Posts Tagged ‘Mind’
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 October 8, 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.
part 3 – Madness: A Modern Phenomenon
In this last installment, we consider how Greenfeld’s theory of the mind makes it possible to see schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness (that is, major depression and bipolar disorder), which are usually considered distinct disorders, as diseases of the will, existing on a continuum of complexity of the will-impairment experienced.
Culture – the symbolic transmission of human ways of life- is an emergent phenomenon, a new reality with its own rules, that nonetheless operates within the boundary conditions of life. This symbolic reality is only alive, (the process can only occur), in individual brains, hence the understanding of the mind as “culture in the brain,” or “individualized culture.” As described in part 2, three important “structures” of the mind – (patterned and systematic symbolic processes which must be supported by corresponding patterned and systematic processes in the brain) – are identity, will, and the thinking self.
Identity - the relationally constituted self – is always a reflection of a particular cultural environment. Greenfeld hypothesizes that the lack of direction given by modern culture makes the once relatively simple process of identity formation much more complicated. A well formed identity is able to subjectively rank the choices present at any moment, giving the will, (or acting self), a basis for decision-making. It follows then that problems with identity formation lead to problems with the will. Malformation of identity and impairment of the will necessarily affect the functioning of the thinking self (the “I of self-consciousness”) – the part of the mind which is explicitly symbolic in the sense that it operates with formal symbols – above all, language. The thinking self may become fixed on questions of identity; it may have to stand in for the will, when a person has to talk him/herself into acting in situations which normally wouldn’t require self-conscious reflection (e.g going to the bathroom, eating, getting out of bed); or in the most severe cases, the thinking self may become completely disconnected from individualized culture, in which case all the cultural resources of the mind range free, without direction from identity and will.
The experiences of those who suffer from mental illness begin to make sense within this framework. In major depression, the will is impaired in its motivating function – the ability to force oneself to act or think as one would like to, or as would seem appropriate, is severely lessened. The mind at this stage remains individualized and one has a definite, though distorted and painful, sense of self. The thinking self becomes negatively obsessed with identity, and an incredible dialogue of self-loathing thoughts takes hold. It is insufferable to be oneself, and death naturally suggests itself as the only possibility of escape. Though tragically, as we all know, many depressed people do take their lives, for many even the will to take this action is not present. In bipolar disorder, the impairment of the motivating function of the will in depression mixes with the impairment of its restraining capacity in mania. One can neither move oneself in the desired direction nor restrain one’s thoughts and actions from running in every direction. The negative self-obsession of depression (which can still be justifiably considered delusional) alternates with (the often more noticeable to the outside observer) grandiose and exalted self-image and beliefs. Mania can either cycle back to depression or, through delusional tension, develop into acute psychosis.
The most characteristic symptoms of schizophrenia – hallucinations and elaborate delusions – are usually preceded by a prodrome which bears significant resemblance to certain aspects of depression and mania. This is often a period of social withdrawal, when the experience of the outside world seems to move from a sense of unreality to a sense of the profound yet ambiguous meaningfulness of all things. In healthy minds, identity provides a relatively stable image of the cultural world and the individual’s place in it, and thus the will directs thought and action towards relevant goals. Naturally, at each moment much of the environment is overlooked so that attention can be focused where it should be. In the prodrome, however, the thinking self becomes fixated on mundane aspects of reality, and things in the environment which are usually taken for granted become alternately senseless or imbued with special significance. This experience of the world as incomprehensible and inconsistent suggests a serious problem with identity. The will, (which in healthy cases is a largely unconscious process directed by identity), gets put on the shelf, so to speak, and the thinking self takes on the task of trying to piece together this unreal or hyperreal outside world.
