Theories of (Embodied) Mind: Some Thoughts and Afterthoughts

Monday, October 22, 2012

Michael Moon and Elizabeth Wilson

In Spring 2011, Michael Moon (Graduate Institute for Liberal Arts, Emory) and Elizabeth Wilson (Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Emory) teamed up to teach a CMBC-sponsored graduate seminar with the title “Modern Theories of Mind: From Austen to A.I.”  As the subtitle indicates, the course cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries, and the aim was to carve out and investigate a specific area of inquiry, which Moon and Wilson, taking up a recently emerging thread in the critical humanities, call “theories of mind.”  The lunch was an introduction to, and reflection on, the new field that their graduate seminar braved to explore.


So what is this new field, “theories of mind”?  Wilson, who spoke first, laid out the fundamentals.  Theories of mind needs to be seen against the backdrop of two prominent intellectual strains.  On the one hand, there is analytic philosophy of mind, which, in its current incarnation, aims to understand the relationship between consciousness and the brain, and draws on evidence from neuroscience and neuropathology, in addition to more classical conceptual analyses.  On the other hand, there is the sort of post-structuralist approach characteristic of the so-called “critical humanities,” such as feminist theory and post-colonial studies, which attempt in various ways to advance beyond the Cartesian conception of mind, by focusing on the ways socio-cultural dynamics influence subjectivity. Theories of mind sees itself as an alternative to both of these approaches.  In contrast to the study of subjectivity in the critical humanities, theories of mind embraces rather than flees from the idea of mindedness.  In contrast to analytic philosophy of mind, theories of mind seeks to expand the conception of mindedness beyond the full-functioning adult brain in an effort to encompass other dimensions of embodied mindedness, such as visceral, infant, technological, and animal.


While theories of mind is broader in scope than most analytic philosophy of mind in going beyond the brain, as it were, it is also focused on a narrower phenomenon: mind attribution.  To what do we attribute mindedness?  What reasons do we have for doing so?  And what are the implications one way or the other?  This is the constellation of questions with which theories of mind concerns itself.  In psychology and philosophy of mind, to treat another human being as if it has a mind is to possess a “theory of mind.”  Wilson described a well-known test for theory of mind – the “Sally Ann test.”  Sally and Ann are puppets in a show that young children of various ages are watching.  The children see that Sally puts a marble in her basket, and then goes off somewhere.  During her absence, Ann takes the marble from Sally’s basket and puts it in her own.  If the children are asked where Sally will look for the marble upon her return, the answer depends on whether or not they have a theory of mind.  Three-year-olds, who lack theory of mind, say that Sally will look in Ann’s basket, because they do not distinguish between what they see and what Sally was able to see.  Five-year-olds, who have developed a theory of mind, on the other hand, are able to make the distinction, and realize that Sally did not see Ann take the marble, and so will assume that it is still in her basket.  The attribution of mindedness is interesting insofar as, at least on one interpretation, we have no direct evidence of any mind but our own.  That is why it is called a theory of mind.  Theories of mind – in the plural – takes its line of questioning from theorof mind, but extends it to raise the question of mind attribution to animals, and robots, for example, as well as the social significance of such attribution.  The idea behind theories of mind is that by opening up the question in this way, we might advance our understanding of subjectivity, and, in general, what it is to have a mind.


Moon’s presentation consisted in an overview of the 2011 graduate seminar itself – the students involved, the readings, the assignments – as well as some ex post facto reflections.  There were seven students and they read three novels: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London.  Each novel provided unique fodder for the sorts of analysis characteristic of “theories of mind.”  In discussing Persuasion, Moon introduced the idea of “free indirect discourse,” a style of narrative that combines elements of both first- and third-person perspectives, and a topic discussed at more length in the ensuing Q&A.  Here is an example of free indirect discourse from Persuasion:


How Anne’s more rigid requisitions might have been taken, is of little consequence. Lady Russell’s had no success at all–could not be put up with–were not to be borne. What! Every comfort of life knocked off! Journeys, London, servants, horses, table,–contractions and restrictions every where. To live no longer with the decencies even of a private gentleman! No, he would sooner quit Kellynch-hall at once, than remain in it on such disgraceful terms.


In this passage, Austen describes Sir Walter’s distraught reaction to the notion of renting out Kellynch Hall, his ancestral home.  “He” is referred to in the passage, so that we know the narration is third-person, and yet the thoughts are to be taken as the very ones in Sir Walter’s head.  There is a blend of the narrator’s interpretation of the thoughts of the character – which brings with it potential formisinterpretation – and also the direct report of what is going on in the character’s head, as could be related by an omniscient narrator (immune to misinterpretation).  Free indirect discourse therefore engages some of the themes of interest to theories of mind: to what extent are we able to attribute mindedness to others?  To what extent is this attribution always colored by our own conceptions?


In the seminar, such questions were also explored in the context of artificial intelligences like Frankenstein, as well as animals such as Buck, the dog of The Call of the Wild, a novel which also employs free indirect discourse as a means of exploring thought attribution to animals.  Moon made the surprising and interesting point that, for theories of mind, anthropomorphic attributions are not necessarily to be shunned.  I found this striking and, strangely, rather uplifting. In my own experience of graduate seminars on post-structuralism, I was taught that anthropomorphism cancels out the “otherness” or “alterity” of the other. Surely this is a valid concern.  However, if you can’t use analogical means to understand the other, what can you use?  Perhaps it must be admitted that in some cases, at least, anthropormphic understanding is better than none at all.  This possibility seems to be most clearly relevant in the case of animals, with respect to which it seems often hard for humans to grant any mindedness because of the obvious differences between humans and animals (especially non-primates). Perhaps a dose of anthropomorphism is precisely what is called for!


This recalibration of our assessment of anthropomorphism seems to me to be exactly the kind of re-thinking that theories of mind promises to foster.  Whereas post-structuralism is right to point to the dangers of analogical mind attribution, it winds up leaving little room for mind attribution at all.  In this case, theories of mind recovered the phenomenon of mindedness, as promised, yet with a focus on the dynamics of such attributions.  In doing so, it contributes a useful alternative to both the post-structuralist analysis and analytic philosophy of the mind/brain. It will be interesting to see how the field develops.


About Matthew Homan

Matthew Homan obtained a PhD in philosophy from Emory University and is now a Lecturer of Philosophy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA.
This entry was posted in 2012 Archives. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *