– Bruce Long

Much philosophical and literary theoretic ink has been spilled on the subject of narratives and texts. Human beings document everything internally and cognitively, and socially, and literarily, and historically – using narratives (of many different kinds in stylistic, semantic, and syntactic terms). It is so obvious, and so natural, that one might say that discussing it is either a fool’s errand, or a kind of intellectual snake oil selling. Add to this that disciplines like continental philosophy and literary theory are panned as empty pseudo-intellectual waffle (certainly some if it is, but that is apparently true of some psychology and some physics – if you ask about certain psychological theories or about – say – string theory).

I doubt that these doubts have any good grounds in reasoned consideration applied across the board to all such theories and thought, but I understand the initial response. In any case, we philosophers are ‘bent’ on asking questions and analysing everything to find more questions – and in fact despite the common claim of philosophers themselves – to establish a basis for getting answers. What do you think phenomenological existentialists Husserl, Heidegger, Kant, Merleau Ponty, Hume, and more contemporary theorists like Daniel Dennett and his cognitive scientific cohort are doing? Just asking questions? No. The former produced grand narrative style frameworks for understanding everything from consciousness to reality, and the latter are determined to assert things such as that the self is an illusion. Doesn’t sound like they are just asking questions to me.

In this blog article I will be pursuing the idea that – at a deep and visceral level (using literary-continental discourse), and at a deep cognitive level (to use the language of cognitive science and analytic philosophy) – different kinds of texts and narratives, and especially texts (including non-linguistic ones) as components of narratives, inform our experience of the spaces we live in to such an extent that constructivist planning theory probably should bow to the idea that some kind of narrative analysis is essential at least to its philosophy – if not its practice. I suggest that, given the current approaches to constructivist planning, psychological research will be the primary basis for this, but some form of textual or verb analysis – like that used in requirements gathering for software development might also play a significant and cheap but effective part. It’s a big claim that I cannot and wont fully defend here, but I will offer some significant food for thought to push in that direction.

No one is quite sure about the exact story of the development of natural language. It is of course a kind of anthropological holy grail: maybe the anthropological holy grail. Analytic theorists like Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Noam Chomsky, and Jerry Fodor (to name but a few) have been thinking about this – and trying to acquire as much supporting or informative evidence from every field from anthropology to neuroscience for their various conclusions – for a good while.

Much earlier in history Rene Descartes proposed that the human mind does not begin as Aristotle’s blank slate (tabula rasa) upon which lived experience ‘writes’ knowledge. Descartes regarded that ideas and beliefs were innate to the created being, and were the basis of our rationality. John Locke – one of the four empiricists – later rejected this precept also, and offered his own rather complicated association and substance based conception of mental content (the nature of thoughts and concepts in the head). It came – all of it – from our sensory experience and perception – said Locke.

Heading into the information age, the concept of mentalese came to the fore. Inspired by our knowledge of how computers process data – syntactically and algorithmically – linguists, philosophers and cognitive scientists in the analytic and scientific traditions proposed that phenomenal experience was not just a stream as the phenomenological (of conscious experience) existentialists (philosophers who emphasise experience of existing as a perceiving and conscious person/self) had claimed – but that it might involve parsing of come kinds of mental symbols. No one was or is quite sure exactly how such symbols might obtain, and the answer to that is deferred to the domain of future neuroscience and the cognitive science that will accompany it.

The concept of mentalese – a kind of neural-cum-mental syntax that is deployed in our brain-minds as the basis for our natural language (our spoken native language) is still the subject of a lively debate in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind (and neuroscience and linguistics). Does it exist as supposed – syntactically and comprised of some kind of symbols that are parsed or ‘read over’? It is an important concept for this discussion because we are interested in what philosophers call phenomenal experience of lived spaces: the ‘what it is consciously like’-ness – in a qualitative sense – of being in a given urban setting.

