Traffickers in Transformation

John Sutton and Evelyn B. Tribble


     1. We begin this brief response to David Hawkes by clarifying the nature of our collaborative research and the disciplines in which we work. Sutton is not a 'natural scientist', as Hawkes strangely claims. His first degree was in Classics, his PhD in Philosophy. Though he now works in an interdisciplinary Cognitive Science centre, he continues to study memory, mind, self, and skilled movement as topics in their own right, as a philosopher of mind or a cognitive philosopher. In any case, the cognitive sciences and psychology study the activities and phenomena of human emotion, decision-making, remembering and the like: they are not brain science. If on specific topics Sutton, like his colleagues, may seek integrative connections and links with the neurosciences, as a cognitive philosopher he does so also with the humanities and the social sciences, with anthropology, linguistics, social theory, history, art, and literature. Our ongoing collaboration in developing a form of 'cognitive history', alongside a number of our colleagues, operates within this pluralistic setting: it's not a 'natural scientist' working with 'a humanist', but specifically a cognitive philosopher and an historian of literature, culture, and theatre, fusing what skills we've got in trying to understand particular, historically contingent cognitive ecologies, driven by topic rather than tradition, domain rather than discipline.

     2. In contrast to this pluralist setting of our work, Hawkes depicts an apparently bifurcated world in which there is no contemporary philosophy or social theory, only natural science on one side of campus and 'departments of literature' (where the real materialists are allegedly now to be found) on the other. The label 'physicalism' offers no support to his defence of the non-material self. Hawkes is entirely mistaken to see either of us as in any way 'more receptive to the anti-materialist case than scholars from the humanities'. We were happy, for the sake of argument, to accept the possibility of a meaningful non-religious concept of 'the soul': but we denied that this would rule out materialism, and we argued that most current forms of materialism (including many we reject for other reasons) can accommodate mind, thought, ideas, subjectivity, and 'soul'.

     3. It may help to compare the way the philosopher Ian Hacking introduces his use of the term 'soul' in Rewriting the Soul: multiple personality and the sciences of memory1:

Talk of the soul sounds old-fashioned, but I take it seriously.  . . . Philosophers of my stripe speak of the soul not to suggest something eternal, but to invoke character, reflective choice, self-understanding, values that include honesty to others and oneself, and several types of freedom and responsibility. Love, passion, envy, tedium, regret, and quiet contentment are the stuff of the soul. This may be a very old idea of the soul, pre-Socratic. I do not think of the soul as unitary, as an essence, as one single thing, or even as a thing at all. It does not denote an unchanging core of personal identity. One person, one soul, may have many facets and speak with many tongues. To think of the soul is not to imply that there is one essence, one spiritual point, from which all voices issue. In my way of thinking the soul is a more modest concept than that.

Such a non-religious conception, in some contexts, can helpfully remind us of complex, affectively rich, temporally embedded aspects of our nature, as Hacking says, involving character, self-understanding, or values. We agree with Hawkes that there are varieties of materialism which fail to address or even acknowledge these qualities. We spend much of our time criticizing theories like this, although we typically put the blame not on reductionism (which is, as we showed in our commentary, extremely rare in practice), but on their individualism, internalism, and residual rationalism. More broadly, we are fully aware of the unsolved challenges facing materialism, and indeed facing any theory of mind and self. We seek a form of materialism which is firmly historical, and which deals easily both with 'sensuous human activity, practice' and with what Marx called 'the ensemble of social relations' in all their complexity and multiplicity. But none of this offers grounds for any sympathy whatsoever with an 'anti-materialist case'. In our view, no such anti-materialist case successfully addresses history, character, self-understanding, and passion, or shows us any plausible directions for doing so.

     4. Hacking's account of 'soul' confirms that there are rich ways of employing such a term which do not define or identify soul either as 'non-material' or as unitary essence. Yet even though Hawkes now claims to accept that the term 'soul', employed in this non-religious way, 'is not even incompatible with materialism', he still ends up defining it and related terms like 'subjectivity' as non-material. At the end of his response to us, he says that 'Since subjectivity is logically and historically defined by distinguishing it from its material circumstances, to claim that the subject is material is to deny that it exists qua subject'. This is to beg the question with a vengeance. If these terms are simply defined such that 'subject', for example, is 'logically' non-material, then there is no real point in debate: all materialisms would be eliminative simply by definition, and the history of controversies and more or less intelligible argument about materialism and dualism would make no sense. We flatly reject such a definition.

     5. Hawkes characterizes his own metaphysical view as 'dialectical', but it could equally be labelled 'dualist'. More specifically, although the details of his account are still not explicit, we take him to be a substance dualist (rather than, for example, merely a property dualist). In any case, like all dualists before him, Hawkes will need to specify more about how there can be the kinds of interactive relations between material and non-material realms which the dialectician presumably wants.2 In the absence of any such constructive account, it is particularly difficult to see how the 'autonomous non-material subject' can engage in the range of 'sensuous human activity, practice' on which Hawkes rightly wants us to focus, given that such a subject has no foot in or grasp on textured, messy, sensuous physical reality. In addition to classical problems for the dualist about mind-body interaction, of course, he has to justify and come to terms with his eradication or banishing of meaning and mentality from the world of bodies and flesh, social interaction and material change.

