Dialogue

What we are doing continually in our lives is […] “encountering difference,” and then allowing the moral understandings of the other to place our own understandings into question. In this approach, we are continually tacking back and forth between our beliefs, commitments, perspectives, and moral understandings and those of others. It is that tacking back and forth that helps us determine whose understandings of the good are best for that particular moment. That process is what helps us shift our perspective so that we’re not just imprisoned by the status quo of our current social world. Gadamer called that process dialogue, or “genuine conversation” and I saw it as a way out of the Heidegger-Foucault dilemma. I still do.

Philip Cushman in MacDonald et al. (2017)
Philip Cushman

Is this beautiful passage an example of the psychologist’s fallacy? Is Cushman, in an over-charitable way, generalizing an ideal type of experience, something to which we ought to aspire, presenting it as something “we are doing continually in our lives”? Yesterday, at one of the sessions of the philosophical-artistic event, The Philosopher is Present, I was struck by how much we do not do what Cushman describes, how much we do not open ourselves to the perspective of others. One by one, we saw individuals navigating through conversations, driven far more strongly by the desire to appear knowing and consistent, than by the desire to encounter the moral understanding of another person. Andrew Taggart was in dialogue, but he was the exception. He was an anomaly to be explained.

In the above paragraph, Philip Cushman paints a particular image of the examined life, which involves engaging with the perspective of others in such a way that inspection of our own perspectives–and finding the correct perspective for a given context–becomes possible. At least in the current cultural climate, such a method does not come effortlessly and naturally to us. It is important to recognize the difficulty of pursuing what we value. Am I wrong in my judgment? I believe Andrew Taggart enacts the attitude described by Cushman and, I think, in so doing he demonstrates how difficult and rare it is.

Andrew Taggart

Reference

Macdonald, H., Goodman, D., & Becker, B. (Eds.). (2017). Dialogues at the edge of American psychological discourse: Critical and theoretical perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Marginal Figure

In early February, Peter Limberg and I discussed possible ideas for a writing collaboration. Peter is the friend I mentioned at the beginning of the post Margins & Vitality. The idea of writing about the Marginal Figure appealed to both of us. The article is now available on Medium.

Peter runs the podcast, Intellectual Explorers’ Club, where he demonstrates his rare style of open-minded and insightful conversation. Unlike professional academics, Peter sees intrinsic value and beauty in ideas and models of reality and–also in contrast to professional academics–he doesn’t get too attached to any one system of ideas. His serious, explorative, and non-committal attitude makes working with him and listening to him intrinsically valuable. To sample his podcast, perhaps you could start with my favorite episode.

And, again, if you’re interested, here is our very first collaborative piece of writing: The Marginal Figure: Communities, Conflict, and Change. [update: Glenn Wallis, who himself features in our article has graciously reposted it on his website, Speculative Non-Buddhism. Here is the link to Glenn’s repost]. Comments, critique, complaint… are all welcome.

Data as License to Speak

During the TRACE workshop in Würzburg, I listened to a talk by Dr. Jakob Kaiser, a young and well-spoken cognitive neuroscientist based in Munich. Jakob gave a talk on sensory attenuation, i.e., reduced response/sensitivity to a stimulus, which can be observed for stimuli caused by oneself (this is why you cannot tickle yourself). Jakob argued that sensory attenuation does not necessary reflect sense of agency or causal self-attribution. That is, if response to stimulus S1 was weaker than response to S2, it could be because S1 was more predictable than S2. Causing S1 to occur is simply a means by which a person is able to predict S1. He showed results from a 2 x 2-designed ERP experiment, manipulating self-causation (whether or not a target stimulus was caused by participants) and predictability (whether or not the stimulus precedes by a predictive cue). The data showed that self-causation only resulted in sensory attenuation in the absence of any other predictive cue (Kaiser & Schütz-Bosbach, 2018).

The presentation was well done and polished, and the fact that I completely disagree with Jakob’s interpretation of the data is not really important (there is reason to believe that in the presence of a predictive cue, participants enter a different performance mode, responding to the cue, which weakens the perceived link between response and target stimulus; Waszak et al., 2005). What is important is Jakob’s passionate speech–which followed the data–against the special status of human agency in perception and causal understanding. He said many of us have special feelings about categories like human agency and self (“hot buttons”), but that should not prevent us from considering more parsimonious accounts of phenomena (e.g., in the case of sensory attenuation).