Analytic philosophers of mind tend also to talk about mental contents, phenomenal concepts, and qualia. This admittedly horrible latter term is in fact a good name for something the existence and nature of which is not agreed upon (in other words, its ontological status – if it exists at all and if so, how – is in doubt). Qualia are defined as the subjectively experienced qualities of phenomenal or conscious experience. The famous thought experiment by Ned Block is the fastest way to get all students off the starting block (oops – terrible accidental pun) with this. Ask yourself the question “What would it feel like to have the conscious experience of being a bat?”. It’s an enormous and very loaded question. Bats are completely different beasties altogether. Yet they share significant DNA and not a few brain structures with us – so we cannot just wave the question away unless we think that bats and other animals are not conscious in something like the way we are – and most pet owners will reject that claim readily. Importantly, they presumably have schemas and recipes for doing certain things and responding to their environment – but no natural language in which to express them, and not even any capability for developing one.

The idea of qualia brings forward a very important question about the concept of mentalese. What if the symbols and so on that are supposed to be parsed or read in mentalese – a kind of underlying brain ‘microcode’ – are not linguistic or syntactic in any sense that we are used to thinking of. Nothing at all like the words and letters on this page – but instead like some kind of lit up brain structure or assembly of neurons with some kind of specific information state. Might something like qualia and visual concepts of some kind be part of the mentalese?

Now, I am moving between two different hemispheres of philosophical tradition here – the analytic and the continental. There are some important methodological and conceptual points to note:

  1. The language of thought hypothesis and the way in which language refers to the world (including language in the head) is a common theme that crosses over from analytic to continental philosophy. Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault tend to talk about language in terms of such things as resemblance (a way of representing what is in the world), denotation (a word picks something out in the world), and connotation (the meaning of a word implies something in the world). Approaching very similar concepts, analytic philosophers tend to talk about representation (including mental representation), sense, and reference or correspondence. I will not elaborate much on these here due to space constraints, but all of them are about how meaning attaches to propositions and statements – including those that might be ‘tokened’ or created inside our heads (brain-minds.)
  2. Continental philosophers are probably more interested than their analytic counterparts in the existence of social and literary texts as abstract entities that exist apart from human cognition – as a kind of social currency that is in some sense Platonically realised. This is interesting because usually continental philosophers lead with the psychologistic – it is what is in the human mind and the lived conscious experience of the human being that matters most (and this they have in common with constructivists about urban planning).
  3. Probably the most extensive cross-over between continental and analytic traditions in philosophy centers upon the philosophy of mind, and especially specifically upon phenomenal experience (conscious experience – also called the stream of consciousness by phenomenological existentialists like Merleau Ponty and Jean Paul Sartre).

So, philosophers of mind and philosophers of the neo-Marxist structuralist and postmodern orientations are – unsurprisingly – interested in how our internal language and the texts and stories we assemble internally about our lives affect our perception and lived experience.

I am interested here in how narrative theories and cognitive science might inform the philosophy and practice of constructivist urban and city planners. Could narrative theory and something like the equivalent of currently popular psychological narrative therapies be deployed to get to the bottom of what people really need in their urban environments? It is an interesting question and perhaps an interesting place to start a research program because of the prominence of our experience of our very lived environments.

There are some phenomenal experiences that are so central to our lives that they are in fact likely to have been responsible for the way in which our perceptual apparatus and faculties – and the associated information processing of associated perceptual or sense data – developed in the first place. One of these is most certainly the experience of finding our way around an environment successfully. The next most intense and important are probably the experiences of pain, hunger/satiation, and sexual pleasure (in fact we might have to move the latter to the start of the list due to its motive status for all of the others).

Now, where might the concept of a narrative fit in exactly? Navigating an environment for the purposes of finding food and sex would seem to require forethought in the shape of recipes or plans that could be regarded as narratives. Moreover, our phenomenal experience becomes infused with and underpinned by linguistically and empirically acquired narratives of various magnitudes. Could we capture a notion of something as subjective as qualia in data of some kind in order to get an average idea of what is a psychologically pleasing environment? This may not be so far fetched as it sounds.

