The Self-Organizing Social Mind (MIT Press)

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9780262014441: The Self-Organizing Social Mind (MIT Press)

A proposal that the basic mental models used to structure social interaction result from self-organization in brain activity.

In The Self-Organizing Social Mind, John Bolender proposes a new explanation for the forms of social relations. He argues that the core of social-relational cognition exhibits beauty -- in the physicist's sense of the word, associated with symmetry. Bolender describes a fundamental set of patterns in interpersonal cognition, which account for the resulting structures of social life in terms of their symmetries and the breaking of those symmetries. He further describes the symmetries of the four fundamental social relations as ordered in a nested series akin to what one finds in the formation of a snowflake or spiral galaxy. Symmetry breaking organizes the neural activity generating the cognitive models that structure our social relationships.

Bolender's primary claim is that there exists a social pattern generator analogous to the central pattern generators associated with locomotion in many animal species. Spontaneous symmetry breaking structures the activity of the social pattern generator just as it does in central pattern generators.

Bolender's hypothesis that relational cognition results from self-organization is entirely novel, distinct from other theories that describe sociality in terms of evolution or environment. It presents a picture of social-relational cognition as resembling something inorganic. In doing so it reveals deep connections among cognition, biology, and the inorganic world. One can go too far, he acknowledges, in taking a solely dynamical view of the mind; the mind's innate functional complexity must be due to natural selection. But this does not mean that every simple mental feature is the result of natural selection. By noting a descending symmetry subgroup chain at the core of relational cognition, Bolender takes the first step in an important investigation.

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About the Author:

John Bolender is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, and Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at Princeton University.


In this wonderfully illuminating book, Bolender suggests that basic features of social structures might be explained in part by appeal to the physics of symmetry and symmetry breaking. At the very least, Bolender shows that there is a possible kind of explanation of social structures that is deeper than biological or social evolution. It is a major contribution to social theory and to the philosophy of social science.

(Gilbert Harman, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University)

The idea that physics could shape human activity goes back to Pythagoras, but as our understanding of the natural sciences deepens, this insight seems to gain in significance. Drawing from both the theories of complex dynamic systems and contemporary linguistics, Bolender's well-informed, lucid, and provocative reflection on the mind as a self-organizing physical system uniquely raises the discussion about sociality to a new level, well beyond less ambitious functionalist accounts.

(Juan Uriagereka, University of Maryland)

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