I think Jakob represents an important philosophical standpoint, and I’d like to follow his work in the coming years. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think that the primary point of his talk did not require his data. He could have relied on other people’s findings (there is no shortage of empirical research on sense of agency and sensory attenuation). The particular point he made in his presentation is, indeed, a philosophical point, which raises the question: Why did we see the data, and that particular set of data, along with the exposition of his philosophical standpoint?

Is it possible that we treat data as a type of license to speak? Conference presentations and departmental colloquia follow a ritualistic structure. The speaker begins with an introduction, raises his or her questions, talks about their techniques/methods of inquiry, presents the findings, and ends with a discussion and speculations. This ritualistic pattern is followed even when the arguments are philosophical, have little to do with empirical investigations, and even when they do not require that particular set of data (the speaker could have used other researchers’ findings as basis for their argument). If my suspicion is correct, and if data provides a license to speak, then we should detect places where poor philosophy, over-generalizations, and naïve speculations is forgiven precisely because of fanciful and innovative methods of collecting data. The bigger the data, the bigger the license to speak. With an expansive license to speak, we become expansively forgiving of philosophical errors.

References

Kaiser, J., & Schütz-Bosbach, S. (2018). Sensory attenuation of self-produced signals does not rely on self-specific motor predictions. European Journal of Neuroscience, 47(11), 1303–1310.

Waszak, F., Wascher, E., Keller, P., Koch, I., Aschersleben, G., Rosenbaum, D. A., & Prinz, W. (2005). Intention-based and stimulus-based mechanisms in action selection. Experimental brain research162(3), 346-356.

Meaning of Psychological Statements: Notes on Gergen (2018)

In a recent article, Kenneth Gergen (2018) offers a summary of his work on (and against) empirical research in psychology. The article is clearly written, and there are many positive things one could say about it. I am going to focus primarily on points with which I disagree. Gergen and I share common “enemies”, but I am not yet as pessimistic as he is with regard to psychology as a scientific (truth-seeking) enterprise.

We find in this article the outline of two contradictory positions, both of which are defended by the author. First, Gergen argues, because of the tautological nature of psychological statements, our explanations do not escape what is already necessitated by language. If we think carefully about an explanation that makes sense (e.g., John ate the cake because he was hungry; Mary smiled at Beth because Mary is friendly), we realize that the explanation does not–and cannot–offer anything new in terms of psychological principles. We do not discover anything new about the meaning of hunger or how hungry people act. Understanding the meaning of hunger involves understanding the type of action people take when they have access to food; similarly, understanding the meaning of friendliness entails understanding the type of behavioral dispositions displayed by a friendly person.

Thus, one makes psychological sense by explaining a given behavior in terms of a “miniaturized” form of itself.

Gergen (2018, p. 697)

I think there is, unfortunately, a serious blunder here. The relation between an action and a psychological concept that explains the action is not a relation between a thing and its miniaturized version (satisfying your hunger is not a miniaturized form of eating a cake). The relation is between a subordinate/concrete concept (eating a cake) and a superordinate/abstract concept (satisfying one’s hunger). When we describe someone as a friendly person, we are organizing a large set of actual and potential actions with the help of a superordinate concept. The relation between superordinate concepts and their subordinate instantiations is not a tautological relation. It is a conceptual relation that is shaped by (and further shapes) experience.

To say, ‘Mary was friendly to Beth’, is to say something that is at the same time more and less than the alternative statement, ‘Mary smiled at Beth’. Describing Mary’s behavior as friendly expresses a larger set of possible actions (more), while at the same time being under-specified (less), compared to describing her smiling at Beth. By equating subordinate and superordinate concepts and propositions, Gergen permits himself to reduce all psychological statements to tautologies. In a sense, he is correct to point out the semantic (axiomatic) relation between propositions at different levels of abstraction, but information is lost if we project everything onto a single level of abstraction, which is to say propositions at one level of abstraction do not render corresponding propositions at other levels redundant.

In addition to the argument about linguistic necessity, Gergen also offers an argument about linguistic indeterminacy.

[B]ecause each definition of a mental term relies on another mental term for its meaning, we enter a condition of unbridled diffusion of definition. […] Through extended definitional sequence, we find that any given behavior can be explained by virtually any randomly drawn motive or trait.

