James, Mead, Connectionism, and the Self

The latest issue of Psychological Inquiry, 18(2), features a target article that purports to simplify the “James-Mead Model of Self” through the use of a connectionist network.

William James conceptualized I, the self as subject, as a stream of consciousness. When this conception is augmented with George Herbert Mead’s view of self as a radically socialized and enculturated process, a result is the James-Mead model of dynamic self as a stream of enculturated consciousness. In this paper, we argue that connectionism is best suited to theorize this challenging notion.

There are also several commentaries, though — regrettably — nothing from Chris Green.

Conveniently, however, Chris’ opinion is on record at Psycoloquy (where his thoughts are presented alongside over a dozen still-relevant replies).  To put things in context, here is his original abstract from 1998:

This paper explores the question of whether connectionist models of cognition should be considered to be scientific theories of the cognitive domain. It is argued that in traditional scientific theories, there is a fairly close connection between the theoretical (unobservable) entities postulated and the empirical observations accounted for. In connectionist models, however, hundreds of theoretical terms are postulated — viz., nodes and connections — that are far removed from the observable phenomena. As a result, many of the features of any given connectionist model are relatively optional. This leads to the question of what, exactly, is learned about a cognitive domain modelled by a connectionist network.

This latest contribution seems to side-step his challenge by putting the focus back on what we can see: interactions.  In short, it’s not just nodes and connections that matter, but how they interact with the world their network attempts to model.

[Connectionist] models (as well as other nonconnectionist models) are ill equipped to handle the James-Mead model of dynamic self because they do not model the two psychological functions that are critical to their conceptualizations, namely, temporality and imitative learning. We present a connectionist architecture… that can do just that.
(Kashima, Gurumurthy, Ouschan, Chong, & Mattingley, 2007, p. 77)

Hence, in response to Green’s question, we seem to learn that cognition is necessarily situated and embodied; that the science of connectionism is to be located in the interaction between theoretical terms and reality.


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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.