Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Social Progress and Personal Progress: Expanding the Unconscious Repertoire and Densifying of the Content of Actions

The structure of the discussion:
1. John Searle and the Content of Action: The Relationship Between Thinking and Doing
2. Collingwood's Reenactment as Accessing the Content of Action
3. Action as the Expression of the A Priori Imagination: Claxton on Action and Thought
4. The Content of Action as the Product of our Experience
5. Action as the Expression of Wisdom: Deliberately Densifying The Content of Our Intuitive Actions


6/15/10 - beginning notes- I thought of this post when I used my leg to help me close a door when my hands were occupied.

I experienced a really dense moment in which a few different types of thoughts unfolded very rapidly. I had a strange flash of hypothetical-future simulations of possible things mixed with reflections on the role of experience in learning to do things without thinking about them. I thought about what if I had a kid and in the future my kid saw me open and close a door with the help of my foot and asked me how I learned to do that. It would seem novel to them, the closing of a door with your foot. Then I imagined myself telling my kid about how you learn to do lots of things overtime without thinking about it. Experience just teaches you things. This was all incredibly compressed thought. This whole simulation of having a child who saw me do this and the explanation happened in an instance. But then I scribbled some stuff and now I am gonna write this post.

So generally I would say that this post is about pursuing some questions that were raised by my last post, which was 69 pages and took a huge toll on me. It just felt taxing. Like a large expression. The last 40 pages on Foucault I wrote in 3 days, and the whole thing just felt intense.

But in that last post I was trying to talk about the a priori imagination, how it underlies social interactions, and how we could hope to change it. In particular I spent a lot of time talking about Foucault's emphasis on transformation. Now I want to talk a little more about what these types of transformations would look like. What is the personal progress that I am trying to describe? This morning when I had my strange flash of thoughts I realized that there is a quotation that really helps describe what I am thinking about. Unfortunately, I cannot remember where I read this. Cursory googling is not turning up results, so I may just write this without giving credit to whoever said this idea. I'll search a bit more.

Ah okay I found it. Alfred North Whitehead said, "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them."
I find this quotation provocative for a couple of reasons. First, I like how it jives with many lay understandings of social progress, which may use something like rationality and its general use as a metric for progress. I also think that progress is brought about by increasing the number of things we can do unconsciously. When I closed a door with my leg, for example, that was something I did unconsciously based on my experiences.

That is essentially what my post of 6/13 was all about. It is about figuring out how we think on an unconscious level, and then changing how we think and act on an unconscious level. This Whitehead quotation allows me to specify a little bit more clearly how increasing our unconscious store of thoughts and actions could be seen as a form of personal progress.

- 6/16 and on writing to completion -

Furthermore, this post provides me with a good chance to clarify two other ideas that contribute to my last post that I didn't focus on. 1. John Searle's idea that action always has a 'content,' which is basically the thoughts that are behind an action. 2. R.G. Collingwood's definition of history as the history of thought and the conclusion that understanding actions is always about reenacting the thoughts expressed in the action.

Collingwood and Searle's claims really line up in this instance, in that they both claim you cannot understand an action without understanding the thought that caused that action. More importantly, Searle says the content of an action and the explanation of an action must be the same thing. When we explain an action we in essence have to recreate the content of that action for ourselves. In other words, if we want to understand someone we have to recreate their thought for ourself. This aspect of the issue of action/content question lines up directly with Collingwood's notion of the 'reenactment of past thought.'

So, how does my idea of the modification of the a priori imagination line up with this idea of the content of thought? Well I think that changing the a priori imagination would come back to modifying the content of our pre-reflective actions.

In short, I am trying to increase the density of the content of our actions. I am trying to make it so that we can think more things without actually thinking about them. I am trying to make it so that our actions, even pre-reflective ones, express a depth of thought that has been instilled into our unconscious. I want to make it so that the a priori imagination, our unconscious thoughts and actions, are laden with thought, saturated with wisdom. Just as Whitehead said progress in society comes from increasing people's unconscious repertoire, what if personal progress comes from increasing the number of things we think about without actually thinking about them.

So anyways, now I'm gonna use a couple different people to explore this idea. First, I want to talk more in depth about John Searle and his idea that action can only be explained with the thought behind that action (i.e. action must be explained by its content and not its form). Then I want to spend some time on Collingwood's reenactment, how it is similar to Searle, and how it can ultimately bring us back to the modification of the a priori imagination. Somewhere along the line I also want to discuss Guy Claxton and his thoughts on the connection between action and thought.

