Notes in Feb 2018

What is a Choice Category within Jens Mammen’s framework? In my understanding, a Choice Category is tied to two other concepts. On one hand, it is tied to the concept of identity and, on the other hand, it is tied to self-reference. You could think of identity and self-reference as two sides of the same coin. And that coin is the category of Choice (Mammen, 2016).

“… two people are perceiving one and the same object through the manifolds of appearances that each enjoys from his own perspective. Then, one of the persons draws the attention of the other (as well as his own) to the object as a whole, in its identity. He names the object and establishes a reference, for another as well as for himself. By using a name, he sets up the object as the subject, as the thing that is going to be articulated.” (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 59)

Here is an example. A student approached me after the class to let me know that I had misspelled her name. I apologized. We both smiled and said goodbye to each other. Why is our name important to us? Could it be because it signifies that we are subjects? Could it be that it signifies that we can be “predicated” in an infinite number of ways? As Jens Mammen (2016) might say, a name signifies the fact that a person belongs to an infinite number of sense categories and that, by implication, we are more than the sum of those categories.

Jean Piaget described two kinds of same-ness (von Glasersfeld, 1995). This red ball is the same as that other red ball. He called the first kind equivalence. Two objects are equivalent, in so far as they belong to a set of common sense categories, e.g., redness, roundness, solidity. There is another kind of sameness that underlies identity. This melted chocolate is the same as the solid chocolate I put into my pocket an hour ago. Identity indicates persistence through time. It indicates a Choice Category (Mammen, 2016).

It seems, furthermore, that appreciating identity rests on a subject’s ability to track things through time. I kept track of the chocolate I put in my pocket, and I am still the same subject. The melted chocolate has preserved its reference to me (or my pocket) even though it has transformed in other ways.

References:

Mammen, J. (2016). Using a topological model in psychology: developing sense and choice categories. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science50(2), 196-233.

Sokolowski, R. (2008). Phenomenology of the human person. Cambridge University Press.

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism. Routledge.

Notes on Teaching Cognitive Psychology (1)

Today’s lecture was about narratives. This topic is almost never covered in Cognitive Psychology courses. We did not have it when I took the course in 2008. Even when I took Psychology of Language and Reading Processes we still did not cover narratives. And I believe my experience is representative of the majority.

Why most instructors don’t include narratives? The answer can be traced back to Ulrich Neisser’s (1967) classic textbook, which continues to be the dominant model adopted by other textbook writers. The major feature of the classical model is that it presents “lower” cognitive processes at the beginning of the course, keeping the “higher” processes for the end. By the time we reach the higher cognitive functions (Chapter 11th in the 11 Chapters in Neisser’s textbook) we have already completely severed the connection to everyday experience and to common sense.

Mind as Computer

Neisser’s syllabus very likely serves two complementary functions, one in the guidance of the research community and one in the guidance of teaching. When it comes to research, a researcher can pick up an item from Neisser’s list, e.g., working memory, attention, etc, and rest assured that his/her work fits within a coherent framework.

When it comes to teaching, the researcher zooms back and presents the overall framework to the students. The framework gives the field a sense of structure. It helps package the field for the sake of presentation to the students and interested others. Most of us teach Cognitive Psychology, in part, as a defense of why it should continue to exist. It is a way for the field to justify itself and its present form to its consumers.

“Every established order tends to produce the naturalization of its own arbitrariness.” — Pierre Bourdieu

This is why I include narratives and other less popular topics in my syllabus. I am trying to find new ways into Cognitive Psychology. I am also trying to find better ways of connecting the field the everyday experience. Finally, I try to avoid being an advertising agent for the discipline. That is why I begin the course with B.F. Skinner’s (1977) article “Why I am not a Cognitive Psychologist“. To do my job well, I must present the field’s critics, as well as its proponents. I must consider the possible future in which Cognitive Psychology, as we know it today, is no longer part of the mainstream.

Notes in Jan 2018

Everybody wants to be loved, to fit in. The fear that happens once you start swimming away from the shore, that you’re not going to find a next island, before your strength gives out. I think it’s very rational to be afraid of thinking for yourself, because you may very well find yourself at odds with the community on which you depend. And I think for some of us it’s just a compulsive behavior. It’s not even necessarily the smartest evolutionary strategy. It’s just hard to do it any other way.” — Eric Weinstein (link to the full interview)

A beautiful passage! And I’d recommend listening to the entire interview.

