Thinking with my pen: A philosophical analysis

When I write, the process of writing often reveals my thoughts to me. I may start with a vague idea of what I want to say. But it is usually during the actual process of writing, that is, during the correcting, editing, re-writing etc, that the point I want to make slowly emerges. I seem to think by writing. And the more I write, the more thinking I do.

I doubt that I am unusual in this. I rather suspect that many of us think in this way. But what does this mean for mentality? For example, where does my thinking occur when I write? Two possibilities suggest themselves. On the one hand, maybe my thoughts are somehow stored inside my head and it is the process of writing that causes them to emerge. On the other, maybe it is the very act of writing itself that realises or makes happen my thinking.

Changing tack slightly, I am now old enough to remember a time when everyone was not glued to their screens – a time when I walked down the street, I did not constantly see people glancing at their iphones or holding up their tablets. (I am now no different of course. I am as addicted to new technology as the next person.)

Yet this ubiquity of technology has led some to claim that, like many other creatures, us human beings transform our environments in ways that enable us to do things that would prove difficult or even impossible without such transformations.  As Andy Clark has put it, we make the world smart so we don’t have to be.  But if this is true, and objects like iphones and tablets can indeed play an active, driving role in our thinking, then maybe such objects are not simply tools. Maybe our thinking can in fact extend to include such objects. Put another way, perhaps my iphone can be as much a part of the machinery of my mind as anything inside my skull. While it may have a modern gloss, this is an old idea. In philosophy circles, it is now called The Extended Mind.

But what exactly is the mind?

I like to read popular accounts of neuroscience. But I would be lying if I said I had anything other than a very basic grasp of brain function. Still, I often wonder, is the brain the mind? One reason to think not is that thoughts seem to be nothing like anything inside the head. For one thing, everything inside the head is spatially and temporally locatable. You can dissect the brain. You can even prize apart a neuron. Yet if you were to open up my skull and poke around in my brain, you would not find my imagined thought of, say, sitting on a beach in Greece.

However, this disconnect between the brain and the mind only seems to magnify if we accept that the mind can extend. For while iphones and tablets are obviously made of very different stuff from neurons and cellular structures, all are still spatially and temporally locatable. But then they are nothing like my imagined holiday in Greece.  So, how can the mind include both neurons, iphones, tablets and imagined holidays?

Lots of ink has of course been spilled answering this question. I won’t canvas such answers here. Rather, I am going to change tack again.  For here is another puzzling claim.

Some have suggested that the very fact that we can extend the concept “mind” to include iphones and tablets is itself an indication that something is amiss with this concept. For once we allow that, under the right conditions, a person’s iphone can be mental, then it seems to follow that as long as those conditions are met, then potentially any object a person uses could be mental. But if any object can be mental, then maybe there is in fact nothing substantial to the concept “mind”.  Perhaps the very idea of a mind is a relic of a by-gone era, a concept past its sell by date, one that now needs to be eliminated if we are to have a proper, that is, scientific understanding of ourselves.

But consider just how radical this claim is. Eschewing talk of the mental from our everyday vocabulary would, at the very least, seem to entail a full scale revision of how we understand one another. Indeed, it is hard to see how we could discard the concept “mind” without completely reframing the concept “human being”. Perhaps this is why this claim has so few admirers. But perhaps it should also cause us to reflect that maybe somewhere along the line, our thinking on these matters has become seriously confused.

A Wittgensteinian remedy

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who, in his later work, devoted considerable attention to issues about philosophical psychology. For example, he remarked:

“I really do think with my pen, for my head often knows nothing of what my hand is writing.”  (C & V, p24e).

He thus seemed to agree with the idea that we can think by writing. However, Wittgenstein also had a very distinctive approach to philosophical problems. He thought that when we sit down to reflect on a topic, we are liable to fall victim to pictures contained within our language, that is, ways of thinking that convince us how something must be. As he put it, “the picture seems to spare us this work: it already points to a particular use. This is how it takes us in” (PPF, vii, 55). Such pictures often generate puzzles (paradoxes, confusions). According to Wittgenstein, the remedy or cure for such puzzles is to remind ourselves of how we ordinarily use words, that is, “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (PI 116)

So, for example, it does seem plausible to claim that thoughts have a location. After all, it is I who imagines sitting on a beach in Greece and I clearly do have a spatial and temporal location. But if I combine this claim with the further claim that thoughts can’t have a location in the same sense as, say, neurons (if you open up my skull, you won’t find my imagined holiday), then it now seems I need to posit some sort of medium within which thoughts are stored. Yet this leaves me with a real puzzle. For the problem I hoped to avoid by positing such a medium (where are my thoughts?) now simply transfers to the medium itself. For where exactly is this medium located? More worrisome, how can it be located anywhere, since it needs to store things like thoughts, which are so unlike other spatially and temporally located objects?