John Searle and the Content of Action: The Relationship Between Thinking and Doing
So first I want to talk about some of John Searle's lectures that were published as a book called Minds, Brains And Science. In particular, I want to talk about his lecture on "The Structure of Action." Searle essentially provides a framework to help us conceptualize human action in general and, more importantly, how to conceptualize explanations of human action.

For me, the most relevant part is Searle's distinction between the content of an action and themode of an action. The content of an action is essentially the thought or intention that caused the action. The mode on the other hand is the form of physical action that was used to carry out the content. When I get up out of my chair and leave the room the content could be several things, I could want to eat food, I could need to use the bathroom, I could want to drive to New York. But in each one of those cases, while the content of my action differs, the mode was the same. I got up out of my chair and I left the room. The content of the action may differ, but they all had the same mode of expression.

Now this is helpful because it gives me terms to conceptualize the thought behind actions as distinct from the actions themselves. As I will discuss, this lends a lot of weight to Collingwood's idea of reenactment, and thus furthers me in much of my thinking in general. As usual, this writing is augmenting and complementing my biggest pieces of writing (4/30 and 6/13).

John Searle then discusses how this distinction between the content and the mode of action helps us explain human action. I am going to use two quotations from Searle. His thinking is remarkably similar to Collingwood's in that he believes the explanation of thought can only happen if we replicate the thoughts that a person had when they committed that action. Collingwood says that we can only understand history through this 'reenactment' of past thought. Further, Collingwood says that all knowledge of mind is historical, so this lines up with Searle quite well.

Anyways, Searle quotations: "The explanation of an action must have the same content as was in the person's head when he performed the action. If the explanation is really explanatory, the content that causes behavior by way of intentional causation must be identical with the content in the explanation of the behavior" (67, author's italics).

Clearly this quotation hints at Collingwood's notion of reenactment, and generally of simulation theory of mind, which Collingwood certainly comes close to in some ways.

In this next quotation Searle invokes the difference between explaining natural events and human events, which also sounds a lot like Collingwood's comparison of geology and history.

Searle says: "In this respect actions differ from other natural events in the world, and correspondingly, their explanations differ. When we explain an earthquake or a hurricane, the content in the explanation only has to represent what happened and why it happened. It doesn't actually have to cause the event itself. But in explaining human behavior, the cause and the explanation both have contents and the explanation only explains because it has the same content as the cause" (67).

In other words, explanations of behavior only make sense if they replicate, reenact, simulate, the thoughts that were originally expressed in that action.

Collingwood's Reenactment as Accessing the Content of Action
So I just want this section to be brief. I just want to establish that Collingwood's reenactment is essentially the same some of explanation of human action that Searle explicates.

Collingwood believed that the only way to understand history was to reenactment (ie replicate the content) the thoughts of past individuals. In order for this to happen past thought had to be expressed in some way. Thought can be expressed through writing, through the construction of buildings or anything else, or anyway. Anything that the historian can detect thought behind is historical evidence.

But let me run with the two best examples: writing and constructed objects.

When we encounter past writing (which includes an e-mail from a friend written yesterday), we Collingwood says we can only understand it by accurately recreating their thoughts for ourselves. When our friend writes and tells us he is upset because his dog died, we can only understand it if we imagine our friends experience and recreate those thoughts for ourselves. Same thing with an old piece of pottery or an old building. We can only understand the purpose of those buildings if we can imagine why someone thought to build it there. What were they thinking about? Why did they build it here and not there?

Collingwood's idea of reenactment, therefore, is essentially meant to access the content of actions. Writing and building can certainly be considered actions that express thought. Just like Searle, Collingwood believed that we can only understand action if we replicate its content for ourselves. Reenactment is Collingwood's way of talking about accessing and replicating the content of a person's actions.


Action as the Expression of the
A Priori Imagination: Claxton on Action and Thought
So now that I have established the connection between Searle and Collingwood, I want to shift the discussion to Collingwood's notion of the a priori imagination, and how it relates to the idea of the content of action. In particular, I want to figure out two things. 1. If we can consider our actions as the expression of the a priori imagination. 2. If Claxton's phrase 'I act, therefore I think,' can help me with this issue.

So, the a priori imagination. I already hashed this idea out at some length in my post of 3/30 and 6/13. But for now I will briefly restate what it is all about.

The a priori imagination is a form of imagination that we all possess where our mind makes decisions and judgments about things and people by unconsciously filling in gaps in perceptual information. When we instantaneously attribute complex mental states to other people I suspect we are drawing on a priori imagined simulations of other people's thoughts.

I think that a priori imagination involves both low-level and high-level mind reading. Meaning that it would involve mirror neurons and direct empathy, as well as more abstract and complex imaginings of someone's mental states. The involvement of mirror neurons is fairly straight forward, but the high-level part I want to explain a bit more. But I think they are likely involved in a priori imaginings because most of our conceptions of other people go way beyond basic emotions line pain and anger. Rather, when we attribute mental states we are almost always considering more abstract social conceptions. When we think about men or women, adults or children, any perceived social group, we are drawing on socially constructed notions to attribute mental states to these people. Given that our mindreadings are permeated with these abstract social notions, it seems clear that it would involve a blend of low-level and high-level mindreading. We would be able to intuitively include those social abstractions without recourse to higher-level imaginings about minds.

Based on what I just said, it seems that I can conclude that the a priori imagination would guide many of our actions, and can therefore be considered as providing the content for our actions. In other words, because action often happens at an unconscious level, the content of our actions must therefore be formed at an unconscious level. The a priori imagination is probably the level at which the content of our unconscious actions would be formed. Action, therefore, may often be the expression of the a priori imagination. Basically, all of our actions reflect some sort of thought. Whether this thought it is imagined a priori, or it is deliberately thought out, all action reflects some level of thought.

This idea that all action expresses thought lines up well with Claxton's writing in The Wayward Mind. I only want to provide this brief quotation. Either way, I'm unable to find the page number, but it is a somewhat common sentiment on the internet it seems.

The idea is to modify Descartes' phrase 'I think, therefore I am,' and say instead 'I act, therefore I think.' All action reflects thought of some sort. Whether it is conscious or unconscious, action can only reflect some type of intelligence or thought. This applies to everything. Every action that we perform expresses some form of thought.

From here I am going to explore two related things. First, how the content of our action, especially when we act unconsciously (
a priori), is a product of our experience. Our actions our loaded with thought that has been unconsciously instilled in us. Second, I am going to explore the ways that we could potentially modify our unconscious thought, and therefore our unconscious actions. I want to focus on how we can introduce a greater level of wisdom into our unconscious thought and actions. I want to make it so that all of our actions reflect a certain depth of unconscious thought, a certain wisdom.

The Content of Action as the Product of our Experience
So in this section I just want to establish that all of our pre-reflective, unconscious actions reflect a certain level of thought. Moreover, in most instances our unconscious actions reflect a large amount of socially constructed thought that we have internalized through experience. I am going to spend some time giving examples of how this is the case. Again, I want to show that most of our action reflects thought of some sort that has been acquired at unconscious level through experience. Once I have established this I will have two purposes: to illuminate the unconscious content of our actions, and to modify them so that they reflect greater wisdom.

Think of all the unconscious thought that is reflected in a lot of our actions. My examples will all be everyday interactions in which we would probably behave automatically. Driving, navigating people in grocery stores, conversations.

When we are driving we do a lot of things on an unconscious, pre-reflective level. Further, all of these actions express a large amount of socially constructed thought. We use our turn signals when we change lanes. This action alone reflects certain understands of the law, of consideration, of how other people will respond to our changing lanes without signaling, etc.. All kinds of thought is expressed in that action. Also think about waving to people while driving. Somebody lets us merge and we wave a thank you. We are expressing all kinds of knowledge about what it means to need to get over, that someone is being nice by letting you in, that you should thank them. It just seems like an incredibly large amount of thought and understanding is expressed in those unreflective actions. This is all socially constructed ideas that have permeated our minds.

Remember, I am going with the Whitehead quote in which progress is a result of increasing the number of things that people can do pre-reflectively. I suppose this stuff may be progress. We have trained entire generations of people to be able to use microwaves, drive cars, use credit cards, use the internet, most of it without any pre-reflective thought. We can all simply do these things now. Because we live in a world in which they constitute our basic experiences, these actions have become mostly unconscious. By unconsciously engaging in these complex actions we are expressing a certain level of thought. In other words, the content of our actions is modified by our experiences with society. The thoughts that are behind our actions are a result of our experience in the world.

The content of our actions, therefore, is made denser by our experiences. Perhaps this is a form of progress. People nowadays can do way more thinks without reflection then people used to be able to do (unless that isn't true). But we can engage with way more technology without reflection that people used to. Either way, in this section all I need to show is that our experience with the social world makes it so that our actions express more thought than they used to.

