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Unconscious Logic and Group Cohesion

“Have you ever been a stranger to yourself? Many many times…” (Picard)
We all live in groups; family groups, work groups, society at large etc. In our individualized society we sometimes focus on ourselves and how we can improve our own behaviour and make our lives better. But people tend to forget that they are always embedded within a mishmash of different groups and a large part of who we are is determined by the groups we are embedded in. Saying that our behaviour is partly determined by the groups we are a part of isn’t meant to imply we have no agency. We have agency to the degree we can engineer some of the groups we are a part of; we can decide what these groups aims are and design them to better fulfill our aims.
In this blog-post I want to discuss group interactions and how structural dynamics can sometimes lead people to behave in ways that seem out of character when judged by their previous behavioural patterns. I will explore how these structural dynamics can result in difficulties in small group interactions. For simplicity sake I will focus primarily on workplace interactions; though these interactions can occur in any small group. Finally I will discuss scientific techniques that help minimize the possibility of such group conflicts. A good example of our behavioural patterns being determined by structural features can be seen in Peter Turchin’s work on history which through cross cultural comparisons details how we sometimes get dragged into wars revolutions etc. Our decisions are sometimes made by structural features of our social environments. So, even though we like to think we are the author of our decisions, our choices are determined by outside factors. In his ‘Ages of Discord’ Turchin discussed some factors that may have led to periodic breakdown of agrarian societies. The agent’s living in the agrarian society would have believed that they were making decisions x or y for various different reasons. However, Structural Demographic Theory argues that population growth in excess of productivity can have several effects on social institutions: (A) It leads to persistent price inflation, falling real wages, rural misery, urban migration, and increased frequency of food riots and wage protests, (B) Rapid expansion of population results in elite overproduction which results in an increasing number of aspirants competing for limited resources, (C) Population growth leads to expansion of army and bureacracy and to rising real costs (‘Ages of Discord’ p. 11). Turchin reworked this principle in order to describe revolutionary leaps in industrial societies; (1) The Neo-Malthusian Principle, (2) the principle of elite over- production, (3) the structural demographic causes of political instability. Turchin’s theory explains human behaviour as being governed by laws of which we are not aware. We may give reasons for acting in the way we do but the reasons we give may be nothing other than rationalisations; our behaviour may actually be caused by structural features that are outside of our control. While Turchin’s analysis details large societal fluxuations his work is an example of structural features influencing individual decisions. As we will see later in this structural features also have effects on people’s interactions in small groups as well. We may give certain reasons to explain our interactions within our group but the reasons we give may be pure rationalisations; likewise our speculations as to why our colleagues behave towards us in certain ways may be pure fiction as well. For this reason it is useful to try to understand group interactions in a scientific manner instead of relying on folk-psychological speculations. Nonetheless, with the science of group interaction still in its infancy any theory of group behaviour will still rely somewhat on folk psychology in its explanations.
In daily interactions with one another people typically engage on a personal level. They interpret each others behaviour in terms of their shared history of interactions, and by interpreting gossip and other pieces of information to update their implicit models of each other. However, aside from using implicit models of who a person is when we interpret each others behaviour we also think using abstract categories. When we talk to other people we are unconsciously categorizing them in various different ways; so a person can be interpreted under classes such as Mother, Professor, British, etc.
In a work-place environment people are typically bracketed into various different groups. You have Managers, Front line workers, Admin staff etc. When interacting with each other people can interpret each other using folk psychology (attributing various different beliefs/desires) to each other; and these folk psychological ascriptions can be skewed by the type of categorisation we implicitly employ when interpreting each other. Thus, consider two employees who are interacting with each other in work; they will have a shared history together, common experiences in the job, and all of these connections will be interpreted under various different emotional hues depending on the relationship. In these interactions some abstract ways of categorising each other can become salient, and the abstract categorisation can become the primary mode of interpreting the others behaviour. A concrete example may help.
Consider two people talking in work one of whom is a nurse and the other is a health care assistant. While these people have an incredibly complex network of relations with each other, in some situations the abstract category of nurse or health care assistant can become important. Psychologist Matte Blanco (1975) noted that in times of emotional stress humans can engage in thinking that involves thinking of an entire category in terms of a subset of that category. Thus in an argument between a nurse and a healthcare assistant they may end up as seeing each other; almost primarily, as representatives of an entire category. Furthermore how the category is structured can depend on arbitrary associations that make up the concept. Work in concept acquisition done by relational frame theorists has shown that our concepts have rich interconnections that are strung together in a somewhat arbitrary manner as a result of our contingent life experiences. Now a health-care assistant will have a string of associations attached to the term Nurse and he may not even be entirely conscious of what these associations contain. However, if in his dispute with the Nurse he more and more thinks of her in terms of the abstract category of Nurse this will mean that he will be thinking of her in terms of an abstract, arbitrary set of associations that he is not aware of. When this occurs, rich interpersonal relationships between the two people can be pushed to the background and people end up thinking of each other in terms of a static set of associations that they have internalized. This can lead to rigid thinking, a decrease in terms of compromise and an inability to understand the person you are talking to as a person.
Furthermore people don’t converse in isolation. These people in the discussion will be operating within a network of other people. And a lot of people will fall under the category of ‘Nurse’ or ‘Health Care Assistant’, and if people start identifying with a particular category then there is a danger that unconscious categorisation combined with humans innate territorial nature will result in interacting in an increasingly territorial manner in their dealings with each other.
Obviously a work-place where people are unconsciously interacting with each other in terms of evolutionary driven emotional behaviour isn’t ideal. The question is whether we can design our groups interactions in ways that can minimize these type of rigid emotional thought processes from infecting group interaction.
Firstly, it is important to note that the abstract rigid structures which can have a structuring and polarizing effect on interactions are multifarious so a variety of different factors will influence workers thinking; ‘race’, ‘class’, ‘attractiveness’ etc will infect thinking. People will implicitly rank people into various different categories and will typically rank the importance of these categories so implicit aligences may shift depending on context. One person may think the ‘Nurse’ ‘Care Staff’ divide is important but something like ‘Class’ may be more important to them so in interactions their implicit rank value system will inform how they form aligences. These factors will have a recursive feedback loop where one person thinks that another person has been disloyal to their group and shifts their attitudes towards that person. This information will spread throughout the community and may again have negative consequences for group interaction.
A useful tool that may help with group interactions is a discovery made by the nobel prize winning economist Elinor Orstrom. She researched how groups managed the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is a situation where individuals acting independently in their own self interest, act in ways that are bad for the common good. By empirically studying groups that successfully managed to overcome the tragedy of the commons, Orstrom managed to distill out the core rules they were following. Furthermore it has been shown that groups who adopt these rules increase their productivity and harmonious group interaction.
Below we will look at Orstrom’s 8 core design principles for group interaction and see how they can be applied to workplace interaction:
Strong Group Identity and Understanding of Purpose: As we discussed above people interacting can all be grouped into various different categories and these categories can rigify in people’s minds in times of stress and this can cause intense conflicts. However, if the overall group has a strong identity and everyone understands the purpose of the group this can operate like a kind of guiding light that focuses people away from interpersonal conflicts and towards achieving the purpose of the group.
Proportional Equivalents between benefits and costs:
Again conflict can be reduced and people will be less likely to build up lingering resentments if the rationale behind the various different benefits people receive relative to each other is explained in terms of the costs accrued by the people doing the work.
Fair and Inclusive decision making:
People don’t like being dominated. But they do like structure. Talking as a group about what you want to do and the best way of doing it is a great way of developing team spirit. But a clear leader within the discussion is necessary.
Monitoring agreed upon behaviours:
Some structure in place where agreed rules are monitored by independent staff.
Graduated Sanctions:
If work isn’t done direct friendly criticism is necessary with incremental sanctions if work continues to be undone.
Fast and Fair Conflict resolution
Rather than let issues fester management need to step in quickly with ways to minimize disputes.
Local Autonomy;
There needs to be some kind of authority within a group that helps form a common purpose. If the group is a small group within a larger organisation then that small group should have decision making capacities slightly independent of the overall organisation. This gives people a sense of agency and responsibility to the small group they are a part of.
Polycentric Governance: Apply the above seven principles in an attempt to relate collaboratively with other groups that your own group is nested within.
Ostrom’s core design principles have been shown to have great explanatory value in explaining how successful group interaction can be achieved. Her principles show that if a group is organized in a particular way this will select for a type of behaviour that benefits the overall group. The psychological principles which we discussed earlier can result in tensions occurring during times of stress and such psychological stressors can result in people thinking game theoretically in terms of rigid abstract categories. Groups structured according to Orstrom’s core design principles have been empirically demonstrated to have created successful group interaction. Using her core design principles may be a way of successfully avoiding people’s darker psychological nature’s destroying group dynamics.
We saw above how at a large scale societal level there is evidence that group dynamics can result in people’s behaviour switching based on structural features of their group and this can have dramatic effects from wars to workplace disputes. Work such as Ostrom’s can help in designing our groups in more effective manner. But much scientific study is needed to help us create more nurturing groups that people can thrive in.

Constructed World’s, Forms of Life and Intellectual Disabilities.

