Melser’s Reply to Marek McGann

 

 

Derek Melser's
Reply to Marek McGann

She brings her fingers to her lips slowly, the way she does sometimes when she’s thinking. Her face shows how hard she’s concentrating; little lines appear on her forehead. (Raymond Carver)

Marek McGann concludes that The Act of Thinking makes an impressive case for thinking’s not being an intracranial process (a brain function for example, or a literally ‘internalised’ social transaction) but that it fails to demonstrate that thinking is an action – in the sense of a learned and voluntary action of the person. McGann has four reasons, or one four-fold reason, for believing the book has failed to achieve this, its main objective. He thinks that to show that thinking is an action I would have to explain:

º  what motivates thinking, why we do it;

º  in what thinking’s voluntariness consists (since I seem to portray thinking as a slave of concerted activity and established culture);

º  who or what is the agent of thinking, i.e., who or what is the individual person or self who thinks;

º  the personal experience of thinking, what McGann calls “the individual, personal phenomenology of thought – the awareness of what I am doing, and that I’m doing it from this particular perspective”.

McGann believes I haven’t explained any of these things. So my claim to have explained thinking qua action “lacks any real force” and my account is “ultimately incomplete and unsatisfactory”.

Before I respond to these charges, which relate to the impact of my book’s argument on the concept of ‘the individual person’, I will comment on McGann’s discussion of my theory about how the philosophical notion of ‘mind’ originated. Here, by contrast, McGann seems to have misunderstood, perhaps skated over, what I say.

The mind metaphors

The ‘metaphorical-origin’ argument in Chapters 8-10 of The Act of Thinking is long and difficult, and you need to be clear about what a metaphor is and what nominalised verbs are in order to understand it. You also need to be able to contemplate the possibility that thinking really is a learned and voluntary action of the person (and not a ‘mental process’). The metaphorical-origin argument is, or the crucial parts of it are, substantially original. McGann’s saying that “the general form of Melser’s argument is not new” suggests he hasn’t grasped it. If Berkeley, Reid, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Wisdom, Hampshire, Strawson, Lakoff and Johnson, and Cooper (assuming these are the people McGann is thinking of) had, separately or together, said all there is to say about the relation between the noun mind and the metaphors which invariably accompany it in everyday speech, I would have said so in my book. Certainly there are bits of the metaphorical-origin argument in all the above (and in Richard Taylor and in Collingwood), but my synthesis and augmentation of their arguments constitutes a more radical and interesting – and, I think, closer and more compelling – argument about ‘mind’ and metaphor than has been mounted hitherto.

In his much-quoted essay, ‘Poetic Diction and Legal Fiction’, the literary critic Owen Barfield distinguishes three main kinds of figurative or ‘poetic’ speech. It should be noted that Barfield adopts an old-style ‘comparison’ analysis – saying that figurative language “…is always illustrating or expressing what it wishes to put before us by comparing that with something else” – rather than the ‘seeing A as B’ approach I opt for in The Act of Thinking. But this is how Barfield goes on:

Sometimes the comparison is open and avowed, as when… Burns writes simply: “My love is like a red, red rose”. And then we call it a ‘simile’. Sometimes it is concealed in the form of a bare statement, as when Shelley says of the west wind not that it is like, but that it is, “the breath of Autumn’s being”… This is known as ‘metaphor’. Sometimes the element of comparison drops still further out of sight. Instead of saying that A is like B or that A is B, the poet simply talks about B, without making any overt reference to A at all. You know, however, that he intends A all the time, or, better say that you know he intends an A; for you may not have a very clear idea of what A is… This is generally called ‘symbolism’.

Though the term symbolism is perhaps not ideal, Barfield has put his finger on the element of ‘speaking in riddles’ or euphemism essential to figurative speech. We talk about A by talking, more or less disingenuously, about B. The subject matter, A, stays tacit. Sometimes our knowledge of A is limited – as a result of ignorance, perhaps, or over-familiarity, or even, in some cases, as a result of what Freud called ‘repression’. (Maybe the figurative talk helps keep our awareness of A vague.)

