Abstract II: Seizing an Alternative: 10th International Whitehead Conference

April 7, 2015 § 13 Comments

tumblr_md92r6MwUf1qzngato1_1280[Image: Kohei Nawa]

Below is the second of my two abstract for this year’s Whitehead conference in Claremont.

Track: Journey of the Universe and Inclusive History as A Context of Meaning

Title: Appearance in Time: Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis in Evolutionary Process

Author: Adam Robbert

Abstract: What is the significance of aisthēsis in the context of evolutionary process? The central claim of my talk is that an ecological understanding of aisthēsis—that is, of the plural modes by which species perceive and engage their surroundings—is necessary for an understanding of evolution at its most fundamental level. In other words, my argument is that we have to understand that which appears as meaningful to organisms if ever we hope to comprehend the history of evolution on Earth. To support this claim, I draw on the works of Alfred North Whitehead and Jakob von Uexküll to offer a non-anthropocentric and aesthetic account of meaning in the context of ecological history. Ecology from this view is an ongoing entanglement of values, concerns, and decisions, and it marks the space where the division between matter and meaning breaks down. Further, beyond suggesting the importance of aisthēsis for all species, I conclude by noting, following Whitehead, that aisthēsis connects each organism with a field of action, a semantic topography that ingresses upon the evolution of species in the mode of inherited forms. This ingression demonstrates that, while the real cannot be reduced to appearance, it is nevertheless shaped in part by the exchange of appearances coalesced in evolutionary process.

Abstract 1: Seizing an Alternative: 10th International Whitehead Conference

April 3, 2015 § 1 Comment


Below I’m posting my first of two abstracts for papers I’m giving at the 10th International Whitehead Conference. I’m re-working some familiar themes here, but, as they say, repetition is the best teacher. Will you, dear readers, also be in attendance at Claremont this July? Drop me a line via email or in the comments and let’s coordinate.

Track: Re-Imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism

Title: Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge

Author: Adam Robbert

Abstract: In Process and Reality Alfred North Whitehead writes, “a new idea introduces a new alternative; and we are no less indebted to a thinker when we adopt the alternative which he discarded. Philosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a new philosopher.” In this paper I ask, what is an idea? How does it introduce a new alternative? How does this new alternative relate to human knowledge and experience? I argue that the best way to understand human experience, now or in history, is by demonstrating the ecological basis of all human thought, action, and perception. To understand how knowledge and ideas participate in human action, I draw on literature from the philosophy mind, particularly enactivism, to propose that knowledge is a skill of perception waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new aesthetic contrasts made possible by the coordination of multiple species, practices, and technologies. Similarly, I define conceptualization as a speculative capacity, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Stated differently, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual faculty, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in the environment in a meaningful way. I conclude by suggesting that the organism is that place in the universe where material nature is transformed into conceptual nature, where matter becomes concept in the mode of embodied awareness.

Multispecies Epistemes

March 23, 2015 § 6 Comments


The epistemic import of camouflage vis-a-vis notions of realism is an under researched area of inquiry.CAqkfZBUUAAZIiw

Camouflaged critters bring to mind not just the intersubjective character of perception but also its interspecies reality.CAqj0PwVIAED_34

Different organisms hide not just from us humans but also from a wide variety of other species, playing on appearances.CAqjRDIUYAAEXpn

This means that we humans encounter phenomena in terms of specific perceptual capacities, but not in a way entirely alien to other species.

The point is not to efface differences across species but to explore multispecies entanglements in perception.CAqlAs8UYAAX4z_

Because the aesthetic play of appearances can be life or death in multispecies epistemes.  Crocodile-fish_1594835i

Concepts and Words

February 27, 2015 § 3 Comments

[Image: Dillon Marsh]

We cannot think of words or statements as simply marks on a page or concepts as simply nouns. What’s needed is syntax, the arrangement of words. Syntax is essential to the emergence of semantics, the meaning of a statement. Syntax and semantics are part of the relational architecture that exists between a text and its reader. There is in one sense a higher-order meaning to letters when arranged to form words and again to sentences when arranged to express statements. In another sense, though, “higher-order” is just a spatial metaphor since linguistic meaning just is the arrangement of letters and spaces grasped by a reader. This is the whole point of linguistic communication, after all: to express meaning. Syntax and semantics are part of the real dynamics of understanding any linguistic artifact and must be construed as part of what’s considered a “text.”

