MEA Conference Outline

The 18th annual Media Ecology Association conference is coming up this Friday and will run from June 22–25 at Saint Mary’s College of California. I’ll be speaking on Friday (I think around 1:00 pm).

Feel free to drop me a line if you’ll be there and want to connect. Below I’m including the outline and notes for my talk. I’ll likely submit the final paper to the MEA’s journal, Explorations in Media EcologyMore on that soon.

Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos: Philosophy as Extended Cognition

– In this talk I draw on the work of Peter Sloterdijk to suggest that philosophical ability is closely tied to modes of training (askēsis) that aim to transform awareness through self-overcoming (metanoia). Specifically, I explore the media environments that facilitate philosophical activity and the practices that enable philosophical understanding.

– Philosophy on this view is facilitated by an intricate ecology of affordance spaces—academies, libraries, monasteries, and more—whose design helps train up the individual’s capacity to perform certain maneuvers in thought, maneuvers that make apparent the environments required for the bios theoretikos (the life of contemplation).

– To make this point, I start not with humans and our practices, but with spiders and theirs. As I will show in my talk, when we think of philosophy as an instance of extended cognition, we can draw many parallels between our practices and those of nonhuman species, who like us build artifacts to deepen their perception and understanding.

Thinking like a Spider: Recursion and Extended Cognition

freestocks-org-128787– I first summarize Hilton Japyassú and Kevin Laland’s recent essay “Extended Spider Cognition,” looking at the difference between central cognition (located in the CNS) and extended cognition (located partially in the environment), or between central processing and peripheral processing.

– Extended cognition helps solve the problem of how a relatively simple CNS can coordinate complex behaviors by outsourcing to built artifacts found in the environment the cognitive resources required for interpretation and response.

– Reciprocal causation (or recursion) between cognition and constructed artifacts. Overtime, the created artifact (the web), and the organism (the spider), continue to co-evolve. The organism’s developmental trajectory anticipates the use of peripheral processing tools (material surrogacy). The web is the spider’s media ecology.

– The web functions as an extended cognitive–perceptual system capable of enhancing specific sensory details. The web modulates the spider’s attentional system, making it more attentive to different kinds of stimuli. The whole media­­ ecological system, rather than the encapsulated organism, is the unit of evolutionary selection and change.

– Crucially, attentional modulation is not activated by a simple mechanical trigger. Instead, the web is constructed in different sections, each one geared towards enabling awareness of certain kinds of events (i.e., the web enhances types of interpretation).

erwan-hesry-128848– The spider constructs its web in part simply by laying down one thread at a time, using previously laid thread as a cue for the next piece of web to lay down, but it also modulates its web spinning and construction by drawing on memory of previous webs and in terms of the purpose for that section of web, making unique decisions as it goes.

– The spider is thus able to enhance its cognitive situation by coupling itself with its own perception-enhancing artifact. The web is in this sense more than a simple trap or nest. It is a navigation tool that the spider uses to sense its environment more deeply.

– The spider uses its web to scaffold its own understanding of the environment, and to discern more specific meanings from it. For example, different types of thread laid down in different patterns are used to modulate different types of signal transmission (e.g., for detecting small or large prey, or for identifying an approaching mate).

– Further, signal transmission is modulated by the spider’s tensing and releasing of nearby threads, allowing it to monitor and perceive actions from a distance. The spider with its web is thus able to achieve access to its world in a more complex way than it would with its own internally located CNS alone.

– Media ecology is essentially the study of the spider and its web. This is a multispecies media ecology that studies the way an organism modifies itself through the construction of awareness-enhancing artifacts and environments. A multispecies media ecology sees the spider’s situation as fundamentally our own (human) situation.

Media Ecology and Practice as First Philosophy

hieu-vu-minh-91995– What does media ecology uncover when turned towards the practice of philosophy? Its first comment would be to see philosophy as comprised of a series of actions executed within built environments or contexts, using a set of unique navigation tools.

– The media ecology view of philosophy is similar to Sloterdijk’s claim that first philosophy is not metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, or epistemology but rather practice or training (askēsis) in the direction of conversion through self-overcoming (metanoia).

– In this analogy, what plays the role of the spider’s web for the philosopher? In other words, what artifacts and practices are available to the philosopher that enable him or her to go beyond the limitations of the isolated human CNS?

– Sloterdijk speaks of constructing “new circumstances of practice”—in other words, new media environments—that can serve as practice-amplification zones for the training of philosophical ability. What do these philosophical practice zones look like? How do they modulate our attentional and perceptual systems of understanding?

anglo-indian-heritage-centre-101322– Sloterdijk speaks of specific constructed spaces as externalized forms of metanoia (conversion) and epoché (suspension). For example, of Plato’s academy, 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. 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 we call ideas and theorems. In today’s parlance, we would call it a retreat or a hideaway.

Epoché and metanoia are practices facilitated by media ecologies such as retreats, monasteries, and libraries. On this view, the philosopher is the person who trains in these practice zones, using them as navigation tools for increasing signal transmission and for attuning to new senses of self and world, expressed as transformations in the individual.

– In the same way the spider tunes and styles its web for specific purposes, the aesthetics of contemplative spaces modulate the philosopher’s cognitive faculties, amplifying attention, permitting sustained practice and repetition, and affording insights that an isolated cognitive system likely would not achieve on its own.

– A media ecology is in this a sense an ecology of facilitation, an affordance space (to use James Gibson’s term), that encourages certain kinds of cognitive modulation and training. Sloterdijk’s architectural epoché, for example, aims at the production of spaces designed for suspending the mundane and promoting the practicing life.