Now, suppose that after listening to philosophers talking about ‘the mind’ we set out to find out what ‘the mind’ is. Looking around for some relevant facts, some leads, in the real ‘empirical’ world we live in, we might notice the fact that, in everyday speech, the noun mind is never employed except in the context of some (usually familiar) metaphor or other. We see a large body of obviously figurative language, which everybody uses and understands, employing the noun mind. We notice also myriad other expressions not involving mind but clearly part of the same idiom – to do with thinking straight, being weighed down by grief, feeling a surge of enthusiasm, having an idea in one’s head, a brainwave, putting two and two together, seeing the meaning, taking something to heart, etc. Granted the reasonable supposition that this ‘mind idiom’ is, taken as a whole, a case of what Barfield calls symbolism, a new and interesting question arises, What is the idiom about? What is the subject matter of these figurative expressions? What is the A behind all this B-talk?

Naturally, because of the frequent presence of mind and some other nouns, one’s first thought is that mind idiom’s subject matter must be a certain abstract or yet-to-be-properly-identified entity called ‘the mind’ (and mental phenomena, meanings, etc.) This is the assumption that the philosophers I mention above, with the possible exceptions of Reid, Collingwood and Taylor, all make. And they conclude that the metaphors allow us a preliminary, sketchy appreciation of what the mind is. Lakoff and Johnson make the general point that metaphors might provide the ‘only means of understanding’ certain abstract concepts (though they don’t mention ‘mind’ specifically). However, my very different view, argued at length in Chapters 8-10 of The Act of Thnking, is that a careful analysis of the rhetoric of the relevant metaphors reveals that the mind does not refer to their subject matter but is, rather, a special kind of add-on to the metaphors themselves. Putting a noun form of the verb mind in with the metaphor creates what is in effect a new (and more rhetorically powerful) compound figure of speech – in which mind is an integral part. And the new ‘mind’-augmented metaphors have a subject matter just like ordinary metaphors do. They are also ‘about’ something. Whatever this something is, though, it can’t be ‘the mind’. That notion is part of the figure of speech we’re trying to find the subject matter of. It belongs on the ‘B’ side. We still don’t know what the A is.

[If you don’t look long and hard at the rhetoric of mind idiom, the mistake of assuming that mind and mental phenomena is its subject matter (and that the noun mind is an ordinary referring expression) is natural, even inevitable. I would say this mistake underpins all the traditional philosophical talk about ‘mind’ and our ‘concept’ of mind – and, for example, recent talk in developmental psychology about children learning ‘theory of mind’. The philosophers must have got their notion of ‘mind’ from the everyday figurative use of mind. Where else could it have come from?]

After re-emerging from that blind alley, you might then say, as I do in The Act of Thinking, that the subject matter of the idiom is ‘thinking’. I use thinking as a kind of grab-bag term for ‘what the colloquial mentalist vocabulary is about, whatever that might be’. This is a useful methodological ploy. Our concept of thinking doesn’t necessarily imply a ‘mental’ process or activity. Thinking is, or it is almost, a ‘mind’-neutral term in this area. But, of course, if nobody really knows what kinds of process or activity thinking is – as I think is (or was) the case – then we are no further towards answering the question what the subject matter is. We have just reformulated it as What is ‘thinking’? We may as well stick with Barfield’s ‘what is the A?’

In our search for clues as to what the colloquial mind-talk is really about we might, these days, notice what brain researchers are doing and saying. And we might notice as well computers, and how useful they are, and we might reflect how computers work. And we might put two and two together and conclude that what the mind metaphors are figurative descriptions of is the computer-like functioning of our brains. For two reasons, I have not myself arrived at this conclusion. Firstly, it seems to me that the plausibility of having brain functions (computer-like or not) as the subject matter of the idiom, and having the brain as the locus or agent of thinking, depends on the plausibility of the assumption that the subject matter of the idiom (thinking) occurs inside people’s heads. However, the notion of intracraniality, of goings-on inside people’s heads, is not an a priori truth about the subject matter. It is a suggestion contributed by the metaphors.

