Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XIV: Visualisation Disability)

Is it possible to have an imaginative disability; an impairment or deficit in or of the mind’s eye?

Before she died and for somewhere in the region of a quarter of her life my grandmother was blind in one eye (one of the physical one’s that is, not the 'inner' one). She could easily have arranged for a second cataract operation to restore her stereoscopic vision, yet she was too distrustful of the doctors and too unconvinced of the benefits that she chose instead to manage with only monocular vision. I remember once at the family dinner table we all decided to compare our monocular skills by trying to replace the lid of a pen and my grandmother was by far the most skilful at this task. She had evidently developed compensatory skills that allowed her to function very well despite her depthless vision. For many people such a disability would be a great loss - the neurologist Oliver Sacks has commented widely on what he believes is a great impoverishment in his visual perception following a melanoma that deprived him of vision in one eye - but for my grandmother the possibility of renewed depth perception wasn’t even worth a short visit to her local hospital.

Disabilities clearly affect people in different ways and nobody would seriously suggest that all disabilities are equal. Having only one functioning eye is undoubtedly a disability but in comparison with complete blindness it presents a relatively trivial setback. But what about loss or damage to the “third eye”? What might such an impairment or deficit consist of and does it really make sense to call it a disability at all?

In 2010 Discover magazine published an article about an Edinburgh building surveyor MX who found that his inner eye had suddenly become blind following an operation on his coronary artery at the age of 65. Neurologists conducted a variety of experiments and scans to determine what might be causing MX’s visualisation loss and they, and MX himself, were surprised to find that only one of the many experiments they conducted showed any marked difference from standard results obtained from other individuals of the same age, profession etc. The test used is thought to require the ability to mentally rotate diagrams of three-dimensional forms. Ordinarily test subjects take twice as long to mentally rotate the diagrams 180% as they would to mentally rotate them 90%. In MX’s case though it took him no longer to rotate a diagram from 180% than than 90% yet in every other respect there was no appreciable divergence between his visual performance and those of normal individuals.

How might we interpret this account? The scientists involved took the view that some form of blindsight must be involved. Blindsight is a rare condition in which people have no conscious vision yet they are able to perform certain tasks – even quite complex ones like walking through a room full of obstacles – as if they were fully sighted. A common explanation of blindsight  – although further evidence is needed - is that human visual perception involves two visual systems working in tandem: a more recently evolved conscious system and an older more primitive unconscious system that remains unaffected in cases of blindsight.

Just as with the difference between monocular vision and total blindness a straightforward comparison between blindsight and third eye blindness should probably be avoided. Blindsight is recognised as a disability because it has very clear repercussions for visual functioning whereas, if MX’s case is anything to go by, the impact of visualisation loss is comparatively negligible.

Nonetheless, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty in dismissing third eye blindness. According to the Discover article, MX felt his inner vision had previously been a source of genuine pleasure that allowed him to run “through recent events as if he were watching a movie. He could picture his family, his friends, and even characters in the books he read.” But this is where the account becomes a little unclear. Had MX become unable to recall the appearance of his friends and family and of things seen in the past? If he was suffering from some form of visual amnesia then surely the researchers would have detected this right from the outset. Other plausible explanations are possible though. Perhaps MX’s capacity to derive pleasure from visual cognition had been affected by the operation. Perhaps his sense of past pleasures had somehow become exaggerated or distorted.

One of the things that makes discussions about mental imagery so fraught is that people have very different emotional attachments to such aspects of their subjectivity. Just as Oliver Sacks deeply regrets the loss of his stereoscopic vision and my grandmother barely bothered about it, so too do opinions differ greatly about what might well be essentially the same underlying phenomenology of visualisation.

Certainly when individuals claim to ‘see’ vivid images in their mind’s eye we should be sceptical of what it is that they actually mean. Time and again when such claims are tested, the images reported turn out to provide much less information than their owners are initially willing to claim. Once again the difficulty would seem to derive from the feeling of vividness rather than the quality or quantity of information available.

Whatever the differences between individuals in terms of the accounts they are prepared to give of their subjectivity it would seem to be vital to distinguish as sharply as possible between the emotional aspects of visualisation and the function: the ability. If visualisation doesn’t provide any kind of functional advantage then it makes no sense to call it an ability, though we might very well call it a pleasure. Likewise, being unable to visualise cannot be said to be a dis-ability.

