Sunday, December 5, 2010

Art, Zen, and Insurrection: Finding Personal and Social Change In The Art of Life Part I.3

Part I.3. Art and Language

14. Art as Language: How Much Of Expression Can be Artistic?

15. The Technical Theory of Language

16. Consciousness In Language, Emotion, and Thought

17. Art, Language, and Reenactment: How Does Language Work?

18. Reenactment, Empathy, and Simulation Theory: Collingwood Anticipates Goldman and Frith

19. Consciousness In Art, Language, and Zen

20. Social Interaction as the Imaginative Expression of Emotions


Part I.3. Art And Language

Now that I have negatively defined art, and positively defined art as the imaginative expression of emotions, I would like to add some nuance to this definition. In particular, I need to deal with one of Collingwood’s most confusing and interesting conclusions: that all art is essentially language. That whenever we use the imagination to express our emotions, we are engaging in a form of linguistic expression.

Frankly, this is one section that I am not very confident about. But I will nonetheless do my best to tackle it.

I plan on handling it in seven sections. First I want to give a general introduction to this idea that all art is language. The purpose of the first section is to introduce the most important question of this entire series of essays: if all art is language, then how much of our daily expression can be artistic? I’ll then take a look at what Collingwood calls ‘the technical theory of language’ so that I can begin to parse apart this issue. After that I’ll try to look more closely at the relationship between language and thought. Then I’ll try to integrate Collingwood’s notion of ‘reenactment’ into this analysis. Reenactment is an idea that Collingwood introduces in The Idea of History, but which is very relevant to his analysis of language and thought in The Principles of Art. After that I’ll explain how Collingwood’s analysis of language predicts contemporary views that I have seen in the work of Alvin Goldman and Chris Frith. After that I'll try to begin making the connection to Zen by highlighting the role of consciousness in art, language, and Zen. Finally I’ll try to bring all of this together in the section ‘Social Interaction as the Imaginative Expression of Emotions’. In that final section I will really begin pushing this question about how much of our daily social lives can become artistic.


14. Art as Language: How Much Of Expression Can be Artistic?

As I have said, Collingwood concludes that if art is indeed the imaginative expression of emotions, then art must always be some form of language. If art is language, we must therefore ask ourselves: What is language?

The short answer is that every expressive gesture is a form of language. That every part of our expression, our tone, our body language, our hand gestures, that all of it matters and is a part of language. So in this section I want to start analyzing language so that I can start establishing what I will eventually fully claim in Part III: That we can become existential aestheticians, that all of our social lives can become a work of art. But in order to get there I first need to undertake a more general analysis of language and art as language. So the first question I will ask is, How can language be so diverse a phenomenon so as to encompass all expressive gestures? How is it that we can understand language as not simply words, “but in a wider sense in which it includes any activity of any organ which is expressive in the same way in which speech is expressive” (235).

I think the best way to begin this discussion is to make a distinction between language as a broad phenomenon and symbolism as a specific function of language. Collingwood defines language as a broad category that encompasses every gesture that is either expressive or communicative. “In its original or native state,” he argues, “language is imaginative or expressive: to call it imaginative is to describe what it is, to call it expressive is to describe what it does. It is an imaginative activity whose function is to express emotion. Intellectual language is this same thing intellectualized, or modified so as to express thought” (225). A symbol, on the other hand, is a specific form of language that has been decided (at least implicitly) to signify a certain thing. Collingwood draws on the ancient Greek distinction between symbol and language to corroborate his argument. He says that for the Greeks a symbol was “something arrived at by agreement and accepted by the parties to the agreement as valid for certain purpose” (225). The agreement that constitutes a symbol, however, is no longer as explicit as it may have been for the ancient greeks. In our culture it seems that things are simply believed to be what it is that we call them. A dog, for example, is simply a dog. We have no sense that the word dog is an implicitly decided upon symbol that signifies the many species of dogs that we know. Or a chair is simply a chair. We have lost touch with the fact that language is not simply symbolism, that language is not simply words.

I think that making this distinction between language and symbol goes a long way in explaining how language is not simply words, but a larger phenomenon of expressive and communicative gestures. It just seems that our culture is so overrun by words and symbols. The meaning of the plethora of our symbols has been so subtly and implicitly decided over the last centuries that we don’t recognize the consensual nature of their use. Words and symbols only work the way they do because society implicitly decides to use them in those ways. Culture seems to have reached such a critical mass that symbols circulate without being under anybody’s control. They morph and change all the time. But we don’t seem to make the distinction between language and symbolism very often. In short, I am worried that people think confuse “language in general with intellectualized language or symbolism” (226). So, now that I have told you the difference between language and symbolism, hopefully freeing language from a conception that associates it primarily with words and symbols, let me elaborate this definition of language as gestures.

So how is it that language could be every form of expressive and communicative gesture? I still am not very clear on this issue. And it sure is a shame that I’m trying to write on it at this particular moment. But I suppose one thing I can say is that Collingwood stresses that the process of speaking, of gesturing, of using language, is a process in which we are both speaker and hearer. My discussion of the imagination in the previous chapter made it clear that when we express ourselves through language we raise our emotions from the purely psychical level and give them a new coloring at either the imaginative or the intellectual level of experience. The same thing holds true for language in general: “A person expressing emotions... is treating himself and his audience in the same kind of way; he is making his emotions clear to his audience, and that is what he is doing to himself” (111). This means that language, just like art, is both about expressing ourselves and exploring ourselves (as I explained in Part I.2.7). Furthermore, language as expressive and explorative has something to do with consciousness: Collingwood says expression “is an activity which has something to do with the thing we call language: he expresses himself by speaking. It also has something to do with consciousness: the emotion expressed is an emotion of whose nature the person who feels it is no longer unconscious” (109). Thus Collingwood’s analysis of art that I presented in section I.2 proves to be consistent with his analysis of language as a more general phenomenon. Just like art, language is imaginative in that it involves the transformation of psychical experience into imaginative levels through the work of consciousness.

