Response #1 to the Question of What is Thought?

May 30, 2007

Barry Mauer replied immediately to my whacky question with the following response:

Excellent start. I think you are already hinting at an answer here, which is to move away from defining thought as something that can be understood as an “object” (in terms of exclusive features) and towards an understanding of thought as it is understood “in language” (and other sign systems). Also, you suggest (at least to me) that perhaps thought is understood in terms of what it does rather than what it is.

And another “thought”: what if we de-center human beings from thought about thought? If thought does something, can a machine or animal do it? Can space itself think?

And what are the limits of thought? What is outside it? How does it overlap with other concepts (like “sense” and “reason”)?

Just some thoughts. (invent-l list, 28 May 2007)

Just a (gossipy, blog-like?) aside–I love Barry. He’s absolutely great. We were in Ulmer’s dissertation seminar together (with Michelle Glaros and Richard Howard, among others), and I always enjoyed hanging out with him. It was *so* great being with him again during the conference. We plunged into some serious discussion about the conference topics. . . I scratched one note down during our conversation (Bill Stephenson was there–another brilliant guy who I had a lot of classes with back in graduate school): “What do we want to remember?” and “moving through loss is equivalent to moving through information.” At one point Barry suggested that in the age of literacy, logos was the gold standard, but in the age of electracy, pathos and ethos will be the gold standard. Now that’s putting it in terms I can understand!

Barry also mentioned psycho-pharmacological interventions that suppress the amygdala so that there is no affect, no emotional involvement, and how that can affect one’s ability to remember: we attach mood to information.

Anyway, to comment on Barry’s response: he attributes too much to me when he suggests that I “hint at an answer.” I did want to imply that thought is more about what it does than what it is, but this is probably more a result of reading Manuel DeLanda on Deleuze (A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History; Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy). Deleuze is always pushing us to create new concepts (thereby making something happen in the world–me having thoughts, making concepts/philosophy), and I am impressed by the idea of the “materiality of the concept“. I’m not articulating this very well, so I’ll just stop now.

I do want to mention that I was reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book on Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies recently, so Barry’s suggestion of thought de-coupled from human wet-ware definitely resonates with the work that he and the “Fluid Analogies Research Group” was doing when they tried (and succeeded to some extent) to get computers to perform higher-order thinking skills (a.k.a. thinking via analogies).


Abstract Revision/Whacky Thought

May 29, 2007

I didn’t post anything of substance on invent-l until yesterday–Memorial Day. Had the day off, and wife/kids are still in FL visiting grand-parents, so I was on my own. I sat in my pajamas until 4pm while I read the first chapters/pages of the Alliez book on Deleuze I mention below (among other things) and got swept up in the witch’s ride once again. The subject line was “whacky question #1” and was a reference to Craig Saper’s response to a question of mine at the conference (can’t remember what it was now). He told an anecdote of a French professor who would always characterize his questions (he was the only one with enough courage to pipe up in this particular class) as “whack-eee.” Here’s the message I posted:

(I think this might qualify as the revision of my conference abstract that Craig
requested a while back)

I’ve been quiet since returning from the Imaging Place conference in part because it was so intense (the preparation leading to it followed by the “being there”) and in part because I experienced a bit of burn-out and have been catching up with the rest of my life: phoenix rising from the ashes. I promised Craig S. at the conference to ask some whacky questions, so this is the first: What is thought? or (conversely?) what is thinking? or “what does it mean to think?”

One thing I hoped for from the conference but wasn’t very good at producing (perhaps my fault, perhaps the fault of the conference format) was a conversation about how a 3-D electronic space like Second Life will change the way we think spatially. To save (my) time in posing the question, I will quote Christy Dena quoting me in her article “Art and Aporia: Imaging Place” (;=view&id;=96&Itemid;=40

For the Greeks, the act of moving through a space was LITERALLY an act of reasoning for them, if you consider their use of the “memory palace” as a method of organizing their speeches, their argumentative acts of reason. As the fourth step in a rhetorical act, “memoria” was their way of remembering the “topics” (literally “places” in Greek) in their speech: they would put images which would trigger their memory of the speech topic into the places of their memory palace (the imagines loci). Craig also points out that the movement through a space is/was an act of reasoning in oral cultures as well. In aboriginal walkabouts, details of a journey are encoded in a song. And I remember reading in Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines that the aborigines would embed stories in the landscape so that, as they walked about, stories were stored in a kind of pre-literate version of the Greek’s memory palace. So what we are doing in SL/VR when we speak of moving through space as an act of reasoning is nothing new. The question is this: how does the electronic medium change the way that we think spatially? If oral culture’s primary mode was narrative (i.e. using space to tell stories), and literate culture’s primary mode was argumentation (i.e. using space to make arguments), then what is the primary mode of “electracy”? We might say “using space to make patterns” (a.k.a. artwork, aesthetically pleasing constellations of meaning: “The wide image is an emergent pattern…. a constellation that appears within a field of relationships” Internet Invention 276). I think what Ulmer is trying to work out is the codification of creativity, the actual in-corp-oration of discovery into the act
of reasoning (this is actually the first step of rhetoric: invention, which means “to come upon, find, discover”)….”

One thing I tried to do in my powerpoint presentation (now available in two parts at was to introduce Lakoff and Johnson’s cluster of conceptual metaphors based on the Mind as Body metaphor (Thinking is Moving, Thinking is Perceiving, Thinking is Object Manipulation) and consider these in light of using virtual reality as a prosthesis for thinking (Ideas are Locations, A Line of Thought is a Path, Understanding is Following, etc.). I wanted to ask three questions: If thinking is moving through space, then

–What happens to thought when our understanding of space changes?
–What happens to thought when we consider the space of non-Euclidean geometries?
–What happens to thought when we begin to navigate virtual spaces like Second Life?

This especially became resonant when Greg told his anecdote about his inability to use a doorknob when very young.

But the more I thought about thought, the more I wondered what thought actually is…. and thought that this would have to be answered before going much further.

Ultimately, I’m intrigued by what it means for abstract thought to be based on bodily experience of 3-D space and early infant/childhood experiences with manipulating objects and learning to navigate our world.

So what do you think? What is thought?


(I was encouraged to post this b/c I just returned from Gainesville [twin sons graduated from P.K. Yonge on Friday] and started reading a book I bought from Goering’s: Eric Alliez’s THE SIGNATURE OF THE WORLD: WHAT IS DELEUZE AND GUATTARI’S PHILOSOPHY? in which the translator writes in the preface, “But what is perhaps most significant about Alliez’s operation… is the absolute centrality he accords to the question of *thought*, which he places at the very heart of Deleuze and Guattari’s recasting of materialism for the twenty-first century as a materialism of the concept. For *What is Philosophy?* clearly shows that it is impossible to answer the question without also expanding it to “What is Thought?”. . . (xxiii) ) (invent-l list, 28 May 2007)

I was surprised when Craig Freeman posted this in its entirety on the conference website, but I was also happy that my posting it seems to have gotten the ball rolling on the post-conference ‘formalized’ activity (like thinking about what product should emerge from the conference).