CEPA eprint 3639

In the garden of choices

Ceccato S. (1974) In the garden of choices. In: Smock C. D. & Glasersfeld E. (eds.) Epistemology and education. Follow Through Publications, Athens GA: 123–140. Available at http://cepa.info/3639
One of the difficulties every teacher runs into, it seems to me, is that of reconciling a number of divergent goals, none of which should be neglected. For instance, it is important that the child – and above all the small child – be given a framework of certain knowledge. At the same time, however, the child must not be turned into a dogmatist, nor should his critical and crea­tive participation in the schooling process be diminished. Similarly, it is important that the child derive from his schooling an ethical orientation that is both social and individual, yet, at the same time, he is to be left flexible and autonomous in his choice of attitudes and in the formation of his values. In both cases the child has to be steered clear of dogmatism on the one side and of scepticism on the other.
The difficulty of harmonizing these divergent goals, fortunately, does not spring from the pupil, at least if he is taken at an early age. Small children are remarkably pliable, curious, and responsive. Rather, the diffi­culty springs from the manner in which several subject matters are tradition­ally presented.
I propose to divide the subject matters into three types: first, the subjects that deal with physical and “psychological” things; second, those that deal with mental things;[Note 2] third, placed in opposition to the other two areas, history and geography. The distinction is based on whether or not the area offers the possibility of experimentation.
It has been known for a long time that the very activity of experimenting is sufficient to prevent the learner from assimilating passively, from becoming a dogmatist or a skeptic. These three negative aspects are, in fact, rather rare in technicians.[Note 3] He who runs an experiment, once he has found or organized things in a certain way, expects to rely on the out­come of his activity and is, indeed, ready to accept it either as confirmation or as disconfirmation, as verification or as falsification of prior ex­perience, of his hypotheses, or at least as suggestion of a modification of these which thus amplifies them.
What, however, are the conditions necessary for experimentation? One of them is well known: there must be variables, parameters, and one of them must be left free, i.e., the one that is put in question, while the others are taken to be certain and fixed. But there is also another condition: one has to have a criterion by means of which one can construct or recognize in a univocal fashion the things with which one is dealing. If the criterion varies, the results, too, will be variable; and if there is no criterion, there will be no results; indeed, if there are no criteria, no experiment can take place.
In the physical sciences these conditions are amply satisfied and, with some limitations, they are satisfied also in the psychological sciences.
In history and geography, at least with regard to what has not yet happened or has not yet been explored, the wait-and-see attitude should characterize the student. There may, of course, be dogmatic or skeptical historians and geographers, but if they have these attitudes, it is not the fault of their disciplines nor of the particular situation in which these disciplines may be at the moment.
In the disciplines that deal with mental things, however, we get a very different picture. To put it bluntly, these topics have been traditionally shaped in such a way as to exclude experimentation. This is so, because at least some of the constructs they involve are expressed in terms that are metaphorical, or negative, or tautological, or have a range that is so gen­eral that they fit anything whatever. Besides, some sectors of this area have established an axiomatic type of presentation which, even if it did employ proper or positive terms, would inhibit live experimentation because they reduce freedom to the choice of pieces and rules of a ready-made game.
The mental disciplines are in fact rich in alternatives and choices, and therefore they should be more conducive to the preservation of creativity and the development of responsibility (which we know well enough, since it is easier to change one’s mind or one’s attitude than to change the course of the stars). Yet, as a result of the way in which they are traditionally presented, it is precisely these disciplines which appear as the most rigid ones and least separable from the scholastic-academic context. One of the reasons for this is that whatever is designated by a metaphor or a negative term (which, if analyzed, turns out to be contradictory or circular), remains enveloped in a kind of magical cloud and creates the impression of transcend­ing the comprehension of the learner as well as of the teacher. This leads to embarrassment and frustration and flight into aggressivity, fuelled by the terror of touching or changing items that rest on nothing but literal memory.
Listening to any examination, it is easy to see whether the candidate answers on the basis of actually performed operations, operations which he has made his own and is now applying, or on the basis of verbal memory.
