific experiment, writing a letter, reading a book, reading a piece of music, listening to music, drawing a picture, appreciating a work of art, watching television...
Watching and understanding what someone else is doing, sympathising, empathising, enjoying a performance...
Learning how to do something, being taught, teaching...
Perceiving an object, identifying what one is looking at, interpreting a situation... Masturbating, rehearsing a scene from a play, recounting an incident, devising a computer program...
Seeing a mental image, one's brain forming a representation of reality...

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Learning language is like everyone's synchronising watches prior to a joint operation. We 'synchronise perceptions' or 'synchronise concepts' prior to a lifetime of joint operations.

...the concepts with which we ordinarily think are those of our vocabulary. Now, it is unquestionable that language, and consequently the system of concepts which it translates, is the product of a collective elaboration. What it expresses is the manner in which society as a whole represents the facts of experience. The ideas which correspond to the diverse elements of language are thus collective representations. [Page 434, Durkheim, Emile. 1915/1976. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Transl. J.W. Swain), London: Allen & Unwin.]

It is a pity Durkheim relies on the representation metaphor. What he means by 'represents the facts of experience' is probably 'rehearses the key actions and perceptions involved in particular joint activities' or something like that.

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It is amazing what this huge area of our culture, 'the mental world' — with all its attendent disciplines and medical specialities, and its millions of invocations in lterature and everyday speech — reduces to when you look carefully. It is simply our ability to rehearse any one or other of the innumerable practices we engage in with others in a rapid and minimal, and often entirely inconspicuous, way. Our reason for rehearsing the activity in question is, obviously, that we have occasion to perform it and are not as yet quite prepared to perform it. We need to ready ourselves for engaging in that activity. Our reason for doing the rehearsal rapidly and with little or no overt movement, is simply that we can: we already know this activity pretty well. If we are ignorant of the activity in question then, of course, we might need someone else to show us how or, if we are less ignorant, they can just tell us how.

Yes, we have ways of doing this rehearsing and readying-for-action with others too. In this case, though keeping our rehearsal as rapid and efficient as possible, we publicise it by, as it were, simultaneously miming the activity (in words) for the other's benefit, to keep him abreast of what it is we are rehearsing. That's what 'telling' is.

This rapid-rehearsal ability of ours takes a while to learn, and it remains fragile — especially if we have grown up without enough moral support from fellow-participants in the practices of our culture. And the rehearsing is difficult, and can easily go awry, if we are experiencing strong emotion during it. Hence the medical specialities, I suppose. But God, why do they have to employ such an outlandish terminology? What the hell is 'the mind', for example?

And yes, the brain does have a lot to do with our activity-rehearsing ability. If the cerebral cortex wasn't pretty much like Hebb said it is, with the neural firing programs corresponding to activities needing to be regularly exercised to stay intact, then we wouldn't need to rehearse our actions so often prior to performing them. The minimal rehearsing clearly somehow 'warms up' or otherwise readies the relevant firing program, in the same way as, though presumably not to the same extent as, a full rehearsal such as a lesson or a practice session would.

If the above is even half true — and it seems to me entirely and obviously true — then what a pack of wallies 'philosophers of mind' must be.

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It's not as though there's no such thing as mind. Well, it is and it isn't. The term mind is just the slang term that people use, in association with a whole lot of different metaphors, for talking about the minimal rehearsing ability I mention above. The idea of a place or agent inside the head where the rehearsing (thinking) is done, or which does the rehearsing/thinking, is a sort of euphemism or metaphor for this ability of ours. So 'mind' is real in so far as the noun mind refers, albeit indirectly, to our minimal rehearsings — a very real and very interesting species of action we perform.

However, mind is unreal and a fiction if the word mind is taken as the label of some mysterious place or agent inside people's heads. In any event, if you want to attempt a 'philosophy' or a 'science' of something, it is surely a bad start to use the colloquial figurative label for it as the sign over the door. If you want to have a philosophy or science of thinking, then it can only be misleading to start talking in a serious academic way about 'the mind'. If you wanted to study people's emotional behaviour, for example, in a formal academic way, would you christen this discipline the philosophy or science 'of the heart'? The fact that we have the habit, in our colloquial speech, of disingenuously locating feelings in the heart is an excellent reason not to talk about the heart in this connection. And the heart has the considerable advantage over the mind that it's really in there.

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In line with the above, here is a letter I wrote to the London Review of Books in regard to a disagreement between Fodor and Clark about Clark's 'extended mind' notion. I affected indignation but really, since my ideas have been lumped in with those of the extended-mind school, I wanted to state (for myself if no-one else) the difference between my concept of 'mind' and Clark's.

Isn't the notion of an immaterial agent or place, a 'mind' inside our heads that does our thinking for us or is the place we do it, a colloquial fiction? Is the notion not obviously the result of a disingenuous nominalisation of the old verb mind being propped up by metaphors? The metaphors' being mixed should be a clue. Which is it, agent or place? It can't literally be either, let alone both. And if mind is fictional then the brain can't be the mind, as Fodor says. But nor can heuristic prosthetics such as log tables be part of the mind, as Clark says. What on earth or off it could an 'extended mind' be? Fodor and Clark are 'arguing' about angels on pinheads. Thinking and minding, like signing my cheques, making love to my wife and getting scoffy at dons, are things I do myself — and in lots of places, none of them inside my own head. 'Mind' talk is baby-talk. The Fodor/Clark spat demeans English. One doesn't expect to see that done in the LRB.

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It does seem a bit strange. There is this huge academic project — cognitive science — staffed worldwide with possibly tens of thousands of highly-intelligent people. And it is stalled. It has not even got started, really. No progress is being made because none of the highly intelligent people in question is able to give up an everyday figurative, slang, way of talking about the subject matter. The subject matter of cognitive science is thinking. That is what cognitive science was set up to describe and explain. However, everything that any cognitive scientist says or thinks about thinking is couched in terms of 'mind', mind being fancied as an agent and a place inside people's heads.

If they could only get out of the habit of this colloquial way of speaking about thinking, they might make some progress. They think that they have made progress by identifying the brain as the mind. They believe that the brain is the agent and the venue for thinking: the brain is what does our thinking and it is the place where it is done. But, of course, thinking does not literally go on inside people's heads. It is not literally true that there is something in there, mind and/or brain, that does the thinking, and is the place where it is done. Thinking is not an internal bodily process. It is a learned and voluntary action of the person.

What is odd is that such a huge financial and cultural investment should be stalled by what is essentially a self-indulgence, a concession to the twee — morally and intellectually equivalent to a refusal to give up talking about Christmas in terms of Santa Claus. I would say that the most usual way of defining cognitive science, 'the scientific study of mind', is actually oxymoronic. At least, it is a ridiculous solecism, like 'the scientific study of pixies'.

It makes me think that maybe I am wrong in assuming it is thinking they are interested in. Maybe, their project is actually about something quite different — to do with promulgating, picking up from colloquial speech and giving credence to, a certain slightly crazy way of looking at other people, an ideology. The notion is that people have something inside their heads that controls their behaviour. Perhaps the message that cognitive science is really sending out is nothing to do with thinking — and cognitive science has not made any discoveries about thinking. Perhaps the message is just that 'the mind' is real, it really is there inside people's heads (yes, it is the brain); it is so real that we need all these high-powered scientists and labs to study it. We need expert scientists to tell us what it is inside people's heads that controls their behaviour, and how it works. Does this not strike anyone else as daft?

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Someone telling us how to do X is not demonstrating, in a funny, abbreviated and stylised (verbally tokened) way, the doing of X. He is demonstrating, in a perfectly simple and straightforward way, for us to copy, the (verbal) rehearsing of X. The idea is that rehearsing X in this way, with words for mime, will help us, later, with the actual doing of X.

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Most educational theorising still buys into the traditional model of pedagogy as 'transfer of information from teacher to pupil'. A figurative 'black box' encloses the basically mysterious process via which the information imparted by the teacher ends up inside pupils' heads. The traditional model also casts the pupil in a passive, patient role, being 'operated on' by the teacher. A more realistic model of the pedagogical process has recently been outlined. [1] In this new model, rather than a quantum of information being instilled into the pupil's brain, what is taught is a certain verbal and perceptual competence. Rather than 'information' being transferred, what is communicated from teacher to pupil is a suite of heuristic, perceptual and explanatory skills relating to a subject area. The teacher's role is to demonstrate these various skills — making use of any relevant teaching aids (verbal, textual, graphic, practical, mathematical, electronic, etc.) in the process. The pupils' task is to rehearse the skills (first merely imaginatively, then in some substantial form) in concert with the teacher. The teacher's job is to cue and to facilitate pupils' simultaneous or subsequent performance of the relevant perceptions, descriptions, diagrams, etc.

The core element in the pedagogical process is thus this performance in concert, by teacher and pupils, of heuristic, perceptual and explanatory activity relevant to a given subject matter. Rather than an operator/patient relationship pertaining, teacher and pupils are both actively participating, side-by-side, together. The same principle is operating as when a person teaches another person how to perform some simple physical action by demonstrating it and getting the other person to perform it in concert with him. [Learning takes place by virtue of the fact that the pupil's initial imitative rehearsal of the behaviour in question establishes the foundations of a neural firing program for that behaviour in his cerebral cortex. This neural 'guide' for the behaviour is refined and strengthened by subsequent practice.] The imitative, performing-in-concert strategy for learning is basic in the human repertoire, as is evidenced by the recently discovered facts not only of neonatal imitation, but also neonatal 'provocation' — that is, the near-newborn infant actively initiates the performing-in-concert procedure, by demonstrating a movement for an onlooker to imitate.[2] The strategy must have arisen in a pre-human phase of primate evolution, since pedagogical activity of the performing-in-concert type is also observable in chimpanzees.

