My colleague wants to argue that Brandom has inconsistent views about the immediacy of perception.

1. Brandom claims (so my colleague claims) that we have perceptual knowledge non-inferentially. We know what we perceive without appeal to further reasons.

2. But: Brandom claims (so my colleague claims) that our perceptions can be wrong. They may individuate the objects of reality incorrectly. Only if we have been well trained will our perceptions give us accurate knowledge of the world. So, my colleague claims, we know what we perceive only if we know we have been correctly trained. So we do in fact have to appeal to further reasons. And so we have perceptual knowledge only inferentially.

How could one save Brandom here?


July 3, 2010

A few years back, when flying to a philosophy conference at the Univ. of Saskatchewan, I got pulled aside at the airport arrivals, just after the tiny passport control about 30 feet from the gate, and received instructions to go into the Immigration office. I sat waiting as two other people were interviewed in private rooms on opposite sides of the small reception room. Neither of the Immigration officers had closed their respective doors, so I could hear the entire conversations. Both of the interviewees were being questioned about some instance of mildly criminal behavior, both from nearly a decade ago — one, about a DWI, the other about a vandalism when he was a high-schooler. I got the sense that I would be queried about something of the same order. I did not remember ever being caught by the police for doing something illegal. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that I could be so certain that I hadn’t. Not because I had any reason to doubt my memory about something really significant as a run-in with the law. But because (i) people end up in Immigration waiting rooms because of such run-ins, and (ii) memory is in principle fallible. I felt a certain airiness, as though there were some indefinite space between my skin and my flesh, a certain distance from myself distinct from the out-of-body feeling I get when witnessing or engaged in confrontation. It was a feeling of my sense of self-ownership pulled away from myself by a few inches, such that I could still see my past but I didn’t have sovereignty over it; it had a newly blue tint, thinner, a lingering inert gas maybe. The feeling was not of violence having been done to my person or my past, but of a separation simultaneously incurred and realized.

As I waited to be called in, I foresaw the moment when I would be informed about myself. I don’t recall whether I conceived that I would take this information as comforting, an authority letting me know about myself; but I do recall thinking that I would be surprised, and then that memories would rush in, and then that I would be newly ashamed at what I had done. (Maybe it would be a thing that I thought I hadn’t been caught doing, or had rationalized to be not really bad.) Oh, it was an intense feeling of my presently thinking self being independent enough but my life in general being non-autonomous. (And why wouldn’t it be? I’m not in charge of what happened in the past! Or of how things will be and seem in the future!)

The conferences before me took at least 30 minutes each, with plenty of mild hectoring on the part of the officers and confusion at the relevance of ancient personal history on the part of the detainees. But then it was my turn. The officer and I had a confusing conversation for about 5 minutes, at which point he looks at a long dot-matrix print-out, and says, quite straightforwardly, “Apparently there has been some mistake. You are free to go.” And that was that.

I reread the programmatic first chapter of Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self this afternoon. The basic point of this introduction is to show the importance of theorizing the self on its three axes simultaneously: its embodied quality (with appetite, emotion, perhaps mortality), its relational quality (with social identity, assimilated values, language), and its reflective quality (with consciousness and self-realization). While there may be heuristic reasons for emphasizing one axis over the others (for liberational, analytical, etc., purposes), the struggles for self-unification and understanding make sense only when we appreciate the tensions between these various axes.

What I was struck by, however, in looking at this opening section again — the remainder of the book talks about the efforts of modern-era English, French, and German philosophers to deal with the idea of the self — was Seigel’s relative quiet about what might occasion discussion about the self. He does observe that our many words for the self — identity, personhood, individual, subject — indicate a range of contexts in which we might want to talk about selfhood. And he does point to some of the tendentious reasons people have to give a theory of selfhood:

Many practically minded people hardly think the question [i.e., ‘what is this self?’] worth posing, knowing well enough who they are for their purposes, thank you, while those who offer answers to it often do so for expedient or self-interested reasons: to support a political program, validate a religious belief or practice, foster or oppose some social policy, justify failings or pretensions, or establish a claim to therapeutic power.

Or, from the sharper political perspective,

Much of the history of modern thought and culture is a story of the ways people have found to call all these claims [by laudators of the modern West] for individual independence into question, to transcend mere selves by fusing them with communities, nations, classes, or cultures, or to humble them by trumpeting their radical dependency on historical processes, cosmic forces, biological drives, fundamental ontologies, discursive regimes, or semiotic systems.

I expect that when Seigel comes to talk about individual philosophers, some of the concrete occasions for reflection on the self may come up (if he doesn’t find such discussion heedless psychologizing). Though of course he may favor an institutional view of such analysis, that philosophers talk about the self mainly because their forebears have. But my concern is with Seigel’s avoidance, in this introductory chapter, of the question, Should we think about why and when some measly self might have reason to theorize about the self or itself? What are the costs of not asking this question explicitly, when orienting the reader to one’s book?

(Nevertheless, this first chapter did provide one good pedagogical thought. Teenagers have all kinds of identity-crises, moments of willful and accidental transformation, sullen reflection (per Erik Erikson). My wonder is whether younger college students may be in a good position to recall and reflect on that turmoil. And whether older college students may be in an even better position to take some distance from that turmoil and put it to some good use.)

Plato seminars

July 2, 2010

I’ve been thinking about how to arrange a Plato seminar that would serve to teach what I think is important about studying philosophy. Or doing philosophy. Or being reasonable. Or something. A byproduct of such an arrangement would be to accustom students who might stay in academic philosophy to reading Plato in a non-crazy way. Here are three potential reading-lists. I do not know which would be most fruitful. My sense is that it doesn’t matter. (Any seminar discussed below would be, I think,  accessible, as structured, to any level of undergraduate or graduate student.)

(1) The seven trial-of-Socrates dialogues.

  • Theaetetus
  • Sophist
  • Statesman
  • Euthyphro
  • Apology
  • Crito
  • Phaedo

(2) The dialogues with passages explicitly concerned with self-knowledge.

  • Alcibiades I
  • Phaedrus
  • Charmides
  • Apology
  • Phaedo

(3) Dialogues concerned with philosophy in the context of other ways of wisdom.

  • Protagoras
  • Gorgias
  • Euthydemus
  • Rep I-II, V
  • Sophist
  • Erastai
  • Clitophon

I would want any of these classes to confer the following understandings:

I. These are depictions of conversations, and therefore:

  • what such depictions need to show, for realism, engagement, benefit
  • how they relate to dramatic performance (viz., plot, character, decision)
  • depict, perhaps before anything else, conversational ethics
  • they are occasioned by mundane stuff

II. Some of what we see in these conversations is argument, and argument is special in that it:

  • seeks agreement
  • depends on acknowledgment of similarities and differences between concepts, ideas, words
  • transfers explicit commitment from some beliefs to other beliefs
  • is often hypothetical, or attentive just to the inferences, or diagnostic
  • is conducive to being ‘outlined’ — clarified in form — in order to be judged for goodness

III. The person arguing, and also doing much else, is Socrates, who is presented as a (somewhat opaque) model of good practice, and:

  • this is despite Socrates saying we should look to, and thus for, experts; he doesn’t find them
  • has  “successes,” minimal as they may be, of some sort
  • Plato sets him against other practitioners of intellectual / ‘philosophical’ pursuits
  • varies in memorialization between mythical saint, intellectual and moral exemplar, and eager diligent guy.

IV. Plato treated the creation of such dialogues as a significant though not exclusive project of his philosophical life:

  • he must have had reasons to write solely dialogues (if he did not write the letters)
  • he may have expected them to be read in certain curricular or tutored ways
  • reading becomes an important element in the induction to or practice of philosophical life

There remains the question about how to talk about what should go with reading of Plato’s dialogues into an education in (ancient) philosophy, or rather how to characterize the relationship between studying Plato and studying other things (or everything else). Figuring this out probably involves asking myself, What have I studied, thought about, read, talked through, that has allowed me to benefit from reading Plato? (Perhaps a prior question: how have I benefited from reading Plato?)

Facebook and philosophy

June 30, 2010

Earlier today I realized a friend of mine was a fellow member of a small comp lit seminar I took halfway through college; I hadn’t thought we were even acquainted until several years later.[1] This realization about my old classmate seems to change nothing about that friendship; it only reasserts the fallibility of autobiographical memory. But it reminded me of an email I wrote to a different friend earlier this spring[2], in response to a question about whether I was a “conscientious objector” from Facebook. This is what I wrote in response:

