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.


Post a Comment