Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Philosophical Behaviourism - An Incomplete Project

Our earlier history, the part without writing or artifacts, can only be deduced from what we do and what our primate relatives do – the hieroglyphics of the chimpanzee’s whimper and the baby’s smile. -Alison Jolly (1937-2014)
During the heyday of psychological behaviourism a partially related school of philosophy emerged in Oxford, inspired by the later ideas of Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical behaviourism (also known as Analytical or Logical behaviourism) had no concern for the scientific study of stimuli and conditioned responses but instead sought to explain mental concepts through an analysis of the ways we use language: through linguistic behaviour. Although this emphasis on language-use was a central preoccupation amongst these 'Ordinary Language' philosophers, the implications for a broader understanding of the relation between skilled action and mind are not difficult to detect. Gilbert Ryle especially, sought to clarify that our 'inner world' - and all of the dealings we are inclined to say that we conduct there - is a manifestation of our various interactions with the physical world itself, not some occult realm that somehow brings the world to light for us. So, to extend Ryle's argument a little: the mind does not endow us with capacities but rather is a consequence of them, of actions we are capable of performing.

It might be worthwhile examining why Ryle never made this last point explicitly. Most obviously, if he had, he would have faced an immediate difficulty. If it is true that the mind is a consequence of our physical capacities, then what possible skill could correspond to - or rather constitute - our imagining a colour? Perhaps our capacity to name a colour could be sufficient? But if this is the case then consciousness is only possible if we are first capable of language. Surprisingly, many theorists persist in directly, indirectly and inadvertently arguing that language is indeed essential to consciousness (though Ryle was not among these 'intellectualist' thinkers). A more plausible contender then - as a skill constitutive of mind - might be thought to be embodied in the capacity for sensory discrimination. However, this explanatory route turns out to be extravagant in precisely the same way that the language-only route seems overly restrictive. If all that is required for the emergence of mind is a capacity to discriminate one thing from another, then we have no alternative than to count even some of the most primitive organisms as minded - if only in the most elementary ways.

It seems likely that Ryle was aware of these difficulties, yet I suspect that his (and others') overriding focus upon language may also have contributed to the lack of exploration of alternative explanations in this area. Going by the majority of philosophical theories developed and pursued during the 20th Century, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the only field of interest worthy of serious investigation was to be found amongst the many sayings, signs, semes, signifiers and syntactical structures of language. And whilst the 'linguistic turn' in philosophy continues to exert a major influence upon a wide variety of fields of enquiry throughout the world, comparatively little attention has been paid to skills of nonverbal communication. Even with the recent upsurge of interest in theories of Embodied Cognition, there remains a general disregard for the evolutionary emergence of nonverbal skills of representation. 

Yet, if we fail to concern ourselves with the evolution of these rudimentary capacities we leave an unassailable mountain for anyone seeking to explain the evolutionary emergence of language. In spite of an absence of evidence and a dearth of reasoned argument, it is currently almost universally assumed that the symbolic practices comprising language sprang into existence unaided by other more rudimentary forms of communicative behaviour. 

With a more expansive view of representational practices than is currently on offer, it becomes significantly more feasible to discern the embryonic origins of language and even to formulate a speculative solution to Ryle's dilemma. If we propose capacities of nonverbal representation as significantly constitutive of mind, we avoid the excesses both of overgeneralisation and of restrictive limitation and situate the attribution of mind at a more plausible stage between basic organismic behaviour and the highly sophisticated symbol manipulations of which language users are capable. 

Innumerable animals are capable of basic forms of mimicry and countless creatures communicate through the use of sounds, gestures, scents, colour changes etc. We need no persuasion that our linguistic skills must have had more rudimentary origins. Symbolic practices must have, at the very least, evolved alongside non-symbolic skills, if not as a more sophisticated consequence of them.
The shift is one from a focus on “things”, such as representations, to a concern with “activities”, such as the act of representing. [...] The task is to understand a variety of representational practices, and wherein they are representational. The means we employ in doing so will be various: historical analysis of their emergence, sociological analysis of the conditions under which they operate, experimental psychological analysis of representational gaps and gluts, anthropological analysis of practices of symbolization, evolutionary analysis of social environments and our sensitivity to them. (Robert A. Wilson 2010)
Philosophers have barely even scratched the surface of these enquiries into the nature, variety and extent of representational practices, of behaviours and acts of non-verbal representing. But what should be clear is that animals do indeed have minds - if only simple minds - because mind is not dependent upon language but upon representational capacities that are functionally and procedurally distinct from language and that must have evolved long before these skills of symbol manipulation of which we are so fond but which so often cloud our understanding of other creatures and ourselves.


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