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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: descartes

Galen Strawson, Buddhist Philosophy, and Radical Self-Awareness

The recent intersection of analytic philosophy and philosophical Buddhism has been a very heartening sign for me. Not only does it move the discussion away from what I’ve always felt to be the dead-end of Kripkean essentialist metaphysics, but it’s also produced some serious thinking about logic and selfhood and mind that manages to respect the problems of language without being wholly overcome by them.

I take it that Nagarjuna, originator of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, was himself doing this almost 2000 years ago. This mindset is most useful in approaching questions about consciousness and the self, where appeals to intuition seem to break down and there seem to be a lack of first principles even by the usual standards of philosophical arguments.

Galen Strawson’s advocacy of panpsychism as well as a general interest in mental phenomenology places him close to those the constellation of people such as Georges Dreyfus, Jan Westerhoff, Mark Siderits, and Bronwyn Finnigan, who have all treated Buddhist philosophy in depth. His essay “Radical Self-Awareness,” included in the recent anthology Self No Self, continues the overlap. Siderits co-edited the anthology, which has a fair bit of Asian philosophy in many of the essays, but Strawson only touches on it briefly, which makes it more notable that the overlap is still quite visible.

First some background. I think of Strawson as fundamentally a monist as much as a panpsychist. The term “neutral monism” doesn’t seem to be in vogue, but my own sense has been that the term “materialism” loses a lot of its meaning when the material is simply that single type of stuff that makes up reality and that stuff happens to be called matter. I don’t have a problem with calling it materialism, but it’s distinctly different from a view that works up metaphysically from contemporary physics and biology.

When I say that the mental, and in particular the Experiential, is physical, and endorse the view that “experience is really just neurons firing,” I mean something completely different from what some materialists have apparently meant by saying such things. I don’t mean that all aspects of what is going on, in the case of conscious experience, can be described by current physics, or some nonrevolutionary extension of it. Such a view amounts to radical “eliminativism” with respect to consciousness, and is mad.

My claim is different. It is that the Experiential (considered just as such)—the feature of reality we have to do with when we consider experiences specifically and solely in respect of the Experiential character they have for those who have them as they have them—that “just is” physical.

Galen Strawson, quoted in SEP “Neutral Monism”

Onto consciousness and the self. Using the example of meditation, Strawson proposes that we can have a contentful, thetic experience of the “self” in the absence of any other experiential content.

The attainment of such self-awareness, for brief periods in the unpractised (and the incompetent, such as myself), seems to involve a state that has no particular content beyond the content that it has in so far as it’s correctly described as awareness or consciousness of the awareness or consciousness that it itself is, awareness that includes in itself awareness that it is awareness of the awareness that it itself is, but does so without involving anything remotely propositional (contrary to what the word ‘that’ suggests to many) or thetic in the narrow and apparently necessarily distance-involving, object-of-attention-posing way.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness

I take this to be akin to what Denis Diderot described as reverie, which he simply describes as experience in the absence of the limits given by sense experience:

There are no limits at all. I seem to exist as a single point, I almost cease to be material and am only conscious of thought. I have lost the sense of position, motion, body, distance and space. The universe is reduced to nothing and I am nothing to the universe.

Denis Diderot, D’Alembert’s Dream

Strawson terms this a kind of sensory experience of its own: contentful thetic self-awareness in the absence of any other content. It is “a cognitive experiential modality.” Both Diderot and Strawson invoke a concept similar to what Miri Albahari has called, in the context of Theravadan Buddhism, the “two-tiered illusion of self,” first of the continuity of self, and second of the boundedness of self.

The second illusion, boundedness, is the important thing here. If experience requires that subjectivity be bounded in some way to distinguish itself from that which is not-itself, and whatever is left on the “itself” side must constitute both subject and experience both. In the case where the not-itself has been removed from the picture, I don’t see a way to distinguish subject from content. (Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, makes a similar point in arguing against solipsism.)

The term “thetic” is tricky because it implies an attention to experiential content, in the form of some actual activity. Yet the content and the awareness seem too deeply entwined here to be termed thetic or non-thetic. Or more properly, anything falling outside the traditionally thetic realm may not deserve even the term “non-thetic consciousness.” The point remains that this experience qualifies as experience. But as Husserl implied when he said that the relation between consciousness and the object of consciousness is not a real relation, this kind of experience leaves precious little room for a metaphysical dualism of subject and content.

