What Concepts and Emotions Are (and Aren’t)

August 1, 2015 § 29 Comments

Lisa Feldman Barrett has an interesting piece up in yesterday’s New York Times that I think is worth some attention here. Barrett is the director of the The Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, where she studies the nature of emotional experience. Here is the key part of the article, describing her latest findings:

The Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory (which I direct) collectively analyzed brain-imaging studies published from 1990 to 2011 that examined fear, sadness, anger, disgust and happiness. We divided the human brain virtually into tiny cubes, like 3-D pixels, and computed the probability that studies of each emotion found an increase in activation in each cube.

Overall, we found that no brain region was dedicated to any single emotion. We also found that every alleged “emotion” region of the brain increased its activity during nonemotional thoughts and perceptions as well . . .

Emotion words like “anger,” “happiness” and “fear” each name a population of diverse biological states that vary depending on the context. When you’re angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heart rate will increase, other times it will decrease and still other times it will stay the same. You might scowl, or you might smile as you plot your revenge. You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.

This highly distributed, variable, and contextual description of emotions matches up quite well with what scientists have found to be true of conceptualization—namely, that it is a situated process drawn from a plurality of bodily forces. For instance, compare Barrett’s findings above to what I wrote about concepts in my paper on concepts and capacities from June (footnote references are in the paper):

In short, concepts are flexible and distributed modes of bodily organization grounded in modality-specific regions of the brain;[1] they comprise semantic knowledge embodied in perception and action;[2] and they underwrite the organization of sensory experience and guide action within an environment.[3] Concepts are tools for constructing in the mind new pathways of relationship and discrimination, for shaping the body, and for attuning it to contrast. Such pathways are recruited in an ecologically specific way as part of the dynamic bringing-to-apprehension of phenomena.

I think the parallel is clear enough, and we would do well to adopt this more ecological view of emotions and concepts into our thinking. The empirical data is giving us a strong argument for talking about the ecological basis of emotion and conceptuality, a basis that continues to grow stronger by the day.

More on the Microbiome–Cognition Axis

June 23, 2015 § 5 Comments

Alberto-Ghizzi-Panizza-07[Image: Alberto Ghizzi Panizza]

This one is from The New York Time’s Magazine. A notable excerpt:

Biologists now believe that much of what makes us human depends on microbial activity. The two million unique bacterial genes found in each human microbiome can make the 23,000 genes in our cells seem paltry, almost negligible, by comparison. ‘‘It has enormous implications for the sense of self,’’ Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told me. ‘‘We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human. That’s a phenomenal insight and one that we have to take seriously when we think about human development.’’

And another one on some problems of identifying mechanisms of action across disciplinary boundaries:

‘‘There are certain fields that just don’t seem to interact well,’’ he said. ‘‘Microbiology and neuroscience, as whole disciplines, don’t tend to have had much interaction, largely because the brain is somewhat protected.’’ He was referring to the fact that the brain is anatomically isolated, guarded by a blood-brain barrier that allows nutrients in but keeps out pathogens and inflammation, the immune system’s typical response to germs. Cryan’s study added to the growing evidence that signals from beneficial bacteria nonetheless find a way through the barrier. Somehow — though his 2011 paper could not pinpoint exactly how — micro-organisms in the gut tickle a sensory nerve ending in the fingerlike protrusion lining the intestine and carry that electrical impulse up the vagus nerve and into the deep-brain structures thought to be responsible for elemental emotions like anxiety.

My own stake in this research has far less reach than some of the medicinal applications this kind of knowledge may have, but I think it’s important nonetheless that we continue to think about the links between first-person awareness and the microbiome. As I’m fond of pointing out whenever possible, your first-person experience is always a multi-species event. And it’s interesting to consider how this fact changes our approaches to phenomenology and epistemology. The full article is HERE.

