Return of the prodigal son

Hello! I’m back! It’s been a hectic year trying to find a balance between my professional and college life. My thesis research had to take priority and unfortunately all posts on this site had to be sacrificed. However, I’m back and more motivated than ever to keep this running with plenty of new content.


My PhD research took quite few turns over the past year. Instead of focusing on emotion research and trying to develop an enactive theory, I’ve concentrated my efforts to a more pressing matter (well, more pressing in my opinion). That issue is research methodologies in psychology. Essentially, how can we do the research that may contribute to developing an enactive theory of emotion.

I’ve touched on this in a few posts, but now I find I have a lot more to say. So let’s get right to the matter, shall we?


Traditional information processing approaches to understanding perception and response to the environment take an analytic perspective to understanding the relationship between a person and the world. The important characteristics of stimuli in cognitive psychology tasks tend to relate to perceptual or structural aspects of those stimuli (their contrast, order or presentation, duration of presentation and so on). These different aspects of stimuli are typically examined in isolation and our understanding of the multi-faceted nature situations is built up in some kind of additive sense from various findings. Such standard experiments provide us with precision and reliability in measurements that are important in the development of a clear and adequate science.

However, a long but generally disparate tradition of research within cognitive psychology shows that the *meaning* of the stimulus may also have significant implications for how a person reacts to or uses those stimuli. The classic example is the content effects associated with the Wason selection task (Wason, 1966). It is generally believed that performance in the task changes when the stimuli content is varied, which has been used to argue that human cognitive architecture contains domain-specific inference systems (Fiddick, Cosmides & Tooby, 2000).

Recently developing perspectives within Psychology, such as the “enactive” approach (Varela et al; Di Paolo et al) argue that we need to replace our existing analytic modes of research with models that also afford more synthetic thinking, without sacrificing the rigour and discipline of proper scientific practice. An enactive approach sees not just the individual aspects of a stimulus or situation as important, but the overall meaning of the stimulus or task as playing a significant role in how we construct our thinking and acting at given time.
At present, however, while the enactive approach has grown considerably within the theoretical literature and within the areas of artificial life and other certain areas of robotics, it has yet to make a big impact within the domain of human behavioural research.


So now that we’ve acknowledged this, where do we go from here?

Asian man in a lab coat giving a shrug on a white background

My research is aiming at developing methodologies to allow a more mixed-method approach. This idea is that data from this will provide clarity in a way psychological research hasn’t before. Is there a way of developing from the bedrock of traditional approaches and providing a holistic overview that will benefit enactive, e,bodied and extended mind research? I really think so.

And if you’re following this blog, maybe you can help contribute your ideas. Much more to follow.

New post coming soon

Emotion research, enactive psychology, embodied mind conference, statistics in psychology etc…

Emotion research

Psychologists have argued that components of emotional functioning are a small part of cognition as a whole. I however, believe that emotion plays a more fundamental role. Through enactive theory (Varela et al 1991), we can explore and flesh out much more comprehensive accounts of consciousness. This can be done through integrating phenomenological research methods and third person sciences.

Research in emotion can play a particularly vital role in this. Research is currently being carried out (Colombetti 2008; Hutto 2010 and others) which is particularly interesting. My own research centres on exploring phenomenological accounts of emotional experience and linking it with the physiological elements associated with the experience. This may lead to a more comprehensive understanding of cognitive functioning and the role that emotion plays. Similar to neurophenomenological understanding, this allows a mixed method approach to cognitive behaviour.

Our desires, motivations and actions all require understanding. Without an emotional or affective dimension of this understanding, we would be acting in and experiencing the world in a purely passive way. However (and this is where the enactive literature steps in) we actively engage with the environment in every possible way. We can even liken our dreams or fantasies down to the experience we have (or do not have) with the world, as we are an active agent in it. In enactive terms, we en-act our Umwelt (or life world) and bring about our own understanding of the world.

Enactive theorists use the example of a bacterium striving toward an area of high glucose concentration to survive. Instead of cognition being a computational interaction, it is much more of a dynamic and fluid system. To use another enactive reference, cognition is much more like a handshake between environment and living organism that an organism psychologically and physiologically interacting with the environment in a passive and reflexive way. An important point to mention is that I would hardly attribute emotional understanding or higher cognitive functioning to basic organisms like bacterium.

The problems that arise for Saussure’s contemporary version of communication processes do not seem to arise for Wittgenstein. Saussure divided communication into three categories, the signifier, signified and combination of the two, the sign. The signifiers and the signified can be defined by what they are not. The sign is  what is because it is not anything else, that is, all the possible other signs our language could ascribe to it.

Problems of Saussure’s include the account for the constant change in language and understanding how we combine words into sentences. The process of sentence formation seems like a great mystery to him. Norman N. Holland commented that Saussure Built his linguistics on the unit of the word. One part of Chumsky’s 1957 revolution in linguistics was to change that unit of analysis to the sentence. He made a demand that grammar should be able generate all and only the well-formed sentences of a language. Saussure does not come close to this[1]. Saussure’s idea of a sentence is left without an explanation.