The notion of intracraniality, like the closely-related ‘mind’ notion, belongs with the B stuff, not the A. And everything in the B camp is, as we know, tongue-in-cheek and to be taken with a big grain of salt. We don’t get reliable information about A from the B side. We get fancy, euphemism, far-fetched caricature, riddling, there. Only if one were to, naively and mistakenly, take the ‘inner agent’ and ‘inner place’ metaphors literally would it even occur to one that thinking might go on inside people’s heads. That intracraniality is mooted by metaphors is, indeed, a reason for looking quite elsewhere for the truth about A. If it is a metaphor telling us that A is B, you can be sure that, whatever A is, it has, literally and really, nothing to do with B. Thus, instead of assuming that thinking must go on in the brain, we should infer that, literally speaking, thinking has no more to do with brain events than, say, courting has to do with goings-on in people’s hearts.

My other reason for not buying the ‘computer-like brain functions’ suggestion is simply that the colloquial thinking vocabulary is at least several hundred years old and its authors (presumably among the more perceptive and verbally-gifted of our ancestors) were building and extending their albeit vague understanding of its still-to-be-specified subject matter long before anyone had any inkling at all about neurophysiological events in the brain, or any inkling what computers are and how they work. The ‘computer-like brain functions’ suggestion takes prescience too far.

Continuing our scouting of the everyday world for possibilities for ‘subject matter of mind idiom’, we eventually come across that family of subtle actions we all perform (and infants and children demonstrably spend years learning and honing) by way of which we rehearse and thus prepare our participation in concerted and cooperative (including solo and self-oriented) activity. This is the skill or suite of skills I describe in chapters 3-7 of The Act of Thinking as ‘the covert tokening of overt tokening of concerted activity’ – ‘covert tokening’ for short. My suggestion is that we are aware, albeit dimly aware, of performing this special, subtle action and we have devised the colloquial mind metaphors to describe it. Children learn these metaphors in tandem with their acquiring the covert tokening skill. As a candidate for subject matter of mind idiom covert tokening has two things going for it. First, unlike brain events, which we can never observe, covert tokening is very often observable, at least in part, at the everyday real-life level. That is, the covertness is relative. The difference between fully overt tokening – gesturing or speech, say – and the covert version is partly a matter of degree. And there are plenty of intermediate cases. We can see people struggling to keep a particular bit of tokening covert, we can see them empathising, we can often see that and even what someone is thinking. And we are all personally familiar with the developmental progression by which one first rehearses a skill in concert with others, then learns to rehearse and practice it alone, then learns to rehearse the skill ‘covertly’, with little or no overt movement. It is an observable fact that children progress from speaking in concert with others during shared activity, to speaking out loud by him- or herself during solo activity, to ‘silent speaking’ during and as a preparation for concerted or solo activity. The covert self-readying tactics we employ, and the developmental progression by which we learn these tactics, are part of our everyday lives.

The second advantage ‘the various forms of covert (and not-so-covert) tokening’ has as candidate subject matter for mind idiom is that the shoe fits. The fit is obvious and, in the case of much of the idiom, beautiful. As I try to show in Chapter 10, the metaphors and other figures of speech in colloquial mind talk are just the kind of expressions one would come up with if one wanted to vividly and efficiently highlight the features of covert tokening that we need to be aware of for everyday purposes. That is, on the assumption that the varieties and aspects of covert tokening is their subject matter, many items of mind idiom reveal themselves as beautiful and accurate. The fact these expressions do such a good job – and are so charming with it – is presumably why they’ve been in the vernacular so long. At any rate, that the idiom fits covert tokening well is good reason to look no further for its subject matter.

