Posts Tagged ‘Defining Terms’
Posted on January 9, 2011 - by David
I’ve probably spent an inordinate amount of time over the last year thinking about “memes.” (Perhaps this is evidence that these parasitic mind viruses do in fact exist). Unsatisfied with my first critique, I hope to offer something more valuable here.
I may be wrong, but I get the feeling not that many social science types take the memetic view of culture seriously enough to respond to it – they smirk, or shrug it off, and go about their business. But with the amount of public attention “memes” have received, I think this ambivalence is a mistake. Students of culture who believe they have something better to offer ought to speak up.
Over the last 20 years, Daniel Dennett has probably been the strongest advocate of the memetic perspective, which grew out of Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene (1976). Some of Dennett’s more recent thoughts are found in a 2009 article called ‘The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools.’ I’ll focus my attention here, but refer to his other work as well.
What is culture?
(see Liah Greenfeld’s view here)
Dennett offers no explicit definition of culture here, but two that can be extracted from the article are “behavioral-perceptual transmission” and “transmission by replication of non-genetic information.” Obviously, “behavioral-perceptual transmission” plays an important role in the survival of many individual organisms and the continuation of many different species. So what, according to Dennett, distinguishes the human, “hyperpotent variety of cultural evolution” from transmission of learned behaviors in other species?
As Richerson and Boyd (2006) show, just as the standard information highway, the vertical transmission of genes, was optimized during billions of years, the second information highway from parents to offspring had to evolve under rather demanding conditions; however, once this path of vertical cultural transmission had been established and optimized, it could be invaded by “rogue cultural variants,” horizontally or obliquely transmitted cultural items that do not have the same probability of being benign. (The comparison to spam on the internet is hard to avoid.) These rogue cultural variants are what Richard Dawkins (1976) calls memes, and although some of them are bound to be pernicious—parasites, not mutualists— others are profound enhancers of the native competences of the hosts they infect. One can acquire huge amounts of valuable information of which one’s parents had no inkling, along with the junk and the scams.
This passage begs the question, in what respect are these “rogue” bits of culture “variants” from the “behavioral-perceptual transmission” we see in other species? The answer is found in his comparison of a termite castle and Gaudi’s ‘La Sagrada Familia,’ where he writes that “the design and construction [of Gaudi’s church] could not have proceeded without elaborate systems of symbolic communication”
What are “memes”?
If Dennett is saying that humans are distinguished from other animals by their dependence on symbolic transmission, then we are in agreement. But this still leaves the question: what, exactly, are “memes”?
In his 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett quotes Dawkins’ definition of the meme as a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” (202) This article calls memes “cultural items that replicate with varying amounts of input from intelligent vectors.” If we try to synthesize a definition of “meme” by combining these statements with the implicit definition of culture I refer to above, (“transmission by replication of non-genetic information”), we can say that a meme is a replicating or replicable unit of non-genetic information. But this differs in two important ways from the “elaborate systems of symbolic communication” upon which Dennett correctly states that the construction of Gaudi’s church depends. First, there is no requirement that the “meme” be symbolic in nature, and second, culture is assumed to be fundamentally composed of discrete, self-replicating units or entities. To grant any one symbol an independent existence as a self-replicating unit is to remove it from the context in which it has significance and by which it renders its effects. So if the memetic perspective obscures the distinction that Dennett initially draws out, what, if anything, does it clarify or contribute?
Words as “memes”
What are words? They are not just sounds, or marks, or even symbols. They are memes (Dawkins 1976; Dennett 1991, 1995, 2006). Words are that subset of memes that can be pronounced.
Dennet calls words “our paradigmatic memes” and tells us that they “have an identity that is to a considerable extent language-independent”:
Like lateral or horizontal gene transfer, lateral word transfer is a ubiquitous feature, and it complicates the efforts of those who try to identify languages and place them unequivocally in glossogenetic trees. English and French, for instance, share no ancestor later than proto-Indo-European (see Fig. 2) but have many words in common that have migrated back and forth since their divergence (cul-de-sac and baton, le rosbif and le football, among thousands of others). Just as gene lineages prove to be more susceptible to analysis than organism lineages, especially when we try to extend the tree of life image back before the origin of eukaryotes (W.F. Doolittle, this volume), so word lineages are more tractable and nonarbitrary than language lineages.
It seems like all “lateral word transfer” really means is that throughout history, individuals and societies which speak different languages have come into contact with each other and shared words. And the fact that a word is found in more than one language does not mean its identity is “language-independent” either, it just means there is an even wider range of linguistic contexts in which it can be used and understood.
After this less than compelling argument for words as “memes,” Dennett goes in a somewhat different direction:
Words have one feature that has a key role in the accumulation of human culture: They are digitized. That is, norms for their pronunciation permit automatic—indeed involuntary—proofreading, preventing transmission errors from accumulating in much the way the molecular machines that accomplish gene replication do.
But these norms and the automatic correcting Dennett is talking about are not features of individual words; they come from the symbolic system of a language. Of course, he knows this, and writes:
… when you acquire language, you install, without realizing it, a Virtual Machine that enables others to send you not just data, but other virtual machines, without their needing to know anything about how your brain works.
Dennett’s computer analogy, the “Virtual Machine,” is the symbolic system of a particular language. Again we come back to context; the meaning of a word changes with the context in which it appears, with time, and from place to place. This may seem like a trivial observation, but I make it repeatedly because it is the fact which most obviously challenges the idea of discrete, self-replicating units of culture.
