16 November 2007

Cognitivist Apologetic

Filed under: Culture, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:55 am

During the death of this blog I’ve continued to haunt some of my favorite other blogs. In a recent discussion on American Stranger (see blogroll), Traxus and Parodycenter provoked me into defending empirical psychology from charges of naivete, the valorization of consciousness, complicity with technofascism, hostility to psychoanalysis, and all sorts of other offenses against humanity and the revolution. So I wrote three comments back to back, not so much as a point-by-point response but as a kind of substrate for how empirical cognitivism might be viewed: as a field of inquiry among many others rather than as a “totalizing discourse” about minds. For those of you who weren’t participating or following along with the original discussion but find this sort of thing interesting, here are my three comments.

* * *

Even if empirical psychologists had a strong and reliable model of human cognition, individual human differences override the general regularities. Everybody has different genetically-endowed capabilities and drives, different experiences in the world, different others to interact with. So even on just the input side the material that is available to memory and the relative strengths of neural associations is going to be vastly different from one person to the next. Outputs would be all over the scatterplot.

And that’s just on a purely behavioral level, as if inputs were mechanically processed by the brain into theoretically predictable outputs. The cognitive paradigm acknowledges and demonstrates that individuals also exercise different ways of processing inputs based on things like intentionality, preference, bias, attention. These intermediaries between I and O may be conscious or unconscious, freely chosen by autonomous subjective agents or bent by cultural macroforces like economics and power. Collectively, these intermediaries are regarded as “cognitive,” mostly to distinguish them from environment and physiology.

If anything, then, the cognitive paradigm is less deterministic than the behavioral one. Structuralism in the way Europeans talk about it never had much of an influence on the American-dominated empirical psychology from which cognitivism emerged. Even somebody like Chomsky, who proposed one of the early structural models of psycholinguistics that eventually led to cognitivism, looks like a pragmatic instrumentalist when compared with somebody like Saussure. For Chomsky linguistic structure is an instrumental capability for intentionally manipulating language in order to generate unique sentences. So he talks about “generative grammar” as a very flexible tool for assembling signifiers on the fly to suit the speaker’s purposes. He does propose that human brains are uniquely structured to handle generative grammars, making him kind of Hegelian in that regard. But if anything the advance of cognitivism has led the field to dismiss Chomsky’s unique-brain-structure argument as an unnecessary holdover from idealism. The human brain evolved from other primate brains; human cognitive-linguistic abilities evolved from other primate abilities.

* * *

The working empirical psychologist isn’t typically driven by philosophy or grand theory. Some start out with an inclination to use science as a sort of rhetorical device, to stage demonstrations of favorite theories. This inclination is quickly trained out of you. Empirical investigations are informed by an attempt to understand phenomena that so far have not been investigated or have eluded prior efforts to pull them out of randomness. Sometimes the theory makes the researcher aware of classes of phenomena that it might be able to account for; sometimes the phenomena are compelling in their own right; sometimes they’ve been partially accounted for by competing theories and the question is whether the new theory suggests an alternative, perhaps a more complete, understanding.

A specific study takes place within a narrow band of theory and empiricism. In writing up the findings the researcher might cite one or two broadly-known figures who signify the general field of endeavor, but for the most part the citations are very specific to the empirical question under investigaion, and usually very recent. The field as a whole expands somewhat amorphously from the surface rather than building depth or structure or moving linearly down well-defined trajectories. Rare is the pitched dialectical “throw-down” between competing theories. In experimental design the battle is almost always waged against “the null hypothesis” = phenomenological randomness.

* * *

In the cognitive paradigm, consciousness isn’t a structured assemblage of content; rather, consciousness is a dynamic interface where a specific set of assembly procedures is mapped onto a particular subset of content (perceptions, memories, ideas) in a way that generates structured and meaningful output — thought, speech, behavior, etc. The content, the toolkit of procedures, the array of alternative prefabricated structures that can be imposed on content — all of it remains unconscious until it is called up, either intentionally or not, by the conscious interface. So as the individual moves through the continuous present the vast majority of her cognitive capability is unconscious. The content of the unconscious is loosely interconnected in a distributed and multiply-connected matrix. The structure of the unconscious is more virtual rather than actual: content can be assembled on the fly according to any number of structuration paradigms and procedures.

Some pre-canned structures are easier for consciousness to summon than others, based on habit or demonstrated pragmatic value — so even this dynamic structuring work of consciousness becomes stereotypical, nearly automatic, almost unconscious. Some virtual structures rarely become actual in consciousness: maybe they’ve never been tried before, maybe they’ve failed miserably before, maybe they’ve become associated with unpleasant emotions or memories so they don’t readily pop to the surface, etc.

It might be possible to exercise an individual’s cognitive structuration processes so that the passage between unconscious and conscious becomes freer and more flexible. You might make the person aware of automatic and stereotypic ways of thinking, do “free association” exercises in which material is dynamically structured in unaccustomed ways, identify obstacles in memory and affect that repress certain structures, identify past events that cause habitual structures to be applied transferentially to inappropriate situations, etc.


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