Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Charge of Essentialism (a reply to David King)



Essentialism can be defined as the view that all things, or groups of things, possess essential features without which they would cease to be what they are. So, for example, all squares have four equal sides and four right angles. Without these fundamental attributes, a shape would not qualify as a square.


Essentialism has been around for more than two millennia, so inevitably there are several different versions on offer. Perhaps the most extreme version was developed by Plato who believed in an abstract realm of perfect "forms" of which the things of our world are merely imperfect copies. So, for example, all squares are approximations of an ideal square to which our only means of access is by way of ideas. Hundreds of years later, John Locke did not posit an immaterial realm of perfect forms but held instead that essences are in the mind, as ideas to which "things existing are found to agree, so they come to be ranked under that name."


Interestingly, it might be suggested that every form of essentialism must necessarily partake of some essential feature or features by which it might be identified as such. Just as all squares share essential features, so too perhaps, do all forms of essentialism. Nonetheless, as has been famously noted by Wittgenstein, many conceptual categories cannot be reduced to essential features, but share what Wittgenstein called "family resemblances." Different members of a family may share no single feature in common, yet several different features may be shared across two or more members. Games, Wittgenstein argued, are related in this way. As a conceptual category, there is no essential feature of all games, yet each game shares features in common with one or more other games. Accordingly, there can be no typical member of a family and no typical game. Therefore only a cross section of examples is likely to provide an indication of some, but not necessarily all, of the overlapping features of the group as a whole.

Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances is often taken to be strongly anti-essentialist and is frequently cited in disputes over whether it is possible to determine necessary and sufficient conditions for certain concepts. It should be noted though, that family resemblance categories are not entirely boundless even if many conceptual boundaries are fuzzy. That we usually do not need to see a border between Scotland and England in order to know which country we are in does not mean that no border exists or that no boundary can be erected. Likewise, Wittgenstein is not suggesting that there are no linguistic rules at all or that it is pointless to explore the boundaries between one conceptual category and another. For example, if the concept of games had no boundaries, then it would be indistinguishable from the more general concept of "activities" which itself would be indistinguishable from the concept of "change" etc. Wittgenstein's central point is that we do not need to establish any boundaries or to consult any putative mental or ideal essences to know how to use a concept. But in the process of making this point, he is not saying that we cannot establish necessary and sufficient conditions for concepts under any circumstances. Nor is he saying that it is impossible to distinguish between different conceptual categories through conceptual analysis. My reasons for these important clarifications will become clear in a moment.
On several occasions, philosopher, blogger and Facebook discussion group moderator, David King, has labeled me a "fundamentalist", a "Platonist", a "language policeman" and, in response to my last blog post here on the subject of communication, a "rabid essentialist". Evidently, by characterising my position in these ways he hopes to discredit my view in as expedient as way as possible. King is well aware that my commitment to conceptual analysis owes a great deal to the work of Wittgenstein and since he is also aware that Wittgenstein is widely regarded as an anti essentialist, he sees it as "ironic" that my methods should be so at odds with what he takes to be Wittgenstein's position. I hope I have already made it clear that Wittgenstein's position on essentialism is all too easy to oversimplify. After all, it was Wittgenstein who wrote "Essence is expressed in grammar." Of this statement, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
The 'rules' of grammar are not mere technical instructions from on-high for correct usage; rather, they express the norms for meaningful language. Contrary to empirical statements, rules of grammar describe how we use words in order to both justify and criticize our particular utterances. But as opposed to grammar-book rules, they are not idealized as an external system to be conformed to. Moreover, they are not appealed to explicitly in any formulation, but are used in cases of philosophical perplexity to clarify where language misleads us into false illusions.
On at least two occasions King has asked whether I have conducted tests of native speakers or undertaken corpus analysis of people's every day speech interactions. In order to clarify where language misleads us into false illusions we do not need to consult native speakers to know that "communicating at someone" is not a strong candidate case of communication. Simply being an experienced native speaker—with all that that entails—is sufficient qualification to know that to communicate about someone is rarely, if ever, to communicate with them. And we can also readily observe that it is not entirely unintelligible—although it is somewhat strained—to say that we can "communicate to someone" or "communicate to ourselves" but we cannot do so without also communicating with someone or with ourselves. And to communicate with our hands, lips, mouth or voice is not to communicate to our hands, lips, mouth or voice. None of these points about the relation of the preposition "with" to the verb "communicating" require any corpus analysis any more than they require us to consult some inner essence, ideal, prototype or guide. Nor in fact do they require us to be experts in linguistics, although such credentials would probably help to convince some doubters. So, to suggest that science, linguistics or corpus analysis are necessary—essential even—to establishing anything about ordinary language is to have missed one of Wittgenstein's central points.

