Saturday, July 9, 2011

Relationships And Mediums: Habits, Historical Knowledge, and Self-Creation

This is the introduction and the first section of an essay I have been working on. Things are changing in it. So I'll be updating it as I go along. But here is the tentative table of contents:


I. Of Minds: Empathic Versus Linguistic Interaction

a. simulation, or empathic interaction

b. theory-theory, or conceptual interaction

c. The need to historicize theory of mind


II. Of Mediums: Inclinations And Habits In Relationships

- So, we start out with mediums in general.

- I believe the notion of layers of mediums, and of almost everything down to the five senses being a medium is coherent.

- I think the best way to start the talk on mediums is Nicholas Carr.

- Talk about Gandhi and means as ends in the making - same idea.

- That stuff will establish the issue of medium as message, then we should give some real examples. Like the economic system, like Foucault and Claxton on the control of space and time and stuff.


III. Of History: The Creation Of Mediums As The Creation Of Human Nature

- In this section I think it would be wise to talk about implosive rationality. Because historical study would be a way of creating new habits, and thus a form of implosive rationality.

- We need to talk about choice and about compassion as they relate to history. Or do they relate to mediums? Maybe even the 4th section

- We need to talk about retroactive freedom too

- Human self-creation is the operative idea.


IV. Of Choice And Compassion


In this essay I am really trying to be free. In so much of my writing I think I am trying to be free.


Seeing as how this essay is supposed to be about relationships in general, I need to say a few things, and ask myself a few questions. When I say relationships I am trying to mean it in the absolute broadest sense. In one way or another, every person I have interacted with I have ‘had a relationship with’. I have a certain relationship with myself and my own thoughts and emotions. I have a relationship with my material surroundings and how I understand them. In many ways I am talking about relationships the way that Foucault talks about power relations: as omnipresent interactions with things, people, and myself. So, given that I’m talking about relationships in such a broad way, I have to ask myself: What is it about the quality of my relationships with things, people, and myself that makes me feel so unfree? What is it about me and my relationships that troubles me so much?


Well, right off the bat I’ll just say that my relationships often feel out of my control on a couple different levels. On the first level is my own thoughts, emotions, and reactions to people. I don’t really mean to think the way I do or feel the emotions that I feel. I just react. I just think and feel those things. I do my best to examine and understand my feelings after the fact, but in the moment it is too immediate for that kind of insight. Furthermore, I find that I have a huge amount of unquestioned assumptions, a huge amount of concepts that interfere with me just interacting with people.


These issues of my mind as an individual object, and the issue of mind to mind interaction in relationships, the micro reality of minds, will be the topic of the first section. I’ll be using the distinction between simulation theory of mind and theory-theory of mind to guide the discussion. But I hope to avoid those terms and talk more about the way that they point to a problem in relationships that I have experienced. This problem is that my interactions with familiar people feel very comfortable, empathic, ‘simulative. But my interactions with strangers, on the other hand, feel very distant, very theoretical, very conceptually-driven. It will turn out, I suspect, that this issue of minds and their different interactions cannot be handled through reflection or any phenomenological method. From here, therefore, the discussion will move to more macro issues.


The first macro level that contributes to the world of micro interactions that I’ll look at is the issue of habit. By talking about habit I want to try and hone in on the things that make my mental interactions problematic. I think that habit is one thing that potentially compromises our ability to be free in our relationships. We sometimes, I sometimes, default to my habits and then I don’t make actual choices. I don’t make conscious choices. I just run with the ideas and behaviors that are intuitive and habitual for me.


Raising this issue of habit, however, prompts more questions. Where do these habits come from? How do they develop in people? Why do they appear to be more or less uniform in certain times and places? These questions will bring me to the issue of mediums. I will be using the word medium in its most general sense as a means of doing something. Furthermore, I will be using Nicholas Carr’s work to discuss how medium’s implicitly contain certain inclinations, medium’s encourage us to behave in certain ways, they implicitly contain certain habits. I believe that the issue of habits and mediums will shed some light on the problem of relationships that I described above.


