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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 492-496 ( 31 October )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/wringe.html
Between Ourselves: Second-person Issues in the Study of Consciousness
edited by Evan Thompson
Imprint Academic, 2001, pp309
Reviewed by Bill Wringe D. Phil., Department of International Relations, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey.
One familiar problem about consciousness - familiar, at least, to philosophers within the analytic tradition - derives its force and its seeming intractability via a contrast between two points of view from which one can regard the phenomenon. One is the point of view of the subject of consciousness: the person experiencing a pain, tasting freshly ground coffee for the first time, listening to a jazz saxophone solo, or engaging in any one of a number of activities whose distinctive experiential qualities make it rhetorically effective to say that there is Something That It Is Like to be doing that rather than something else. The other is the perspective of the detached observer trying to make sense of such activities - the lay observer wondering what is going through someone's mind as they taste the coffee or the scientist speculating about the neural substrate of the jazz fan's experience. A frequently used shorthand for this contrast is that it is one between first- and third-person perspectives on consciousness; the problem that it raises, which is partly philosophical and partly scientific, is that of reconciling the two; and its apparent insolubility is a major source of employment for philosophers in universities across the Anglo-Saxon world.
Meanwhile in another part of the intellectual universe, philosophers from an almost entirely different tradition (or set of traditions - it's not entirely clear how one counts traditions) have been brought up to regard apparently obvious dichotomies such as that between the first-person and third-person perspectives with a certain degree of suspicion. Intellectual life being what it is, people who belong to the first tradition tend not to speak to people who belong to the second. When they do the former tend to come away thinking that the latter are either stupid, because they cannot see what is obvious to everyone, or willfully obscurantist, because they deny the existence of a distinction which even they must be capable of understanding. (What's more, they sometimes have the gall to explain their views in foreign languages like French, German and Japanese, which earnest, well-meaning English-speakers can't really understand. How much more willful and obscurantist can you get?). This all leads to quite a lot of name-calling, which is not very productive, and a result of it is that people who enjoy talking to analytic philosophers, such as cognitive scientists, end up not talking to the people who analytic philosophers don't get on with. Like a messy divorce, it's all very sad.
One of the merits of the collection of papers under review is that it aims to take us beyond this unhappy state of affairs by arguing for the relevance of work in the phenomenological and Buddhist traditions to the questions studied by cognitive scientists, and, more importantly, presenting some of it in a form and format in which they might find it accessible. (In this respect it is a natural successor to one of Evan Thompson's earlier projects: a book called "The Embodied Mind" co-authored with Eleanor Rosch and Francisco Varela - to whose memory the volume under review is dedicated). The collection derives from a 1999 conference held by the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan under the title 'The Intersubjectivity of Human Consciousness' and the papers have already been printed in a volume of the Journal of Consciousness Studies: readers who already have access to this journal, and librarians of libraries which subscribe should be warned that there is no material here that they are not already able to access. Furthermore, as with many volumes put together out of conference papers, one sometimes gets the impression that controversial views are not discussed in as much detail as they would deserve. It would not surprise me to learn that the discussions at the Kalamazoo conference were at least as interesting as the papers themselves, and it is a pity that, except for the odd footnote the content of these discussions is not (or at least not obviously), represented here.
That said, the papers are very interesting, and should be looked at by anyone who wants to think about what form a phenomenological contribution to some of the problems studied by cognitive scientists might take. Rather than discuss each of the papers in detail, I shall concentrate on some of the key themes which run through what is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a fairly disparate collection. First, though, I want to say something about the title of the volume. It would not be unreasonable for someone trained in analytic philosophy to feel that very few of the papers in the collection are about anything which is recognisable as a philosophical problem about consciousness as such. Instead the majority of them pick up on and contribute to an entirely distinct debate which has been going on within cognitive science and analytic philosophy for some time. What is at issue in this debate is the question of how human beings capacity to attribute mental states to one another is best explained. (It should perhaps be emphasised that the question of whether we do have such a capacity is not under discussion here. The topic of concern is the sorts of mechanism which enable us to make everyday judgments of the form 'My colleague is very cross' or 'My daughter would like me to read her a story' and not how such judgments might be defended from skeptical attack.)
