Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Book Chapter 1993

The "Concrete Mind" Heuristic -- Human Identity and Social Compound from Things and Buildings.


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Pp. 249-266 in: Dieter Steiner & Markus Nauser (Eds.) Human ecology: fragments of anti-fragmentary views of the world. London, Routledge, 1993.
Based on a workshop contribution to the Symposium at Appenberg, Switzerland, 24.-26.5. 1989, organised by the Human Ecology Group of the Geography Department of ETH Zürich

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

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In this contribution I propose a new heuristic for understanding the relationship between human beings and their environment. Traditionally the mind is seen as an internal structure based on hereditary prerequisites and built up within each individual in the course of life by virtue of all experiences occurred to and acts attained by the individual in question. On the other hand, the larger part of behavioural acts of individuals also result in smaller or larger changes of the surroundings in that they leave behind temporary or permanent locomotion or modifications of persons, objects and spaces, in short they produce external structures or culture. It is beyond any doubt that these external structures are a major determinant of perceptions and actions of all people encountering those structures, including of course their producers themselves. If we assume, as is common, the mind to be the prime source of action or the carrier of personal and social identity, I can see no reason, why we should treat external structures, inasmuch as they can carry the same function, so differently as we commonly do. An important advantage of external structures or the "concrete mind" over the internal is their direct availability to other persons and, consequently, their social forcefulness. The concrete mind heuristic is apt to bring many benefits, among them it might further a more considerate intercourse of humans with their environment.


On the relationship between the inner and the outer world as seen by psychology

It appears that psychology has its origins in the private experience of people. When they comprehended that an outer world might exist independent of them and of their experience, the task of understanding the inner or private "world" arose. The so-called mind-body problem, since generations, is thus one of the unsolved great questions: Reasonable as it seems to assume influences going from the outer to the inner world, the reverse somehow contradicts basic tenets of scientific wisdom of a materialistic era. But the problem is a pseudo-problem, because there are not two realms of reality to combine, but simply two "languages" to translate between them.

On becoming an empirical science, psychology has naturally been caught by modern scientific doctrine and then restricted its endeavour to a cause-effect way of looking at the world of people. Consequently, it thinks of behavioural acts as functions of situations. The mind is then thought of as a mediating structure which has been built up by the impact of situations and is thus capable of carrying the influence of past situations upon present and future acts. Its mental or experiential aspects were declared a mere epiphenomenon by the behaviourists, notwithstanding the public prevalence of a subjectivistic or unscientific psychology and periodic subjectivistic waves also in the academic realm. Unfortunately, this materialistic and positivistic conception of the mind-body-problem has lead to an image of man as an exclusively reactive system.

Yet in fact, it is one of the most obvious characteristic of living entities including simpler organic systems and humans as individuals and societies, that they are to some extent resisting the influences from their surrounds. In this paper I try then to reconsider the balance between humans and their surrounds. I propose a more "symmetrical" relationship which is capable of furthering the value of both. Humans are neither the godlike rulers of religious traditions nor the perfect puppets of a world of scientific myths.


On the links between humans and the world

The reactive image of man is, in my opinion, one of the reasons that scientific psychology has nothing relevant to say to questions such as: why is it the case, that people design and construct things and build houses and cities? There is a large number of related questions, a few of which might be listed as follows:

* Why do people appropriate spaces and accumulate objects?

* Why do people prefer some places and things, hate or neglect others?

* Why do people build and design differently in particular regions of the world and periods of history?

* In general, why do people spend a considerable proportion of their time and effort for changing their surrounds?

Ordinarily, explanations of purpose or attainment are offered. Sociological answers suggest benefits in group life. Biological answers refer to survival value and might in particular point out the short term profits of reducing rather than submitting to selection pressures. But both of these explanations are unfit to explain particular manifestations of the built or the designed, because they are of a functional type and thus of an arbitrary nature. If one is ultimately interested to give a cause-effect-type explanation, i.e. an explanation that specifies the antecedents rather than the possible (not the necessary!) consequences of some phenomena, then a psychological perspective of explanation is indispensable. For it is always individual people, albeit within social groups and/or traditions, who do the actual designing and building.

The questions, in a general formulation, ask for the necessary and sufficient conditions of

(a) whysome part of the surrounding world (as given, independent of people) is "turned" into the "environment" (of some person or group) by human beings and other living system, and

(b)how the environment of some person or group "operates" on that person or group, and

(c)how the separateness of living systems from as well as their connectedness with the surrounding world is accomplished. These questions catch the basic ecological problem. Naturally, the paper will give no answers but restricts itself to outlining a direction using facts and speculation in a free manner.

