Marek McGann’s review of The Act of Thinking



Marek McGann in IJPS

Marek McGann’s review of The Act of Thinking — in International Journal of Philosophical Studies Vol 14, No.4, December 2006, pp. 202-206.
(Many thanks to Marek for this pre-publication draft. I have corrected three literals.)

In this book, Derek Melser puts forward a radical view concerning the nature of thinking. It is not something that goes on in the head, not something that is the result of “cognitive processing” in the brain, but rather action not acted out. Melser sees actions as sui generis, not open to disassembly into beliefs, desires, intentions or any other psychological “thing”. Actions are actions, he proposes, and must be understood not as expressions of inner mental events, but within the context in which they occur — the arena of social bodily movement.

The subtlety of thinking, he claims, is a result of what he calls the “tokening” of actions. The tokening of an action is an initiation but curtailing of the appropriate behaviour which means that the action itself is never actually performed, “commencing X-ing to the extent of performing ... acts consistent with X-ing, but then aborting before X-ing is achieved” (p.84). Tokening can be done overtly when components of the action performed are visible, or covertly, when the performance is so slight and short-lived that it is not perceivable (at least not without the aid of specialist equipment). As far as Melser is concerned, Rodin's Le Penseur is engaged in a strenuous bout of initiating actions and then aborting them before they become perceptible.

Overt tokening (such as mimes, gestures and, he argues, speech) support the concerting of actions between individuals. Such concerted activity is for Melser the basis for individual action. It is in such social activities that, as infants, we are inducted into the realm of actions. Our ability to act originates not within, but without our physical bodies, in the socio-cultural practices which we find ourselves belonging to in infancy. Once we have learned to engage in group activities, our culture provides us with the means to initiate and guide such activities either without the immediate presence of others (in the case of solo actions) or without the immediate enacting of those activities, in the case of covert tokening of actions.

Covert tokening, for Melser, supports the preparation and planning of actions. Thinking, then, is for action, and is the means for practising an action prior to its performance, which helps ensure its success once put in motion. More specifically, thinking is a form of self-education — a preparation of some concerted activity but before others become involved. Thus, in thinking we are preparing ourselves in order to guide and structure a future concerted activity, such as an argument or other conversation, or perhaps something more concrete, such as a building project. In large part, such concerted activities are educative, they have, Melser suggests, a pedagogical structure. No matter how often the role of teacher of leader changes in a given situation, the overall educative dynamic is typically present. This is how we first learn to act, and therefore learn to think, and it is how we continue to act and think.

In developing this account, Melser critiques several other action-based theories of thinking, including those of Ryle (his logical behaviouristic, “adverbial” and “refraining” accounts), Vygotsky, Hampshire and others.

Melser spends a little time looking at the problems of behaviourism and the limitations of theories which seek to reduce thinking to behaviour simply put. Such accounts largely leave behaviour itself undefined, however. This makes it particularly problematic to try to understand how behaviour is to be related to the behaviour dispositions or “abbreviated behaviours” which constitute thought.

A question he spends more time on is that of “internalisation”, fundamental to the work of Vygotsky and the huge amount of developmental work that has sprung from it. Melser takes issue with the concept’s coherence. While behaviours that are gradually worn down through practice from prolonged and detailed bodily movements to short gestures, shadows of their former selves, the idea that such abbreviated activity can then be translated inside the skull in some form makes no sense. How, asks Melser, can any action be performed “in the skull”? There is no domain of action there and no means to act. Whatever “internalisation” might be, it is not, cannot be, something actually being internalised into the brain or skull. And so Melser finds his way to the abbreviating of actions so early in their execution that they never become perceptible — covert tokening.

Melser’s account is a challenging one. However, as a complete account of thinking, it is also rather unsatisfactory. While his arguments about the lack of clarity in accounts of “internalisation” and cognitive processes “in the head” are a gauntlet which must be taken up by philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists alike, the theory ultimately fails to convince as a positive suggestion for what thinking is because of a failure to address in any direct way the question of motivation. This is a problem that is faced by all such action-based approaches which have become popular in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science in recent years. That thinking is an action only explains anything if we have some account of why such actions are taken in the first place.

In the introduction to the book, Melser distinguishes actions from “natural processes”. The criteria for making such a distinction include that actions are “voluntary”, that their perpetrators are morally accountable, and that actions are personal and are learned, features not shared by basic natural processes. While Melser uses such a description of actions and processes to undermine the idea that thinking is a biological process of the brain, he fails to really engage with the issues himself. If actions are sui generis and thinking an action, it is far from clear how we can understand why an individual performed a particular act of thinking. The action cannot be understood in terms of some more basic concept of intention or motivation, because that would be to suggest that actions are componential. We might describe it in terms of a concerted action (a “concerting”, in Melser’s vocabulary) that our social group or culture is producing, but that threatens both its personal (at least insofar as persons can be individuals) and voluntary nature.

