Melser's Reply to Robert Wilson



Derek Melser's
Reply to Robert Wilson

I thank Robert Wilson for his lengthy and thoughtful review of The Act of Thinking. Because his review is almost entirely critical, and because I think his criticisms are mostly unjustified, I will reply in some detail. Wilson appears to understand the position I argue for quite well, and even to approve of some aspects of that position. But, on the whole, as one would expect from a dedicated and accomplished practitioner of cognitive science (e-theories branch), he regards my book as anathema and is understandably concerned to discredit it.

Wilson correctly distinguishes my actional theory of thinking from those theories he calls e-theories – theories claiming that thinking is “a process that begins in the head but extends beyond it”. And he correctly states my view that thinking is not a natural process but a personal action and that, therefore, thinking cannot be studied scientifically. In reporting my view of how people’s actions are to be understood (if not scientifically), Wilson mentions “empathy, interpretation and hermeneutics”. I own up to ‘empathy’. Empathy is an important element in our understanding of others’ actions, one of a bundle of ‘knowing how’ strategies, including pedagogic strategies, that we employ for learning and teaching, and for generally ‘knowing’, actions. We learn what actions are are by learning how and why they are performed – and by learning how to perform the acts of perceiving that are ingredient in and ancillary to them. There is a lot in my book about empathy. It is worth stressing that, despite the popular connotations of the word, there is nothing supernatural or otherwise paranormal or dubious or namby-pamby about empathy. It is an easily identifiable – it is inhibited, or ‘token’ imitation – and very important learned interpersonal skill. There is also a lot in my book about the nature of actions, and how we learn to perform and to understand them.

However, there is nothing in the book about either ‘interpretation’ or ‘hermeneutics’. These originally theological concepts now assist in underpinning discourse theory – a very interesting (albeit young) discipline devoted to linguistic and cultural studies and to establishing an appropriate methodology for these studies. I am grateful to Wilson for drawing my attention to the connection between discourse theory – of which I was previously only peripherally aware – and my own attempts to characterise our knowledge of actions.

Wilson says that my book is “very old fashioned” and, later on, “reactionary”. This contradicts other published descriptions of the book as original: it contradicts Max Hocutt’s “most original” and Andy Lock’s “Melser takes the next step”, and it contradicts William J. Lycan’s “flouts all received doctrine”, “entirely original” and “particularly distinctive”. In explanation, Wilson cites as my antecedents Ryle, Austin and Hampshire – with the implication these philosophers are old-fashioned. Although there is nothing relating to Austin in the book bar one brief quotation, there is plenty about Ryle’s and Hampshire’s theories of thinking. Just as important, however, or more important, as avatars of the ideas in The Act of Thinking, are Vygotsky, the American abbreviationists (including Hebb), the American social-behaviourists de Laguna and Mead, and Wittgenstein. Vygotsky and Wittgenstein are still fashionable, surely. The book’s central idea, that thinking is a learned and voluntary personal action, is reasonably new-fashioned, I would have thought. As I take pains to point out in the book, none of the above, not Ryle, nor Hampshire, Vygotsky, the behaviourists, the abbreviationists, the social behaviourists, nor Wittgenstein explicitly identifies thinking as a learned action, as I do. As far as I know – and perhaps Wilson is better informed about this – the only psychologists or philosophers who have previously picked up this particular ball and run with it, even a short distance, are Thomas Reid, Richard Taylor and Theodore Sarbin. Surely, the truly old-fashioned idea is the popular superstition, which has thrived since well before Plato, that thinking goes on inside people’s heads. The ludicrous inference from this superstition that cognitive science is founded on – the inference that thinking must therefore be a brain process – is, by contrast, only a few hundreds of years old.

Wilson states that apart from my “heavy reliance” on “selective” findings in developmental psychology, I cite next to no ‘substantive’ work in contemporary cognitive science. In saying this, Wilson is implying that developmental psychology is a part of, or somehow comes under the aegis of, cognitive science. This is not true. Developmental psychology was well under way before the brain-as-computer fancy became popular. Certainly, much recent empirical research in developmental psychology is framed in cognitivist terms, as if it is goings-on in the brain that are important and not the infant’s or child’s mastering of skills. However, just as much developmental research, of an impeccably ‘empirical’ type, owes nothing to cognitive science and doesn’t speculate about intracranial phenomena at all.

