Adventures in philosophy of mind

Over the course of this semester I’ve been working on becoming more familiar with issues in philosophy of mind. In the past I’ve been hesitant to delve into the whole philosophy and neuroscience thing. My reluctance came largely from a suspicion that the average undergraduate finds neuroscience appealing for bad reasons – ‘Science’ is now the great subject supposed to know.

Rather than starting with introductions or classic texts, I decided to enter the conversation through the literature dealing with psychoanalysis and neuroscience. I’d already encountered some of this in the work of Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou, but I’d largely read those texts with an eye on their respective readings of Hegel and contemporary philosophy. Going back and working through the material on neuroscience has been intriguing, but has left me with a few question.

Ansermet and Magistretti’s Biology of Freedom is a prime example of a text that is informative, but failed to answer a key question. They spend a great deal of time summarising the Ansermet and Magistretti strangely reach the conclusion that

the work of psychoanalysis is to decode internal reality by including the processes peculiar to somatic states, that is, by referring in a fundamental way to the drive dimension, so as to allow for direct access to external reality and make possible an action free of fantasy constructions that so greatly interfered with it (178).

My first reaction was to assume that Ansermet and Magistretti might be working with a different understanding of psychoanalysis, but their text contains numerous references to Lacan. Of course, they could still refer to Lacan without adopting his psychoanalytic method tout court, but it’s odd that they refer consistently to Freud and Lacan without serious qualification. For Lacan, the goal of psychoanalysis is the traversal of fantasy, not accessing a world without it. To attempt to access reality ‘behind’ fantasy is to reinscribe and naturalise a particular fantasy. Freedom is not the absence of fantasy, but a particular relationship to fantasy in which we assume a degree of creative control – we learn to collaborate with desire.

The final chapter actually lays out at a similar understanding.

The fact that the inscription of experience by the mechanisms of plasticity creates a distance from experience paradoxically offers a person freedom. It is what gives him [the text constantly uses masculine pronouns – I’m not sure if this a feature of the translation, but it’s weird to see a text published in 2007 that doesn’t use inclusive language] room to move around, an ability to transform himself, to change, to become the author and actor of a process of becoming different from what was programmed by his determinants. Neural plasticity is thus a condition of a possible plasticity of becoming. Plasticity, finally, is what makes it possible for a person in analysis to free himself from the constraints of a rigid fantasy scenario or to make different use of the way it function as a solution, to sue the fantasy instead of being used by it (239).

Here Ansermet and Magistretti offer an understanding of the end of analysis that is closer to the one I describe above, but don’t address how this definition squares with the earlier discussion.

This conclusion also touches on an issue that crops up throughout the book – the relation of plasticity and freedom. Neural plasticity provides an understanding of the malleability of our brains. This ability to change, even at a physiological level, does not equal the ability to intentionally bring about these changes in ourselves. I’m sympathetic to Ansermet and Magistretti’s overall framework for connecting psychoanalytic and scientific understandings of subjectivity, but the book might be more accurately entitled Biology of Change rather than Biology of Freedom. Put another way, the possibility of change is necessary for the possibility of freedom, but that doesn’t mean that the possibility of change equals freedom.

I don’t think understanding the biology of freedom entails rejecting Ansermet and Magistretti’s argument – it’s an issue of going back and supplying a more detailed understanding of plasticity as the ground of freedom. Over the break I’m going to take a crack at Damasio as well as Wexler’s Brain and Culture. Hopefully they’ll help me fill in some of these gaps.

Continuation through transformation

I’ve been thinking more about this notion of the uncritiquable. Over the weekend I was reading Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ alongside Foucault’s essay of the same name. Foucault famously rejects the label ‘postmodern’ and many have been puzzled by his self-identification with Kant and the project of the Enlightenment. Amy Allen proposes that we understand Foucault’s relationship to Kant as ‘continuation-through-transformation’. Foucault is identifying with Kant’s description of critique as a transformation of the present. Foucault wants to continue this transformation, but in rejecting the global and universal, must pursue this transformation immanently. In short, he has to critique Kant in order to continue the Kantian tradition of transformation through critique.