Thinking becomes, in this view, less a matter of actions performed by a person, and more something performed by culture. Following the dictates of that culture (engaging in the prestructured concerted activities) is something for which the individual biological entity has an “natural urge” (p. 225) or tendency. But something about that seems, to this reader at least, to undermine the concept of action as a personal and voluntary process, something for which the agent in question can be held responsible. Melser does not make it clear how a cultural determinism is any less impersonal than a biological one.

This uncertainty that arises concerning the status of volition and accountability makes you wish Melser had not been so keen to keep the book concise, but had included the broader philosophical context and engagement with the literature which he says was cut for the sake of brevity (p. xiii).

This removal of the recognisably individual from the discussion of thinking is problematic. The perspective of the individual is given short shrift here. All of the drive for actions appears to come from without (despite the fact that our learning to act initally comes from the “instinctual urge” to take part in concerted activity). Surely, though, it is the motivation of the action that determines it as an action (a voluntary, accountable, personal movement of the body).

Melser provides no real means of bringing the individual’s experience into the action. He denies any subjectivity that is grounded in the individuals’ own body, as opposed to social activity. The work of embodied cognition theorists such as Varela, Thompson, Noë and Clark goes unremarked, but would certainly form a challenge to the more radical form of Melser’s approach. Does society provide the means by which I see the world from this point of view, the one that feels about eye-height for me?

Just as the author completes the exposition of his account of thinking, when you might think questions such as these are about to be addressed, Melser suddenly changes tack. The book stops being about his particular theory of thinking, and becomes an equally fascinating attack on our assumptions about the mind. Having argued in the first half of the book that we have been badly mistaken about the nature of thinking, he proceeds to offer an “error theory”, an explanation as to why we are mistaken.

The general form of Melser's critique of the concept of mind here is not new — we are deceived, he argues, by the host of metaphors which are our crutches in discussion of a concept that evades direct reference. These metaphors sometimes provide a concept of mind as thing, sometimes as place, sometimes as product of activity, sometimes as a transactional activity itself. There is no talk (and no means of talking) about the mind which is not metaphorical, Melser claims. What sets this particular account apart is not that mind talk is dangerously figurative, but that a description of what figurative talk is is provided. He offers a detailed reduction of metaphor itself to joint activity.

Speech is a form of overt tokening, for Melser, and understanding speech involves covertly tokening the same activities, a form of empathising. But, he argues, if metaphors are the only means by which we can discuss the mind, and if understanding metaphors must be done by means of empathising, then any objective (and hence scientific) discussion of the mind is impossible.

Our perception of actions relies on empathetic intuitions which are taught, and cannot be objective. This seems a valid objection to objectivity, though given that our basic perception of any object is loaded with cultural and linguistic practice (the moral of Chapter 6, “Concerted Perceiving and the Tokening Of It”) it is difficult to see how this sets the concept of mind apart from the concept of anything else. If a culturally loaded physics can be swallowed, however bitter, might we not manage the same for a culturally loaded psychology?

In this discussion of empathy’s role in the perception of action, though, Melser again glides over the motivational aspects of mind. His definition of empathy, as “attending to the other’s behavior and covertly tokening it, while refraining from actually joining in” ignores the emotional, subjective aspects which are normally associated with the term. To define empathic subjectivity so seems to rob it of the imperative which so defines emotional experience. The imperative in action is just the priming of particular dispositions or actions for Melser (p. 207), but priming does not offer us a rational (or even irrational) “why”. The only ultimate “whys” that Melser offers (what he calls the “über-agency” underpinning individual action [p.239]) are culturally structured concerted activities. But there is no reason to see why such social activities are any more meaningful than other natural processes given that the individuals engaged in the activities are capable of bringing no meaning to the action by themselves. To my mind, Melser offers no reason to believe that culture can explain the voluntary and moral aspects of action any more than biology can. Surely both volition and responsibility must be bound up with the motivation behind an action?

Derek Melser’s The Act of Thinking is a fascinating account of what thinking might be, but like so many behaviour-based accounts before, lacks any real force in accounting for the individual, personal phenomenology of thought — the awareness of what I am doing, and that I'm doing it from this particular perspective. I suggest that as a positive account of thinking, it is ultimately incomplete and unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, his arguments against a brute, uncritically biological explanation of actions, against the description of thinking and acting as processes “going on in the brain” remain formidable. They may not quite support his own view as put forward in the book, but they cannot easily be ignored by philosophers and cognitive scientists.

Marek McGann
Mary Immaculate College
University of Limerick


Derek Melser's
Reply to Marek McGann