Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Myth of Sensory Immediacy – Why Berkeley Was Wrong



Theories are often supported by unquestioned assumptions. One of the oldest unquestioned assumptions in philosophy concerns the nature of perceptual stimuli, namely, that sense-data are immediately perceived and that sensation consists in the sequential processing of  “motions” immediately pressed upon the eye. Originating in Plato’s Theaetetus, this idea reached maturation in Descartes and was then taken up by Locke under the concept of primary and secondary qualities. According to these thinkers, sensible ideas (sense-data) are immediate impressions upon the eye which communicate the motion of light particles through the nerve conduits so that they may be processed and deposited onto the internal mental theater for subjective viewing. It is important to note that the conduit metaphor assumes that perception can only perceive the atomic sequence of impacts upon the eye; any nonimmediate mental perception is the result of “inference”. In other words, there is a “bottleneck” of immediacy that cannot be overcome without higher-order cognitive acts. Moreover, sense-data are private in that the primary qualities “appear” differently for different people in accordance with their individuality.  The logic of this conduit metaphor was radicalized by Berkelely in his extreme sense-data empiricism. In the First Dialogue, he writes:

Philonous. It seems then, that by sensible things you mean those only which can be perceived immediately by sense.

Hylas. Right.

Phil. Doth it follow from this, that though I see one part of the sky red, and another blue, and that my reason doth thence evidently conclude that there must be some cause of that diversity of colours, yet that cause cannot be said to be a sensible thing, or perceived by the sense of seeing?

Phil. This point then is agreed between, that sensible things are those only which are immediately perceived by sense. You will further inform me, whether we immediately perceive by sight any thing beside light, and colours, and figures: or by hearing any thing but sounds: by the palate, any thing besides tastes: by the smell, besides odours: or by the touch, more than tangible qualities.

Phil. Sensible things therefore are nothing else but so many sensible qualities [immediately perceived], or combinations of sensible qualities.

Our discourse proceeded altogether concerning sensible things, which you defined to be the things we immediately perceive by our senses. Whatever other qualities therefore you speak of, as distinct from these, I know nothing of them, neither do they at all belong to the point in dispute.

As a good empiricist, Berkeley radicalized the logic of the conduit metaphor for visual perception. If there is nothing “in” the mind-container other than impressions formed by the immediate perception of sensible things, and if sensible things cannot exist without a perceiving mind, then we have no rational recourse for knowing anything about an extrasensory material world composed of primary qualities not dependent on the mind. Thus, the ultimate substance of reality is Mind or spirit, for we can never escape the confines of our mental container.

The essence of the conduit/container metaphor consists in understanding the perceptual process in terms of an immediate communication of sense-data across the nerve-conduits into the “container” or “theater” of the mind. Accordingly, the very nature of the perceptual stimulus ensures that the mind can never rationally proceed beyond the causal immediacy of private sense-data. Because the perceptual stimulus is assumed to consist of immediate impressions upon the retina, any perception of motion must be inferred from the two-dimensional patterns of light, which are then transduced into sense-data. For Berkelely, the radicalization of this logic leads to the proposal that we have no rational recourse for getting “outside” of the internal theater of sense-data, for what we “perceive” is not the primary real, but rather, the secondary quality of “how it appears” subjectively.

Upon reflection however, we can see that the flatness or “immediacy” of sensory input is usually presupposed only after thinking about perception in terms of a frozen snapshot of reality. Ecological information, however, does not exist exclusively in an instantaneous slice of time for, as J.J. Gibson points out, “Animals and men [directly] perceive motions, events, episodes, and whole sequences” (1966, p. 276). Thus, the information we perceive in the environment has both successive and adjacent order. For Gibson, it is a mistake to think of persisting patterns as being a separate stimulus; biologically speaking, “Transformations of pattern are just stimulating as patterns are…motion is immediately detected by animals, not secondarily deduced from change of position”( ibid., p. 40). Accordingly, the brain is not in the business of continuously constructing a mind bogglingly detailed phenomenal model from spots of sensations differing in brightness and color. If this were true, Gibson sardonically notes that “the fact of perception [would be] almost miraculous”. Instead, Gibson theorizes that the nervous system directly “picks up” or behaviorally “resonates” to the ecological information available in the environment, particularly in respect to changes in the layout of surfaces, changes in the color and texture of surfaces, and changes of existence of surfaces. As Mark Rowlands nicely puts it,

information is simply optical structure-together with the deformation in this structure generated in a nomothetic way from the environmental layout and events. This optical structure is not similar in any way to the environment, but it is specific to it. That is, optical structure is nominally dependent upon environmental structure. Because the structure in the optic array is specific to its environmental sources, an observer whose perceptual system detects some optical structure is therefore aware of what this specifies. Thus, the perceiver is aware of the environment not the array. Therefore, once we describe the input for perception in terms of a structured optic array, we are committed to the idea that there is enough information directly available in the organism’s visual input to give that organism useful knowledge about the nature of its environment. Postulation of additional information processing would, to this extent, be superfluous. (1995, p. 9)

