Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Communicating with Yourself, Some Data Points in the Contemporary Intellectual Situation

But first, not so contemporary: E. M. (“only connect”) Forster is known for various things, including the assertion, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s about why he writes.

Think about if for a moment, considering the fact the Forster is one of the great writers of the 20th century. And that’s not a casual remark. What’s it mean? I mean, writing is hard, often very hard; why should it be necessary to write in order to know what you think? Can’t you just, you know, sit and take thought?

Well, yes, you can, and it won’t get you as far as the labor of writing. I could likely say quite a bit about just why that is so; but I have no reason to believe that, in so doing, I’d nail it to the wall. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. But that’s not the point. I just want you to think about it, the labor of making marks on paper as being a way of thinking about what’s in your own mind. If it’s in your mind, why do you need to put marks on paper in order to know it?

Just what is a mind and what does it mean for something to be IN a mind?

Sender-Receiver Systems

Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has been interested in what he calls a Sender-Receiver Configuration model of communication, which owes fundamental debts to philosopher David Lewis and mathematician Claude Shannon. You can find papers on this HERE. One of the most recent is a lecture he gave at George Washington University in 2012: The Evolution of Meaning (PDF). It builds the idea from (a fairly sophisticated) ground zero.

He ends with a nod to one of my favorite and seminal thinkers, Lev Vygotsky. Here’s what he says (pp. 14-15):
Many animals seem to have less integrated nervous systems than ours – sometimes smart and powerful, but different from ours, and with limitations. Integration in humans is probably achieved in a range of ways, but one way may involve the internalization of forms of representation that are derived from tools developed for social interaction, from public speech.

This idea goes back to the Soviet Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1932), though he is not given much credit for it, and has been developed in new ways by people like Peter Carruthers, Liz Spelke, and Andy Clark.6 Language has two roles when it is internalized. First, it is a very flexible representational medium; it is a means for bringing together and organizing information from different sources. Second, it is a medium for inner "broadcast." A sentence can be constructed as if for speech, but routed back to the input end of the system, so it appears in "auditory imagination." Here it can be made available to other parts of the system for further use, including use in deliberate conscious reasoning, and the slow, serial "thinking things through" that we can do when the stakes are high.

Internal representations of this kind have personal-level contents, like "OK, now disconnect the power supply," rather than subpersonal ones, and the way these signs are "broadcast" gives them a clear place in a sender-receiver structure, though we are sending these signs to ourselves.

So in broadcast inner speech we have a form of inner signaling that fits the sender-receiver model, that is an evolutionary late-comer, and that came to us through the development of tools for social interaction. It is a within-agent application of a tool originating in between-agent cooperative interaction, and one that may have a special role in the explanation of unified, conscious human thought.
The essential idea, then, is that “inner speech” is derived from outer speech.

Memory in Oral Tradition

Here’s an interesting example from: David Rubin, Memory in Oral Tradition: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes, Oxford UP, 1995. The general issue is how to story-tellers in pre-literate cultures remember the stories they tell. The idea is that, in order to find what’s in his own mind, the singer – for these tales are often sung more than merely spoken – has to tell/sing the tale out loud. They can’t simply “take thought” and report on what’s in the tale.

Here’s a passage from page 190:
For instance, I once saw a singer who was performing a ballad ask the group to join in on the chorus. He tried to play the chorus, but could not. He then sang his way through the first verse to get to the chorus, commenting that he would know it when it came around. Similarly, Halpern and Foley (1978) report asking one of their singers of healing charms for clarification of a passage: ' 'In order to retrieve that small section, she had to go back and start from the beginning'' (p. 908). A third case of needing a running start in an oral tradition comes from Bruce Kapferer's attempts to obtain information from exorcists in Sri Lanka:
I have always had trouble collecting extensive myth material. My method is usually to sit down with specialists and ask them to give me myth narratives of such and such a demon. Numbers of specialists will give this information in narrative form, highly variable and always lacking the details. But some of my informants insisted that I should seek out mantra karaya (mantra makers). These specialists compose different verse forms such as mantra, which are mixed language forms, or kavi, which are usually in vernacular but archaic. These verse forms have a defined metrical pattern.

So I would approach a specialist, ask for the myth of a particular demon (always an origin myth), and they would respond. "Well, the exact details are in such and such kavi, stotra, etc. I will sing it and you tell me when the demon you want has his name mentioned. Then I will go slow so that you can put it onto your tape recorder."

And this is how I proceeded. The myth information was effectively stored in song and then the "file" is opened and the data flow. (Personal communication, November 1991)
The serial-recall cue-item-discriminability process, then, requires the cues that appear only as the song is sung. The running start is needed, and the information is available only when it comes around.
Rubin goes on to develop a theory of memory in such traditions in which a recitation of early parts of the narrative provides cues for later parts. It’s a long, challenging, and most interesting book.

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