This continuation-through-transformation seems a workable alternative to the operation Barber describes. While Zizek is guilty of pushing the ‘good’ Hegel, someone like Adrian Johnston finds in Hegel a project worth continuing, but in a way that transforms that project. These approaches don’t, however, devote much time to the questioning and naming of operations.

In contrast, Foucault’s critique (‘genealogical in its design and archeological in its method’) requires this naming of operations as part of the ‘historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond’. I for one find Foucault too dismissive of radical projects, but nonetheless agree with his conclusion:

The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.

Pinkard on New Honneth Book

Over at NDPR, Pinkard reviews Honneth’s Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life.

From my perspective, Pinkard’s best point comes toward the end of the review when he writes:

That struggle over recognition is also a struggle over what counts as reasons in the struggle, and lands us squarely with questions of social norms and how such norms can be redeemed as genuine reasons instead of, for example, being merely well disguised assertions of power. That in turn, so Hegel argued, pushes us to ask whether there is a deeper logic to what is involved in giving and asking for reasons such that some type of putative reasons historically turn out to not really have been good reasons, however much in sync with the times they were.

This is my complaint about the Pittsburgh Hegelians and readings of Hegel which focus on normativity – they seem woefully unable to distinguish between social norms substantiated by genuine reasons and assertions of power (though I’ve read too much Foucault to think there is any firm distinction between the two). At heart, this inability fails to recognise how well ideology ‘works’. Ideology is not only a set of normative assumptions; it is the limits of the debate around social norms. Put another way, Hegelians who focus on social normativity and the giving and asking of reasons, often fail to appreciate the extent to which social norms determine what counts as reasonable. In defining ‘reasonableness’, these assumptions determine the limits of debate.

This critique was the basic question of my PhD thesis – given that Hegel is able to describe the relationship between religion, the state, civil society and the family in ways that continue to illuminate contemporary society, are there ways of forcing critical (or negative) disruptions within these relationships?

Against the uncritiquable

Dan Barber has a great blog post (with reference to a couple of excellent essays that he’s written) over at AUFS. I’ve probably been guilty of the revalorisation of Hegel at points (too much Zizek).

The key point, for me, is this:

What universalism, normativity, and Hegel have in common is the capacity — a capacity, by the way, that is grounded in nothing other than a sort of sovereign self-assertion — to present themselves in terms of neutral abstraction, or of intrinsic symmetry, and in doing so to set it up so that the field of disagreement about the term’s value is already enfolded within the field of the term. “Do you not see that your critique of universalism / normativity / Hegel, in order to realize itself, must (in some renewed sense) affirm universalism / normativity / Hegel?”

I’ve noticed this operation at work in a couple of theological papers I’ve attended recently. It’s the logic of conversion, as Barber calls it. Or, put another way, it is the Anonymous Christianity of Everything Good. If you have a critique of capitalism, heteronormativity, racism, etc., Christianity already includes this critique. This logic was at the heart of Radical Orthodoxy’s engagement with continental philosophy and, even amongst those who now disavow Milbank and crew, this logic persists. You are critiquing the bad version of Christianity. We’ve incorporated your critiques and now it’s time to endorse the good Christianity. Or, your critiquing a misguided form of Christianity which was never the true Christianity anyway.

This operation or logic is not just prevalent in Christianity, though. It is the logic of Christianity. And this is why Marx was ultimately right – the critique of religion is the beginning of all critique.

More on Leiter, philosophy and identity politics

Over at New APPS, Christian Coseru also takes issue with the Leiter report post I criticised here.

I was thinking of the issues raised by Coseru today as I read through the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement for Philosophy (it’s as exciting as it sounds). In the section on the ‘Nature and extent of philosophy’ we read:

The study of philosophy’s own history, including the investigation of its diverse traditions. In the UK, the main focus of study is Western philosophy. This has its own canon in the study of the classics of Western philosophy from the Presocratics onwards, but the membership of this canon is not fixed. Philosophy can include study of texts and traditions from outside the Western world, such as Indian and Buddhist philosophy. It is characteristic of philosophy that it engages with past thought as living argument and as a challenge to contemporary modes of thinking.

