Wednesday, 30 October 2013


“Pretending to growl like a bear, or lie still like a corpse, is a sophisticated performance, where the bear’s growling and the corpse’s immobility are naïve.” –Gilbert Ryle

When he was around the age of 2 my son loved playing games of roaring with anyone willing to indulge him. Sometimes, if my performances were too convincing, he would become genuinely fearful - once or twice ending up in tears. It might be assumed that his fascination with roaring was simply the result of a desire to conquer his fear of facing up to a threatening adversary. I’m sure this is partially true but perhaps it’s not the full story.

In 1958 two British philosophers, Elizabeth Anscombe and J. L. Austin, were involved in a debate over the nature of pretending. Simply put, the central problem went like this: how can we tell the difference between pretend anger and anger proper? There is a lot of detail to the arguments presented which I cannot hope to distil here but one particularly interesting aspect that neither philosopher fully addresses concerns the representational character of anger.

To make a display of anger, as many animals do when threatened, is to produce a representation of a violent intention; it is to make a symbolic representation that other creatures, even other species, are easily able to recognise and as such it has enormous evolutionary efficacy.

To make a convincing pretense of anger is to match all of the physical features of anger in what would be best described as a matching representation. When well executed, matching representations are identical to the things they seek to represent. 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 argued – and I’m not too keen on testing the theory – that the bite etc. is not as determinedly forceful as it might otherwise be. I suspect this is why my son, and so many other boys (being the more violent members of the species) of a similar age are so fascinated with displays of mock anger because it is vital for them to be able to distinguish a mere representation of anger from the far more serious representational prospect of immanent violence, i.e. genuine anger.

As inordinate representation users we humans are extremely sensitive to and adept at employing contextual cues in ways that other animals simply aren’t and we have developed highly sophisticated and sometimes extremely subtle ways of alerting one another to the representational status of our behaviour. The next time you encounter a dog, try making a matching representation of anger towards it and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XX: Conclusion)

When I first set out to explore the subject of human imagination, more than 18 months ago, I hadn’t the faintest idea that I would be led on the journey that has culminated in these last 20 entries. I had expected to produce a total of perhaps 5 or 6 entries covering the limits of imagination, its possible evolution and some thoughts about its relation to learning and education. Instead I have encountered theories, research and discussions that have radically altered my understanding, not just of imagination but of the nature of consciousness and most especially of the indispensible role that our capacity to produce representations plays in perception, imagination and conscious action.

Complex fields of enquiry are often a source of contrasting opinions and interpretations and this is undoubtedly the case where imagination is concerned. Disagreements of this kind can be an important catalyst for closer scrutiny of the issues and more careful assessments of the available evidence. However, there are instances where the weight of opinion on a subject becomes so overwhelming that dissenting voices are simply drowned out of the conversation. In such circumstances the importance of discourse is easily overlooked and even the most questionable ideas can sometimes appear to be unassailable truths. One such theoretical presupposition that continues to command a significant amount of credence amongst scientists and philosophers is the notion that mental states necessarily involve the utilisation of representations of one kind or another, whether they be mental images, computational data structures or mental content. Nonetheless, a handful of scientists and philosophers interpret the lack of evidence for such representational states as grounds for serious doubt regarding what is sometimes called “representationalism”. As yet, no scientific study has been successful in identifying the coordinates, structure or encoding of any form of neural representation, yet for many influential researchers and thinkers the supposition is all but proven.
"The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside." —Allan Bloom
The desire to press ahead in any form of enquiry is always tantalizing, but the temptation to do so in the absence of sufficient evidence should probably be resisted, especially where the theoretical foundations are as uncertain as they clearly are regarding mental representations. Where there is no need for doubt though regarding the available evidence is in our genetically acquired and culturally evolved capacities to produce publicly available representations. As I have tried to clarify at various points throughout this series of essays, as well as in associated comments, brains have evolved as essential components in complex responsive organisms and it is these processes of response, and the dispositions that underlie them, to which we should be looking for insights into the workings of cognition, not to some incompletely theorised and scientifically questionable assumptions about representational states.

