October 19, 2004

Emile, or, "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control"

Note, for the conservation of the reader's attention: This was written before last weekend's attack of gibbering shrillness. The alienists feel it may help to post it now. There are, however, more important things than rambling, 2700 word demonstrations of my ignorance of anthropology and sociology, supposedly discussing whether we derive fundamental categories of thought from ecstatic communion with the collective consciousness of our society. Such as the fact that the leader of that society, and so of the free world, namely George W. Bush, does not know the difference between Sweden and Switzerland, and doesn't realize he doesn't know. Such as the fact that we have a madman in authority, someone who hears voices from the air, and so is the slave of defunct economists and motivational speakers. Iä! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Krugman R'lyeh wagn'nagl fhtagn! Iä! [At this point, Dr. Shalizi's attendants calmed him through multiple cranial applications of Abramowitz and Stegun's Handbook of Mathematical Functions. He is reported to be in stable condition, though muttering darkly about the numerical evaluation of upper incomplete gamma functions of negative index.]

My text for today comes from the sociology department of the University of Arizona, though I have a feeling that Kieran Healy is going to disagree mightily.

Albert J. Bergesen, "Durkheim's Theory of Mental Categories: A Review of the Evidence", Annual Review of Sociology 30 (2004): 395--408 [Journal link, apparently no open-access version]
Abstract: Durkheim hypothesized that basic categories of thought are based on society as their model, and that these mental representations arise from participation in society's totemic rites. This proposition is evaluated in light of recent research on the cognitive architecture of newborns and infants. The evidence suggests that presocialized infants possess mental representations of not only the physical world but also the minds of others and even the sui generis quality of collectivities. This review concludes that the Durkheimian theory of the social origin of mind has little empirical support and suggests that the sociology of mental life needs to be radically retheorized.

This refers to one of the most curious ideas I know of, namely Emile Durkheim's theory of collective consciousness, and its relation to individual cognition, especially to the role of concepts. Here is the late, great Ernest Gellner, presenting it in his book Reason and Culture, after describing Durkheim's thought as a reaction to associationist psychology, a la Hume, and still more to Kant's discovery that "the mind was subject to inescapable inner compulsions, that it could not but think in a certain way".

Durkheim offered a more genuine, at and the same time less ethnocentric account [than Kant's]. He offered an explanation which also allowed for cultural diversity, for the fact that, although all men do indeed live under the domination of compulsive concepts, the nature of those compulsions varies a great deal from one society and period to another.

It is in this way that Durkheim brought philosophy and anthropology together. Our conceptual and moral compulsions, which alone make us human and social and which preoccupied Kant are, he maintained, instilled in us by ritual. Ritual is not identical in all societies. But its underlying role remains the same. In the crazed frenzy of the collective dance around the totem, each individual psyche is reduced to a trembling suggestible jelly: the ritual then imprints the required shared ideas, the collective representations, on this malleable proto-social human matter. It thereby makes it concept-bound, constrained, and socially clubbable.

The morning after the rite, the savage wakes up with a bad hangover and a deeply internalized compulsion. Thus, and only thus, does ritual make us human. Animal mental life, as far as Durkheim was concerned, could be handed over to the Associationists. Animal organisms can build up patterns of expectation based on association. Hume's philosophy of mind will do for animals, but not for us. We become human by becoming Kantian. Inverting a pun of Quine's, we become human by ceasing to be Humeian. Our concepts acquire sharp boundaries, resistant to the vagaries of association, and they acquire boundaries shared by all members of a ritual community. The compulsiveness of these shared mental contents is imposed by collective ritual. [pp. 36--37]

One problem here, which Gellner does not recognize, is that the concepts Durkheim is most concerned with, "ideas of time, space, class, number, cause, substance, personality, etc.", correspond to features of social organization only in very arcane ways, ones that need a doctorate in anthropology to discern. There is a certain lack of detail as to the mechanism by which one goes from (say) having the tribe divide into four clans before ripping apart the goat in a drunken frenzy, to the tribesmen making a four-fold distinction among formal, material, efficient and final causes. Presumably it can't be in the suggestible jelly (how could that ensure everyone in the tribe makes the same mapping from social divisions onto causation?), so these correspondences have to be part of the tribal collective consciousness itself, which evidently delights in bizarre analogy-completion problems. (There is an excellent discussion of the status of such interpretations in Dan Sperber's book On Anthropological Knowledge.)

