Notebook 2010



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Existing arguments against the possibility of a private language — Wittgenstein's and those of his followers such as Winch (whose The Idea of a Social Science I have only just now read) — rely on the necessity of the possibility of corroboration (of the perception/word association). My theory of speech suggests another anti–private–language argument. On my theory, speech is just a means of efficiently soliciting from another person a re–enactment/rehearsal of some previously experienced concerted activity (such as perceptual activity) that is relevant in the present situation. That is speech's raison d'être.

Note: the re-enactment/rehearsal being solicited from the hearer is (a) either fully performed or done in an abbreviated (most often minimal) way, and is (b) done by the hearer in concert with the speaker.

Speech of its nature thus involves both cooperation, in that it involves soliciting someone else (the hearer) to do something (the re-enacting/rehearsing), and concerting, in that the re-enacting/rehearsing is to be done by the hearer in concert with the speaker. Furthermore, what is being re-enacted/rehearsed is also a concerted performance — or a whole mini-culture of concerted performances, a 'form of life'. [It is this latter dependence on prior shared experience of speaker and hearer that the traditional anti-private-language arguments emphasise. The concepts of speaking, naming, meaning, words, referring, even the concept of a thing, all presuppose the relevant people's prior education in various shared practices.]

At any rate, the idea of a private language, of acts of speaking, naming, etc., that are not 'solicitings of someone else into concerted enactings/rehearsings of mutually familiar activity', is self-contradictory if my account of speech is true.

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The spiritual is the social misconstrued as the supernatural-internal. Or you could say, the spiritual is the interpersonal misconstrued as the intrapersonal.

The various social-actional (and in this sense non-objective and non-physical) dynamics and scenarios that concert and cooperation involve us in — they are essentially phenomena (albeit not 'natural phenomena') outside us or between us, that 'draw us in' — are misconstrued, with the aid of numerous colloquial metaphors, as occurring inside us, or as being motivated and controlled by things inside us.

And why is it that we feel the need to thus misconstrue our social milieux (these external forces that draw us in and buffet us around) as inner genies — as things inherent in individuals rather than as externalities in which we jointly participate?

Well, it may be because modern circumstances do not allow the spontaneous and full absorption in concerted activity that was in ancient times the human hallmark. Nowadays, we have to keep an eye on others and this means distancing them to some extent. We no longer trust the innocent side-by-side attitude that fully-absorbed participation requires. We look sidelong as well. If we can encompass both the mutually-shared-in activity and the other person in the one perspective, if we can put the external/cultural inside the person, we can contemplate both simultaneously. (Or perhaps we lose sight of both.) OK, so who's got a better idea?

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I am persuaded by Peter Munz (in Beyond Wittgenstein's Poker and in conversation on Oriental Bay in 2005) that human beings have, in theory, a big problem with their extra-large and plastic brain and their souped-up sense organs. It is all very well to be extremely versatile and adaptable, to have a terrific range of potential behaviours (including perceivings) available to one, but this would be a problem if, in a context where action is required, one were to be overwhelmed by the variety and intensity of one's perceptions and tendencies to act. The plasticity problem. One would be stymied by indecision. An editing process is required, to reduce one's behavioural options to a manageable few.

I am not persuaded by Peter's answer in his book — that the editing is achieved by modern human beings' possession of a 'three-dimensional' language (rather than the 'two-dimensional' one erectus supposedly employed). My suggestion is that the editing, option-reducing, function would be served simply by concerting. Only those behaviours and perceptions being performed in common (and more or less in concert) by those present, will be fully actioned. Everything else is ignored. Consensus rules. Thus, we need concerting — an external control on our actions — in order to be able to act at all. This looks like part of the solution to Quine's gavagai problem too. And it might help explain what Davidson said about referring and 'triangulation'. Could it be relevant to the frame problem?

To be fair, Peter sometimes did seem to want to link his so-called three-dimensional language to a previously established context of concerted practices (the venerable 'forms of life') and, given this link, his solution of the plasticity problem would be much the same as mine.

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This time the example is athletics training. Running. I moot some different kinds of training, or 'practice', or 'rehearsal'. It is worth taking time to imagine the different scenarios carefully, embellishing them to taste.

A schoolteacher is introducing a group of five-year-olds to competitive running. He takes them all out onto the sports ground and, after explaining what the task is, shouts go! and runs with them, simultaneously exhorting and encouraging them, on their first-ever fifty-yard dash. At this early stage, the race is all a matter of running on cue and in concert, and cooperating with the teacher and the other runners. [A 'full' rehearsal, for absolute beginners.]

A smaller group of ten-year-olds stages a race, without a teacher, partly for fun or as an exercise and partly to find out who is fastest.

A teacher coaches a promising teen-age pupil by demonstrating various good and bad running styles and getting the pupil to do the various styles with him. He then retires to the sideline and watches as the pupil attempts to exemplify the good style.

The teacher/coach shouts encouragement from the sideline to certain individuals during a practice race and makes comments about competition strategy to all the participants after the race.

The coach demonstrates starting-blocks technique for a pupil to copy. The pupil practises under the coach's eye. The pupil practises with others, without the coach. The pupil practises alone.

The pupil practises running competitively in a group, consciously putting into practice all the instruction about starting technique, running style and strategy that he has received. He runs, 'thinking what he is doing'.

The runner practises, solo or with others, solely to build up speed. Correct technique has become so habitual that the need for close self-awareness has disappeared and the runner can devote all his efforts to running a faster race.

Assume that the correct starting-blocks procedure is reasonably complex and takes a while to get the hang of. We can imagine various contexts and ways of rehearsing it: prior to an actual race, on the beach, even while sitting or lying down. The rehearsal can be to a greater or lesser extent abbreviated, depending on how familiar the pupil is with the procedure being learned and what is the immediate physical context of the rehearsal. Some possibilities follow. A complete explosive-release dummy-run leap out of the blocks at the starting line two minutes before a race. A full start, with preliminary posture incepted and all muscles pitched, aborted at the instant of take-off. A mere token going-through-the-motions of the postural adjustments and the muscle tensings — with movements made and muscles activated in a still-observable but much-diminished way.

Now consider a rehearsal of a power start with the relevant course of movements, muscle-activations and perceivings performed in such an inhibited, minimal way that no overt posture-adoption, movement or muscle activation is apparent to an observer. It would need special myogalvanometers or other detection equipment to pick it up. The runner could be doing such a minimal rehearsal while sitting down or lying in bed — although perhaps not while walking to work.

This last kind of case is often described as 'mental' practice. People are surprised that this minimal form of practice has an empowering and honing effect on performance that is similar to (but naturally somewhat less than) that of more laborious and overt training. But it is only their characterisation of this minimal practising as 'mental' — and hence, one must assume, 'non-physical' — that makes its efficacy 'surprising'. Minimal practise is just an extremely abbreviated version of the various kinds of full rehearsal I canvass above. The reasons why it can be so abbreviated are two. One, the pupil has already got very good at the particular skill he is practising (in this case, power take-offs), so does not need to fully rehearse it. Two, the pupil is very experienced in, and has got very good at, the art of rehearsing actions generally. The advanced trainee (advanced not just as a trainee sprinter or whatever but as a trainee generally) is able to get the benefit of rehearsal — the motivating, redintegrating, priming effect — with a very small outlay of muscular effort. One is able to perform the absolute minimum of the action that will still achieve the desired level of readying for full performance. One can rehearse complex actions in a marvellously subtle and sophisticated way. It is a trick humans specialise in, actually. But 'mental'? 'In the mind'? 'Supernatural'? 'Non-physical'?

So, 'mental' practice is just a drastically (and skilfully) abbreviated form of overt, social practice.

Surely, no-one is going to claim that there is anything supernatural or non-physical about a horde of five-year-olds charging across the grass. So, how does this augur for other so-called 'mental' phenomena? People being in terrible emotional states, people trying to remember someone's name, people thinking up something nice to say, and so on? What if these were all just extremely abbreviated rehearsals of social interactions also? I can just imagine John Searle clapping his hand to his forehead.

The original reason for this ultra-abbreviated rehearsing is to ready oneself for a full performance but other, related, reasons have evolved too: to reassure oneself of the do-ability of something, to orient oneself in a situation, to remind oneself, to motivate oneself, to inhibit an overt performance, and so on.

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It is not the case that action — ordinary learned, deliberate, voluntary action — is always action plus thinking, as if the thinking, the consciousness, has to be there if the action is deliberate and voluntary. We often act in a completely instinctive and masterful way. There is no need for thinking to accompany, or even precede, certain actions. We are so good at them. In fact, thinking itself may be either self-aware (we are thinking about our thinking as we are doing it) or it may be, like many other thoroughly mastered actions, done 'instinctively' or 'automatically'. But one uses colloquialisms like 'instinctively' and 'automatically' at one's peril. Any minute now, a Harvard professor is going to say, 'Of course it is automatic! The brain is doing it!'.

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There seem to be at least two techniques for getting things done with people. The first is to provide people with all the necessities of the task (and lots of other tasks too) — love, information, information-gathering skills, motivation, means, etc — and then let them get on with it, trust them to do the job. The second is to train them up just for a particular job, not providing them with more or less, and then, with rewards and coercions, control their performance every step of the way.

Consider the possibility that the second technique is not nearly as efficient or successful long-term and that the reason it is so often employed is that it enables those in power to take out their frustrations (which made them acquire power in the first place) on other people, such as children and employees. You could speak in this case of the stupidity of power. Perhaps 'the stupidity of coercion' makes the point more obvious.

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Evolution does not adapt an animal species' behavioural strategy to better suit its environment. Rather, it adapts an animal species' anatomy to better enable the behaviour that has proved to be necessary for this species to cope in this environment. The question what behavioural strategy will best serve this species in this environment is answered by the current nature of the environment, the current anatomy of the species, and innumerable other factors — all outside the logical purview of evolution.