     6. These are the reasons why we are 'still . . . ontologically monist': we did not disguise or disclaim this feature of our view. We spent much effort in our response to Hawkes in pointing to a vast array of popular and intellectually coherent forms of monist materialism in contemporary philosophy and interdisciplinary theory which are explicitly not eliminativist, which explicitly accept the reality of ideas, self, and subjectivity. Many of these views have other difficulties, which is why we defend an alternative, more radical, anti-individualist form of materialism, on which (again) more below. Those difficulties are not due to their materialism, which is why we argued that materialism is just not the most interesting issue in the attempt to understand mind, self, and human nature. But our primary aim was to suggest that it's not helpful, in an academic paper about materialism, simply to ignore or discard the enormous body of work in philosophy of mind and related disciplines devoted precisely to materialist theorizing of thought, consciousness, and subjectivity. Yet in his response, Hawkes conflates all forms of materialism with the idea that 'thought has ceased to exist altogether'. We do not understand why, in replying to our commentary, Hawkes persists in referring to the attacks on religious belief by Dawkins and Hitchens in this context, given that he is not defending a religious conception of the soul, and that our paper said nothing about religious belief. There is no serious theory of mind in their books, and it is unhelpful for Hawkes to associate their popular atheisms with the cognitive theories of Dennett or the Churchlands, who have developed (entirely distinct) rich and sophisticated constructive accounts of mind and self over some decades. Even the Churchlands' unique version of eliminative materialism, which we sought briefly to contextualise, does not eliminate ideas or thought, consciousness or sensations, or even self. One may reasonably disagree (as we do) with some or all of the disparate views of Dennett, the Churchlands, and the many other philosophers we cited, but they cannot accurately be collapsed together or put on a par, as theories of mind and cognition, with Dawkins and Hitchens. It is not enough to reiterate the claim that 'eliminative materialism is the terminus of materialism as a whole' when we have offered full accounts of the motivations and nature of a select but diverse range of contemporary non-eliminativist versions of materialism.

     7. We are surprised that Hawkes now accepts the legitimacy of reductionism as 'a benign and necessary methodological tool' as long as 'reduction' is understood to mean 'the analysis of a whole by means of its constituent parts'. In locating his actual targets in Dawkins and Hitchens, in the views of 'the man on the Clapham omnibus', and in the media, rather than engaging with 'subtler' specialist theoretical views of the kind we discussed, Hawkes not only reneges from the possibility of contributing to live, cutting-edge debate about the nature of mind and self, but also renders his views hostage to significant and under-defended empirical fortune. We are sceptical of his factual claim that the ordinary person 'is an instinctive ruthless eliminative materialist'. There are active current research programs in which anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and an increasing number of philosophers try to discover just what assumptions about mind, self, soul, and thought are held by particular people in particular cultures and in particular contexts, and how such assumptions relate to their practices, their values, and their ways of life. Are all human beings 'intuitive dualists', and if so why? Or do beliefs about the nature of mind, soul, and subjectivity vary dramatically and systematically? Such endeavours obviously make contact with the hopes of historians to gain some insight into the views and activities of particular individuals and groups of people in the past, though they depart substantially from standard work in the history of ideas. We do indeed need better understanding of the history of dualism, and of the roots and sources of the growth of modern materialism: we would hope and expect to be able to collaborate fully in such projects with Hawkes, with his distinctive sympathies. But such projects will need to be deeply informed by the methods of the social and cognitive sciences, as well as by mainstream anthropological and historical work. In contrast, in what we described as a disastrous error of policy, Hawkes asks humanists to resist the influences of contemporary science, and can thus only speculate about how many people today 'live, in practice, on the assumption that they are identical with their bodies'.

     8. We described in some detail our account of distributed cognitive ecologies, by which thinking, remembering, decision-making and the like are all precisely active human practices, often sensuous and often social, often spread across hybrid arrays of disparate bodily, cultural, and technological resources. The fact that such resources -- objects and symbols, friends and family, codes and diagrams, monuments and mountains, rituals and roads, theatres and diaries -- are all material is far from their most interesting feature. Hawkes again ignores such entirely distinctive anti-individualist theories. We argue that the research framework based on distributed cognitive ecologies is more thoroughly materialist than many of the other versions we also discussed. This is indeed no accident, historically. Hawkes celebrates Marx's recommendations that we focus on practical activity, on sensuousness, and on the active role of humans in changing circumstances. There are firm and clear lines of intellectual influence from just these parts of Marx's thought through the great Soviet developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose work still actively inspires much of the best research on cognitive development, on to 'cultural-historical activity theory' as developed both by Soviet theorists and by cultural psychologists and anthropologists like Michael Cole and Jean Lave, and thus directly into current theories of distributed cognitive ecologies.3 In such traditions, as we suggested, matter is of course the realm of animation, social dynamics, sensuous activity, and passionate thinking. To pretend, in contrast, that ideas, mind, and self are non-material is again to isolate thinking from practice and from social relations. For these reasons we are delighted to appropriate and embrace Hawkes' characterization of materialists like us as 'traffickers in transformation'.



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1 Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: multiple personality and the sciences of memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p.6.

2 For a sound introduction to issues around the metaphysics of dualism, see for example Howard Robinson, 'Dualism', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

3 Edwin Hutchins, 'Cognitive Ecology', Topics in Cognitive Science 2 (2010), 705-715; Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978 [1930]); Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner, Culture and Thought (New York: Wiley, 1974); Jean Lave, Cognition in Practice: mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); John Sutton, 'Remembering', in P. Robbins and M. Aydede (eds), The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp.217-235; Evelyn B. Tribble and John Sutton, 'Cognitive Ecology as a Framework for Shakespearean Studies', Shakespeare Studies 39 (2011), pp.94-103.



Form copyright © 2012 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2012 John Sutton and Evelyn B. Tribble.