The prodrome is usually only identified after the fact, since it is the appearance of hallucinations and delusions which allows the illness to be diagnosed as schizophrenia. Delusions, (often also present in patients diagnosed with bipolar), are the best known feature of schizophrenia. We can understand delusion as the inability to separate between subjective and objective realities, or put another way, the inability to distinguish between the cultural process on the individual level (the mind) and culture on the collective level. Thus internally-generated experiences are mistakenly thought to have originated outside. The elaborate delusions described by schizophrenic patients can be seen as a kind of rationalization of the experience of acute psychosis. It is important to distinguish between delusional accounts of the acutely psychotic phase, given after the fact in moments of relative self-possession, and the experience itself. In the midst of acute psychosis, a person is almost always incommunicative. Descriptions of this stage often mention the loss of the sense of self, as well as the sense of being watched by an external observer. The mental process, no longer individualized, is beyond willed control. Schneider’s first-rank symptoms, such as the belief that thoughts are extracted or implanted and that physical sensations and actions are controlled by an external force, clearly point to the experienced loss of will which runs underneath so many schizophrenic delusions. The sense of an alien presence is explained by the continued processing of the thinking self even after identity and will have (if only temporarily) disintegrated. Lacking this individualized direction, the “I of self-consciousness” becomes the “eye of unwilled self-consciousness,” – the defenseless sufferer necessarily experiences this free-ranging cultural process as foreign, and quite possibly terrifying, because it is beyond his control.
The formal abnormalities of thought which were so important to Eugen Bleuler’s diagnosis of schizophrenia also fit into the cultural framework. Schizophrenics are often unable to privilege conventional, socially-accepted associations in thought. Most of the time in our modern societies, normal associations follow the rules of logic, (in the strict sense of Aristotelian logic based on the principle of no contradiction). (However, it must be noted that logic is an historical, thus cultural phenomenon, so the inability to think logically should not be taken as evidence of brain malfunction). Of course, depending on the context, some other logic may be culturally appropriate, and arbitrating between contextual logics is one of the primary ways that the will directs thought. In schizophrenia, though, with the will impaired, thought is unanchored to any of these logics, and seems to jump from one to another at random. This becomes most evident in the use of language, which seems to speak itself, flowing without direction and often tied together by the sonic qualities of words or connections in meaning which would usually be overlooked as irrelevant. While the use of language will necessarily depend on the particular cultural resources present in the individual’s mind, it is impersonal in the sense that it draws it life from the associations inherent in language itself, rather than associations pertinent to individual identity or the objective cultural context.
Not only does Greenfeld’s continuum model better account for the huge overlap between the illnesses as currently defined, it also allows us to pay closer attention to movement along this continuum throughout the course of an individual’s illness. While anomie is presumed to be the initial cause of mental illness early in life through interference with identity formation, the various swings on the spectrum may become more comprehensible when we consider what is happening to the individual at the time when the change in symptoms occurs. It is possible that specifically anomic situations may lead to shifts in the already existing illness. (These considerations are explored in Greenfeld’s analyses of the well-publicized cases of John Nash, ( Nobel prize winner in economics), and Kay Redfield Jamison, co-author of the authoritative book on manic-depressive illness.)
The focus on the symbolic, mental processes at work in these “diseases of the will” should not be misunderstood as in any way taking away from the biological reality of major mental illness. Just as the activity of healthy minds corresponds to certain brain activity, so the abnormal processes of a sick mind would be expected to correspond to atypical patterns of brain function. Neither does the hypothesis that mental illness has a cultural rather than biological cause ignore potential genetic conditions that might make certain individuals more vulnerable than others. In fact, it is possible that mechanisms of interaction between culture and genes may become known with continued research in epigenetics – the study of changes in gene expression not caused by changes to the underlying DNA sequence. Some have already hypothesized that gene-environment interaction may lead to epigenetic changes that are central to the expression of mental illness. Of course, unless epigenetic research is specifically designed to take the symbolic nature of the environment into account, it will probably do little to help us to better understand mental disease and the mental process in general.
Part 1 of the exposition looks at the the mind/body problem which has stood at the center of Western Philosophy for over 2000 years, and considers Greenfeld’s proposed resolution – a 3 layer view of reality (matter, life, and culture/mind) in which the top 2 are emergent phenomenon. Greenfeld credits Charles Darwin with making it possible to view the world in terms of emergent phenomenon, which in turn makes possible her theory of culture and the mind which can put the mind/body question to rest. At the same time, she exposes the historical roots of the dogmatic bias of science (as it is normally practiced) towards materialism, and dismisses the notion that science has (or can) in any way empirically prove this position, thereby maintaining that there is no inherent conflict between faith and rigorous empirical study.