Cosmology and Critique

June 10, 2015 § 12 Comments

bees-1[Image: Ren Ri]

As if I haven’t posted about Whitehead enough recently, I need to link to Craig Hickman’s introductory post on Process and Reality. It’s one of the clearest and shortest takes on what’s at stake in Whitehead’s philosophy I’ve read and I recommend it to anyone struggling to find a way into the notoriously difficult account given in that workOne comment in particular stands out to me. Craig writes:

Simply put Whitehead is saying that the Kantian tradition of critique, the critical project, is at an end, and needs to be supplemented by a constructive project rather than more critique; secondly, there is a need to model or enframe an adequate philosophical scheme or cosmological perspective that will entail making explicit its own constructive engendering processes and include the work of present day sciences; thirdly, the need to base this scheme on the condition of science, yet unlike science to make explicit what is only formulated at the factual level in the sciences themselves; and, finally, to realize that this is an open-ended incomplete task, one that will never be closed off or finalized because the universe itself is not completed but is like the sciences and philosophy itself an ongoing project-in-process. There can no longer be a static system of the universe or knowledge, rather reality is in process and becoming.

The key concept to think about here is critique. What did Whitehead mean by this? What did Kant mean by this? If the critical project is at an end, does that mean we stop being critical in a colloquial sense? The short answer is no. I take the word critique here to mean something very technical. It doesn’t mean a return to dogmatism or to the construction of what Kant called transcendental illusions (more on that below). It doesn’t mean we stop doing what’s sometimes called ideology critique or that we stop eviscerating the ethical, political, and moral injustices wrought by this or that sociopolitical order.

Rather, the critical project here refers simply to the transition philosophers enacted in their post-Kantian mode through emphasizing the transcendental project of epistemology rather than the cosmological project of metaphysics. That is, Whitehead pursues a cosmological understanding of world over and beyond the Kantian notion of world as regulative ideal used to clarify and systematize the ideas of reason. The critical project is in some sense a reduction of the World to a merely regulative world.

On this point, I recommend Sean Gaston’s The Concept of World from Kant to Derrida. Gaston gives us a helpful and compelling discussion of the shift from cosmological accounts of world, as found for example in Plato and Aristotle, to the accounts of world as a regulative ideal we find in Kant. The details are too numerous to outline here (and note that Gaston may be too hasty in his account of the of the cosmological world). However, suffice to say that any speculative philosophy worth its salt must acknowledge the difference between the cosmological and the regulative and overcome it, lest we slip back into the dogmatism of pre-critical (i.e., pre-Kantian) metaphysics. (Metaphysics and epistemology should always be conducted in tandem for just this reason.)

The risk is that instead of producing a new realist metaphysics, as is Whitehead’s aim, we instead produce another in a long line of what Kant called transcendental illusions, which Gaston helpfully describes as any “subjective view that takes itself as an objective summation of things as they really are” (10). Gaston continues to describe the challenge before us: “Before critical philosophy it was easier to speak of the world as something ontologically given. It was also easier to speak of a concept of world in general on this basis. Kant implies that there can be no concept of world in these terms and that we must use the idea of the world in general within the epistemological limitations and possibilities of reasoning” (17).

Whitehead’s challenge, which I share, is to reconsider the possibility of a cosmological account of world beyond human reason. (Note here that for Kant the issue was never a question about the existence of a reality independent from or external to human thought but whether or not we could ever give an adequate account of such a reality.) This I take it is also the aim of those of us interested Speculative Realism, New Materialism, and so on. Anyway, go read Craig’s post. It’s really quite helpful.

The Ecological Microbiome of Cognition

June 10, 2015 § 9 Comments

tumblr_npmldn2vjh1qd0i7oo1_1280Somatosphere reports on a recent meeting of The Neuroscience and Society Network symposium HERE. A noteworthy quotation readers may be interested in:

In the workshop’s keynote, titled ‘A Microbial Unconscious’, Allan Young presented one such possibility – a view of neurosocial science in which we envisage the microbial world in social, political, and economic terms. This serves as a critical response to the growing brain-centered literature, with the argument that “once we extend our conception of the brain to include the brain-gut axis, we have an additional reason to call the social brain ‘social’, since its functional elements now include an interactive microbial society.” Using the lexicon of microbiologists and other scientists studying the immune system and infectious diseases, Young’s talk described the complex interactions and communication between bacteria using words like ‘communities’, with some bacteria ‘cheating’ by benefiting from the ‘social life’ but not contributing, some conducting ‘exploitation’, and some bacteria acting as ‘suicide bombers’ if sacrificing themselves means saving more bacteria. This begs the question, as Young asks, “Do bacteria have a ‘rich social life’, as microbiologists claim, or does this claim anthropomorphize a truly asocial nature?”

Cognition is always collective, ecological, and historical. Makes me wish I could get a degree in microbiology.

Whitehead Talks and Locations for Today

June 6, 2015 § 1 Comment


For those interested, I’m posting the location of my talks below along with the PDFs for the papers I’ll be working from. It’s been a great conference so far, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in the coming days.

Title: Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge (paper HERE and slideshow HERE)

Location and time: Lebus Hall, Room 201, 11:00 a.m.

Title: Appearance in Time: Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis in Evolutionary Process (paper HERE)

Location and time: Edmunds Hall, Room 101, 4:00 p.m.

[Updated] Link Post: 10th International Whitehead Conference

May 25, 2015 § 5 Comments

ermolaev_1_905[Image: Andre Ermolaev]

I’m starting to compile a list of the draft papers and/or abstracts written by folks who are participating in the upcoming Whitehead conference. It’s a short list so far, so if you’re going, or know someone who is, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll add a link to the paper or abstract. I’ll keep updating this post as I come across more contributions. My hope is that this list will give conference goers a little prep time in the lead up to the conference. Reading through the list so far it’s also becoming obvious that, at least among a certain generation, some central themes are emerging.

[Updated 6/9/15 – Newer posts are immediately below. Older drafts and abstracts follow. Feel free to drop me a line if you come across new links.]

New Links, Final Drafts, and Video

Whitehead on Feelings by Steven Shaviro

Whitehead’s Alternative: The New Realism, Eco-Theology, and Planetary Politics by Austin Roberts

The Spiritual Dimensions of Climate Change by Philip Clayton

Abstract on mathematics and radical empiricism by Gary Herstein

Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution + Whitehead’s Non-Modern Alternative [Video] by Matt Segall

Whitehead and Archetypal Cosmology by Becca Tarnas

Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge + Appearance in Time: Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis in Evolutionary Process by Adam Robbert

Earlier Drafts, Abstracts, etc.

Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse by Matt Segall

Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision by Matt Segall

Whitehead, Eco-Theology, and Planetary Politics by Austin Roberts

Toward an Ecological Civilization: Whitehead and Ecological Democracy by Sam Mickey

Seizing an Alternative: Cosmopolitics and the Big Journey panel presentation by Sam Mickey, Kim Carfore, and Adam Robbert

Appearance in Time: Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis In Evolutionary Process by Adam Robbert

Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge by Adam Robbert

Appearance in Time

May 21, 2015 § 3 Comments

wave-1[Image: Mario Ceroli]

Here is a draft of the second paper I’ll be giving at the upcoming 10th International Whitehead Conference. I’ve had the opportunity to deliver a version of this paper on three different occasions now, each to a different audience and in a different context, but there’s quite a bit of new material in this version, too. I find it’s really helpful to develop a paper in this way as each time I come back to it I find that my opinion has changed on this or that issue or sometimes that the repetition alone leads me to a better way of expressing the same idea. There’s also an interesting thing that happens when ideas are shared in a public forum. I’m not sure why, but just expressing the work often leads me to finding the gaps or limitations in what I’m not doing, and this seems to work even before receiving any kind of feedback from anyone. I find the same thing happens if I just email a draft of the paper I’m working on to a friend. There’s something about just having your work out there that makes it easier to identify what should happen next.

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

Adam Robbert
San Francisco, CA

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 an account of aisthēsis 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. In short, when we think time and appearance together, aisthēsis becomes that capacity which connects each organism to an ecology of values that ingresses upon evolution in the mode of inherited forms. « Read the rest of this entry »

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