But, no, not everyone wants love. Few things are as irritating and unpleasant as the wrong type of love, the unwanted love, the love that is not coming from a respected source, a well-informed source, or a well-intentioned source. A love that comes with an agenda for you, placing you within and in the service of a scheme. Consider, for example, how rebellious kids say no to the love of their parents. They are not refusing love. What they are refusing is its high cost, namely control. And, that is not the only love against which we rebel. We would — or, at least, we should — also rebel against the love that is the reward of telling a lie.

When I heard Eric Weinstein, I remembered you quitting your job. And I remembered my own decision to decline the VENI. No, we are not refusing the idea of fitting in. We just want a different fit, a more truthful fit. We are not refusing a place in our community. We just want a place that is more true. Rebellious, for us, is a way of expressing I can do better than this. The present community might not have a place for that, but we hope that a future community might. We swim away from the shore, toward the hope of a future community. That “next island” is not a different place to find. It is a future to create.

Notes in Jan 2018

Let’s continue with Robert Sokolowski’s Phenomenology of the Human Person.

The fourth [philosophical layer of language use] is parasitic on the third [declarative level], and the third finds its completion in the fourth. In carrying out philosophical discourse we enhance the agency of truth that occurs on the third level, but that agency must already be there waiting to be enhanced.” (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 34)

Before addressing Sokolowski’s passage, a short side-note is in order. A useful thinking tools, formally introduced by Daniel Dennett, is the so-called sorta operator. We can say, for example:

Before there were bacteria, there were sorta bacteria, and before there were mammals, there were sorta mammals, and before there were dogs, there were sorta dogs, and so on.” (Dennett, Intuition Pumps & Other Tools for Thinking, 2013, p. 96)

So we can say, with regard to the third and fourth layers of language:

Before there were philosophical conversations, there were sorta-philosophical conversations. Let’s now proceed, with Sokolowski’s help, to identify what it is that makes some conversations sorta-philosophical or, stated differently, what gives them the features such that they become potential domain for, and potential target of, philosophical work.

What makes the sorta-philosophical conversations different from ordinary use of language is, according to Sokolowski, the capacity to refer to oneself and to take ownership over one’s language. I can say, “The Stoic philosopher will arrive next week“, but I can also say: “I am certain that the Stoic philosopher will arrive next week“, or “I am pleased that the Stoic philosopher will arrive next week“, or “Because the Stoic philosopher will arrive next week, I must soon plan a meeting with him“.

The original [red] statement in each case is embedded within another statement and the second statement brings the speaker into view in some manner. The speaker is aware of himself, or perhaps he is sorta-aware of himself, his own role in the statements, and consequently he has access to the fact that his role, point of view, and framing of the statements could change or could have been otherwise.

These are the elements of a proto-philosophical conversation, and they are grounded in a rather simple declaration of a person’s presence.

Notes in Jan 2018

The appropriate whole for language, the whole within which all the parts make sense, is the third [declarative] level, the one on which ‘we’ come to light as the ones who use the language.” — Phenomenology of the Human Person (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 33)

In this book, Sokolowski uses language as an entry point into a philosophical study of what it means to be a person. He divides different uses of language into four layers: 1. Prelinguistic, 2. ordinary use, 3. declarative, and 4. philosophical. To put it briefly, when we use language pre-linguistically, we are replacing sounds (of pleasure, excitement, pain, etc.) with words. We are doing something with words that could have been done without them. You are walking on a narrow corridor and your path is blocked by a slow walker. You say, “Excuse me”, but you could also clear your throat or announce your presence by humming a melody. Language here seems inessential.

The second layer consists of linguistic activities in which we exchange facts, commands, requests, promises, etc. The third layer can then be added above the second layer, by deflecting attention slightly from the fact and onto the agent who is delivering and framing the fact. Within the third layer, the primary emphasis is still on the fact, but now the person who is declaring the statement is in view. According to Sokolowski, if we place all the emphasis on the agent, we will end up with a fact [about the agent] and our activity falls back into the second level of language.

Finally, the fourth layer consists of a space in which we can recognize and examine the other 3 uses of language. Sokolowski warns us against regarding philosophy as a 2nd-level activity.