But if it is true that visualisation consistently fails to provide the abilities that are attributed to it then it must be unique amongst all pleasures. Perhaps this offers us a vital clue. Evolution never bestows pleasures unnecessarily, especially pleasures of the magnitude of imaginative visualisation. MX may have functioned perfectly well on all of the tests of visualisation ability but I wonder how much his motivation to create and consume representations had been affected – I suspect it was greatly reduced. So, perhaps we can put forward a speculative hypothesis: visualisation might not be an easily quantifiable ability in the ordinary sense but perhaps it's utility is of a more pervasive kind; as an inducement - possibly the most powerful one we possess - to make, describe and to consume visual representations.


Brian said...

Surely, “the mind’s eye” is a metaphor. If you are going to engage in speaking or writing, metaphors are unavoidable - which is fine. Also, here you go further and call this ability to visualise the “third eye”, which is confusing as that is a reference to a metaphor from another (oriental) cultural and religious context, which you have pirated (forgive the nautical theme creeping in again). Nevertheless, if imaginative visualisation is a natural inducement to consume visual representations, then to what end? For art? And why would nature - or evolution - want us to do this? (or, to subtract the anthropomorphic element from our metaphorical speech, why would the biological process of evolution lead ultimately to the human species deriving pleasure from creating and looking at art?). I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but we may actually agree on this, Jim.

Jim Hamlyn said...

You're right of course about the “third eye” metaphor but I felt the adaptation/distortion (and potential confusion) was justified - after all, problems only arise with metaphors when we take them too literally. But there was another more important reason for my choice. The post was the consequence of a previous comment by a Niagara Falls blogger going by the name of Kyleh and an ensuing discussion on his blog (with the imaginative title: “I Can’t Visualise”). Kyleh defines what he is convinced is a widespread disability as “third eye blindness” so that’s the main reason I chose to use the metaphor. Evidently he took great chagrin at my first (and quite tame) comment and decided to try to demolish my position with a mix of rambling pseudo philosophy and ad hominem attack. When I posted a more thorough response he blocked it and appended a churlish addendum about my denialism being “at best inappropriate and at worst dehumanising”. I think his claims are a logical howler (Ryle really brought that term to life didn’t he?) but my comments were actually pretty guarded as I hope is the above blog post. I was trying to draw him into a debate but instead I think I just entrenched his misplaced feelings of inadequacy.

Jim Hamlyn said...

On the question of visualisation being an inducement to make and consume visual representations. As I mentioned briefly before, Melser argues that consciousness is learned and as such he is committed to excluding animals from the capacity for consciousness. Nonetheless he recognises that communication is vital to learning and this puts him on a path to explaining how communication might be conducted. He avoids representation almost entirely in his book – for what are probably obvious reasons – but this forces him into a conceptual corner from which he never emerges on this score. Brook on the other hand recognises that Matching representations are common in animal behaviour: a startled meerkat turns its head and another sees this and looks in the same direction. The first meerkat is representing – whether deliberately or most likely not – the direction of its attention by the position of its head and eyes. This is representationally exploitable. For instance a meerkat might find that by feigning a sudden start it can momentarily distract a conspecific from a source of food thereby gaining a clear survival advantage. Representation therefore has massive evolutionary potential in a whole variety of ways, for deception, signalling and for learning.

Others have advanced this same kind of social behaviour as a likely contender for the evolution of consciousness but Brook’s conceptualisation of representational strategies allows this to be understood much more clearly. But, and this is the really interesting point that I’ve only recently begun to understand in Brook’s work, representation has a potentially deeper role to play – in imagination (and perception too but I’ll leave that aside now).

For many philosophers there has existed a longstanding difficulty in accounting for the causal relationship between future states and current conditions. How can a current state be causally influenced by a future one. It can’t. But then how can I imagine a future and use this to guide my actions? The common solution to this dilemma has been the assumption, which is almost universal at the moment, that the brain functions through the use of representations and representational states (perhaps not picture-like ones but representations nonetheless). Brook’s theory of representation leads to the conclusion that this is impossible for a variety of reasons, both logical and evolutionary. It’s here that Brook makes a really interesting and insightful move though. Instead of invoking representations he takes a Rylian route through the notion of dispositions to act (dispositions to represent in this case). Now, it gets really tricky here so forgive me if I have to come back and qualify or clarify what I say. Basically Brook makes the claim that it is the capacity to make a representation that is causally influential. For a long time this caused me an enormous amount of difficulty in understanding and I just thought Brook had it wrong. How, I wondered, could a capacity be a cause? Only when a saw a boy with a toy bow and arrow recently did it dawn on me what Brook is getting at. If you point an arrow at a target you don’t need to actually loose it in order to have a potentially enormous influence on a whole variety of other causal processes in regards to the self same target. In other words, whatever I aim at can become the target of a whole rank of archers and I won’t even have to loose one arrow. So, when I anticipate something, instead of there being a picture lodged somewhere inside the cavern of my consciousness, what happens is that I become capable of producing or selecting a representation of my goal.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the capacity for representation, in Brook’s view, is central to consciousness. Anything that induces us to make and to consume visual representations (and representations in general) must have the capacity to enhance consciousness, which is where we come right back to Melser.

Brian said...

So, imagination is the capacity to anticipate something by selecting, or producing, an appropriate image of it: Therefore imagination enhances consciousness. This is good, and I'm with you so far ... do you want to go on?

Jim Hamlyn said...

I wish it were that easy but we can't be quite so cavalier, otherwise it just comes out of the nozzle tasting like yet another flavour of the received opinion.

Put it this way. If you went back in our evolutionary history I'm certain that you would find our ancestors doing all of the kinds of things we currently do "in our heads" (figuratively speaking) as publicly perceptible actions. You can observe the very same process at work in preschool children. Lev Vygotsky for instance, who had an action-based (but not actional) theory of thinking believed that kids 'internalise' their 'private speech'. Melser describes several other action-based theorists as 'abbreviationists' (Skinner, Sarbin and Dennett) in that they believe that the overt actions become increasingly abbreviated to the point that they disappear. What Brook, Melser and I are saying is that these actions do not disappear or get internalised but instead they are inhibited from public performance because the organism can thus conserve energy and can also contemplate intentions that perhaps only serve the organism's self interest (as an aside, reading was once performed in private because they didn't know how not to read out loud).

If others could overhear or see our thoughts, as they once surely could (and we can still observe with preschoolers), then our opportunities for deception would be mightily diminished. My little boy still struggles to inhibit his actions when we tell him not to do something that he is strongly compelled to do. Often the movements are still expressed which I take as a form of proto representational imagination. Once he learns the knack of performing these actions without expressing them his entry into the 'world' of the imagination will have begun in earnest.

I realise that I nearly missed an important related point here. Melser would say - I think - that the covert action is "tokened" as thought. Brook, with a fuller conceptualisation of representation, realises that what Melser calls tokening is in actuality the use of representational strategies, some of which we get by genetic inheritance. These allow actions to be in a sense compressed into intentions to represent (but that's a little complicated for just now).

We get better at imagining as we learn the strategies of representation. This is something that Derek Melser doesn't yet fully understand. Perhaps he'll stumble on this conversation and become intrigued enough to find out more (I've offered, but he tells me that he's too busy). Overhearing an exchange of representations can confer massive advantages too... which is what the Internet is almost entirely about.

Jim Hamlyn said...

I’ve had a think about your short statement above and whilst my caveat still stands I think it’s worthwhile trying to distill things down. So here is the working hypothesis as it currently stands:

1. Anticipation is the capacity to represent something that doesn’t yet exist based upon perceptually acquired input.
2. Imagination is the capacity to represent something that may or may not exist (or have ever existed) based upon perceptually acquired input.
3. Perception is a dispositional response involving a simultaneous capacity to represent the thing seen in one or more respects.
4. Memories are perceptually acquired dispositions to represent.
5. Consciousness is thinking – as Hume rightly observed.
6. Thinking is an incipient action of predominantly inhibited intentions to represent (involving a variety of representational strategies, some of which are genetically inherited).
7. Meditation is the suspension of thinking. It is to become inactive but – importantly - not unresponsive.
8. Sleep is a state of unconsciousness in which a variety of unconscious response mechanisms that are active during meditation are inactive.
9. Dreaming is a predominantly unconscious state in which recently active portions of the brain exhibit residual activation and trigger acquired dispositions to represent (as when we talk in our sleep) as well as capacities to represent – which may be triggered on waking, at which point we may be able to recount our dreams.

an-aesthetic said...


Wittgenstein language games!

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi An-aesthetic,

Is that just a vaguely related drive-by comment or do you actually have something to say?

Brian said...

