Since the beginning of the Emancipation as Navigation Summer school, I have had numerous discussions with people about the state of contemporary philosophy, and the state of contemporary academia more generally. Some of my thoughts on the matter are expressed in the posts on the Transmodern Philosophy blog accompanying the Summer school, and others were expressed during the first public panel. I’ve had numerous questions put to me about the perspective out of which these thoughts were developed, as people have rightly surmised that there’s a certain systematic account of academia underlying them, but this is an account that I’ve never actually published in any public forum. I did begin writing something on this topic just over two years ago, an essay somewhat ambitiously titled ‘The Systemic Problems of Contemporary Academia and their Solution’, but, although I was quite happy with my analysis of the problems, it turned out to be much harder to articulate their solutions (somewhat unsurprisingly). This isn’t to say that I didn’t (or don’t) have some ideas about this, but rather that the amount of effort required to seriously think them through within the framework I’d laid out was too great to justify spending the time on it (ironically, for reasons well explained in the problems section). Despite some abortive attempts to rework the material with the brilliant Fabio Gironi, I haven’t done anything with the portion of the essay that was completed. It seems to me that now is as good a time as any to put it out here, to give some background to the things I’ve said elsewhere, and to encourage some more discussion about the predicament we philosophers and academics find ourselves in.
Archive for the Discussion Category
I’ve read a couple interesting posts over the last few days on the topic of the analytic/continental divide. The first was Jon Cogburn’s post linking to Ray Brassier’s talk on Sellars’ Nominalism at the Matter of Contradiction conference in London in March (the video unfortunately cuts out before the Q&A that I was involved in). Jon presents some interesting remarks on the ‘divide’ from the perspective of someone with analytic training who has subsequently attempted to enter the world of continental philosophy, at least in its American form (the centre of which seems to be SPEP). The second was Roman Altshuler’s post on the importance of dialog between continental and analytic philosophy. Roman’s post is a fantastic contrast to Jon’s insofar as it seems to come from the opposite direction: someone with loosely continental training coming to analytic work later, albeit from a European perspective (in which the ‘divide’ is configured quite differently). In addition, the comments on Roman’s post raise some very interesting issues, such as the problems caused by differences in the way AOS/AOC distinctions are configured between the traditions (i.e., thematics vs. history) . This is something that causes me serious headaches when trying to put my own CV together. I usually find discussions of the divide to be severely worn and uninteresting, but these were exceptions and are very worth reading.
Still, I think I should probably briefly state my own view of the issue here, as it has mutated quite a bit over the years. In short, I think the ‘bridging’ metaphor in terms of which these debates are usually configured has become part of the problem labelled by the word ‘divide’ and that it must be burned if we are to solve this problem (or any subset of problems that constitute it). I studied both analytic and continental philosophy at undergraduate, did an MA in Continental Philosophy with a dissertation on Deleuze’s metaphysics, did a PhD on Heidegger’s account of the Question of Being and its relation to metaphysics, and am now heavily bound up in work on Quine, Sellars, Brandom, and a number of self-identifying analytic thinkers. I have discovered time and time again that I simply do not fit in to the neat set of categories that the divide/bridge framing sets up. Continue reading
Atheology has just put up another post on my interpretation of Deleuze, this time based on my more recent paper ‘Ariadne’s Thread: Temporality, Modality, and Individuation in Deleuze’s Metaphysics’ (available here). It’s a very generous and thorough reading of the paper, in relation to the other things I’ve written about Deleuze on the blog. Though he expresses a certain dissatisfaction with the unfinished character of the essay (it was written for an hour length presentation, and alas, was inevitably consumed by preliminaries) in parallel with his dissatisfaction at the unfinished character of my posts on Deleuze and Sufficient Reason (available here), he also says:
This strikes me as an extremely promising angle of approach and one which could easily yield a book-length treatment, perhaps under the title Ariadne’s Thread: Deleuze and the Song of Sufficient Reason. For me this approach represents tangible progress in the study of Deleuze’s thought.
