The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where do you get your (Battle of) Ideas from?

As I mentioned below, I attended and took part in this year's Battle of Ideas, an event I also took part in two years ago.

(In case anyone doesn't know: Battle of Ideas is an annual weekend festival of controversy that is itself controversial because of the connections of its organizers, the Institute of Ideas, with a long-disbanded far-left organization and its successors, currently represented by the online current affairs magazine spiked. For a somewhat bemused but balanced liberal account, see Jenny Turner's article in LRB; for a critical conservative appreciation of the group's development, check this article; and if you want the full-on left-wing conspiracy account, PowerBase, SourceWatch, and LobbyWatch will keep you entertained for hours.)

For me, a highlight of the weekend was a discussion on mind-body dualism, featuring Raymond Tallis, Richard Swinburne, Stuart Darbyshire and Martha Robinson, and chaired by Sandy Starr.

My initial sympathies in the debate were with Martha Robinson, a neuroscience PhD student and naive mechanical materialist, up against: a polymathic professor and self-professed neurosceptic; a distinguished philosopher of religion (defending, in this instance, the soul rather than God); and two dialectical materialists. (Derbyshire and Starr are both frequent contributors to spiked.) Just to confuse matters, Stuart Derbyshire referred disparagingly to Martha Robinson's view as 'materialism', while himself elaborating (as I pointed out from the floor, to no avail) a materialist view.

His contribution went like this: Consciousness is not a separate substance, but neither is it a product simply of the brain. The brain is necessary for it, but looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking for sunshine in a cucumber. In individual human development, consciousness arises from and goes beyond the infant's natural mental endowment when the infant learns language. Language liberates consciousness from elementary mental functions, allowing the use of abstraction and symbol rather than simple stimuli. Mind arises within a social process, originally in the interaction of the infant and its care-givers, and subsequently broadening out to include the whole of society. You didn't work out the Periodic Table, but you know it; likewise much else that's in your head. Not many of us, after all, coin new words, at least not words that come into general use. In a sense, your conscious experience doesn't belong to you, and that's why consciousness seems ghostly and weird.

I didn't agree with this at all, or even understand it, but while heading for King's Cross on the Tube the following day I was thinking it over while idly observing my fellow passengers reading or talking or staring into space and it clicked. Consciousness is social, it's uniquely human, it's not just going on in our separate heads but between them, in our interactions.

But ... wait a minute ... if that's the case then ... social consciousness is really important.

And it changes - and can be changed by - every individual.

Ideas matter.


When I got home I checked out the recommended reading for the event, and found right at the end a link to a work of Soviet psychology, and from that a whole archive of links to the works of Vygotsky and the school of thought he founded and the astonishing and inspiring humane applications that it led to, and the terrible vicissitudes of this school of psychology before and after it made its way to the West. Strangely enough, the very same view of consciousness that Vygotsky pioneered and that I heard Stuart Derbyshire outline can be found in all the boring Brezhnev-era textbooks of dialectical materialism.

By what a frail aqueduct did the fallen empire convey to a future civilization that most surprising discovery of Marxism-Leninism: the individual human consciousness, the soul!

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I am surprised to hear you had never encountered this materialist psychology before. I even brought up activity theory here in the comments once. If I had realized it was so unfamiliar, I would have expatiated more.
I'm surprised because in grad school I came across it from fourdifferent sources within a short period of time. In the late 7os into the 80s the literary theories of Bakhtin enjoyed popularity in U.S. literature departments, and the psychological theories of Voloshinov, more or less associated with Bakhtin, lead right to Vygotsky.
At the same time, linguists and social scientists dissatisfied with structural description of language and interested in language in interaction were looking for alternatives to the action based theories of pragmatics associated with Austin and Searle. For some German linguists, activity theory transmitted via the GDR was a ready and attractive model.
A similar reorientation to social use took place in semiotics in the U.S. Wertsch introduced activity theory into this discussion.
Finally, foreign language pedagogy absorbed a broader pedagogical trend to interactional, activity based learning, and Cole's advocacy of activity theory played a major role in this trend.
So the school of Soviet psychology had an impact on every area in which I was researching and working.
For thirty years and more from my perspective it's been everywhere. Obviously it's not, but it should be. Glad it's found another advocate.

Grudgingly, I admit that the view of human consciousness discussed here:

is vastly preferable to the indeed mechanical reductionism in fashion these days. Certainly it is grim news that a Soviet publication from, I believe, 1976 has a more humane outlook than the present appalling thing called "evolutionary psychology" - i'd prefer to regard it as a Slavic or Russian thing than a Marxist, but of course I'd have no way to prove that. (For some reason this reminded me of the Russian SF film PLANET OF STORMS, probably for completely spurious reasons; a beautiful print is available now from Russian sources; please avoid the miserable American recut version. A Pistolet Makarova is a useful thing to have if attacked by man-sized lizards; American robots are useful but cannot replace humans, and a beautiful but shy Venusian is watching the young cosmonaut.)