One of the goals of the meme concept is to unify culture and biology by attempting to demonstrate that natural selection governs not only biological evolution, but the cultural process as well. He writes in Consciousness Explained:
Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genetic evolution, not just a process that can be metaphorically described in these evolutionary idioms, but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection exactly. The theory of evolution by natural selection is neutral regarding the differences between memes and genes; these are just different kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates. (202)
This of course depends on whether “memes” exist (in the kind of concrete, material sense in which the language used to talk about them suggests they exist). But Dennett cleverly dodges the demand to prove this existence by instead suggesting that genes might not be as concrete as we tend to think:
Genes, according to George Williams (1966, p. 25) are best seen as the information carried by the nucleotide sequences, not the nucleotide sequences themselves, a point that is nicely echoed by such observations as these: A promise or a libel or a poem is identified by the words that compose it, not by the trails of ink or bursts of sound that secure the occurrence of those words. Words themselves have physical “tokens” (composed of uttered or heard phonemes, seen in trails of ink or glass tubes of excited neon or grooves carved in marble), and so do genes, but these tokens are a relatively superficial part or aspect of these remarkable information structures, capable of being replicated, combined into elaborate semantic complexes known as sentences, and capable in turn of provoking cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses of tremendous power and subtlety.
I’m no geneticist, but I’m fairly certain that a nucleotide sequence is not merely a superficial token, arbitrarily related to the information it carries, the way that a word, (as a symbol), is arbitrarily related to its referent. The information is literally embodied in the nucleotide sequence. Nonetheless, this sleight of hand on Dennett’s part critical to advancing his argument past questions of the meme’s existence.
Now, taking the existence of memes for granted, the next step is to argue that their “selection” is due to their own fitness – they may or may not enhance the reproductive fitness of their hosts. He contrasts this with the “traditional wisdom – ‘common sense’ – according to which culture is composed of various valuable practices and artifacts, inherited treasures, in effect, that are recognized as such (for the most part) and transmitted deliberately (and for good reasons) from generation to generation.” He writes:
The key improvements, then, of the memetic perspective are its recognition that:
1. Excellently designed cultural entities may, like highly efficient viruses, have no intelligent design at all in their ancestry.
2. Memes, like viruses and other symbionts, have their own fitness. Those that flourish will be those that better secure their own reproduction, whether or not they do this by enhancing the reproductive success of their hosts by mutualist means.
“Memes” and Dennett’s ‘Intentional Stance’
If the tautology in number 2 above, (“those that flourish will be those that better secure their own reproduction”), makes “memes” sound an awful lot like intentional agents, a look at Dennett’s philosophy should explain why. He wrote a book called The Intentional Stance in 1987, but he has been working with the idea it contains for the last four decades. Here’s how he describes it in this summary of ‘Intentional Systems Theory’ from the Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Mind:
The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of an entity (person, animal, artifact, whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its ‘choice’ of ‘action’ by a ‘consideration’ of its ‘beliefs’ and ‘desires.’(1)
But Dennett is pretty clear that this is more than just a strategy; he tells us that “anything that is usefully and voluminously predictable from the intentional stance is, by definition, an intentional system.”
Where on the downward slope to insensate thinghood does ‘real’ believing and desiring stop and mere ‘as if’ believing and desiring take over? According to intentional systems theory, this demand for a bright line is ill-motivated.(7)
Seeking one’s own good is a fundamental feature of any rational agent, but are these simple organisms seeking or just ‘seeking’? We don’t need to answer that question. The organism is a predictable intentional system in either case. (9)
It’s one thing to argue that taking the intentional stance might help us describe certain aspects of the cultural process; when we consider how the internal logic of a system of symbols may predict the behavior of individuals and groups for whom that system is important, this is in some sense what we are doing. But Dennett’s claim that cultural evolution is governed by natural selection is dependent on a much more generous application of this kind of thinking – chopping the cultural process into little pieces and treating them as intentional agents (their intention being simply to replicate themselves).
The memetic view contains two intentional systems: the intention of the meme is to replicate itself at any cost, while the intention of the host remains to replicate its genetic material. There are memes that help this process and memes that hurt it, and a multitude of more or less neutral cultural trappings in which we are dressed along the way toward death. A meme is classified as a parasite, mutualist, or commensal, based on its effects on the reproductive fitness of its host. But why should we be committed to such an impoverished view of our existence? By Dennett’s own account, culture transformed our species, just as it transforms each new member that acquires it. He writes in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:
… it cannot be “memes versus us,” because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The “independent” mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth.
It is no accident that the memes that replicate tend to be good for us, not for our biological fitness…, but for whatever it is we hold dear. And never forget the crucial point: the facts about whatever we hold dear – our highest values – are themselves very much a product of the memes that have spread most successfully. ( 364-365)
We truly are cultural beings; our own intentional states are inseparable from the historical, symbolic process that happens inside our brains. To be fair, Dennett knows how much context matters. He wrote in this piece from 1998, that “the environments that embody the selective pressures that determine [memes’] fitness are composed in large measure of other memes.” But trying to explain culture by asking, as he suggests, “the cui bono question” (who benefits?), and answering, “our memes,” means ignoring a critical, if easy to miss, fact revealed in the quote above: we are a species that has values and holds things dear. Dennett clearly values “mutualistic memes” – the culturally driven development of “technology and intelligence” which has made surviving so much easier for our species – but seems not to fully appreciate the observation anthropologist Clifford Geertz makes in his essay, ‘Ethos, Worldview, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ (1957):
The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs. And, this being so, it seems unnecessary to continue to interpret symbolic activities-religion, art, ideology-as nothing but thinly disguised expressions of something other than what they seem to be: attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.