Concerted activity is one of the primary, perhaps the primary, source of pleasure for human beings and it has been speculated that, in the pedagogic context, it is the pleasure associated with the concerted performance that generates the neural excitement necessary to 'etch in' new neural firing programs initially in cerebral cortex. [3] That is, for the individual pupil, it is the pleasure of rehearsing the relevant heuristic activity together with his classmates, and with the teacher, that makes it memorable.

Given the evolutionary provenance of concerting as a learning strategy, and its integral links with the human motivation system, it is unlikely that any 'professional learning opportunities' provided for teachers (and/or new principals) are going to produce a viable alternative pedagogic strategy. The best that can be hoped for is improved techniques for facilitating the existing, and time-honoured, process. There are innumerable ways in which teachers' 'demonstrations' of investigative, perceptual and descriptive behaviour can be made more compelling — more attractive of attention and imitation — and more memorable. Aside from improving a teacher's personal presentation skills, there is a growing range of useful teaching aids available. Professional learning opportunities should be concerned with all these. Even more useful, perhaps, but requiring high levels of analytic intelligence, is provision to teachers of improved methods of logically surveying subject matters within the curriculum. The 'attentional itinerary' or 'inspection procedure' via which a given subject matter is initially traversed, how it is introduced — and this sometimes involves metaphor — is often crucial in simplifying the pupil's performance and consolidation of the various subsequent more detailed knowledge skills. Here is another area where there may be room for further development at the professional level.

The important relationships in the classroom are those between individual pupils and the teacher, individual pupils and their classmates, and the class as a whole and the teacher. A sense of commonality and solidarity in all these relationships is a prerequisite for the more specific forms of concerted activity that are to be achieved in actual lessons. The teacher's relationships with individual pupils and with the class as a whole are professional relationships. They are underwritten by personal trust. The teacher must be trusted by the pupils as being a mature, well-informed and reliable representative of the culture that they are so keen to acquire the skills of, and acquire membership in. And the teacher must be trusted by the pupils as having their interests at heart. Along with this personal trust there comes a professional confidentiality which, inevitably, imposes a limit on the extent to which any third party — education managers, school trustees, school benefactors, government agencies — can realistically expect to participate in the pedagogic process. Any third-party intervention, such as via instructions to the teacher to behave in a certain way or do certain things in the classroom, if it is carried beyond a certain point, is bound to compromise the direct and personal teacher-pupil relationship on which the success of actual lessons depends.

There are no 'black boxes', nothing inherently imponderable, in the pedagogic process itself. Certainly, there is often room for improvement in a teacher's pedagogic technique. Sometimes there is room for improvement in the teachers attitude to or with his pupils. On the other hand, often there is no room for improvement in either area. Almost certainly, the most important factor limiting the success of schooling originates outside the school. This is the inability of a number of pupils to adopt the trusting and cooperative attitude vis-ΰ-vis their classmates and/or teachers that is necessary to fund the classroom morale, the 'togetherness', that makes learning possible. The moral inadequacy of a proportion of pupils is inevitable given the social system that supplies pupils to the school. Realistically, major improvements in educational outcomes are only going to come with improvements in the home-lives of the pupils who are currently lowering classroom morale. For educationalists this is the important imponderable – the largest 'black box'.

[1] Melser, D. 2009. 'Verbal communication: from pedagogy to make-believe', in Language Sciences 31, No.5.
[2] Nagy, E. & Molnar, P. 2004. 'Homo imitans or homo provocans? Human imprinting model of neonatal imitation', in Infant behaviour and Development 27, pp.54-63.
[3] Iacoboni, M. 2005. 'Understanding others: Imitation, language, empathy', in S. Hurley and N. Chater, eds., Perspectives on Imitation: From Social Science to Cognitive Science. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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I come back time and again to the popular notion that we do our thinking 'inside ourselves', 'inside our own heads'. I can't decide whether this notion is what has ruined psychology or what created it in the first place. I mean, maybe the whole subject of psyche-ology is founded on a misunderstanding – a misunderstanding that has arisen as a result of our taking the 'inner process' metaphor too seriously. It is a certain kind of actional skill that we are interested in. And this somehow becomes a study of goings-on inside people's heads. Bizarre.

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I have recently participated sporadically in an online psychology/education discussion forum called XMCA. No-one seems to be replying to my posts at the moment. I have been harping on my usual themes – the fictional nature of 'mind'; the misleading nature of the colloquial metaphors we have for taking about thinking; the necessity of empathy for understanding others' actions (hence the impossibility of a purely objective, scientific approach); thinking's being a specially rapid and subtle way of rehearsing heuristic and/or pedagogic activity (such as investigating, teaching, explaining, discussing, conversing, demonstrating, etc.); and the rest. I don't think any of them believe a word of it.

Michael Cole initiated a recent discussion by posting an 1885 quote from the sociologist Gumplowicz (see below). Other contributors fervently applauded the quote, usually attributing amazing prescience to it. The best comment was a summary by Vera Steiner:

“We are profoundly, irrevocably interdependent. We need a new set of terms to express the consequences of that interdependence when it comes to psychological processes...”

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Here is the Gumplowicz passage and my comments on it:

The greatest error of individualist psychology is that a person thinks.This leads to a continual search for the source of thought within the individual himself and for the reasons why he thinks in a particular way and not in any other... What actually thinks within a person is not the individual himself but his social community. The source of his thinking is not within himself but is to be found in his social environment and in the very social atmosphere he 'breathes'.His mind is structured and necessarily cannot think in any other way.(Ludwig Gumplowicz. 1885. Grundriss der Sociologie, Vienna.)

The greatest error of individualist psychology is that a person thinks.
That a person thinks is not a mistake. Thinking is a personal action. It is not something that 'the mind' does, or the brain does. Nor is it something that a community does -- though this is getting nearer the mark. Thinking is something that the person does. And, like almost any other action, it is something that a person has to learn how to do. Furthermore, if you know where to look, you can see children learning how to do it.

This leads to a continual search for the source of thought within the individual himself and for the reasons why he thinks in a particular way and not in any other...
This is not true. What leads to the assumption that the agent or venue of thinking is inside the person is the disingenuous colloquial nominalisation of the old verb to mind (which, three or four hundred years ago in English, meant to think) and the rhetorical 'supporting' of this nominalisation with numerous stock metaphors – the core examples of which firmly locate 'the mind' inside people's heads. The colloquial mind-centredfigurative descriptions of thinking have the effect of subliminal propaganda. We hear and use them all the time. We take it for granted that our minds think, or that we think in our minds -- that thinking goes on in people's heads.

As for the remainder of this sentence: the 'continual search... for the reasons why [the individual] thinks in a particular way and not in any other' is one of the main subject matters, if not the main subject matter, of psychology. Personal thinking styles, abilities and limitations thereof, pathologies, etc. -- all are legitimate and interesting psychological topics.

What actually thinks within a person is not the individual himself but his social community.
As I humbly submit above, nothing thinks within a person, certainly not a whole community. To suggest that a person can get inside himself (to do his thinking) is far-fetched enough. The notion he can get all his friends in there too is beyond even the figurative.

The source of his thinking is not within himself but is to be found in his social environment and in the very social atmosphere he 'breathes'.
If this is to say that thinking is a skill that everyone practices and that we learn from other people and that it consists in essence of the private rehearsing by individuals of public, social interactions (conversations, discussions, lessons, demonstrations, admonitions, etc.), then it is perfectly true. As a statement it is unnecessarily vague and figurative, however.

His mind is structured and necessarily cannot think in any other way.
As I say, talking in terms of 'minds' is just a colloquial way of speaking. It is slang and inappropriate in serious discussion of thinking. 'Structured' (like 'constructed') is just a metaphor that, like other metaphors used outside of everyday speech in everyday situations, obscures as much as it illuminates (more, in this case). The reason the individual 'cannot think in any other way' is that this particular rapid and subtle ('private') way of rehearsing a public educative interaction is what thinking is. If an individual were doing it any other way, he'd be doing something else.

I contribute the above because I think it is ironic that followers of Vygotsky should be applauding such a vague and confused (basically incompetent – the author is clearly just feeling his way in an unfamilar area) description of the social basis of thinking. I mean, why do you think LSV devoted himself with such creative fury to sorting these issues out? Maybe he read this passage of Gumplowicz.

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Ability to act in concert is a necessary ingredient in the two most celebrated human accomplishments, verbal communication (language) and consciousness and thinking (mind).

Verbal communication is basically a matter of a speaker and a hearer rehearsing their possible participation together in concerted-activity-of-a-certain-kind. The rehearsal is carried out in a special abbreviated kind of way: the speaking of specific words 'mimes' specific parts of the activity in question. If speaker and hearer are talking about weeding the garden, the main thing they are doing is re-enacting (or rehearsing, imagining, making-believe) their weeding the garden together. Or, if the speaker is telling the hearer about the ferret seen on the lawn the previous night, what they are rehearsing is their both looking at a ferret on the lawn (at night). Not only is the activity being rehearsed a concerted activity, something imagined as being done together, speaker and hearer are doing the rehearsing of it together, in concert, too. The words are cueing their respective imaginings just so they can be done in concert.