The logic of Gibsonian information processing goes counter to the thesis of radical sensory immediacy. Under the Gibsonian framework, perception is not constituted by the processing of sense-data through the bottleneck of retinal immediacy. Instead, the perceptual system is capable of a first-order perception of whole sequences in the environment. By proposing that the transformations of pattern within the ambient optic array contain both sequential and adjacent order, the notion that perception consists of immediate detection and transduction of motion across the two-dimensional retina loses its status as an unquestioned assumption. Accordingly, the Gibsonian framework argues that perception is grounded by ecological information, not sensory immediacy. And because ecological information is temporally extended, the classic model of immediacy is overcome by supposing that animals are capable of directly resonating to such information. As it turns out then, we are not trapped within the theater of our minds; access to reality is quite pedestrian.


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Quote of the Day

A colleague once defined an academic discipline as a group of scholars who had agreed not to ask certain embarrassing questions about key assumptions.

Mark Nathan Cohen, quoted in Good Calories, Bad Calories

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What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious? Close to final draft

The paper I have been working on for the last two semesters is finally nearing completion and I have uploaded the close-to-final draft to


In this paper I will respond to Ned Block’s claim that it is simply “ridiculous” to suppose that consciousness is a cultural construction based on language and learnt in childhood. In so doing, I will argue that a distinction can be made between what-it’s-like to be a nonhuman animal and the “interiorized” consciousness of average, adult humans. In accordance with this distinction, I will argue that Block is wrong to dismiss social constructivist theories of consciousness on account of it being simply “ludicrous” that conscious experience is anything but a basic biological feature of our animal heritage, characterized by sensory experience, having slowly evolved over millions of years. By defending social constructivism in terms of both Julian Jaynes’ externalist behaviorism and J.J. Gibson’s ecological psychology, I will claim that a distinction can be made between the basic biological experience of nonhuman animals coping with a body and the “interiored” consciousness that constitutes the experience of an average linguistically competent human adult. The force of this distinction will allow me to argue that consciousness proper should be seen as an operation learned in development rather than something innate and shared with nonhuman animals. In other words, this paper will attempt to show that consciousness is not necessary for basic perceptual coping. Upon establishing this claim, I will defend the Jaynesian definition of consciousness as a social-linguistic construct learnt in childhood, structured in terms of metaphor and narrative practice. Finally, I will utilize the Jaynesian distinction between cognition and consciousness in order to bridge the explanatory gap and answer the supposed “Hard” problem of consciousness.

Could someone recommend an appropriate journal to submit this too? I am thinking either Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, or Psyche. I really like the idea of publishing in BBS but I am intimidated by their review system. If anyone has some advice in this area, it would be most appreciated.


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Excellent review of Faye at NDPR


Any genuinely philosophical texts are open rather than closed in their interpretative possibilities. This is what keeps philosophy alive. It is what makes philosophy an exercise in thinking rather than an exercise in the thoughtless reproduction of what has already been thought before. Now, there have been hundreds of books and essays by very intelligent people who have striven in vigorous conversation to make sense of Heidegger’s works, exploring their potentialities, expanding upon certain insights while modifying or dispensing with others. The history of philosophy is just this: an ongoing conversation stretching into the future, a chain of interpretation, argumentation, and counter-argumentation that addresses itself to a contested and always contestable canon of works. This is what I mean when I say that philosophical texts are “open” rather than “closed.” One may begin from some specific body of texts written by a particular author who wrote at some precise moment in the past. But in reading that body of texts one develops new thoughts that the original author may never have intended and may, indeed, have vigorously disputed. Historical reconstruction may very well help us to understand what a given text may have meant at a particular moment in time — to its author, and to any number of the author’s immediate contemporaries. Even then, however, we are liable to stumble upon historical debates at the very birth of a philosophical text, defeating our hope of ever arriving at some unitary and fixed text-in-itself. To this one might add more complicated problems, such as the “polysemy” of every text and the unconscious or latent meanings that afflict standard notions of authorial intent. Similar worries would also call into question the notion of a single or unitary historical context. For any given text, there is not just one but multiple contexts in which that text might be understood. And no one of those contexts deserves to stand alone as the ultimate horizon for our interpretation. One can sift through Heidegger’s philosophical arguments for their political significance, but the political context is only one dimension among many. Those arguments also address themselves to long-standing debates concerning, say, the phenomenology of religion, or the intentional structure of human action. Surely these contexts, too, deserve our attention. We should be wary of any scholar who would have us believe there is only one dimension to the world.