These three questions have two branches, an input and an output side: (a) The study of perception of living systems demonstrates that any such system has evolved its proper way of winning such information out of the world that allows it to maintain at the same time its adaptedness to the real surrounding conditions as well as its relative independence from them. Unfortunately, in line with the reactive image of man, traditional and modern study of perception in essence is trying to explain perception as a function of a given world, the so-called stimuli, and this in spite of the fact that stimuli must ultimately be described on the basis of other perceptions. Contrary to the prevailing opinion, perceptual systems do not simply image the stimulus or the world but rather construct their proper simplified and, as a rule, quite economical "representation" of the world or, rather, produce their proper internal construction of something that refers to the surrounding world.

(b) The outgoing side: As a rule the perceptual systems selectively refer to only those qualities of the world that have proven important at least in some stage of the evolution of the respective phylae. In some phyletic strains, it seems to have been advantageous for the living systems to evolve beyond just acquiring matter, energy and information out of the world, but in addition to acton sectors of that world, e.g. by removing or collecting and composing material for burrows or nests, by cultivating symbionts etc. The result is the creation of living conditions for those individuals who thus improve on both their connectedness to and their separateness from the surrounding world by reducing their vulnerability. Homo sapiens faber is obviously the genus going rather far in that respect by creating material and symbolic culture as an enlarged and now quite indispensable living condition which we call the human environment.

All this makes clear that the data of an empirical psychology should also include observations in the form of situations as functions of behavioural acts. At present, situations in psychology are studied (1) as stimuli and (2) as responses or indicators of behavioural acts. However and unfortunately, we find no systematic investigation, not even a taxonomy, of situations. If one claims a systematic nature of the mind and assumes ingoing and outgoing links between the mind and the surrounding world, then it is imperative to have at one's disposal also a systematic knowledge on those parts or aspects of the surrounding world which are or can become relevant for the individual in question, because those are in part the preconditions and in part the consequences of that particular mind or of that individuals behavior. Obviously, natural laws do not specify everything characterising situations.

To clear terminology, I call the surroundsof a living system, be it individual or group, its environment, insofar as they have become relevant for that living system. The superordinate systems constituted of a living being together with its environment is called an ecologicalsystem. Of course, a bunch of scientific and other disciplines study cultural artifacts. Usually they are separated from the persons involved and are dealt with as if environments were objective givens; so risks are high to loose sight of their being part and parcel of human beings (see also Lang 1985, 1988).


On the notion of structure formation or dynamic memory

It is not possible here to give more than a sketchy account of an eco-psychological perspective still in development. The central assumption refers to a general notion of structure formation, which can be specified as dynamic storage or memory, i.e. creating a trace of some event, which in turn is capable of generating or influencing some further event. It is the prime function of structure formation for any living system to constitute both its separateness from and its connectedness to the surrounding world.

As far as morphological structure is concerned, this is in no need to be discussed, because the organism is exactly that what separates the system from the rest of the world. Yet it should be remembered that there are, in all organisms, ingestive and eliminative structures and, in higher organisms, additional sensory and executive subsystems, for keeping in touch with the surrounds.

The case is more intricate with information structures, but there are cogent parallels. For any living system, the capability of relying on an internal, space- and time-independent representation of all pertinent characters of the surrounding world is a very economical way of dealing with this world. Of course, this is adequate only as long as the surrounding world is not changing too much; yet this is exactly the precondition given for most plants and animals (except modern humans) in relation to their generation cycle. And such internal representations, together with perceptual subsystems for dealing with actual states of the surrounding world, make for an efficient connectedness with or even for a kind of integration into the environment, considering physical support and locomotion, metabolism, and relation to conspecifics, prey or enemies.

At the same time, since the medium or carrier of this internal representation is necessarily something other than the world itself, and since any storage system, including its way of encoding and its way of making use of the information stored, follows its proper rules and laws -- it is probably most reasonable to think of the memory as a sign system --, separateness from the world or peculiarity is inevitably also constituted. In fact, since living information storage systems are always to some extent active, generative systems, I tend to think of the said separateness as a kind of autonomy. We have then to differentiate between two environments of any individual: the real surrounds inasmuch as they are pertinent -- I call them his or her ecological environment --, and the internal representation thereof -- it is usually called the psychological environment of the person in question. The two need not have identical contents. Both are constructs, not observables; they must be gauged by a third.

Speaking in such terms of an individual organism, it is obviously its ontogenetic memory, the accumulated and integrated set of all episodes of encounter of the individual with its surrounds, that carries this function. As mentioned above, it is the central subject matter of psychology, commonly under the name of the mind. Physically, ontogenetic memory must be some kind of structure formation (or modification of a given structure), although, in fact, we do know almost nothing at present, how memory contents are stored, in physiological terms, in the brain. Yet, structure formation is a more general principle: phyletic history is also indirectly condensed in some structure, viz. the genom, and this is also a generative memory capable of producing new autonomous and adapted organisms. In addition, cultural productions, specifically environments modified by people, are also structures incorporating a manifold history of human acts in situations. And environments are themselves capable of generating or modifying new such acts and situations. These are at issue in the "concrete mind" heuristic.