Another thing: most ‘substantive’ empirical work in cognitive science so far has consisted of establishing temporal correlations between people’s actions, thoughts or emotions and neurophysiological activity in various parts of their brains. Apart from the fact that the methodology of such research is dicey, to say the least, there is very little that can legitimately be inferred from such correlations, where they have been established. Usually, all we get is metaphors, surely totally unscientific, of ‘underpinning’, ‘the mechanism controlling’, ‘responsible for’, and so on – and the promise of great new discoveries just around the corner. However, assuming for the sake of argument that there are empirical findings in cognitive science that justify “substantive”, the reason I don’t cite them is that the main aim of The Act of Thinking is to provide a plausible and coherent account of thinking qua personal action. My aim is to provide a plausible and coherent account of thinking based on the assumption thinking is NOT a function of the brain. To appeal for support to any of the findings of cognitive science, which is based on the premise thinking IS a brain function, would pointlessly sabotage this aim. I had no intention of reviewing cognitive science’s thirty-year history, nor of reviewing its apparent successes. There are literally dozens of books that do that job. On the other hand, although my primary aim was to demonstrate the plausibility of an actional account of thinking, I also aimed to show, from the patent plausibility of the actional account, that cognitive science’s attempt to explain thinking (as a brain function) is redundant.

In the section in Chapter 3 where I ostentatiously draw a line in the sand as to where the biologically-determined leaves off and the culturally-determined takes over – my line is concerted activity – Wilson suspects me of “theft over honest toil”, “victory by semantic fiat” and “definitional sleight of hand”. The underlying issue here, crudely put, is whether neonatal imitation requires mind. Wilson evidently believes it does. I believe, to the contrary, that neonatal imitation can probably be fully explained in biological and evolutionary terms, as a physiological and macrophysiological phenomenon – without invoking any ‘cognitive’ abilities or personal actions on the baby’s part. This belief of mine may be mistaken. We may have to draw the biological/cultural line earlier – in the womb, then? But I can’t see how it is that my belief – shared, I would say, by most of the contributors to both Imitation in Animals and Artifacts (MIT Press, 2002) and Perspectives on Imitation (2 vols, MIT Press, 2005) – necessarily involves dishonesty or prestidigitation.

Wilson suggests that my theory about where our notion of ‘the mind’ comes from is, broadly speaking, a ‘social constructivist’ theory. However, my theory is not that ‘the mind’ is a social construction – although I confess I have never known quite what the term social construction refers to – but that it is a rhetorical fiction. My claim is that there is really no such thing as ‘the mind’. I claim that we are persuaded into the belief that there is such a thing by the naïve and unthinking way in which we employ and understand certain colloquial metaphors. These numerous and varied metaphors, all coined to highlight features of thinking, all disingenuously posit (and ostensibly mention and characterise) an intracranial agent or venue for thinking. ‘Mind’ is not as substantial as a ‘social construct’ – like ‘the family’ or ‘being polite’, two of Wilson’s examples. Mind is just an illusion created by the metaphors we use for describing thinking.

Finally, Wilson attempts to discredit my two main arguments against action physicalism – the view that actions are primarily macro-physiological events – by casting doubt on the distinctions I draw between (1), empathy vs objective scrutiny and (2), literal descriptions vs figurative descriptions. He claims that both distinctions are “significantly more problematic than the position [action physicalism] they are invoked to question”. The question whether actions are objectively defineable physical events is a difficult (and very interesting and important) one. However, the above two distinctions are far from being ‘problematic’. I may have drawn these distinctions poorly, but they are both undeniably real. Surely, there is a difference between the gaze of the person who turns away saying “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young” – and the systematic, unblinking scrutiny of the pathologist doing the autopsy. The respective observers are observing ‘in different ways’. If the pathologist does still wince or weep occasionally, it is as an ordinary person he does so, not as a scientist.

And, surely, there is some significant difference, as regards the kind of speech being employed, between saying, for example, “the scanner identified the lesion” and saying “the scanner was used to identify the lesion”. The former is just a figure of speech. The scanner didn’t really identify the lesion. Literally speaking, the person operating the scanner did that. Surely, that’s not too ‘problematic’. My argument here (in Chapter 11) is that the findings of biological science are normally reported in language that is to a greater or lesser extent anthropomorphic, and hence figurative. That is, natural processes are for convenience described as if they were actions such as are performed by people. The use of these anthropomorphic action metaphors is generally harmless, and helpful to the lay person (and the scientist). However, action metaphors cannot be used to put an explanatory gloss on things that literally are actions. I claim that this terminally reduces the scientist’s options for describing actions: the scientist is limited to documenting the physiological phenomena – and these don’t add up to ‘actions’. This argument may be flawed, but not because the distinction between speaking literally and using metaphors or other figures of speech is ‘problematic’.

— Derek Melser —