Jim, thanks for your quite detailed explication. This is very interesting and I’m beginning to see the direction and the logic of your thought. I find the idea of “anticipation” particularly interesting, and this is something about representation - as we have been discussing it more recently, and as you have highlighted here - that is probably the most difficult thing for me, in my own thoughts as they come back to the subject again and again: and that is the element of time. Time appears to us to go in a straight line, but the future as we imagine it actually exists in the present, as does the past - in what we might call the imagination. Now, you will have a far greater knowledge than myself about the study of mind as essentially part of, even produced by, a physical organ (the brain), as this is of special interest to you, and that’s to be appreciated and admired: however, I would point out to you a little anomaly - not to be picky, rather it is an interesting detail - in your glossary of terms. I agree with all of them as definitions, insofar as they go at present except for one. The theory that thinking is inhibited intention to represent I’m just not too sure about; not that I disagree - I just don’t know. But more importantly you say that “consciousness is thinking - as Hume rightly observed” (if he did observe this, he probably did so from Descartes, but never mind that for now). If “meditation is the suspension of thinking” (I agree), then that means that when we meditate, we are unconscious. This I would say is not the case: in fact, in meditation I would say we are if anything more conscious than usual. This may be just a semantic difference, but consciousness for me is a far deeper thing than thought - although it most certainly does involve representation, and imagination, of a most intense nature. This is more of a question/comment than a proposition ... ?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi Brian,
I notice that you use that gem of a word ‘appears’ again to describe the common conception of time as a ‘straight line’ (evidence I suggest - once again - of the power of language to assimilate non-verbal representational strategies). Nothing wrong with that of course.

RE: Time and anticipation. Yes, it’s representations (both as dispositional capacities and as perceptible objects) that allow us to exploit the fact that everything is constantly changing in what are, luckily for us frail creatures, quite regular ways.

As regards the actional theory of thought; perhaps the Melser book, that you can get on Amazon for next to nothing as a hardback, might be worth a purchase. Even if Brook and Melser, in their completely independent but largely parallel ways, have both got it wrong – which I find hard to believe - it’s fascinating to stand on the side lines of such illuminating theories. Sure, reading Sartre, Schopenhauer or Spinoza can be engrossing in all kinds of ways, but I don’t think it’s anything like the exhilaration that comes from glimpsing newly born possible solutions to problems that have eluded thinkers since time immemorial.

RE: Meditation. Yes, the suggestion that meditation is a form of responsive unconsciousness will strike many as unacceptable. Nonetheless, I think we have to really think the implications through. One of the implications of this theory (Brook’s version anyway) is that action is an evolved capacity that has its roots in the practical need to choose between behavioural options, and therefore to inhibit whichever option is not enacted. It seems quite plausible to me that consciousness, as a more recently evolved bodily (including brain) function, might put the organism into forms of stress and anxiety that the more longstanding and primitive response system would entirely liberate us from. Being responsive in a way very different from sleep yet undisturbed by the clamour of representational dispositions must be peaceful beyond compare. It’s also interesting to note that Brook’s conception of actions and responses accurately predicts the phenomenon known as blindsight.

Brian said...

Jim, I’d like to draw your attention to the following, which I’ve related to you before, from J. M. Bernstein. In his introduction to Adorno’s The Culture Industry, he explains:

'There is no discrete or unique object, for example, the mind or psyche, whose objective characteristics entail or directly correspond to the concepts and categories of psychology or psychoanalysis: nor is there a discrete object whose characteristics entail or correspond to the concepts and categories of sociology, history or philosophy.'

In other words, all of these, and more, are humanly created phenomena, dependent of course on language. If you compare this with an extract from Derek Melser’s essay, I think you will find the same conclusion. I’ve highlighted some sections in bold type (but they may not show in your blogsite). He says:

‘When I had first approached Tom Bestor at Massey, one of the main planks in what he called my ‘manifesto’ was that our colloquial mentalist vocabulary refers not to what it appears to refer to, minds and other quasi-supernatural stuff, but to our own and others’ thinking. And at that time I equated ‘thinking’ with incipient behaviours lurking in our brains – in the form of neural firing programs at various levels of activation. I claimed that the colloquial mentalist vocabulary actually refers to these goings-on in the brain. However, I also nursed another, and incompatible, conviction.