Thus verbal communication depends intimately and entirely on our ability to perform actions in concert with one another. For a start, because it is a rehearsal of concerted-activity-of-a-certain-kind, we have to be reasonably experienced in participating in concerted activity generally, and perhaps in concerted activity of that particular kind, in order to be able to convincingly rehearse it. As well, because it is a rehearsal, done for the purpose of readying speaker and hearer for some possible future real concerted activity, verbal communication as a practice depends for its raison d'κtre on the possibility of those future real performances. We can, and sometimes do, rehearse impossibilities – impossible joint observings or other doings – but only as the exceptional case. The whole practice of rehearsing concerted activity verbally could never have become established unless real performance was in the offing in the normal case. If, for whatever reason, such concerted activity as is being verbally rehearsed is always impossible, speech would always be idle and would never have been invented. [The relation between verbal communication and subsequent concerted activity is more varied and complex than just 'readying'. Speech is used not only prior to but in the course of concerted and cooperative activity, and used not only to ready it but to orchestrate, implement and/or expedite it.]

And, of course, because the rehearsing that verbal communication involves is itself a concerted activity, and of a quite subtle and sophisticated kind, considerable prior experience of concerted activity – generally, and of expressive mime and make-believe-type shared activity in particular – is required before young children can acquire the knack of it.

Consciousness and thinking are also derivative of and dependent on our ability to act in concert. They are also ways of rehearsing — but in an even more abbreviated, rapid and subtle way, and by a person alone — possible future concerted activity.

Consciousness is an activity, something we do. A person who perceives something, X, whilst alone will typically rehearse (in a specially rapid and subtle, 'minimal' or 'token' way) the sharing of his perceiving of X. To be 'conscious of' X is to be imagining/rehearsing the sharing of one's perception of X with someone else. It is to imagine the present (in fact solo) performance as being performed in concert with the someone. The other is generally not imagined in any detail (though sometimes a particular person is imagined), but only as supplying corroboration for one's own perceivings. Often some verbal communication between oneself and the imagined co-perceiver is rehearsed — one mutters rapidly, sotto-voce, that's interesting... it's a ferret. Because it consists of the imagining/rehearsing of joint perceivings-of-things with others, consciousness obviously presupposes a lot of prior — and future — experience of actual concerted perceivings. It also presupposes plenty of experience in verbal communication.

Thinking is another example of rehearsing of that very subtle, sophisticated and private kind. It need not involve any actual perceiving and can be done very well whilst lying motionless in the dark. Thinking is the private rehearsing of communicative activity of various kinds. Typically it is verbal communication of some kind: one is rehearsing a lesson, explanation, admonition, discussion or conversation about something or some course of action. One does the rehearsing in an attempt to as it were 'teach oneself' something, and thus ready oneself for doing something. The ability to think (for oneself) presupposes wide and impressive experience of learning from and with others. It presupposes some experience of teaching others, also. And these educative practices that thinking presupposes are all, like verbal communication, primarily concerted and cooperative undertakings. They are all adaptations or sophistications of learning by 'demonstration and imitation' or 'doing together' — that is, 'doing in concert'.

Thus even the quintessentially 'private' activity, thinking, depends fundamentally on our doing things in concert with others. In groups, including whole societies, in which there is a high level of morale, goodwill and togetherness, verbal communication (and all the other communicative arts), consciousness and thinking will thrive. Communication prospers if there is confidence that joint undertakings will be participated in enthusiastically. Awareness and thought prosper where communication does. By the same token those who are for whatever reason deprived of rich experience of participation in concerted activity will fail to develop good communicative and intellectual skills. This applies particularly to children.

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Verbal communication is always a proposal that present parties do something. In the prototype case, the speaker is proposing an action or activity for he and the hearer to engage in together. Verbal communication is fundamentally hortative.

How is the action or activity in question specified? It is demonstrated, by a special abbreviated kind of mime called speech. The speaker demonstrates the activity to the hearer, using special vocally produced sounds. These vocal sounds have been taught as part of, as 'what one does in association with', specific actions or activities or phases or junctures within them. Because they are, essentially, distinctive fragments of activities to be demonstrated, and very easily reproducible fragments, the vocal sounds are ideal for miming the activity with.

I used to get het up about the word meaning. I would compare meaning with mind and talk about the nominalisation of verbs generating rhetorical fictions, reifications that could be spoken about only in metaphors. But if people want to talk seriously about 'meanings', if they are determined to believe there are such things in the world, there may be something one can toss them. We could say that the 'meaning' of any given bit of speech — or any other abbreviated dramatic enactment of an activity — is simply the activity that is being demonstrated (or enacted or re-presented) thereby.

To say that verbal communication is essentially hortative, and prototypically a proposal that speaker and hearer do something together is true but just the beginning. Innumerable variations on this theme have evolved. The activity might not be something we are to engage in immediately. It might be after a specific time period, or perhaps just sometime, or maybe never — we are just to imagine doing it. Or maybe it is not for us to do but for someone else, or someone else has already done it. Or it is not a joint activity being proposed but a solo one, and it could be for either the hearer or the speaker to do. The speaker might be promising to do it himself. Perhaps the activity is specifically something we are not to do — so what is being exhorted is not doing that. And all these cases are developmental derivatives, advances in speech 'technology' — advances in 'actional technology', one might say — from the originary, the primaeval, 'let's both do this'.

One of the most common kinds of verbal communication is people referring to and describing things in the world, stating and debating facts. This fact-stating kind of speech appears to not fit my hortative model at all. But the appearance is deceptive. With referential and fact-stating speech, the activity being proposed — or considered, or reported, or promised — is 'heuristic' activity: investigative or perceptual behaviour. It is the perception-recipes, the inspection-procedures, appropriate to particular things in the world that verbal references and descriptions invite us to imaginatively rehearse. Perceivings are doings too, and learned doings at that. And when we learn how to do the perception-recipes for specific things in the world we also learn what vocals one does in conjunction with them. Thus, later on, we can vocally mime investigatings and perceivings just as we can any other kind of activity. A description is a proposal, an invitation, to perceive something. It is a proposition, an instruction.

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We are all familiar, and have since early childhood been familiar, with the idea of doing things in our heads. One rehearses some unfamiliar action, a new knitting stitch or golf stroke, in one's head prior to actually attempting it. One goes back over a conversation in one's head, in order to refresh one's memory of it. One does simple calculations in one's head, to save time. Of course, we can speak in terms of the mind rather than the head: I rehearse the action 'mentally' or 'in my mind'. However, since people's minds are in their heads, this is still to say one is performing the action in one's head. Our general name for these various doings in the head — these goings-through-the-motions, visualisings, goings-over or goings-through, these mental rehearsings and calculatings — is 'thinking'. By definition, thinking is something we do in our heads.

[Note to the reader: It is important that you bear with me for the duration of this next paragraph, that you read it through slowly and carefully to the end. If you do not suffer the argument word by word, you will not get the benefit of it.]

Think of an ordinary, simple action, a 'medium-sized physical action', such as drinking a glass of water. The question might arise, in a court of law say, in relation to some particular example of a person's drinking a glass of water, where it took place. So: he did it in the kitchen, in the garden, on the stairs, or wherever. Now, there are obvious limitations on the kinds of locations that one can drink a glass of water in. In a telephone booth? Yes, absolutely. No problem. In a cupboard — or a sack? Well, it depends how big the cupboard or sack is. There has to be room for the necessary arm movements. The elbow has to jut out a certain distance or the glass won't pour properly. Now imagine an absolutely enormous blue whale skull lying on a beach. A child climbs into it through the foramen magnum — there is just enough room — and sits down. Someone passes in a glass of water and the child sits there inside the whale skull drinking the glass of water. We could well describe this event as 'a child drinking a glass of water inside a whale's head'. I would say that, as far as people drinking water inside heads is concerned, this is about the closest we are going to get. A normal-sized adult? No way would he or she ever get inside even the biggest whale skull. If the animal is smaller? Again, no way. A gorilla skull, say? Not a chance, for even the tiniest little kid. The thing is, it is impossible for a normal-sized person to drink a glass of water inside the skull even of the largest animal that has ever lived. If the skull is as small as that of a human being, the impossibility persists — or increases, one is tempted to say. If the human being is alive, so we are properly talking 'inside a head' rather than just inside an empty skull, the same applies. It would be utterly, utterly impossible for a person to drink a glass of water in there. And, of course, it is similarly impossible — albeit there are now other reasons as well — for a person to drink a glass of water inside his or her own head.

One might venture general principles here — for example: In order for a person to perform an action in a certain place, the person has to be able to physically get into that place. But the main point of the above paragraph is to demonstrate that when we speak of doing things 'in our heads' and speak of thinking as something that we do 'in our heads', we cannot mean actual physical doing in an actual physical place. We must mean something else. And, since this other concept of doing things in one's head (the one associated with thinking) is so familiar to everyone, and has been since childhood, it should be easy to say what this other meaning of 'doing something in one's head' is. Well, what is it? What is it to practice a knitting stitch in one's head? Here, everyone falls silent or indignantly professes incomprehension. The point is, no-one has a clue how to answer this simple question. What is it to practice a knitting stitch in one's head?

Well, I do have a clue. My explanation is that the expression in my head used in that context is just a metaphor, a clever, euphemistic way of referring to an extremely common everyday action people perform, which we call 'thinking'. In The Act of Thinking I synthesise (from Ryle, Vygotsky and elsewhere) a description of what thinking literally is, what this 'doing in the head' is a metaphor for. I conclude that thinking is an especially rapid and subtle way of rehearsing actions, a kind of minimal miming of them, which we do in order to ready ourselves for performing the actions in question. The 'in the head' metaphor highlights the subtlety and inconspicuousness of the act of thinking — it is almost as if the rehearsing is being done 'inside' the person. That thinking is rehearsing of this abbreviated kind is in my opinion just a simple and straightforward matter of fact. It is the sort of thing you could probably get a five-year-old to appreciate. Five-year-olds are certainly good enough at doing it. You could teach them that, yes, what they are doing when they are 'thinking' is just this special kind of abbreviated miming of an action. And you would go on to say in what sort of contexts we do this 'thinking' (in problematic contexts where we don't know what to do next), what sort of activity it is we are rehearsing (generally communicative or educative activity, instruction-sessions, relating to what to do in this kind of problem scenario) and why we do it (as a means of readying ourselves to perform appropriate problem-solving behaviour).

However, although you might be able to explain it to a five-year-old, the vast majority of adults are quite incapable of seeing the 'doing in the head' idiom as figurative. This is the description of thinking, and the only description of thinking, they have ever heard or used. There is no literal description available to contrast the metaphorical one with. People can speak and think about thinking only via this metaphor. Thus, it is impossible for them to see the metaphorical description as such, as merely a figure of speech. Since childhood, thinking — a very real and familiar part of life — has been 'in the head'. That thinking is done in the head is just true, simpliciter, with no suggestion of any figurativeness qualifying this truth. The question of figurativeness never occurs to anyone.

And, because people are incapable of seeing 'doing in the head' as metaphorical, they have never even wondered, let alone found out, what it is a metaphor for — what the reality is underlying the metaphor. It has never even occurred to them that it might be a metaphor, so the question 'What is thinking, really?' just does not compute. Maybe this is why my account in The Act of Thinking has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Hopefully, when you demonstrate to people (as I attempt to above) that one cannot possibly mean that thinking is 'doing in the head' in any literal, physical sense, you force them to realise that the phrase must be intended in some other, presumably figurative, way. This is disturbing, because it exposes the fact that, if 'in the head' doesn't mean literally in the head, they don't know what it does mean. Of course, thinking is familiar to everyone in the sense that we all do it all the time and know when we are doing it. But having 'in the head' go up in smoke as figurative means we no longer have any verbal resources with which to describe or explain what thinking is. Clearly, thinking is a basic part of our lives — so it is embarrassing to be, as an adult, incapable of even beginning an explanation of what it involves.

Cognitive scientists believe that thinking goes on in the brain. I explain this as follows. Like everyone else, the cognitive scientist accepts uncritically — never considering the literal vs figurative possibility — that thinking goes on in people's heads. This is simply assumed as fact. Cognitive scientists, most of them, realise that the notion of 'mind' is, for whatever reason, not suitable as a scientific term. Given that thinking goes on in the head and given we cannot talk about 'the mind', we have to either equate mind with brain or reject mind altogether and just talk about the brain. Either way, because there is nothing much of interest inside the head apart from the brain, and because it is taken for granted thinking goes on in the head, it is taken as a certainty that thinking goes on in the brain. Now, it is possible most cognitive scientists are also aware, perhaps at some implicit or incipient level, that people cannot literally perform actions inside their own brains. At any rate, cognitive scientists assume — I have never seen it explicitly argued — that thinking is not an action of the person but is, instead, a natural internal bodily process, a function of the brain, in fact. Cognitive science proceeds from there. It attempts to locate the 'brain mechanisms responsible for' thinking, consciousness, the emotions, and so on. However, as I argue in The Act of Thinking, thinking is not an internal bodily function. It really is an action — an ordinary (albeit unique) learned and voluntary action of the person. In my view the incompatibility of 'thinking is a personal action' and 'thinking goes on in the brain' is to be avoided not by denying the first premise but by denying the second.

When there is a metaphor deeply embedded in the language of a culture, when there is one pervasive euphemism used to refer to something that is obviously important (but yet is never directly referred to), one is entitled to suspect that there is something about the euphemistically referred-to thing that is, in that culture, embarrassing or otherwise psychologically difficult. So, what is it about thinking that the 'in the head' and 'in the mind' guff protects us from seeing? I don't mean just the embarrassment of our being unable to explain such an important and familiar activity as thinking. I am assuming that we could acquire a plausible explanation of thinking — as a way of rehearsing and thus preparing for action, etc. What the euphemistic nature of our colloquial references to thinking implies is that there is something embarrassing about the act of thinking, the solo rehearsing of actions, in itself.

Presumably, people learned how to think — to rehearse and ready their behaviours in this very efficient way — hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of years ago. Then, and right up until about ten thousand years ago, we lived in intimate little nomadic groups of twenty to a hundred or so. Typically (I would guess), we spent all our lives in the same small group. Furthermore, because individuals had to stick close together most of the time, and all had to acquire expertise in the same large repertoire of concerted and cooperative activities, each individual's experience would have been very similar to every other's. Conversation would have been quite different to what it is now. Nowadays, all but a very few of the people around us are strangers or relative strangers — people who we have not known long and who have had very different life experiences from ours, and had them in different places. Achieving consensus or even understanding can, nowadays, be hard work. Then, communication would have been much easier. It's a wonder they bothered with speech. Thinking, which is (specifically) the rehearsing of communicative, educative exchanges of one kind or another, would similarly have been much easier. If actually mooting an activity with others — in conversation, say — is very easy, then privately rehearsing that mooting process would be easy too. Everybody would already be pretty much, as we might put it nowadays, 'of one mind'. Now though, one cannot rely on being quickly and completely understood by anyone — bar one or two intimates (if one is lucky). Everyone has a different background and a different opinion. Thinking is solitary and speculative, and hard work — and, because one can never rely on being understood, a bit painful.

So, how do we cope with this fact — that instead of everyone thinking, mostly, much the same things, everyone thinks, mostly, rather different things? Well, we might pretend that everyone has a 'thinking organ', a 'mind', inside them. These minds in people (in their heads) can vary a lot from one person to another: others' minds often come up with understandings and opinions quite different to our own. Nevertheless, what other people are doing (or what their minds are doing) when they are thinking is still very much the same kind of thing we are doing when we are thinking. It is a case of same activity (we all have minds), different content (we all have minds of our own). If everybody always thought the same, we would not need 'minds'.

So, perhaps this is it. Our thinking is entirely dependent on others' thinking (their potentially agreeing with us) and yet, nowadays, we are all, as individuals, relatively isolated from and different from one another. At least, we are isolated and different compared to what we were when our ability to think evolved. Since our abandoning our intimate nomadic groups, thinking has become a relatively parlous and speculative activity. Could this situation — predicament, even — the very 'contingent' nature of our existence as rational individuals, be what the 'mind' and 'in the head' way of talking is designed to gloss, and to fudge?

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Of course, brain surgery provides lots of examples of people doing things inside other people's heads. These examples rely on a different meaning of 'doing something in a place' — you don't have to be right in there yourself in order to be doing something in there — but no worries. We can surely extend the brain-surgery case (theoretically we can, at any rate) to encompass auto-surgery: a surgeon operating on his own brain. Presumably, he would be making good use of mirrors and/or closed-circuit television. Presumably also, an observer might want to describe the surgeon as 'doing things in his head'. And we would have to agree, yes, he really is. But is this the sort of scenario we have in mind when we speak of practising a knitting stitch in one's head? The auto-surgeon could be practising a suture technique in his head. I really don't know. But perhaps the auto-surgery-type scenario is not what we envisage when we speak, in the ordinary way, of doing things in one's head. Well, if it is not, what is it that we do envisage?

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Consciousness, self-awareness, being conscious, is: being able to describe, or otherwise communicate to or share with someone else, what one is presently doing or perceiving.

Or, if you wanted to point up the fact that consciousness is a voluntary (though extremely habitual) action, something we actively do, you could say that consciousness, being conscious, is the active performance which brings about our being able to describe, or otherwise communicate, what we are doing or perceiving. And what does this active performance consist in? It consists in our rehearsing, in a special minimal way, the activity of describing or otherwise communicating to someone else what we are doing or perceiving. We minimally make believe that we are sharing the action or perception with someone else.

Why do we do the make-believe sharing? We do it just in case another person should arrive on the scene and want to know what is going on. Or we do it so that we will be better able, in the future, when we are with others, to describe or communicate what we did or saw, as necessary.

We tend to think that our doings and perceivings are always conscious — that we always accompany our actions and perceptions with a subtle rehearsal of the sharing of them with someone else. But this is not so. Sometimes we do and perceive things without being conscious, without being aware, of doing so. We take the action or perception in question so much for granted that we can leave off the make-believe sharing of it.