Popular writers on human evolution imply that evolution by itself, by virtue of its producing 'survival of the fittest' perhaps, has dictated, and implanted in our brains, a competitive behavioural strategy for human beings — simply assuming (what is almost certainly not true) that an overall competitive behavioural strategy will best enable the species, and individuals, to survive. These writers have to cite the brain, because obviously the rest of the human anatomy is not designed for aggression or competition.

In fact, in the human case, circumstances plus the 'innumerable other factors' have determined that a strategy of concerted activity, cooperation and behavioural versatility best ensures our survival as a species. And evolution has outfitted our bodies and brains to facilitate this strategy.

In my opinion, intra-species competition and aggression is not only not the best strategy, it is hardly a 'strategy' at all — more like a stress response.

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Thinking is not activity of the brain, it is a person acting on his or her brain. By employing the techniques of minimal rehearsing and other kinds of actional feinting, simulating, etc., the person is jollying up synapses in his own cortex, re-activating established neural firing programs and synthesising new ones, speculating new connections and continuities, and so on — thus improving his or her immediate behaviour-potential. In thinking, the brain is the patient, not the agent.

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Where does thinking take place? Why am I happy to endlessly parley this question while everyone else groans? Well, it is a wonderful, rich question and the various answers to it make us appreciate some profound things about human beings. The vast majority of people are totally besotted by the mind metaphors I detail in TAOT and give the answer, 'In the head' or 'In the mind' or 'In the brain'. Any other answer, or kind of answer, is just inconceivable to them. Because thinking is such an important part of our lives and because the the 'in the head' answer is so dopey, I find this endlessly amusing. One has to apologise and agree that laughing at other people's limitations is a bad thing and a sign of poor character. But I still think it is very funny. And not funny peculiar either, though it is that too, but funny hilarious.

My usual answer to the question, which seems obviously true, is, 'Wherever the person doing the thinking happens to be at the time'. I give this answer because, as I show in TAOT, thinking is, roughly speaking, imagined conversation. To think about something is to imagine a conversation — with someone else, who is probably vaguely specified or unspecified — about that something. Imagining is a learned, voluntary action, a kind of very abbreviated rehearsing of an action or activity. It is something the person physically does. Although involuntary imagining is common, primarily and originally, imagining is something that the person has to learn to do and, subsequently, try to do. Which is not to say it doesn't become, often, very easy.

Because it is such a subtle action, so extremely economical of movement — and that is the whole point of imagining, the reason for its convenience as a means of rehearsal and the reason why the metaphor of the person doing it 'inside themselves' is so compelling — it can be done almost anywhere. That is, it can be done 'wherever the person happens to be at the time': sitting at the dining table, lying in bed, climbing down a fire-escape, and so on.

So far, so good. But there are other answers to the question, or other, closely-related questions about thinking, that take us into very interesting areas. A conversation is a social event, an instance of cooperative and concerted activity. You might think there is no problem, no philosophical problem anyway, about deciding on the location of conversations. The conversation happens wherever the people having the conversation are at the time. 'Sitting at the dining table', 'lying in bed', and 'climbing down a fire escape' are good for this too: that sort of answer.

But one can also have a conversation on the telephone, or via computers, or whatever, and one can have 'conference calls'. The question where the conversation is taking place is suddenly problematic. It is interesting to canvass some of the possible explanations of where a phone conversation, say, is taking place. At the location of each participant alternately? But conversation requires simultaneous participation. At both (or all) locations simultaneously? But these locations may be widely different — the other side of the world, say. Or one of the participants may be making a large step for mankind on the moon. And telephone conversations these days often involve 'bouncing signals off' (what in God's name does that mean?) earth satellites... So where is the conversation itself, the social event involving these people, taking place? We are tempted to say, and we do say, that conversations take place between people.

It is not just conversations, but many other kinds of concerted and cooperative undertakings that are in question here. In principle, all concerted and cooperative activity, all culture, is prone to difficulties if one wants to nominate location. Two engineers establishing a level across a field, three WWII warships converging from different parts of the Atlantic, industrial production using the outwork system, and so on indefinitely. Where do cultural events, where do cultures, take place? [To add to the difficulty, there are 'when' questions too — if, as is common, the various contributions to a cooperative undertaking can happen at very different times.]

So, the question where thinking takes place quickly broadens out into questions about where any kind of collective or cultural activity takes place. It becomes understandable why people thinking about cultural activity in general would want to distinguish 'the physical component' of cultural activity from its 'sociality' or 'meaning' — the 'shared understanding' that is guiding the activity. The so-called physical component is reasonably locateable (although the difficulties associated with telephones and whatnot are not minor). But where do you locate the 'understanding' part? You might just what to brush it under the carpet, that is, shove it inside people's heads where you can't see it. You might want to speak of the 'internalisation' of culture, and think of culture as being located in individual people's minds or brains. But the fact is, culture is out there, hovering as it were 'between' or 'amongst' us. And there ain't nothing inside people's heads but blood and stuff. Culture plays the individual, makes him or her 'sound', it makes a human being, a person, of him or her — like a strong wind through a harp.

Heidegger's concept of Dasein is interesting here. One can glean something of it from Hubert Dreyfus' excellent contributions on the internet: the lecture, 'Heidegger and Foucault on the Subject, Agency and Practices'

and the long interview with  Bryan Magee on Husserl and Heidegger on You Tube.

There is also the account of Heidegger's work written for the film 'Being in the World'.
Or you could actually read Heidegger. But before taking this drastic step you should read The Act of Thinking.

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Near the end of Dreyfus' Heidegger and Foucault essay cited above, in the context of a discussion about the absoluteness of relativity of 'being' — that is, perhaps, 'thinghood-in-the-world', 'objectivity' — there is the passage:

Already in his “Thing” essay Heidegger goes out of his way to point out that, even though the original meaning of ‘thing’ in German is a gathering to discuss a matter of concern to the community, in the case of the thing thinging, the gathering in question must be self contained. The focal occasion must determine which community concerns are relevant rather than the reverse.

I take it that this means that ‘things’ exist primarily relative to sub-cultures (small gatherings, or 'forms of life') rather than existing, as it were, absolutely, relative to a whole culture, or to some fictional über-culture — or their existing just absolutely, simpliciter. And the last sentence seems to add some pragmatist or operationist gloss, whereby the practical and other needs of a sub-culture prescribe what ‘things’ that the sub-culture must conjure (in each 'gathering to discuss a matter of concern to the community'). This is in contrast to the scenario that one might expect from a conventional, commonsense viewpoint, wherein the inherent nature of the thing (which presumably then requires to be independently specifiable) determines the practices of, and what is regarded as important in, the sub-culture.

In The Act of Thinking I also remark on the fact that the word thing used to mean (in Old German or Old Norse) a 'conclave to attend to some matter of mutual concern'. However, I do not attempt to define any practical relation between the object of the joint attention and the joint attention. (This would presuppose the independent existence of the thing in question and defeat the whole philosophical point.) I simply conflate the two. Nouns are nothing over and above our way of marking, and subsequently invoking for practical purposes, items in our repertoire of shared attendings. I reduce 'things in the world' to shared actions — shared acts of attending/perceiving.

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Talk of spirits, soul or mind inside people (and I say it is figurative talk) originates because of the difficulty, the impossibility, of accommodating people's social abilities and dispositions — their participation with us in cultural practices and the quality of that participation — in an objective perspective on them. Although some (including me) would raise semantic objections, it is reasonable to say that people are, at least 'in part', physical entities, evolved animals, biological organisms. For the study of biological organisms, an objective, scientific stance is entirely appropriate. On the other hand, people are also social agents — companions, family members, mayors, retailers, yachtsmen, lovers, etc. And, for contemplating these social abilities and propensities, an objective scientific attitude is entirely inappropriate. What is required in this case is empathy. To perceive another person as a companion, family member, mayor, etc., one has to empathise. One has to first imagine the social role in question, invoke that concept, and the only way one can do this is by imagining being a companion, family member, mayor, or whatever. One imagines 'what it is like' to do that, be that. Then one has to, somehow, attach this empathic imagining that one is doing to the other person. One wants to say that his being the Mayor of Gadsby, or a cricket fan, is a fact about him, an objective fact, pretty much like his being 1.75 metres tall or his weighing 80 kilos.

We rely on and trust the objective, distancing attitude, the one we use for talking with other people about things in the world, and we want to continue to use it when we are talking about (not objects or animals but) other people. So, how do we accommodate the social qualities of other people, which we have to empathise, in the objective, thing-seeing perspective? Well, we retain the objective stance but use metaphor. We imagine the social role to be inherent in, inside, the person, inside the person's head. Our empathic understanding of the social role in question is 'projected', under the cloak of one or other colloquial metaphor, into the person and regarded as an internal behaviour-motivating ingredient in that other person. Sometimes the social propensity is even associated with a particular bodily organ — as aggression (the choleric humour) used to be associated, in Galen's time, with the gall bladder, affections were with the heart, and intellectual abilities are, still, with the brain.

The above is generalised and much-abbreviated version of an argument concerning our putative imaginings of 'mental phenomena in other people's heads' that is rehearsed in the section entitled 'Mistaking empathy for imagined perceiving' on pp. 217-220 of The Act of Thinking.

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It is the group that thinks. Well, almost. The individual thinks as an agent or representative of the group. He thinks on behalf of the group, for the group. The individual out doing his own thing is nevertheless out on group business. His thoughts are minimal rehearsals of conversations with other group members.

