Henry Adams on the Bundled Mind

Of all forms of pessimism, the metaphysical form was, for a historian, the least enticing. Of all studies, the one he would rather have avoided was that of his own mind. He knew no tragedy so heartrending as introspection, and the more, because-as Mephistopheles said of Marguerite–he was not the first. Nearly all the highest intelligence known to history had drowned itself in the reflection of its own thought, and the bovine survivors had rudely told the truth about it, without affecting the intelligent. One’s own time had not been exempt. Even since 1870 friends by scores had fallen victims to it. Within five-and-twenty years, a new library had grown out of it. Harvard College was a focus of the study; France supported hospitals for it; England published magazines of it. Nothing was easier than to take one’s mind in one’s hand, and ask one’s psychological friends what they made of it, and the more because it mattered so little to either party, since their minds, whatever they were, had pretty nearly ceased to reflect, and let them do what they liked with the small remnant, they could scarcely do anything very new with it. All one asked was to learn what they hoped to do.

Unfortunately the pursuit of ignorance in silence had, by this time, led the weary pilgrim [i.e., himself] into such mountains of ignorance that he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even understand a signpost. He failed to fathom the depths of the new psychology, which proved to him that, on that side as on the mathematical side, his power of thought was atrophied, if, indeed, it ever existed. Since he could not fathom the science, he could only ask the simplest of questions: Did the new psychology hold that the νΧή–soul or mind–was or was not a unit? He gathered from the books that the psychologists had, in a few cases, distinguished several personalities in the same mind, each conscious and constant, individual and exclusive.

The fact seemed scarcely surprising, since it had been a habit of mind from earliest recorded time, and equally familiar to the last acquaintance who had taken a drug or caught a fever, or eaten a Welsh rarebit before bed; for surely no one could follow the action of a vivid dream, and still need to be told that the actors evoked by his mind were not himself, but quite unknown to all he had ever recognized as self. The new psychology went further, and seemed convinced that it had actually split personality not only into dualism, but also into complex groups, like telephonic centres and systems, that might be isolated and called up at will, and whose physical action might be occult in the sense of strangeness to any known form of force.

Dualism seemed to have become as common as binary stars. Alternating personalities turned up constantly, even among one’s friends. The facts seemed certain, or at least as certain as other facts; all they needed was explanation.

This was not the business of the searcher of ignorance, who felt himself in no way responsible for causes. To his mind, the compound νΧή took at once the form of a bicycle-rider, mechanically balancing himself by inhibiting all his inferior personalities, and sure to fall into the sub-conscious chaos below, if one of his inferior personalities got on top. The only absolute truth was the sub-conscious chaos below, which every one could feel when he sought it.

Whether the psychologists admitted it or not, mattered little to the student who, by the law of his profession, was engaged in studying his own mind. On him, the effect was surprising. He woke up with a shudder as though he had himself fallen off his bicycle. If his mind were really this sort of magnet, mechanically dispersing its lines of force when it went to sleep, and mechanically orienting them when it woke up–which was normal, the dispersion or orientation? The mind, like the body, kept its unity unless it happened to lose balance, but the professor of physics, who skipped on a pavement and hurt himself, knew no more than an idiot what knocked him down, though he did know–what the idiot could hardly do–that his normal condition was idiocy, or want of balance, and that his sanity was unstable artifice. His normal thought was dispersion, sleep, dream, inconsequence; the simultaneous action of different thought-centres without central control. His artificial balance was acquired habit. He was an acrobat, with a dwarf on his back, crossing a chasm on a slack-rope, and commonly breaking his neck.

By that path of newest science, one saw no unity ahead–nothing but a dissolving mind-and the historian felt himself driven back on thought as one continuous Force, without Race, Sex, School, Country, or Church.

The Education of Henry Adams
Chapter XXIX
“The Abyss of Ignorance” (1902)
pp. 432-434

(Credit to Ron Pavellas for bringing this passage to my notice.)

Conceptual Spaces

In a Nautilis piece, New Evidence for the Strange Geometry of Thought, Adithya Rajagopalan reports on the fascinating topic of conceptual or cognitive spaces. He begins with the work of the philosopher and cognitive scientist Peter Gärdenfors who wrote about this in a 2000 book, Conceptual Spaces. Then last year, there was published a Science paper by several neuroscientists: Jacob Bellmund, Christian Doeller, and Edvard Moser. It has to do with the brain’s “inner GPS.”

Anyone who has followed my blog for a while should see the interest this has for me. There is Julian Jaynes’ thought on consciousness, of course. And there are all kinds of other thinkers as well. I could throw out Iain McGilchrist and James L. Kugel who, though critical of Jaynes, make similar points about identity and the divided mind.

The work of Gärdenfors and the above neuroscientists helps explain numerous phenomenon, specifically in what way splintering and dissociation operates. How a Nazi doctor could torture Jewish children at work and then go home to play with his own children. How the typical person can be pious at church on Sunday and yet act in complete contradiction to this for the rest of the week. How we can know that the world is being destroyed through climate change and still go on about our lives as if everything remains the same.How we can simultaneously know and not know so many things. Et cetera.

It might begin to give us some more details in explaining the differences between the bicameral mind and Jaynesian consciousness, between Ernest Hartmann’s thin and thick boundaries of the mind, and much else. Also, in light of Lynne Kelly’s work on traditional mnemonic systems, we might be in a better position of understanding the phenomenal memory feats humans are capable of and why they are so often spatial in organization (e.g., the Songlines of Australian Aborigines) and why these often involve shifts in mental states. It might also clarify how people can temporarily or permanently change personalities and identities, how people can compartmentalize parts of themselves such as their childhood selves and maybe help explain why others fail at compartmentalizing.

The potential significance is immense. Our minds are mansions with many rooms. Below is the meat of Rajagopalan’s article.

* * *

“Cognitive spaces are a way of thinking about how our brain might organize our knowledge of the world,” Bellmund said. It’s an approach that concerns not only geographical data, but also relationships between objects and experience. “We were intrigued by evidence from many different groups that suggested that the principles of spatial coding in the hippocampus seem to be relevant beyond the realms of just spatial navigation,” Bellmund said. The hippocampus’ place and grid cells, in other words, map not only physical space but conceptual space. It appears that our representation of objects and concepts is very tightly linked with our representation of space.

Work spanning decades has found that regions in the brain—the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex—act like a GPS. Their cells form a grid-like representation of the brain’s surroundings and keep track of its location on it. Specifically, neurons in the entorhinal cortex activate at evenly distributed locations in space: If you drew lines between each location in the environment where these cells activate, you would end up sketching a triangular grid, or a hexagonal lattice. The activity of these aptly named “grid” cells contains information that another kind of cell uses to locate your body in a particular place. The explanation of how these “place” cells work was stunning enough to award scientists John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. These cells activate only when you are in one particular location in space, or the grid, represented by your grid cells. Meanwhile, head-direction cells define which direction your head is pointing. Yet other cells indicate when you’re at the border of your environment—a wall or cliff. Rodent models have elucidated the nature of the brain’s spatial grids, but, with functional magnetic resonance imaging, they have also been validated in humans.

Recent fMRI studies show that cognitive spaces reside in the hippocampal network—supporting the idea that these spaces lie at the heart of much subconscious processing. For example, subjects of a 2016 study—headed by neuroscientists at Oxford—were shown a video of a bird’s neck and legs morph in size. Previously they had learned to associate a particular bird shape with a Christmas symbol, such as Santa or a Gingerbread man. The researchers discovered the subjects made the connections with a “mental picture” that could not be described spatially, on a two-dimensional map. Yet grid-cell responses in the fMRI data resembled what one would see if subjects were imagining themselves walking in a physical environment. This kind of mental processing might also apply to how we think about our family and friends. We might picture them “on the basis of their height, humor, or income, coding them as tall or short, humorous or humorless, or more or less wealthy,” Doeller said. And, depending on whichever of these dimensions matters in the moment, the brain would store one friend mentally closer to, or farther from, another friend.

But the usefulness of a cognitive space isn’t just restricted to already familiar object comparisons. “One of the ways these cognitive spaces can benefit our behavior is when we encounter something we have never seen before,” Bellmund said. “Based on the features of the new object we can position it in our cognitive space. We can then use our old knowledge to infer how to behave in this novel situation.” Representing knowledge in this structured way allows us to make sense of how we should behave in new circumstances.

