Thursday, 29 August 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XV: Capability and Knowledge)

Can we become capable of doing things that we are currently unable to do, simply by thinking of them, by imagining ourselves doing them? Is imagination an enabler of action? Could I become capable of making a violin simply by carefully imagining the whole intricate process? The answer to these questions should be obvious but the underlying reasoning will require a certain amount of patient chiseling and shaping to be carried out beforehand.

Ten years ago I decided to make a kitchen table. I knew I had all of the basic skills necessary to start the job and I also knew that with a little research and care I could acquire the further skills necessary to overcome any of the foreseeable obstacles I might encounter. In short, I was certain that I could make a simple table and this gave me the confidence to be a little daring and attempt to learn on the job. The process was slow and I made many mistakes (fortunately none that I couldn’t fix or replace) but eventually through many unexpected twists and turns I completed what I still consider to be a handsome piece of oak furniture that is in daily use. Buoyed up by this success I decided to embark on the more ambitious venture of making a double bed from cherry wood. Once again I made several silly but salvageable mistakes along the way but eventually ended up with a simple but elegant piece of furniture held together by 52 hand cut mortise and tenon joints. It’s a thing of pride and an object I am obviously intimately acquainted with.

Neither of these ‘projects’ would have been possible if I hadn’t already acquired the skills (and tools) to at least commence them. However, even without those skills I could easily have imagined what it would be like to make these objects. But then, imagining is not knowing - and knowing, as we will soon find out, is not necessarily the capability many people are inclined to think it is.

Around the same time as I was chiselling mortise and tenon joints, Derek Melser, a furniture-maker-turned-philosopher living in New Zealand, published a book entitled “The Act of Thinking”. The underlying thesis is very similar to that outlined in Part XII of this series of blog posts, and to that extent I think he has got it absolutely right: thinking is a species of action. Nonetheless, there are several respects in which Melser’s theory doesn't adequately explain the less physical of our actions – most especially he is curiously vague on the subject of how imagined perceptions might constitute actions. For example, what might an ‘actional’ visualisation consist of? Melser writes: “To ‘visualise’ thing T is to covertly token a certain visual perceptual behaviour.” To “token”, for Melser, is to enact only a fragment of an action and in doing so the token becomes a referent to the thing tokened.

The argument that some inhibited tracking movements of the eyes, or some tokened verbal descriptions of the things or experiences imagined are sufficient to explain visualisation is unconvincing. So far as gesturing and speaking are concerned I think Melser may be largely, if not wholly, right (I’ll return to this presently). But as to his account of imagined perceptions, I think a more expansive explanation is due.

To be fair to Melser, he stages the different performances that comprise his overall thesis with genuine skill and he directs the various actors expertly, making them speak to each other and to us with close attention to nuanced argument and overall coherence (which is to care for the audience with clarity – a commendable thing in any philosopher). Where his workbench is a little shaky though is in its incorporation and understanding of representation and representational strategies.

Melser takes the view that perception is achieved “when and only when, […] an appropriate verbal act is performed” such as the infant’s exclamation of “mummy!” at the appearance of her mother. Melser is partly correct, I think, but he makes the mistake of overemphasising verbal representation  (or “concerting” as he calls it) at the expense of other equally valid forms of representation.

My son, who will be 3 very soon, is still learning to name colours. Does this mean that he doesn’t perceive them? On Melser’s account we have no option but to conclude that he doesn’t yet perceive colours but I can prove this is incorrect with a simple experiment that I tried more than 4 months ago. I set up 5 different coloured objects and asked him to find others of the same colour. He got it right every time. We have already encountered an answer to what is happening here provided by Donald Brook’s theory of representation. Children are able to select Matching and Simulating representations long before they are able to speak their names.

I agree with Melser that the ability to represent something is a precondition for perception. But the skill of representation is by no means first acquired through our entry into language. If a forthcoming paper by Donald Brook is anything to go by, the capacity to represent, in rudimentary form at least, is also shared by many animals and possibly some insects also (bees for instance) which suggests that there must be a genetically inherited component at work. Furthermore, if thinking is a form of covert action, then who knows how many animals might be capable of rudimentary forms of representation? This is a question only science can answer.

Melser writes: “One of the main features of imagining is that you can do it where real X-ing [seeing a ghost for example] is impossible.” This seems perfectly right doesn’t it? I can imagine jumping to the moon but I can’t do it. But if imagining is a species of action then what imaginary action could we possibly ‘do’ to visualise a ghost? The problem is one that Melser’s theory simply cannot solve. However, if we expand the conception of action to include representational action then suddenly the whole difficulty evaporates. To Imagine a ghost is to imagine what a ghost would look like i.e. how we would represent a ghost to others, for example by cutting holes in a sheet or doodling a white image on black paper or by wafting steam about etc.

