Saturday 15 January 2011

A shared responsibility for cognition and memory: thoughts on educational theory

I had an interesting discussion yesterday about memory and constructivism. The locus of memory is something which I've been very interested in recently, particularly with my dad's alzheimers. I don't think remembering has a directly attributable mental cause; the role of the brain is probably more as a regulator of a complex process of interactions with the environment and state-monitoring of the individual. Much manifests itself in what we tend to think of as 'emotion'. The issue is deeply ecological, and for me that means it's political. It concerns ultimately responsibility and ethics. Oleg mentioned to me that he thought the question "where is memory?" is meaningless, because in answering it it's impossible to account for the observer. I answered that the question "where is memory?" is not that different from "how ought we to live?": its answer predicates a moral position. Even to over-privilege (and to doubt the judgement of) an observer is to take a moral stance, and when constructivism becomes relativism there are moral problems. I can't help thinking that with regard to some moral questions, there is level of objectivity which has to be acknowledged for social progress to be made. Some of this moral objectivity might lie in the domain of cognition.

Harre's Posiitioning theory relates the sense of self to ways in which other communicate with that self, to the speech acts that are performed and the narratives that are constructed. The extent to which this sense of self might include memories and more basic cognitive issues, with the consequent ability to perform in life more generally I think is well worth exploring. I've been enchanted by Sarah Bakewell's life of Montaigne in the last few days: very similar ideas. This is my responsibility, as I am the responsibility of others around me. If we all took this responsibility seriously, no doubt the world would not be in the state its in. 'Sciences' like psychology can sometimes feel like the 'consolation prize' for the fact that the world isn't like this!

At the heart of the difficulties in thinking this sort of stuff through is the effective stand-off between social constructivism and Marxism. Although social constructivism can trace its roots back to Scepticism of the Greeks, and then to the idealism of Berkeley and Hume, in education it really took hold in Communist Russia. The context and the theory seem somehow connected...

Vygotsky's learning theory is really an attempt to reconcile a theory of knowledge with a theory of social organisation which doesn't reinforce hegemonic structures of knowledge and power. It's intereting to compare it with Harre's Positioning theory which combines a theory of Self with a theory of social organisation. Piaget reconciles a theory of biology with a theory of knowledge, Bateson reconciles a theory of organisation with a theory of Schizophrenia. There's usually some accommodation to be made... fitting to the context within which a theory emerges?

Harre is more of a realist than Vygotsky. He seems close to Ed Hutchin's view of cognition, which in itself carries an echo of a remark by Pask regarding the role of the brain in knowledge. Harre is close to Wittgenstein's position, but won't go as far as Bhaskar's realism (despite supervising him!). But I think each of these approaches are effectively different ways of cutting through a moral problem of 'how to live?', because in order to decide how we ought to live, we need to decide "what are we?", "what is it to be conscious?" (although I tire of that one), "what is life for?" (my favourite!), etc. A position on cognition and memory is necessary for any of the rest to be possible. But it probably needs to be defended at a political level against the emergent outcomes of actions that are taken in response to a particular theory.

The difficulty is that social science methodology doesn't allow for a moral defence of an apparently 'scientific' problem. I wonder if it should. I'm reminded that after the publication of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, he was invited to give a talk to colleagues and students. They were expecting to hear detailed logical descriptions about the structure of language. Instead, he read poetry. When asked why, he answered that they had completely missed the point of the Tractatus: it was about ethics, and those issues could only be expressed poetically. Interesting that Heidegger came to the same conclusion a few years later...

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