Even though it was clear that King's remarks were aimed more at undermining my arguments than engaging with them, it occurred to me that I could indeed test my conjecture in a way that might partially satisfy King's scrutiny. I Googled "communicating with", "communicating to", "communicating in" etc. and found, just as I had expected, that the preposition "with" is by far the most common usage. In fact it is sixteen times more common than its nearest rivals "to" and "in". With further research it might be possible to use Google to perform a statistical analysis of ordinary language locutions but in this case the results merely confirmed what should have been obvious from the outset. Nonetheless, for King, who seems unwilling to accept reasoned argument (philosophy) on its own merits, perhaps the possibility of providing some readily available statistical evidence might offer a certain utility.

My point in drawing attention to the relationship between the concept of "communication" and the preposition "with" has always been to emphasise that communication is a transaction, and like all transactions it usually occurs between two or more agents. We can communicate with ourselves of course—by making notes, keeping a diary or simply by talking to ourselves—but one group of locutions that are tellingly absent from Google are the following: "communicate in myself", "communicate inside myself" and "communicate in me". I take these as unequivocal evidence that the concept of inner communication is beyond the bounds of ordinary usage. King would dismiss these observations as a priori stipulations but such accusations do not change the fact that communication is a thoroughly public affair that can only ever occur between communicators or, at the very least, on the part of an individual already skilled in such transactions. There are no communicators within us, and without communicators there can be no communications.

So when theorists speak of inner communication, signals, codes, representations and information, they overstep the bounds of ordinary language. Communication is the mark of culture, not biology or physics. These theorists and researchers unwittingly expand the concept of communication to include causal influences, natural processes, stimuli, reflexes and autonomic mechanisms, none of which are communicative behaviours at all and simply do not qualify for inclusion in the category. Just because there are some family resemblances between one conceptual terrain and another does not mean that there is no boundary. Scotland is not a part of England.

When King accuses me of philosophical equivalent of nationalism, he fails to appreciate what I am trying to achieve. He argues: "You just assume without argument that neuroscientist are using the word 'communication' in a sloppy manner because they don't conform to your conventions. This is not an argument it is a statement of how you think they should speak." As I have repeatedly tried to make clear, the conventions I identify are not "my" conventions, they are the conventions of ordinary language. I do not berate anyone, but I am very critical of the misuse of ordinary language within the sciences and philosophy. But it should be noted that I am not critical of these misuses because of some quasi nationalistic commitment to ordinary language. I am critical of these misuses because of the devastating effect they have on our understanding of the difference between natural processes on the one hand and intentional actions on the other.

Intentional behaviours (of which communication is paradigmatic) require goals. What is the having of goals if not the having of abilities to represent the thing or things with which we are engaged? King consistently fails to address this question. If we cannot produce representations then we cannot communicate. This is why I am so insistent that communication is the turning point between biology and culture. If we bundle all natural processes into the same conceptual category as communication then there can be no clear distinction and many important insights will be obscured from view.

Evidently King regards all criticism of conceptual confusion as little more than an irksome punctiliousness on the part of a minority of "Wittgenstein fanatics". He does acknowledge that "Hacker and Bennett DEMONSTRATE [King's emphasis] some contradictory and confused uses of certain terms" but he is clearly unwilling to consider the possibility that the problems of conceptual confusion are much more far reaching.


