conceptlessThinking without concepts is a strange idea at first sight; isn’t it always the concept of a thing that’s involved in thought, rather than the thing itself? But I don’t think it’s really as strange as it seems. Without looking too closely into the foundations at this stage, I interpret conceptual thought as simply being one level higher in abstraction than its non-conceptual counterpart.

Dogs, I think, are perfectly capable of non-conceptual thinking. Show them the lead or rattle the dinner bowl and they assent enthusiastically to the concrete proposal. Without concepts, though, dogs are tied to the moment and the actual; it’s no good asking the dog whether it would prefer walkies tomorrow morning or tomorrow afternoon; the concept cannot gain a foothold – nothing more abstract than walkies now can really do so. That doesn’t mean we should deny a dog consciousness – the difference between a conscious and unconscious dog is pretty clear – only to certain human levels. The advanced use of language and symbols certainly requires concepts, though I think it is not synonymous with it and conceptual but inexplicit thought seems a viable option to me. Some, though, have thought that it takes language to build meaningful self-consciousness.

Kristina Musholt has been looking briefly at whether self-consciousness can be built out of purely non-conceptual thought, particularly in response to Bermudez, and summarising the case made in her book Thinking About Oneself.
Musholt suggests that non-conceptual thought reflects knowledge-how rather than knowledge-that; without quite agreeing completely about that we can agree that non-conceptual thought can only be expressed through action and so is inherently about interaction with the world, which I take to be her main pointer.

Following Bermudez it seems we are to look for three things from any candidate for self-awareness; namely,

(1) non-accidental self-reference,
(2) immediate action relevance, and
(3) immunity to error through misidentification.

That last one may look a bit scary; it’s simply the point that you can’t be wrong about the identity of the person thinking your own thoughts. I think there are some senses in which this ain’t necessarily so, but for present purposes it doesn’t really matter. Bermudez was concerned to refute those who think that self-consciousness requires language; he thought any such argument collapses into circularity; to construct self-consciousness out of language you have to be able to talk about yourself, but talking about yourself requires the very self-awareness you were supposed to be building.

Bermudez, it seems, believes we can go elsewhere and get our self-awareness out of something like that implicit certainty we mentioned earlier.  As thought implies the thinker, non-conceptual thoughts will serve us perfectly well for these purposes. Musholt, though broadly in sympathy, isn’t happy with that. While the self may be implied simply by the existence of non-conceptual thoughts, she points out that it isn’t represented, and that’s what we really need. For one thing, it makes no sense to her to talk about immunity from error when it applies to something that isn’t even represented – it’s not that error is possible, it’s that the whole concept of error or immunity doesn’t even arise.

She still wants to build self-awareness out of non-conceptual thought, but her preferred route is social. As we noted she thinks non-conceptual thought is all about interaction with the world, and she suggests that it’s interaction with other people that provides the foundation for our awareness ourselves. It’s our experience of other people that ultimately grounds our awareness of ourselves as people.

That all seems pretty sensible. I find myself wondering about dogs, and about the state of mind of someone who grew up entirely alone, never meeting any other thinking being. It’s hard even to form a plausible thought experiment about that, I think. The human mind being what it is, I suspect that if no other humans or animals were around inanimate objects would be assigned imaginary personalities and some kind of substitute society cobbled up. Would the human being involved end up with no self-awareness, some strangely defective self-awareness (perhaps subject to some kind of dissociative disorder?), or broadly normal? I don’t even have any clear intuition on the matter.

Anyway, we should keep track of the original project, which essentially remains the one set out by Bermudez. Even if we don’t like Musholt’s proposal better than his, it all serves to show that there is actually quite a rich range of theoretical possibilities here, which tends to undermine the view that linguistic ability is essential. To me it just doesn’t seem very plausible that language should come before self-awareness, although I think it does come before certain forms of self-awareness. The real take-away, perhaps, is that self-awareness is a many-splendoured thing and different forms of it exist on all the three levels mentioned and surely more, too. This conclusion partly vindicates the attack on language as the only basis for self-awareness, undercutting Bermudez’s case for circularity. If self-awareness actually comes in lots of forms, then the sophisticated, explicit, language-based kind doesn’t need to pull itself up by its bootstraps, it can grow out of less explicit versions.

Anyway, Musholt has at least added to our repertoire a version of self-awareness which seems real and interesting – if not necessarily the sole or most fundamental version.

14 Comments

  1. 1. Callan S. says:

    Dogs, I think, are perfectly capable of non-conceptual thinking. Show them the lead or rattle the dinner bowl and they assent enthusiastically to the concrete proposal. Without concepts, though, dogs are tied to the moment and the actual; it’s no good asking the dog whether it would prefer walkies tomorrow morning or tomorrow afternoon; the concept cannot gain a foothold – nothing more abstract than walkies now can really do so.

    Weird – I read you at first demonstrating that dogs are actually capable of conceptual thought.