Data also suggests that this region may represent information with different levels of abstraction. If you imagine moving through the hippocampus, from the top of the head toward the chin, you will find many different groups of place cells that completely map the entire environment but with different degrees of magnification. Put another way, moving through the hippocampus is like zooming in and out on your phone’s map app. The area in space represented by a single place cell gets larger. Such size differences could be the basis for how humans are able to move between lower and higher levels of abstraction—from “dog” to “pet” to “sentient being,” for example. In this cognitive space, more zoomed-out place cells would represent a relatively broad category consisting of many types, while zoomed-in place cells would be more narrow.

Yet the mind is not just capable of conceptual abstraction but also flexibility—it can represent a wide range of concepts. To be able to do this, the regions of the brain involved need to be able to switch between concepts without any informational cross-contamination: It wouldn’t be ideal if our concept for bird, for example, were affected by our concept for car. Rodent studies have shown that when animals move from one environment to another—from a blue-walled cage to a black-walled experiment room, for example—place-cell firing is unrelated between the environments. Researchers looked at where cells were active in one environment and compared it to where they were active in the other. If a cell fired in the corner of the blue cage as well as the black room, there might be some cross-contamination between environments. The researchers didn’t see any such correlation in the place-cell activity. It appears that the hippocampus is able to represent two environments without confounding the two. This property of place cells could be useful for constructing cognitive spaces, where avoiding cross-contamination would be essential. “By connecting all these previous discoveries,” Bellmund said, “we came to the assumption that the brain stores a mental map, regardless of whether we are thinking about a real space or the space between dimensions of our thoughts.”

The Helmsman and the Lookout

There is an apt metaphor for the relationship between what we think of as conscious willpower and the openness of perception.

The egoic consciousnes is the helmsman of the boat as it heads along the river of experience, but he is positioned at the back of the boat crowded with passengers. While he controls the steering, he is driving blind and can’t see what is coming. He primarily operates on memory and mental maps, habit and heuristics. He knows the river or else similar rivers, at least most of the time, as long as remains within the familiar. Still, his predictive abilities are limited and hence so are his steering abilities.

This is why a lookout is needed at the front of the boat. The lookout, although having no direct control, can give warnings. Stop! Don’t go that direction! The lookout has the information the helmsman needs, but the helmsman only listens to the lookout when something is wrong. The lookout is the veto power of volition, what is called free-won’t rather than freewill.

I came across this metaphor from a Chacruna article by Martin Fortier, Are Psychedelic Hallucinations Actually Metaphorical Perceptions?:

“Recent neuroscientific models of the brain stress the importance of prediction within perceptual experience.3 The tenets of the predictive model of the brain can be described with a useful analogy: that of helmsmen steering collective boats on the rivers of lowland South America.

“In the Amazon, to go from one riparian town to another, people usually take a collective boat. Most boats carry between 20 to 60 passengers. These boats are steered in an intriguing way. The helmsman is positioned at the rear part of the boat. Because of this, he cannot see much of the river; what he sees in front of him are mostly the backs of passengers. Yet, the helmsman critically needs to know in minute detail where he is going, as the river is replete with shallows and floating tree trunks that must be avoided by any means. The usual way to make sure that the helmsman is able to steer the boat safely is to position a lookout at the front part of the boat and to have him warn the helmsman in case anything dangerous shows up ahead.

“The human perceptual system roughly works like these collective boats! “Predictive models” of perception strongly contrast with “constructive models,” developed in the 1970s. According to constructive models of visual perception, the retina collects very gross and sparse information about the world, and each level of the visual system elaborates on this limited primary information and makes it gradually richer and more complex.4

“Let us say that the lookout stands for primary perceptual areas—low-level areas of the brain—and the helmsman stands for more frontal areas; the high-level areas of the brain. Furthermore, the trajectory of the boat stands for conscious perception. In the case of classical constructive models of the brain, perception is taken to be a gradual enrichment of information coming from lower areas of the brain. So, to use the boat analogy, constructive models of perception have it that the trajectory of the boat—i.e., conscious perception—is determined by the lookout sending warning signals to the helmsman—i.e., by bottom-up processes.

“Predictive models conceive of perception in a very different way. The first step of determining the trajectory of the boat is the helmsman guessing, on the basis of his past experience, where the boat can safely go. So, within the predictive model, the lookout plays no constitutive role. The lookout influences the trajectory of the boat only when the helmsman’s predictions are proved wrong, and when the lookout needs to warn him.

“Two niceties must be added. First, bottom-up error signals can be variously weighted. In noisy or uncertain situations, bottom-up prediction errors have a smaller influence than usual:5 in noisy or uncertain situations, the lookout’s warnings are not taken into account by the helmsman as much as usual. Second, in the boat analogy, there is only one lookout and one helmsman. In the brain, several duos of lookouts and helmsmen are working together, and each of these duos is specialized in a specific perceptual modality.”

This usually works well. Still, the egoic consciousness can be tiring, especially when it attempts to play both roles. If we never relax, we are in a constant state of stress and anxiety. That is how we get suck in loops of thought, where what the helmsman imagines about the world becomes his reality and so he stops listening as much to the lookout.

This has become ever more problematic for humanity as the boundaries of egoic consciousness have rigidified. Despite egoic self-confidence, we have limited ability to influence our situation and, as research shows, overtaxing ourselves causes us to become ineffective. No matter how hard it tries, the ego-self can’t force the ideology of freewill onto the world. Sometimes, we need to relax and allow ourselves to float along, with trust that the lookout will warn us when necessary.

There are many practices that help us with this non-egoic state. Meditation is the simplest, in which we train the mind to take a passive role but with full alertness. It allows the lookout to relax and take in the world without all of the nervous-inducing jerking around of a helmsman out of control while obsessed with control.

Another method is that of psychedelics, the experience of which is often referred to as a ‘trip’. Traditionally, a shaman or priest would have taken over the role of helmsman, allowing the participants to temporarily drop that role. Without someone else to play that role, a standard recommendation has been to let go and allow yourself to float along, just go with the current and trust where it takes you. In doing this, the environment is important in supporting this state of mind. This is a way of priming the mind with set and setting.

Richard M. Doyle explained this strategy, in Darwin’s Pharmacy (p. 18):

“If psychedelics left any consistent trace on the literature of trip reports and the investigation of psychedelic states, it is that “resistance” is unlikely to be a useful tactic and that experiment is unavoidable. Leary, whose own “setting” was consistently clustered around practices of the sacred, offered this most compressed algorithm for the manipulation (“programming”) of psychedelic experience, a script asking us to experimentally give ourselves over to the turbulence: “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.” Such an experiment begins, but is not completed, by a serene letting go of the self under the pull of a transhuman and improbable itinerary. This letting go, of course, can be among the greatest of human achievements, the very goal of human life: Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German heretic, reminds us that this gelassenheit is very old and not easily accomplished.”

For anyone who has experienced it, the transformative power of psychedelics is undeniable. Many modern people find themselves near permanently stuck in egoic control mode, their hand ever on the steering mechanism. We don’t easily let our guard down and we hardly can even imagine what that might feel like, until something shuts down that part of our mind-brain.

In a CBC interview with Bob McDonald, Michael Pollan explained why this happens and what exactly happens:

“The observed effect, if you do brain imaging of people who are tripping, you find some very interesting patterns of activity in the brain – specifically something called the default mode network, which is a very kind of important hub in the brain, linking parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older areas having to do with memory and emotion. This network is kind of a regulator of all brain activities. One neuroscientist called it, ‘The conductor of the neural symphony,’ and it’s deactivated by psychedelics, which is very interesting because the assumption going in was that they would see lots of strange activity everywhere in the brain because there’s such fireworks in the experience, but in fact, this particular network almost goes off line.

“Now what does this network responsible for? Well, in addition to being this transportation hub for signals in the brain, it is involved with self reflection. It’s where we go to ruminate or mind wander – thinking about the past or thinking about the future – therefore worrying takes place here. Our sense of self, if it can be said to have an address and real, resides in this particular brain network. So this is a very interesting clue to how psychedelics affect the brain and how they create the psychological experience, the experience in the mind, that is so transformative.

“When it goes off line, parts of the brain that don’t ordinarily communicate to one another, strike up conversation. And those connections may represent what people feel during the psychedelic experience as things like synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is when one sense gets cross wired with another. And so you suddenly smell musical notes or taste things that you see.

“It may produce insights. It may produce new metaphors – literally connecting the dots in new ways. Now that I’m being speculative – I’m going a little beyond what we’ve established – we know there are new connections, we don’t know what’s happening with them, or which of them endure. But the fact is, the brain is temporarily rewired. And that rewiring – whether the new connections actually produce the useful material or just shaking up the system – ‘shaking the snow globe,’ as one of the neuroscientists put it, is what’s therapeutic. It is a reboot of the brain.