A problem Gellner does recognize is that many concepts have no plausible ritual etiology at all, because they occur in people who never experienced such rituals. Here is how Gellner imagines Descartes responding to a Durkheimian attack on the validity of the cogito. First, he has Descartes point out that he was very much alive to the possibility of being mislead by "custom and tradition", i.e., culture, and that the point of the method of doubt was precisely to deal with such issues.

At this point, Descartes could easily pass over to the counter-attack. My dear Emile, he could add smilingly, you claim that the deep compulsions which organize our thought and life are but the fruits of ritual. They can be nothing else, you say. Ritual endows us with those constraints which organize our conceptual, moral and social lives, which bestow order on our world and our society, you claim. In that case, please try to show me, if you dare, the ritual occasion to which, on your account, I must have been subjected, and as a consequence of which I became so deeply committed to the link between my thought and my existence. Presumably it was done in the course of some nameless orgy! Only a most potent ritual could induce such a deep and irresistible conceptual compulsion. But I assure you, the sober Jesuits who trained me at La Flèche, though of course they practiced the Catholic rites, at no time reduced me to trembling ecstasy by hopping up and down whilst chanting cogito sum, cogito sum, cogito sum! The Rector, Father Charlet, would never have allowed any such thing. Anyone indulging in such a practice would have been expelled at once, without mercy. So the very thing which, on your own account, could alone ever explain my deeply internalized and irresistible subjection to the truth of the cogito, never actually happened! There you have an experimentum crucis, if ever there was one. Your famous theory of the social and ritual origin of inner conceptual compulsion must now be seen for what it is: an indefensible and irrevocably refuted error. It was an interesting and ingenious theory, and as such is to your credit, but we now clearly see that it is false. [p. 40]

I think this is fair, but it doesn't go far enough. It seems to me that Durkheim's theory is quite literally preposterous, in that it confuses what comes before (individual categorization and cognition) with what comes after (ritual and social indoctrination). Even if we could download elaborate conceptual schemes from the server of collective consciousness during rituals, even getting to the point where we could engage in ritual requires a non-trivial cognitive apparatus, which we could not, on pain of circularity, acquire by downloading. --- I have stolen this talk of downloading and servers from Stephen Turner's excellent book on The Social Theory of Practices, which I was led to by Jack Balkin's Cultural Software. (Incidentally, if anyone from the Yale U. P. publicity office is reading, I'll finish that review of Balkin any year now, not that it really needs it at this point.)

It is more or less at this point that Bergesen (remember him?) begins his critique of Durkheim, by asking just when we begin to display concepts of space, time, number, causality, substance, and so forth. Basically, this is a review of recent work on developmental cognitive science, revolving around experiments with infants, who are preverbal (and so not susceptible to normal indoctrination), and (presumably) not attending nameless, ritual-instilling orgies. How, you ask, does one probe the conceptual structure of someone who can't talk? Basically, by doing clever experiments which show that they have systematic patterns of expectation about the world, and are boggled when those expectations are not fulfilled. Here's a sample from Bergesen's paper:

A breakthrough in infant research is the discovery that infants tend to look longer at unexpected events, which provides a methodological technique to estimate preverbal cognitive competence. Wynn (1992) showed 4- to 5-month-old infants a toy, put a screen in front of it, and then placed a second toy behind the screen. The infants never saw more than one toy at a time. The infants then saw two trials: in the first, the screen was lifted to reveal the two toys, and in the second, only one toy. The infants looked longer at the trial in which only one toy remained. When they saw both toys were still there, they got bored and did not look as long, which suggests that this was the outcome they expected. The researchers concluded that the infants expected 1 + 1 = 2. These results have been repeated, leading researchers to suspect that infants may possess presocialized representations of not only numbers but also arithmetic, as they seemed puzzled when the incorrect addition was performed. When shown two toys put behind the screen, and then shown one taken away, infants looked longer when the screen was lowered and both toys were still there. When they saw the correct subtraction (2 - 1 = 1) they were less interested and looked away sooner than when they saw the incorrect math (2 - 1 = 2). These results seem quite robust. When the shapes, colors, and spatial location of the objects are different, infants still tend to look longer at the wrong number of objects. Infants also seem able to individuate and enumerate object actions (the number of times a toy falls down) and numbers of sounds as well. Such addition and subtraction abilities were also detected with slightly older infants who did manual searches of boxes or crawled toward one box or another. [pp. 398--399; citations omitted]

Bergesen delivers similar brief reviews of the evidence for infants having well-developed cognitive apparatus for space, causality, substance, personality and categorization, as well as number, all before Durkheimian processes could possibly have instilled them. They're pretty good summaries of the work, so far as I know it, though, as my quotation shows, he does write like a sociologist. (Unlike Kieran, who I'm sure would never write something like "a methodological technique".) There is some stuff he misses out on, like the recent work by Gopnik, Glymour and colleagues on causal inference (PDF), but this really only strengthens the case he's making. Which is, to repeat, that infants have non-trivial conceptual frameworks in place well before they could be downloading them from the collective consciousness, except through telepathy. (He presents no evidence which rules out telepathy, and indeed I can't think of any myself.)