Strawson continues:

But one can also go beyond this, I propose, into a state of direct thetic having-is-the-knowing acquaintance, a state of holding the sensation of blue in full attention, in which one’s experience ceases to have, as any part of its content, the structure of subject-attending-to-something. The Kantian conclusion is then triggered: ‘nothing which emerges from any affecting relation can count as knowledge or awareness of the affecting thing as it is in itself ’ that this awareness precisely is identical with the subject itself.

[and thus, after some argument]

[15] the subject of awareness (that which wholly constitutes the existence of the subject of awareness) isn’t ontically distinct from the awareness of which it is the subject

[16] the subject of awareness is identical with its awareness.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness”

So what you end up with is a metaphysical identity of a seeming process with a seeming object. (Or, likewise, the identity an object with the sum of its modalities and properties.) I think this is exactly right. The problem with traditional “Cartesian” views is that they seek to establish the existence of a distinct subject having the experiences, metaphysically separating the two and requiring the existence of the subject through either entailment or just as a pure free lunch.

And I think that it does reveal that a major part of the problem has been linguistic, or even grammatical, as nouns like “subject” and “self” have been used that we usually take to imply metaphysically autonomous entities rather than extremely loose linguistic concepts that do overlapping duty in metaphysical, epistemological, phenomenological, and socio-cultural contexts.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the abstract notion of “subjectivity.” “Subjectivity” has been a punching-bag for the continentals and even some of the analytics, and has meant so many different things from Descartes to Husserl and beyond that it’s simply become a very dangerous term to use. The classic “Cartesian” model (which may not actually be Cartesian) envisions a unary subject having experiential content “occur” to it.

This is, evidently, rather vague, and I think it’s because of the vagueness that the generally received notion of metaphysical “subjectivity” frequently amounts to nothing more than something/anything that is “experiential” or “conscious.” In this way subjectivity (a property) is more convincing than the self or the subject (both objects), which is why the term has been batted about more.

Ironically, that may not actually be so far off from the truth. The notion of the subject has been built up into a metaphysical tank, but the message which I take from Strawson is that the self and the subject can be deflated without much harm to subjectivity qua subjectivity. I think ultimately that this falls out from basic metaphysical principles, as Strawson hints:

Some like to think that there can be subjectivity or experience without a subject. That’s why it’s important to bring out the full import of the notion of subjectivity or experience by stressing the fundamental sense in which it can’t exist without a subject. But there’s a no less important point in the other direction. If all you need to know, to know that there is a subject, is that there is subjectivity or experience, then you can’t build more into the notion of a subject than you can know to exist if subjectivity or experience exists.

I think, in fact, that the object/property distinction is metaphysically superficial—that there is no ‘real distinction’ between (a) the being of an object, considered at a given time, and (b) the being of that object’s propertiedness, that is, its whole actual concrete qualitative being at that time, that is, everything in which its being the particular way it is at that time consists.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness”

I think that a lot of western metaphysical mistakes have come precisely from the need to establish concrete entities as “holders” for properties that go over and above being descriptive containers for them into being metaphysically distinct entities. But this is to make subjectivity itself into a metaphysically distinct entity rather than a property, and that very idea seems incoherent.

In a footnote, Strawson points out that Kant had already been here:

In his famous letter to Herz, Kant writes that ‘the thinking or the existence of the thought and the existence of my own self are one and the same’ (1772: 75). Although Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza often write as if the subject is ontically distinct from its states of experience or awareness, they’re all committed to the view that the concrete being of a substance (considered at any given time) is not ontically distinct from the concrete being of its attributes at that time (whatever modes of the attributes are currently instantiated).

This does have perplexing implications for ontology. D.M. Armstrong talks about the problems of the “thick particular,” the idea of a baseline object which has non-relational aspects in addition to its properties, and suggested a “thin particular” as a more viable alternative. As I understand it, the thin particular is that which concretizes its properties or attributes (which, at least for Armstrong, are universals). But I don’t see how either (a) the thin particular itself nor (b) the concrete instantiation on of attributes on top of a thin particular can rightly be called an object. I think it’s impossible that one can be called an object without the other also being an object, as it seems that the addition of a property to a particular could not yield objecthood, yet calling both objects requires too thick a particular.

I won’t defend that position further here. But I’m convinced that the razor-thinness of the sort of particular that Kant is talking about poses some serious questions about “objecthood.” Hence, I’m drawn to single-substance monism, which Strawson entertains but does not endorse:

This is not to say that reality contains anything that actually makes the grade as a thing or object or substance. The Buddhist doctrine of ‘dependent origination’ suggests that nothing does. An alternative view is that only one thing does—the universe. On this view, Parmenides and a number of leading present-day cosmologists are right. There’s really only one A-Grade thing or object or substance: the universe. (Nietzsche and Spinoza agree that nothing smaller will do.)

