Friday, February 25, 2005

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Meet M. Merleau-Ponty

I attended a talk at Penn by Sean Kelly, who was visiting from Princeton. He is a philosopher working on (among other things) issues in perceptual experience and how they relate to bodily action. In a follow-up, I intend to post a comment on the content of the paper he presented, but here I want to relate a fairly unique experience I had at the talk.

About halfway through, I had a strange “rush” of some combination of relief and gratitude as Kelly began to relate his views to Merleau-Ponty and read quotes from the Phenomenology of Perception. Now, I hadn’t reviewed Kelly’s work prior to the talk – if I had, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But here is a young philosopher, working comfortably within up-to-date analytic philosophy (and keeping up with developments in cognitive science), who is making use of expertise on Merleau-Ponty and Continental phenomenology more broadly. This struck me as a rare and noteworthy thing.

In an earlier phase of my interest in philosophy, I focused on Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. I was interested in the way that these philosophers took on the subject-object divide which runs through the traditional problems in philosophy. Then, during the 1990’s, spurred by the expansion of new books and articles on the subject of consciousness, I began to go back and start finding and reading some of the relevant works in Anglo-American analytic philosophy of mind and related areas.

Obviously, many others have noted the divide between the analytic and Continental traditions, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to do justice to the topic, but the depth of separation always seemed to me to be unfortunate. A recent issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (vol.11 No.10-11, 2004) focused on work inspired by the Continental tradition. In an editorial introduction, it was suggested that recent work in consciousness which passed over this tradition was guilty of “re-invention of the wheel”. Maybe so.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Fight against Substance

Alerted by this post on Fragments of Consciousness, I read the excellent new Stanford Encyclopedia article on Neutral Monism by Leopold Stubenberg. The article distills the essential framework of this approach, disentangling it from the particular features associated with its most prominent historical proponents (of whom Bertrand Russell understandably gets the most attention).

One of the threads of the discussion is the battle neutral monists have fought against “substance thinking” in constructing their ontologies. Many other philosophers have dealt with this problem, notably Hume (not to mention Heraclitus), but the discussion in this paper reminded me how difficult it is to keep substance thinking from creeping back in to our presuppositions about reality almost against our will.

Common sense leads us to view the world around us as made of stuff. It also led us historically to view the human mind (or soul) as another kind of substance, an invisible stuff. The evil triplets of substance dualism, materialism and idealism were the philosophical derivatives of this view. Of course, the progression of modern physics gives the lie to the solidity of the world around us; but the common sense notion of a world of stuff is deeply rooted.

A neutral monist could posit that the world consists of a neutral substance which gives rise to minds and physical objects under certain specified conditions. But the mysterious nature of this newly proposed substance undercuts the appeal of the approach. Russell proposed that the neutral element be conceived as events or occurrences (I’m also immediately reminded of Whitehead’s “actual occasions”, although he is not mentioned in the article). By utilizing an “event ontology”, one can propose that certain relations or connections give rise to a physical object or a conscious experience within a network of events which is itself neither physical nor mental. Of course, at this point there is still much heavy lifting to do, which may or may not succeed. One must explain why the relations can do the work they need to do. It still may be (I suspect)that an atomistic event must have both an objective and subjective pole to do the job, and this moves us from strict neutrality to more of dual-aspect view.

In any case, I’m convinced that reaching a deeper understanding of reality requires us to continue to look past the appearance of static substance and instead evaluate theories which treat the world as a network of events in which we are embedded.