Asking questions about mediums, however, prompts further question about their origins and the possibilities for changing them. This is where the philosophy of history will come into play. Using Foucault, Collingwood, Smith, and others, I will claim that an understanding of history would provide us better knowledge of our own mediums and habits and thus give us a greater possibility of understanding and changing ourselves, thus hopefully improving the quality of our relationships.


I see this writing as collaborating with John Searle, and with my own work on the notion of the genealogy of the modern mind.


In his book Making The Social World: The Structure Of Human Civilization, John Searle argues that philosophy needs to create a sub-discipline known as the philosophy of society. He says that just as many contemporary disciplines did not exist in the past, we need to create a branch of philosophy that does not exist yet, known as the philosophy of society: “But the sense in which we know regard the philosophy of language as a central part of philosophy, Immanuel Kant did not have and could not have had such an attitude. I am proposing that ‘The Philosophy of Society’ ought to be regarded as a legitimate branch of philosophy along with such disciplines as the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language” (5). So, one concern I have in this essay is this idea of a philosophy of society. I think it is fair to say that if we are to have a philosophy of society we would need a philosophy of relationships. Searle’s work is a starting point for me in many ways.

I also see this essay as picking up on a line of thought that I initiated in August of 2010. In my essay ‘The Genealogy of the Modern Mind: Theory of Mind, History, And Self-Directed Neuroplasticity’ I tried to argue that theory of mind ins inadequate if it is ahistorically conceptualized. I tried to explain how Foucault’s method of genealogical history could be used to augment conventional theory of mind. My whole purpose for this historically augmented theory of mind was to try and explain how Foucault’s idea of personal transformation could be actualized. Or, as I put it then: “I believe that if we are to construct a theory of mind that is useful we need to draw both on scientific evidence to discover the universalities of the mind, but we also need to draw on history to illuminate the contingencies of the mind. Only through genealogical history could we create a theory of mind that could diagnose the present state of our own minds, and thus allow us to enact meaningful changes on ourselves through the study of the humanities.” I was unable to say, however, what types of historical information would be necessary to help us understand the state of our own minds and thus take a step towards changing them. That is one place where this essay is picking up. I think that by focusing on the issue of habits, and the way that mediums create those habits, and by claiming that habits and mediums can only be illuminated with historical study, I will be able to show how history is a necessary part of an adequate and useful theory of mind.

In short, I want to show that contemporary theory of mind is inadequate because it lacks a historical orientation and thus ignores the issue of habits and the way that mediums create those habits.

Onward to the first sections on minds.


I. Of Minds: Empathic Versus Linguistic Interaction

I want to begin this whole discussion with the issue of individual minds because it is the ground floor in which I (and everyone else) experience people. The level of minds is therefore the level of experience. And this can be the only level that truly matters to me. I want this type of thinking to make a difference in my actual relationships. I need my experience to change if I am to regard this writing as useful.

So what is the problem that I am having in my individual relationships? If I am writing about this issue of relationships, then clearly I see a problem with how my relationships function. I stated the problem above: there is a huge disparity in the quality of my relationships. With people I am close with I am (hopefully) friendly, caring, curious, interested, and involved in their minds. Ideally, there is a very serious engagement and give and take between minds. I feel that when I am close to someone I really enter into their mind, into their world, and I enjoy it. And hopefully when people know me they truly enter into my mind, get a sense of me as a person, and enjoy that immersion in my mental world. In short, with close relationships there is a serious attempt to enter the mind of another person. When I don’t know someone, on the other hand, interactions can feel curt, distant, and utilitarian. The perfect example of this is my interactions with customers. As a barista, people are interested in getting in and out of a cafe with the coffee and treats that they desired. This isn’t always true. There is a gray area. Some people are vaguely interested, or are simply polite. But there are definitely people that interact with me simply to get something from me. It seems that some people are interacting with me on a purely conceptual level. It seems that the only thing standing between me and them is bits of knowledge: they know that I have a defined role, and that if they tell me what they want that they will get it. That is roughly the problem. My close relationships feel empathic: they involved intimate mental exchanges, and a genuine understanding of the content of each other’s minds. While many of my relationships feel purely conceptual: there is no genuine attempt to access emotions or thoughts, but only an interaction that is meant to produce a certain result.

