The Stuff of Thought

I just read an interview with Stephen Pinker in the recent Discover magazine (September 2007), which introduces his forthcoming book titled The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. From what I read, this sounds like one I might have to read (among all of the other ones!). One nice new perspective that supports one in George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant is his definition of framing as different perspectives of the same actual event. The example he uses comes from linguistics, the study of verbs (which he has been fascinated with): “Fill the glass with water” vs. “Pour water into the glass” vs. “Load the wagon with hay/Load the hay into the wagon”. He asks about how kids are able to learn these distinctions and suggests that framing an event in multiple ways is “one of the key talents of the mind.” He then talks about the “superhero” of metaphor and how it allows us to “leach the content from [one domain] and use them as abstract structures to reason about other domains.” This sounds very familiar to the work of Lakoff and Johnson, which I have mentioned in previous posts (e.g. see post from June 13th, 2007). Then he writes,

When we put together the power of metaphor with the combinatorial nature of language and thought, we become able to create a virtually infinite number of ideas, even though we are equipped with a finite inventory of concepts and relations. I believe it is the mechanism that the mind uses to understand otherwise inaccessible abstract concepts. It may be how the mind evolved the ability to reason about abstract concepts such as chess or politics, which are not really concrete or physical and have no obvious relevance to reproduction or physical survival (my emphasis).

When I read this, I wondered what exactly is an “abstract concept.” If metaphor (i.e. some concrete thing or experience) in the world is the only access we have to an abstract concept–or is that which an abstract concept is based upon, then what is an abstract concept? What is “abstract” about it? These questions take a different spin when considered in the context of Deleuze’s definition of a concept, which is something that makes something happen in the world.

I also noticed that Pinker himself uses a metaphorical concept (how can he avoid it?!) when he describes gaining access to “otherwise inaccessible abstract concepts”. This resonates very much with one of the key moments in Greg Ulmer’s keynote speech for the 2007 Invent-L Conference on Imaging Place, when he invokes an early childhood memoryof being unable to open a door but was left there to do it on his own (“tough love” he quipped), when his mother refused to do it for him. He suggests that this childhood memory can become an “image of wide scope” (i.e. an image that invoked all four “quadrants” of the “popcycle” and thereby ties together these disparate realms of human experience) that we store into the “ka-ching database,” a kind of computerized I-Ching that will enable us to get answers to burning questions. The goal of such a database and this strategy is to have “memory guiding intuitive judgments” and to generalize this (use of images/memory) into a feature of thinking. As the keynote continues he invokes Socrates’s daemon: Socrates stops at the door and consults his daemon (e.g. the voice of his body, a.k.a. Lorca’s duende), which electracy will augment and support in the new apparatus. He mentions a couple of other examples of the door as pivotal image (Kafka’s “man from the country” and Nietzsche’s “dwarf at the gateway”), but it’s his own original experience that calls forth and organizes this “new image of thought,” this new constellation of gateways and doorways that suggest how thinking can or will be in the age of electracy.

And that makes me think of my own doorknob experience, the one occasion I was on the inside of a mental hospital and was put into a room with no doorknob at all. What does that suggest about thinking?

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