Statements such as this one go some distance in acknowledging the inherently contingent nature of the shape of our canon, but still don’t address the fact that voices from outside the established canon(s) do not just broaden or otherwise enrich a pre-existing discussion. They are not spices we add for exotic flair while continuing to serve the same basic meal. If the canon is not fixed, not including a more diverse range of voices is an active choice not to recognise the contributions of those ‘non-canonical’ voices and a failure to acknowledge the role this history of exclusion has played in contributing to other forms of discrimination and marginalisation.

‘Identity politics’ and the philosophical canon

Yesterday, Brian Leiter offered his thoughts on identity politics and the study of philosophy. Leiter perpetuates a line of thinking I often come across – surely they don’t expect us to include non-whites in the curriculum purely for the sake of diversity. As Leiter says, ‘should we really add East Asian philosophers to the curriculum to satisfy the consumer demands of Asian students rather than because these philosophers are interesting and important in their own right?’

A few things: first, as far as consumer demands go, this doesn’t seem that bad. If there are philosophical traditions which stem from the same cultures as your students, at the very least incorporating those traditions alongside the western tradition seems like a good goal. If a university can invest in new cafes, new study carrels and add more options in the dining hall, adding an elective module on Asian philosophy feels like a reasonable concession.

Second, Leiter’s phrasing of the question implies that the rich philosophical traditions of South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia might not be interesting and important in their own right. He references Nussbaum later in the post and perhaps she would be a good place to start. Her work is part of the established tradition, but she finds it worthwhile to engage with Indian philosophy. The Durham philosopher of Law Thom Brooks does as well. These aren’t examples of people pursuing some radical agenda – they find interesting patterns of thought in Indian philosophy which challenge and push Western thought. The fact that they, and many others, find philosophy from outside Europe and North America ‘interesting and important in their own right’ is a good reason to begin to include it in our teaching.

Third, there’s the problem of teaching what you don’t know:

most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it.  Some regret the ignorance, others think it is excusable since there are so many philosophical traditions in the world and one can only master so many, and others just don’t think about it at all because it is possible to pursue an academic career in philosophy ignorant of a lot of things, including large swaths of the history of European philosophy…

It’s simply not acceptable for a philosopher to ‘have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy’. Even the phrasing points to the historical relationship between Europe, North America and the rest of the world – a relationship in which the humanity and agency of any not-white person is denied, oppressed or, at best, begrudgingly and partially acknowledged. To have no opinion on that state of affairs as it bears on your field of research is inexcusable. To return to the previous point, this objection only makes sense if you think there’s a real possibility that traditions of thought developed over thousands of years might not have interesting things to say.

I have more sympathy for the ‘one can only master so many’ forms of philosophy argument. How do you teach a philosopher whose name you struggle to pronounce? But this objection is based on a problematic understanding of teaching. It assumes that teaching consists of a master dispensing knowledge to students who retain and repeat that information for a mark or grade. I’ve been trying to frame undergraduate education in a different way, one which is more collaborative and based on discussion (I do realise I work at a small institution that affords me this luxury). Why not structure a course around trying to create a better course? Allow them to construct an alternative history of philosophy incorporating marginalised perspectives. This provides a forum in which students can explain why they think a new canon is needed. If the lecturer thinks the students are wrong, allow for discussion and debate (sorry I’ve been reading Ranciere lately so now I’m filled with lofty notions about education and liberation). I’m certainly guilty of not teaching material because I feel that I haven’t yet sufficiently mastered it and I don’t want students to ask questions for which I have no answer. We need to ask what kind of message this conveys. ‘I see your point about the exclusion of huge portions of humanity from the history of thinking, but I’m too worried about stepping outside what I know to do anything to address that problem’?

Finally, what I find most frustrating about the post (as indicative of a fairly common attitude) is that it, yet again, reduces everything to a series of problems that matter. The people who count are the ones who speak and write about these problems. We only need to incorporate non-Western philosophers if they have something interesting to say about those problems that matter. The fulfilling thing about picking up African or Chinese philosophy, though, is finding different questions, or similar questions asked in different ways. Not including groups from historically (or contemporarily) marginalised communities, reinscribes that marginalisation. Our syllabi say that they don’t count. This isn’t about identity politics in philosophy. Arguing that it is abstracts the teaching of philosophy from the racial, cultural and gendered contexts in which we teach.