Within the existing debate, two main positions have been canvassed. The first, more mainstream view, is that the capacity is to be explained along the lines of a standard strategy in cognitive science. This standard strategy is that of arguing that the capacity is best explained by supposing that the individuals who have it grasp a theory. For obvious reasons, this has become known as the 'theory view'. The second, favoured by the current author, and by a small minority of analytic philosophers and developmental psychologists is that the standard strategy will not work, and that what does the trick is a capacity for imaginative recreation of other people's mental states. This is often regarded as being closely related to our ability to imagine situations other than our own. The suggestion that imaginative recreation plays this significant role - the so-called 'simulation view' is sometimes regarded as having its origins in the Verstehen tradition in the social sciences, and in particular with the work of Weber and Dilthey.
What has contributed to this view's current popularity -such as it is - among cognitive scientists is a heterogeneous body of evidence from areas such as studies of autistic children (who are notorious for having both poor imaginative abilities and extreme difficulties in making correct attributions of mental states to others), child development (especially studies of young children's surprising capacity for mimicry), and neurology - in particular the discovery of 'mirror neurons' in macaque monkeys. These last are neurons which appear to fire both when a monkey performs a particular action, and when it observes the same action being performed by someone else. What makes this interesting is that it suggests that there is some identifiable neurological underpinning to our ability to recreate the actions of others. Since actions have a mental as well as a bodily component this may also gives us some clues about what underlies our (alleged) ability to recreate their mental states. (Clearly, though, there are some very bold intellectual leaps being made here, especially since the abilities of human beings to attribute mental states to other people far outstrip those of chimpanzees and gorillas, let alone macaque monkeys).
The idea that human beings' practical capacity for engagement with the world can be accounted for by their grasp of a theory is one that has been attacked - even within analytic philosophy - by philosophers such as Hubert Dreyfus and Andy Clark who have been influenced by the Heideggerian suggestion that engaged practice is prior to and presupposed by theory. So it is unsurprising to discover that the contributions in this volume are mostly of interest to someone who wants to develop the simulationist view. There are a number of places at which one might expect someone interested in phenomenology to have something interesting to say to the simulationist. One is the accurate description of what it is actually like to attribute mental states to another person. As Varela, Rosch and Thompson point out in their earlier book, an obvious precondition for assessing explanations of our mental capacities is that we should have a clear view of how these capacities work in practice. The descriptions given by analytic philosophers and cognitive scientists are often very thin: schematic, and, arguably, tainted by intellectualistic preconceptions. One might hope that philosophers trained in the phenomenological tradition might be capable of improving matters.
A further way in which one might expect the phenomenological tradition to have an enriching effect on existing work on simulation theory is through its stress on embodiment. There is a tendency for analytic philosophers to pay lip-service to the importance of avoiding a Cartesian view of the mind, and then go on to writs as if the minds they are attempting to describe are only contingently in touch with the external world. Phenomenologists on the other hand often stress the ways in which our perception of the world is conditioned not only by the fact that we are embodied creatures who occupy space in a particular way, but by the details of the particular ways in which we are embodied. If this is important for our perception of physical objects, then it is likely to be even more true of our understanding of other human beings. One way in which we can see how this might be significant is if we imagine the possibility of a simulationist account of mental state attribution that emphasises features of human embodiment such as gesture, expressive movement, and what one might more generally call adverbial modifiers of action than on the simple case of appreciating the beliefs and desires which feed into and provide reasons for a piece of deliberate goal directed action.
