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Publication: Style
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 23245
ISSN: 00394238
Journal code: PSTY

Alan Palmer begins his thought-provoking article with the idea that mind is social. He soon characterizes an alternative to this view as a "cliché." In fact, it seems at least as reasonable to characterize Palmer's claim as a cliché. Despite Palmer's assertions, no current theorist, or really anyone else, would disagree that minds are social in some sense. The issue, of course, is just what that sense is. Very soon, Palmer begins to make very strong claims about minds extending beyond individual brains. These, one must admit, are not a cliché.

Specifically, Palmer claims that there are many differences between his "externalist" position and the "classical" position on mind. In fact, the classical position, as Palmer presents it, is a straw man. Almost no one would accept most of the views Palmer repudiates. However, he uses this straw man to assert a couple of very challenging ideas. The first of these ideas is that there is "intermental thought," thought that is not located in an individual mind. Unfortunately, it is difficult to say just what this might mean. Despite Palmer's assertions, cognitive science offers no help here. If we follow the standard neuro-cognitive view that the mind is a function of the brain, then there has to be a brain for there to be a thought. But the point of an intermental thought is, presumably, that it is not found only in brains.

Given the initial obscurity of the idea, we may reasonably expect two things from someone advocating the existence and, indeed, crucial importance of intermental thought. First, we might expect a compelling case that it is necessary to posit such an entity in order to explain available data. Second, we may reasonably expect a clear account of just what intermental thought might be.

To begin, it is worth considering Palmer's opening literary example. He quotes from Little Dorrit - "There had been that momentary interruption of the talk about the stove, and that temporary inattention to and distraction from one another, which is usually inseparable in such a company from the arrival of a stranger." (cite?) Palmer characterizes this as "the workings of social minds" with "intermental thought!' (cite?) A standard cognitive account of such an event would go something like this: Our individual minds are sensitive to unexpected events in the environment. Such events tend to redirect attentional orientation. We are also sensitive to facial familiarity. When we see a stranger, we experience amygdala and insula activation suggestive of fear or alarm. Attentional re-orientation and even mild alarm are almost certain to result in the interruption of ongoing activities. Since these are biological processes that characterize human behavior generally, we would expect them to occur in the case of most humans. This seems to explain fully what Dickens' narrator describes (people interrupting their conversation at the entrance of a stranger), and it does not make any reference to intermental thought. In other words, this is not a case where the idea of intermental thought is forced on us by some explanatory inadequacy.

But suppose that we posit intermental thought anyway. What explanatory function would it serve? How would we even experience or infer an intermental thought? Perhaps we could find the answer in human interaction. Suppose Jones is conversing with Smith. Jones has his back to the door and Smith is facing the door. Everyone hears the door open. Smith pauses, looks up, and frowns. Jones sees Smith's disapproving facial expression, then turns to the door himself. There is certainly something social going on here, as everyone would agree. But is there intermental thought? Does Jones perceive an intermental thought or infer one when he see's Smith's face? At least prima facie, it seems that Smith's facial expression is the result of Smith's own brain processes. Jones then sees the physical endresult of these brain processes, leading to his own brain processes, including a tacit inference to Smith's thought (not some further intermental thought). Indeed, presumably everyone agrees that this is going on. So where would intermental thought come in? Even in such explicitly social cases, there is no reason to believe that individual minds provide inadequate explanations. Moreover, once again, the idea of intermental thought is not adequately clear to indicate how it would provide further explanation anyway.

After treating Dickens, Palmer goes on to dismiss opposition. He claims that "It is a cliché of literary studies that, whereas novels can give us direct access to the minds of characters, by contrast, in reality, we can never really know what other people are thinking."1 (cite?) He then rather mocks opponents of his preferred view, claiming that they must have "a considerable degree of cognitive dissonance in order to contradict the weight of evidence of our everyday experience. All of us, every day, know for a lot of the time what other people are thinking." (cite?) This may seem convincing. Who could disagree that we often know what other people are thinking? It would seem, then, that anyone who does not believe in intermental thoughts is, at best, "silly" (as he puts it later) and, at worst, perhaps pathological (as the excessive cognitive dissonance may suggest).

But, in fact, this is simply a misrepresentation of what the alternatives are. The key point is that there are two senses of the word "know" here. One sense of "know" is, roughly, "hold a justified true belief." Everyone agrees that we routinely know what other people are thinking in this sense of "know." For Palmer to say his opponents do not accept this is to create a straw man. However, there is another sense of "know," which means, roughly, "experience directly." This is where the disagreement arises. It is not a matter of whether one can make justified, true inferences about someone else's thoughts. It is a matter of whether one can experience or directly observe those thoughts.

Palmer goes on to divide possible views of mind into the "classical" and the "new." Of course, Palmer's view is "new," thus it presumably supersedes the old. That "new" view is supposedly informed by cognitive science. But what in cognitive science could give rise to the notion of intermental thought? A standard view in cognitive science today ties thought to frontal and parietal association areas, where the outputs from sensory and motor processing are integrated in working memory. In this context, there cannot be any such thing as an intermental thought because there is no such thing as an interbrain association area.