I can only feel humbled by such praise, and would love to write this book one of these days. Alas, I am stuck in the same position as many of my compatriots, unsure as to which aspects of my work will lead to stable employment, so it’ll have to wait for now. That being said, I do intend to extend the ‘Ariadne’s Thread’ paper for publication at some point, once a few other commitments are out of the way. As such, the comments in Atheology’s post are very helpful and useful. However, there are a number of possible misunderstandings and points that can be addressed quickly, and so I will endeavour to do so here. I’ll try to number the points to keep them brief and organised. Continue reading
This post is in many ways long overdue. I received a free copy of Sinead Murphy’s The Art Kettle last year, with the promise that I’d review it. The book made an instant impression on me, but for various reasons (personal and professional) the review went by the wayside. I returned to the book recently with the intention of finally finishing the review and submitting it to the British Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics. However, I found it even richer than the first time I read it, and the piece quickly spiralled beyond the word limit of a short review (it was meant to be 2000 words, and is now around 6000). Re-reading the book and writing the review has helped me to focus and develop some of the ideas about aesthetics and beauty that I’ve been discussing for a while now, and which I discussed with a number of people at the recent Speculative Aesthetics event in London. It thus contains a brief, but reasonably thorough overview of my more mature thinking on these topics, and may be of interest to those who read this blog.
As such, I’m putting up the current draft for people to read: ‘The Ends of Beauty: Sinead Murphy’s The Art Kettle‘. This should get edited and adapted for publication soon (possibly in Pli, possibly elsewhere), and so comments are thoroughly welcomed. Finally, it should go without saying that I think you should all buy this book. If you’re interested in art-theory, and particularly if you’re fed up of the state of contemporary art, The Art Kettle will stimulate you and give you new theoretical tools to deal with it. Plus, it’s cheap, short, and well written. What’re you waiting for?
Last year I gave a paper at the workshop leading up to the Sellars Centenary Conference organised by UCD in Dublin (by the wonderful Jim O’Shea, with financial help from the generous John McDowell). I was very unhappy with the paper at the time, as it seemed to me that the idea I’d attempted to articulate in the abstract didn’t pan out in the finished piece, probably due to the fact that I didn’t leave myself enough time to write it, and was, as ever, typing away right up until the last minute. In retrospect, though I still see the inadequacies of the piece, these are largely matters of a dearth of specific examples and a failure to tackle certain more tricky details, both forced upon me by the length of the presentation. So, as a first step to getting me to revise the paper into something more adequate (and hence, publishable) I’m going to put it up here for those of you interested in Sellars and/or the philosophy of perception.
The title of the paper is ‘Is there a TV in my head?: Content, Functional Mapping, and the Myth of the Given’. This is my first real foray into the philosophy of perception, and my goal was twofold: a) to articulate a worry I have with much work on perception, namely, that the notion of perceptual content is all too often implicitly defined in such a way that it vitiates the possibility of productive debate regarding whether or not it is conceptual, representational, or anything else for that matter, by outlining an alternative methodology that begins by outlining the explanatory role that the notion must play, and the resources available to it as a form of content per se, and b) to use this alternative methodology to clarify Sellars’ account of what Jim O’Shea calls the myth of the categorial given. I don’t think the paper entirely delivers, but it’s certainly on the right lines, and I aim to return to those lines when I have the time. It may also be of interest to those who’ve read my paper on Sellars and Metzinger (here), and vice versa, as it deals with some of the same issues from a different angle.
This is one of those topics on which people are even more liable to disagree with me than usual, and even potentially to take offence at my opinions, so I should probably add a few qualifiers. The piece is very short (600 words), which is a very small space in which to express an argument. If you think it’s glib, well, that’s the reason. It also makes appeals to a few important notions: action, value, beauty, art, freedom, that I have almost no space to define adequately, though I give it my best shot. They’re all used fairly precisely, so, if in doubt, read it a couple times (it is short after all!). Finally, although I’m arguing for the ethical soundness of eating meat, I’m arguing for a general principle, not for the specifics of its application. There are all sorts of exceptions and qualifications that could usefully be added to what I say, but again, there’s no space for them.
Those points aside, I’m fairly pleased with the piece, and rather enjoyed writing something short for a change. May try more of it once my current standing commitments are out of the way. Till then, enjoy!
