The Practice of World

“Tomorrow we shall have to invent, once more, the reality of this world” — Octavio Paz. My friend Sam Mickey ends a recent post with this great quote.

The concept of world is tricky. On the one hand, world appears to be the most necessary of concepts. What is there if not a world? Just as obvious it may seem is that the world must precede the person who lives in the world. To suggest the opposite, that the person precedes the world, sounds incoherent. On the other hand, if we accept that the only world we can know is the one that emerges upon the basis of our perception, our cognitive ability, our emotional disposition, our aesthetic sensitivity, and our embodied capacity, then saying that the person precedes the world makes some sense. But this isn’t quite right, either. People do not emerge ex nihilo. They emerge in the middle of an already occurring state of affairs. On this point science, religion, and myth agree: There must be a world prior to the subjects of that world, and that world must be at minimum one that supports the kind of subjects that look back on it, if they can. But from where do we look back?

It is in this sense that the concept of world is tricky. Since the world that is given for the subject must be one that aligns with what the subject is capable of encountering, and since that world must precede and therefore escape the totality of this encounter, we cannot take the givenness of the world or the primacy of experience as the basis for our concepts of world, scientific or otherwise. Instead, we must become aware of the fact that experience—and the abstractions that we derive from it—emerges within the midst of an ongoing and a priori construction.

We also trick ourselves when we take either pole of this correlation as the basis or ground for the other. In the first place, when we point to the world “outside” we do so only artificially; the world we point to is not a bare, empirical fact. Any world we identify is upon deeper examination seen to be an outside that emerges only on the inside of our conceptualization of it. Likewise with the subject. When we turn our awareness upon ourselves we encounter not a pure and given subjectivity but one conceptualized in this or that way. The subjects we take ourselves to be are not a ground of experience, they are an outcome of it, an outcome of our sense of world correlated with our sense of self. Mind and world are participants in the emergence of mind and world, as Hilary Putnam once put it.

The concept of world on this account emerges as a term of art, as something malleable, as something that can be shaped through effort and practice, as something that must be achieved again and again. Likewise, any student of history understands that the relationship between subject and world changes dramatically across time and space. “The concept of world,” writes Sean Gaston, “raises the problem of how one deals with what is always already there—the world—and to what extent one gives the subject the power to shape or to constitute a world or many worlds of its own.”

Now is probably a good time to attune ourselves less to the concept of world as a given state of affairs and more to the practice of making a world, an exercise we must repeat everyday, regardless of our new circumstances.

Architecture and Epoché

tumblr_oeivjpl1za1qd0i7oo1_1280[Image: Tanja Deman]

In an earlier post, I connected typography and bookmaking to James Gibson’s theory of affordances, the idea that perception is layered less with the properties of individual objects and more with the possibilities for action they enable or afford. The basic idea of this application is that books provide a detailed and intentional set of affordances for a certain kind of understanding, and that typography and bookmaking are from this perspective intricate material practices for the installment of conversions in apprehension, for the reshaping of awareness through the mode of discursive engagement.

As I noted in the original post, on this view books are things we think with and through rather than storehouses we download from. The art of writing and bookmaking, then, is the intentional creation of affordances that make such transformations of experience possible. The book is the environment in which such affordances can endure. It’s in the context of designed affordance environments—settings created with the expressed purpose of enabling certain experiences—that I find interesting Peter Sloterdijk’s reflections on architecture and epoché.

Exploring Edmund Husserl’s concept of the epoché—which John Cogan aptly defines as “the name for whatever method we use to free ourselves from the captivity of the unquestioned acceptance of the everyday world”—Sloterdijk sees an architectural parallel in Plato’s Academy. That is to say, in much the same way that books are affordances for thinking rather than representations of thought, architecture affords something like an environmental epoché, a design space intended to produce effects in the person. Sloterdijk writes:

Plato was concerned to provide appropriate accommodation for persons in the precarious state of complete devotion to their thoughts. The original Academy was dedicated to nothing other than innovation in spatial creation. It was an unprecedented new institution for accommodating absences that occur on the quest for the still largely unknown connection between ideas and—why not?—the study of the connection between words and things, which, if you really think about it, can only be problematic. The academy is the architectural equivalent of what Husserl apostrophized as epoché—a building for shutting out the world and bracketing in concern, an asylum for the mysterious guests that we call ideas and theorems. In today’s parlance, we would call it a retreat or a hideaway. (The Art of Philosophy, 32–33)

So, the book, the notepad, the retreat, the academy, the library—these are all designed affordance spaces, mostly backgrounded in action, but often preconditions for certain kinds of thinking. The extended activity of mind in this way takes as its condition of possibility a whole media ecology of material affordance spaces, sets of architectural epoché that complement and enable the individual’s capacity to perform certain maneuvers in thought, maneuvers that make apparent the material conditions of possibility required for the bios theoretikos (the life of contemplation).

