Andy Blunden, August 2010
We have remarked that cognitive psychology seems to be edging towards a theory in which concepts draw their content ‘from above’ rather than from below. The cues by which an object is recognised function to connect the object into a system of related concepts, either using the idea of a ‘semantic network’ or the ‘theory theory’, from where the concept draws its substantive content.
Another approach which can play the same role, and perhaps more convincingly, is the idea of narrative, that is, that instead of situating concepts of things in a taxonomy of attributes, or as nodes in a semantic network or as the units of a theory, our ideas of things may present themselves as characters, situations or resolutions of a narrative. Narrative can be seen as an alternative to description and exposition as means of presentation of concepts, as well as a mode of communication of ideas. Many claim that the ability to understand the world via stories is historically, ontogenetically and perhaps even structurally prior to conceptual exposition. People can mentally interpellate themselves into narratives without the intellectual effort required to ‘draw the lessons’ of a story. Narratives may constitute a more plausible, convincing and adaptable model of the world and our thinking than theories properly so called. Indeed, if we prefer developmental to causal, structural or functional theories, theory is but one genre of narrative. As Goethe said, The history of science is science itself” (Goethe 1810/1988: 161). Narrative is after all, simply the meaningful presentation of human action, situating concepts in vicarious experience and providing the material from which conceptual knowledge can be abstracted as the ‘truth’ of the narrative. Concepts must in general be located within some larger fabric of human experience in order to be comprehensible.
Experiments (Hala 1999) show that very young children can recognise apparently sophisticated characters and situations while observing puppet shows in which the players are represented by simple geometric shapes. In experiments of Volkelt and Eliasberg, children asked to describe a painting, could only name separate objects, if asked to act out what the painting depicted were able to accurately perform a representation of the entire situation in narrative form. This demonstrated that the child can perceive a narrative before their language skills would enable them to describe the scene. Jerome Bruner flashed incongruous scenes (such as a discus thrower with a cello not a discus in his hand) before subjects for very brief periods of time, gradually increasing the exposure until people were able to take in the whole scene. He demonstrated that people embedded what they saw in a narrative, bending the narrative to accommodate incongruities. Jean Mandler (who introduced the idea of scripts and schemata as elementary structures of the mind) showed that experience which does not get structured narratively suffers loss in memory.
The modern theory of the narrative begins with the Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp, who published his “Morphology of the Folktale” in 1928. Mikhail Bakhtin continued the study of narrative, introducing the study of genre. French literary theory continued the study of narrative and in the late 1970s and early 1980s the narrative turn exploded into the social theory and psychology.
The drift of the narrative turn was not that narrative was a means of grasping concepts or part of the developmental process of concepts or any such thing, but rather, that ‘narrative rationality’ was an alternative form of knowledge to what was variously called the “paradigmatic mode of knowing” (Walter Fisher), “scientific knowledge” (Lyotard) or the “logico-scientific” mode of knowing (Jerome Bruner, who also added a third: the pragmatic mode of knowing). Some writers proposed that both narrative and conceptual rationality were necessary components of the whole knowledge of a topic. Bruner observed, for example, that a psychiatrist needs to bring the skills of the literary critic together with knowledge of theories of psychology in order to understand a patient, both skills being equally necessary, and relying on just one kind of knowledge could lead to absurdities. Nonetheless, the main discovery of the narrative turn seemed to be that narrative rationality and conceptual rationality were two qualitatively different, competing kinds of knowledge, counterposed to one another. The central role of narrative was highlighted in politics (Walter Fisher), psychology (Jerome Bruner and Donald Polkinghorne), sociology (Laurel Richardson), economics (Deirdre McCloskey), and the philosophy of science. Narrative developed as a distinct domain and style of enquiry and a lens through which every aspect of human life could be seen. We have come to a situation where the focus on narrative came to be seen as an alternative to focus on concepts.
