Hasta la vista

Oh my, I seem to have wandered into some untoward mystic terrain.  From my vantage point in this valley I look up to see several hills surrounding this place with their waters running down to the lake I stand beside.  From the summit to the east comes the waters of Zen and Taoism and a hearty respect for the mystic beyond.  From the west comes Monod and the marvelous biological mysticism I have gleaned from him.  From the north comes the cold, clear waters of Oyama, Thompson, Varela, and others running swiftly over rocky intellect and eroding past mechanistic paradigms.  From the south the warm waters of feeling, communality and art flow down from the springs of Langer, Damasio, Panksepp, de Waal and many others.  Looking down into the clear waters of this lake I am mindful of ancient beginnings, the transformation of planet Earth into Gaia with the upwellng from the spring of life over the past 5 billion years.  At this moment I hold fast to a thread of the Tao.

Consider this Zen koan from The Gateless Gate:  What is your primal face before your parents were born?  As I understand this, there is no understanding this.  The ‘answer’ must be experienced so that enlightenment washes away the categories of this world.  I seem to be, however, too literal minded for such an experience, and instead I am lost in the mystic details Monod laid bare in Chance and Necessity:   “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”

What was my primal face before my parents were born?  They were born in 1919 and 1922, so that my grandparents were born say in the late 1800s.  I have no real answer to the koan but it would seem my primal face was inherent in Monod’s “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability” composed from the genetic, developmental and cultural streams flowing through my ancestors.  Also from the fact that these people would meet while engaging in their everyday lives and decide to marry and bear children and that the biological processes carrying their lives forward were of unimaginable detail, e.g., just consider the metabolic processes alone and then add their brains’ carrying forth their minds in time within the world and human culture plus the connectomes of all those people with whom they interact.  Fortuitous? Yes.  Chaotic contingency? Yes. And this is the simplified version.  Better to fall back upon James Joyce’s phrase, “accidental music providentially arranged” and let my primal face rest somewhere in ALL that welter of life.

Evan Thompson characterizes a life as a path created by walking, each step contingent upon all that has come before and current conditions in the surround.  For humans this includes the fluctuating appearance in the human condition.  Thompson, Oyama and the rest of this group argue quite that focusing on the flow of genetic information is inept.  This particular scientific abstraction of gene-centricity loses validity because it misses context.  Focusing on the figure forgetting the ground is a modern vice; it is at the basis of the loss of factual validity in our social discourse and the uncritical acceptance of ugly, mis-shaped and excremental thinking for keen intellect.

Maybe Gregory Bateson’s idea that mind is everywhere in the universe is more than a useful heuristic.  Maybe the Gaia hypothesis should be a guiding light.  We feel and that is the basis of our thinking.  We are the most astonishing herd creatures on our planet; our communality based upon empathy of the highest order (that we know of) and symbolization enables the wealth of individual experience and the ubiquitous social world in which we live.  Still we carry on with the basics of life, and that means exploiting chance possibilities and mitigating the exigencies of the human condition.  50 years ago I read Susanne Langer’s challenge to develop a conception of mind adequate to the reality.  We have made some progress despite the general relegation of her thinking to the background.  We will make deeper progress when more understand the place of art and aesthetics in our lives and minds (or mind).  Non-discursive or presentational symbols, as Langer explicated from the 1940s onward, are a key to understanding how and what we experience and who we are as humans in the herd.

I stand in my valley watching appreciatively the light playing on these summits.  I look down into the waters and feel the ancient past.  Fed by mountain streams and life’s springs this lake overflows with wonder and creates new streams that will flow to the ocean’s shores, creating estuaries where new life abounds.  I usually close by saying travel on, and I know you will do so, but I am going to camp here for awhile.  “On to where?” seems a meaningless question.  The waters here are clear and invigorating and the view spectacular.  I must grow old and seek other figures with their grounds while I may, “a unique and irrefutable witness” to myself.

