Empty Rooms and Strange Loops. Models of Mind from Calasso to Hofstadter (part I)

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

To introduce this text it is worth saying that the main topic of this contribution will be the type of metaphors we use to think about the mind, and especially the human mind. Think of this as an anthology of metaphors that I have found to be especially apt at this task, taken from the works of a few important authors and thinkers.

At the beginning of this kind of journey, I think we need to set a couple of boundaries to better organize our research. The theoretical frame that I would like to employ in this exploration comes from two essays by the philosopher Richard Rorty, namely The contingency of language and The contingency of selfhood, from the collection Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). In this work, Rorty incites us to adopt a different frame of reference, a perspective that we rarely see in speculative work. His position can be described as anti-essentialist, but the entire point of his work in this (neo) pragmatist tradition was to reduce the importance that we place in definitions and nomenclatures. Instead, he encouraged his readers to use a multitude of different linguistic codes and cultivate a sense for the contingency, the immanence, the locality of definitions. A work of this kind does not need the banner of a single philosophical school to stand under.

Parmigianino (c. 1524), Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

When facing the troubling topic of the language we use to describe reality, Rorty rejects the correspondence theory of truth in an unique way. According to this theory, a statement is true if it accurately mirrors reality with its content

This point of view assumes that reality is a) something external and independent from the language that describes it; b) something that can be accurately described by language, be it human or otherwise; c) something that we can describe more or less accurately with a linguistic act.

Rorty doesn’t say that reality is fundamentally dependent on the language we use to describe it, nor does he criticize the descriptive power of language. Instead, he proposes a “contingent” way of looking at language. To him, linguistic codes, collections of words, different vocabularies altogether are what makes up our language. Each vocabulary has a different descriptive power and they all offer the possibility of describing reality accurately and on their own terms.

His critique of the correspondence model of reality is based on the fact that, once we are aware of the contingent nature of the vocabulary we use, we also become accustomed to the shift between different linguistic codes, preferring one or the other according to the situation we face.

Manet, Edouard (1876), Frontispiece of “L’après-midi d’un faune”, The Art Institute of Chicago.

In his essay on the contingency of the I, the Self, Rorty quotes a poem by British poet Philip Larkin. Unable as I am to develop any opinion of value on Larkin’s work, and even less so on his values as I only sparsely know his work, I think there is something very significant in the poem quoted by Rorty.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what

You command is as clear as a lading-list

Anything else must not, for you, be thought

To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time

We half identify the blind impress

All our behavings bear, may trace it home.

But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,

Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,

Since it applied only to one man once,

And that man dying.

What I think is extremely powerful about this poem, together with the brilliant introduction it gives to the theme of the individual mind and its uniqueness, is that it exemplifies the contingent nature of the I, the individual self, without leading to despair or fear. In its own linguistic code, this poem underlines something very satisfying indeed: our capability of tracing our impress, our mark on our own thoughts, the patterns they trace, the conversations they echo and the possibilities they materialize, even if they belong only to us, and only as long as we are here.

This poem, by putting between brackets the concept of a stable, eternal, well defined self also proves the potentiality of Rorty’s method to try and change our vocabulary, to explore the potential of different ones.

After this first introductory chapter that has helped us to build and define the framework in which the discourse is articulated, in the second part we will analyze the topic from different perspectives, such as functionalism and the philosophy of mind. 

Stay tuned!

Francesco Pigato

Un pensiero su “Empty Rooms and Strange Loops. Models of Mind from Calasso to Hofstadter (part I)

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