A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Railway Man - Highlights of Holt's writing

I'm reviewing materials in preparation for an ENSO (Enactive Seminars Online) session on 3/3/16. This is one of the most important sections of The Freudian Wish (Holt, 1915). Something well worth meditating upon:
Let us consider, then, the higher forms of behavior, in human beings, and the question of consciousness and thought.

If one sees a man enter a railway station, purchase a ticket, and then pass out and climb on to a  train, one feels that it is clear enough what the man is doing, but it would be far more interesting to know what he is thinking. One sees clearly that he is taking a train, but one cannot see his thoughts or his intentions and these contain the 'secret' of his actions. And thus we come to say that the conscious or subjective is a peculiar realm, private to the individual, and open only to his introspection. It is apart from the world of objective fact. Suppose, now, one were to apply the same line of reasoning to an event of inanimate nature. At dawn the sun rises above the eastern ridge of hills. This is the plain fact, and it is not of itself too interesting. But what is the ‘secret’ behind such an occurrence?  "Why this is, as everybody knows, that the sun is the god Helios who every morning drives his chariot up out of the East, and he has some magnificent purpose in mind. We cannot tell just what it is because his thoughts and purposes are subjective and not open to our observation. We suspect, however, that he is paying court to Ceres, and so cheers on by his presence the growing crops."
Or again, the same line of reasoning as used in a somewhat later age. The stream flows through the field, leaps the waterfall, and goes foaming onward down the valley. The fact is that it has always done so. And the secret?  "Well, they used to say that the stream was a daughter of Neptune and that she was hurrying past to join her father. We know better than that now; we know that water always seeks its own level, and the only secret about it is that the water is urged on from behind by an impulse which some call the vis viva. We've never seen this vis viva, for it is invisible; but it is the secret of all inanimate motion; and of course it must be there, for otherwise nothing would move." 

It has taken man ages to learn that the gaps in his knowledge of observed fact cannot be filled by creatures of the imagination. It is the most precious achievement of the physical sciences that the ‘secrets behind’ phenomena lie in the phenomena and are to be found out by observing the phenomena and in no other way. The 'mental' sciences have yet to learn this lesson. Continued observation of the rising and setting sun revealed that the secret behind was not the gallantry of Helios, but the rotation of our earth which, by simple geometry, caused the sun relatively to ourselves to rise in the East. Continued observation of water showed that neither a nature god nor yet a vis viva is the secret behind the flowing stream; but that the stream is flowing as directly as the surface of the earth permits, toward the center of the earth. And that this is merely a special instance of the fact that all masses move toward one another. There is indeed a mystery behind such motion, but science calls this mystery neither Helios, Neptune, nor vis viva, but simply motion; and science will penetrate this mystery by more extended observation of motion. Now the inscrutable 'thought behind' the actions of a man, which is the invisible secret of those actions, is another myth, like the myths of the nature gods and the vis viva. Not that there are not actual thoughts, but tradition has turned thought into a myth by utterly misconceiving it and locating in the wrong place.
On seeing the man purchase a ticket at the railway station, we felt that there was more behind this action, ‘thoughts’ that were the invisible secret of his movements. Suppose, instead, we inquire whether the more is not ahead. More is to come; let us watch the man further. He enters the train, which carries him to a city. There he proceeds to an office, on the door of which we read ‘Real Estate.’ Several other men are in this office; a document is produced; our man takes a sum of money from his pocket and gives this to one of the other men, and this man with some of the others signs the document. This they give to our man, and with it a bunch of keys. All shake hands, and the man whom we are watching departs. He goes to the railway station and takes another train, which carries him to the town where we first saw him. He walks through several streets, stops before an empty house, takes out his bunch of keys, and makes his way into the house. Not long afterwards several vans drive up in front, and the men outside proceed to take household furniture off the vans and into the house. Our man inside indicates where each piece is to be placed. He later gives the men from the vans money.

All this we get by observing what the man does, and without in any way appealing to the 'secret' thoughts of the man. If we wish to know more of what he is doing we have only to observe him more. Suppose, however, that we had appealed to his inner thoughts to discover the ‘secret’ of his movements, when we first saw him buying a ticket at the railway station. We approach him and say, "Sir, I am a philosopher and extremely anxious to know what you are doing, and of course I cannot learn that unless you will tell me what you are thinking." "Thinking?" he may reply, if he condones our guileless impertinence. "Why, I am thinking that it's a plaguey hot day, and I wish I had made my morning bath five degrees colder, and drunk less of that hot-wash that my wife calls instant coffee." "Was that all.?" "Yes, that was all until I counted my change; and then I heard the train whistle. — Here it is. Good-by! And good luck to your philosophy!"

…. What is more important, the very best that the man could have told us would have been no better than what we have learned by watching the man. At best he could have told us, "I am intending to buy a house and to get my furniture in to-day"; exactly what we have observed. And if he told us his further intentions, these in turn could be as completely learned by watching his movements; and more reliably, since men do both think and speak lies.

…. It is an error, then, to suppose that the secret behind' a man's actions lies in those thoughts which he (and he alone) can introspectively survey.' We shall presently see that it is an error to contrast thought with action at all.
But what are we to do when thought' has receded to so impregnable a hiding-place? We are to admit, I think, that we have misunderstood the nature of thought, and predicated so much that is untrue of it, that what we have come to call ‘thought' is a pure myth. We are to say with William James "I believe that 'consciousness,' when once it has evaporated to this estate of pure diaphaneity, is on the point of disappearing altogether. It is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles. Those who still cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing soul' upon the air of philosophy."

1 comment:

  1. Dear Eric,

    The 'thought' to which each of us only individually has access occurs in the same language as the verbal community by which one was conditioned. A Dutch person would never have a Russian thought. In other words, private speech is a function of public speech and positive self-talk is a consequence of positive public speech and negative self-talk is caused by negative public speech.

    'Thought' has receded due to what I call Noxious Verbal Behavior (NVB), the way of talking in which the speaker's voice is experienced by the listener as an aversive stimulus. During NVB our private speech is kept out of our public speech. Private speech becomes separated from public speech in NVB, because the speaker and the listener are separated. In Sound Verbal Behavior (SVB), on the other hand, our private speech is expressed during our public speech and thus, there is no separation between the speaker and the listener.

    'Consciousness' is the private speech which is a function of SVB public speech, a.k.a the speaker-as-own-listener. The 'impregnable hiding place' is therefore a response product of NVB public speech.

    Once we discriminate between SVB and NVB, we learn that as SVB increases and NVB decreases, private speech completely subsides. Increase of SVB makes us more and more quiet, peaceful and without any thoughts. 'Consciousness' then derives from the increase of our positive covert self-talk, which only occurs if we engage more often in SVB.

    Only when our SVB public speech can continue and doesn't change again and again in NVB, will our so-called 'consciousness' or 'soul' dissolve.

    Writing and reading about this (often done by behaviorists) is not the same as actually experiencing this. We only experience in SVB, the interaction which is without aversive stimulation, that there is no inner behavior-causing agent.

    However, as long as we keep creating environments in which NVB occurs, we will continue to hang onto some sense of identity which is based on fear.

    If you would like to read more about SVB, go to www.soundverbalbehavior.blogspot.com and please respond so that we can clarify this extension of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Sound greetings,

    Maximus Peperkamp