Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Bewitched by Language

Towards the end of his life, the Austrian British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." In his earlier and perhaps most famous work, "The Tractatus Logico Philosophicus", Wittgenstein expressed the view that language is a kind of "picture" of the world that frames and encapsulates experience. He remarked: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Wittgenstein later rejected the metaphor of language as a kind of picture of the world preferring instead to focus on the ways in which different usages of language lead us into philosophical confusion.

One of the leading and certainly one of the most prolific scholars of the work of Wittgenstein is Peter Hacker. Hacker does an outstanding job of illuminating and elaborating on Wittgenstein's analysis and of exposing numerous conceptual confusions that continue to beleaguer not merely philosophy but cognitive neuroscience also. He is not without his critics of course, but having encountered his work after first arriving at several of the same conclusions through the theories of Donald Brook, I find a great deal of Hacker's theorisation to be extremely congenial. Nonetheless, there are times when I think his emphasis on language leads him astray. The following passage is from his book "The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature." (2013)

It is because we can think, that is reflect, that we can have an "inner life". Animals who lack language do not. They are conscious, and are conscious of features of their surroundings; they have and pursue ends; they feel pain and pleasure; but that does not suffice for an inner life. They cannot reflect upon their experience, cannot think thoughts and reflect upon them. They cannot dwell, in joy or sorrow, upon their past experiences. They cannot reason, reflect upon reasoning or weigh its conclusions. They have no imagination, and cannot fantasize, wonder about possibilities or imagine how things might have been. This is one kind of reason why we should not follow Cartesians in identifying having a mind with mere consciousness or conscious experience. Only if one can think thoughts and reason from what one thinks, imagine things and dwell upon what one imagines, enjoy and suffer experiences and reflect on one's joys and sufferings, can one be said to have a mind. Only creatures with a mind can be said to have an inner life.

Consider the following. Otto is a nonverbal human child who likes to play with toys and to act the part of different animals and individuals. Otto is a gifted mimic. He can draw and likes to watch animated cartoons. He also likes to play hide and seek and is very skilful in hiding himself in unexpected places. He likes to make things with Lego and modelling clay and commonly invents fantastical figures and participates in and understands sophisticated and elaborate forms of pretend play.

None of these skills requires language. Prior to the acquisition of language, many human infants show clear competence in many of these skills and it is implausible in the extreme to suppose that these could not develop further with practice and in the continued absence of language. In light of this evidence it is clearly mistaken to argue that an individual such as Otto has no imagination and cannot fantasize.

If it is true, as Hacker rightly acknowledges, that nonverbals can "have and pursue ends" then it falls on Hacker's shoulders to explain how these ends can be had and pursued in the absence of mind. If an end cannot be thought of, then how exactly can it be had? It makes no sense to say that a language user has her ends absentmindedly or mindlessly and that she cannot communicate them when appropriately prompted. Nor does it makes sense to say the same of a nonverbal. Hacker seems to be of the opinion not only that nonverbals are incapable of communicating their ends but that they are unaware of their ends too.

To pursue a goal is to be capable of calling it to mind, moreover, it is to be capable, at least in principle, of communicating it. If language were the only form of creaturely communication, then Hacker would be right to regard language as exclusive to mindedness. But language is by no means the only form of communication.

Ends and goals are typically things that we think of, that are "called to mind", that we "have in mind" or "on our mind." If we forget our goals we have to retrace our steps until we are reminded of them. These are not linguistic skills (although they may be assisted by language), they are procedural skills that presuppose memory and the ability to recall past events.

Hacker would probably want to point out here that many acquired efficacious behaviours need not be the result of having anything in mind. Such behaviours are not goal-directed and thus do not threaten to undermine Hacker's thesis. But if a nonverbal agent performs an action with the aim of eliciting a response on the part of another perceiver, then it is reasonable to suppose that it must have an end in mind and must, at least in principle, be capable of performing or otherwise publicly representing this anticipated outcome. Communicative actions are intentional precisely because they are driven by goals but not all communicative actions are verbal and nor are the goals that drive them.

To be "put in mind" of an earlier event or to "bear something in mind" is to have a memory but it is not necessarily to have a word, concept or utterance at the ready. And when sufferers of global aphasia lose their linguistic abilities they do not lose their ability to imagine or to fantasize (although these capacities may also be diminished as a consequence of the same affliction causing the aphasia). So whilst I agree with Hacker that it is impossible for a nonverbal to reason, to make judgements or to draw conclusions, I think it is mistaken to suppose that nonverbals are necessarily incapable of imagination or fantasy.

As we have already seen, acquired behaviours need not always involve mindedness. Hacker draws a line at the capacity to use language, but I hope the preceding evidence and arguments are persuasive in explaining why I think Hacker remains to some degree under the spell of language. If Hacker were to spread his net a little further to include nonverbal communicative practices, then I think his theorisation would benefit significantly.

Wittgenstein was right to give up on his notion that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. If instead he had claimed that the limits of our communicative capacities are the limits of our world, then perhaps this would have left us with a far more revealing and enduring picture of what it actually is to be a minded creature.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Pretending to Ourselves

"You only live twice
Or so it seems
One life for yourself
And one for your dreams."