“If you think about, you know, mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, many of them involve these loops of thought that we can’t control and we get stuck on these stories we tell ourselves – that we can’t get through the next hour without a drink, or we’re worthless and unworthy of love. We get stuck in these stories. This temporarily dissolves those stories and gives us a chance to write new stories.”

Psychedelics give the average person the rare opportunity of full-blown negative capability, as our egoic boundaries become thinner or disappear altogether. When the chatter of the ego-mind ceases, the passengers on the boat can hear themselves and begin talking among themselves. The bundle theory of the mind suddenly becomes apparent. We might even come to the realization that the ego was never all that much in control in the first place, that consciousness is a much more limited phenomenon.

“…consciousness is itself the result of learning.”

As above, so below
by Axel Cleeremans

A central aspect of the entire hierarchical predictive coding approach, though this is not readily apparent in the corresponding literature, is the emphasis it puts on learning mechanisms. In other works (Cleeremans, 2008, 2011), I have defended the idea that consciousness is itself the result of learning. From this perspective, agents become conscious in virtue of learning to redescribe their own activity to themselves. Taking the proposal that consciousness is inherently dynamical seriously opens up the mesmerizing possibility that conscious awareness is itself a product of plasticity-driven dynamics. In other words, from this perspective, we learn to be conscious. To dispel possible misunderstandings of this proposal right away, I am not suggesting that consciousness is something that one learns like one would learn about the Hundred Years War, that is, as an academic endeavour, but rather that consciousness is the result (vs. the starting point) of continuous and extended interaction with the world, with ourselves, and with others. The brain, from this perspective, continuously (and unconsciously) learns to anticipate the consequences of its own activity on itself, on the environment, and on other brains, and it is from the practical knowledge that accrues in such interactions that conscious experience is rooted. This perspective, in short, endorses the enactive approach introduced by O’Regan and Noë (2001), but extends it both inwards (the brain learning about itself) and further outwards (the brain learning about other brains), so connecting with the central ideas put forward by the predictive coding approach to cognition. In this light, the conscious mind is the brain’s (implicit, enacted) theory about itself, expressed in a language that other minds can understand.

The theory rests on several assumptions and is articulated over three core ideas. A first assumption is that information processing as carried out by neurons is intrinsically unconscious. There is nothing in the activity of individual neurons that make it so that their activity should produce conscious experience. Important consequences of this assumption are (1) that conscious and unconscious processing must be rooted in the same set of representational systems and neural processes, and (2) that tasks in general will always involve both conscious and unconscious influences, for awareness cannot be “turned off” in normal participants.

A second assumption is that information processing as carried out by the brain is graded and cascades (McClelland, 1979) in a continuous flow (Eriksen & Schultz, 1979) over the multiple levels of a heterarchy (Fuster, 2008) extending from posterior to anterior cortex as evidence accumulates during an information processing episode. An implication of this assumption is that consciousness takes time.

The third assumption is that plasticity is mandatory: The brain learns all the time, whether we intend to or not. Each experience leaves a trace in the brain (Kreiman, Fried, & Koch, 2002).

The social roots of consciousness
by Axel Cleeremans

How does this ability to represent the mental states of other agents get going? While there is considerable debate about this issue, it is probably fair to say that one crucial mechanism involves learning about the consequences of the actions that one directs towards other agents. In this respect, interactions with the natural world are fundamentally different from interactions with other agents, precisely because other agents are endowed with unobservable internal states. If I let a spoon drop on a hard floor, the sound that results will always be the same, within certain parameters that only vary in a limited range. The consequences of my action are thus more or less entirely predictable. But if I smile to someone, the consequences that may result are many. Perhaps the person will smile back to me, but it may also be the case that the person will ignore me or that she will display puzzlement, or even that she will be angry at me. It all depends on the context and on the unobservable mental states that the person currently entertains. Of course, there is a lot I can learn about the space of possible responses based on my knowledge of the person, my history of prior interactions with her, and on the context in which my interactions take place. But the point is simply to say that in order to successfully predict the consequences of the actions that I direct towards other agents, I have to build a model of how these agents work. And this is complex because, unlike what is the case for interactions with the natural world, it is an inverse problem: The same action may result in many different reactions, and those different reactions can themselves be caused by many different internal states.

Based on these observations, one provocative claim about the relationships between self-awareness and one’s ability to represent the mental states of other agents (“theory of mind”, as it is called) is thus that theory of mind comes first, as the philosopher Peter Caruthers has defended. That is, it is in virtue of my learning to correctly anticipate the consequences of the actions that  dIirect towards other agents that I end up developing models of the internal states of such agents, and it is in virtue of the existence of such models that I become able to gain insight about myself (more specifically: about my self). Thus, by this view, self-awareness, and perhaps subjective experience itself, is a consequence of theory of mind as it develops over extended periods of social intercourse.

Cultural Body-Mind

Daniel Everett is an expert on the Piraha, although he has studied other cultures. It’s unsurprising then to find him use the same example in different books. One particular example (seen below) is about bodily form. I bring it up becomes it contradicts much of the right-wing and reactionary ideology found in genetic determinism, race realism, evolutionary psychology, and present human biodiversity (as opposed to the earlier HBD theory originated by Jonathan Marks).

From the second book below, the excerpt is part of a larger section where Everett responded to the evolutionary psychologist John Tooby, the latter arguing that there is no such thing as ‘culture’ and hence everything is genetic or otherwise biological. Everett’s use of dark matter of the mind is his way of attempting to get at more deeply complex view. This dark matter is of the mind but also of the body.

* * *

How Language Began:
The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention

by Daniel L. Everett
pp. 220-221

Culture, patterns of being – such as eating, sleeping, thinking and posture – have been cultivated. A Dutch individual will be unlike the Belgian, the British, the Japanese, or the Navajo, because of the way that their minds have been cultivated – because of the roles they play in a particular set of values and because of how they define, live out and prioritise these values, the roles of individuals in a society and the knowledge they have acquired.

It would be worth exploring further just how understanding language and culture together can enable us better to understand each. Such an understanding would also help to clarify how new languages or dialects or any other variants of speech come about. I think that this principle ‘you talk like who you talk with’ represents all human behaviour. We also eat like who we eat with, think like those we think with, etc. We take on a wide range of shared attributes – our associations shape how we live and behave and appear – our phenotype. Culture affects our gestures and our talk. It can even affect our bodies. Early American anthropologist Franz Boas studied in detail the relationship between environment, culture and bodily form. Boas made a solid case that human body types are highly plastic and change to adapt to local environmental forces, both ecological and cultural.

Less industrialised cultures show biology-culture connections. Among the Pirahã, facial features range impressionistically from slightly Negroid to East Asian, to Native American. Differences between villages or families may have a biological basis, originating in different tribes merging over the last 200 years. One sizeable group of Pirahãs (perhaps thirty to forty) – usually found occupying a single village – are descendants of the Torá, a Chapakuran-speaking group that emigrated to the Maici-Marmelos rivers as long as two centuries ago. Even today Brazilians refer to this group as Torá, though the Pirahãs refer to them as Pirahãs. They are culturally and linguistically fully integrated into the Pirahãs. Their facial features are somewhat different – broader noses, some with epicanthic folds, large foreheads – giving an overall impression of similarity to East Asian features. ‡ Yet body dimensions across all Pirahãs are constant. Men’s waists are, or were when I worked with them, uniformly 27 inches (68 cm), their average height 5 feet 2 inches (157.5 cm) and their average weight 55 kilos (121 pounds). The Pirahã phenotypes are similar not because all Pirahãs necessarily share a single genotype, but because they share a culture, including values, knowledge of what to eat and values about how much to eat, when to eat and the like.

These examples show that even the body does not escape our earlier observation that studies of culture and human social behaviour can be summed up in the slogan that ‘you talk like who you talk with’ or ‘grow like who you grow with’. And the same would have held for all our ancestors, even erectus .

Dark Matter of the Mind:
The Culturally Articulated Unconscious

by Daniel L. Everett
Kindle Locations 1499-1576

Thus while Tooby may be absolutely right that to have meaning, “culture” must be implemented in individual minds, this is no indictment of the concept. In fact, this requirement has long been insisted on by careful students of culture, such as Sapir. Yet unlike, say, Sapir, Tooby has no account of how individual minds— like ants in a colony or neurons in a brain or cells in a body— can form a larger entity emerging from multi-individual sets of knowledge, values, and roles. His own nativist views offer little insight into the unique “unconscious patterning of society” (to paraphrase Sapir) that establishes the “social set” to which individuals belong.

