Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

Remembering Ulric Neisser

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Ulric Neisser, an American psychologist and one of the founders of cognitive psychology died last month. Neisser’s life, including his major contributions to the revolution of the study of the human cognition is well documented; see for instance, the NY Times obituary and the Mind Hacks blog. My intention is not to replicate what has appeared elsewhere but to add to it by focusing on Neisser’s later work in ecological psychology, more specifically, his interdisciplinary research on the self which has guided the content and methodology of my own work. I take this as an opportunity to remember him, with the added hope of sparking the interest of those less familiar with his later work.

Behaviourism dominated the scientific study of the mind in the first half of the 20th century. Behaviourists declared that psychology should not attempt to address internal mental events and mechanisms but should focus on the observable markers of cognition, such as stimuli, responses, and the consequences of these responses. Despite its contribution to the development of rigorous experimental techniques and to the domain of learning, behaviourism was limited in explaining many interesting dimensions of human cognition, such as the development of language.

Closely linked to the development of the computer, the field of cognitive psychology emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Briefly stated, cognitive psychology studies perception, memory, attention, pattern recognition, problem solving, language, cognitive development, etc, taking the computer both as a model for the way in which human cognitive activity takes place and a tool to specify the information-processing mechanisms that generate behaviour. Forerunners of the cognitive revolution include Herbert Simon, Allen Newell, Noam Chomsky, George Miller, and Neisser. The publication of Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology in 1967 marks the emergence of this field of study.

In his later work, starting with Cognition and Reality: Principles and Implications of Cognitive Psychology (1976), Neisser expresses his worries about the exclusive focus of the field of cognitive psychology on computer modeling and information processing through laboratory experiments. He challenges cognitive psychology not to confine itself to the laboratory and rely on computer modeling, but move to the real world and study how people act or interact in it.

Neisser has the following four suggestions for cognitive psychologists:

“First, cognitive psychologists must make a greater effort to understand cognition as it occurs in the ordinary environment and in the context of natural purposeful activity. This would not mean an end to laboratory experiments, but a commitment to the study of variables that are ecologically important rather than those that are easily manageable. Second, it will be necessary to pay more attention to the details of the real world in which perceivers and thinkers live, and the fine structure of information that world makes available to them. We may have been lavishing too much effort on hypothetical models of the mind and not enough on analyzing the environment that the mind has been shaped to meet. Third, psychology must somehow come to terms with the sophistication and complexity of the cognitive skills that people are really capable of acquiring, and with the fact that these skills undergo systematic development. A satisfactory theory of human cognition can hardly be established by experiments that provide inexperienced subjects with brief opportunities to perform novel and meaningless tasks. Finally, cognitive psychologists must examine the implications of their work for more fundamental questions: human nature is too important to be left to the behaviourists and psychoanalysts.” (Neisser, Cognition and Reality, San Francisco: Freeman and Company, 1976, p.7-8)

Cognition and Reality and his proceeding work bring together and synthesize a wide range of theory and research from different branches of psychology, such as developmental and social psychology, thereby illustrating firsthand how such research is possible and illuminating the four guidelines.

In the first issue of the first volume of Philosophical Psychology (1988), Neisser published an article, “Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge,” in which he explores the kinds of information that specify the self. He argues that the forms of information that individuate the self are so different from one another that it is plausible to suggest that each establishes a different “self.” Neisser’s selves are the ecological self, or the self that perceives and who is situated in the physical world; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world who develops through intersubjectivity; the extended self, the self in time that is grounded on memory and anticipation; the private self, or the self exposed to private experiences that are not available to others; and the conceptual self, or the self that represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties of the self and the social and cultural context to which it belongs. He investigates each of these selves by appealing to a wide range of psychologists, e.g., Colwyn Trevarthen, Michael Tomasello, Eleanor Gibson, Peter Hobson, James GibsonEndel Tulving, Jerome Bruner, Robyn Fivush, Peggy Miller, and Kenneth Gergen.

After this article on self-knowledge, Neisser edited several volumes, each focusing on these different selves, and including contributions from leading psychologists. In 1988 with Eugene Winograd, he edited Remembering Reconsidered: Ecological and Traditional Approaches to the Study of Memory. In 1993, he edited The Perceived Self: Ecological and Interpersonal Sources of Self-Knowledge. In 1994, with Robyn Fivush, he edited The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative. Finally, in 1997, with David Jopling, he edited The Conceptual Self in Context: Culture, Experience, Self-Understanding.

In short, Neisser spearheaded multi-disciplinary research into the self, bringing together various research strands that highlight different dimensions of this complexity.

The volumes cited above exemplify Neisser’s own prescriptions for the field of cognitive psychology. First, the articles contained within them elaborate on the “selves” as we encounter them in the ordinary environment and in the context of their natural activities. Second, these works are attentive to the details of real world experiences of human beings and theorize the self by taking “real people” as a reference point, as opposed to hypothetical models of what selves might be, to use an expression used by Kathleen Wilkes. Third, the articles lay out the complexity of selfhood by considering its various aspects, e.g. ecological, intersubjective, etc., as well as how the self systematically develops from infancy, how it perceives the environment and processes information available to it, how it interacts with others, how it remembers, and how it reconstructs experiences in remembering. These are all grounded on various experiments from psychology. Finally, each volume has a chapter or two on the implications of the empirical research on the self to philosophical approaches to mind, self, and agency. For instance, in her chapter “The Self and Contemporary Theories of Ethics,” in The Conceptual Self in Context, Sheila Mason discusses the implications of empirical studies on the self and moral agency by considering three dominant approaches to moral theory in Anglo-American philosophy: the Rawlsian “justice model,” the “communitarian model,” developed by Alasdair MacIntyre, and the “ethics of care” developed by feminist theorists including Carol Gilligan, Annette Baier, and Seyla Benhabib. Mason argues that Neisser’s psychological theory of the self could be used to support the communitarian approaches to moral theory as well as the approaches developed by the proponents of the ethics of care who highlight the features of the intersubjective self.

My favorite aspect of Neisser’s work on the self is his consideration of mental disorder as a feature of the self. Early on, in “Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge” he argues that even though the selves specified by five different kinds of information are not experienced as distinct, they differ in their developmental histories (for instance the ecological and intersubjective selves start at birth, whereas the conceptual self develops parallel to the development of language), and in the psychopathologies to which they are subject. Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, originates in the extended self but gradually influences the other selves. Part of my current research is directed towards incorporating Neisser’s model of the self into scientific research on mental disorders and psychiatric taxonomy. I will share some of that work in this blog as it progresses.

I don’t believe that I have done justice to the richness of Neisser’s later work, but I take consolation in his comments on the humaneness of errors in human communication:

“Human communication offers unparalleled opportunities for understanding, but also false error, misunderstanding and deceit. Our dependence on it means that our understanding of one another and ourselves – or even the subjects like cognitive psychology – is never complete and often simply mistaken. On the other hand, the perceptual cycle tends to be self-correcting, and there is always more information available than has yet been used. The outcome of any single encounter between cognition and reality is unpredictable, but in the long run such encounters move us closer to truth.” (Neisser, Cognition and Reality, San Francisco: Freeman and Company, 1976, p.193-194)

UPDATE: cross-posted at Philosophy of Brains.

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Written by Serife Tekin

March 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Awesome tribute, Serfe!

    Tad Zawidzki

    March 12, 2012 at 9:29 pm

  2. […] (cross-posted at Hesperus is Bosphorus) […]


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