Susanne Langer

LANGER: Against Physicalism

Kurt Lewin drew profound lessons for the sciences of mind from contrasting them with the development of physics as a science,
[note 1] but his own theory of a “dynamic psychology” became vulnerable to severe criticism because it permitted itself to be excessivly influenced by inappropriate analogies, as Langer notes in her more general diatribe against physicalism [note 2].

The social sciences, originally projected by Auguste Comte in his sanguine vision of a world reformed and rationally guided by science, have finally come into recognized existence in the twentieth century. They have had a different history from the natural sciences which grew up chiefly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries under the name “natural philosophy,” and gradually took shape as formal and systematic pursuits. Astronomy, mechanics, optics, electronics, all merging into “physics,” and the strange kettles of fish that became chemistry, had a free and unsupervised beginning; and the most productive thinkers of those maverick days ventured on some wild flights of fancy. Not so the founders of the “young sciences” today. They cannot indulge in fantastic hypotheses about the aims or the origins of society, the presence of sentience or intellect in anything but the investigator himself, the sources of fantasy, the measures of human or animal mentality. They began their work under the tutelage of physics, and — like young ones emulating their elders — they have striven first and hardest for the signs of sophistication; technical language, the laboratory atmosphere, apparatus, graphs, charts and statistical averages.

This ambition has had some unfortunate effects on a discipline for which the procedures of classical physics, for instance, the experimental techniques of Galileo, may not be suitable at all. It has centered attention on the ordering and collating of facts, and drawn it away from their own intriguing character as something distinct from the facts encountered by the physicist, and perhaps differently structured. The main concern of early physicists was understanding puzzling events; each scientific venture grew from a problem, the solution of which threw unexpected light on other problematical phenomena. It was always in such a light that the concepts of physical science were set up. But the chief preoccupation of the social scientists has been with the nature of their undertaking, its place in the edifice of human knowledge, and — by no means last, though seldom candidly admitted — their own status as scientists. For decades, therefore, the literature of those new disciplines, especially of psychology, has dealt with so called “approaches,” not to some baffling and challenging facts, but to all the facts at once, the science itself….

In proportion to the effort spent on all these “approaches,” the harvest of interesting facts and systematic ideas remains meager (which, of course, is not to say that there are none). By comparison with other biological sciences, both the method and the findings of laboratory psychology look extremely simple. Their essential simplicity is sometimes masked by a technical vocabulary, and even an algorithmic-looking form of statement; but when we come to the interpretation of “variables,” their values prove to be such elements as “somebody,” “some fact,” “some object,” without formal distinction between a person, a fact and an object, which would make it logically not possible to interchange them, as it would have to be to assure the formula any sense….

The cult of borrowed mathematical terms is especially pernicious when it invades serious original thinking, where there are really fundamental psychological concepts in the making, which are obscured and turned from their own implicit development by the unessential though enticing suggestiveness of scientific words. In a sober but trenchant article, I. D. London has shown even so influential and important a venture as Kurt Lewin’s “field theory” to be only verbally modeled on the field theory of relativity physics, since Lewin’s key concept, “force,” has no real analogue in real topology, and his psychological “field” conforms to no known geometry. The result is that Lewin can use none of the powerful principles of substitution that make topology reveal new facts in physical science…. The host of theorems that form the actual machinery of topology should have been made to function and so to take over the work of rigorous deduction. Lewin in reality does not utilize one single theorem of topology.

Here, I think, we have the central and fatal failing of all the projected sciences of mind and conduct: the actual machinery that their sponsors and pioneers have rented does not work when their “conceptualized phenomena” are fed into it. It cannot process the interpretations that are supposed to be legitimate proxies for its abstract elements…. The reason for the failure…is that abstract concepts borrowed from physics, such as units of matter — even with the adjective “living” to qualify them — and their motions do not lend themselves readily to the expression of psychologically important problems….

Understanding learning is a psychologically important problem. Reasons to believe that Artificial Intelligence ideas will help with this problem are twofold. The representation of knowledge is a main issue of that discipline itself. Further, and more importantly if new cognitive structure emerges from the functioning of pre-existing cognitive structures, the building of computational models will provide an experimental ground where new ideas can be simulated with clarity until they are sufficiently well understood that their value in explaining psychological phenomena can be reasonably evaluated. My work strives to provide a plausible ground of samples of learning — a characterization of one significant state in human cognitive development and the processes which early on shape its formation — from which basis one might explore how the more complex processes of adult thought develop in order to address learning, the essential problem of the human cognitive sciences.

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