McGann describes the change of focus between chapters 7 and 8 (going from ‘thinking as covert tokening’ to ‘everyday mind idiom’) as a sudden change of tack. However, to understand the developmental precursors and ingredients of the act of thinking, to appreciate thinking as a learned skill, one needs to see it au naturel, out of its metaphorical clothing. One must be able to take off the metaphors. To do this, however, one first needs to recognise the metaphors in question for what they are. Only by understanding how they work, how they partly focus and partly cloud our perception of thinking, can we break the habit of them, transcend them, and put them aside. Yet in order to properly understand the metaphors one needs to appreciate what they are about – what they are metaphors for, what their subject matter is. The tasks of describing thinking accurately and seeing how the vernacular represents and misrepresents it are inextricable.

The motivation for thinking

It is unreasonable to expect McGann or anyone to agree that covert tokening is what mind idiom is really about if I don’t specify just what kind of thing covert tokening is. In particular, McGann is unconvinced covert tokening is truly, as I claim, an action of the person (and hence not a mental process or a brain process). He says that actions are by definition motivated and that I haven’t said what the motivation for covert tokening is. He says, “That thinking is an action only explains anything if we have some account of why such actions are taken in the first place” and “…it is the motivation of an action which determines it as an action”.

However, I believe I explain very clearly what the motivation for covert tokening, for thinking, is. In Chapter 3, I infer, partly on the basis of the Meltzoff and Moore findings, a natural, untutored urge on the newborn’s part to imitate. And I suggest this gives way, after a couple of months or so, if the caregiving goes well, to a tutored or socialised version – a life-long proclivity for participation with others in concerted and cooperative activity. I also suggest this is the basic and the definitive human proclivity. Our species opted some millions of years ago for acting in concert and cooperating as its prime survival strategy. It would be surprising if the requisite desires and abilities had not been at least partly bred into us.

Then, in Chapter 4, I describe a class of actions (which are also meta-actions) that I group under the heading ‘tokening’, the function of which is to ready the tokener and/or others for doing things, together or separately. The tokening of actions prior to performing them is usually necessary since everyday life requires that we be more or less infinitely versatile, constantly inventing new or modifying old activities as we go along. Remindings, rehearsings, warmings-up, anticipatory foreshadowings, dummy runs are the order of the day. Thinking (the covert tokening of the overt tokening of activity) is the most sophisticated form of tokening. It is self-readying-for-action done covertly. The basic readying motivation remains: thinking is done to rehearse and thus prepare and enable some new or otherwise problematic activity. If you want to do X and you haven’t done it before, you have to think it through beforehand (and perhaps talk and listen and show and be shown, etc.) in order to ready yourself for doing it. One thinks in order to be able to do new things, difficult things, even easy things, with or without others. The motive for thinking is ‘self-educative’, one could say.

On the other hand, I might protest that it is unreasonable of McGann to demand a motive. Asking the motive for thinking is a bit like asking the motive for eating or walking. There’s a limit to ‘motivation’ talk. Does walking usually have a motive? Like walking, thinking is so habitual to us as to be if not nature second nature. It’s not like asking why you moved the knight to pawn four. But thinking’s an action all right. Walking is too, and eating is, and talking. We just do these things. We burp and say ‘pardon’. We think of getting a coffee. Who wants to understand actions like these “…in terms of some more basic concept of intention or motivation”?

The voluntariness of thinking

McGann seems concerned that my sourcing the ability to think in early concerted and cooperative activity, and my subsequent dragooning of thinking into the service of (more mature and practical) adult forms of concerted and cooperative activity, has suborned thinking, made it a mere functionary of culture. He says,

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.