The idea of culture, after all, is just that certain patterns of being— eating, sleeping, thinking, posture, and so forth— have been cultivated and that minds arising from one such “field” will not be like minds cultivated in another “field.” The Dutch individual will be unlike the Belgian, the British, the Japanese, or the Navajo, because of the way that his or her mind has been cultivated— because of the roles he or she plays in a particular value grouping, because of the ranking of values that her or she has come to share, and so on.

We must be clear, of course, that the idea of “cultivation” we are speaking of here is not merely of minds, but of entire individuals— their minds a way of talking about their bodies. From the earliest work on ethnography in the US, for example, Boas showed how cultures affect even body shape. And body shape is a good indication that it is not merely cognition that is effected and affected by culture. The uses, experiences, emotions, senses, and social engagements of our bodies forget the patterns of thought we call mind. […]

Exploring this idea that understanding language can help us understand culture, consider how linguists account for the rise of languages, dialects, and all other local variants of speech. Part of their account is captured in linguistic truism that “you talk like who you talk with.” And, I argue, this principle actually impinges upon all human behavior. We not only talk like who we talk with, but we also eat like who we eat with, think like those we think with, and so on. We take on a wide range of shared attributes; our associations shape how we live and behave and appear— our phenotype. Culture can affect our gestures and many other aspects of our talk. Boas (1912a, 1912b) takes up the issue of environment, culture, and bodily form. He provides extensive evidence that human body phenotypes are highly plastic and subject to nongenetic local environmental forces (whether dietary, climatological, or social). Had Boas lived later, he might have studied a very clear and dramatic case; namely, the body height of Dutch citizens before and after World War II. This example is worth a close look because it shows that bodies— like behaviors and beliefs— are cultural products and shapers simultaneously.

The curious case of the Netherlanders fascinates me. The Dutch went from among the shortest peoples of Europe to the tallest in the world in just over one century. One account simplistically links the growth in Dutch height with the change in political system (Olson 2014): “The Dutch growth spurt of the mid-19th century coincided with the establishment of the first liberal democracy. Before this time, the Netherlands had grown rich off its colonies but the wealth had stayed in the hands of the elite. After this time, the wealth began to trickle down to all levels of society, the average income went up and so did the height.” Tempting as this single account may be, there were undoubtedly other factors involved, including gene flow and sexual selection between Dutch and other (mainly European) populations, that contribute to explain European body shape relative to the Dutch. But democracy, a new political change from strengthened and enforced cultural values, is a crucial component of the change in the average height of the Dutch, even though the Dutch genotype has not changed significantly in the past two hundred years. For example, consider figures 2.1 and 2.2. In 1825, US male median height was roughly ten centimeters (roughly four inches) taller than the average Dutch. In the 1850s, the median heights of most males in Europe and the USA were lowered. But then around 1900, they begin to rise again. Dutch male median height lagged behind that of most of the world until the late ’50s and early ’60s, when it began to rise at a faster rate than all other nations represented in the chart. By 1975 the Dutch were taller than Americans. Today, the median Dutch male height (183 cm, or roughly just above six feet) is approximately three inches more than the median American male height (177 cm, or roughly five ten). Thus an apparent biological change turns out to be largely a cultural phenomenon.

To see this culture-body connection even more clearly, consider figure 2.2. In this chart, the correlation between wealth and height emerges clearly (not forgetting that the primary determiner of height is the genome). As wealth grew, so did men (and women). This wasn’t matched in the US, however, even though wealth also grew in the US (precise figures are unnecessary). What emerges from this is that Dutch genes are implicated in the Dutch height transformation, from below average to the tallest people in the world. And yet the genes had to await the right cultural conditions before they could be so dramatically expressed. Other cultural differences that contribute to height increases are: (i) economic (e.g., “white collar”) background; (ii) size of family (more children, shorter children); (iii) literacy of the child’s mother (literate mothers provide better diets); (iv) place of residence (residents of agricultural areas tend to be taller than those in industrial environments— better and more plentiful food); and so on (Khazan 2014). Obviously, these factors all have to do with food access. But looked at from a broader angle, food access is clearly a function of values, knowledge, and social roles— that is, culture.

Just as with the Dutch, less-industrialized cultures show culture-body connections. For example, Pirahã phenotype is also subject to change. Facial features among the Pirahãs range impressionistically from slightly Negroid to East Asian to American Indian (to use terms from physical anthropology). Phenotypical differences between villages or families seem to have a biological basis (though no genetic tests have been conducted). This would be due in part to the fact Pirahã women have trysts with various non-Pirahã visitors (mainly river traders and their crews, but also government workers and contract employees on health assistance assignments, demarcating the Pirahã reservation, etc.). The genetic differences are also partly historical. One sizeable group of Pirahãs (perhaps thirty to forty)— usually found occupying a single village— are descendants of the Torá, a Chapakuran-speaking group that emigrated to the Maici-Marmelos rivers as long as two hundred years ago. Even today Brazilians refer to this group as Torá, though the Pirahãs refer to them as Pirahãs. They are culturally and linguistically fully integrated into the Pirahãs. Their facial features are somewhat different— broader noses; some with epicanthic folds; large foreheads— giving an overall impression of similarity to Cambodian features. This and other evidence show us that the Pirahã gene pool is not closed. 4 Yet body dimensions across all Pirahãs are constant. Men’s waists are or were uniformly 83 centimeters (about 32.5 inches), their average height 157.5 centimeters (five two), and their average weight 55 kilos (about 121 pounds).

I learned about the uniformity in these measurements over the past several decades as I have taken Pirahã men, women, and children to stores in nearby towns to purchase Western clothes, when they came out of their villages for medical help. (The Pirahãs always asked that I purchase Brazilian clothes for them so that they would not attract unnecessary stares and comments.) Thus I learned that the measurements for men were nearly identical. Biology alone cannot account for this homogeneity of body form; culture is implicated as well. For example, Pirahãs raised since infancy outside the village are somewhat taller and much heavier than Pirahãs raised in their culture and communities. Even the body does not escape our earlier observation that studies of culture and human social behavior can be summed up in the slogan that “you talk like who you talk with” or “grow like who you grow with.”


How Universal Is The Mind?

One expression of the misguided nature vs nurture debate is the understanding of our humanity. In wondering about the universality of Western views, we have already framed the issue in terms of Western dualism. The moment we begin speaking in specific terms, from mind to psyche, we’ve already smuggled in cultural preconceptions and biases.

Sabrina Golonka discusses several other linguistic cultures (Korean, Japanese, and Russian) in comparison to English. She suggests that dualism, even if variously articulated, underlies each conceptual tradition — a general distinction between visible and invisible. But all of those are highly modernized societies built on millennia of civilizational projects, from imperialism to industrialization. It would be even more interesting and insightful to look into the linguistic worldviews of indigenous cultures.

The Piraha, for example, are linguistically limited in only speaking about what they directly experience or about what those they personally know have directly experienced. They don’t talk about what is ‘invisible’, whether within the human sphere or beyond in the world, and as such they aren’t prone to theoretical speculations.

What is clear is that the Piraha’s mode of perception and description is far different, even to the point that what they see is sometimes invisible to those who aren’t Piraha. There is an anecdote shared by Daniel Everett. The Piraha crowded on the riverbank pointing to the spirit they saw on the other side, but Everett and his family saw nothing. That brings doubt to the framework of visible vs invisible. The Piraha were fascinated by what becomes invisible such as a person disappearing around the bend of a trail, although their fascination ended at that liminal point at the edge of the visible, not extending beyond it.

Another useful example would be the Australian Aborigine. The Songlines were traditionally integrated with their sense of identity and reality, signifying an experience that is invisible within the reality tunnel of WEIRD society (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Prior to contact, individualism as we know it may have been entirely unknown for Songlines express a profoundly collective sense of being in the world.

If any kind of dualism between visible and invisible did exist within the Aboriginal worldview, it more likely would have been on a communal level of experience. In their culture, ritual songs are learned and then what they represent becomes visible to the initiated, however this process might be made sense of within Aboriginal language. A song makes some aspect of the world visible, which is to invoke a particular reality and the beings that inhabit that reality. This is what Westerners would interpret as states of mind, but that is clearly an inadequate understanding of the fully immersive and embodied experience.