With the help of various theories I have tried to expose some of the obvious flaws in representationalism and to show that important alternatives exist that provide significant explanatory potential and scope. I have also tried to show that these alternatives offer important conceptual tools for resolving problems that have stymied thinkers throughout history. No doubt some will find these claims to be overly assertive or immodest on my part. Perhaps this is the price one pays for taking an unorthodox stand on any issue. But what I hope the reader will appreciate above all else is that the subject has been considered carefully and that genuine shortcomings have been identified within the mainstream theorisation of imagination and mental states.

Through my research I have come to the conclusion that a comprehensive understanding of genetically acquired and culturally evolved representational practices is fundamental to the furtherance of our understanding of imagination, perception and consciousness. Without the ability to recognise, create or use representations it is doubtful whether consciousness of any form would be possible and certainly there would be nothing to say or even to wonder about regarding the nature of imagination.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Imagining Itself (Part IXX: Learning Skills)

If it were the case that imagination could initiate neural growth (learning) to the same degree as experience then the question arises: how could we ever distinguish between cognitive development drawn from experience and that drawn from entertaining but infeasible flights of fancy? If there were no difference between the ways we learn from experience and the ways we learn from imagination then how could our cognitive architecture ensure that imagination didn’t simply fill our minds with a deluge of impractical nonsense? To set too much store by the inventions and indulgences of the imagination would surely risk laying down all kinds of meaningless neural networks and worse still, this would probably happen without the slightest conscious awareness. But how is this not the case and how do our minds avoid such self-deception?

It might be suggested that there must be some kind of limiting mechanism or filter at work that inhibits neural development on the basis of imaginative thought, but this need not be the case. There need be no such mechanism because - as Sartre, Ryle and others have surmised - imagination is the exercise of already formed knowledge – of prior memories, ideas and beliefs. Just as perceptual experience leaves its most indelible imprint when it is most repeated, most profound or most surprising, so too, we might suppose, does  imagination. But unlike perception, which frequently presents us with the surprising and the unpredictable, our thoughts and imaginings are rarely truly unexpected. If imagination consists of the interplay of what we already know, then the only means by which we might encounter the unexpected – and from which we might learn – is through the previously untested recombination of this knowledge and the careful pursuit and resolution of incompatible ideas and beliefs. As it happens, we are not especially skilled at this - as research into Cognitive Dissonance clearly shows.

Skills are acquired either by genetic inheritance or by active engagement with the world and never simply by imagining. So for example, it is not possible to become capable of drawing something by the agency of imagination alone because a capability is not something that imagination can ever bestow or confer. Imagination is the means by which we sharpen our skills of representation but it is not the means by which we acquire such skills – or skills of any description. Indeed, imagination would be better understood as being nothing other than the means by which we contemplate, anticipate and refine our skills of representation.

It is because representation is so fundamental to learning that imagination plays such a vital role in the improvement of skills. To acquire a skill is to be able to demonstrate it - it is to be capable of representing it to others. And these capabilities of demonstration and mimicry - of teaching and learning - have been of inestimable use to us as a species. It might be argued that to carry out a learned action is not necessarily to represent it. This is true. However, to carry out an action in the presence of onlookers is for it to be available in representational terms; as the means by which an action is ‘performed’ and as the procedure by which something might be accomplished.

To watch an action is to become capable of representing it. But, crucially, it is not necessarily to be able to represent it either faithfully or fully. Why else would we ever ask: "Can I have a go?" if the capacity to represent something (to have committed it to mind so to speak) was sufficient in and of itself?

Despite the fact that imagination cannot enable skills it can, and frequently does, allow us to improve them. It has long been known that the use of visualisation techniques in sports training can bring about measurable improvements in performance. To imagine how you could better swing a tennis racket is to imagine how you would represent the motion as a performative act. It is to deliberately engage many of the same cognitive structures as would be exercised if you were to actually perform the action. And, as many studies have shown, repeatedly exercise of these cognitive structures through visualisation causes them to become increasingly consolidated and increasingly stable.