I’ve finished editing and commenting on my notes from the second McDowell lecture after a hectic weekend of travel and whatnot. I hope as many people like these as seemed to like the last ones (here). It was fascinating hearing McDowell talk and getting to grips with his position from my own Sellarsian/Brandomian perspective. What’s most interesting is that I’ve independently been hitting on some similar ideas to McDowell, but coming from a different, and I believe slightly more productive direction. I’m hoping to give a paper at the upcoming Dublin Sellars’ workshop which deals with these issues (‘Is there a TV in my head?: Content, Functional Mapping, and the Myth of the Given’). I’ve made the abstract available (here) for anyone who is interested (I’m free to give the same paper elsewhere, if you’ll invite me!), along with the abstract for my prospective paper at the Liverpool Thinking the Absolute conference (‘Absolute Spirit as a Work of Art’), which is on unrelated and much more speculative topics (here). Right, back to work then.
1. The question of this lecture is this: how does perception yield knowledge? The basic answer provided by the last lecture is Charles Travis': that it does so by placing our surroundings in view. However, this answer must be elaborating. McDowell is going to break with Travis’ approach in elaborating this idea. Travis thinks that perception places our surroundings in view simpliciter, but that this means perception has no particular content.
2. McDowell thinks that Travis’ view is correct for some cases of perceptual knowledge, but that there are cases (those of what Husserl would call ‘direct bodily presence’) that this account doesn’t properly account for. There are cases of indirect empirical knowledge (say, on the basis of inference) where the world is in view, but not because of the content of our experience on its own.
3. The problem for Travis is that he thinks any account of perceptual content would debar us from holding that its epistemic role is placing our surroundings in view. McDowell’s task is to show that we can retain this insight while nonetheless ascribing content to experience, and to show that there are cases in which the ascription of content is necessary to explain some cases of how the world is brought into view (or as Heidegger would say ‘disclosed’) by perception.
4. What McDowell wants to do is to draw a distinction between certain features of direct perceptual experience that only bring our surroundings into view in the same way that indirect perception, and other features of direct perceptual experience that provide us with knowledge that cannot be given otherwise. This is roughly the distinction between seeing that there is a pig in front of you (which can be indirectly as well as directly available) and seeing that the pig is a certain shade of pink, or has a certain surface texture (which are supposedly barred to indirect perception). McDowell thinks that this distinction is something to do with differences between the perceptual capacities that are involved in bringing the world into view in each case.
5. The conclusion of the first lecture was the negative claim that naive realism is compatible with the ascription of content to experience, whereas this lecture aims to prove is the positive claim that we must ascribe content to experience in order to have an adequate account of it. The real point around which the discussion turns is just how we conceive the epistemic character of experiences. McDowell’s argument against Travis is essentially that the relation between the epistemic character of experience and the phenomenal content of experience differs between kinds of experience, and that the incompatibility argument his position is based on depends upon treating experience as unitary in a way it is not.
6. It is a standard philosophical idea that experience never provides better than defeasible warrant about the environment, insofar as the possession of the relevant content is compatible with the fact that content misrepresents the world. This idea breaks down in two different ways: one that claims experience has no warrant, but accepts it has content, and one that claims experience has warrant, but no content. This is a straightforward split between internalist and externalist views of the nature of experience. McDowell wants to avoid both of these positions. Of an experience that purports to disclose the world, it’s possible that it succeeds doing so. The question is what possible role the subjective character of that experience can play in producing this representational success. McDowell seems to want to say that this role can vary between different kinds of perception.
8. What McDowell wants to argue is that there is sometimes conclusive warrant for beliefs about the features of our environment provided by the content of direct perception. An example of these are those perceptual cases discussed in the first lecture under the heading of ‘incompletely describable’ experiences, or those features of experience which are in some sense intrinsically inexhaustible by descriptions of them through that clauses. The detailed phenomenal features of our experience are describable (e.g., the pig’s shade of pink, or surface texture), and they may yield knowledge about features of our environment, but the way the content of our experience yields this sort of knowledge is distinct from non-phenomenal features.
9. To show this we have to go into detail about the nature of those capacities required to have contentful experiences and the way these capacities are tied together. For instance, McDowell thinks that one cannot activate one’s capacity to have an experience of redness (and thus have red things disclosed to one) without it being activated in conjunction with a capacity to have an experience of something that can display this quality, such as an experience of a rectangle. One can only have red things disclosed to one if one can have red things disclosed to one. This togetherness is thus a crucial feature of the way experiential content is tied to perceptual capacities. What’s interesting then is that even defective activation of these capacities, such as the hallucination of a red rectangle (which doesn’t disclose such a rectangle), will still display this sort of functional interconnection. Second order capacities for identifying aspects of our internal capacities can thus identify invariant features between defective and non-defective activations of capacities. This shows a disconnect between the defectiveness of first order capacities and second order capacities.
