Archive for the Heads Up Category

Incredible Machines Talk: Technocracy and Class

Posted in Heads Up, Theory on March 17, 2014 by deontologistics

It’s been a while since I’ve managed to put anything up here. However, I recently gave a short presentation at the Incredible Machines conference in Vancouver – via google hangouts – on the intersection of the ideas of technocracy and classless society. The conference was very interesting, and a really impressive experiment in teleconferencing, though it was hit by a few technical problems. The audio cut out during my presentation, but I was very graciously given the chance to re-record it. The result was somewhat longer, but also somewhat clearer than the original. It is now available online here. Enjoy!

Dialectical Insurgency

Posted in Announcement, Heads Up on July 29, 2013 by deontologistics

As anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time knows, brevity is not one of my virtues. I’m quite pleased with the whole project of Deontologistics, and still plan to continue posting the sorts of long pieces that it’s known for (albeit less frequently than I used to). However, I’ve come to realise the benefit of having a space to express thoughts that are too long for twitter (@deontologistics) but too short or ill-formed for me to be comfortable posting them here. At the same time, although I have occasionally touched on topics that extend beyond pure philosophy, this blog is very much a philosophy blog, and I’m reluctant to use it to take positions on questions of politics, art, and other issues.

For these reasons, I’ve opened up a new tumblr blog, Dialectical Insurgency, with the aim of encouraging myself to share (and thus formulate) shorter and more in-progress ideas on a variety of topics.  I’ve just put up some thoughts on cognitive economics and stress that’ve been floating around in my brain for a while now. I hope some of you might find it interesting.

Burning Bridges

Posted in Discussion, Heads Up with tags , , on June 16, 2013 by deontologistics

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

The Art Kettle

Posted in Announcement, Discussion, Heads Up, Theory on April 26, 2013 by deontologistics

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?

Atheology on Deleuze and Sufficient Reason

Posted in Heads Up with tags , , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by deontologistics

This is a very quick post to point people at a new blog called Atheology (now linked in the side bar), which has just put up a post (see here) commenting on my ‘Song of Sufficient Reason’ series of posts on Deleuze and the PSR (see the Important Posts section). That series of posts never got finished for various reasons, the third instalment being lost somewhere along the way. However, a lot of the unresolved threads are picked up in my more recent ‘Ariadne’s Thread’ paper on the overall shape of Deleuze’s metaphysics (see the Other Work section, or the Video section). It’s wonderful to find someone commenting so perspicuously on work I thought everyone had forgotten about (myself included). I look forward to reading more from Atheology on these and other topics as it appears.

Direct to Video

Posted in Announcement, Exegesis, Heads Up, Theory on March 20, 2013 by deontologistics

Last year I posted up a paper I gave at MMU entitled ‘Ariadne’s Thread: Temporality, Modality, and Individuation in Deleuze’s Metaphysics’ (available in PDF here). The wonderful people at MMU have now put up the video of my talk (along with the other’s from the same workshop) as part of their brilliant Actual/Virtual series. The whole set can be seen here, but I couldn’t resist putting a direct link to the video on the blog. I’m hoping to turn this paper into a publication at some point soon, so any suggestions/comments are thoroughly welcomed.

Dr Pete Wolfendale from Helen Darby on Vimeo.

Now that I have a whole two videos online, I’ve created a new page to index them. Hopefully there’ll be some more of these put up at some point.

Not So Humble Pie

Posted in Discussion, Heads Up, Theory with tags , , , , , on April 21, 2012 by deontologistics

The NYT has just announced the finalists for its essay contest on the ethics of meat eating (here). Alas, my entry is not there, so I may as well stick it up for people to see (here).

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!

Deleuzian Catharsis

Posted in Announcement, Exegesis, Heads Up, Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2012 by deontologistics

I’ve probably written before about my history with Deleuze, but I can’t think where exactly. For those who don’t know, I began my PhD thesis with the intent of working on Deleuze’s metaphysics and its implications for the philosophy of language, with an eye to combining it with Wittgensteinian pragmatism. The story goes that I couldn’t find the methodology I needed to adequately explain (let alone justify) Deleuze’s metaphysics, and so took a detour into Heidegger to acquire it. This was supposed to last a month or so, and ended up consuming four years of research and my entire thesis. I was also converted to Brandom’s Hegelian pragmatism in that time, and that has monopolised a lot of my other research efforts in the meantime. I’ve written the odd thing about Deleuze on this blog, but I haven’t seriously touched the books (let alone kept up with the secondary literature) in a good few years.