When we are giving someone a description of something, explaining ourselves, showing others, and so on, it seems as if the describing and whatnot that we are doing is an expression of our consciousness, an expression of our prior knowledge or awareness — as if the consciousness comes first and the overt describing, pointing, etc., is merely a vehicle for making this consciousness public, for sharing it with others. In everyday adult life that is much how it is. We do tend to minimally rehearse things (even describings and explainings) before actually doing them. But developmentally, the public sharing of an activity or perception occurs prior to a child's ability to perform it solo and prior to the child's ability to minimally rehearse the sharing of it. The publicly shared, concerted performance of particular actions or perceptions is mastered by the child before solo performance of those actions or perceptions and before conscious or 'self-aware' performance of them. Thus, usually, for us adults, the rehearsal, the conscious awareness or 'intention', does underpin and guide our actual doings and perceivings. But in the bigger picture, developmentally and logically, consciousness is derivative of, is a mere minimal rehearsal or re-enactment of, actual performance.

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We have been misled about 'where the action is' as regards human beings, where the interest and excitement resides. We think of it as residing inside the individual person — in the vast inner world behind the eyes. That is where emotion, intelligence, wisdom, talent, decency and so on live. But that is not where these things hang out. In fact there is no 'vast inner world'. Inside people there is only physiological stuff which, assuming all is going well on the health front, is of no interest in our daily lives. Humanity has in fact not a constant but an evanescent existence. It flares and fades like a spectre from another reality. The human qualities, the beauties, griefs and whatnot, live in the activities that we engage in together. The activities are the fundamental reality in our lives, the epistemological basis of it all.

It is only when we are engaged in activity together that we truly exist. Other times we are idle, nothings, in reserve, mere ciphers, individuals. Of course, we have to keep ourselves good — in good condition; we may be required for some joint action at any time. But there is nothing interesting about us in the unused, 'ready for action' solo state. A person is just a piece of waiting. On the other hand, even when we are absorbed in activity, you could say we don't exist either — just because we are absorbed. It is the activity that is the reality.

So, rather than being 'in' people, humanity is in a sense between or amongst people, 'with' them like God. But the spatial metaphor doesn't do it justice, really. The spatial metaphor — being 'together' doing something, an activity going on 'in' or 'amidst' a group, doing something 'with' others — can capture only a little of what it is like to participate in activity with others. Participation is so basic it is actually ineffable. But we can at least say that it is 'out there' rather than 'inside the person'. The idea that there is an abiding human reality and that it is inside the person is a blind we have been shown into by civilisation. The human reality exists only in so far as we make it ourselves. Between us, we conjure it between us. It is what we do together.

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My long-term philosophical project is an exploration of the idea that human nature evolved (over four or five million years) to suit a small-group, nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle, leaving us with profound urges towards concerted activity and togetherness — urges that are impossible to satisfy in the mass settlements we now live in. Our ability to think, even, is dependent on levels of togetherness that are, these days, difficult to attain. And, of course, there is no way back, and no time for us to evolve another human nature. One interesting thing for me is the kind of stress responses this predicament elicits from people.

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The problem, once you start refraining from empathising with people, and viewing. or attempting to view, them objectively, is where to stop. It's dangerous. If your objectivising runs away with you, you'll end up in a terrible predicament. Ask Roquentin. But any decision where to stop is arbitrary — and our brains don't much like 'arbitrary'.

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The church is an ark for the sense of 'us', to get it safely through this period — ten thousand or so years so far — of civilisation.

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The natural human state, the fundamental human phenomenon, is a group absorbed in concerted activity. So, what is 'the self'? The terms self, person, individual all conjure the person alone, or the person considered, looked at, while at a loose end, in the somewhat awkward and vulnerable state of not being engaged in activity with others. In activity, the 'person' is absorbed and disappears. In so far as it exists, then, the person is by definition a human in hiatus, in limbo, waiting. Time spent alone is downtime, unreal time. The person alone must imagine others present, must imagine being in some activity with others. The 'self' is a pathetic relic of this situation. When I am alone, the self, myself, is the person I imagine others would see and interact with — if they were here. Essentially it is a fiction. When the others really are here, I am too busy interacting with them to think about my 'self'.

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When I was growing up there were some big new ideas in the cultural air.

First there was Darwin's theory — that creatures evolved, were so to speak created to a certain design, according to the environment they had to survive (and breed) in. Yes, 'anatomy reflects environment' is the important Darwinian idea: 'survival of the fittest' is just one (garbled) corollary of it. The aftershocks from this 'big one' were still quite detectable.

Then there were philosophers, novelists, playwrights, sociologists talking about 'alienation', 'the absurd', 'nausea', 'meaninglessness', 'anomie', 'loss of community' and so on. This was the theme of a lot of philosophy and literature.

There was a mass murder theme: Stalin killing perhaps ten million Russian peasants by starvation, the Nazis exterminating six million Jews and Gypsies in the concentration camps, then the Americans killing four million South-East Asians in the Vietnam 'War'.

There was, throughout, a series of paleoanthropological discoveries, telling us what our prehistoric ancestors looked like and what their circumstances and lifestyle must have been like. The big idea here, which has become clear only recently, is that human beings genetically the same as us were alive nearly 200,000 years ago, and living the same small-group, nomadic hunter-gatherer life that their/our pre-homo-sapiens ancestors had lived for four or five million years before that. The environment in which humans (with that lifestyle) had evolved was biologically much richer and more varied than today's. The radical change in lifestyle — living in increasingly large settlements and practising agriculture and warfare — is too recent for any genetic adaptations to the new lifestyle to have evolved.

There was also in the air the idea that aggression and other crime is a reaction to frustration, that an individual's bad behaviour can be put down to an upbringing in which his social development is crippled by an environment of neglect or aggression (directed at him).

All these twentieth-century ideas — Darwin, alienation, mass murder, prehistoric hunter-gatherers in a rich natural environment, and the frustration-aggression theory — were very impressive to me (as to lots of other people, I suppose) when I was growing up. One just has to dwell on them for a few decades and put two and two together. I concluded human beings are not, or not yet, adapted to the settled, high-population life. The psychological rewards our brains require, available in the small-group nomadic life, are not available in this more recent lifestyle. Hence the alienation and so on and, assuming aggression is a stress reaction to chronic frustration of our togetherness needs, the wars.

Nature is still churning out these creatures – and at an increasing rate — that are adapted to a lifestyle and a biological niche that has disappeared. It is like a manufacturer continuing to produce a commodity for which there is no longer any commercial demand, so the products all have to go into storage — on the possibility that, one day, demand for them will resume. But, because this is a live creature we are talking about and not a product, the storage requirements are quite demanding. If you don't want the creatures to pine and die, you have to provide for them an environment that has at least some of the features of the environment they enjoyed in the wild. And you have to allow them to engage in some of the same activities.

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Let us place language (verbal communication) and mind (consciousness, thinking) in their broader practical context.

Human beings have been committed by several million years of evolution to a survival strategy based on concerted and cooperative activity and mutual solicitude (including sharing). We have what is essentially a biologically in-built drive towards this concerting, etc., and the satisfaction of this drive is the source of our greatest pleasures. Verbal communication and thinking can only be understood as activities ancillary to concerting and cooperation.

Verbal communication is a means of publicly rehearsing concerted and/or cooperative (= 'joint') undertakings, in a specially abbreviated way. Verbal communication is a form of mime in which acts of speech serve to mime or betoken (represent, re-enact) the actions which make up the mooted joint activity. Communication generally is this 'abbreviated public rehearsal of possible future shared activity'. As well as being employed as a rehearsal in preparation for an undertaking as a whole, speech can also be employed while the undertaking is in progress – to cue (by tokening, miming, mooting) some imminent phase of or juncture in the proceedings. Speech 'calls' or 'calls up' concerted and cooperative action scenarios.

Verbal (like non-verbal) communication is also a concerted and cooperative undertaking in its own right. It is cooperative: one party speaks while the others listen (roles which may alternate). And it requires the participants to act in concert: they go over the proposed activity (rehearsing it, going through the motions of it, imagining it) together. The speech cues and synchronises their shared imaginings.

Consciousness and thinking are rehearsings – carried out by individuals acting alone, and in an even more rapid and abbreviated (hence private) manner – of communication sessions, usually predominantly verbal.

Thus, verbal communication is a public (abbreviated and efficient) way of rehearsing joint activity. And consciousness and thinking are private (even more abbreviated and efficient) ways of rehearsing verbal communication sessions. Mind is the rehearsing of rehearsings of joint activity. All this above seems to me quite clear and obvious. What mystifies me is that the above story is unheard of by the pundits in our universities. There is not a professor of philosophy, psychology or linguistics who has an inkling that any of the above might be true. As far as they are concerned, verbal communication is nothing other than the physical emanation of an as-yet-unknown brain process and is, as such, almost entirely mysterious in both origin and function. The one thing they all claim to know about verbal communication, or rather about language, that it somehow represents reality, is actually false – since language, that is, speech, re-presents (or rehearses) not reality but people's solo and collective actions.

The pundits are also, inexplicably, wide of the mark on the subject of consciousness and thinking. These also are deemed to be emanations, albeit non-physical emanations, of as-yet-unidentified brain processes. Or they are these as-yet-unidentified brain processes themselves. In either case, since the brain mechanisms in question are unknown, the nature of consciousness and thinking remain mysterious. Again, the one thing the scientists of the mind all claim to know about thinking, that thoughts somehow represent reality, is unfortunately not true. What thoughts re-present (or rehearse) is people's (including the thinker's) actions – most often, acts of speaking or listening to speech in the context of verbal communication sessions.

