Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XVI: Premeditation and Impulse)

In his 2011 brick of a book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” Steven Pinker makes the astonishing case that society has become progressively less violent throughout recorded history. Despite the many vicious atrocities of the 20th Century, the number of global per capita deaths due to violence were actually relatively few when compared with the savagery of previous centuries. He lays out the evidence in a whopping 840+ pages of historical detail and closely argued commentary leaving little room for serious disagreement in what is about as close to an offensive weapon as a paperback could possibly get.

Pinker attributes the gradual civilising process to a variety of factors including the rise of reason, prudence, empathy, human rights and self-control. What struck me especially through his discussion of our inner demons and better angels was the degree to which imagination is profoundly implicated in the slow ascendency of civilisation and enlightenment.

As is to be expected, Pinker is quick to quash any notion that there might be an evolutionary basis to the progressive decline in violence - the timescale is simply too short. Nonetheless, there are numerous points throughout the book where it is clear that evolution - of the cultural kind – has provided important ways to reimagine, reconceive, anticipate and avoid many of the more fraught interactions with our fellow human beings. It should also be noted that without the capacity for imagination it is inconceivable that any such humanisation process could have been possible.

In a chapter on the subject of self-control, Pinker mentions a study conducted by psychologists Douglas Kenrick and David Buss in which 70 – 90% of men and between 50 – 80% of women admitted to having at least one homicidal fantasy in the preceding year. If these figures are in any way accurate then Pinker is right to remark: “The small number of premeditated murders that are actually carried out must be the cusp of a colossal iceberg of homicidal desires submerged in sea of inhibitions.” Moreover, whatever laws, morals, taboos or other forms of deterrent or self-control serve to inhibit these murderous intentions, they would be meaningless if we had no means to contemplate their consequences. Instead we would be little more than ungovernable bundles of urges with no possibility of premeditation or self restraint. Furthermore, while we may be uncertain whether the tendency to imagine violent acts (not to mention consuming representations of them) either increases or diminishes our propensity to carry them out, it is nonetheless true that the ability to anticipate situations in which one is likely to be the victim of violence have a significant influence on our behaviour; on the places we are likely go and the kinds of confrontations we are prepared to let ourselves in for. Discretion truly is the better part of valour.

Pinker also discusses the research of Richard Tremblay, a psychologist who studied levels of violence across various age groups. His work shows that it is not the testosterone driven years of late adolescence in which humans are at their most violent, as one might expect, but in fact during the terrible twos.

A few days ago my soon-to-be-3-year-old son accidentally clipped my forehead with a sturdy cardboard roll. It barely deserved to be acknowledged so I laughed it off. But just as I did so I detected the faint glimmerings of a realisation dawn upon his face as he contemplated – with a chuckle - the ramifications of what had just happened. As far as he was concerned he had been the direct cause of the “event” for which there had been no penalty. With no intuitive understanding the difference between intentional acts and accidental events, his response was far more predictable for me than it was for him. I tried to pre-empt it with a “Don’t you dare!” But his self taught lesson wasn’t yet complete and within a moment he had shoved the roll painfully into my cheek which was met with an angry reprimand and a scowl. There is no such thing as unintended malice and every parent will mete out this lesson instinctively, just as I did.

As children become increasingly capable of controlling their actions (literally of premeditation) we begin to expect more of them in terms of self-control and the more likely we are to judge them on the consequences of their actions. What further proof do we need that consciousness, imagination and morality develop throughout childhood and are to a significant degree formed and informed by culture?
 “To contemplate a horrible possibility, especially while smiling, is already to do something bad. The thinking may be morally bad even if it is never voiced and has no effect on anyone else.” -Derek Melser
Whilst I would agree with Melser that there is definitely something morally wrong about the person who gloats at another’s suffering, I’m not at all sure that we can generalise about all forms of imagined horror. The Health and Safety officer who takes pleasure in omitting a real and present danger from a Risk Assessment is doing something genuinely reprehensible, but their taking pleasure at contemplating likely causes of injury or death and bringing them to people’s attention is by no means morally bad, quite the reverse. When my son chuckled at his dawning epiphany I didn’t reprimand him for his thought, in fact I smiled along knowingly in the hope that he would manage to avert his impulse. Such moments of self-restraint are a vital part of the humanising process and there is genuine pleasure to be had in successfully overcoming the demons of our nature.