In his ‘Philosophical Investigations ’ Ludwig Wittgenstein discussed simple language games as a way of exploring the nature of our own language. One of the themes discussed early in the PI was ostensive definitions and how they could be used to teach that a word refers to number, shape, colour, a whole object: e.g. Slab, or whether a word is being used as a demonstrative; this and that. Wittgenstein’s discussion reveals a kind of poverty of stimulus in learning a word through ostension. So if a person points to something and says ‘Blickiri’ it is unclear purely by ostension whether the person is referring to a colour, a shape, an object, a number etc. Wittgenstein notes that we could limit possible interpretations of ‘Blickiri’ if it was prefixed by ‘Is a colour’, ‘Is a number’ etc. However, obviously if the person we are trying to teach by ostensive definitions already understands predicates of our language like ‘Is a colour’, ‘Is a number’ etc they would already understand complex aspects of our language and hence are not being taught from scratch by ostension.
On the picture sketched by the later Wittgenstein we learn our language through our shared form of social life with our peers. Throughout the PI Wittgenstein analyses how words get their meaning; and shows that supposed bearers of linguistic meaning such as private mental images, are not sufficient to the task of providing linguistic meaning. His emphasis on the social determination of meaning, shared practices, and actual linguistic use broke philosophy away from its traditional a priori methodologies. Instead of arguing that concepts MUST have a certain structure, or that we MUST be following certain determinate rules when reasoning, Wittgenstein asked us to look at our practices. This approach if adopted makes philosophy more pragmatic and interested in our actual interactions with the world as opposed to a purely speculative or armchair discipline.
Martin Heidegger’s dense prose and profound sounding claims about the nature of ‘Being’, ‘Language’ and ‘Concealment’, ‘Technology’ etc at a first glance seem to be far removed from the pragmatic spirit of the latter Wittgenstein’s philosophy Furthermore Heidegger’s later philosophy is no more compatible with pragmatism than is the philosophy the early Wittgenstein espoused in his ‘Tractatus’. However, it has often been noted that aspects of ‘Being and Time’ with its focus on everyday life and our concernful engagement with the world, and the role of implicit awareness, and embodied engagement with the world is also subject to a pragmatic interpretation.
While Heidegger argued against a psychological interpretation of his work it has nonetheless been used a great deal in both psychology and psychoanalysis. Robert Stolorow and George Atwood are excellent scholars of Heidegger and psychoanalysts who have managed to combine Heidegger with Freud. Their work has greatly enriched some Freudian concepts and has helped in understanding the lived world of people suffering from psychosis. Clinical psychologist Louis Sass has also managed to combine the insights of the later Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ as a way of understanding the lived experience of people with Schizophrenia.
In this blog-post I want to discuss the social world that is partially constructed for people with severe intellectual disabilities. My aim is not provide a scholarly discussion of the philosophy of either Wittgenstein or Heidegger, rather I will use some of their concepts to help me elucidate the world of people with severe intellectual disabilities is partially socially constructed. In an earlier Blog-post ‘Radical Interpretation and Intellectual disability: The principle of Charity and The Typical Mind Fallacy’ I tried to explore some of the challenges of interpreting how people with various forms of intellectual disability experience the world. In that work I called for more descriptive work similar to the work Oliver Sacks has done on people with neurological disorders to help health care workers understand the subjective world of the people they care for. The emphasis in that blog post was on the subjective world of people with intellectual disabilities and the challenges of interpreting it. In a later blog-post ‘Some Behavioural Techniques and The Idea of a Blank Slate’ I briefly discussed some behavioural techniques that are useful for dealing with people with intellectual disabilities who engage in challenging behaviour. Here the focus was on objective features of the environment and behavioural techniques that reduce the probability of a particular behaviour occurring. In this blog-post I aim to discuss an intermediate state: the lived world of people with intellectual disabilities. Here my focus will be on intersubjective communication, and the social world that people with intellectual disabilities sometimes live in.
In the 1960s when a child was discovered to have an intellectual disability a lot of the time the child would be immediately abandoned to state care. Things now a days are much different, people in general have a greater grasp of what having a child with intellectual disabilities actually entails. The stigma once associated with having a child with intellectual disabilities has now been greatly eroded. Furthermore there is much greater social support for the parents of a child with intellectual disabilities than was previously available. This isn’t to imply that things are perfect, this is obviously far from the case, many challenges still exist. My point is merely that things have to a small degree improved.
When discussing the social world of a child with severe intellectual disabilities my focus will be on their social world in the institute they live in. As I mentioned earlier children are not automatically placed in care when they have severe intellectual disabilities . There is a great emphasis the importance of the child staying with his family and being included in the wider community. Nonetheless caring for a child with severe intellectual disabilities, while perhaps caring for other children, is an extremely difficult job emotionally. To help parents to provide the best care possible respite services are offered to them where their child with severe intellectual disabilities can be cared for by community house which specialises in respite care.
Depending on level of care required by the child and the family circumstances respite care can begin at any age but it is typically provided for children as they get older and harder to manage. On average people will enter respite care from the age of 5 or 6. Like all children a child with intellectual disabilities is thrown into a pre-prepared world upon birth. A child is born into a family drama ; the parents give the child his name and typically have a room ready for the child along with fantasies about who the child will become. The child upon birth is immediately situated in a narrative created by the parents about the nature of the family and its relation to the external world. Wittgenstein correctly notes that to come to speak a language is to be immersed in a particular form of life. Different communities, societies and families have different forms of life. The new born child who is thrown into the world has to try and learn the various criss-crossing language games of the family or society they are born into. Parents of a child with intellectual disabilities often talk about a process of mourning that they undergo when they realise that the child they had imagined will never exist. They need to undergo this process of mourning their idealised child in order to get to know their actual child with his various impairments. Parents claim that eventually they just see their child as person and don’t see the intellectual disability after a while. However there is a period where the child is not living up to the unconscious fantasy that the parents had created of him. It is difficult to speak in general about the experiences of children with intellectual disabilities as different disorders such as Williams Syndrome, Downs Syndrome, etc will result different difficulties in processing emotions, communicating etc. Furthermore, even people with particular syndromes will differ in their abilities and temperaments. So there is no one fit all criterion we can provide which will describe the challenges they will face growing up within their family these matters will have to be evaluated on a case by case basis. But while it is essential to take note of the child’s intellectual disability and particular temperament, it is just as important to note the form of life that one is to some degree imposing on the child and whether that form of life is suitable for the particular competencies of the child in question.
When the child is brought into respite care for the first time he will again be entering a prepared world where the staff working there will have a working theory of who the child is. Some of the staff (typically the nurse in charge) will have met the family to discuss the child and will be introduced to the child. The family will typically try to prepare the child for respite by telling him where he is going, showing him pictures of where he is going to respite, and bringing the child to visit the respite unit before his respite begins. The staff will prepare by reading files from psychologists, social workers, GP, reports from the child’s school and reports from the child’s parents/guardians etc.
Human nature being what it is; staff will have formed a picture of the child before he arrives. Evidence from the files and reports will help the staff form a picture of the child who is coming into respite. Staff upon hearing the nature of the disability, and facts about the child’s behaviour may view the child in comparison to various other people with intellectual disabilities they have looked after. Preparations for the child’s arrival will take place in various ways. One key issue will be what children is the child suitable to be placed with? Various social factors will have to be considered, if the child is prone to imitative behaviour placing him with other children who can be violent or engage in self injurious behaviour is not a good idea. Likewise if the child is finds noise intolerable then placing him with children who like to make loud vocalisations may not be a good idea.
When the child arrives into respite care for the first time, just like when he is brought home from the hospital, or his first day in school he is arriving at a drama prepared for him. The child is being cared for by nurses and care staff with fixed roles, the staff will have an idea of who the child is and how he will behave, and have prepared activities and environment accordingly.
Occupational Therapists have long recognised that a huge part of what makes us who we are is what we do. Our daily activities are a large part of who we are. We are not disembodied Cartesian egos, on the contrary we are embodied creatures immersed in and engaged with our world. Because of Heidegger’s focus on ‘Being-in-the World’ and his detailed phenomenological analysis of our behaviour as we engage with our lived daily experience a lot of occupational therapists and nurses incorporate aspects of Heidegger’s phenomenology in their research . The importance of understanding everyday activities and how people find them meaningful in their daily activities lives cannot be stressed too much when considering the child entering respite care.
As we have already noted the child enters his new world with a place prepared for him by staff. Some children are verbal and some are non-verbal nonetheless it is important for staff and the new child to establish functional communication. If the child is non-verbal he will indicate what he wants by his behaviour, he will try to take what he wants, will get upset and may engage in self injurious behaviour if he cannot obtain what he wants. Even with children with severe intellectual disabilities can be taught to use at least some degree of symbolic communication. The PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) which involves the child being given a book full of pictures placed on a page with Velcro is a useful system in this sense. Children who may not be able to use PECS to form actual sentences can still learn to use the pictures to communicate what they want. Lamh which is a simple form of sign language which lacks the complex syntax of ordinary sign language is also an effective way of communicating with others. However if children cannot master these devices to any degree staff will need to interpret the behaviour of the child e.g. crying is a form of communication that something is wrong. And the staff has to use whatever background knowledge he has of the child to discover what the child is.
The phenomenological approach I have sketched involves treating the child with intellectual disabilities as an intentional agent who engaged in his world and is trying to find meaning in a social world partly created by those who care for him. This approach recommends that those whose responsibility it is to look after these children with ensuring that the social environment is structured in such a manner that it is as easy as possible for the child to immerse himself in the shared form of life of his peers.
There has been some regrettable disputes about the importance of phenomenological research in occupational therapy and nursing. Some proponents of its use have claimed that the phenomenological approach is an alternative to scientific third-person accounts. This has lead to a backlash where some theorists have attacked phenomenological approaches to explore the lived world of people who are ill or have a severe intellectual disability.
The approach of treating phenomenology as an alternative to scientific approaches is radically wrong-headed. When we are trying to understand the lived world of a person with intellectual disabilities we are adopting personal level explanations of their behaviour. This is how we interact with people in ordinary lived experience. When I arrange to meet a friend for a coffee, I will use this personal level mode of explanation. Thus I will use propositional attitude level type reasoning. I will assume that because my friend knows I will be in a particular coffee shop at a particular time, and he wants to meet me, has agreed to meet me at said time, and knows how to get to the shop, he will therefore meet me unless something happens to prevent him from meeting me. We use this personal level type explanation all of the time in our interactions with others and it works quite well . When dealing with children who have an intellectual disability we are dealing with persons some of whom are perfectly healthy aside from whatever developmental delay they have. Personal level interpretations are both appropriate and useful. Adopting a phenomenological approach is to interpret the behaviour of the child interms of personal level ascriptions though careful phenomenological analysis will sometimes reveal a more detailed picture than our ordinary folk intuitions do. This is not an alternative to scientific analysis of behaviour. It is just an approach which is useful and humane.
If we are trying to teach a child better functional communication a lot of the time behavioural techniques which occur at the sub-personal levels are superior to personal level techniques. Likewise if we are dealing with severe challenging behaviour, a combination of medical treatment and behavioural analysis usually works much better than any treatment at the personal level. But all of this is true of people who do not suffer from intellectual disabilities. A person with no intellectual disabilities may suffer a bout of depression and treatment interms of medicine may work better than personal level psychotherapy. Here we are using a sub-personal level explanation to help the person. The same will be true if a person with or without Intellectual disabilities gets sick with MS or any other disorder.
Personal level ways of interpreting people with intellectual disabilities are not an alternative to scientific explanations they are just standard ways of understanding how a person finds meaning in the world and particular socio-linguistic community they find themselves in. As always we can shift our levels of explanation as pragmatically needed. And leave the question of whether propositional level explanations will eventually be eliminated to future science to decide.

Zizek, and Brandom on Agency and Responsibility: Part 1

Philosopher Robert Brandom one of the most respected contemporary living thinkers in the analytic tradition has recently written a book on Hegel called ‘A Spirit of Trust’. His book is extremely challenging; as well as the obvious difficulty of interpreting Hegel’s work, Brandom explicates Hegel in terms of the technical work of analytic philosophers such as Frege, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Sellars etc.  Having one of the giants of analytic philosophy engage with Hegel’s work in book length detail is important for the discipline. One of the selling points of Analytic Philosophy at its inception, was its move away from purported Hegelian obscurity. Bertrand Russell, for example, argued that the new logic being developed by Frege and Russell would put philosophy on a scientific path that made Hegelian philosophy look antiquated. The fact that over a hundred years after Russell dismissed Hegel as an antiquated thinker, philosophers in the discipline Russell helped found are still trying to come to terms with Hegel’s work makes Russell’s dismissal of Hegel look hopelessly naïve.

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty argued that the analytic philosophy championed by Russell was a futile attempt of philosophy to remain in its Kantian phase and to cordon off a workspace for philosophers that couldn’t be gobbled up by the natural sciences. For Rorty, analytic philosophy had yet to move beyond its Kantian phase into its Hegelian phase. Since Rorty’s death it is fair to say that Hegel still isn’t a central figure. Philosophers like Robert Pippin and Robert Brandom take Hegel very seriously but overall Hegel is still a marginal figure in analytic philosophy.

In his blurb for Brandom’s book James Conant hoped that ‘A Spirit of Trust’ would do for Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ what Strawson’s ‘The Bounds of Sense’ did for Kant’s ‘A Critique of Pure Reason’ in Analytic Philosophy. It is hard to believe that Brandom’s book will have a similar impact. Strawson’s book served as a short clear expression of Kant’s ideas that translated Kant into the language of analytic philosophy. Brandom’s work is almost as complex and dense Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and to grasp his interpretation of Hegel one would need to be intimately familiar with technical work in the philosophy of language. It is doubtful that Brandom’s book will be read by many people other than those already interested in Brandom’s work or analytic philosophers who are already familiar with Hegel’s work.

One thing that Brandom’s book may have in common with Strawson’s ‘The Bounds of Sense’ will be that a lot of theorists from the Continental Philosophy tradition will dismiss it as another attempt by an analytic philosopher to domesticate radical ideas of a great thinker. Slavoj Zizek a world-famous philosopher in the Continental tradition has written on Hegel in various different places culminating in his massive book ‘Less Than Nothing: Hegel and The Shadow of Dialectical Materialism’ (2013). Zizek’s take on Hegel is every bit as challenging as Brandom’s. Zizek interprets Hegel through the lens of Lacan, Marx, de Saussure, Heidegger, Freud etc. So understanding Zizek’s take on Hegel demands as much of a grasp of Continental philosophy, as understanding Brandom’s take demands a good grasp of the intricacies of Analytic Philosophy. In fact reading Zizek and Brandom’s different takes on Hegel one could be forgiven for thinking of Hegel as a kind of elaborate Rorschach test onto which people project their own idiosyncratic obsessions.

Zizek read an early draft of Brandom’s ‘A Spirit of Trust’ and accused him of attempting to normalize Hegel and to ignore the wilder aspects of Hegel’s philosophy. Zizek’s paper ‘In Defence of Hegel’s Madness’ (2015) criticises some of Brandom’s takes on Hegel. It is worth evaluating these claims of Zizek’s as his criticisms reveal some differences in argumentative style between analytic and continental philosophers. Zizek offered three primary criticisms of Brandom’s take on Hegel:

  • The first strand of his criticism of Brandom is an obscure criticism of Brandom’s treatment of determinate negation and mediation. Zizek’s uses the work of linguist Saussure to criticise Brandom’s understanding of the nature of negation and mediation. And chastises Brandom for reducing absolute idealism to a semantic thesis.
  • The second strand of Zizek’s criticism focuses on Brandom’s bent stick example of negation revealing a contradiction between our representation and the thing in-itself. Zizek chastises Brandom for misrepresenting Hegel. While Brandom thinks that contradictory things exist in our incompatible representations of the object not the object itself; Zizek parses Hegel as arguing that contradictions can exist in nature: “Does Brandom not do here the exact opposite of Hegel? When Hegel confronts an epistemological inconsistency or “contradiction” which appears as an obstacle to our access to the obstacle itself (if we have incompatible notions of an object they cannot all be true), Hegel resolves this dilemma by way of transposing what appears as an epistemological obstacle into an ontological feature, a “contradiction” in the thing it self. Brandom, on the contrary, resolves an ontological inconsistency by way of transposing it into epistemological illusion/inadequacy, so that reality is saved from contradiction.” ( Zizek ‘In Defence of Hegel’s Madness’ p. 794)
  • The third strand of Zizek’s criticism focuses on Brandom’s take on agency and responsibility. “Brandom and Hegel are here opposed in a way which is far from concerning just an accent: Brandom asserts the transcendental primacy of trust which is always -already presupposed by any reductionist-suspicious ironic attitude, while Hegel’s entire effort goes into explaining why trust needs the detour through irony and suspicion to assert itself-it cannot stand on its own…This is the price that both Pippin and Brandom pay for their “renormalization” of Hegel as a thinker of discursive recognition: a regression into Kantian dualism of the domain/level of empirical reality and the separate normative domain of rational argumentation. Whatever Hegel is, such dualism is incompatible with his thought.” (ibid pp.804-809)


It would be beyond the scope of this blog-post to consider all of Zizek’s criticisms of Brandom so in this blog-post I will consider what I take to be one of Zizek’s primary criticisms; his claim that Brandom’s view on agency and responsibility is radically wrong. I will return to Zizek’s other criticisms in later blog-posts.

One of Zizek’s major criticisms of Brandom related to how Brandom handled unintended consequences.  Brandom used a toy model to discuss a case where a person could cause a disaster without thereby being responsible for the disaster. Brandom gives an example of a person pressing a doorbell with the intention of getting the attention of the occupant of the house. Unknownst to person who pressed the bell it has been rigged to explode when the bell is pressed. By pressing the bell person x inadvertently killed the occupant of the house. On Brandom’s understanding of the above toy model we couldn’t hold the person responsible for the death of the occupant although by pressing the bell the person is indeed part of the cause of the occupant being killed.

Brandom interpreted Hegel’s views on agency and responsibility under the guise of Donald Davidson’s philosophy of action. He broke Davidson’s theory of action up into five different elements.

  • One and the same event can be described or specified in many ways.
  • One important way of identifying or singling out an event is in terms of its causal consequences.

Moving ones finger and pressing the doorbell and causing the bomb to go off can be classed as one event because of its causal consequences.

  • Some, but not all, of the descriptions of an action may be privileged in that they are the ones under which it is intentional.

Potential descriptions of an event expand with the passage of time; Davidson calls this fact “the accordion effect” (ibid p. 388).


  • What makes an event, performance, or process an action, something done, is that it is intentional under some description.

Pressing the doorbell was intentional, while causing the bomb to go off wasn’t intentional. Setting off the bomb was something that was done, though it wasn’t intentional under that description it was intentional under other descriptions e.g. ringing the doorbell. The performance is an action under all its descriptions and specifications, including all the distant, unforeseeable, consequential ones that come in under the accordion principle. But what makes it an action is that it was intentional under some specifications. (ibid p. 388)


  • What distinguishes some descriptions as ones under which a performance was intentional is their role as conclusions in processes of practical reasoning. (Brandom ‘A Spirit of Trust’ pp. 387-389)

Pressing the doorbell was something the agent had a reason to do, provided by ends purposes or goals he endorsed, commitments he acknowledged, or values he embraced. Those reasons in the form of ends, purposes, goals, commitments, or values provide premises for potential pieces of practical reasoning justifying the practical conclusion that he ought to bring about an event satisfying a description such as pressing the doorbell but not setting off a bomb.( ibid p. 389)

Zizek’s response to Brandom’s toy model is firstly to note that Brandom hasn’t ruled out unconscious motivations for the person pushing the bell ( In Defence of Hegel’s Madness p. 799). This is a truly bizarre thing for Zizek to ask for. Brandom is using a thought experiment to illustrate a case where a person accidently causes the death of the occupant while not being plausibly responsible for the death. Instead of speculating on the purported unconscious motivations of a subject of a thought experiment Zizek would be better served by constructing a thought experiment of his own to illustrate what he thinks Brandom misses.