HT Enowning

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What Turn? Heidegger and the Question of Being

I often hear that later Heidegger abandoned the “human centered” project of Being and Time in search of “Being itself” i.e. Big B Being (henceforth “Being”). As the story goes, early Heidegger thought he could eventually get to Being through a phenomenological reduction of human being (Da-sein). But having seen that this move can never get us “out of” human subjectivity and towards the real philosophical matter, Heidegger sought to find another way to get to Being and subsequently “reversed” the “anthropomorphic” naivety of Being and Time in his famous “Turn”. Right?

I’m not so sure. In his letter to William Richardson, Heidegger says

The thinking of the reversal [from Being and Time to Time and Being] is a change in my thought. But this change is not a consequence of altering the standpoint, much less of abandoning the fundamental issue, of Being and Time. The thinking of the reversal results from the fact that I stayed with the matter that was to be thought in Being and Time, i.e., that I inquired into that perspective which already in Being and Time (pg. 39) was designated as “Time and Being”.

Moreover, he says two paragraphs later that

Whoever is ready to see the simple fact that, in Being and Time, the starting point of subjectivity is deconstructed, that every anthropological inquiry is kept at a distance, and moreover that the sole decisive experience is that of Da-sein with a constant look ahead to the Being-question, will agree that the “Being” which Being and Time inquires into cannot remain something that the human subject posits. Rather, Being is something that matters to Da-sein as the presence determined by its timecharacter. Accordingly thought is also already called upon, in the initial steps of the Being-question of Being and Time, to undergo a change whose movement corresponds to the reversal. Yet the inquiry of Being and Time is not in any way given up thereby.

This needs unpacking.  First, what is the fundamental issue of Being and Time that Heidegger never abandoned? In order to understand the turn in his thought, we need to first understand what he “turned” from. Without understanding this, a reversal in his thought is impossible to comprehend. Moreover, by understanding how Big B Being was understood in Being and Time, we can perhaps understand in what ways Heidegger did not give up on the project of Being and Time while nevertheless reversing his emphasis.

“Being” in Being and Time

If Heidegger never abandoned the central issue in Being and Time, what then was the central issue? It goes without saying that early Heidegger was primarily concerned with the phenomenological explication of human being-in-the-world. Being-in-the-world is a catchall phrase to describe the human mode of existence within a world of significance. Moreover, when Heidegger said that he was going to utilize a phenomenological analytic of Da-sein in order to explicate the question of the meaning of Being, the “Being” referred to is entirely wrapped up with human Existenz. Accordingly, the standard reading of the Turn is problematic insofar as it claims that early Heidegger was trying to get to Big B Being through humanity. Instead, Big B Being is exactly synonymous with the significance of human worldhood! Accordingly, we can now make sense of why Being and Time was concerned with the meaning of Being rather than “Being itself”. Moreover, when Heidegger claims that he never abandoned the central issue of Being and Time, he is saying that he never abandoned the “human centered” analytic of Da-sein. With this in mind, we can now make sense of Heidegger’s definition of “Being” in Being and Time:

In the question which we are about to work out, what is asked about is Being – that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood, however we discuss them in detail. (SZ 6)

This passage is enormously enlightening given that it is one of the few places in Heidegger’s entire career where he explicitly states what he means by “Being”. However, we must be cautious of overlooking the crucial ambiguity within the definition. When he says Being is “that which determines entities as entities”, this can be interpreted in two ways. The first interpretation is based on traditional notions of ontology wherein Being is that which determines the essential nature of entities, whatever that may be. Under this interpretation, it is not surprising that Heidegger “failed” to reach Being through an analytic of humanity and subsequently “Turned” to new methodological strategies for understanding Being. This interpretation, while coherent, is nevertheless not what Heidegger meant and we would be wise to avoid it at all costs.

