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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 24 · 19 December 1991

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Connectionism

So Richard Rorty has joined Daniel Dennett (LRB, 21 November) on the connectionism-will-solve-all-our-philosophical-problems bandwagon. But like the similar enthusiasm for AI (Artificial Intelligence), this fervour is more a fashion created by what people think connectionism promises than a detailed understanding of what it can and cannot do. In the beginning AI promised much: but over time it has become apparent, as Rorty correctly observes, that it can only deliver what its programmers have already programmed into it. Rorty and Dennett enthuse over connectionism because it appears to be free of this problem. They are wrong. Connectionism suffers a similar, but undiscussed difficulty known as the training problem.

Essentially, connectionism concerns networks made up of interconnected units (and hidden units), each with adjustable ‘thresholds’ which learn generalisations by being trained upon exemplars and error correction. In somewhat simplified terms, networks learn by being given inputs which the network converts into outputs. Following the network’s output, the thresholds between its units are changed depending upon whether the output was correct or not. The training problem concerns where the network gets the information needed for this error-correction process. The problem is that error correction makes the training of a network dependent upon some kind of external assistance to tell it whether its output was the correct response to the input it was given: without this knowledge it cannot tell whether it has made an error or not and so cannot be trained. So while networks do not need programmers they do need some kind of external help.

Rorty and Dennett focus upon the wonderful generalisations networks can learn. They ignore where the external help needed to train networks might come from. But for many cognitive skills there is no easy way networks in the brain can obtain the error-correction feedback needed to train them. The problem is recursive: if there was a process in the brain which could provide this information then its own development would depend in turn upon some further process. For some cognitive processes like reading there may be ways out. Connectionist accounts of reading successfully account for human reading performance. It is likely that the error correction needed to train them comes in part from a separate kind of process which sounds out written words from their spelling (hence the difficulty in learning to read encountered by children with problems over sounding out words). However, there is no reason to assume consciousness is going to have such an easy way out of the training problem (and certainly Dennett has not provided one). It may be that even with connectionist models we will still find a need for God. Consciousness may have to remain unexplained for a bit longer.

John Skoyles
Psychology Department,

If ‘what distinguishes a conscious state from a non-conscious state’ is, as Dennett claims, the former’s having ‘a higher-order accompanying thought that is about the state in question’, then what should we call the supposedly ‘non-conscious’ states experienced by animals aware of the presence of food, say, to distinguish those states from the non-conscious states that rocks and machinery and the like apparently experience throughout their existence? More important, what do we call that which experiences either a conscious or a non-conscious state of awareness if not a ‘consciousness’? And how can a Cartesian be wrong in supposing this ‘experiencing mechanism’ to be significantly different from its contents?

On a more mundane plane, I’d also like to know why Rorty disruptively goes against established usage concerning the generic third-person pronoun. Is it only to signal her sympathy for the neurotically hyper-offendable, or does she have some intelligent reason for it?

Bob Grumman
Port Charlotte, Florida

Not even a member

I am sorry to have upset Gillian Slovo (Letters, 5 December). In fact, she criticises me for things I didn’t say. I did not say she was a member of the SACP, let alone ‘a leading cadre’, and I certainly never argued that ‘what a woman’s father and grandfather do must obviously determine who she is.’ The point I did make – that the SACP is in part bound together by a dense set of kinship networks – I stand by. There is, by the by, nothing unusual about this – one can witness the same thing in many political parties. Similarly, I am happy to agree with her that there were many heroic and noble chapters in the SACP’s contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa – personally, I had a particular admiration for Ms Slovo’s mother, Ruth First.

The word I jib at is ‘McCarthyite’. I am happy that the SACP has been unbanned and, indeed, believe that it should never have been banned. It is all to the good that the Party should be able to operate legally and openly and I would oppose any attempt to suppress it. By the same token, however, the Party is not a protected species: it must put up – with a good grace – with being analysed, criticised and written about by writers far less friendly to it than I am. This is, after all, part of the culture of democracy for which the Party claims to have been fighting.