– Philosophy thus issues from within different ecosystems of activity, from within different practice landscapes and basecamps, to use Sloterdijk’s term. We ought to think of these spaces as training grounds for physical transformation, as gymnasiums for contemplative exercise that are aided by unique tools and artifacts.

– Take writing as an example. Writing and editing a work of philosophy is fundamentally the same as a spider spinning its web. A book is not constructed from the mind whole cloth, it is rather laid down one discursive thread at a time, using a set of local cues that help style each line of each letter, finally becoming a whole work.

– Reading is also best understood on the same model. A book is more like a navigation tool that scaffolds and extends in certain ways our cognitive–perceptual system. It creates an environment that affords a new understanding of our situation. A book is like a spider web; it is a tool for navigation, a perception-enhancing artifact.

– Just as a web is geared towards modulating signal transmission, so a book should be thought of as a set of intricate affordance chains that we call sentences, each one highly stylized and laid down to extend our perceptual system. The book on this view does not contain information; it rather affords a possibility for new understanding.

– Acts of philosophical practice are thus best understood as modes of extended action executed and amplified amidst larger media ecologies that afford the bio theoretikos. In this we see a close affinity between the life of the spider and the life of the philosopher, as both are engaged in the construction of media ecologies that facilitate better navigation between and understanding of the relation between self and world.

The Philosopher’s Training Regime

Periodically, I come across an essay reporting that experts are not especially good when compared to lay people at overcoming the cognitive biases they should be adept at perceiving and transforming—for example, psychologists aren’t better at identifying their own complexes, ethicists don’t make more ethical choices, philosophers of mind don’t better understand their own habits, behavior, and intentions, and so on. The latest in this series of essays comes from Scientific American here. It’s just one example of the type of reporting I’m talking about (though if you take a quick trip down this rabbit hole you’ll find many more essays and studies just like it).

The Scientific American article asks the question, is self-knowledge overrated? The point being that the so-called Socratic principle of questioning and examining oneself—through philosophy, meditation, psychology, etc.—doesn’t seem, at least in the context of the academics being studied, to have the outcomes that it advertises as having (think for instance of the amount of identity-driven in-group signalling and bias we see within certain academic groups). Hence the question, is self-knowledge, in the end, overrated? A good question, but let’s hold off on giving an answer for a moment. Continue reading

Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos

That’s the title of the paper of I’ll be presenting at the 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association, to be held June 22–25 at Saint Mary’s College of California.

It’s Part 2 of the paper I recently published in Cosmos and History. The abstract is below.

Title: Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos: Philosophy as Extended Skillful Action

Abstract: In this paper, I discuss the media ecology of philosophy. Specifically, I explore the media environments that enable philosophical activity and the media practices that express and transform philosophical understanding. To these ends, I draw on the work of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and the ideas of James Gibson to suggest that philosophical ability (techné) is tied deeply to specific exercises of self-transformation (askēsis), best executed within certain affordance spaces, and to specific media practices, in this case those of reading and writing. In short, these media ecologies are immersive technologies for the installation of new philosophical visions in the eyes of the practicing. The activity of philosophy in this way takes as its condition of possibility an intricate ecology of affordance spaces—academies, libraries, monasteries, and more—whose aesthetics 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). To use Sloterdijk’s terms, these practice zones afford the architectural equivalent of the philosophical epoché. In other words, they are atmospheres suited for the suspension of the mundane and that support the growth of new capacities in the perceptual arena. The exercises of the philosopher are in this context not adequately described in individual or introspective terms. Instead, acts of philosophical practice, I argue, are better understood as intersubjective modes of skillful action extended amidst larger media environments.

The Side View Published

Cosmos and History has published ahead of schedule my essay “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterdijk on the Practice of Philosophy.”

You can read it online HERE.

The full issue is available HERE.

Many thanks to the folks at Cosmos and History for being so efficient in their efforts.

Article forthcoming in Cosmos & History

I’ve just received word that the online journal Cosmos and History will soon publish an article I completed on the work of Pierre Hadot and Peter Sloterdijk. Readers of this blog are no doubt already familiar with C&H, but if you haven’t visited their site before you’ll find a substantial and worth-while back catalogue of articles available for free. I’m told my essay will appear online in March. The article gives a fuller voice to a few ideas I’ve been ruminating on (see for example here and here). I’ll be sure to post the link to the full essay when it’s published. For now, I’m including below my abstract for the paper.


This essay describes Peter Sloterdijk’s “side view” of philosophy. That is, it describes the self-disciplines that make philosophical activity possible. Along similar lines, the paper draws on the work of Pierre Hadot, who also reads philosophy as an askēsis or exercise of self-transformation. Bringing together the work of Sloterdijk and Hadot, the essay reframes the question, What is Philosophy? by asking, Who is the philosopher? To this end, the essays synthesizes the work of Hadot and Sloterdijk, describing first the philosopher’s exercises of self-transformation, then their relation to the city and the community at a large, and finally their connection to the practice zones, enclaves, and microclimates, to use Sloterdijk’s terms, that enable the philosopher to perform certain maneuvers in thought. The paper concludes with an assessment of Sloterdijk’s global view of human practice—which he calls “the planet of the practicing”—to suggest that a planetary perspective should hold a privileged view for future philosophical inquiries. Who are the philosophers? They are the practitioners of planet Earth, the ascetic planet.

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.

Continue reading

Practices of Perception

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): Continue reading