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Tallis in Wonderland

On Being Thanked By A Paper Bag

Raymond Tallis thinks outside the bag.

On the way out of a shop the other day, I looked at the bag in which my purchases were stored. “Thank you” it said, “Please call again”. This invitation to return could not have been anticipated from my experience of calling the first time, which, speaking off the record, had not given an unequivocal impression that my custom had been valued. The paper bag was more polite than the person slaving at the ‘dark, satanic tills’ who had served me.

A few days later I was on a train, and after the routine requests to “be alert” and to “report any suspicious items or behaviour” – exhortations I have received thousands of times over the last few decades – there was a further announcement, preceded by earwax-melting tannoyed ding dongs, to the effect that the train would arrive late. There followed a beautifully articulated and sincere-sounding apology for “this delay and for any inconvenience caused.” The recording had presumably been triggered by a software program designed to note any discrepancy between the actual and the scheduled location of the train. Any human consciousness involved – in the boardroom of Virgin trains, in the departments of engineering and customer care – had long since moved on to other things.

These instances of automated courtesy – of machine-generated manners – reminded me how often we are addressed by words uprooted from any conscious individual or even identifiable source; by announcements without enunciators, apologising, exhorting, and ordering us about. Once you notice it, you see and hear it everywhere. The bottle out of which I drink beer advises me to “drink sensibly” (rather than, say, getting completely out of my skull); the can of zero calories pop congratulates me on making such a healthy choice. Wrappings warn me not to misuse their contents, and invite me to dispose of themselves tidily. Notices on the grass forbid me to walk on the turf beneath them. Doormats and towns welcome me – doormats unconditionally, towns if I drive carefully. Buses have apologies (“Sorry. Out of Service”) printed on their foreheads. Phone-hold music is interrupted at regular intervals by the reassurance that “Your call is valuable to us.” Notices even warn us against “Standing forward of this notice” i.e., of themselves.

These examples of the printed and prerecorded discourse that constantly assails us are thought-provoking because they are instances of what the philosopher J.L. Austin (1911-60) called ‘performatives’ – but performed in the absence of any performer. Performatives are utterances that do not merely describe something in the world but explicitly perform that of which they speak. Austin ultimately concluded that all utterances are performatives of a sort, or ‘illocutionary acts’. This even includes describing, informing and explaining: when I state a fact, I perform the speech act of ‘informing’. His original examples of performatives, however, were distinguished by the way they wore their status as acts on their sleeves. Uttering the sentence “I apologise” doesn’t merely report an ongoing apology but actually performs it. Of course, as even quite small children are aware, there are ways of saying “I apologise” in such a manner that the performative can “unperform” itself. “All right, I apologise if you insist” does the opposite of what it says, and “Thanks a bunch!” unthanks a bunch and a half. Nevertheless, explicit performatives seem to have a personal warrant, an existential payload, that mere ‘informatives’ don’t. This is why delegating them to insentient machines and ontological plebs such as paper bags seems especially noteworthy. At any rate, when I am being a philosopher and not wasting the gift of life in being a Grumpy Old Man, I find them intriguing. For they are a rather exotic expression of our human capacity for the exographic storage of elements whose primary home is human consciousness. And so I arrive at my theme.

Outside & Inside Ourselves

The term ‘exographic storage’ was coined by Merlin Donald (b.1939), a Canadian psychologist, cognitive neuroscientist, and profound thinker in the field of philosophical anthropology. So, thanks to the courtesy of paper bags, I have an opportunity to introduce this great thinker to the readers of Philosophy Now.

Donald has thought long and hard about the roots of our distinctively human consciousness and traced its fascinating journey to the present, where, for example, gratitude may be expressed by, or at least on, a paper bag. Thanks, welcomes, warnings, apologies and so in the absence of anyone doing the thanking, welcoming, warning, and apologising, are striking illustrations of our ability to deposit ourselves outside of ourselves – of what we might call the deposition of human consciousness onto insentient surfaces. Inscription – writing on bark, paper or electronic media – is the most obvious manifestation of this, but we take that rather too much for granted. To wake up fully to its astonishing nature, we need to go a long way back and see what writing, and indeed speech, presuppose, and examine certain stages in the several million year journey from chimps to persons.

Like your columnist, Donald is exercised by the sheer size of the cognitive gap between human beings and our nearest primate kin, the chimpanzees. This is a gap whose scale many thinkers, particularly evolutionary psychologists, have resisted acknowledging, deliberately or inadvertently. The reason for this odd behaviour is the mistaken assumption that to admit the uniqueness of humanity would put Darwinian Theory in question and threaten a regression to preDarwinian, possibly religious, accounts of our nature and origin. Donald, and your columnist, disagree with this assumption. Admitting to the vast cognitive gulf between human persons and non-human primates does not require us to believe that the human organism was created by non-Darwinian processes. It does, however, mean that we have some explaining to do: we need to give some account of how the organism H. sapiens got to be so different; and that requires examining in what fundamental respects humans are different from other primates. This is what Donald has attempted in a series of contributions to the debate on the evolution of human consciousness. The most accessible short account of his ideas is his own ‘Précis of [his book] Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition’ in Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 1993, 16(4). This is the basis of what follows. I strongly recommend you to consult the original on-line because I do little justice to it.