The difference becomes clear if one, first, asks questions such as, “What is a name?,” “What is this or that grammatical category?,” “What rela­tionship obtains between a line and a surface?,” and then asks questions such as, “What is milk?,” “What is the relationship between the movement of arms and legs when you swim a breast stroke?,” etc. Questions concerning grammar and syntax, elements of mathematics, and the like, have a specific effect on the child or juvenile: the muscles in his neck are tensed, the gaze is fixed, he speaks without inflexion; and the questioner often hides behind a mask of intransigence or superiority. But when talking and operat­ing have worked hand in hand from the beginning, the examinee relaxes and tends to overcome his uncertainty because he reconstructs what he himself has constructed before. This, by the way, corresponds to the word “know,” which in everyday usage (but not in the metaphorical use of the philosopher) signifies the capability to replicate something that has previously been made and recorded.
This distinction I consider very important. It is based on the dif­ference between two types of object and between the two traditionally oppo­site ways of speaking about them. On the one side there are words and ac­tions that reflect one another; on the other, there are words, but they engender no activity. It should be easy to recognize in this the old distinction between the concrete and the abstract sciences and also that between science and philosophy. My distinction, however, springs from rea­sons and assessments that are not at all the traditional ones.
* * *
I shall repeat here a number of considerations that I have expounded many times in contexts of critique as well as of construction. I beg thereader’s forgiveness. But I believe that these considerations are necessary to justify the introduction of elements in the area of education, elements which are novel though they may well have been awaited for a long time. First of all, let me state the principles of instruction:
(a) The active participation of the pupil;
(b) The interaction between school and life, between school and home, between the voice of the teacher and many other channels;
(c) A content that does not overtax the capacity of the pupil (Paul Claudel lets one of his characters say: “What I don’t understand I consider a personal insult.”);
(d) The circular arrangement of the various disciplines (conventionally separated but all reducible to the unity of the operating mind);
(e) Contents that are self-developing and act as terms of comparison, both critically and constructively, with regard to what will be faced, once school is finished (i.e., an education that is permanent and recursive and, besides, has a relevance to both cultural and practical life).
They are difficult principles to live up to. They are difficult, even for the sciences we call concrete or natural, if even their knowledge is taken to be a passive reflection of a nature, or reality, that subsists in itself, ready-made and structured, such as it appears in our thought and language. That, in fact, would imply that only one of all possible constructs (knowledge) could be deemed true, universal, and necessary, while all the others would be false, arbitrary, personal, etc. Yet, there would be no criterion whatever to effect the comparison with nature, with transcendent reality, in order to separate the false from the true.
Whatever the conception of knowledge, experimentation, as we have seen, is compatible with the above principles. But from the disciplines dealing with mental objects, experimentation is banned.
Let me repeat also the reasons for this unfortunate situation in the mental disciplines.
Some twenty-five centuries ago, as far as we know, when the interest and curiosity of researchers spread from the physical world to that of the mind, the methods of investigation used in the first were transferred to the second. That is to say, any investigation had to involve several percepts (at least two) both spatially localized and put in relation with one another.
One of the first objects to be studied was the single act of perception, and, unfortunately, a single percept does not fit that schema – it contra­dicts it. When a fit was forced, the percept had to be made into two; i.e., it had to be doubled. Thus, perception came to be visualized as a relation between two percepts, both equal, as though one were the reflection of the other; and both were located in space, one outside, the other inside the perceiver’s body.
Of course, problems and difficulties arose at once. How, for instance, was this doubling to have taken place and how was a comparison between the two items to be made, if the one was outside and unknown, while the other was inside and the only one known? Also, how could the inside one be equal to the outside one, if the space in our heads was already taken up by other things such as the brain?
The history of philosophy as well as the introductory part of the natural sciences (i.e., their pre-physical and pre-psychological part, those aspects that are called methodological or logical because of their elements, and what they are founded on) were tainted with this misconception and they can be considered a collection of efforts to cover up the original mistake of doubling the percept, keeping it alive nevertheless at their roots. It is this mistake, indeed, that forms the constitutive act of all philosophizing.
The impossibility of describing a mental object in its own positive terms, and thus to trace the designated activities from the words, this impossibility derives from the original mistake.
* * *
The paths that have been adopted to escape from the embarrassment caused by this mistake, have on the whole been three.