As Tremblay’s research shows, children of my son’s age are particularly poor at inhibiting their behaviour. They are impulsive because they haven’t yet learnt the knack of contemplating in imagination what they can only do in deed. Encouraging imagination undoubtedly brings with it the possibility that some people will use it to attempt to deceive the rest of us. But the solution is not for the rest of us to simply inhibit our darker acts of imagination. Perhaps one of the principal reasons we are so fascinated with crime - and why we consume representations of it in such vast quantities - is not because we take pleasure in the suffering of others but because crime provides insights into the possible deceptions that others might try to perpetrate against us. After all, the most vulnerable angels are those who can't imagine what it takes be a demon.


Brian said...

Forgive the amount of stuff here, Jim, I’m thinking out loud I suppose.

“Different forms of representational ability presuppose capacities, but most commonly these are capacities of representational action, not of performance.” This is an exact echo of Plato’s famous doubt about the usefulness of painting and poetry in his ‘Republic’ - which is what got me interested in philosophy years ago: A painting of a bridle is not equal to the knowledge of how to make one out of leather and metal, etc., or how to use one, and is therefore inferior to the real thing. I’ve spent the last fourteen years arguing against it - or trying to resolve it, since I admire Plato immensely. The other side of the coin is that Kant aimed to reconcile art and truth by identifying a special truth for art, called ‘aesthetics’, where different rules of judgement apply from those governing the practical, evidential, or useful. This is at the point where art began to assume its present status as an intellectual - and academic - pursuit (philosophy with stuff, as you say). And these two different ways of thinking about art, from Plato and Kant, cover most of our modern views.

‘Platonism’ is the basis of an instrumentalist view of art, i.e. that art (with a small ‘a’) is only useful for secondary purposes such as entertainment - albeit elaborate entertainment - but does not amount to anything more than that unless applied to a practical outcome such as design: it has no place in things that really matter, for example, the search for truth or a better world. By the same reasoning, Kant’s idea of a special category of aesthetics which need not conform to 'Platonic' truth and opinion, could be said to be a futile argument; and therefore there is no such thing as ‘fine art’. If this is Donald Brook’s stance, it is a very old one (I haven’t as yet forked out the £6 necessary to buy his book ... stingy, I know).

Plato briefly hinted that there may be another kind of art beyond the representational, or useful, where the artist would be “worthy of encomiums, rather than the the author of them”, and art thus included in the republic. Might not art - of the higher kind that Plato briefly alluded to after his banishment of mimetic art - be one of the ways of accomplishing that ‘more’. For me, imagination occupies that realm - and not just in art. There is also that form of imagination we call ‘vision’: the kind exemplified by such figures as Martin Luther King, JFK, and many others. Were did the ‘original’ of their representation spring from, that anticipation of the future as being better than the present and past? Is it ideality, and if so how does that ideal become real, reversing the ‘Platonic’ order where representation is always of an already known thing, or combination of things - if there has never been an exemplary world, a known world, to model from? You might put it another way, and ask how evolution seems to move from the simple to the more complex, and not in the reverse direction. Did the first animal to crawl up the beach - one fine day - imagine intelligent, sentient beings in the distant future of our planet? (More to the point, perhaps, would he be disappointed now at how things have turned out?)

