Concepts and the Ground Floor of Perception

51ru1jHcNyL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In my last post on Hubert Dreyfus and the intentional arc, I ended with a question about the relationship between intuitive responses to environmental solicitations in expert action. In this post, I continue to explore the structure of intuitive response through the work of John McDowell.

It is precisely on the status of intuition in perception where I find Dreyfus’s account wanting, and where I think McDowell gets it right. It seems that Dreyfus takes everything traditionally attributed to concepts and conceptual ability and repositions these skills as available to an agent at the ground floor of perceptual experience through nonconceptual motor understanding. But what sense does it make, for instance, to speak, as Dreyfus does,[1] not only of perceptual knowledge but also of nonconceptual beliefs about perceptual objects and the solicitations, affordances, and constraints that issue from my engagement with them? The appeal to solicitations (or to what an object obliges of me), to affordances (or to what an object may aid me in doing), and to constraints (or to what an object may prevent me from doing), seems squarely in the domain of a cognitive and inferential space, in other words, a space shot through with a conceptual understanding that interleaves my every practical action. Indeed, this is precisely the stance that McDowell takes against Dreyfus.

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Dreyfus and the Intentional Arc

51ckNtCwYrL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_-1Hubert Dreyfus is most well-known for offering an account of intelligent human coping without appealing to explicitly cognitive or rational sources of action. Following philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger, Dreyfus instead roots human intelligence—theoretical or otherwise—in our embodied everyday comportment with the world, in our practical actions and responses to the immediate environment. In Mark Wrathall’s words, “Rather than starting from cognition as the primary locus of intelligence, and building out to an account of action, Dreyfus starts with the premise that skillful activity itself is the consummate form and foundation of human intelligence, and derives an account of cognition from coping.”[1] In placing practical engagement before theoretical cognition, Dreyfus builds a new picture of what it means to skillfully cope in the perceptual world that unfolds before us.

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Next Up: Speaking at PACT

I just received confirmation that I’ll be speaking at the ninth annual conference of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT). The conference will take place in San Francisco at USF over September 28–30. My abstract is below. Feel free to get in touch in the comments or drop me a line on Twitter (@KnowledgEcology) if you’re interested in reading a draft of the paper, which is more or less ready to go. 

Title: The Ecology of the Concept: Montero, Dreyfus, and McDowell

Abstract: In their recent debates, Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell have advanced the stakes in the dispute over the role of concepts in embodied action. For Dreyfus, to allege that embodied action is conceptual in nature is to overintellectualize the body, to illegitimately read into more primary processes a set of rational faculties that participate in action only in rare moments of detached reflection. In contrast, McDowell, following Wilfrid Sellars, alleges that even basic embodied comportment requires for its success a conceptual structure. In this paper, I will argue with McDowell and Barbara Gail Montero and against Dreyfus, that the way to think about embodied action is not to see it as nonconceptual but to re-read the conceptual as a nondistanced act or skill of the body. The concept on this view is a technique for drawing together the objects of the perceptual field; it is a skill of the understanding, to us Alva Noë’s language. Insofar as such objects afford meaningful discernment and possibilities for action, the concept becomes an act of transformation in the experience of the individual, allowing him or her new capacities unavailable to the uninitiated. In other words, I will show that the concept is an activity, a way of acting upon one’s actions; it reorganizes the content and meaning of perception, affording new sites of engagement. To articulate this ecology of the concept, I will re-situate the body as the site of the conceptual and suggest that the body’s engagement with the environment is already conceptually structured, though not necessarily in an intellectually distanced way.

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).

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.

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Spaces of Freedom

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.

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