First of all, no one risks entering the field without indicting another scholar and sometimes more than one. In other words, one joins battle with colleagues and no longer directly with the object to be investigated. One selects and criticizes one among the many difficulties that have been created by the illicit doubling of the percept, and then offers one’s own cover-up. The history of the cover-up, naturally, gets more and more involved: “So-and- so has said this, so-and-so the other, etc.”
One of the fundamental points in the history of the doubled percept was, for instance, the introduction of the “concept,” or “idea,” or “universal,” etc., not in the usual sense of these words (which allude to what one knows, i.e., to thoughts that take place around a construct) but, instead, as the “internal” counterpart of an “external” object, a counterpart which becomes the necessary mediator between the things named and their names. But what relation could such a “concept” or “idea” possibly have with the thing that corresponds to it? Does it come first, ante rem? Does it come after it, post rem? Is it inherent in it, in re? Is it of earthly or of heavenly ori­gin? And so on. Every author will propose his own answer. And thus we get the history of philosophy and a history of every mental object – histories from which it is considered impossible to get away.
If men have occupied themselves with a specific thing for a certain length of tine, one can certainly write a history of this interest of theirs. This could be the history of the automobile, of water, or of any other spe­cific item. But if we want to investigate or in any way deal with an auto­mobile or with water, we can very well start from the situation as we find it, taking the item and the theories and practices in which it is involved as they are at the moment. In other words, we can start from the thing, without necessarily going back to its origins and without considering it historically.
The function of the philosophical histories, however, is quite clear. For the moment they dispel embarrassment, even if in the long run they are going to increase it. Which, among so many voices, shall be the right one? In fact, those who fear a loss of faith and want to avoid discouragement or skepticism have often suggested that it is better to study this history as little as possible – and in this way they have substituted dogmatism for what has been called problematicism.
The second path consists in eliminating the soft points from one’s treatise. This can be done if the treatise need not have a value in its own right, i.e., as philosophical work, as entry in an academic contest, as preface to a technical-scientific study in a specialized branch, etc. It is the solution which, for instance, Newton adopted with regard to space and time, when he declared that he would not define them, quae notissima sunt.
Today we are witnessing the disappearance of definitions from the primers and from the textbooks of the lower grades in general. They are mostly re­placed by examples of what is being talked about, particularly with regard to notions of linguistics, of mathematics, etc.
Where encyclopedias are concerned, even those that are “encyclopedic” and bulky, unless they are explicitly destined for the philosopher, they pre­fer the ignorant solution. Thus, the Britannica, under the entry “Thought,” refers the reader to “Laws of thought,” and in the Treccani[Note 4] “Thought” is not an entry at all.
The third and last escape route from the difficulties created by mental objects as a result of the original mistake, is that of embedding the names of these objects in a network of expressions that have no immediate ties with the mental objects themselves. The mental objects are then supposed to acquire their characterization through the relations which these expressions posit between them. This is the way in which the famous axioms were born, venerable and unalterable, because they cannot possibly be changed by any in­vestigation of objects. The survival of an axiom, however, is due not to its venerability, but rather to the fact that the expressions with which it be­comes enmeshed are irreducibly metaphorical, negative, or contradictory.
Obviously none of the three paths followed by traditional instruction with regard to mental items achieves the intended goal we spoke of; i.e., of offering to the juvenile or child a framework of certain knowledge without at the same time turning him into a dogmatist or simply precluding him from becoming creative and critical about his learning.
* * *
But is there a fourth path? I believe the answer could be affirmative. The path is there, even if it is not yet completely cleared. What I have in mind is a method of instruction that exploits the results that have been ob­tained in the course of studies aiming at the construction of a mental machine, a machine, that is, that perceives and represents things to itself, that categorizes and thinks and, finally, speaks. In order to design and build such a machine, it is indispensable that for every discourse there be a corresponding dynamism (activity) that can be articulated into ever more minute operations, down to those minimal operations to which, then, the functioning of organs can be made to correspond. These organs, moreover, have to be such that they can actually be produced by present-day technology.