For Wittgenstein there is no difficulty whether the subject understands the meaning of the word. Communication does not refer to mental events and individual conceptions of words is not a question. Locke uses the term ‘idea’ quite liberally throughout his works. He argues that words come to be made use of by men, as the signs of their ideas….a word is made arbitrarily that mark of such an idea. It is unclear what Locke’s discussion of language is actually about. The traditional view is that Locke’s theory of signification is a theory of linguistic meaning. He discusses the signification of words. An idea is a sign or representation. E.J. Ashworth challenged this on the grounds that Locke uses ‘signify’ in the same way as late 16th and early 17th century scholastics used ‘significare’ and that ‘significare’ strictly speaking are not about linguistic meaning. Ashworth goes on to say that signification is a species of representation and that, on Locke’s view, words can represent objects, not just ideas. Locke was pessimistic of human capacity to communicate which accounts for his imperfect view of language[2]. Locke reflects the view that how human beings classify objects rests solely on a natural and objective classification that is independent of the minds activity. For Locke, human language plays a central role in our thinking about classes or kinds. This view still uses internal constructs to explain communication. Wittgenstein protests that so long as the subject hears the word and understands to what it refers to, communication has been successful. The Lockean argument is solved and concluded, and nothing further can be demanded on human understanding in simple linguistic instances.

Regarding sensations and their privacy, it seems that only the subject in pain can know if it is truly pain that they experience, and another person deduces that it is pain that is being observed. Then the problem arises that one might hide feelings of pain. Os tensive definition can be completely disregarded. The only thing that seems to be certain is that pain can be perceived. The communication of this must not be mystified. Language misleads us. We can not know we are in pain. We are in pain. “It makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself”[3]. Wittgenstein thought that using ordinary language with accurate descriptors was the best way to communicate effectively. Locke rejects the view that how human being classify objects rests solely on a natural and objective classification that is independent of the mind’s activity. Although language is not structured the way Saussure proposed, he remains one of the most influential and significant contributors to the study of semiotics.

Philosophy affects the communicative methods; different philosophical approaches provide different ways of examining the conditions for and consequences of the complex processes of human communication. Regardless of personal preferences of different theories, we cannot deny that each of the theorists discussed have made an important contribution to the analytic description of human communication and language.

[1] Norman N. Holland, 1998. The trouble(s) with Lacan. Retrieved 04/04/08 from http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/nnh/lacan.htm

[2] Losonsky, Michael, 2007. Language, Meaning and Mind in Locke’s Essay. Chapter 10. Retrieved 05/04/08. http://lamar.colostate.edu/~losonsky/CCLE_Chap-10_Losonsky.pdf

[3] Kenny, A. 1994. The Wittgenstein Reader. Pp 142.


Essay etiquette 101

After correcting 30 assignments or so, I need a forum to vent my frustration of undergraduate students. Apart from the special few who can actually articulate themselves, there seems to be general mistakes being made across the board.

This may be a result of many students never receving writing feedback from assignments, perhaps many of them never have the opportunity to reflect on how they are coming across. In any case this post os all about the general traps that most students fall into when writing an assignment. Apart from simply learning how to write clearly, there are many things that all students should be informed of.

So here you go:

  • Formatting –1.5 or double spaced. It becomes imposible to read unless you present your work clearly. This type of spacing in general across the board and students are told from the very start of their term as a third-level student
  • Stick to one style (or a similar style) of formatting e.g. labelling section, margins and spacing paragraphs. Having paragrahs 1cm from the edge of the paper in one section and 3cm in the next is just not acceptable. Take pride in what you present
  • Space out sections adequately. By adequately, I mean make sure that all sections are clearly presented and not on top of each other
  • Label sections clearly – for the love of God!
  • In-text citation is generally done incorrectly. See academic handbook for the specifics on your college’s referencing system. APA is generally straighforward.

Incorrect: Jones, as cited in Martin 1995; Jones 1992 as Martin discusses; or indeed mentioning Jones (1992) without any reference to Martin (the cited source), and NOT including Jones in the reference section… you know this sticks out like a sore thumb and feels like a knife in the eye for each time ot is done.

Correct: Jones (1992, as cited in Martin 1995)…

  • Too much information put into single paragraphs. This is done cnsistently. Try to elaborate on ONE point perparagraph. Having said that, one and two sentence paragraphs are generally unacceptable
  • Sentences not logically following on from each other… please read what you write
  • Phrasing an issue for some; try to use clear and short sentences
  • Use  of informal language and personal pronouns e.g. use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ . This should NEVER appear in an academic essay/assignment
  • Use of subjective/dramatic adjectives. I don’t care if it’s REALLY RADICAL. I’ll make my mind up on that, thank you…
  • Important statements being made without academic support.
  • Topical issues – use of current topics such as political posters and current advertisements without references or academic support
  • Concluding in one sentence/one sentence paragraphs. You should be shot.