Ontogenetic memory -- the individual cognitive and action structure

On observing concrete everyday behavior of living beings, it is easy to see that actions are determined to some extent by the characteristics of the actual situation, but also, and as a rule to a much greater extent, by internal representations of or "knowledge" about the characteristics of the situation as well as "knowledge" about one's action repertory. The advantage of the latter over the former lies in its pertinence far beyond the present inflow of information, in that the internal representations of the world also includes information on the possible future of the environment, on the possible consequences of one's decisions and undertakings and so on. In addition it seems often more economical to store a ready available image of some complex situation rather than to analyse it every time anew when it occurs.

All of these internal conditions of acting are collectively termed the cognitive and motivational structure, the (internal) memory or the mind of the individual. However, the mind is a construct, not an observable of an empirical science; only its "utterances" by mediation of behavioural acts and/or productions can become part of its scientific data. Ontogenetic memory in the main is commonly hold the be a rather direct trace of the encounters of the individual with facets of the world and of the consequences of these encounters itself; the psychological environment, as defined above, forms thus the major part of it. On the other hand, the genom incorporates the history of those mutational and recombination changes that have survived selection.

Note that "memory", in the present use of the term, is more than the trace of one's past; it also integrates that past to a dynamic whole and thus also in some way implies the possibilities of the future to come. This may be on the simple assumption that some characters of the past will also be given in the future or on the assumption that the world is following rules or laws. Inasmuch as natural laws are available in the memory, extrapolation from present states into the future is possible, and similar is true in a probabilistic manner for rules.


External memory -- or the "concretisation" of the mind

It has been important to remind of these memory analogues on the biological and the individual level. However, in the present context of pursuing the ecological question in view of the design and construction of things and places, the third kind of structure formation or ontogenetic memory is to be focussed upon.

Unquestionably, internal structures are in the main built up or differentiated by virtue of information coming through perception. Now the role of perception in that process is not generally clear. A case in point is the problem of unit formation. Usually we assume the world to be constituted of separate objects which are separately represented in our experience. However, this is exactly already a result of perception. It is easy to demonstrate with simple experiments that perceptual and cognitive unit formation is mostly a combined function of external givens and internal principles. Consider, for example, what constitutes an unit in language: perceived segmentation in the stream of spoken utterances is mainly determined by (inner) standards, largely inborn for the phonemes, and based on experience in a particular language for the morphemes. In written language, more seems to be given over to the external side, in that the letters and the words appear as separate; yet the reader needs to know the letters and must group the configurations of ink into letters and words. Figure-ground organisation is basic for all perception; although as a rule the entities perceived or figures can be said to correspond somehow to the order found in the world, this is not necessarily so. Figures or perceptual-cognitive units of the psychological environment are rather the proper products of the organisation of the mind, and yet they refer always to entities of the ecological environment. Even the most private emotion is a feeling of something; and, on the other hand, every "objective" fact, say a physical measurement, is something conceived by a mind.

I therefore contend that it is perfectly arbitrary for psychology to conceive of ontogenetic structure formation as based on inputs from outside (Lang 1985). So much of the formation of the psychological environment is as well based on the mind itself, and in addition, so much of the ecological environment, i.e. lastly the real surrounds of the the person, is also external structure formation based on internal states of the system in question. In fact, most people of today's educated and industrialised societies were painfully incapable of living without a special kind of external structure formation, viz. the traces of their own and their ancestors' and contemporaries' acts left in written notes and pictures or in designed objects or built settings. The notion of external memory is on the one hand a triviality, indeed, on the other hand it has so far not been investigated in its origin and impact for individual and social life. The most reasonable statement to make in this respect seems to me to point out the parallel between physical metabolism and information exchange: no living system exists without permanent although varying inflow and outflow of both, matter and energy as well as information. Information flow is crucial for the former at least in higher animals. To place a frontier between the inside and the outside is perfectly arbitrary for both, particularly in view of the possibility of storage of matter/energy and information both inside or outside.

The one system of though that, in my opinion, comes closest to a systematic treatment of information structurisations in general, and thus has a potential for promoting a common language to deal with the traditional mind and external concretisations, is general semiotics, esp. in the tradition of C. S. Peirce. In order not to complicate matters too much I have withstood the temptation of writing this paper in semioticalese (for a general overview see e.g. Nöth 1985). An ecological psychology in semiotic form is a challenge to be taken up.

The present chapter advances the "concrete mind" in the form of a general heuristic, i.e. it is neither a statement of fact nor a simple hypothesis which can eventually be confirmed or refuted, but rather it is intended as a sort of probe: as is the case with science in general, it can either succeed or fail in opening new insights or in procreating new investigations and fertile ways of dealing with the world (see Feyerabend 1988). The heuristic, of course, is in patent contradiction to many fundamental assumptions accepted in psychology and beyond, although it is perfectly compatible with much of its empirical evidence..