Palmer does make reference to work on socially distributed cognition. That work is certainly important and should be more widely read and integrated into literary study. Research in socially distributed cognition indicates things about, for example, problem solving. People with different sorts of knowledge and skills can cooperate to produce collectively achieved results. Moreover, the central importance of human social interaction tells us something about the nature of our cognitive and affective architecture. Our minds operate in such a way as to presuppose extensive social interaction. For example, our emotional orientation toward a situation is often strongly affected by the emotional expressions of other people. But, again, everyone agrees on this - and none of this points toward intermental thoughts of any sort. For instance, none of this suggests intermental fears - just the usual, individual fears, with their substrates in activations of individual amygdalas.

Palmer extends his version of distributed cognition by reference to identity. Identity is a complex concept, and there are many forms of identity - ranging from one's practical orientations, interests, skills, etc., to the categories by which one understands oneself or is understood by others, prominently including religion, nationality, sex, and so on. But Palmer's idea of identity - to which he gives the name "situated identity" - seems to come down to the fact that we can be mistaken about ourselves in certain circumstances. He points out that someone may not recognize that he or she is selfish, while other people recognize this. From this example, he concludes that "we are all reluctant to take somebody's word for the workings of their own mind." (cite?) We, therefore, rely on other people. This is a rather wild overstatement but true in some cases. The question is what follows from that (partial) truth. Palmer says that accepting this idea is "a tacit admission that there is a strong sense in which our mind is distributed among those other people." (cite?) This is the second controversial idea that we may take away from Palmer's essay. It, too, is difficult to puzzle out.

If there is a difference between some "old" or "classical" and a "new" view of mind, it is this: According to the "old" view, we have fairly good introspective access to our own minds. This is because we directly experience most aspects of our minds. In the "new" view, we have direct experience of much less. What we say about that part is generally valid. But we do not have direct access to the vast majority of mental processes or contents. In those inaccessible cases, we have to infer what is true. Often, we are in a good position to make such inferences. But sometimes we are not. For example, we can more or less introspectively tell what we consider the correct plural forms of "cat," "dog," and "bush." But, without training in linguistics, we are likely to mistakenly explain how we form those very different plurals.

Here, too, no one accepts the view that we have perfect access to all aspects of our mental life or that one is always the best at inferring one's own cognitive processes and contents. On this, there is no difference between Palmer and those he is criticizing. The difference, rather, is this: Palmer's antagonists believe that there are only individual mental processes, instantiated in individual brain processes. Those individual mental processes include inferences that may be accurate or mistaken. This seems to explain everything that needs to be explained. Moreover, even if it did not explain everything, it seems impossible to say how the idea of a distributed mind could contribute to an explanation.

Palmer's rhetorical development of his claims partially culminates in the division between the "internalist" idea of mind and the "externalist" idea. The components of this division are difficult to comprehend as philosophical positions (though they make some sense as foci in particular literary works). No real "internalist" rejects "third-person attribution," "subjectivity of others," or "theory of mind" - quite the contrary, though Palmer identifies these with the "externalist perspective." It is difficult not to feel that Palmer has simply attributed unpopular beliefs to internalists and popular beliefs to externalists. For example, he identifies monologue with internahsm but dialogicality with externalism. Anyone familiar with critical theory of recent decades knows that "monologue" is bad and "dialogism" is good. Attributing monologue to one side and dialogue to another will always operate rhetorically to the benefit of the dialogical side. But there is no reason to see an account of mind as anti-dialogical simply because it does not claim minds are distributed. Indeed, one could argue that Palmer's view is anti-dialogical. Since our minds are already distributed through other minds, there is really no need for dialogue. To take a crude example, why ask people what they want when we can judge for them by reference to their distributed self - and we can judge them more accurately than they can judge themselves?

In short, Palmer proposes two particularly challenging ideas in his essay. First, there is intermental thought. Second, individual minds are distributed across other minds. Unfortunately, these are opaque ideas that do not appear to serve any explanatory purpose.


1 Palmer does not give examples. Particular cases are likely to be much more complex than this "cliché" suggests. For instance, I have argued for a related idea, and elaborated on its consequences, in "Literature, God, and the Unbearable Solitude of Consciousness," Journal of Consciousness Studies 11.5-6 (2004): 116-42.

Author affiliation:

Patrick Colm Hogan

University of Connecticut

Author affiliation:

Patrick Colm Hogan ( is a professor in the department of English at the University of Connecticut, where he is also on the faculties of the program in cognitive science, the program in comparative literature and cultural studies, and the program in India studies. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion (Cambridge UP 2003), Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories (U of Nebraska P 2011), and, most recently, What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion (Cambridge UP 2003). He has also edited a number of works, including The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences (Cambridge UP 2011).

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