The fact that a normal child of three has learned, and well knows how, to speak and think to good effect makes the ignorance of these pillars of academe the more remarkable. Even the fact that I, an humble Masterton furniture-maker, seem to have a very good idea what speaking and thinking are while they have none, seems odd, damned odd...

Well, I don't know. Maybe not so odd. We tend to think of language and mind as absolutely basic to human beings, part of our nature, definitive of us. How good a social life we have, how much community spirit we are surrounded by, how many intimates one has, seem more peripheral and contingent. We don't realise the extent and profundity of our commitment to concert and cooperation and, because we assume that language and mind are much more basic to human nature, it would never occur to us that both could be mere developmental byproducts of, and ancillaries to, concert and cooperation.

The reasons why we don't see the all-importance to human beings of concert and cooperation are several. For one thing, the implications of it are morally painful. If we depend totally on concert, cooperation and togetherness, then our modern circumstances are considerably more dire than they would be if the popular view – that human beings are basically selfish, competitive and cruel – were true. On the popular view, things are going quite well. If there is any chance that a more comforting view is true we will embrace that, instead of a discomforting one.

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Why is it that the really important forces determining our behaviour are never explained to us in our youth? Is it that they are known to our elders ‘at an unconscious level’ only? Is it that they are known but felt to be too difficult for young people to cope with – so are not passed on? If the latter, has everyone’s polite reticence led to the facts themselves going out of circulation, and to people’s forgetting what they were? Or is it that every young person used to be told the facts, and some still are, but told them in such an indirect, figurative and euphemistic way (to cater for the sensitivity of the message) that nobody now remembers what the unvarnished truth was? That is, is religion, specifically Christianity, such a garbled, such a long–garbled, version of the truth, such a cliché in the public mind, that it now obscures more of the underlying moral verities than it reveals?

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What is the relation between thinking and the brain? First of all, what is thinking? Thinking is a form of self-readying for action. The person rehearses, in that distinctively rapid and subtle, private, minimal way, he or she 'imagines', some public interaction in which the proposed action is being demonstrated, taught, exhorted or explained, etc. In The Act of Thinking I speculate that this minimal rehearsing is a learned skill and consists of the commencing of an action followed almost immediately by its aborting. Via this rapid 'commencing and aborting', the person 'refreshes his memory of' the action in question and motivates him- or herself for performing it.

So, what is the effect of this 'private rehearsing of educative sessions' on the brain? I would guess that the effect is to selectively arouse (to activate, titillate, incept, warm up) the neurophysiological recipe, or neural firing program, corresponding to that action, in the person's cerebral cortex. Presumably, the neural recipe for this action, once acquired, is preserved in cortex at a default subsistence, quiescent level of activation and the thinking raises it to a level of arousal intermediate between 'subsistence' and 'full performance'. This intermediate arousal has a certain inertia or momentum and can serve either to further cement the recipe in cortex (by helping to facilitate the relevant synapses) or to adjust this recipe to, or synthesise it with, other behaviour-recipes that happen to be in a similarly partially-aroused state. What prepares and 'warms up' the cortical recipes for actions will enable, or at least expedite, action-performances themselves.

So we can think of thinking as being a matter of brain-coaxing, of selectively arousing and pre-adapting certain items in the repertoire for imminent performance. But, really, this brain-coaxing is more properly described as a bodily side-effect of thinking. Just as thinking out how one is going to pull off a difficult billiards shot may have an incidental effect on one's heart rate and on various (other) muscles, so it has an effect on the neural firing programs stored (kept ticking over at subsistence level) in one's brain. The thinking itself is a learned, voluntary action – the drastically abbreviated and 'privatised' rehearsing of public educative sessions – designed to ready oneself for the performance of an(other) (often somewhat unfamiliar and problematic) action. The physiological mechanisms by which thinking achieves this action-readying are no concern of the thinker, and no part of what the thinker is voluntarily and deliberately doing by thinking. His concern is merely to recollect, re-enact and ready himself. We can think and know what thinking is without knowing anything at all about the brain.

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Learning by example: Every action and activity in our repertoire is introduced to us initially as a concerted action or activity. We first learn how to perform it, albeit in a clumsy and dependent way, by attempting to perform it in concert with a teacher – in the course of the 'demonstration and imitation' procedure (or 'imitation learning' or whatever you want to call it) or some derivative abbreviation of this procedure such as being told how to do it, reading how, following a diagram or flow chart, etc. The form is, we learn how to do it in concert with someone else first, then we learn to perform it on our own.

You might say this is wrong: we often think up new actions, things no-one has ever done before (or if they have we don't know or care), and just do them. But all these cases of original action are on closer analysis original applications, adaptations or combinations of familiar actions. The synthesising of the new action is something that, given our existing repertoire and our present situation, the brain prescribes for us, so long as we jostle it along a little by our effortful thinking. Most actions, including all the important, basic actions, have to be learned from other people. Why is this?

Having everything in the repertoire subjected at its inception to the discipline of concerted performance ensures several things. Precision: you know when you have got the action exactly right because there is an objective criterion, the others' performance of it. Transferability: the action is the same no matter who performs it (otherwise we would not use the same word or words to describe it). Biddability: you can ask someone else to do X, by using the term 'X', and they will do X. Motivation: the fact that others do X too, and the fact that one can rehearse X in concert with others gives it 'presence' and 'charisma' in the repertoire – as if the distinctive excitement of concerted performance, the social charge, is needed to establish and maintain a behaviour-recipe in cortex (and to make actions biddable).

The motivation aspect is particularly important. A high level of community morale boosts the intellectual powers of individual members of that community. A certain mimimum level of morale is necessary for productive thinking to take place at all and, generally, albeit necessity is the mother, togetherness is the father of invention.

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It is probably right what I suggest above, that in colloquial parlance a 'meaning' is generally a particular social scenario or joint undertaking — that is being proposed by someone, or is indicated by a situation. Certainly, if we are talking about ordinary llinguistic meaning, it seems right. According to my LSC544 theory, the function of speech is the implementing (or, often, mere mooting) of joint activities or social arrangements of one kind or another. Broadly speaking, spoken words are cues, akin to mimings, simultaneous with which speakers and hearers jointly imagine their doing something, engaging in some particular activity, together. Specific words 'go with' the imagining of specific actions or activities, or phases or junctures thereof. That is roughly what verbal communication amounts to — the specifying, by a kind of verbal miming, of an activity that the speaker is proposing he and the hearer engage in. Apparent exceptions to this format are, on closer analysis, mere adaptations or unusual applications of it. [This must be one of the theorist's most useful sentences.] For example, referrings to and describings of things are in fact invitations to or mootings of heuristic and perceptual behaviour of one sort or another. The 'meaning' of what is said is simply the nature of the activity that is being proposed.

A similar formula seems fine too, for other, non-linguistic uses of the noun meaning. The interrogative exclamation, What is the meaning of this behaviour? , is a request to be put in the picture, to be verbally apprised of the shared understanding on which the activity in question is based. The metaphysical complaint, What is the meaning of it all?, is similar. The speaker is asking to be apprised of the rational, purposeful social scenario or shared undertaking that is in progress — in the big picture, the big big picture. And we won't be waiting around for an answer to that one.

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When Sartre, with his wall eye, famously opined l'enfer, c'est les autres (hell is other people) he neglected to mention – what Simone, for one, must have shown him a proof of – that heaven is too. In fact, hell is because heaven is. But maybe that is all implicit in l'enfer... and I'm just being a dolt again.

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The fancy of 'mind' – the notion of a special supernatural place inside our heads where thinking goes on, or of a mysterious supernatural agent in there doing the thinking – enables us to more easily talk about our thinking in a metaphorical, euphemistic way. It gives us basic raw materials for making metaphors about consciousness and thinking, a kind of kitset. In the same way, the fancy of 'God' – an invisible mighty power in the world – enables us to talk in an indirect but easily understood way about the togetherness we depend so much on.

Why is it desirable that we talk about thinking and togetherness obliquely? euphemistically? metaphorically? Why can't we just talk about them directly and literally? Well, for one thing, our shared consciousness and our fellow-feeling are so integral in all our behaviour that it is intellectually difficult for us to formally distance them in the way that direct reference requires. Direct reference presupposes a sharp distinction between 'us' and the 'it' (the referent) that is being talked about – and fellow-feeling and shared consciousness are too much parts of us. For another thing, bringing these 'deep practices' out into the open, making topics of them, making them public, is emotionally difficult, considering the extent of our dependence on them, and their vulnerability to disruption and compromise in the modern world.

OK, we need the metaphors. But taking the agent-in-the-head fancy completely literally and explicitly, identifying 'mind' with the brain – and persuading everyone that only brain scientists can understand what thinking is – goes too far in the defensiveness direction. I mean, we needn't be that scared of confronting these dependencies. We can be allowed to know, surely, that thinking is an activity we ourselves perform, and we can be allowed just an inkling, surely, about what kind of activity it is...?

30. _________________________________________________________________

A sense of companionship, of 'us', experienced most acutely in concerted activity with others, is our heart's desire, the reason we are on the earth. Adults, and to a lesser extent children, have a range of strategies for coping with the frustration of this, humanity's earliest and most fundamental instinct. Since the core of the desire is participation in concerted activity, I call frustration of the desire concert deprivation.