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There is — or was, I haven't been keeping up — the internalism/externalism debate in philosophy of mind: whether the mind is all inside the head (and brain) or whether it somehow extends out into the world, by virtue of the heuristic devices, measuring systems, educative social encounters, communication media, etc., that thinkers utilise. So we have the ludicrous 'leaky mind' concept, which I took exception to in an earlier notebook. And there is the broader question, extending the internal/external alternative beyond thinking to behaviour in general: is behaviour caused primarily by internal or by external determinants, by mechanisms (especially brain mechanisms) inside the individual or by external, environmental and social phenomena? Everybody answers 'both': the two kinds of determinant interact.

I want to say that all behaviour is essentially collective, group behaviour. Individual behaviour is just a fragment of group behaviour. The causes of individual behaviour are thus inevitably external to the individual. Group (and hence individual) behaviour is determined by an interaction of group needs-and-abilities with environmental factors.

But in a sense the environment, everything external, every external thing, the world, is also a group product. Perceiving the situation in which we are to act is itself a species of concerted action (even if there is no-one else about and we have to do it on our own). So the group is really the be-all and end-all as far as behaviour is concerned. Internalism rules, but internalism as regards (not the individual but) the group.

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What role does my brain play in, say, my trying to remember when Aunt Jean died? Does it offer me advice about how to find out? For example, does it suggest that I ask my brother or look in my diary? Or suggest I think about what else was happening around the time Jean died? Or does it just sit there in my head, squelching, waiting for me to come up with the answer by myself? I suspect the latter. I have never heard a word from it during any problem-solving I have ever undertaken. Even the wife has been more useful in that respect.

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As regards our day-to-day activity, the brain plays the same kind of role that the muscles play. As we learn a new behaviour, our muscles grow, selectively, to facilitate subsequent performances of that behaviour, make it easier to perform. Our perceptual abilities selectively improve in the same way. We become better attuned towards, more skilled at perceiving and more discriminating about, those things in the world that are relevant to the things we habitually do. And in the same way, I am saying, the synapses in our cerebral cortices adjust to our everyday repertoire of behaviours, facilitating the physiological logistics of habitual actions — making it easier for our body to perform the complex actions we, or the joint activities that we engage in, require of it. As a given activity wanes in the repertoire, the associated specific muscles, perceptual abilities and neural firing programs (in our brains and elsewhere) wane also.

The only other important brain function is the synthesising of new actions to fit new circumstances. Here again, it is people (us and our friends) that have to do the work — effortfully trying to take everything into account, and to consider as many likely options as possible. This 'relevancy and possibility gathering' causes a whole complex of neural firing programs (would-be perceptions and behaviours) to be simultaneously activated, to some 'incipient' level of performance, in cortex. With time and luck, the brain will synthesise, from this complex, a resultant firing program (behaviour) which solves the initial problem. The idea that the brain is in any sense the boss is childish. Apart from when you want it to synthesise something new, the only time it gets to take over is when a course of action is so very familiar to us that we can do it without thinking. We do not have to be told by others or effortfully 'tell ourselves' or 'think' what to do. We can go on auto-pilot — run the firing programs without monitoring the results.

On the other hand, I do want to say that our original post-natal disposition to concert our activity with that of others is probably the result of a 'built-in physiological mechanism' — such as a brain mechanism. (The concept of mirror neurons scratches the surface of this.) And I do want to say that the urge to participate in concerted activity is really the be-all and end-all, 'the boss', of our lives.

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What are the advantages of collective activity, of people acting in concert rather than everyone acting on their own? Why was it such a successful option for our ancestors on the African plains?

Ontological. As Wittgenstein showed with his 'no private language' argument — and Davidson with his talk of 'triangulation' (and Pierce, and Sartre, and even, Toulmin says, Kant) — we need other people to establish the objective existence of anything. The real world is no more or less than 'that which it is possible to share perceptions of'. A particular 'thing' is just a particular recipe of actual or possible concerted perceivings. By doing our perceiving in concert we gain the whole world. The advantage of having a world out there is that you personally do not have to think about it or continue perceiving it in order that it continue to exist. Others can do that for one. There are many repertoires in which that perception recipe is maintained, and stays available for transfer to you. There is no danger that the recipe will change or get lost... It is much the same with other (non-perceiving-type) actions. 'Actions' are by definition transferable, do-able by anyone.

Objectivity is the actuality or possibility of concerted performance. Objectivity implies communicability. Communication is my imagining the action/perception that you are imagining. We must both know how this action/perception is performed, or how its components are performed.' Because objectivity makes communication possible, it also makes thinking — the solo and private rehearsing of communication — possible too. Needless to say, both communication and thinking vastly increase the versatility and effectiveness of concerted action (see 'Epistemic' below).

Practical. There are many tasks of hunting, gathering, defending and otherwise ensuring survival that only a group can perform. And there are economies of supply (killing one big animal to feed everyone) and timing (everyone drinking now because now we are near the stream now). Somewhat paradoxically, division of labour — or 'cooperation', where participants perform different but complementary tasks — is also possible only within a context of concerted activity. Although the participants' actions differ, they are still concerted: they have a common goal and are the result of a shared understanding. Division of labour further greatly increases the group repertoire.

Motivational. Consider Durkheim's 'collective effervescence' and the delight on face of the baby reciprocating some simple action of his caregiver. The enthusiasm and persistence of our participation in concerted activity can turn individuals into supermen and superwomen. This motivational boost may be due to a simple physiological effect. By the empathy (or 'mirror neuron' or 'perception-behaviour') effect, seeing others doing the same thing that you are doing physiologically enhances one's own performance. It increases the firing in the relevant neural firing program that is under way in your body. One is not only doing X but imitating the other's doing of X.

Epistemic. The transferability of our perceivings and other doings makes knowledge-pooling and collective intelligence possible. Concerting creates a hugely muscular and many-legged creature (the nomadic band) but also gives this creature a vast geographical and temporal range to feed its innumerable eyes and ears on. And it gives the creature a truly colossal collective brain, capable of wonderful feats of both memory and new synthesis. [More accurately: the synthesis of new behaviours is possible only in an individual brain. Concert and communication assist by enabling individuals' brains to entertain a much wider range of behaviours/perceivings than the individuals' own experience could have supplied. Concert and communication also enable everyone to learn any new and useful behaviours that individuals might synthesise.]

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When you hear people talking about the 'basically individualistic' nature of human beings, and how we have all been programmed by evolution to benefit ourselves first and foremost, you wonder whether there is some other kind of 'human being' you have not heard about.

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What is consciousness?

Roughly speaking, to be 'conscious' is to be imagining oneself engaged in some social interaction.

A natural urge (drive, disposition, instinct, tendency, need, desire, motivation, etc.) towards X will manifest itself in several ways. Performances of the desired behaviour X, when they occur, tend to be enthusiastic. The person (or animal) tends to suffer when deprived of opportunities for X-ing or when attempts to X are unsuccessful. More importantly for our purposes, when the person is not X-ing he or she is frequently 'on the look-out for', and is especially sensitive to, circumstances and behaviours that relate to X-ing. In response to such X-relevant perceptions, or just spontaneously, the person will often covertly rehearse or 'imagine' X-ing. Generally speaking, the person maintains him- or herself in a state of active readiness to X.

Familiar examples of behaviours towards which we have a natural urge include sexual activity, eating and drinking, exercising the musculature, avoiding harm, and so on. But there is one over-arching urge. Human beings have a natural urge to concert their activity with that of others, i.e.,to act 'in unison' with others. It can be called the concert urge. The simplest and most obvious illustrations of it are things like children's imitation games, dancing and other rhythmical activities, carnivals, music, sex, walking together, and so on. We take delight in these, but concerted activity — people doing the same thing together at the same time, in unison — is also the essence of communication and is, consequently, an indispensable prerequisite for our ability to think.

There are four main varieties of concerted activity: recreational, ritual, educative-communicative and practical. The most philosophically interesting is the educative-communicative variety. Educative practices invariably take the form of, or are abbreviated versions of, the joint rehearsing of an activity by teacher and pupil. In communication, the parties rehearse activity in various very abbreviated ways. Although much of the rehearsing is covert, especially in verbal communication, it is still done in concert by speaker and hearer. Although it is sometimes purely recreational, the main function of educative-communicative activity is to ready the pupil for participation in other (especialy practical) forms of concerted activity. Educative-communicative activity thus has an especially basic role in the repertoire.

Evidently, and especially if we include spin-offs from acting in concert such as divided-labour cooperation and 'caring and sharing', concerted activity is ubiquitous in our lives. The concert urge is our über-urge. And it is nearly always — except when we are asleep or otherwise unconscious — 'switched on' and ready for action.

So, what is consciousness? Consciousness, being 'conscious', is how the concert urge manifests itself — in terms of action and incipient action — in our lives. It is our doing things in concert with others and, when we are not doing things in concert with others, it is our continual readying of ourselves for doing things in concert with others. However, because the philosophical paradigm of consciousness involves the individual alone, we should exclude actual participation in concerted activity as an example of consciousness. Actual participation is the actional reality of which consciousness is the micro-actional rehearsal. I mentioned at the beginning of the entry some of the various ways in which natural urges manifest themselves micro-behaviourally. Consciousness is a matter of not only minimally rehearsing activity with others but of being perceptually 'primed' and 'on the look-out' for things and behaviours relevant to familiar shared practices. And this minimal rehearsing and perceptual heedfulness is being done on a more or less continuous basis. A state of 'active readiness' to engage in activity with others is maintained.

In the philosopher's paradigm case of 'consciousness', the individual is conscious either of some object in the world, or of a sensation he is experiencing, or of what he is himself doing ('self-awareness'). In my definition, it may be any kind of concerted activity that the person alone is readying him- or herself for. But, in fact, it is usually the educative-communicative type of activity that dominates the solitary person's imaginings. The person privately rehearses describing to others what he is currently perceiving or feeling. Or he imagines explaining to them what he is currently doing. What the philosopher takes as the paradigm of consciousness is in fact the most common kind of consciousness, but it is not the only kind. Imagining kissing someone — whether the other person is absent or present — is a kind of consciousness too.