    I mean, it’s a dinner bowl…there’s no food as yet. There is only the concept of food to come. We’re not dealing with a ‘see food/prey – pursue food/prey’ reflex level here. The dog is imagining the bowl being full of food. It engages a concept.

    And what is the difference between a dog bowl that will in a minute or two be full and walkies tomorrow? All that is is stringing a concept of a longer time periord together with the concept of walkies. Granted, the dog doesn’t string concepts together. But it’s not far off. Actually, it might be interesting to try to train a dog to string concepts together in regards to their own decisions.

    Kristina Musholt has been looking briefly at whether self-consciousness can be built out of purely non-conceptual thought

    Seems the question of conciousness as a thing, a physical thing, itself.

  2. 2. Scott Bakker says:

    Well, her answer to my question of why she doesn’t begin with the biology of metacognition kind of says it all, I think:

    “I guess your question ultimately regards the relation between personal- and subpersonal-level explanations. That is a very interesting issue — both are important, and there must be some relation, even if, personally, I’m not sure how exactly to think about this relation. But I wonder whether privileging subpersonal-level explanations as somehow being “more objective/real/etc.” (as you seem to do) doesn’t rest on a kind of prejudice? Who is to say that biological or computational explanations/theories are somehow getting us closer to what is “real” than other kinds of explanations/theories?”

    The last rhetorical question has to be one a cognitive scientist looks at askance. The other kind of theories never seem to provide much more than underdetermination, which is to say, no definitive *scientific* answers. Otherwise, she feels the threat the question poses, but lacking any naturalistic theory of meaning, she has no way to bridge the personal and subpersonal levels. So she’s trapped on the philosophical end, and as far as I can see, doomed to mysterianism FAPP.

    She’s actually admitting that she thinks there is no definitive solution to the problem, only a myriad of chronically underdetermined philosophical ones.

  3. 3. Sergio Graziosi says:

    This conclusion partly vindicates the attack on language as the only basis which undercutting Bermudez’s case for circularity.

    Peter, can you unpack the above? I just don’t understand that sentence, sorry!

    If self-awareness actually comes in lots of forms, then the sophisticated, explicit, language-based kind doesn’t need to pull itself up by its bootstraps, it can grow out of less explicit versions.

    Indeed, that’s what I’ve been banging on for a long time. It was the take home message for me as well, which allowed me appreciate Musholt’s short essays even if I’m not buying the social bit. More precisely, if by social we mean “interaction with other agents, entities who appear to teleologically react to stimuli” then I’m OK with it. If, however, we mean “long term interactions with individuals from the same species, which usually are regulated by shared rules of behaviour”, then I’m not convinced at all: this set of abilities probably requires and augments the sense of self, but there are so many things that require it which presumably pre-date human mammalian-style hyper-sociality by quite a long time.

    On the non-conceptual thinking, and specifically on the thinking that can’t be expressed in words, having a (smart) pet is indeed enough to be convinced. If that’s not enough, I’ve experienced (and still do, on a regular basis) non verbal thinking in two similar but very distinct situations. The first is sparring in Karate: when you get in the zone, you make plans all time, produce hypotheses, try them out, looking for a way to defeat your opponent’s defences. There is no time for verbalisation, and the kind of experience really points to a form of embodiment, where it feels like thinking with your whole body. It’s very satisfying as well.
    Second example is improvising with the guitar: you make plans all the time, you produce some melody and the brain suggests what to do to make it sound in the way you want it to. The interesting side of this experience is that through practice a lot of theoretical notions, things you’ve learned explicitly, get to influence your non-verbal thinking. Reanalysing what I just played, I realise that I’ve made plans, for example, for a couple of seconds I’ve been doing a particular thing which only makes sense because I was planning to switch to a particular scale when the next chord arrived. Sometimes I can then explain why myxolidian was a sensible scale to use, why it made sense to “prepare” it in that way, and why a preparation was needed. Some other times it would take me a good 10 minutes to figure out how to link theory with what I did. However, the interesting thing is that it frequently happens that what I did was certainly premeditated and decided on the basis of non verbal reasoning.
    This however highlights how difficult it is to make proper distinctions: I’ve been careful to use the “non verbal” description instead of “non-conceptual”. That’s because in both cases my mind is anticipating possible outcomes, generating something that I would describe as “doing X will feel like Y, and Y feels good”.
    When you get this anticipation, you just follow it, sometimes you really get Y, sometimes you don’t, but that’s beside the point here. My issue is with the label of “non-conceptual”: even if X and Y can’t be easily expressed in words, and come as wordless feelings, can we really say they are not conceptual? My hunch is that we can’t: they are non-verbal concepts. The result is that I’m even more convinced that the business of reasoning is indeed gradual, in evolutionary, developmental and real-time terms. From all three perspectives, I don’t think we can find a clear separation from a mental concept and something else that doesn’t yet qualify. Or, if you prefer, the only easy way to discriminate is to equate conceptual reasoning with verbal reasoning, which leaves a lot of conscious processes in an undefined limbo.

