Language


The pharasaic artform, the resonator, is the experiential equivalent of the Newtonian three-ball problem.  There are three media elements.  Any two together will lend itself to the creation of a simple narrative.  But three at once, with no actual connection between them, becomes entirely unpredictable.  As you try to see the whole thing, to frame it in your view finder, and exert maximal grip, it defies a predictive analysis.  Micro-fluctuations become amplified, symmetry is broken by a random event one level down.  This lightweight structure, where meaning arises without effort, this is you-here-now-awareness-attention.  It is a tool, designed like a mantra.  And it must be allowed to run for at least 30 seconds.  Otherwise, that ain’t part of the game.

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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.

Let’s define an anti-embodied cognitive science.

We start, not by disagreeing with the enactivists, but by agreeing with them up to, but excluding agency.  Let’s discard the assumption that the lived body is the locus of experience.  That should get the party started.

Then we wait for someone to cry foul.  We take their argument, whatever it is, and we examine its agential commitments, and associated mentalese. There is no test one can do to distinguish between the tumblebot and the goldfish without presuming some locus of agency.  There will be many domains of relative autonomy though.

Take whatever ‘mind’ is offered, and call it the P-world.  The domain of present experience.  Identify the P-world in a variety of ways: Umwelt, milieu, consciousness.  The P-bomb is, of course, that the P-world does not exist.  It is a construct that allows the discussion of a world.

What’s the endgame?  Do we no longer draw the boundary at the species?  Is this the way to realize that we are the natural world?  We are the world we see.

The search for agency within the enactive movement is nothing more or less than an attempt to find a basis for “we”.  It is a search for that with which one identifies.  The mistake of trying to ground it in a “we” made up of individual human animals is a problem.  Agency lies wherever you shine the light.  The agency of a dyad is real.

Furthermore, once one has chosen to identify a given domain as agentive, one creates a blindspot.  Behind that, we must explain with non-observable constructs, like the shallow tinker toys of mechanistic psychology.

So much blood and ink has been spilt trying to bridge the gap between something called mind and something called world. The gap I seek to bridge is instead between something called experience and something called language. This we can do. And with that the game is won.

I wish to draw out the waves in wheat fields idea somewhat more.  To me it is obvious at first glance what is meant.  But thinking the analogy through demands being explicit about a number of tricky issues, including the borders of the P-world (not a simple spatiotemporal bubble!) and the way in which the chair I meet in immediate experience is *both* collectively constituted, thus everyone’s chair, and entirely mine and mine alone.

This might be most fruitfully done within the book, when the P-world concept is first mooted, or shortly thereafter.

So I started working on a sketch today that links two ideas, and the combination is surprising.

On the one hand we have O’Regan and Noe’s take on sensorimotor correspondences.  This is actually not far from a lot of Gibsonian work within Ecological Psychology.  The basic idea is that in perceiving, we are skillfully engaging with the world, and that practiced and tuned action gives rise to a corresponding characteristic change in the sensory array.  Gibsonians would say this is the basis of direct perception.  Enaction-heads would say this is skillful coping, or some such.

On the other hand, we have the peculiar issue of sensorimotor synchronization, perhaps best illustrated by a group of people dancing or beating drums together.  In the scientific literature, this has withered to a laboratory situation in which people tap in time to a metronome. (The horror, the horror.)  This is a singularly human achievement, the very odd animal counterexample notwithstanding (yes, Snowball, I’m looking at you and the Gelada baboons).  A fuller account of the basis for sensorimotor synchronization would help us enormously.  It may underpin a burgeoning theory of memes; it speaks to Gibson’s intuition that the nervous system displays resonant properties; it fits with a range of specific situations, from air guitar to stuttering.  All can be described, in some fuzzy essence, with a conceptually simple model in which two processes enter into a coupled form of synergy which looks like resonance within and among coupled systems with many degrees of freedom.

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