> From: Jamie MacKinnon <[log in to unmask]>
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: Re: The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools . . . -Reply
> Date: July 9, 1998 8:54 AM
> Hi Sandra,
> Good to hear from you. I've ordered Teaching as Story Telling. Thanks
> for the recommendation.
> Part of what appeals to me in the little I know of Egan is the AND
> in the model. As opposed to "ironic" *replacing* (say) mythic, it's
> on. I guess many Piagetians look for "reconciliation" of different modes
> of thought, but I'm more interested in thinking from different
> (unreconciled, un-synthesizable) perspectives.
If by AND you mean "separate but equal," Kieran's book might disappoint
you. It's true his title plays off of Howard Gardener's _Unschooled
Mind_and it's true that like Gardener he's working with cognitive theories.
But he uses them quite differently. Gardener's is an egalitarian model,
where different incommensurate modes co-exist.
Kieran is very firm that his is a hierarchical model. Each of the
successive stages of understanding he discusses do entail acquisition of
new skills and access to new knowledge, and this can be seen as
supplementary, but there is a concomittant dimming or eclipsing of previous
stages--when people become literate, they lose some of the capacity or
understanding they had at an earlier stage. He is regretful about this, but
> You: "This is counter to the prevailing view in many literature courses,
> where relativism rules, and orality and literacy are often seen as
> separate but equal, or maybe with orality given a slight edge."
> Have you seen Kevin Porter's "Methods, Truths, Reasons" in the April 98
> College English? I liked it: tightly argued, highly nuanced, employing
> relevant threads of analytic philosophy (particularly Donald Davidson) to
> "rehabilitate" truth and reason in language studies. Relativists have
> away with too much for too long! Up with truth!
> The article follows an earlier (Sept. 95) CE article by Dasenbrock that
> argued that anti-objectivist arguments tend to be totalizing, because
> never accept the ground on which a critic might stand. Relativists and
> anti-objectivists are therefore solipsists. Psychoanalysts, New
> Historicists and some anti-objectivist feminists (for example) "absorb"
> counterevidence in such a way that it always ends up supporting their
> Re: Steven Pinker. I have little time for any student of cognition who
> talks of "excess cognitive capacity," that is who seems to have a sense
> that the computer is the explanatory metaphor for the brain.
One of Kieran's models for the stages of understanding was taken from
Merlin Donald's _Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution
of Culture and Cognition_ (Harvard UP, 1991). You might like this version
of cognitive theory, so I've summarised it at too-great length below
. Donald is a neuropsychologist at Queen's University, and his theory of
cognitive evolution posits 4 (not 3 as his title says) stages based on
physiological, archaeological, and cognitive psychological data. And just
as in Kieran's model, each of the successive stages retain but encompass
the previous gains in skill and knowledge. As follows:
1) Australopithecine: diverged from other primates in the ability to form
stronger group ties. Social stability aided by monogamy (to reduce
comptetition between males), food sharing, and shared child-rearing.
Primary mode of cognitive representation was episodic memory--the ability
to perceive events and recall them; but no capacity for representing them
to others. Donald speculates that while Australopithecines shared this
capacity with other primates, and indeed all mammals, in them it was
developed to an exceptional degree required by larger social groups, and
the need to recall and service more relationships.
2) Homo erectus: tool use, fire, better organized social groups.
Primary mode of representation Donald calls "mimetic"--pre-linguistic but
with the capacity to reflect on, and re-present simple episodes to others
and to self. Self reflection allows for tool-making, representation allows
for pedagogy, ritual, and games.
He speculates that mimetic culture relied heavily on the representation of
emotion for communication and social control. Although pre-linguistic,
mimetic culture employed prosody (controlled vocalization) and proto-music,
primitive ritual, and a growing awareness of, and ability to represent the
interests of the collective. This stage lasted for 2 million years (about).
It was remarkably stable and changed little over that time. Because of its
duration, it can be assumed that the cognitive processes developed at that
time remain deeply embedded in modern minds.
3) Homo sapiens: development of language enabled rapid cultural change.
Donald calls the early language stage "mythic" (although there is overlap
of terms with Kieran's stages of understanding, they describe different
Primary mode of representation was speech in the form of narratives about
the tribe, rituals. For Donald, mythic cultures arose out of the need for
more efficient ways of representing the stories of the group than were
possible in mimetic culture.
4) The "hybrid" modern mind and visuographic culture: this stage follows
close on the heels of the mythic, and both of these stages continue to be
entwined up to the present. However, Donald argues that the ability to
externalize the products of cognition, and to store them in cultural
archives marks a qualitative break from mythic (i.e. narrative) culture.