Ernst Kapp, a forerunner of the idea of internal-external equivalence

In 1877, Ernst Kapp, a German Gymnasium geography professor and returning emigrant from 15 years of Texan pioneer work, published a book entitled: Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik. The book is a bio-cultural speculation nicely illustrated with historical and contemporary material centered on the concept of "Organ-Projektion". By Organ-Projektion Kapp refers to the observation, that man made tools and other objects and spatial arrangements often have structural and/or functional similarities to parts of the human body. This is obvious for hammer and fist, fork and fingers, road-net and blood vessels etc. From an bio-evolutionary point of view it would, in principle, be feasible that many more such functions and structures could have been attained as, resp. by means of, further morphological formations or members of the body itself rather than as separate things. Some such "projections" are evidently also between-organism-structures, both the biologically determined such as termite hills or the primarily culturally determined such as our traffic ways or our houses.

Of course, the concept of Organ-Projektion as such is untenable, because the crucial notion of "projection" is itself in need of clarification. But it seems to me a good idea to retain and elaborate Kapps factual intuition, that there is no clear-cut boundary to be drawn between entities out there in the world and entities within ourselves (see above). If the genom is capable of producing morphological structures of a certain form and function which are part and parcel of the individual organisms of a species, why should it not also be capable of "generating" separate structures of similar form and function by intermediary of producing body and brain structures and processes that in their turn do the concretization. And if such externalisation of structures is the case for physical instrumentality, esp. tools, why should it not also be possible for "mental instrumentality", viz. potentialities of the mind?


Functional indistinguishability between internal-individual and external-social memory

Let me summarise the basics now: Living systems like cells, organisms, and groups of organisms such as societies carry each its own kind of information structure or memory. For the cell it is the genom; for organisms it is individual or ontogenetic memory proper, called the mind or brain; for persons and groups, small groups and larger groups including society, it is their ecological environment or culture, i.e. the totality of material and symbolic things and structures which are interpreted, modified, formed, designed, or constructed (see also Lang 1988). The three levels of memory are mutually interdependent, in that the mind is an elaboration of the genom and culture builds on both. In return, the mind of individuals eventually is a factor for selective survival of a given organism and thus of its genom; and culture, to a lesser degree and indirectly (if we forget about gene-technology), operates back on minds and genoms. All three are generative storage systems, i.e. they do not wait being asked for the information stored in them, but they function basically in their proper manner, elicited by suitable events or "spontaneously", provided that favourable conditions abide.

In what follows I try to give a flavour of elaborating the heuristic of the concrete mind. Of course this can be no more than of an illustrative character. It should be noted that culture is a generative memory not only for groups but at the same time for any individual who produces, perceives, and otherwise uses these external structures. I shall touch both, some individual and some social concretisations and functionalities; they are not meaningfully separated. In the functional approach of section 6 the leading idea is the concept of identity, personal and social, which is attained by virtue of concretisations. The structural approach of section 7 touches upon some selected concretisations in the double sense that they are examples of the concrete mind and they should make the heuristic more tangible.


Social memory or culture -- carrier of personal and social identity and development

Traditionally, objects and spaces are conceived of as opposites of a subject. Categories such as material substrate, extension, quality, utility, value, possession, and the like are used to deal with them, and their qualities are mostly conceived of as belonging to the objects themselves. Ecologically it should have become clear by now, that in the present heuristic they are seen as extensions rather than opposites of persons. If we compare the traditional internal mind with its external, concrete complement, a number of similarities and differences can be pointed out, of which I mention a few.

Internal and external memory are both conceived as being structured, organised complexes, i.e. they are supposed to be composed of interrelated parts. Commonly some kind of Gestalt character (the whole is more or other than its parts) is attributed to the internal structures. About external structures nothing in this respect is very clear so far, although some degree of order is evident beyond that provided by natural laws. The internal mind has a spatially concentrated existence, the degree of connectedness between its parts seems to be very high. External objects, on the other hand, can be multiplied and spread over space, they can exist inside or outside of other objects and spaces; once created few parts of external structure seem to be strongly interrelated. In temporal respects the mind is, in the course of its limited life-time, capable of being in an indefinite number of states, although apparently only one at a time; objects and spaces realise an enormous variety of "life-times" or durations, some being transitory, some being permanent for all practical purposes (see also Boesch 1983, 1989). In any case, discrepancies or dialectics in temporal existence between persons and their external concretisations are most intriguing and deserve special attention for their potential to originate development (see below 6.3 and Lang 1988).

Whereas the internal mind is directly open only to the person herself, most concretisations are public, i.e. they are, as a rule, available to both the person herself and to others. The consequence is that one can expect any public concretization to have potential effects on any person present, it is quite a consumptive task to transfer some content of one internal mind to another. The process is called socialisation and happens mostly in face to face situations. In more formal education it has been widened to a one-many spread; but it is only after scripts and pictures have become available that further amplification in scope has become feasible. And, of course, scripts and pictures and the modern media are all external concretisations. The point of the present heuristic is, that in the history of mankind there were scriptures, if one can say so, long before written language was invented, viz. the manufacture of tools, of ritual objects, their placement, the structuring of space by walls and buildings etc., all in the service of individual and social processes of structure formation: "Wenn wir Häuser bauen, sprechen und schreiben wir" (Wittgenstein 1968, p.21).

