Inner Speech and “Thoughts” (II)

November 21, 2010

This post concerns a second picture that’s found in the article “ ‘What the . . .?’ The role of inner speech in conscious thought” by Fernando Martínez-Manrique and Agustín Vicente. This picture is one that’s shared by these authors as well as by those they criticize. It’s the idea that inner speech ‘brings thoughts to consciousness’, ‘makes thoughts conscious’, or enables us to ‘monitor our cognitive processes’. These phrases suggest that the meanings of sentences we produce in inner speech are somehow already there in us before we inwardly say them.

It is important to note that these already-present meanings need not be supposed to be in a natural language format. But the picture that ‘bringing to consciousness’ suggests is that the meanings of what’s going to be said in inner speech are already there in some format or other, and need only to put into into linguistic form in our inner speech.

This picture contrasts with what I’ve suggested in Your Brain and You. The view there is that a bit of speech – whether inner or overt – can perfectly well be the very first time that a cognitive product occurs that has the meaning of what is said in the speech. On this view, inner speech need not correspond to, or ‘match’, or bring to consciousness, something that already has its meaning.

Of course, it may correspond to something already formulated. This happens, e.g., when we recite in inner speech a poem that we have memorized. The point is that there need noi be any such precursor, in any format. The argument, in very brief summary form, is that there has to be some time at which some meaning is first represented in us – if that were not so, we’d have to suppose, absurdly, that everything we are ever going to think is already fully formulated in some way in us. But if there has to be a first coming together of ideas to make a meaningful assertion somewhere, it may be that an episode of inner (or overt) speech is that very first coming together.

Martínez-Manrique and Vicente have a very plausible argument for their picture and against mine. Inner speech, they correctly note, is often fragmentary, but we generally feel that we know what we mean. On their view, this feeling would be explained by our having a thought that is already there, that is given only a fragmentary expression. The fragmentary expression is good enough, because we have a more complete thought in mind.

I think, however, that what we actually have in our consciousness, besides the fragmentary inner speech, is only a sense of confidence that we are able to go on to fill in what was not actually stated in our inner speech. And, usually, our confidence is justified –  we are able to go on in a coherent and useful way. But this ability does not require that there is already a fully formulated representation of a complete thought somewhere in us. It requires only that we are (usually, though not always) able to go on more or less successfully. And going on successfully requires only that our cognitive processes continue to operate in an organized way. We cannot deny that they can do this – they have to be able to do it if we are to cope with living. It adds needless complexity to suppose that they have to do it twice, once in non-linguistic format and then in linguistic re-format.

Let’s illustrate the difference in views with one of Martínez-Manrique’s and Vicente’s examples. Perhaps I say, in inner speech, only “The meeting!” If I reflect on this later, I will be inclined to feel that I knew which meeting I meant, and when it is (or was) to take place, even though I didn’t say anything about that in my inner speech. It seems ever so natural to think that these other, unstated matters are already there “in thought” and that if I go on to say more about the details of which meeting I meant, I am linguistically formulating matters that were previously put together in some way.

But all that’s required for me to know what I mean is that I am well enough organized to go on appropriately. For example, I might start hurrying to get to the meeting, or, if it’s already over, I might start preparing apologies to appropriate individuals, or start rehearsing excuses. If I feel that I can go on appropriately, and in fact do so, it will be tempting to think I had all the particulars fully formed in mind when I exclaimed to myself “The meeting!”. But that hypothesis, however natural, seems unnecessary. A “just in time” organization that provides appropriate details when they become relevant will lead to the same results, with a simpler set of assumptions.

A “just in time” view also seems to be a good account of our occasional failures. Suppose I have a regular weekly meeting, but for special reasons it’s been canceled this week, and I’ve made other plans. It’s possible that ten minutes after the usual time, I’ll suddenly think “The meeting!” and have a surge of anxiety. Then, almost immediately “Oh no! Canceled. Whew!” It’s hard to imagine that the second part of this was “already there”; it would seem to be a case where the eruption of the cancellation into consciousness just is the inner saying together with relief from anxiety. These later occurrences are products of our cognitive processes, of course, but they need not be conceived as a reformatting of something that those processes have already produced.

[The article referred to is Fernando Martínez-Manrique and Agustín Vicente, “ ‘What the . . .?’ The role of inner speech in conscious thought”, The Journal of Consciousness Studies 17(9-10):141-167 (2010).

There are several interesting posts about inner speech on Eric Schwitzgebel’s web site: go to http://schwitzsplintersinnerspeech.blogspot.com .