The word for today: eudaemonia

I have started reading Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin’s book, The Philosophy of Susanne Langer: Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling.  Chaplin’s stated purpose is to help us understand the roots of Langer’s philosophical work, both historically and more importantly her mentors and sources(Henry Sheffer, Ernst Cassirer, Alfred N. Whitehead, & Ludwig Wittgenstein) and the intellectual springs from which she imbibed.  I have worked my way up to Cassirer but I want to present some of the historical reasons, according Chaplin, Langer’s work has not been ‘foregrounded’, as the philosophers of today are wont to say, by those who seek to understand the human mind.

Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently bemoan the lack of recognition and follow-up for Langer’s ideas.  Part of that I have attributed to the rise of information sciences and its inept metaphor of the mind as machine, and the rise of genetic sciences and its inept metaphor of life as machine, both of which seem inimical to Langer’s project. Chaplin gives a much more knowledgeable view of what happened.  First and foremost, she was a woman.  She went to Radcliffe in 1916 because Harvard did not admit women (and would not fully until the late 70s).  Though her intellectual abilities were recognized by her mentors, Sheffer and Whitehead, and she went on to write 3 early books that received much acclaim, and she co-founded the Society for Symbolic Logic and edited its journal for awhile, and other prestigious journals published her work and asked her to review works in German, French and Italian, because so few other philosophers were multi-lingual , and she was instrumental in arranging several world conferences of various philosophic matters, she did not obtain a tenured professorship for several decades later in 1954 at age 59, and so she had little opportunity to mentor her own graduate students through their dissertations.  Her first book, The Practice of Philosophy (that is, alas, out of print and hard to find), was recognized as substantial and praised especially by European philosophers.  Her second book, An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, was regarded as an excellent text and the first one of logic in its modern form.  Her third, Philosophy in a New Key, was enormously popular for its genre, selling the most copies of its kind for a long time, and eventually selling over 500,000 copies.  Chaplin quotes a reviewer for New Key, who wrote the publisher, “I am prejudiced against book on philosophy by women; according to this prejudice no woman could write as good a book as she has written”.  That the reviewer mentions his prejudice in his praise highlights the general low regard Langer met for being female.

Another reason, as if another were needed, is that she was continuing, and enlivening a great deal, a tradition emanating primarily from Europe, many proponents of which were Jewish, so that many of her basic ideas were called into question based upon the twin American prejudices against Europe and Jews.  Langer read Cassirer and Wittgenstein very early and interpreted them somewhat differently and now it seems more accurately than other Americans.  Wittgenstein came out of the Vienna Circle, many of whom escaped from fascist Germany to America, only later to be questioned as socialists. Some in the 1950s fell under McCartney’s evil eye. Earlier Harvard denied a visiting professorship to Bertrand Russell because he had opposed WWI (and maybe had socialist tendencies?).  So Langer’s company was suspect by some.

Finally, Langer worked on subjects not generally regarded as mainstream academic philosophy.  She was in some sense, I guess, a reformer.  Logic for her, following her mentor Sheffer, was not a syllogistic proof of a truth, but a method for elucidating forms. Philosophy for her, following early her mentor Whitehead, Wittengenstein and others, was not a footnote on Aristotle and Plato, but a study of symbols and meaning, specifically what it is and how it is made.  Thus she said we understand when we grasp the symbol’s form.

Susanne Knauth married William Langer who became a noted Harvard historian (and who left Langer for a younger woman some years later).  In his autobiography he mentions Susanne as his wife but not that she was an intellectual in her own right.  She was, as were most women, invisible as a mind (and that continues some today, as does the younger woman bit).  Susanne Langer had two children while teaching and writing; she also wrote a book of fairytales for her children, published as The Cruise of Little Dipper and other Fairy Tales, now a rare book. By now you get the idea of how her ideas did not generate the excitement despite their brilliance.

susannelanger

Susanne Langer

Susanne Langer worked then quietly, more behind the scenes than on stage (though she was a popular lecturer), and followed her own path.  Remarkably, her life’s work in philosophy developed along the same course over her career.  Late in life she received an ongoing grant that enabled her to focus exclusively on research and writing.  Reading her work in the past, and now reading books about her and her work, I have come to think of her even more as a scholar who followed her own path to greater understanding and that she enjoyed the journey.  Reading her books (and this is reinforced by reports of her popularity as a lecturer) offers a grand view into her profound and rigorous mind and a delightful glimpse into the joy she experienced in bringing her ideas to fruition.