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Concept of Communication


It may not seem to matter much how we each carve up our conceptual world. If you choose to apply a concept in one way and I choose to apply it in another, the potential for difficulty might seem to be of little consequence. Where, for example, is the conflict if, like the people of Lilliput, you choose to attack your conceptual boiled eggs from the narrow end and I, like the people of Blefuscu, choose to attack mine from the broad end?
If our efforts are limited to individual projects, then there is little likelihood of disagreement. We can agree to disagree. But if, on the contrary, we wish to cooperate, then the potential for confusion, loss, damage or harm can be very significant. Two examples can be used to illustrate this point.
In 1999, a $125 million NASA mission to send a probe into orbit around Mars, ditched into the Martian surface. Unbeknownst to NASA, one of the contractors had used metric units in their component instead of the imperial standard used by NASA.  
In 2003, the builders of a new bridge between Sweden and Germany discovered that the German side was more than half a metre higher than the Swedish side. The engineers were already aware that Germany and Sweden determine the height of sea level in different ways, but they had mistakenly reversed the correction, thus precisely doubling the 27cm difference rather than cancelling it out.
Problems like these are perhaps best regarded as conversion errors. The bridge engineers converted between two conceptual systems incorrectly and the rocket component engineers simply took it for granted that no conversion was necessary. When errors have glaring material consequences, it is often relatively straightforward to trace the source. But conversion errors need not be obvious and may survive over long periods due to a lack of appreciation of the significance and scope of the problem. I hope to show that we face exactly such a problem with the way that the concept of communication is understood and this has profound implications in all fields in which the concept is used.
The concept of communication can be understood in any of three incompatible ways. The first—what we might call "pervasive communication"—defines communication as the transfer of information ("differences that make a difference" as Bateson put it in 1972) between various entities. According to this view, all forms of life, and even their parts, communicate with one another. For example Baluška et al. (2009, p.123) write: “Roots are able to produce and to sense growth regulators, chemical messengers and metabolites that communicate to the whole plant the result of processing and integration of that information.” And Bais et al. (2004) claim that plants communicate with other organisms: “Increasing evidence suggests that root exudates might initiate and manipulate biological and physical interactions between roots and soil organisms, and thus play an active role in root-root and root-microbe communication.” Search Google for “bacterial communication” and you will find nearly 50 million results. Clearly this generalised notion of communication is extremely prevalent. Some theorists even speculate that there is communication of information at the quantum level. Whilst, at the other end of the spectrum, it is not at all uncommon for pheromones to be described as as a form of "nonverbal communication" or for body posture, eye movements etc. to be called "body language."
Most people recognise that language is a subordinate concept of which communication is the superordinate. This is why we distinguish between the verbal and the non-verbal; between language on the one hand and what are sometimes called "the mimetic arts". Nonetheless, it is possible to find cases where communication  is conceived as a "kind of language" (Argyle 1975, Hudin 2009). This sense of communication is what the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1949) would have called a "category mistake" (which, incidentally, I would argue, is a subordinate form of conversion error). Instead of conceiving of language as a sub-category of communication, communication is regarded as a sub-category of language. We find such category mistakes for example when people claim that language is a kind of picture (Wittgenstein 1922) or that a "picture is a model" (Ibid), that "models describe the world" (Daiper 2003) or that "Drawing is a mode of description" Ingold (2011). There is little illumination to be gained by explaining one form of representation in terms of another. Strictly speaking, pictures do not describe or model anything, language does not picture or model anything and models do not describe or picture anything. A cat is not a kind of dog. With this in mind, it is understandable that Wittgenstein later rejected his "picture theory" of language as misleading. And I suspect that this realisation may well have had a significant influence on his later important emphasis on conceptual analysis.
The final—and I think the most coherent—sense in which the concept of communication is commonly used can be found at the beginning of the first sentence of the current Wikipedia entry devoted to it: "Communication (from Latin commūnicāre, meaning 'to share') is the purposeful activity of information exchange between two or more participants..." In contrast with "pervasive communication", this more restricted sense emphasises that all communications are meant; that they are intentionally produced with a purpose, usually of eliciting a response on the part of another individual or individuals. This is why it is incoherent to conceive of communication as an act that can exist without an intention, goal or purpose. Bacteria do not intend anything, quantum particles do not pursue goals, roots do not deliberately influence microbes and people do not purposefully generate pheromones.
Communication is a purposeful activity because in principle it involves an anticipated outcome: a response on the part of another perceiver. We cannot communicate with trees because trees cannot communicate with us. Communication is a reciprocal affair. There is no such thing as communicating at something.


