Monday, April 29, 2013

The other-directed man

Recently I had to think of an article, or rather a book excerpt, that was one of the first pieces I had to read, when I started studying sociology: “The other-directed man” by David Riesman. It had been included in a reader with articles and book extracts and I read it again. It was just as I thought: Although it had been written 60 years ago, it was still very relevant.
Riesman distinguishes three types of persons: the tradition-directed type, the inner-directed type and the other-directed type. The tradition-directed person steers his (or her) life with the help of traditional values, norms and goals, as he learned them in his childhood. These values etc. give him his place in life and society and determine the scope for what he can and cannot do. This type of man is typical for strictly stratified societies where social change is at a minimum, such as the medieval society.
When such a traditional society begins to change more rapidly, as it happened for instance in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, a new type of man comes to the fore: the inner-directed type. Also this type of man learns his values, norms and goals in his childhood from his parents and other influential adults, of course, but the values etc. are no longer those prescribed by society, but they are individual and serve as lifelong orientations that guide the major decisions in life. The person’s internalized goals are very generalized (Riesman mentions wealth, fame, goodness, achievement as instances) and one may fail to reach them, but one never doubts their guiding value. Riesman calls inner-directed people “gyroscopically driven – the gyroscope being implanted by adults and serving to stabilize the young even in voyages occupationally, socially, or geographically far from the ancestral home”.
But today, now that society changes exceedingly quickly, another type of person comes up: the other-directed man. Such a quickly changing society requires a more resilient type of person; one who lets himself be oriented by the opinions of the people around him. His conformity to society is no longer an internally acquired guide of values etc. but a “sensitive attention to the expectations of contemporaries”. Goals have become fluctuating and short-term, and the other-directed person is no longer steered by an internal gyroscope but goals are “picked up … by a [internal] radar.” One gets this radar also in childhood from the parents and influential adults, but now these relevant others “encourage the child to tune in to the people around him and any given time and share his preoccupation with their reactions to him and his to them” (my italics).
Of course, “pure” persons, who belong completely to one type, do not exist, let alone that a whole society of people of one type exists. It’s a matter of degree to which type a person belongs, and he or she is always a mixture of types, as Riesman stresses. However, one type tends to gain the upper hand in a certain society or in a certain period.
Riesman’s analyses of types of persons help me understand what is going on in society today. Although in the days that Riesman wrote his sentences the other-direct man was yet a new type that was not yet very wide spread (Riesman thinks of the USA and parts of Sweden, of Australia and New Zealand), now, 60 years later, one gets the impression that it is becoming the general type of man – anyway in Western society (but certainly not only there) and among the younger generation. It is not difficult to give examples that underline the present other-directedness of modern man: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so on are all expressions of the new type of modern man that is developing and that exists already to a high degree. Just these new media are used for telling your occupations to the world, sharing them with others, encouraging reactions from others, and participating in the occupations of others by giving your reactions. In this way, your internal radar picks up the expectations other people have of you, so that you can adapt your short-term goals and your behaviour to them. It’s what we do in our status updates or tweets and by sending our “likes” (or by our invitations to send them). Or in publishing our most private photos on the Internet, showing what we do to others and hoping that it fits what our relevant others think of us.
Source: David Riesman, “The other-direct man”, in Dennis H. Wrong and Harry L. Gracey, Readings in Introductory Sociology, The Macmillan Cy, 1967, pp. 610-616.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The shared character of concepts

