Animal Cognition, Concepts and Propositions

By Marsha Enright

Date: Fri, 16 Sep 1994 09:29:36 EST

From: Enright

To: Multiple recipients of list AYN-RAND

Subject: Animal cognition, concepts and propositions

Thanks to both Jimmy for his interesting essay, and to Ken Livingston, for bringing up some important issues about animal and human cognition.

Ken said both that "The conceptual function, which integrates and differentiates, is characteristic of all organisms with specialized cells for mediating perception-action links (basically that's going to include most animals..." and "In what sense is the concept not already a mental concrete? Some distinctive event must occur in the brain upon which the concept as a psychological phenomenon supervenes."

While I agree with Ken, that most animals are performing much more complex, judgmental-type cognitions and evaluations than perhaps the Objectivist literature would have us think, I think the problems here are as follows: we need to describe more exactly what animals do - and what _we_ do at the animal/perceptual level of cognition; we also need to find the right terminology to distinguish what happens at the more complex levels of perceptual cognition, and what happens at higher levels of human cognition.

Towards that endeavor, I propose some of the following thoughts. We share many cognitive faculties with the other animals: particularly, I am thinking of sensation, perception, what Aristotle called the "common sense," wherein the information from the each sense is integrated with that of the other senses (this is somewhat different than the perception from one sense alone), memory and imagination (Ah - ah - ah - now you're going to tell me that animals don't have imagination - I say they do, and that it, in combination with memory, is what gets them to perform many purposeful activities. They remember the bone they had yesterday, and when they're hungry, they imagine tasting one - and they go look for it. This was called "fantasia," by Aristotle.) I think in the use of memory and imagination to pursue their values, animals perform many complex cognitive judgments, recalling and rearranging their information to gain values. Kohler's experiments with Sultan the ape were some of the most interesting in this regard, because Sultan actually created a new way to obtain bananas for himself! I believe that Aristotelian's refer to these kinds of cognitions as "perceptual generalizations" and "perceptual judgments" (Irfan, am I wrong?). I find these terms adequate, unless someone can come up with better ones. Any suggestions?

All these faculties operate on sensory-perceptual forms of information. And, for many human acts of cognition, that is all that's needed - perceptual judgments and perceptual generalizations. However, I think that when humans perform acts of abstraction, a different form of cognition is involved. To address Ken's question, the abstract act and its product are indeed _particular things_, particular cognitions, and in that way they are concrete. But, I think the product of abstraction has some kind of form which is _different_ than the products of perception (including memory). Words are a means of attaching a cognitive form to the abstraction which is like the other perceptual forms used by our minds in memory and imagination. Words, or other symbols, give us the means by which our perceptual faculties can use abstractions. _This_ is what is meant by "words make ideas into mental concretes."

Some evidence for this claim is the common experience of not being able to get an idea to stick in one's head until one has the word for it. Also, creative writers sometimes don't like to write things in words until they're completely happy with their story idea. I believe they are hesitant to give their idea a particular form until they're sure of what all should be included in it. Sometimes, if they give it a form too soon in the process of creation, it forms the idea, the story or character, in a way that does not include everything the writer wants. In this respect, there seems to be a feedback relationship between ideas and words (or other symbols - mathematicians, musicians, architects and others use non-language symbols to give form to their ideas). You can also see this feedback relationship in the act of defining a word, or in choosing among words close in meaning to express a thought - you effectively clarify your thoughts by making these choices.

To return to the difference between what we do and what the other animals do, it seems clear from the research that their ability to mentally manipulate generalizations is limited to judgments about particular things - food, sleep, playmates, prey. I can't find any of my copies of ITOE at the moment, but I believe Rand says in there that the ability to form abstractions from abstractions is distinctively human. I understand this to mean that our ability to isolate aspects of reality, omit their measurements, and integrate them into new mental units can be used to do that with perceptual generalizations as well as perceptual particulars. Thus, we form perceptual ideas about particular tables, and then we form the idea "table," and then we form the idea "furniture." I know my dog has _some_ idea of table as opposed to TV - but she doesn't distinguish it too well from "counter." (Or maybe she just doesn't care, as long as they both have food on them!) And she certainly couldn't care less about remembering the difference between "furniture" and other things - we had to laboriously teach her _not_ to bother the furniture she was interested in, one piece at a time! And it is with abstractions from abstractions that I think words and symbols are crucial. Without them, I doubt that we could use our abstractions in conjunction with our other faculties.

Finally, I was very glad to see Ken complaining about the idea that, to have meaning, concepts must refer to actual existents. I have seen this proposed before, and I had the same reaction as Ken - what about new inventions? Are they meaningless until they're built and operative?

I liked his solutino to the problem: that fantastic concepts such as 'unicorn' have meaning because their component concepts have real referents.



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