These studies are being carried out by a branch of modelling cybernetics, which we call “logonics,” while “bionics” is the branch inspired by findings in the natural-physical sciences. One advantage of these studies is that they compel the researcher, on the one hand, to take nothing for granted, to consider nothing “notissimum,” and on the other, to check, in the function­ing of the model, the correctness of his analysis and description of the operations performed by man. Lastly, if these descriptions do, indeed, serve as blueprints for an actual construction, one can be quite sure that they do not contain metaphors, negations, contradictions, etc.
Instead of going into the philosophical history of a notion one wants to communicate, and instead of leaving the formation of the notion to the intuition of the student and the teacher, one will indicate the operations that constitute that notion and one will try to make sure that the student, while executing these operations becomes aware of them, learns to control them, and in this sense becomes an experimenter.
* * *
To explain the application of this “operational” method of instruction, I shall take three examples of grammatical terminology that are usually in­troduced fairly early in school: “singular,” “plural,” and “collective,” as used in the classification of nouns. They could be treated as pure categories, i.e., apart from the nouns to which they are attributed. In the case of the first two, this could lead back all the way to Parmenides and Heraclitus. In the case of the third, it would lead to a term that is fundamental in so – called modern mathematics, namely to the famous “set.” A school grammar obviously disregards these problems. It avoids them by taking into account only the linguistic presence of the items, for instance in examples such as “leaf,” “leaves,” and “foliage.”
Someone who has already learned to use these words, carries out the operations they designate and is, therefore, quite able to carry them out by themselves, whenever he uses the words “singular,” “plural,” and “collec­tive,” just as he will carry them out whenever they are implicitly applied to any other mental construct such as “shrub,” “shrubs,” and “shrubbery,” or “Crock,” “crocks,” and “crockery. “g grammar book, thus, can present an open list of words under each of the three grammatical terms, leaving to the child the task of constructing their designata unconsciously. This is no different from what the infant does, who, once he has learned to pick up some object in his hand, repeats his gesture either in the air or in picking up some other object. But in both instances, the operations that are being acquired, are acquired unconsciously. This, among other things, creates the impression that what happens has to happen in that way, inevitably and universally, and that there are no alternatives. Above all, it makes impos­sible any awareness as to the consequences it might have if one considers the same physical or psychological object in the three different ways. Hence the grammarian feels obliged to come up with an explanation.
Inevitably there will be a passage saying something to the effect that “nouns indicating one thing only, or one animal only, are singular in number, and nouns indicating two or more things, or two or more animals, are plural.”
The weakness of these “definitions” is obvious enough, even if we over­look the fact that usually no attempt is made to make clear what kind of an item a noun or a name is. The definition, in fact, tries to explain something that is simple by something that is more complex. The item that was to be explained, thus, not only remains unanalyzed but also illicitly enriched, i.e., more complex than it actually is. The singular is presented either as an applied singular (i.e., some word in the singular form) or with the addi­tion of the meaning of the indefinite article or the numeral “one,” of “only” or “single,” or some other word that has a proper meaning in its own right. In short, one comes to identify “tree” with “a tree” or with “one tree,” or even with “a tree alone” or “one tree alone.”
Obviously, anyone who might want to retrieve from one of these expres­sions the operations that constitute the item we call “singular,” will be led astray. The “only,” for instance, requires a repetition, in the sense that the operations carried out are once applied to “thing” and then a second time in a pure state of attention, in suspension that is, without being focused.[Note 5] The operations indicated by the indefinite article we shall discuss below. The number one, moreover, requires the repetition of the operations that constitute the singular. In any case, the surplus of operations that are brought in by explanatory expressions of the kind quoted above, become hope­lessly and illegitimately entangled with the operations that constitute the singular, which was the item to be defined.
In the case of the plural or the collective the situation is much the same: instead of defining what is to be defined, more undefined items are added.
The analyses we have carried out with a view to building a model of the mind, as well as my didactic experiments, suggest a different approach to the notions of singular, plural, and collective. It is an approach that can deal with all notions whose content is mental.