Further, concepts, often the content of a statement, cannot be collapsed into specific words. Concepts and words are not interchangeable. (The SEP notes why the relationship is more complex than that.) Words are often about concepts and concepts are often about other non-conceptual things (but can also be about other words and other concepts or even about the structure of language or conceptualization itself). Multiple words can express the same concept (e.g., “one,” “un,” “один,” and “1” are all about the same concept). Similarly, concepts can be expressed through non-linguistic means—as in a symbol for “one” such as “*” but also as a sound, say, as a single beat. Beyond humans, concepts are available to all manner of critters. (This is not a settled issue, but the evidence is trending in the right direction. Again, some basics are available at the SEP.) We do not need to cleave to a superficial understanding of the concept as a simple, static unity or as a transcendentally secure, foundational entity to accept this premise.

Concepts are complex and historical, open and relational, multispecies and plastic. Language cannot be treated as a privileged road to the concept, as though a word gives some kind of direct access to it, nor can the concept be discarded in favor of the word. We should avoid a straightforward collapse of the concept into the word while still recognizing that language use is among the factors that influence conceptuality. The third thing between readers and texts here is not a ghostly apparition—an ideal concept, dropped in from above—but a sensible apprehension of the content of expression as it is entangled with its nonconceptual object of engagement, which the word brings forth and helps to communicate through its process of comportment with a concept in the activity of thinking. The concept pre-exists its external expression but is nevertheless empirical. None of this is epiphenomenal to the activities of brains and bodies; the exchange is the means by which real entities transform themselves and engage with their surroundings.

The Ecology of Extended Minds

February 13, 2015 § 14 Comments

nunzio-paci-38[Image: Nunzio Paci]

I wasn’t going to post this since the event has unfortunately been canceled, but Matt Segall threw his up so I figured I’d leave this here for future reference. The below abstract was meant for a conference on theoretical archaeology in Copenhagen. Readers will notice that the abstract continues to develop the themes that have occupied my recent posts. The paper is about 2/3 finished, and I’ll probably end up pitching it to a journal or using it for another conference down the line.

Abstract Proposal: XV Nordic TAG 2015 

Title: Cognitive Archaeology and the Ecology of Extended Minds

Author: Adam Robbert

Panel: Disentangling the Neolithic ‘Revolution’ in Southwest Asia

Abstract: The role of the cognitive archaeologist is to re-construct the values, thoughts, and beliefs of past societies. In this paper I argue that the best way to understand human experience, now or in history, is by demonstrating the ecological basis of all human thought, action, and perception. Building on the work of enactive approaches to cognition, I suggest that human experience and behavior is an ongoing and distributed activity achieved at the intersection of conceptual knowledge, physical perception, and environmental affordance. But what is knowledge? What is a concept? How do they participate in larger ecologies? To understand how knowledge participates in human action, I propose that knowledge is a skill waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new contrasts made possible by the coordination of multiple species, practices, and technologies. Similarly, I define conceptualization as a speculative capacity, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Stated differently, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual faculty, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in the environment in a meaningful way. One way to visualize this intersection is to underscore that ecology entangles perception with cognitive activity through the enaction of experience. The intersection of concept with sense, then, is the basis for the ecological understanding of knowledge. This understanding in turn provides a theoretical framework that operates outside of traditional Nature­–Culture dichotomies and accords with the historical character of the values, thoughts, and beliefs studied by cognitive archaeologists.