The second interpretation understands “entities as entities” in terms of the hermeneutic as-structure. Under this interpretation, Big B Being is synonymous with the referential structure of worldhood given through our discursive activities of coping with the ready-to-hand. The entire meaning of Heidegger’s project becomes transformed if we realize that Big B Being is wrapped up exclusively with humanity’s being-in-the-world. Accordingly, we can now make sense of Heidegger’s cryptic statements that Being is dependent on Da-sein but entities can still exist without Da-sein. By interpreting the Being of entities in terms of how we make sense of them, entities are “freed” or “cleared” to exist precisely in terms of their relevance to our concernful projects. The “Being” of the rock is different depending on whether I am looking for a projectile or a paper weight. Thus, Big B Being, the world, significance, the clearing, meaning, the as-structure,  etc. are all more or less synonymous. The Being of an entity is dependent on how I use it for instrumental action. Period.

By upsetting the traditional notions of what determines an entity as an entity, Heidegger can now be read in terms of laying out the constitutive conditions for how humans make sense of the world. By understanding entities in terms of how we take them to be, “world projection” can now be interpreted in terms of the as-structure wherein we take entities as being one way or another. Moreover, we can read Heidegger’s critique of presence-at-hand ontology in terms of how the tradition overlooked the “freedom” of entities to be disclosed differently according to our worldly projects. For example, there is no “essence” of chairs for chairs can be used in more ways than one. If you tried to say that what determines the chair as a chair is its present-at-hand objective qualities, you would overlook the way in which we can take the chair as something it is not, namely, as something I use for-the-sake-of something else. Thus, when Heidegger discusses the semblance in terms an entity “showing itself” in terms counter to what it actually is, we can read this precisely in terms of the freedom of possibility opened up through concernful circumspection. The chair shows itself to me by means a reflection of its objective properties by ambient light, but I do not take it as an objective conglomeration of physical properties; I take it as something-to-use. This is why Heidegger insists that we primarily interpret entities in terms of the semblance and live primarily in the mode of semblance. This is also why Heidegger insists that humans primordially encounter entities through the mode of untruth. The “truth” of the chair (that it has objective present-at-hand properties) is only accessible by stopping our activities and staring at the chair or investigating it scientifically.

Thus, we can see that despite Heidegger’s insistence that Big B Being is wrapped up in human affairs, there is nevertheless an extent to which the Being of entities is not a purely subjective projection in the Kantian sense. For Kant, the spatiotemporal properties of the chair are merely projections of my subjective mind. For Heidegger, the spatiotemporal properties of the chair are independent of human subjectivity: I am not free to use the chair in order to fly to the moon for that is a physical impossibility. So the Being of entities is in a sense independent of humans while nevertheless wrapped up in human disclosure. The Being of entities not something I subjectivity “posit”  in the Kantian sense, but nevertheless, the Being of entities is dependent on how I use it. Heidegger is thus a realist and an idealist. The spatiotemporal properties of entities are not ontically dependent on Da-sein (as common sense indicates), but nevertheless entities “transcend” their present-at-hand structure in virtue of being “freed” in the clearing of instrumental sense-making.

It seems that I have overrun my space constraints and failed to discuss Heidegger’s turn of emphasis, but hopefully I have laid the groundwork for understanding how Heidegger never abandoned his interest in human centered phenomenology.


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Heidegger…ripping off Taoism?

I was reading an excerpt from Heidegger’s 1949 Bremen Lecture Insight into That Which Is and I stumbled across an almost embarrassing intellectual gaffe on his part. In the lecture, he performs a phenomenological reduction on a normal pitcher to illustrate his usual distinction between presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand. Part of his point is to emphasize that what a pitcher primarily “is” is a container i.e. something useful for containing liquid. Moreover, he says:

When we fill the pitcher, the liquid flows into the empty pitcher. The emptiness is the containing of the container. The emptiness — this nothingness that belongs to the pitcher — is what the pitcher, as a containing container, is…The thingness of the container in no way rests in the material that it is made of, but in the emptiness that contains.

What’s embarrassing for Heidegger is that this is so obviously borrowed from the Tao Te Ching yet he fails to make reference to how Eastern philosophy understood this basic phenomenological point thousands of years ago. See for yourself:


Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes which make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.

While it is certainly possible that Heidegger was simply unaware of such an obvious reference, given Heidegger’s exposure to Eastern philosophy (according to this wikipedia page, citing Tomonubu Imamichi), I find it doubtful that he was simply ignorant about the reference. Was Heidegger then just unwilling to cite his sources?


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Thomas Sheehan's Heidegger, part I

Thomas Sheehan has an excellent paper available online entitled A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research. The paper is interesting in several respects. First, it helps delineate the myriad strands in North American Heidegger scholarship: (1) the ultra-orthodox (classic continental studies) (2) the rejectionist wing (Caputo and ilk) (3) the orthodox position (Kisiel, etc.) and  (4) the liberal-assimilationists (people like Dreyfus and others who seek to place Heidegger into dialogue with contemporary philosophy). Sheehan wisely admits that these distinctions run across a spectrum that is pluralistic. I would say that I probably fall within the liberal-assimilationist camp given my proclivity to situate Heidegger within the embodied/embedded paradigm in cognitive science (especially Julian Jaynes and J.J. Gibson).

Moreover, despite their differences, Sheehan argues that all four camps tend to accept William Richardson’s supposition that Heidegger’s project shifted from a focus on There-being (Dasein) to Being itself over the course of his career. Thus, the classic Heideggerian model (according to Sheehan) claims that Heidegger’s entire oeuvre represents a shift from the human to die Sache selbst and that moreover, this “thing” was Big B Being or something else equally mysterious. In a brilliant display of interpretative prowess, Sheehan challenges this model on several fronts. The first point is to emphasize that “being” is not die Sache selbst insofar as this interpretation would hypostatize it into “Big Being” and that moreover, “being itself” is not Heidegger’s central topic. To think otherwise is to operate under the confusion that  if one merely distinguishes being from entities and then focuses on the “being”-side you have isolated die Sache selbst.

The point about hypostatization is extremely important because there is no such thing as “the” being of entities. As Sheehan puts it,

The current being of an entity is what and how I happen to take this thing as at the present moment. For example, in the absence of a hammer at my campsite, I use this rock to pound in tent pegs…The being of something comes about only when ‘man entwirft etwas auf etwas.’ The proper translation of entwerfen auf…is not “to project something upon” (a meaningless phrase in this context) but “to take something as,” i.e. to make sense of it.

I find Sheehan’s interpretation of this “taking-as” to be far above average for Heideggerian scholarship. He rightly points out that “being” is always in relationship to the human activity of sense-making. I take the newspaper “as” something different depending on whether I am in a reading mood or whether there is a fly on the wall. Such categorial “taking-as” constitutes the essential structure of the referential totality and worldhood in general. The being of entities, properly speaking, is thus always in relation to human activities.

This is a firm position that Heidegger never renounced: ‘being’ is given or appears (das Sein west) only in the activities of human beings, which are always discursive, synthetic-differential activities. Before homo sapiens sapiens evolved, there was no ‘being’ on earth: it did not lurk within things, waiting to be discovered; it was not hiding in the wings, waiting for a Dasein to come along so that it could reveal itself.

Moreover, the Lichtung or clearing is essentially related to this “taking-as” function. To “clear” a rock in terms of an “open freedom” is to free it for use depending on its situational relevance to teleologically structured (means/end) human activity. If I left my nut cracker at home, the things around me become categorially transformed in terms of their relevance to my project of trying-to-open-nuts. The otherwise inconspicuous rock becomes seen “as” a nut cracker. The clearing is thus a synonym for the as-structure and our human tendency to free entities in terms of their relevance to our circumspective concern. Sheehan is thus perfectly right to see the interrelation between the “Da” of Da-sein, the Welt of worldhood, and the Lichtung or clearing of disclosure. Sheehan thus interprets Da-sein not as “Being-there”, but rather, as “always-being-open” or “already-having-been-opened”. The human being then is always already in a dynamic process of opening entities into our world-involvement such that we categorially “take” entities as entities either as themselves or as something they are not, but always for-the-sake of some circumspective activity.

Moreover, and important for Heidegger’s project, Sheehan rightly emphasizes the a priori nature of our thrown projection. I like to cash this out in terms of childhood development, but I don’t know if Sheehan would agree with this interpretation. In my view, because being-open (projecting possibilities through supersensory categorial perception) is something learned in childhood, there is no choice involved in being open. The child does not choose to be born into a society of language and narrative. Thus, our thrown-essence is in a sense independent of the individual person. On the other hand, there is no openness without Dasein, without humanity.  There is thus an

unbreakable reciprocity (back-and-forth-ness, reci-proci-tas) between our thrown-open essence (-sein) and the possibility-of-sense-making (Da-), and this apriori interface constitutes the dynamic structure of Dasein…There are not two apriori’s here, but only one:thrown-open-ness-as-ability-to-make-sense-of. The hyphens hold together Geworfenheit [thrownness] and Entwurf [projection], whose reciprocity is the essence of Dasein.

