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.

Concept and Sense II: Knowledge and Experience

December 23, 2014 § 1 Comment


The distinction between representational accounts of knowledge and enactive accounts of knowledge are not new. In many ways they mirror earlier debates over theoretical versus practical modes of cognition. In the Kantian framework, for example, the conditions under which things are given in experience precede the conditions under which they are thought—but—the way things are thought influences how they are given in experience. The question is, then, How do phenomena move from objects of thought (concepts) to objects of experience (intuitions)? That is, how are new conceptual renderings brought into sensible experience? In the Kantian view, the forms of intuition (space and time), expressed in the transcendental aesthetic, and the categories of the understanding, expressed in the transcendental analytic, are a priori, that is, they are not derived from nor found within experience. They are what is presupposed before thinking and experience can take place.

However, from the evolutionary and ecological view, the a priori, limited here to its epistemological rather than its ontological sense, is not a formal a priori but an historical a priori. In an ecological universe, categories and intuitions are the enacted capacities of historically emergent and contingent bodies moving and grasping through their respective Umwelten. In this respect the Kantian framework is fundamentally mistaken, as many have already shown. Nevertheless, many aspects of the Kantian framework are still helpful to us today. We need only understand that intuitions provide sensory data to thoughts and that concepts provide organization to intuitions. Intuitions without concepts would leave us with raw, un-delineated sense impressions—patches of color, smell, and sound rather than forests, flowers, and rain. Concepts are the means by which sense data are synthesized pre-reflectively, or, better, concepts are means by which new synthetic contrasts can be brought into the experiential sphere.

A consequence of the ecological approach to concept and sense, then, is that the human body is always an intersection of acquired knowledge and physical perception, and this means that the body never sees a thing naked, as though merely receiving information passively. Instead, what is seen is the phenomenon alongside the available knowledge about it, which gives the body the capacity to render it in a specific way, with attention to particular details and traits. One way to visualize this intersection is to underscore that ecological cognition entangles perception with cognitive activity in a way that renders cognitive perception a somatic action performed by the body. Every phenomenon is given within the body’s knowledge ecology, which helps present it to awareness. In this context, where knowing and sensing are linked, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual capacity, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in a meaningful way. The ecology of knowledge marks a space where concept and sense intersect, a conceptual sensorium that participates in the organization of the subject as a subject as he or she interacts with the world. Knowledge is a skill waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new contrasts.

Concept and Sense I

December 23, 2014 § 1 Comment


In the next few posts I will explore a set of familiar problems: The relation of knowledge to the world, on the one hand, and the relation of knowledge to subjects, on the other. These questions, in turn, connect with two general images of thought, the representational and the enactive. Among many others, we find variants of this distinction in the works of Isabelle Stengers and Andrew Pickering. For Stengers this distinction plays out in the difference between the ecology of ideas and the ecology of practices. For Pickering it plays out through the representational and the performative idioms of knowledge. While I share with Stengers and Pickering the emphasis on practice, I also believe there are good reasons that representational and enactive accounts of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. Instead, I argue, they are different moments in the ecology of learning: A representation is a concept that is not yet internalized and is therefore not yet a part of the subject’s lived experience of the world. An enaction is a concept integrated as part of the subject’s capacity to perceive the environment and is therefore part of the subject’s practical engagement with his or her surroundings.

The shift between these moments marks the concept’s move from theoretical possibility to practical actuality. In the posts to follow I will explore how it is that a concept can move from a conscious representation to a capacity of the body, absorbed as part of the subject’s skillful ability to engage the environment. I suggest there are three phases to the process. First, the concept is accessed as a symbol obtained from the surrounding media environment. Second, the concept is held as a conscious representation within the subject’s perceptual field. Third, the concept moves from conscious representation to unconscious capacity, operating as an organizer of experience. To describe these phases, I first discuss the role of concepts in sensation, which I take as analogous to the relationship between knowledge and experience or idea and practice. I then describe in more detail the conditions that bring different concepts and senses into and out of contact with different kinds of subjects. The role of the media environment is central to this part of the discussion. Finally, I suggest that this ongoing transformation of sensation and conception is best described as an ecology of knowledge enacted by an ecology of bodies and nonhuman agents.

Ecological Metaphysics

October 7, 2014 § 24 Comments


[Image: Neil Krug]

[Update: Leon responds to some of my questions here.]

Leon Niemoczynski writes an interesting post on ecological metaphysics here. While we have our differences concerning the contemporary philosophical landscape, Leon and I agree quite strongly that ecology represents something like the future basis for philosophy. However, while he lists quite a few resources for thinking philosophy through ecology, and ecology through philosophy, we don’t get much in the way of articulating what, exactly, makes a philosophy or a metaphysics ecological. Leon writes:

The key ideas for [American and Continental] traditions, I think, when it comes to developing an environmental philosophy that is inspired by recent positions of speculative philosophy in realist and materialist orientation, is that these metaphysical positions are developed so that they are thoroughly ecological.  Thus, “speculative naturalism” is an ecological metaphysics as much as it is a realist and materialist metaphysics.