I would like here to concentrate on the double function of concretisations in the service of individuals and groups and particularly point out their meaning for the self and for the social compound. Insofar as concretisations enable a person to discourse so to say with herself, they are a prodigious vehicle of self-cultivation (see Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton 1981; Boesch 1980b, 1989). On the other hand, these extensions of the individuals are at the same time a prolific socialgo-between; they carry a large part of communicative intercourse and thus serve as a powerful glue for the social compound.


The concrete as a carrier of the social net (communication)

It is perhaps the most important impact of scientific thinking on social life that we believe every transfer of influence between entities including people to be based on an explicit, principally uncoverable act of communication, understood in a wide sense. In contrast to magic beliefs or to assumptions about hidden potencies etc. we have acquired a habit of wanting to find out about the causes of everything. So we ask what it is that makes group life possible.

Prime candidates are the following: Assuming that individuals are endowed with social instincts like other social animals is obviously not wrong; however, it is an insufficient explanation in view of the important role of ontogenetic memory. So socialisation processes during lifetime must be assumed. Among them social learning from models is considered important. Informal and formal education emphasises mostly language based information transfer. Yet all this seems insufficient given the overall high and efficient functionality of social life. It is a triviality to add that a large part of social communication is carried by material forms, i.e. objects and spatial arrangements, which carry meaning for everybody, sometimes immediately, sometimes only for the internally informed. However, most of these processes occur not in a conscious, reflected manner, and therefore, probably, they are not well investigated in that crucial role (see Boesch 1980 a, 1989). One of the few research programmes in search of understanding the role of the physical preconditions for group life is Roger Barker's Ecological Psychology with its concept of Behavior Setting (see Schoggen 1989).


The concrete and the self or identity (cultivation)

The notion of self or identity of a person is generally believed to have two facets, one originating from within, the subjective "I", and one originating from outside, the social "Me". Traditionally, both facets are understood as mental processes. The essence of the notion lies in its promise to bridge the aporetic gap of something being permanently in change yet remaining the same. It is extremely difficult to say something reasonable about the miracle of subjective identity. Social identity on the other hand must depend on communication in a group. In higher animal species where individuals are recognised among each other, morphological and behavioural peculiarities are the basis of social identity, i.e. of the ability to not only recognise this or that particular individual but also to have reasonable anticipations of his or her preferences and reactions in what situations and and to have realistic expectations of successes and failures when dealing with him or her. In humans, additional characters or informative features must be assumed. A prime candidate beyond refinements of interactive vocal, verbal, and paraverbal communication (for further references see Nöth 1985) is again the complete and continuously changing set of physical accessories which can be put in connection with a particular individual.

Here again, research literature beyond collections of anthropological material is rather scarce (see e.g. Duncan 1982). Boesch (1980, 1989) is an original cultural psychologist working mainly with a phenomenological method on the basis of everyday experience and anthropological data. In the center of his conception is the idea of an action mediated relation between the individual and the cultural world. The concept of action includes inner experience; core processes are described as a mutual subjectivisation and objectivisation of persons and the world. Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton (1981) have presented a multidisciplinary approach centered around the psychological notion of the self and they have given some of the rare empirical material on the concrete basis of identity for western culture. Their core concept is that of cultivation which refers to "the modes of meaning that mediate people with objects" (p.173) and is thus an analogue to socialisation mediating between persons. In other cultural and social sciences and also in semiotics, the aesthetic character of things or their functional and economic meanings prevail almost exclusively.


The concrete as a source of stability and change (development)

Perhaps the most intriguing and consequential feature of concretisations, or better of the relationship between external and internal structurisations is their different temporal character. I can only repeat here my earlier arguments that the different time qualities of living beings and their environment, is an indispensable factor of psychological development (see Lang 1981, 1988).

Any system ruled by a single all-embracing principle like a closed system will necessarily tend to a stable state as long as its supreme governor is in power. In other words, there will be no development but rather circularity in such a system, because whatever happens in the sense of random events within the system or in the sense of a disturbance coming from outside will sooner or later come under the rule of the supreme governor and thus will be shut out in its effects. It is the merit of Darwin's theory of bioevolution to have pointed out the necessity of two independent sources or principles acting on the same entity in order for that entity to develop. A psychological system enclosed in the mind or brain would do best and cheapest to stay as it is and refrain from letting information in that goes beyond the necessities of safeguarding material metabolism and the minimum of social bonds necessitating it. As a consequence behaviours like exploration, fantasy, invention and creation etc. would be patently superfluous; but they are the facts of our existence.

