Re: [xmca] XM, C's and H's

From: Derek Melser <derek.melser who-is-at>
Date: Sun Dec 14 2008 - 21:04:16 PST

Mike, Andy,

I can see I will have to put my thinking cap on and go back to the drawing

Is it permissable to say, 'there is really no such thing' as a thinking cap?
Can one say 'there really is no drawing board for me to go back to'? The
drawing board 'does not really exist'. 'There isn't really one'. 'It's just
a way of speaking'. What is the correct way to make such points? How does
one explain the difference between saying 'he has a mean streak in him' and
'he has eight pints of lager in him'? Isn't there some sense in which the
mean streak 'isn't really' in him in the way the lager is?

Is it OK to say to a child, 'Santa is not real' – to a ten-year-old, say?
'It's just a story'?

How can I say 'there is really no such thing as the mind' – it's just a way
of speaking? How does one say that there really is no supernatural agent
inside people's heads that thinks, no invisible organ in there with that
function and nor is there any invisible intracranial venue where thinking
occurs? Because, surely, the fact is, there really isn't any agent or entity
(supernatural or natural, metaphysical or physical) that exists inside
people's heads and which thinks. Nor is there any (supernatural or natural,
metaphysical or physical) special place in there where thinking goes on.
Thinking is, surely, something that people do for themselves. And they do it
in innumerable places, but never inside their own heads. It is important to
realise this – that the concept of a person doing something inside their own
head is utterly imponderable. I mean: how would you even get in there? And
yet everyone talks about doing things 'in their heads' all the time.
Speaking as if there is an intracranial agent that does our thinking for us,
or a special intracranial place where thinking is done, is just a colloquial
faηon de parler. But the propaganda effect of such figures of speech is
remarkably powerful. It has How does one combat this kind of effect?

If there is no way of setting aside and going on without concepts like Santa
Claus, phlogiston, the divine right of kings, the rain god, mind, etc., no
way of rationalising one's terminology, it is hard to see how intellectual
progress is possible – in, respectively, the sociology of Christmas, the
physics of combustion, politics, meteorology, psychology (or activity
theory), etc. For example, Mike, the new concepts of perception forged by
Merleau-Ponty, Ilyenkov, Gibson and Bateson, and taken up by the
extended-mind lobby, are provocative, productive, and fascinating
intellectual innovations. But they have been – to my mind – totally vitiated
by being couched in terms of (thus subordinated to) such a basically
childish and out-of-date folk superstition as 'the mind'.

When people use the noun *mind* in the ordinary way in everyday
circumstances, they mean 'mysterious agent inside people's heads that does
their thinking for them' or 'mysterious place inside people's heads where
thinking goes on'. That's how the English noun *mind* is used in colloquial
speech. That's what the word means. And you might want to say: No, that is
not how I use the term *mind.* That would be like saying, No, I want *Santa
Claus* to mean 'the spirit of the end-of-year holiday period' or something
like that. Rather than attempting to attach a new meaning to a long-standing
English noun, it could be less confusing to make up a new word and use that.

I will try and decide during this holiday period, now upon us, whether my
participation in these exchanges under the auspices of XMCA (being so
mistaken about the XM was sobering) is going to benefit anyone. In the
interim I will re-read Leontyev's 164pp on activity and consciousness, to
see whether my concept of what activity theory is is/was mistaken.


