Remembering Ulric Neisser

(cross-posted at Hesperus is Bosphorus)

Ulric Neisser,
an American psychologist and one of the founders of cognitive psychology died last month. Neisser’s life, including his major
contributions to the revolution of the study of the human cognition is
well documented; see for instance, the NY Times obituary and the Mind Hacks blog.
My intention is not to replicate what has appeared elsewhere but to add
to it by focusing on Neisser’s later work in ecological psychology,
more specifically, his interdisciplinary research on the self which has
guided the content and methodology of my own work. I take this as an
opportunity to remember him, with the added hope of sparking the
interest of those less familiar with his later work.Behaviourism dominated the scientific study of the mind in the first half of the 20th
century. Behaviourists declared that psychology should not attempt to
address internal mental events and mechanisms but should focus on the
observable markers of cognition, such as stimuli, responses, and the
consequences of these responses. Despite its contribution to the
development of rigorous experimental techniques and to the domain of
learning, behaviourism was limited in explaining many interesting
dimensions of human cognition, such as the development of language.

Closely linked to the development of the
computer, the field of cognitive psychology emerged in the 1950s and
1960s. Briefly stated, cognitive psychology studies perception, memory,
attention, pattern recognition, problem solving, language, cognitive
development, etc, taking the computer both as a model for the way in
which human cognitive activity takes place and a tool to specify the
information-processing mechanisms that generate behaviour. Forerunners
of the cognitive revolution include Herbert Simon, Allen Newell, Noam Chomsky, George Miller, and Neisser. The publication of Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology in 1967 marks the emergence of this field of study.

In his later work, starting with Cognition and Reality: Principles and Implications of Cognitive Psychology (1976),
Neisser expresses his worries about the exclusive focus of the field of
cognitive psychology on computer modeling and information processing
through laboratory experiments. He challenges cognitive psychology not
to confine itself to the laboratory and rely on computer modeling, but
move to the real world and study how people act or interact in it.

Neisser has the following four suggestions for cognitive psychologists:

“First, cognitive psychologists must make a greater effort to
understand cognition as it occurs in the ordinary environment and in the
context of natural purposeful activity. This would not mean an end to
laboratory experiments, but a commitment to the study of variables that
are ecologically important rather than those that are easily manageable.
Second, it will be necessary to pay more attention to the details of
the real world in which perceivers and thinkers live, and the fine
structure of information that world makes available to them. We may have
been lavishing too much effort on hypothetical models of the mind and
not enough on analyzing the environment that the mind has been shaped to
meet. Third, psychology must somehow come to terms with the
sophistication and complexity of the cognitive skills that people are
really capable of acquiring, and with the fact that these skills undergo
systematic development. A satisfactory theory of human cognition can
hardly be established by experiments that provide inexperienced subjects
with brief opportunities to perform novel and meaningless tasks.
Finally, cognitive psychologists must examine the implications of their
work for more fundamental questions: human nature is too important to be
left to the behaviourists and psychoanalysts.” (Neisser, Cognition and Reality, San Francisco: Freeman and Company, 1976, p.7-8)

Cognition and Reality and his proceeding work bring together
and synthesize a wide range of theory and research from different
branches of psychology, such as developmental and social psychology,
thereby illustrating firsthand how such research is possible and
illuminating the four guidelines.

In the first issue of the first volume of Philosophical Psychology (1988), Neisser published an article, “Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge,
in which he explores the kinds of information that specify the self. He
argues that the forms of information that individuate the self are so
different from one another that it is plausible to suggest that each
establishes a different “self.” Neisser’s selves are the ecological
self, or the self that perceives and who is situated in the physical
world; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world
who develops through intersubjectivity; the extended self, the self in
time that is grounded on memory and anticipation; the private self, or
the self exposed to private experiences that are not available to
others; and the conceptual self, or the self that represents the self to
the self by drawing on the properties of the self and the social and
cultural context to which it belongs. He investigates each of these
selves by appealing to a wide range of psychologists, e.g., Colwyn Trevarthen, Michael Tomasello, Eleanor Gibson, Peter Hobson, James GibsonEndel Tulving, Jerome Bruner, Robyn Fivush, Peggy Miller, and Kenneth Gergen.

After this article on self-knowledge, Neisser edited several volumes,
each focusing on these different selves, and including contributions
from leading psychologists. In 1988 with Eugene Winograd, he edited Remembering Reconsidered: Ecological and Traditional Approaches to the Study of Memory. In 1993, he edited The Perceived Self: Ecological and Interpersonal Sources of Self-Knowledge. In 1994, with Robyn Fivush, he edited The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative. Finally, in 1997, with David Jopling, he edited The Conceptual Self in Context: Culture, Experience, Self-Understanding.

In short, Neisser spearheaded multi-disciplinary research into the
self, bringing together various research strands that highlight
different dimensions of this complexity.

The volumes cited above exemplify Neisser’s own prescriptions for the
field of cognitive psychology. First, the articles contained within
them elaborate on the “selves” as we encounter them in the ordinary
environment and in the context of their natural activities. Second,
these works are attentive to the details of real world experiences of
human beings and theorize the self by taking “real people” as a
reference point, as opposed to hypothetical models of what selves might
be, to use an expression used by Kathleen Wilkes.
Third, the articles lay out the complexity of selfhood by considering
its various aspects, e.g. ecological, intersubjective, etc., as well as
how the self systematically develops from infancy, how it perceives the
environment and processes information available to it, how it interacts
with others, how it remembers, and how it reconstructs experiences in
remembering. These are all grounded on various experiments from
psychology. Finally, each volume has a chapter or two on the
implications of the empirical research on the self to philosophical
approaches to mind, self, and agency. For instance, in her chapter “The
Self and Contemporary Theories of Ethics,” in The Conceptual Self in Context, Sheila Mason
discusses the implications of empirical studies on the self and moral
agency by considering three dominant approaches to moral theory in
Anglo-American philosophy: the Rawlsian “justice model,” the
“communitarian model,” developed by Alasdair MacIntyre, and the “ethics of care” developed by feminist theorists including Carol Gilligan, Annette Baier, and Seyla Benhabib.
Mason argues that Neisser’s psychological theory of the self could be
used to support the communitarian approaches to moral theory as well as
the approaches developed by the proponents of the ethics of care who
highlight the features of the intersubjective self.

My favorite aspect of Neisser’s work on the self is his consideration
of mental disorder as a feature of the self. Early on, in “Five Kinds
of Self-Knowledge” he argues that even though the selves specified by
five different kinds of information are not experienced as distinct,
they differ in their developmental histories (for instance the
ecological and intersubjective selves start at birth, whereas the
conceptual self develops parallel to the development of language), and
in the psychopathologies to which they are subject. Alzheimer’s disease,
for instance, originates in the extended self but gradually influences
the other selves. Part of my current research is directed towards
incorporating Neisser’s model of the self into scientific research on
mental disorders and psychiatric taxonomy. I will share some of that
work in this blog as it progresses.

I don’t believe that I have done justice to the richness of Neisser’s
later work, but I take consolation in his comments on the humaneness of
errors in human communication:

“Human communication offers unparalleled opportunities for
understanding, but also false error, misunderstanding and deceit. Our
dependence on it means that our understanding of one another and
ourselves – or even the subjects like cognitive psychology – is never
complete and often simply mistaken. On the other hand, the perceptual
cycle tends to be self-correcting, and there is always more information
available than has yet been used. The outcome of any single encounter
between cognition and reality is unpredictable, but in the long run such
encounters move us closer to truth.” (Neisser, Cognition and Reality, San Francisco: Freeman and Company, 1976, p.193-194)