So, to return to the question posed at the beginning of these bloggy thoughts: Can a capability emerge as a consequence of imagining?

If imagining something is a process of representationally oriented action, then to be capable of representing an ability is no guarantee of the capability of doing it. The capabilities of Matching representation that involve bodily motion and control (i.e. gestures, postures, facial expressions etc.) on the other hand are genuine proof of ability. If I can mimic your dance steps, footfall for footfall, then there is no question that I know how to perform your dance. But if I can describe your dance, footfall for footfall, no matter the intricacy of the detail, there is no guarantee whatsoever that I can follow my description. Different forms of representational ability presuppose capacities, but most commonly these are capacities of representational action, not of performance.

Imagination is a form of what Ryle would call “knowing how”. Too often people confuse the knowing how to represent with the more practical capabilities of knowing how to do.
“A child who had never manifested in words, gestures, or play the working out of simple problems could not be said to work them out ‘in his mind’, any more than he could be said to know ‘in his mind’ the names of colours, if he was unable to say their names, or to point or to fetch the right colours when their names were called out. Thinking in ones mind (silent thinking, pausing to think) is not the most fundamental form of thinking, but instead presupposes thinking in play, work, or words.” -Norman Malcolm


drawstillwater said...

Just trying to explain to myself (in a soundbite) what you are getting at here:

Imagination can facilitate, but not enable, action…even when given the right tools.

Does imagination encourage action?
What encourages action? Intention?
What promotes action? Necessity?

I suppose I'm interested in the delay/space/hiatus between imagination & action…but am I still confusing action with representation?

Does representation always, but not necessarily, precede action?

I know you are trying to explain it deeper than this…will keep reading your blogs!

Jim Hamlyn said...

Imagination can facilitate, but not enable, action…even when given the right tools.

Yes, that's kinda right. But better would be:

To imagine something is to be capable of representing it but not necessarily being able to do it.

My point is that Derek Melser's largely excellent theory doesn't quite get the distinction right because he doesn't fully accommodate representation as an act.
I was making a further important point though. Being able to produce a Matching representation of a bodily movement (i.e. to mimic someone) is a form of knowhow of a fundamental kind. But being able to draw or describe a bodily movement is no guarantee of this knowhow. As our species’ capacities of representation have evolved, the separation between being able to represent and being able to actually do what we can represent have radically diverged. This has important ramifications for education I think and adds weight to the argument that lectures and other forms of passive learning should be replaced by better informed methods.

You ask: ”Does imagination encourage action?”
Not necessarily, in fact imagination would often seem to discourage action – and with good reason.

You ask: ”What encourages action? Intention?”
Invitation, opportunity, necessity, boredom – you name it!

You ask: ”What promotes action? Necessity?”
Perhaps the thing that is causing you difficulty (if there is any) is this. For an action to qualify as an action it must by definition be intentional otherwise it's just an unconsciously controlled behaviour or what Melser calls a "natural process".

You ask: ”I suppose I'm interested in the delay/space/hiatus between imagination & action…but am I still confusing action with representation?”
This is a really important question. The conclusion that Brook's work leads to is this. For an action to be an action (i.e. intentional) it has to be capable of representation in principle. So, for example, you ask me "Why am I tapping at the keyboard?" and I answer "Because I'm trying to respond to your question." It is the capability of offering a representation (language in this case) that is instrumental. When we're in any doubt about someone's intentions we'll often put this capability to the test with a question.
Now, it's absolutely true that sometimes people invent explanations for their behaviour post hoc. Nonetheless, we know from our own observations that we frequently decide to do things before acting. Representationalists would say that we form mental images of our goals. Even if they were right (which is logically impossible) it would still be unnecessary to form a mental image of one's goal. All we need is the ability to form a public representation on demand.

Or as the American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner once put it:


You ask: ”Does representation always, but not necessarily, precede action?”

Perhaps the above already makes the answer clear. Representation doesn't precede action no although you could easily say out loud “I’m going to do such and such”. However, the capacity for representation must precede action.

”I know you are trying to explain it deeper than this…will keep reading your blogs!”
If it can’t be explained at this level it isn’t worth explaining. Your questions are very much appreciated.

Jim Hamlyn said...

I should probably include the full quote from Weiner:


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