Monthly Archives: December 2016

More thinking about thinking

As I remarked elsewhere, a lot of my own thinking might be described as ‘subvocalisation’, i.e. speaking without voicing the actual words. Even as I am typing this, I am constructing the sentences ‘in my head’ – though I would not say that I hear them: this is not someone else’s voice, it is mine, and though I do hear my own voice when I speak, I am stopping short of speaking here (though since I do occasionally break into actual speech, it is evidently the same process).

This stopping some way short of action might be a useful model for thought, and also offer an explanation of how it becomes progressively ‘internalized’ so that eventually it is considered a (purely) mental process.

Let us imagine a man who comes into clearing in a woodland. He considers the trees around him, then focuses his attention on a couple of them. These he examines in more detail – they resemble one another, each having branches of similar girth and shape. These branches he gives particular attention, eventually confining himself to just one of them, which he looks at from various angles, stroking it, following the sweep of it with his hand, and so on.

We would not have to watch him long before saying ‘this man has something in mind’ (though we might equally say, ‘he intends something’) and we would not be at all surprised to see him return later with tools to saw off the chosen branch and start to work it into some sort of shape.

So how much more is there to this than meets the eye? Is there an ‘interior’ process that accompanies the various gestures and movements, the looking and touching and so on, and does this constitute ‘what the man is (really) thinking’? And does that same process recur when the man is actually sawing off the branch, stripping it of its bark, etc?

We do, I think, feel less need of it in the second case – after all, the man is now actually doing something – we might even say ‘he is putting his thoughts into action’.

Take another example: a young woman looks at a climbing wall. Her eyes range over the whole of it, then begin to plot a particular path. Along with the direction of her gaze, her hands and feet rehearse certain movements, as if she is working out a sequence to go with the route her eyes are mapping out. What is the ‘accompanying internal process’ here?

Is there anything more to it than ‘looking with intent’, i.e. rehearsing the actions you intend to perform, but stopping short of performing them fully? (When a bowler in cricket goes through the action of bowling before he actually does so, or a golfer rehearses a stroke, what (if anything) is ‘going through his mind’?)

And what does ‘intent’ consist of? Need it involve visualising images or supplying a commentary of some sort on what you intend to do? We do not, after all, give ourselves instructions in this way when we perform an action, yet we clearly understand the difference between a deliberate, voluntary action and an involuntary one – even where the deliberate action is also instinctive (walking, running or catching, for instance).

Indeed, it occurs to me that in the days when I aspired to be a bowler, I found that the best results came when I focused my attention on the stump I wished to hit: it was as if by directing my gaze I was also directing my actions. I am also reminded that very young children just learning to walk will often seem to be ‘drawn’ by their gaze – they look at a target and totter-stumble towards it, arms outstretched, but always with their ‘eyes on the prize’.

The position I am moving towards is that what we consider ‘thinking’ might (in some cases) be better termed ‘willing’ or ‘intending’. The sort of ‘thinking in speech’ that I have described above as ‘subvocalisation’ is a special case in one sense that may mislead us – it has a content that we can identify and describe, namely words. In intending to speak (or as is the case now, write) words, it seems to me that I form those words ‘in my head’ just as if I were going to say them, only I do not say them. However, I am quite clear that I do not hear them spoken (I am listening to the football commentary on the radio at the moment, and that is quite different in kind to the parallel process of forming these words I am writing now).

What misleads here is that unspoken speech still has the recognisable form of speech, but we do not have a description for unperformed action; yet there must surely be an equivalent. I am loth to take the easy route of borrowing from information technology (which can mislead in its own way) but surely there is the equivalent of a program here? Must not all deliberate action be programmed, in the sense of having a set of instructions which our nerves transmit and our muscles execute, even if we have no conscious awareness of it? Is such a program not what presents itself to our consciousness as ‘the intention to do something’? So is it not likely that we rehearse our actions by running that program without executing it, and this is what thinking – in the sense of envisaging a future action – consists of?

Points worth pondering, at least.

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A penny for them…

‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking.’
– Eliot, The Waste Land

‘He’s the sort that you never know what he’s thinking’ defines a recognisable character but carries a curious implication. There is a strong suggestion of duplicity, of inner workings at odds with outer show. Even among long-time married couples you will sometimes hear it said (in exasperated tones) ‘all these years we’ve been married and I still have no idea what goes on in that head of yours’.

