Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part V: Communicative Action Minus The Movement)

“A child who had never manifested in words, gestures, or play the working out of simple problems could not be said to work them out ‘in his mind’, any more than he could be said to know ‘in his mind’ the names of colours, if he was unable to say their names, or to point or to fetch the right colours when their names were called out. Thinking in ones mind (silent thinking, pausing to think) is not the most fundamental form of thinking, but instead presupposes thinking in play, work, or words.”

This passage from Norman Malcolm's 1977 essay "Thinking", emphasises the idea that mindedness is the consequence of skills acquired through active engagement with the world. Tempting as it is to conceive of the mind as a limitless inner workshop or skill-space for the ingenious generation of new capabilities, it is far better understood simply as a necessary component in all intelligent behaviour. But if this is so, then how is it possible for minded states to be executable independent of the actions of which they are necessarily part? As explained previously, intentional action is plausibly explained without reference to prior acts of predictive contemplation. In which case visualisation, anticipation, envisaging etc. are not prerequisites of intention or action. As Malcolm remarks: "Thinking in one's mind is not the most fundamental form of thinking." But, if we can act intentionally with no necessary antecedent acts of envisaging, then what is this more sophisticated form of thinking? How was it possible for mindedness to become stripped of its corresponding actions?
 "Thinking is movement confined to the brain." —Oleh Hornykiewicz
Working independently (in Australia and New Zealand), Donald Brook and Derek Melser have arrived at substantially the same conclusion on this question. Mindedness, they claim, develops as a result of learned competences in the social exchange of representations, i.e. communication. Such communication could include imitation, gestures, vocalisations, enactments and in our case: language. Mind is an inextricable feature of all communicative action, but some minded creatures—most notably humans—have become capable of inhibiting the movements that normally accompany action*. Mindedness then, is communicative action minus the movement.

This conclusion is well supported by evidence from developmental psychology. Early in the 20th Century, psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were the first to document commonly occurring patterns of language development in young children. They noted that preschool children pass through several phases of representationally directed action, beginning with imitation and then passing to "abbreviated demonstration," "speech-punctuated gesturing," "solitary speech" and finally "internalised speech." Something similar has also been observed in historical accounts of reading. According to Alberto Manguel (1996) the practice of "silent reading" was very uncommon until around the 10th Century. Prior to this time, reading was almost exclusively performed "out loud" and many wealthy readers even went so far as commissioning special reading rooms to which they could withdraw in order to read out their private correspondence etc.

These examples of internalised speech and silent reading underline the vital relation between the world involving skills of representation and their constitutive role in mindedness. The idea that it might be possible to read silently without first reading out loud or to plan one's actions "in one's mind" without first learning to intelligently negotiate obstacles, is not only a misunderstanding of the nature of skill and skill acquisition but a widespread misconception that continues to be a major source of confusion and philosophical argument.

In the next section I will explore the contention, attributed to Evans by Kelly (1998), that "perceptual content is belief-independent." Once again Evans' provides little in the way of evidence or argument, so the support for this view will have to be drawn from elsewhere. Nonetheless, there are  strong grounds for endorsing Evans' view that perception is belief independent.

*There is widespread evidence that many social animal infants engage in displays of mock aggression in which acts of biting etc. are only partially engaged. Such restrained displays presuppose the capacity for unrestrained aggression. Similarly, many higher apes engage in abbreviated gestures that are sufficient to elicit the same responses from conspecifics as would be expected from unabbreviated gestures.


Post a Comment