The research mentioned in my last blog on the mental representation of dreams is an important step forward in brain research. It is in line with research results that I have discussed before in my blogs. The essence is that they show that objects in the world around us but also our virtual images are represented in our brain in some way. As such it is no surprise, but there is a difference between supposing how things are and seeing a supposition substantiated. We are still far away from really knowing how objects – real or virtual – are represented in the brain, but this type of research helps us understand how the brain is structured and maybe also how we think.
But does this imply that the concepts that refer to such representations – or “forms” in the Platonic sense – are also in the head? Without a doubt concepts have a place in the brain. Many studies have shown that brain damages can lead to serious damages of our conceptualizations or even can make that we fail to remember certain concepts that we did have before the brain damage happened. Nevertheless this doesn’t mean that concepts exist only in the brain. Concepts are constructions of how the objects in the world are like, of personal histories and of how other people see the objects. The latter makes concepts intrinsically socially determined. Instances that show it abound. Take for example this. Once in Germany I was walking in a kind of nature park with a paper with questions in my hand. Somewhere I saw bird in a cage and the question was: What kind of bird is this? Since the answer needed only to be general my answer was “It’s an owl”. It appeared to be wrong. The right answer was that it was not an “Eule” but a “Kauz”. This made me realize that the birds that in Latin terminology are called Strigidae and in English are called owls (and in Dutch uilen) in German common parlance are divided into two groups: Eule and Kauze, a distinction that exists only in German and not in other languages. The first group refers to Strigidae that have a more or less slender appearance, while the Kauze are stockier and rounder. Moreover, Germans feel also that they are two kinds of birds. For them they are two general forms of birds corresponding to two general concepts, while for Dutchmen, Britons, Americans etc. there is only one general form and one general concept.
What this instance illustrates is that concepts are not simply private ideas but that they are intrinsically shared with other people. This is not mere coincidence but it is the way concepts are formed. So, even if the forms of objects in the head are private, the concepts that refer to these forms have a social dimension. In this way, they exist not only in a single brain but are the property of all of people that participate in its production and reproduction.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A horse in your head

You want to make a chair. What are you going to do? According to Plato we have innate ideas in our heads that show how the objects in the world look like. These ideas are more like blueprints or templates than the abstract conceptions that nowadays are called “ideas”. Therefore, they are also called “forms”. What you do then when you want to make a chair is that you call up the form “chair” from your memory and make a wooden (or stone etc.) copy of it, of course with your personal variations or with the variations demanded by your client. But does it really work that way?
Yukiyasu Kamitani and his colleagues of the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratory in Kyoto, Japan, asked three volunteers to have a nap in an fMRI brain scanner. While the test subjects were sleeping the scanner registered the activities of their visual cortices. When they started to dream, the volunteers were wakened and asked to tell what they dreamed about. From these dreams the researchers choose some simple objects like house, table, man, and so on. In the second part of the experiment the volunteers were shown pictures of these same simple objects, while the brain scanner registered again their brain activities. Then the volunteers had again to sleep in the fMRI scanner. When they had woken up, the researchers compared the scans made in this third phase of the experiment with the results of phase one and two and in about two third of the cases they could read correctly what the volunteers had been dreaming about. What the researchers saw was still rather abstract and when they concluded correctly, for instance, that a volunteer had been dreaming about a man, they couldn’t say whether this man was his neighbour or the Japanese Prime Minister or whoever, but anyway a first step has been done on the path of dream reading.
What does this mean? Paraphrasing moon walker Neil Armstrong, we can say that it’s one small step for the researchers but a giant leap for dream research. It will help us understand what dreams really are: Just epiphenomena of brain activity or ways of storing our recent experiences? Steven Scholte, neuroscientist at the University of Amsterdam, thinks that the implications are even wider: “At the moment there is a wide gap in our understanding how visual perception is related to concepts like ‘chair’ or ‘horse’. This kind of research will redefine what semantic knowledge is and how the external world is enciphered in the brain”. And this has philosophical implications, so he goes on, for “unless when you believe in ghosts, this representation in the brain is also what the external word is … When talking about a horse what do we exactly mean by ‘horseness’? What do we mean by ‘chairness’? On a fundamental level this is about what the world is and how we experience the world”.
Actually this fits well what Plato thought, for maybe ideas or forms are not innate, as he believed, it seems that Plato rightly supposed that you need to have a horse in your head in order to know that what you see out there really is a horse.
Source: De Volkskrant, April 6, 2013: Science Supplement, p. V5.