The concrete mind heuristic proposes a relative separation between internal and external structures, whereby as a rule the outer concretisations have a different time horizon than innerpsychic events or brain states. Some of the spaces and objects produced such as houses, cities, traffic systems etc. survive the life-times of one or even many generations of individuals, if not in the particular single objects then at least in their fundamental structures. So many a mediaeval layout of a city survives modern architecture, and the Shinto Shrines in Ise (Japan) are said to be built exactly in the same formation over the last 15 centuries, perhaps exactly because they are rebuilt every 20 years. Other objects and spatial arrangements are made anew every day or week or year, e.g. flower arrangements or ladies' clothing under or outside of the influence of fashion, seatings arrangements at meetings etc.. They thus demonstrate the persisting, durable character of the people by the same dialectic mechanism as the former examples establish the transitory and fleeting nature of all human affairs. The dialectics between short term and long term existences and changes in the two subsystems of ecological units, the internal and the external, are suggested to be the motor of human development, both in individuals and in societies.


Some exemplary "concretisations"

In this section I want to illustrate major types of external structurisations and also point out some correspondences between different contents of the mind, internal and external. On purpose, I start and end with topics such as knowledge and nature, that seem at first sight outside of the realm of cultural concretisations at issue in this contribution. However, I would like to make clear that external memory is nothing entirely new, and above all, it should not be treated in separation from traditional psychological conceptualisations. The emphasis however is on space and objects which are in addition to conventional symbolic systems the principal and most neglected fields of external memory. It is not possible to give full accounts.


Information, Knowledge

Knowledge, in psychologythe inclusive notion of the totality of the contents of ontogenetic memory, is a seductive term. Its broader equivalent, information, even more so. While the former puts its user in need of overcoming the connotations of static, fixed, passive, put aside for later use -- by the way the same is true for my evocations of terms like storage or memory --, the latter carries the burden of some very particular, technical theory, viz. that of communication between finite state systems. Things are not made easier by applying the term knowledge also to external information stores such as in books, libraries and computers. But exactly this double nature of information or knowledge, i.e. necessarily combining meaning with a physical carrier or code, should help in understanding the relationship of meaning and the physical concretisations outside the conventional symbol systems. For the carrier or code must be physical in any case, either physiological as in the brain or physical as in linguistic or other symbol systems which need acoustic waves or ink on paper or electronic bits in computers.

Let me try to open the view by introducing a terminology which seems to prove useful in many respects. From the point of view of an observer with a given set of receiving capabilities (including man as scientist), his surrounds looks as a multitude of entities (I favour the German term "Gebilde" used by Kurt Lewin, e.g. 1922 and elsewhere) which can be conceived as formations of matter and energy. Over time, the entities might change their form which appear always as a change of formation or of the temporal-spatial distribution of energy and matter.

An analysis of the existence of such entities proves extremely difficult, if we do want to escape anthropocentric fallacy. As mentioned above in section 5, these entities are of course the product of our perceptual-cognitiv apparatus which might or might not reflect something of their "true" nature. Seeing the principal impossibility of evading the trap, we can, as science always tried, use indirect perception as a compromise. So instead of believing our perception about what is an unit of existence, we might parallel Wittgenstein's linguistic analysis, when he proposes to extract the meaning of words from their use. An entity is then conceived to be something "real" if it demonstrates to a perceiver that it is capable of influencing other entities or can be influenced by other entities.

So it is extremely difficult if not impossible indeed to make out the true limits of entities and between the entities in most of the cases. There seems to be nothing in the world that does not incorporate this trias of energy, matter, and formation or state; indeed the so-called second world, the subjective, inner experience of an individual, turns out to be found always and only in connection with some brain state or process, which of course is a specific set of formations of matter and energy. Note that this is not a materialistic position, because it is the same entities that can be considered either as matter-energy or as formations capable of informing other entities (see below). When the individual speaks about her inner experiences, again there is some energy-matter-form-constellation changing over time and space in a particular manner, viz. brain processes and acoustic waves. The same is true of everything else, what living beings perceive or produce, say pheromones, gestures, written documents, pictures, objects, houses, and cities, including, of course, also the binary traces on a magnetic or optical computer disk. This conception allows, in my opinion, to forgo the separation of the two realms of the material and the spiritual.

An interesting outflow of this conception is the distinction between formation and information: form(ation) is static, is a character of any entity by itself, although it can never be specified as such, except in an encounter with another entity which can let itself inform about that formation. Information on the other hand is dynamic; it flows when two entities encounter each other and when the state or form of one of them changes as a function of the other one. Needless to say that in living entities, it never occurs that the state change of the second entity is completely determined by the form of the first; it always also retains its proper character; its variance presupposes an invariant.

I stop the conceptual meandering which may be considered to be not more than an porch to a semiotic approach. Its gist is the following: information or knowledge is not out there in a brain or in a book or in a room or street-net, but it is always the result of an encounter between two entities, a resultant of the meeting of a sender and a receiver, whereby the receiver never (never!) simply takes the information given by the sender, but always creates a third, some combination of her proper prior form and the new information received (refer back to 6.3 for the source of development). This is claimed to be true for both knowledge in the traditional or mental sense and the proposed external concretisations.