It is hard to know what type of thought experiment Zizek could appeal to demonstrate the inappropriateness of Brandom’s toy model. Suppose we added into the model that the guy who pressed the doorbell had a history with the occupant. The occupant had stolen guy x’s girlfriend, had gotten jobs x had applied for, held views that guy x felt were heinous. Here we could speculate that guy x unconsciously resented the occupant. But even if we did speculate that guy x hated the occupant; this doesn’t do much work in the thought experiment. The point of the thought experiment was that by fiat guy x pressed the button and didn’t know it was connected to a bomb. Therefore, even though he was causally implicated in the bomb going off, he wasn’t responsible for the death. Even if we add to our thought experiment that the guy unconsciously hated the occupant; we still have no evidence that he is responsible for the death.

Now Zizek can change the stipulation that guy x knew nothing about the bomb being connected; but doing so is creating a new thought experiment it does nothing to engage with the intuitions pumped by the original thought experiment. Sometimes in a thought experiment adding more detail makes the intuitions being pumped less clear and require further thought. But Zizek’s argument that we should consider unconscious motivation adds nothing to the thought experiment and leaves the intuitions that Brandom was trying to pump entirely untouched.

Aside from Zizek’s pointless use of unconscious motivations to interpret Brandom’s thought experiment he also makes another criticism. His second criticism is that the example is too contrived and unrealistic to be instructive. A toy model is useful in demonstrating that a person x could cause a state of affairs without being responsible for it. Nonetheless, a perfectly legitimate criticism is that outside of these idealized thought experiments things are more complex and hence the toy models are largely irrelevant to actual lived reality.

Now this is a complex topic. Idealization is a vital tool in the hard sciences. Physics, which is by far and away the most successful science uses idealizations all of the time (point masses, centre of gravity etc), and it would be considered a poor criticism of physics to say that their idealizations simplify reality; that is precisely their point to help us construct tractable models. Using an analogy from physics one could argue that Zizek criticising Brandom using toy models is as silly as criticising Einstein or Newton for using models.

However, I don’t think that this analogy holds. Firstly, philosophers have been using toy models (idealizations) for centuries and haven’t necessarily been successful in solving their problems. It would be poor practice for philosophers to try to piggyback off the success of physics in solving their problems using idealizations, to assert that philosophers are always justified in using idealizations despite not having a comparable level of success. Idealizations haven’t paid their way in philosophy in the way they have in physics. Secondly, and more importantly, while Idealizations have paid their way in science; so have the plucky critics who pointed out the unrealistic aspect of the idealizations noting the various aspects of reality they don’t explain. Pointing out the weakness and limitations of various toy models has been a spur for scientific progress since the inception of the scientific method. In this sense I think Zizek is justified in criticizing Brandom for using overly simplistic toy models.

Zizek offers us a different thought experiment to help us think about the case of unintended consequences. Zizek asks us to consider the case of a person who believes in Marxist philosophy and who thinks it will bring about a better world; such a person would never admit to wanting the horrors of Stalinism to have occurred. But nonetheless there is a clear sense in which it wouldn’t be absurd to hold them responsible for the horrors of Stalinism. There was a sense in which the horrors were implicit in the philosophy. There is a perfectly legitimate sense in which one could claim that despite the person not intending x the person is somewhat responsible for the occurrence of x.

So here we have two competing thought experiments which from a logical point of view aren’t at odds. We could say that in thought experiment 1 the person caused the event but isn’t responsible for it, while in thought experiment 2 the person ( didn’t really cause the event), but bears some responsibility for supporting the philosophy that led to the event.

Given that Zizek’s thought experiment doesn’t refute Brandom’s what was his point in using it? The obvious answer is that in real life we don’t ever have a clear-cut answer to how to attribute responsibility. Lived reality is ambiguous between reasons and causes. For this reason, Brandom’s thought experiment can be dismissed as an unrealistic example which has little relation to lived reality.

Other examples could be produced to illustrate Zizek’s point. In his recent book ‘The Deep History of Ourselves’ neuroscientist Joe LeDoux has argued that we are only really justified in attributing conscious states of fear to linguistic creatures such as ourselves who have a sufficiently structured neocortex.  Le Doux argues that when we see animals such as rats engage in fear behaviours we should be sceptical of interpreting these behaviours as evidence of conscious states. Le Doux’s argument is sophisticated and draws on mountains of empirical data to support his claims. He also goes out of his way to argue that such a philosophy of animal cognition shouldn’t be used to justify animal cruelty.

“Just because animals may not suffer the way we do does not mean that they do not experience some kind of distress and discomfort, and suffer from body injury or illness in their own way. My position should therefore in no way be used as a rationale for torture, abuse, or mistreatment of animals.” (Le Doux ‘A Brief History of Ourselves’ p. 331)

Imagine though that Le Doux’s philosophy caught on and was used to justify treating animals even more cruelly than is practiced today. There is a defensible sense where we could treat Le Doux as somewhat responsible for this cruelty if it could be shown that say there was a spike in animal cruelty following his philosophy of consciousness being adopted. This responsibility would exist even though Le Doux didn’t want such cruelty to occur. The responsibility would be mitigated by his explicit claim that people shouldn’t use his theories as a justification for animal cruelty. However; if it could be shown that his views on animal consciousness being adopted did lead to a spike in animal cruelty then we could be justified in holding him somewhat responsible. Now it is highly unlikely that any animal cruelty will occur as a result of theoretical issues in the neuroscience of consciousness. Nonetheless the bare possibility is another example of the type of responsibility that Zizek thinks is important to think about.

Another example of people being held responsible for behaviour they didn’t explicitly want to happen is in the area of exploitation being used to keep the capitalist machinery running. As privileged citizens of a Western capitalist society we are beneficiaries of a system that exploits countries all over the planet. In being willing participants in a Capitalist society we are somewhat responsible for sweat shops, Oil wars etc.

Cases like the committed Marxist’s responsibility for the terrors of Stalin, the scientists responsibility for the application of their theories, or the citizen of a western Capitalist societies responsibilities for international exploitation are far more interesting and instructive than Brandom’s toy model.

We saw above that Zizek criticized Brandom for not considering unconscious motivations in his toy model. As I noted the objection made little sense as the model was simply being used as a tool to analyse actions and events. When we discuss more real realistic cases, like the case of the committed Marxists, things become more complicated. Here, we cannot rule out of our analysis unconscious motivations influencing the behaviour of the communist, and these motivations can be used to judge the degree to which we can hold the person responsible for the horrors of Stalinism.

There is a school of thought which Brandom dismisses as the hermeneutics of suspicion. The primary proponents of this school are the likes of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, etc. In this school of thought a person may verbally subscribe to a particular philosophical position, they may justify it by reasons, but ultimately the reasons they use are a sham. To give a cliched example, in the Freudian tradition there is a mode of interpretation that involves questioning the motivation of the critics. Thus a critic may argue against Freud on the grounds that there isn’t sufficient evidence to support his claims about the status of the unconscious. However, a Freudian would interpret these arguments by applying Freudian theory. Thus, they could argue that Freud is an authoritative father figure, and that as children the critics primary authority figure was their dad. And our psychoanalyst could argue that when a critic attacks Freud they are really unconsciously attacking their own father and not Freud himself.

This Freudian approach of attacking the motives of critics is rightly criticised for question begging against their critics. Nonetheless, the approach is still pretty common and isn’t just restricted to Freudians; Marxists, Nietzsche, Evolutionary Psychologists also use such hermeneutics of suspicion. A common thread in Evolutionary Psychologists is to dismiss arguments from theorists on the left about social justice as merely unconscious forms of social signalling to ones peers.

Brandom discusses the hermeneutics of suspicion in relation to normative responsibility. He makes a distinction between local attempts at using the hermeneutics of suspicion and global attempts. A good example of a local attempt to apply the hermeneutics of suspicion would when a teenager begins to reflect on the fact he is a Christian because everyone in his culture is. But if he was born in a different community he would have become a Buddhist or a Muslim. This teenager may reflect that his reasons for believing in God are just post-hoc rationalisations to justify his cultural indoctrination. Proponents of global hermeneutics of suspicion would argue that all modes of reasoning can explained away in terms of causal sequences such as childhood experiences, unconscious evolutionary signalling etc of which we are unaware. For Brandom the hermeneutics of suspicion is an attempt to reduce normative reason giving explanations to causal explanations. Brandom argues that explanations that we only believe proposition x because of certain childhood experiences, reduces our reasons to the status of causal sequences. But he doesn’t think that global hermeneutics of suspicion holds up to critical scrutiny. His argument is the familiar one that any attempt to explain away reasons entirely in terms of causes is self-refuting; as if the proponent of the thesis really believed the thesis he would have no argument for it. His own thesis would be subject to similar unmasking so couldn’t be taken too seriously. In short if you are a global sceptic about reasons you cannot appeal to reasons to make your case.

Brandom’s discussion of the hermeneutics of suspicion is a key point of difference between Zizek and Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel. However to analyse the debate further would require a discussion of the philosophy of history. In the next blog-post I will evaluate how both Zizek and Brandom’s different takes on agency effect their interpretations of the philosophy of history, Hegel, and the nature of responsibility.

The Joker Movie: A brief discussion

The new Joker film has polarized its audience. To some it is a classic, and Phoenix deserves an award for his performance. For others the movie is an empty shell with nothing interesting to say. From what I have seen on Twitter a lot the commentary on the film seems to be along ideological lines. The director of the film Todd Philips; has recently complained about the far left’s supposed PC agenda ruining contemporary comedy. Philips complaints about PC culture haven’t endeared him to some journalists on the left and true to form lefty papers from the Guardian to online publications like i09 have panned the film.

Obviously journalists who disliked the film aren’t necessarily doing so because they disliked a few comments made by its director. It is more likely that the film’s theme and structure triggered certain reactions in the writers. It isn’t my job here to critique various different interpretations of the movie that others have had. Rather, I will here offer a few scattered thoughts on different aspects of the film.

The Joker is an iconic character who first appeared in the DC world in a 1940 Batman comic. The Joker was inspired by a 1928 film ‘The Man who Laughs’, which was about a man with a weird deformation which makes him permanently smile in an uncanny manner. In the DC universe the Joker has been portrayed in a variety of different ways over the 80 years since his creation. On screen the Joker has gone from being a campy character in the 1960 tv show, to the gangster Joker of the 1989 Batman Movie. To many fans, the most accurate on screen depiction of the Joker was in the early 90’s animated series of Batman, when the joker was voiced by Mark Hamill.

But in the popular imagination the Joker is Heath Ledger. Ledger played the Joker in the 2008 film ‘The Dark Knight’. While the film was being edited and prepared for release Ledger died of a drug overdose. The Dark Knight was a brilliant film and Ledger’s performance was superb. Ledger’s Joker had an ambiguous back story (the Joker told many mutually inconsistent stories about how he was scarred), his behaviour was portrayed as without reason. He was just a crazed mad man who liked to destroy things. Ledger’s fantastic performance, the film being excellent, and the Joker being genuinely unnerving would have been enough to cement Ledger as THE joker in most people’s mind. But his dying before the film was released added even more to the legend of his Joker.

But Ledger’s performance and its popularity presented a problem for those who owned the Batman franchise; how to create a new Joker.  When the TV show Gotham (a show exploring Batman’s childhood) began in 2014 it slowly introduced famous criminals such as the Penguin and the Riddler. But the Joker was conspicuous by his absence.  Slowly they began introducing a series different characters any of which could be a childhood Joker. This was a nice move. It meant that like Ledger’s Joker they were keeping his back story ambiguous. However, eventually the settled on a Joker played by Camron Monaghan. Monaghan is an excellent actor and his Joker laugh was terrifying. But eventually they overworked the story and in the last season the Joker was like a crude caricature of Ledger’s Joker. The 2016 film ‘Suicide Squad’ had Jared Leto playing the Joker and the whole thing was unbearably cringy. Try as they did to make the Joker edgy his entire portrayal was a disaster.

While Ledger’s Joker worked because of the ambiguity of the Joker’s backstory the new movie embraces his back story, using it as a way of describing how he ultimately became who he is. The overall theme of the film is of a lonely isolated man who suffered childhood abuse, who suffers from mental health issues and eventually kills a bunch of people and becomes a cult like sensation to thousands of people.

Given that the film is a backstory to a popular bad guy in a super-hero franchise one wonders why it has elicited such a polarizing response. The response isn’t your typical one where most people pan a film and some like it or where a film is greeted with general indifference; journalists seem to care about this film and are debating whether it is a work of genius or banal rubbish.

I enjoyed the film and thought Phoenix’s performance was brilliant. I would love if they built the DC universe around the movie; instead of the dross it has pushed out in the last few years (yes Justice League I am talking to you). But I certainly don’t consider the film some kind of movie classic in the way a lot fanboys appear to.

So, if we assume I am right, (I usually am 😉) that it’s a very good but not great movie. We must wonder why all the fuss? There are plenty of criticisms that one could make about the movie. Firstly, it is a cliché to portray the Joker as a mentally ill loner. Furthermore this cliché pushes a popular mythology about mentally ill people as being dangerously violent people. The truth is that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of crimes than perpetuators. So a critic could argue that the film pushes a dangerous stereotype that could result of further stigmatising the mentally ill.

But this criticism couldn’t be why people feel so strongly about the film. The cliché about the mentally ill and violence is used in a lot of films and doesn’t usually result in such strong reactions.

Another criticism is that the films portrayal of the Joker is an attempt to humanise a monster, and these attempts are usually directed towards white male criminals. In her ‘Down Girl’ Kate Manne recounts in detail cases of where women have been raped or subject to domestic violence of various kinds. In her detailed analysis she demonstrates in case after case, white rapists are treated as victims by the press. People bemoan the ruined life of the poor white guy who was always a good student and had a bright future ahead of him only for it all to be ruined by one tragic mistake. In these narratives the rapist becomes the tragic victim and the person who is raped almost disappears from the story. Manne calls this misplaced sympathy ‘Himpathy’[1] .

So it is possible that some critics’ problems with The Joker movie revolve around its misplaced himpathy for a brutal murderer because of his whiteness and maleness. Indeed some of the criticisms I have seen on Twitter do have this tone. Personally I didn’t think the Joker was portrayed that sympathetically; it was possible to feel pity for him at times; e.g. for his general awkwardness and the childhood abuse he suffered. But I didn’t get a sense in the film that the Joker was anything other than a psychopath; and his past doesn’t justify his behaviour at all.