Western psychology has made non-Western experience invisible to most Westerners. There is the invisible we talk about within our own cultural worldview, what we perceive as known and familiar, no matter how intangible. But even more important is the unknown and unfamiliar that is so fundamentally invisible that we are incapable of talking about it. This doesn’t merely limit our understanding. Entire ways of being in the world are precluded by the words and concepts we use. Our sense of our own humanity is lesser for it and, as cultural languages go extinct, this state of affairs worsens with the near complete monocultural destruction of the very alternatives that most powerfully challenge our assumptions.

* * *

How Universal Is The Mind?
by Sabrina Golonka

So, back to the mind and our current view of cognition. Cross-linguistic research shows that, generally speaking, every culture has a folk model of a person consisting of visible and invisible (psychological) aspects (Wierzbicka, 2005). While there is agreement that the visible part of the person refers to the body, there is considerable variation in how different cultures think about the invisible (psychological) part. In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of “the mind” and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood? […]

In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism. Cognitive psychology allows us to invoke invisible, internal states as causes of behaviour, which fits nicely with the broad, cultural assumption that the mind causes us to act in certain ways.

To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of “cognition” is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of “the mind”, it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we’ve carved up the psychological realm – what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.

I recently wrote a blog about a related topic. In Pāli and Sanskrit – ancient Indian languages – there is no collective term for emotions. They do have words for all of the basic emotions and some others, but they do not think of them as a category distinct from thought. I have yet to think through all of the implications of this observation but clearly the ancient Indian view on psychology must have been very different to ours.

Han 21 December 2011 at 17:06

Very interesting post. Have you looked into Julian Jaynes’s strange and marvelous book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”? Even if you regard bicameralism as iffy, there’s an interesting section on the creation of metaphorical spaces — body-words that become “containers” for feelings, thoughts, attributes etc. The culturally distinct descriptors of the “invisible” may be related to historical accidents that vary from place to place.

Simon 9 January 2012 at 06:33

Also relevant might be Lakoff and Johnson’s “Philosophy in the Flesh” looking at, in their formulation, the inevitably metaphorical nature of thought and speech and the ultimate grounding of (almost) all metaphors in our physical experience from embodiment in the world.

Verbal Behavior

There is a somewhat interesting discussion of the friendship between B.F. Skinner and W.V.O. Quine. The piece explores their shared interests and possible influences on one another. It’s not exactly an area of personal interest, but it got me thinking about Julian Jaynes.

Skinner is famous for his behaviorist research. When behaviorism is mentioned, what immediately comes to mind for most people is Pavlov’s dog. But behaviorism wasn’t limited to animals and simple responses to stimuli. Skinner developed his theory toward verbal behavior as well. As Michael Karson explains,

“Skinner called his behaviorism “radical,” (i.e., thorough or complete) because he rejected then-behaviorism’s lack of interest in private events. Just as Galileo insisted that the laws of physics would apply in the sky just as much as on the ground, Skinner insisted that the laws of psychology would apply just as much to the psychologist’s inner life as to the rat’s observable life.

“Consciousness has nothing to do with the so-called and now-solved philosophical problem of mind-body duality, or in current terms, how the physical brain can give rise to immaterial thought. The answer to this pseudo-problem is that even though thought seems to be immaterial, it is not. Thought is no more immaterial than sound, light, or odor. Even educated people used to believe, a long time ago, that these things were immaterial, but now we know that sound requires a material medium to transmit waves, light is made up of photons, and odor consists of molecules. Thus, hearing, seeing, and smelling are not immaterial activities, and there is nothing in so-called consciousness besides hearing, seeing, and smelling (and tasting and feeling). Once you learn how to see and hear things that are there, you can also see and hear things that are not there, just as you can kick a ball that is not there once you have learned to kick a ball that is there. Engaging in the behavior of seeing and hearing things that are not there is called imagination. Its survival value is obvious, since it allows trial and error learning in the safe space of imagination. There is nothing in so-called consciousness that is not some version of the five senses operating on their own. Once you have learned to hear words spoken in a way that makes sense, you can have thoughts; thinking is hearing yourself make language; it is verbal behavior and nothing more. It’s not private speech, as once was believed; thinking is private hearing.”

It’s amazing how much this is resonates with Jaynes’ bicameral theory. This maybe shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Jaynes was trained in behaviorism and early on did animal research. He was mentored by the behaviorist Frank A. Beach and was friends with Edward Boring who wrote a book about consciousness in relation to behaviorism. Reading about Skinner’s ideas about verbal behavior, I was reminded of Jaynes’ view of authorization as it relates to linguistic commands and how they become internalized to form an interiorized mind-space (i.e., Jaynesian consciousness).

I’m not the only person to think along these lines. On Reddit, someone wrote: “It is possible that before there were verbal communities that reinforced the basic verbal operants in full, people didn’t have complete “thinking” and really ran on operant auto-pilot since they didn’t have a full covert verbal repertoire and internal reinforcement/shaping process for verbal responses covert or overt, but this would be aeons before 2-3 kya. Wonder if Jaynes ever encountered Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior”…” Jaynes only references Skinner once in his book on bicameralism and consciousness. But he discusses behaviorism in general to some extent.

In the introduction, he describes behaviorism in this way: “From the outside, this revolt against consciousness seemed to storm the ancient citadels of human thought and set its arrogant banners up in one university after another. But having once been a part of its major school, I confess it was not really what it seemed. Off the printed page, behaviorism was only a refusal to talk about consciousness. Nobody really believed he was not conscious. And there was a very real hypocrisy abroad, as those interested in its problems were forcibly excluded from academic psychology, as text after text tried to smother the unwanted problem from student view. In essence, behaviorism was a method, not the theory that it tried to be. And as a method, it exorcised old ghosts. It gave psychology a thorough house cleaning. And now the closets have been swept out and the cupboards washed and aired, and we are ready to examine the problem again.” As dissatisfying as animal research was for Jaynes, it nonetheless set the stage for deeper questioning by way of a broader approach. It made possible new understanding.

Like Skinner, he wanted to take the next step, shifting from behavior to experience. Even their strategies to accomplish this appear to have been similar. Sensory experience itself becomes internalized, according to both of their theories. For Jaynes, perception of external space becomes the metaphorical model for a sense of internal space. When Karson says of Skinner’s view that “thinking is hearing yourself make language,” that seems close to Jaynes discussion of hearing voices as it develops into an ‘I’ and a ‘me’, the sense of identity split into subject and object which asserted was required for one to hear one’s own thoughts.

I don’t know Skinner’s thinking in detail or how it changed over time. He too pushed beyond the bounds of behavioral research. It’s not clear that Jaynes’ ever acknowledged this commonality. In his 1990 afterword to his book, Jaynes’ makes his one mention of Skinner without pointing out Skinner’s work on verbal behavior:

“This conclusion is incorrect. Self-awareness usually means the consciousness of our own persona over time, a sense of who we are, our hopes and fears, as we daydream about ourselves in relation to others. We do not see our conscious selves in mirrors, even though that image may become the emblem of the self in many cases. The chimpanzees in this experiment and the two-year old child learned a point-to-point relation between a mirror image and the body, wonderful as that is. Rubbing a spot noticed in the mirror is not essentially different from rubbing a spot noticed on the body without a mirror. The animal is not shown to be imagining himself anywhere else, or thinking of his life over time, or introspecting in any sense — all signs of a conscious life.

“This less interesting, more primitive interpretation was made even clearer by an ingenious experiment done in Skinner’s laboratory (Epstein, 1981). Essentially the same paradigm was followed with pigeons, except that it required a series of specific trainings with the mirror, whereas the chimpanzee or child in the earlier experiments was, of course, self-trained. But after about fifteen hours of such training when the contingencies were carefully controlled, it was found that a pigeon also could use a mirror to locate a blue spot on its body which it could not see directly, though it had never been explicitly trained to do so. I do not think that a pigeon because it can be so trained has a self-concept.”

Jaynes was making the simple, if oft overlooked, point that perception of body is not the same thing as consciousness of mind. A behavioral response to one’s own body isn’t fundamentally different than a behavioral response to anything else. Behavioral responses are found in every species. This isn’t helpful in exploring consciousness itself. Skinner too wanted to get beyond this level of basic behavioral research, so it seems. Interestingly, without any mention of Skinner, Jaynes does use the exact phrasing of Skinner in speaking about the unconscious learning of ‘verbal behavior’ (Book One, Chapter 1):

“Another simple experiment can demonstrate this. Ask someone to sit opposite you and to say words, as many words as he can think of, pausing two or three seconds after each of them for you to write them down. If after every plural noun (or adjective, or abstract word, or whatever you choose) you say “good” or “right” as you write it down, or simply “mmm-hmm” or smile, or repeat the plural word pleasantly, the frequency of plural nouns (or whatever) will increase significantly as he goes on saying words. The important thing here is that the subject is not aware that he is learning anything at all. [13] He is not conscious that he is trying to find a way to make you increase your encouraging remarks, or even of his solution to that problem. Every day, in all our conversations, we are constantly training and being trained by each other in this manner, and yet we are never conscious of it.”