I think Sheehan’s interpretation is right on the money (for the record, I also think he agrees with me insofar as the question of ontic realism goes). By linking together the notions of being, worldhood, projection, clearing, sense-making, taking-as, etc., we can begin to form a systemic conception of just what the hell Heidegger is talking about. What we see is a radical phenomenological conception of average human experience. Instead of digital computers generating virtual phenomenal models which we perceive after the computational processing of sense-data over the medium of explicit mental representations, human beings are primordially “thrown” into the “yonder” of  externalist perception-for-action. The issue here comes down to understanding the nature of humanity’s “who-ness”. Who are we? Are we epiphenomena of computer simulations? Or are we something else? Heidegger’s answer is this: we are corporeal beings and we “live” in the outside world, in what we are involved in i.e. we live through our everyday routines and our long-term projects. We are usually too absorbed in our day-to-day activities to make conceptual distinctions between ourselves and the hustle-bustle of the world. Thus the Heideggerian answer to the question of “who” is this: the They-self, the thrown-self, the factical Da-sein human. That is who we are.

But this does not complete Heidegger’s model of humanity. For built around this inauthentic  they-self is the authentic self. This self exists primarily as a psychological possibility (emphasized in extreme situations), but it does not “rest” or “found” or form the “core” of human existence. Strangely then, the “core” of human being is the noncore of thrownness into daily activities, of getting lost in the significance of worldly items, of projecting possibilities through the supersensory taking-as operation, of letting our moods take us for a ride.

According to Sheehan then, what is die Sache selbst for Heidegger?

To be continued…


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The Axis of Philosophy

…[T]he claim that philosophy represents a cognitive wheel that spins on its axis without moving anywhere is based on a mistaken view of philosophy. If philosophy spins on its own axis, this is because the fundamental problems that confront human beings remain basically the same through time and across space. What is the nature of things? What can I know, and how do I know it? How should I live my life? These are among the perennial problems of human existence that confront every culture in every era. They are recurring problems that must be addressed anew, not only by every generation, but by every reflective person.

George H. Smith, Why Atheism?

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On the Anthropomorphic Interpretation of Animals – Are Dolphins Persons?


I have been seeing a lot of commentary on the recent Science article about whether dolphins should have nonhuman personhood status.

Marino began researching dolphins and determined that they had a brain-to-body-mass ratio that is second only to humans. Human beings have the largest brains, compared to their body mass, of any known animals. Brain size, relative to body size, is believed by many scientists to be a key prerequisite to intelligence, although there are many other factors as well.

So Marino and Reiss turned to the New York Aquarium, which had a couple of male bottlenose dolphins in captivity, to see if they knew who they were.

“We marked them on different parts of their bodies with a magic marker,” Marino said. Each dolphin immediately raced to the mirror, “postured in front of the mirror and positioned itself in strange ways to expose the marked part of its body much the same way that you and I would if we passed a wall with wet paint on it. As soon as we get to the bathroom we would look in the mirror and turn around to see if we got any paint on us.”

Sometimes the researchers used a marker that left no mark, and the result was quite different. The dolphin would dash to the mirror, but if he could not find a mark, he would immediately move on, ignoring the incident. Marino and other researchers have concluded that the experiment showed the dolphins were aware of who they were and knew it was their body they were checking out.

If an animal recognizes “itself” in the mirror, that animal is said to possess self-consciousness, a purportedly advanced cognitive skill traditionally thought to be unique to humans. Thus, the difference between human and nonhuman animals is largely quantitative rather than qualitative.

I see this argument put forward frequently, by journalists and academics alike. On first glance, the argument seems perfectly reasonable. However, if we examine the language involved, we can see than the reasoning is faulty on phenomenological grounds. The key point is that in order to be self-conscious, one must be able to attain genuine selfhood status. Having a body is not enough. It seems to me that a particular type of cognitive savvy is necessary for being a “Who”.