‘Traditionalists’ made of straw
Dennett makes a point of claiming that what he considers a naive, “economic model” of culture, “where possessions, both individual and communal, are preserved, repaired, and handed down,” “is for the most part uncritically adopted by cultural historians, anthropologists, and other theorists.” He believes the fact that “many of our most valuable cultural treasures have no identifiable author and almost certainly were cobbled together by many largely unwitting minds over long periods of time” presents the “traditionalist” with a serious problem:
Nobody invented words or arithmetic or music or maps or money. These apparent exceptions to the traditional model are typically not seen as a serious problem. The requirement of intelligent authorship can be maintained by distributing it over indefinitely many not-so-intelligent designers whose identities are lost to us only because of gaps in the “fossil record” of culture. We can acknowledge that many of the improvements accumulated over time were “dumb luck” accidents that nevertheless got appreciated and preserved. With these concessions, the traditionalist can avoid acknowledging what ought to seem obvious: These excellent things acquired their effective designs the same way plants and animals and viruses acquired theirs—they evolved by natural selection, but not genetic natural selection.
First, (whether or not anyone cares about maintaining “intelligent authorship”), what Dennett labels here as “concessions” actually describe the cultural process better than just saying “they evolved by natural selection”; how, after all, can he claim that that this evolution happens “the same way,” when the crucial set of facts is of a radically different (symbolic) nature? Second, it’s possible for an individual to have an impact on the collective cultural process without intending to and without being aware of it – I don’t see how this scenario supports Dennett’s claims. But most importantly, I return to the Geertz, because his view of culture is conspicuously not like the “traditionalist” straw man Dennett sets up. He wrote this in ‘Religion as a Cultural System,’ (published 10 years before Dawkins invented the “meme”):
So far as culture patterns, that is, systems or complexes of symbols, are concerned, the generic trait which is of first importance for us here is that they are extrinsic sources of information. By “extrinsic,” I mean only that–unlike genes, for example–they lie outside the boundaries of the individual organism as such in that intersubjective world of common understandings into which all human individuals are born, in which they pursue their separate careers, and which they leave persisting behind them after they die. By “sources of information,” I mean only that–like genes–they provide a blueprint or template in terms of which processes external to themselves can be given a definite form. As the order of bases in a strand of DNA forms a coded program, a set of instructions, or a recipe, for the synthesis of the structurally complex proteins which shape organic functioning, so culture patterns provide such programs for the institution of the social and psychological processes which shape public behavior.
Notice that “to make sense out of experience” and “provide orientation,” it is not necessary for “systems or complexes of symbols” to be some carefully curated set of goods. Nor does Geertz assume that culture patterns will necessarily be positive, or work to enhance genetic or reproductive fitness – it’s possible for an order-creating system to be reprehensible and disastrous, (take Nazi ideology for example). It’s a shame that Dennett pretty much discounts the work of all previous cultural theorists for the sake of a rhetorical device, rather than at least attempt to use someone like Geertz as a jumping off point.
But Geertz’s work gets at the heart of the problem with memetics; it may function as an explanation for the phenomenon of culture, but I think any attempt to use it in a robust analysis of empirical events must involve dropping its most characteristic feature – the idea of individual units of culture attempting to replicate at any cost and governed by natural selection. The following comes from ‘Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali’(1966):
One cannot run symbolic forms through some sort of cultural assay to discover their harmony content, their stability ratio, or their index of incongruity; one can only look and see if the forms in question are in fact coexisting, changing, or interfering with one another in some way or other, which is like tasting sugar to see if it is sweet or dropping a glass to see if it is brittle, not like investigating the chemical composition of sugar or the physical structure of glass. The reason for this is, of course, that meaning is not intrinsic in the objects, acts, processes, and so on, which bear it, but–as Durkheim, Weber, and so many others have emphasized–imposed upon them; and the explanation of its properties must therefore be sought in that which does the imposing–men living in society. The study of thought is, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Levenson, the study of men thinking; and as they think not in some special place of their own, but in the same place–the social world–that they do everything else, the nature of cultural integration, cultural change, or cultural conflict is to be probed for there: in the experiences of individuals and groups of individuals as, under the guidance of symbols, they perceive, feel, reason, judge, and act.
Symbols, if they are to be understood, cannot be divorced from their function/use in creating order and meaning for individuals and groups. This is why, I believe, Dennett admits in the summary of chapter 12 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, that “the prospects for elaborating a rigorous science of memetics are doubtful,” though he maintains that “the concept provides a valuable perspective from which to investigate the complex relationship between cultural and genetic heritage.” From what I’ve read, none of Dennett’s claims which hold water are original, or require the memetic perspective.
I’ve tried my best to be thorough here, but it’s impossible to cover everything. As always, comments are welcome.
Posted on September 16, 2010 - by David
I am working directly from the unpublished text of Liah Greenfeld’s forthcoming book, Mind, Madness, and Modernity: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience. All the original ideas, and all interpretations and analysis of primary and secondary source materials used to support the ideas are attributable to Liah Greenfeld. Read the introduction to the exposition here.
From part 1
…With the recognition of the autonomous new world of life, Darwin’s breakthrough not only opened the door to advances in biology, it makes possible our escape from the dualist cage. In place of two mutually inconsistent realms, reality may be imagined as consisting of three autonomous but related layers, with the two upper layers being emergent phenomena — the layer of matter, the layer of life, and the layer of the mind.
The mind emerges from three organic elements – the brain, the human larynx, and perception and communication by signs. Two of these, (the brain and the larynx), are specific organs, while the third – the use of signs – is a certain evolutionary stage of the process of perception and communication of perception within a biological group.
