Development of Intersubjectivity

Adams, W. A. (2011). The Development of Intersubjectivity. Presented at Psychology & the Other Conference, 2011, October 1-3, Cambridge, MA.


How is it possible that we are aware of each other’s experience? Each of us is a subjectivity, a fact that cannot be directly perceived or scientifically supported. We just know it because of intersubjectivity, the capacity to apprehend another person’s meaning, intentions and emotions.

Intersubjectivity is not merely a guess about the other’s state of mind, or a deduction from behavior and circumstance. Rather, it’s the human ability to participate in the subjective state of another person.

Philosophers who accept such a definition, such as Husserl, Levinas, Sartre, and Buber, describe the phenomenon, but provide little or no accounting of how it arises. They simply take intersubjectivity as a phenomenological given. Some psychologists, such as Freud, Piaget, and Kohlberg, acknowledge developmental processes for intersubjectivity, but are biased to a nativist view. This paper suggests that intersubjectivity requires intense, lifelong socialization, and where that process fails, the adult is psychologically deficient.

Awareness of the role of socialization in intersubjectivity illuminates the wide range of intersubjective sensitivity in adults and children.

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Hadley – The London Train


A Slog Through Marital Muck

Hadley, Tessa (2011). The London Train. New York: Harper Collins.

Nothing happens in this family drama about strained marriages and estranged children, unless you think those kind of events count as “something happening.” Seems like all this material has been covered a million times before. Only strong characters could make us care.

This novel is a concatenation of two novellas so there are two main characters. In the first half of the book, the main character is Paul, in a strained second marriage in Cardiff. His daughter by his first wife disappears and he finds her in London, using the eponymous train. She is squatting in an apartment with an older man and his sister, and she is pregnant. In multiple visits, Paul  hangs out with them, sleeping on the floor, trying to convince his daughter to return home, but gradually he comes to appreciate her freedom (and the attractiveness of her boyfriend’s sister).

The second novella features Cora, an unrelated character, a London woman temporarily living in Cardiff, working part time in a library there while she renovates a country house inherited from her parents. She is separated from her husband. You’ll never guess who she meets on the London train and develops a passionate affair with.

The characters did not redeem the mundane story for me, mainly because of poor narration. The omniscient-close narrator is too intrusive and domineering, telling us how things are rather than letting the characters show themselves.

“Paul felt he must tell Pia about her grandmother, but couldn’t bring himself to do it in front of a stranger” … “[The television] distracted Paul, but the others didn’t take any notice. He felt the absurdity of his playing the part of the offended protective father, given his own history with Pia; and it almost seemed as if Marek understood this, reassuring him to help him out, amused at him.”

Those are some interesting relationship dynamics, and they might have been brought out in a scene, but instead they are just told to us, not shown by the characters. There is little dialog in the book, and when it occurs, the conversations are brief and  trivial, not revealing.

It’s the same for Cora’s novella: the narrator tells us, “She was in fact quite wrong about what Robert thought, but she seemed to hear these opinions uttered in his reasonable, reluctant, rather growling voice, which never ran on unnecessarily, but chopped and cut to minimize wasted words, always holding something back.”

That’s a nice description of a dialog the author didn’t write.

Despite some well-observed moments, the writing fails to bring the characters alive, the storyline lacks page-turning motivation, and the narration is oppressive, so the result is merely a thick slog.

Kelly – Yuck!


Disgusting Morals

Adams, W. A. (2012). True or False: Incest is Disgusting, Therefore Immoral. [Review of the book, Yuck! The Nature of Disgust and its Moral Significance]. PsycCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, January 18, 2012 (57) Release 3, Article 3.

People often call certain acts “unnatural,” and they mean to say immoral. The logic is that if a practice goes against nature, it is not only disgusting, but wrong. Does that make sense? Or is disgust, like any emotion, irrelevant to rational judgment? Shouldn’t what’s right and wrong be determined by rational consideration of values and traditions, not by a knee-jerk emotional reaction to what’s disgusting?

The common-sense formula seems to be, “Activity X is disgusting, therefore it is immoral.”  For clarification, substitute the following practices for X: cigarette smoking, sodomy, human sacrifice, same-sex marriage, taxing the poor, worshiping false gods. Is the common-sense formula valid?  No. It’s an error in reasoning called the naturalistic fallacy.  That fallacy argues that whatever happens in nature is good, and whatever goes against nature is bad. But who says so? There is no justification for that belief.

