Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Dreyfus's Introduction - Part 2: Some Merleau-Ponty

By arguing that perception involves nonconceptual content, Todes shows that perception is essentially indeterminate (almost always waiting to be clarified). In this sense, he builds on the work of Merleau-Ponty.

Merleau-Ponty argued that in perceiving an object, we sense that it can be more clearly perceived and so our bodies are drawn in such a way as to get a firmer grip:
My body is geared onto the world when my perception presents me with a spectacle as varied and as clearly articulated as possible, and when my motor intentions, as they unfold, receive the responses they expect from the world. This maximum sharpness of perception and action points clearly to a perceptual ground, a basis of my life, a general setting in which my body can co-exist with the world. ([1945] 1962, p. 250)
Merleau-Ponty outlines two aspects of perception: (1) maximal grip and the (2) intentional arc.

1) In our dealings with objects, we move to reach an appropriate perspective//stance/position in relation to objects of perception. This position depends on the concrete circumstances of the situation. We do this when we look at a painting, moving close enough to see a desired level of detail, but not so close as to lose sight of the whole thing: too far away and you can't make out the image, too close and you're drowned in too much detail. Small paintings require a closer stance than large ones. This isn't limited to vision, either. When you get in your car and the seat is off place, you immediately feel the discomfort of not being at the proper distance from the steering wheel. One slides the seat closer or farther away to reach a maximal grip on the task at hand.

2) Additionally, as we acquire skills the way the world shows up for us alters. Merleau-Ponty's example is the difference between the way a city looks when we are lost and when we know our way around it. As we learn our way around a city, our embodied skill of navigating the area improves and we know not only what to look for, but what to anticipate. The light hitting your eye is the same, but the world literally looks different. George Sturt provides a great example of this (hat tip to ATS):

Sturt could go into a forest and immediately see these qualitative distinctions in the trees (bear in mind that the meaningful distinctions aren't in his head, they are out there in the world). This feedback loop is the intentional arc.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dreyfus's Introduction - Part 1: Setting

There are three introductions in Body and World:

1) Dreyfus's Todes’s Account of Nonconceptual Perceptual Knowledge and Its Relation to Thought

2) Piotr Hoffman's How Todes Rescues Phenomenology from the Threat of Idealism

3) Todes's Author's Introduction

The one by Dreyfus partially sums up the main thrust of Todes's overall argument in the book and it seems like a good place to start.

Dreyfus begins by asking the question, "Are there two fundamentally different ways we make sense of the world?" Traditional philosophy (especially Kant) has argued that there is only one way: by bringing experience under concepts. That is, when we encounter a particular object, we subsume it under a general concept. (I see a chair and in order for it to have been present for me as a chair my mind must have applied the concept of "chair" to the object) The basic picture is that perception and conception unite in a synthesis to provide one form of intelligibility (that takes place in the mind).

Running counter to this claim is one that has been held (not always explicitly) by painters, writers, historians, linguists, romantic philosophers, Wittgensteinians, and existential phenomenologists - the claim that there is a second, more primary way of knowing or getting in touch with reality: bodily know-how. (Aristotle came close to holding this view)

Todes sides with the second camp by contrasting our two forms of intelligibility, conception and perception.

Dreyfus points us to page 100, where Todes sums up his project:
Kant attempted to understand how the functions of perception and imagination are effectively synthesized in actual human knowledge, as, somehow or other, they plainly seem to be. His attempt to do this, however, allowed for only one level of objective experience, so that the claims of conceptually imaginative experience had either to subordinate or be subordinated by the claims of perceptual experience. Because of the way Kant posed his basic problem, he committed himself to the former alternative, which, like its opposite, results in doing justice neither to the claims of conceptual imagination nor to the claims of perception. My solution is to
show that there are two levels of objective experience: the ground floor of perceptually objective experience; and the upper storey of imaginatively objective experience, which presupposes for its objectivity (i.e., for its dependability as living quarters) that the ground floor onto which it is built is itself on firm foundations. I attempt to show that the imaginative objectivity of theoretical knowledge presupposes a pre-imaginative, perceptual form of objectivity, by showing just how this is so.
Todes also parallels Kant's Table of Categories by producing a Table of Perceptual Categories - categories which Kant had missed because he failed to understand perceptual judgment.