In part 2, the proposed solution to the dualist problem is developed – culture is a symbolic process emergent from biological phenomena and operating within the boundary conditions of life, yet fundamentally autonomous and governed by different set of rules. As life organizes the matter out of which it is composed into unlikely patterns, so the symbolic process of culture organizes the brain, (which at all times both supports and provides the boundary conditions for the process) to suit its own needs. Greenfeld logically deduces that the point of emergence for culture and the mind must have been the moment vocal signs were first intentionally articulated, and became symbols. The internalization of this intention creates the mental structure of the will. Yes, this means that in a single moment, culture, the mind, and “free will” as we know it appear together, forever separating homo sapiens from all other animal species and making humanity a reality of its own kind. This view of culture, as a symbolic process which not only structures social life but individual minds, has radical implications for the many disciplines which study the various aspects of humanity. This view also demands the attention of neuroscience, which will remain purely descriptive and not gain any ground in the attempt to understand and explain “consciousness” until it takes into account the symbolic reality – by far the most important aspect of the human environment.
Part 3 reiterates the ideas about nationalism developed in Greenfeld’s first two book and takes things a step further. She identifies nationalism, a fundamentally secular consciousness based on the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism, as the defining element of modernity, responsible for massive changes in the nature of human experience. More specifically here, she claims that love, ambition, and madness as we know them today emerged out of this new consciousness in 16th century England and spread from there to other societies that adopted and adapted the nationalist culture.
Part 4 challenges the current psychiatric dogma that manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia are distinct illnesses with biological causes. The need to rethink this distinction is evidenced by the high degree of overlap in symptoms between two conditions and the failure to find consistent functional or structural brain abnormalities which would allow for accurate differential diagnosis. Not only have genetic researchers been unable to find individual genes that cause schizophrenia or mdi, their best work suggests a shared vulnerability to both illnesses. Epidemiological data seems to show that mental illness occurs at greater rates in modern nations with Western-derived culture, and studies within these nations suggest that the upper classes (i.e those individuals who fully experience the openness of society and have the greatest number of choices) are particularly affected. Both of these findings are consistent with Greenfeld’s hypothesis that anomie causes mental illness. Nevertheless, this data is consistently ignored or rejected as flawed, since it flies in the face of the currently accepted notion of mental illness as biologically caused and uniformly spread across cultures and throughout history. Likewise, the fact that no genetic cause of mdi or schizophrenia has been found has done little to dhake the faith that such a cause will one day be found. Unfortunately, this systemic materialist bias can only continue to impede progress in the understanding of these fatal conditions.
The theoretical view of mental illness as ultimately stemming from problems with the formation of identity is a new one, and thus it does not come packaged with some ingenious cure. However, the clear implication is that something must be done to help individuals in anomic modern societies to create well formed identities. Since this process begins very early in childhood, the intervention must begin then as well. Educating children about the multitude of choices they will face in their extremely open environment, and alerting them to the presence of the many competing and often contradictory cultural voices vying for their attention would become priorities. We should also be cautious (as the recent work of people like Ethan Watters suggests) of the potential side effects of exporting our culture to other societies.
While this exposition is in some sense finished, there is much more to say, and I will continue exploring these ideas and comparing them with other perspectives in my future posts. I realize this work is controversial, and can be difficult to take in all at once. Please, if any part (of the whole) of this seems unclear, unsupported, or simply outrageous, ask a question or give your critique. I’m eager to hear what others have to say.
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 May 3, 2010 - by David
The following paper was presented May 1, 2010 at a student conference at Boston University called ‘Mentalism, Madness, and the Mind.” Audio from the conference is available here. Thanks to all those who participated.
“Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause preceding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.”
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859)
In the conclusion to this book – a work of undeniable importance to modern science and modern thought in general – after tracking natural selection through amazingly detailed observations of nature and logical deductions, Darwin imagined what his discoveries might mean for the study of humanity. He writes:
“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” (Darwin, Origin 476)
Empowered by the growing acceptance of his theories, Darwin himself endeavored to throw this light on human experience in The Descent of Man. His believed that there was “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties,” (Darwin, Descent 34) and attributed our sense of morality, in his eyes man’s most distinctive feature, to highly developed social instincts and advanced powers of reasoning.