In his famous 1979 ‘report on knowledge’, Jean-Francois Lyotard claimed that narrative was the form of knowledge typical of non-modern societies in contrast to scientific knowledge. But that:
“the language game of science desires its statements to be true but does not have the resources to legitimate their truth on its own.. ... Scientific knowledge cannot know and make known that it is the true knowledge without resorting to the other, narrative, kind of knowledge, which from its point of view is no knowledge at all. Without such recourse it would be in the position of presupposing its own validity and would be stooping to what it condemns: begging the question, proceeding on prejudice. But does it not fall into the same trap by using narrative as its authority?” (1979/1984: 28-29)
But it works both ways. Fisher noted that narrative relies on criteria of rationality which are outside the narrative. In fact the entire discipline of narratology is a demonstration of the fact that concepts are needed in order to talk about narrative and legitimate it as ‘a mode of knowledge’. So just as conceptual knowledge relies upon narrative to legitimate itself, narrative relies on conceptual knowledge in order to legitimate itself.
With his claim that: “The grand narrative has lost its credibility” (1979/1984: 37), Lyotard commits a serious performative contradiction: the end of the grand narrative rivals Fukuyama’s end of history for the title of greatest grand narrative ever. But:
“We no longer have recourse to the grand narratives ... But as we have seen, the little narrative remains the quintessential form of imaginative invention, most particularly in science.” (1979/1984: 60)
Narratives concern actions, and in contrast to behaviour, actions are intentional, so narratives are always dual, containing both a narrative of the actors’ intentions and how things went in the world. As such, it is clear why narrative must play such a crucial role in psychology.
Jerome Bruner speculated that:
“Is it not unreasonable to suppose that there is some human ‘readiness’ for narrative that is responsible for conserving and elaborating [narrative] tradition in the first place – whether, in Kantian terms, as ‘an art hidden in the human soul’, whether as a feature of our language capacity, whether even as a psychological capacity like, say, our readiness to convert the world of visual input into figure and ground?” (1990: 45)
Bruner explains how it is that narrative lends plausibility to novel concepts:
“narrative ... specialises in the forging of links between the exceptional and the ordinary. ... It endows [the expectable] with legitimacy or authority. Yet is has powerful means that are purpose-built for rendering the exceptional and the unusual into comprehensible form. ... “ (1990: 47)
and this function has a specific place within any community, in creating shared understanding among members of the community:
The “negotiated meanings” ... essential to the conduct of a culture are made possible by narrative’s apparatus for dealing simultaneously with canonicality and exceptionality. ... A culture must contain ... a set of interpretive procedures for rendering departures from norms meaningful in terms of established patterns of belief. It is narrative and narrative interpretation upon which folk psychology depends for achieving this kind of meaning” (my emphasis, 1990: 47).
Isn’t it fair to say that narrative plays its role in establishing and sharing understanding only in connection with narrative interpretation, whether formal or informal? And narrative interpretation is not itself a narrative genre but a conceptual form of knowledge or dialogue. So narrative is meaningful only in connection with conceptual working over of narrative, or catharsis, whether that working over is explicit or implicit. The connection between narrative and conceptual therefore has to be seen as one of movement back and forth between one and the other.
But what does the study of narrative tell us, not just about conceptual knowledge, but about concepts? It is neither necessary nor possible to enter here into the vast territory of narratology, which in any case has little to say about concepts as such, but I think that the following observations by Paul Ricoeur (1981) on the concept of plot are very suggestive.
“At this point, it is necessary to introduce the decisive concept of plot. To be historical, I shall say, an event must be more than a singular occurrence: it must be defined in terms of its contribution to the development of a plot. This concept, let us say straight away, will provide the link between the history of historians and fictional narratives.
“What is a plot? The phenomenology of the act of following a story, as elaborated by W. B. Gallie in Philosophy and Historical Understanding, will serve as our point of departure. Let us say, to begin with, that a story describes a sequence of actions and experiences of a certain number of characters, whether real or imaginary. These characters are represented in situations which change or to the changes towhich they react. These changes in turn reveal hidden aspects of the situation and the characters, giving rise to a new predicament which calls for thought or action or both. The response to this predicament brings the story to its conclusion.”
