Anticipations

Anticipations

Perusing a recent book on the cognitive psychology of number (Number Concepts by Richard Samuels and Eric Snyder), I was put in mind of my psychology M.A. thesis, entitled Empiricism and Nativism in Language and Mathematics, submitted in 1972 to Manchester University (when I was 22). In that thesis I brought together psychology, linguistics, and philosophy, arguing for a nativist position on the acquisition of mathematical knowledge. In particular, I applied Chomsky’s methodology and theoretical framework to the problem of mathematical knowledge acquisition. At the time there was nothing like this in the psychological literature, and I was quite conscious of the fact that I was doing something new and controversial, especially in adopting an interdisciplinary perspective. Indeed, I encountered some resistance to undertaking the project from the more orthodox members of the psychology department (nearly all of them)—what was I doing importing philosophy into psychology? I argued that it was necessary, in order to account for the acquisition of mathematical knowledge, to begin with an adequate analysis of the nature of mathematical truth, as Chomsky had argued that the same procedure was necessary in accounting for the acquisition of language. In effect, we need a metaphysics of number before we can frame theories of how number concepts are acquired—as we need an adequate theory of grammar before we can frame realistic theories of the child’s acquisition of language. We need a theory of the objects of knowledge before developing a theory of knowledge of those objects. Thus, an interdisciplinary perspective was required instead of the application of some general “learning theory”. Anyway, as I say, I was reminded of my thesis by reading a contemporary work in this area of psychology. And then it hit me: I invented cognitive science! I didn’t know it at the time—the term did not even exist back then—but the general outlines of the research program were clearly contained in my thesis. Specifically, the integration of psychology with other disciplines—not just brain science but philosophy of mathematics (along with linguistics). Nothing of my thesis was ever published, though my supervisor Professor John Cohen, made some efforts to interest a publisher (no dice). So, I missed my chance to be hailed as the originator of cognitive science (of course, there were other straws in the wind). My thesis really was a combination of psychology and philosophy, with Chomsky-style linguistics taken as model.

I also read recently Michael Dummett’s book Origins of Analytical Philosophy (1993), which undertakes to compare Frege and Husserl as founders of twentieth century philosophy. Dummett is interested in the fact that these two philosophers had convergent concerns and yet gave rise to divergent schools of thought. This put me in mind of my first published article, entitled “Mach and Husserl”, in the British Journal of Phenomenology(1972). The article was based on my undergraduate dissertation while a psychology student; the editor of the journal, Wolfe Mays, was my teacher and suggested publishing it. In it I compared the two philosophers, noting their clear similarities but divergent offspring. Mach was an early positivist and devotee of “sensations”, while Husserl founded phenomenology and was a devotee of consciousness and its intentional acts. Yet the former gave rise to positivist eliminative behaviorism while the latter spawned existentialism and the centrality of the conscious subject. Dummett says nothing at all about Mach in his book, though Husserl refers to him approvingly. So, it seems that we were both interested in the early days of twentieth century philosophy and Husserl’s role in forming it, and in the divergence that ensued from similar beginnings. I wrote my article over twenty years before Dummett wrote his book and with a very similar aim in mind (except my focus was more on the history of psychology). In a certain sense, then, I anticipated him, though we discussed different personnel. I think, in fact, that Mach was a good deal closer to Husserl than Frege, and arguably had a bigger impact on the course of twentieth century philosophy than Frege (he led to logical positivism). We find no analogue of Husserl’s preoccupation with consciousness in Frege, while Mach was clearly heavily into consciousness. I would say myself that the three of them were the principal architects of twentieth century philosophy, with a little help from Russell and Wittgenstein down the road.

Let me observe that when I applied to Oxford to study philosophy (in 1972), having already written my M.A. thesis and published my Husserl article, it was held against me (by R.M. Hare) that I had done so, these being deemed not fit subjects for a philosophy graduate student at Oxford to be interested in. This was a somewhat narrow and shortsighted decision, if I may be forgiven for saying so—and I was interested in more conventional Oxford-type topics too. After all, I had invented cognitive science and anticipated one of Oxford’s most celebrated philosophers before being admitted to the B.Phil.! Oh well. I did win the John Locke Prize a year or so later, though, so it all worked out in the end I suppose.[1]         

[1] In retrospect it all seems to me pretty hilarious now, though scary. At present I can’t even find my M.A. thesis and I don’t think I have a copy of my 1972 article.

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