Regarding the possibility of animals having the capacity to represent, you tentatively affirm this by saying “this is a question only science can answer”. Does not Gadamer’s remark (as we discussed in the comments to your previous article) evidence this ability from simple observation?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Plato did amazingly well didn’t he? Sometimes his theories are like old clothes though: they’re a bit awkward and ungainly and bits of flesh show through in places where they didn’t seem to previously. His theories of art are a bit like that too in the sense that they don’t fit current conceptions very neatly yet they sometimes allow us to see where our ideas might be in need of a bit of a workout or perhaps a whole new wardrobe.

I can see what you mean when you equate Brook’s theory with Plato’s Republic though I’m not sure Brook would be happy donning a toga). One thing that needs to be avoided I think, is the notion that some representations (remember that paintings can contain matching and symbolic representation too) are “inferior” to others. Perhaps that’s at fault in Plato’s closet too. The painting of a bridle has a different purpose than the bridal itself, as does the word (symbolic representation) “bridal”. We use different representations in different contexts to serve different purposes but to say that a bridle is superior to the word that designates it is perhaps moot.

A bridle isn’t a great thing to have to lug around with us every time we wish to talk of equine husbandry. And since we're talking of Yahoos, there’s a great bit in Gulliver’s Travels where Gulliver encounters some scholars who only converse through the use of objects which they carry around in big sacks. Matching representations have their uses but I think our species came to a consensus long ago that symbolic representations are far more versatile for communication.

Brook’s stance on art is straightforward, he takes the word to have two distinct meanings. There is the stuff designated as art by the artworld, which is pretty well everything that puts itself forward for consideration as art. The other art is memetic innovation i.e. the categorically unpredictable but purposefully exploitable emergence of previously unrecognised repeatable actions.

Vision (as in “visionary”) cannot logically be the ability to predict the unpredictable. The Higgs Boson, whilst a long time in the identifying, was a logical extrapolation of the evidence and not a visionary dream of some gifted savant (not that you would ever suggest such a thing). Kekule’s Benzene dream emerged from a process of obsessive representation seeking. Martin Luther King’s dream was likewise an intelligently contrived composite of previously acquired representations, as was JFK’s dream of putting men on the Moon. The discovery of the Americas, The Fosbury Flop, Cubism, E=MC2, Penicillin etc. were all products of people experimenting and sensitively observing the results. Sometimes people make discoveries by pure chance like the proto human who absentmindedly chipped away at a bit of flint and discovered that it was useful. But, as I often like to quote: “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” -Albert Szent- Gyorgyi.

None of this is to suggest that the only worthwhile thing in the world is memetic innovation. Tradition has an enormous amount to offer too and I have written about this previously (here)

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi again Brian,

I almost forgot to reply to your question about Gadamer's thoughts around the 'as if' actions of animals. You're absolutely right that observation strongly supports Brook's theory that representational dispositions are the key to explaining consciousness - or, at the very least, anticipatory thought. The only difficulty that stands before us though - and that perhaps only science can settle - is the degree to which these dispositions are causally influential but unexpressed in the wider behaviour of animals. If thought is an unexpressed capacity for representation then how do we detect it?

Apologies for my terrible spelling of "bridle" above. Homonyms eh, who kneads em?!

Jim Hamlyn said...

It occurs to me that there is something to be said here about the nature of “pretending” that caught the attention of J. L. Austin in his essay of the same name and led to a debate with Elizabeth Anscombe in 1958. Basically the problem goes like this. How can we tell that someone pretending to be angry isn’t actually angry? I’m oversimplifying a bit but you can read more about it here if you’re interested. The reason I mention this is because Brook’s representational theory gives us a lever to understand what might be causing such difficulty. The pretend anger is actually a matching representation and as such is next to impossible to distinguish from real anger. Indeed, get a young child to feign anger and you’re likely to get a real bite, scratch or thump for your trouble – though it might be rightly argued – and I’m not too keen on testing the theory – that the bite etc. are not as determinedly forceful as they otherwise would be.