2008/12/15 Andy Blunden <>

> Derek, I would really like an answer to my question too: what do you mean
> by "exist"? If you can't say what "exist" means, then you really have to
> stop talking about things existing (or being real) or not (or being fictions
> or metaphors). On the other hand, if you tell us what you mean by "exist,"
> all our disagreements might dissolve into trivialities.
> And what about mind extending from the outside in, which is Vygotsky &
> Co.'s idea, quite different from the 'leaky mind' idea?
> Andy
> Derek Melser wrote:
>> Mike,
>> Thank you for those questions. My answers:
>> 1. I read the XM as 'extended mind' and hence another label for the idea
>> or
>> set of ideas – also labelled 'externalism', the 'leaky mind' idea, the
>> 'embodied cognition' idea and 'the second cognitive revolution' – proposed
>> by A. Clark and others. The idea is that the mind exists not solely within
>> the person, in the head, but extends outside into the world, to embrace
>> cultural activities and artifacts, measurement systems, etc.
>> My view is that the notion of mind – qua a non-physical agent or venue (or
>> perhaps mechanism) inside people's heads – is entirely a creature of
>> metaphor. All our everyday uses of the noun "mind" are metaphorical.
>> 'Mind'
>> is essentially just a fiction we use to hang the various (and very
>> numerous)
>> colloquial metaphors on. However, metaphors, though they deal in fancies,
>> are nevertheless about real things (otherwise we wouldn't bother with
>> them).
>> The idea of a supernatural agent or place inside people's heads is the
>> basis
>> of a metaphor, a beautifully apt and constantly useful metaphor, for
>> referring at the everyday level to a particular kind of learned activity
>> that people engage in. The closest I have got to describing this special
>> kind of activity is the last few entries in the 2008 Notebook on my site.
>> It
>> is a way of readying oneself for action or activity X by rehearsing, in a
>> special rapid and subtle way, educative activity (such as lessons,
>> instructions, encouragement, admonitions, etc.) related to action or
>> activity X. The educative activity, which the thinker, imaginer, planner,
>> etc., is conducting his solo (and especially rapid and subtle) rehearsal
>> of,
>> is necessarily social activity.
>> Thus I believe that while 'mind' is a metaphorical fiction, the
>> innumerable
>> everyday figures of speech in which the noun 'mind' occurs all refer to
>> varieties and aspects of something very real (and very important) indeed –
>> namely, this kind of activity, this 'minimal rehearsing of educative
>> activity' that I am talking about, that can plausibly be equated with
>> 'thinking'. The sources of the above idea are numerous (see my book).
>> Certainly, one of the major contributors is L.S. Vygotsky.
>> To me, the notion of the mind 'extending', from inside the person's head,
>> out to include things in the world is a kind of rhetorical monstrosity –
>> contextless, useless, and generally half-arsed and imbecilic. I imagine
>> LSV
>> smiling in agreement. What we are talking about, the underlying reality
>> here, is a species of learned, 'culturally-learned', activity. In a
>> serious
>> academic context, any reference to the popular fiction 'mind', any attempt
>> to extrapolate from, formalise, summarise or extend the colloquial
>> mentalist
>> terminology, is retrograde.
>> 2. Mike, I bow to your superior scholarship here. My distinction between
>> cultural-developmental theories of thinking and what I would now like to
>> call 'determinist' theories is crude. My concern, at that point in that
>> thesis, was simply to distinguish theories – like Descartes' (wherein
>> thinking is entirely a function of our God-given 'minds') and cognitive
>> science's (wherein our thinking is determined by neurophysiological
>> information-processing mechanisms that evolution has installed in our
>> brains) – from theories that make thinking something that *we do*, and (in
>> fact) spend years learning how to do. My keenness (and, I would say, LSV's
>> and others') is to reclaim thinking as ours, our own responsibility, and
>> the
>> prerogative of neither supernatural nor natural intracranial agencies or
>> mechanisms (if, indeed, there are such).
>> As far as the brain's relevance to thinking is concerned, my ideas come
>> from
>> Hebb. Imitation learning, practice and thinking – all culturally-led
>> activities – effect changes in neural pathways (firing programmes) in
>> cerebral cortex. These changes serve in the short-term to ready the person
>> for imminent action, and in the long term to facilitate efficient
>> performance of the action/activity in question. Cultural activity leads.
>> The
