June 28, 2012

The Verfremdung Illusion

In an unpublished essay by Alison Gopnik, we find the following imagined account of what it is like to be “mindblind”, a condition allegedly afflicting people with autism (a mindblind person supposedly lacks or is deficient in the ability to ascribe wishes, beliefs, intentions, feelings, etc. to other people):

This is what it’s like to sit around the dinner table. At the top of my field of vision is a blurry edge of nose, in front are waving hands ... Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, they shift and protrude in unexpected ways .... Two dark spots near the top of them swivel restlessly back and forth. A hole beneath the spots fills with food and from it comes a stream of noises. Imagine that the noisy skin-bags suddenly moved toward you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or predicting what they would do next.

(Alison Gopnik, "Mindblindness"; unpublished essay, University of California, Berkeley. Frequently quoted, for instance in Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness, an Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1995, pp.4-5.)

The writer’s purpose, undoubtedly, is to convey an eerie impression (rather like a Francis Bacon painting). Bags of skin, holes being filled with food and producing noises are undoubtedly disgusting. The question is, are we really getting a sense of what it is like to be autistic? Why should we suppose that autistic children see people as bags of skin shifting and protruding in unexpected ways? First of all, granting that people’s words and behaviour are altogether unintelligible to the child, what do we suppose the child is expecting, so that their noises and movements come across as unexpected? Isn’t it rather because we have some idea of what people in our surroundings are saying and doing that some of the things they say and do may surprise us?
Besides, in introducing the idea of movable skin bags, isn’t the writer playing on a set of contrasts that are available to us, while it would be begging a lot of questions to attribute them to the child? Skin bags, I would suggest, seem weird because they are covered by skin yet not human. But to the child, on the account being proposed here, the objects in front of him are neither human nor non-human. (Why, by the way, should they be described as skin bags: is this a child who recognizes an object as made of skin but not as human?)
What inclines us to suppose that some account such as Gopnik’s must give a realistic idea of what it is like to be autistic? The suggestion I wish to make is that it does so because of a deep-rooted but misguided way in which we tend to think about perception. I wish to get back to this matter in a later blog.

June 17, 2012

Is it a blooming buzzing confusion?

Among writers of fiction and students of human behaviour there are recurrent attempts to capture experiences radically different from one's own, say, that of animals, newborns, people suffering from severe forms of autism, etc. These attempts often reveal philosophical prejudices. A classical case in point is William James's account of what he takes to be a baby's experience of the world (or rather, perhaps, the way in which this account has often been read): 

The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must... The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion...  (The Principles of Psychology, p. 462.)

Evidently, readers have found this to be a striking account of the baby’s world as they conceive of it. The main point James wishes to make here is that the baby doesn’t distinguish between the inputs of different senses. The implication is that older children and adults do distinguish between them. Well, do we normally? In what sense? Suppose the building in which I am sitting undergoes a seismic tremor. I feel the floor and my chair shaking, see the furniture moving slightly, hear the windows rattle, etc. My experience of the tremor is made up of all these sensory inputs. Does this mean that I am confused? If I am, it is not because of the way these inputs fuse. On the contrary, it may be because of the way they combine that I am able to grasp what is happening.
                      (The fact that I may be agitated or shocked by the tremor, I submit, does not mean that I am necessarily confused about it.)
                      On the other hand, we may, after the fact, try to sort out the different sensations we had. We may do so because we have learnt to speak about the different senses, to speak of colours as things to be seen, sounds heard, shapes and movements seen or felt, etc. We may succeed to a greater or lesser extent in our effort to sort them out.
The baby does not have access to this verbal repertoire – will not ask herself: ”to what extent was that something I heard or something I felt?” etc. Does that mean that the baby is confused? Of course not; on the contrary, we might say, it is only because we have learnt to ask those questions that we may be confused about the contributions of the different senses – though this, as I said, need not mean that we are confused about what we are witnessing.
                      I suspect the reason James’s account has had such great appeal is that he appears to express an idea which we may feel it tempting to embrace: the newborn child, confronting an unfamiliar world, is bound to find her impressions bewildering. Yet that I would claim is a misleading picture of the baby’s experience. The experience of birth is probably shocking, as the experience of an earthquake is, but that does not mean that it is confusing. (I am not sure whether James is to be taken as saying that the baby is confused, or whether his point is simply that her sense impressions are all bundled together.)
Things bewilder us when we are trying to make sense of them. We are bewildered because we do not know how to go about finding answers to our questions. (“I don’t know my way about”, Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 123.) The baby, however, as yet has no questions. She has not reached the stage of confusion – nor is there, I would suggest, any particular age at which we may be more confused than at any other.