Daniel Dennett

I was reviewing notes and saw that last week, we ended class considering an idea of Dennett’s.  I believe it had something to do with questioning the need for intelligence and/or language for consciousness, or language for intelligence?  I just remember wanting to respond immediately with a typical anecdote about my children.  I have a son who is not quite 3.  At this time, he doesn’t have memories that will stick around for him and his language skills are expanding daily, however it was not long ago that he was without words.  Today he told me that the trees were beautiful.  He was just really excited to use a new word, “beautiful” correctly.  Alternately, he is extremely skilled at the pronouncement “I Want!” and rather than modifying this to something more apt to get him “what he wants,” is having a good time with inflection, tone, repetition, and other sound effects.  I also have a 4 month old who very clearly is conscious of the difference between her mother and her nanny, her father and her brother.  As for language, she cries of course, but she also coos and babbles, laughs and exhibits fear ( of the new kitten in the house who thinks her feet are toys).

My notes said of Dennett “Consciousness is language/culture.”  I realize I have a lot to look into and Dennett would scoff at my “personal expertise,” but the perception of these early stages in my children suggest highly activated, elevated, advanced consciousness that is released with language rather than created by it.  I also think immediately of autistic children in particular who often lash out as they fight to figure out ways to communicate without language.

In Shelley, the monster’s consciousness seemed shaped by knowledge and language.  I can see the argument made within that literary context.  In the story, he becomes more emotional the more he learns.  The big difference with the children is that they seem to constantly be fighting to express their inner self.

It is a little harder to summarize what happens with language and Mark Schluter.  While it becomes clear through the narrative that his language improves with his condition, or to clarify, that his consciousness is more ordered in tandem with his ability to speak clearly, it is not clear what role language plays while he is unconscious.  I think that the images created by language in those initial streams of his mind are the author’s way of detailing what he sees in his mind rather than what he hears.  I think it can be read as either an image for us to consider or a running narrative in his consciousness.  Again, I am only referring to the very first few streams of his, the ones during which we are not wholly aware that the parts belong to his mind (at least I wasn’t).

Here is an interview? with Dennett about language and a 20minute video of him discussing consciousness in case anyone wanted to look into his work.

The Role of Language in Intelligence 

Dan Dennett: The Illusion of Consciousness

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2 Responses to Daniel Dennett

  1. I’m about to go off on a tangent, but I’m really fascinated by the fact that you found yourself thinking in a fashion similar to the writing, Darby. Something I’ve noticed about myself is that after I read certain authors, my writing style will change to mimic that author’s style. I distinctly remember reading “A Farewell to Arms” and being struck by my (frankly horrible) imitation of Hemingway. It seemed beyond my control; I could not shake it for a few days. It’s something I did unconsciously at first, but now I have some “go-to” texts that I read when I need to get the creative juices flowing. I’m wondering if this has to do with the distinct style of the voice (Powers is unique, as is, of course, Hemingway) but at the same time, all writers are unique. What, then, does it? I’m really curious about this now.

  2. Seeing children’s consciousness grow and change is certainly a fascinating and wonder-full experience. I have two nieces and I am always shocked to discover how much their minds have grown between visits. One is six and the other is four. My first real extended interaction with a baby was with the youngest, she was just a mewling vomitty little thing. But now she is a little person with wants and desires and fear and bravery all her own. This is not a unique observation on my part. But I appreciated your connection between the experiences of your children and the characters we are reading about and their changing (expanding or contracting) experiences with consciousness.

    As far as those initial streams of consciousness, I too was initially confused about who they were coming from…but I liked it. It felt very poetic for me, though I was drawn away from the plot by imagining Powers in the act of writing this section. I also found myself, strangely, begin to THINK in a similar fashion as I was drifting off to sleep that night. A total randomness (or seeming randomness) of words whirled around my head. I thought for a moment of getting up to write down what I was thinking, but in a moment that I am sure we all have experienced, I thought instead that I would just try hard to “remember” the next day. Obviously the only thing left of that is the memory of the reflection on the experience. Oh well.

    Also thanks for posting the links! I really liked the ted talk.

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