Space and Place

The notion of Place is readily explained by loaning from geography. Any encounter between an individual and other entities can be described in spatial terms. Space is firstly a character of the perceptual-cognitive-actional organisation of the individual, and secondly a useful descriptor of all matter-energy-formations. It is impossible to meet non-spatially. However, space is not "space". What has proven useful for physical, geometric or other endeavours, namely to conceive of the spatiality of all entities as a homogeneous, isotropic character, is not true of the spatiality of individual beings or groups of individuals. Their space is always anisotropic (it has thin and dense areas), structured (it has boundaries and containers), ordered (it has inside and outside), and hierarchical (it is a system of more or less important locations). I might add, that the space of individuals and groups, i.e. their place, is also meaningful: it has locations for this or for that; but perhaps it is better to deal with this aspect together with things because most meaningful spaces are constituted by sets of things. The concept of place (German: Ort) incorporates exactly all this special characters emerging from the encounter of somebody with a section of what is generally conceived as space.

Place, as defined by the geographers (Vidal de la Blache seems influential) is thus "a system of meaning". "Meaning is grounded in social relations, but is constructed within place (not projected into)"; ... "This is why place is discourse. Subjectivity is best viewed as part of the place-construction process." (Bourdoulay, in Agnew & Duncan 1989, p. 136; see also Hillier & Hanson 1984).

So if space is a term of physical science, place is a psychological or sociological term. Space refers to the surrounds, place to the environment of somebody. The meaning of space claims to be above and beyond the peculiar perceptual-cognitive structures of any given individual, although it is supposed that everybody has a potential of acquiring that "objective" meaning (e.g. three-dimensional, isotropic, meaningless) as a part of his personal knowledge. Thus space is the place of a virtual group composed of every potential physical geometrist. Place, on the other hand, emerges always as a peculiar meaning in every individual or group from and with its peculiar encounters with specific surrounds.

By way of example, an urban square is a place with a meaning that is moderately or widely shared by inhabitants and tourists. It incorporates history of the city together with its inhabitants and guests, in that it concretises peculiar social relations of former times. Various ruling or aspiring groups of former and present times display their signposts in the form of facades, monuments, furniture, etc.; others see and use it as a marketplace for exchange of goods and ideas, while they are, voluntarily or not, affected to a lesser or higher degree by the concretisations of the former; still others claim it as their parking lot and thus display (in the ethological sense) and exercise their power over pedestrians. The social nature of these public concretisations is obvious (see Lang 1987).

Another field where the mixup of space and place of our civilisation has created immense amounts of triumph and tragedy is the private and semiprivate places of residence. I have argued elsewhere that dwellings should not be considered as objects but rather as "organisms" or "vessels" for groups (see e.g. Lang et al. 1987). A general relation exists between certain qualities of the structures and the furthering or inhibition of certain social processes and structures. Places describe social relations and in addition have the power to govern the people exposing themselves. Dwellings in particular can be understood as regulators of autonomy and integration for individuals and groups. A psychology of the dwelling activity on the basis of the present heuristic is in progress. Similar considerations can be made in view of all spaces turned into place by architectural means (see also Preziosi 1979).


Objects and Things

In analogy to the space--place differentiation I propose to use the term Object for referring to entities characterised by their descriptive material, energetic, geometric, and surface qualities that are accessible to a perceptual-cognitive system in general, be it of an everyday-linguistic or a scientific-systematic nature. The term Thing on the other hand is used to refer to a broader object-person relation emphasising the meaning of the object in question for the person or group. Thus expressive and appellative characters are comprised. Things tell something to persons who are able to understand, they even do something with them, they afford their meaning. Their meaning, however, cannot be given except for specified persons or groups; they might be quite different for different people, although a certain degree of similarity or equivalence can be expected to pertain within a given culture.

Things fill the places of all people every day; yet psychologists have barely touched the topic (see Boesch 1980b, 1983, 1989; Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton 1981; Graumann 1974). It might be a cardinal feature of this civilisation that the Cartesian reduction of things to res extensa has lead to the present materialisation of our life. The ultimate object or good, seemingly capable of replacing all other objects, is money; yet "money is no object" (Rochberg-Halton 1986). We are possessed by things rather than that we possess them. We have such a limited understanding of things that most people do not even realise to what extent they serve as instruments of power. Things are usually represented in consciousness as separate objects with their appearance and function, not in their self-related and social meaning. It is understandable, therefore, that a psychology starting from conscious experience did not care for things. Things conceived as concretisations have an equivalent and parallel role in the whole of the psychological organisation as have conscious imagery or linguistic entities. So there is no need to re-represent things in consciousness; they are of a psychological nature already by themselves, and they operate as a rule rather more dependably than thoughts or spoken words. The latter are both in need of conscious actualisation in order to become functional, whereas actions with things are perfectly possible without even the presence of their originator. Things, by the way, are the means of choice to turn space into place.

