Thursday, 19 March 2015

Acquisitions of Brain and Body

Like most adults I have a fair quantity of scars on my body, mostly on my hands. The majority of these marks and disfigurements are minor, nonetheless it often strikes me as surprising that so many of us manage to retain all of our fingers through life. Considering the many dangerous things we do with our hands, it is a testament to our skills and foresight (and no small amount of first aid and general hygiene) that our hands are often in such good shape.

We commonly speak of scars as acquisitions, as things we obtain through mishap and misadventure. Scars are additions, and sometimes, in the more extreme cases, evidence of subtractions from the body – from what we would otherwise have.

It is common also to speak of skills as acquisitions – as abilities we gain through practice and experience. Knowledge also, is a capacity we tend to think of as an acquisition.

To acquire something is to gain, or to form, a certain kind of possession, typically of an object or else a demeanour, attitude, disposition or tendency. In these latter cases the term “acquisition” is used in a technical sense that could just as easily be replaced with adopting an attitude, forming a disposition or developing a tendency.

In ordinary usage, acquisition most commonly pertains to objects or other forms of material wealth. To acquire a trophy is usually – trophy-scars notwithstanding – both to acquire an object as well as the admiration, acclaim or appreciation for which it stands. But to gain recognition is not actually to acquire anything so much as it is an increased likelihood to be treated preferentially by people in the know. It is very common for such social achievements to be recognised through the use of material tokens: trophies, epaulettes, titles etc.

So, like our less extreme scars, acquisitions are most commonly additions to what we already possess and whilst such possessions may take up little space, they do nonetheless need to be accommodated. Even digital information needs to be stored.

It is no surprise therefore that we tend to describe skills and knowledge in terms of content, as things we bundle away in our heads ready for later use. It’s as if our brains were vast repositories of information which we routinely access in the same way we retrieve books from a library or artefacts from a museum. If we acquire stuff, then it follows that we need somewhere to store it. And what better place than the brain? But what seems obviously the case is not necessarily the case.

Consider our hands again. When we learn to play the piano we do not speak of acquiring new additions to our hands. Our hands are not repositories. They do not store their capacities, even though they clearly have capacities, or at least they participate to a very large degree in the capacities of the person as a whole. When we learn a new technique requiring dexterity, we may develop the musculature of our digits etc. but there are no new hand acquisitions as such – not, of course, unless we inherit another scar or two. And if we are unfortunate enough develop carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis or ganglion cysts these are not strictly speaking acquired – they develop or arise. The capacity was already there.

Many critics of the notion of mental content continue to speak of “skill acquisition” or “knowledge acquisition” as if there were no ground to be lost as a consequence. I’m not so sure the term helps us. In fact I think it may be a hindrance. Perhaps it would make more sense to speak of knowledge and skills in the same way that we regard the changes that occur in our hands when we learn a new technique. Perhaps we should make a point of regarding skills and knowledge as developmental changes rather than as acquisitions. You cannot acquire a development but you can develop a skill and you can develop your knowledge. Organisms and organs are things that develop. There is no room in a brain for any acquisitions. All the space is already taken. Knowledge and skills are develop-mental.


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