I’m not sure how much “conscientious objector” describes my orientation. (Though I bet I subconsciously think of myself as being one.) A lot of the motivation for not signing up for facebook is anxiety management. I feel if I had facebooks I’d be nervous about not receiving enough wall-writing and would anticipate checking it (as I do w/ email), and I don’t want to have either apprehensive feeling. A similar cause: remnants of this time junior year in college where I got somewhat put out by the idea of acquaintances. (I don’t really have this acquaintance-phobia any longer, but… still there’s something to that still in me.) Also there is the slightly nauseating oceanic feeling of opening years and now decades of my past into the present, the effort and work both typerly and psychologically to assimilate all that. For I don’t have much dissatisfaction that the only friends I have are from college or later, and a relatively circumscribed quantity at that. Not that the past is frightful or untrue to my present — it seems more or less the same — but the substantiality of that social world of the 80s and 90s, and even much of the dartmouthy time, burdens me. I suppose that true self-knowledge and self-work would come through cultivating those cross-epoch interactions, remembering causes and effects (e.g., how we and, say, [a mutual friend], all know each other; what the tenor of those times were, and why), finding that some of the people we liked way back when are even more likable, and worth re-knowing, now. These kinds of argument seem sound to me. But, oh, it’s all so involved, and that — given that I feel all my involvement should go toward publishable philosophy work, blah blah, it’s easy for such feelings to block action.

And then I read (in the context of trying to understand the preconditions and ideals of “remorse”) this somewhat flip Galen Strawson paper[3] last week about the “narrative (or diachronic) vs. episodic (or non-narrative) self.” Strawson claims, against others, that one does not become morally better by perceiving oneself as continuous through time, as a unified person (trying to be) living in a narrative way. He asserts that he lives an episodic life, one where he sees himself as living mostly now, without a long trail of unalienated identity. Strawson argues that one needn’t feel connected to one’s past to be (and to feel) responsible for one’s past actions.

The arguments in this paper seemed weak, mostly assertions and narrowly conceived. I especially doubted Strawson’s claim that his life goes episodically, which meant to him not exactly that it felt discontinuous or chronically punctuatedly amnesiac or self-alienated, but as unified only with his present self, not with previous moments of himself.

But now I am not so confident about my doubt. I am not sure how non-episodically I really take my life to go. I think my uncertainty is a claim about the poverty of my memory. To perhaps about the same extent that I find it hard to appreciate the reality of the mental life of others, I find it hard to appreciate the reality of my own earlier (or prospective?) mental life. Reading my old Thoreau paper (which, I think incidentally, was not as bad as I would’ve expected), I recall (i) having an interest in Thoreau, (ii) being in that class (and my thoughts about both the teacher’s wonderful disaffection and this other classmate’s odor of ben & jerry’s scoop-shop cleaning solution), and (iii), in general, that I could think in college. But I don’t remember writing it, or even being in the position to be able to write what I wrote. Reading that paper doesn’t make me think that someone else wrote it. Nor does it make me think, “Well, I cannot care less whether I wrote that paper or not.” It seems instead a discovery about myself, though a somewhat otiose-seeming discovery, given that I shouldn’t have lost that memory in the first place, and that the discovery was of something status-quo-y. It feels fine or right or totally expected or reasonable that I wrote that paper then. But I hadn’t been thinking of myself as having written it.

I suppose I feel to my historical self as I feel to a distant but fond acquaintance now. As though that relationship is a plausible one, though reaching toward the realm of trivial familiarity.

I don’t know that I’ve read a lot in the self-knowledge literature that helps with the questions about knowing oneself as a temporally-extended, living-through-time, growing-up person. Nor how much of self-knowledge depends on stable memory. Or how much the effort to get SK depends on putting effort into talking with others about your shared past. So reading around in such matters is the current goal.


[1] The course studied large-scale generic transformations of the fine arts; I wrote my final paper on illustrated versions of Walden; presumably we had exchanged papers. Even this paper, which referred to an Eliot Porter photo exhibit at the Met, I had forgotten, along with that show, even though last summer I bought, from the Met, a postcard leftover from that exhibit, and wrote on the card some descriptions of the photograph rather similar to the descriptions of the photographs I had studied and written about nine years earlier.

[2] This friend, incidentally, I had wrongly thought to have shared a linguistic anthropology class with me.