“Agents, Actions, ... converted into emblems. ... which resist logical procedures for establishing what they mean. They must, as we say, be interpreted.” (1981: 277)
The idea of plot is of central importance for us, for plot brings events into a meaningful whole (Polkinghorne 1987), by placing events in chronological order and suggesting a connection between them. Probably one of the most astounding points of difference between conceptual and narrative rationality is that narrative allows causality to be inferred without asserting it, and in general narrative has an ambiguous relation to truth, an ambiguity which is not accidental, but essential to its function of suggesting and negotiating meanings, in leaving itself open for interpretation, without pre-empting what is taken up into conceptual rationality. “We interpret stories by their verisimilitude” (Bruner 1981: 61) rather than their veracity.
Ricoeur tells us that it is the predicament and its resolution which constitutes the plot and thereby brings the whole complex of experience into a whole. Narrative then may be understood as the explication of predicaments, with the characters and their actions functioning as emblems – we would prefer to say ‘icons’ – for the predicament and the series of situation which emanate from its.
Alasdair Macintyre (1971) claimed that narrative is the perfect instrument for explanation and understanding of the phenomena dealt with by the human sciences, and that according to this reading, the human sciences predate the conceptual natural sciences. But I think further reflection will show that narrative plays the same role in the natural sciences as well, except only that the natural sciences always make it their objective to elaborate the phenomena they study as something which exists independently of experience, with the result that natural science can only begin where narrative leaves off. But if the natural sciences are to make Nature intelligible, then they perforce must restore human beings to their place in explanation.
Narrative rationality presents concepts to us then as predicaments and related situations and the unfolding of the process of their resolution in human action. Every plot therefore presents us a concept and an understanding of what drives the plot, namely, the predicament which gives rise to the drama, represents the concept, and the whole project through which the predicament is overcome is the meaning the concept has for us, which those who would interpret the narrative must lay out.
The scripts and schemata introduced into psychology by Jean Mandler have considerable appeal in this light as elementary psychic structures, but I don’t think they correspond in any sense to concepts. They are after all the elementary operations and actions through which any plot unfolds, but which acquire meaning only from the overall situation and its resolution in the plot.
This does raise the question though as to whether and how ‘large’ entities such as narrative plots, whole social practices and institutions can be reflected in elementary psychic functions like scripts and schemata.
In the book that rightly achieved the status of a classic, Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff observed that our entire language is pervaded by metaphor. It is not just that we use a lot of metaphors; rather, innumerable, almost unnoticeable “small” metaphors make sense only because they express an underlying and unspoken “large” metaphor. A “large” metaphor, a concrete Gestalt of experiences, such as handling objects, fighting or travelling, gives insight into innumerable relations and actions in which no object is handled and no journey made, but for which these everyday practices function as a model. So “Argument is War,” uses war as an entire Gestalt of affect-laden relations from which to draw a plethora of metaphors like “defending my position,” “attacking my opponent’s weak point” and so on. Lakoff points to a relatively small number of such Gestalten, like fighting, object-manipulation and journeying which are generally closely connected to basic human functions. The models generally involve direct visceral experience: sensori-motor functions, handling objects and dealing with other people.
The most prominent Gestalten are spatial relations which are implicit in most of the prepositions we use, and spatial relations also give us basic relations like containers and conduits and surfaces. For example, “There is something in what you say” is seen as a spatial metaphor in which “what you say” is taken as the container of something, viz., “a point.” Other common metaphors are war, journey, instrument, object, substance and moving object. This is a very compelling idea. We come to understand a range of complex Gestalten through immediate, visceral experience in everyday purposive actions with our own body and using artefacts in collaboration with other people. Such experiences are pre-linguistic and rest on practical intelligence, but saturate our entire life and provide a cognitive foundation to understand and orient ourselves with the less clear, more abstract and articulated concepts which are generated in social life.
Lakoff also shows how more than one metaphor can be used in understanding the same complex. For example: Love is war and Love is work. Each large metaphor has entailments, and it is these entailments which generate particular insights without imposing a cognitive load. Two different metaphors may be consistent, or if only coherent, each may bring to light different aspects of the whole without contradicting one another, or, the two metaphors may actually be incoherent, allowing contradictory aspects of a complex whole to be manifested through contradictory entailments. The whole approach is immensely rich. Like the Theory theory, the metaphor theory sees the meaning of a concept as deriving from its place within a larger, already-existing system of meaning, based in some system of human practice, but the metaphor differs from the theory because it has visceral rather than intellectual force.