Philosopher Daniel Kelly offers a plausible account of what disgust is and an original proposal of its relationship to morality. The involuntary disgust reaction and its recognizable facial expression evolved, he says, for our prehistoric ancestors to identify and signal poisonous food and disease-causing situations.When you see someone react to something like the fellow pictured on the cover of the book, you are supposed to understand that what he’s reacting to is probably poisonous or disease-causing.  (Although the picture leaves out an important element of the disgust reaction, the tongue sticking out of the mouth, so technically, the guy could be angry rather than disgusted. It’s an odd error for the publisher to make).

Today though, the disgust reaction has been recruited into service of social, moral, religious, and other judgments, so a person might have a visceral disgust reaction to a member of an ethnic out-group, even though that other person is neither poisonous nor parasitic. Actual disgust, once a warning against poison and disease, has become metaphorical social disgust. 

But unlike biological poisoning, social values are arbitrary, based on a group’s transient beliefs, so disgust about certain social practices should have no influence on moral judgment. There’s no connection between biology and morality.  Surprisingly though, author  Kelly backs away from that conclusion, suggesting that even today, a disgust reaction to a social practice is a warning to others that it is dangerous and wrong. Why does he leave his conclusion hanging ambivalently like that?  My guess is that he sniffed the disgusting odor of the naturalistic fallacy, but wanted to keep his conclusion anyway.


Borges – Ficciones

FiccionesLiterary Mind Games

Borges, Jorge Luis (1962). Ficciones.  New York: Grove.This collection of seventeen stories in English is a good introduction to the involuted mind of Borges. The stories revel in paradox and self-reference; they dwell on infinities and recursions, mirrors and labyrinths, numbers and letters, and above all they are subtle in erudition and humor.
These aren’t traditional stories, but more like “tales,” in the style of Poe, where a narrator describes events from memory. A mise en scene is rare, as is dialog. A typical story might involve, for example, a scholarly discourse on a non-existent book, the point of which is to provide subtle satire of scholarly discourse.One of the best-known of the stories is “The Library of Babel,” which imagines constructing, from the 26 letters of the alphabet, sequences of various lengths in every possible order, thus creating every possible word. That’s a large, though not infinite, number of words. Many combinations make no sense, such as “MCV,” but plenty of others have meaning in some language.All these words are then arranged in every possible combination, to create all possible sentences, which are then arranged in sequences to form every possible book that has been, will be, orcould ever be, written. The resultant library is so large that nobody has ever found its edges, but logically, it is known to contain all written human knowledge.

Borges was a librarian for many years, and must have wondered, as I have, “How many books can there be?” A linguistically-trained person will find errors in the fantasy, but the exercise is for delight and humor. Borges’ playfulness with language recalls Nabokov, and his detailed faux-scholarship recalls Nicholson Baker in Mezzanine, and David Foster Wallace.

The stories are similar in form, style, mood, and tone, and they all involve mind-games, so they do become tedious, although what book of stories by a single author doesn’t? There are no well-developed characters and there is no serious human drama, so the stories appeal to cerebral fantasists, not dramatists or sentimentalists. As a literary original however, Borges is not to be missed.

Stories of the American West

Stories of the American West

What Is Western Writing?

Jaffe, Marc (Ed.) (2007). Best Stories of the American West: Volume I. New York: Tom Doherty Associates.

These twenty stories are set in the western U.S. and usually involve horses, cows, or Indians. The writers include some big names, such as Sherman Alexie and Elmore Leonard, some well-known traditional western writers, such as Max Evans and Elmer Kelton, and plenty of unknowns.

I was skeptical, but now I think there is something characteristic about stories of the west, and it’s not just the scenery and the cowboys. In fact, the stories that emphasized the stereotypical 1880’s mythology were weakest, in my opinion. The lenses and filters of Hollywood make it hard to get  past John Wayne and the Marlboro Man. Instead, what’s relatively unique about western stories is the depiction of strong-willed characters making their way in a rough-edged society and hostile nature. That’s a postulated “western character.” Mrs. Dalloway has no place in this world.