Monday, 7 December 2015

Embodiments of Mind



I have often mentioned on this blog that our actions are embodied. Sometimes I have also claimed that our thoughts are embodied in our actions, as I believe they are. There is nothing unusual about such turns of phrase. They are commonplace in ordinary language and serve very well to describe the relationship between our many skills and the ways these can be applied to the world.

In the last twenty years or so, a new breed of theorist has emerged, a breed who see themselves neither as immaterial minds pulling the strings of material bodies, nor as brains locked away in skulls, but rather as minds interwoven into the very fabric of the body. These Embodied Mind theorists come in several varieties, but their principal claim is that the brain is not the locus of mind, but rather the body as a whole. Whilst I think this view is a vast improvement on that of mind/body dualism, I think it is mistaken to suggest that the mind is dispersed throughout the body, or throughout anything for that matter.

To be a minded creature is to be in possession of a range of abilities, all of which can be performed and are thus communicable in principle. The possession of abilities is nothing like the possession of scars or dentures or artificial hips. Abilities are not bodily things we can point to or examine with a scanner, no matter how sophisticated or precise. Abilities are more like potentialities than actualities. My hand has the potential to dissolve in acid, but this potential is not to be found instantiated, manifested or embodied in my hand. Potentialities only become manifest in the process of actualisation. Abilities are actualised in actions, not in the body of the possessor of those abilities.

To develop a new ability—to learn something—is to be capable of demonstrating it, and to be capable of demonstrating an ability is also to able to use it to envisage goals, to form expectations and to anticipate outcomes. Such predictive capacities are the embodiment of intelligence and are by no means limited to our fellow human beings. But what does it mean to use the word "embodiment" in this ordinary way and what light might this usage shed upon the theory of the Embodied Mind?

Firstly, it should be obvious that my thoughts of swimming are not embodied in my sitting down whilst thinking of swimming. Nor are my thoughts of dancing or of laughing or casting my eye over Rodin's "Le Penseur". My posture and furrowed brow might well be taken to be the embodiment of my thinking, but not my thoughts. I can only embody my thoughts if I enunciate or enact them. It makes no sense to say that I am the embodiment of my thinking. When I act, my thoughts are embodied in the act, not in my body. But when I do not act, my thoughts are not embodied in my inactivity.

When we say that Hitler was the embodiment of evil, we do not mean that evil took bodily form in Hitler (though we might be sorely tempted to think so). We mean that Hitler represents evil, that he was the personification of evil. In ordinary language, to embody something is to represent it, not to contain it or to instantiate it or to be it. A red thing does not embody redness. We reserve the concept of embodiment for symbols, not for things that actually instantiate the relevant property. When we say that an act was the embodiment of goodness, we mean that the act could be taken as a representative symbol of the concept of goodness, not that goodness has taken earthly form. Likewise, when we say that a person is the embodiment of innocence, this is an attribution, not an attribute that we should expect to find instantiated in their corporeal frame. You will not find any more truth in the body of someone who speaks truths than in the body of someone who speaks lies.

In a recent discussion with a neuroscientist and advocate of the Embodied Mind, he wrote: "Badness, in a very absolute way, is neither embodied nor enacted, badness is in the eye of the social beholder." But this conceals a confusion. Either our concepts are socially negotiated or they are not. If they are, then they cannot be the private possessions of individuals and cannot therefore be in the eye of the beholder, even if the beholder is acknowledged to be a social creature. 

This same Embodied Mind advocate claimed that physiological sensations of guilt etc. are "100% instantiated in emotional somatic markers in the body." Putting aside the question of what emotional somatic markers might actually be, let's imagine that my young son unwittingly does something widely regarded as bad. If everyone agrees and tells him so but he does not accept this, then according to our advocate of the Embodied Mind, my son's action cannot be bad because he will not have the requisite embodied markers of guilt. Something is very obviously wrong with this conception of wrongdoing because the criterion for the determination of guilt or innocence etc. is taken to be a personal possession (or lack of) rather than a publicly negotiated rule or convention. Our concepts are not private possessions. My son cannot choose to define his conceptual world by fiat but must accept social codes that are instantiated in public practices, not inscribed in the bodies of individuals. Our abilities to use concepts are not instantiated in us. We are not the embodiments of our minds, our actions are.

