BOOK REVIEW / Plain sailing in seas of the mind: 'Human Minds' - Margaret Donaldson: Allen Lane, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE previous book by Margaret Donaldson, Children's Minds, was widely regarded as a thoughtful and necessary corrective to the more extreme aspects of Piaget's theories of children's intellectual development. In it, Donaldson argued that Piaget's view of the formation of cognitive structure in children was too rigorous and was supported by unwarranted experimental evidence.

She went on to advance the view, in contrast to Piaget, that by the age of three most normal children, given the right kind of 'embedded' instructions, are capable of evincing 'rationality', in the form of deductive inference. Children's Minds was an accessible work, but it was very much a study directed from within a discipline. Donaldson was, after all, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Edinburgh. However, in her new book, Donaldson voyages far into the realms of the history of ideas, theology and comparative religion.

It is a brave book, and Donaldson steels herself for the task, remarking in her introduction that a friend read an early draft and warned she was 'sailing into such dangerous waters that I would be letting you down badly if I didn't stand on the bank waving and shouting and trying to get you to steer another course.'

The problem is that Donaldson is writing a work of synthetic philosophy in an age that is really only open to analytic thought. Indeed, that is the very crux of her thesis: that there is an imbalance in our culture between the value attached to objective or 'scientific' modes of thought, and the willingness we have either to accept, or to pursue the possibility of similarly advanced cognitive capacities in our emotional life.

Donaldson recaps on her analysis in Children's Minds, and produces a scheme of cognitive functioning that identifies four key 'modes'. She demonstrates that children develop from 'point mode', where they are capable only of focusing on the here and now, through 'line mode', where they can consider themselves as part of a broader notion of time and space, through to the 'construct mode', where they become able to shift their 'focus of concern' outside a specific place or time. The fourth mode is that which characterises the objectivity of scientific inquiry; she calls this the 'transcendent mode'.

Having produced her taxonomy, Donaldson presents a rewarding and entertaining explication of how we function, as adults, moving between these modes in both an intellectual and an emotional fashion. She engages in challenging discussions of the impact of theoretical developments (such as Freudianism and the new physics) on our ability to deal realistically with the capabilities of our own minds.

Donaldson is writing in a comparatively new genre: the move by academics and others to popularise advances in the interdisciplinary field that lies somewhere between philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology and the history of ideas. Human Minds belongs on the same shelf as Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained and Brian Appleyard's Understanding the Present.

Hers is a heartfelt book, full of interesting insights. However, her conclusions go some way to undercutting the value of the empirical evidence (experimental and otherwise) that underpin it.

There seems no particular reason why the vocabulary of psychology, rather than philosophy, should be adopted. It is this arbitrary quality that gives the book a one-track feeling, rather in keeping with the travel metaphor of Donaldson's anxious friend.

Donaldson refers more than once, approvingly, to William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, and one can't help feeling that her hidden agenda is to produce, as James did, a modern psychological explication of the nature of spiritual awareness. But whereas James was writing at the dawn of this science, on Donaldson's own admission this book may be a function of twilight, as we move into the crepuscular territory of the 'New Age'.