Another virtue of the collection is to highlight authors who live and work in the western U.S. The writing and publishing world does seem to have an eastern clique, with writers in the west much less well-known, for no literary reason, so this is a corrective.

My favorite story from the collection is “Snow Cave” by Peter Fromm, about a man and his son on a winter hunting trip somewhere cold, northern Montana, perhaps. They are snow-blinded, lost, and dig an ice cave to survive the night. The father keeps up a banter of light-hearted optimism for the child, but the reader can tell the situation is extremely dire. That separation of tone and mood makes the story great, besides being well-written with highly sensory descriptions reminiscent of Jack London.

I wish I could say all the stories were that good, but most were stereotypical or pointless or  sentimental slices of life. Only a few presented memorable characters, innovative writing, or insightful observations. That’s a problem with story collections in general, not just “western” ones. It’s extremely difficult to write a short story that has strong characters and strong narrative voice and a clear premise, and maybe that’s why the art form is in decline.

What Does It All Mean?

Cover 2 500x800

What Does It All Mean? A Humanistic Account of Human Experience. Exeter, U.K.: Imprint Academic.

This is an analysis of psychological experience, based on what we can know, not what we wish we knew, about the meaning of life, mind, and world. It is an adventure into epistemology, the study of what we know and how we know it. Written for the general reader. Available in Kindle edition, hardback, or paperback.

Approx. pages: 255.
Buy it on Amazon: (Kindle): $17.00
(Sorry, I don’t control this title anymore).

ISBN 9781845400200 Hardback  $59.90
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TOC+Sample chapter
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Author’s Note:
I need to write this book again. I first wrote it in 2000, trying to express some important ideas about the structure of consciousness and how we can know it. I think it ended up as too many ideas and not enough organization.

The ideas are still very good, in my humble opinion. One is that a mental phenomenon called intersubjectivity drives nearly all of consciousness.  Intersubjectivity is a kind of deep empathy. It’s what allows you to know what I mean. Without it, language would not be possible, nor would be civilization as we know it.

Other ideas include an accounting of the fundamental elements of mind, those irreducible “atomic” properties that make up the function of any mental process, regardless of content.  It turns out there are only a handful of mental atoms.

Still another idea explains how and why we project meaning into the world without realizing it, then we discover it and construct a mental model of what the world is “really” like, even though we just made it up.

The book has become virtually inaccessible, though it does remain in print. I intend to rewrite it eventually.

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The Purpose of the Body

Cover Revised EdMental experience occurs inside the physical body, does it not? You’ve never had an experience that happened on the other side of the room while you were on this side. No. Mental activity is always “in here.”  What does that mean, exactly?  What is the relationship between the mind, introspectively understood, and its extremely intimate but uncommunicative partner, the body?

This essay proposes that what is taken for granted as the self-existent, biological body is instead a concept, a projection of mentality. The physical body is a badly articulated idea, created by the linguistic and self-aware Social Self strand of consciousness. From that confusion, the concept of the body is projected outward, away from subjectivity, and reified into a self-existent object: “the body.”

What then is the purpose of the body, if it is “only” a concept? The mind needs the idea of embodiment to guarantee its psychological individuality, and its survival. Is there any way this new thesis can be reconciled with the theory of biological evolution? Some suggestions are offered. Consequences of re-thinking the relationship of mind and body include a reconsideration of cognitive information processing, death, and metaphysics.

ISBN 978-0-9837177-3-7
32,45 words.  Approx. pages: 130.     $2.99 Revised Edition
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TOC and Preface

Author’s Note:
I always knew this idea was going to be a hard sell, that the physical body is “merely” a concept, an idea of the mind, not a self-existent biological object. The alternative, that the body is just the body, a biological object, is so deeply, profoundly ingrained in our habits of thought, speech and culture, that it is virtually impossible to question it.  But that’s what I did.

I came up with this idea from introspection, and from analysis of what other authors have said. My conclusion is that what we think of as the body is “just” an idea, although it is misleading to say it that way. It doesn’t mean that the body is a figment of the imagination. I’m talking about a concept that is so culturally embedded that you, nor I, nor any individual, can readily change it or reconceptualize it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could simply think away pain, aging, disease, death? Alas, that’s not how it is. The concept of the body is culturally constructed at a sub-personal level and it can’t easily be changed.