McGann’s use of dictates, prestructured, and determinism makes it look as if the infant’s and child’s education in the cultural basics – doing things together, assisting one another, speaking a shared language, empathising, thinking, etc. – is a form of indoctrination, coercing the child into a kind of cultural straight-jacket. At least, he is suggesting that is what my account implies. But is he saying that an infant not subjected to such training would be more capable of voluntary action? Presumably he doesn’t imagine Kaspar Hauser as a paradigm of free individual agency, or the Rumanian orphans. Enculturation is, I would have thought, not just an extremely effective but the only means of empowerment for a human individual – given the all-over-the-place cortex our neonates are lumbered with. It is a huge boon for the infant to be shown ‘things to do’ that he or she can settle on, and start a repertoire with. And, as a result of socialisation, the individual gains a language by means of which he or she can enlist the cooperation of others. He or she gets access to the most powerful survival machine the earth has seen. He or she can play with it, even: cry Wolf! , say.

Granted you have to take others with you whatever you do or think. But don’t you want to take others with you?

In the section entitled ‘Second-order tokening’ in Chapter 7 of The Act of Thinking, I try to point up the indispensable role that thinking plays in the creation, the invention and implementation, of the culture we survive by. At least, this is true of the more complex and sophisticated cultural products and practices. Because of the great difficulty of synthesising effective new strategies from what is sometimes a huge pile of multifarious old strategies, the initial devising part is do-able only by individuals. Overt tokening, discussion, though a necessary ancillary procedure, is just too cumbersome, just not quick-and-efficient enough, to achieve the complex syntheses required. Covert tokening by individuals is the source of advanced culture. There’s a lot of chicken and egg, of course, but basically it’s horse and cart. And I’m saying that the individual thinker – when he or she gets the peace and quiet to think everything through – is the horse. Only if you don’t think, don’t think for yourself, are you in the cart.

Perhaps I didn’t emphasise enough in the book the tremendously adaptive, making-itself-up-as-it-goes-along element in healthy cultures and sub-cultures. McGann seems to equate culture with a thousand-year totalitarian regime. The fundamental desire to participate with others that I posit at the heart of human nature does not preclude the desire to rebel, subvert, change, reform, invent, re-invent, speculate, play, compose, proselytise. Indeed, this latter creative, maverick stuff is one of thinking’s strong suits. Participation, for the thinker, is very often a matter of coming up with something new.

Having seen off the bogey of cultural determinism, for a while at least, we can ask what voluntariness could amount to on my account. Another book would be required. Supposing I had the time – I would want to read the Nicomachean Ethics a few more times – and ability and inclination to write one, what approach consistent with the account in The Act of Thinking might I adopt? The founding assumption might be that, if unconstrained, the individual will act in such a way as to make his or her best contribution possible (by his or her way of thinking, given the circumstances) to his or her culture. The fancied book would be devoted to elaborating and qualifying this claim. For example, I might insist that maintaining one’s own physical well-being and maintaining or improving oneself in other ways can be ‘best contributions to culture’ in the required sense. Perhaps there would be two kinds of constraint compromising voluntariness: ‘external circumstantial’ and ‘personal pathological’. My personal preference would be to attribute any action which was free of external constraints and yet did not make a best contribution to culture to some, perhaps very minor, personal pathology. But practicalities demand we leave some arena in which the individual can be naughty, selfish or whatever, and yet still be acting voluntarily and be held responsible. On the other hand, at some level, tendencies to selfishness, withdrawal, self-harming, drug abuse, exploitation, power-seeking, coercion, aggression and cruelty, etc., are undeniably pathological. Such behaviours may constitute a significant defalcation from ‘right human functioning’ or whatever it is Aristotle would call it.

What is the ‘person’ or ‘self’?

Nothing in The Act of Thinking gainsays thinking’s being something the individual person does, and does alone (even if in company). Indeed, it is the job of Chapters 3-7 to show how this comes about. McGann’s suggestion that thinking is, in my view, “…less a matter of actions performed by a person, and more something performed by culture” is difficult to understand. So is his opinion that I remove “…the recognisably individual from the discussion of thinking”. But I think I see where McGann is coming from. He is worried that I deny “…any subjectivity that is grounded in the individual’s own body”, that I have explained ‘the individual’ away. He wants me to come clean about what I think the ‘person’ or ‘self’ is.