Collingwood’s claim that art is a form of language is thus becoming slightly clearer to me. But I apologize that I am not able to explicate this more carefully. But it makes sense that speech and words would only be one form of language. And Collingwood thankfully draws the full implications from this idea: that every expressive bodily gesture is a form of language. “Every kind of language,” he argues, “is in this way a specialized form of bodily gesture, and in this sense it may be said that the dance is the mother of all languages” (244). I like this idea that dance is the essence of language. I have seen Nietzsche say something about how a philosopher should want to be a great dancer or something like that. So enough for the fundamental claim that language is a larger phenomenon than speech and words and encompasses all gestures.

I would now like to take a moment to compare Collingwood’s analysis of language to some contemporary neuroscience. Collingwood’s definition of language as gestures lines up with UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni’s. In Mirroring People, Iacoboni speculates that the language center in the brain (Broca’s area) is directly next to the motor cortex because there is a strong relationship between speaking and gesturing. Collingwood agrees. He says that “gestures of painting and so forth are themselves in the nature of language” (227). Collingwood again lines up with Iacoboni in that he treats language as something that is goal based. Meaning that naturally language is not used in conjunction with certain grammatical rules, but rather to express a certain goal. Collingwood gives the example of a child who is learning to speak for the first time. Imagine, Collingwood says, that every time the child’s mother removes its hat the mother says ‘Hatty off!’. Now, eventually the child will begin to replicate this sound so that when it takes its own hat off it will say something like ‘hattiaw!‘. Now are we to consider a child’s phrase like ‘hattiaw‘ to be a piece of language? The answer is of course. But clearly it lacks the qualities of symbolism, it lacks the qualities of speech that has been conditioned by social consensus. Instead, the child’s utterance of ‘hattiaw‘ is more simply expression that is expressing the accomplishment of a certain goal, the goal of removing its hat. As Collingwood says, “It would be nearer the truth, in denying that ‘hattiaw’ is a symbol, to call it an expression” (228). Collingwood’s analysis of language as gestures lines up with Iacoboni’s analysis in two ways: first, they both regard language not as essentially words, but as gestures, and second, they both regard language as goal oriented in that it expresses the accomplishment of certain ends.

Collingwood, however, goes beyond Iacoboni in his concern for how language is analyzed in society at large. Collingwood believed that associating language primarily with words could have negative consequences for how we behave in society. While this is something I’ll have to explore later in this essay, I will that I think Collingwood was concerned with properly defining language because if we associate language simply with words then we are limited the ways that we have to express ourselves and the ways that we are able to think. Furthermore, I think that Collingwood may have been concerned with the way that generalization desensitized us.

In conclusion, bodily gestures and utterances are the true forms of language, and “any theory of language must begin here. if we begin by studying the result of these further modifications, the language we use for expressing our thoughts concerning the world around us and the structure of thought itself, and take this highly developed and highly specialized form of language as representing the universal and fundamental character of language as such, we shall get nowhere.” Because “beneath all the machinery of word and sentence lies the primitive language of mere utterance, the controlled act in which we express our emotions” (236). The theory of language has serious implications for how we express ourselves and how we live. Collingwood believed that by identifying language simply with words we were succumbing to the dangers of the technical theory of language. Now I would like to turn my attention explicitly to the technical theory of language and why it is dangerous in Collingwood’s eyes.


15. The Technical Theory of Language

Collingwood believes that if art is to be defined as a form of language, we must have an adequate definition of language. As I said above, he posits that language is not simply words and symbols, but every bodily gesture that is expressive and communicative. But this positive definition of language is not enough. This is because another theory of language, which Collingwood calls ‘the technical theory of language’, was already commonplace during his time. The technical theory of language is much like the technical theory of art that I explained in Part I.1. According to the technical theory of art, artistic expression is primarily a matter of craft: it is simply about converting raw materials into a finished product, and understand the process of art simply has to be about understanding its technical components. The technical theory of language similarly maintains that language is a craft, it is something that has essential properties, and that we simply need to breakdown and analyze the constituent parts of language. The technical theory of language essentially holds that language is a grammatically or logically analyzable system of signs that can be used to craft certain meanings. Further, the technical theory of language identifies language primarily with words. Under the technical theory of language, language loses much of its dynamism and its expressive power.

This is in stark contrast to the theory of language as gestures. Because if language is all the manifold gestures we use, then we cannot believe that it is simply words, as the technical theory believes. Furthermore, Collingwood believes that the technical theory of language denies the living component of language. According to Collingwood, languages cannot be rigidly analyzed and systematized because they are in constant change through their interaction with the rest of society. This is why Collingwood believes that grammar is more of a sham science then we might be aware: "The grammarian's real function... is not to understand language, but to alter it: to convert it from a state (its original and native state) in which it expresses emotion into a secondary state in which it can express thought" (257). In other words, we are missing out on the richness of language if we understand it only as words that need to be grammatically systematized so that they can be properly put towards craft. We need to embrace a larger definition of language in which it is genuinely expressive. Collingwood, however, was not very hopeful about his contemporaries approach to the theory of language: “Failing these helps, and misled by the modern practice of silent reading, logicians fling themselves headlong in hordes, like lemmings; and suicidally discuss the import of ‘propositions’ such as ‘the king of Utopia died last sunday’, without stopping to ask: ‘In what tone of voice am I supposed to say this? The tone of a person beginning a fairy tale, in which case I hand the job over to an aesthetician; of the tone of a person state a fact of which he wishes to convince his audience...?” (265-6). For Collingwood, the technical theory of language, just like the technical theory of art, was the main idea to be refuted. Rather than being an analyzable and systematizable set of ‘phrases’ or ‘propositions’, language, for Collingwood, was a diverse phenomenon that had been restricted and pigeonholed by the technical theory of language. These views led Collingwood to argue as such: “‘The proposition’, understood as a form of words expressing thought and not emotion, and as constituting the unit of scientific discourse, is a fictitious entity.” (266). In other words, grammatical rules do not exist before we say that they exist. Language is rather a living and breathing form of expression that fluctuates and flows throughout communities. But the technical theory of language had managed to numb us to the richness of language. Language is not an objective phenomenon that can be systematized, but is rather “an activity; it is expressing oneself, or speaking” (254). But the technical theory of language helps us believe that words were the only form of language we had, and that they followed a rigid and expressible logic of their own. In conclusion: “A grammarian is not a kind of scientist studying the actual structure of language; he is a kind of butcher, converting it from organic tissue into marketable and edible joints” (257).