I believed that, quite apart from whether thinking was thought of as a ‘mental’ or a physiological phenomenon, the colloquial mentalist expressions did not actually refer to thinking. The vocabulary was not about thinking and its aspects and varieties. I believed that the function of the vocabulary was, instead, to get the hearer to empathise, or actually imitate or duplicate the thinking – the incipient behaviours or ‘mental states’ – in question. To describe Genevieve as ‘absolutely furious’ (or ‘consumed with rage’, etc.) is to invite the hearer to imaginatively re-enact what Genevieve thought and felt. It is not to refer the hearer to anything, let alone to things going on inside Genevieve’s head, in her ‘mind’ or her brain. It is to evoke, to ‘call up’, a certain way of thinking and feeling – for ‘sampling’ by present company. This fact about the vocabulary’s function is unchanged on the assumption that thinking is an action. This just adds another category of items – namely, acts of thinking – to the list of things the vocabulary does not refer to. What this ‘empathy-inducing’ theory claims is that our everyday thinking vocabulary is not designed for inviting objective scrutiny of anything – neither putative mental phenomena, nor brain events nor people’s acts of thinking. It is designed for soliciting empathy. [I found out later that it was my empathy-inducing theory as to the function of the colloquial thinking vocabulary that persuaded Tom Bestor to take me on as a doctoral student. He had never seen anything like it in the literature – although it does owe something to Wittgenstein’s ‘replacement theory’ of pain avowal – and he was intrigued.]

Brian said...

[cont] Once I had accepted that thinking is not a physiological phenomenon but a personal action, I was able to integrate the empathy-inducing theory into my other theorising. For one thing, the empathy-inducing theory went well with my conviction that actions must be understood empathically or not at all. If thinking is an action then, like any action, it can only be understood empathically – by the would-be observer’s ‘imagining what it would be like’ to do that, to think or feel or promise that, or whatever. Our descriptions of other people’s thinking, like our descriptions of others’ actions generally, might seem to be objective in the way scientific descriptions are objective. Various figures of speech in everyday language, particularly nominalised verbs and metaphors, work to give us the impression that descriptions of people’s actions are just like descriptions of natural things and processes in the world. But this impression is illusory. To understand descriptions of actions we must rely on an entirely unscientific strategy, namely, empathy.

I came to the conclusion that there is a whole area of distinctively human practices and abilities – including cooperation, verbal communication, knowledge of the world, thinking and personal action – all of which are learned developments of the basic ability people have to concert their behaviour, and all of which are essential ingredients in ‘culture’. These cultural abilities and practices are undoubtedly real and yet they can be understood only from the point of view of a participant or would-be participant in them. One can know them only by doing them – in reality or in imagination. Cultural abilities and practices are therefore, necessarily, beyond the purview of objective science. Furthermore, it now seemed to me that it was just these cultural phenomena – in the guise of ‘language’, ‘meaning’, ‘mind’, ‘knowledge’, etc. – that were the real, though ulterior, subject matter of philosophy. What really interests philosophers is culture and the foundations of culture: our being together, the things we do and make together, concerted activity, the interpersonal, the side-by-side, togetherness, intimacy. But, as their abstract terms and their attraction to science suggests, philosophers attempt to approach this topic from an objective viewpoint, as if concerting were something existing out there in reality, apart from us – as if it were not something we ourselves do.

Some philosophers have attempted to address this underlying topic directly. Vygotsky, Buber, Wittgenstein and others – Strawson, with his ‘interpersonal reactive attitudes’ and even Dennett, with ‘the personal stance’ – have tried their hand at defining it. My ‘concerting’ is also a useful contribution. But perhaps you can’t define it and you can only, as it were, mutely indicate in what direction the sphere of the cultural lies. Perhaps the traditional Western philosophical problems are just various manifestations of the contradiction inherent in trying to understand cultural phenomena objectively. We can at least be sure science will never get there. We can be sure, for example, that any attempt to explain culture in terms of brain mechanisms and/or biological evolution is bound to fail. Togetherness doesn’t register on any of science’s instruments, nor ever will. At any rate, if concerting and imagined concerting is what mind talk is ultimately all about, then it is going to be very difficult to find a useful role for ‘cognitive science’. - Derek Melser, online:

Seán said...

"We can be sure, for example, that any attempt to explain culture in terms of brain mechanisms and/or biological evolution is bound to fail."

Really? Why? Hadnt you noticed that science is so much more effective than any other investigative tool ever devised.

Philosophy on the other hand hasn't achieved anything so far in three thousand years.

Exchanging incredibility long blog comment posts seems less likely even than philosophy to answer any questions.

When did you last clean your oven?

Jim Hamlyn said...

@Sean, Your comment just arrived as I was writing my reply to Brian. I’m inclined to agree but you might be interested to see what Melser has to say about the science of “teaching someone a dance step” below.