Gergen (2018, p. 697)

If linguistic determinism and the idea of pseudo-empirical research doesn’t persuade you to drop psychological research, you should consider the complete opposite problem–linguistic indeterminacy. If someone says: ‘Mary smiled at Beth because Mary is friendly’, we find the statement to be intelligible. But what if someone tells you, ‘Mary smiled at Beth because Mary is ambitious’? Is the latter statement nonsense? Here, Gergen correctly points out that we can fill the missing detail of the statement such that the explanation (ambition of Mary) can be meaningfully connected to behavior (smiling of Mary). We could, for example, imagine that Beth is Mary’s co-worker and that Mary wishes to develop good relation with co-workers as part of her career-related ambitions, which is why she smiled at Beth.

What if we read, ‘Mary smiled at Beth because Mary isn’t a very sociable person’? We can still find such a statement intelligible, with the help of what Gergen calls a self-repairing maneuver. Self-repairing is the assumption that people generally wish to change their undesirable psychological states or traits, including the trait of being non-sociable. Mary smiles at Beth because she doesn’t wish to remain non-sociable. That is, someone’s non-sociability can be taken as an explanation for their smile, just as the opposite (their sociability) can explain their smile. This is what Gergen means when he writes, “any given behavior can be explained by virtually any randomly drawn motive or trait.”

The statement is, I believe, a deepity. Of course, it is true that a sufficiently ambiguous and under-specified statement like ‘Mary smiled at Beth’ is open to a wide variety of interpretations. We can find among those interpretations opposite pairs (e.g., Mary is sociable and Mary is non-sociable). It is, however, false that those opposite interpretations will be equally valid and true in the case of an actual, concrete situation involving a Mary, a Beth, and a smile. For a concrete instance of Mary smiling at Beth, Mary’s action cannot be explained by “virtually any randomly drawn motive or trait.”

Contrary to Gergen’s position, and despite the BIG names he keeps dropping (Wittgenstein, Saussure, Derrida, Kuhn), participating in language and culture doesn’t render psychological statements necessary or superfluous, especially when those statements are made with reference to actual and concrete situations. What is special about actual situations is their openness to exploration and further specification (dare we say it, empirical research).

Reference

Gergen, K. J. (2018). The limits of language as the limits of psychological explanation. Theory & Psychology, 28 (6), 697-711.

EPHA: Proofs Submitted

I received the manuscript proofs on June 21st and I sent them back yesterday (July 3rd). I would have been slightly, only slightly, faster without the TRACE workshop in Würzburg. When proofreading, I could not go through more than one chapter per day. I made numerous changes, adding and deleting full sentences here and there, and deleting quite a few unnecessary words and phrases. I am sure I introduced a lot of new errors with my “proofreading”, but I am willing to live with that (even though I had a nightmare last night about a glaring typographical error). I only hope that whatever value is in my writing will not be completely overshadowed by my mistakes.

Now, after completing the last bit of work for EPHA, it’s time to ease back into a routine that is sustainable over the long run. This morning I was drawn toward “comfort reading” with my morning coffee (literary equivalent of comfort food). And I picked up Dan Dennett’s Intuition Pumps. I reached the end of Part II (the first 12 chapters), struck once again by the simplicity and brilliance of Dennett, which is mixed with his almost complete lack of a political sensibility.

Of course, you might ask: What is the use of political sensibility in philosophy of mind? Especially in the type of philosophy with which Dennett engages (i.e., cognitive science)? We might be placing the cart before the horse with such a question. The type of philosophy of cognitive science we encounter in such books can only result from a neglect of the political dimension of human nature. It is the type of philosophy that flourishes at times of peace and political stability.

The world–according to a Dennett book–is a simple and rational place, which renders the author’s stance, for example, on religious questions very unsurprising. No wonder it’s comforting! I draw comfort from it in the same way I draw comfort from childhood myths. I open Intuition Pumps and I am immediately back in my small dorm room at Trent University (Otonabee College), dreaming naively and trustingly of an exciting career in science.

Next on the horizon is ISTP-2019 in Copenhagen, a strange place where people refer to books as “volumes” and to articles as “pieces”, where problems are “problematics”, where reality becomes “the real” and affect becomes “the affective”, and where everyone is somehow in the “liminal” space of embodied affectivity… (I’d better stop before I talk myself out of attending the conference. I admit, I am neglecting the Sturgeon’s law).

[Take 2] Next on the horizon is ISTP-2019, where I’ll deliver a paper (“a piece”, to be more refined) on concepts and categories, exploring the interplay between Jens Mammen and Eleanor Rosch’s works. I’ll also get to meet Jens Mammen, Jan Smedslund, (hopefully) Niels Engelsted, and several others. Plenty to be enthusiastic about!