Nevertheless, one can sense another phenomenon at work in Darwin’s descriptions. He notes man’s “large power of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas,” and sees the central place of language in the mind, writing that “a long and complex train of thought can no more be carried on without the aid of words, whether spoken or silent, than a long calculation without the use of figures or algebra.” (Darwin, Descent 53, 55) His insistence that the difference between man and animal was one of degree and not kind is challenged by obvious differences between cultures. He attributes the lower moral sense of “savages” partly to “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and speculates that moral tendencies might be inherited traits, though he admits that there is “hardly sufficient evidence on this head.” (Darwin Descent 93, 98) In trying to account for the many “absurd rules of conduct” proscribed by various religions, Darwin makes a decidedly non-materialist observation, writing, “it is worthy of remark that a belief constantly inculcated in the early years of life, while the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very essence of an instinct is that it is followed independently of reason.” (Darwin, Descent 95-96) This power of culture was literally right next to him, waiting to be discovered and explained, on the ship which took him around the world. He writes: “The Fuegians rank among the lowest barbarians; but I was continually struck with surprise how closely the three natives on board H.M.S “Beagle,” who had lived some years in England, and could talk a little English, resembled us in disposition, and in most of our mental faculties.” (Darwin, Descent 33-34) It seems with all his powers of observation and scientific genius, his attachment to his newly embraced theory and the predictable (and accepted) prejudices of a 19th -century Englishman would not allow Darwin to see what he was missing.
I consider this extended Darwinian introduction justified, because despite the fact that these ideas were published nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, they are, with many of the same troublesome claims and implications, still very much alive today in the various strains of evolutionary psychology.
Before going any further, I must turn to mentalism, as developed by Liah Greenfeld, so that the basis for my objections to evolutionary psychology is clear. In her yet unpublished work (to which this conference is directly related), Greenfeld actually demonstrates how Darwin’s work made her own theories possible. Here I quote Greenfeld directly:
“On the basis of meticulously constructed circumstantial evidence (that is, pieces of empirical evidence, gaps in empirical evidence, considerations of scholars in other fields, specifically geology, certain beliefs regarding the nature of reality, contradictions in other beliefs regarding it, etc., that were fitted perfectly together, creating a logically watertight argument) Darwin proved that there was a law pertaining to the development of life on earth that had nothing whatsoever to do with laws of physics, and yet was logically consistent with them, because it operated within the boundary conditions of the physical laws. That is, in distinction to philosophical materialists, Darwin proved that life indeed could be irreducible to inanimate matter, 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. By proving that life was an autonomous reality, Darwin made biology independent from physics: biologists now could take physics for granted and explore the ways biological laws operated.” (Greenfeld 69-70)
In short, rather than create “a unified framework in which everything could be understood,” Darwin made it possible to see the world in terms of emergent phenomena. Greenfeld defines an emergent phenomenon as “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.” (Greenfeld 71)
Unlike Darwin or the evolutionary psychologists, we see humanity as distinguished from all other forms of organic life by the emergent phenomenon of culture. Culture can be defined most generally as the symbolic transmission of human ways of life across generations and distances. In ‘Nationalism and the Mind,’ Greenfeld describes it like this:
The products of this cultural process are stored in the environment within which our biological life takes place, but the process itself goes on inside us. In other words, culture exists dynamically, develops, regenerates, transforms only by means of our minds – which makes culture a mental process. Let me reiterate: culture is a symbolic and a mental process. The fact that it is a mental process means that it occurs by means of the mechanisms of the brain. The fact that it is a symbolic process means that its logic cannot be reduced to the logic of the brain mechanisms, that it is an emergent phenomenon and a reality sui generis. (Greenfeld “N&M” 213)
Greenfeld has therefore described the mind as “individualized culture,” or “culture in the brain,” making the mind, like culture, an emergent phenomenon. Again I quote from her current work, to make clear that culture and mind should not be taken separately:
“These are not just two elements of the same — symbolic and mental — reality, they are one and the same process occurring on two different levels — the individual and the collective, similar to the life of an organism and of the species to which it belongs in the organic world. The fundamental laws governing this process on both levels are precisely the same laws and at every moment, at every stage in it, it moves back and forth between the levels; it cannot, not for a split second, occur on only one of them. 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.” (Greenfeld 81)