For animals, adaptation to the physical environment means developing the ability to perceive a stimulus (e.g food, a predator, etc.) and communicate its presence to other members of the group. The more complex the environment, the more stimuli there are that signify to an organism, and thus more signs to which the organism must learn to respond to appropriately. We can describe a sign as an aspect of a stimulus, or of the encoded reaction to it, signifying the stimulus, respectively, to the perceiving organism and to members of the organism’s group.
To reiterate, an emergent phenomenon is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the sum of its elements. Therefore, the mind’s emergence was not the result of a simple combination of the brain, the larynx, and the use of signs, since these elements were in place long before the transformation occurred. While it is impossible to reconstruct the moment of emergence, we can deduce logically the general nature of this most improbable event – the discovery that sound signs could be intentionally articulated.
Intentionally articulated signs are symbols. A sign corresponds directly to the phenomenon it signifies – it is not open to interpretation, for in the animal world, reading signs correctly is a matter of life and death. Unlike signs, whose meanings are fully contained in their referents in the environment, symbols are arbitrary, given their meaning from the context in which they appear. While the number of signs was essentially limited by the number of potential referents in the environment, symbols, being arbitrary, are not bound by the material environment, instead drawing their life and meaning mainly from the context of other symbols.
Until now, we have referred to this emergent phenomenon as the mind, but this symbolic reality that emerged with the transformation of sign to symbol is a process occurring simultaneously on the individual and collective level. On the individual level, we call this phenomenon “the mind”; on the collective level, we call it “culture.” Of course, the individual mind doesn’t generate its own symbolic process. It is dependent upon the symbolic process on the collective level – culture. For this reason, the mind can be conceptualized as “culture in the brain,” or “individualized culture.” Make no mistake though – these two terms denote one and the same process occurring on two different levels. The mind constantly borrows symbols from culture, but culture can only be processed – i.e, symbols can only have significance and be symbols – in the mind.
In distinction to all other animals, humans transmit their social ways of life symbolically, rather than genetically. This means that culture – the symbolic process of transmission of human ways of life – is what distinguishes us from the rest of the living world, and in fact, makes humanity itself an emergent phenomenon. The mistaken notion that society is what makes humanity unique is quite pervasive, but society – structured cooperation and collective organization for the purpose of collective survival and transmission of a form of life — is a corollary of life in numerous species. It is essentially a biological phenomenon, a product of evolution. What makes human society unique is that it is structured not genetically, but symbolically, on the basis of culture. Culture being a dynamic, historical process, not governed biologically, the social arrangements of humans are much less rigid than those of other animal species and are subject to change.
Just as animals adapt to the physical environment in which they live, so we too must adapt to the cultural environment in which we find ourselves. If we consider this process in animals, we see that it depends not only on the ability to perceive and remember information supplied by the environment, but also on the ability to create supplementary information to complete the picture. In humans, we call this imagination. There is ample evidence that animals possess this ability also – the success of rodents in tests of transitive inference, and the countless creative solutions to problems posed by the physical environment which animals come up with make this hard to deny. This must be an unconscious process – the imaginer is not aware of the steps that lead from the perceived and stored to new information, but, so to speak, “jumps to conclusions” over these steps. Humans must adapt primarily to the cultural (symbolic) environment, and so the largely unconscious process by which we create new information out of information already stored in memory can be called symbolic imagination.
Symbolic imagination, probably, is the central faculty of the human mind, the means by which we “discover” the operative logic of each of the many autonomous yet interdependent symbolic systems which make up the cultural environment. Most symbolic systems – language, fashion, class structure, etc. – are historical, and therefore changeable, with governing principles that have little to do with logic proper – that is, logic based on the principle of no contradiction. While this makes symbolic imagination almost infinitely more complex than imagination in other animal species, we are nevertheless able to find the organizing principles of culture with remarkable success, for the most part without thinking about them explicitly.
Culture, the symbolic process on the collective level, is organized on the individual level, (the mind), by symbolic imagination through the creation of three mental “structures.” It is useful to think of these mental processes as structures, since they are patterned and systematic, and so, we can deduce logically, they must be supported by corresponding patterned and systematic processes in the brain. These structures are compartments of the self and include: 1) identity – the relationally-constituted self; 2) will, or acting self and 3) the thinking self, or the I of self-consciousness.
Identity refers to symbolic self-definition. It is the image of one’s position in the socio-cultural “space,” within the larger image of the relevant socio-cultural terrain itself. This “cognitive map” displays the possibilities for adaptation to the particular cultural environment, allowing them to be ranked subjectively. As soon as a child begins to (unconsciously) figure out the organizing principles of various symbolic systems, he begins to form an identity, figuring out where he belongs in the symbolic environment which is still in the process of being constructed itself. It is reasonable to suppose that identity-formation is strongly influenced by the emotional charge with which certain stimuli are delivered. Identity is likely to solidify more quickly the simpler is the (always very complex) cultural environment in which it is formed. This is a largely unconscious process – questions about identity are usually only made explicit if the identity proves to be problematic. In other words, the question, “who am I?” would most likely only occur to someone who would have difficulty answering it.
The will is, simply put, the part of our mind that makes decisions. While identity is the product a particular cultural environment at a specific time in history, the will is a product of culture in general – a function of symbols. To operate with symbols –intentional , thus arbitrary, signs – we internalize the principle of their intentionality. The will takes its direction from Identity, choosing the appropriate “operative logic” to follow given the context. Usually, this is an unconscious process – the will decides without us having to reflect on our decision – but sometimes this process becomes explicit, we become aware that we are faced with options and must exercise our will, and think about our decisions. Because the will operates on the basis of identity, problems with identity may translate into impairment of the will – the person may become indecisive and unmotivated, or, the decision making could become completely haphazard and unrestrained.