Embodied Mind theories have emerged in opposition to various forms of Cartesian dualism. As commendable as this opposition is, it comes at a price, the price of coherence. To suggest that our minds are to be found distributed throughout our bodies is to suggest that our minds are somehow contained in the body in the way that we might mistakenly take the potential for my hand to dissolve in acid to be instantiated in my hand. Philosopher, Peter Hacker, identifies this as transcendentalism:

One tempting misconception is transcendentalism, i.e., the fallacious reification of powers, according to which they are conceived as occult entities mysteriously contained within the possessor of the power.

In their reification of the mind, embodied theories fail to recognise and to clarify that the mind is neither a thing nor a non-thing. Abilities are not to be found by examining the configurations of a body, no matter how finely or precisely. Abilities are to be found in their performance. We are not the embodiments of our minds, our actions are.



Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Semiotics Denatured


The theory of the sign (Semiotics) is perhaps most closely associated with the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Over the last century, semiotics has had a very significant influence in numerous fields of research from the arts and literary criticism to biology and cognitive neuroscience. This post is intended to expose what I think is a major flaw in the theory of the sign, a flaw that continues to beleaguer scientific research and philosophical enquiry often in quite far reaching ways.
The Wikipedia entry on signs distinguishes between “natural” signs (or what Peirce called “indexical signs”) and “conventional” signs (“symbols”). In an influential paper from 1955 H. P. Grice makes a similar distinction between what he calls "natural" and "non-natural" meanings. Grice's distinction can therefore be seen in the same light that I aim to shed upon the concept of natural signs.
On the subject of the sign, Wikipedia states: “A natural sign bears a causal relation to its object—for instance, thunder is a sign of storm, or medical symptoms signify a disease.” I hope it is already evident that something isn't quite right about this formulation. Symptoms are caused by disease but they are not signals produced by disease. Likewise, thunder is caused by storms but its influence upon the world is not a consequence of its possible status as a sign. Such a status is not a property of thunder but can only be ascribed to the sound of thunder in much the same way that the function of a tool is assigned to it through use. This is not to suggest that nonverbal creatures cannot be influenced by regularly occurring states of affairs and develop efficacious responses as a consequence. But what I do want to suggest is that Pavlov’s dogs, for example, did not salivate because they interpreted the bell as a sign for dinner but because they had developed an autonomic response to the sound of the bell. Autonomic responses do not function by way of interpretation, unconscious or otherwise. Such a suggestion would undermine the important distinction we typically assume between intentional behaviours (actions) and the many non-conscious processes and responses that support, enable and propagate the vast majority of life on Earth.
Discussing C.S. Peirce's theory of the sign, Noble and Davidson (1996) state: "A mouse rustling in the undergrowth is producing an indexical acoustic sign of itself." If this is true, then every effect would have to be a sign of its cause and the entire universe must be a teeming mass of communicating representations.  According to Semetsky (2005 p.232) this is precisely what Peirce believed: “Everything is a sign: the whole universe, for Peirce, is perfused with signs.” Interestingly, Semetsky also identifies a paradox in Peirce’s thinking since he also claimed that: “nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign.” Indeed it should be obvious that the universe is only composed of signs to the extent that we sign users are capable of interpreting it as such. So when someone states: "A footprint... can communicate a message." this is either just a handy metaphor or the attribution of communicative agency where none is warranted. Such marks are interpretable by someone capable of extrapolating from them in causal terms, but without a skilled interpreter—moreover a symbol user capable of making meaningful attributions — the marks are merely whatever they are: a cluster of properties. Interpretable things are not communicators, but become interpretable only by being treated as if they are part of practices of use  — most commonly as part of practices of communication. Treating things in this way has significant predictive and retrodictive efficacy, so much so in fact, that we regularly assume (mistakenly of course) that all life must be capable of the same skills of attribution.