Anger, from an actional point of view, is inhibited violence: it is violence without it’s most damaging physical manifestations. So pretend anger is a matching representation of inhibited violence. Both involve a refraining from physical action and if the pretend anger tips over into actual violence then we would be right to object that the representation had ceased to be a representation.

Perhaps it’s easier to understand what’s going on by considering a clenched fist. Either we assert that it is impossible to make a pretend clenched fist or we say that the pretend clenched fist is identical to the real clenched fist because it matches it precisely. Refraining from making a fist isn’t making a fist and therefore wouldn’t count as a viable representation. We have a paradox. Pretending requires an level of refraining, but anger is already a species of refraining and this is where the potential ambiguity arises. I guess this is why pretend anger is best performed with a little histrionic ostentation (symbolic representation) if you want to be sure not to be misunderstood.

Matching representations of physical actions carried to the point of full execution are indistinguishable from the actions they are intended to represent. So, perhaps Gadamer is wrong to infer that the dominant animal is replacing the execution of its attack with a symbolic gesture. More likely it is simply refraining from the completion of an act of aggression. I think he is right though about the symbolic act of submission.

Brian said...

Thanks Jim, you make some interesting points. I think, though, that Gadamer is making an observation with two aims in mind, firstly to show that the difference between animal and human behaviour is only one of degree. This is not in order to ‘reduce’ human behaviour to that of the animal, (which would be to assume that animal behaviour is inferior, or somehow more ‘real’ in the materialistic sense, and therefore an indication of what human behaviour ‘really’ is); nor is it to assume that humans have - by way of the rational mind - managed to leave such behaviour (you might call it something like ‘intentional mime’) behind. Rather, and this takes in the second aim, it is to show that symbolism is employed by both animals and humans as a natural tool. He goes on to speculate about how this ability then weaves into art, and how art therefore is a natural sophistication with a similarly beneficial purpose, as ‘play’ that somehow resolves certain tensions of existence.

I wouldn’t say that anger is inhibited violence, i.e. a refraining from violence: it might be incipient violence - the precursor of physical violence in the process of manifestation, which is why it is wise to refrain from either and both. I don’t think pretend anger can easily tip over into real violence, unless there is real anger or violence already at hand within the pretense (as perhaps in a young child, or someone liable to lose control easily). This is what actors deal with - and control - all the time. Which brings us back to Plato, who observed that in drama the “wise and calm temperament” is the most difficult, if not impossible, to act; whereas anger, grief, sorrow, violence, etc. are relatively easy. A perhaps unintended inference I take from this is that one can only act the more obvious emotions from the security of a “wise and calm” one, and this may be an indication of the value of art.

On your second to last point and last points, isn’t a clenched fist a symbol of what you might do if provoked, but not an actual incipient action, just as an animal might feign an attack knowing that it makes more ‘sense’ for all concerned in a specific situation to avoid completing the act of aggression? A bit like nuclear deterrence?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Yes, I agree with all of that, more or less.

On the point about a clenched fist, I’m still trying to figure this out but I think your question is really helpful.

I take your point about anger being incipient violence (not inhibited violence) but perhaps we’re splitting hairs. There is some form of restraint involved in anger which when uninhibited or unleashed results in violence. Social animals have learnt to exploit the potential of restraint in representational terms. So, in fact Gadamer is right when he says that the dominant animal’s ‘as if’ bite is symbolic and yes, you’re also quite right that a fist or bared teeth can, in certain circumstances, be a threat: a physical act of symbolic representation as a substitute for a physical act of violence. That caveat “in certain circumstances” is important I think, for sophisticated representation users like us because we have learnt to be highly sensitive to contextual cues in ways that other animals are not. So, for example, I could stage a Matching representation of threatening behaviour that you would not be in the least threatened by but other animals would be unable to distinguish this from the real thing. So, for us humans, when we wish to produce a Matching representation of an already inhibited/incipient action, we need to ensure that the context or the representation itself carries clues as to its representational status.

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