Finally there is the thinking self or the “I of self-consciousness.” This is consciousness turned upon itself, the phenomenon to which Descartes referred with in the oft quoted “I think, therefore I am.” The other mental processes described above remain hypotheses, but the existence of the thinking self cannot be doubted – it is the only certain knowledge we have. While identity and will are processes informed and directed by the symbolic environment, they are mostly unconscious. The thinking self, though, is explicitly symbolic, meaning that it actually operates with formal symbols – above all, language. This explicit, self-conscious symbolic process does not seem to be a requirement for individual adaptation in the same sense as identity and will, and there is no reason to assume it exists to the same degree in all people. Its most important function seems to be rather the continuation of the cultural process on the collective level. By thinking things through – talking to oneself using symbolic systems like language, math, and music – the mental process can be reconstructed and made explicit, packaged in formal symbolic media for delivery to other minds.
In the exceptionally rare cases when the thinking self is perfectly integrated with identity and will, true genius can appear and usher in dramatic cultural change. It seems much more common, though, that a very active thinking self is implicated in mental disease. As was mentioned earlier, problems with identity lead to impairment of the will, and without these mental “structures” working properly, the “I of self-consciousness” may become deindividualized, experienced as the explicit processing of the undirected resources of culture in general, and felt as a disturbing, alien presence within the self. This is essentially the new theory of mental illness that Greenfeld is offering. It will be developed in much greater detail over the next three posts.
Next, we’ll look at the historical development of this new form of mental disease.
9/24 – Madness: A Modern Phenomenon
Posted on September 14, 2010 - by David
I am working directly from the unpublished text of Liah Greenfeld’s forthcoming book, Mind, Madness, and Modernity: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience. All the original ideas, and all interpretations and analysis of primary and secondary source materials used to support the ideas are attributable to Liah Greenfeld. Read the introduction to the exposition here.
Before the hypothesis that modern culture can cause biologically real mental disease can be given serious consideration, one major conceptual obstacle must be removed: this is the dualist vision of reality. In the dualist conception, central to Western thought for well over two thousand years, reality, (which is presumed to be consistent) expresses itself in two fundamentally distinct, mutually inconsistent ways: the material and the spiritual. This dichotomy has been formulated in a number of ways – the physical and the psychical, the real and the ideal, and the mind/body split, but the idea remains basically the same.
Obviously, the concept of two mutually inconsistent realms existing in a world that is presumed to be consistent presents us with a logical problem. Until now, the only way to resolve this problem has been to take one or another monistic position, seeing only one of these expressions of reality as real in the sense of being causally active, the other being merely a secondary expression of the first one. For a long time, the dominant belief was that the spiritual element was causally active, with the material brought into being by some divine creative intelligence. But for several hundred years now, matter has been seen as the causal factor, and the spiritual element, (whichever specific name we give it), was gradually reduced to the status of only apparent reality.
It is important to realize, though, that the materialist view has come to reign supreme for reasons that are primarily historical. The secular focus of nationalism increased the importance of life here on earth, resulting in the emotional weakening of religious faith, while increasing the value placed on scientific inquiry into the empirical world. Likewise, science as an institution, rationally organized in its efforts toward increasing knowledge of empirical (material) reality, first came into being in England with the rise of nationalism. Science being the only epistemological system which has consistently led to humanity’s greater understanding, and control, of certain aspects of empirical reality, it is no surprise that its prestige is so great, and that beliefs associated with it quickly gain authority.
The dominance of the materialist position can be seen clearly in the history of psychiatry. While one approach aimed at addressing the “psychical,” (Freudian psychoanalysis), was extremely influential for about a 50 year span during the 20th century, the biological approach was destined to prevail. Psychiatry is, after all, a medical specialization, and medicine, with the body as its subject, is a decidedly scientific endeavor. After the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the prestige of biology was solidified. To question the biological paradigm was to effectively exclude oneself from the medical field.
Around the turn of the 20th century, German-language psychiatrists, (above all Emil Kraepelin), worked hard to improve the scientific status of the profession. They carefully described and classified those mental diseases of unknown cause which remained for psychiatry after treatment of organic mental diseases like paresis, epilepsy, and puerperal insanity had shifted to their proper medical specializations. The main division of major psychoses into the broad classes of schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness dates to this time. While the etiology of these crippling illnesses remained a mystery, psychiatrists like Kraepelin were confident that they were brain diseases with organic causes which would one day be discovered.
In the United States, the foundation of the National Institute of Mental Health in 1947 strengthened the biological position, and with the discovery and development of several waves of anti-depressant, mood-stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs from the 1950’s on, the interests of large pharmaceutical companies have further supported this view.
There is, no doubt, a constantly growing body of information about the brain and the various abnormalities in anatomy and neurochemistry which have been observed in psychiatric patients, and genetic researchers have made tentative progress in identifying certain genes which may increase vulnerability to schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness. But the much celebrated technological advances in this field of study have not led to any new, precise methods of diagnosis – there is no brain scan or genetic test psychiatrists can use to determine whether someone “has” schizophrenia. The data is descriptive, not explanatory, and any genetic vulnerability only represents, at most, a condition for mental illness (and so far we cannot even say a necessary condition). And of course, we must remember not to confuse conditions with causes. Finally, none of the drugs used to treat mental illness can be said to constitute a cure.
Despite the failure of these tools to transform our understanding of mental illness (which remains essentially unchanged since Emil Kraepelin’s classifications), the experts in the field have placed their faith in science, believing wholeheartedly (and without evidence) that schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness have a biological cause, and that its discovery is just around the corner.