This is just a passing comment in using one example among many, and he states that “Such unconscious learning is not confined to verbal behavior.” He doesn’t further explore language in this immediate section or repeat again the phrase ‘verbal behavior’ in any other section, although the notion of verbal behavior is central to the entire book. But a decade after the original publication date of his book, Jaynes wrote a paper where he does talk about Skinner’s ideas about language:

“One needs language for consciousness. We think consciousness is learned by children between two and a half and five or six years in what we can call the verbal surround, or the verbal community as B.F Skinner calls it. It is an aspect of learning to speak. Mental words are out there as part of the culture and part of the family. A child fits himself into these words and uses them even before he knows the meaning of them. A mother is constantly instilling the seeds of consciousness in a two- and three-year-old, telling the child to stop and think, asking him “What shall we do today?” or “Do you remember when we did such and such or were somewhere?” And all this while metaphor and analogy are hard at work. There are many different ways that different children come to this, but indeed I would say that children without some kind of language are not conscious.”
(Jaynes, J. 1986. “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind.” Canadian Psychology, 27, 128– 148.)

I don’t have access to that paper. That quote comes from an article by John E. Limber: “Language and consciousness: Jaynes’s “Preposterous idea” reconsidered.” It is found in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness edited by Marcel Kuijsten (pp. 169-202).

Anyway, the point Jaynes makes is that language is required for consciousness as an inner sense of self because language is required to hear ourselves think. So verbal behavior is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the emergence of consciousness as we know it. As long as verbal behavior remains an external event, conscious experience won’t follow. Humans have to learn to hear themselves as they hear others, to split themselves into a speaker and a listener.

This relates to what makes possible the differentiation of hearing a voice being spoken by someone in the external world and hearing a voice as a memory of someone in one’s internal mind-space. Without this distinction, imagination isn’t possible for anything imagined would become a hallucination where internal and external hearing are conflated or rather never separated. Jaynes proposes this is why ancient texts regularly describe people as hearing voices of deities and deified kings, spirits and ancestors. The bicameral person, according to the theory, hears their own voice without being conscious that it is their own thought.

All of that emerges from those early studies of animal behavior. Behaviorism plays a key role simply in placing the emphasis on behavior. From there, one can come to the insight that consciousness is a neurocognitive behavior modeled on physical and verbal behavior. The self is a metaphor built on embodied experience in the world. This relates to many similar views, such as that humans learn a theory of mind within themselves by first developing a theory of mind in perceiving others. This goes along with attention schema and the attribution of consciousness. And some have pointed out what is called the double subject fallacy, a hidden form of dualism that infects neuroscience. However described, it gets at the same issue.

It all comes down our being both social animals and inhabitants of the world. Human development begins with a focus outward, culture and language determining what kind of identity forms. How we learn to behave is who we become.

“Lack of the historical sense is the traditional defect in all philosophers.”

Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits
by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

The Traditional Error of Philosophers.—All philosophers make the common mistake of taking contemporary man as their starting point and of trying, through an analysis of him, to reach a conclusion. “Man” involuntarily presents himself to them as an aeterna veritas as a passive element in every hurly-burly, as a fixed standard of things. Yet everything uttered by the philosopher on the subject of man is, in the last resort, nothing more than a piece of testimony concerning man during a very limited period of time. Lack of the historical sense is the traditional defect in all philosophers. Many innocently take man in his most childish state as fashioned through the influence of certain religious and even of certain political developments, as the permanent form under which man must be viewed. They will not learn that man has evolved,4 that the intellectual faculty itself is an evolution, whereas some philosophers make the whole cosmos out of this intellectual faculty. But everything essential in human evolution took place aeons ago, long before the four thousand years or so of which we know anything: during these man may not have changed very much. However, the philosopher ascribes “instinct” to contemporary man and assumes that this is one of the unalterable facts regarding man himself, and hence affords a clue to the understanding of the universe in general. The whole teleology is so planned that man during the last four thousand years shall be spoken of as a being existing from all eternity, and with reference to whom everything in the cosmos from its very inception is naturally ordered. Yet everything evolved: there are no eternal facts as there are no absolute truths. Accordingly, historical philosophising is henceforth indispensable, and with it honesty of judgment.

What Locke Lacked
by Louise Mabille

Locke is indeed a Colossus of modernity, but one whose twin projects of providing a concept of human understanding and political foundation undermine each other. The specificity of the experience of perception alone undermines the universality and uniformity necessary to create the subject required for a justifiable liberalism. Since mere physical perspective can generate so much difference, it is only to be expected that political differences would be even more glaring. However, no political order would ever come to pass without obliterating essential differences. The birth of liberalism was as violent as the Empire that would later be justified in its name, even if its political traces are not so obvious. To interpret is to see in a particular way, at the expense of all other possibilities of interpretation. Perspectives that do not fit are simply ignored, or as that other great resurrectionist of modernity, Freud, would concur, simply driven underground. We ourselves are the source of this interpretative injustice, or more correctly, our need for a world in which it is possible to live, is. To a certain extent, then, man is the measure of the world, but only his world. Man is thus a contingent measure and our measurements do not refer to an original, underlying reality. What we call reality is the result not only of our limited perspectives upon the world, but the interplay of those perspectives themselves. The liberal subject is thus a result of, and not a foundation for, the experience of reality. The subject is identified as origin of meaning only through a process of differentiation and reduction, a course through which the will is designated as a psychological property.

Locke takes the existence of the subject of free will – free to exercise political choice such as rising against a tyrant, choosing representatives, or deciding upon political direction – simply for granted. Furthermore, he seems to think that everyone should agree as to what the rules are according to which these events should happen. For him, the liberal subject underlying these choices is clearly fundamental and universal.

Locke’s philosophy of individualism posits the existence of a discreet and isolated individual, with private interests and rights, independent of his linguistic or socio-historical context. C. B. MacPhearson identifies a distinctly possessive quality to Locke’s individualist ethic, notably in the way in which the individual is conceived as proprietor of his own personhood, possessing capacities such as self-reflection and free will. Freedom becomes associated with possession, which the Greeks would associate with slavery, and society conceived in terms of a collection of free and equal individuals who are related to each through their means of achieving material success – which Nietzsche, too, would associate with slave morality.  […]

There is a central tenet to John Locke’s thinking that, as conventional as it has become, remains a strange strategy. Like Thomas Hobbes, he justifies modern society by contrasting it with an original state of nature. For Hobbes, as we have seen, the state of nature is but a hypothesis, a conceptual tool in order to elucidate a point. For Locke, however, the state of nature is a very real historical event, although not a condition of a state of war. Man was social by nature, rational and free. Locke drew this inspiration from Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, notably from his idea that church government should be based upon human nature, and not the Bible, which, according to Hooker, told us nothing about human nature. The social contract is a means to escape from nature, friendlier though it be on the Lockean account. For Nietzsche, however, we have never made the escape: we are still holus-bolus in it: ‘being conscious is in no decisive sense the opposite of the instinctive – most of the philosopher’s conscious thinking is secretly directed and compelled into definite channels by his instincts. Behind all logic too, and its apparent autonomy there stand evaluations’ (BGE, 3). Locke makes a singular mistake in thinking the state of nature a distant event. In fact, Nietzsche tells us, we have never left it. We now only wield more sophisticated weapons, such as the guilty conscience […]

Truth originates when humans forget that they are ‘artistically creating subjects’ or products of law or stasis and begin to attach ‘invincible faith’ to their perceptions, thereby creating truth itself. For Nietzsche, the key to understanding the ethic of the concept, the ethic of representation, is conviction […]

Few convictions have proven to be as strong as the conviction of the existence of a fundamental subjectivity. For Nietzsche, it is an illusion, a bundle of drives loosely collected under the name of ‘subject’ —indeed, it is nothing but these drives, willing, and actions in themselves—and it cannot appear as anything else except through the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified in it), which understands and misunderstands all action as conditioned by something which causes actions, by a ‘Subject’ (GM I 13). Subjectivity is a form of linguistic reductionism, and when using language, ‘[w]e enter a realm of crude fetishism when we summon before consciousness the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language — in plain talk, the presuppositions of reason. Everywhere reason sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause; it believes in the ego, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things — only thereby does it first create the concept of ‘thing’ (TI, ‘Reason in Philosophy’ 5). As Nietzsche also states in WP 484, the habit of adding a doer to a deed is a Cartesian leftover that begs more questions than it solves. It is indeed nothing more than an inference according to habit: ‘There is activity, every activity requires an agent, consequently – (BGE, 17). Locke himself found the continuous existence of the self problematic, but did not go as far as Hume’s dissolution of the self into a number of ‘bundles’. After all, even if identity shifts occurred behind the scenes, he required a subject with enough unity to be able to enter into the Social Contract. This subject had to be something more than merely an ‘eternal grammatical blunder’ (D, 120), and willing had to be understood as something simple. For Nietzsche, it is ‘above all complicated, something that is a unit only as a word, a word in which the popular prejudice lurks, which has defeated the always inadequate caution of philosophers’ (BGE, 19).