But that exasperated tone indicates the same curious implication of the first case – namely, that we expect to know what people are thinking; that not to know is what is considered remarkable, the exception that proves the rule. C.Auguste Dupin, a notable precursor of Sherlock Holmes created by Edgar Allan Poe, makes a striking demonstration of this in The Murders in the Rue Morgue:

‘One night we were walking down one of Paris’s long and dirty
streets. Both of us were busy with our thoughts. Neither had spoken
for perhaps fifteen minutes. It seemed as if we had each forgotten that
the other was there, at his side. I soon learned that Dupin had not
forgotten me, however. Suddenly he said:
“You’re right. He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and he would
be more successful if he acted in lighter, less serious plays.”
“Yes, there can be no doubt of that!” I said.
At first I saw nothing strange in this. Dupin had agreed with me,
with my own thoughts. This, of course, seemed to me quite natural.
For a few seconds I continued walking, and thinking; but suddenly
I realized that Dupin had agreed with something which was only a
thought. I had not spoken a single word.’

Dupin’s explanation of his apparent mind-reading runs to another page and three-quarters [you can read it here] and though something of a virtuoso performance, it is based on sound principles – Dupin observes his friend’s actions and expressions closely, and is able to follow his train of thought by skilful inference, both from what he sees, and what he already knows.

The incident starts when, in evading a hurrying fruit-selller, his companion stubs his toe on an ill-laid paving stone:

‘You spoke a few angry words to yourself, and continued walking. But you kept looking down, down at the cobblestones in the street, so I knew you were still thinking of stones.
“Then we came to a small street where they are putting down street stones which they have cut in a new and very special way. Here your face became brighter and I saw your lips move. I could not doubt that you were saying the word stereotomy, the name for this new way of cutting stones.’
….
‘Later I felt sure that you would look up to the sky. You did look up. Now I was certain that I had been following your thoughts as they had in fact come into your mind.’
….
‘I saw you smile, remembering that article and the hard words in it.
“Then I saw you stand straighter, as tall as you could make yourself. I was sure you were thinking of Chantilly’s size, and especially his height.’

Two things are worth noting here, I think. The first is Dupin’s attention to such things as the direction of his friend’s gaze, the expression on his face, and his whole bodily posture, all of which he reads as indicative of thought – I was going to say ‘accompaniments of thought’ but that would be the wrong word, I think, for reasons I will come to presently. The second thing is one particular detail – ‘I saw your lips move’ – and the observation the narrator makes at the end of the episode – ‘Dupin was right, as right as he could be. Those were in fact my thoughts, my unspoken thoughts’.

These highlight two important points about thought that are often overlooked: that it has a physical aspect, and that it is closely connected to speech. We use the expression ‘difficult to read’ of people like the man cited at the start, the ‘sort that you never know what he’s thinking’, and this reminds us that we do rely to a great extent on non-verbal physical indications of ‘mental’ activity.

Indeed, it is interesting to consider just how contrary to everyday experience is the notion that mental activity and thought are hidden, private processes that take place ‘in our heads’ so that only we ‘have access to them’. I put those expressions in quotes because I think they are misleading, in the same way that it is misleading to speak of facial expression etc. as ‘accompaniments’ to thought – I would say they are better considered as an integral part of thinking. We see this from the expression ‘I learned to hide my thoughts’ which is connected with controlling – indeed, suppressing – these external manifestations of thought.

The fact that we must make a conscious effort to conceal thought suggests that it is far from the ‘hidden process’ it is often supposed to be and calls into question the whole range of terms we use that suggest it is – such as the notion of thoughts being ‘in our head’ and our having ‘private access to them’ alluded to above. The implication there is that the head (or brain, or mind) is a sort of space in which our thoughts are stored (and where other mental activity takes place); furthermore, it is a private space, a sort of secret room to which we alone have access. (In this connection, consider the various fictional representations of telepathy and mind-reading, which often involve clutching the head, pressing the temples etc., either in an effort to keep its contents from being rifled, or in the attempt to pilfer them – thoughts are seen as something contained which can, by certain means, be extracted)

In St Ambrose’s day (c340-397) it was considered remarkable that he could read without moving his lips, from which we infer that most people then did so. I believe that this is now termed ‘subvocalisation’ and it appears to have been studied extensively in connection with reading but less so with thought. I am conscious that a great deal of my own thought consists of articulating sentences ‘in my head’ a process that I consider the same as speaking in all but the final act of voicing the words aloud (an interpretation supported by the fact that sometimes I do actually speak my thoughts aloud) – hence my interest in the expression Poe uses above, ‘my unspoken thoughts.’