[3] “Episodic Ethics,” Philosophy Supplements 2007

Yesterday afternoon I told a colleague about my exercise in self-archaeology, of tracing back the origins of my commitment to philosophy, below. I spent most of my time bemoaning to him how depressed that exercise made me feel. The extent of my forgetfulness really bothered me. But I felt an even more intense dislike from the suspicion that I hadn’t exactly forgotten my past but instead never had thoughts the thoughts to forget in the first place. I came to doubt again the existence of a consciousness I simply assumed always to be there. Not that I feel now that I had been utterly unconscious then, but that I was rather less conscious than I both surely took myself as being then, and also currently think of my unified self as having basically always been (to whatever effect I ever think of myself as a self unified through time). There’s the further worry that I am now as delusional about my level of consciousness, articulated reflection, self-awareness, etc., as I was then. So to the extent that I want to know myself, I must confront a double barrier: my failed memory, and my failed original consciousness. It’s like some “locked-in” syndrome with a temporal orientation. This causes an odd feeling of loneliness. Not that I wish for the person I was fifteen years ago to be a friend or interlocutor or associate with me now. (Anyway, I don’t think I do.) It’s a sense that I lack resource, the material from which to draw to make sense of myself, whatever it is that friends and family provide in the course of participating in conversation, background that reminds you what you did, of your character, of your activities and patterns and aberrations and changes, those facts which individualize their relation with you, which differentiate you from others, which identify those traits for which you are uniquely or especially or comparative valuable.

Knowing I have this earlier self to which I have—at least at the instant—no particular access (or “familiarity”? “knowledge”? “confidence”? “rapport”?), I can feel, “What a waste!” (Of what?) Surely that earlier self was all instrumental to me, and had an okay time doing whatever he was doing, and in fact had some useful thoughts, deliberating sufficiently well, made decisions that I could approve of and see why I (as opposed to someone with a different personality) decided. But it’s hard to see how that instrumentality is something different than the causal relationship my having eaten protein and calcium fifteen years ago has to me now. It’s hard to see how that past is me, rather than just a necessary stage that I had to pass through in 1995, given the continuous nature of time and bodies and so forth.

(This is the problem of: thinking about maturation from the other direction.)

This colleague wanted to broach the topic of a vocation, especially the somewhat irrational (or let’s say unconscious) feeling of being called to some long-term life-organizing activity. I think he wondered whether such a call could come about without my having had explicit thoughts about the goodness of philosophy and the suitability of philosophy to me. I responded that I would at least have had to have known about philosophy, had heard something good about it, and had some reflections on my own types of curiosity or acumen or goals. He seemed to qualify this thought by suggesting that perhaps simply liking to talk about books, having sympathy for questions about preconditions and reasons, and talking with people who are familiar with culture, could suffice. (“Philosophy” does, after all, come up in mundane ways, as a marker for, among other things, “relatively more abstract thought” and “having some relatively more articulated goals for one’s life.”) This quasi-subconscious entrance into philosophy does seem possible, and while maybe even harder to reconstruct, assuming that’s the way I got into philosophy is perhaps more responsive to myself as a person with patterns of thought, dispositions of interest, and plenty of other things on my mind (and not just as a recipient of bombarding one-off impressions and inspirations).

The reconstruction of one’s entrance into a discipline will be as hypothetical, comparative, evidence- based, and interpretative an exercise as any. One must ask, given the few things I know about myself in my past, and what I do know (or am coming to know) about myself now, leaving aside gross accident as a significant cause, how could I have gotten to be as I am now? To know this will take knowing about patterns of biography generally (by thinking about how other people change; by reading biography; by studying successful autobiography); asking acquaintances about how one was then and are now and seem to have changed; and doing, essentially, intellectual history on oneself (asking, that is, “why would someone who we take presumptively to be rational to have committed himself to this thesis and then pursued its corollaries?”).

J. asked me:

what was it that got you engaged in philosophy in the first place, given that you probably more than once encountered philosophizing that was not totally congenial? i’ve been thinking some about how to describe my attitude toward philosophy given that i seem more concerned with working out what to care about, or not quite that, but working out a committed expression of a relatively encompassing view of what i do in fact care about, something that to some philosophers perhaps seems antecedent to real philosophy. but it seems more congenial an attitude toward philosophy from a student’s perspective.

