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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Part 1: Thinking About Thinking

Douglas Hofstadter, Surfaces and Essences, is a good read for anyone concerned with, well, anything.

It's about what makes us human and what we humans make: like science, art, religion, language; like worlds, cultures, nations, economies, cities; like history and our future. It's about thinking--the core of which, demonstrates Hofstadter, is categorization and analogy-making, which are the same thing.

Anybody (those two or three of you) who has read any of my stuff will know that I consider myself a radical constructivist when it comes to having a theory of knowing and that I consider the defining capacity of homo sapiens sapiens the capacity for symbolic behavior. For me human existence (and transcendence) is the activity, the process, the progress, and the intentionality of symbolic behavior. It is through symbols that we construct and know the world and ourselves.

So how does that jibe with Hofstadter's conceptions of categorization and analogy-making? Very well, I believe.

But I wouldn't dare try to demonstrate that here in this short space. The only way to do this would be to rely on my interlocutors reading and understanding Hofstadter on categorization and analogy-making, reading and understanding Ernst von Glasersfeld on radical constructivism, and reading and understanding Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Terrence Deacon on symbolic behavior.  However I will make some assertions that show the relationships. And then speak to some of the consequences of this understanding.

We realize commonalities as we interact with our environment by giving those commonalities a category which can be remembered, extended, and applied to new situations. This is our way of  patterning the chaos of our experience and creating a world. The category is formed in a word, an image, a model, a diagram, a formula that links similarities in our perception and perceptions to perceptions into higher orders of generality, in other words, analogies in and of our experience of the world. We learn category formation (or analogy making) as we interact with our parents, families, communities, and society in a culture abounding in language, art, religion, and science. In our interaction we contribute in our own style to the extension of categories (and analogies) to new situations and the development of new and flexible ones to be tried and handed down to our heirs. Another way of saying the same thing is that we think and encounter our world through metaphor. That's Hofstadter.

Constructivism, starting with the child-learning studies of Jean Piaget, emphasizes the human mind's creativity in the process. It affirms that reality isn't just "out there" absolute already in state, but is a dialogue between humanity and the universe. It denies the existence of ideas in some Platonic heaven or the mind of God. Ideas or concepts are formed in our interaction with the world and universe that we are experiencing all the time. Radical constructivism asserts that humans labor together in the achieving and creating of not only our culture and our world, but of reality itself. (My naive realist friend, Pat, "a rock is a rock is a rock," would not approve this perspective at all. Nor would my politically righteous Cousin Vinnie, who believes black is black and white is white.)

What the theory of symbolic behavior adds for me is the body's role in making analogies and forming categories to think and act in the world. Symbolic behavior is the human body with legs that can run, with arms that can gesture, with hands that can grasp a brush or pen, with fingers that can point, with lungs and vocal chords that can utter sounds, with flesh that can feel matter and flesh, with nose and pallet that can smell and taste, with ears that can hear noises and utterances, with eyes to see events, writings, and paintings, all organized in a nervous system centered in a brain that has a special capacity to recognize, link, and remember similarities in perception by giving those similarities a name, a tag, a design.

That is, the human animal uses its body to make a symbol--e.g. a gesture, a word, an image, a construction, a diagram, a model--which is a metaphor or analogy that points out things, beings, realities in the environment and so patterns a world through similes and distinctions. That ability and that behavior makes it possible for humans to anticipate and plan ahead. It also makes it possible for humans to be aware of "selves" apart from things in the world.

Symbolic behavior is not only bodily; it is also fundamentally social. Symbols are developed in interaction with other bodies. They are inherited by the interactions of the past and developed for the future by the interactions of the present. Categories, metaphors, symbols are not the product of a separable or incorporeal Mind but of fleshy, touchy, material, and, yes, sexual bodies interacting with one another and their environment.

Hofstadter's understanding of thinking (which I find compatible with constructivist epistemology and the theory of symbolic behavior) has major consequences for ethics and politics. I will discuss this in my next blog.

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