Blind Brain Theory and Enactivism: In Dialogue With R. Scott Bakker

June 11, 2014 § 7 Comments

tumblr_mkwlanqOci1qzngato1_1280[Image: Hannah Imlach]

Last week I posted a short essay on the question of meaning, style, and aesthetics in the ecological theories of Alva Noë and Jacob von Uexküll. The post resulted in a long and in-depth discussion with science fiction novelist and central architect of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) of cognition, R. Scott Bakker. Our conversation waded through multiple topics including phenomenology, the limits of transcendental arguments, enactivism, eliminativism, meaning, aesthetics, pluralism, intentionality, first-person experience, and more. So impressed was I with Bakker’s adept ability to wade through the issues — across disciplines, perspectives, and controversies — despite my protests that I felt it worth excerpting our dialogue as a record of the exchange and as a resource for others interested in these debates. Whatever your views on the philosophy of mind, Bakker’s unique position is one you should familiarize yourself with — if only, like me, so that you can find better ways to dispute its unsettling consequences. To provide a little context to the dialogue I am re-stating my central claim and concluding paragraph from the earlier post: « Read the rest of this entry »

Noë and Uexküll: Ecology, Style, and Meaning

June 3, 2014 § 40 Comments

tumblr_mm96ib07g81qzngato1_1280[Image: Tomas Rak]

I have been exploring Alva Noë’s actionist account of perception and cognition in terms of an ecological account of the subject-concept relation. In my previous posts (here and here), I have emphasized a level of conceptual understanding that presupposes both language and the capacity to learn new concepts, or, more interestingly, I have described the way in which a subject can never really learn anything new but rather can only become someone with a new set of conceptual capacities through learning and practice. In this view, the subject-concept relation is ecological insofar as the concept has a symbiotic relation to the subject that both displaces and creates new conceptual capacities. To be more specific, and to repeat my phrasing from the earlier posts, learning initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept. « Read the rest of this entry »

Traditions of Unknowing

May 30, 2014 § 9 Comments

04-Dennis-Wojtkiewicz-fruit_4[Image: Dennis Wojtkiewicz]

In my last post I offered a two-part description of the concept: the concept-as-tool and the concept-as-capacity. I then suggested both these definitions come together in the learning process. Learning, in this view, is a transition of the concept as an external tool into the concept as an acquired capacity. I concluded by suggesting that the transition into the concept-as-capacity phase reveals the ecological nature of the subject-concept dynamic. In this mode of understanding, a subject is not the kind of being that can simply acquire new concepts while remaining identical to him or herself. Instead, from the ecological view, learning initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept. « Read the rest of this entry »

Concepts as Capacities and as Tools

May 23, 2014 § 11 Comments

In Alva Noë’s recent work Varieties of Presence we are given an enactive (or “actionist”) account of perception and cognition. In this post I want to explore a few elements within Noë’s text that I find myself in substantial agreement with—his account of meaning and perception, his understanding of “access” as a form skillful engagement, and his nonrepresentational account of concepts, for example—but I also want to seize upon what I see as an important ambiguity in Noë’s work. In his description of concepts, Noë vacillates between two definitions: In the first definition, Noë draws on the etymological root of the word “concept” to suggest that concepts are tools used for “grasping” phenomena, while in the second Noë follows Wittgenstein’s assertion that understanding is a kind of ability or capacity, and that concepts are nothing but ways a body can achieve access to its environment. Rather than declare that one of Noë’s definitions should take precedence over the other, I want to suggest that both definitions—concepts as tools and concepts as capacities—represent two different moments within the transformative act we call “learning.” « Read the rest of this entry »

Big History and Cosmopolitics

April 16, 2014 § 5 Comments

fournier_6b[Image: Vincent Fournier]

I’ll be speaking with some of the usual suspects at the International Big History Association Conference this August at Dominican University in San Rafael, California. Our Panel description and abstracts can be found below.

Panel Title: Cosmopolitics and the Big Journey: Resolving Nature-Culture Dualisms

Abstract: In its research and teaching programs, Big History facilitates the integration of human and natural history into a multidimensional collective history.  There is still much work that remains to be done to articulate collective history without falling back into longstanding dualisms that separate humans from nature.  Along those lines, Big History can benefit from a dialogical encounter with others who are oriented toward overcoming the human/nature dualism, including those involved in the Journey of the Universe project and, in a very different vein, philosophers like Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and others associated with a theoretical movement called “cosmopolitics,” which aims to overcome the separation between the natural world (kosmos) and the constitution of human civilization (politikos).  Initially developed by Stengers following her work with Ilya Prigogine, cosmopolitics aims to articulate a collective history that affirms the intertwining of human societies with the evolutionary unfolding of the cosmos.  Cosmopolitics draws more explicitly than Big History on philosophical concepts useful for overcoming the dualisms separating a realm of humans (subjects, values) from a realm of nature (objects, facts), including concepts associated with process philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead), philosophical biology (Jakob von Uexküll), and French post-structuralist philosophy (Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida).  This panel introduces the idea of cosmopolitics and situates it in relationship to similar approaches to collective history (e.g., Big History, Journey of the Universe), drawing particular attention to the importance of accounting for the axiological dimensions (e.g., ethics, aesthetics, and spirituality) of our collective history. « Read the rest of this entry »


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