Donald identifies three major cognitive transformations by which the human mind emerged over millions of years, after starting out with a complex of skills presumably resembling those we still see in chimpanzees. These transformations underlie the passage from the non-symbolic cognitions of animals to the fully symbolic representations that are wall-to-wall in everyday human life.

The first transformation mainly affected motor function. The key step was the acquisition by early hominids of the ability to use the body as a representational device. These mimetic skills, based on an abstract (mental) model of the body, allowed otherwise automatic actions to be stopped, replayed, and edited under conscious control. Donald links this mimetic ability with self-teaching and the refinement of action by deliberate repetition. It underpins our unique agency, which has enabled us “to break the stranglehold of the environment.” (In a trilogy beginning with The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being, 2003, I also explore the emergence of this special relationship humans have to their own bodies so that we became embodied subjects with a fully developed sense of self and explicit agency.) Consciously-refined motor activity based on the mimetic capacity of a creature distanced to some extent from its own body, is the basis not only of the meant meanings conveyed by gestures, but also of the first customs that form the background social theatre that supports and structures group behaviour in modern humans.

A crucial capacity underpinning mimetic skills is ‘auto-cueing’ – the ability to access the contents of one’s own episodic memories independent of environmental prompts, enabling actions to be initiated not only on the basis of external, but also self-based cues. Man is the only creatures who racks his brains. This ability voluntarily to access and retrieve experiences and outputs is a necessary condition of many other human cognitive and motor skills, including the self-teaching with a view to developing, correcting, and modifying complex patterns of behaviour that I’ve already referred to.

The revolution in nonverbal motor skills was, Donald convincingly argues, a necessary prior adaption for the next cognitive transformation: lexical invention. Symbolic language use fully emerged perhaps 50,000 years ago, so language in our modern sense is a relative newcomer compared with the capacity for mimesis, which may be up to 1.5 million years old. The emergence of this new mode of representation, with a vocabulary and a grammar, was dependent on an established capacity to generate rehearsable and retrievable vocal acts. The point is that, according to Donald, language arose in humans who were already cognitively remote from their primate predecessors. This may explain the disappointing results of attempts to get chimps to speak: they don’t have the cognitive infrastructure.

Donald’s account of the emergence and evolution of language is extremely complex (as it should be), and there is no space to treat it adequately in this article. And so I hasten on to the third transition, which is most directly relevant to my being thanked by a paper bag. Donald calls this ‘the externalisation of memory’. This is driven primarily by technological rather than biological developments, and it gets its most potent boost from language. The consequences of externalising what is internal “deepens the internal and this is turn extends the external.” Amongst its many extraordinary effects has been the emergence of a shared representational culture no longer dependent on or constrained by individual memory. The clearest exemplar of this is relatively recent: the almost infinitely varied modes of inscription gathered under the general term ‘writing’, the consequences of which have been dramatic. The most immediate and most obvious is the expansion and pooling of the available past (and its mirror the future) as the accumulation of knowledge; the development of theories based in information laid out for inspection, contemplation, and interrogation; and the consequent limitless amplification of technology-based human capabilities.

Most relevant to our present concerns, however, is the establishment of a collective public realm. The relationship between the individual mind and the community of minds created out of what I described in Aping Mankind (2012) as “a trillion cognitive handshakes” becomes ever more elaborate; thought becomes located in a larger networked structure supported by external memory. This not only permits our escape from the limits of individual consciousness, but opens the possibility of entirely separating the representations of consciousness from embodied subjects. And this separation has a transformative effect on our relationship to each other, most strikingly evident in the way we communicate, and who is communicating, and to whom. The who and the whom may be an abstractly conceived audience, defined by certain situations and the propensities of putative addressees.

Which brings me at last back to the gratitude of paper bags. Those millions of thanks – standardised representations of symbolic actions disconnected from any bodies; from any speaking mouth; even (since they are machine-stamped) from a writing hand – addressed by no-one in particular to no-one in particular, are an extreme example of our exographic mode of being. The long journey of cognitive evolution leading from our primate predecessors is illuminated by this humble example.

And so it is my turn to give thanks – to Professor Donald. His theories have highlighted the extraordinary nature of human beings and their capacity to externalise their own consciousness. And thanks too to the paper bag for its printed gratitude, reminding me how even the seemingly shallowest manifestations of our shared consciousness have profound roots.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2015

Raymond Tallis’s latest book is Summers of Discontent: The Purpose of the Arts Today with Julian Spalding (Wilmington Square). His website is raymondtallis.com.

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