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Book of the week: origins of thought

Huge advances in medical knowledge have thrown up new information on brain functioning but have also focused attention back on an old debate: how much of any person is inborn (nature) and how much develops from the environment (nurture).

We find what is going on in our minds endlessly interesting. Thinkers such as Plato, Lao Tse, Descartes, Spinoza and Wittgenstein - to pluck some random examples - mused heavily on the topic.

Peter Hobson, professor of developmental psychopathology at the Tavistock Clinic and University College London, works as a psychotherapist and researches developmental psychology, particularly autism.

He promises to tell us in The Cradle of Thought: exploring the origins of thinking (Macmillan pound;20) how as infants, we learn to think; how, as human beings, we have, in the formulation of 19th-century thinker William James, consciousness where animals have only "sciousness" (awareness without being self-aware); and how we know about other people thinking.

Engagingly, Professor Hobson owns up to often choosing philosophy lectures at Cambridge, on top of his requirements for medicine. He delved deep into the sage of 20th-century Cambridge thought, Ludwig Wittgenstein; like many before him, he may not have quite got out.

Hobson's key point is that we learn to think by relating to others. As philosophers put it, necessary but not sufficient. Infants will certainly find learning to think difficult without anyone being interested in them. But it's also going to be difficult to learn to think without a brain, language, emotions and a body, as scientists such as Gerald Edelman and Antonio Damasio have shown.

Unfortunately for Hobson's thesis, its mainstay evidence that autistic people have problems relating to others and cannot learn to think properly is undermined by his revelations that many such people think well enough to get degrees, good jobs and fame (Wittgenstein, for example). Some people with severe autism may have intellectual gifts. Hobson gets around this by crediting them with adequate cognition but deficits in emotional intelligence. That's an argument along the lines of "words mean whatever I choose them to mean".

Perhaps Professor Hobson should have read more Lewis Carroll and less Wittgenstein.

A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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