Although the ubiquity of metaphor is manifested in all languages, the particularity of metaphorical meanings vary not only from language to language, but from community to community. And Lakoff is quite explicit that although the pervasiveness of metaphor is empirically given in language, it is not simply a linguistic phenomenon, but manifests how we think, and Lakoff is surely right here. The observation (Barsalou 1992: 110) that each sensory modality seems to have its own memories and intelligence and that imagining or perceiving some human action seems to involve a mental simulation of the action, also supports this idea.
Lakoff has given us a great clue about the nature and origin of concepts. He gives us an unambiguous indication that concepts are acquired in and through practical activity, and that everyday, immediate, concrete activity provide us with a visceral-cognitive framework on which the concepts entailed in more developed forms of activity may be built. From this Lakoff says:
“The metaphors we live by, whether cultural or personal, are partially preserved in ritual. Cultural metaphors, and the values entailed by them, are propagated by ritual. Ritual forms an indispensable part of the experiential basis for a cultural metaphorical systems. There can be no culture without rituals.” (1980: 233-4)
But true as this is, it does not go far enough, for ritual, as such, makes up only a small fraction of the practical activity entailed in social life. He shows us though, how very basic practical experiences, may give us a start towards conceptual representation of the complex and highly mediated forms of activity which constitute life in modern society.
Lakoff’s attempt to take this brilliant insight into a theory of “embodied cognition” went badly wrong, however, with a serious category mistake:
“An embodied concept is a neural structure that is actually part of, or makes use of, the sensorimotor system of our brains. Much of conceptual inference is, therefore, sensorimotor inference” (Lakoff 1999: 20).
A concept is not a neural structure, any more than a concept is some object existing in the world. A reflection can be identified with neither the mirror nor the object reflected. What is required is to determine the nature of concepts without either equating thought-forms with internal neural structures or naively reifying the objects of our thoughts as independently existing objects, whether inside or outside the head.
Nancy Nersessian (2008) has studied the emergence of new concepts, both the creation of new concepts in natural science (Maxwell’s concept of electromagnetic field) and concepts that an individual discovers for themselves through problem solving. Nersessian sheds light on our topic because she traces how a concept comes into being, rather than simply looking at the finished product of a completed process of development. Nersessian calls her method cognitive-historical, because she draws on the concepts of Cognitive Psychology, but applies these ideas to the interpretation of data from the history of science, reconstructing, so far as is possible, the thought-processes through which natural scientists arrive at new concepts.
She claims that the problem-solving processes which lead to new scientific concepts lie on a continuum with the problem-solving processes which give rise to new concepts in everyday life, with the work of natural scientists seen as a sophisticated outgrowth of problem-solving in everyday situations. I believe it would be wrong to see the finished products scientific thinking as of the same kind with everyday concepts, because scientific concepts are normally acquired through formal instruction as abstract concepts and subsequently concretised through practical experience. Contrariwise, everyday concepts begin life with concrete content before they acquire an abstract definition. However, the natural scientist who creates a new concept in a science does not acquire the concept as a ready-made abstraction. Rather he or she creates it in the course of resolving some new problem-situation, a situation created by contradictions and crises which have arisen within the science. I think it is reasonable to say that all concepts arise in this way, in an institution of some kind with norms which are capable of generating problems, before they enter the general language and merge with the existing systems of knowledge, as ready-made solutions. So I think that Nersessian’s claim is valid, though I doubt that it can be extended without modification from the creation of concepts to the acquiring of concepts.
Nersessian is interested in the role of analogy in the solution of problems in science. Scientists create mental models which acquire some properties from the problematic ‘target’ domain and some properties from a well-known ‘source’ domain. For example, the behaviour of water in a system of pipes is easily understood either because of familiarity with dealing with water, or because one can imagine oneself in the place of the water. So by mentally building a model of the economy in which money is replaced with water, it is possible to understand the general laws of behaviour of the economy viscerally. The results of hydrodynamics can then be formally compared with the analogous economic laws and points of departure identified, which then demand a further refinement of the model then has to be modified. Such mental models, she claims, form the units of knowledge.
Nersessian studied the diagrams and notes left us by historical natural scientists, as evidence of the analogies and mental models they built to solve problems in their scientific community. Also, subjects solving problems in a laboratory setting were observed to make gestures and movements with their hands betraying the fact they were imagining themselves manipulating mental models or acting them out. Together with the now well-known fact of neuroscience, that imagining motor actions activates most of the same neurological activity as actually carrying out the action, the conclusion is inescapable that the individuals involved are utilising the sensori-motor functions of their nervous system to access experience accrued in everyday life, and to solve cognitive problems by translating the problem into the kinds of domain which George Lakoff took to be the source of metaphor: manipulating objects, fighting, journeying, containers, conduits and surfaces, substances, moving objects and so on. Such ‘modelling’ makes it possible to carry out ‘thought experiments’ in which major components of the problem solving are dealt with implicitly thanks to the selection of a good analogy, which brings with it, or entails, an extensive system of relations which are built into the background for mental simulation.
The manipulation of the mental model is not in itself sufficient to solve the problems and contradictions which have emerged in the ‘target’ domain. The metaphor can only work because the target and source domains are not in fact homologous, so the solution of the problem requires the identification of contradictions and extension of the model beyond what may be reliably known from experience in the source domain. For example, to carry out the thought experiments Einstein used in his special relativity, the speed of light has to be reduced to a few mph; fluid analogies for electromagnetic fields involve an ether which exhibits some but obviously not all the properties of the dynamics of elastic fluids. So the thinker has to create an imaginary environment where the laws of nature have been tinkered with. But we do this whenever we play computer games, and good computer graphics will have us at home in an invented universe in no time at all. We acquire each new property of the model as an extension of known properties, and learn to be as proficient in simulating scenarios in the new ‘target’ domain as we were in the ‘source’ domain. Metaphorically speaking, we learn to understand flight by growing virtual wings.
Nersessian insists that “model-based reasoning is genuine reasoning. It is not an ancillary aid to reasoning carried out by logical manipulations of propositional representations” (2008: 184). When we see only the finished product of a process of development, in this case concepts of relations remote from everyday experience, then how we form concepts of these relations is mysterious and consequently the nature of the concepts themselves is equally mysterious. But by tracing the development of these exotic concepts, Nersessian has shown how the mundane relations which we well understand viscerally act as stepping stones to the more exotic concepts, and as incorporated into them in modified form.
Also, Nersessian is insistent on the nature of the context of scientific discovery. She says that new scientific concepts arise from situations characterised by problems within a formerly stable and well-defined theoretical framework; the new concept arises as a solution to a problem which the development of the science up to that point had posed but could not solve. Without the already-existing system of scientific knowledge and practice in the field, no anomaly could arise and neither the need nor the opportunity to develop the new concept would be possible. In that sense, a new concept contains all previous development of the science in the very process of negating it and restructuring it on a new foundation. And in the wake of an epoch-making development, there is always a cascade of new concepts which follow from it, resolving subordinate problems arising from the process of restructure, more or less as corollaries. The idea of a mental model of a problem situation, which can be abstracted from any concrete, particular context, as a unit of knowledge is very attractive. At the heart of each mental model is a concept. Nersessian suggests that internal and external representations, such as tools and symbols, form a “coupled system” of cognition, in which mental tools develop out of the interaction between two entangled processes: biological selection and adaptation, on one hand, and sociocultural construction, selection, and adaptation, on the other” (2008). In this way Nersessian proposed to explain how people perform psychological functions far in excess of their natural abilities by utilising cues in the cultural environment as a normal part of psychological functioning.
Theories of metaphor and analogy demonstrate how everyday practical intelligence may be leveraged so as to provide for exotic and abstract concepts by ‘tinkering’ with properties of the world in which practical intelligence is acquired. Both metaphors and narratives demonstrate that concepts presuppose a unique combination of the mundane and the imaginative.