Everyday empathising — when one is watching someone do something but refraining from participating — is another important area of consciousness. One's consciousness of what the other is doing is one's act of covertly rehearsing doing it too, in concert with them. But there is a great variety of ways in which one anticipates, imaginatively enacts, readies oneself for, participation with others...

The above description of consciousness is meant to be simple, and to apply also to a (fanciful, or at least speculative) member of an innocent prehistoric band. I describe what human consciousness was originally, or what it is ideally. Everyday modern consciousness is undoubtedly, as many writers have observed, vitiated by too much concert deprivation, or 'alienation'. Nowadays, the attitude that one habitually adopts vis-à-vis others — in both real-life interactions and solitary covert rehearsals — is often not a purely side-by-side, empathic, fellow-participant attitude. It may be an objective — defensive, exploitative or abusive — attitude towards the other. One imagines, for example, being an object — of admiration, lust, disdain or fear — for someone else. There is also Sartre's 'false' or self-deceptive consciousness.

And there are states of 'higher' consciousness wherein one imagines unity, one empathises, not with other people doing things but with natural phenomena or with 'everything'. However, what primarily interests me is the simplest and most universal kind of human consciousness — namely, our active, rehearsive, imaginative, readying-of-ourselves for doing things, especially communicating, with others.

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Theorists tend to posit a biologically-in-built basis for all natural urges, as if anatomy necessarily determines (causes) behaviour and as if X-behaviour is only the outer consequence of an inexorable inner X-ing mechanism. But this is an arbitrary theoretical decision. In evolutionary terms it is the (long-term success of the) behaviour that has determined the anatomy. The anatomy enables or facilitates the behaviour, of course. That's why it evolved like that. That's the point about evolution. But aetiologically, the behaviour comes first. It is not even a chicken-and-egg thing. As to whether there is any specific physiological basis for consciousness, as to whether there is any one dedicated organ or 'mechanism', I would say there is not. Lots of things about our physical make-up — our sense-organs, vertical stance with free arms and hands, vocal organs, big adaptable brains and the mirror neuron mechanism, our neotony and diet — are especially geared to concerted activity, to culture. Really, the amount of our anatomy that facilitates concerting, or that concerting exploits, is comparable with the proportion of our repertoire that concerted activity occupies. And that is a big proportion.

So, is consciousness — our active readiness to act in concert with others — a brain function? Is consciousness something that our brains in any sense 'do' or 'generate'? I can't see that. So much of our anatomy and so much of our early experience contributes to our abilities to act, in a huge variety of ways, in concert with others. And these innumerable factors also contribute to our ability to habitually imagine, or covertly rehearse, acting in concert with others — that is, our being 'conscious'. The brain plays an essential support role, of course, but so do the eyes, tongue, hands....

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Our use of the words conscious and aware overlaps to some extent with our use of the word thinking. But generally, thinking is a special case of consciousness, one which involves a the covert rehearsing of a particular kind of joint educative effort — namely, problem-solving. The kind of educative concerting that the thinker imagines involves the participants' reviewing the problem situation and the variables in it and, hopefully, synthesising an action that will solve the problem. In classic solitary thinking, the thinker has to rehearse both the reviewing and the synthesising. 'Consciousness' is a much more general phenomenon, involving, as in entry 18 above, the covert rehearsal of practically any kind of concerted activity. In the normal case consciousness is prompted not by any specific problem to solve but by our general everyday need to be 'at the ready' so far as interactions with others are concerned — our need to keep our brains oriented, integrated and activated in useful ways. The 'periodic redintegration' theory of the function of dreaming is relevant here. You could say, consciousness is a waking dream...? And consciousness serves as a kind of whistling in the dark, to reassure ourselves of our social viability, our usefulness as people. We are often anxious about that.

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Any joint activity is a bit of a gamble. With all the things that might go wrong, a certain optimism, faith, is required to launch it. This applies especially when the venture is new, and has been thought up by somebody — out of the blue, so to speak.

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The thing about being drunk while talking to someone is that you are disrespecting the holy institution of interpersonal communication. You are selling your interlocutor short, betraying them. Unless, of course, the other person is pissed too. Then you can go for it. The institution can turn away as haughtily as it likes.

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It is hard to be open-minded when you are in power. And the professors, including the philosophy and social science professors, are 'in power'. They have money's ear. And some of its money. One reviews the long line of Western theorists of human nature: Plato, Aristotle, the Christians, Galen, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Smith, Darwin, Freud, Lorenz, Wilson-Dawkins-Pinker — all intellectual grandees. They supply the wisdom about us.

They smile at us down the centuries, dispensing their individualist philosophies to us like the Tasmanian settlers distributing smallpox-laced blankets to the aborigines.

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Why is it that income inequality in a country produces such a range of social ills — as catalogued in The Spirit Level? If income inequality is a fact, then people will want to rationalise this fact. And they inevitably rationalise it in terms of some people deserving more than others, because they work harder, contribute more, are more intelligent or generally better people, etc. All of these rationalisations, including the initial assumption of some people being more deserving than others, require that one abandon the innocent side-by-side attitude with respect to others and adopt an objective attitude instead. In a society where there are differential financial 'rewards' for different work and the differentials are endemic and integral — especially when the differentials are as drastic as they are in our society — then the corresponding objective interpersonal attitudes are integral and endemic as well. That is, the rationalisation of the society, at its core, precludes the side-by-side attitude in favour of objective attitudes. If we enquire what is the reasoning behind the society in question, we are told that the side-by-side attitude, and innocent concerted activity, is not an option. It is, effectively, forbidden. For a human being — a creature designed specifically for concerted action — this is a terrifying, humiliating thing to be told. Of course you are going to get all those terrible social problems if that is what you tell people. And the fact of extreme differences of income says this quite unambiguously. The message is hammered home.

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In their explanations of the fundamental aspects of human nature and culture — knowledge and truth, language, mind, morality, law — Western philosophers have traditionally excluded or downplayed the role of concerted activity, that is, people working together.

In fact, we are entirely dependent — practically, intellectually and emotionally — on concerted activity. The ability and desire to engage in concerted activity is an essential, the essential, part of human nature. We evolved, over 5 or 6 million years, for an environment and a life-style in which extreme groupiness was absolutely necessary. We are the group-coping animal par excellence.

When you are talking about reality, language, mind and morality, etc., 'people working in concert' is very much the elephant in the room. Why have Western philosophers ignored, mystified, denied or played down this fairly obvious reality? First, how have they done it? Philosophers have in their discussions of human nature almost invariably adopted three assumptions: that only the individual and individual behaviour is relevant to human nature; that an objective, scientific or would-be scientific, attitude is appropriate for understanding human beings; and that people are motivated by forces, agencies or mechanisms inside them. These assumptions — apparently so sensible and plausible — effectively preclude consideration of concerted activity, at least in connection with human nature.

It is possible that these assumptions are adopted just because they so effectively screen off concerted activity and our dependence on it. Possibly also, this motivation on the part of philosophers is unconscious. But why would anyone want, consciously or unconsciously, to avoid contemplating the importance in our nature and our lives of joint activity? There are at least two possibilities.

First, a kind of conspiracy theory. There is an elite ruling class, the members of which survive by managing and exploiting the majority of the population. The majority's desires for concert and togetherness remain, as a result, largely unsatisfied. If this majority were aware of the power and easy availability of concerted activity — if they were aware of their own 'people power' — they could implement political systems which avoid the kind of exploitation the elite relies on. So, the elite employs philosophers to conceal the truth about concerted activity from the majority. [Some would say the elite employs the church to assuage the majority's curiosity and the majority's concert deprivation with a 'safe' version of togetherness. Philosophy and Christianity would thus have different but complementary management roles.]

There is a cute little addendum to the above theory, to the effect that the elite only do what they do because they are so concert-deprived themselves. But their wealth and control, far from satisfying their concert urges are an addictive substitute for concert. Like other addictions, wealth and power actually destroy the victim's ability to enjoy the original satisfaction. The elite cannot be satisfied by concert, the camel cannot get through the eye of the needle. They have to opt for more wealth and power.

Second, it might be that, because of the huge human populations now and the extreme environmental degradation, our inborn need for sustained and intense concerted activity is now forever unsatisfiable. Realising this, consciously or unconsciously, philosophers have adopted a policy of sweeping togetherness and concerted activity under the carpet — for everyone's sake. I tend towards this second explanation. But I don't agree with the sweeping-under-the-carpet policy.

At any rate, the idea is that we are designed for a kind of intense group life that is no longer possible, and this causes varieties of suffering that we can do something, but not much, to alleviate. This idea is interesting and useful in everyday life. If you view other individuals as frustrated group-addicts, just like yourself, not only do you understand a lot of their behaviour and demeanour better, you also have more sympathy for them. In my opinion, it is basically the Christian idea. Christianity talks about the same things and comes to similar conclusions. The main difference is that the Christian message is stated in metaphors.

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The person is a storage and production facility for behaviour. The brain is an inventory management and logistics system for the behaviour. (It's about time we had a new metaphor for Mr Brain.) So, what or who is this behaviour factory-warehouse in the service of? It is in the service of human culture — that is, it is in the service of a group of human beings acting in concert.

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There is a prehistoric beast living unnoticed in our midst: culture, the concert beast, humanity. Unfortunately it seems to be asleep a lot of the time.

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The abnormal brain chemistry, the 'chemical imbalance', is not the cause of mental illness but just another symptom, alongside the depression, inability to sleep, etc. The cause, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, is not a physiological problem (diet, genetic defect, infection, poison, etc.) but concert deprivation. There's nothing wrong with the machinery. It's just that it's not being used properly. Or it's not being used at all. The main 'mental' problems are misuse and desuetude. The person is not participating in enough truly concerted, side-by-side activity and, therefore, the brain is not getting enough use, or not enough use of the right kind.