>> brain follows and, subsequently, assists. Evolution has given us a
>> biddable
>> brain, not an authoritarian one.
>> DM
>> PS: Maybe we can get on to the CH later. And you will be aware I have
>> concerns about empathy/objectivity issues regarding the A... (Not the A as
>> well, Derek, surely to God!) I'll pass your greetings on to Andy Lock.
>> 2008/12/14 Mike Cole <>
>> Hi Derek--
>>> What a lot of food for thought not only in your message but in your web
>>> page
>>> and its links.
>>> I gather you are somewhere in the vicinity of Andy Lock? If so, say "hi"
>>> and
>>> see if you can
>>> entice him to join in. I have still to read properly several of your
>>> essays,
>>> the topics of which
>>> are of great interest to me, but will try to pick a key issue I came
>>> across
>>> early that seems relevant to the
>>> topic of this note.
>>> First, about XMs, C, and H(istory). I want to focus on the c/h issue
>>> because
>>> I think it is key to issues
>>> where we might be able to find where we disagree or misunderstand
>>> 1. What do you interpret the x to mean that xm should be anethema to
>>> you?
>>> Is it just the use of "mind" or more than that?
>>> 2. In the first line of the chapter for your thesis your write: " The
>>> Russian Psychologist Vygotsky's theory of thinking is, like Piaget's, an
>>> 'ontogenetic' or developmental one."
>>> I believe, and believe there is ample textual evidence to support the
>>> idea
>>> that Vygotsky's theory of thinking was UNLIKE Piaget's in that he
>>> believed
>>> human ontogeny
>>> to be the emergent outcome of four "historical/developmental" domains:
>>> phylogeny, cultural history, ontogenetic experience itself, and
>>> microgenesis
>>> (which is
>>> constituitive, along with Phyl and CH, or Ontogeny. I would relate this
>>> idea
>>> to the ideas of Ilyenkov, whom you cite in another note with regard to
>>> the
>>> nature
>>> of artifacts and thought. I thus do not (deliberately!) conflate culture
>>> and
>>> concerted because while I take "joint mediated activity" to be a basic
>>> unit
>>> of analysis for
>>> understanding development, those "concerting" and the artifacts that
>>> mediate
>>> he concert, are distinguishable in material terms and in the principles
>>> of
>>> change
>>> that predominate for their domains.
>>> I am happy you have entered the discussion. I am sure we can all learn
>>> from
>>> the ensuing conversations, as many of us already have!
>>> mike cole
>>> I think this is a factual error and that the nature of the error may lead
>>> to
>>> a misunderstanding.
>>> It often takes me a long time to distinguish between disagreements and
>>> misunderstandings. From what
>>> you have seen on xmca in the discussion around XMCA you can probably
>>> understand one manifestation
>>> of the problem. People use the same words in really different ways. To
>>> focus
>>> just on you comments about
>>> xmca as a summative acronym.
>>> On Tue, Dec 9, 2008 at 8:21 PM, Derek Melser <>
>>> wrote:
>>> I come to XMCA as a philosopher of mind convinced that 'mind' (and
>>> related
>>>> metaphor-based notions such as 'internalisation') can be explained in
>>> terms
>>>> of (a) people's natural tendency to act in concert (do the same thing,
>>>> together) and (b) various derivative, subtler, but still
>>>> in-principle-observable, skills that children acquire. My account,
>>>> developed
>>>> from those of Ryle, Vygotsky and Hebb, has acting in concert as the
>>>> basis
>>>> of
>>>> culture. Solo action, cooperation, and objective practices (in which the
>>>> empathic, side-by-side stance characteristic of concerted activity has
>>>> given
>>>> way to objective attitudes) are learned adaptations of acting in
>>>> concert.
>>>> Unfamiliar concerted (and solo, cooperative and objective) activity must
>>>> usually be preceded by preparatory educative activity, the prototype of
>>>> which is the demonstration-and-imitation procedure. The immediate goal
>>>> of
>>>> demonstration-and-imitation is for teacher and pupil to perform the
>>> action
>>>> in concert. After the pupil's participation has improved, perhaps after
>>>> repeated demonstration-and-imitation sessions, to the point where he can
>>>> perform the action on his own, rehearsals may still be necessary prior
>>>> to
>>>> performance.
>>>> To rehearse an action or activity is to go through a
>>>> demonstration-and-imitation session in a streamlined and abbreviated
>>>> way.
>>>> There are many different ways of abbreviating the
>>>> demonstration-and-imitation procedure, some involving two or more
>>>> participants, others for the solo agent. Verbal communication,
>>>> consciousness
>>>> and thinking are all forms of rehearsal – all ways of rehearsing actions
>>>> and
>>>> activities before (or indeed whilst or instead of) performing them – and