And that brings us to today’s word: eudaemonia—the joy of flourishing that brings wisdom.  Surely Ms. Langer felt such as that.  Travel on.

Return to the MEMBRAIN

I have not posted much about the MEMBRAIN since 2017 (see post 11/24/17, also 8/27/14 & 4/7/14), but I have been thinking about it and recent readings have fed that line of thought.  In brief, the MEMBRAIN comprises those parts of our brain and soma that establishes the mind within and the world without as it connects us socially and mentally (in this empathy is both basic and powerful) to our conspecifics (and other animals and other worldly features, more on that later).  It is a rather grand development along our evolutionary path.  Remember life on Earth appeared some 3.7 billion years ago when chemical metabolism established a membrane protecting the self-organizing and self-replicating processes within and controlling interaction with the environment, i.e., Varela’s autopoietic form (see post 8/22/18).  This resulted in the basic soma, i.e., the body each life form develops for its span.  Somas evolved to become more complex until brains appeared to promote the somatic vitality given the more complex needs and gain increasingly powerful ways of exploiting environmental opportunities.  Somas and their brains then evolved in various ways until sexual reproduction initiated new phases of genetic streaming and of conspecific relations, say around 1.2 billion years ago.

watersheds

Genetic watersheds of SWP (solving world problems) and CR (conspecific relations)

As luck would have it, conspecifics became so important a feature of the animal’s umvelt, that the brain, that heretofore had concerned itself with its own somatic vitality, began to deal with the vitality of its conspecifics, i.e., the vitality of other somas not its own.  This was a momentous development as brains evolved to carry out this challenge as exemplified most powerfully in mammals who appeared around 315 million years ago. (I have posted several times on the felicity of our mammalian heritage—see posts 11/12/16 & 11/8/19).  As the interaction with conspecifics mounted in importance, brains evolved to include MEMBRAINs (as I have called them) and this entailed a new development in the evolution of minds.  The increasing transactions with others pressured the evolution of social relations obviously, and in a bit of a paradox, the evolution of mental functions supporting subjective awareness.  This is where my notion of the MEMBRAIN of the mind comes into play.

The MEMBRAIN gates (or doesn’t) information or parcels of experience specifically drawn from the social/mental realms.  For example, our visual system has a large proportion of cells dedicated primarily to facial recognition, e.g., conspecific information gated in, and further, such processing is basic and preliminary to reading the other’s emotional states, i.e., their internal musings.  Another example, this time of gating an experiential parcel out, is our kinesic expression of our own emotional states through facial expression, tone of voice, posturing, etc.  Of course our language is a remarkable feature of MEMBRAIN functioning, passing info in and out (or not if the we do not know that language–the channel then does not exist).

membrane

The MEMBRAIN does what every membrane does, pass material in and out, and keep material in and out

As I read books, etc., that touch upon the MEMBRAIN, I find some who mention how the brain functions as a membrane controlling flow in and out; after all, those are basic to any organism, taking needed nutrients in and passing out wastes.  I have not seen much about keeping material in or keeping it out, but that too is a membrane function—it will only pass through items that fit through its channels and will decidedly reject , for example, toxins from without and certain parcels from within that can range from lower level processing, e.g., we would not want our protoplasm leaking out and we do not express or pass out gut functions or the initial phases of intuitive constructions which are not available to consciousness or say, socially embarrassing secrets.  A more esoteric example is information that conflicts with our beliefs or personality structure.  An example here is that some people hear information indicative of a leader’s corruption but it does not enter into their minds as such.  It is kept out through some MEMBRAIN function which only gates distorted parcels (kinda like a word from a foreign language that sounds like one of our own–we think we understand when we do not) that I do not well understand as of yet.

While many understand that our ubiquitous linguistic functions support the MEMBRAIN, both to communicate with our conspecifics and to organize our interior experience, fewer understand that art likewise supports the MEMBRAIN.  Clearly art fulfills a social function, but it also helps to organize our mental domains by structuring intuitive processes in the service of developing creative and communicable renderings of our vital experience.  Susanne Langer’s thoughts are important here.  First, art forms are a high form of nervous response, i.e., they are abstracted from experiential felt material.  These abstractions are created in virtual domains; their communication depends upon these same domains being present in both artist and audience.  The MEMBRAIN channels must function in quite a sophisticated manner in order to communicate such complex information about our vital experience.  Further, she details in Feeling and Form  the demands each art genre, e.g., music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, cinema, etc., places on our virtual capabilities.

Now I am reading Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life in which he discusses the basis of life forms and how mind is in fact a natural outcome of life’s evolution—a very good book so far with the promise to get even better.  He, like others such as Susan Oyama (see post 2/22/19), is critical of the gene-centric view generally received from the Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and cohort.  Thompson says that their usual metaphor of genes providing coded instructions for an organism has been shown to be inept; too much data shows that genes are only a part of developmental system and that they do not play any privileged role apart from the organism as a whole and its complete ambient, i.e., Oyama’s developmental system.  A better metaphor, says Thompson, “for development than ‘following coded instructions’ is ‘laying down a path in walking’.  This metaphor implies that there is no separation between plan and executed action.  It also evokes the similarity between organic self-organization and human creativity discussed by Kant.”

Remember how an artist composes through feeling the future, as I have put it (see posts 5/15/15 & this year’s series on art as spandrel).  This is especially apparent in music, where even the listener feels the flow into the future.  Art results from a series of steps creating contingencies that render a vital form.  Unlike discursive thought, such as any mathematical theory of science, which if lost could be re-discovered because that is inherent in its relation to the world, art if lost is lost—it cannot be recreated because of its contingent nature with the chaos of life and world.

Thompson following his work with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rausch in The Embodied Mind explicates the basis of life.  It is an autopoietic (a new and important word) system whose inherent purpose is two-fold, identity (self-production and this entails closure from the without) and sense-making for adaptivity and cognition.  “This twofold purposiveness turns an indifferent physicochemical world into an environment of biological significance.”  The implications of this formulation are extensive, and I will have more to say of them another time.

But back to the MEMBRAIN and what Kant discussed, the “similarity” between organic self-organization, aka autopoietic system, and human creativity.  Any organism is self-organizing which is sustained through metabolic activity with the inherent purposes of identity and sense-making.  It is self-contained, its parts are subsidiary to the whole, and it interacts with its environment in specific ways.  (Remember Acquinas’ 3 aspects of aesthetic beauty:  unitas, claritas, and luminas—see post 6/19/17.)  This is the essential idea of life, as we understand it.  So our MEMBRAINs take in art forms, gathering this import, and artists of any and all sorts construct art works that they can express through MEMBRAIN channels.  If art renders the import abstracted from vital experience, and autopoiesis is the basis of that vitality, then any conceptualization of aesthetics must include such in its account.  Whether we study art as a biological activity (see post 2/9/19!) or as a critical effort to assess its aesthetics, we need to understand how an artwork is a whole, how its parts come together (and these two are essentially an extension of gestalt studies), and how that form ‘shines’, as it were, or how it has rendered intuitively that spark of life such that others can feel the vitality therein.  As Susanne Langer taught us, art is a high intellectual activity whereby we deal in vital experience.  Empathy and symbolization are the two great channels of our MEMBRAINs—that is the easy part, but what lies within that powers such intuitive creative constructions? Travel on.

 

somabrainm1-e1495106259662.jpg

Where is the self that composes artworks?

The affective revolution comes to dogs?

Dogs? You say.  Why, yes.  In talking with some friends and trying to explain my view of where we are in understanding mind, I bemoaned the travesty of behaviorism, appreciated the revolution (or return to sanity) of cognitive psychology, presented as seminal the developments in evolutionary psychology and expressed my hope that we are now entering the affective revolution where researchers are appreciating and furthering the pioneering work of Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, Francisco Verala, Evan Thompson and others (see last previous post).  Affect, or, better, feeling, is the grounding and motivation of cognitive operations, and that is to say the least.  Now Susanne Langer was one of the first to espouse that humans were both biological, sharing our evolution with other animals and distinct, even special, saying that our symbolic capabilities constituted a great shift from being like other animals to being especially human. Our symbolic capabilities, she says, transformed our minds into something quite different from those of any other animals.  How we feel is important here, Langer asserts, because our symbolic abilities are based upon our special feelings and have permeated our mind so that even our perceptions are influenced by symbolization.  Further, we are driven to make meanings, to find and/or create significance incidentally and unconsciously, i.e., we cannot really stop doing so because symbolization begins so early on in our mind’s processes.

So yes, humans have evolved from and along with other animals and yes, our evolution has led to symbolic capabilities  which have transformed our minds and enabled us to transform our world.  And while most focus on our cognitive abilities, Langer’s focus on feeling and her understanding that our intellect derives from highly evolved modes of feeling is one that helps us understand the embodied mind in a deeper way.  It presages the affective revolution that I perceive is happening as I discussed in my last post.

And now I see in a NYT science story that the affective revolution, so to speak, has also encompassed our study of dogs.  Brian Hare has done good work on dog cognition (see post 10/7/14), but another group of researchers is looking at how dogs feel, especially their talent for bonding with another species and not just us humans but many others, e.g., sheep, goats, penguins(!), etc.:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/science/dogs-love-evolution.html.

This article covers a fair amount of ground so I will highlight some of its information:

  • Compared to their ancestral wolves, dogs have succeeded evolutionarily bigtime, with 3000 dogs for every wolf in the world today.
  • Spending 90 minutes a day in contact with another species prior to 14 weeks of age leads to strong bonding.
  • Without human contact dogs grow up very wary of us. Recently friends returned from SE Asia where many dogs are wilder and not pets (and sometimes food).
  • Their interspecies bonds are maintained throughout their life span.
  • MRI studies show that dogs light up (meaning their neural pleasure centers do) upon hearing their owners’ voices, and they like praise as much as hot dogs and some even show a preference to owners over food. (These studies also show how dogs can be trained to lie still in the MRI donut while being tested, no small feat itself).
  • Genetic studies of people with Williams-Beuren syndrome reveal certain genes that contribute to hypersociality, i.e., indiscriminate friendliness with strangers, etc., and studies of dogs show they share these genes.

So dogs experience intense pleasure with their owners (and their other bondees, e.g. sheep?).  The researchers point out that another remarkable aspect of this is the ease of triggering such a response.  Dogs really are talented at liking their humans and bonding with other species.

Now I am not sure what ‘liking’ means in this context.  Pleasure at contact?  Protective responses to perceived danger?  Missing when absent (remember Greyfriar’s Bobby)?  Feelings of identification?  We (most of us anyways) like dogs back, and cats and fish and birds and trees and landscapes and the list goes on, in part because our symbolic capacity also serves to extend our ‘liking’ to almost anything.  Indeed, I have started a book, Faces in Clouds: A New Theory of Religon, in which Stewart Guthrie examines in detail how our human propensity or talent for anthropomorphizing leads us to see human agency in almost anything, even never seen creatures we create in our own minds, thereby attributing a spiritual element to worldly things, and then we ‘see’ those creatures all around, e.g., angels.  Feel a kinship with a crystal?  Welcome to the anthropomorphic club.  We humans seem driven to symbolize in this earthy way, and perhaps dogs are doing their own version of caninomorphism when they like us?  More later on this, I am sure, but for now I will travel on.

