Comments on “Abstract Reasoning as Emergent from Concrete Activity”


This was a fun post! It gave

Romeo Stevens's picture

This was a fun post! It gave rise to the thoughts that auditory schemas are what we are doing when we discuss genres of music or a strange accent suddenly snaps into comprehension. Visual schemas are one of the reasons chain stores are popular (reduced cognitive load). Linguistic schemas are the way we have specificity in our blanks as Gendlin describes: how do you know what the word you were looking for is when you've found it?

30 Years on are you still confident that cognitive cliches are the most abstract structures? I see them as part of the structure of meta-heuristics, but not fully covering that space. Maybe it is that I don't yet know how to represent some of it as cognitive cliches.

Cognitive cliches

Yeah, I don't know what to think about cognitive cliches. I vaguely intend to revisit them soonish, to try to make them useful for something or other!

After reading the article,

After reading the article, the leading statement, "We believe that abstract reasoning is not primitive, but derived ... from concrete activity.", seems to primarily refer to interactions with inanimate objects; i.e. between one mind and an inanimate world.

A very different view of cognition, while acknowledging "man the engineer/tool-maker", makes a detailed argument for development (within a lifetime) of abstract thought as imaginable only in a context of developing sociality. This is Michael Tomasello's The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition(1999). He also wrote the complementary Origins of Human Communication(2008). Tomasello has spent a couple of decades turning out (with many coauthors) an amazing series of studies, largely of how primates, and human infants and children deal with various situations, and writing a few books combining massive empiricism, analysis, and philosophical depth.

I recently wrote a Ribbonfarm article "From Monkey Neurons to the Meta-Brain" drawing on his work (but equally on work of a couple of very different disciplines), which I think looks at some of the themes you write about.

I've been reading and admiring your work for some time, first attracted by "Building a Bridge to Meta-Rationality...".

Between one mind and an inanimate world

between one mind and an inanimate world

Yes, I think that's a pretty fair criticism of this paper.

Our understanding did draw heavily on ethnomethodology, which studies social interaction. The paper makes some gestures in that direction, in talking about internalization and reflection, for example. Other parts of our work tried to draw this out more explicitly. However, as AI researchers, we were drastically limited by the tech available at the time, which wasn't up to the job. The final bit of AI research I did (in 1992 I think) was on language use to support collaboration. I gave up on AI part way through that project, and never wrote it up.

Thanks for pointing at Tomasello's work! From a quick glance, it seems very interesting. I'll read more when I get a chance.

Brief intros to Tomasello

"The Ultra-Social Species" is an 8-page overview for as general an audience as he'd ever reach of some major conclusions with quite a bit of experimental backing.
"Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition" is a dense 16 pages followed by 30 pages of 1000-word responses by a distinguished group incl Jerome Bruner, Philippe Rochat (the main author cited in Sarah Perry's Essence of Peopling), and Franz de Waal, and 6 pages of response to the responses.

This and the last post

Peter's picture

There's an interesting symmetry between some of the topics here and the comments on the previous post. The quip-level vague oversimplification is "the comments in the previous post were saying that things conventionally thought of in the world must be at least partly in people's heads, this post is saying that things conventionally thought of as in people's heads must be at least partly in the world."

(The relevant bit of the comments thread: "we agree that "objective, mind-independent truths" about things like bits of rock is a really silly idea ")

I’m annoyed that cognitive

I’m annoyed that cognitive “science”—a mistaken, unscientific ideology of meaningness—has continued to exert a harmful, distorting influence on our understanding of ourselves in the meantime.

As a cognitive science graduate wanting to defend my field, I feel the need to point out that research on embodied cognition is very much cogsci research as well. :P And it's not a particularly new development to cognitive science, either.

Speaking overbroadly, as usual

Yes, condemning cognitive science outright is indefensible, of course. Overly-broad statements are my usual rhetorical failure mode. Also, I haven't followed the field closely in 25 years.

That said, my impression is that a substantial majority of the field still takes for granted metaphysical assumptions that are plainly false and harmful.