Q1. Functionalism Revisited: This stuff about togetherness and the complex interconnection between first order capacities and our second order capacities for assessing defects in the former is the most opaque part of this lecture. It’s not that it’s necessarily wrong, but that it invites us to tell a much more complicated story about both the possible cognitive architectures of perceiving beings and the actual cognitive architectures we as humans display. The togetherness example shows (or purports to show) that our perceptual capacities are not just defective/non-defective when considered in relation to the features of the environment that they’re supposed to track, but that they have internal relations to one another that allow for more nuanced forms of error/success. However, this leads into the point I made in my last post about between the two different styles of functional explanation on offer (abstracted from the environment and situated in the environment) and the way they are connected. It seems like McDowell should want to tell a seriously explanatory functionalist story about both sides of the purport/success divide and how they relate to one another, but he shies away from functionalism. Some suggested to me that to describe McDowell as a functionalist is perverse. Frankly, I think the linguistic lengths he goes to to avoid using the simpler language of functionality that is available here are what is perverse. To talk about capacities that can be judged to be defective is just to talk about functions. It’s pretty much that simple. If you’re going to go this far, why not go for the whole functionalist hog?
10. Someone can mistake defective exercises of their perceptual capacities for non-defective ones. This seems to imply that no exercise of a perceptual capacity can provide conclusive warrant in the way McDowell thinks. He thinks that this doesn’t apply to all kinds of experience though, because some of our perceptual capacities are second-order capacities for discriminating the features of our first order ones (including fine-grained descriptions of internal representational states (purport) such as shades and textures). Importantly, there are fallible second-order capacities for determining the fallibility of our first-order capacities, but the point is that the fallibility in each case is distinct. The kinds of modal reasoning (counterfactual variation) we are dealing with in each case are subtly different, and are related through functional considerations regarding the relations of the capacities. This is supposed to show that we can just *know* that there’s a pig bodily present before us, because our second-order capacities give us reason to think that the first-order capacities producing the experience are functioning properly. Moreover, these second-order capacities do so by discriminating features of the internal representational states of the first-order capacities, meaning that it is through paying attention to the way in which the content of our experience purports to represent that we see it succeeds in representing. Experiential content thus plays an important role in the process of bringing our surroundings into view in some cases.
Q2. Defeasibility, Monotonicity and Modality: McDowell wants to insist that he can have conclusive warrant, but this seems too strong. This is because he doesn’t seem to want the warrant to be conditional upon anything. He somehow wants it to be absolute and yet fallible. This is really strange. The way to see this is to think a bit about the nature of defeasible warrant, or non-monotonic reasoning (inferences for which ‘if P the Q’ holds good by default, but which can be invalidated by the addition of sets of additional premises). There is a useful distinction to be had here between global non-monotonicity and local non-monotonicity. The former is what we have in mathematics. It is precisely deductive, in such a way that absolutely no addition of further premises can undermine a good inference. The latter is more complicated, and very important, insofar as it is what is made explicit by the panoply of possible modal operators (e.g., historical necessity, physical necessity, political possibility, etc.). We might say that these latter kinds of reasoning are imprecisely deductive, insofar as they depend on a more or less implicit form of restriction very much like the more or less implicit forms of quantificational restriction we find outside of mathematical contexts. What gets restricted between the different localities is the potential defeasors that we are willing to consider, and thus which inferences are treated as defeasible in practice. Take the example of political possibility/necessity: someone might claim that if a political candidate is caught stealing, then they will not be elected. This is a monotonic inference in all but those reasoning contexts in which we are willing to ignore very outlandish possibilities (e.g., group mind control, the legalisation of theft, etc.). This kind of variation in potential defeasors is basically what we’d call restriction of the range of counterfactual variation in most hypothetical reasoning contexts.