I'll be a jerk some other time, probably there won't be a next time.

Chuckie K: I suppose had encountered this before, in the sense that I'd heard of Vygotsky and had read various articles on spiked (mostly on animal and abortion issues) by Stuart Derbyshire and others that take it for granted. But I'd never made the connection before, or realised that it was far more widely held.

I certainly had no idea that the same view was inspired by Marxism had (at least by the 1970s) become part of official Soviet philosophy, despite having read the relevant passages in the boring textbooks. And no version of Marxism I came across in the West ever mentioned that there was a materialist psychology or theory of consciousness at all, apart from Pavlov who was (they all acknowledged) obviously inadequate, and Reich, who was just a politically radical Freudian when he did his most significant work (before he got onto the orgone thing). Nor did anything like it appear in the 1st-year psychology course I did at Glasgow University in the early 1970s, where the choices seemed to be behaviourism, neurology, psychoanalysis, and handwaves.

Ummm, Ken, maybe I've missed something over the years, but I was under the impression, after reading your earlier books, that you had noticed that ideas matter. Why else do people do things, good and bad, or end up with different social systems? (New mars and old earth and what happens after the destruction of the intelligences of Jupiter)

Not being very intelligent or into philosophy and theory of mind, I can't say so much about consciousness, except that I thought everyone knew it wasn't a separate substance, but rose out of the workings of the brain. And the social intereactions are based upon structures within the brain/ body and noises, movements etc produced by a human, collected by sensors on other humans and run through the physical structures of the brain/ body.
And so based on that and my own experience of being me, sitting doing nothing and not interacting with other humans, I don't see why Darbyshire's stuff about consciousness seeming ghostly and weird has much relevance for those of us to whom out consciousness is not ghostly weird or anything else, except me.
Basically, you could say that I see consciousness as being the operation of your mind, which is a much abused word that means roughly your neural structure centred round the brain, and the term social consciousness as covering the aspects of structure related to social interactions. The brain after all seems a weird mishmash of modules which don't always work together perfectly. And I was under the impression research showed that without socialisation (Ie you lived on your own with no humans or only a wolf for company) you end up with a brain in which many parts, to do with social interactions, have not developed fully.

I do hope you're exercising your literary and poetical skills here, and being slightly ironic. It's very easy to "find the soul" by redefining the word "soul". Oh, look, I found two of them on my bedroom floor just now. Time to get the hoover out, I think.

Just for the record, I'll pint out that there is an analogous, but not systematic approadch to mind in the work of Geoffrey Bateson. It is the taking LSD in Hawaii in the 60s version. But with less emphasis on social interaction and more on interaction with physical surroundings.

Chuckie is spot-on. Here are more details. A mangled version of Vygotsky's book was published by MIT Press in the 1960s. The Press demanded the excision of almost all historical, philosophical, and Marxist content. The firm felt that no anglophone scientist would be interested. Thanks to this, the full theory of mind and language was lost to us. To make matters worse, the published material was heavily criticised by Jerry Fodor, a prominent psychologist and philosopher. Interest was virtually eliminated.
Less than 15 years ago a full version was published, in a new translation and with a superb introduction. I read it and was thrilled for reasons that I shall describe later. I think the decision to republish was due in part to the work of Vygotsky's student and co-worker, A. R. Luria, one of the founders of modern neuropsychology. Another reason might be the relations of Lev Vygotsky's ideas to those of Piaget and several American developmental psychologists.

I recently came across a claim that much of the current psychological science was based on American researchers studying American college students.

Ah, here it is.

Of course, that opinion might be based on a biased sample.

being slightly ironic

Yes. But 'soul' doesn't necessarily mean anything supernatural.

Does anyone know whether there have been any studies of children brought up with extremely little human contact, examining what sort of conciousness they develop? If they are obviously concious, then this makes conciousness itself much more likely the product of a single brain.

I imagine it might be difficult to disentangle the likely poverty of environment they would have versus the social contact, however.

Check out some of the links at the end of the post, on the education of deaf-blind children. Mikhailov examines their implications here.

I think Guthrie's on the money. I was in a Problems of Philosophy and Methodology class once with an ex-RCP organiser who agreed with me that the mind is just the brain; when asked by the tutor how beauty and love fitted in to his view he replied that it is what makes those things truly remarkable that they grow out of purely mechanical operations.
Are we going to hear about the wonders of the collective unconscious or morphic resonance next?

Skidmarx - I guess I should have replied to Guthrie, because I don't disagree with much of what he says, as far as it goes. Consciousness is an activity of the human brain, yes, but that doesn't get us quite all the way. For a start, language is intrinsically social, and it is necessary for human consciousness.

What I found surprising, and still do, was (as I said) that the view Stuart Derbyshire was arguing for is exactly the view of consciousness found in textbooks of orthodox Soviet dialectical materialism, which explain it a lot better than I can.

Whether this view is correct or not, it has nothing at all to do with the collective unconscious, morphic resonance, or any kind of mysticism.