I would like to say again that this is by no means a clear dichotomy, it is a very gray and blurry area. Sometimes I have customers that are super fun to interact with, we joke and talk about stuff, but I might not know their names or anything about them. But there is still some sort of genuine engagement. Other times I talk to someone I’ve know for a while and things can proceed along these conceptual lines. So this is by no means a clean divide between empathic and conceptual interactions. But I think it is there enough to justify the analytical distinction.

So, this is the moment where I try to make hay of this problem. I need to try to parse and explain this qualitative divide in my relationships. I plan on doing this by drawing on two major schools of thought in American theory of mind: simulation theory, and theory-theory. I will generally be identifying this idea of empathic interactions with simulation theory, and the issue of conceptual interaction with theory-theory. I think that a quick summary of these two schools of thought will make this divide in my relationships more understandable.

I think that an understanding of simulation theory will make it clear that human beings have the potential to mentally interact in intimate and empathic ways. In philosophy of mind it is assumed that human’s are fundamentally minded creatures, meaning that we experience the world as one full of meaning, intentions, obligations, relationships, etc.. Further, philosophy of mind assumes that human interaction and relationships are always a matter of mindreading: of understanding each other’s mental states through different means. So the central question that theorists of mind grapple with is how do humans make sense of one another’s minds? How are we able to understand one another even though we only have access to our own thoughts (and perhaps we don’t even have that).

In Simulating Minds Alvin Goldman argues that humans understanding one another through empathy and extended forms of empathy, which can all be referred to under the umbrella category of simulation. This claim is justified primarily based on the existence of mirror neurons, and the existence of what Goldman calls the Enactment-imagination (E-imagination). Mirror neurons are motor neurons that are activated not only when an action is performed, but any time that an action is perceived. So when we see someone making a facial expression our brain activates the same neurons that are necessary for making that same facial expression. The brain then understands what emotion is being expressed based on what mirror neurons have been activated by the perception of a facial expression. Mirror neurons are also activated anytime we see someone grasp something. But the crucial point here is that mirror neurons are essentially the brains way of simulating the actions that it perceives, and thus its way of understanding other people around us. This is very similar to what Wolfgang Prinz called the ‘common coding theory’, which claims that “there is a shared representation (a common code) for both perception and action” (Wikipedia for common coding theory). Mirror neurons are the part of our brain that allow us to feel empathy for other people. So, mirror neurons demonstrate that simulation is one of the crucial ways in which we understand other people. The E-imagination is another neurologically documented phenomenon that shows the importance of simulation in social interactions. The term Enactment-Imagination refers to the fact that when we consciously attempt to imagine a certain experience we can enact certain qualities of that experience. When we try to imagine the pain we felt when a loved one died, for example, we can in part reconstitute the emotions that we felt at the time when that event actually took place. Or if we try to imagine what it would be like to have a spider crawling on our skin we can in some ways feel it on our skin. The existence of the E-imagination is evident not only in phenomenological accounts, but is also neurologically verifiable. Goldman does a good job drawing on the relevant science to show that there is neurological overlap between an experience and the imagination of that same experience. In any case, this notion of the E-imagination probably sounds very abstract. But think about when you have met a new person and they tell you about the time they broke their arm, and suddenly your skin crawls with the pain you imagined they felt. The E-imagination has the potential to be a very powerful component in our relationships with people. With both mirror neurons and the E-imagination we are engaging in forms of simulation. Both of them are a means to simulating and thus understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings.

These are two of Goldman’s major analytical pillars. But the heart of his theory is much more humane and emotional than I am able to convey in this short space. He wants to show that people engage with one another by really deeply entering into each other’s minds. That empathy is at the core of what it means to be a human, and that without it we have no hope of truly engaging with another person. And that what we are doing with all of this empathy is simulating other people’s thoughts and feelings in our own mind.

So this account of simulation theory is probably too brief, and probably too abstract. But I can’t bring myself to give a really good summary of simulation theory. I’ve written on it too many times. But what I want you to take away from this brief account of simulation theory is that there is empirical evidence that humans can engage in very empathic relationships. That there is a very real form of human interaction that is personal, empathic, and in technical terms, simulative. I believe, however, that there are other ways that people engage with one another. And I think that this other mode of engagement is captured in the notion of theory-theory.


I am very uncomfortable with my understanding of theory-theory. I have never read the work of a theory-theorist. I have learned about it primarily from Goldman’s summary of it in Simulating Minds. So I’ll just say that I am not confident in my references to it. But that I think that what I have learned about it, even if my understanding is misguided, will shed some light on the qualitative divide in my relationships that I am trying to address.


So what do theory-theorists claim? Well, they generally argue that mindreading is accomplished by the existence of tacit psychological theories. People supposedly use these tacit psychological theories to make inferences about other people’s behavior. In other words, theory-theory maintains that people understand each other much in the same way that scientists make sense of the natural world. The only difference is that we theoretically mindread people in a tacit or implicit way, and that science uses the same methods but in an explicit matter. Goldman quotes Fodor arguing that “When such [commonsense psychological] explanations are made explicit, they are frequently seen to exhibit the ‘deductive structure’ that is so characteristic of explanation in real science” (Fodor, 1987, quoted in Goldman, 2006). Goldman continues: “Fodor’s account of commonsense psychology posits an implicit, sciencelike theory featuring generalizations over unobservables (in this case, mental states). People are said to arrive at commonsense mental attributions by using the theory to guide their inferences” (Ibid., 96). So, as you can see, theory-theory believes that people operate like unconscious scientists, using tacit psychological theories to make logical inferences about what people behave the way they do. And, according to Goldman, these theories are presumed to be an innate human capacity. This ahistorical approach to mind is one major problem I have with theory-theory. But, again, I’m not at all comfortable with my knowledge of theory-theory. But at first glance it seems crazy to me.


I don’t want to dwell on the technical issues of theory-theory. Instead, I want to use it as a way to transition to the problem of relationships that I am trying to address. And I think the best way to do that is to use some personal reflections and anecdotes.

When I’m at work I worry about how people engage with me. Sometimes people will come up to me and will just mumble something and throw a dollar on the counter. Sometimes people will ignore all my attempts at saying hello or making small talk. People just spout orders at me, spout numbers at me. When this kind of thing happens I feel as though I have been denied some basic part of my humanity. I feel hurt when I go completely unacknowledged as a person. So how is it that people are able to engage with me in this way? How is it that people can approach me, buy something from me, and feel no concern or interest in who I am as a person? And how is it that I am able to interact with people in this way? This seems to conflict with the notion of simulation theory. There seems to be no attempt, or even need, to simulate one another’s thoughts. It seems that all me and my customers need to interact is labels and concepts.

And this is what it is about theory-theory that worries me. The Fodor quotation above shows that one of the crucial things about theory-theory is that it supposedly works in terms of generalizations as opposed to particulars. I have a big problem with generalization, categorization, and labeling. I think that they make things understandable by simplifying them. Once we have a label for something, once we have generalized it, there is no need for us to think very hard about what it really might be. This is especially true with people. Once we label someone ‘insane’, or ‘a criminal’, or ‘a barista’, for that matter, we don’t have to wonder about them. Their role, their essence, is already defined for us. And in the case of baristas, or any other service worker, they are functionally or economically defined. In short, I think that humans understand one another not simply through simulation and empathy. We can also understand one another through language, through classification and labeling. Both of these things, empathy and language, are innate properties for humans. And I think that they conflict with one another. I think there is tension between these two properties of the mind. In fact, I wrote about this in my essay of December 12th 2010, ‘Empathy And Language’.

I think that Zizek’s notion of the ‘violence of language’ can shed some light on the tension between language and empathy (between theory-theory and simulation theory). In Violence Zizek explains how there is an element of violence that is inherent to language. He refers to it as symbolic violence. He claims that every time we label something we disfigure it, we remove it from its natural and nuanced state and we reduce it to something else. He takes gold as an example. When we call gold gold we change it from being an ordinary mineral and we imbue it with all our economic notions of greed, desire, value, beauty, et cetera. I think that this notion of the violence of language holds true in many situations. When we label a certain group of people an enemy we do the same thing. We dull our sense of empathy towards them, because the label is enough. As long as we know that someone is ‘an enemy’ we don’t have to think very seriously about their thoughts, about their feelings, their experiences. The same thing holds true in more mundane examples. When someone is labeled as a barista, a server, a doctor, etc., we don’t have to think about them as a person. All we need to know is captured in that label.

This is what I worry about myself and my interactions. I worry that people just think of me as a barista, and if I don’t make them think of me in other ways, then they would be content to let me remain a mere barista. That is why I value small talk so much. It is an opportunity for me to assert myself as a personality, as a unique person, and not just as a barista. I resent those economic and social labels that make people think of me in those ways. I try to do my best to defy people’s labels for me and assert myself as a real mind that they have to think about. I refuse to be generalized about, I want to be thought of in particulars.

I’m grasping for straws trying to speak about this divide in the quality of my interactions. I am trying to understand how it is that with some people I have very nuanced and empathic interactions, and with other people my interactions are governed entirely by social and economic labels. This is why I chose to turn to the debate between simulation theory and theory-theory. It seems as though they do represent this divide within the human mind. Clearly we are capable of engaging with people in terms of simulation, in terms of empathy. But there is another side to our interactions with people that is characterized more by labeling, by concepts, by generalizing, by theorizing about people. And when I look around me I often feel as though this theoretical or linguistic interaction is far more common.

I’m not sure if it is entirely appropriate to frame this as an issue between simulation theory and theory-theory. I guess one thing I am suggesting is that simulation theory and theory-theory are both correct. That the human mind possesses both of those capacities, and that they interact with one another. It is possible for one to triumph over the other. In other words, it is possible that labeling could complete extinguish our capacity for empathizing with someone, or that our sense of empathy could completely negate our need to generalize about someone.

I’m really not happy with the way I have explicated this. But so far I have sloppily laid out the major problem them I am trying to address. I tried to use the divide between simulation theory and theory-theory to explain the divide in my relationships. Sometimes I have wonderfully empathic and simulative interactions with people, and sometimes I have interactions with people that are governed entirely by labels, that are completely lacking in a genuine connection with people. So the question from here is how to make sense of this divide. Why is it that my interactions are divided like this? How can a theory of mind possibly account for this contradiction? I propose that these questions can only be answered if we are willing to think about minds in their concrete historical actuality. I find theory of mind to be remarkably ahistorical. Goldman and others speak of minds as if they are completely ahistorical, totally generalizable things. But thanks to Collingwood, I believe that minds are only what minds do. There is no mind at rest, no mind beyond the flow of history. Theory of mind, therefore, needs to be augmented by historical study. Furthermore, I think that there are types of historical study that can help me answer this question about the qualitative divide in my relationships. This is what I now want to try and do. I have chosen the notion of ‘mediums’ as the central analytical concept for the next section. I believe that by focusing on the issue of mediums I will be able to explicate a historically informed theory of mind.

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