The problem for McDowell is that if conclusiveness is interpreted as global monotonicity, then his thesis is simply false, whereas if it’s interpreted as local monotonicity, then it’s fine, but not quite in the way he means it. What McDowell seems to be getting at is that the ranges of defeasors for our first-order and second-order capacities are different, and thus we can assume that the second-order capacities work (by simply not considering the specific factors that would cause them to fail) while still actively reasoning about the fallibility of our first-order capacities. From the perspective of a subject who makes this assumption, then, there is a sense in which they can just know whatever their first-order capacities are telling them in certain cases, insofar as their second-order capacities can determine the correct functioning of their first-order capacities and thereby provide the beliefs they produce with warrant. This means that the relation between first-order and second-order perceptual capacities handles the relation between the abstracted representation (purport) and situated representation (success) in the proper functional terms, as long as it is handled right. The big problem seems to be that McDowell isn’t willing to become a full blown functionalist (a la Kant/Sellars), because he seems to think that this abandons the sort of common sense correctness of naive realism. He’s right to be afraid of this, but wrong to let this fear prevent him from pursuing the explanatory thread to the end. You have to get outside of the perspective of the subject in order to understand the nature of representational purport properly. If you don’t, you’re just re-importing a cartesian epistemic privilege on the subject’s behalf. You’re not taking second-order fallibility seriously. There could easily be third, fourth, fifth, etc., orders of perceptual capacities, related to one another in complex and overlapping ways. There is no upper limit, and we shouldn’t pretend that the first-person perspective defined by the highest factual order somehow reintroduces subjective certainty.
We end up with a bizarre hybridisation of folksy phenomenological wisdom and quasi-functionalist apology for it. The fundamental problem for McDowell is that he wants to explain the unity of the two sides of the subjective character he’s talking about in introspective phenomenological terms. It’s a matter of what it’s like to be in that state according to you, rather than what it is to be in that state, according to a dual functionalist account that ties together our internal and external causal economies. This is disastrous, as only the latter could in principle incorporate the externalist element McDowell is trying to incorporate in order to save naive realism. At the end of the day, it only works if we’re naive about how we’re able to describe our relation to the external world, which is to say, if we think we can genuinely explain this relation without engaging in natural scientific causal explanation. This naivety goes hand in hand with his collapsing of the second level of defeasibility into global monotonicity. The discursive space becomes one that is once more defined by my personal prejudices, or by *my* authority, and the point of the functionalist story about higher-order perceptual capacities should be precisely to take away precisely this kind of authority (a la Sellars).
I’m astonishingly busy at the moment. I have some serious writing commitments, and I haven’t had any real time to rest in between travelling over the last week or two. I owe so many people so many things, and they’re coming, so please accept my apologies if you’re waiting on anything. I really should write up some thoughts on Markus Gabriel’s lecture ‘The Meaning of Existence and the Contingency of Sense’, which I attended at CRMEP yesterday. However, I’ve just come back from the first of McDowell’s two Edgington lectures on the topic of perception, and I promised to write up a summary of them for a few people who weren’t there, so I took notes during it. This means all I have to do is dump these here, rather than having to write up something from scratch, thankfully.
These notes are a bit terse, but they’ve got the crucial points, and they also come with a certain parsing of what I take McDowell’s position, and a few potential challenges to it at the end.
1. Perception places our surroundings in view (at least visual perception). Visual perception is the major topic of this lecture.
2. MacBeth does not ‘see’ a dagger before him, because it doesn’t place his surroundings in view. This is because his visual experience does not (nor can it) provide knowledge. Uses of the verb ‘see’ whose purpose is to talk about non-disclosive visual experience are perfectly fine, but they must be rigorously distinguished from those whose purpose is to talk about disclosive experience. ‘Sight’ in the sense to be used here (placing our surroundings in view), things are visually present to us in a way that can produce knowledge.
3. Naive realism is supposed to be in tension with the fact that our visual experiences can ‘seem’ to provide us with knowledge (or place our surroundings in view) when they do not. McDowell thinks this tension is an illusion. The point of these lectures is to reveal this illusion.
4. There is a plausible position held by some that any possible descriptions of the content of our experiences by means of ‘that’ clauses will never exhaust this content. However, regardless of the truth of this thesis (call it the excess thesis), it does not prevent such descriptions from being true. They can be true without exhausting the possible questions we could ask about the content of the experience.