Monday, April 08, 2013

On lying and misleading

Is lying worse than misleading? This question is discussed by Jennifer Saul in an article that I came across on the Internet. I found the question intriguing, maybe because I had never thought about it. That lying should be worse than misleading, as many people think, is puzzling, so Saul, for why would it be so if the result is often the same? Why should we then prefer misleading to lying? For misleading needs not be better than lying as we from the bank crisis know.
The idea behind the difference in preference may be that there are differences in responsibility in the case of lying and in the case of misleading. If you say: “My husband is not at home” to the visitor, in a normal situation he will believe you. If you say “I didn’t see him come home”, the visitor will also think that your husband is not at home, but it can be argued that he should have been smart enough to ask whether you may have heard your husband coming home (which you actually did). The idea is, that the visitor is responsible himself, at least for a part, for not drawing the right conclusion and for thinking that your husband still hadn’t arrived. But actually, in a standard situation there is no reason to think that you would be mislead, for why would you? This argument disproves also the idea that lying is a breach of faith and misleading is not, since normally you need not take what a speaker says literally and you can suppose that the answer to your question is complete and to the point and doesn’t contain hidden implications. The latter is not always the case however, for if you are a witness in court and you declare on oath that you did not see your husband coming home (although you had heard him), you cannot be prosecuted for perjury if the judged concluded that your husband wasn’t at home, for you didn’t say that.
For reasons like these it is not tenable that generally misleading is better than lying. How about the other way round? I think that if we would discuss this question we would come to an equal conclusion: lying is not preferable to misleading. On the average lying and misleading are as good or as bad. Their moral goodness or badness simply depends on the situation. So, if the visitor asking whether your husband is at home wants to murder him, throw away your moral objection that lying might be worse than misleading – which generally is not right, as we just have seen – and say simply that he isn’t there, even if it is not true.
Source: Jennifer Saul, “Just go ahead and lie”,

Monday, April 01, 2013

On judging others

Say, we meet someone for the first time. How do we judge him or her then? We put them in one of the boxes that we have ready for it in our mind: the so-called prejudices or – with a less negative word – preconceptions. Where do these preconceptions come from? We learned them when we grew up, so from our parents, from other people around us and from the way such people are generally judged in the society we live in. Thus we judge people from another country or our neighbours, men or women, white, black or yellow people, and so on. The less we know about the stranger we judge the more we tend to apply our boxes for our judgments. Some people see through this mechanism and try to see the real person. Others never get the idea or never are able to see that such judgments are based on preconceptions.
Most people have several characteristics: they are both Frenchman and woman and black and … So they can be put in different boxes at the same time. Then we get a complicated image of the stranger, but it is still preconceived. What is interesting here is that the less interaction we had with the stranger before, the more the ratings of other people are based on our self-ratings of the traits judged (see for instance John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The unbearable automaticity of being”: ). This substantiates the idea that we have boxes in our head in which we put persons we don’t know.
Sometimes the contacts with other persons are flimsy and superficial. We see them once and then never more. But it can also happen that the contact continues and even grows into a relation: the stranger becomes, for instance, our colleague, friend, partner, or it is a shopkeeper we see once or twice a week and with whom we always have a chat. Gradually our knowledge of what was once a stranger is deepened and we become more or less acquainted with him of her. Then we tend to put the sometime stranger less and less in our preconceived boxes and see him or her as a single person. Or so it is for most people. How this develops is mainly an individual process. For some people this process goes faster, for others slower. Some people keep always employing the preconceived categories for judging others in a certain degree, for other people the preconceptions fade completely away. Be this as it may, I always say: When I have seen someone three times, I forget how he or she looks like and I see only the person. And that’s also how we hope that the sometime stranger will go to think about us, for, as Montaigne said: “I very much desire that we may be judged every man by himself, and would not be drawn into the consequence of common examples.” (Essays, Book I, Chapter XXXVI, “Of Cato the Younger”)