In 2011 the results of a study were published evaluating the benefits of a variety of visualisation techniques for the rehabilitation of stroke patients. The study found “No evidence of the benefit of mental practice with motor imagery in stroke.” In other words, no matter how hard or regularly the stroke patients tried to imagine improvement in their impaired motor skills they were unable to bring about any measureable improvement. On the other hand, when visualisation techniques were combined with physical therapy, then measurable improvements did occur and visualisation helped significantly. This research lends strong support to the idea that imagination is not an enabler of capacities but is instead an important means for reinforcing and focussing skills that have already been acquired.

Imagination is an enormously important capacity – not just for capabilities that we think of as being mental, like thinking for instance - but also for our abilities to act deliberately and skilfully in the world. In fact it might be said that imagination is the very precondition of our being able to act in such skilful ways.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

In Direct Realism

An indirect portrait
An oil painting of the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid looks down from the wall of the room at Glasgow University that carries his name. Ask any member of the philosophy staff, as I did a couple of weeks ago, whether the painting is the original and you may well get the same answer: “I’m not sure… I think so”.  

Thomas Reid held the title of Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University from 1764 – 81 and is renowned for his disagreement with David Hume over the question of whether we experience reality directly or only as ideas in the mind, as Hume claimed.

By 1940 the British Analytic philosopher J. L. Austin outlined several significant misgivings with the linguistic snake in the grass known to philosophers as "indirect” perception.  He remarks: "The expression can cover too many rather different cases to be just what is wanted in any particular case."

When viewing a painted portrait, nobody would ever seriously argue that we see the sitter directly. But if Reid's stuffed head hung on the wall of Glasgow University, like a trophy stag in a Scottish baronial house, there would be little doubt (excepting the Hume’s of this world) about whether we saw the philosopher directly.

To receive something directly is for it to be available by the shortest possible route. Face to face communication is direct in a way that letters and emails will never be. But what about video phone technologies? Are Skype or FaceTime more direct than a letter? Austin would be quick to warn that individual cases are unlikely to help us in elucidating the broader question.

Perhaps the most important factor in any evaluation of directness is the degree to which something is mediated. The more mediation is involved, the more distrustful we are likely to be, and the more indirect we are likely to judge any particular experience to be. Mediation opens the door to influence and this enables distortion and - most notably where human agency is involved - the possibility of manipulation and deceit.

Perhaps one of the principal reasons anyone might be interested in an original object as opposed its reproduction is because originals are valued for their directness, for their irreducible proximity to their point of origin. All forms of human intervention or technical reproduction are thought to contaminate or dilute this directness and to devalue the result. It should be noted though that this ‘sense’ of directness is in many ways a notional one. Without doubt there are numerous objects in the world that are believed to be originals but which are in fact copies, replicas or fakes. No doubt there are also originals in circulation that are believed to be of uncertain origin. Directness is something we attribute to artefacts and is not always – or even often - something that is borne upon their face, as the portrait hanging in the Reid room of Glasgow University clearly attests.

Sir Henry Raeburn's original
What better place for a portrait of a well known and respected philosopher than a university philosophy department? But then again, if the staff and students are unconcerned about its provenance then perhaps a reproduction is a perfect substitute. When I saw the painting hanging in the Reid room it just didn’t seem likely that it could be the original. The lack of security or attribution, the poor lighting, tatty décor and my vague suspicion that the original had been painted by one of Scotland’s most venerated painters, Sir Henry Raeburn, all suggested that this must be a copy. A little online detective work confirmed my suspicions. The painting hanging in the Reid room is a skilful copy attributed to the English painter James Cranke Jr. Even more interesting is the fact that the ‘original’, held by the Hunterian Art Gallery (part of Glasgow University), was painted in the year of Reid’s death from a preparatory portrait that is now in the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire.  Some would say, this preparatory study, also created by Raeburn, is the much better - and certainly the more direct - of the three portraits.

Sir Henry Raeburn's "summary" portrait, 1796