Practices of Perception

beeple-1[Image: Mike Winkelmann]

In my dissertation summary, I linked the works of Evan Thompson, Pierre Hadot, Peter Sloterdijk, and Michel Foucault in terms of each philosopher’s emphasis on what we could call skills of perception and action, each suggesting a view of philosophy as practice. In Pierre Hadot’s work What is Ancient Philosophy?, for example, we find a view of the history of philosophy as a history of practices of self-transformation and self-overcoming (up to and including considerations of just who the “self” is that is overcome).

Despite the implications of his title, Hadot sees the emphasis on practice as also prevalent in modern philosophical figures, including Descartes, Kant, and Montaigne. In principle, we could take a practice view of any tradition of philosophical thought, as many of Hadot’s commentators have done. This is largely the same approach that Peter Sloterdijk takes. In The Art of Philosophy, Sloterdijk introduces us to his method of reading the history of art and science (and philosophy, as the work will show):

Just as the history of science usually presumes that the scientists who do their disciplines already exist, the history of art has assumed since time immemorial that artists are the natural protagonists of the business that produces works of art, and that these players have always existed as well. What would happen if we rotated the conceptual stage ninety degrees in both cases? What if we observed artists in their efforts to become artists in the first place? We could then see every phenomenon on this field more or less from a side view and, alongside the familiar history of art as a history of completed works, we could obtain a history of the training that made it possible to do art and the asceticism that shaped artists. (9)

As with art, so with science and philosophy. This shift away from the completed works of the disciplines and towards the practices that produced the people who made those works is similar to the shift Foucault enacts in his later philosophy. Writing of Foucault’s approach, Arnold Davidson notes that Foucault’s work in his lectures at the Collège de France offer “the working out of a philosophically new point of access to the history of ancient, and especially Hellenistic, philosophy.” It’s pretty clear that Foucault’s “philosophically new point of access” probably comes in no small part from his encounter with Hadot’s work, but nevertheless the emphasis on practices of subject formation can be found throughout Foucault’s whole career.

Now consider Evan Thompson. In two recent talks on 4E cognition (here and here; the second link requires leaving an email address for access), Thompson takes up many of the same themes. For instance, he notes in his abstract to the first talk that the practice of mindfulness meditation “should not be conceptualized as inner mental observation instantiated in the brain, but rather as a mode of skillful cognition for situated action.” In the second video, Thompson notes how skilled meditators have a discipline that enables sensitization to subtle shifts in attention and awareness, a skill shared by artists, who, in Thompson’s terms, also possess a certain discipline of attention, a discipline we could call a practice of perception. On my view, the philosopher, in Hadot’s sense, is someone who, like the meditator, the scientist, and the artist, is engaged in the transformation of the field of perception as it emerges in the first-person experience. My dissertation is largely focused on articulating the details of this image.

What is a Book? An Ecological Account

James Gibson’s theory of affordances suggests that what animals perceive in their environment is not so much the properties of individual objects but rather the possibilities for action they enable. There’s a sense here that what things are and what things mean show up for the animal at the same time. On Gibson’s view, an ecological niche is thus best understood as a set of affordances made available by an animal’s capacities. For example, a niche may afford climbing, sheltering, swimming, running, standing, eating, and so on.

Gibson notes that there’s a tight link between animal and niche, where the abilities of the animal and the properties of the niche mutually act to constrain the set of available affordances. In the case of humans, Gibson observes, the situation is a bit different in that we actively engage in the planned construction of our own affordance landscapes. (Had Gibson been alive today he no doubt would have paid greater attention to the niche-constructing actions of all organisms.) We can see a gymnasium as affording fitness, a town square as affording meeting, a library as affording reading, for example.  Continue reading

Concepts, Action, Perception

Building on yesterday’s theme, Barbara Gail Montero (CUNY) has much to add to the debate over concepts and their role in action and perception. Interestingly, Montero’s new book, Thought in Actionhas the same title as one of the papers I quoted yesterday; however, it’s a different work entirely, though it deals with similar themes. The other paper, by Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, appears in the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology. The below passages are excerpted from Montero’s recent interview at 3:AM Magazine. Continue reading

Thought in Action

How are we to think of the relation between thought and action? One of the issues I’m taking up in my dissertation centers around the so-called John McDowell–Hubert Dreyfus Debate (for some background see here and here). Essentially, at stake in this debate is the role of conceptuality in acts of absorbed or skillful coping (what most people know as flow states). On my view, there’s no difficulty in reconciling flow with conceptuality, provided that we don’t view the exercise of conceptual capacities as issuing from a detached or uniquely isolated point from within the body. This puts me at odds with people like Dreyfus, for whom the conceptual interruption of thought can only impede the much more seamless agency of the person acting in flow. However, it seems to me that this debate centers not so much on phenomenological descriptions of flow states, but rather on how we conceive of conceptuality itself, as the below quotations indicate.

Continue reading