Rejoinder to Response by Marie-Laure Ryan

By Palmer, Alan | Style, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview
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Rejoinder to Response by Marie-Laure Ryan


Palmer, Alan, Style


I'm grateful to the editor of Style for finding room in this issue for Marie-Laure Ryan's response to the target essay. I believe her thoughts on the concept of social minds are of great importance, particularly in the context of her views on the relationship between narrative theory and cognitive science generally.

I said in the essay that some literary scholars "are interested from the beginning in the concept of intermental thought, but resist the concept of an intermental mind. It is a step too far" (221). I sense that this fits Ryan's response. Although she appears to accept that bee swarms and ant colonies are collective entities that can behave intelligently, she balks at the idea of regarding the town of Middlemarch as an intermental mind. For this reason, in terms of my classification of the responses, I would put her into group B.

The best way to explore our differences of view might be to focus on the question of criteria. What are some of the criteria that an entity must satisfy before it can properly be called a "mind"? In particular, can the undeniable differences between individual minds and intermental minds be restated as criteria that the latter don't satisfy and therefore disqualify them as minds?

Let's start with Wertsch's "shoes" example. Ryan argues that it is the daughter only who is doing the remembering because "the father merely acts as a helper." (By the way, the same doubt was expressed to me once at a conference by Peter Rabinowitz.) She adds, though, that the father's "brain circuits are not connected to the daughter's." The criterion implicit in this remark is that a mind must consist of physically connected brain circuits.

Ryan then refers to two "fundamental" differences between individual and social minds. First, the former "form ideas that cannot be said to be contained in any of their individual elements" (e.g. the neurons and synapses of the brain) and so are creative. By contrast, the latter are merely aggregates of ideas such as the beliefs which exist in individual minds. Secondly, the former "are capable of making decisions," while the latter merely contain the general principles which form the basis of individual decisions.

So three criteria appear to me to be implicit in these concerns (now listed in a different order): to qualify as a mind, an entity must consist of physically connected brain circuits; it must be capable of making decisions; and it must be able to form ideas that are not already contained within its individual components and so be creative. The implication is that these are necessary conditions which have to be met before something can be considered as a mind.

With regard to the first, I tried in the essay to counter this argument by saying that some cognitive theorists are imaginative about considering alternatives to the simple one-mind/one-brain correspondence, I think my pre-emptive defense still holds good. Without further justification, simply to assert this correspondence is to beg the question.

On the second, I don't accept the suggested difference, I think that small groups in particular are capable of making decisions and that these decisions are often different from the ones which individuals would have taken on their own.

I can see the appeal of the final criterion--the argument that a mind must be creative and viable, i.

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