If one were writing a book about underwater sport on a small income, or organic farming, one wouldn’t feel obliged to define what a person is. That would be a big extra ask. Why is it different when the book is about thinking? The difference is that, as Descartes pithily reminded us, the concepts of ‘being a person’ and ‘thinking’ are logically linked. Unlike skindiving or organic farming, thinking is a very basic, even the distinctive or defining, ability of the person. It might be suggested – I would go along with this – that one qualifies as a ‘person’ if, and only if, one is capable of thinking. Sum, ergo cogito is true too.

[According to my chapters 3-7, being able to think presupposes a history of care by others (and, later, a larger stable reference group), abilities to participate in joint activity, ability to gesture, demonstrate and mime, experience as initiator of joint activity, mastery of a language, and a bit besides. Given the logical interdependencies mooted in the previous paragraph, the conclusion is that being a person, like being able to think – ‘having a mind’ if you will – depends on one’s having had in infancy and childhood a stable, effective support group. ‘Effective’ here means, at least, ‘involving the infant and child in regular successful joint activity.’ On my account a person/thinker must already be a viable cultural agent, which in turn implies a viable culture for that person/thinker to be a participant in.]

McGann is perhaps concerned that, by making thinking merely a private rehearsing by the individual of activity (such as conversation) that is essentially public, interpersonal, cultural activity, I am depriving the individual person of much of his or her defining ability, namely, the ability to think. I am attributing the main burden of the thinking ability to a cultural practice, or to the group which engages in the cultural practice. If the individual person’s contribution to thinking is as small as I say it is, and if thinking is the person’s special ‘thing’, ‘the person’ begins to seem much less important as a concept.

Can the individual thinker’s kudos be saved by the fact that the social practice he or she is covertly rehearsing – that is, group discussion, demonstrations, lessions, etc., preparatory to concerted action – is itself the work of individuals? No. Above, when attempting to free individuals from the stigma of enslavement by culture, I gave them the important ‘initial devising’ role with respect to cultural practices. But this applies only to relatively sophisticated practices. When it comes to such basic strategies as concert and cooperation per se, inter-individual solicitude, teaching by demonstration, joint-activity-initiation by gesture and speech, play, idle conversation, there is no prior initiating agent. No individual invented these practices. These basic forms of social life, these proto-cultural activities, are simply ‘given’ us. They are the developmental matrix out of which individual agency will later arise. In my story, the activities that the individual covertly tokens during thinking – and I am conceding thinking is the watershed activity as far as emergence of ‘the individual person’ is concerned – are not themselves the work of individuals.

Thus, although the individual (as original thinker) plays a key role in the generating of new culture, the role of ‘individual social agent’ or ‘person’ itself is the product of more primitive, proto-cultural practices.

However all the above is somewhat academic. Granted that my account in The Act of Thinking is a satisfactory gloss of the developmental aspects of personhood (selfhood), there is still an insuperable obstacle to defining just what ‘a person’ or ‘the self’ is. It’s not just that, like Hume, we cannot find a suitable referent in the world, or in our heads. Nor does the chief difficulty lie in the systematic elusiveness of ‘I’ that Ryle pointed out. It is rather that the notion of a ‘person’ contains two incommensurable ingredients – the idea of an individual human being qua physical entity and the idea of a fellow social agent or, more specifically, a thinker. Descartes’ expression res cogitans is a combination of irreconcilable terms, a kind of catechresis. McGann’s “subjectivity that is grounded in the individual’s own body” is ill-formed in the same way.