The real reason that the Joker freaked out a lot of journalists was that his cult following is something we see over and over today. The Joker as portrayed in the film stands for nothing and is killing all around him based on delusions and repressed anger. Yet despite him being an inane man with nothing coherent to offer he has inspired a mass following of idiots who have little problem with killing innocent people. The Joker is set in the seventies, cults surrounding mad man were  more contained in the seventies. But with the internet and social media such as Twitter, YouTube etc cults are difficult to contain. Today disenfranchised people are flocking in their millions to sociopaths like Tommy Robinson, Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneux and being deluded with various different conspiracy theories.

The Joker is an uncomfortable reminder as to how easy people are riled up by idiotic clowns with no message other than anger. In the Joker film we get to see Bruce Wayne’s father as a thoroughly unsympathetic character and part of a vast network of powerful people who don’t care about the disenfranchised masses. Rather than focusing on unhinged psychopaths like the Joker perhaps we should be focused on uncaring people in power. Perhaps we should try to create a more nurturing society and hence decrease the people who will be led by clowns into a homicidal rages.

There has been speculation that Todd Philip’s comments about PC culture was a cynical attempt to sell the film to Incels who may relate to the Joker. Some have argued that they want to market the Joker to incels in the same way the marketed female Ghost-Busters to SJW types. I wonder whether liberal critics of the film with this incel interpretation in mind may have unconsciously viewed the Joker film as a metaphor for the dangers of cults lead by dangerous clowns and whether this may have led to their overly emotional interpretation of a movie about a superhero badguy.

(disclaimer I am just spit balling here and most of what I have said is probably false 😀 )


[1] In a blog-post I wrote last year I discussed the case of Bridget Cleary a woman who was murdered by her husband in Ireland over a hundred years ago. A lot of scholary treatment of that case involves Himpathy for the murderer

Frege, his Dad and the Eternal

“By Heaven, can we be ready to believe that the absolutely real has no share in movement, life soul or wisdom? That it does not live or think, but in solemn holiness, unpossessed of mind, stands entirely at rest? That would be a dreadful thing to admit.” (Plato ‘Parmenides’ p.248e)

Philosopher and biographer Ray Monk has written some of the most interesting and informative biographies about a variety of philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein etc. Monk argues that some philosopher’s lives are so dull as to resist any interesting biographies being written about them. Monk singles out philosophers such as Frege and Kant as being people who are so boring as to make a biography of them pointless.

Frege’s life certainly seems to bear out Monk’s negative impressions.  By all accounts Frege was a dull man whose life (outside of his theoretical work), seemed to be very dreary. He was a hard working maths student, who turned out into a hard working associate professor, he had an unremarkable marriage, had one adopted child and eventually he grew old and died. My little summary of Frege’s life may seem harsh, but the biographies written about him reveal little else about the man. There is very little documentary evidence of any kind of personality; no funny anecdotes, no interesting quirks in his personality; just lots of hard work in mathematics.

However as the philosopher Richard Rorty noted, one of the lessons we should have taken from Freud was that there were no truly dull people. If you get anyone on the bench you will discover unconscious motivations, bizarre desires, idiosyncratic behaviours etc. Here is Rorty’s gloss on dull people:

“But there is a difference between Nietzsche and Freud which my description of Freud’s view of the moral man as decent but dull doesn’t capture. Freud shows us that if we look inside the bien-pensant conformist, if we get him on the couch, we find that he was only dull on the surface. For Freud, nobody is dull through and through, for there is no such thing as a dull unconscious. What makes Freud more useful and more plausible than Nietzsche is that he does not relegate the vast majority of humanity to the status of dying animals. For Freud’s account of unconscious fantasy shows us how to see every human life as a poem… (Rorty ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ p. 35)


One doesn’t have to entirely buy into Freud’s particular views on psychology to agree with the general claim. It is surely indisputable that all humans have day-dreams, fantasies, unconscious beliefs governing their behaviour which they don’t explicitly state. Presumably Frege had sexual fantasies, presumably he had fears about death, growing old, he had passionate hates and passionate loves. Unfortunately there is little documentary evidence indicating any of these subjective states of the great man. In his writing he practically never mentions his emotional world. His output is almost entirely dedicated to his views on the foundations of mathematics. The only time Frege the man is seen in his writing is in a diary written later in his life where he expresses some extreme right wing thoughts. Aside from that Frege the man never emerges in his output of writing.

Frege famously argued against the idea that our grasp of mathematics could be explained entirely interms of our own idiosyncratic psychology. For Frege, mathematics was about an objective Platonic realm, the abstract objects mathematics picks out exist independently of any psychological states. Frege even argued that meaning should not be explained interms of idiosyncratic subjective ideas but instead meanings should be cashed out interms of abstract entities.

As every first year philosophy student knows philosophers such as Locke, Hume, Descartes etc cashed out the meaning of our words interms of their reference to ideas in our mind. Thus the meaning of our word ‘Cat’ would be cashed out in terms of our subjective idea (roughly a mental image) of a Cat. On this representationalist picture when we see a cat in our environment we are seeing it via a mental representation of the cat, and when we think about a cat we conjure up less vivid images of the cat. The meaning of the word ‘cat’ is derived from a combination of our images we conjure up when we think of a cat and the mental representations we use when we interpreting cat like stimuli in our environment.

Frege rejected this view of meaning. Firstly he rejected the view that our words picked out mental representations; for Frege our words picked out mind independent objects[1]. Our words reference was a mind independent object {which he parsed as either the true or the flase}, and the reference was mediated by an abstract sense. In his infamous example two people could be referring to the same object (Venus), but they could pick out that object via different modes of presentations. One person could refer to Venus via a sense {the morning star}, while another person could refer to Venus via the sense {the evening star}, neither person might know that { the Morning Star and The Evening Star both refer to the same thing i.e. Venus}.

Thus far people may find the above unproblematic. Our words pick out mind independent entities via our senses (which can be cashed out interms of descriptions instead of mental images), the overall picture seems a sensible one. However, natural as the above picture is, it is important to not be misled, Frege was explicit on the point that the senses which picked out references shouldn’t be understood as psychological states. Senses are objective modes of presentations they aren’t to be equated with psychological states or ideas.

Tyler Burge correctly argued that Frege claimed that there were three different functions of senses; (1) Senses are modes of presentation, (2) Senses fix reference, (3) they serve as the denotation of expressions in oblique contexts ( Burge ‘Frege on Sense and Linguistic Meaning’ pp.242-243). Furthermore, it is important to note that for Frege Senses are not to be reduced to linguistic meaning. Frege argued that while mathematicians who had written in his time and prior to him used linguistic descriptions of various different mathematical concepts their linguistic descriptions only partially and incompletely captured the abstract senses of the various different mathematical concepts. On Frege’s views senses belonged to a third realm of abstractions that existed independently of any psychological states or of the physical world.

Frege’s views on the subject were brilliantly argued for and to this day stand out as one of the best explanations we have for mathematical knowledge. His reasons for dismissing psychological states and subjective ideas are nicely summarised by Jacqquette:

“Frege wanted to distance himself from including meaning factors in the third level of associated mental content. He did not deny their existence. That is important. He nevertheless found no place for transitory ideas in objective non-psychologistic semantics. He concluded that an associated mental image, connotation, and “poetic” but nonetheless real “colouring” may sometimes accompany a thought’s reference to an intended objected by means of a word’s or sentence’s sense, what the symbol is being used to express and the thinker trying to say. However, Frege did not believe that these accidental subjectively variable associations occur in any lawlike way.” ( Jacquette ‘Frege: A Philosophical Biography’ p. 335)

Frege’s views on the above topic have influenced the likes of Quine, Wittgenstein, and Skinner. Frege’s argument in the above piece is pretty convincing. Whatever, the subjective colour provided by our idiosyncratic experiences as we do math; if we want to engage in law like inferences we need to move beyond our psychology and into the normative level.

From a logical point of view Frege’s attack on a naive psychologism is a sensible attack; without the attack we are in a quandary in explaining our normative judgements in logic and our law-like explanations of natural phenomena. Nonetheless, there was at times something unbalanced in Frege’s reaction to psychological explanations.

In his philosophical biography of Frege, Dale Jaquette documented the almost universal bad reviews or indifferent uncomprehending reviews that Frege’s work received throughout his life. Up until Russell acknowledged Frege’s work in his 1903 ‘Principles of Mathematics’ few mathematicians were impressed with Frege’s Logicism. On philosopher who was impressed with Frege’s work was Edmund Husserl; Husserl contacted Frege and they communicated about their respective research into the foundations of mathematics. Husserl even presented Frege with his ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’. The evidence from their correspondence seemed to indicate that the younger Husserl hoped to initiate a collaboration with Frege.

However, Frege’s review of ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’ put an end to any hope of collaboration between them (though they did communicate with each other after the review). Frege’s review of Husserl’s book was a sustained attack on Husserl for engaging in psychologism in mathematics. What is odd about the review is that Husserl wasn’t attempting to reduce mathematics entirely to psychological states. Nothing in ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’ argued that against giving a logical foundation for mathematics. Husserl was just interested in describing the phenomenology of arithmetical thinking (Jacquette p. 434). Husserl was quite clear in the philosophy of arithmetic that he was not trying to reduce arithmetic to psychological processing.

So one wonders why Frege could have misjudged Husserl’s intents so badly and in the process alienate one of his few allies? A plausible explanation is that Frege’s sensible arguments against psychological reductions of the timeless world of mathematics stemmed from an emotional source. And that any attempt to explain math in psychological terms was triggering for him; even if the psychological explanation wasn’t intended to be reductive.

One of Frege’s contemporaries was Bertrand Russell. Russell along with Frege helped to found the discipline of analytic philosophy. Russell often speculated that his early obsession with the world of abstract Platonic entities stemmed from a fear of the contingencies of reality. In the real world things are changeable and sometimes frightening. Russell knew about the contingencies of reality only too well. Both of his parents died when he was still a young child; parents are foundational for children. They are their child’s whole world. From the moment a child is born they are entirely dependent on their parents help to survive. Eventually, typically post adolescence, children become (partially) independent of their parents. But prior to that their parents are their whole world. In his book ‘The Philosophers their Lives and the Nature of their Thoughts’ Ben-Ami Scharfstein noted that a disproportionate amount of philosophers had lost a parent when they were young:

“The table shows what must appear to be a high frequency of early separations from parents, whether by death or by other causes…Of the twenty-two philosophers listed, two had lost both parents and eleven at least one by the age of six. In only six cases did both parents survive till the philosopher was fifteen…Painful separations are no doubt common in early life, but it seems nevertheless notable that at least twenty of the twenty two philosophers may of undergone them…a parent’s death might leave the philosopher in fear that he had inherited some vulnerability or even death from the parent.” (The Philosophers pp 347 -348)

Frege is one of the great philosophers who fits into the above category, he lost his father when he was just reaching adolescence, and he was a sickly child. It is not hard to imagine a weak child terrified with the contingencies of existence, who has lost his father, and who is sickly and acutely aware of his own mortality being fascinated by the universal rules of logic and mathematics. Frege being naturally brilliant at mathematics would have been constantly reinforced in its pursuit when he was developing as a young man. The eternal truths he was discovering would have seemed to have been an anchor that would remain true no matter what the contingencies of life would bring.

It is possible that Frege’s attack on Husserl was an unconscious defensive attack on someone who he unconsciously believed was attacking the only secure foundation he believed possible in the world he found himself in.

However, even if it is true that Frege had an unconscious emotional attachment to Logicism that led him to uncharitable attacks on people who attempted psychological explanations, this hardly makes his life a poem (in the Rortian sense). At best we have a dull professor who feared death and vulnerability and who as a result was overly attached to a particular philosophy.

Frege the human exemplar of a poem it seems is lost to biographers. To understand Frege in the Rortian sense we need artistic representations. Frege’s diary revealing extreme right wing comments and pushing for emotional expression in political gestures reveals a less sympathetic human. A man who flees from psychology and ideas as explanatory tools but who argues for emotional expression is a much more interesting man. But he is a man hidden in shadows. It will take an artist to render this Frege flesh and blood.

[1] Frege didn’t provide much by way of justification for his views on words referring to mind independent entities as opposed to referring to mental representations.

Corporate Groups and Natural Selection

Corporate Groups and Natural Selection

In recent years there has been an unfolding attempt to understand group dynamics in terms of a combination of evolutionary science and behavioural science.  This attempt typically involves an appeal to the concept of group selection. In our ancient evolutionary past what groups were selected would have been simply a matter of what group practices would make it more likely that group x would have survived as opposed to group y or group z. Today we are in a position to design our group practices explicitly and to reflect on what type of groups we want to flourish and what types of group behaviour we would prefer to be culled from our environment.

But when thinking about these issues it is important to reflect on what constitutes a group. We all have intuitive understanding of things we group together. Thus we can group together people who were born and brought up in the same town, people who were born and brought up in the same country, people who share the same religion, people who share the same political views etc. Now if we think in terms of sets we will note that some of these groups will intersect. All people who are born in the same town will make up a subset of people who were born in a particular country. While only some people who are from the same country will be members of the group of people who are from the same town. Trying to pick out which groups will be salient enough to be selected-for, or selected against, by the environment is a tricky task.

It makes little sense to speak of people from a particular country being selected. Humans have populated most environments on the planet and hence have spread to all land masses on the planet. It makes more sense to speak of groups of cultural practices being selected. A group of people on a land mass may have a variety of cultural practices and be exposed to another group with different cultural practices. It is possible that one group of cultural practices will be more effective than the other group of practices, and it will be passed on to the next generation while the other group of practices dies out. Or as is more typical the group practices may merge with the best of both being preserved by the environment.

Above when I spoke about practices being selected I spoke about the best of both groups surviving and being passed on to the next generation. But the word ‘best’ in this sense is ambiguous. To argue that one cultural practice is better than another has normative connotations. But from a strictly evolutionary perspective all that is really implied is that one set of practices survives and another doesn’t. ‘Best’ means nothing more than the practice that is passed on to the next generation.

Thus far I have been speaking breezily enough about group practices being selected. The idea of group practices being selected is of course a very controversial one. Evolutionary theorists such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne etc have argued strongly against the concept of group selection. While on the other side of the aisle theorists such as David Sloan Wilson, E O Wilson, and Bob Sapolsky, Boyd and Richerson, etc have argued that group selection is a real force in evolution that is as powerful as selection at the level of genes. Sloan-Wilson makes the point as follows:

“Multilevel selection theory tells us that something similar to team-level selection took place in our species for thousands of generations, resulting in adaptations for teamwork that are baked into the genetic architecture of our minds. Absorbing this fact leads to the conclusion small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Individuals cannot be understood except in the context of small groups, and large-scale societies need to be seen as a kind of multicellular organism comprising small groups.” (David Sloan Wilson ‘This View of Life’ p. 114)

In his 2007 paper ‘The False Allure of Group’ selection Pinker was highly critical of the concept of Group Selection. He argued that the concept was of little use in trying to understand human behaviour, and if we want to understand such behaviour from the point of view of human evolution we are better off sticking to the level of genes being selected. However, Pinker’s arguments failed to convince a lot of his critics.

