Communication and the Mind

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 11 Comments

I still have a few more thoughts about John Dewey's profound book “Experience and Nature” to develop in this post and the next before I get to explain what hit me while I was reading a week or so ago. In the philosophy of Dewey communication was analogous to the Thirdness described by Charles Sanders Peirce and also “the world” as Martin Heidegger used the word. Dewey defined communication as both the exchange of words and ideas between people and also the inner dialog through which we “communicate” with ourselves through the process of thinking. The ability to communicate liberated experience from time and place and made it portable so that it could be shared with others. Dewey considered the sharing of experience to be the highest human good.

As he describes it, prior to the development of communication reality is composed of a never ending succession of encountered events. Let’s use an example to try to illustrate this. Imagine that you are a primitive human with absolutely no language faculty (if that was ever the case) that means no ability to label any part of your experience with a word or symbol that could be remembered. Now imagine that you are walking in the woods and then you encounter the experience/event of being thirsty. You walk further and you encounter the experience of hearing rushing water. If you had the ability to use language you might communicate to yourself by thinking in words that,  ”The sound of water means that there must be a river nearby and if I walk towards the sound I will be able to drink.”

Since we are imagining that you don’t have the ability to use language you can’t think anything. I suppose that doesn’t mean you don’t have a memory. So maybe the sound of the river triggers an encounter with a memory of that last time you drank out of a river. That might trigger you to run toward the sound and you might come across the river and get a drink. Without the ability to communicate the experience of being is a succession of events, encounters with circumstances as they arise. There is no way without the use of language to guide events, to generalize experiences so that it could be brought to bear in other circumstances. It is at this level of being that I imagine the laws of Behaviorism would be most effective at predicting behavior.

Now let us suppose that the same thing happens when you do have the ability to communicate. You are thirsty and you hear the rushing water. You think, “That must be a river.” Now the ability to communicate with yourself means that you can generate multiple possibilities for the outcome of the experience of hearing rushing water, possibilities that you would have no way of generating without language so language becomes a tool for creating new possibilities for response to circumstances. You might think, “I should run to that river and get a drink.” Or you might think, “I should run back to the village and get a bucket so that I can go to the river get a drink and bring water back with me as well.” Or you might think I should go back to the village and share my experience of hearing the rushing water with others so that we can all come back to the river with buckets.”

The last option illustrates how communication liberates experience from time and place and allows it to be shared. With language you can go to the village and share your experience verbally without needing to bring everyone back to the circumstance of the original experience so that they can experience it as well.  In this way Dewey saw that communication expands the possible outcomes of experience by creating opportunities to reorganize experience and project different possibilities into the future. Sharing experience allows human beings to work cooperatively and achieve higher coordination of activity between different individuals. The ability to share experience creates a shared space for human interaction which is very much like Heidegger’s “world.” Dewey saw education as the means through which experience was shared and he dedicated his life to improving the human ability to share experience through teaching and learning.

Dewey saw the shared space of communication as the source of what we commonly call mind. He did not believe that the mind was something limited to the human brain or even to a single human individual. Mind was an emergent collection of new possibilities for human interaction that arose with the advent of communication and language. The mind was not something inside of us it was the field of new shared experience and the universe of new possibilities that arose in that field and was shared between people who could communicate together.

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Michael
10 years ago

Hi Jeff, I do not see how you need language to communicate with yourself! The mind deals in physical sense datums – ie. unit experiences of the body’s five senses. When we think something, we experience a sense datum or sensum. The mind then associates that sensum with other sensums which results in our understanding. So when I think the word ‘river’, my mind associates that with the image of a river, the sound of a river, the feel of a river, etc… Likewise, when I hear a river, I have the same experience – I do not need to… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

To Michael, how do you think that the associative nature of he mind is communicating itself to others ? For the associative nature, I believe words are indeed necessary and it is probably one of the reasons that we are here on earth, human being who have developed the capacity of driven thinking. This blog about communication made me think about a striking comment by Steve Jourdain. Steve once was saying that there is only three way of relying to another human being, three links. There is the fist and primordial of all links which is the “ link of… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Jeff, On language, thirst & the river: I can’t help but think of lions who presumably have no language in the sense of sounds that symbolize specific items in their environment, but still they thirst, and they have no problem refinding the water hole they used the day before, rather than just stumbling across a river by accident and the sound of water evoking some sort of memory. Thus they are remembering without the benefit of language, and they use these memories to adjust their behavior to the environment, and they enhance their probability of survival in a difficult world.… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Yes, but could a lion that found a watering hole tell another lion how to find it? I think that emotions give us very subtle and sometimes difficult to deterime accurately, information that has huge survivial instincts. Imagine you were a bunny and you walked out into an open field and a hawk swooped down and tried to drag you away. If you somehow managed to escape, it would give you a serious survival advantage to feel fear the next time you came to an open field. The fear would make you alert and perhaps even decide to go around… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Somehow I feel a nostalgia for direct communication, beyond words.
So I feel I understand what Chuck is talking about.

deep down we know that we should do better than words, that we should transcend language to communicate. I myself feel that in all my life there were very few moments of real communication with fellow human beings.

is it the nostalgia of Unity or it is a real stuff. That Unity goes through personalities and is at the same time personal and impersonal.

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Jeff, I doubt that a lion could “tell” another lion where to find the water hold. I don’t think whatever rudimentary level of symbolic communication they might have (if they have any at all) is capable of that. A lion can certainly lead another to the water hole. Chimps, bonobos or gorillas might be able to communicate that, but I don’t know for sure. I haven’t heard of any bird species being capable of that either. The bunny & hawk episode you suggest is exactly what my point. Emotions have survival value. Fear keeps many of us alive longer than… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

I understand what you are saying that our linguistic modeling becomes a filter through which we see reality. We don’t experience reality directly but we experience it through our words – in essence we mistake words for what they point to. This is something I am thinking about and questioning: is it really true – or perhaps more accurately is it always true or necessarily true? Is it true that our words have to create a “feeling of separation from the rest of the world?” You are using the word world here to be interchangeable with reality – or what… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Jeff, “ I wish I could describe myself better, but on the edge of my awareness I sometimes get a glimpse of how it is all one process, the unifying experience of non-separation, the physical objects, the living objects, the awareness, the language, the sense of separation, the recognition of the sense of separation, the rediscovery of non-separation, the re-embrace of separation, etc…” you are now precisely at the point where Steiner ‘s investigation starts. Indeed the mind, words, representation creates a feeling of separation with the world: is there a way to transcend it ? Steiner says that this… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

I recieved The Philosophy of Freedom today – so I guess we will be looking into that togehter.

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Jeff:
We are of course not *actually* separate from the world (reality, the universe, etc.) but we feel as if we are. It is impossible that we be separate. If we were, where would be be? The separation is an illusion. In some models of *enlightenment*, the experience of non-separation is the state of enlightenment.

The illusion of separation which our linguistic mind-frameworks create is the illusion that Zen Satori overcomes.

The separation that seems to dissolve in mystical union is of a different nature.

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Christine: You wrote: “Indeed the mind, words, representation creates a feeling of separation with the world: is there a way to transcend it ?” Yes there is. Such *transcending* is the point of Zen Buddhism. It works, but not – in my opinion – terribly well. It was the best available for it’s time and place. 20th century philosophy, more particularly post-modern philosophy also addresses this problem in various ways, but as far as I have read has offered virtually nothing in the way of aiding the individual in a practical way to loosen the grip of the linguistic mind-cage.… Read more »