Monday, November 09, 2009

The Sole Text of Rational Psychology

Two passages to begin with. First, from Martin Amis, The Information:
"What did they say? Did anyone say anything?"
Yes. The man said, "I'm a child."
"The man said you're a child?" And Richard went back four or five years, to the natural confusions of early speech. "How are you?" he would ask him; and Marco would say, logically enough, "You're fine." And Marco would reach out to him with his arms and say, "Carry you." And Richard would pick him up and carry him…
No. He said I'm a child.
Then the following echo, from Life As We Know It, a memoir by Michael Bérubé:
Well into his second year, in fact, Nick persisting in saying "take him" to his parents whenever he wanted to be picked up. "No, no, take me," we said to him, to which he answered, logically enough, "take you."
Adorable, huh? But such inversions can also be symptomatic: many autistic children call themselves 'you' not 'I'; they struggle to master the conventional use of pronouns. Thus the natural confusions of childhood, logical enough in themselves, are marked as pathology: red flags.

Nor is this just any conceptual muddle, like a failure to grasp that numbers are for counting, or the eccentricity of Wittgenstein's wood sellers, who measure quantity by the area covered by a pile of wood, regardless of its volume. That there is an intimate connection between cognition and the first person concept is a thesis of the Critique of Pure Reason:
It must be possible for the 'I think' to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me which could not be thought at all, and that is equivalent to saying that the representation would be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me.
What kind of mind could lack this capacity? What form of thought is available to those who cannot distinguish themselves from others?

These questions evoke a persisting trope in the literature of autism: that of autist as alien. Temple Grandin writes that, for her mother, dealing with her was "like dealing with somebody from another planet." This is the obverse of the notorious defects of social cognition characteristic of autism. Grandin memorably called herself, in relation to others, "an anthropologist on Mars."

In the opening chapter of Thinking in Pictures, Grandin tries to depict the contents of her kind of mind. "Depict" is right, since she is an intensely visual thinker.
Unlike those of most people, my thoughts move from video-like specific images to generalizations and concepts. For example, my concept of dogs is inextricably linked to every dog I've ever known. It's as if I have a card catalogue of dogs I have seen, complete with pictures, which continually grows as I add more examples to my video library. If I think about Great Danes, the first memory that pops into my head is Dansk, the Great Dane owned by the headmaster at my high school […] the images I visualize are always specific. There is no generic, generalized Great Dane.
This is Berkeley's attack on abstract ideas – and something like Hume's solution. If ideas represent pictorially, and there is no such thing as a generic picture, we have to construct our concepts from images as associative files.

Reviewing Grandin's book in Hume Studies, Elijah Millgram went so far as to call it
a window into a mind of which Hume's psychology is for the most part true. […] he was, it now appears, inadvertently describing not his own experience, and not human mentation in general, but a certain type of autism.
It is a tempting move, to map the alien to the familiar – though which is which will depend on what you know. But it can't be right. Millgram is too mild when he remarks that "twentieth-century philosophers no longer find the psychology [of the British empiricists] convincing" because it "did not make good on its explanatory obligations […] a thought's being a mental picture is not a satisfactory account of why it has the content it does." Even if we drop the question of content, how to make sense of such mundane phenomena as belief, which Hume was led to equate with an indefinable "force" or "vivacity" of ideas? Quite apart from its obscurity, Hume's conception only works for ideas of particular things: it is an account of belief in x, not belief that p. Propositional belief would have to relate distinct ideas, some of them abstract – but not by association. Hume leaves no room for this.

To say this is not to question Grandin's testimony: she does not claim to be a Humean mind. But it does imply a certain failure. Her book explains how acute visualization may compensate for cognitive shortfalls. But we want more than that. When we read her words as a field report from another planet, they promise a window to the alien mind: a mode of thinking that is nothing but pictures. However it may seem, this cannot be made intelligible. It is just an illusion of thought.


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