Linguist Dan Everett argued that a key example of group selection is language. He argues that the function of language is to build communities. If one group of homo-sapiens has language and the other doesn’t then the group with language will be the group selected. Everett also mentions the selection of genetic mutation by cultural pressures (dual inheritance theory) as a paradigm example of group selection (e.g. some group’s ability to digest milk beyond infancy, or dyslexia).

Archaeologist Peter Richerson argued that a pro-social psychology arouse as a result of group selection (groups containing mainly selfish members would be at a disadvantage to more co-operative groups). While evolutionary Biologist Sloan Wilson noted the question that the Darwinian needs to ask is how can traits that evolve which are good for the group, when they are disadvantageous for members within the group. Traditionally this question was answered in two ways firstly by noting (1) Selection among groups is weak compared to selection within groups, (2) Other mechanisms can explain pro-social behaviour in ways that do not invoke group selection. Sloan-Wilson argues that neither of these can be considered true anymore based on recent findings in evolutionary psychology. Traits can evolve as a result of between group selection even if they are disadvantageous at in group levels. And attempts to explain pro-social behaviour without invoking group selection typically (implicitly invoke the concept of group selection).

                             Some examples of Group Designs

Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her work on the tragedy of the commons. She studied many different groups who had overcome the problem naturally and abstracted out 8 core design principles that are useful in overcoming the problem:

Elinor Ostrom’s Core Design Principles (CDP):

(1) CDP1: Strong Group Identity and Understanding of Purpose:

(2) CDP2: Proportional Equivalence between Benefits and Costs:

(3) CDP3: Fair and Inclusive Decision-Making:

(4) CDP4: Monitoring Agreed-Upon Behaviours:

(5) CDP5: Graduated Sanctions:

(6) CDP6: Fast and Fair Conflict Resolution:

(7) CDP7: Local Autonomy:

(8) CDP8: Polycentric Governance:

In his book ‘This View of Life’ David Sloan Wilson discussed how he implemented these core design principles in an experimental setting in a school (using appropriate controls) and were the design principles were shown to be very effective. He recommends that people working in various different groups; such as, small businesses, schools, universities etc should try to implement these core design principles to increase their effectiveness.

Getting businesses to adopt these scientifically justified design principles will be extremely difficult. A lot of corporate groups like to invoke concepts such as corporate cultures they practice. However these slogans don’t typically represent the actual culture of the corporation, but are rather just ways of branding the organisations. In his ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ Dan Everett noted that if a company really wanted to decide what their culture is they would need to ask the following questions:

“What are the roles of employees? Who is hired? How are they hired? What tasks and roles are most rewarded (with salaries, bonuses, commissions, stock options, etc.)?What are the relative roles of shareholders vs. stakeholders? What are the company stories in the boardroom, the washroom, parties, and the lunchroom? We cannot understand culture through questionnaires and public pronouncements alone. We must engage in intense participant observation, as in Karen How (2009), or in careful analysis of intended results, as in LiPuma and Lee (2004).” ( Everett ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ p. 171)

Everett warns us that close observation is needed to distinguish between the culture that is claimed and the culture that is evident from observing the behaviour of the corporation. He uses his rank value theory of culture to evaluate various different cultural practices. His advice to businesses on what questions to ask about what type of culture they are advocating, and on rank preferences within the overall culture, is a necessary first step in implementing Ostrom’s core design principles. First the business (or corporation) needs to establish what culture they are advocating, then, they need to use the core design principles to give the culture its best chance of flourishing.

Reflection on what the overall aims of a company are can help companies face difficult choices head on. It is doubtful that heads of Alcohol or Tobacco industries explicitly aim to kill people or make them sick. The death and illness are a consequence of a culture that values profit (and perhaps creating employment) above the health of their consumers. If our overall society favours this profit first perspective there is no reason for the company to change its behaviour.  It is here that the concept of group selection comes into play. If we create an environment that selects for groups which place profit above all else; the groups that will be selected are the ones that maintain profit better than their rivals. These groups could be a disaster for their consumers, for the environment of the planet etc. This is analogous to breeding a dog for a particular trait such as having a particular head shape. With constant selective breeding one ends up with a dog with a particular head shape selected for and a series of other free riders that came along with the selected for trait (reduced ability to smell, auto immune disorders etc). With the profit at all costs model you select for profitable groups, but as free riders you get a systematic lack of concern for the wellbeing of society and its members. Here it is up to society to decide what type of groups it wants to select for. If we don’t want to select for organisations that maximise profit at all costs we need to create as system of punishments and rewards that selects for the traits we want the groups to exhibit.

The psychologist Anthony Biglan’s work exhibits some of the strengths of this approach of selecting for certain group practices as opposed to other ones. He proposes that we treat organisms as entities whose behaviour we can modify in terms of selection by consequences. He argues that testing the impact of selection by consequences on corporate practices would give citizens and policy makers the tools to select the type of corporations we want (Biglan ‘The Nurture Effect’ p. 177). Although Biglan is aware of the power corporations have to resist such changes he cites his work with the Alcohol industry and the Tobacco industry to show that such change is possible. He suggests that positive reinforcement of good corporate practices may be a better tool than either negative reinforcement or punishment.

With the work of Biglan, Everett, Sloan-Wilson, and Ostrom we have tools for individual groups to make explicit what their actual culture is and why, we have tools to effectively design this group to succeed, we have an understanding of the dynamics of evolution to, as a society, create selective practices to select for groups with particular traits that will benefit society. This will create a feedback loop where corporations will have a Everett type worked out cultural self image, but will also have to compete in a world that is designed to select for practices based on an ethical world view based on more than just profit. If the checks and balances society is implementing on the particular corporation are impeding their growth they will have to modify their worked out self interest relative to the interests of the societies’ selective practices.

Obviously, a fear with the above is that what is being proposed is a form of top down governance in the mould of communism. However, that is not being argued for, rather what is needed what Biglan calls a more nurturing form of capitalism.

One criticism of my claims above is that corporations are too powerful for any governmental body to select for or against their behaviour. In my next blog-post I will evaluate how corporate power can be modified from within using the conceptual tools provided by Blanco’s set theoretic understanding of the mind and naturalizing his conception in terms of contextual behavioural science.

Popular Culture and Androids Part 1: Data

This is the first in a series of blog-posts exploring depictions of androids, robots and AI in popular culture. In these blog-posts I will discuss the philosophical difficulties with these depictions. In this blog-post I will discuss the fictional android Data and his ability to experience emotions and the implications of these experiences for how we interpret the nature of his consciousness.

In an episode of ‘Star Trek The Next Generation’, called the Descent part 1 (Season 6 Episode 26) the android Data experienced the emotion of anger. Data subsequently discussed his emotional experience with his friend Geordi La Forge. La Forge is originally sceptical of Data’s claim to have experienced emotions and asks him how he could know what an angry emotion is. Data asks Geordi to describe his own experiences so he can use them to see if they are similar to his. Geordi’s attempt to describe his emotional experiences turns out to be embarrassingly inept. The dialogue between Data and Geordi is worth expounding in full detail as it reveals a lot about difficulties in describing the nature of emotions:

“Data: I believe I have experienced my first emotion

Geordi: No offence Data, but how would you know a flash of anger from some kind of power surge?

Data: You are correct that I have no frame of reference to use to confirm my hypothesis. In fact I am unable to provide a verbal description of the experience. Perhaps you can describe how it feels to be angry? I could then use that as a reference.

Geordi: Ok…When I feel angry first I feel…hostile!

Data: Could you describe feeling hostile?

Geordi: Well yeah…it’s like feeling belligerent…combative.

Data: Could you describe feeling angry without referring to other feelings?

Geordi: Hmm…no I guess I can’t. I just… feel angry…

Data: That was my experience as well…I simply…felt angry…” (Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘The Decent’ part 1, 33mins-35 mins.)

There is an element in the above dialogue that puts one in mind of the Socratic dialogues. In the Socratic dialogues Socrates comes across some dupe who claims to understand some abstract concept like ‘Justice’ or ‘Equality’ etc. After a few minutes of being questioned by Socrates we realise that our dupe doesn’t in fact understand these concepts because he cannot even answer simple questions about them. But in the case of the discussion between Data and Geordi we are led to a different conclusion. The brief dialogue is meant to give the impression that although Geordi cannot define the nature of emotions (without appealing to other; equally undefined, emotional terms), he understands the emotional terms based on his immediate experience.

Since it is Data who had just had his first emotion in the above scene it is important to try and understand a bit about him before we can interpret his experience of having an emotional experience. Throughout the series prior to experiencing his first emotion Data is presented an intelligent thoughtful agent who is respected by his colleagues and who is capable of interpreting the behaviour of his colleagues in a largely accurate manner and to use language that is both coherent and (largely) appropriate to the situation.

Given Data’s linguistic proficiency in engaging in communication with his peers, and his ability to interact with his environment, he is typically treated as a conscious member of his tribe. But the question of whether he is a conscious agent is never really dealt with in sufficient detail. Though there is an episode where he has dreams and this is indicative of his being conscious; I will discuss this in more detail later on.

First I want to briefly discuss an early episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where Data is put on trial to defend his status as a person as opposed to mere property. In the trial it is argued that a creature must meet three criteria in order to be considered a sentient agent. They must be intelligent, self aware and conscious. The first two criterion are met when Data indicates intelligence through his performance in various tasks, he is judged to be self aware because he can verbally describe the scenario he finds himself in, on the question of consciousness it isn’t proven he is conscious it is merely remarked that it is as hard to demonstrate that other humans are conscious as it is to demonstrate Data is.

If we take Data at his word that he is has experienced the emotion of anger then we will be forced to admit that he is conscious. However there were moments earlier in the series that would cause one to doubt that diagnosis. Firstly Data doesn’t appear to feel any pain, thus he has at times had his head removed, his arm removed, and doesn’t indicate any pain or discomfort whatsoever. Along with not feeling pain, he doesn’t seem to experience pleasure; thus while he has had sex he doesn’t associate it with any pleasant sensations. Though it should be noted that while there is no evidence he experienced any sensations when having sex; he did afterwords describe the experience as a meaningful one for him.

The question is can a creature who is incapable of experiencing pain or pleasure have conscious experiences? If no aspect of our environment gave us pleasure or pain; in what sense would it make sense to argue that a creature was conscious? In one sense one could argue that consciousness is simply awareness of something. For a person to be aware of x it doesn’t intuitively seem necessary for one to experience pain or pleasure. It would appear to be possible to view a red object as a red object without this experience involving experiences of pleasure or pain.

To intuition relies on the representational theory of the mind; which was made famous from Descartes argument from error. Descartes argument relies on demonstrating that the world as it is revealed by science isn’t the world of experience. Thus, for example, a stick in water can appear to be bent, but in reality the stick is actually straight. With a disjunction between how the world appears to us, and how it really is; the stage was set for a representational theory of the mind. Descartes theorised that the world as it appears to our mind is a representation which we use to make sense of the world but it is not a direct experience of the real world. Not many people followed Descartes in his dualistic way of conceiving of this issue but the majority of scientists and philosophers follow him in accepting that the argument from illusion leads to a representational theory of the mind.

Again consider Data and his experience of the world. A person walks by him wearing a red top; light reflects off the red top and hits Data’s eyes the light is registered by the eye and information is transmitted from his eyes to his positronic brain, and his brain (somehow) creates a representation of the red object. It is this representation that Data experiences. So if we accept this story[1]; we can argue that Data had conscious experiences in the form of representations. There is some support for this interpretation in the Star Trek episode:

In the above scene we are presented with Data’s dream from a first person perspective. Now a dream is an example of Descartes argument from error. In a dream we purportedly experience a world around us; however since we are really asleep in our beds, the world we see isn’t real but is rather a representation of reality that is fooling us. Now given that in the above episode Data is portrayed as being capable of dreaming it seems inescapable but to conclude that he has conscious experiences[2]. But it is a strange disembodied kind of consciousness.

Data is portrayed as having conscious representations of the world which contain rich qualitative experiences of colour, sound, shape etc. But other aspects of his behaviour seem unconscious or reflexive. As we saw above Data seems to have absolutely no pain receptors. His body can obviously register aspects of his environment and respond appropriately to it. But as portrayed in the show he doesn’t seem to experience any conscious proprioception as he moves about his world. In a sense Data’s body is similar to the body of the robots currently being built by Boston Dynamics:

The above robot, like Data, is adroit at moving around its environment and like Data his skilled movement is unaccompanied by any subjective experience. Of course to a degree we are all like Data or a Boston Dynamics robot as we move around our environments. People who have a severe stroke who are trying to re learn how to walk quickly discover how much of our movements around our world rely on non-conscious mechanics that have to be re-learned post stroke. But there is a difference and it is one nicely captured by Heidegger’s distinction between the ‘ready-to-hand’ and the ‘present-at-hand’. Heidegger notes that when engaging in our everyday activities our movements are pre-thematic, they are in the background and we don’t notice them. When working in this state we find things in our environment ‘ready-to-hand’. However, when things go wrong with our relation to our environment we become aware of ourselves and the objects we are interacting with in a more explicit and theoretical way called ‘present-at-hand’.

In a lot of cases our movement from ‘ready-to-hand’ to ‘present-at-hand’ involves things like a feeling of pain or a feeling of frustration. So, for example, a guy working in a warehouse who is moving things in a particular way on a daily basis will not be aware of the movements till he starts suffering from back pain; once he starts experiencing this pain his interactions with the objects he is moving will switch from ‘ready-to-hand’ to ‘present-at-hand’. The objects he is interacting with will suddenly acquire a particular salience and he will need to be more conscious in his movements when interacting with the objects.

Likewise, if a worker has a well worn set of behaviours when engaging with some aspect of his environment and these behaviours cease to work this will inspire some emotions. The worker may feel frustrated or curious and will have to step back from his behaviour and form a new way of interacting with the objects in his environment.

The situation with Data though precludes such switches from ‘ready-to-hand’ to ‘present-at-hand’, Data is incapable of experiencing pain, and he is incapable of experiencing frustration. So if Data was a worker in the above situations he would have little reason to switch to conscious deliberation when things go wrong. Data is constantly portrayed as experiencing curiosity and wonder. But the show never offers an explanation of why a creature who is supposedly devoid of emotions is capable of experiencing curiosity.