It would be interesting to know whether the late Romans of St Ambrose’s day moved their lips when thinking, or indeed habitually spoke their thoughts aloud, openly or in an undertone. Even now, this is more common than we might suppose – people often blurt out their thoughts without meaning to, and most of us are familiar with the expression ‘did I just say that aloud?’ (and the feeling that accompanies it) when we say what might have been better kept to oneself. There are also people who have the habit of framing their thoughts as spoken questions, which can be disconcerting till you realise that they are not actually seeking an answer from you, personally: it is just another form of saying ‘I wonder if…’.

So it would seem that, just as we have we have learned for the most part to read without moving our lips, so we have also gradually shed (or learn to suppress) the more obvious physical manifestations of what we now consider ‘mental’ activities, such as thinking, imagining, remembering etc. though my guess (as with subvocalisation in relation to reading) is that there is probably still a fair bit that could be detected in muscle movement, brain activity and the like (though it would be an interesting experiment to see if these too – the brain activity in particular – can be controlled).

From the effort we must make to conceal thought, and our varying success in doing so, it is reasonable to infer that the ‘natural’ mode of thought is holistic, involving the body (at least) as much as the brain: consider, for instance, two rather different examples. One is the domestic cat, and how it is transformed on spying a bird that might be its prey or an intruder on its territory: its intentions can be read very clearly from its bodily posture and movement. The other is the recent emergence in sport – particularly at the highest level – of the practice of ‘visualisation’, which is rather more than simply picturing what you want to happen; it is a full-scale physical anticipation of it, typified by the rituals with which Jonny Wilkinson used to precede his kicking attempts in rugby.

It is interesting to set all this alongside the long-standing tradition in philosophy that regards mental activity as private, personal and inaccessible to others, which has led some to the extreme of solipsism, the doctrine that your own self is the only being you can confidently believe to exist. Much blame for this can be laid at the door of Descartes, often seen as the herald of the modern era in philosophy, though the mind-body dualism generally attributed to him can be dated back to Plato (much as his most noted dictum, cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – can be traced back to St Augustine a thousand years before). Descartes makes the classic error of supposing that because we are deceived in some cases, it is possible that we might be deceived in every case – overlooking the fact that such a state of affairs would render ‘being deceived’ and its allied concepts of mistake, illusion, hallucination and the like incomprehensible: if we were deceived in all things, we would not be aware of it; the fact that we have a word for it demonstrates that, in most cases, we are not deceived, and that we also recognise the special and generally temporary circumstances in which we are.

If we go back to Plato, I think we can find the real root of the notion that thoughts are private. It is bound up with what I consider the relocation of meaning that takes place around the time of Classical Greece, about 25 centuries ago, and is made possible by the invention of writing. Only once a word can be written on a page does it become possible to consider it apart from the milieu in which it naturally occurs, human activity involving speech. Such activity (what Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’ and ‘language games’) is the ultimate source of meaning (cp. Wittgenstein again, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’). Prior to the invention of writing, there was neither the means nor indeed any reason to consider speech apart from the larger activity of which it formed a part; indeed it is doubtful whether people would even have the concept of words as components of speech, which presents itself as a rhythmic flow, rather than a concatenation of smaller elements.

With writing, all that changes. For the first time, language can be studied and analysed at leisure. A sentence written on a page is comprehensible in itself, or so it appears, without reference to who wrote it or in what context. From this it is an easy step to the notion that meaning is an inherent property of words, rather than situations (what we overlook in this, of course, is that we are able to supply the context in which the words have meaning; but as such instances as the Phaistos Disc remind us, that ability can be lost, so that the marks we see have no more meaning for us than if they were random scratches made in  play).

Screenshot 2015-04-21 13.12.20

This relocation of meaning is fundamental to Plato’s Theory of Forms (or Ideas) in which he argues that the senses are deceived by the world of Appearance and that only the intellect can apprehend the true nature of Reality, the transcendent and immutable Forms. As I have argued elsewhere there is a strong case to be made that Platonic Ideas are in fact words – specifically, general and abstract terms – so the Platonic Ideas of ‘Cat’ ‘Table’ ‘Justice’ and ‘Good’ are the words cat, table, justice, good which stand for these ‘things’ (i.e. the general idea of ‘cat’, the abstract idea of ‘justice’) just as a specific name stands for the actual thing it denotes. (Though Plato pictures the words pointing to the transcendent Form or Idea, in actual fact the words themselves, allied to the use we make of them, are all that is needed)