The purpose of this post is to challenge the view that imagined episodes qualify as experiences of the things imagined. Do those who claim to have a rich imagination live a life in addition to the one they actually live? Fortunately for most of us, actual life and imaginary life are clearly not the same. My aim is to explore some of the differences and to explain why we might sometimes be led to the mistaken conclusion that our lives are divided between the public world of perception and a private realm of what Sartre called "quasi observation" or quasi experience.

Many people would rightly argue that imagining a traumatic event can be a deeply unsettling experience, so it would seem that my argument must necessarily fall at the first hurdle. I don't deny that imagined episodes are experiences, but what they are experiences of, are not experiences of the things and states of affairs imagined but rather they are experiences of imagining those things and states of affairs.

Now it might be objected that I am twisting language, but my aim is to do precisely the reverse. When we pretend to eat a lemon we are not eating a lemon. The experience is simply an experience of pretending. And whilst this may share much in common with the actual experience, there is one obvious missing component that must be taken into account. Eating a lemon involves the perception of an actual lemon. When we pretend to eat a lemon, we elicit many of the same embodied responses — for example we might salivate more. And when we imagine eating a lemon these same responses are also triggered to some degree.

So my argument is simply this: imagining is a species of pretending. And in the same way that pretend experiences are not experiences of the things pretended, nor are imaginary episodes experiences of the things imagined.

Unlike imagining, pretending is typically an interpersonal activity. Pretending and performing are thus intimately intertwined in a way that imagining and performing are not. To pretend is to act as if something is the case when in fact the pretend condition or object is absent. To imagine is to know how to pretend. It is to know how to perform in such a way as to elicit (in oneself and others) the embodied responses that accompany perceptions of the things imagined. Just as we learn to read out loud before we learn to read in silence, so too I suggest, do we first learn to pretend in public before we learn to pretend to ourselves: to imagine. This is why I believe that it makes good sense to view imagination is a species of pretending, because imagination is parasitic upon our skills as performers; as producers and consumers of communicative actions.

It might be objected that I am neglecting something important about imagining. When we conjour up remembered episodes, colours, sounds, tastes etc. the experience (of imagining) might be thought by many to be more fulsome, more rich and more substantial than a mere deceipt, dissimulation or act of feigning. Some philosophers might even argue that imaginings have what they describe as "phenomenal character"; a term that refers to the "feel" of imagined experiences. But the point that needs to be borne in mind is that an imagined colour, texture, sound or flavour etc. has no sensory component and cannot therefore be "felt." What we might be tempted to treat as the felt component of such imagined experiences is precisely the embodied responsiveness already outlined above. Whenever we ordinarily perceive objects and states of affairs, we are subject to a whole variety of causally generated responses. And when we imagine or pretend to experience objects and states of affairs we are also subject — though to a lesser degree of course — to many of the same causal influences. Imagining and pretending are thus skills of expectation, of having learned and not forgotten what Gilbert Ryle called "perceptual lessons." Julia Tanney puts it like this:
Imaging or picturing involves knowledge how things look or sound and not having forgotten. But it does not require, what Hume seems to have thought, that in imagining Vinzelles’s gooseberry green eyes, his eyes have left a visual sense impression that occurred when my eyes were open which cause or bring about a faint sort of impression (or representation).
Tanney continues with a quote from Ryle:
All that is required is to see that learning perceptual lessons entails some perceiving, that applying those lessons entails having learned them, and that imaging is one way of applying those lessons.
Professor Adam Zeman of Exeter University has been in the media recently in relation to his coining of the term "aphantasia." Aphantasia refers to a reported inability to produce mental images, a condition (although Zeman is careful to emphasise that it is "not a disorder") that has been documented for more than a century at least. A portion of people — around 1 in 50 Zeman estimates — are subject to aphantasia.

As a scientist, Zeman's research clearly garners a fair amount of credence, but if my analysis is not mistaken then there may be reason for skepticism regarding his conclusions. Many of the people who report aphantasia are understandably distressed at their incapacity to perform the feats of imagination that others seem to be readily capable of. One aphantasiac put it like this: “I was devastated... Actually, it put me into a depression, realizing that everyone saw the world in a different way — like suddenly discovering you’re blind.”

I think these people have been misled. Like many artists, I would say that I have a vivid imagination. I spend a lot of my time visualising ideas, daydreaming and thinking about how things look. And like most art teachers, I have no difficulty imagining the images and objects that students discuss on a daily basis and I would say that I am quite skilled in making suggestions of how these plans might be improved or how the associated pitfalls might best be avoided. But in spite of these pleasures and skills, I have never once mistaken my imagination for perception and not do I expect to. The two are so unalike that there is no question of confusing one for the other. 

Like many people I have spoken to on this subject, I have never regarded the term "mental image" as anything other than a convenient metaphor for the ability to think of how things appear. Taken literally the term simply mischaracterises imagination by reference to a class of very specific tangible cultural contrivances that cannot possibly be formed in the mind or brain. There are no "pictures in the head," just as there are no "inner eyes" to see them.

Imagining is not an inner display of any sort. It is a skill of knowing what to expect in acts of looking, listening, tasting etc. It is the capacity moreover, of effortlessly having expectations (perceptual lessons learned) and being surprised whenever these expectations are thwarted. When we imagine eating a lemon, we do not find ourselves surprised that the imagined flavour is not as we expected. We might be disappointed that it does not have the zest of experience but that of course is one of the characteristic differences between imagining and perceiving. We can pretend to compare lemons, but only actual lemons bear comparison.