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I have thought and read for two three decades about the possibility that there is a close relation between 'the human essence' — what is essential in human nature, what we basically are — and the Christian God. Feuerbach, Durkheim and Collingwood seem to think that they are identical and that 'God' is a metaphor for the human essence. I agree. But it would be nice to know what the human essence is. Feuerbach and Collingwood are not at all specific; they are both content to brandish abstracta. Durkheim makes good progress by identifying our essence with, variously, the social impulse, society, the collective, the spirit of togetherness. But really, talk of essences is a bit misleading. What is basic to us is, more, something outside us, to which we cleave. It is the strategy we are evolved and born to follow — it is acting in concert, being 'us', innocently side by side, absorbed in joint activity. That is 'being with God'.

So, then, the Christian's statements about God are actually figurative statements, mostly painfully, profoundly accurate, about our dependence on concerted activity. It is likely that other religions also are poetic reflections on the power, the almost supernatural power, that acting in concert has in our lives. From this perspective, the 'debate' between fundamentalists and atheists, which has taken over such big areas of the public conversation about religion, seems farcical and blasphemous.

As for spirit, soul, I have written a book which explains 'mind' as the echo, that we each carry with us, of the communal — though we do not carry it, I am keen to point out, literally inside us, inside our heads, for example.

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I stand by the “almost supernatural” in the second-last paragraph above. In fact, I will drop the “almost”. It is not so much because inexplicable things happen — coincidences, moods, visions — when togetherness is intense. They certainly do happen. Why is it, for example, that one cannot go into a church without having to fight back tears? Even empty churches are inexplicably occupied.

No, I agree with the Christian's 'supernatural' on philosophical grounds. Our trick of doing things in unison, group power, is a post-biological reality. And the fact of it, and its all-importance in our lives, and even the smallest examples of it, are forever inaccessible to science. If science is to be granted ultimate authority to find out and speak for us about the objectively existing natural universe and the phenomena in it, and I believe it should be, then we must give it the objective methods necessary to do this job. However, fortunately or unfortunately, equipping scientists with the objective methods renders them — at least while they are doing science — incapable of the empathy they would need if ever they were to study people's actions. Of course, they need it and use it, empathy, in their everyday lives. But you can't make an 'it' of a person, you can't do 'it' with a person — and doing 'it' is what objectivity is all about. You can play 'it' with the human anatomy, physiology, etc. But with a person, a normal person with nothing seriously wrong with them in front of you, you can only do 'us'. And for 'us', you have to empathise.

So I am saying that ordinary interpersonal interactions are supernatural. Naturally, the precious essence of these interactions, concert, is supernatural.

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Helen and I were stopped in John Street in a line of cars all wanting to turn right into Riddiford Street and waiting for the lights to change. I saw a man, a stocky Maori of about forty, quickly get out of his car, two or three cars ahead of ours in the queue, and come scampering back to ours, acknowledging me in the process. Before I knew what was happening, and without my having time to be alarmed, or even surprised, he had adeptly closed our bonnet — it instantaneously occurred to me where I must have forgotten to close it — and was scampering back to his own car and getting in, all with great speed and efficiency, and without meeting my (now grateful) gaze again. His perception of the bonnet's position (about a centimetre above normal) his public spirit and his sheer speed (which he managed to combine with courtesy) all seemed to merit this report you have just read.

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Since my late teens it has been mysterious to me why philosophers persist with the notion — which quite obviously derives from figures of speech — that consciousness and thinking are generated in and/or by the brain. However, I have been reading recently about the number of people who take pills for depression and other 'mental health problems'. I wonder if anyone has ever calculated (a) the combined profits of the 'psychopharmacology' branches of the big pharmacological corporations and set that figure against (b) the cost of establishing and running all the cognitive science departments and courses in all the universities in the world, with all their associated publications — especially including the regular public media releases reporting 'fascinating new findings' in brain science. You could include the cost of training psychiatrists in (b) too. Even so, (b) is likely to be just a small fraction of (a).

I believe in a 'social-experience' account of so-called 'mental illness'. I would say that habitual depression, aggressiveness, etc., are, like habitual cheerfulness or lustfulness, largely the consequences of the person's past and present social life. The person's brain chemistry may reflect both this past social experience and the current habitual mood but it is not, except in rare cases, the cause of either. Brain chemistry is about as relevant to mood and behaviour style as it is to skill at chess or tennis. You don't take a pill to improve your tennis. If the 'social experience' story is true, and if most pharmacological success in this area can be put down to the (social) placebo effect or to the simple drugging down of undesirable symptoms, then it is likely that a considerable advertising or 'public relations' effort would be necessary to convince people, including medical people, that brain pills are worth buying.

Chomsky believes that universities are part of corporate public relations. He should know. If this is true, we should congratulate the corporate leaders for finally finding a practical use for philosophy. On the other hand, maybe this little joke is naïve. Perhaps, in certain circles, there never has been any doubt that philosophy has a practical purpose, nor any doubt what that purpose is. 'Mental hobbling of the masses', say, or, yes, 'public relations'. Or perhaps — think-tanks notwithstanding — it is not so much a masterful conspiracy but rather just a matter of those who fund the universities having a good nose for what challenges their financial interests, authority or attitudes to life. Understandably, they don't want to pay for anything smelly.

It could still be true, whether or not anything in the above two paragraphs is true, that very few people — other than me and my lucky readers — have even the faintest idea what consciousness is. I suspect there is such almost universal ignorance, even at the highest levels of culture, i.e., among corporate theorists. But why? Is it too intellectually difficult to achieve the necessary objectivity? Is it too difficult to hold consciousness — our anticipatory imaginings of concert — at arms length? Or is the truth of our dependence on concert, and its dearth, too close to the bone emotionally? Don't ask me.

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Maybe everyone is aware, at least subconsciously, that there is a big problem with the way we are living. Artists and philosophers of society have been aware there is a problem and for the last century or so have been talking about alienation, anomie, the death of God, loss of a sense of community, meaninglessness, the absurd, and so on. But that is pretty vague talk. Other more mainstream philosophers, focused on the core philosophical topics of epistemology, philosophy of mind, and ethics have perhaps been even more sensitive to this problem. However, although they are sensitive to it they may still not be able, or not want, to specify what it is. Without specifying what the problem is, they have taken steps to prevent anyone else from being able to specify it. This may be a professional public service or it may be an accumulation of individual acts of psychological 'denial' on the philosophers' parts. They have anyhow woven a wonderfully complex veil, in the form of an individualist, objectivist and internalist ideology, to disguise the real shape of the problem and to lead their thoughts and perceptions, and everyone else's, well away from it.

Philosophers' writing is forever haunted and harried by this problem they have never dared look round at. Philosophers cannot help remembering what our life used to be like, what speech really is, what consciousness is and moral goodness, and what these, and everything else human, depend on. Like a roomful of old woman weavers they keep their eyes on the veil in front of them, deftly moving their fingers to fill in the holes, chattering away to one another to subdue their unease.

What they know, but what is never going to dawn on them, is that mind, and the whole of human culture and human nature depends on something that, by abandoning the small group life and settling in these now enormous agglomerations, we have discarded. We have made this terrible mistake. You might say, what's the fuss, what's not to face up to about that? Why don't we just go back and pick up that whatever-it-is we have discarded? But that's the thing. You look at what life's like now, the cities and the thickening skies over them, and the conclusion is irresistible: it is too late, the going-back ain't going to happen and the thing, whatever it is, that is missing here, the 'God' let us call it, ain't there any more to go back to and pick back up. It ain't anywhere.

To go on, we need to believe either that it is still there and we will get back to it one day — or that we can go on indefinitely without it (and we can't). Get weaving, girls.

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The conventional philosophical approach to 'emotion' starts, apparently quite reasonably, by looking at the individual standing there in front of us while he is feeling some emotion — anger, say. There he is, feeling the anger. He is a bit twitchy looking, but that's not the anger. The anger is not directly observable. It is inside him. It is inside his head. The only thing of any interest inside people's heads is the brain, which we already believe to be the command organ, the pilot, of the body and the person generally. So, we naturally conclude that the anger emotion is going on in the person's brain. And we look for the brain area, or particular brain 'mechanism', that 'controls' or 'is responsible for' or 'underpins', or 'supports' or 'causes' or 'generates' emotions.

If the topic of the overt expression of emotions, emotional behaviour, in social situations, should by some chance arise, the conventional philosopher of emotion would get rather peeved and say something like: can't you see, I'm busy — I haven't even worked out what emotions are yet, let alone what happens when they are expressed in behaviour in live social situations. The assumption is that feeling the emotion is the basic phenomenon to be understood and that its interpersonal behavioural expression is a more complicated and secondary phenomenon, to be understood later.

Stuart Hampshire suggests in the two 1961 papers I cite in The Act of Thinking that this conventional approach has things entirely arse-about-face. Hampshire says that, despite the logic of the figures of speech via which we talk about emotion and despite what the philosophers say about emotion (and he implies the two are connected), the interpersonal emotional behaviour is the primary phenomenon. And he emphasises the theatrical and public, even ostentatious, nature of emotional behaviour. The 'feeling' of emotions is, for Hampshire, simply a matter of the person's rehearsing the appropriate public behaviour, the appropriate emotional display, in a special private (rapid, ultra-subtle) and inhibited way. It is this private 'feeling' that is the derivative, more sophisticated and developmentally posterior, phenomenon. It also follows that one cannot even understand the concept of feeling, of 'feeling anger', say, if one has no prior concept of what it is to 'express anger' in a public situation.