@ Brian. Brilliant, yes, I wrote to Melser about exactly this point of what he calls “concerting” because I think he has missed some vital factors both about representation and - although I didn’t get round to mentioning it - cultural evolution. Before I go on though, just let me summarise what you’ve just quoted:

Melser believes that mentalist vocabulary is intended to get the hearer to empathise; to imaginatively re-enact the felt state:

“If thinking is an action then, like any action, it can only be understood empathically – by the would-be observer’s ‘imagining what it would be like’ to do that, to think or feel or promise that, or whatever”

He claims that culture is born of our ability to “concert” our behaviour and that cultural abilities can only be understood from the POV of a participant or would-be participant and are therefore beyond the purview of science: “One can know them [cultural abilities] only by doing them – in reality or in imagination.” He thinks that philosophers attempt this from an objective viewpoint as if concerting were something out there in reality apart from us.

In his email reply to me Melser writes:
“I also decided, way back when, that there is no possibility of a "scientific study of action". My aim is to elucidate what it is that people do together when, for example, one person demonstrates an action for another's benefit, or makes a promise. It's like teaching someone a dance step. Science has no part to play here.

But thanks for writing. Get back to me in a year or so...”

Your quotes are really useful Brian, Sean’s comments notwithstanding, because they show me where the most profitable spadework might best be done. Perhaps Melser is right, but let’s look at a few things that need to be explored more thoroughly before we resign ourselves to the same conclusions. I’m quite busy just now but I’ll return ASAP.

Brian said...

@Sean. If you don’t want to read long comments, then might I suggest that you don’t bother. The pertinent part of your response is - to my mind - not scientific, but related to a certain type of hubristic scientism (I actually find real science fascinating). You can read my views on that here:

Feel free to comment on that page, and I will attend to your point of view. However, if your comment is as non-constructive and personally abusive as you have demonstrated in the above, please don’t trouble yourself, as I won’t publish it.

Seán said...

Personally abusive? I made no reference to you personally - I was discussing ideas. You're a bit touchy, pal.

Calling something "Hubristic scientism" doesn't make it untrue. An artist attempting to tell a scientist what is real science might however be thought a little hubristic.

Science works, bitches!

Jim Hamlyn said...

I'm Back.

That's a Dawkins quote I do believe Sean and it's a very apposite one here (though not for the rather prickly reason in which you seem to have intended it with your Engineer's cap on) since Dawkins memed the very meme that I will come back to in a moment.

You probably know more than I do Brian about Subjective Realism and Object Oriented Ontology but I wonder, what do you make of Melser's position in this regard? Do you take him to be implying that we are all objects, in the way that I gather Graham Harman puts it, or is the whole dichotomy a false one once we finally realise that the subjective is simply a species of action?

Melser speaks of science and philosophy's attempts towards 'objectivity' as undermining their purview as regards concerting but I would have thought that his conceptualisation of objectivity might be in need of radical revision in light of his findings. If the subjective is "covert token concerting" then what can we meaningfully say about the objective? Hopefully Melser's book will enlighten me on this point, though I somehow doubt it.

As I've mentioned before, Melser's theory leads to the conclusion that animals are not conscious. A little more reading of his book tells me that he does indeed acknowledge the flocking, shoaling and mimicry of animals but he stops short of attributing consciousness to them. Worse still, his book's index makes no mention whatsoever of anticipation and I have found no mention of it yet. Without addressing this gigantic omission I think his claims and predictions (anticipations even) about objectivity become somewhat dubious, though not necessarily wrong.

Melser writes and Sean quotes: "We can be sure, for example, that any attempt to explain culture in terms of brain mechanisms and/or biological evolution is bound to fail."

He seems to be making the same point that critics of the Churchland's Eliminative Materialism make. I'm with Dennett on this point: I think it's a question of the intentional stance i.e. the appropriateness of the way you characterise the level which you are describing. Nonetheless I think there's also an uncertainty here about the origin and attribution of purposefulnes in respect of actions and it's not surprising therefore that Dennett is so involved in the free will/determinism debate.

OK, well I've already mentioned Dawkins and now I'm mentioning Dennett. Both are intimately associated with memes. Why am I mentioning memes? Because meme theory is yet another vital component in the bigger picture that Melser is sketching a small but important portion of. If he's in any way curious about the email I sent him he might just go and check out the work of Donald Brook. He'll find that much, if not all of the insights that he has so assiduously endeavoured to uncover have already been thoroughly charted - and there are many more besides. In numerous articles (though not particularly many online) Brook has contributed an important but largely ignored point about memes. Memes are thought - wrongly as it happens - to be snippets of culture that get imitated in a process analogous to biological evolution. Like the 'selfish' genes that Dawkins wrote of, the idea is that memes get themselves imitated through culture. But there is a serious flaw in this conceptualisation. Memes are not slogans and songs, fridges and books as so many theorists insist. That would be like holding up a rabbit and exclaiming: "Here's a gene." Memes are actions.