Besides what’s in Your Brain and You, I’ve discussed inner speech in my “Thoughts Without Distinctive, Non-Imagistic Phenomenology”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 70:534-561 (2005) and “A Frugal View of Cognitive Phenomenology”, soon to appear in T. Bayne and M. Montague, eds., Cognitive Phenomenology (Oxford: Oxford University Press). ]

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Inner Speech and “Thoughts” (I)

November 16, 2010

Inner Speech and “Thoughts” (I)

Fernando Martínez-Manrique and Agustín Vicente have an interesting article in a recent issue of The Journal of Consciousness Studies. (No link here because it’s a subscription journal. Full reference appears below.) The title is “ ‘What the . . .?’ The role of inner speech in conscious thought”. By “inner speech” they mean the silent ‘talking to ourselves’ that most people report as something they do quite a lot of.

Major sections of this article are devoted to raising problems for the views of other writers on inner speech, but I’m not going to go into those. Nor am I going to try to summarize all of the informative points made in this rich and well considered article. Instead, I’m going to confine myself to comments on a picture that is popular in discussions of brains and minds. (“Pictures” in philosophy is a metaphor for metaphors.) A follow up posting will comment on another popular picture that’s suggested by this article.

The picture I have in mind today is that of “broadcasting”. In the background of this picture is the assumption that there are many processes that go on unconsciously in our brains, and that proceed at the same time and largely independently of each other. Against this background, consciousness is often thought of as having a special role – namely, that of broadcasting information to all parts of (or, processes in) the brain. What gets into consciousness is thereafter available at many places in the brain and thus may influence many brain processes.

The broadcasting idea seems plausible. After all, if something gets into consciousness, I know about it. If I think of myself as a unified self, it seems that what I know should be available to my whole self, and therefore to any process that’s relevant to my thinking that may be going on in me.

Martínez-Manrique and Vicente, however, make a striking observation that should lead us to think carefully about this “broadcasting” picture. Inner speech is, evidently, linguistic – it’s composed of words and their order makes a difference. (“John loves Jane” is different from “Jane loves John” whether it’s said inwardly or out loud.) So, if inner speech were “broadcast”, what is said in it could have a useful effect only on a system that works on linguistic inputs – a language system that could understand the words as words and their order as making a distinctive contribution. Whatever effect a “broadcast” bit of inner speech might have on other kinds of systems could not be an effect that made use of the linguistically encoded information.

This point seems to have quite general application. If any neural event has informational content of any kind, and it causes some effect in other neural events, those latter neural events will “receive” that information only if they are structured so that they can use it. Otherwise, there may still be an effect, but it wouldn’t be one that depends on the informational content. The voice that shatters glass does so because of its pitch and loudness – not because of the meaning of the word being sung, even if that word happens to be “shatter”.

Sometimes we learn something on one occasion and then recall it and put it to use in some different context. Cases like this may suggest that once we have been conscious of some fact, it is then generally available for further use. But it would be risky to draw much of a conclusion from such happy occasions. That’s because we do not know now many occasions there may have been where something we learned would have been helpful, but it did not come to mind.

Sometimes we have evidence for unhappy cases of this kind. For example, after losing some game, a friend might ask why we didn’t make a certain move. The best answer we can give might be “I just didn’t think of it. I know the rules, so I would have known I could make that move if I’d thought of it, but it just never crossed my mind”. That would be a case of something I knew that was not available to my cognitive processes when it was needed. But while we know there are some such cases, it would take an ingenious experiment to figure out how often that kind of failure happens. If there had been no friend there to ask why we didn’t make a certain move, we would likely never have realized that we’d failed to use something that in some sense we knew, and that might become available for use on some other occasion.

A radio or TV broadcast is received by many receivers that are designed to process the incoming signal in a way that preserves information. And the message is received by listeners, each of whom can understand it. We won’t be making progress in understanding how our minds work if we populate our brain with a lot of understanders. (After all, understanding is something we want our cognitive science to explain.)  The brain events that cause our consciousness undoubtedly have many other effects, in many parts of the brain. But it may be more helpful to think of these simply as neural effects rather than as receptions of broadcast messages.

 [The article referred to is Fernando Martínez-Manrique and Agustín Vicente, “ ‘What the . . .?’ The role of inner speech in conscious thought”, The Journal of Consciousness Studies 17(9-10):141-167 (2010).

There are several interesting posts about inner speech on Eric Schwitzgebel’s web site: go to http://schwitzsplintersinnerspeech.blogspot.com .

I discuss inner speech in Your Brain and You. There’s more about it in my “Thoughts Without Distinctive, Non-Imagistic Phenomenology”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 70:534-561 (2005) and “A Frugal View of Cognitive Phenomenology”, soon to appear in T. Bayne and M. Montague, eds., Cognitive Phenomenology (Oxford: Oxford University Press). ]