September 2012

The earworm phenomenon has fascinated me for years.  Why is our language of experience so impoverished that we can not even describe this thing?  To me it provides a very familiar example that highlights some conceptual distinctions not generally accepted.

One can distance one’s self from the tune in the head, by observing it, perhaps with annoyance.  Now it is a thing.  It is not hugely different from a teapot, which is out there in the world.  It can thus be apportioned to von Uexküll’s Merkwelt.

But it often is going on without being observed.  During such times, it may cause you to “spontaneously” break out into a hum or a whistle.  At such times, it is rather part of the “Wirkwelt”, and if we speak of it as a thing at all, it seems more clearly to belong to the subject.

It shares many properties in common with the kind of thought that we recognize as linguistic, or inner speech.  We describe thinking as an activity of the subject, but thoughts also come unbidden, and one can adopt a similarly dichotomous stance with respect to such thoughts. When viewing it as a thing, it is sometimes called an “occurrent thought”.  When ‘doing’ it, that seems odd.  But the difference is one of the stance we take towards it.

Merleau-Ponty, along with Wittgenstein and Sheets-Johnstone, insists that speech is not the clothes of thought, but is thought incarnate.

“The word and speech must somehow cease to be a way of designating things or thoughts, and become the presence of that thought in the phenomenal world, and, moreover, not its clothing but its token or body” (Merleau-Ponty, P of P, p. 182)

“Movement is not a medium by which thoughts emerge but rather, the thoughts themselves, significations in the flesh, so to speak” (MSJ, Thinking in Movement, p. 400)

“When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expression” (LW, PI, p. 107)

When we regard speech as an inner voice, we are viewing it in the Merkwelt.  When we simply think, it is all Wirkwelt.  It is to the latter that the above quotes pertain.  But I think we can learn to develop a technical language that acknowledges both facets of experience.  This is not dissimilar in spirit to William James’s notion of experience as an intersection of two lines – one the lived world of the subject, the other the conventional ontic world of teapots and tables.

Damn, I hate having to pretend to do metaphysics.  I would much rather leave that to those who know what they are about in that area.  However, it is incumbent upon me to outline two contrasting positions as cleanly and clearly as I can, so that they may then serve as landmarks in subsequent discussions.  I say “outline”, because each will be incomplete.  The sketch to be drawn will incorporate just enough features to allow metaphysical commitments to mind to be seen as belonging in one camp or the other.  Any substantive theory in the science of mind, or behavior, will fight its battles with enemies in the same camp, and sharing much of the same kind of metaphysical assumptions.  Battles across the camps can only be conducted at a very abstract level.

But by making the two contrasting approaches explicit, it will be possible to limit fundamentalist claims from within either camp, as any theoretical claims or narrative put forth will necessarily be bounded in its claims to generality or facticity.  It may hold sway conditionally only, and the condition is that the argument is conducted with one or other set of pre-theoretical assumptions.  Here goes, so…