The benighted nature of the conventional approach to emotion thus becomes apparent. If you adopt its individualist, objectivist and internalist assumptions — and you look at the individual, in an objective and hopefully scientific way, and you look inside the individual, in his brain — you are not going to see anything of much interest. The main event, where all the epistemological action is, is the public interaction that the individual in front of us is privately rehearsing. The private 'feeling' is merely a pale reflection of the public interaction. The latter is, as it were, off stage, determining what this individual is currently doing. But if the philosopher (or 'cognitive psychologist' or whatever) were to buy into Hampshire's account and ask to look at the public interaction first, he would have to throw his methodological individualism, his would-be scientific objectivity and his internalism out the window. He would be confronted with something like — one person angrily shouting at another, You bastard! You propositioned my wife! You swine! Take that! And that! To comprehend, to even perceive, what is going on here, the observer has to abandon any pretensions to doing science and become an ordinary observer of others' behaviour. He has to empathise.

Even to understand what the 'private rehearsing' business, the 'imagining' or 'pale reflecting', amounts to, the observer has to empathise. He has to know what public pretence and make-believe involve and how this kind of public interaction can be, subsequently, rehearsed privately. In order to understand what the individual in front of him is doing, what he is rehearsing, the observer must know beforehand about the alleged propositioning of the wife. How is he going to see anything of this inside the subject's brain? What on earth has goings-on in people's brains got to do with emotion?

Well, what Sir Stuart said about emotions applies also, and beautifully, to 'consciousness'. Consciousness is also the private rehearsing of behaviour that is originally and essentially public and interactional. The difference is just that what the people are doing in the kind of interaction that consciousness is a 'pale reflection' of. With feeling emotions, the original public behavioural interaction involves things like shouting, sobbing, pleading, laughing incredulously, etc. With consciousness, the original public transaction involves pointing out things to each other, explaining things, idly commenting on things, asking good questions, and so on.

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I was talking to a recent philosophy graduate yesterday. What a relief to talk to someone who has done the reading, knows the lingo and some of the moves, and so on. On the other hand, it was a pain to sense how thoroughly he had been trained to follow one path. I started off with my usual stuff about there really being no such thing as the mind, that the mind was just a metaphor for a set of abilities revolving around thinking, and about thinking's being an action, a learned action of the person, one that we have to, as children, learn how to perform...

He asked me, was I then a physicalist? For at least the last century the conventional assumption has been that either one is a dualist/mentalist — believing that there is both a non-physical, mental world and a physical world and that the twain never meet — or one is a physicalist and believes that there is only one kind of reality, i.e., the objectively existing, scientifically observable and verifiable kind. Fairly obviously, I don't believe that there is any non-physical, supernatural agent or place inside people's heads. Most people in fact do believe this — an absurdity to be explained by the rhetorical power of metaphor and the sensitivity of the area of behaviour that the mind metaphors screen off. But nor do I believe that everything real is a physical phenomenon that could be investigated (and eventually explained) by science. My claim is that there is a vast area of reality — the world of our everyday actions and institutions — that is forever completely inaccessible to science and which is to this extent 'non-physical'. (See the empathy argument at the end of The Act of Thinking.)

Of course, when P performs an action, such as drawing a good likeness of Mickey Mouse, innumerable macro- and micro-physiological phenomena concurrently occur in P's body, and these phenomena are accessible to scientific investigation. But I have never seen any even remotely plausible account of how these undoubtedly real physiological events are related to P's action, to what he is doing — which in this case is drawing a picture of Mickey Mouse. Or is someone going to say that 'P drawing a picture of Mickey Mouse' is not a correct description of what is going on? Or that P is not really drawing Mickey Mouse; what he is really doing is orchestrating this vast constellation of (culturally meaningless) physiological events? Or is someone going to say that people's actions are not real — and that when you look at people performing actions through a scanner you can see what is really going on (i.e., a physiological funfest)? Or is it that, because empathy is strictly forbidden in science, it is therefore not a valid heuristic strategy? Is everything that we perceive via empathy — e.g., other people's actions — necessarily fictional and illusory?

I would say that 'Mickey Mouse', and 'drawing Mickey Mouse' are not and never will be scientific, 'physical' phenomena, and yet they are real. OK, Mickey might not be. But here, look, here's me drawing him. And here's the picture.

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And I was also able to inform this young fellow that, contrary to what he had recently been taught, the brain is not the boss. Culture is the boss. The brain works for culture. And it is, in fact, not a particularly impressive employee.

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What is a philosopher?

Human beings were evolved, over a period of several million years, for a life very different from the one we are living now. The original life — of nomadic small–group hunting and gathering — was founded not only on biological knowledge and practical skills but, more importantly, expertise in concerted and cooperative activity, and mutual solicitude. Naturally enough, we were (and still are) programmed to get pleasure from exercising the abilities most conducive to ensuring our survival. The most important and distinctively human of these abilities is acting in concert. To understand this, consider two trademark human accomplishments, verbal communication and consciousness. Verbal communication evolved solely in order to expedite concerted and cooperative activity. Consciousness is, essentially, a person's maintaining themselves in a state of readiness to engage in concerted activity. Whilst alone, the person privately rehearses participating in joint activities. This more-or-less permanent private rehearsing is what we know as 'consciousness'.

Because of the vastly greater number of people involved and the very different economies that settled communities require, there has been, since the adoption of agriculture and settlements ten thousand years ago, a drastically reduced need for concerted activity. Division of labour and coercion have integral roles now. Although modern economies are capable of sustaining the vastly greater numbers of people, they are unable to provide the pleasure — the joy and sense of togetherness generated by concerted activity — that human beings are programmed for. Or, they can provide nowhere near enough of it. Seven or eight million years of evolution has ensured that this kind of deep gratification is tied to successful hunting and gathering by small nomadic groups. But this lifestyle has now gone forever.

The impossibility of enjoying more than vestiges of the kind of satisfaction we were designed for results in an endemic modern condition that can be called ‘concert deprivation’. Some people are more adversely affected by concert deprivation than others. Crime is motivated by concert deprivation. But it is now, also, the main force driving modern economies. Spontaneous concert and cooperation have of necessity been largely abandoned in favour of increasingly sophisticated methods of coercion and control — together with artificial satisfactions (money, power, possessions, sensual pleasures) to substitute for the togetherness that was generated by concert. ‘Control–and–substitute’ has largely replaced spontaneous concert as the basic strategy. However, the substitutes are never adequate and concert deprivation continues to cause endemic, chronic psychological stress, resulting in addictions and mental illness. Present trends are towards concert deprivation's getting worse.

Since settlement, people have devised myths (such as the notions of mind and God) that deny, obfuscate or distract from the facts and the inevitablity of concert deprivation. Nowadays, with the rise of science, these myths have mainly been replaced by ‘mini–myths’ promulgated by metaphors and other figures of speech in everyday language. We continually propagandise ourselves by the figurative expressions we employ, persuading ourselves of the inevitability and sustainablity of our lives as individuals, gainsaying our dependence on group life and reinforcing our addiction to control–and–substitute.

What are philosophers? What is their job? Philosophers are the managers of the myths we have for propagandising ourselves about the viability of the fundamental psychological and economic strategies — concert or control–and–substitute. Most people remain in the dense ideological fog created by the colloquial figures of speech. There are two kinds of philosopher. One kind works to reinforce the popular myths — by providing what look like literally true, even scientific, justifications for the myths. Identifying ‘the mind’ with the brain is one such move. (The institution of ‘cognitive science’ is essentially a propaganda or public relations ploy.) Metaphysics used to do the trick, but the rise of science has tended to discredit metaphysics as it has discredited the lesser. Anyway, this ‘reactionary’ brand of philosophy attempts, pretty cleverly and successfully on the whole, to lay down red herrings as to the nature of the cultural basics — education, law, politics, ethics, knowledge, mind, art — and lead us heart-broken group nomads back into obfuscation, back into the fog of the everyday. You could say these philosophers are helping, by making it easier for us to ignore our essentially incurable predicament. It may be incurable, but there are legion means of palliative care we haven't tried yet (I never said there weren't). In fact, the reactionary philosophers seem most of the time to be working for the exponents of the more extreme versions of control-and-substitute, the chaps who have sequestered most of our money.

The other kind of philosopher, my kind (needless to say) is keen to expose the contradictions in, and thus discredit, the popular myths, and to help people to realise what has happened, what human beings are, and what their/our situation is right now — uncomfortable as these insights might be. Two things. One: the reactionary philosophers need us because, basically, we know more than they do. Half the time they actually believe their own stuff. We have seen the big pic, and can handle it. Most of them have such horrendous little stunted personalities they would faint at the sightof it. Two: concert deprivation is real and huge. The future of the natural environment, and of the human race withal, depends on our alleviating our concert deprivation somehow. Universities and think-tanks are far too technology–bound, too well–paid and too clever — that is, they are basically too stupid — to come up with anything like a viable solution, or even a sustainable long–term compromise between concert and control. The problem has to be thrown over to the people. Which means you have to tell everyone what the problem is. What about it, chaps?

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Consciousness is what people do when they have been separated from their group and have to wander around for ages completely on their own. They continually, compulsively, rehearse in their imaginations what it was like being with the others — doing things together, talking, smiling, explaining what is going on... They stop in front of objects and covertly enact a commentary. Sometimes they mutter to themselves out loud. But it never stops, except when they sleep. It accompanies them like an emanation. Eventually, they have been on their own so long, and their encounters with their group, or any remote approximation to their group, have been so brief and few, that, during these encounters, when they are with others, they don’t, or barely, have time to halt the obsessive internal patter. Then it’s ‘off again’. Consciousness is a symptom of an affliction. It is a stress response. You get it when you take humans out of their groups for too long. When you make them into ‘individuals’.

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Some of them incessantly scribble on or chatter into electronic gadgetry, but that’s just as mad. There’s no–one at the other end. You should see them when they are actually with the people they are talking to. Out come the gadgets. What’s that? Yeah, great!