Also, although embodiment is one significant aspect of "the concrete-situated view," it's not the main point. There's all those other E words... plus items not on the list. And, to address them, I think you need to pretty well start over. Conceptually, that is. Specific empirical findings may hold up... but the understanding of their significance needs extensive revision.

it's not a particularly new development to cognitive science

Yeah, that was sort of the point of my "I told you so in 1986" bit. Although it wasn't new in '86, either, just new to AI and to analytical philosophy of mind. Dreyfus had been trying to get both of those fields to pay attention since the 1960s, with zero success, until Lucy Suchman at Xerox PARC was able to translate them for cognitive psychologists, and then to Phil and me, and then we were able to translate them to AI and analytic philosophers. [This is a simplification of the history, of course; there were lots of other people involved—John Haugeland and Mark Bickhard, for two examples.]

Given that this stuff has been around for decades, a reasonable objection is "if it is right, it ought to have out-competed the alternative by now." I don't fully understand why that hasn't happened. There's a lot of historical specificities, involving opportunities missed for accidental reasons. But that isn't good as an over-all explanation.

I think that the problem is that the view is actually more difficult to understand, and way more difficult to explain. I'm working on that now, and it's hard.


anders's picture

When I read your and Agre's publications a year and a half ago I was most thrilled by the accounts of routines forming. There wasn't as many routines described as I would wish, so I made my own.
On February 11 2016 I had the opportunity to write the date of installation on several hundred "greenlite" lightbulbs. I wrote down how the routine changed as I did it.
Yesterday I did the same thing to about 20 bulbs to replace ones that had gotten wet and observed the routine I used to compare.

February 11 2016 routine:
(using left hand) pick up box, rotate, open top flap of box with thumbnail.
press them to the outside of the box so they stay open
holding the box with right hand, pull bulb out of box with thumb and index finger of left hand.
set down box
pick up and uncap pen with right hand
holding the lightbulb in left hand I write wight my right, rotating the bulb as I write to keep my writing hand comfortable.
I then put the bulb back in the box with my left hand (the flaps naturally go into the right position) and leave the top open

Some changes
space is getting cluttered so I put the processed bulb boxes back in the case and pull out the unprocessed boxes because it is more difficult to pull out a box from a packed case.
My grip evolves from cradling the bulb -> gripping bulb between thumb and index finger at the base and apex-> gripping the sides of the bulb with my thumb and first two fingers and pressing it against my chest for support->a cradle grip where my index and middle finger support the screw base and the rest support the bulb->only the index finger supports the top (The screw end always points away from me so that the date will be written right side up)
I start pressing the top flap of the box down as I open it to keep it open
I try opening the flap with my index finger instead of my thumb
I empty cases onto the table before starting to fill them with processed boxes
replace marker with fresh marker

More changes
I no longer set down the pen between bulbs
when I place processed bulb into a box, sometimes it catches on the top flap, so I start bending the top flaps down farther.
the table got crowded so I moved processed cases to the floor
I got a marker with a smaller tip so that I have better control

August 15 2017
I grab a box with my left hand with the thumb lined up with the edge of the flap.
I bring it over and grab the base with my right hand (I reposition my left hand at this step if my thumb isn't lined up)
As I brought the box to my right hand I automatically pointed the marker away from the box to keep from marking it. (I can either keep the marker between my thumb and index and point it to the side of my hand, or keep it between my index and middle and point it off to the top of my hand)
I undo the flap with my left thumb and I pass it under my hand to hold it open against the box with my less important fingers.
I stick my thumb and first two fingers into the box and pull out the bulb and discard the box.
since bulb is resting against the base of my thumb I use my right hand to push the screw end around so that my left hand cradles the bulb. (because my left hand is too slow at spinning the bulb)
I then write on the bulb with my right hand, rotating it with my left to keep the writing easy.

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You are reading a metablog post, dated August 4, 2017.

The next metablog post is Pattern and Nebulosity: Deconstructing Yourself podcast.

The previous metablog post was Ignorant, irrelevant, and inscrutable.

This page’s topics are History of ideas and Rationalism.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.