I'm sorry if that came across as derisive.
I take you point that Derbyshire is seeing consciousness as the product of concrete social interaction, not something that occurs in individuals in isolation. I do think it's wrong, that such consciousness producing interaction is between the sensory inputs and the physical matter within the brain.
The closest I ever got to official Soviet dialectics was Vol.1 of Maurice Cornforth on Dialectics. I was distinctly unimpressed with it.

Simply saying that the mind arises, emerges, etc from the brain, yields a basic problem that was discovered in 1926. Ask what it means. Assume one has causal relations from brain to mind. What about causal relations from mind to brain? If they cannot exist, we get epiphenomenalism, the notion that the mental cannot effect the physical. This seems wrong to many. So assume bidirectional causality. Then there's trouble, for it's possible that one theory exists that describes one world with both causal directions. If so, then if all causation is physical, we have reductionism. This seems to force a choice between epiphenomenalism and reductionism. If both are wrong, a solution to the mind-body problem might well require reference to the sociality of an embodied brain. There are other issues here, but this is the deepest (and unsolved) one.

I tend to think that the mind is the brain, that mental processes are physical ones, even if we may be unable to measure them. So I think the problems of the interaction of the two are irrelevant if my view is correct, though I'm sure there may be other problems with it.

The word verification is "quiple", which seems like the best way to register minor disagreement.

@Skidmarx This problem does not assume that the mind and body are two different entities. They can be two aspects of one process in the brain, since processes can have causal relations in them. This is one sense in which the mind is the brain. I think it is what you mean. There are others.

skidmarx: The closest I ever got to official Soviet dialectics was Vol.1 of Maurice Cornforth on Dialectics. I was distinctly unimpressed with it.

Well ... it has its strong points, but on dialectics it doesn't do much more than rehash Stalin's and Mao's pamphlets - which were, to put it politely, at best popularizations of texts from Engels and Lenin, some of which were themselves popularizations e.g. Anti-Duhring).

The Soviet textbooks linked to above, and still more the 'Vygotsky school', also linked to (especially Ilyenkov) are in a different league altogether.

Without actually getting into discussing the comments, a new aphorism occurred to me on reading your post: "looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking for Windows 7 in the individual transistors of an Intel CPU core".

Same faulty logic applies: looking for a complex network of state transitions in a chunk of programmable hardware never ends well.

@Charlie. Leinbiz made one form of your point in the 17th century, in his 'The Monadology.' In its part 17 he wrote this: '...perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception....'

Leibniz followed this with a solution, stated in terms of his peculiar philosophy. 'Thus it is in a simple substance, and not in a compound or in a machine, that perception must be sought for. Further, nothing but this (namely, perceptions and their changes) can be found in a simple substance. It is also in this alone that all the internal activities of simple substances can consist.'
This solution is not accepted by many today, but the first quote's logical structure is the same as that of your analogy.

@Ken I just had a chance to look at the archival material you linked to. It is wonderful. I will tell some colleagues and friends about it.

Really pleased to hear that, George. Treasure trove there!

Led me to

and the name Fred Newman was a shocker. I remember that guy and his wacko cult from 30 years ago in the upper west side of new york - they made the Sparts seem reasonable.

I haven't finished reading it but I picked up Lektorsky's Subject, Object, Cognition recently and it seems to be in a similar vein, but coming in from the philosophical side (starting with a critical look at things like phenomenology).

I think it's much more rigorous than what I've read of Spirkin (who, incidentally, latterly seems to have got into parapsychology and the like) - it's certainly interesting to see the theoretical work reflected in the Diamat codifications, but it's worth assuming its appearance in them has been qualified (mediated!) by social and political imperatives. That it belies the idea of total rigidity and dogmatism on the manual compilers' part is of historical interest, but its probably best to get it closer to source from Vygotsky, Mikhailov's (etc.) writings.

Also remarkable is that many of these original texts were translated and published by Progress Publishers - a search on amazon for their name suggests a varied output with some interesting gems to be had. It's a bit unfortunate more Western Marxists haven't retrieved the valuable elements of this.

Neuberg - I agree with all of that!

Why did so many Marxists in the West miss how much interesting stuff there was on the Progress Publishers list? The Trotskyists and Maoists ignored it because they knew in advance it was 'Stalinist' or 'revisionist', respectively. The Eurocommunists ignored it because they knew in advance it was crude and reductionist. The so-called pro-Soviet factions ignored it because it was far too sophisticated for them. And the muddled majorities of the CPs ignored it because in earlier years they had taken seriously the literature that came out under Stalin and then under Khrushchev, and they weren't going to get fooled again.

You can find lots of Progress Publishers books online at (Reading them online requires careful attention to where the 'next' link is within chapters, etc, but once you've got that clear it's OK.)

MORE Progress Publishers books can go online, all that's needed is donations to cover my living expenses. Email the webmaster @Leninist(dot)Biz if you have $$ to donate. ROBERT

Thanks for these, everyone. This is invaluable stuff. I am bookmarking the links.

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