At the same time that Todes seems to be engaged in dialogue with Kant, Todes's arguments about perception are relevant to current developments in analytic philosophy. This comes as no surprise when we take seriously Richard Rorty's point that
Frege and Rusell, as it were, reverted to Kant's picture of what philosophy was - namely, it did something with form instead of content; it rose above the empirical or it rose above the historical; or it rose above something and, you know, it had conceptual analysis or something. And the reason there's a great big analytic-continental gap is that, for the rest of the philosophical world, Kant is sorta dead. And, you know, Hegel and Nietzsche took his place. And so when they think of being a philosopher, they think Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and of course you gotta read Kant because Hegel is unintelligible without Kant and all that. But still, you don't wanna do what Kant thought philosophy was. And the anglophones do wanna do what Kant thought philosophy was. And sometimes I think that we need both within the same discipline. Sometimes I think, no, the anglophones are caught in a time lag; that the rest of the world moved on and we let Frege re-Kantianize us - or Frege and his heirs re-Kantianize us.
That anglophone metaphilosophy was re-Kantianized does not mean, however, that anglophones reverted to a Kantian stance and became idealists. They simply accepted his metaphilosohy - that is, his idea of what philosophy is and should be concerned with. In the end, by rejecting Hegel, analytic philosophy rejected much of Kant's idealism and instead began with some variant of naive empiricism.

Then Wilfrid Sellars came along with his influential essay "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956), arguing against what he characterized as the Myth of the Given, thereby reintroducing one of Kant's central theses, namely that experience is conceptual through and through.

John McDowell, an heir of Sellars's research program, repeats this point in Mind and World:
To avoid making it unintelligible how the deliverances of sensibility can stand in grounding relations to paradigmatic exercises of the understanding such as judgements and beliefs, we must conceive this co-operation in a quite particular way: we must insist that the understanding is already inextricably implicated in the deliverances of sensibility themselves. Experiences are impressions made by the world on our senses, products of receptivity; but those impressions already have conceptual content. (1994, p. 46; emphasis added)
So at first glance McDowell seems to be siding with Kant and traditional philosophy, but the matter is more complicated than that. When Dreyfus points to McDowell, he does so in the same way that McDowell makes use of Davidson:
Someone... might suppose Donald Davidson figures... as an enemy. I hope it is clear to less superficial readers... that I single out Davidson's work for criticism as a mark of respect. I define my stance against his by way of a contrast that it would be easy to relegate to the edges of the picture, with massive agreement in the centre. (McDowell, 1994, p. viii)
Indeed, in a subsequent essay Dreyfus (2005) points to the common ground the two seem to share with Merleau-Ponty:
An experiencing and acting subject is a living thing, with active and passive bodily powers that are genuinely her own; she is herself embodied, substantially present in the world that she experiences and acts on. This is a framework for reflection that really stands a chance of making traditional philosophy obsolete. (McDowell, 1994, p. 111; emphasis added)
In the context of a full-blown pragmatism, impressions can come into their own as precisely a mode of openness to the world. And something similar goes for at least some of Rorty's other "tertia." Conceptual schemes or perspectives need not be one side of the exploded dualism of scheme and world. Thus innocently conceived, schemes or perspectives can be seen as embodied in languages or cultural traditions. So languages and traditions can figure not as "tertia" that would threaten to make our grip on the world philosophically problematic, but as constitutive of our unproblematic openness to the world. (McDowell, 1994, p. 155; emphasis added)
McDowell is trying to overcome a problematic framework, the dualism of reason and nature, and in order to do so extends the sovereignty of conceptual normativity to encompass perceptual receptivity. His main concern is to ensure that (linguistic) judgments are accountable to the world. (That is, to make sure they are not simply in the world, but also about the world) After all, if he is to follow the Quine-Davidson line of thought that argues "truth" is not a matter of correspondence, but rather of coherence, a substantial word-world gap proves troublesome. For example, how can someone's claim that "the field of grass is green" be true or false if the truth conditions of the statement do not correspond to the world?

McDowell does not provide us with an account of how objects of perception become objects of thought. Todes does and in effect argues that the judgments of nonconceptual practical perception (judgments of this type don't figure in McDowell [1994]) can be transformed into judgments of thought. Part of the disagreement about the extent to which experience is conceptual rests on the different understandings of "conceptual" that McDowell and Todes employ. Rouse (2005) touches on this matter, but I'm not able to comment yet.

Ultimately, Dreyfus's point is that "Todes’s Body and World can be read as a significant anticipatory response to McDowell’s Mind and World." Hence the name change from the original The Human Body as Material Subject of the World to the posthumous Body and World.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What to Read Before Todes

Todes's Body and World is first and foremost a study in epistemology. Much of the book can be loosely seen as dealing with the implications, consequences, and problems arising out of Kant's reformulation of the fundamental epistemological question.

Prior to Kant, that question was: (1) How do we come to know initially knowable objects? This question left open the possibility of there being more than one form of knowing since it was understood as the problem of “how we relate our perceptual kind of information about the object to our quite different conceptual kind of information about it.” (Todes, p. 92)

By positing that experience is a single synthesis of sensible intuition and conceptual understanding, Kant changed the problem to: (2) How do we make objects knowable? This form of the question makes the knowability of an object dependent on our [one] way of knowing (more on this transformation later) - in this case, through mentally subjective concepts (a.k.a. the information processing model of intelligibility, whereby concepts - and therefore, meanings - are superimposed onto raw sensible data). Hence, we are led to believe we can never know things-in-themselves.

Todes's treatment of the topic argues that question (2) is the result of an improper understanding of practical perception. One of his main theses is that Kant imaginizes perception - that is, Kant makes perception too mental.

In order to make sense of Todes's analysis, a background in Kant and phenomenology is invaluable. Husserl, Heidegger, and [especially] Merleau-Ponty are all important for getting the most out of Todes. For those looking to get a strong introduction into these subjects, here is a list of accessible readings:

Dreyfus, Hubert. 2005. "Overcoming the Myth of the Mental: How Philosophers Can Profit From the Phenomenology of Everyday Expertise." Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 79 (2): 47-65.
--Dreyfus lays out the philosophical landscape and explains why Todes's work is important.

Kelly, Sean. 2003. "Husserl and Phenomenology." The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy. Solomon, Robert C. and David L. Sherman, Eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 112-142. Alternatively available at Kelly's page: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~sdkelly/SDK-4-Publications.html
--Quite possibly the best [short] introduction to phenomenology.

Scruton, Roger. 2001. Kant: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
--An easy introduction to Kant. For more in-depth analyses, see Paul Guyer's Kant (Routledge, 2006).

Wrathall, Mark. 2012. "Heidegger on Human Understanding." (forthcoming in the Cambridge Companion to Heidegger's Being and Time) available at: http://www.markwrathall.org/papers/
--This is directed at those who have a background in Being and Time. Though Wrathall accepts "the pragmatist account of the vertical relationships between more and less deliberative acts, and between conceptually mediated and pre-conceptual acts," he argues that this type of story "fails to map on to Heidegger's account of understanding and interpretation" and that "Heidegger actually offers us... a horizontal account." In a way, this reading might bring Heidegger closer in line with Todes who claims that neither form of understanding (practical perception and conceptual imagination) is reducible to the other, though conceptual imagination nevertheless presupposes practical perception. It's all still an open issue for me.

My advice: Read Dreyfus (2005), then Kelly (2003) and (if you can) Wrathall (2012).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Who Was Samuel Todes?

The Wikipedia entry for Samuel Todes is pretty bare and the rest of the web offers little information about the person whose work seems poised to become the next stage of the road that began with Husserl and continued through Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Todes, in Body and World, provides us with a phenomenological account of bodily perception and how the structure of the human body allows us to come to know initially knowable objects. Perhaps the best thing that can be said in this inaugural post comes from the mouth of the sole promoter of Todes's work, Hubert Dreyfus:
There was a fellow graduate student named Samuel Todes who was very influential on me. I didn't mention him when we talked about my graduate [years], but if I went into Continental philosophy it was also largely because he was the only one I could talk to. He had this idea -- it's very important -- that the body has a structure. In Merleau-Ponty you hear always that the body has a capacity to act, to be open to the world, to go around objects, but Todes says, "Well, we've got a front and a back, an up and a down, we move forward more easily than we move backward, we can't protect ourselves from behind." There's a lot to having a body that Merleau-Ponty doesn't see. So, I published Todes' book, Body and World, because I think it's the next stage that people will have to pay attention to. I talked about it in my presidential address. This says that until computers could (which I don't think they ever will,) have bodies enough like ours, and feelings like ours, they can't be intelligent. -transcribed source
The comment is taken from the following interview, which can be seen in its entirety: