By Carlo Ierna
In my previous post I asked whether we could see the approach in the School of Brentano as some kind of cognitive science and whether it could contribute something interesting to current discussions. Why should a 19th century position have anything to contribute to current debates?
First of all, it needs to be pointed out that many current positions are nothing new. For instance a popular metaphor, spread by the likes of John Searle throughout his career, is that “the brain creates a conscious field just as the stomach and digestive tract create digestion” (Searle 2008, 143). This metaphor, however, was first made already two-hundred years ago by Cabanis (1802, 151): “In order to give an accurate idea of the operations which produce though, one must consider the brain as a particular organ, specially designed to produce thought, just as the stomach and intestines contribute to the operation of digestion.” (transl.) It was also at the center of a controversy in the middle of the century in Germany, owing to its use by Vogt (1846, 206): “thoughts stand in the same relation to the brain as gall does to the liver or urine to the kidneys” (transl.). The metaphor on its own does not explain anything, but it contains assumptions as to how consciousness should be approached by science: we can and should study the mind in the same way as digestion, by studying the physical mechanism in which it is realized.
In the 19th century we witness the birth and development of two very specific and sophisticated strategies for the mechanization of consciousness and the mind: 1) the theory of evolution provided strong new arguments for biological reductionism; 2) the first steps were taken toward the literal mechanization of reason itself, i.e. the implementation of the laws of thought in machines, such as mathematical and logical calculators.
On the one hand, the gradualism of the theory of evolution established a continuum of biological automata ranging from the simplest animals to humans, not only with respect to physical, but also psychical features. “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin 1871, 106) Not only the body, but also instincts, skills, and higher forms of cognition were shown to be adapted, evolved, and to come in degrees. If animals feel, remember, and learn just like humans, then these cognitive functions cannot but be due to the same kinds of mechanisms. Humans then would be nothing more than biological automata: “What is true for animals, is also valid for humans … man as well as animal is just a machine” (Vogt 1852, 445).
On the other hand, through the invention and actual (if partial) construction of machines such as Babbage’s Difference and Analytical Engines, Smee’s “Electro-Biological” artificial neural networks and his Relational Machine, Jevons’ “Logic Piano”, etc. proof-of-concept and working prototypes were developed showing that a mechanical model was feasible for an increasing number of mental acts.
Mechanization has been an extremely powerful explanatory strategy ever since Descartes: supplying a mechanical model using only matter in motion provided a complete explanation of any phenomenon. Mechanization went from single objects to the clockwork of the cosmos, from individual body parts to the automatic feedback mechanisms of ecosystems, and from specific mental operations to the information processing and physical symbol system of the mind and consciousness as a whole. This would ultimately reduce all agency, creativity, reason, values, norms, etc. to the output of a machine. However, to the present day, mechanization has not been able to explain away consciousness, subjectivity, or intentionality. The fundamental problem of how consciousness is realized in it, how “a motion became a feeling” (James 1890, 146), remains unsolved: ignorabimus indeed (du Bois-Reymond 1872, 34). The machine metaphor can take us only so far and seems incapable of accommodating approaches from outside the natural sciences. As Rosen (1991, xv–xvi) states: “for the past three centuries, ideas of mechanism and machine have constituted the very essence of the adjective ‘‘scientific’’; a rejection of them thus seems like a rejection of science itself.” The “science of consciousness” sought by Chalmers is still a work in progress, since cognitive science lacks a common framework able to integrate the contributions from the various disciplines into a whole.
That is why I think it could be very fruitful to take a new look at Brentano’s approach. Recently there has been a rising interest in the historical development of cognitive science, which has brought to light influences and parallels between the School of Brentano and the phenomenological movement on the one hand and cognitive science and AI on the other (see e.g. Albertazzi 2001; Depraz and Gallagher 2002; Gallagher and Zahavi 2008). The relevance of 19th century and early 20th century authors and debates to current developments have been repeatedly underscored. Zahavi (2004) in his introduction titled “The Study of Consciousness and the Reinvention of the Wheel” observes that “by ignoring the tradition one might miss out on important insights that in the best of circumstances end up being rediscovered decades or centuries later”. Albertazzi claims we should go “Back to the Origins”: “[I]n both analysis and theory, positions were developed in that period [1870-1930] which anticipated not only much of the content of the contemporary cognitive sciences but also much of the modes of research typical of the late twentieth-century mainstream. (Albertazzi 2001, 18)” Indeed, “the relevant investigations [into intentionality and consciousness] which grew out of the School of Brentano are often unjustly ignored” (Rollinger 1999, 6), often merely due to superficial changes in terminology and linguistic barriers.
As I mentioned last time, I think that Brentano’s descriptive psychology is strikingly contemporary in explicitly acknowledging sources of data about mental phenomena beyond subjective reflection and opening up the framework to both first- and third-person methodologies. Since the foundation for the humanities and social sciences as well as for the natural sciences lies in his descriptive psychology, this turns out to be an encompassing foundational and interdisciplinary paradigm, and, as I briefly sketched in the first post, a quite fruitful one at that. Amidst the new developments in the mechanization of consciousness in the 19th century, Brentano’s non-reductive but interdisciplinary science of consciousness and presentes a strong and interesting alternative, with no clear parallels in current research. That’s why I am writing a grant proposal to investigate how the mechanical model became the dominant paradigm to study the mind and consciousness during the nineteenth century. Where, when, and why did “mind as machine” go from metaphor to paradigm? Can something like Brentano’s position really accommodate contributions form the mechanical paradigm in his overall science of consciousness?
Since this is my last post as a featured author here on the Cocoon, I'd like to thank Marcus and all the readers, especially those who have commented here or elsewhere on my posts. If you are interested in the topics I discussed here and would like to hear more, check out my own blog.