A further field where places and things are combined into intricate complexes of cooperating inner and external structures are the settings that ordinarily go under the name of institution. I already mentioned a particular general kind, the Behavior Setting (Schoggen 1989). Fuhrer (1990) gives an empirical treatment of processes in institutional settings into which people are simultaneously socialised and cultivated by and for persons, places and things including symbolic information.


Nature and Settings in general

The term Setting is used here in the more inclusive sense of place together with temporal proprieties. It is an abstraction when we speak of knowledge, place or things without also considering their constancy or change over time which is an inevitable constituent of them. Things and places change over time together with and against the persons and groups whose environment they are (see above 6.3). In fact, it seems that no little of traditional human cultural activity aims at freezing or conserving a given state of the mind proper in the form of external concretisations; examples go from history to souvenirs to photography. Our civilisation in addition has produced quite a number of gadgets such as clocks, machines, vehicles which are exactly designed to evade the constraints of time by some form of attempted but often failing mastery over time.

These paradoxical concretisations suggest a field where the temporal characters of our surrounds become most potent might be nature, i.e. that construction of human thinking which refers to everything given before humans touch upon it. Nature includes, of course, space and objects. I say "construction" (of the objective-minded), because a little thought makes clear that it rarely exists anymore as a reality, except perhaps in a few last mountain areas, in weather and climate, and on a cosmic scale in outer space. These examples already make clear that as soon as humans relate to nature, nature change its nature, in that it attires meaning: the mountains afford looking or climbing, the forests resting or walking etc. and nature becomes a landscape; the weather is a threat or a delight, and sky and outer space turn into a huge projection screen for myths of all kinds. As the 20th century nears its end, it has become clear that humans have left their civilised concretisations (debris) even in the sea, in deserts, in their small cosmic corner and also touched upon weather and climate. So for our civilisation, nature has become a setting full of concretisations of a particular kind. This is not the place to proceed with further descriptions or even evaluations; evidently nature is again no simple "object", because it has the force to act back.


Pertinence of the "concrete mind"

Yet it seems that in our civilisation, things and places and settings are still considered prototypes of "objects", separate from and opponents of subjects. But of course, this is not a matter of fact, but a matter or view, namely of the view of (self-declared) subjects. This opposition is incorporated in our way of thinking, speaking, manipulating, making (ours is the making civilisation!) to such an extent that we not only try to do whatever we feel like doing with practically every part of nature and culture, but even with our own conspecies, especially when they are symbolically represented in data base and similar substitute forms. On the other hand it might be likely that somebody is apt to acquire a new balance of autonomy and integration with her environment, who has internalised, be it discursively or even better in the form of a general habit, that our cultural heritage including its natural base is to a cultural group (including herself) in an external form what her own mind is to herself as an unique being.

There are many fascinating consequences to be drawn from the present heuristic of the concrete mind. Some of them are:

* By understanding the relationship between man and environment as a one-way street -- reactive psychology, subject-object-relationship -- we probably have missed about half of the foundation of a meaningful understanding and science of human functionality.

* By dealing with our biological heritage, our subjective experience, our material procreations in three completely separate and incompatible conceptions and respective scientific disciplines and technologies, by following arbitrary or naive (perception-based) definitions of the fields, we have created quite a number of conceptual pseudo-problems which are at the same time very hard to solve practical problems..

* By understanding our environment as something "objective", as an independently existing entity, we are on the brink of doing hurt to ourselves in a disastrous manner. Etc., etc.

I often find it revealing to confront the heuristic of the concrete mind with our traditional understanding of the "environment" (of the objective-minded). For example, I might resume the famous thesis of Aristotle (in de anima 3.8) claiming the hand as the archetype of bodily, the psyche as the archetype of mental procreations. Aristotle's thesis incorporates the fundamental germ of western civilisation. I suggest, it is dubious and fatal, because it has lead to an opposition between the public work of the hand and the private confines of the mind instead of articulating the complementarity of brain and hand, of the subjective and the objective. In addition, the confusion of the environment, i.e. one's own or that of scientists, with the world, i.e. the surrounds common to everybody, has become not only a grandiose temptation and failure of communication, but is in fact the great myth of modernity which has unleashed and still is a source of unbelievable amounts of power.

What happens to the mind of any individual at the moment when the great collective myths, religious or secular, cease their daily enforcement of human communion, while at the same time the works of technology embrace this same individual with tools and vehicles and medias and money and everything money can buy and put him or her at a particular place in a fully functioning society? Naturally, the mind reacts, or counteracts (as you like it), and designs wonderful and crazy mental constructions or ideas such as the person, equality, dignity, and it invents techniques such as the arts (l'art pour l'art), self-realisation, psychotherapy and the like. But it is weak, this mind, when compared to the powerful works of modern technology and all the other external concretisations of our time. I propose to develop a culture of complementarity of, rather than of opposition between, the designs of the hand and the constructions of the mind.



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