Primary mode of representation is visual and graphic symbols. Humans have
continued to evolve, but the locus of memory and thus of identity is no
longer in the individual biological mind, but externally in the "storage
systems" of the culture, the technology, and increasingly in cyberspace
(you can hear echoes of McLuhan and Havelock, as well as Eric Auerbach in
this theory). Although we do have written narrative forms, some of them
only possible because of writing, they are not in the same category as the
production of theory and analysis enabled by external representation. They
simply represent an archaic holdover from an earlier stage.
The major cognitive product of visuographic culture is the production of
theory, or metalinguistic processing. The thought habits made possible by
theoretic culture are learned only from extensive education, and Donald
says the major cognitive changes of the last two millenia can be tracked by
tracing the history of western education over that period. Starting with
"Thus from the start, rhetoric emphasized the large-scale, on-line
structuring of linguistic thought products. This fits the definition of a
very high-level metalinguistic skill and was already a considerable step
away from simple, linear narratives and unconstrained imaginative myth. The
art of discovering the metalinguistic structure of ideas gradually became
the focus of training. The logic of argumentation was also starting to
emerge as a _trainable_ skill. In effect, the early growth of rhetoric
reflected the refinement and formalization of thought strategies and
criteria for evaluating and crafting an effective argument" (348).
I like this book, although toward the end he's just a tad too ecstatic
about the benefits of technology. Still, this is cognitive science for
humanists. True, he subordinates the narrative tradition, but he respects
it, and above all, he explains the powerful non-linguistic systems of
communication which form the underpinnings of art, music, and basically of
most social interaction, lucidly and rationally.
Unfortunately he's a bit eccentric as a cognitive scientist so he doesn't
get as wide a reading as more mainstream writers like Steven Pinker and
Daniel Dennett. While he subscribes to the computational theory of mind
(which is a good theory up to a point--why don't you like it?) he does not
buy in to the transcendantly silly notion that it explains human
consciousness, let alone that it will lead to a genuine artificial
intelligence any time soon. But he also doesn't think that consciousness is
an inexplicable metaphycial phenomenon either. He sees it as socially
situated from the outset. You could call him a social constructionist
except that his theory is more rigorously delimited by physiological
processes than any social constructionist (or anti-objectivist if you
prefer) notions dream of being.
> comes to consciousness, I'll take Nabokov's metaphysical (and physical)
> musings any day over most current cognitive approaches.
Nabokov is all very well, but he's dead and who will take his place? A
while ago I went to see a new play by Guillermo Verdecchia, winner of the
G.G. Award several years back for _Fronteras Americanas_. I can't remember
the name of this new play, and anyway it doesn't matter--it didn't contain
a single idea worth remembering. It was a monologue delivered by a male
actor, consisting of two themes:
1) ruminations about his love life, whether he was a good feminist, and why
girls don't like him.
2) a nod to the cultural context of creeping corporatism through the lense
of the quasi-Marxist polemics that pass for political insight, taking the
form of tirades against Starbucks.
Verdecchia is not stupid or lacking imagination. The problem is, he is
unable to address the issues of his time because he appears not to
understand what they are, or how they might be framed so they have
relevance to a wider audience than the small group of die-hard theatre
goers who trekked out to see his play.
As long as it is acceptable intellectual practice to view art and science
as separate but equal domains, for artists and intellectuals to turn their
backs on the acutal dominant forms of representation in their culture, they
inevitably leave the field of cultural critique open to narrowly
specialised researchers like Steven Pinker, who has an excellent command of
Chomskian linguistics, a pretty good sense of humour and a really good
publicist, and who successfully targets a mainstream audience with his
work, but who lacks maturity, wisdom, insight and vision when it comes to
larger cultural issues.
If they turn their backs on the issues which shape their culture and their
lives, how can artists, intellectuals and humanist academics identify and
promote those theories which support a more balanced social vision such as
the one outlined by Donald, for example, is my question, I guess.
> Me: I'm always on the lookout for good stuff on the role of narrative /
> story in learning, thinking, communications. Thinking of your Business
> Communication course, I sometimes like to ask people, following a
> consultation session, to distill what they're thinking into a little
> what you'd tell a good friend in 3 to 15 sentences that would make
> sense of it all.
how do they react when you make this request? It seems to me many people
are resistant to the idea of telling stories. Too often it's a private
discourse, or one reserved for children.
> I've asked for the text you use on ILL. I don't know it.
I don't use Rodman's text, though I wish I did. It's a good one.
> Thanks for the flattering comments. If *methodolgy* is one of the
> reasons you use my Spilka article, you might want to look at the thesis
> version, which you can borrow from Carleton, or I'll fax you the relevant
I will look for your thesis, I'd be interested to see what data you used.
> All the best to you.