The central claim is that “The experiment showed the dolphins were aware of who they were.” In order to understand this claim, we must know how it would apply to us. To say that Susan “knows who she is” is to say that Susan, could, in principle, tell a story about her past, present, and future life, either to herself, or to someone else. To know who you are is to explicitly know what it is that you do, broadly speaking. For example, I am a graduate student. I know that I must read and study philosophy in order to be who I am. Moreover, part of who I am is who I want to be, namely, an academic philosopher. When existentialists talk about human beings “having a project”, this is what they mean. The project of academia structures my entire being, that is, my entire mode of thrown existence in the world. Accordingly, humans are exceedingly teleological in their mode of being. In normal humans there is a sense of purpose, a sense of direction in one’s life, a directedness-towards, both implicit and explicit. This can be as mundane as getting ready for work work or as grand as martyrdom. Heidegger referred to this curiously strong, sometimes-explicit teleological drive as our “directionality”. As Dasein, humans are always involved in projects only intelligible at longer timescales. Moreover, even at the small-to-medium timescale, our lives are infused with microteleology insofar as we are intimately familiar with our daily surroundings and thrown into daily coping, usually, with some degree of skill.

Furthermore, a subcomponent of this self-knowledge is knowing, in principle, how other people would describe me if they were asked to briefly summarize “who” I am. Knowing how other people would describe me helps me describe myself. In the modern world of facebook and online dating, we are all used to describing ourselves in several brief paragraphs. We have explicit knowledge of what sorts of things we like to do, what our interests are, what music we listen to, what shows we like to watch, and moreover, we routinely practice making such knowledge available to others, verbally or in writing. Personally, I have always  partly defined myself and others in terms of books read, if any. I look at my bookshelf and see my intellectual self extended in time.

Moreover, we dress ourselves in accordance with our levels of social conformity and individuality in order to form a  “look” with the express purpose of making other people think “I like that persons look”. “Forming a look” is something we all do whether we are conscious of it or not.Even if we do not “take care of ourself”, we are well-aware that exactly such a message is being transmitted publically; the question then is whether we care. The amount of time we spend arranging superficial details of our appearance before going out into public is one of the most curious behaviors of our species.

Furthermore, self-knowledge usually consists of being able to form internal narratives about yourself. When making a mistake we might think “How typical of myself to do that” or “I can’t believe I just did that! That isn’t who I am”. Without this possibility of self-expression, the normative structure of social experience remains low dimensional. With human culture and language, the possibility of expression in regards to self-interpretation constructs a high dimensional normative space in which deeper layers of experiential meaning can occur than a purely instrumental calculation affords. For example, in some cultures the language game of honor/dishonor provides a deeper  layer of normativity powerful enough to induce suicide in those who understand themselves to be dishonored. We should never underestimate the brutal emotional force of social shame. Moreover, the distinction between understanding oneself to live a honorable vs. dishonorable life surely requires a logical space of reasons holistically constructed by linguistic discourse and what John Protevi calls “bodies politic”. Such concepts simply don’t make sense outside of a larger social background knowledge involving complex affective experiences such as shame, despair, existential anxiety, wretchedness/pride, honor, eudaimonia, sanctification, etc.

Charles Taylor is the best source on this notion of linguistically constructed self-interpretation being the basis of higher order emotional-cognitive complexity. He says, for example,

Shameful[ness] is not a property which can hold of something quite independently of the experience subjects have of it. Rather, the very account of what shame means involves reference to things – like our sense of dignity, of worth, of how we are seen by others – which are essentially bound up with the life of a subject of experience.

By articulating our feelings through the structures of language (good/bad, desirable/non-desirable, etc.), we set up the possibility of having

a sense of what the good life is for a subject; and this involves in turn our making qualitative discriminations between our desires and goals, whereby we see some as higher and others as lower, some as good and others as discreditable, still others as evil, some as truly vital and others as trivial, and so on.

Accordingly, this sets up the cognitive skill of second-order evaluation, wherein we can desire to have different desires e.g. we can repudiate ourselves for giving in to temptation. Second-order evaluation allows for a high dimensional normative space such that we can evaluate our desires and goals and set up hierarchies. A Christian, for example, might “reorder his priorities” and “put God first” instead of falling prey to the secular world. Although he deeply craves secular freedom, he has a higher-order desire to live a “pure” life.

As we can see then, it requires an extreme anthropomorphism to make the claim that when dolphins notice a mark on their body they are being self-conscious, as opposed to simply being aware-of-a-mark-on-their-body. Self-awareness means being aware of a self not a dot. Dot-consciousness is not self-consciousness. As Skinner proved, the ability to receive proprioceptive information from a mirror is no more philosophically interesting than doing so by normal means of bodily-perception. Are then Dolphins persons? Not like we are.