R.W. Johnson
Magdalen College, Oxford

Tough Morsels

In his review of The Freud-Klein Controversies, edited by Pearl King and myself, Professor Rudnytsky (LRB, 7 November) has rightly pointed out an omission in a quotation I used from one of Ernest Jones’s letters to Melanie Klein. Whereas I quoted Jones as saying that he considered Glover to be ‘the only medical analyst who can appear before a non-analytical audience without raising sharp criticisms’, Jones actually wrote ‘the only male medical analyst’. While I am grateful to Professor Rudnytsky for pointing out this omission, it leads him to suppose that it confused me, because, according to him, I wonder why Jones did not float the name of Sylvia Payne for the office of President of the British Psychoanalytic Society. She was, after all, medically qualified as well as being a distinguished psychoanalyst. Professor Rudnytsky feels that my omission of ‘male’, which he calls an ‘important error’, led me to assume that Jones could not conceive of authority in the British Psychoanalytic Society passing to a woman.

It seems to me that Professor Rudnytsky has not understood my text, however. It is not I who wonder why Jones did not float the name of Sylvia Payne, but Melanie Klein in her letter to Jones. In fact, I quote Klein on the matter: ‘in your view Glover was your only available successor and this made things more difficult.’ I summarise Klein’s words on Sylvia Payne: words which Professor Rudnytsky attributes to me. Thus though I missed out the word ‘male’, Jones’s views are clearly represented by Melanie Klein’s answer. I also stress in my text that Melanie Klein had to find her own way in a still male-dominated culture.

Yet one cannot reduce everything to Jones’s personality and his lukewarm or contradictory anti-phallocentrism, as Professor Rudnytsky seems to claim. In order to understand Jones’s attitude in defending the choice of Glover as his successor one must bear in mind the difficulties he had in trying to develop psychoanalysis in Britain in the face of a scientist medical establishment dominated by male doctors.

Two other points need to be made. Professor Rudnytsky states that recent infant development research by Daniel Stern has ‘conclusively vindicated’ Melanie Klein’s disagreement with A. Freud’s views concerning an initial narcissistic and auto-erotic phase lasting several months in the psychic life of the baby. This, however, appears to be Professor Rudnytsky’s own understanding of Stern. The latter openly stated his disagreement with Klein in a lecture organised by the British Psychoanalytical Society on 5 December 1990.

Finally, Professor Rudnytsky overlooks the fact that labels such as ‘Middle Group’ or ‘Kleinian Independents’ can only be applied retrospectively to the analysts whom he mentions. Melanie Klein, for example, did not want to be called ‘Kleinian’ at the time of the controversies. It is my conviction that, contrary to what Professor Rudnytsky states, the important developments in object relations and clinical practice which have characterised post-war British psychoanalysis were largely due to the fact that analysts who were deeply committed to different viewpoints were able to stay within the same society and engage in continuing debate. The narcissistic destructive ‘French can-can’ of the various ‘groupuscules’ which today represent Lacan’s psychoanalytic heritage in France is perhaps the saddest example of what splitting and fragmentation can lead to.

Riccardo Steiner
London NW3

Peter Rudnytsky writes: Riccardo Steiner has made an error, but claims that he is not confused. He does not say whether he considers his slip important. I pointed out that Jones could only conceive of a male as his successor. I did not ascribe this blindness to his personality, though it does seem to me to contradict his theoretical views. Doubtless Jones believed that a male president was in the institutional interests of the British Society. Sylvia Payne’s gifted leadership subsequently proved him to have been mistaken. Mr Steiner writes in his introduction: ‘Wouldn’t it at least have been possible to hint at Payne as a possible president?’ He does not indicate that he is paraphrasing Klein.