The Wittgensteinian diagnosis, I think, would be that this puzzle emerges because we are in the grip of a picture, the picture that all words denote things (or what Wittgenstein calls substantives). We think that the word “thought” must denote a thing, something that I have. Since things tend to have locations, then so too must thoughts, hence we need a medium within which to locate it. The remedy for this puzzle however is not to speculate further about this medium but rather to bring words back from their metaphysical use to their everyday use. Doing so will enable us to see that not all words work by denoting things and even when some words do work in this way, not all words denote things in the same way.

For example, I often say, “I am in two minds about this”, meaning that I feel uncertain about something. I have also said, “I am losing my mind”, when I feel stressed or unduly anxious. Others have said to me,  “mind your head”, meaning watch out for the low hanging ceiling. I have watched my dad silently smooth down a surface and carefully apply a coat of paint. I thought his actions “thoughtful”, by which I simply meant that if I asked him why he was doing what he was doing, he could give me his reasons.

There is nothing exhaustive about these examples. I’m sure you could provide me with many more. Nonetheless, I think they are  illustrative of the diverse work we do with words like “mind” or “thought”, a reminder that such words can be expressive or performative, serve as part of a warning to someone else, be how we characterise someone else’s behaviour. In which case, they often do not denote anything at all.  And even if, on occasion, the word “mind” does seem to denote a thing (“my mind is full of foolish thoughts today”), this need not entail that it does so in an analogous way to how the word “table” denotes a table or how the word “writing” denotes writing. For while the concepts at work here may “touch..and run side by side” (PPF 108), this need not ensure that they also overlap. To evoke one of Wittgenstein’s many phrases, there may instead be something like a ‘family resemblance’ among their uses.

Thus, what initially appeared to be a mystery about a medium turns out to in fact be a confusion about language, one which we remedy or cure by reminding ourselves of the diversity of language and thereby loosening the hold that a picture contained within our language has over us.

Wittgenstein and Extended Mind

Now, you might think, why does it matter what Wittgenstein said? One reason I think it matters is because it casts a very different spin on Extended Mind.

As we have seen, Wittgenstein seemingly had no problem with the idea that we can think by writing. I suspect he would also have had no problem with the idea that someone can think by using their iphone or typing on their tablets. However, I think he would have had real issue with those who want to invest such everyday observations with a larger metaphysical significance.

My hunch is that Wittgenstein would criticise proponents of Extended Mind for having confused a issue about language with a puzzle about a medium (BB p6).  For underpinning  Extended Mind is a particular picture of thinking i.e. the picture that thinking is an “auxiliary activity”, a stream which must be flowing beneath the surface of our actions (Z 107). While this picture appears attractive, it encourages the thought that there must be some medium that realises such activity. And once this is accepted, then it is but a short hop, skip and a jump to claims about mechanisms, such that we can now say that the machinery of the mind can extend to include iphones or tablets. The problem however is that we are now faced with a similar puzzle as before, namely how can a causal mechanism, that is, something which quite clearly is spatially and temporally locatable, realise what equally clearly is not spatially and temporally locatable, namely thought?

As is often the way with a question like this, a vast philosophical industry has emerged to solve it. Yet where others might recommend solutions, Wittgenstein instead recommends therapy. For he would likely regard this question as one that only emerges because we are in the grip of a picture. If however we were to reject that picture, then we can also reject the question that this picture seems to generate. And we reject that picture by reminding ourselves that:

“‘Thinking’ is a widely ramified concept. A concept that comprises many manifestations of life. The phenomena of thinking are widely scattered.” (Z 110)

In other words, we remind ourselves of the sorts of work we do with the word “think”. By doing so, we will see that our everyday use of this word is not motivated by a reference to accompanying causal mechanisms. To return to a previous example, when I called my dad’s actions “thoughtful”, this word had meaning, not because it referenced some state or process currently inside or outside my father’s head, but because of the particular work the word does in that context, namely to characterise his behaviour. That is, what matters is the ‘language-game’, the ‘hurly burly’ within which words are spun and cast, not some underlying medium. This reminder should help free us from conceiving of thinking as an auxiliary activity, something flowing beneath the surface of our actions.

Thus, while you can think by writing, by using your iphone, or even by typing on your tablet, none of these commonplace observations need offer support (even indirectly) for metaphysical claims about the mind. Hence, contrary to proponents of Extended Mind, these observations need not be taken as evidence of extending mechanisms. And none of this need be viewed as a reason to eliminate the concept “mind”.

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