Another strange aspect of Data as a concept is his development. He is portrayed as an android who was built with an adult body and who was programmed to move around his environment, speak respond etc. All of this behaviour was built in; he just used these built in competencies to learn the nature of the world he lived in through interaction with humans over a number of years. So Data never experienced life in a womb; or as a child entirely dependent of his care givers; nor did he feel the human innate emotional bond with parents and peers. He never felt embarrassed, or angry, or exhilarated when interacting with childhood friends, parents, neighbours etc. He never went through puberty and the emotional changes it brought about.

So with Data we have a weird combination. He is supposedly capable of conscious representations of things such as shape, colour, size etc. But he doesn’t experience pain, while he can touch things and interact with them; such interaction appears to be on the level of a Boston Dynamics robot (with the added ability to theoretically interpret his own movements). Whatever consciousness Data supposedly has it seems to be entirely disembodied and like a magical add on to his mechanical behaviour.

This leads us back full circle to Data’s conversation with Geordi. Geordi cannot explain his emotional experiences in a satisfactory manner. But he has a lifetime of experience of learning emotional words and keying them with bodily movements and various experiences. He has a life time of shaping his emotion words to his embodied experience and using them in a way that his similarly constituted peers can understand. Data on the other hand has always been able to use emotion words, but because he had no emotions there was no fit between his words and his experiences. Given Data’s weirdly disembodied Cartesian Nature it is unlikely that even if he suddenly did have new experiences (which he would categorise as emotions), they would line up with human emotions. Data if he were suddenly given emotions would be like a person who was blind for his entire life suddenly being given his sight. Even with the ability to see the ability to interpret distance, size etc would take years of learning to be perfected. And there is a strong possibility that it would never be entirely perfected.

[1] And there are plenty of difficulties with the story; firstly while we have good story of the neural correlates we have no idea how those correlates produce our experiences in the way they do; secondly any representational theory of mind runs the risk of an infinite regress.

[2] Dennett’s 1976 paper ‘Are Dreams Experiences’ argues that dreams are not something we directly experience but rather stories we rationally reconstruct after waking. But in the fictional world of Star Trek we are shown Data directly experiencing his dreams; so within this fictional world Dennett’s concerns are mute. Though a philosopher living in the fictional trek world could argue a la Dennett when Data reported his having dreams.

David Sloan Wilson: On Evolution and Behavioural Science


In his recent excellent book ‘This View of Life’ David Sloan Wilson offers a compelling case for the utility of evolutionary thinking in all areas of life; in particular he makes a masterful case for how evolutionary thinking can improve our over-all standard of living and make our world a better place. In future blog-posts I will discuss Sloan-Wilson’s recommendations for using evolutionary thinking for public policy. In this blog-post my focus will be narrower. I will examine Sloan-Wilson’s very brief discussion of B.F. Skinner. Like every evolutionary psychologist who criticises Skinner, Sloan-Wilson uses the trope of Skinner being a blank slate theorist.

Sloan-Wilson on Skinner and Behavioural Science

A lot of evolutionary thinkers who criticize Skinner (and behavioural science in general), don’t demonstrate any understanding of the subject; but Sloan-Wilson is different. His work with behaviourists such as Tony Biglan and Steven Hayes has given him an understanding of the subject far beyond the likes of Pinker or Fodor. Sloan-Wilson acknowledges the important work in applied science that has been done by behaviourists; e.g. work by ABA practitioners with Autistic children, or the good behaviour game which he tries to link with his own evolutionary understanding of science. Nonetheless Sloan-Wilson is critical of behavioural science in general (in particular he is critical of Skinner’s radical behaviourism).

Sloan-Wilson is complementary towards Watson and Skinner’s criticism of the introspective psychology that preceded the behavioural revolution. However, he is critical of Skinner for only focusing on half of Timbergen’s famous four questions. Timbergen noted that when trying to understand the behaviour of an organism we should do so by asking four different types of question (1) history, (2) function, (3)  mechanism, (3) development.  On Sloan-Wilson’s picture Skinner ignored question (3) and (4). As a result of this Sloan-Wilson uses the tired old label of blank slate theorist to categorise Skinner’s position.

Sloan-Wilson’s criticisms of Skinner have some validity. Skinner did argue against explaining human behaviour in terms of inner mechanisms or cognitive models. Firstly it is important to note that being a sceptic about the value of cognitive maps wasn’t a behaviourist dogma. Behaviourists, such as Skinner’s contemporary, Edward Tolman used cognitive maps in their explanations of human behaviour. Nonetheless, Skinner is the name contemporary thinker’s associate with behavioural science; so Wilson is correct to point out Skinner’s scepticism re- the importance of cognitive maps. Furthermore, throughout his entire career Skinner showed little interest in developmental issues.

The question we have to ask here is whether Skinner erroneously ignoring questions 3 and 4 make him a blank slate theorist? In order to evaluate this question it is worth considering a comparison that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini[1]made in their infamous book ‘What Darwin Got Wrong’.



Fodor on the analogy between Skinner and Darwin

F and P argued that the logic used by behaviourists re- operant conditioning and the logic used by Evolutionary theorists was identical. They noted that there was an inconsistency in the way that Skinner and Darwin were treated; people argued that the Skinner’s logic lead to an easy refutation; while Darwin despite using the same logic didn’t receive the same treatment.

The first point of comparison they make is in terms of what they call population thinking. They claim that a way to think of the theory of natural selection[2] is as a theory of how phenotypic properties of populations change overtime in response to ecological variables (‘What Darwin Got Wrong p.3). They define Operant Theory[3] in a similar way ‘OT is also plausibly viewed as a black box that maps a distribution of traits in a population at a time (a creatures behavioural repertoire at that time), together with a specification of relevant environmental variables, the creature’s history of reinforcement; onto a succeeding distribution of traits.

They argue that the TNS and OT have 6 basic untenable feature in common: (1) Iterativity: ET provides no bounds on the type of phenotype possible OT provides no bounds on the variety of behavioural profiles which can be created through conditioning.(2) Environmentalism: ET and OT abstract from endogenous variables, claiming that the phenomenon of evolution on the one hand and psychology on the other are largely the effects of environmental causes (3) Gradualism: ET argues that new phenotypes emerge gradually, OT argues that learning is a gradual process of stimulus response conditioning (4) Monotonicity: ET and OT are one factor theories. For ET selection does all the work. For OT conditioning does all the work. (5) Locality: Both ET and OT are local processes and are insensitive to mere hypothetical contingencies (6) Mindlessness: ET doesn’t postulate God to do the work and OT doesn’t postulate Mind to do the work.

Fodor and Piattelli argue that the evidence they provide in their book shows that evolutionary theory as defined according to the above six principles cannot do what it purports to do. And in this sense they argue both OT and ET are hopeless theories the only difference is that people understand that OT is hopeless; yet inconsistently they remain wedded to ET.

Internal constraints: The authors begin this section with a claim that standard Neo-Darwianists are environmentalists by definition. By this they mean that standard Darwianian theory thinks that changes to a phenotype are largely driven by environmental contingencies. Their primary aim in this section is to show that contemporary wet biology is telling a story of innate constraints which are at odds with the neo-Darwinian story. It is worth noting that the authors they cite in this section do not agree with the use F and P make of their work. Furthermore, most neo-Darwinians would deny that they are environmentalists in Fodor and Piattelli’s sense. So they would argue that Fodor and Piattelli are attacking a straw-man.

Bearing all of this in mind lets now review the evidence they cite. The first thing they cite is the concept of Unidimentionality. Unidimentionality is supposedly standard story in the neo-Darwinnian theory. On this picture NS plays the primary role in the theory of evolution, the role of internal sources of variance, and internal constraints is said to play only a marginal role. To prove this point they cite Earnest Mayr’s book ‘Animal Species and Evolution’ as an example of such ultra-selectionist attitudes. F and P claim that discussion of the evolution of the eye nicely illustrates the neo-Darwinian emphasis on NS as the primary source of design in species. It was claimed by most neo-Darwinian theorists that the evolution of the eye emerged several times independently and convergently across species. In his Darwins Dangerous Idea Dan Dennett referred to the evolution of the eye as a nice trick, something that was bound to be selected in any form it occurred in. Dawkins has made similar claims. F and P pointed out that the discovery of master genes for eye development (Pax 3, Pax 2, Pax 6, and Dach) across vastly different classes and species has shown the neo-Darwinain view to be incorrect. The next topic they consider is beanbag genetics. Here they basically argue that selection for a particular gene rarely, if ever occurs, and this is because of the convoluted packing of genes in chromosomes. Their critique of beanbag genetics is a pointless because nobody believes it anyway.

One of the key factors they believe counts against the neo Darwinian view is the existence of Internal Constraints and Filters. The discussion of internal constraints and filters involves an appeal to results in the evo-devo revolution. Again it is worth noting that most people working in evo-devo consider themselves a part of neo-darwinanism and would not accept the conclusions drawn from their work by Fodor and Piattelli. According to Fodor and Piattelli, the standard neo-Darwinian picture abstracts away from the all effects of development on visible traits (p.27). They stress that the evo-devo revolution shows that this development not only cannot be abstracted away from, it is key to the process of evolution. The argue that it has been shown in the lab (1) phenotypic convergence is, more often than not the result of developmental constraints, (2) Also they cite the fact that experimental evidence (Ronshaugen 2001), has shown that terminal forms can differ in massive ways as a result of slight variations in the regulation of the same gene complexes/or the timing activation of such complexes (pg 30). This shows that contrary to neo-Darwinian claims evolution is not primarily driven by exogenous factors but by internal developmental constraints. They spend the rest of the chapter outlining a series of facts which they claim further develop their point. Throughout section 1 they are merely attacking a straw-man, because most evolutionary theorists do not deny what they are claiming. Though it is true that a lot of pop science is guilty of making claims of the type they critique.

In chapter two and three F and P argued that there are internal constraints which limit the importance of selection, and they considered how if at all selection could operate given these limits. They claimed that in response to the evidence reviewed in chapters two and three neo-Darwinists have expanded its scope and invoked other kinds of natural selection. This chapter is an attempt to provide more problems for neo-Darwinism. The first problem they consider is the phenomenon of adaptation without selection, Fodor and Piattelli summarise the point as follows:

“The point to keep your eye on is this: it is possible to imagine serious of alternatives to the traditional Darwinian consensus that evolution is primarily a gradualistic process in which small phenotypic changes generated at random are then filtered by environmental constraints. This view is seriously defective if, as we suppose, the putative random variations are in fact highly constrained by the internal structures of evolving organisms. Perhaps it goes without saying that if this internalist story is true, then less work is left for appeals to natural selection to do.” (What Darwin got Wrong p. 54).

They provide eight pieces of evidence which they think support their conclusion:

(1)   Gene Regulatory Networks: Building from the work of E. H. Davidson (2006), they argue that gene regulatory networks are at work in the development of the organism. These gene regulatory networks are modular in nature (in other words they form compact units of interaction which are separate from other similar units). The important point about these regulatory networks is that they are supposedly responsible for the development of the bodily structures of animals. This happens because large effect mutations acting on conserved core pathways of development. They claim that this process makes it virtually impossible to argue that particular isolated traits are selected for.

(2)   Entrenchment: They claim that this acts as an engine of development and evolutionary change, and as a constraint (ibid p.43). Some evolutionary factors may be highly conserved and protected against change. They offer very little evidence of their views at this point merely a promisary note to develop the point in the next chapter.

(3)   Robustness: This is the persistence of a trait of an organism despite developmental noise, environmental change or genetic change. This robustness is important for the stability of phenotypic change despite genetic and non-genetic variation. They cite the work of Wagner (2008) which claims that it is only the additive component of genetic variation which responds to selection.  Fodor and Piattelli argue this fact should make people wary of accepting the neo-Darwinian view that selection is the primary vehicle of phenotypic variation.

(4)   Master genes are our ‘Masters’: They make the now well established point that many genes are indissociably controlled the same ‘master gene’. Therefore if a mutation affects a master gene (and is viable) it will affect all of the genes the master gene controls as well. They link this to Gould’s famous paper on spandrels. They briefly discuss how the evolution of language may not be explicable by a simple adaptative story in terms of selection for communication. Using facts about master genes they argue that language may have been a free-rider, which was selected because some mutation in the master gene Otx. They claim that this story is not even considered because of allegiance to an ultra adaptationist model. I do not agree with this claim there has been ample debates on this topic. See Hauser, Fitch and Chomsy 2005 and reply by Jackendoff and Pinker 2006. However evaluating this debate would take a long discussion of linguistics which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

They go on to further discuss things like developmental modules, coordination, morphogenetic explosions, plasticity and the (non-transitivity) of fitness. All of these facts are well known in the literature and it is unclear to me at least why they believe these facts pose a major problem for evolutionary theory. They do pose a problem for the caricature of evolutionary theory they present at the beginning of their book but not for evolutionary theory as it is actually practiced.

They also consider ‘Laws of Form’ as an argument against the standard Neo-Darwinian Story. They discuss the work of thinkers like Stewart Kauffman, Stuart Newman, and Lewis Wolpert who have all discussed the important topic of laws of form and self-organisation. Fodor emphasises how this research shows that we need to discover what forms are possible for an organism to take before we attack the question of how selection can act on these possible forms. These constraints on possible forms are shown in things like non-genomic Nativism discussed by people like Cherniak. Cherniak details computational constraints on brain anatomy which he claims are derived from physics for free; hence we do not need natural selection to explain some of the structure of the brain. F and P also discuss the work of James Marden who has detailed physical constraints on possible animal locomotion. Their discussion of laws of form is extremely interesting but again it is hard to see that it really poses any problem for the standard neo-Darwinian picture. There really is nobody, and I mean nobody, who denies that there are physical constraints at work in evolutionary theory. They are correct to note that pop evolutionary writers sometimes ignore these physical constraints and focus entirely on selection. So, if F and P were merely warning against this type of mistake, then their point would be well made, but it should be obvious that their arguments do not have any bearing on neo-Darwinian theory when construed correctly.

The Relevance of Fodor’s analogy for Sloan’s treatment of Skinner

F and P’s argument against Darwinism was largely ridiculed as ignorant nonsense by evolutionary scientists. The correctly noted that their book[4] was an accurate description of work that was ongoing in the discipline; but that it was pure fiction that this work refuted Neo-Darwinian theory. On the contrary, the work was a part of the modern Darwinian Synthesis.