It is this objectification of general and abstract ideas that leads to the notion of mental processes as private and inaccessible to others. We can point to something as an act of justice or goodness, but once we acquire the notion of justice as an idea, we introduce a new class of objects, those which can be apprehended only by the intellect. Strictly speaking, ‘object’ is used metaphorically here, but with Plato’s insistence that the Forms are the true Reality, this gets overlooked, and we start to think of thoughts, memories, ideas, impressions and the like as ‘mental objects’ that exist ‘in our minds’ or our ‘imaginations’ which we conceive as a kind of space, a sort of private viewing room.

The point to note here is that the metaphor preserves the Subject-Object relation, which is easily grasped in relation to physical objects – I know what it is to look at a tree, a cat or indeed another person: I am here and it is there. However, a degree of mystery seeps in when this is extended to ideas, thoughts and suchlike, particularly as philosophy develops the account it gives of them. Thus by Hume’s time we no longer simply see a tree: we form a mental impression of one, of which we can then make a copy, which he calls an idea – and this copy is what we use in remembering or imagining a tree, ‘calling it to mind’. This development clearly goes hand in hand with a growing understanding of light and optics and the physiology of the eye, but it is facilitated by having the notion of ‘mental space’ and regarding ideas as objects.

However, what is of most interest is how this alters our view of the Subject. From being a holistic notion which makes no distinction between mind and body – ‘I am this person looking at that tree’ – the subject begins to retreat in what becomes an infinite regress: the tree that we see out the window becomes a representation of a tree – to use Schopenhauer’s term, or the impression of a tree, to use Hume’s – which is now ‘in the mind’ but is still, somehow, seen. And if we have memory of that tree – an idea, to use Hume’s term – or the thought of a tree, or the mental image of one, then that, too, seems to be an object which we somehow apprehend – so the seeing, knowing or thinking subject – ourself – is forever edging out of the picture, never able – as subject – to become itself the object of consideration.

This is what leads the earlier Wittgenstein to suppose, in the Tractatus, that the subject is the boundary of experience, that it does not exist in the world but somehow outside or on the edge of it. Others have suggested that the Subject is a temporary manifestation generated (not unlike an electrical charge) by the combination of our brain and body and nervous system: it exists while we are alive (perhaps only when we are awake) and simply ceases when the physiology that generated it dies.

Yet all this, I would argue, is simply the result of philosophy’s having painted itself into a corner by adopting the way of thinking about the world that starts out with Plato. By dismissing the objects of sense as mere Appearance, and substituting the objects of intellectual apprehension as Reality, we reduce the Subject from an active participant in the world to a passive, detached observer: Wittgenstein’s boundary of experience. Reality is redefined as solely objective, and there is no room in it for the subject: ‘objectivity’ is praised while the subjective (often qualified by ‘merely’) is dismissed as unreliable, partial, mere ‘personal opinion’.

But let us step back, go back indeed to where we started, with Dupin, and the notion of thinking as a holistic activity which involves us as a totality, which is both physical and ‘mental’ (if indeed that distinction can be made at all). The view mentioned earlier, that the Subject (which can be identified with consciousness) is a kind of transitory by-product of our physiology seems to be supported by the latest developments in brain-imaging, which allow us to observe electrical activity in the neural networks of the brain: there is a correlation between certain activities and the part of the brain that ‘lights up’ when we are engaged in them. This has even led some to say that what brain imaging shows us are our actual thoughts – that all they are is these patterns of electric activity.

But I wonder. It has been demonstrated that people can lower their blood pressure aided by an index of it in the form of a display; likewise, people can be trained to suppress the physiological symptoms which polygraph tests – so-called ‘lie detectors’ – depend on for their evidence. It would be interesting to see if the lighting-up of neural networks is something that can be similarly controlled or disguised – for if we can learn to ‘hide our thoughts’ by controlling outward appearances, why should we suppose that we cannot do likewise with other physical manifestations of them, once we are aware of them?

It is illuminating to look at this from the other side: not only can we suppress or disguise the physical manifestations of thought, we can also imitate them – that is what actors do. And of course a standard acting technique is to have a store of memories that move us, which can be called to mind when the requisite emotion is called for – so if I wish to portray a character stricken by grief, I conjure a memory when I myself was grieved and my outward aspect will conform, much as does the player’s in Hamlet, who

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann’d,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit
Wittgenstein asks somewhere how we know that we are imitating someone’s expression, and adds that it is not by studying our face in a mirror. Our response to a smile, from a very early age, is a smile; but we are not imitating what we see – after all, we do not know what our own face looks like. What guides us is rather the feeling that goes with the smile. The best way I can think to put this is that, as human beings, we know what an expression feels like from the inside.