I think that Collingwood’s attack on the technical theory of language is very important. By refuting the most popular conception of language in his time (and possibly ours), Collingwood hoped to liberate our capacity for expression from a limiting definition of language. I think that this idea still has very serious implications. Later in this essay I’ll be connecting this idea to two issues I think very important: 1. status functions and the structure of our thinking, and 2. our culture’s condition of knowledge-saturation and the theory-theory of mind. In both instances I will be talking about the ways that language provides us with an overly-structured experience that prevents us from being creative or expressive. I will be talking about these issues as the technical theories of life, politics, and society.

But now I would like to move on and talk about the relationship between language, emotions, and thought as it applies to all of this.


16. Consciousness In Language, Emotion, and Thought

Now when it comes to the relationship between language and thought there are three important things I need to discuss. First, the way that language is capable of expressing emotion. Second, the way that language expresses thought, which is also connected to the relationship between emotion and thought. And third, the way that language changes and alters our emotions and thoughts. I’m not sure what I want to accomplish by discussing these things, except that there is a definite connection between all three of these things.

So the first issue: language and the expression of emotions. It should be clear from the other parts of this section that language is essentially all about expressing emotions. Whenever we express our emotions we are using language. And this always has to do with our bodies and the way that we use them to make gestures of any kind. But a question arises for me: If the expression of our emotions is always language, is there any threshold at which our actions are or are not language? The answer is yes. And Collingwood’s answer revolves around the role of consciousness. Collingwood says that in order for the expression of our emotions to constitute language we must have an awareness of our emotions. By being aware of our emotions, by dominating them and turning them from sensations into imagination we can express them bodily: “the bodily acts which express these emotions, instead of being simply automatisms of our psycho-physical organism, are experienced in our new self-consciousness as activities belonging to ourselves, and controlled in the same sense as the emotions they express. Bodily actions expressing certain emotions, in so far as they come under our control and are conceived by us, in our awareness of controlling them, as our way of expressing these emotions, are language” (235).

This seems to get tricky for me. How is it that bodily expression of emotions only becomes language under the supervision of consciousness? Well, I think it makes sense. This doesn’t mean that we don’t express our emotions in some way if we are not conscious of them. We express our emotions all the time without exerting any kind of consciousness. But consciousness augments the way we express things. This was made clear in Part I.2.12 ‘Imagination, Consciousness, and Art’. When we direct consciousness towards our emotions we raise them to the imaginative or intellectual level and we change them into something new. This is why expression is also exploration. So this leads me to another one of Collingwood’s interesting claims that might make sense now: that there are no unexpressed emotions. This seems paradoxical at first. But Collingwood says that “what are called unexpressed emotions are emotions at one level of experience, already expressed in the way appropriate to that level, of which the person who feels them is trying to become conscious: that is, trying to convert into the material of an experience at a higher level, which when he achieves it will be at once an emotion at this higher level and an expression appropriate to it” (239). Meaning that when we express our emotions at the purely physical and psychical level they exist in one way. And if we then use consciousness to elevate them to the level of language, whether it be imaginative or intellectual language, we are changing the emotions and thus expressing new emotions that have correlates in lower levels of our experience. In this way there can be no such thing as an unexpressed emotion: every emotion gains a new quality when it is expressed in new ways, they are either expressed at the lower psychical level that is appropriate, or they undergo the transformation into imagination/idea and they gain expression at that level. In short, the expression of emotions becomes language when our consciousness is engaged in the process of transforming our emotions into higher order experiences.

But what about thought? What is the relationship between thought and language? What is the relationship between emotions and thought? Well, the former question is easier to answer: thoughts are emotions that have been raised and transformed into higher levels of experience through the work of consciousness. When we direct our consciousness towards our emotions we are able to intellectualize them and we can thus express them. Language as Collingwood defines it, however, does not necessarily deal with these intellectualized thoughts. “Language in its original nature,” he argues, “expresses not thought in this narrower sense, but only emotions; though these are not crude impressions, but are transmuted into ideas through the activity of consciousness” (252). So then, it seems clear enough that thoughts and emotions go hand in hand. Thoughts are emotions that consciousness has grappled with and has made them into something new.

But what about thought and language? Well, I don’t think Collingwood has as much to say about this. Or maybe he does and I have misread him. But for now I want to quickly say that language has the tendency to structure thought. When we declare something to be a certain way we change the way we perceive it. Again, I’ll be discussing this far more in depth when I get to the section on status functions and neuroplasticity and all that other stuff.

So what about art? What does all of this business about language, emotions, and thought have to do with art? Well, it means that artistic expression (which is always linguistic) happens as a result of consciousness. That when we use consciousness to transmute our emotions into imagination or intellect we are providing ourselves with the fodder that we need for our artistic expression. This is why there is a direct relationship between thought, emotions, and art (i.e. language): “Even if art never expresses thought as such, but only emotion, the emotions it expresses are not only the emotions of a merely conscious experient, they include the emotions of a thinker; and consequently a theory of art must consider the question: how, if at all, must language be modified in order to bring the expression of these emotions within its scope” (252). So all conscious expression of emotions is language, all art is the conscious expression of emotions, and all art is therefore language. But language also interacts with thought and emotions. Our emotions provide the original impetus for something, but once consciousness changes them they become something new: either imagination or idea. When we change emotion into imagination or idea we then change the way that original emotion is expressed and feels in our mind. So language, emotions, and thoughts all effect one another. Emotions are expressed through language, emotions are modified by thoughts and are thus expressed differently by language, and language then changes our emotions and thoughts, and our artistic expression is changed every step of the way.

Now I want to turn to a more specific problem about the how of language.


17. Art, Language, and Reenactment: How Does Language Work?

Now that I’ve taken the time to parse the relationship between language, emotions, thoughts, and art, I want to take up a more specific question: if art is language, how do people understand a work of art, and how do we understand language more generally? In other words, I now want to discuss the how of linguistic expression and communication. How does it work?


Collingwood’s views on the functioning of language revolve around two key things: the nature of words themselves, and the nature of the mind. As for words as a medium, Collingwood believes that they are elusive, that they are not technical by their nature, and that they are therefore not a consistent or reliably analyzable form of communication. As for minds, Collingwood believes they are essentially inaccessible: we can never know the true content of another person’s mind. So where does this leave us? How do we use the limited medium of words in order to access the unknowable world of other minds? Well, the answer is contained in Collingwood’s notion of the reenactment of thought. What words offer us is evidence of another person’s thoughts that we can use to reconstruct or reenact those very same thoughts for ourselves. Let me buttress these arguments about words, minds, and reenactment in turn with a little bit of textual evidence.

Now Collingwood discusses words as a limited medium that always has shortcomings and vagaries. It is never 100% clear what a word means, what it refers to, and if we have understood it properly. "The proper meaning of a word...,” he argues, “is never something upon which the word sits perched like a gull on a stone; it is something over which the word hovers like a gull over a ship's stern. Trying to fix the proper meaning in our minds is like coaxing the gull to settle in the rigging, with the rule that the gull must be alive when it settles: one must not shoot it and tie it" (7). Because language is a living and changing thing we have to recognize that we are not using language to directly refer to or label things. Instead we are engaging in a sort of pointing, a suggestion to a certain kind of meaning. This is why the "way to discover the proper meaning [of a word] is to ask not, 'What do we mean?' but, 'What are we trying to mean?' " (7). Words never contain an essential meaning. They are hints, clues, attempts to express something that were think or feel. And Collingwood’s definition of art and language accounts for this inherent uncertainty of nature.

Collingwood’s definition of art and language also grapples with the inherent inaccessibility of other people’s mental states. For it is the inaccessibility of other minds, our inherent subjective confinement, our inevitable solipsism, that forces language to have to indirect and suggestive qualities that Collingwood identifies. Language has to ‘point’ to things’ because only our own minds are accessible to us. Collingwood makes this point quite clear: “The nature of a person’s ‘mentality’ is in itself completely unknowable” (62). Language is therefore something that must overcome this inherent disconnect between minds.

So how does language manage to bridge the solipsistic gulf? The answer is contained in Collingwood’s notion of the ‘reconstruction’ or ‘reenactment’ of thought. Collingwood believes that language enables us to feel peoples emotions and thought for ourself. He believes that there is no direct imparting of knowledge from one person to another, but rather a process in which the hearer is forced to replicate the thoughts being expressed by the speaker. This is why he claims that a persons mind “is only knowable in its manifestations, the ways in which he thinks and acts” (62). We can only gain evidence of other people’s thoughts, never the thoughts themselves. And thus understanding other people’s minds comes back to replicating their thoughts for ourselves: “Now, if one person says something by way of expressing what is in his mind, and another hears and understands him, the hearer who understands him has that same thing in his mind” (118). Collingwood is even clearer on this point later in the book: “We are apt to think of [the relation between speaker and hearer] as one in which the speaker ‘communicates’ his emotions to the hearer. But emotions cannot be shared like food or drink, or handed over like old clothes. To speak of communicating an emotion, if it means anything, must mean causing another person to have emotions like those which I have myself” (249). Emotional and intellectual communication therefore comes down to an extended form of empathy in which we must think and feel things for ourselves. Collingwood, however, uses the term ‘sympathy’ to signify this process of reconstructing thought. “The relations between sentient organisms as such,” he claims, “are constituted by the various modes of sympathy which arise out of psychical expression of their feelings” (248). In The Idea of History Collingwood will later introduce the notion of ‘reenactment’ of thought. With this term he is trying to communicate the active process of reconstruction and re-experiencing that the listener has to go through if he wants to understand another person’s mind. Collingwood takes this idea to its full implication when he says, "Understanding what some on says to you is thus attributing to him the idea which his words arouse in yourself; and this implies treating them as words of your own" (250). It is what we hear and feel in our own minds, and not the minds of the speaker, that lets us understand what is going on in the speakers mind. This is why the “experience of speaking is also an experience of listening” (247). In short, my understanding of other minds depends entirely on my ability to reconstruct other people’s thoughts and feelings for myself.

This indirectness of language and the inaccessibility of language also applies to artistic expression and appreciation. Collingwood makes the connection between all of language and artistic language in particular when he says that “the listening which we have to do when we hear the noises made by musicians is in a way rather like the thinking we have to do when we hear the noises made, for example, by a person lecturing on a scientific subject” (140). When we are trying to access the meaning of a work of art we have to engage in this same process of reconstructing an experience for ourselves. In particular, we are trying to gain access to what Collingwood calls the ‘total imaginative experience’ of the artist. Meaning that we are trying to access all of the sensations and feelings that the author was feeling: mental, emotional, intellectual, physical, so on. Everything. This means that it is up to us, and our capacity to reconstruct an experience, to appreciate art. “If a poet expresses, for example, a certain kind of fear,” Collingwood argues, “the only hearers who can understand him are those who are capable of experiencing that kind of fear themselves” (118). If we are incapable of feeling what the artist felt then we will not be able to understand others. This applies not only to poetry, but to music as well: “what is written or printed on music-paper is not the tune. It is only something which when studied intelligently will enable others (or himself, when he has forgotten it) to construct the tune for themselves in their own heads” (135). And again, Collingwood stresses the importance of being an active listener. Unless we are willing to expend effort we will not be able to grasp difficult concepts or appreciate great works of art: “The music, the work of art, is not the collection of noises, it is the tune in the composer’s head. The noises made by the performers, and heard by the audience, are not the music at all; they are only mens by which the audience, if they listen intelligently (not otherwise), can reconstruct for themselves the imaginary tune that existed in the composer’s head” (139). In short, artistic expression has to be understood in the same way that ordinary language is understood: by engaging a process of recreating the thought, feelings, or imaginary object in the mind of the speaker or artist.

This means that when we engage with art we are not simply passive recipients, but become artists ourselves in the process. “Hence,” Collingwood claims, “when someone reads and understands a poem, he is not merely understanding the poet’s expression of his, the poet’s, emotions, he is expressing emotions of his own in the poet’s words, which have thus become his own words. As Coleridge put it, we know a man for a poet by that fact that he makes us poets. We know that he is expressing his emotions by the fact that he is enabling us to express ours” (118). If we are to seriously engage with art we need to recognize our role as collaborates, as artists ourselves.

In conclusion, it is now clearer that art is indeed a form of language both in terms of expression and understanding. When we want to express ourselves through ordinary or artistic language we have to exert consciousness to raise our emotions to an expressible level. Furthermore, what we are trying to reconstruct in the case of artistic expression is the total imaginative experience of the artist. All of this hinges on the idea that minds are by their nature inaccessible, that language must therefore be an indirect process of communication, and that we must engage in a process of active listening so that we can reconstruct in our own mind the thoughts and feelings being expressed by the speaker.

Now I would like to explain how Collingwood’s argument about language as required the reconstruction or reenactment of thought largely anticipated two contemporary thinkers: Alvin Goldman and Chris Frith.


18. Reenactment, Empathy, and Simulation Theory: Collingwood Anticipates Goldman and Frith

Collingwood’s analysis of language and its relationship to minds and art is very compelling. Especially because two contemporary thinkers have corroborated his arguments in substantial ways. By comparing Collingwood to these two contemporary thinkers I hope to do two things. First, I hope to introduce theory of mind more explicitly into the issues of art, zen, and insurrection. Because while Collingwood heavily discusses minds and their properties, he does not explicitly expound a theory of mind. Second, I hope to introduce contemporary neuroscience into the argument because it adds scientific weight to his claims about minds and their engagement with art. So first I’ll start by summarizing Alvin Goldman’s work on simulation theory of mind and explaining how Collingwood’s work on art, language, and minds largely anticipate Goldman’s theory of mind. After that I’ll turn to Chris Frith’s work to explain how Collingwood’s views anticipated the findings of contemporary neuroscience. In particular, I’ll explain how Collingwood anticipated the notion of ‘mental modeling’ and the existence of mirror neurons.

So, I believe that Collingwood’s discussion of art, language, and minds anticipates many of the conclusions that Alvin Goldman reaches in Simulating Minds. Goldman’s main purpose in that book is to create a comprehensive theory of mind that can answer the basic questions in philosophy of mind. The major questions are “(1) how do people mindread others–that is, attribute mental states to others? (2) How do people mindread themselves? (3) How is the mindreading capacity, or skill, acquired? (4) What are the contents of people’s concepts of mental states? How do they conceive the difference between belief and desire, anger and disgust?” (Goldman, 21). Goldman believes that he is capable of synthesizing the dominant theories of mind into a coherent answer of those major questions. The two major competing theories in contemporary theory of mind are simulation theory and theory-theory. Simulation theorists maintain that mindreading is accomplished by internally simulating other people’s thoughts for ourselves–that mindreading depends on an extended form of empathy. Theory-theorists, on the other hand, believe that mindreading is accomplished by the existence of tacit psychological theories. Theory-theorists claim that we rely on these unconscious psychological theories to make inferences about how other people are thinking and acting. Goldman advocates a simulation-theory hybrid in which simulation is seen as the primary means of mindreading. Since it is hard to deny the existence of tacit psychological theories, however, Goldman must make room for them in his account of simulation theory. Goldman thus concludes that tacit theories exist as an aid to the simulation process, and that they never serve as a primary means of mindreading. Later in this essay, in Part IV, I’ll have a lot more to say about this, because I suspect that pure theory-theory mindreading might be possible. But for now I am just summarizing Goldman’s work.

Goldman’s claims about simulation theory are heavily documented. But there are two Goldman’s distinction between two distinct forms of mindreading demonstrates the major pieces of evidence that he relies on. Goldman believes that we can distinguish between low-level and high-level simulational mindreading. Low-level simulational mindreading, he believes, is accomplished primarily by mirror neurons. High-level simulational mindreading depends on what he calls the ‘Enactment-imagination’ (E-imagination for short). Mirror neurons are a class of neurons that are activated both when we perform an action and when we see another person perform that same action. Mirror neurons are the part of the brain primarily responsible for empathy. Every time we see someone make a facial expression our brain internally mirrors/simulates the performance of that facial expression, which then communicates the proper emotion to the limbic system. Mirror neurons require no conscious recognition and operate entirely through emotional mirroring or contagion. Mirror neurons, therefore, are the main thing involved in what Goldman calls low-level simulational mindreading. The E-imagination is the primary thing that is involved in high-level simulational mindreading. High-level mindreading is different from low-level mindreading in that it is accessible to consciousness, and can account for more abstract things than basic emotions. The E-imagination refers generally to the phenomenon of experiencing something when we imagine it. When we imagine wind on our skin, for example, we feel a slight tingling. Or when we imagine pain, we can feel our skin contract with the pain. The existence of the E-imagination can be confirmed both phenomenologically and neurologically. Not only do we feel these sensations when we imagine things, but brain scans confirm that the imagination draws on the same parts of the brain that are involved in actual experience. There is huge overlap, therefore, between imagination and actual experience. When it comes to the use of the E-imagination for simulational mindreading, Goldman says that it involves a three step process. First there is the process of hearing a person speak, followed by a process of simulating that person’s thoughts based on what they said or did, and finally a process of projecting those simulated thoughts onto the speaker.

