P.N. Johnson-Laird

P.N. Johnson-Laird’s Mental Models was published last August.

Dennett’s Ark

P.N. Johnson-Laird, 1 September 1988

When the single-celled organism paramecium bumps into an obstacle, it reverses the power beat of its cilia, backs away, and swims off in a different direction. How natural to suppose that this animalcule forms a representation of the world, determines that it is obstructed, and decides to set another course. When ‘Washoe’, the celebrated chimpanzee who was taught the American Sign Language for the deaf and dumb, saw a duck for the first time, she made the signs for water and bird. How natural to suppose that she knows how to use language creatively. When Mrs Thatcher tells us that making money is no sin, how natural to suppose that she knows what she is talking about. In all of these cases, we treat other living beings much as we treat our next-door neighbours (most of the time): we assume that they are rational agents with beliefs, desires, and mental representations of the world. We adopt what Dan Dennett, the distinguished American philosopher of mind, refers to as the ‘intentional stance’ towards them. His latest collection of papers is a series of ruminations on quite what we are doing.

Introspection and the Body

P.N. Johnson-Laird, 5 March 1987

Henry James Sr was a redoubtable patriarch who received a large inheritance from his father – an Irish immigrant who had made a fortune in upstate New York – and spent it on a life of leisure and religiosity. He shuttled back and forth to Europe on a kind of one-man cultural exchange which combined the grand tour with a Continental education for his children. During a period in England, he introduced them to the likes of Carlyle, Tennyson and John Stuart Mill. He expressed himself in a characteristically Jamesian way: ‘I will not attempt to state the year in which I was born, because it is not a fact embraced in my own knowledge, but content myself with saying instead, that the earliest event of my biographic consciousness is that of my having been carried out into the streets one night, in the arms of my negro nurse, to witness a grand illumination in honour of the treaty of peace then just signed with Great Britain.’ He said of Emerson that he was ‘like an unsexed woman’. The remark was intended as a compliment. His religious impulse expressed itself in the devising of his own version of Christianity, which incorporated more than a scruple of Swedenborgian vastation into his ancestral Presbyterianism. His wife, Mary, about whom less is known, seems to have been all that was expected of an American mother of the mid-19th century: a provider of piety and apple pie.’

Whirring away

P.N. Johnson-Laird, 18 October 1984

Who now remembers phrenology as anything other than a Victorian pastime? Yet it began as a serious scientific hypothesis. Its founder, the German anatomist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), argued that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that particular parts of the brain function as the organs of particular mental faculties. He assumed that there are distinct intellectual powers for language, music, mathematics and other domains, and that there are also distinct propensities for humour, destructiveness and even murder. Each of these faculties has its own organ in the brain, and the size of this organ depends on the development of the faculty. If you are a good musician, your musical organ of thought will be large; if you have little pre-disposition to murder, your homicidal organ will be small, and so on. Gall made a crucial mistake, however, in assuming that the relative sizes of the various organs will be reflected in the contours of the cranium. In fact, the skull does not fit the cortex like a glove, and there is no evidence that the relative sizes of the bumps or bulges in either of them have any relation to mental abilities. The putative science degenerated into a fictitious geography of the brain, which was charted by fabulous maps with such evocative regions as ‘amativeness’ and ‘philoprogenitiveness’ – maps that are as outdated as the pages of a 19th-century atlas. The subject finally petered out in party games where young persons searched for appropriate irregularities on the heads of other young persons, preferably those of the opposite sex. Phrenology had begun as science but ended as bumps-a-daisy.’

Pictures of Ourselves

P.N. Johnson-Laird, 22 December 1983

During World War Two, my father was walking out of a greengrocer’s shop in London when a flying bomb crashed and exploded nearby. The blast swept him off his feet, but he was otherwise unhurt. He picked himself up with the aid of a passing policeman, got into his car and drove off. Some time later, as he described it, he ‘came to’ to find himself driving along in a part of London totally unfamiliar to him and with no awareness of how he had come to be there. As a result of shock, he had evidently been driving on some sort of ‘automatic pilot’ much as certain epileptic patients display automatic behaviour after they have had a seizure. At the time, it made a deep impression on me that one could do something as complicated as driving a car without any apparent consciousness of what one was doing.

Making up the mind

Ian Hacking, 1 September 1988

‘Perhaps the mind stands to the brain in much the same way that the program stands to the computer.’ That is the vision behind this admirable book for newcomers. Introductions to...

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Mental Processes

Christopher Longuet-Higgins, 4 August 1988

No one interested in the spread of ideas can have failed to notice the influence that the computer is exerting not only on our habits of life but also on our ways of thought. Twenty years ago the...

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A Model Science

George Miller, 3 November 1983

Cognition has become fashionable. Half a dozen academic disciplines are currently scrambling to establish ownership. The philosophers, who got there first, are being jostled by empiricists, but...

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