And I would add a note of caution here: do not import the model of cause and effect that we use in analysing the objective world. The joy we feel within does not cause the smile; it is not prior to it – the two are aspects of the same thing. I am reminded of an expression I learned as a boy doing my catechism – ‘an outward sign of inward grace’. There are a range of things that we know, not through becoming acquainted with them, but by doing them, by being them. And although we speak of ‘seeing’ ‘hearing’ and the rest of the senses separately, we cannot actually turn them on and off, but do them all at once and all the time; what we vary is the attention we give each one, and for most of us, sight predominates. with hearing next and the rest a good way behind, except when they force themselves on our attention.

What we actually experience, unanalysed, is not simply ‘the world’ – that is only half the story; what we experience is ‘being in the world’. All experience has this dual aspect: we know it from the inside and the outside at the same time. That is what makes communication possible, what understanding, properly understood, consists of. It is what in art, in all its forms – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, dance – enables us to ‘get it’: by considering the outward sign, we experience what it is like from inside, we recognise the feeling it expresses as something we, too, have felt.

The clever model that Plato and Aristotle invented, that underpins all Western thought, has enabled us to achieve remarkable things, but only at the considerable expense of ignoring one half of our experience and pretending that it does not matter.

Perhaps what Descartes should have said is not cogito ergo sum, nor even sum ergo sum (since it is not something we know by deduction) but simply sum – I am.

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Who’s got the idea?

20161203_160703

Suppose you catch me at my usual philosophical musing, mooning about and muttering to myself. I chance to say aloud, ‘I wonder when people first developed the idea of language?’ Being a practical sort, you say ‘Come with me. I happen to have brought a time machine and no end of wizard gadgetry, so we can go and have a look.’

In less time than it takes to get there (because we are going backwards, of course) we are hovering, cloaked in invisibility, over the grassy plains of Africa. The dial says it is about 200,000 years ago and here is a group of Homo sapiens, our direct ancestors, all talking away.

You observe them for a time with your gadgets, making notes and taking measurements, and then say, ‘Well, these are not just grunts associated with exertion, or cries of alarm or excitement. There is rhythm and pattern there, and a clear sense of exchange, of going to-and-fro. This certainly looks like conversation, and if I feed the results into my analyser, I’m sure we’ll be able to say a bit about the grammatical rules they’re following and probably have a crack at the syntax and maybe even define a few of the words in their vocabulary. So I think you can say with some confidence that these ancestors of ours have the idea of language.’

But I am not so sure. I think that what you have demonstrated is that you have the idea of language. You are the one who has turned up with, so to speak, an annotated diagram, and been able to look at this new thing to see the points of resemblance it has and conclude that it belongs to the same class as other things you call ‘language’. You are the one who has brought his box already divided into labelled compartments, into which you can put the bits you call ‘grammar’ ‘syntax’ and ‘vocabulary’. And till these chaps on the plain start doing the same thing, then I do not think you can say they have the idea of language: they may talk, though I think if you take off your spectacles of preconception, you will see that they do a great deal else – facial expression, gesture, bodily posture, movement; only you haven’t come equipped with the box to put those in.

Having the idea of something consists precisely of being able to do this kind of thing – identification, classification, analysis – in short, fitting in to a pre-existing scheme (and having that scheme to start with). It’s the sort of scheme we can carry about ‘in our heads’ but don’t be fooled into thinking that any special merit attaches to this as a mental activity: that division is not important. We can think aloud, give voice to our words, or even think with a pen and paper, drawing diagrams and writing words. It just so happens that we have also learned the trick of forming words without speaking them aloud, and that is what we do, mostly, because it is convenient.

You might want to say that you are finding something that is there though the speakers are unaware of it – that their language is the first instance of the idea of language, which is something that transcends time and space, of which all our specific languages are mere instances – and that would be rather Platonic of you.

Which is why I would suggest that if you want to find when and where people first had the idea of language – indeed, the idea of ideas – you should set your time machine forward from the plains of Africa and head for classical Greece about two and a half thousand years ago, there to eavesdrop on Plato and his pupil, Aristotle.

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