>>>> they are all 'derivatives by abbreviation' of the
>>>> demonstration-and-imitation procedure.
>>>> A child acquires these various rehearsal skills in much the same way he
>>>> acquires other skills – by watching and listening to other people
>>>> demonstrating them, by attempting to join in, and by practising them on
>>> his
>>>> own. In *The Act of Thinking* (MIT Press 2004) I retrace some of the
>>>> main
>>>> steps in the child's (and perhaps early man's) mastery of verbal
>>>> communication, consciousness and thinking.
>>>> My feeling about the Sawchuk/Stetsenko paper is that it is
>>>> insufficiently
>>>> purist. It embraces concepts which are actually antithetical to, and
>>>> compromise, a pure activity approach. For example, there is
>>> 'subjectivity',
>>>> which we are said to be in danger of 'undertheorizing' (p.340). What can
>>>> subjectivity be if not 'private experiencing'? Activity theory casts all
>>>> experiencing as public, or incipiently public. Subjectivity is a
>>> mentalist
>>>> concept. Listed among 'the specific principles of human development' on
>>>> p.341 are 'the social origin of mind' (which implies there is such a
>>> thing
>>>> as mind) and 'internalisation' (implying the existence of an inner,
>>>> presumably mental, dimension). Vygotsky fell in here too, which is why
>>>> we
>>>> need Ryle. Activity does not internalise, it does not disappear into the
>>>> mental, as it becomes familiar. Nor is mind 'extended'; it does not
>>> extend
>>>> from the 'inner' to embrace 'outer' phenomena: mind is a fiction.
>>>> Sawchuk and Stetsenko characterise activity as 'reciprocal interaction
>>> with
>>>> the world' (339), as a process of 'engagement with the world' and as
>>>> 'transforming the world' (343). However, the world need not stay in the
>>>> picture. It is required neither as a venue nor as a patient or product
>>>> of
>>>> people's activity. The notion of the world, and things in the world, is
>>>> a
>>>> teaching aid invented to assist our acquisition of the perceptual skills
>>> we
>>>> need to employ in the course of our activities.
>>>> If we want to concentrate on the activity, then the 'selves' that
>>>> Sawchuk
>>>> and Stetsenko say people's activity creates ('as they create their
>>>> world'
>>>> (343)) are also dispensable. Selves disappear, they get absorbed, in
>>>> concerted activity. Even 'the social order', with its reification of
>>>> activity as the 'social structure' or 'society' that sociology is
>>>> predicated
>>>> on, may be a distraction. And what about 'historical'? Personally, I am
>>>> most
>>>> interested in the foundational human activities – concerting,
>>> cooperation,
>>>> verbal communication, consciousness, thinking, etc.). These practices
>>> were
>>>> almost certainly established more than a million years ago, so history
>>>> played no part in their development, though evolution did. History
>>> becomes
>>>> relevant only in connection with the great increase in objective
>>> practices
>>>> that accompanied the relatively very recent transition from small-group
>>>> nomadic life to our settled agricultural existence – if that counts as
>>>> history.
>>>> Should I have presumed to list with XMCA and to comment on a review of
>>>> CHAT,
>>>> when the XM is anathema to me, the H of no interest? My C would be
>>>> 'concerted' rather than 'cultural' too, though, since I conflate these,
>>>> that's a quibble. Is this where I belong? An activity purist like myself
>>>> has
>>>> at least the AT in common with others in this forum, surely. Well, no.
>>> I'm
>>>> not at all sure about the T. It has always seemed to me that our
>>> knowledge
>>>> of activities is irreducibly empathic. When we witness or imagine an
>>>> activity, in order to comprehend what we are seeing we must imagine
>>>> engaging
>>>> (if not actually engage) in that activity. There is no possibility of
>>>> any
>>>> truly objective or 'scientific' observation of activity (behaviour,
>>>> conduct,
>>>> action, things we do). Cultural activity is not a natural phenomenon. It
>>> is
>>>> not even a phenomenon. It is something* we* do. We are participants,
>>>> players
>>>> – or incipient, would-be players. We cannot get outside it, hold it at
>>>> arm's
>>>> length, make a scrutinizable object of it. If we do, it vanishes. We
>>>> must
>>>> empathise even to perceive activity. Certainly, we can be self-aware in
>>> the
>>>> act of doing something, alone or with others, and this self-awareness
>>> need
>>>> not impede (or not too much) our participation. But what can 'theory'
>>>> amount
>>>> to in this context?
>>>> Derek Melser
>>>> **
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Received on Sun Dec 14 21:05:45 2008

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