Concerning Daniel Stern, I did not assert that he agreed with Klein in all respects. As a psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist who gives full weight to environmental factors in infancy, he is far closer to John Bowlby. I merely cited his work as vindicating Klein’s critique of the concept of primary narcissism. I realise that the term ‘Middle Group’ is anachronistic. I stated that the British Society became ‘unofficially divided’ into three camps at this time. I did not use the phrase ‘Kleinian Independents’. Naturally, Klein did not want to be called a ‘Kleinian’; her entire strategy depended on casting herself as the legitimate heir of Freud. This does not mean that there were no Kleinians. I am puzzled that Mr Steiner should think we differ about the success of British psychoanalysis, though I do contend that it has exacted a price. As I wrote in my review, ‘the outcome of the Controversial Discussions was a victory … for British psychoanalysis, which by avoiding a split has reaped the benefits of continuous intellectual cross-fertilisation.’

Showalter and Anne Sexton

Elaine Showalter’s assertions (LRB, 7 November) about the importance of Anne Sexton’s work remain just that: assertions, unsupported by critical argument or analysis. Among Sexton’s ‘credentials for acceptance in poetry’, Showalter cites her salesmanship and marketing, together with her mental illness: her ‘having graduated from a number of Boston’s finest mental establishments and finally, with the class of 1973, becoming an alumna of McLean Hospital, alma mater of Lowell and Plath’. This strange reasoning is perhaps meant to be understood in the context of Showalter’s apparent acceptance of the biographer’s diagnosis of the cause of Sexton’s illness: ‘the social confusions of growing up in a female body and of living as a woman in post-war American society’. But even those poets of the time who grew up in ‘male bodies’, people like Lowell, Berryman and Jarrell, also suffered from mental illnesses, and two of them committed suicide. So the problem asks to be seen in terms of the contemporary cultural situation, which the poets found inimical, rather than in terms of gender.

A. Banerjee
Kobe College, Nishinomiya,

What Kant said

Michael Howard (LRB, 5 December) should cheek his sources. Kant did not say that war ‘will gradually disappear as democracy extends its sway through the world’. On the contrary, he maintained that war would continue until it ceased to be feasible and cost too much – two conditions that have now come to pass in the West. ‘If a reed is bent too far it breaks; and he who wants too much gets nothing’ (quoting a colleague). And: ‘The spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold of every people and it cannot exist side by side with war. And of all the powers (or means) at the disposal of the State financial power can probably be relied on most. Thus states find themselves compelled to promote the noble cause of peace, though not exactly from rules of morality.’ The full text of his paper ‘Perpetual Peace’ (1795) is easily available.

Peter Cadogan
London NW6

Menuhin’s Magnanimity

Just as remarkable as Menuhin’s magnanimity towards Furtwängler (LRB, 5 December) was Schoenberg’s – amongst whose letters, peppered with hostility towards virtually every living conductor, one finds, in 1946: ‘I am sure that he was never a nazi. He was one of these old-fashioned Deutschnationale … Also I am sure he was no anti-Semite – or at least not more so than every non-Jew. And he is certainly a better musician than all those Toscaninis, Ormandys, Kussevitzkis, and the whole rest. And he is a real talent, and he loves music.’ (Schoenberg’s own English.)

Colin Matthews
London SW11

Sumptuous Dinner

Beatrice Webb may well have held ‘a sumptuous dinner’, as Paul Foot calls it (LRB, 24 October) in 1895; but it wasn’t to celebrate ILP victories in the General Election. All their 28 candidates, Hardie included, were defeated.

Stephen Roberts
University of Birmingham

Vidi

Henry Reed may have been fond of puns (LRB, 5 December) but his fondness is not illustrated by his epigraph to ‘Lessons of the War’. Vixi puellis nuper idoneus is in fact the unanimous reading of all manuscripts of Horace, duellis being nothing more than a 19th-century emendation by Franke.

Frank Walbank
Cambridge

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