Book Reviews - Spring 2016

I Think, Therefore ...


How much can we really know about the mystery of ourselves?

Photo illustration by Stephanie Bastek from a 1619 illustration by Robert Fludd (Wikimedia Commons)

By Kathryn Tabb

February 29, 2016


The Tides of the Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness by David Gelernter; Liveright, 320 pp., $26.95

On Being Human: Why Mind Matters by Jerome Kagan; Yale University Press, 320 pp., $35

Sometimes it takes an expert to recognize when expertise is not enough. In his preface to The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness, David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, explains how for years he tried to answer crucial questions about the nature of consciousness through computer modeling. But while computation can ape reasonably well our rational thought, he argues, what makes us human is our capacity to move up and down a spectrum of consciousness, from the crisp attention we feel when wide awake to the aimless associative states of drowsiness and daydreaming. Therefore, in The Tides of Mind, Gelernter employs not algorithms but introspection, personal reflection, and an engagement with a broad range of literary sources.

Similarly, Harvard developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan has offered up a new collection of essays that shake off the scholarly apparatus of his discipline. On Being Human: Why Mind Matters is unencumbered by thickets of citations, and instead takes as its model the essays of Montaigne. Kagan aims to emulate Montaigne’s exploratory and conversational style and adopts his pleasing penchant for digression. The essays are bound together by Kagan’s deep frustration with what he perceives as the gross oversimplification of human psychology by social scientists seeking to quantify the mind and bring it in line with the better-behaved objects of the harder sciences.

Kagan laments not only the hostile takeover of the sciences of mind by those of brain but also subtler shifts in the way psychologists characterize the mind for experimental purposes. Concepts like “self-esteem” and “dysregulation” are treated as real, he argues, as if they were as tangible and knowable as genes or circuits. He worries that experiments designed to measure these constructs will have as much success as those designed to measure scientific objects we now recognize as illusory, such as phlogiston or the luminous aether. Instead of working to improve such concepts, Kagan urges us to recognize that human psychology may not be describable in such general terms. His essays assert that scientists may need to investigate the contingencies of human experience—our biases and genetic predispositions, the cultural, social, and economic pressures we feel, and the complex webs of our relations with others—through means clumsier and slower than the flashier methods of biology, neuroscience, or physics.

Kagan’s stylistic choice is brave but challenging. The reader encounters bald pronouncements of political and philosophical views juxtaposed jarringly with empirical findings. Readers familiar with the scientific debates Kagan touches on—arguments over gene-environment interaction, criminality and race, or the effects of technology on culture—may wish for footnotes. Literary readers might hunger for more personal reflection, analytic ones for more consideration of philosophical concerns such as free will and the relationship between mind and body. But overall, Kagan’s arguments are convincing and pose a timely question: How can the social sciences treat the complexity of their subjects responsibly? If we are swayed by Kagan’s assertion that “evidence from diverse domains invites the conclusion that very few rules, principles or conclusions transcend all settings,” what next? His quiet insistence on the devastating moral costs of less easily quantifiable sources of human suffering, such as poverty, makes clear the high stakes of this question.

For his part, Gelernter is more interested in answering questions than posing them, and in providing new hermeneutic tools than evaluating old ones. Indeed, he contends that his theory of mind is so original that there are no competing views worth considering. This will surprise contemporary researchers on attention and memory as well as historians familiar with, say, the stream of consciousness of William James or René Descartes’s fascination with mind wandering. Gelernter’s central claims concern the relationship between conscious thought and the unconscious mind, which, he argues provocatively, is merely another name for the faculty of memory. He calls thought “up-spectrum” when the conscious mind critically engages with the world, and “down-spectrum” when it is less rational than associative, consisting in states of feeling rather than reflections about things.

Gelernter and Kagan share a disgust with Facebook, apps, and the breakdown of spiritual life in America. At one point, Gelernter compares his horror of transhumanism (the enhancement of human qualities via technology) to Freud’s of necrophilia. His distaste for “up-spectrum life” is one of the book’s major themes, and is matched by a Rousseauvian admiration for “low focus societies,” which favor being over doing and memory over analysis—the sort of down-spectrum thought that, for the most part, we in the West only access during childhood or while on the edge of sleep. To serve his point, Gelernter calls on the works of two writers: Nobel prize–winning novelist J. M. Coetzee and Danish memoirist Karen Blixen (who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen). In Out of Africa (1937), an account of the 17 years she spent in British East Africa (now Kenya), Blixen wrote that the Kikuyu people seemed not to experience boredom. Gelernter compares her observation with Coetzee’s descriptions, a half-century later, of his protagonist Michael K, an impoverished gardener living in a South Africa ravaged by civil war, who increasingly subsists in profound, often mute isolation. But in likening Michael K to Blixen’s Kikuyu—Gelernter writes that he too displays a “genius at being”—Gelernter strips away the novel’s context. Michael K is literally starved by the grotesque interventions of structural racial violence, and indeed, in this novel and others, Coetzee can be read as commenting critically on the treatment of natives as unreflective and childlike by colonial travel writers.

Gelernter’s invocation of the tribal mind as an example of humanity in its pristine state is strange to encounter in a 21st-century work. Perhaps Kagan could broaden the scope of his critique beyond the sciences: it seems that those set on discovering universal principles of human nature can draw just as problematically on fictional evidence as on scientific. Ultimately, Gelernter is at his best when he uses introspection to explore his own journeys down the spectrum, such as when he gives examples of memory colluding with emotion to shape his dreams. Readers who are similarly enamored of nostalgia, and whose dreams are also powerfully autobiographical, will especially appreciate these sections of the book. That both Kagan’s and Gelernter’s explorations of self make for rewarding reading is not surprising. Alongside whatever expertise we labor to develop, we speak with most authority about ourselves. In the words of the inimitable Montaigne, even “on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”

Kathryn Tabb is an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia University, specializing in the history and philosophy of psychiatry.

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