An advocate of semiotics might wish to interject here by denying that natural signs are representations at all. This is the move that biosemiotician, Marcello Barbieri (2013) makes when he claims that a natural sign “cannot show or inform, it can only point to an object as if to say: ‘There it is!’” But this is misconceived. What is pointing after all if not a form of showing? Pointing is precisely equivalent to holding something up, presenting it or nodding towards it. Likewise, if nothing is pointed to or shown when we exclaim “There it is!” the utterance is unintelligible. Barbieri continues: “A thermometer and a footprint are natural indices.” The suggestion that a sophisticated instrument of numerical (i.e. symbolic) measurement is a natural sign is simply absurd. But it gets worse. Barbieri claims:
Any metabolic process presupposes a goal directed organism and as such it is a semiotic process, since the organism selects and evaluates environmental stimuli with respect to their adequacy or inadequacy for the purpose of the organism’s survival. (2013)
Barbieri is by no means alone in the attribution of goal directed action to the most simple of forms of life:
The discovery and use of natural signs is a required prerequisite of existence for any living system because they are indispensable to movement, the search for food, regulation, communication, and many other information-related activities. (Sukhoverkhov 2012)
Sukhoverkhov and Barbieri evidently agree that even the most simple organisms necessarily treat the world as if it were composed of signs that they use to direct their behaviour. More astonishingly still, Peirce agrees: “The microscopist looks to see whether the motions of a little creature show any purpose. If so, there is mind there.” On this view then, not only is the universe perfused with signs, but all life is perfused with mind.
The assumption that mind is a prerequisite for any living system should be rejected as both implausible and wildly extravagant. And the conclusion drawn by Peirce on the basis of the movements of a microorganism is in obvious need of revision. The point of error lies in the unjustified assumption that efficacious movements constitute purposeful (i.e. goal directed) behaviour: actions.
If the most simple organisms require minds to survive and propagate then there can be no explanation of how mindedness could ever have evolved. A scientifically parsimonious explanation of the evolution of intelligent life must therefore distinguish between efficacious behaviour on the one hand and its more highly evolved and genuinely purposeful cousin (action) on the other. When a microorganism moves along a food gradient it is not propelled by a goal; it is propelled by the causal influence of the food gradient. This sophisticated but nonetheless predictable behaviour has been honed by millions of years of evolution in which innumerable less well adapted creatures have perished. And whilst this behaviour may resemble action, one thing should be certain: microorganisms are not capable of producing representations of any sort, let alone goals.
There is nothing natural about so called “natural signs”. Nor is interpretation a prerequisite of life on Earth. Sensory discrimination is certainly a prerequisite of all life, but it is certainly not a sign of mind, not even incipient or rudimentary mind.
If we want to understand the evolutionary emergence of mindedness, we first need to be clear about what it takes for a creature to treat an object as if it has properties that it does not actually possess. Such skills are certainly not to be found amongst microorganisms. Mind is born of culture.
In the case of non-linguistic signs there is always the danger that their meanings will seem natural; one must view them with a certain detachment to see that their meanings are in fact the products of a culture, the result of shared assumptions and conventions. But in the case of linguistic signs the conventional or ‘arbitrary’ basis is obvious, and therefore by taking linguistics as a model one may avoid the familiar mistake of assuming that signs which appear natural to those who use them have an intrinsic meaning and require no explanation. (Culler 1975, p.6)