Let me have the indulgence of classifying a set of short term objectives, and our mental ‘plan’ or recipe for achieving them (as well as our internal verbal-cum-phenomenal tracking of our progress) as an internal narrative or narratives. Allow me the further pre-theoretic indulgence of non-linguistic and even non-mentalese narrative components (actually this is a quite common suggestion in cognitive science). I headed in this direction in terms of what I call information source synthesis in a piece of literary-theory-cum-narrative-theory-cum-philosophy I produced a few years ago – but I will not attempt to elaborate here. The idea is that information is synthesised from many heterogeneous sources (linguistic and non linguistic, for instance). Now let us allow ourselves no more than other continental and analytic philosophers have done – the larger narratives that guide and influence all of us. Some parts of these are internalised. This is necessary for the kind of social construction of the self and identity that so many contemporary philosophers of mind believe in.

What to do with this in the context of urban planning constructivism? Well I suggest that much of it is being captured already by surveys and psychological documenting. However, one additional suggestion becomes apparently fairly obvious. Neuroscientists now have the ability to read images out of our retinotropic neuronal assemblies, to let shut-in people communicate, and to allow us to control electronic devices with our brain impulses (emissions from the firing of neuronal assemblies and associated glial waves). So why not deploy this new ability to collate more kinds of empirical subjective data into experiments involving different immersive environments to see what is the most pleasing and psychologically beneficial to the subject?

Now, of course this is a different thing to the continental philosophical conception of larger linguistically and non-linguistically realised narratives that embody people’s expectations and (often differing) conceptions of aesthetic value and beauty. Well, sort of. As mentioned above – we internalise those linguistic, social, and experiential narratives, and so they matter too. If a government tells us that greenspaces are somehow unnecessary and dangerous, and they tell us enough times and with enough perceived authority, then social psychologists and not a few continental structuralist and postmodern philosophers have some bad news for us: we will believe the government.

Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel Foucault were at pains to emphasise that grand narratives (big socially induced stories of science, religion, marketing, and politics) are not all constructed for positive ends and purposes, and that they do not favour the individual that internalises them, and the prosperity of that individual, in many cases. Foucault discussed narrative power structure imbalance as being one of the primary causes of oppression and suffering in society. Power structures hold influence over us because we internalise their narratives – their texts – as true or immutable: even those that make slaves out of us. We do this because our experience seems to suggest that they are correct, which outcome is connected with what psychologists call confirmation bias.

Baudrillard called it the hyperreal and The Desert of the Real. Baudrillard identified that one of the primary reasons for the power of such narrative is that in part we use them to navigate our way through society and life, and we also need to use representations that help us to handle the amount of information that we must contend with. The problem is, said Baudrillard, that we lose sight of that which is being represented, and it gets represented wrongly, and that moreover this can be manipulated such that we all dissimulate about what is happening. We effectively lose connection with reality.

It seems, then, that combining more advanced approaches to psychological and neurological data gathering with data garnered from verbal reports – from getting individuals and groups to describe in story form what they most desire in an urban lived space – constructivist planners might end up with both some extensive variability to ‘average out’ – but also some surprising insights into what people really need in an environment to maximise their own potential, and their mental health. Narrative analyses like these are used in planning and architecting some of the larger software systems that we see today – especially immersive games and other kinds of simulation.

So the constructivist urban planner has potentially a very important role to play in identifying not what is prescribed for us as inhabitants of urban spaces by narratives that might not be correctly purposed – but to use the best tools available to determine what are superior and more connected stories about what it is that urban dwellers need. Not surprisingly the role is centrally political. Recall the use of architecture and planned pubic space to communicate power and dominance by Pharaohs (elevation and deification), monarchs, and fascist and communist regimes worldwide throughout history.

The constructivist planner would have to deploy an unusual amount of measuring and recording to build such healthy constructivist planning narratives, such that scientistic (not necessarily a derogatory term) positivists might claim their influence is in evidence, and indeed it might be. Tools are becoming available that can capture a wider range of the required psychological and neurological data than ever before: visual and emotional impressions as well as propositional and emotional attitudes and beliefs. Database tools are available that can help identify what impressions have come from some external narrative that groups of people have internalised (say about the value of shopping malls or the like) but that mught be either counter to wellbeing or simply redundant. If this information can be correctly synthesised, then it may result in optimal and unprecedented planning outcomes.

Bibliography and References

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Links of Interest

Telepathic Communication

Habermas’ Critique of Postmodernism



Language of Thought Hypothesis

Fodor, Jerry

Embodied Cognition