Responses to concert deprivation include:
stoic endurance, with a refusal to abandon the optimistic, cooperative attitude and a determination to try harder, to be enthusiastic and to educate people and to arrange our activities better;
protest of various kinds and degrees: patient explaining; weeping; ironic displays such as self-harming, anorexia and some 'mental illness'; indignant defiance;
withdrawal into: individualism, privacy, cupidity and selfishness; reliance on technology rather than cooperation; depression or other mental illness; addictions; suicide;
defence, a compromise between withdrawal and attack, achieved by various means of coercive control over others: crime; financial, political or military megalomania; economic and/or psychological exploitation and repression; the controlling of information;
attack: humiliation of others; legal punishment; bullying; domestic and street violence; rape and other sexual degradation of others; sabotage of relationships one depends on; racial hatred; murder; military killing; torture.

Such a list has to be qualified by the admission that, just as the varieties of concert satisfaction are uncountable, there are many more kinds and shades of response to concert deprivation than can be accommodated on a list. This innumerablity is related to the innumerable possible combinations of relevant circumstantial variables, of which the severity and duration of the deprivation are just two. And there are intermediate cases between the categories I have nominated – and many cases which would qualify in two or more categories. In fact, most of our behaviours are subtle blends. To simplify the categories still further than I have above, we can think of responses to concert deprivation as being reversions to the animal coping strategies of 'flight or fight'. Where the basic human survival strategy – concert and communication, culture – fails, we revert as best we can to pre-human ways of coping. Some of the coping strategies may be instinctive, that is, we may have a predisposition to them wired-in in our brains. Others may be purely cultural creations. Any or all of them may be subject to voluntary control.

How the strategies work to mitigate or compensate for concert deprivation is a topic I address later. In fact, none of them work very well. The substitute satisfactions they produce are generally small and temporary – and come at the cost of reducing the person's ability to achieve genuine concert satisfaction in the future. The dynamics of concert satisfaction and deprivation govern our lives.

Generally speaking, since the first settlements ten thousand years ago, more or less severe concert deprivation has been endemic and chronic for everyone. The survival strategy we are biologically evolved for – concerted activity, cooperation, and caring and sharing, in small, nomadic, hunter-gatherer groups, within a rich natural environment – is no longer possible. As a result, human beings have become slightly deranged.

The new management strategies that have followed settlement, based on technology and control, have enabled vastly increased human populations (up until now) but our primary motivation – concert satisfaction – has been to a large extent frustrated. Indeed, it could be argued that the motivations most important for maintaining modern economies are identical with the kinds of stress response to concert deprivation that I list above – and that a life-style based on concerted activity, cooperation and mutual solicitude is incompatible with civilisation.

The conventional assumption is that our primary biological urge is the advancement of personal self-interest – to be achieved by competing with and suborning others. People's being complete swine and worse is to be expected: it's the satisfying of an innate biological urge. Whether or not any other animal has a basic motivation of this kind – and this seems, I think Darwin would agree, extremely unlikely – human beings do not. Our primary urge is the urge to participate in joint activity for the benefit of everyone. That's the thing about human beings. I agree that there is a lot of bad behaviour about, and that there has been since we gave up the small-group nomadic life ten thousand years ago. But I say this bad behaviour bespeaks, not the satisfying of an innate urge, but the frustration of one.

31. _________________________________________________________________

Adults, and to a considerable extent children, have mastered the above repertoire of strategies for preventing, minimising and generally coping with concert deprivation. Presumably they have a reserve of moral strength, acquired through earlier, successful, participation in shared activity, that can be drawn on to help limit any damage to their social viability that concert deprivation might threaten. The infant, though is powerless in this regard. The infant requires experience in joint activity in order for useful firing programs to start forming in his brain, and his brain can be rescued from its original soup-like state. As I keep pointing out, the infant solicits and rehearses participation in concerted activity from the very beginning – right away, he wants to be in on what is going on. If it should happen that the infant's caregivers are incompetent, or have chosen to take their own concert frustration out on him, and submit him to violence, there is nothing the infant can do. Even if hitting an infant does not cause brain damage it will cause brain damage.

The baby cannot learn 'social withdrawal' until it has learned 'social' initially. The Spartans must have shown their infants some love before they left them out in the cold. Or is it possible that evolution has supplied us with an innate mechanism of social withdrawal – specifically for enabling the infant brain to survive past Spartas? Even so, persistent, dedicated, abuse would have been necessary to produce good Spartans – or the 'psychopaths' and 'sociopaths' of today. And, you might infer, a certain optimum level of abuse is necessary even to produce today's good citizens.

32. _________________________________________________________________

It's all very well to say things like 'morale is everything'. Yes, everyone believes that team spirit, a sense of togetherness, is important. For example, there is the Maori saying: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata! It's a bit of a clichι. And one assumes 'morale is everything' is deliberate hyperbole. But when I say 'morale is everything', I am not exaggerating. I am making a theoretical point. I am saying that the sense of group morale is the most important influence on human lives. It is what motivates culture and our lives are pieces of culture. I say togetherness is God. And this is not an exaggeration either. It too is a theoretical move: it says that togetherness is what the talk about 'God' and the rest of Christianity (and possibly other religions) is about. This is worth thought. It means that what I am saying about togetherness has been being said by wise people for thousands of years. Only, they veiled it in metaphor – presumably for good reasons at the time. One effect of saying that God talk is metaphorical talk about togetherness is that God-talk can no longer be written off as false. Of course it is false. It is metaphor, and you cannot take metaphor literally. But metaphorical talk may also be perfectly true. I think God talk is true. I believe morale, love, really is the Almighty as far as people are concerned. Unlike the fantasy of the old bloke up in the clouds, and other fundamentalist absurdities, this message cannot be written off. 'Science', in its great battle with 'religious belief', has slain the paper tiger. But the real one is still out there, stalking us. Perhaps its hour is coming round at last.

33. _________________________________________________________________

The Christian metaphor we use at funerals, the one about people's souls living on, going to heaven, etc., is actually a little gem. A person's style, his or her demeanour, speech, cast of mind – in a word, his or her 'soul' – does live on, in other people (and other people are, or can be, heaven). One's associates in life, especially those who love one, do take on, often imperceptibly, by their constant empathising, one's tone, slant, aura and tenor. These are bequeathed in everyone's wills, to loved ones. And we do live forever. We are each just little parts of 'us' and 'us' lives, 'we' live, 'God' is, forever. Well, anyway, for a very long time...

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My description of thinking in The Act of Thinking and my 'concerted activity' or 'concert' theory are both fully consistent with psychology's 'attachment' theory – only, I eschew the metaphor of attachment, ties, bonds, etc., between people. This metaphor implies two objects/persons coming together. My fundamental concept is of people side-by-side – absorbed in joint activity. The shared activity, or the sharing itself, is the thing, rather than the individuals as such. What the infant becomes attached to is not primarily a person but the intimate concerted and cooperative activities he participates in with that person. In the normal course of events, the person is, in the first instance, the mother, although anyone skilled enough and who puts in the time and effort will do. Some attachment theorists (Robert Karen, anyway, and I shall read more) seem to recognise that the reality underlying the attachment metaphor is addiction to shared activity, particularly the subtle and intimate stuff with the mother. In Chapter 23 of his book, Becoming Attached, Karen cites Stern's 1985 findings about 'attunement' just as I do in Chapter 3 of The Act of Thinking. He quotes the same kaaaaa-bam passage (about shared dramatisation).

Attachment theory's list of possible responses to (strategies for coping with, stress reactions to) insecure attachment (concert deprivation) is considerably shorter than mine. Where I include endurance, protest, withdrawal, defence and attack – see entry 30 above – attachment theory distinguishes, as alternatives to 'secure' (securely attached) responses only 'avoidant' (avoidantly attached) responses and 'ambivalent' (vacillating between secure and avoidant) responses. I'm not saying that my labelling more varieties than they do is necessarily theoretically advantageous. However, my list usefully suggests that, when concerted and cooperative activity is frustrated or is unavailable for whatever reason, the default recourse is reversion to some version of biology's 'flight or fight' – with or without superficial rationalisation such as 'that will show them', 'teach him a lesson', etc.

35. _________________________________________________________________

I remember feeling first pleased then ashamed seeing Thinking is the covert tokening of the overt tokening of concerted activity on a piece of paper stuck on Barry Barclay's fridge. It looked like jargon. Why could I not, after forty years or so, have said it better? Well, here is a modest improvement. Thinking is the imagining, by an individual, of some act of communication – a conversation or a lesson, demonstration, debate, interrogation, ostension, depiction, etc. To 'imagine' an activity is to rehearse that activity in an especially abbreviated, private, subtle and efficient way. So, thinking is the private 'rehearsing' of some communicative act. However, communicating with someone is also a kind of rehearsing: it is a not-quite-so-abbreviated (still overt and public), mime-like enactment or re-enactment, a variety of make-believe, done jointly by two or more people. And what is enacted or re-enacted, what the shared make-believe is a shared make-believe of, is always some social, joint, concerted or cooperative, activity. Thus, finally: thinking is the solo, private rehearsing of a shared, public rehearsal of some joint undertaking.