Analytic philosophy works, bitches!

Brian said...

I'm sorry, Jim. If I have anything more to add to our discussion, I’ll come back to you.

@Sean. I don't detect any “ideas” in your remarks, just prejudices - and an uncouth manner, if I may say so (is that a Zen tradition, or perhaps an engineering one?). I am not attempting to tell you, a chemical engineer, what real science is - I respect science, whereas you have no time, it seems, for philosophy. This is the hubris that I am referring to, and it is not only ill-informed, but narrow and possibly dangerous. Science works only until it is disproved, or becomes outdated. That is its way. It is not the dogmatic religion that Dawkins and others have attempted to make of it. The questions raised by philosophy have been, as you rightly point out, around for a long time, but they have had and still do have a direct bearing on science. The recognition of truth and opinion, the whole rational premise, were introduced by Plato and Aristotle. Science and philosophy are also reciprocal, as they share the same reasoning method, also dating from Plato’s time. This is germane to the discussion on Melser (of whom I know very little). You say that philosophy has achieved nothing in three thousand years. Perhaps not for you, but then you appear to have no interest in it.

If you even gave it a little room for breathing, you might find certain aspects have much in common with oriental thought, even with Zen. Does a dog have the Buddha nature? I don’t expect you to answer, of course, but when it comes to “ideas for discussion”, you certainly bark a lot.


Have either science or philosophy attained the truth, or is it perhaps hidden within but immanent to all human - and animal - activity? You may answer this with silence - and I would admire you for it - but I prefer to bark and whine just a little.

Brian said...

Jim, in answer to your question - as far as I am able, and that is not too far, to engage with the more involved behavioural theories of Dennett and Melser - it seems to me that the main difference lies in this: Dennett treats organisms a little bit like machines, and Melser sees them in a more immediate way. You might even say that Dennett, with his emphasis on impersonal material cause and effect does not empathise with the object of his observation, whereas Melser begins to. Despite the fact that Melser advocates a kind of withdrawal from the traditional objective position adopted by both science and philosophy; and that Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ theory (which is more science-based and by default does not even recognise that as a problem - with the subject/object relationship between observer and observed simply assumed to be fundamental); both are involved necessarily in that objective relationship. The difference is, as I said above, that Melser seems to recognise the inadequacies, under certain circumstances, of this approach.

This ‘problem’ is what is addressed by OOO and Subjective Realism, but the irony is that they too persist in that same objective approach by dint of the fact that they see the discipline (philosophy/ontology/art) they are commenting upon as a discrete object, and all the erstwhile ‘objects’ that they wish to emancipate (by recognising their sovereign subjectivity) are themselves objects of their scrutiny as well as their concern. So the problem identified by Melser in this instance remains essentially the same - to be, or not to be. Indeed, it is not so much of a problem as a dialectic between two ways of viewing any set of circumstances: whether to approach it in the objective way, as a separate entity capable of direct study (for example, history, sociology, psychology etc.), or as something that we are involved in and with, and therefore cannot reduce so easily to objective scrutiny. Shakespeare got that right.

Melser seems to have recognised, in spite of or because of his background in analytic philosophy, that Ryle’s attempt to rationalise language can never be entirely successful. There is no ‘scientific’ language in that respect, devoid of metaphor, ‘logical howlers’, and so on. Even the logical positivists had to recognise this eventually. That is why Melser comes to his realisation that the linguistic underpinning of human activity is incapable of reduction - we are stuck with it, and must work within it, or like Sean - and Hamlet - give up speaking altogether.

I’m afraid this will not go very far in answering your specific questions, but it’s how I see the problem in more general terms. Personally I would say that action and thought are only different in degree - thought is subtle action. Likewise the physical body and mental ‘states’ are inextricably linked, so far as we know. That is why I always maintain that any ‘outside’ transcendent is not really outside, but somehow immanent to the entire system: this does not negate God, but compels us to look at the idea in a different way. Animals do possess consciousness, although they may not ‘think’ in the way that humans can. They certainly have feelings, and a discrete self, and for me that is part of developing consciousness. Consciousness is something that develops through evolution, becoming more extended as it does: thinking is part of that process, but not the cause of it. Human consciousness is limited, but has the capacity to continue to expand beyond its present stage. This will happen anyway as our species evolves (providing we do not destroy ourselves), but individually we can expedite our own progress through conscious effort.

