(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Daniel Dennett, Michael Gazzaniga, Derek Parfit and others have questioned
the idea that our mind has a "self", there is an "I" controlling our mind.
The existence of a unitary and continuous self is emphatically claimed by the American psychologist Richard Carlson.
He believes that the self is a biological feature.
Following William James and Ulrich Neisser, Carlson thinks that every act of perception specifies both a perceiving self and a perceived object. Seeing something is not only seeing that object: it is also seeing it from a certain perspective. The perspective implies a "seer". There is no act of perception of an object without a subject. The subject is as much part of perception as the object.
This co-specification of self and object is useful for adding the "first person" to the information-processing paradigm of mental processes, which cannot traditionally deal with the self.
Carlson's fundamental move is to distinguish between the content and the object of a mental state: content and object are not the same thing, because the content includes both the object and the subject. The "mode" of content specifies the self, the "aboutness" of content specifies the object (the environment).
Following John Searle's analysis of speech acts language, Carlson further distinguishes between the content of a mental state and the "noncontent" of that mental state. The "noncontent" includes the purpose of the mental state (for example, the degree of commitment), and even its "implementation" properties (for example, the duration of the state, etc). A mental state has content and noncontent, and noncontent is as important as content.
This analysis serves to elucidate that there is more than just an object in an act of perception. There is more than just a scene in a visual perception: there is a subject that is seeing, there is a purpose of seeing (for example, "I am spying" versus "I am gazing") and there is a duration.
Following James Gibson, Carlson thinks that mental representations must have a "performatory" character, must have to do with our body, must be about performing an action in the environment.
Most cognitive skills are not conscious, or nonconscious (eg, understanding language). Most cognitive activity is routine. Consciousness is necessary only when learning the skill. After it has been learned, it quickly becomes routine, unconscious routine. Introspection is actually difficult for experts, who often cannot explain why they do what they do.
Most of our cognitive activity comes from a specific kind of learning: skill acquisition.
Consciousness has to do with acquiring cognitive skills, which in turn depend on experiencing the world.
Skill acquisition occurs by restructuring, as in cognitive models such as John Anderson's. Specifically, The function of working memory is to form intentions, goals, purposes. Goals get organized in structures that capture the hierarchical structure of action.
The bottom line is that cognition is embodied and situated: it is always about our body and/or our environment. Symbols and the mental processes that operate on them are grounded in sensory-motor activity.
There is continuity between symbolic awareness and perceptual-enactive awareness because symbolic representation is performatory: it is useful precisely because it is about action; because symbols are grounded in action.
Contrary to Dennett and Gazzaniga, Carlson reaches the conclusion that the continuity of consciousness is not only real, it is an ecological necessity, because the self is cospecified by perception, and perception is driven by changes in the world, and those changes are continuous. Cognition is grounded in one's point of view, and that point of view is grounded in an environment, and this two-fold grounding process is continuous.
The book dwells on some little-explored topics of mental activity. While most literature is concerned and obsessed with memory, reasoning, language, etc., Carlson ends up dealing with everyday's routines and skill acquisition. For example, this is one of the few books that reviews studies on routine activity.
A couple of chapters try to elucidate the role of unconscious mental processes.
Carlson's ecological approach to Psychology follows largely James Gibson and provides an intriguing new paradigm for studying the mind.