It’s the thought that counts
- The Prehistory of the Mind by Steven Mithen
Thames and Hudson, 288 pp, £16.95, October 1996, ISBN 0 500 05081 3
What’s your favourite metaphor for minds? If you’re an empiricist, or an associationist, or a connectionist, you probably favour webs, networks, switchboards, or the sort of urban grid where the streets are equidistant and meet at right angles: New York’s Midtown, rather than its Greenwich Village. Such images suggest a kind of mind every part of which is a lot like every other. Take a sample here and you find the concept dog associated to the concepts cat and animal; take a sample there and you find the concepts Antony and Cleopatra in close connection. Though mental content changes as you go from place to place in the web, the structure is everywhere the same. It’s concepts and connections wherever you look.
But there is also an older, rationalist, tradition of theorising about the mind; one that runs from Plato through Gall, Kant and the faculty psychologists, to Freud and Chomsky. It, too, has its proprietary metaphors, which are frequently architectural. The mind is like a building (Steven Mithen thinks it’s like a cathedral). Entrance and egress are variously constrained, and so are the paths through the interior. There are public places and private places, and places where the children aren’t allowed to go; and there are places in the attic that hardly anyone but Granny ever visits. With that sort of arrangement, you might expect that information would be quite unevenly diffused among the occupants; downstairs knows things that upstairs doesn’t, and upstairs doesn’t know that downstairs knows them. Also, buildings are often divided into lots of little spaces, with more or less specialised functions. These differences of function generally imply differences of structure, so you wouldn’t expect to learn much about how the kitchen is organised by examining the potting shed. The long and short of the building metaphor is that when the whole mind functions as a system, it does so through the interaction of heterogeneous parts.
The empiricist idea of a homogeneous mind has dominated psychological and philosophical thinking in the English-speaking countries since the 18th century. But now the fashions seem to be changing and the ‘modular’ organisation of cognition is widely promoted. Just what this amounts to is very far from clear, and some of the consensus is doubtless just in terminology. Still, people in a lot of fields of research have recently come to think that some of our intellectual competences are isolated and specialised in ways that the web/grid/network story doesn’t easily accommodate. There is even considerable agreement on which cognitive capacities are the best candidates for the status of modules. The learning and use of language is on everybody’s list; Chomsky put it there, thus initiating the new fashion in cognitive architecture. Commonsense-biology, commonsense-physics, commonsense-psychology and aspects of visual form perception are other favourite candidates. The bidding is still open, but these five are the paradigms. If none of them is a mental module, then probably nothing is.
Isolation and specialisation are the defining properties of a module, so a lot of the current discussion is about what precisely these consist in. A word about this to set the stage for Mithen’s book.
Specialisation: modules are supposed to be ‘domain-specific’ cognitive mechanisms. To say, for example, that there is a commonsense-psychology module is to claim that each of us has concepts and processes available for inferring from the behaviour of conspecifics to their states of mind that are not likewise available for balancing the family chequebook or deciding which omnibus to take to Clapham. Other people are a very special part of the world; maybe we use very special kinds of cognition when we try to understand them.
For instance: Brentano remarked on how odd it is that you can want (need/seek/believe in) a gold mountain even though there aren’t any (whereas, try climbing a gold mountain if there aren’t any). Apparently, the commonsense-psychology module countenances relations between minds and things-that-don’t-exist. It may be that only phenomena in the domain of the commonsense-psychology module exhibit this logical peculiarity; philosophers think so who hold that ‘intentionality’ is the mark of the mental. In similar spirit, Chomsky thinks that the grammatical structures of all human languages are of the same formal type, and that no communication system which failed to exemplify the universal format could engage the operation of the language module. Are there likewise eccentric constraints on the kinds of geometry that the commonsense-physics module can contemplate? Does physical space have to strike us as Euclidean even if it’s not? Kant thought that it does.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.