The problem is, science is not supposed to be a set of beliefs but a method, that method being logical formulation of hypotheses, followed by attempts to refute them with the help of empirical evidence. Science is therefore, as a matter of principle, (though obviously not always as a matter of practice), skeptical of belief. Science is especially skeptical about the immaterial, because of the close association between the immaterial (or the spiritual, ideal, etc., call it what you will), and religion, since religion is always a matter of belief. Unfortunately, science has transformed this skepticism into a dogma – that there is nothing more to empirical reality than the material. This dogma is evident in the faithful expectation of the discovery of a biological cause for mental illness, and the belief that human consciousness is reducible to (i.e caused by) the organ of the brain.
The materialist answer to the mind/body problem can only be that the mind is nothing more than the subjective experience of the functioning of the brain, which is in effect to say there is no such thing as the mind – that the brain is all that is real. But any amount of self-reflection reveals that the reality we experience, (i.e that for which we have empirical proof), is always mental. A majority of our experiences involve words and images which are symbolic, and therefore, part of a non-material reality. We see things in our “mind’s eye” that are not really there, we hear songs play in our heads, though no corresponding sound waves move through the air. Our emotions certainly have physical aspects – a quickened pulse, an upset stomach, a flushed face – but these physical reactions cannot be said to cause the specific thoughts that follow our change in mood. Ultimately, we are enclosed in the subjectivity of our mental experience. To insist on the material nature of empirically knowable reality is deny reality as we actually experience it.
Nevertheless, we believe that there is more than this subjectivity. We believe that we have our experience through our bodies, which constitute part of an objective reality. We ignore the irrefutable solipsistic proposition – that reality is merely a product of my imagination – and go on feeding and clothing ourselves, because this fundamental belief in the objective world is literally necessary for our survival.
This belief in the objective world is obviously fundamental for science as well. But science also depends on the belief that this objective world is consistently ordered – that is to say, most scientists believe that empirical reality is actually a logical reality, and can therefore only accept reality to the extent that it fits this belief. But belief that the objective world is consistently ordered is not, in fact, a fundamental belief – there are, or have been, societies in which chaos was assumed to be the condition of reality. Aristotelian logic, based on the principle of no contradiction, is a historical, thus cultural phenomenon. (Ironically for science, a case - based on logic and circumstantial evidence – can be made that it was through exposure to monotheistic culture that Thales, the Miletian, arrived at the idea of an unchanging organizing principle which he introduced to Greek philosophy in the 6th century B.C, helping to bring about the transition from mythos to logos).
So while the twin pillars of science are supposed to be logic and empirical evidence, we see that there is a great deal of belief mixed in. As stated before, we reject solipsism, believing in the objectivity of what we perceive physically through the senses, but the meaning which we give to these physical perceptions is affected by our beliefs, beliefs which usually lack empirical proof. This is why some of the most important scientific beliefs remain theories. Where empirical evidence is lacking, we draw inferences using logic, whatever empirical evidence we do have, and our beliefs about the world. This is what circumstantial evidence is – substitution of logical consistency for information of sensual perception. So, it turns out that science ultimately rests on logic.
But despite the shortcomings of science – that it is sometimes even more dogmatic than religion, and that the evidence it relies on is not strictly empirical, but circumstantial – it remains our only option for attaining objective knowledge about the subjective empirical reality of the mind. Without attaining such knowledge, no new theory of mental illness is possible. But in order to use science (which means to use logic), we still must deal with the logical contradiction of the dualist conception of reality.
It is in fact Darwin who helps us resolve this problem. Though many have mistakenly understood his theory of evolution by natural selection as proving the triumph of materialism in the dualist debate, it actually moved beyond this debate altogether. In distinction to the philosophical materialists of his day, Darwin proved that life was a reality of its own kind, irreducible to the inanimate matter of which each cell is composed, but, in distinction to philosophical idealists, or vitalists, who claimed that life was independent from the material reality studied by physics, he proved that laws of life could only operate within the conditions provided by physical laws.
Thanks to Darwin, we can conceptualize the objective world in terms of emergent phenomena. An emergent phenomenon is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the sum of its elements, a case in which a specific combination of elements, which no one element, and no law in accordance with which the elements function, renders likely, produces a certain new quality (in most important instances, a certain law or tendency) which in a large measure determines the nature and the existence of the phenomenon, as well as of its elements.
The fact that the emergent phenomenon cannot be reduced to its elements means that at the moment of emergence there is a break in continuity, a leap from one layer of reality into another, essentially distinct and yet fundamentally consistent with the initial layer. By definition, this transformation cannot be traced exclusively to the first reality, and is, at least in part, extraneous to it.
With the recognition of the autonomous new world of life, Darwin’s breakthrough not only opened the door to advances in biology, it makes possible our escape from the dualist cage. In place of two mutually inconsistent realms, reality may be imagined as consisting of three autonomous but related layers, with the two upper layers being emergent phenomena — the layer of matter, the layer of life, and the layer of the mind.
This top layer of the mind – the layer of symbolic reality – will be the subject of the next post in the series.
9/24 – Madness: A Modern Phenomenon
Posted on December 22, 2009 - by David
It seems that any time I come across the word ‘postmodern’ in my reading, I wind up stopping for a minute to try to figure out what it actually means. I guess I’ve been conditioned to react this way ever since I began studying with Liah Greenfeld and the word ‘modern’ took on some real significance for me. Still, (out of laziness), I always wound up shrugging the question off without trying to answer it.
Yesterday, I finally went to the dictionary in hopes of finding some commonly agreed upon definitions.