Now I want to turn to talk about ways that we could personally manipulate the content of our action. I want to talk about changing the underlying thoughts of our unconscious actions. I am talking about modifying the unconscious so that all of our actions express a certain amount of wisdom. This lines up with Whitehead in that I want to increase the number of thoughts that our everyday actions reflect. This all lines up with the a priori imagination in ways I don't want to (and can't) articulate here and now.

But onward to action as the expression of wisdom.

Action as the Expression of Wisdom: Deliberately Densifying The Content of Our Intuitive Actions
Now, let me say first of all, that action does not have to reflect wisdom. I just want to explore the possibility, the what if, all action could reflect a certain amount of wisdom. What if the content of all of our action was mindfulness and wisdom?

Well, I bet that could be a thing. People who are very mindful, who are very wise, their actions would express that level of discipline, concern, attention, and wisdom. Their actions would be saturated with those sorts of thought.

But what would that be like? And how could you cultivate that form of action/thought? Well, I feel like making recourse to two authors. First, to E.M. Cioran, and his thoughts on action and wisdom. And second, Foucault, and his thoughts on social observation and personal transformation.

First, a quotation from Mr. Cioran: "X insults me. I am about to hit him. Thinking it over, I refrain. Who am I? which is my real self: the self of the retort or that of the refraining? My first reaction is always energetic; the second one, flabby. What is known as 'wisdom' is ultimately only a perpetual 'thinking it over,' i.e., non-action as first impulse."

I take this quotation as commentary on a few things, 1. It is about relating to your thoughts in certain ways, 2. It is about the relationship between action and wisdom.

So, as for relating to your thoughts. This quotation has a hint of mindfulness, in that he relates to his thoughts as something separate from, rather than constitutive, of his sense of self. He has multiple reactions to an insult, and has a hard time discerning which of these reactions is his true nature. In reality none of them are, it is rather his awareness, his 'thinking it over' that is his self.

And for wisdom and action. It seems like Cioran is saying that wisdom manifests itself primarily through
non-action. Which is great and lines up with the Taoist notion of wu-wei (i.e. non-action, letting things take their natural course).

But either way, I think this quotation gives me some good starting points to think about the relationship between action and wisdom. It is indeed possible to attain a frame of mind in which wisdom naturally expresses itself. Ciroan, however, seems to believe that wisdom manifests itself primarily through non-action, or mindfulness.

Basically I feel like that was just to help me conceptualize wisdom a little bit. I ought to read that book I have called Wisdom. But anyways, let me now talk about the role that Foucault could play in helping us cultivate a modern, western wisdom.

As I mentioned before, the content of our action is determined by experience, and in particular by our social experience that provides us with certain concepts and ideas about people and things. I think that Foucault's archeologies could give us the ability to transcend our current stock of social concepts. Foucault would strip away discursive prisons and allow our minds to explore people, things, and ourselves in ways that go beyond contemporary discourse.

In essence, Foucault is presenting us with a path towards mindfulness.

If we were to internalize his lessons, and learn to pay attention to the world in different ways, we could probably change the content of our pre-reflective actions. The idea is that if we payed enough attention to the way we thought and acted, we could change the way we think and therefore act. Our unconscious actions, therefore, would take on new contents. Our mind would be operating on a new set of unconscious principles, and our action would reflect it. Our actions would reflect richer content. Richer thought would inform our actions.

I need to read more on mindfulness, on wisdom, so I can understand exactly what type of mindset we are trying to cultivate and how we could do it. But for now I think I have shown that most of our actions expresses certain thoughts, that it would be possible to identify the content of our actions, and it would be possible to modify the content of our unconscious actions. In essence, we would be able to modify our unconscious modes of thought so that they were expressed in our actions. In particular, I want wisdom to be expressed by our actions. And I believe that mindfulness, paying attention, would be able to help us modify the content of our actions and make it so that our actions reflected wisdom.

This is the density of the content of our action. What are the things that we are unconsciously thinking when we act pre-reflectively? What if we could make it so that we were thinking more when we acted unconsciously? What if we could saturate our mind with wisdom so our actions reflected that wisdom. This would be what I call increasing the density of the content of our actions, and based on what Whitehead said, this would be a form of personal progress. We would be changing the amount of things that we thought about without thinking about them. Wisdom would permeate our actions.

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