“… we must be careful lest what we describe now, the achievement of truth, get turned back – reduced – to a merely natural process, to one of the things described on the second level.” (ibid, p.33)

What can we say based on Sokolowski’s worries regarding the potential loss of the 3rd and 4th layers of language use? That the layers are never fully separate. The second layer is present, nested within, the two higher levels. The 3rd and 4th layer don’t require a different kind of activity, or a different set of words. They require a different way of noticing, a different way of paying attention to the same statements.

We can apply that way of noticing even to the first level. What do we accomplish when we use words to announce something pre-linguistic, such as pain, pleasure, or mere presence. We are engaging in an act of declaration — declaring ourselves as agents. What is supposedly the essential feature of the third layer is already at work at the very first level of language, at the level of language-as-sound.

Notes in Jan 2018

I should start writing again, if for no reason other than letting you know what I have been up to. It is quiet here. And there are not many points of reference against which I could keep my state of mind in check. What do I do these days? I wake up, drink coffee, read, walk to the office, read, prepare lectures, teach, read, write occasionally, come back home. What am I reading? We will get back to that.

When in solitary confinement, a person might carve lines on the wall to create a difference as the days pass by. Each day marked with a line. Each day makes its noticeable difference and passes by. I am starting to carve these lines, partly for myself, and partly for you.

Analogies, analogies. Here is another one. When someone performs a series of back-and-forth hand movements with his eyes closed, the endpoints of the movements begin to drift from their original locations (Brown et al., 2003). Controlled states require the right kind of feedback. Controlling the endpoints of the movements requires vision. What do I want to control? And what does that have to do with writing now? I am not quite sure what it is that I want to control, but I know I am quite far from the kind of feedback I need. We will get back to that, too.

Interview with Michael Billig

Michael Billig is a professor of social sciences at Loughborough University, Leicestershire, UK. He is the author of several books, including “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”, “Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious”, and “Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology”. There are also a few interviews that are available online (here is one example), but I could not find any that were intended specifically for young academics. The following interview, therefore, is intended first and foremost for graduate students in the social sciences.


Davood Gozli: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Professor Billig. Given that many of my colleagues in experimental psychology may not be familiar with your work, let’s begin with a general question. How would you describe your approach to psychology? What are some of the goals that have been motivating your work?

Michael Billig: I am not sure that I have an ‘approach’ in the sense which that word tends to be used. I don’t have a set theory or methodology with which I approach various topics. However, I do tend to approach topics, which interest me, with a similar style. I tend to become interested to the point of obsession in a particular topic, often because I want to find out about something that I do not know much about. As a start I read as widely as I can about the topic. In effect this has often led me to read more social scientific, historical and philosophical works than purely psychological works. In consequence, my work tends not to fit a neat disciplinary framework and certainly not the framework of experimental psychology. However, I am also interested in the ways that people use rhetoric and language generally, and I often find myself investigating psychological problems through the close examination of rhetoric. In this regard my analyses are often qualitative, but I don’t see doing qualitative or quantitative analyses as a matter of principle.

DG: I learned a lot from your book, “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”. Even though I knew about Kuhn’s notion of the “disciplinary matrix”, I became aware of it in a much more personal way after reading your book, and noticed some of the ways the disciplinary matrix affects my own practices. Please tell us about what motivated the writing of this book.

MB: I give a short account in the opening chapter of the book. I recount how, as a postgraduate student, I had great difficulty in understanding, let alone use, the technical concepts of experimental social psychology. I would try to translate them into the sort of simple English that I understood and how sometimes, as I turned the big words into ordinary words, the meaning seemed to disappear. At the time, I found that I lost confidence and wondered whether I could ever become a ‘proper’ academic. Over the years, the difficulty has increased rather than decreased, but now I don’t feel it to be a sign of failure. I wanted to write a book that analysed why so many academics in the social sciences – and I include psychology in the social sciences – use big words and what is wrong with using big words, when smaller ones will suffice. I did not want to write a book that just complained about academic language: I wanted to write which analysed current rhetorical practices and to show exactly what is wrong linguistically with such practices. To this end, I needed to engage in discursive and linguistic analyses.

DG: In the present time, writing and publishing are – for good or ill – necessities for academics. In such a condition, how can we begin to increase the relevance, accessibility, quality of our writing? Are there any specific writing exercises that you endorse?