From Merriam-Webster online:
Main Entry: 1mod·ern
Pronunciation: \ˈmä-dərn, ÷ˈmä-d(ə-)rən\
Etymology: Late Latin modernus, from Latin modo just now, from modus measure — more at mete
1 a : of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past : contemporary b : of, relating to, or characteristic of a period extending from a relevant remote past to the present time
2 : involving recent techniques, methods, or ideas : up-to-date
3 capitalized : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of the present or most recent period of development of a language
4 : of or relating to modernism : modernist
Main Entry: post·mod·ern
Pronunciation: \ˌpōs(t)-ˈmä-dərn, ÷-ˈmä-d(ə-)rən\
1 : of, relating to, or being an era after a modern one <postmodern times> <a postmodern metropolis>
2 a : of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature) b : of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language <postmodern feminism>
Main Entry: mod·ern·ism
1 : a practice, usage, or expression peculiar to modern times
2 often capitalized : a tendency in theology to accommodate traditional religious teaching to contemporary thought and especially to devalue supernatural elements
3 : modern artistic or literary philosophy and practice; especially : a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression
From Oxford College Dictionary, 2nd Ed:
modern history- n. history up to the present day, from some arbitrary point taken to represent the end of the middle ages
postmodernism- n. a late 20th century style in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism.
The two main causes of confusion are revealed in these definitions. First, there are no distinctive characteristics, and no clear time frame given to tell us what modernity is or when it takes place. Webster’s ambiguously refers to a “relevant remote past,” and the Oxford College Dictionary gives us “some arbitrary point taken to represent the end of the middle ages.” Another definition makes it more or less a synonym for ‘contemporary.’ Also, the definitions contain no distinction between contemporary societies that are modern and those that are not (i.e traditional societies).
Modernism and postmodernism refer to artistic movements and philosophies. The two definitions of postmodernism refer to it as “a reaction to modernism” and “a departure from modernism.” The question then becomes, if postmodernism is in fact a coherent movement or philosophy, does it correspond to an actual change in culture such that we should consider the period we are living in now as distinct from modernity? Is ‘postmodernity’ a reality?
Liah Greenfeld, in a chapter titled ‘Is Modernity Possible without Nationalism?’ in Michel Seymour’s book, The Fate of the Nation State, addresses the problem of modernity’s various meaningless or contradictory definitions. According to Greenfeld, modernity is a quality or characteristic of certain societies- what she calls “a species of society” (39). In general, modern societies have three distinctive features: an open class structure, “the impersonal and abstract, or state, form of government,” and an economy oriented to sustained growth (39) These features are not fully developed in all modern societies, but in all cases, she claims, their development is made possible by nationalism- a fundamentally secular and humanistic consciousness based on the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism.
Now this definition of modernity is certainly not universally accepted, but it is nevertheless a definition which means something. [Rather than get into a more detailed description of different types of nationalism and modern societies, I encourage you to read the chapter in this free google books preview (p.38-50), as well as her essay, ‘Nationalism and the Mind’]. If we consider the term ‘postmodernity’ in light of Greenfeld’s definition, it would have to mean a fundamental change in the organization and consciousness of society. From everything I see, this has not happened.
I am not claiming to have said all there is to say about the modern vs. postmodern question, and I am not dismissing all postmodern theory out of hand. What I am saying is that it is important to have some definition of modernity, Greenfeld gives us this, and if we accept it, then the phenomena which some have characterized as postmodern can be considered as either new or modified developments in culture that are still consistent with nationalism and modernity.
Posted on December 17, 2009 - by David
In a previous post, I commented on the confusion caused by the lack of clear distinction between Durkheim’s concepts of egoistic and anomic suicide. In an effort to come up with evidence to make this argument, I spent several more hours poring over my notes on Suicide than I had originally intended. I feel a bit lazy doing this, but I believe it’s worth letting these quotes speak for themselves.
“Both [egoistic and anomic suicide] spring from society’s insufficient presence in individuals. But the sphere of its absence is not the same in both cases. In egoistic suicide it is deficient in truly collective activity, thus depriving the latter of object and meaning. In anomic suicide, society’s influence is lacking in the basically individual passions, thus leaving them without a check-rein. In spite of their relationship, therefore, the two types are independent of each other. We may offer society everything social in us, and still be unable to control our desires; one may live in an anomic state without being egoistic, and vice versa. These two sorts of suicide therefore do not draw their chief recruits from the same social environments; one has its principal field among intellectual careers, the world of thought – the other, the industrial or commercial world.” (258)
“Suicides of both types suffer from what has been called the disease of the infinite. But the disease does not assume the same form in both cases. In one, reflective intelligence is affected and immoderately overnourished; in the other, emotion is over-excited and freed from all restraint. In one, thought, by dint of falling back upon itself, has no object left; in the other, passion, no longer recognizing bounds, has no goal left. The former is lost in the infinity of dreams, the second in the infinity of desires.” (287)
“They [types of suicide ] are very often combined with one another, giving rise to composite varieties; characteristic of several types will be united in a single suicide.” (287)
“We know that they [egoism and anomy] are usually merely two different aspects of one social state; thus it is not surprising that they should be found in the same individual. It is, indeed, almost inevitable that the egoist should have some tendency to non-regulation; for, since he is detached from society, it has not sufficient hold upon him to regulate him.” (288)
“The obstacle, for example, against which the victim of insatiate desires dashes may cause him to fall back upon himself and seek an outlet for disappointed passions in an inner life. Finding there nothing to which he can attach himself, however, the melancholy inspired by this thought can only drive him to new self-escape, thus increasing his uneasiness and discontent. Thus are produced mixed suicides where depression alternates with agitation, dream with action, transports of desire with reflective sadness.” (288)
Durkheim seems to be saying, “They’re the same, but they’re also different.” He basically states that the two types have the same cause, and in the end of the book proposes one solution, (corporations or occupational groups), for both:
“But not only egoistic suicide would be combatted in this way. Anomic suicide, closely related to it, might be dealt with by the same treatment.” (382)
“In both cases the remedy is therefore the same.”