5. There is a further sense of ‘see’ that we must exclude here, namely, the sense in which we can correctly say that we ‘see’ a red rectangle even when our experience does not furnish us with this content, such as when we ‘see’ a red rectangle in a darkened room in which its colour is indeterminate. This sense of ‘see’ is dangerous insofar as it can tempt us to let the experiential content we’re interested in fall out of the picture entirely.
6. One justification of the idea that there is a tension in naive realism is indirect realism, or the idea that we principally encounter representations of our environment and its features, rather than the environment and its features themselves. What this shows is that we have to be very careful in deploying the notion of representation in talking about the nature of experiential content.
Q1. Transparency: Metzinger has theorised that the transparency of our experience, the self-evidence of the presence of a pig, as opposed to the evidence of its presence we find when we see pig-tracks, is a structural feature of our brains qua representational systems, and thus should be studied empirically rather than philosophically. This is about how we think about direct evidence as opposed to indirect evidence, in phenomenological terms. Whether we’re interested in introspective or extrospective phenomenology.
7. There are two premises that seem inconsistent with naive realism when taken in conjunction:-
i) If we attribute representational content to experience, then we’re committed to the idea that its subjective character is connected to the way in which it brings the environment into view in some appropriate way.
ii) An experience can represent things as being a certain way in a subject’s environment when they aren’t that way in the subject’s environment.
8. This seems to commit us to the idea that there could be an experience with a subjective character (e.g., transparency) that indicated the environment was brought into view, without it actually bringing it into view. This seems inconsistent with naive realism insofar as naive realism is supposed to be wedded to this particular subjective character.
9. It is of course optional to use the term ‘representation’ in describing perceptual content, but there is a particular way of using this term that reveals why this argument doesn’t work. What the argument misses is that in the case of an experience that is a perceiving (or seeing) the representing that is described as doing (in terms of its transparent subjective character) is purely a matter of disclosing, or bringing into view. This is an externalist characterisation, rather than an internalist characterisation of representation. It is about representational success, rather than representational purport.
Q2. Functionalism: It seems as if the point here is that the representational character of experiential content is understood in functional terms, but these functional terms are not purely internal ones regarding the functional economy of the subject’s internal states qua causal system, but are external ones regarding the functional economy of the subject’s internal states in their relation to its environment qua situated causal system. The point is that the explanation of the representational character of certain states should take the form of a functional externalism, rather than functional internalism.
10. On this view, the attribution of representational content to experience is consistent with naive realism.
11. Philosophers often present the crucial issue with perception as its veridicality, but it is important to realise that there can be veridical experiences that do not actually reveal the environment (perceptual Gettier-style cases). These experiences are veridical but nonetheless defective. This defect is something which is specific in functionally externalist terms. The subjective character is not something that the subjects themselves have privileged access to.
12. In short, it can seem to us that our surroundings are in view, even when they are not. We can be wrong about whether our surroundings are in view.
Q3. Subjective Character: Does it really make sense to say that the states one is talking about in such an externalist functional account are really subjective? Subjectivity is usually associated with internalism, and objectivity with externalism, and this characterisation of experience cuts across this traditional divide in way that potentially distorts the traditional understanding of the terms. Is there a useful non-traditional concept of subjectivity here? It might be that the disagreement between McDowell and Metzinger is thus entirely linguistic, namely, a disagreement about precisely what we can call ‘subjective’.
13. The internal aspect of the subjective character of transparency/revelation does not exhaust the subjective character entirely, which also has an external aspect. It is the fact that the representational content of experience has both a internal dimension (purport) and an external dimension (success) that is supposed to differentiate McDowell from an indirect realist like Metzinger on the one hand, and an experiential nihilist like Brandom.
Q4. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: McDowell would respond to Metzinger that perception has an external component as well as an internal component, but Brandom will ask why, once we recognise there is an external component we even need the internal component anymore. The real problem for McDowell seems to be that he is interested in telling a story about the subjective character of perceptual content in terms of representational purport and representational success, but he seems to want to explain each representational dimension in a different register. He wants to describe success in functionally external terms, but he doesn’t want to describe purport in functional terms at all, but in introspective phenomenological terms, and this seems to pull the very unity of the notion of representation apart here.