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The following is an attempt to get my head around the ‘reality by agreement’ idea that seems to me to have been mooted by Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein in his (K’s) Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. I’m not sure I'm ending up with anything more than a rehash of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, but here goes.

We standardise our perceptual behaviour, teach one another to perceive particular things in just the same way — with the same eye-movements, investigatory procedures, verbal accompaniments, etc. We are taught as children how to see the world, bit by bit. This standardisation of our perceivings is done in preparation for our subsequently engaging together in the practises of our culture. It is like synchronising watches before an operation.

The fancy of a world, an external reality that we are understanding, covering, traversing, bit by bit, helps by providing a sort of mnemonic context for our accumulating perceptual knowledge. We describe the perception recipes that we are taught as ‘corresponding to reality’ but, really, the criterion on which they are chosen and shaped is how well they facilitate our participation in the cultural practices. The action and perception skills we are taught as children are kit-set-like components of practices. Because we are often taught the components without being taught how to synthesise them in actual live sessions of the practices, we need some other 'frame of reference' for them. So we invent the world.

There is no allowance made for perceptions which do not accord well with prevailing practices, because our teachers are rehearsing the perceptions (for us to learn from) from the perspective of participants in the practices. There is no criterion of correctness, no standard of reality, apart from commensurability with the practices. The existing cultural practice is the epistemological bedrock.

On the other hand, cultural practices are inherently normative and subject to negotiation and re-negotiation. We decide what to do. And this decides what we see. Maybe someone wants to remove a contradiction, improve practical efficiency, or simply wants a change. You can even make up the rules as you go along. In practice, change is rare and reasonable. In principle, anything goes. All you need to do is to secure agreement, consensus, about the new arrangement and you're off — skating on new epistemological bedrock. The essentially infinite negotiability of cultural practices amounts to a kind of group existientialism. We forge ourselves and our reality. But you have to take the others with you. There has to be consensus and corroboration, otherwise there is no person–independent standard, no ‘reality’. However, there is no ultimate criterion of acting in concert either. There is no difference between both/all of us sincerely believing we are acting in concert and actually doing so. I mean, there is no actually and no rules for it, except in the moment.

So, there are no stand-alone, God-given realities — unless God is ‘us’ in disguise. Realities all need a group with practices to sustain them. We are responsible for reality. And this is what allows folie à deux and folie à toutes.

The feeling of a reality out there with which we are in contact is simply the feeling of solidarity and social confidence we get when our perceivings and our consummatory, confirmatory verbalisings are the same as others’. Our motivation to get our perceivings right, to get reality right, is our desire to be in concert with others in this important area of the repertoire. Knowledge is solidarity — in the perceptual/verbal area.

OK, OK. There’s not a hell of a lot in that that LW or Saul K would bow to. Ed and Benji neither.

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There is an obvious apparent implausibility in my whole theme, one that I have tended not to address directly. What I — along with at least Vygotsky and Hampshire — mainly say is that solo performance of actions is developmentally and logically posterior to concerted performance of actions. This seems false. It seems obvious that two or more people doing X in concert is a more sophisticated, more demanding, performance than one person doing X by themselves. Each participant in the concerted performance has to both do X and coordinate his doing of it with the others' doing of it.

People do think of solo action as basic — and of the individual as the basic agent and social unit. Hence methodological individualism. It's not as if people think of solo action as basic because they are biased by their individualism. It is more likely that their individualism comes from their belief that solo action is basic.

What makes me say that solo action, individual action, is not basic — and that doing–in–concert is?

First, before we are able to do X, on our own, we have to learn how to do it. And we have to learn from someone else. And all teaching, instructing and communication methods are based on, are abbreviations or adaptations of, imitation learning — that is, doing X in concert with the teacher first, and only then going solo.

Second, the very first actions that the newborn infant is capable of are participatings-in and solicitings-of concerted performances with the caregiver. For a long time, doing things with the caregiver is be–all and end–all for the infant.

Third, solo actions (voluntary, conscious, rational solo actions) require the agent to concurrently imagine if not some fellow–participant then at least an audience — an audience to observe and empathise and confirm what is being achieved and (probably) to approve. An action is by definition a cultural event. Like perceptions (which actions anyway presuppose), actions require corroboration in order to exist as such. This is the ‘ontological’ advantage mentioned in note 16 above. If the action is not a public commodity in the sense that, in principle, anyone could do that, and verifiably, then it is not an ‘action’, but just some meaningless bodily agitation. Similarly, without an actual or potential audience and without the agent’s imagining an audience, the action would be just an agitation. Or is this just ‘tree in the forest’ stuff?

An action is one of those things that it takes two or more to do. In its original, primitive form any action is a social interaction, a cultural event. And I am claiming that these ‘social interactions’ or ‘cultural events’ can be further reduced to forms of concerted activity.

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I intend going to a Royal Society lecture at Massey PN on Monday, hopefully with Rouch. Baroness Onora O’Neill is talking about The Two Cultures. If I am going to benefit from the baronial wisdom, I should get my own ideas straight about science and the humanities.

Ordinary everyday human life, aspects of which constitute the humanities’ subject matters, is a cultural phenomenon. Every little episode of it, every personal action, say, anywhere in the world, takes place within (and as a contribution to) a culture, a sub–culture, a practice and an occasion of practice. These four terms represent progressively finer lenses for viewing the particular action or interaction being studied. In order for an observer to see the action for what it is — and this boils down to ‘in order for the observer to perceive the action simpliciter’ — he or she has to take on board, provisionally subscribe to, or ‘empathise’ the relevant culture, sub–culture, practice and occasion. He or she has to ‘make like a participant’. Without doing this, you cannot understand what is being said, see what is being done. You don't even know what to look for.

And the realities of culture, sub–culture and practice that need to be ‘assumed’ or ‘empathised’ need not be independently specifiable. It may just be too difficult to explain (though it may be easy to empathise, or even demonstrate) what is what, what is going on, in a given interaction.

Because any one branch of the humanities must encompass a great range of different sub–cultures and practices (studying language, say, or religion or economics)and because the humanities between them have the whole of human conduct for their subject matter, you have to say that any student in the humanities must possess and employ broad and flexible powers of empathy. He or she must be able to ‘tune in’ to an even greater variety of sub–cultures and practices than those which we inhabit and visit in our everyday life. The humanities’ heuristic is an essentially both boundless and requiring of endless (and often indefinable) subtleties of empathy.

Surely, the whole point of having science is to have an heuristic, an heuristic practice, that is not boundless and not requiring of endless ineffable subtleties of empathy. Scientific undertakings, experimental and observational procedures, findings, reports, and heuristic methodologies generally, are specifically tailored to be cross–culturally understandable and do–able. Science limits itself to what is reliably do–able and communicable independently of cultures and normative biases — and specific social occasions and observation conditions, and so on. The scientist has to empathise with his fellow–scientists, of course: he has to ‘make like a participant’ in the science practice or he is not a scientist at all. But this is not like the empathising with the subject matter that the humanities researcher must do. The humanities person has to empathise with both his colleagues and the subject matter. The scientist is required to empathise only with his colleagues. And he is required to empathise with his colleagues only. The strength and beauty of science, and its limitation — they are the same — is that scientific procedures and scientific knowledge are restricted, rule-governed, disciplined, to that which is reliably specifiable and repeatable by anyone, anywhere, with the correct instruments, etc. Humanities research is not like this because the human behaviour that is its subject matter and which simultaneously determines its heuristic is not like that.

Science can never know whether this graphic is or is not a good likeness of Mickey Mouse, or of my mechanic Kevin, for that matter. In fact, science cannot ex officio even know what a ‘mechanic’ is. Let alone who Kevin is. And I would not, nor would any scientist, have it any other way.

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Consciousness is a stress response — or at least an anxiety response — to being alone. One anxiously rehearses, constantly, in that special minimal way, instructions or descriptions such as would transpire were there someone else present. One is reassuring oneself that one is doing right — or even that one is ‘doing’ or ‘being’ at all.

Our being persuaded into going solo, when the teacher slipped out and left you doing it by yourself, was life’s big swiz. You thought you were a hero, being all grown up and able to do it on your own. Sucked in!

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We have been given the idea that the individual person is the unit of human being and that the centre of individual human being is consciousness (or mind or cognition). But consciousness is the individual’s private rehearsing ( = ‘imagining’) of participation with others in ‘educative concerting’ sessions. Educative concerting is the basis of all communication and all teaching: one person, the instructor, gets others to rehearse some activity (often a sequence of perceptions) in concert with him. So consciousness is the individual’s rehearsing ‘the performance of some activity in concert with others’. He is imagining doing things, especially communicative or educative things, with others. It is this doing things in concert with others that is the centre of human being. Individual consciousness is a derivative or satellite of, and remains dependent on, concerted activity.

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Fishing for compliments.

I have been out in a boat fishing recently (with some success) and have also been watching others fishing. ‘Fishing for compliments’ is a beautiful description of a certain kind of conversational gambit but it is also good for what I did and saw out on the bay. The first thoughts when a big one comes up over the side are, ‘Wow, the women will be appreciative of this one! What a good boy am I!’ Man the hunter. The successful provider. The poor fish gasps and goes flapping under the knife for this — our imaginings of admiring gazes from the womenfolk.

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It is not only persistent concert deprivation, the frustration of our deepest and most puissant pleasure, that is important in psychopathology. Just as important is the persistence of the contradiction in the basic strategy we are supposed to be operating on. Which is it — control (with competitive individualism) or concert? If the premises are contradictory, anything goes. You can prove any theorem at all. And, as any actor will tell you, not having a consistent script to work from is maddening.

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Imagine two people doing something in concert, for fun — suppose it is one of those complicated hand-grasping greetings you sometimes see (mostly on television, in fact) people exuberantly performing. Notice that one is not at all inclined to speak of the brain, or two brains, performing the ritual. It is two people doing it.

