Friday, May 27, 2011

Two Puzzles Concerning the Self

Yesterday I posted about how Plato confused the operations of his nervous system – its capacity to extract ‘canonical’ forms of objects from the flux of everyday appearances – with a postulated realm of Ideal Forms. Today I want to consider two other cases of how we get in our own way. The first case is not about us at all, but about two apes. The second involves one of those ingenious experiements of Jean Piaget.

Though the examples are somewhat different, I offer them to make a single point, that The Self is a construct, not a philosophical absolute or essence or ground. It is social (first case) and can, in fact, be mistaken (second case), and is thus contingent.

Chimps ‘R Us

Let us begin with one of those chimpanzees who were raised among humans, possibly the first of them. As a youngster Vicki was given the task of sorting photographs into two piles, “human” and “animal.” She placed her own photograph in the human pile while she put her chimpanzee father’s picture went into the animal pile (Eugene Linden, Apes, Men, and Language, 1974, p. 50). Was she expressing aggression against her father? Possibly, but not likely. Her father was a chimpanzee and so she placed his picture in the pile for animals, where it belonged. He looked like other animals, more or less. But why did she think her picture belonged in the pile with humans? After all, she didn’t look like humans, and least not as humans judge these things.

Lucy is another chimpanzee who was raised among humans (Temerlin, My Daughter Lucy, Psychology Today 9, 1975: 103). When she reached puberty she made sexual advances toward traveling salesmen and masturbated while looking at pictures of nude men in Playgirl, showing particular interest in their penises. Washoe, raised by Allen and Beatrice Gardner and taught the rudiments of Ameslan (American Sign Language), referred to other chimpanzees as “black bugs” when she first came in contact with conspecifics after years of life among humans (Linden, p. 10).

These chimpanzees, in a sense, “thought” of themselves as people. They were used to social interaction with human beings, not with other chimpanzees. Thus we might interpret Vicki’s two piles of photographs as “appropriate social other” and “inappropriate social other” rather than as “human” and “animal.” The fact that the physical resemblance between chimpanzee and chimpanzee is greater than that between human and chimpanzee is overridden by the fact that, for these apes, there is no social resemblance between themselves and other chimpanzees while such social resemblance does hold with humans.

Piaget’s Crawl

Now let’s turn to an experiment that Jean Piaget conducted as part of an investigation into consciousness. In this experiment children were asked to crawl for about 10 meters and then to describe what they had just done (Piaget, The Grasp of Consciousness 1976, pp. 1 ff.). Four-year olds generally said either that they first moved one arm, then the other arm, then one leg, then the other leg, or legs first and then arms. Piaget called this a Z pattern. That is not, in fact, how any of them actually crawled. It is difficult to impossible to crawl in that fashion.

What they actually did was either to first move one arm, then the opposite leg, then the other arm, then the opposite leg or the same pattern beginning with a leg. Piaget called this an X pattern. It isn’t until children are seven or older that they can accurately descibe how they crawl.

What is striking is that the younger children’s verbal account of such a simple and basic act, one they’ve been doing since the first year of life, is simply wrong. In order to execute the crawl there must be some brain representation of the appropriate actions; crawling isn’t a spinal reflex. But that representation must in some way be distinct from the representation underlying the younger children’s verbal accounts, otherwise those accounts would not be incorrect. We are thus dealing with two different neural representations of the same action , one of which is inaccurate.

The accurate representation is the one that actually regulates the motions of crawling. It HAS to be accurate, otherwise crawling would fail. The second representation is something entirely different, at best only loosely linked to the first. The first does not involve language. The second does; as such, it is necessarily social.

Where’s the Self?

Lacking language, could Vicky, Lucy, or Washoe even have a self-representation that’s parallel to the four-year old’s inaccurate account of crawling? Yet these apes certainly do have some sense of themselves, which came into play in Vicki’s case when she had to sort photographs. And they can certainly see their own bodies ‘out there’ in the world with other things.

But, is having some sense of oneself the same as The Self? What’s this ‘THE” about? And: is the language-mediated self representation by that very fact a penetration of an Other into, well, into oneself? What Other is that?

Is there one good question in here somewhere?

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