What someone who takes phenomenology seriously may want to emphasise at this point to is that when we are talking about the underpinnings of our ability to ascribe mental states to others the body seems to enter the story twice: once as the body of the individual whose mental states we are trying to understand, and once, as the phenomenologist emphasises, as our own body. This leads to a problem to which analytic advocates of the simulation theory have given very little attention. It is clear that as well as attributing mental states to individuals like our own, we also attribute mental states to individuals with what one might describe as 'alien bodies' - to animals, young children, disfigured individuals and so on. But if our ability to ascribe mental states to others depends on an ability to appreciate how a situation might seem to them, and if, as someone who stresses the role of embodiment is likely to want to stress, this involves not only an appreciation of the intellectual considerations which apply in that situation, but also the way in which the interaction between a creature's body and their surrounding environment shapes their experience, then our ability to ascribe mental states to individuals with alien bodies seems to be something of a mystery.
I do not want to suggest that those who have argued for the simulation theory have no resources which might enable them to respond to this problem. The point is rather that once we consider work in the phenomenological tradition the problem is foregrounded in such a way is to make dealing with it seem to be of vital importance, rather than just a matter of fiddling with the details of the account. So this is one clear example of how taking phenomenology seriously can help us to see existing problems in the cognitive sciences in a new light. Furthermore, attention to phenomenology may play a role in helping to solve this problem: it is likely that in order to explain our capacity to attribute mental states to individuals with alien bodies we are going to need to look more carefully both at what is involved in encountering such an individual, and at what it is like to be such an individual. Several of the papers included in this volume make contributions of precisely this sort: Barbara Smuts writes interestingly about 'Encounters with Animal Minds' in just this vein, and Francisco Varela includes a moving piece about the phenomenology of being a liver transplant patient.
Moving beyond this kind of issue, several of the papers included here point towards a possible phenomenological critique of the simulation view. As with phenomenological opposition to the theory view, Heidegger's work provides an important point of reference here. Heidegger's critique of Dilthey's early anticipations of the simulation theory is based on the idea that the success of simulation as a method of mental state attribution depends on a prior grasp of a more basic level of intersubjectivity. This is what grounds the very idea that there might be more than one subject in the world. One way of putting this point is that before we can use simulation as a means of attributing metal states to others, we need to know that there are subjects of mental states who are not ourselves, and we need to have some idea of which sorts of beings those other subjects are. No-one tries to understand the mental processes of a vending machine by trying to imagine themselves in the vending machine's position.
Whether Dilthey's views are indeed vulnerable to this kind of critique is an issue which must be left to scholars of nineteenth century German philosophy. What is more interesting for our purposes is whether the same points constitute a problem for contemporary versions of the simulationist view. To my mind, this is a question to which we do not have a clear answer - while it is obvious that many simulationists are primarily interested in the question of what underpins the mature capacity for mental state attribution, it does not necessarily follow that they cannot also give an account of how we get into a situation in which such a capacity can be used. Issues about embodiment may turn out to be central here - Andrew Meltzoff has done interesting work on the surprising ability of very young children to imitate gesture, and it is a moot point whether ideas of this sort can be incorporated into a version of the simulationist account (in at least some of his work, such as his 1997 co-authored work with Alison Gopnik, he seems to line up on the side of the theory theorists). Again the papers in this volume by Arisaka, Depraz, Zahavi, and Gallagher provide interesting pointers for investigating these issues.
One limitation of this volume is that the papers in it tend to have a somewhat tentative and exploratory feel to them. This may be matter of the stylistic norms which are prevalent in the fields where such matters are discussed. Clearly it is inappropriate to be too assertive when one is making claims about what shared experience is liked - it too easily invites the reply that one has misdescribed the nature of that experience. Nevertheless, at times when in reading this volume I wished that the contributors had spent less time telling me about avenues that might be worth exploring and more time discussing the view from the end of those avenues. Nevertheless this is a relatively small quibble - I felt that there was a lot to learn from many of the papers I read here, and I highly recommend the collection to those who are interested in further exploring the themes discussed in this review.
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© Bill Wringe.
Wringe, W. G. (2002). Review of Between Ourselves: Second-person Issues in the Study of Consciousness edited by Evan Thompson. Human Nature Review. 2: 492-496.