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A Short Defense of Heidegger

To take the bite, I want to answer Christoper Vitale’s question, which is itself a response to Graham Harman’s post on the “most overrated philosopher of all time”:

There’s so many folks online whose thought I DO respect that like Heidegger, that I’m probably missing something. And I’m curious what that is. I’m curious, that’s what it comes down to. Was Heidegger essential as a path to where you are now, or do you think he has something lasting to say to us today? That’s my question.

Let me start by saying that I primarily deal with philosophy of mind. Let me also say that there is a quiet storm brewing in philosophy of mind circles, with essentially two competing philosophical paradigms standing at odds: one inspired by Descartes/Locke/Kant and the other by Heidegger/Merleau-Ponty/Gibson. The former trio is foundational in respect to the cognitivism still very much in vogue today; the latter with respect to the less established but quickly growing 4E paradigm (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted). The 4E paradigm is a direct reaction to the perceived failures of classic cognitivism in respect to understanding perception, action, intentionality, emotion, reasoning, etc.  Accordingly, there are many overlapping ways to cash out the distinction between the two paradigms:

  • Cartesian vs. Heideggerian philosophy of mind
  • indirect representationalism  vs. direct nonrepresentationalism
  • strict primary/secondary qualities distinction vs. skepticism of distinction
  • atomism vs. holism
  • computationalist vs. Gibsonian theories of information processing
  • disembodied vs. embodied theories of mind
  • social atomism vs. social embeddedness/contextualism
  • emphasis on the theoretical vs. emphasis on the instrumental
  • theory-theory vs. the Narrative Practice Hypothesis
  • reductionist vs. social constructivist approaches to higher-order cognition
  • computer metaphor vs. “bundle of habits” metaphor
  • literal view of language vs. figurative-metaphorical view of language
  • analytic vs. hermeneutic approach to interpretation and understanding
  • internalist vs. externalist approaches to perception
  • dualist ontology vs. affordance ontology
  • robust vs. minimalist conceptions of selfhood
  • subject-as-against-objects vs. subject-as-“amidst”-objects
  • Those who believe in the Myth of the Given vs. those who don’t
  • etc.

I can thus answer Christopher’s question of whether Heidegger has anything important to say to contemporary philosophers: Yes, of course! Heidegger’s texts were groundbreaking in respect to almost every idea in the right-hand column. Moreover, he was the first thinker to systematically defend a coherent philosophical alternative to Cartesian and Kantian theories of mind. Thinkers up until Husserl overcame  the tradition in many respects, but never broke away from it in a decisive fashion like Heidegger did. Philosophers were far too embroiled within the language games of traditional philosophy to see that their theories were grounded upon a particular intellectual trajectory starting with ancient philosophy and moving up and through Descartes and Kant. I am of the opinion that Heidegger was perhaps the first major thinker to break away from the tradition in respect to all the major dogmatisms in philosophy of mind . For this reason, I must modify something that Paul Ennis said in his own defense of Heidegger:

It is important to situate Heidegger in order to defend him. He only makes sense as a thinker of and within the tradition. He is self-consciously an ‘inheritor’ of the tradition – hell he even seems to be putting himself into it as it were.

I would say instead that Heidegger only ever put himself into the tradition in order to destroy it. I think Paul would probably agree with me on this, but I think it is important to emphasis the ways in which Heidegger broke with tradition in many key areas. His ideas are so influential and so far reaching that, in my opinion, anyone working with Descartes and Kant is obliged to understand Heidegger’s alternative model of human existence. This is especially important when engaging with the cognitivism debate in philosophy of mind. While many excellent books and articles have been inspired by Heidegger’s ideas, many philosophers not well-versed in the history of philosophy lose sight of Heidegger’s larger metaphilosophical goal of overcoming the deficiencies in Cartesian and Kantian philosophy. Without understanding the historical context in which Heidegger overcame traditional views of subjectivity, his philosophical achievements are difficult to fully recognize. Conversely, traditional Heideggerians get so wrapped up in the system and the terminology that they overlook the wider context of what people like Dreyfus and Andy Clark are doing with Heidegger, namely, trying to overcome the deficiencies of the Cartesian homunculus theory.

There is much more to say on this issue of Heidegger’s intellectual lineage. One could write ten volumes  tracing his thought through the work of people like Merleau-Ponty and the Gibson up and through the developments of 4E philosophy in the early 90s. The intersection between Heideggerian phenomenology and cognitive science is rich. For this reason, Heidegger has much to say to us in the 21st century.


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy