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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I continue to be astonished and excited to find how fresh and interesting William James is in his 1890 classic The Principles of Psychology, of which I'm now about halfway through volume 2. Last night I finished chapter 22 on "Reasoning"--fantastic.

I never expected to make it all the way through both volumes of this work in one go, since they have about 1400 pages between them, but I can't stop reading it and I don't want to. The remaining chapters are on topics too interesting to miss, including "Instinct", "The Emotions", "Will", and "Hypnotism". The work finishes with a fascinating-looking chapter called "Necessary Truths and the Effects of Experience", in which it seems he ties up a number of philosophical questions connected with psychology.

In "Reasoning" James breaks down exactly what reasoning consists of. He explains it as an instance of "association by similarity"--essentially noticing a character in an object that one associates also with another object. This comes through discriminating aspects of objects. Seeing things only vaguely, or in wholes, makes reasoning impossible. The ability to perceive and pick out an aspect of something that will help one achieve one's immediate end is a hallmark of reasoning. The mark of genius is the ability to perceive common features in things that are apparently unalike, such as, famously (and possibly apocryphally) Newton's noticing a similarity between a falling apple and the moon.

James is able to show that animals generally do not reason in this sense, even when it appears they are doing so. Instead of association by similarity, they proceed by simple association in time or space: "this object follows that object" or "this object is next to that object". A dog, who had once learned, by accident, that he could open a gate-latch by knocking it upward with his muzzle and so get through it, appeared to be reasoning his way through. But the same dog was confounded by another, very similar gate with a similar latch. It did not occur to the dog to use the same technique on the different gate, and so he could not get through.

Most people are like the dog, in that they tend to follow pragmatic rules of thumb based on experience. The same thoughts, the same objects, are always connected with each other. I suppose this corresponds with what we now call "thinking inside the box". James cites an example of a man on a train who asked the brakeman to make the stove stop smoking into the compartment. The brakeman replied that the stove would stop smoking once the train started moving.

"Why so?" asked the passenger.

"It always does," replied the brakeman.

To James, this meant that the brakeman did not know why the stove stopped smoking once the train left the station. A scientist might reason his way through the question, and realize that the movement of air across the top of the stack once the train was in motion would have the effect of drawing air up the stack, pulling the smoke with it. The brakeman was not able, or not curious enough, to piece together the reason that the stove stopped smoking. His experience was that the one event (train in motion) was always accompanied by the other (stove stops smoking). For him that was enough.

James concludes that even the most astonishing mental feats by dogs and horses can be explained in this way. And indeed, why disparage a form of "reasoning" that most of us use most of the time?

But I think back to an instance of when I was impressed with an animal's intelligence. It was in 1979, when I was traveling in Mexico with my friend Brad. We were in Villahermosa, visiting the zoo. We went to the monkey cage, and a monkey immediately leapt to the bars by us and reached out to touch us. Then he grabbed the binoculars hanging around Brad's neck, and immediately put them to his eyes, exactly as a person would. He first looked through the wrong end--the large end--but quickly turned them around to look through the right end. Holding the binoculars through the bars, so he could put his eyes to the lenses, he stared out at the scene that he clearly found fascinating. Brad and I looked at each other in astonishment.

It seemed unlikely to me that the monkey had looked through binoculars before--although I suppose he could have, with other visitors before us. But either someone would have had to show him how to look through them--what they were for--or he would have simply had to watch someone using binoculars, and then applied that idea to himself on the time-honored principle of "monkey see, monkey do". Then there was the fact that he obviously enjoyed using the bins (he really didn't want to let them go).

Anyway, I had the thought that I'd had about a half year before that, when Tim and I were at the London Zoo and I saw a chimpanzee sitting morosely in a cage: "It's wrong to cage someone like that."

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