Thoughts on Thoughts

States of Mind

by Jonathan Miller
Pantheon, 316 pp., $14.95

Jonathan Miller’s book is based on a British television series in which he quizzed fifteen “psychological investigators,” and that includes philosophers, an anthropologist, and an art historian as well as white-coated men from the laboratories. The level of the dialogue is often quite abstruse yet always lucid, and greatly helped by the polymath interviewer, who wraps up the topics in happy analogies and crisp turns of phrase of his own. Even if one allows for possible bias in the interviewer’s choice, it makes an interesting exposition of the current state of the art in the study of humankind.

First, not a behaviorist or an animal experimenter among them: each of the contributors in his own way is at least trying to grapple with human experiences. Second, fragmentation of the discipline, as ever: like Stephen Leacock’s horseman, psychology rides off in all directions. Miller, who perhaps has a love-hate affair with psychoanalysis, includes three contributions on it, though only one—Hanna Segal’s—by an analyst; the other twelve contributors are seldom anywhere near that wavelength. What can Melanie Klein’s theory of the six-month-old baby’s unconscious emotions, as expounded by Segal, have to do with Richard Gregory’s discussion of visual mechanisms, Daniel Dennett’s model of brain as computer, or Rom Harré’s analysis of social convention? Each “psychologist” in his little sound-proofed cubicle plays games with his own metaphor and tries to make sense of one corner of experience looked at from one direction; few make any reference to the others’ work. Freud, who at least tried for comprehensiveness, does in fact get the longest entry in the index—just slightly longer than “art,” “brain,” “consciousness,” “language,” and “nervous system.”

What is now new again and altogether excellent is that art, language, and consciousness have become permissible subjects of discussion for psychologists. And most striking of all, that formerly forbidden four-letter word “mind” has no fewer than fourteen index entries in the book. Professor George Miller of Princeton, whose historical sketch opens it, does in fact go right back to 1890 to appropriate William James’s definition of psychology—“the science of mental life”—as his own, and claims that this is what holds the various different approaches together. This is a new, mentalistic psychology, a thorough repudiation of the behaviorist program in which only what could be seen and measured was of any account. And the curious thing is that it is machines that have brought back mental life into psychology. Devices such as radar, servo-mechanisms as employed in aiming guns, and of course computers have an “inside” that cannot be inferred behavioristically: they have scanning abilities, memory storage, purposiveness, and, by implication, a kind of expectation. They have provided new models for conceptualizing a mind as opposed to mere brain. So, as George Miller has said, “the mind came in on the back of the machine.”

Jerome Bruner’s contribution brings out other turning points in the run-up to the new psychology. When Heisenberg showed as early as 1932 that there are different kinds of knowledge…

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