I have no memory of my early exposure, thoughts, or interest in philosophy. I recall when I was fourteen or fifteen walking across our high school green expressing how impressed I was that Hume finished his Treatise at twenty-four and started it at sixteen. (I don’t know where I found this fact.) I thought it would be good to beat him at that. It didn’t seem so hard to generate a theory of human nature. Yet I had no ideas about, puzzlement at, or investigative methods for learning of human nature. (The most I did was, once, go around during recess asking what word first came to people’s mind when I said “neo.”) I can only think that philosophy seemed the highest-esteemed discipline to me—or not “discipline,” but “topic,” perhaps. A couple close friends started, among themselves, a “liberal arts club” to which they invited me; I never participated, and neither felt envious that they had invented this idea nor interested in coopting / coordinating this club after my own ideas. Really the most I did was go to the used bookstore this one friend worked at and talked to him about paperback versions of Steinbeck (who he loved), Richard Brautigan (who was fun to collect), the Beat prose-writers (which is to say, Kerouac’s west-coast novels), and some other California-y para-spiritual nature-writing. (For context, I also once came into a copy of Mozart’s flute quartets, I don’t know how, and I liked them and listened to them as background music, but never once had a question about anything about them.)

This sense of prestige for philosophy must have been the thing that, when I started college, made me think I should major in one or more of philosophy, math, literature, and religious studies. At UCSD I took a Hume class and a Religion & Science class. Both were fine. But I preferred my Dostoevsky class and my modern literature class, both by Steven Cassedy. He made facial expressions and told us about Bakunin. I signed up for a Philosophy of Logic class, but I think only because the section fit my schedule; I neither took it, nor had regret about that.

My first fall at Dartmouth, I took a calculus class and two education class: one contemporary American education, one philosophy of education. In my self-narrative I say that from this sprung my interest in philosophy. I cannot substantiate such a view. I say that I took both education classes because I thought, in a spark of self-consciousness, that I should learn about what it is I’m doing in college. This is probably more verifiable. Last week, talking to a philosophy dept, I combined these two thoughts and said that from that point I got interested in pedagogy, and that my interest in philosophy is an interest in maturation as people. (I guess I also read enough Hesse around that time.) But I surely never had such a coherent thought as this.

I cared very much for my ed28 (philosophy of education) class and its teacher, who just sat at her desk, seemingly rather unprepared, mostly talking about her two children and her half-time position as Unitarian-Universalist minister and how she used to be able to teach religion and women’s studies courses in an M.A. program at school, and then had us tell anecdotes around the circle. She started the term by having us meet outside of class with a classmate to get information to write a short biography of them that we would then present the following week. And we had a senior-year TA who was very cool and distant and resided in an off-campus house where free-living things, or at least candles in wine-bottles, seemed to happen.

The next term I took ancient Greek, a theory of computation class, and philosophy of literature. In the spring: two philosophy classes: ethical theory and philosophy of math. Especially for the latter two, I didn’t know what to do, especially about finding items to write on. (I didn’t know that one thing to do was simply “set out an argument very carefully.” Basically, I didn’t understand what the possible activities to learn, practice, or master were.) I didn’t get particularly good grades in any of these. Nor did getting put through the rigors of these classes make me better. We heard some views, and maybe some explanations for those views. But I don’t think I had any sense for the purpose or my insight into the enterprise.

Yet I don’t remember being dissatisfied with philosophy or those teachers. One just did college! And everything was interesting! And writing is challenging and creative and hit-or-miss! Since I kept wanting to take (a minimum of) philosophy classes, I think the (private) prestige of the activity must have had a nearly perfect power. (I didn’t even do it because I had friends in the department; I didn’t.)

Maybe, though, “prestige” doesn’t describe it fully. “Overviewy” is better. It seemed not so banausic, not so concerned with facts and specialization, not so limited. I could take (and did exclusively take) philosophy of x courses, for diverse x: no core or systematic classes. Philosophy seemed a perspective on interesting stuff; I think that was the appeal. I took it as learning equivalent of belletrism. An aloofness, a theoreticality (as opposed to practicality, instrumentality, engagement). I think I saw taking philosophy not as a way to develop a way of life, or as full of intriguing puzzles, but as a way of going about college. I liked the awe that it had toward important seeming things, its treatment of certain abstracta as sublime and somewhat silencing; this attitude of floating seemed apt for going about college.

All the same, I only took seven philosophy classes in college.

At the time I definitely didn’t see that each of the disciplines provided its own way of finding valuable elements in the world, but that such value came only with the diligence learning lots of facts took. By the time I graduated I sort of wished I had majored in ecology, or Classics, and was envious of people who stuck with math. Even econ seemed a thing. Likewise Jewish studies. (History remained too broad; and I wasn’t yet mature enough to see that English classes are different than just reading novels on one’s own.)

I didn’t read any philosophy after graduating, but applied to philosophy grad school anyway—I say it’s because it’s the thing I had majored in, but I think I also thought “professor of philosophy” seemed the kind of thing appropriate for my self-image. And still probably think so.