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

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

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

‘Experiencing’ the doing of something

McGann writes of “…the individual, personal phenomenology of thought – the awareness of what I am doing, and that I’m doing it from this particular perspective”, saying that I fail to properly account for it in my book. While I am somewhat in the dark as to what McGann is referring to here, it may be worth feeling around a bit.

Reading philosophy of mind you often encounter the words consciousness, subjectivity, private experience, introspection, self-knowledge, self-awareness, phenomenology, sensation, sense impression, sense-data, what it’s like to do X, and qualia. All of them conjure images of lights going on in people’s heads, a private theatre in there, and such. I realised how deceptive the philosophical use of these terms can be, and found out how to turn off the intracranial lights, through reading Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia, Wittgenstein on pain and the impossibility of a private language in Philosophical Investigations, the 1950 B.A. Farrell article “Experience” in Mind, and the Nemirow and Lewis ‘ability hypothesis’ articles in the first edition of Lycan’s Mind and Cognition collection. Nothing I have read since has persuaded me that the traditional philosophical use of the terms in question is anything but misleading.

In The Act of Thinking I commend Ryle’s account of ‘self-aware’ or ‘heedful’ action performance, that is, his account of what it is to do something in a deliberate, aware way or to ‘think what one is doing’. Ryle says that to do something in the heedful, self-aware way is to perform the action in question in a certain recognisable (careful, deliberate) manner and with a certain (attentive, alert) demeanour. And Ryle thinks that accompanying this overt behavioural style, and also characteristic if not definitive of the ‘self-aware’ performance, are dispositions (not necessarily actualised) to do things – to experiment, mutter to oneself, verify observations, repeat phases of the action, and so on. I augment Ryle’s account (in a way he would have strongly disapproved of) by attributing the distinctive self-aware behaviour style, and the dispositions, to the agent’s accompanying his performance of the action with, and his allowing his performance to be affected by, concurrent acts of covert tokening – the latter involving, typically, covert rehearsing of ‘educative scenarios’ relating to the action in question. I say that the covert tokening is what causes the heedful manner and the related dispositions.

My feeling is that the Ryle-Melser account – tidied up by Austin, Wittgenstein, etc., as above – establishes a comprehensive, consistent and intuitively plausible frame of reference for talking about ‘self-awareness’, etc. Whatever can meaningfully be said or asked as regards self-awareness can be fitted somewhere or other in the Ryle-Melser frame. For example, I assume that what McGann misses in The Act of Thinking is an account of what is involved in being self-aware in the act of thinking itself. What is it to think in the heedful, self-aware way? This interesting question is, I agree, not confronted in my book. McGann wants me to answer it.

Were I to accept the job, I would perhaps want to say that, whereas self-aware performance of actions other than thinking do require concurrent covert tokening of prior (or merely notional) educative episodes relating to the action being performed, self-aware thinking does not or need not require this. There need not be meta-acts of thinking accompanying the original thinking. For one thing, the ‘educative episodes’ by which one learns how to think are so many and varied, and of such a general and socially basic kind (‘doing things with others’), that rehearsing them would pose a problem. For another thing, as adults we have been thinking so long and often, that watching ourselves think is difficult – like being aware of our speech, say. The act of thinking is so familiar it is strange. Another thing: we have a really messy and misleading vocabulary for talking (hence thinking) about thinking and, guided by such a vocab, our awareness what we are doing, thinking, would be unreliable anyway. On the other hand, thinking is undeniably a skill; some are better at it than others; it can be done carefully, persistently, enthusiastically, and so on. It is a skill that, at higher levels of accomplishment anyway, can be verbally coached and coaxed. On the whole, self-aware thinking, I would say, is thinking done more thoroughly. The topic is explored from more points of view, in more detailed ways. The conversations, lessons, demonstrations, depictions, readings, admonitions, that the self-aware thinker is covertly rehearsing are more varied and comprehensive, more thorough, more brow-knittingly serious, than those of the frivolous, somnolent or merely idle penseur.

— Derek Melser —

 

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