At least under a neutral monist standpoint, the Buddhist Madhyamaka view could also be said to be loosely in agreement with Spinoza, allowing that sunyata (emptiness) is the single “substance.” Whether or not it qualifies as a substances seems to be a terminological point rather than a metaphysical point, as long as sunyata is neither discrete nor quantifiable, which I take to be one of the implications of Madhyamaka’s focus on the emptiness of emptiness: i.e., it’s misleading and spurious to say that “nothing exists.”

That said, the Buddhist notion of substance, svabhava, is distinctly different from the western notion of substance, so I will leave that to the experts to resolve. Jan Westerhoff’s excellent book Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka provides the clearest explanation of svabhava that I have read.

At any rate, I find that the evaluations of the cultural and linguistic forms into which consciousness and subjectivity have been shunted offer a lot as far as undermining both metaphysical and ontological received ideas. The continuities between vastly different traditions point out both recurring conceptualizations and recurring problems.

This approach offers a more rigorous alternative to the much-ballyhooed Object Oriented Ontology movement, which, as far as I can tell, takes many of the above questions in precisely the wrong direction by proposing a steroidal essentialism and yielding a Kripke-Heidegger Frankenstein monster. When Graham Harman writes–

For an object is to be defined not by its external efficacy, but rather by its internal reality. To be real is not to have an effect on something outside oneself, but simply this–to unify notes.

To offer another metaphor, we need a kind of subatomic or nuclear metaphysics, but one that probes the interiors of all sizes of objects, not just minute physical atoms.

The universe resembles a massive complex made up of numerous caverns, outer walls, alleyways, ladders, and subway systems, each sealed off from the others and defining its own space, but with points of access or passage filled with candles and searchlights that cast shadows into the next. The cosmos is similar to a rave party in some abandoned warehouse along the Spree in East Berlin, where the individual rooms are each surprisingly isolated from all external sources of music, flashing lights, perfumed odors, and dominant moods-but in which it is quite possible to move from one space to the next, and in which the doorways are always flooded with faint premonitions and signals of what is to come.

Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics

–I feel the monster’s cold, Gnostic breath on my shoulders and retreat to reverie.

Cultural Illogic: David Golumbia and The Cultural Logic of Computation

David Golumbia does not like computers. Toward the end of The Cultural Logic of Computation, after lumping computers and the atom bomb into a single “Pandora’s Box” of doom, he observes:

The Germans relied on early computers and computational methods provided by IBM and some of its predecessor companies to expedite their extermination program; while there is no doubt that genocide, racial and otherwise, can be carried out in the absence of computers, it is nevertheless provocative that one of our history’s most potent programs for genocide was also a locus for an intensification of computing power.

This sort of guilt by association is typical of The Cultural Logic of Computation. The book is so problematic and so wrong-headed as to be shocking, and as philosophical and cultural excursions into technological analysis are still comparatively rare, the book merits what programmers would term a postmortem.

Throughout the book, Golumbia, an English and Media Studies professor who worked for ten years as a product manager in software at Dow Jones, insists that computers are creating and enforcing a socio-political hegemony that reduces human beings to servile automatons. They aren’t just the tools of oppression, they oppress by their very nature. Golumbia attacks the encroachment by “computation” on human life. He defines “computation” as the rationalist, symbolic approach of computers and logic.

Or at least he seems to sometimes. Other times “computation” stands in for an amorphous mass of cultural issues that just happen to involve computers. Much of the the book focuses on political issues that don’t bear on “computation” in the least, such as a tired attack on Thomas Friedman and globalization that adds nothing new to Friedman’s already-long rap sheet. Golumbia spends ten pages criticizing real-time strategy games like Age of Empires, complaining:

There is no question of representing the Mongolian minority that exists in the non-Mongolian part of China, or of politically problematic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, or of the other non-Han Chinese minorities (e.g., Li, Yi, Miao).

A true Hobbesian Prince, the user of Age of Empires allows his subjects no interiority whatsoever, and has no sympathy for their blood sacrifices or their endless toil; the only sympathy is for the affairs of state, the accumulation of wealth and of property, and the growth of his or her power.

The critique could apply just as easily to Monopoly, Diplomacy, Stratego, or chess.

Golumbia gives away the game, so to speak, when he implies that connectionism (a non-symbolic artificial intelligence approach used in neural networks) is somehow less politically suspect than the symbolic AI approaches he attacks. In fact, non-symbolic approaches like Bayes networks and neural networks are themselves used ubiquitously in the data mining he (rightly) worries about. Golumbia has confused science with scientism, and computers’ uses with their structure.