That is a sloppy rundown of Goldman’s claims about simulation theory of mind. I would now like to explain how Collingwood’s analysis of art and language largely anticipates Goldman’s findings.

I think there are two way in which Collingwood’s analysis anticipates Goldman’s explication of simulation theory. First, Collingwood uses the term ‘emotional contagion’ to describe how people interact. This anticipates Goldman’s claim about low-level simulation working primarily with mirror neurons and emotional contagion. Second, Collingwood discusses language primarily in terms of ‘reconstruction’ or ‘reenactment’ of another person’s thoughts. These terms come very close to the notion of simulation. Goldman even cites Collingwood’s use of the term reenactment, but he quickly moves on and gives it very little analysis. Collingwood, therefore, seems to anticipate both low- and high-level simulational mindreading.

Collingwood anticipates the language of low-level simulational mindreading when he refers to “emotional contagion.” He says that we do not need to be aware or conscious to communicate with others but hat there “is a kind of emotional contagion which takes effect without any intellectual activity; without the presence even of consciousness. This is a familiar fact, alarming becomes it seems so inexplicable, in man. The spread of panic through a crowd is not due to each person’s being independently frightened, nor to any communication by speech; it happens in the complete absence of these things, each person becoming terrified simply because his neighbour is terrified” (230). He says that this applies to all psychical experience: “Thus the mere sight of some one in pain, or the sound of his groans, produces in us an echo of his pain, whose expression in our own body we can feeling in the tingling or shrinking of skin areas, certain visceral sense, and so forth” (231). As I said, this anticipates Goldman’s discussion of low-level simulational mindreading and the existence of mirror neurons, as well as hinting at the existence of the E-imagination.

Collingwood calls this phenomenon ‘sympathy’. I find it interesting that he doesn’t use the term empathy. But I have seen a historian who analyzes Collingwood’s use of the term sympathy and explains that there were cultural events taking place that prevented him from using the word empathy. But I believe that when he speaks of emotional contagion and sympathy he is referring to something like empathy and simulation. “This ‘sympathy’ (the simplest and best name for the contagion I have described),” he argues, “exists visibly among animals other than man, and between animals of different species” (231). Collingwood therefore seems to be in line with Goldman’s claims about low-level simulational mindreading. He describes the idea of emotional contagion and seems to hint at the existence of mirror neurons. Further, he uses the term sympathy to designate the notion of empathy/simulation that Goldman describes.

Collingwood’s analysis of language also lines up with Goldman’s claims about high-level simulational mindreading. Collingwood describes language as something in which knowledge or understanding is never directly imparted, but rather hinted at and suggested. Language, for Collingwood, always requires an element of simulation, an active listening and reconstruction of thought: “We must think of communication not as an ‘imparting’ of thought by the speaker to the hearer, the speaker somehow planting his thought in the hearer’s receptive mind, but as a ‘reproduction’ of the speaker’s thought by the hearer, in virtue of his own active thinking” (140). Collingwood uses the example of a scientific lecture. He says that a scientist speaks not to directly give us access to his knowledge, but to guide us down a path in which we can understand things like he does: “The noises are meant to assist us in achieving what he assumes to be our purpose in coming to hear him lecture, that is, think this same scientific thesis for ourselves” (140). Collingwood clearly believed that spoken language functioned primarily in terms of subjective reconstruction of thought, which rhymes strongly with Goldman’s claims about high-level simulational mindreading. This idea applies not only to spoken language, but also to written work. “The written or printed book,” Collingwood asserts, “is only a series of hints, as elliptical as the neumes of Byzantine music, from which the reader thus works out for himself the speech-gestures which alone have the gift of expression” (243). Thus in the realms of emotions, speech, and reading, Collingwood believes that simulation plays a crucial role in the relations between minds.

Collingwood’s analysis of language even lines up with the three step process that Goldman identifies. Recall that Goldman says that language works first by giving us evidence of someone’s thoughts, followed by a simulation of those thoughts and ending with a projection of those thoughts onto the speaker. Collingwood describes this exact same process when he says, “The hearer, therefore, conscious that he is being addressed by another person like himself... takes what he hears exactly as if it were speech of his own: he speaks to himself with the words that he hears addressed to him, and thus constructs in himself the idea which those words express. At the same time, being conscious of the speaker as a person other than himself, he attributes that idea to this other person. Understanding what someone says to you is thus attributing to him the idea which his words arouse in yourself; and this implies treating them as words of your own” (250). It is clear that Collin

Collingwood’s simulationesque analysis of emotions and language is fully applicable to his analysis of art as a form of language. In other words, he believes that the simulative elements of language can also be found in the appreciation of artistic works. Collingwood describes how the full appreciation of a work of art, which he described as reconstructing the artists ‘total imaginative experience’ cannot be complete with paying attention to what are called ‘tactile values’. Meaning that we have to think about the actual movements of the artist’s body and how he expressed himself in those ways. To me this implies a relationship between mirror neurons and artistic appreciation. If we look at a painting we would be able to imagine the movements that the artist made to construct those images, and we would likely be activating our mirror neurons. This is why it would be important to think about the whole of our bodies as we looked at a painting or heard a piece of music. Collingwood explains how one professor “taught his pupils... to look in paintings for what he called ‘tactile values’; to think of their muscles as they stood before a picture, and notice what happened in their fingers and elbows” (146). Collingwood makes this relationship between art and the total imaginative experience more explicit when he says that “the spectator’s experience on looking at a picture is not a specifically visual experience at all. What he experiences does not consist of what he sees. It does not even consist of this as modified, supplemented, and expurgated by the world of the visual imagination. It does not belong to sight alone, it belongs also... to touch” (146-47). He says that the artist “is thinking... of distance and space and mass: not of touch sensations, but of motor sensations such as we experience by using our muscles and moving our limbs. But these are not actual motor sensations, they are imaginary motor sensations.... what we get from looking at a picture is not merely the experience of seeing, or even partly seeing and partly imagining, certain visible objects; it is also, and in Mr. Berenson’s opinion more importantly, the imaginary experience of certain complicated muscular movements” (147). I am sorry for all of these long quotations. But they are driving home such an interesting point. To draw such a close connection between the appreciation of painting and the contemplation and imagination of the movements required to create is very important. It seems that Collingwood was naively, tacitly in touch with the existence of mirror neurons. A final quotation to drive this point home: “Let us look at it from the point of view of the artist.... When he painted it, he was in possession of an experience quite other than that of seeing the coulours he was putting on the canvass; an imaginary experience of total activity more or less like that which we construct for ourselves when we look at the picture” (149). It is about the entire bodily movement and expression of the artist, not simply the visual component.

Collingwood’s analysis of art and language therefore lines up with Goldman’s analysis of simulation theory in three ways. He is aware of both low-level and high-level components of simulational mindreading. And he takes it further by applying this analysis specifically to art.

Collingwood’s work also rhymes with a contemporary neuropsychologist by the name of Chris Frith. In his book Making Up The Mind: How The Brain Creates Our Mental World Frith argues that the brain is fully responsible for our perception of the world and explains how the brain operates primarily by creating models of the world. In particular, I think Collingwood and Frith line up on the issue of how people understand one another. Frith is adamant that minds cannot have direct access to one another, and must therefore understand one another in another way. He says that this is achieved primarily by matching mental models. As a conversation progresses we become more or less certain that me and the other person have the same thoughts in our minds. Frith argues that during a conversation “I have two things in my mind: (1) my idea and (2) my model of your idea. I can compare them directly. If they are similar, then I have probably communicated my idea to you successfully. If they are different, then I certainly haven’t” (Frith, 171). Furthermore, that speaking is about attempting to match mental models: “I don’t just choose my words because of what they mean; I choose my words to suite the person I am talking to. The more I talk to someone, the better an idea I get of what words will suit – just as I get a better idea of how to perceive the world around me the more I look at it” (Frith, 171). Collingwood addresses the same issue of understanding between minds and reaches a similar conclusion to Frith. Collingwood admits we can never be certain of another persons mind, and that the “only assurance we possess is an empirical and relative assurance, becoming progressively stronger as conversation proceeds, and based on the fact that neither party seems to the other to be talking nonsense” (251). Collingwood also seems to think that conversation proceeds when people are able to match their mental models of one another. The connections between Collingwood and Frith go deeper because Frith vaguely rehashes empathy and simulation theory. But that would be redundant.

To wrap up this section, I believe that Collingwood’s analysis of language should be identified with contemporary work on simulation theory of mind and neuropsychology on mental modeling. Collingwood seemed ahead of his time in his understanding of how language worked and how minds were able to overcome their inherent confinement. It is always through a process of reconstruction or reenactment, he believed. This rings so strongly with the notion of simulation it can be a bit hard to stomach. Furthermore, Collingwood applies this analysis of language to the idea that art is language. He shows that in both art and language we are trying to reconstruct another person’s experience for ourselves. With language in general it can be any type of experience that we are reconstructing. But with art it is a total imaginative experience of expression, thought, movement and everything else.

In sections 14-18 I have completed a substantial task of Part I.3. I have talked about how language is not simply a matter of speaking and using words, but is in reality a larger phenomenon that encompasses all gestures that are consciously used to express ourselves. I then broke down the technical theory of language to show that language cannot be simply identified with words and grammatical or logical structuring. I then traced out the relationship between language, emotions, and thoughts, concluding that consciousness was the key factor that made it possible for us to express anything at all whether it be thoughts or emotions; I concluded that language must be the conscious expression of either emotion or thought. From there I moved on to address the specific issue of how language works. I claimed that Collingwood’s notion of reenactment was crucial to understanding his entire conception of language and communication. I then explained how it is fully in line with simulation theory of mind as described by Alvin Goldman and Chris Frith. To put it in a nut shell, in the last five sections, I have told you that language and art are both processes by which we consciously express our thoughts or feelings, thus making it possible for other people to reconstruct our thoughts and feelings in their own minds. Art must be language because it is all about this work of consciousness, this attempt to consciously express our experiences and make it possible for other people to simulate them. From here I have two more things to do: I want to give the issue of consciousness a brief look so that I can tie this all to Zen, and finally I need to talk about social interaction and how it can become an art form. That will finish Part I. Finally.


19. Consciousness in Art, Language, and Zen

As I said above, consciousness is the key factor in all of language, and in art, which is a form of language. I find this emphasis on consciousness to very curious, very curious indeed. Why is consciousness such a powerful thing? Why does language require consciousness? Is all that is required for us to be artistic is conscious expression? Is that all it takes? Why is it that consciousness has the power to elevate our actions from mere actions to expressive language and potentially art?


I ask all these questions because in this entire series of questions I am trying to work out a few major questions: Is it possible for all of existence, all of our actions, all of our words, our entire lives, to become a work of art? Is it a philosophically defensible to see existence itself as an art form? And can Zen perhaps help us to live that constantly artistic life?

I guess all this emphasis on consciousness makes me think of Zen quite a lot. With Zen and Buddhist mindfulness the key factor is attention, awareness, and consciousness. When we pay attention, when we exert our consciousness, we are attempting to live mindfully. So if Collingwood says that movement and action becomes language and art when consciousness is directed at our expression, wouldn’t this mean that our lives could become language and art if we were taking pains to constantly direct our consciousness towards ourselves? Wouldn’t it be a pretty clear conclusion, then, that mindfulness would be the way to enact an artistic existence? To me the answer seems like a yes. But a shaky and yet to be clearly defined yes. This will be the topic of many more sections to come. And in Part III I’ll be delving fully into this question of ‘becoming an existential aesthetician’. So in the final section of Part I I would like to address this question a bit more


20. Social Interaction as the Imaginative Expression of Emotions

So i really just want to vaguely delve into this idea that all of our life could become a work of art. If art is defined as the imaginative expression of our emotions, which involves a process in which we use our consciousness to raise our emotions from a level of mere sensation to a level of imagination and ideas, then would it be possible for this process to take place every day? I think so. And I think that Collingwood hints at this stuff.

For one thing, once Collingwood says that art is fundamentally language it seems obvious that all of linguistic lives could become artistic. Furthermore, because all of our social life revolves around language (in one way or another) it seems obvious and crucial that our social lives would become an object of artistic expression. And if consciousness really is the key factor in art, then wouldn’t a conscious social existence be the way to live an artistic life? I think this long quotation demonstrates this idea: “The activity which generates an artistic experience is the activity of consciousness. This rules out all theories of art which place its origin in sensation or its emotions, i.e. in man’s physical nature: its origin lies not there but in his nature as a thinking being. At the same time, it rules out all theories which places its origin in the intellect, and make it something to do with concepts. Each of these theories, however, may be valued as a protest against the other; for as consciousness is a level of experience intermediate between the psychic and the intellectual, art may be referred to either of these levels as a way of saying that it is not referable to the other” (273). If art is something that exists between the world of emotions and ideas, that is fundamentally connected to consciousness, then couldn’t this process have a place in every day social life? I think so. I really am truly starting to believe in this idea of the artistic life. I believe that it would be possible to become an existential aesthetician. This final quotation, I think, shows that Collingwood also has faith in the universal importance of art. Everyone can use it: “The scientist and historian and philosopher must go to school with the man of letters, and study to write as well as writing can be done. The literary man must go to school with the scientist and his likes, and study to expound a subject instead of merely exhibiting a style. Subject without style is barbarism; style without subject is dilettantism. Art is the two together” (299). Can we all bring the two together? Can we all consciously express ourselves with attention to both subject and style?


Concluding Part I.3 And All Of Part I

Part I of this essay is far longer than I thought it might be. First I want to summarize what I did in Part I.3, and then want to try and summarize what I have told you in the last 70 pages, in all of Part I. In part I.3 I was trying to deal with Collingwood’s claim that all art is essentially a form of language. So I had to ask a series of questions about what is language, how does it work, and how does it work in art and life? I ended up agreeing with Collingwood’s conclusion that language is not simply words but a larger phenomenon in which every expressive action and gesture is a form of language. I did not anticipate, however, that consciousness would be as crucial of a concept as it is. Because Collingwood believes that without consciousness we do not have language. An action or a gesture doesn’t become language unless we direct our consciousness towards our expression. After determining this crucial role of consciousness I undertook the questions of how language itself works. I explicated Collingwood’s notion of ‘reconstruction’ or ‘reenactment’ of thought. Basically, language never communicates something directly because minds never have direct access to one another. Language, instead, is a series of hints that allow us to reconstruct another person’s experience for ourselves. I then explained how this notion anticipates twenty-first century work by Alvin Goldman and Chris Frith. Both of these thinkers believe that minds engage primarily in terms of simulation and modeling. I believe Collingwood anticipated many of their views. I then had two sections where I discussed the possibility that all of our lives could become a work of art. I tried to explain how consciousness was the key factor in art, language, and Zen Buddhism. I therefore think that by living a conscious life we might be bringing ourselves closer to living an artistic life. I then briefly delved into the idea further. I think that social interaction is primarily about language. So what if we could talk about language as a conscious thing, and then turn our lives into art?

And as for Part I as a whole, I was trying to grapple with Collingwood’s definition of art in its nuance. I began with section I.1. ‘Negatively Defining Art’. In that section I explained how art is not the same as craft, it is not the same as magic, and it is not the same as amusement. Meaning that it is not a simple process of converting raw materials into a finished product (craft), it is not meant to create emotions that are useful in daily life (magic), and it is not meant to create emotions that simply entertain us (amusement). I then tried to break down Collingwood’s definition of art in section I.2. ‘Positively Defining Art’. In that section I tried to explain how art is the imaginative expression of our emotions. I talked about expression and the imagination in turn. Expression is a process that is both expressive and explorative. When we exert our consciousness on our raw emotions we change them, we transform them from the psychical level into the imaginative level and the intellectual level. So it is not simply expressing something that is there, it is also creating something new out of rawer emotions. I then explained how the imagination is the space between sensations and ideas. Again, consciousness is the key thing in the imagination. When we direct our conscious effort towards our emotions we are able to change them into the imaginative level in which we can manipulate them. They retain much of their sensory quality, they still look or feel or taste, but they are under our conscious control and lose their immediacy. By the end of this section it was clear that art was a process by which we use consciousness to raise our emotions to the imaginative level in which they can be expressed in new ways. Art is thus the imaginative expression of emotions. Finally in I.3. ‘Art and Language’ I tried to explain how art is a form of language. I explained how language is a large phenomenon of expressive gestures. Then ran down the relationship between language, emotions, thought, and consciousness. Consciousness is the key factor in language. When we exert our awareness on our thoughts and our emotions we are able to express them as language. I then explained how language works. And then explored vaguely the idea that all of our lives could become artistic. I already summarized I.3 above, so feel free to look up 1 paragraph.

From here I have four more parts planned. In Part II I’ll try to explain precisely why art is useful. In Part III I’ll try to explain how to become an existential aesthetician, taking this idea to its full logical conclusion. In Part IV I’ll try to integrate this into the notion of intellectual insurrection. And in Part V I’ll try to explore how existential aesthetics can become a political act that would spread the intellectual insurrection to others, hopefully making it a part of social change.

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