Now imagine one person teaching another how to do this special handshake. It goes on a lot longer, and there is a lot of speech and demonstrating involved, and repetition. But one is no more likely to want to say the performance is being done by the brains, or going on in the brains, of the people involved — and it could be a whole classroom full. It is still the people doing it, or trying to do it, learning to do it.

Now imagine a person rehearsing the handshake by himself. He is practising on a wall, perhaps, and advising himself, correcting himself, praising himself, out loud as he does so. His efforts gradually improve until he gets it right. We might say he is ‘teaching himself’ here. More correctly, he is overtly rehearsing, as best he can on his own, the kind of social educative scenario we imagined immediately above. And there is still no temptation to say that the person is not doing the rehearsing, his brain is doing it for him. In fact, normally, in describing this learning situation, we would not mention the brain at all. However, someone might say, quite correctly, as a matter of interest, that in learning the handshake, as with learning anything, one is establishing a firing program — beefing up synapses, establishing new itineraries and so on — in cerebral cortex (and among the relevant sensory and motor neurons).

Now imagine that the person knows pretty much how to do the handshake but still feels the need to practise it quickly, in the privacy of his room, before going out and performing it. The greeting he gives the wall this time is a much faster, sketchier greeting than the one he gave it when he was still teaching himself the basics. He just quickly ‘goes through the motions’. And the instructions he uttered ‘to himself’ out loud then are now mere inaudible mumblings and breathed exclamations. Surely we are still disinclined at this stage to attribute the rehearsal not to the student but to his brain. Certainly, the relevant neural firing program is active while he is doing the rehearsing, but his arm and fingers and so on are active too. These various bodily phenomena are par for the course when anyone performs that action or rehearses it. It is still the student doing it. As a phenomenon, ‘practising a handshake in an abbreviated way by oneself’ is still well inside the actional sphere. Can one imagine a brain practising a handshake?

Finally imagine that our student is so experienced at performing the handshake, and at readying himself to perform it prior to performance, that his prior rehearsals — which he still now and then feels the need for — are so rapid and abbreviated, so minimal, that an observer could not see him doing it. Only if our student had special recording instruments attached to him, to the relevant (sensory, interneuron and motor) neurons and to the relevant arm and hand muscles, could an observer tell that he was rehearsing this particular handshake. He can ready himself for performance with a rehearsal so subtle and efficient it is effectively, at least to the naked eye, unobservable. As we say in colloquial English, he is merely ‘imagining’ doing the handshake.

Well, are we to conclude at this final stage of the learning and rehearsing process that it is no longer the student doing the rehearsing? Are we to conclude that it is now his brain (and presumably the other relevant bits of neuronal and muscular anatomy) that is/are doing the rehearsing, not the student? Cognitive science and the hundreds of millions (possibly billions) of dollars it represents worldwide says yes. But why? Why is it not still the person doing the rehearsing? Why should 'the brain' suddenly now have a proprietary claim on what is going on?

I am assuming there is a gradual increase in skill level from the second–last scenario to the final one above. The rehearsals gradually get more efficient and inconspicuous. At what point in the minimalisation process does the person bow out and the brain come in and take over? And, again, how are we to imagine a brain rehearsing a handshake? Show me.

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The conservatives seem to think that in the 'natural', prehistoric hunter-gatherer social scenario there must have been an authoritative leader telling the others what to do and coercing them into doing it. But I say democracy must have been more basic. How can anyone become 'authoritative' if they have not learned hugely from others in the past and do not know how to solicit expertise from others in the present? Knowledge-pooling, which is a democratic principle, comes before leadership. Concert is the boss. Similarly, libertarians tend to assume that individual initiative, effort and competition was the key survival factor in the prehistoric scenario. One imagines the blokes all puffing up their chests and vying with one another for the right to take on dinofelis single-handed. And one imagines those with real individual initiative, 'the right stuff', forswearing language.

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We should look at the mind-body problem in the light of Western philosophy's tendency over the last two or three thousand years to obfuscate, ignore and/or deny the fundamental importance, in our lives of concerted and cooperative practices, spontaneous collective undertakings, public practices. Western philosophy uses individualism, scientific objectivity, internalism and the notion we are all selfish as four lenses to look through. They have all four lenses on all the time. With that lot on your face there is no way you can even see collective undertakings — let alone focus on the ones we live by, the ones right under their noses that are difficult, because they are so close, even for normal, public-spirited, empathy-equipped people to see.

The notion of the mind inside the person's head (and, nowadays, mind as a function of the brain) screens off the existence of the huge collective undertaking that we have for pooling ideas and information — I call it 'the public conversation'. This shared project is what keeps cultures afloat, keeps them rational. The public conversation is much more deserving of the title 'the mind' than the brain is. Thinking is the individual's private rehearsing, in anticipation or retrospect, of contributions to the public conversation. Certainly the brain is essentially involved in these rehearsings. Motor neuron activity (and probably trace activity of muscles and glands) throughout the body, even miniscule overt eye and lip movement, is also typically involved. But the other indispensable factor in thinking — the main event, where the action is — is the concerted and cooperative practice I am calling 'the public conversation'. This is the real event that thinking is a rehearsal for. It is the reality that thinking is the imagining of.

The public conversation is a complex of constituent shared practices — institutions such as using speech to communicate, showing people things, discussing how to solve problems, going to find out, recalling past experiences, and so on. All have to be well-established in a culture before the members of that culture are able to think. Brains are in the service of, and have evolved to serve, the public conversation and concert, culture, generally. The best brain ever born into the world would very soon wither and die if its owner had no one to show her things — such as this little toe or how to say Ga ga ga ga....Yes! Ga ga ga ga!

Why would the philosopher not know about the informal public practice of 'showing people things', say, or its frequent companion, 'naming things'? The philosopher claims to be trying to understand consciousness. But consciousness is simply our private rehearsing of participation in 'showing people things'. How can you see this if you concentrate on looking for consciousness inside the brain? Is it possible that Western philosophers do not see the whole picture — because the heuristic lenses they are looking through preclude their seeing cultural practices? Or perhaps they do see the cultural practice and our dependence on it but, for whatever reason, shut their eyes to it. Or someone higher up disapproves of attention being drawn to these cultural practices, these spontaneous collective enterprises, especially the fundamental ones our humanity depends on — and has asked philosophers to veil them and try to explain the social world without reference to them.

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In order to be useful, the brain must cleave to what is going on out in the public arena. Its job is to register — by increasing the efficiency of salient synapses — how the body is to perform the various actions X it sees happening out there. Later on, in the right circumstances, it rehearses doing X — overtly or, in that special efficient way it has learnt, covertly. The human being is a copy machine. All it has to do is learn things that are already in the public arena. All right, once it has learnt a fair few actions it can do a bit of ad hoc mixing and matching on its own. But that's it. The brain doesn't call any tunes. The social world outside calls all the tunes. The brain just notes them down, practises them and, when the time comes, plays them.

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'Mind' is an area of activity that could be called 'repertoire maintenance', where the latter is a general term for teaching and learning, communicating, and activity-rehearsing of all other kinds (notably including thinking). And yes, the brain is very relevant to repertoire maintenance. The brain effectively is the repertoire, in the sense that it physically embodies the integral interneuronal connective component — the core neurophysiological 'recipe' or 'firing program' — for every behaviour we acquire. Repertoire maintanance is the suite of activities whereby we expedite the acquisition of new firing programs, ensure they are running efficiently, try them out in conjunction with other programs (behaviours) and so on.

What I can't understand is why cognitive science insists on ignoring the repertoire maintenance area of activity, anything relating to deliberate education and self-education. Cognitive science looks at the brain but not at what is shaping the brain. That's like looking at a ball of clay and expecting the pot to just pop out of it. Maybe if you squint really hard, if you get the very best new scanner, say, you might just see the pot coming out. Or you might see a little picture of the pot in there — waiting to come out.

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The main argument against my view that thinking is a learned activity is that, with modern scanning technology, we can actually see thinking going on in the brain. We can even see where in there particular thoughts are happening. Thus fMRI scans are said to prove that thinking is a brain process. The problem is that fMRI technology is at the moment so primitive it can be used only on people who are absolutely motionless. Thinking is just about the only thing a person can do whilst absolutely motionless. As soon as scanning technology develops to the point where you can record (via some special helmet, say) brain-goings-on while the person is engaged in some overt activity, cognitive science is going to get a hell of a fright. With a helmet-based recording system it will become immediately obvious that there is signature brain activity corresponding to everything the person does. Drinking a glass of milk, picking one's nose, riding a bicycle, riding a motorbike, even riding a particular make and model of motorbike — every kind of action will have its distinctive firing program in a given brain. It may even get to the stage where, simply by looking at the scan you can tell what the person is doing. We won't need Bentham's panopticon after all...

At any rate, how do cognitive scientists think learning of new abilities takes place if not by the deliberate entrenching (by imitation, practice, more practice, imagined performance, etc.) of new firing programs in the cerebral cortex and elsewhere? Is learning by divine intervention? Is it by evolution — so that Plato was right and all knowledge is by recollection, from the African savannah days? Operating an electron microscope, for example.

Rather than proving thinking is not a learned and voluntary activity (but a brain process), the localisability of brain activity unique to thinking is a proof that thinking is a learned and voluntary activity. Every other learned and voluntary activity of the person has a distinctive neurophysiological correlate. If thinking has one, this is good circumstantial evidence that thinking is a learned and voluntary activity too.

Perhaps what is making idiots of cognitive scientists is their determination to distinguish 'biological' from 'cultural' phenomena and their refusal to concede that a brain process might be at least in part a cultural phenomenon — like a raised middle finger, say.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


— Derek —
    December 2010