It is good practice always to use something that, while remaining un­changed on the physical level, can be categorized in different ways. I have often made use of a drawing that can easily be called either “forest” (apply­ing the singular), or “trees” (applying the plural). The child quickly un­derstands that the difference cannot spring from the drawing, i.e., from something that imposes itself by itself. And that already helps to keep away the presupposition that a percept imposes itself by itself and has to be doubled. Instead, the child’s attention is shifted to what he himself does, on the operating of his own mind.
A detailed analysis of the operations involved has been carried out (Ceccato, 1969, p. 52-53). Here we need only say that even a child quickly realizes that when he categorizes the drawing as a singular, his attention is detached (defocalized) before and after the design, whereas his attention is attached (focused) while he is scanning the design. When he categorizes the drawing as a plural, on the other hand, his operating is inverted; i.e., he detaches his attention in the middle, whereas he focuses it on the design both before and after this moment of detachment.
A drawing of a tree in full leaf may serve to bring out individually the operations that constitute the categorization as collective, because here, again, there is the possibility of speaking either of “leaves” or of “foliage.” With the plural, as we have seen, the design is not isolated, or closed, but instead remains open; i.e., attention is focused on two sides. Now, in the case of the collective, it is not difficult to realize that what was left open in the plural now is closed by the categorization as singular, i.e., by the application of the category of singular.
The drawing of a tree also helps to discover the difference between the operations designated by the collective “foliage!’ as opposed to those designated by the pseudo-collective “crown” which, too, can be considered a composite consisting of elements, i.e., of leaves and branches.
We can now specify the operations that are the inverse of those involved in the collective, i.e., the operations that lead to categorizing something as an element. These operations are linguistically designated – at least in Italian and English – by the indefinite article added to a noun. The con­struction consists in inserting the item that is to be considered an element into a plurality. That a plurality is required can best be demonstrated by performing the operations designated by the indefinite article in two instances that involve different items. First with an item such as “‘a’ leaf,” i.e., an item that can be pluralized simply by attributing different locations (in space or time) to its repetitions. In the case of “a leaf,” however, it is easy to overlook the fact that one has to have several (i.e., a plurality of) leaves in order to speak of a leaf. This pluralization becomes more obvious with the type of item that can be pluralized only by attributing a difference of color, of material, etc., to each repetition. For instance, “‘a’ red” or “‘a’ water,” in which case it becomes very clear that, in order to accomplish the operations designated by the “a,” we have to imagine a plurality of dif­ferent reds or different waters, i.e., items that differ not only in location but also in a characteristic.
In this way one can reach sufficient awareness in order to analyze opera- tionally the definite article “the.” If plurality characterizes the indefin­ite “a” and hence also choice and discarding, novelty, etc., the definite article “the” designates the picking up of an already made item, i.e., some­thing that could not be anything else.
* * *
I know what objections this approach to instruction and even to research raises. Here I should mention at least two. The first concerns the accuracy of the operational analyses of mental items. I certainly could not say that I am absolutely certain of their correctness, in spite of the fact that, for some of them, several other people have come to conclusions that are identical or extremely similar. But this margin of uncertainty is also an advantage: it stimulates the person who is presented with them to check them by investi­gating them for himself and thus to take the first steps towards live and also exciting experimentation.
The important thing is to show the child the direction in which to go, to teach him to find his own path, to retrace it, and to continue it. Only in this way will he be able to assume a scientific attitude with which he can approach also the things of the mind.
The second objection stems from a particular way of judging the juvenile and, even more so, the child. Those definitional problems are not supposed to be suitable, it is said they are problems for adults and cannot be broached before the end of high school, or college, or even graduate school. This would be true if and only if the notions were approached from a philo­sophical point of view. Experience, however, has convinced me that as soon as the philosophical approach is replaced with an analysis in operations, the child appropriates with great ease the required mental mechanisms, pro­vided that they are illustrated by a sufficient number of examples. If, in the case of singular and plural the tree/forest example, should not be enough, there is no shortage of others (claps of the hand/applause, waves/choppy sea, rain drops/rain, etc.). More efficacious even may be the sug­gestion to carry out the operations that constitute singular or plural while whistling, accompanying it first with the word “whistle,” and then with “whistles.” As a rule, the subject will become aware of how he struc­tures the same continuous sound as a single item in the first case (in response to the singular “whistle”) and as a repetition of items in the second case (in response to the plural).
In any case, if the philosophical approach, be it explicit or implicit, is assimilated by the child during the first years of school, it will be a good deal more difficult for the youth, let alone the adult, to get rid of it in order to discover an alternative. Once one defines in metaphorical, negative, tautological, etc., terms, one does not only define badly certain things, but one gets used to defining badly, and one will go on to define any other thing in those same indefinite terms and, finally, one will come to consider this type of definition obvious.
I emphasize: as far as the teacher is concerned, what is needed is only patience and a little fantasy. Indeed, I am convinced that much more can be done to give the child an awareness of mental operations, though my experi­ence is not sufficient in that regard. I have tried to suggest that the prob­lem is difficult only if it is presented in the traditional philosophical key, not if it is presented in the operational key, i.e., by stressing and explicating the subject’s own constructive operating. In fact, the moment you think of philosophy, names and problems and statements keep cropping up that have racked the brains of many a schoolboy and college student. The reason springs always from the same root: the original illicit doubling of the percept and the insoluble problems deriving from it.
Once the systematic error has been spotted, not only mental activity becomes accessible to analysis without too many obstacles, but it also becomes relatively easy to step out of the philosophical tradition. And once we can do that, it quickly becomes clear how the abstruse expressions of the philosopher have arisen, be it those that belong strictly to his own realm or those that he loaned out as a foundation to other disciplines. The result of this detachment is a history of philosophy that acquires something of a “whodunnit,” a sort of chase after the error, apt to remind us of human fallibility.
For the growing child it would be something like a vaccination.
Ceccato, Silvio, Il linguaggio con la Tabella di Ceccatieff, Paris: Hermann & Cie, 1951.
Ceccato, Silvio. Un tecnico fra i filosofi, vol. 1 & 2, Padua: Marsilio, 1964/1966.
Ceccato, Silvio. Cibernetica per tutti, Vol. 1 & 2, Milan: Feltrinelli, 1968/1970.
Ceccato, Silvio. Corso di linguistica operativa, Milan: Longanesi, 1969.
Ceccato, Silvio. Il gioco del Teocòno, Milan: Scheiwiller, 1971.
Ceccato, Silvio. Il maestro inverosimile, Vol. 1 & 2, Milan: Bompiani, 1970.
Ceccato, Silvio. La mente vista da un cibernetico, Turin: Edizioni ERI, 1972.
Ceccato, Silvio. La terza cibernetica, Milan: Feltrinelli, 1974.
Ceccato, Silvio et al. Bioneurologia e cibernetica, Rome: Edizione CNR, 1963.
Evans, C. R., and T. B. Mullholland (Eds.), Attention in Neurophysiology, London: Butterworths, 1969.
John, E. Roy. Mechanisms of Memory, New York: Academic Press, 1967.
Parini, Pino, and Maurizio Calvesi. L’immagine, Vols. 1, 2 & 3, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1970.
Rose, Stephen. The Conscious Brain. London: Widenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.
Vaccarino, Giuseppe. La mente vista in operazioni, Florence/Messina: D’Anna Editor e, 1974.
Translation by Ernst von Glasersfeld, approved by the author.
Ceccato’s terms for the three types are: fisico (physical), psichico (psychical), and mentale (mental). No substitution of English words could convey Ceccato’s meaning which is central in his operationalism or constructiv­ism. In the context of this essay it may suffice to say that “physical” refers to items that have been given a location in space, “psychological” to items that have been given temporal location only, while “mental” refers to items con­stituted by specific operations of the mind regardless of the physical or psy­chological items they may be applied to. For a more extensive exposition of this classification, the reader is referred to Ceccato, Un tecnico fra i filosofi, volume 2, Padua: Marsilio, 1966; pp. 20-54. (Translater’s note)
This may be so for European experimentalists; a survey of experimental psychology in the United States would hardly support this assertion. (Translator’s note)
The oldest and most prestigious Italian encyclopedia. (Translator’s note)
Ceccato’s use of the term “attention” is more complex than it appears. In his view, attention is not merely a passive state but it is active and dynamic. It can focus not only on other items but also on itself, in which latter case it gives origin to what he calls “mental categories.” (Trans­lator’s note)
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