Without a critique of the technical side of computers, Golumbia’s book would be just another tired retread of Chomsky, Hardt/Negri, Spivak, Thomas Frank, and the like. Unfortunately, his actual excursions into technical issues are woefully uninformed. A surreal attack on XML as a “top-down” standard ends with him praising Microsoft Word as an alternative, confusing platform and application. He hates object-oriented programming because…well, I’m honestly not quite sure.

Because the computer is so focused on “objective” reality—meaning the world of objects that can be precisely defined—it seemed a natural development for programmers to orient their tools exactly toward the manipulation of objects. Today, OOP is the dominant mode in programming, for reasons that have much more to do with engineering presumptions and ideologies than with computational efficiency (some OOP languages like Java have historically performed less well than other languages, but are preferred by engineers because of how closely they mirror the engineering idealization about how the world is put together).

The lack of citation, pervasive throughout the book, makes it impossible even to pinpoint what this objection means. I’d be curious as to how he feels about functional languages like Lisp, ML, and Haskell, but Golumbia shows no signs of even having heard of them. Unfortunately, XML and object-oriented programming are pretty much his two main points of technical attack, which indicates a lack of technical depth.

Yet Golumbia’s greatest anger is reserved for Noam Chomsky. Golumbia devotes a quarter of the book to him, with Jerry Fodor serving as assistant villain. Somehow, Chomsky’s computational linguistics become far more than just a synecdoche for modern corporatism and materialism; Chomsky is actually one of the main culprits.

To Golumbia, Chomsky is “fundamentally libertarian”; he is a Ayn Randian “primal conservative” who accepted military funding. He has “authoritarian” institutional politics which require strict adherence to his “religious” doctrine:

Chomsky’s institutional politics are often described exactly as authoritarian.

[His work] tends to attract white men (and also men from notably imperial cultures, such as those of Korea or Japan).

The scholars who pursue Chomskyanism and Chomsky himself with near-religious fervor are, almost without exception, straight white men who might be taken by nonlinguists to be ‘computer geeks.’

Golumbia is evidently fond of the ad hominem. Golumbia also associates “geeks” with “straight, white men,” insulting 19th century programmer Ada Lovelace, gay theoretician Alan Turing, and the vast population of queer and non-white programmers, linguists, and geeks that exists today (many not even Korean or Japanese).

Yet Golumbia finds time to praise Wikipedia, founded and run by fundamentally libertarian Ayn Rand acolyte Jimmy Wales. It’s strange for Golumbia to call Wikipedia a salutary effort to demote expert opinion when Wales himself says it should not be cited in academic papers. And strange for Golumbia to see Wikipedia as progressive when many of its entries still come from that well-known bastion of hegemonic opinion, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. (The explicitly racist ones have been scrubbed.)

Beyond the technological confusions, Golumbia’s philosophical background is notably defective. The book is plagued by factual errors; Voltaire is bizarrely labeled a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker, while logicians Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege somehow end up on opposite sides: Russell is a good anti-rationalist (despite having written “Why I Am a Rationalist”), Frege is a bad rationalist. (He also enlists Quine and Wittgenstein to his leftist cause, which I suspect neither would have appreciated.) He thinks Leibniz preceded Descartes. He misappropriates Kant’s ideas of the noumenal and mere reason.

Here is a typically confused passage, revealing Golumbia’s fondness for incoherent Manicheistic dichotomies:

In Western intellectual history at its most overt, mechanist views typically cluster on one side of political history to which we have usually attached the term conservative. In some historical epochs it is clear who tends to endorse such views and who tends to emphasize other aspects of human existence in whatever the theoretical realm. There are strong intellectual and social associations between Hobbes’s theories and those of Machiavelli and Descartes, especially when seen from the state perspective. These philosophers and their views have often been invoked by conservative leaders at times of consolidation of power in iconic or imperial leaders, who will use such doctrines overtly as a policy base.

This contrasts with ascendant liberal power and its philosophy, whose conceptual and political tendencies follow different lines altogether: Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dewey, James, etc. These are two profoundly different views of what the State itself means, what the citizen’s engagement with the State is, and where State power itself arises. Resistance to the view that the mind is mechanical is often found in philosophers we associate with liberal or radical views—Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx.

So it is not simply the technological material that is the problem. The quality of even the academic, philosophical portions of the book is dismaying, and the general lack of evidence and citation is egregious. Harvard University Press, who published the book, have a fine track record in the general areas that Golumbia inhabits. I am not certain how The Cultural Logic of Computation slipped through, nor how many of its blatant errors were not caught. It is an embarrassment and will only confirm the prejudices of those who feel that the humanities have nothing to offer the sciences but spite and ignorance.

For contrast, Samir Chopra’s Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software (Routledge) is an excellent and rigorous examination of some of the political and social issues around software and software development, strong on both the technical and philosophical fronts. I would urge anyone looking at Golumbia’s book to read it instead.

9 Tired and Wrong Received Ideas

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

These nine ideas are all wrong. (I believed many of these, whether explicitly or as an unstated assumption, at some point or another, so this post is directed at my past self as much as anyone.)

  1. The Greeks (Athens specifically) had a free direct democracy with open discussion, free of tyranny.
  2. Descartes formulated the fundamental concepts of rational subjectivity and selfhood under which we all still operate today, thus originating modernity.
  3. Enlightenment thinkers shared a rationalist, Panglossian optimism about controlling humanity and the state.
  4. The French Revolution was a seminal, epochal event that drastically and uniquely changed attitudes toward humanity, history, and politics.
  5. American religious fanaticism originates with the Puritans and associated peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  6. Hegel’s dialectic is of the form “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”
  7. Prior to the 20th century (or prior to Schleiermacher, Saussure, Wittgenstein, Derrida, etc.), language was taken to have determinate, definite meaning that directly referred to reality.
  8. Universal laws of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, hard-wired into the brain, have been discovered, which apply to all known languages.
  9. A two part slippage of political terms (note how one term appears in both lists):
    1. Capitalism = libetarianism = free markets = laissez-faire = trickle-down = globalization = free trade = neoliberalism = liberalism = supply-side = mercantilism = etc.
    2. Communism = Marxism = Leninism = socialism = regulated market = welfare state = liberalism = Keynesianism = Great Society = etc.

These are some of the ones that I think about most often, ones that are taken seriously by some people I respect. (I’m not going to list “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States” or “Edward Said was a Muslim fundamentalist,” because I’m lucky enough not to deal with people who believe these things, and I’m trying to list these in order to change people’s minds, which would be impossible with anyone who believes those two.)

These ideas are frequently debunked or contested, but still I frequently hear them stated with blithe certainty. Even when the case is debatable, as with the French Revolution, there is such exaggeration of its singular importance that no event short of the Second Coming could fulfill the importance assigned to it.

Oversimplification is the main sin here. Two forms of it present here are origination and conflation. Origination states that a certain idea, concept, or practice began with a certain person or people at a certain time and place, and simply did not exist before that. Conflation simply packages together terms like “subjectivity” and “selfhood” and “rationalism,” so that an attack on one serves as an attack on all of them. And with both of these these goes Inflation, where the key idea/event/person is elevated to such singular importance that it becomes an excuse not to search for any lesser-known ideas/events/people that might serve to complicate matters.

While discussing Derrida’s critique of Husserl, I criticized Derrida for invoking a simplistic, received view of language, and then tarring huge swaths of the linguistic and philosophical tradition with it. I’m far from the first to make that critique, and he’s far from the first to make that move. It’s a variation on the straw man argument. Via conflation, the straw man is used against many opponents, not just one. (It’s far more efficient.) By finding the same straw man in thinker after thinker, entire traditions can be invalidated and subverted, so much the better to make the critique appear more sweeping, profound, and revolutionary. Derrida was taking after Heidegger here, who was the absolute master of this technique. (Presence is always present.)

But such straw man arguments aren’t necessarily used for critiques. The ideas above are used both positively and negatively. They are pieces of conceptual history that seem so widely accepted that in a hundred years, people may have trouble figuring out that these assumptions underlay so much contemporary writing. People often no longer bother to explain them or even to state them. As an analogy, Frederick Beiser has spent the last 20 years attempting to explain the impact of Jacobi and Lessing’s “Pantheism controversy” on the philosophy of Kant and most everyone else in that period. It was a huge imbroglio at the time, but people like me read Kant with no knowledge of it.

I’ll close with some wise words about conceptual generalization and simplification  from Albert O. Hirschman, who inspired this post. Here he is remarking on Marx’s famous “history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce” remark:

This is the second time I find a well-known generalization or aphorism about the history of events to be more nearly correct when applied to the history of ideas. The first time was with regard to Santayana’s famous dictum that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Generalizing on the firm basis of this sample of two, I am tempted to formulate a “metalaw”: historical “laws” that are supposed to provide insights into the history of events come truly into their own in the history of ideas.

Does anyone else have particular favorite received ideas they’d like to give?

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