So, are these two types really variations of one type, and is there any value in attempting to distinguish between them?
I’ll try to answer this question when I consider Greenfeld’s concept of anomie and look at its manifestations in American society.
Posted on December 3, 2009 - by David
In this essay published in Southern Rural Sociology, Phyllis Puffer argues that most introductory sociology textbooks incorrectly define Durkheim’s concept of anomie and anomic suicide. The most common incorrect definition of anomie, she maintains, is something along the lines of “normlessness.” What Durkheim actually said, Puffer claims, is that “anomie is lack of regulation of the economy.” (Puffer 205) More generally, anomie means a lack of regulation, and she highlights Durkheim’s example of conjugal anomy – the lack of regulation (experienced only by men) caused by divorce .
While Puffer criticizes the commonly given definitions of anomie for ignoring the economic element, I believe she attributes a much narrower definition of anomie (by referring strictly to economic conditions) than Durkheim actually gives in Suicide.
While Durkheim does clearly refer to swings in the economy in his discussion of anomic suicide, it seems that for anomie to be contributing to rising rates of suicide, it must have become endemic in that society. Puffer refers to the Great Depression and other economic crises, but Durkheim’s analysis identifies steadily increasing annual rates of suicide, and he contends that in “the sphere of trade and industry- it [anomie] is actually in a chronic state.” (Durkheim 254)
I would argue that lack of regulation of the economy is the reflection, rather than the cause, of anomie as it is experienced by the individual. Durkheim’s own work appears to confirm this. In the chapter on anomic suicide, Durkheim describes the cultural condition of individuals in an anomic society:
“The limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and what is unjust, legitimate claims and hopes and those which are immoderate. Consequently there is no restraint upon aspirations.” (Durkheim 253)
While Puffer emphasizes the problems individuals face when their economic status changes abruptly (i.e not knowing how to regulate spending and live at their new level), Durkheim’s explanation of the crisis the individual experiences after an economic disturbance is more complex:
“Above all, since this race for an unattainable goal can give no other pleasure but that of the race itself, if it is one, once it is interrupted the participants are left empty-handed.” (Durkheim 253)
“The longing for infinity is daily represented as a mark of moral distinction, whereas it can only appear within unregulated consciences which elevate to a rule the lack of rule from which they suffer. The doctrine of the most ruthless and swift progress has become an article of faith.” (Durkheim 257)
In Durkheim’s description, then, it seems that unregulated ambition (resulting from a change in cultural values) leads to a lack of regulation in the economy, and it is the lack of regulation of ambition, (which is not neccesarily ambition for pure financial gain), from which the individual suffers. Puffer criticizes the textbook definitions for their emphasis on the individual’s feelings, claiming that “Durkheim spent little time and space on describing the feelings individuals experience,” but my reading of Suicide leads me to strongly disagree. Furthermore, she generalizes, “Durkheim concluded that the economy must be controlled and both books together [Suicide and The Division of Labor in Society] form a critique of pure laissez-faire capitalism” (Puffer 205). Actually, what Durkheim concludes is that occupational groups may offer a solution to the problem of anomic (and, importantly, egoistic) suicide by providing a social structure near enough to the individual to make him feel sufficiently integrated and to aid him in directing his ambition properly. Durkheim believed that these groups, (corporations), would in turn help to regulate the economy.
Puffer states that the majority of suicides seem to be the egoistic type, and this is the kind she teaches to her Intro to Sociology students. While she suggests that the confusion in the textbook definitions of anomic suicide may result from mixing Durkheim’s term with the ideas of other sociologists who used the word ‘anomie’ to denote something else, I believe the problem results at least in part from Durkheim’s failure to demonstrate a sufficient difference between egoistic and anomic suicide.
In an upcoming post on this topic, I’ll try to show how these two types of suicide fall into the same category, using Greenfeld’s refined definition of anomie.
Posted on December 2, 2009 - by David
One of the main problems with discussion of this topic is the ambiguity of certain terms. A little reading (books, blogs, etc.) quickly reveals the confusion. The other day, I found this blog post, though a little old it’s worth checking out. What struck me was the first sentence of an abstract of the paper the post references:
“Our brains and minds are shaped by our experiences, which mainly occur in the context of the culture in which we develop and live.”
Posted on December 1, 2009 - by David
Boston University professor Liah Greenfeld in her essay Nationalism and the Mind gives an overview of her theory of modern culture and the mind.
The fundamental points…
- Humanity is distinguished from the other animal species by the symbolic (cultural)… instead of genetic… transmission of its ways of life across generations. (p.1)
- “Nationalism is a fundamentally secular and humanistic consciousness based on the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism.”(p.4)
- Nationalism is the modern culture (p.4)
- “Modern societies… because of their very secularism, openness, and the elevation of the individual, are necessarily anomic,” making anomie “the fundamental structural problem of modernity.”(p.13-14)
- Anomie (a product of nationalism, the modern culture) “inhibits the formation and normal functioning of the human mind.”(p.15)
- “…culture creates the human mind. The mind is also a symbolic and a mental process: it is supported by biological brain mechanisms, but is generated by culture outside the brain.”(p.16)
- She essentially states that by impairing the formation and normal functioning of the human mind, modern culture causes mental illness.
These ideas are certainly controversial, not widely held, and may seem preposterous to some. Please read the essay for yourself and see what you think.