In On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection (2008), Jonathan Turner and Alexandra Maryanski provide a theoretical description of how our nature as individualistic apes has shaped the evolution of human societies. In the conclusion to the first chapter they make the following statement: “All societies, we argue, go against humans’ ancestral ape propensities for weak ties, individualism, and mobility, but some social formations impose greater conflicts with our ape ancestry than others.” (T&M 27) They hypothesize that the development of an emotional language would have played the most important role in creating solidarity among our ape ancestors. They imagine an almost infinitely deep pool of complex emotions that could have been formed through combination of the four primary emotions – happiness, fear, anger, and sadness – which they say “all researchers agree” are hardwired into our brains. These emotions would have been communicated through vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions to forge stronger social ties. Symbolic communication through language is given a kind of secondary status to this primary language of emotions. They tell us that, “sociality is enhanced by speech because inflections of voice and substance of sentences can add extra layers of emotional content to interaction.” (T&M 117). The chapter titled ‘The Emergence of Culture,’ is mostly devoted to describing the adaptations they believe would have been selected for to create an individualistic ape who forged social ties via an emotional language but also possessed the brain capacity for verbal, symbolic communication. Culture and its development, therefore, are just products of natural selection, though they admit the rules seem to change a bit once culture emerges. They outline five “forces of the social universe” which generate selection pressures – population, production, distribution, regulation, and reproduction. (T&M 125) Equipped with a theoretical image of our progenitors and these five forces, they proceed to explain the rest of human history, which for Turner and Maryanski consists of emotional, individualistic apes moving from one “sociocultural cage” to another.
In the final chapter, they defend individualistic modern society because it is less constraining than most of the “cages” we have lived in throughout history. They say that sociologists who see pathological elements are confused about our heritage. “Humans are not the descendants of monkey ancestors, as most sociological criticisms of modernity imply.” (T&M 316) I can’t rightly say what “most sociological criticisms of modernity imply,” but I know that it wasn’t confusion about our primate ancestors that led Émile Durkheim to first describe anomie; rather, it was the study of a real phenomenon, the fact that people in modern societies seemed to be killing themselves at an alarming rate. Likewise, Liah Greenfeld’s current work aims to address a similar phenomenon: the emergence of mental illness with the rise of modernity and its increasing prevalence in particularly individualistic and anomic societies like America.
For me, the most frustrating part of this book was the misuse of Durkheim. At one point, they give a one paragraph summary of his work in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and then guess, on the basis of occasionally observed gatherings of groups of chimpanzees, that “there may be a hardwired basis for this propensity to symbolize social relationships with sacred totems.” (T&M 148) Durkheim’s name is sprinkled throughout the book, and– in what appears to me an attempt to give sociological weight to a book more concerned with apes than humanity – they conclude by quoting Durkheim on the importance of turning to the past if we want to accomplish something useful. What they effectively do is turn all the way back past the emergence of the very thing that makes us human, which allows them to make such insightful speculations as, “Contemporary humans enjoy travel perhaps because they are evolved apes.” (T&M 307)
Unfortunately, Durkheim’s own mistake of making a god out of society allows his ideas to be easily misappropriated, such that Turner’s and Maryanski’s congregation of chimps howling out their innate emotions doesn’t seem a far cry from the effervescence of a religious ritual. We can summarize Durkheim’s misstep using Greenfeld’s words from an essay written 15 years ago: “…Durkheim imagined the emergent phenomenon of society as, fundamentally, physical energy generated by the physical proximity of individual biological organisms,…” (Greenfeld “Praxis” 132) It is nevertheless clear that when Durkheim talks about society, he is describing something other than a material force, namely, the emergent phenomenon of culture and mind. The following comes from The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, interestingly enough, from his chapter on ‘The Notion of the Soul’:
“… there really is a part of ourselves that is not immediately subordinate to the organic factor: namely, everything inside us that represents society. The general ideas that religion or science imprint in our minds, the mental operations these ideas presuppose, the beliefs and feelings that are at the basis of moral life – all the higher forms of psychic activity that society awakens and develops in us – do not follow in the wake of the body, like our sensations and our bodily states. This is because, as we have shown, the world of representations in which social life unfolds is overlaid on its material substrate and does not originate there.” (Durkheim 201)
This “world of representations” is a world of symbols. We can define symbols as intentionally articulated signs. What I see described in the Origin of Societies is a kind of gradual emergence of culture, and kind of effortless slide to symbols from signs. Statements like “we know that symbolic capacities were enhanced as the brain grew,” and “with the first push for a larger brain in Homo habilis, it became possible to construct a more symbolic culture,” give me the impression that symbolic processing was occurring in the brains of our ancestors before the emergence of articulate speech. (T&M 113,110) But how could symbolic thought take place without symbols to be processed?
The elements that made possible the emergence of symbols (and therefore culture and the mind) were a highly developed brain, the use of signs, and the larynx, but this combination in no way made the emergent phenomenon likely. Greenfeld writes:
“The biological species of homo sapiens had completely evolved — brain, larynx, and all — hundreds of thousands of years before the mind made its first appearance among its members. This means that it was not caused by the organic combination that made it possible, but a result of a most improbable accident — the transformation (a complete change in character) of one of its elements.” (Greenfeld 77-78)
This transformation of sign to symbol – however exactly this incredible accident occurred – was the point of emergence for culture and the mind. I quote Greenfeld again, because I believe highlighting the difference between signs and symbols is necessary to distinguish mentalism from evolutionary theories describing a weak, gradual emergence of culture:
“The meaning (the significance) of a symbol was not given in the phenomenon it was signifying – its referent, or genetically; it was given to it by the context in which it was used, and increasingly this context became mostly the context of other symbols. Thus the significance of symbols constantly changed. Unlike signs, which could be very many, but whose number was essentially limited by their referents in the environment, symbols were endlessly proliferating. (The very introduction of a symbol would change the environment and initiate a symbolic chain reaction.) Unlike signs, which exist in sets, they, from the first formed systems, ever changing and becoming more complex and connected by constantly transforming ties of inter-dependence. Symbols, in other words, constituted a world of their own; an autonomous, self-creative world in which things were happening according to laws of causation which did not apply anywhere else.” (Greenfeld 78 -79)
I feel it’s important to state, despite how obvious this may seem to some of you, that this symbolic reality was made possible only by some collectivity. The homo sapiens who first discovered the ability to intentionally articulate a sign would have had to intentionally articulate to someone in order to spark the symbolic process which has created the world we live in today. Therefore, while the symbolic process occurs only in individual brains, to see it as a product of individual brains is a mistake.
Steven Pinker, in the The Stuff of Thought (2007), puts forth the theory of conceptual semantics, the idea that the true “language of thought” is a set of innate concepts, closely corresponding to the Kantian categories of space, time, causality, substance, and so on. Like Turner and Maryanski with their emotional proto-language hypothesis, Pinker tends to treat language itself as a kind of secondary phenomenon, almost coincidental to our innate conceptual processes. In a section of the book arguing against linguistic determinism, he writes:
“One reason that the language we speak can’t be too central in our mental functioning is that we had to learn it in the first place. It’s not hard to imagine how language acquisition might work if children could figure out some of the events and intentions around them and tried to map them onto the sounds coming out of their parents’ mouths. But how a raw stream of noise could conjure up concepts in the child’s mind out of nothing is a mystery. It’s not surprising that studies of the minds of prelinguistic infants have shown them to be sensitive to cause and effect, human agency, spatial relations, and other ideas that form the core of conceptual structure.” (Pinker 149)
But is Pinker saying that humans are the only animals sensitive to cause and effect or spatial relations? To demonstrate the existence and operation of this innate “language of thought,” he has to actually break down language itself. In other words, it is only when confronted with a system of symbols that these innate capacities or tendencies can have the sort of explicit work to do which Pinker describes. Apart from culture, we probably only possess these biological sensitivities to a slightly greater degree than other very intelligent animals.