Nietzsche’s critique of past philosophers
by Michael Lacewing

Nietzsche is questioning the very foundations of philosophy. To accept his claims means being a new kind of philosopher, ones who ‘taste and inclination’, whose values, are quite different. Throughout his philosophy, Nietzsche is concerned with origins, both psychological and historical. Much of philosophy is usually thought of as an a priori investigation. But if Nietzsche can show, as he thinks he can, that philosophical theories and arguments have a specific historical basis, then they are not, in fact, a priori. What is known a priori should not change from one historical era to the next, nor should it depend on someone’s psychology. Plato’s aim, the aim that defines much of philosophy, is to be able to give complete definitions of ideas – ‘what is justice?’, ‘what is knowledge?’. For Plato, we understand an idea when we have direct knowledge of the Form, which is unchanging and has no history. If our ideas have a history, then the philosophical project of trying to give definitions of our concepts, rather than histories, is radically mistaken. For example, in §186, Nietzsche argues that philosophers have consulted their ‘intuitions’ to try to justify this or that moral principle. But they have only been aware of their own morality, of which their ‘justifications’ are in fact only expressions. Morality and moral intuitions have a history, and are not a priori. There is no one definition of justice or good, and the ‘intuitions’ that we use to defend this or that theory are themselves as historical, as contentious as the theories we give – so they offer no real support. The usual ways philosophers discuss morality misunderstands morality from the very outset. The real issues of understanding morality only emerge when we look at the relation between this particular morality and that. There is no world of unchanging ideas, no truths beyond the truths of the world we experience, nothing that stands outside or beyond nature and history.


Nietzsche develops a new way of philosophizing, which he calls a ‘morphology and evolutionary theory’ (§23), and later calls ‘genealogy’. (‘Morphology’ means the study of the forms something, e.g. morality, can take; ‘genealogy’ means the historical line of descent traced from an ancestor.) He aims to locate the historical origin of philosophical and religious ideas and show how they have changed over time to the present day. His investigation brings together history, psychology, the interpretation of concepts, and a keen sense of what it is like to live with particular ideas and values. In order to best understand which of our ideas and values are particular to us, not a priori or universal, we need to look at real alternatives. In order to understand these alternatives, we need to understand the psychology of the people who lived with them. And so Nietzsche argues that traditional ways of doing philosophy fail – our intuitions are not a reliable guide to the ‘truth’, to the ‘real’ nature of this or that idea or value. And not just our intuitions, but the arguments, and style of arguing, that philosophers have used are unreliable. Philosophy needs to become, or be informed by, genealogy. A lack of any historical sense, says Nietzsche, is the ‘hereditary defect’ of all philosophers.


Having long kept a strict eye on the philosophers, and having looked between their lines, I say to myself… most of a philosopher’s conscious thinking is secretly guided and channelled into particular tracks by his instincts. Behind all logic, too, and its apparent tyranny of movement there are value judgements, or to speak more clearly, physiological demands for the preservation of a particular kind of life. (§3) A person’s theoretical beliefs are best explained, Nietzsche thinks, by evaluative beliefs, particular interpretations of certain values, e.g. that goodness is this and the opposite of badness. These values are best explained as ‘physiological demands for the preservation of a particular kind of life’. Nietzsche holds that each person has a particular psychophysical constitution, formed by both heredity and culture. […] Different values, and different interpretations of these values, support different ways of life, and so people are instinctively drawn to particular values and ways of understanding them. On the basis of these interpretations of values, people come to hold particular philosophical views. §2 has given us an illustration of this: philosophers come to hold metaphysical beliefs about a transcendent world, the ‘true’ and ‘good’ world, because they cannot believe that truth and goodness could originate in the world of normal experience, which is full of illusion, error, and selfishness. Therefore, there ‘must’ be a pure, spiritual world and a spiritual part of human beings, which is the origin of truth and goodness. Philosophy and values But ‘must’ there be a transcendent world? Or is this just what the philosopher wants to be true? Every great philosophy, claims Nietzsche, is ‘the personal confession of its author’ (§6). The moral aims of a philosophy are the ‘seed’ from which the whole theory grows. Philosophers pretend that their opinions have been reached by ‘cold, pure, divinely unhampered dialectic’ when in fact, they are seeking reasons to support their pre-existing commitment to ‘a rarefied and abstract version of their heart’s desire’ (§5), viz. that there is a transcendent world, and that good and bad, true and false are opposites. Consider: Many philosophical systems are of doubtful coherence, e.g. how could there be Forms, and if there were, how could we know about them? Or again, in §11, Nietzsche asks ‘how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?’. The term ‘synthetic a priori’ was invented by Kant. According to Nietzsche, Kant says that such judgments are possible, because we have a ‘faculty’ that makes them possible. What kind of answer is this?? Furthermore, no philosopher has ever been proved right (§25). Given the great difficulty of believing either in a transcendent world or in human cognitive abilities necessary to know about it, we should look elsewhere for an explanation of why someone would hold those beliefs. We can find an answer in their values. There is an interesting structural similarity between Nietzsche’s argument and Hume’s. Both argue that there is no rational explanation of many of our beliefs, and so they try to find the source of these beliefs outside or beyond reason. Hume appeals to imagination and the principle of ‘Custom’. Nietzsche appeals instead to motivation and ‘the bewitchment of language’ (see below). So Nietzsche argues that philosophy is not driven by a pure ‘will to truth’ (§1), to discover the truth whatever it may be. Instead, a philosophy interprets the world in terms of the philosopher’s values. For example, the Stoics argued that we should live ‘according to nature’ (§9). But they interpret nature by their own values, as an embodiment of rationality. They do not see the senselessness, the purposelessness, the indifference of nature to our lives […]


We said above that Nietzsche criticizes past philosophers on two grounds. We have looked at the role of motivation; the second ground is the seduction of grammar. Nietzsche is concerned with the subject-predicate structure of language, and with it the notion of a ‘substance’ (picked out by the grammatical ‘subject’) to which we attribute ‘properties’ (identified by the predicate). This structure leads us into a mistaken metaphysics of ‘substances’. In particular, Nietzsche is concerned with the grammar of ‘I’. We tend to think that ‘I’ refers to some thing, e.g. the soul. Descartes makes this mistake in his cogito – ‘I think’, he argues, refers to a substance engaged in an activity. But Nietzsche repeats the old objection that this is an illegitimate inference (§16) that rests on many unproven assumptions – that I am thinking, that some thing is thinking, that thinking is an activity (the result of a cause, viz. I), that an ‘I’ exists, that we know what it is to think. So the simple sentence ‘I think’ is misleading. In fact, ‘a thought comes when ‘it’ wants to, and not when ‘I’ want it to’ (§17). Even ‘there is thinking’ isn’t right: ‘even this ‘there’ contains an interpretation of the process and is not part of the process itself. People are concluding here according to grammatical habit’. But our language does not allow us just to say ‘thinking’ – this is not a whole sentence. We have to say ‘there is thinking’; so grammar constrains our understanding. Furthermore, Kant shows that rather than the ‘I’ being the basis of thinking, thinking is the basis out of which the appearance of an ‘I’ is created (§54). Once we recognise that there is no soul in a traditional sense, no ‘substance’, something constant through change, something unitary and immortal, ‘the way is clear for new and refined versions of the hypothesis about the soul’ (§12), that it is mortal, that it is multiplicity rather than identical over time, even that it is a social construct and a society of drives. Nietzsche makes a similar argument about the will (§19). Because we have this one word ‘will’, we think that what it refers to must also be one thing. But the act of willing is highly complicated. First, there is an emotion of command, for willing is commanding oneself to do something, and with it a feeling of superiority over that which obeys. Second, there is the expectation that the mere commanding on its own is enough for the action to follow, which increases our sense of power. Third, there is obedience to the command, from which we also derive pleasure. But we ignore the feeling the compulsion, identifying the ‘I’ with the commanding ‘will’. Nietzsche links the seduction of language to the issue of motivation in §20, arguing that ‘the spell of certain grammatical functions is the spell of physiological value judgements’. So even the grammatical structure of language originates in our instincts, different grammars contributing to the creation of favourable conditions for different types of life. So what values are served by these notions of the ‘I’ and the ‘will’? The ‘I’ relates to the idea that we have a soul, which participates in a transcendent world. It functions in support of the ascetic ideal. The ‘will’, and in particular our inherited conception of ‘free will’, serves a particular moral aim

