Sunday, September 21, 2008

Filling in Some Background

I realize there may have been an inordinate amount of name-dropping in yesterday's post on the reflective nature of listening to music. However, this is a "rehearsal studio;" and rehearsal is often a matter of identifying all sorts of loose ends that need to be gathered up at a later time. In this case one of those loose ends involved the conjunction of my long-standing interest in Gerald Edelman with a renewed interest in George Herbert Mead. It has been over a year since I last wrote about Mead on this blog. That was a time when I seemed to be preoccupied with beating up "social software" evangelists over their oblivion to both the nature of the social world and the significant body of writing that tried to tease out that nature. One of my bigger sticks was Mead's thesis of "symbolic interactionism;" and since, in many respects, social software is a ne plus ultra of symbolic interactionism, I still find the prevailing neglect of Mead to be downright depressing.

My current interest in Mead, however, has broadened out to what one might call the "umbrella concept" within which symbolic interactionism is situated; and, as I mentioned explicitly yesterday, this is the concept of "social behaviorism." The best introduction to this concept is the book Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. This is actually a compiled collection of Mead's writings edited by Charles W. Morris, who explains in his Introduction that Mead, himself, never actually used the term "social behaviorism." Rather, he takes a critical view of the pioneering work in behaviorism by John B. Watson (such as can be found in Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist) as a point of departure for his own investigation into the fundamental nature of consciousness. Perhaps the best way to approach this side of Mead's work is from the following passage from Morris' Introduction:

Instead of beginning with individual minds and working out to society, Mead starts with an objective social process and works inward through the importation of the social process of communication into the individual by the medium of the vocal gesture. The individual has then taken the social act into himself.

This makes for a striking contrast to Edelman's approach, developed most thoroughly (if hypothetically) in The Remembered Present, which takes perceptual categorization as the primary element of mind and builds a sort of gradus ad Parnassum of recursive applications of categorization to its own results, leading to an initial model of self in the form of "primary consciousness," and then continues into the capacity for language as an agency for what amounts to symbolic interactionism. In Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of Mind, however, Edelman is quite clear about his own critical view of Watson and behaviorism, without having anything to say about either Mead or Morris' interpretation of Mead. Edelman is certainly not a behaviorist in that he rejects the one principle that Mead shared with Watson, that the point of departure for the understanding of consciousness must reside in "observed behavior." Edelman takes his point of departure in the brain itself, using observed behavior as a test for models he builds of brain function.

Personally, I continue to be interested in efforts to bring the brain into any story about human behavior, which I suppose is why I was interested in the efforts of Oliver Sacks to include stories about musical behavior in this agenda in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, even if Anthony Gottlieb's review of this book (which I had encountered on the International Herald Tribune Web site) refers to that work as "a sort of reverse-engineering of the soul." On the other hand taking observable behavior as a point of departure is one way to avoid sinking into the philosophical quicksand of questions about the soul; and this can be achieved by, in the words of anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu's criticism of art historian Erwin Panofsky, concentrating on the modus operandi, rather than the opus operatum, regardless of whether or not that modus operandi has been motivated by a "soul." Social behaviorism is all about the modus operandi of the individual in society, the sense of self that emerges from that modus operandi, and, ultimately, the conscious mind that emerges from the sense of self.

Much of what we encounter in the study of music deserves the same criticism that Bourdieu accorded to Panofsky. When those who would understand do not have their heads buried in scores, they are immersed in the overabundance of recordings that technology now makes available. Yet, even in those recordings, the focus on action (and, therefore, reflection-in-action) is easily lost. Whether or not we lose our grip in the soul is academic, but the threat is still there that, by sidelining attention to the making of music, we lose our grip on the music itself. Thus, while social behaviorism may not eventually lead us to the understanding of brain function that occupies Edelman and Sacks, it may provide us with the best way to remember that the opus operatum could not exist at all without the modus operandi; it is the portal through which we pass for a better understanding of how music comes to be in the minds of both performers and listeners.

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