36. _________________________________________________________________

Learning philosophy is like learning how to see in the dark. The darkness in question is that of what is going on 'behind', what is 'underlying' or 'underpinning' our everyday assumptions.

37. _________________________________________________________________

Apropos of the 'underpinning' metaphor: The entire project of applied brain science – and it is huge, in cognitive science, most branches of psychology, etc – depends on the 'underpins' metaphor and its relatives, 'controls', supports', 'enables', 'governs', etc. The constantly repeated image is of a brain area (or 'mechanism') 'underpinning' a specific human ability such as language, consciousness, empathy, morality, aggression, religion even. All right, maybe it can be shown that specific brain circuitry is, reliably, active simultaneous with the exercise of certain abilities or actions. Who would have thought otherwise? But there are many ways in which this co-temporality could be plausibly explained. Unless and until the scientists can tell us exactly how the 'underpinning' metaphor is to be cashed out, in literal terms, exactly how the brain mechanism is related to the person's actions, this 'science' must remain idle. Even if they could tell us roughly what kind of relation they are assuming here, between the physiological and the actional, that would be a help. But no, we have nothing but figures of speech: 'underpinning', 'controlling', 'governing'...

38. _________________________________________________________________

From a conversation with John Patterson: Patto says we are linguistic and thinking (including conscious, self-aware) beings and that, therefore, attachment theory needs no explanation. Infant and child attachment, and the dire consequences of failure to attach, are just what one would expect in such a creature. And he says that the Meltzoff and Nagy and Molnar findings are, similarly, just what one would expect.

He agrees with me that the fact we are thinking beings is explained by the fact we are linguistic beings (and the fact that we have the ability to privately rehearse joint (such as linguistic) activities). But he thinks we don't need to go further and explain how it is that we are linguistic beings. He just wants to stop there.

As I see it, we can – and it is interesting and salutary to – go further. We can explain why and how we are linguistic and thinking beings. The explanation is that we are concerting (and cooperating and mutually caring and sharing) beings. Verbal communication and thought are natural extensions of, and facilitators of, the concerting ability. That's what The Act of Thinking is about. I stop at 'we are concerting beings'.

The conventional explanation of how it is we are linguistic and thinking beings is that our brains are mechanisms which enable (host, govern, underpin, cause, trigger) these abilities – and our brains evolved that way because of unspecified 'evolutionary forces'. Patto agrees with me this is not an explanation, and more like a deliberate obfuscation. The least one can say is that the brain/evolution 'explanation' reveals pretty much complete misunderstanding both of brain function and of Darwin's theory. The role of the brain is to help adjust the organism to performance of those behaviours that are necessary for its survival. Via a mix of prenatal endowment and postnatal learning (whereby cortical pathways are adjusted to suit the relevant behaviours), brains discipline and facilitate behaviour. The nature of the (survivally necessary) behaviours determines – long-term via anatomical evolution and short-term via learning – what circuitry the brain must contain. These behaviours constitute what it is the brain's job to facilitate, they prescribe how the brain must be structured. The idea that the brain can determine behaviour, independent of any environment (or 'survival venue') and prior to any learning, is just nonsensical.

I am saying that the brain of an animal, and the rest of its anatomy, evolve the way they do because of the nature of the behaviours that ensure survival for that animal. That it is these behaviours and not others that ensure a given animal's survival is not itself explained by the theory of evolution. That is something that the theory of evolution must take as given. And the anatomical adjustments – the genetic ones, not the acquired ones – are delivered up by chance, by random variations. So there is no explanation here either – rather, a specific claim as to the lack of an explanation.

The conventional explanation of language and mind is an attempt to explain, or explain away, the distinctive human abilities (speech and thought) without acknowledging, first of all, that they are abilities to perform actions of various kinds. The abilities are reified as 'language' and 'mind' and these are thought of as 'mechanisms' residing in people's heads. We are to ignore the actual behaviour in question and cut directly to the brain, then the evolved brain. We are to think of ourselves as evolution-determined, brain-driven automata. The conventional explanation consequently neglects to specify the nature of the actions that the abilities relate to, i.e., what speaking and thinking amount to as actions. The pundits quickly parcel up speaking and thinking and post them to the brain before anyone can get a good look at them. If you do chance to get a look at them you see that they are essentially concerted and cooperative behaviours, things people do together. The conventional explanation precludes our seeing the distinctive human abilities as social abilities, dependent on our acting in concert. Since it has no heuristic value, one is entitled to suspect that precluding this realisation is what the conventional explanation is designed to do.

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Here is another improvement – this time of my 25.9.82 NZ Listener poem, now in memory of the red-haired Brunton:

for Brunton

Midmorning the wind drops. For
an hour the shore frets
then oystercatchers shrill, rise,
chill air paws the water: the southerly
keens into Evans Bay. In tow
two rain-drifts totter – reluctant
ghosts... I am crouched in lupins
at St Kilda, mittens clutching cold sand,
my brother giggling, Nana's old voice
breaking like a seagull's overhead. Two
decades later, I am separating
on Fortune Green: the sky at half mast, Us
cleaving, shivering like the trees, unleaving
yet, with each word's soft fall bereaving
each other further. Toni
remembers, smiles, hands
me the New Zealand change. My eyes wince
South to the white horses.

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I wrote to the director of an international think tank concerned to publicise and to understand 'the links between brain function and social factors':

Dear XXXX,

As director of the Social Brain project you might be interested in a book of mine —
The Act of Thinking
  (MIT Press, 2004). In contrast to the prevailing cognitive science model, which assumes thinking is a neurophysiological process in the brain, I describe thinking (and consciousness and mind generally) as a learned and voluntary activity of the person – one that has an effect on the brain, certainly, a kind of arousing and coaxing effect, but which is not itself a brain process. Thinking is, I decide, a kind of private make-believe, a way of rehearsing (in a distinctively subtle and rapid, minimal way) educative and other communicative interactions with others. One 'teaches oneself' how to cope in a problematic situation.

The specific relevance to the social brain project is that I derive the thinking skill from a much earlier ability the child has to be equipped with, namely, the ability to act in concert with others. Thinking is developmentally derivative of concerted activity. My theory is partly original and partly a synthesis of the work of several well-known 20th century psychologists and philosophers – all of whom believed in the social basis of language and mind, even if none of them had much to say about the brain.

In particular, I stand on the shoulders of the Oxbridge philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle and Stuart Hampshire, the American psychologists George Herbert Mead, Theodore Sarbin and Grace de Laguna, and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The gist of all these people's theories of thinking, and of mine, is that thinking is a kind of abbreviated (they say 'internalised', I say 'inhibited' or 'incipient') rehearsal of social activity of various kinds. Usually, the social activity in question is, as I say, some kind of lesson or communication session relevant to a problem the thinker happens to be faced with. Mind is simply the ability of the individual to rehearse social-learning sessions in this particularly efficient and minimal way.

I have also recently (in July) published an article in the Elsevier journal Language Sciences which clearly sets out the social origins and underpinnings of verbal communication and, hence, thinking. I have attached that to this email. The 2009 Notebook on my site, a good record of my current thinking, could be of interest too: see Notebook 2009.

Anyway, you might find some of the above stuff worth reading. Certainly your XXXX blog chimes a lot of bells for me – reading it was like waking on a Sunday morning in rural France.

Cheers, Derek, etc.

Here is the reply:

Hi Derek,

Thanks for this. I am quite sympathetic to the 'mind as internalised language game' view that you espouse. I will try to read your book. As you might understand, I have to read a lot of books so it goes on to a lengthy list!

Just a small point, perhaps not borne out by a detailed understanding of your view. I don't see why mind is not a neurophysiological process in the brain. All the research shows how big of a role unconscious cognitive processes play in producing 'mindedness'. I have blogged for instance on the role of the unconscious brain and the body in producing a large part of our everyday sense of self. Of course your view is that thinking is not neurophysiological. But I suppose I don't know what that means. Thought is produced in the pre-frontal cortex and this seems to be in concert with the unconscious brain in terms of hierarchical two-way feedback loops (crudely the unconscious brain can affect thinking and thought can direct unconscious computation).

If what you mean is that thinking develops as a neurophysiological process in concert with social interaction and action, and that the one relies on the other, so that in a sense our minds 'aren't in our heads', then I agree entirely. It's genes and memes, thought and action, evolution and culture. The nature/nurture, hermeneutic/causal splits are so twentieth century!

All best, XXXX, etc.

41. _________________________________________________________________

The main point is that whereas, before, we were little tribelets of Us, excitedly adventuring into the world, our motivation now – what is behind all this huge civilisation and progress and achievement, the force that is driving this most powerful creature that has ever existed, and which is out to destroy the world, is grief at the loss of those little tribelets of Us.

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Eastern religions may – in contrast to Christianity and perhaps Islam, which cater for the collective and moral human – cater for the individual. They seem to concentrate on teaching us to stop our constant thinking (and thinking is the rehearsing of, the wishing-for, being understood by someone) and to be comfortable and confident as solitary individuals, at one with the world. Certainly, this is one way of coping with the absence of tribal adventures.

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The idea of us all here essentially waiting – waiting for a resumption of a tribal life, waiting to all go off together somewhere, waiting to get on the move again. In this picture our everyday lives are just ways to amuse ourselves while we are waiting.


— Derek Melser —