Friday, December 28, 2012

Training Trees: Ontology in Cognition

This is a bonsai tree I photographed at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia:


The label for each such tree noted the date on which training began.

That’s what interests me, the use of the word “training.” One would not say that a black smith trains iron to become horseshoes, or a knife blade, or hardware fittings for doors and cabinets. Metal is not trainable in the sense that plants, animals, and humans are.

This usage seems most common for humans and animals, perhaps because training plants is not so common. Of myself I can say that I was trained by David Hays, but I would not say that I was trained by the other graduate faculty with whom I studied in graduate. It is true, that they trained me in a general way, but I worked more closely with Hays than with any of the others and acquired both a richer and a more specific set of skills from him. There are aspects of my work that are identifiably linked to David Hays, most obviously my work in cognitive networks.

Similarly, one can say of a boxer preparing for a fight that he is “in training” for the fight. A boxer in training will usually be working with a trainer. That trainer will be working with the boxer on both boxing skills and general physical conditioning. Things change in the world of football. There the coach is responsible for football skills while a trainer is responsible for physical conditioning.

Animals can be trained as well, though some animals are more easily trained than others. Dogs more so than cats, horses more so than cattle.

Humans, of course, can also train themselves, whether in athletic skills, intellectual skills, or any other kind of skill or conditioning. But plants and animals cannot. They must be trained by a human. And inanimate things, like chunks of metal, cannot be trained at all, though they can be worked, forged, shaped, carved, and so forth.

Informally we can say that living things have souls while inanimate things do not. It is the soul that accepts training. Further, we seem to have at least two kinds of souls. The soul of a plant can accept training but cannot itself direct training. It would seem that animals are like plants in this respect. The football example seems to imply that humans have two kinds of soul. One soul is the province of coaches while the other is for trainers to work on.

In thus talking of souls I do not mean to imply that such souls are consciously conceived. They may or may not be, but even where they are there’s no particular reason to believe that that conception plays a role in the semantic mechanisms underlying the usage of the verb “to train.” Those are the mechanisms that have interested me for some time. When I talk of ontological cognition, those mechanisms are what I have in mind. The explicit concept of the soul, or the notions of a vital, sensitive, and rational soul, those are most likely rationalizations of the underlying semantic mechanisms. 

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