Jim Hamlyn said...

“That is why Melser comes to his realisation that the linguistic underpinning of human activity is incapable of reduction - we are stuck with it, and must work within it, or like Sean - and Hamlet - give up speaking altogether.”

In my view that underpinning is only incapable of reduction (or dispersal) because Melser draws an artificial line between forms of representation that he doesn’t sufficiently understand nor can clearly explicate. Don't get me wrong, I think what he is doing is extremely important. I'm just lucky to be standing on the shoulders of taller giants than he is!

Brian said...

You may be right, Jim. But at the moment I’m not getting it completely, although I think I understand what you mean about Melser. Is it because you think that Brook has by-passed the language problem by concentrating on representation as being visual? Even if that is so, he must represent his view through language. I’m not saying that he’s wrong - far from it: and I’ve read some of his short essays on various subjects, which are both very funny and intelligent. I understand the argument about the two ‘(A)arts’, and I agree that artists doing their art deploy “strategies of representation”. However, I feel that the aesthetic is a real - albeit incredibly complex - experience, and this is one of the constituent factors involved in the idea of Art, which I understand Donald rejects. Again, I would have to read his book to get to grips with the detail.

You have yet to explicate your take on ‘symbolism’. You might find this useful; a snippet from Gadamer writing about ‘play’, and art, on the subject of animal play:

“ ‘Acting as if’ seems a particular possibility wherever the activity in question is not simply a case of instinctual behaviour, but one that ‘intends’ something. This ‘as if’ modification seems animated by a touch of freedom, especially when they playfully pretend to attack, to start back in fear, to bite, and so on. And what is the significance of those gestures of submission that can be considered the conclusive end of contests between animals? Here too, in all probability, it is a matter of observing the rules of the game. It is a remarkable fact that no victorious animal will actually continue the attack once the gesture of submission has been made. The execution of the action is here replaced by a symbolic one. How does this fit in with the claim that in the animal world, all behaviour obeys instinctual imperatives, while in the case of man, everything follows from a freely made decision? If we wish to avoid the interpretive framework of the dogmatic Cartesian philosophy of self-consciousness, it seems to me methodologically advisable to seek out just such transitional phenomena between human and animal life.” (The Play of Art, in: The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays).

He goes on to draw a parallel between this behaviour, and the human phenomenon of art as possible play. Is this in any way similar to Donald Brook’s thesis? The link Gadamer makes between animal and human consciousness is also interesting, don’t you think? Is the animal behaviour as he describes it above an activity, perhaps proto-art, that entails intention through representation, i.e. through simulation or mimesis to the symbolic (as a means here to resolve a potentially lethal confrontation), before the development of verbal language? A rhetorical question, perhaps, but interesting if carried through into anthropology, culture, ritual, and the study of Art etc.

But it still leaves us with language, and all that that entails, as an essential component of human evolution, and something that Gadamer would see, I think, as inextricable from representation in the arts, if not visual art, mime, dance, but certainly drama and literature.

Jim Hamlyn said...

That quote from Gadamer is fantastic Brian, Thanks. Funny, I thumbed past that book just the other day whilst tidying the shelves. I haven’t read it since I was a student. He seems to have caught the scent somewhat doesn’t he? I'll have to have another look.

Tracing representational strategies back to their more rudimentary origins is a tricky business. Clearly most animal representing is via Matching representations but there are instances of symbolisation too – I’m thinking of the calls of Vervet monkeys that are commonly cited as candidate proto linguistic utterances. My money though would be on the roots of our linguistic abilities being predominantly gestural. The brain regions responsible for gesture immediately neighbour those responsible for speech and children learning sign language have no more difficulty picking up their skills than other kids learning to speak. We’re often told (via Mehrabian 1971) that 55% of face to face communication is non-verbal. As with most things our ancestors probably used whatever came to hand, so to speak, so I’m sure verbal and gestural communication probably coexisted for a good long while and that merging and mingling of representational practices continues unabated.

You can get Donald’s book online now as an eBook. There’s a link at the top of my “Shared Items” list over on the right above. I had to pay about £40 for it to be shipped over from Oz, whereas now you can get the eBook for £6. There's a positive bit cultural evolution for you!

Jim Hamlyn said...

This conversation continues in comments section of a subsequent post here.

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