MB: It is often assumed that technical writing is more precise than ordinary language. In my view, the reverse is often the case, especially when it comes to writing about human actions. If you use currently fashionable technical phrases, which typically are nominal phrases, you often do not have to make your meaning precise – you just take a phrase which sounds precise but may be used in all manner of imprecise ways. If you use simpler language to describe actions, you often have to stipulate exactly what you mean – stipulating who did what and how. I would not advocate specific writing exercises but would urge all young academics to write as simply as they, using, for example, active verbs rather than passive sentences.

DG: Your own writing is extraordinary. You write in a clear, engaging, and persuasive way. In my experience, many of the writers who take a critical approach to the mainstream psychology are rather difficult to read. Is obscurity part of the “disciplinary matrix” of the critical approaches or is that a coincidence?

MB: There are some social scientists who believe that ordinary language is ideologically compromised and that to be critical of conventional ways of thinking, you have to use special language. Hence some social critics have used tortuous language. However, I think that their position is wrong on two counts. Today, many of those who wield social and economic power use specialist language to reinforce their power, rather than ordinary language. You only have to think of management jargon. In these conditions, the language of ordinary people may not be so ideologically conservative. Second, language is not a set matrix of meanings which are imposed upon the users of the language. We use language to argue, to criticize and to say ‘no’. And it is self-regarding and erroneous to think that only those equipped with special, critical terminology can do these things.

DG: On the topic of critical psychology, in several places you have made the observation that a critical approach can give rise to a disciplinary matrix of its own, with its own new terminology, textbooks, and a body of literature that becomes increasingly insulated, reducing contact with the original target of the critique. Should critical approaches regard disciplinarity as an obstacle?

MB: Yes they should aware that a ‘critical approach’ can become a new orthodoxy, which students have to learn uncritically. William James stressed the importance of being undisciplined. In my experience, the best way of avoiding being orthodox is to read widely. If you just read what everyone else in your discipline or sub-discipline is reading, then you will, as likely as not, end up thinking like everyone else. But if you read eclectically, then you have a chance of acquiring a distinctive set of ideas.

DG: Your book, “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, and Reid” tells a captivating story of three philosophers who remain surprisingly relevant to the field of psychology to this day. How did you discover Shaftesbury? And how did that discovery lead to the writing of the book?

MB: Prior to writing ‘Hidden Roots’ I wrote a book on humour and I came across Shaftesbury through my reading about different theories of humour. Shaftesbury had written about the importance of humour, and stressed that he did not mean vulgar humour but the humour to be found in gentleman’s clubs. I mocked this snobbish attitude. But then I read a bit more and realized that I had been unfair to Shaftesbury – not least because he was not referring to ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ in the modern sense. I had a guilty conscience for mocking him so easily. And the more I read about him and by him, the more I appreciated his originality and depth. So, ‘The hidden roots’ was really an apology but it was an apology which I enjoyed making.

DG: Aside from Shaftesbury and Reid, who are some other forgotten figures in the history of psychology?

MB: Yes although they tend to be figures forgotten by the history of psychology, often because they formulated psychological ideas which were not taken up by psychologists or found their way unnoticed into the thinking of major, better known, later figures. Abraham Tucker is one such figure. He was an eighteenth century English thinker, who lived a very intellectually isolated life. He was ignored in his own day and by later generations. His book The Light of Nature Pursued, however, formulated a view of the mind which in many respects anticipated ideas to be found in William James, including the key idea of consciousness being like a stream. I wrote an article in praise of Abraham Tucker in Theory & Psychology three or four years ago. I’m sure that there are many other neglected delights to be found.

DG: What are some of your favorite books? And, what is your favorite Michael Billig book?

MB: Over the years I have enjoyed and been influence by many different books. I have loved reading William James’s Principles of Psychology and many of Freud’s works, especially his Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis and his Studies on Hysteria. I was greatly influenced by Hannah Arendt, especially Eichmann in Jerusalem, which changed the way I thought about the social world, and by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. It has been wonderful to have been paid to read. But that has meant being able to read works that have not been enjoyable to read. The most extreme example is that I read Mein Kampf when I was studying fascism.

Favourite books are those one reads and re-reads. I don’t read and re-read my own works.

DG: Do you have any other general advice for the young academics who will read this interview?

MB: Be brave and do things for their own sake rather than because you think they will be useful for your ‘career’. Above all try to read widely. By reading widely, you can ‘meet’ some extraordinary thinkers.

DG: I am grateful to have discovered you and your work. And I thank you for this opportunity.


 

Also read: Inheriting the Past (A Review of Michael Billig’s “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, & Reid”)