Monday, 2 November 2015

Mute Witnesses



"While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph." Lewis Hine (1909)

A few days ago I presented a paper at a conference at the University of California Berkeley on the subject to the image. One of the other speakers gave a presentation beginning with the above quote from the early 20th Century social documentary photographer Lewis Hine. The quote reminded me of Picasso's famous remark: "“Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.” Like Picasso and Hein, many people hold the view that images — photographs in particular — are truth bearers, that they provide meaningful testimony and have what philosophers sometimes call "factive", as opposed to fictive, status. I aim to explain why such talk about images has the effect of misleadingly reducing them to linguistic tokens. Furthermore, doing so overlooks, misunderstands or worse still ignores, the essentially mute but nonetheless powerful effectiveness of images as substitutes for the things they represent.

As any linguist will confirm, all well formed sentences contain a subject and a predicate. Language is thus a system of procedures by which we ascribe attributes to things through the use of arbitrary symbols. Only the most intelligent creatures can do this because only the most intelligent creatures are capable of following the rules necessary to engage in practices of predication: of the socially negotiated attribution of abstract linguistic tokens to objects and states of affairs.

It should be clear to everyone that images are not linguistic entities, yet quite evidently it is not in the least clear. Almost all theories of representation refer to images as "signs" or "signifiers", as "readable" objects or "messages" that require "decoding", "deciphering" or "interpreting." In everyday use, we talk of how images "convey meaning", "have content" and are "about" the things to which they "refer." We also talk of what images "tell" us, what they "describe", "articulate", "suggest", "explain" and "imply."  And it is not impossible to find reference to images as oracles and chronicles or soothsayers or that they predict the future, commentate on the present and narrate the past. It might help to exemplify the absurdity of such thinking by noting that we can say exactly the same of tea leaves or the lines on one's hand. That we can do so, reveals far more about our infatuation with language than it does about the nature of images or the susceptibilities and skills that enable their use.

Any student wishing to understand the question of how images actually work (this was the title of my presentation at the conference by the way) will be met by an impenetrable thicket of confused and over complex theorisation about these profoundly simple but powerful tools. They will have to assimilate and understand numerous technical terms like "denotation", "connotation", "punctum", "studium", "icon", "index", "symbol", "sign", "referent", "veridicality", "verisimilitude" etc. And with each step along this path they will be no closer to the answer they seek. In fact, with each step, they will descend deeper into a convoluted labyrinth from which there is little hope of return.

Depictive images work because they can be mistaken for the things they represent in certain ways and in certain respects. It is as simple as that. There are ways to make images resemble the things they depict because there are ways and respects in which they can be made more or less indiscriminable from them, ways that fully exploit the potential for illusion. You simply cannot do this with words — words do not look anything like the things they stand in for.

So when we say that images "tell" "truths" or "lies" we ignore their essential nature and instead treat them as linguistic items. In ordinary usage this is fine, but strictly speaking (which is what we should require of all serious theories) lying and telling truths are the exclusive preserve of language users. Of course, images can depict things that never did, could or will ever happen. But nonverbal misrepresentation does not reduce to verbal misrepresentation: to lying. Images are not texts and the skills necessary to use them for communicative purposes are by no means reliant upon (although they are massively assisted by) our skills as language users.

There are two fundamental questions we can ask of any image: "What is it of?" and "What is it about?" The first is always more basic than the second because the second relies to a very significant degree on the first. If it were not a matter of some importance what images are actually of, then we could indeed replace them with abstractions, with symbolic tokens, with words. We can do this of course, but not without significant loss.

Recognising what an image is of, is usually effortless, whereas the answer to the question of what an image is about — what it means — is almost never so. In fact the answer to the question of meaning is about as straightforward as the answer to the question of the function of a length of string. If you do not know how to use a length of string, then it has no function. The same is true of meaning.

Images can neither lie nor tell the truth. They can be used in acts of lying and they can be used to corroborate truths, but just as a nonverbal human witness can point to the perpetrator of a crime with no recourse to language, so too do images gain their fundamental efficacy from factors that are entirely independent of linguistic competence. Images can be deceptive but they cannot deceive. They can mislead and misguide but they cannot cheat. They can be clear but they cannot be honest.  They can distort but they cannot feign. They can simulate but they cannot pretend.

Images are powerful because they trigger many of the same embodied responses as the things they represent — just as words do in fact. But, unlike language, they do not require elaborate skills in symbolic substitution and rule following to do this. So it is simply mistaken to suggest or conclude that images are bearers of truth, tellers of tales or descriptions of the world. If someone shows you a view through a window, they are not showing you a lie and nor are they showing you the truth. Likewise, a view of the moon through the distorting lens of a telescope is neither factive nor fictive. When we present evidence of the truth, the evidence does not constitute the truth. Truth is not something that can be perceived. When we say "I see the truth" we do not mean to suggest that the truth is something that can be seen. We mean that the truth is something that can be understood.

During the conference, another of the presenters mentioned something that struck me as relevant to this analysis. Apparently the root of the word "epiphany" is to be found in the Ancient Greek term: phanein, meaning "to show." Images are used in acts of showing. It is what we do with images, and more specifically, the communicative practices within which images are integrated, that transforms them into such extraordinary and useful tools. Language enables us to use images in extraordinarily sophisticated ways, but language also significantly obscures our understanding of these essentially mute witnesses.



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.