However, courtesy of my good friend (and prominent Deleuze scholar) Henry Somers-Hall, I recently got invited to give a paper at Manchester Metropolitan University on Deleuze’s theory of time. This was part of a larger workshop on Deleuze that was very successful indeed. A great event all around. Lots of things kept me from writing my paper until far too close to the deadline (I was working on it right up until the last minute), but it was a cathartic experience from beginning to end. Three years or so of pent up Deleuzian ideas came out all at once, and it produced a paper that is very dense, but not for that matter unaccessible. Moreover, the paper served as a wonderful vindication of my methodological detour, insofar as it displays the power of the critical framework I’ve been developing here and elsewhere. I’ve sometimes been accused of getting stuck at the level of critique, and never getting to the actual metaphysics. I think this is a pretty performative refutation of those criticisms.

I’m enormously pleased with the paper, and I was enormously gratified by the positive reception it received from the people at the workshop. There were some excellent questions and some great discussions afterwards. I’m reliably informed that the video of the various talks will be going up online soon, including Q&As, but I’ve decided to make minor revisions to my paper and post it up on the blog (here) while it’s still at the forefront of my mind. It’ll no doubt get revised further and turned into a proper publication at some point, but for now, enjoy!

How Perception Yields Knowledge (McDowell Lecture 2)

Posted in Announcement, Discussion, Exegesis, Heads Up on March 5, 2012 by deontologistics

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.

Lecture 2

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).

Transcendentalism Vs. Naturalism

Posted in Heads Up on February 19, 2012 by deontologistics

This is a very brief post to point people in the direction of a few other posts that I’ve enjoyed and commented upon (at length). I increasingly find myself using other people’s blog’s comment sections in the way many people use their own blogs, to expound and develop upon thoughts and topics that other people have brought up in brief, and saving my own blog for more fully developed thoughts.

I find this interesting, insofar as I increasingly feel like reading and commenting on other people’s blog post is part of my ‘job’ as a career researcher, not merely something I do on the side. I don’t mean this in a perjorative sense, as if this makes me enjoy it less. Rather, I mean that I feel like this is where many of my most interesting ideas get fleshed out, in much the way that philosophical correspondence or exchanges of short papers in journals has traditionally enabled various debates and ideas to blossom. This is weird, insofar as I still think that these forms of communication would be looked down on, as some sort of ‘hobby’ from the perspective of traditional academia, despite the fact that they’re often far more interesting and productive than some of the minor journal exchanges that a lot of us engage in to earn our keep. I’m not going to say much more than that, but it’s something that I intend to think more about in the future.

On to the posts and comments themselves, which deal with the implications of philosophical naturalism, and the extent to which this is compatible with transcendental philosophy. I’ve opined before that I think there’s a certain amount of excessive naturalism going around in contemporary philosophy (here and here), which, in its hostility to both transcendental and other forms of a priori philosophising, has a tendency to cut off its own nose to spite its face. I don’t say this as an anti-naturalist, but as a proud naturalist who thinks that naturalism requires careful delimitation, both in order to curb excessive ‘more naturalist than thou’ arguments, on the one hand, and weak ‘I’m a naturalist honest’ apologias that are about as meaningful as ‘I’m a spiritual person’ claims in religious/ethical debates, on the other. Performing such a delimitation is just what the Kantian critical project was about, and this applies equally to the successor project of his intellectual scion Wilfrid Sellars. This is the historical root of naturalism divorced from the epistemological and semantic baggage of empiricism (in its traditional and logical forms, respectively).

Anyway, bearing this in mind, here’s a short post by Catarina Dutilh Novaes on the normativity of logic (here) with a short exchange between her and myself on the topic in the comments, and a much larger post by David Roden on Ray Brassier’s development of Sellars’ ideas in the philosophy of mind (here) with a very in depth exchange between him, myself, and Scott Bakker (author of the existentially gripping Neuropath amongst other books, and whose own blog (Three Pound Brain) is now linked to in the sidebar). This exchange covers a massive range of topics, from the comparative advantages of Davidsonian truth-theoretic semantics and Brandomian inferentialist semantics, to the potentially nihilistic consequences of neuroscience and the nature of naturalistic skepticism. It’s a great exchange that I’ve enjoyed immensely (and too much for my own good, given my other writing commitments). I thoroughly recommend you check it out.

Now, back to the conceptual coalface!

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