What difference does it make then, if it’s an idea you can’t change, or a biological object you can’t change?  There are huge differences. Even though “the body” is a culturally rigid mental concept, it’s still a mental concept.  Mental. That means it is, in fact, susceptible to change by mental means. The book gives some examples of how we, as a culture, have radically changed the structure and function of the body over time, with everything from cochlear implants to birth control pills. Other cultures have their own ways of changing the nature of the body. Even individuals can and do make significant changes around the margins.  Thinking of the body as a concept instead of as a biological fact, has major implications for how a person thinks about life, health, and death.

I already know you won’t believe it. I hardly believe it myself, but the arguments are very compelling, it seems to me. Either way, you should read the sample, then buy the book, then tell me what you think.

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The Three-In-One Mind

TIO Revised489x689We think of the mind as a unitary process. Each person has one mind. But what if the mind was not a single mental process but a concert of three concurrent channels of activity? That’s an unusual thought. Yet the single-process model of mind has a lot to answer for.

We don’t understand our own motivation, especially its sources. Why can’t the mind control its own body? Why does the body not always do what it is told, or why does it do things on its own, like get sick, fall down, sleep, and die. We don’t know what intuition is, or where creativity comes from. We can’t explain memory, attention, or learning, or why we say things we don’t mean. Personality is a mystery. We don’t know what love is, how to get it, or why it goes wrong. We don’t even know why we do the things we do half the time.

Despite the initial impulse to say that we have only one mind, a three-in-one scheme might clarify psychological life, so we should remain “open-minded.” There have been other three-way architectures of mind. Plato had one. So did Freud. This one provides a level of detail that avoids both supernaturalism and biological reductionism, and offers useful innovations that plausibly resolve many perplexing problems of psychology.

ISBN 978-0-9837177-1-3
43,300 words. Approx. pages: 173.  $2.99 Revised Edition
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Sample: TOC and Preface

Author’s Note:
The point of this book is to describe a mental architecture for a modular mind. This isn’t the “faculty psychology” of some theorists, such as Jerry Fodor, or Noam Chomsky. Rather, I suggest only three main modules of mind, and they are not the ones you would think. First there is the Sensorimotor Self, the part of the mind that absorbs the sensations of the body and tries to control its behavior. The Social Self, another module, is the socially constructed and intellectually functioning part of the mind that we know through introspection. It detects the presence and activity of the Sensorimotor Self and interprets that as the activity of a physical body. Finally, there is the mysterious Motivational Core, the module that provides impetus to the other two modules, formatted in terms they can understand. The introspecting Social Self dimly detects the activity of the Motivational Core and is perplexed by it.

This tripartite organization of mind first occurred to me in the early 1970’s. It took me thirty years to understand it and work out the details, then another ten years to write it all down. I should emphasize that it is a map for organization of the mind, and life as we experience it, not the brain, which is merely a bodily organ.

Feedback about The Three-In-One Mind is greatly appreciated.

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Little Man In The Head?

daniel_dennett_1I just read a book review in The Economist of  Daniel Dennett’s recent book, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” (

I haven’t read the book, but I know Dennett’s philosophy of mind from reading several other of his books. I confess I am not a fan. His ideas seem so patently wrong that for a while I thought he was a charlatan. Now I believe he is sincere, though still wrong, and I am mystified how he manages to attract a following.

Based on the review, his latest book tackles the hoary mind-body problem. Historically, the explanatory metaphor was that there is a “little man in the head,” a homunculus, who sits in the brain, interpreting sensory input, directing behavior, and formulating evaluations and thoughts. Of course that idea never worked, because the homunculus would require an even-smaller homunculus to make his own mind work, and so on, in an infinite regress of homunculi.

Dennett’s solution is to propose a functional substitute.  An individual neuron operates with no intelligence and no homunculus, but it can’t do much. Networks of neurons can accomplish more, such as respond differentially to inputs, just by being networked. If the brain is hierarchically organized, then with increasing levels of networked complexity, high level functions might be performed, such as making judgments, forming intentions, and thinking, all without any need for a homunculus.

According to this “homuncular functionalism,” there is a certain point of complexity that just magically causes mental activity. The analogy is to the architecture of the computer, where individual transistors at the lowest level are stupid, but through complex and hierarchical organization, at some point, high-level functions such as discrimination of inputs and control of outputs become possible, all without a homunculus.