Okay, but what does “ecological” in this context mean? To be sure, there are some references to the process tradition, to naturalism, to actor-networks, to materialism et al., but we don’t get an account of what specifically differentiates an ecological metaphysics from any other kind realist, materialist, or naturalist metaphysics. This raises an important question: What are the precise criteria for identifying philosophical ecologies?

For Leon, is philosophical ecology just naturalism updated?* Does a philosophy concerned with creatures and relationships necessarily constitute it as ecological? I don’t think so. Lest we simply render ecological metaphysics as Nature 2.0., I’ve suggested a preliminary definition of an ecological metaphysics where ecology is the breakdown between structure and content. This is the most general definition of ecology I have been able to formulate. In the biological sense, the breakdown between structure and content applies to organisms and environments, to genetics and epigenetics, to genotypes and phenotypes, to nature and nurture, to cultural history and biological history. In a more philosophical key, this formulation references the breakdown between the transcendental and the empirical, between the ontological and the epistemological, and between appearance and reality. (I have a recent paper on this breakdown here and a shorter synopsis here, both of which place aesthetics as an important category for philosophical ecology, a move I think Leon would affirm.)

Whitehead of course is a key influence for me here, but so is Isabelle Stengers, if not more so. Not enough has been written on the entanglement of the physics of laws (read “structure”) and the physics of phenomena (read “content”) she details in Cosmopolitics. Readers of Whitehead will notice that Stengers’s entanglement of laws and phenomena mirrors very closely Whitehead’s ontological principle, and it also comes close to the physicist Lee Smolin’s reading of cosmic evolution and the emergence of physical laws. In the case of Whitehead, Stengers, and Smolin, it’s not enough that we think of physical laws as atemporal and necessary. Instead, we must understand that the laws themselves emerged at a point in cosmic history and that they are in an important sense immanent to and entangled with all phenomena. Ecology is an entanglement of laws and phenomena; the real is ecological, evolving, recursive; the cosmos is an ecological event.

Here there’s a breakdown of structure and content at a very basic cosmological level, which leads us to a related point about ecological metaphysics: the cosmos is historical all the way up and all the way down, all the way backwards and all the way forwards. Leon quotes the popular Whiteheadian aphorism “Other cosmic epochs are possible” to get at the same point, but when he writes, “The adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is far from over [emphasis mine]” I have to disagree. And I also have to point out that Leon is contradicting himself. (Earlier in the post Leon writes, “There is no super-order or container of “Nature.”  There is, on the other hand, agencies and networks, or better, creatures and relationships.”) Thus if ecology is a general condition that describes the breakdown of structure and content, and if there really are cosmic dimensions to this statement, then the adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is precisely what’s over.

This ongoing breakdown is, I think, where we need to start with philosophy and ecology.

*If naturalism is the route we choose to take, I think whatever “naturalism” means these days must come to grips with Steven Shaviro’s “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.”

A Philosophical Ecology

September 20, 2014 § 20 Comments


In my last two talks, I began to lay the groundwork for a philosophical ecology. Such a philosophy engages traditional philosophical categories—e.g, appearance and reality, ontology and epistemology, and the empirical and the transcendental—in a new light informed by an evolutionary and ecological framework. Below I summarize the ways in which each of these categories are transformed by the ecological insights of Alva Noë, Jacob von Uexküll, and Alfred North Whitehead. There’s much more work to be done in this area, but this at least gives us a sketch for how ecology will continue to transform philosophy in the coming years. « Read the rest of this entry »

Upcoming Talks Near and Far

September 15, 2014 § 3 Comments

Stunning Macro Photographs of Insects[Image: Yudy Sauw]

Just a quick update on some speaking events. This Friday, September 19, I’ll be speaking on a panel in San Francisco at the California Institute of Integral Studies. This talk will largely be a repeat of the panel presentation on Cosmopolitics we gave at the IBHA conference this past August—though this time with more Cosmopolitics and less Big History. If you live in the Bay Area feel free to stop by. The event is free and runs from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Further down the road, I’ll be participating in a number of ways at the 10th International Whitehead Conference to be held at Pomona College in June of 2015. In terms of speaking, I’ll be presenting on two panels: “Late-Modernity and its Reductive Monism” and “The Universe Story and Inclusive History as the Context of Meaning.” Outlines for both tracks are available here.

For the first talk I plan on exploring Vicki Bell’s ecologies of concern in the context of my own research on concepts (see here and here). The second talk will again focus on Cosmopolitics. I haven’t sketched out the details yet, and there’s still a ways to go before the event, so I am anticipating that my thinking will evolve between now and then. I do have a sense though that the first talk will center specifically on human beings, focusing on epistemology, critical philosophy, and politics, and that the second talk will focus more on cosmology and speculative philosophy. No doubt many of my notes for both talks will appear in some form on Knowledge Ecology. 

Lastly, in addition to the panel presentations, I’ll also be doing some footwork helping to assemble the track on Whitehead and eco-politics.

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