    So we go back to dogs, notice that they don’t master language, and then think again about their limits. Maybe they do understand the idea of tomorrow, but the problem is: how can we communicate it to them? How would we know they understood our message? Thus I’m not convinced that dogs are tied to the here and now, maybe they aren’t, but I see no direct way of “asking them” – the limit here is on communication first, maybe matched with conceptual limits on the dog’s side, but we don’t really know, do we?

  4. 4. Callan S. says:

    I think if you watch any footage of wolf packs you see plenty of body language going on.

    Rather than them mastering language, it’s our incapacity to master language that means we don’t understand their body language like they do.

    Perhaps we’re just as stuck in the here and now, just with many shiny bowls and leashes dancing through our heads to distract us from the now?

  5. 5. Peter says:

    Hm, that sentence was garbled. Should have been:

    This conclusion partly vindicates the attack on language as the only basis for self-awareness, undercutting Bermudez’s case for circularity.

  6. 6. Peter says:

    There is certainly scope for argument about whether the stuff I’m talking about is properly conceptual. My aim here was just to let Musholt use the word in the way she wants (I might have misread her, of course). When it comes to defining concepts I don’t, in this context, have a dog in the fight.

  7. 7. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Thanks Peter, makes more sense to me now.
    Re the discussion of what is properly conceptual, I guess I was trying to make a meta-argument. If the gradual-bootstrapping approach is correct, you get two goodies for the price of one:
    1. you solve the bootstrapping problem.
    2. you explain why the distinction between conceptual and non-conceptual thinking is arbitrary and fuzzy.

    Thus, accepting that “the distinction between conceptual and non-conceptual thinking is arbitrary and fuzzy” reinforces the credibility of the approach. I was inordinately trying to support the main message: you don’t need verbal abilities to get self-awareness.

    I find that I’m using your space to try out ideas as I would among friends, this is great for me, but has the side effect that I frequently write down things that are underdeveloped, apologies for that.

  8. 8. Cognicious says:

    I don’t see how use of language could bring about self-consciousness. Children would never learn to use the pronouns “I” and “me” correctly, or their own names, unless they already had in mind a referent for those words. That is, saying “I” and meaning it requires having a sense of being someone, having a stable self.

    For description and analysis of cognition without concepts, a useful book is Silvano Arieti, _The Intrapsychic Self_ (1967).

  9. 9. Charles Wolverton says:

    From all three perspectives, I don’t think we can find a clear separation from a mental concept and something else that doesn’t yet qualify.

    For a supporting take on your position, Peter, try Rorty’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”, Chapter 4, section 3, which discusses Sellars’ position on what constitutes “knowing” (space of reasons, etc) as it relates to a child’s gradual transition from merely parroting to knowing.

  10. 10. Steven B Kurtz says:

    Does reflexive self-consciousness separate us from the pack? Despite being a materialist and determinist (past events and conditions dictate), I accept the *experiences* of freedom and introspection as real. However, free will is an illusion in my view.

  11. 11. Cervantes says:

    Of course one symptom of schizophrenia is being wrong about the identity of the person thinking your own thoughts. And artists and writers often say that the creative experience feels this way, as do religious experiences and many dreams. So I don’t think self-aware beings must be immune to that error. I suppose it can’t be ubiquitous, there has to be a core that we identify as self, but we can certainly be wrong about many of our own thoughts.

    Just a quibble I suppose.

  12. 12. ihtio says:

    Cognicious,

    I don’t see how use of language could bring about self-consciousness. Children would never learn to use the pronouns “I” and “me” correctly, or their own names, unless they already had in mind a referent for those words. That is, saying “I” and meaning it requires having a sense of being someone, having a stable self.

    You really don’t have to fully understand the pronoun “I” to use it. Saying “I want cookie” is just the easiest way to obtain a cookie, to satisfy the “want” feeling that is happening in one’s little mind. In time, people begin to get a fuller, more conformant understanding of “I”.
    Just a thought.

  13. 13. Cognicious says:

    Pardon me, ihtio, but saying “Cookie?” and pointing are, I believe, easier ways to obtain a cookie, and they precede speaking a full sentence. That children’s use of first-person pronouns tracks their achievement in forming a concept of themselves is a standard statement in writings on developmental psychology. Less well known is that a child under stress can jury-rig a temporary self by means of overidentifications and start using “I” before the usual age.

  14. 14. ihtio says:

    Cognicious, I don’t know how children’s concept of themselves compares with that of adults, so I cannot really engage on this line. Also, I have not read a great deal of developmental psychology. It may very well be that the sense of self of a child is very much like that of an adult.

    I’m not pushing the idea of “let’s purge our selves” that much, as I’ve also played with the concept of self as a suitable/adequate one for understanding and analyzing the mind.

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