Hume and Nietzsche: Moral Psychology (short essay)
by epictetus_rex

1. Metaphilosophical Motivation

Both Hume and Nietzsche1 advocate a kind of naturalism. This is a weak naturalism, for it does not seek to give science authority over philosophical inquiry, nor does it commit itself to a specific ontological or metaphysical picture. Rather, it seeks to (a) place the human mind firmly in the realm of nature, as subject to the same mechanisms that drive all other natural events, and (b) investigate the world in a way that is roughly congruent with our best current conception(s) of nature […]

Furthermore, the motivation for this general position is common to both thinkers. Hume and Nietzsche saw old rationalist/dualist philosophies as both absurd and harmful: such systems were committed to extravagant and contradictory metaphysical claims which hinder philosophical progress. Furthermore, they alienated humanity from its position in nature—an effect Hume referred to as “anxiety”—and underpinned religious or “monkish” practises which greatly accentuated this alienation. Both Nietzsche and Hume believe quite strongly that coming to see ourselves as we really are will banish these bugbears from human life.

To this end, both thinkers ask us to engage in honest, realistic psychology. “Psychology is once more the path to the fundamental problems,” writes Nietzsche (BGE 23), and Hume agrees:

the only expedient, from which we can hope for success in our philosophical researches, is to leave the tedious lingering method, which we have hitherto followed, and instead of taking now and then a castle or village on the frontier, to march up directly to the capital or center of these sciences, to human nature itself.” (T Intro)

2. Selfhood

Hume and Nietzsche militate against the notion of a unified self, both at-a-time and, a fortiori, over time.

Hume’s quest for a Newtonian “science of the mind” lead him to classify all mental events as either impressions (sensory) or ideas (copies of sensory impressions, distinguished from the former by diminished vivacity or force). The self, or ego, as he says, is just “a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity.” (Treatise 4.6) […]

For Nietzsche, the experience of willing lies in a certain kind of pleasure, a feeling of self-mastery and increase of power that comes with all success. This experience leads us to mistakenly posit a simple, unitary cause, the ego. (BGE 19)

The similarities here are manifest: our minds do not have any intrinsic unity to which the term “self” can properly refer, rather, they are collections or “bundles” of events (drives) which may align with or struggle against one another in a myriad of ways. Both thinkers use political models to describe what a person really is. Hume tells us we should “more properly compare the soul to a republic or commonwealth, in which the several members [impressions and ideas] are united by ties of government and subordination, and give rise to persons, who propagate the same republic in the incessant change of its parts” (T 261)

3. Action and The Will

Nietzsche and Hume attack the old platonic conception of a “free will” in lock-step with one another. This picture, roughly, involves a rational intellect which sits above the appetites and ultimately chooses which appetites will express themselves in action. This will is usually not considered to be part of the natural/empirical order, and it is this consequence which irks both Hume and Nietzsche, who offer two seamlessly interchangeable refutations […]

Since we are nothing above and beyond events, there is nothing for this “free will” to be: it is a causa sui, “a sort of rape and perversion of logic… the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense” (BGE 21).

When they discover an erroneous or empty concept such as “Free will” or “the self”, Nietzsche and Hume engage in a sort of error-theorizing which is structurally the same. Peter Kail (2006) has called this a “projective explanation”, whereby belief in those concepts is “explained by appeal to independently intelligible features of psychology”, rather than by reference to the way the world really is1.

The Philosophy of Mind
INSTRUCTOR: Larry Hauser
Chapter 7: Egos, bundles, and multiple selves

  • Who dat?  “I”
    • Locke: “something, I know not what”
    • Hume: the no-self view … “bundle theory”
    • Kant’s transcendental ego: a formal (nonempirical) condition of thought that the “I’ must accompany every perception.
      • Intentional mental state: I think that snow is white.
        • to think: a relation between
          • a subject = “I”
          • a propositional content thought =  snow is white
      • Sensations: I feel the coldness of the snow.
        • to feel: a relation between
          • a subject = “I”
          • a quale = the cold-feeling
    • Friedrich Nietzsche
      • A thought comes when “it” will and not when “I” will. Thus it is a falsification of the evidence to say that the subject “I” conditions the predicate “think.”
      • It is thought, to be sure, but that this “it” should be that old famous “I” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion. Above all it is not an “immediate certainty.” … Our conclusion is here formulated out of our grammatical custom: “Thinking is an activity; every activity presumes something which is active, hence ….” 
    • Lichtenberg: “it’s thinking” a la “it’s raining”
      • a mere grammatical requirement
      • no proof of an thinking self


  • Ego vs. bundle theories (Derek Parfit (1987))
    • Ego: “there really is some kind of continuous self that is the subject of my experiences, that makes decisions, and so on.” (95)
      • Religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism
      • Philosophers: Descartes, Locke, Kant & many others (the majority view)
    • Bundle: “there is no underlying continuous and unitary self.” (95)
      • Religion: Buddhism
      • Philosophers: Hume, Nietzsche, Lichtenberg, Wittgenstein, Kripke(?), Parfit, Dennett {a stellar minority}
  • Hume v. Reid
    • David Hume: For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.  I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.  (Hume 1739, Treatise I, VI, iv)
    • Thomas Reid: I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling: I am something which thinks and acts and feels. (1785)

An Inconsistency on the Political Left

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky had some strong disagreements a while back, about religion in its relation to extremism and terrorism. It was a dialogue that didn’t really go anywhere. Their ideological worldviews were too different. But it occurred to me what exactly is odd about the conflict.

Harris believes there is something inherent to certain religions and to the religious mindset in general. Chomsky takes the opposite tack by emphasizing conditions and context. Islamic terrorists are the result of a half century of geopolitical machinations that involved Western governments eliminating secularism and promoting theocracy.

It’s a difference of whether one emphasizes civilizational war or common humanity. The divergence of these worldviews extends back to the Enlightenment and even further back to the Axial Age.

That isn’t exactly what I want to discuss, though. It came to my mind that these two thinkers switch positions when it comes to the human mind. Harris denies that there is an inherent self, whereas Chomsky has long argued that there are inherent modules within the mind.

Both seem inconsistent, but as mirror images of each other. Some have noted that Chomsky’s linguistic theory doesn’t fit his political ideology. There is a drastic mismatch. Chomsky dismisses this as two separate areas, as though the human mind and human society had nothing to do with each other. That is odd. Harris, as far as I know, has never even attempted to explain away his inner conflict.

Most on the political right would argue that nearly everything is inherent: human nature, language, culture, religion, genetics, biology, gender, etc. It is assumed that there is a fundamental, unchanging essence to things that determines their expression. I disagree with this viewpoint, but at least it is consistent. There are other areas of inconsistency on the political right, some real whoppers such as with economics. Yet for this set of issues, the greater inconsistency appears to be on the political left.

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within:
The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough
Kindle Locations 3337-3342

And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.

Kindle Locations 3357-3362

This is not an uncommon story among people whose voices go away. Someone is there, and then they’re not there anymore. I was reminded of what I had been told about the initial onset of voice-hearing: how it can be like dialing into a transmission that has always been present. “Once you hear the voices,” wrote Mark Vonnegut of his experiences, “you realise they’ve always been there. It’s just a matter of being tuned to them.” If you can tune in to something, then perhaps you can also tune out.

Kindle Locations 3568-3570

It is also important to bear in mind that for many voice-hearers the distinction between voices and thoughts is not always clear-cut. In our survey, a third of the sample reported either a combination of auditory and thought-like voices, or experiences that fell somewhere between auditory voices and thoughts.

* * *

Charles Fernyhough recommends the best books on Streams of Consciousness
from Five Books

Charles Fernyhough Listens in on Thought Itself in ‘The Voices Within’
by Raymond Tallis, WSJ (read here)

Neuroscience: Listening in on yourself
by Douwe Draaisma, Nature

The Song Of The Psyche
by Megan Sherman, Huffington Post