Langer on the rise

The big news about Langer is that a new book about her work has been published.  Written by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, The Philosophy of Susanne Langer:  Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling explores the roots of her philosophizing, which were primarily European, Henry Sheffer, Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittengestein, and Alfred North Whitehead, even as Langer expanded the American tradition of pragmatics from John Dewey and C. S. Peirce.  Langer was able to read some of these European sources before many others in the USA could because she was fluent in German; indeed she translated one book by Cassirer before most over here had read anything by him.  This new book is expensive so I must save some pennies before buying it, but I have read excerpts from the introduction.  Two things stand out.  First is Ms. Chaplin highlights the challenges facing Ms. Langer as a female in the male dominated world of philosophy.  She attended Ratcliffe College because Harvard did not admit females back in the day so Ratcliffe was a way for them to access Harvard’s resources; thus she was able to work with and learn from the likes of Alfred North Whitehead when he came to Harvard.

The second thing is how her emphasis on feeling was (is?) a challenge to some readers.  In a letter to a colleague in the art world she bemoaned his response saying she had hoped she had expressed herself better.  The confusion centered on the colleague’s reading of ‘feeling’ as emotion and that generally led to understanding art as emotional catharsis and that is quite counter to Langer’s ideas.   Langer clarified that ‘feeling’, not withstanding its use in general parlance, referred to the broader notion of responding to some sensation from without or some action from within.  “How does that feel?” then can refer to blinking in the sunlight having emerged from the cinema, being slapped in the face, realizing you are loved or betrayed, realizing you have understood a poem, thinking about a special childhood haunt, expressing some wise lesson learned, etc.  The point being is that ‘feeling’ is a broad concept, and Langer spent much of her career to clarify and specify how human feeling evolved to be a rarefied intellectual and high form of nervous response.  So I will buy this book ASAP.

In the mean time I have finished re-reading Innis’ fine book on Langer’s philosophy and so have much to ponder.  In re-reading Langer now, I am not as comfortable with how special and distinctive she sees humans.  I don’t exactly disagree with her, but I find some of her ideas marked by anthropodenial, to use de Waals’ term for refusing to see animal actions in their true light because humans do these same actions routinely.  Langer was an early and clear proponent of humans being in line with our mammalian ancestors; she also refused to engage in reductionism and instead pursued a conception of mind adequate to the reality, both human and non-human.  I now have the benefit and privilege of integrating the work of Panksepp, Damasio, de Waal, Tomasello, Varela, Lakoff, Johnson and all of those working to develop an understanding of the mind as embodied.  (And I suspect she would have appreciated these developments oh so very much).  And animals, all of us, are really special creatures. But Langer insisted that biographical memory was heavily dependent upon language, so that a non-verbal species would not have a robust ability to recall past experiences.  Frans de Waal refutes that with a lot of research and study.  Consider his example of the bonobo who accidentally bit off a handler’s finger and then clearly showed memory of and remorse for the act several years later when the handler returned for a visit after having moved away (see post 3/9/15).