One place where I do think he's reaching a bit is when he reviews work which suggests that we might have (at least) two separate innate number systems --- to oversimplify a bit, one for exact counting and arithmetic on small numbers of distinct individuals, and another for assessing rough cardinalities of large groups or collections taken in at a glance. He suggests, admittedly as a speculation, that these two systems lie at the root of seeing society either as a collection of individuals or as a distinct supra-individual presence --- "social theorists divide the world up the same way as presocialized infants". This frankly seems weak to me, if only because social theorists are, for the most part, numerate. (There may be exceptions.) One relevant line of research he does not mention is the work on (older) children's great propensity for essentialist thinking about kinds of animals, kinds of plants, and socially-defined kinds of people. The most disturbing part of this research is Lawrence Hirschfeld's work on race, and how easy it is for children to acquire racialist thinking. Despite the fact that Hirschfeld is here at Michigan, and quite literally works across the street from me, I know just enough about this line of research to be troubled by it, and would've liked to know how well it holds up sociologically...

I guess at this point I should ward off two mis-understandings. One, which I'm afraid Bergesen encourages, is to conflates pre-social conceptual structure with innate conceptual structure. All the evidence Bergesen reviews is compatible, I think, with infants simply being born with learning mechanisms which always settles on the same structure when confronted with the kind of environments human beings have always inhabited --- one where space is, to the limits of perception, Eucliean and three dimensional, where gravity has a constant direction and magnitude, etc. Conceivably, in a different environment --- say, free falll --- they would acquire different concepts, or perhaps no coherent concepts at all. (At last, a scientific point to the space station!) Anyway, I think that if you pay enough attention to either the nature of statistical learning procedures or the mechanisms of biological development you'll find the usual argument over innate cognitive structures dissolving in your mind. Indeed, Gary Marcus will sell you a fine pre-packaged solvent, suitable for all domestic uses. (Incidentally, if anyone from the MIT Press publicity office is reading this, I'll finish that review of his books any year now.)

The other misunderstanding is that I'm certainly not denying that we can learn concepts from each other; neither is Bergesen. Indeed, I think this is of the utmost importance to understanding institutions, traditions, the growth of human knowledge, the rather more luxuriant growth of human error, etc. But I don't see how we get any purchase on this problem by positing supra-individual collective consciousnesses which act as parochial Realms of Forms. Quite the contrary, these seem to me to be things which form in individual minds and pass from one to another by ordinary processes of communication and coordinated attention*. Rather than hunting for nameless rites in the neighborhood of La Flèche, we should look at the interaction of social and conceptual networks. Different patterns of social interaction would seem to promote different kinds of conceptual growth, especially when the social interactions are mediated by different technologies of communication. This is something the founders of the scientific societies understood in a practical way, though whether there's been much theoretical progress since then is debatable. As it happens, there are some fascinating recent papers about this, which I'll try to blog about soon. But I've spent too long on this, and need to get some actual work done. Fortunately, someone else has done the necessary unspeakable things to rats, so I just have to look at the data, after I take a quick peek at the Times weekend magazine...

*: Of course, the mechanisms implementing those ordinary processes are highly non-trivial, as your friendly neighborhood linguists will tell you. In fact, they're so intricate, and so useful, that it's absurd to believe they're not biological adaptations, no matter what Uncle Noam says. As for coordinated attention, my suspicion, sparked by reading Barbara Ehrenreich, is that it owes a lot to humans being such unusually weak, flabby, small-toothed apes. One of us is "chewy, and good with ketchup", but a lot of us throwing stones at the same thing are trouble. But, again, that doesn't explain how we pull it off (as your friendly neighborhood Vygotskian linguist will tell you). For that matter, throwing stones well is non-trivial, and may be related to language.

The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Philosophy

Posted at October 19, 2004 17:55 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth