There was a fascinating discussion on Radio Four’s Start the Week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010t3p0) yesterday morning, between Simon Baron-Cohen and Julian Bagini, a leading Cambridge psychiatrist and a philosopher. The thrust of their discussion was around empathy, but what particularly caught my interest was the way they variously discussed ‘self’ as a collection of stories.
The notion of identity is intrinsically tied up in stories, and whilst i have to admit that the complexity of their debate and depth of knowledge left me far behind in places, i did find that this thread resonated loudly. We’ve previously talked about stories, how we share stories to build commonality, how they sit at the heart of our communication dynamic, how they allow us to share contextualised information, build relationships and support learning, but the notion that all we are is stories is new. I may be misrepresenting the details of their debate, which was wide, but the story that i took away from it was a notion that if you look deep inside, you won’t find an object, a ‘self’, but rather we are a bundle of stories, a collection of memories and recollections.
The concept of ‘self’ sits well within the remit of modern philosophy, although whether it can be found through introspection is another matter. In a recent debate, one participant forwarded the idea that they are either focussed on a particular train of thought, for example, counting chickens, in which case, that is their objective reality, or they have finished counting the chickens and are reflecting on what they’ve just done, in which case, they are thinking about what they were thinking! These are two different states. In one, the individual is immersed in the activity, in the other, they are immersed in the reflection. You can’t do both things at once: we have one point of focus. You are either doing, or reflecting on what you’ve done (or possibly planning for what you will do). These are different states of ‘self’, experiencing, reflection, planning.
Whilst i don’t feel able to master the philosophy, and certainly wikipedia is as close as i can get to understanding Descartes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cogito_ergo_sum), it’s apparent that considering the philosophy of ‘self’ is, at some level, relevant to thinking about learning.
The states of planning, reflection and experience sit at the heart of learning. We learn in stories, so the notion that all we are is stories is appealing, the idea that we can take time to thing about the philosophy as well as the neuroscience behind learning, valuable.
As with any area of science and philosophy, i find myself teetering on the precipice of ignorance far to soon, staring into the valley beyond, but with no idea where to go, or even how to climb down. Still, ignorance should not always be a barrier to exploration, and we should be unafraid to climb into the darkness. Only by challenging our own ignorance and looking inward as well as to the distant horizon can we grow. To teach, to learn, these are not mechanistic activities. There is an art to it as well, and as with any artistic expression, it’s a mixture of skill with physical media, be they pen and paper or computer, and creativity, and that’s why i think it’s worth the time to reflect, to think about the philosophical as well as the practical. Maybe it will make the story a little bit better, in time.