So this is part two of the discussion on communication and the mind… might as well just jump into it as I couldn’t be bothered writing a second introduction (this is part two, refer to part one for general introduction to the topic). It’s probably worth noting that I’m quite busy writing my thesis at the moment so it may be a while before I finish writing up on this topic. I may just bite the bullet and finish it tomorrow morning though – I just need to articulate my notes but words seem to be failing me! So on that note:

The Cartesian heritage of the nature of communication goes that one can not know other minds as well as their own thoughts and ability to understand. For Descartes, communication started with access to one’s own cogito. This view is egocentric. It is comparable with Locke’s ‘Privacy of the Mental’ from which most hostility of Locke’s arises. He states in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding that ‘words in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing, but the ideas of the mind of him that uses them.’ This view that there is an internal entity to which communication is developed from was popular pre-Wittgenstein’s work on language and the mind.

For Locke, the speaker produces an external word representing his or her idea to which the word refers to. The listener, on hearingthe word, derives understanding. It is the private experiences of the communicators that allow communication and meaning to arise. Although this solipsistic view tries to explain the complexity of communication, it mystifies the entire subject further. The nomenclatural nature of this view has given was to intense debate. As Roy Harris discusses, the ‘nomenclaturist’ assumes that words have something to which it refers to, and this ‘something’ is its meaning. This system works for words such as ‘red’ or ‘table’, where identification of the objects fit the case. Wittgenstein would argue here that this fits the case as it relates to a communication situation which does not place complex demands on language.

In part 3 I discuss Saussure’s contemporary version of communication processes which does not seem to arise for Wittgenstein. I also conclude on some of the issues for communication and the mind and put this piece to rest! It’s been a long day and I’m glad I’m still able to get around to writing for myself!

“A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.”  *


The argument of communication and the mind centers on the use of language; the development of human understanding; and the derivation of meaning (especially in philosophical literature). Wittgenstein says that language in itself creates philosophical arguments. Many theorists have debated the complex problem of human language and communication, but none have come close to Wittgenstein and his ability to untangle the complexities that have arisen. Descartes and Locke have also written about language and more contemporary theories have come into fashion, such as semiology, which is concerned with signs. The greatest contribution to the study of signs is Saussure. One of the great troubles of communication and language is the interpretation of sensations and dispersal of ideas throughout subjects such as intellectual writings, philosophical problems and ideas.

Cartesians mystify human understanding, while semiology over-simplifies it.

In the next few blog posts I am going to discuss the philosophy of human communication and meaning, through an examination primarily of Locke, Saussure and Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s argument of Private Language in the Philosophical Investigations has had a profound impact on theories and theorists alike. He argues that language understood by its user can not exist objectively, as a necessary confusion arises. This idea is commonly misunderstood which accounts for the controversy surrounding Wittgenstein’s writings.[1] The confusions that are supposedly integrated in human language also underlie and are subjected to philosophical language, notions, theories and method. This accounts for the lack of substantial movement from Platonic and Aristotelian thought. We cannot move forward because our language is deceiving us.


Wittgenstein moves away from the previous Cartesian thought that it is internal processes that guides the interpreter to understand the message confronted to them. The message cannot be private, Wittgenstein argues. The processes of meaning and understanding are thought to be immaterial and taking place in a ‘spiritual’ recess of the brain. Wittgenstein argues that meaning and understanding are not processes at all. The language surrounding the description of mental processes needs clarification. Wittgenstein goes on to say that mental processes are processes in so far as they have a beginning, middle and an end, can be interrupted and described, but what is important is that they are not perceptible by others.[2] Articulating sensations and experiences are what make the whole process possible. Mental images in our minds do not give rise to language or words to describe these images, but the words in our vocabulary give rise to the meanings we prescribe objects. As Wittgenstein argues “Language is itself the vehicle of thought”.  It may be the case that we have no natural descriptors or expressions for all of the sensation that are perceivable by human consciousness, but Wittgenstein is saying that our language restricts us from accurately describing them. The problem is that one may not know if what an individual describes as a sensation is an accurate descriptor of it. While we describe sensations, we merely ascribe names to the sensation. However, the Private Language argument has been highly contested by commentators. Some believe it is supposed to prove something about language, others think it is supposed to prove something about  the following of rules, and some think it is supposed to prove something about sensations. Some think he was not trying to prove anything at all.[3]

[1] The Private Language Argument, First published Fri Jul 26, 1996; substantive revision Fri Nov 30, 2007. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 04/04/08. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/private-language/

[2] Kenny, Anthony John Patrick. 1931 – Wittgenstein. Pp 140-141.

[3] Teichman, J, 1988. Philosophy and the Mind. Pp. 50.