Concept and Sense IV: Media Environments

December 23, 2014 § 8 Comments


The internalization of knowledge is to a large extent environmental in that we are absorbed by different knowledge ecologies that propagate within us different perceptual matrices that dispose use towards certain phenomena against others. Here the question transforms one more time, How does knowledge travel? Who has access to it? Which bodies can develop what capacities? The construction of a specific media sensorium provides the environment for the introduction and distribution of certain knowledge and practices. In the enactive approach, recorded knowledge is not a representation of a general class of events but is rather the inscription of an iterable capacity in a medium. A text, for example, is a certain kind of inscription device, to use Bruno Latour’s term, a media ecology filled with affordances for new empirical capacities of observation.

A text deals in conceptual or virtual affordances—theoretical as opposed to practical possibilities. Virtual affordances offer conceptual possibilities for imaging alternatives to the present scenario. A text is a record of past cognitive achievements that in the future can act as a set of affordances for the acquisition of new skills of perception in another person. These affordances enable the acquisition of new capacities for participation, action, and discernment. The text is an ecology that provokes transformation. However, the potency of a concept is not in the text itself but in the contrasts rendered available by the conceptual problems the reader must traverse in order to achieve the new skill, to constellate what is available to perception in a new way through engagement with the text. The constellation of availability again reveals the ecological nature of the concept-subject relation. Texts provide a virtual topos enacted by human practice—a topos that folds back on the human, shaping his or her identity along the shifting contours of new ecologies of thought.

Concept and Sense III: From Concept to Capacity

December 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

The question now becomes, How does conceptual understanding inflect itself onto empirical observation? That new modes of perception can be learned is evident in the fact that the empirical observations of the physicist, the botanist, or the architect are not the empirical observations of the lay person. Each one, in his or her own way, brings to empirical observation a particular sense of refinement, a constellation of knowledge, training, and experience that exceeds the capacity for discernment possessed by the untrained eye. How is the discernment achieved? How does one become a physicist, a botanist, or an architect? What are the actions that must take place in order to entrain empirical observation with the capacities required for each skill? In each case, the training process includes a large number of directed practices and behaviors, as well as a large number of machines, instruments, and institutions, but it also includes a substantial theoretical comportment with ideas.

The comportment with ideas is neither prior to nor constitutive of practice. Instead, this comportment is an event that occurs within the limits of empirical practices and environmental affordances, within the thrush and flow of reality, but it is not thereby limited to the contents of immediate events. The task of learning is in large part predicated on the production of spaces that facilitate repetition and practice in a context where repetition and practice do not suggest merely the retainment of the concept in memory but more thoroughly the transformation of the subject through the internalization of the concept. Learning is the achievement of stable changes in the capacity for perception where perception is an enacted performance of certain capacities for delineation and connection. The concept ingresses and becomes a part of the empirical skillset of the trained individual. In this way, we can say that there are practices of representation and representations of practice, which are both entangled stages of human learning.

In other words, conceptualization is a speculative skill, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Concepts are ways bodies mobilize perception to achieve certain aims or to render access to specific types of contrast. (This is Alva Noë’s definition of concepts, which I largely agree with.) In their multiplicity, concepts are layers of learned capacities for refinement that intersect with the tissues of the human organism. They develop new spectrums of concern and enable vectors for decision-making that were previously unavailable. Learning marks an ecological space where knowledge cuts transversally across sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. This means knowledge is not a separate layer of representations that sits on top of the sensory systems of the human body but is rather a part of the tissue of perception itself. Knowledge is a material phenomena, learning an ecological event, and both arise contemporaneously with perception. The intersection of concept with sense, then, is the basis for the ecological understanding of knowledge and its relation to the human organism.

Thinking of concepts as capacities or skills of perception also has consequences for intentionality. If intentionality is the thesis that consciousness is always about something, then from the ecological view the structure of intentional process is itself emergent and plastic, open to new modes of contrast and valuation. Articulating the sensitivities of the body through conceptual acquisition renders the body able to detect a finer number of details within the environment. The result is an ecology of heightened contrasts and increased levels of discriminatory detail. An internalized concept, a metabolization of the concept into the body’s capacities, results in new abilities to discriminate and adjudicate between particulars. Knowledge is a resource for new movement and learned judgment.

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