The relevance of this digression to the present discussion F and P’s treatment of OT and ET was almost identical. F and P treated ET as an environmentalist theory that focused entirely on selection and ignored constraints that limit the power of selection. Likewise F and P treated OT as a theory who overrated the power of operant conditioning and ignored the limits innate factors would place on such conditioning. F and P were right about one thing though there is an inconsistency between the way OT and ET were treated. F and P were laughed out of court for their caricature of ET. But most theorists seem to accept their caricature of OT as factual. Even a thinker as sophisticated as Sloan Wilson seems to accept the caricature:

“Eventually, the limitations of behaviourism became apparent. Organisms were not entirely blank slates in their learning abilities, and techniques were becoming available for studying how the mind works…” (Sloan Wilson ‘This View of Life’ p. 100)

Skinner of course never claimed that organisms were blank-slates. Throughout his career Skinner argued that two primary sources influenced shape human behaviour (1) The contingencies which shaped the species (resulting in genetic constraints), (2) The contingencies of reinforcement that shape the organism throughout it’s life. (See About Behaviourism p. 168, Beyond Freedom and Dignity p. 14, Verbal Behaviour p. 162, Science and Human Behaviour p. 26 etc.)

Below are some quotes from Skinner where he explicitly denies being a blank slate theorist:

“As a result it is part of the genetic endowment called “human nature” to be reinforced in particular ways by particular things.” (Beyond Freedom and Dignity p. 104)

“Just as we point out the contingencies of survival to explain an unconditioned reflex, so we point out to ‘contingencies of reinforcement to explain a conditioned reflex” ( Skinner About Behaviourism p. 43)

“The task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behaviour of the person is a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved, and the conditions under which the individual lives” (Skinner ‘About Behaviourism’ p. 14)

The above quotes and references indicate Skinner was far from a theorist who believed in a blank-slate. In fact he emphasised that the conditions under which a species evolved would heavily influence what they would find reinforcing. It is true that he was more interested in environmental factors than the innate constraints but it is unfair to characterise his work as blank-slate. Attempts to reduce Skinner to a blank-slate theorist are as unfounded as attempts to claim evolutionary scientists think natural selection is the only factor that plays any role in evolution.

[1] Hence forth Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini will be referred to as F and P.

[2] Henceforth the Theory of Natural Selection will be referred to as TNS

[3] Henceforth Operant Theory will be referred to as OT.

[4] I am here only discussing the first part of F and P’s book. The second half was a conceptual argument which while interesting has little bearing on the present discussion so can be ignored here.

The Sublime and The Uncanny: Jurassic World and the Walking Dead


In his famous paper on the Uncanny Freud complained that philosophers studying aesthetics had contented themselves with studying positive aesthetic experiences such as the beautiful, the pleasant etc. Freud even used the sublime as an example of a positive emotion that philosophers had studied. To redress this perceived imbalance Freud wanted to study a largely negative human aesthetic experience; the experience of the uncanny.

Freud’s treatment of the uncanny was excellent; but anyone who has read philosophers like Kant will be taken aback by Freud’s claims about the sublime. The concept of the sublime; far from being a purely positive emotional experience actually involves many negative emotions.

In his ‘A Critique of the Power of Judgement’ Kant constructed a theory of the sublime which influenced a generation of artists and philosophers. In next section I will briefly describe Kant’s conception of the sublime and exemplify a key example of it using a clip from the film Jurassic World.  In the following section I will then outline Freud’s concept of the Uncanny and illustrate its nature in reference to the popular television programme The Walking Dead.  Finally I will demonstrate that these concepts have more in common than Freud realised.

The Sublime

According to Kant the sublime is an aesthetic experience where people have an emotional reaction to a terrifying representation of an aspect of nature. Kant differentiates the sublime from other concepts such as the beautiful, the good, and the pleasant. He argues that the sublime differs from the pleasant because the experience of something as pleasant relies on a sensation whereas an experience of the sublime doesn’t. He further argues that the sublime differs from the good because judging something as good requires it being interpreted through definite concepts, whereas, while judging something as sublime also requires interpreting them through concepts; the concepts we use when we judge something as sublime are indeterminate concepts (‘A Critique of Judgement p. 61). Furthermore Kant argues that when we judge something as beautiful we do so because of the particular form of the object we are judging; whereas when we judge something as sublime this is because we view the object/scene to be formless, boundless etc (ibid p. 61)

Kant doesn’t just describe the sublime by differentiating it from other concepts (the beautiful/the good/the pleasant). He also presents positive characteristics of the nature of the sublime. Kant argues that there is a particular psychological state associated with it. When we judge something as sublime we are both repelled by it and attracted to it at the same time. Our relationship to objects we judge to be sublime is one of respect and awe.

Another key feature of the sublime involves judging the objects of experience as purposeless and dangerous. Thus despite something being viewed as chaotic, dangerous and purposeless this only increases our sense of it as being sublime. Kant makes an important point re the sublime; we shouldn’t say that the object itself is sublime; rather particular forms of judgement excite in us feelings which lead us to judge the object as sublime. There is a sense in which the self is irreducibly involved in judging something to be sublime. When describing the sublime he makes the following point:

“Nature excites the ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived.” (ibid p. 63)

Despite spending a lot of time distinguishing between the idea of beauty and the idea of the sublime Kant notes that they can be studied using similar methodologies. When judging something as sublime we must attempt to view it from a disinterested perspective, and we must hold our judgements as universally valid judgments about the sublime feeling they inspire (ibid p. 63). Kant makes an important distinction between two types of sublimity:  (1) the mathematical sublime, and (2) the dynamical sublime.

The Mathematical Sublime

The mathematical sublime involves judging objects quantitatively according to their size. Some objects appear to be big, powerful and dangerous. But any judgement of something as large will be done relative to a perspective; when judged from another perspective an object that once seemed large can come to seem small. Thus, though Kant when he discusses the sublime restricts himself to objects of nature and doesn’t deal with animals; an example from the animal kingdom is nicely illustrative. The lion has a reputation as a powerful predator. Next to a pig or a domestic cat it looks like a giant monster. But in the film Jurassic World there is a scene where the lion comes face to face with a T Rex and the Lion suddenly loses a bit of its grandeur: . And of course the T Rex is tiny in comparison to a Megalodon or a Whale, and these creatures pale in significance to the ocean, the ocean is insignificant in comparison to the Sun and so on. Kant notes that as great as these objects are, there are other objects which dwarf them; and this infinite hierarchy of objects we are capable of conceiving are dwarfed by the mind which is doing the conceiving. We have two main modes representing these sublime objects (1) via number using algebra or (2) using intuition (measurement by the eye) aesthetical judgments (ibid p. 65). Now when it comes to using numbers we can keep increasing magnitude to infinity; but when it comes to aesthetical judgments our perceptual capacities will limit what we can experience. Furthermore while an increase in magnitude through number is experienced in a neutral manner; our aesthetical appreciation of magnitude is experienced in an emotional manner.

When discussing the nature of our perceptual grasp of objects and how this influences the aesthetical judgments we make about these objects Kant gives an example of viewing a Pyramid. In order to get a peak experience of viewing the Pyramids we must keep from going too near to them, thereby negating our judgement of their size in relation to their environment, and keep from going too far away from the Pyramids and diminishing our appreciation of their size and the details of its construction.

Kant uses some clear examples of what he considers paradigms that will lead to one experiencing the sublime:

“Who would call sublime, e.g. shapeless mountain masses piled in wild disorder upon each other with their pyramids of ice, or the gloomy raging sea?…A tree, (the height of) which we estimate with reference to the height of a man, at all events gives a standard for a mountain; and if this were a mile high, it would serve as a unit for the number expressive of the earth’s diameter (would supply a unit) for the known planetary system; this again for the Milky Way; and the immeasurable number of Milky Way systems called nebulae- which presumably constitute a system of the same kind among themselves-lets expect no bounds here. Now the sublime in the aesthetical judging of the immeasurable whole like this lies not so much in the greatness of the number (of units), as in the fact that in our progress we ever arrive at greater units. To this the systematic division of the universe contributes, which represents every magnitude in nature as small in its turn; and represents our imagination with its entire freedom from bounds, and with its nature, as a mere noting in comparison with the ideas of reason, if it is sought to furnish a presentation which shall be adequate to them.” (Kant ‘A Critique of Judgement’ p. 71)

His examples, illustrate the entire Kantian gambit of ideas about the sublime. You get objects being big relative to humans; being dwarfed by larger objects, being further dwarfed by larger objects etc and finally you get the encompassing reason which is able to appreciate and dwarf all of these objects of nature.

The dynamically sublime

In Kant’s view nature when it is judged aesthetically as dwarfing us and potentially overwhelming us but as having no dominion over us is an example of the dynamically sublime. In order for us to experience nature as sublime we need to recognise its awesome power and size while controlling our emotions. If we were to be overwhelmed by fear in the sight of say something like crashing waves nearby us we would not be able to experience it as sublime. We need to be able to dispassionately judge the object of our experience as something with incredible power, but as something which has no dominion over us in order to be able to judge it as sublime. Kant gives some dramatic examples of the sublime:

 “Bold, overhanging, as it were threatening, rocks, clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.” (ibid p. 75)

Again when considering these examples of the sublime in nature Kant notes that incredible as these objects of nature are our minds ability to encompass them and represent them is greater still (ibid p. 75).

Above I used an example from the film Jurassic World to illustrate a point about comparative might (a Lion vs a T Rex), when I used that example I noted that Kant would not have approved. As we can see from the many Kantian examples I quoted ad-nauseum he was concerned with nature; mountain tops, the Ocean etc and not with members of the animal kingdom. He gives his reason as follows:

“Our examples are not to be taken from the beautiful or sublime objects of nature as presuppose the concept of a purpose” (ibid p. 82)

When Kant speaks about purpose; he is talking about living creatures, in particular, animals. There is a perfectly sensible way of understanding Kant’s distinction. Thus from a commonsense point of view uncontaminated by philosophy, we can speak of the purposes of animals. Thus the Lions purpose when stalking his prey is trying to catch it, kill it, and eat it, with as little danger (to the Lion as possible). But the ocean wild tossed and turned by the wind isn’t intuitively viewed as an agent with a purpose; and vast mountain ranges filled with snow which could fall upon us at any minute isn’t easily viewed as an agent. We will abstract the degree to which these animals are merely manifesting competence without comprehension, and the question of whether animistic societies which existed thousands of years ago would agree with Kant that the ocean wasn’t an agent. What is more interesting is that Kant is aware of how these concepts mix up and thinks that experience of the sublime is only possible when we keep them separate. The following example perfectly illustrates Kant’s perspective on this issue:

“If then we call the sight of the starry heaven sublime, we must not place at the basis of our judgement a concept of worlds inhabited by rational beings, and regard the bright points, with which we see the space above us filled, as their suns moving in circles purposively fixed with reference to them; but we must regard it, just as we see it, as a distant, all embracing vault. Only under such a representation can we range that sublimity which a pure aesthetical judgement ascribes to this object. And in the same way, if we are to call the sight of the ocean sublime, we must not think of it as we (ordinarily) do, endowed as we are with all kinds of knowledge (not, contained however, in the immediate intuition). For example, we sometimes think of the ocean as a vast kingdom of aquatic creatures; or as the source as those vapours that fill the air with clouds for the benefit of the land; or again as an element which, though dividing continents from each other, yet promotes the greatest communication between them; but these furnish merely teleological judgements. To call the ocean sublime we must regard it as the poets do, merely by what strikes the eye; if it is at rest, a clear river of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything.” (ibid p.82)

I find the above quote fascinating and worth thinking through in detail. Kant offers two examples; a nebula being viewed as something of awesome size that dwarfs us; and a nebula being viewed more homely as a series of stars each of which may have planets and creatures like us. The former is supposed to be sublime while the latter isn’t. His second example is the wild ocean when we consider it as something immense which could engulf us Kant says that leads to us viewing it as sublime; but when we think of it as a home for sea creatures Kant argues that it doesn’t elicit an emotional experience of the sublime.

When it comes to Kant’s contrast between the two ways of viewing the ocean I think he means to point out something that later romantics would emphasise. If we view the ocean purely naturalistically as just swirling atoms it loses some of its grandeur; but if you view it as a human powerless before its immensity it becomes sublime. Nonetheless I think Kant under-thought what a naturalistic understanding of the ocean meant.

I cannot dispute Kant on factual grounds; but since his discussion of the sublime relies on his subjective feelings re-objects of nature, I can report how things seem to me. Thinking of the ocean as a home of creatures puts me in mind of particular ecological niches and this doesn’t feel sublime. But when I reflect on creatures who have lived in the sea such as the Blue Whale, the Megalodon, or the Mosasour, I feel similar feelings that are elicited by mountain tops, or a wild ocean. With the massive sea creatures I feel dwarfed and insignificant; a mountain elicits similar feelings in me. The giant sea creatures and the mountain instil a fear in me. Furthermore, being overcome by fear would take away from the sublime feeling. But Kant would say that the sea creatures differ from the ocean because they have purpose whereas the ocean doesn’t. While Kant was correct that sea creatures are purposeful, and things like the ocean and mountains are not; there is little reason to think that this disqualifies sea creatures from eliciting sublime emotions in us. I think Kant’s imagination was stunted in a way that ours isn’t in the digital age. Today we may or may not have seen a Blue Whale in the flesh; but even if we haven’t, we have seen videos of Whales interacting with humans. Kant would have had encyclopaedic knowledge about large sea creatures; and may have seen paintings of them; but such paintings would have had no emotional punch. In contrast, the life-like videos we can produce have a different emotional feel. When we see a creature as big as a Mosaur beside a human this is different from seeing a Lion or a Tiger, the experience elicits the experience of the sublime. Again resort to a clip from Jurassic World is instructive:

In the above clip we see the Mosaur in various different guises. We see it as an attraction in a game park. The characters in the show who are watching it perform (eat the shark), view it as something to be mildly amused by. But a person in that audience could also view it as a magnificent object that dwarfs us, and other predators we fear, and let this fact elicit feelings of the sublime in them. Similarly later in the above clips we see a Mosaur swimming near a surfer. This appearance could elicit feelings of the sublime in us; though not in the case of the unfortunate person surfing near the giant creature.

Now obviously the above examples are from pop culture. But they do show that our capability to represent sea creatures who have died out 60million years before any humans ever existed, outstrips anything Kant could have dreamed of. I would argue that this fact would have serious influences on Kant’s views on the creatures who roamed the oceans. Even for more humdrum cases of creatures; such as, the Blue Whale, Great White Shark, who live in the here and now with human beings; our capacity to represent their majesty would have outstripped anything Kant could of conceived of.

The Uncanny

When discussing the uncanny Freud does so in terms of his own pretty controversial psychoanalytic views. For the present purposes we will separate ourselves from Freud’s psychoanalytic speculations and focus on the phenomena that he was trying to explain by appeal to his own peculiar brand of psychoanalytic speculation. Freud made a useful distinction of types of uncanny experiences; (1) experiences brought on by interaction with the real world, and (2) experiences brought about by confrontation with art (films, novels etc).

As an example of an Uncanny experience brought about by interaction with the real world Freud details the following experience of his:

“Strolling one hot summer afternoon through the empty and to me unfamiliar streets of a small Italian town, I found myself in a district about whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Only heavily made up-women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses, and I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However, after wandering about for sometime without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a feeling that I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad to find my way back to the Piazza that I had recently left and refrain from any further voyages of discovery.” (The Uncanny p. 144)

Freud’s example of where he experienced an uncanny feeling is an odd one. When out for a stroll he happened into a part of town frequented by hookers; embarrassed Freud left this part of town immediately. When he tried to leave this area he kept accidently returning to the very place that he wanted to avoid. This repetition from a subjective point seemed a bit odd and gave Freud an Uncanny feeling. He goes on to list repetition as a key characteristic of the uncanny. He discusses how if a particular number keeps appearing to a person over a short series of time this may elicit an uncanny feeling.

Freud’s examples of his personal experience with the uncanny don’t immediately resonate from a contemporary point of view. It’s been a hundred years since Freud wrote his essay on the uncanny; today we associate the word ‘uncanny’ with the uncanny valley a theory which argues that the closer robots get to appearing life like the more uncanny they will appear to us. Another contemporary way of understanding the concept of the uncanny is as simply as weird situations. Thus between 1952 and 1957 a magazine ran with the title ‘Uncanny Tales’ which told stories in comic book form about bizarre science fiction scenarios; some of the stories had endings which produced an uncanny feeling.

Freud was prescient in noting that fairy tales have elements which in another context would produce uncanny feelings but when reading the stories one never gets an uncanny experience. The reason being that within a given world the author is working within certain implicit rules. Thus in some stories magic exists, tea pots can talk etc. Hence when we read fairy tales and something magical happens we are not shocked[1]. In order to illicit an uncanny feeling in a novel/comic/film etc there needs to be implicit rules we expect to obtain which are suddenly violated during the story. Philip K Dick stories sometimes have an uncanny feel where we begin in a realistic universe and suddenly things slip and familiar rules no longer obtain; the familiar world is suddenly made to feel unfamiliar and strange. Kafka’s novels sometimes use this method but push things in an even further direction. His short stories sometimes begin in a hyper-realistic mode and then descend to virtually incoherent writing that illicit strong uncanny feelings at first, but as the chaos and difficulty interpreting becomes greater the uncanny feeling disappears.

Uncanny tales sometimes worked within this Freudian template. Thus while the stories were sometimes of a science fiction nature they often began with implicit rules and morals which were then violated at the end, and this produced an uncanny feeling. The popular television programme ‘The Twilight Zone’ which ran from 1959 to 1965 was a brilliant exemplar of the technique of eliciting uncanny feelings. Again the show used a similar technique to ‘Uncanny Tales’ involving realistic protagonists in day to day activities confronted by weird scenarios which elicit uncanny feelings in people watching the show.

Above I noted that the concept of the uncanny as Freud describes in terms of repetition isn’t the concept that would immediately come to mind for a contemporary reader. Today the ‘Uncanny’ is either associated with the Uncanny Valley or with weird experiences brought on by programmes like the Twilight Zone. But there are examples of the uncanny which touch on all of the above conceptions of it. A key exemplar of the uncanny (shared by Freud, Uncanny Valley and Twilight Zone episodes) is the emotional experience of viewing an object which is almost human but which isn’t quiet human. A stock illustration of the uncanny is a wax sculpture of people, or life-like dolls.

I contend that one of the core features of something being uncanny is that similar to a core feature of the sublime. While with the sublime we are appreciating a work of art that is awesome and at the fringes of our consciousness we fear it may become real; with the uncanny something similar occurs. But the uncanny is a bit different. The uncanny relies on us pre-theoretically viewing something as an object and then suddenly thinking of the object as an intentional agent. In the case of the sublime we think of the art as just art but at the fringes of our consciousness we suspect it may not just be art; but may be real and be a danger to us. With the uncanny we think of something of an inert object which resembles an intentional agent; but at the fringe of our consciousness we worry it may be a real agent observing us. With both the uncanny and the sublime we have inert matter that is intended to be a representation (simulation) of something in real; but we have another part of our mind which thinks it is a real aspect of nature or an intentional agent which could threaten us.

Representations are not that threatening and neither are inert objects. But with ambiguous objects we have a fear that what we are viewing may not be inert; but they may be real features of nature which could hurt us. The whisperers in the Walking Dead are a perfect illustration of one of the first key features of the Uncanny:

For those of you living under a rock; ‘The Walking Dead’ is a television show about a post apocalyptic world where human civilisation has been almost entirely wiped out by infectious zombies. As the show developed the zombies have played less and less of a role and the central premise has been on wars between various different groups of human survivors. The zombies stumble around and are a potential danger they can still kill and infect humans if they attack them. But they are primarily viewed as non-agents who are potentially dangerous objects. With the introduction of the whisperers this changes. The whisperers are a group of people who survived the zombie apocalypse by living amongst the zombies and dressing like them and moving like them to ensure they won’t be attacked. When our human heroes discover the existence of the whisperers amongst the zombies then the zombies become ambiguous. Any shuffling zombie has the potential to be a conscious agent. So looking at a gang of zombies can elicit a sense of the uncanny.

Both the uncanny and the sublime involve an aesthetic judgement about an aspect of nature that is hard to subsume under determinate concepts. Both involve experiences of something that is both potentially threatening and also an object arouses not entirely negative emotional interest. However, the concepts are not identical by any stretch of the imagination. The uncanny; unlike the sublime, is much more difficult to view in a disinterested manner, as it elicits stronger negative emotional experiences. But I think it is fair to say that Freud massively overestimated the differences between the two concepts.

[1] Work in Cognitive frames help explain why fairy tales don’t elicit uncanny feelings. For a good discussion of cognitive frames see Dennett, Adnams, and Hurley ‘Inside Jokes’. The theory of cognitive frames can be made largely consistent with Freudian concepts.

Nick Chater on Bertrand Russell’s Failed Marriage

In his 2018 book ‘The Mind is Flat’ Nick Chater discussed the nature of the emotions and used an example from Russell’s life to illustrate, what he believed, to be the precisely wrong way to think about our emotional experiences. In his autobiography Russell made the following point about his falling out of love with his wife:

“I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening. The problem presented by this discovery was very grave.” (Bertrand Russell ‘The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell’ p. 222)

Chater argues that Russell’s view that he suddenly grasped some emotional truth about his love for his wife that he must act on; is based on a false theory of how the emotions work, and if others followed Russell’s specious reasoning it would be a pragmatic disaster for them. Chater’s views on the nature of the emotions are that they are ad-hoc inventions that we create to explain bodily perturbations in various different contexts. While to Russell his Bicycle ride contained a revelation he must act on; to Chater Russell’s revelation may have been caused by nothing more than a consequence of “a frustrating mornings work, or a bad argument.” Chater thinks given the ad-hoc invented nature of our feelings it would be a disaster to make decisions based on them and them alone.   However, before evaluating Chater’s take on Russell, I will first outline Chater’s positive views on the nature of the emotions.

To justify his views on the emotions Chater discussed a famous psychological result called the Kuleshov effect which illustrates that we interpret some emotional expressions of people’s faces depending on the context the face is presented in. Thus a person with an ambiguous expression will be judged to be hungry when placed beside food, or sad when placed beside a coffin etc. Chater notes that there is a general principle underlying this effect:

“There is a general principle at work here-the brain interprets each piece of the perceptual input (each face, object symbol, or whatever it may be) to make as much sense as possible in the light of the wider context.” (‘The Mind is Not Flat’ p. 92)


Based on this single experimental result Hacker generalizes further and argues that understanding of our emotional experiences may be subject to the Kuleshov effect. He notes that our own physiological states such as our heart racing, our breath shortening, and the tingle of adrenaline racing through our arteries (ibid p. 94), are ambiguous stimuli, and that in an attempt to interpret these stimuli we will invent emotional states to explain the stimuli.

To support this interpretation Chater discussed a 1962 experiment by Singer and Schacter which involved injecting volunteer subjects with either adrenaline or a placebo and bringing them to the waiting room. Unknown to the subjects, the waiting room was an experimental setting where a paid actor pretended to be a fellow subject but acted in a bizarre way (either manically or angrily). The subjects who were injected with adrenaline had stronger emotional reactions than those who received a placebo (ibid p. 95). Chater notes the following:

Crucially, and remarkably, their emotional reactions were stronger in opposite directions. Confronted with the ‘manic’ stooge, participants interpreted their raised heart-rate, shortness of breath and flushed face as indicating their euphoria; but with the ‘angry’ stooge, those very same symptoms were interpreted as signalling irritation.” (ibid p. 95)

The above experiment is an example of Kuleshov effect where bodily perturbations (brought on by adrenaline) are interpreted differently depending on contextual factors (the stooges behaviour).

Chater cites other experimental data to support his claim that emotions are ad-hoc creations to explain bodily perturbations and changing contexts. Thus he cites Aron and Dutton’s 1970 experiment placed an attractive scientist at the end of a rickety, wobbly bridge and an attractive scientist at the end of sturdy bridge. When the subjects crossed the bridge the scientist asked them a few questions and then handed them her phone number. Interestingly the experiment showed that the men who crossed the rickety bridge were more likely to ring the scientist. Chater interprets the experiment as revealing that the subjects were interpreting the bodily perturbations resulting from crossing the dangerous bridge as a feeling of attraction when they met the scientist.

Given Chater’s views of emotions as ad-hoc inventions used to explain bodily perturbations in various contexts, one can see why Chater was appalled by Russell’s admission that he fell out of love with his wife as a result of a momentary revelation. On Chater’s views Russell was operating under a confusion and mistakenly confusing momentary bodily perturbations and contextual factors with a universal revelation about his love for his wife. In point of fact it is Chater who is confused, and his confusion stems from a poor understanding of the nature of love (and emotions in general). Chater is incorrectly equating having an emotion with experiencing a particular feeling. Now while some emotional states do sometimes have a particular feel; not all of them do. Thus a mother can love her child without her love being identified with a particular experience. When a mother goes to sleep she doesn’t cease to love her child. Likewise when a mother goes to lunch with her daughter she may at times feel a strong sensation of love for her daughter; but at other times she is simply engaged in the conversation without experiencing any particular feeling of love. Nonetheless, it would be absurd to argue that the mother ceases to love her child when she ceases to have a particular warm fuzzy feeling. Love involves more than just idiosyncratic bodily sensations. To love someone; one will feel a certain way about the object of one’s love, one will behave in a certain way towards the object of one’s affection, speak about them in a certain manner etc.

Chater was right to note that explaining the emotions will involve dealing with contextual matters and bodily states. But his understanding of the emotions focuses too much on the feelings we create to explain bodily states and context; and too little on long term behavioural patterns; and cognitive understanding of what these patterns mean etc.

In Russell’s case his behaviour towards his wife in the years preceding his ‘revelation’ that he didn’t love her was revealing. In his biography on Russell ‘The Spirit of Solitude’ Ray Monk noted that in 1901 while working on his philosophical projects, Russell treated his wife like an afterthought who was simply there to serve him (The Spirit of Solitude p. 118).

Furthermore, while Russell was showing little interest in his own wife, he spent a considerable amount of time flirting with his wife’s sister Mary. Mary for her part noted that his constant flirtation made her very uncomfortable (ibid p. 120). While noting his flirtation with her, Mary also noted Russell’s disinterest towards his wife and homelife:

 “Mary recorded…”Bertie says he has resigned himself to being always bored after he is thirty. ‘At home even?’ Alys asked. ‘Especially at home, ‘Bertie answered remorselessly.” (ibid p. 121)

His entire marriage seemed to involve disinterest in his wife Alys and a constant chasing after other women; such as the above mentioned Mary, Sally Fairchild, Evelyn Whitehead etc. In the case of Evelyn Whitehead, Russell actually fell in love with her and spent the majority of his time worrying about her health while seemingly having little concern for his wife’s health.

Such was Russell’s intense love for Evelyn Whitehead that Ray Monk suspects that Alys was aware of it:

 “Alys had no doubt ‘perceived that something was amiss’ a good deal before this famous bicycle ride, as her depressions during the spring and summer of 1901 surely indicate. And, as Russell’s diary entry reveals, he too had been struggling for some time against the realisation that his love for Alys was dead (he had, after all, ‘longed, with infinite tenderness, to revivify my dying ‘love’ a month before the bicycle ride).  Nevertheless, though Russell clearly massively exaggerates-as is his wont-the extent to which it was a sudden and unexpected revelation, there seems no reason to doubt that there was a bicycle ride and that there was a moment when he ceased to struggle against the facts and to admit to himself that he no longer loved Alys.” (ibid p.145)

Given these facts about Russell’s relationship with his wife in the years before his ‘revelation’; Chater’s suggestion that Russell’s ‘revelation’ may have been the result of frustrating mornings work or a bad argument’ strain credulity. The fact is that Russell’s behaviour; neglecting his wife, having infatuations with, and falling in love with other women, commenting on not enjoying home life, writing in his diary about trying to rekindle dying love; indicate a man who had fallen out of love with his wife over a long period of time (though he clearly had difficulty admitting this fact to himself).

Furthermore this falling out of love didn’t involve a particular bodily feel rather it was a complex cognitive, emotional and behavioural experience. Chater though could argue against what I have just said by noting that it was Russell himself who said that he only realised he stopped loving his wife when he was out for that fatal bike ride. Chater could argue that if we go by Russell’s words his falling out of love was a sudden event that Russell accorded too much significance.

However, it is unclear how much significance we should accord to Russell’s sudden ‘revelation’. As Monk noted:

“Russell was fond-perhaps over-fond-of presenting his life as a series of epiphanies, many of which, one suspects were over played by him in later life for the sake of lending drama to the facts of his life” (ibid p. 137)

Russell may have had the ‘revelation’ while out cycling his bike. However, his behavioural patterns indicate a man who was no longer in love with his wife in the years before his revelation. The fact is that it took years after his ‘revelation’ before he finally divorced his wife, and in the years before it, he behaved like a man falling out of love with his wife. There is little reason to give the supposed revelation such a place of importance in Russell’s relations with his wife as Chater (and Russell) seem to want to give it.