It’s been just over a year since I posted anything new here, but that’s not for lack of study or engagement on my part. Work—both intellectual and vocational—continues apace. Readers may be interested to know that I’ve started pursuit of a PhD here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Below I’m sharing a short description of my plans for the dissertation. Things may change a bit here and there as I complete various sections of the dissertation, but I expect to follow pretty closely the below summary. I’m not sure what will become of Knowledge Ecology at this point. I may start afresh with a new blog. I may continue blogging here. I might abandon the Internet all together. Who knows.
The thing about blogging—both positive and negative—is that it puts on offer a continuous stream of output, an ongoing account of one’s thinking and development. This has the double effect of providing greater context for one’s writing but also makes it difficult, at least psychologically for me, to separate oneself from earlier work in the way that writing books or articles naturally provides. The Internet tends toward a pathological amount of continuity and interconnectivity that I think many of us writing in this medium would be wise to rail against. In any case, enjoy the PhD ruminations.
Spaces of Freedom
My pursuit of the PhD centers around the completion of the dissertation. The dissertation will offer an ecological account of the role of conceptual knowledge in awareness, action, and perception. Building upon recent advances in philosophy of mind, the account given will suggest that perception is a form of engaged action, that action is in turn a form of perceptual engagement, and that awareness is a capacity for observing and transforming relations between perception and action. Philosophy in this sense may be conceived as a set of contemplative exercises and techniques, an ecology of practices used to bring into relief the constellations of meaning and appearance that render available the display of the phenomenal world. Experience on this view is an aesthetic achievement, a skill of the mind, a capacity of the body-in-the-world, made possible in part by conceptual contrast and arrangement; likewise, perception is approached as a skill to be trained, an elaboration in the architecture of sensation.
Positioned as a set of skills for achieving capacities of mind, I will argue that philosophy can enact in new ways its ongoing dialogue with the empirical sciences, in particular with the cognitive sciences, and can think anew larger questions surrounding the nature of minds and their continuity, or discontinuity, with the larger metaphysical programs of naturalism and realism. As the contextual and developmental nature of cognition becomes ever more pronounced in these empirical images of the mind, it is of little surprise that in recent times, perhaps fortuitously, many philosophers have returned to the ancient idea that philosophy is an act of self-transformation—a practice of everyday life (for Pierre Hadot), a preparation or care for the self (for Michel Foucault), an athletic exercise for the mind (for Peter Sloterdijk), a program of phenomenological mindfulness (for Evan Thompson)—in each instance, philosophy emerges as a set of habits developing skills aesthetic, epistemological, and soteriological in nature.
To situate engagements with the return to philosophy as a set of skills or capacities for action and perception, the dissertation will be limited to three domains: the historical, as it pertains to the context and vocabulary of the dissertation; the contemporary, as it relates to ongoing conceptual debates in present-day philosophy of mind; and the empirical, as it relates to the insights of the sciences, especially cognitive science. These three domains—the historical, the philosophical, and the empirical—serve to ground the discussion of philosophy as an ecology of practices. In each case, the aim will be to describe the evolution of our philosophical understandings of knowledge, selfhood, and experience leading up to today’s evolutionary and ecological accounts of mind and subjectivity. In the case of each domain, the treatment will not be synoptic; instead, discussion will focus on the concepts and categories relevant to the dissertation’s primary goal of offering an ecological account of conceptual knowledge.
To this end, the dissertation will proceed as follows. In Chapter 1, the historical overview, I will describe in broad strokes the ancient Greek philosophical conceptions of sensation, reason, knowledge, and selfhood; the major shifts in these conceptions following the critical interventions of Descartes, Hume, and Kant (whose transcendental method will continue to play a role in later chapters); then, to close out the chapter, I will describe the breakdown of this method as the transcendental subject posited in the modern period turns toward a form of historical and existential intersubjectivity. This latter period will consider, again in broad strokes, the shift from Husserlian transcendental phenomenology to the empirical, historical, and embodied accounts of the subject given by, for example, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, and Foucault, marking the emergence of genetic accounts of experience and pragmatic accounts of knowledge.
With this historical context in mind, Chapter 2 will suggest that the emergence of evolutionary and ecological science require that philosophy move into a new phase of engagement and insight. A contemporary philosophy of mind is an ecological philosophy of mind. Continuing the trend toward a situated intersubjectivity, this chapter emphasizes in a more targeted way ecological accounts of cognition, perception, and agency, including the role of embodiment, affect, and movement in the context of evolutionary process. Drawing on the works of Jacob von Uexküll, this chapter will suggest that the Kantian transcendental method can be re-envisioned in a multispecies context and that aesthetics, in the Kantian sense, can be reimagined as an ecology-wide force within evolutionary dynamics. The chapter concludes with an account of mind that describes the ecology of perception and action in the works of theorists such as Eleanor Rosch, Tim Ingold, and James Gibson. Experience on this account must be thought of as embodied, by the organism, and extended, in the environment.
The historical and ecological contexts given in Chapters 1 and 2 will allow for an answer to the research question, What is the role of conceptual knowledge in perception, action, and awareness? Engaging again the contemporary discussions—this time focusing solely on the debate over conceptual versus nonconceptual content in perception—the chapter will stage an encounter between the nonrepresentational approach of direct realism (as in Hubert Dreyfus’s phenomenology) and the Kantian view of conceptual capacities as already operative in sensibility, mediating the emergence of perceptual content prior to its instantiation in awareness (as in John McDowell’s Mind and World). To the nonrepresentational image, the chapter will concede that embodiment plays a substantive—and historically underplayed—role in experience but that this image also falls prey to what Wilfrid Sellars called the Myth of the Given. To the Kantian image, the chapter will concede that experience requires conceptual comportment, but that concepts must be rethought as entangled and distributed modes of organization of the body, rather than as isolated cognitive units or representations. The chapter synthesizes these claims by offering the ecology of practices as a method that integrates conceptual knowledge with the person’s repertoire of abilities, as ingredient in the process of I-making—generating a kind of Aristotelian second nature—and as condition of possibility for the aesthetic organization of experience in general.
The final chapter takes a more speculative tone. While the ecology of practices can readily secure for philosophy an ongoing practical, existential, and therapeutic role in human affairs, it is unclear whether or not the emphasis on praxis can yield anything like properly metaphysical or epistemological knowledge; that is, once philosophers have attended to the modes of presentation within which phenomena are circumscribed and engaged, it remains an uncertain question whether or not the faculties of the human mind—trained or not—can yield anything beyond phenomenological description, empirical, transcendental, or otherwise. The final chapter of the dissertation meets this question head-on by considering contemporary developments in speculative philosophy, drawing heavily from the transcendental impulse of the Continental philosophical tradition and by engaging the insights of the American pragmatist thought of William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. To this end, the chapter also considers the autonomy of thought, on the hand, and the naturalism of minds, on the other.