But the computer was designed for the purpose of executing its designer’s intentionality, values, priorities, and expectations. In other words, it does exactly what it was programmed to do and nothing else. My word processor insists on correcting my grammar. Some designer long ago and far away thought that would be a good thing to do and stored the methods for doing it. The computer itself does not decide what’s good and bad grammar.

There is no intelligent designer of the brain, as far as we know, and if there is, we have no idea what his/her intentionality might have been. If Dennett wants to insist that the human brain (and its body) are the products of intelligent design, as the computer’s brain and body are, then his explanation of the human mind becomes, “God makes it go.”

He doesn’t say that. He is a prominent and vocal atheist. He says instead that the machinery of a hierarchically organized brain somehow, magically, creates mental phenomena, even though that is inconceivable and not even allowed by the laws of physics (it violates the conservation of energy, for just one reason). Dennett is too sophisticated to offer an explanation that is disallowed by science. So what is he saying?

I believe he is fooled, as so many are, by the phenomenon of deferred intentionality, where a designer’s intentions are stored and deferred for future execution. A wind-up toy may have an on-off switch so it doesn’t move until long after it is wound. The switch is thrown, and magically (it seems to the naïve), the toy starts jumping about. Who is fooled by that? Very many people, apparently, for that is exactly the analogy to the computer, with its stored programs and deferred and contingent execution.

(There are “network computers” which do not have explicitly stored programs, but that’s a red herring. In those systems the intentions and values of the programmers are stored in the node weights where they are hidden from inspection. It makes no difference to the principle.)

The analogy between the computer and the mind is wrong. A pile of nuts and bolts, no matter how tall, is still a pile of nuts and bolts.  If you organize it in some way to make it perform a function you desire, then you have added your own mental intelligence to create a system. It should be no surprise when later, you, or other humans, “discover” that the system has mental intelligence. Of course it does. You put it there!

So what am I missing?  How can Dennett, who is not stupid and not naïve, miss this fundamental point? He believes that a pile of nuts and bolts can “spontaneously” (with no designer) organize into mentality. Maybe he believes evolution is the intelligent designer.

Nice try, but that doesn’t work either. Evolution is not intelligent and expresses no intentionality. A hierarchical organization of brain neurons can be adaptive, but never have any purpose. We are left with no explanation of how a pile of neurons magically becomes capable of thought.

Scientific Introspection

Cover 3 revised edScientific Introspection calls for psychologists to use introspection to investigate the mind. What researchers do now is study the brain, and behavior, then from that, try to guess what the mind must be like. But why guess? Remarkably, we happen to have the ability to look directly into the workings of our own minds. That ability is called introspection. As far as we know, we are the only animal that can do that. It is foolish not to use such an amazing gift.

Scientific Introspection is an adjunct to traditional cognitive psychology and cognitive neurophysiology because there is no scientific way to observe the mind directly. Thoughts weigh nothing; ideas take up no space. The only way to observe the mind is through introspection. Scientific introspection supplements science with a genuine first-person methodology, so we can finally understand the mind.

The book includes a detailed description of how Scientific Introspection can be applied. The reader can follow the procedure and confirm or disconfirm the findings. The demonstration shows how to use a shared investigative tool to produce consensus findings about how the mind works.

Revised Edition:
ISBN: 978-0-9837177-0-6   $0.99
65, 600 words.  Approx. pages: 262 (ebook)
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Sample: TOC and Preface
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Author’s Note:
Many psychologists and philosophers treat the mind and the brain as if they were the same thing.  It just ain’t so, and this book explains the difference, why it matters, and how we could and should develop a scientific methodology for systematic introspection.

Introspection, the examination of one’s own mental contents, is so second-nature that most people can’t understand it, in the same way that fish don’t know what water is. Perhaps that’s why its very mention is banned from discussions of scientific psychology and philosophy of mind. The zeitgeist says that mind is the same as brain, even though that is patently false and not even comprehensible. If mind and brain were the same, we could introspect on the brain as well as the mind, and we would have no need for cognitive neuroscience.

The book says all this, but I think the idea is ahead of its time by 20 years. Right now it just doesn’t fit with what most people think. Beliefs are slow to change. Try it for yourself; see what you think. Write a comment telling me your reactions.

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