At points, Pinker’s resistance to the idea of mind as a symbolic process is very clear, and rather weak. Using the example of Shakespeare, he argues that “a name really has no definition in terms of other words, concepts, or pictures,” but rather “points to a person in the world in the same way that I can point to a rock in front of me right now.” I understand that the thoughts that occur to me – what I know or feel about Shakespeare, – are not a definition of Shakespeare. However, the flow of ideas and images which begins when I hear his name is much more than a connection to “the original act of christening” as Pinker puts it – it is steeped in the cultural context in which I learned about Shakespeare, and includes innumerable strands of connection to other ideas which, removed from the context of the symbolic process happening in my head, bear no relation whatsoever to the sound Shakespeare’s parents decided would signify their newborn child. (Pinker 12)
Pinker’s theory still leaves us with the problem of the emergence of culture, and seems unable to account for the development of cultural differences apart from the idea that they are merely the result of the peculiar interplay of a set of biologically programmed concepts.
In Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1992), it seems to me there is also no strict emergence of culture in terms of a transformation from signs to symbols. He mentions “communicative (or quasi-communicative) acts” in which hominids would have shared useful information with one another -“asked” and “answered” each others questions – and hypothesizes that a hominid would have discovered that he could ask and answer his own questions, this over time becoming a silent internalized cognitive process. Again, like in Turner and Maryanski’s retelling, signs slide into symbols without much notice. (Dennett 194-197)
Once culture does exist, (I don’t feel I can say “emerge” and remain consistent with Dennett’s rendition), the law that governs its evolution is natural selection. Dennett subscribes to idea of the meme, defined by Richard Dawkins as a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.,” (in Dennett 202) Dennett tells us that Dawkins meant this to be taken literally: “Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genetic evolution, not just a process that 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.” (Dennett 202) Memes spread (and mutate), not necessarily because they are good for the individuals whose brains they infest, but simply because they are good replicators. Meme-vehicles are essentially physical – books, recordings, buildings, etc. – but, “memes still depend at least indirectly on one or more of their vehicles spending at least a brief, pupal stage in a remarkable sort of meme nest: a human mind.” (Dennett 206) Memes therefore are in competition for residence in a limited number of minds – memes may aid or block or be neutral to other memes.
It is definitely possible to see the meme story as culture in the brain, but lest we get confused, we should remind ourselves that culture is a symbolic process. A meme is an artificial chunk, chopped out of the process, removed from the mind, the only context in which elements of culture come alive. Attempting to explain culture by a law that supposedly governs the transmission of discrete units of culture necessarily does violence to the idea of a symbolic process. It seems to me that with the mental gymnastics required to extend natural selection to units of culture – constantly grasping for analogies from biology to provide justification – there would be little time to even attempt a true historical analysis.
In an article published last year in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Dennett and Ryan McKay look at ‘The Evolution of Misbelief.’ Dawkins’ cultural evolution says that memes, (and both true and false beliefs would be memes), are selected because they are good self-replicators and not necessarily because they enhance fitness. But here Dennett and McKay take a much more biological approach, working from the general assumption that “evolution has designed us to appraise the world accurately and to form true beliefs.” (M&D 494) Not surprisingly, they dismiss psychotic delusions rather quickly as “instances of biological dysfunction,” and spend a good deal of their time addressing “religious (mis)beliefs.” (M&D 493) When Yorick Wilks makes an insightful response to the paper, asking why the discussion of misbeliefs which are not genetically heritable is “taking place in the context of natural selection and Darwinian evolution,” they seem to duck behind the cover of the cultural evolution claim which they advanced with very little force or substance in the original article. (Wilks 539) If they can simultaneously apply the law of natural selection to two very different orders of phenomena – memes, as they call them, and genes – then it looks like they get to have their cake and eat it too. “Gene-culture co-evolution” looks to me like a seductive catch-all that explains very little.
While I feel I’ve only had time to briefly sketch the differences between mentalism and evolutionary psychology, and I especially regret not being able to address the specific structures of the mind as Greenfeld describes them, I felt it was important to first deal with this symbolic reality in general. The original title of this paper, ‘Evolutionary Psychology: A Stone Age Mindset,’ emerged simply out of the need to create a title for the conference program, but now that it’s all said and done I’m not sure it’s the most fitting. Still, it reflects my frustration with an approach that is stuck in the past, looking at humanity from tens of thousands to millions of years away from where we are now, telling us what we are based on what “science” seems to say we should be, dogmatically drawing authority from the name of Darwin, floundering out of its depth in a symbolic reality it has not even begun to explain. Humanity, a most worthy subject of study, deserves better.
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.