One of Langer’s primary theses is that while humans have evolved from and along with other animals, our evolution has led to symbolic capabilities that transformed our minds and enabled us to transform our world.  Sort of undeniable, isn’t it? But while most focus on our cognitive abilities, Langer’s focus on feeling and her understanding that our intellect derives from highly evolved modes of feeling is one that helps us understand the embodied mind in a deeper way.  It presages the affective revolution that I perceive is happening through the efforts of Panksepp, Damasio and many others. Indeed, I have started a 1997 book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind by Evan Thompson, who collaborated with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch to write The Embodied Mind.  I am amazed to read conceptualizations that Langer postulated 30-50 years ago though without any recognition of her work.  Thompson lists several of these as concepts basic to his thinking:

  • Organisms are autonomous agents, self-organizing and enact cognitive and overt behaviors (Langer in Mind devotes much energy to biological action enactment).
  • The nervous system does not compute and process information but rather creates meaning (Langer develops this in her early works, The Practice of Philosophy, Philosophy in a New Key, and Feeling and Form, all completed before 1953–and she was following up on Ernst Cassirer).
  • The concept of experience, as the phenomenologists have understood it and psychologists abandoned it, must be understood biologically if it is to be adequate to the task of furthering our notions of mind (again this integration across disciplines was a major focus of Langer’s life work).

Thompson, Varela, Rosch, and others have come around to Langer’s clearer understanding of what and how our minds are through their own traditions and studies.  That Langer was there, I think, from the beginning and throughout her long career shows her prescience even more fully (as Donald Dryden said in his article “The Philosopher as Prophet and Visionary” 2007 J. of Speculative Philosophy). That a new book about her has come out shows, I very much hope, that her influence is rising.

The human hippocampus, the dialectic of experience and sacred landscapes

Remember the hippocampus, so important in memory input and recall? (See posts 5/31/16 & 12/24/15)  We know that the hippocampi form and hold maps that code information about spatial locations, experiences and their temporal arrangements, and objects such as food resources, dangers and perhaps most importantly for primates, social objects, i.e., conspecifics. (See posts 5/27/16 & 9/8/14)  Thus, we can recognize or recall a great variety of places, times, activities, and associates.  Now one of my puzzles has been how human hippocampi changed in response to our symbolic capacities.  In rats and dogs, etc., the hippocampi code information pertinent to their umvelt, so each species’ has a different mixture of perceptual data, directions, visual cues, etc. that enable them to move about the material world more effectively.  But what about the human umvelt, where so much of it is created symbolically without regard to any material geography?  Our umvelt comprises several geographies:  earthly terrain, social objects, mental space and mythic cosmology.  How and when did that come about?  See my puzzle?

Reading Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, I found a curious idea relevant to my thinking here.  They see in the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture a curious and relevant development.

They describe a mental ‘articulation’ (a better term, I think, is ‘dialectic’) between the material and conceptual environments.  As Neolithic people developed a culture befitting agriculturalism with its requisite changes in population density and civic organization, they also, as Lewis-Williams and Pearce understand it, developed a different relationship with the land.  Specifically they went from wandering around in perhaps a seasonal pattern dictated by land and climate to the notion of a homeland, and this entailed the firming up of religious landscapes and ritual locations and, much later, boundaries to the land thought of as being under their control.  Likewise, their conceptual environment developed into a cosmology composed of 3 domains, upper (sky and spiritual realm), middle (the land and mundane activities), and lower (a realm especially important for the dead).

Much of their book focuses on the archeological evidence for these 3 realms as seen in the earliest known structures, buildings and art as well as evidence from anthropological studies of more recent shamanistic societies.  The role of a shaman is virtually defined by the ability to traverse these three realms through alterations of consciousness.  Lewis-Williams and Pearce also argue that this ‘spiritual’ power was accompanied by changes in social stratification and authority.  So big changes here, and I would have to say, one change would have to be the inclusion of symbolically constructed domains that were transmitted culturally and still mapped out mentally using the usual neural resources, e.g., the hippocampus and its mnemonic structures. They assert that the dramatic turn in Neolithic peoples was the coupling of religion and land, and further, that the prehistoric structures in the Middle East, e.g., Ain Ghazal and Jericho, and in western Europe, e.g., Stonehenge and Newgrange, were models of their cosmological realms that enabled them to act within and exert more control on their mythos. A lot there to ponder.

While this implies that hippocampal mapping took on these cultural-mythical realms fully maybe 15,000 years ago, I think it is also to be understood that such a cultural development was a long time in the making and I am sure our hippocampal circuits have been essentially in place and stable for much, much longer—maybe from 500,000 years ago.  The salient point remains that our remarkably expansive cultural evolution depended upon our somatic evolution, e.g., the hippocampal circuits.

A final word about this dialectic between the material and conceptual environments.  In a way, Piaget documented this in our ontogeny as children developed their cognitive powers through accommodation and assimilation, i.e., sometimes the mind adjusts its conceptions to meet reality, sometimes understanding reality is adjusted to fit ongoing conceptualizations. (A poor rendition, perhaps, but you get the idea, I hope).  Susanne Langer also saw this dialectic as integral to human intellect (oh the vision of this lady).  Consider these two quotes of hers cited by Innis as he explains her view that our mental life is a symbolic projection:

 

“This symbolic projection is essentially, as we have seen, bipolar.  It is the objectification of feeling, resulting in the ‘building up of a whole objective world of perceptible things’, and the subjectification of nature, which involves ‘the symbolic use of natural forms to envisage feeling, i.e., the endowment of such forms with emotional import, mystical and mythical and moral’” . . . “The dialectic of these two functions is, I think, the process of human experience.”

 

And later from Langer: “So the theory of art is really a prolegomenon to the greater undertaking of constructing a concept of mind adequate to the living actuality.”

 

The adoption of some landscape as home to the sacred involves the objectification of feeling and our deepening attachment to such landscapes is the subjectification of nature.  The dialectic between the two enables the creation of a cosmology over and above (and below) geographical terrain and our incredible hippocampus and associated structures sustained this cosmological mapping in our minds.  With this, the human umvelt and habitus took on its modern form, and since then, we have used art to understand the variegated reality of our total experience and then developed science to control the material realm to fit our conceptualizations.  Travel on.

Prehistoric art: updated timeline

Apropos of my current focus on art as a spandrel (to be continued the next post), the recent 9/14/19 issue of Science News has a brief report on a new find of ancient art in China.  Two bones have been found with distinctively decorative cuts (not the kind found from butchering the meat), a series of straight lines that in one case were rubbed with ochre (see my post on red ochre from 10/13/18) to highlight the work.  These bones have been reliably dated back to 100,000 years ago, and the cuts may have been made by Denisovans who migrated from central Russia to southeastern Asia and the Himalayan region.  The article also includes a summary of other finds suggestive of artwork, the oldest being a shell carved by probably Homo erectus almost a half million years ago in Indonesia.  So our aesthetic sensibility has been evolving (or is it developing?) for longer than Homo sapiens has been extant.

Straight lines rubbed with ochre is not very artistic, I hear some say.  Well, sure, but we are talking the dawn of humanity here.  And sometimes less is more—simplicity is a virtue of much high art.  Consider the famous Japanese rock garden at a Zen temple in Kyoto where simplicity conveys an abstract truth about our experience:

512px-Kyoto-Ryoan-Ji_MG_4512

Zen Garden in Kyoto     photo credit:Cquest [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D

 

Now consider two Japanese terms for aesthetic experiences, aware and yugen.  Aware (a-wahr-ay) refers to the feeling of the fleeting fragility of life and experience.  Susan Langer said that we became human when we realized that a life was one single act with a beginning and an end.  That realization underlies, I think, the aesthetic feeling of aware.  Yugen refers to a deep inexpressible feeling felt upon some aesthetic realization of mystery—our being becomes luminous with some complex felt experience.  Plumbing such depths does not come instantaneously; this ability comes over time as one engages steadily with beauty.  We will never know what was going on in the mind of the creature cutting those lines and smearing ochre, but I think a reasonable suggestion is that their ruminations over their artwork were incipient to the new feelings of aware and yugen—these meditations, silent or expressed, around the hearth fire with the shadows dancing around the gathering  were indeed quite important to developing humanity.  Travel on from here only if you must.