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Untitled, Harvest, 2005

More here.


From Neuroanthropology, May 28, 2008

On the interdisciplinary New Humanities Initiative being created by David Sloan Wilson and Leslie Heywood at Binghamton University.

Proposal here.

Would Wittgenstein have favored closer research ties between the humanities and the sciences? Given his general disdain for academic culture and cultural conservatism, the answer is likely not. Then again, his conception of philosophy as an adverbial does promote  – in theory at least – interdisciplinary work, if only to contrast philosophy with science.

The differences between philosophy and science make the prospect of interdisciplinary work exciting. According to Wittgenstein, science provides causal explanations of empirical phenomena; philosophical problems, by contrast, cannot be solved by experience or causal explanation, since they are conceptual, not factual. They need not new information or discoveries, but greater clarity about linguistic meaning. The second-order reflections of philosophy on our conceptual apparatus can address in scientific practice, according to Wittgenstein, the contempt for the ‘particular case’ and the ‘craving for generality’. Instead of seeking analytic definitions, we should be mapping the various uses of words in linguistic practice.

Some thoughts on this:

(1) The language-game of emotion starts not with a private entity which is then described, but with primitive reactions to emotion in others (e.g. being frightened by someone’s facial expression) (CE 409-410; RPP II 689). 

(2) Our language is an auxillary to, and further extension of, primitive reactions towards emotion in other human beings. The language-game of emotion is an extension of primitve behavior (cf. Z 545; RPP I 151). 

(3) In primitive reactions, emotion is not cognitively disencoded from another’s face or posture, but is personified explicitly on the face (RPP II 570). In primitive contexts, perception of emotion is embodied (Z 225). 

(4) Embodied expressions of emotion do not simply communicate but also function to share, to influence the perceiver to feel the same (e.g. motor mimicry and ’emotional contagion’). To perceive a smile is to be inclined to feel certain things (RPP II 614; PR 89). 

(5) But: ‘It would be an incorrect use of language to say: ‘I see fear in this face’. We would be taught: a fearful face can be ‘seen’; but the fear in a face, or the similarity or dissimilarity between two faces, is ‘noticed’ (RPP II 552).  

‘I notice the fear in his face’. Or: we look at two faces and I say to someone: ‘I see a similarity in them’. Does this adduce evidence or specify a perceptual capacity? I propose the latter. Wittgenstein writes: ‘I begin seeing the similarity when it ‘strikes’ me…If the similarity strikes me, I perceive something…’ (RPP II 555).  

Moreover: the perceived dissimilarity in two faces is not given by reference to measurement (the difference may be no more than a thousandth of an inch). We see the difference – this is a primitive reaction (PI 285). Motor mimicry is also relevant here: we can reproduce different facial expressions in the mirror without checking the exact orientation of our features. 

Finally, I propose: insofar as it is true that I cannot see or otherwise perceive his emotion (RPP II 552), neither can he. I see the manifestations of emotion which he exhibits; but when he exhibits emotion, it is manifest. It can be said that I cannot see his emotion only in the sense in which I cannot see sounds or hear colors (LW I 885).

In contrast to primitive reactions, there can be no proof of subtle third-person ascriptions of emotion, and we may be unable to decide whether someone is (e.g.) anxious. Those who are closely acquainted with a person can make the most subtle emotional ascriptions with certainty, without being able to specify conclusive criteria, since their evidence is ‘imponderable’, that is, consists of a syndrome of behavior, context and antecedent events (PI II 227-228; LW II 70, 87, 90-95) (this does not represent a ‘retreat into the mental’. The point is that the circumstances for the use of some mental terms constitute a highly complex syndrome the evidence of which is not always connected in a rigid way).

Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Volume 25, Number 4 (August 2004)


This paper proposes that human expression of pain in the presence or absence of caregivers, and the detection of pain by observers, arise from evolved propensities. The function of pain is to demand attention and prioritise escape, recovery and healing; where others can help achieve these goals, effective communication of pain is required. Evidence is reviewed of a distinct and specific facial expression of pain from infancy to old age, consistent across stimuli, and recognizable as pain by observers. Voluntary control over amplitude is incomplete, and observers better detect pain which the individual attempts to suppress than to amplify or to simulate it. In many clinical and experimental settings, facial expression of pain is incorporated with verbal and nonverbal-vocal activity, posture and movement in an overall category of pain behaviour. This is assumed by clinicians to be under operant control of social contingencies such as sympathy, caregiving, and practical help; thus strong facial expression is presumed to constitute an attempt to manipulate these contingencies by amplification of the normal expression. Operant formulations support skepticism about the presence or extent of pain, judgements of malingering, and sometimes the withholding of caregiving and help. However, to the extent that pain expression is influenced by environmental contingencies, “amplification” could equally plausibly constitute release of suppression according to evolved contingent propensities which guide behaviour. Pain has been largely neglected in the evolutionary literature and that on pain expression, but an evolutionary account can generate improved assessment of pain and reactions to it.

Article here.

The following example (not of philosophical interest) illustrates Wittgenstein’s idea: people say that cell-phones are harmful because they emit heat which increases the temperature of the brain. That one is mislead by this picture is shown in the act of showering one’s body under heated water: the water pours over my head, increasing the temparture of the contents inside my skull. Is this harmful to humans? Should people opt instead for cold showers? Clearly, not.

So, what is the picture that held us captive? It is the picture of cooking flesh. An effect of it is fear and disquiet, which doubtless hastens the unconscious application, and our lack of acknowledgement thereof.

Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach
15 May 1990

Elizabeth Anscombe
“Much of my work has been concerned with intention. Like any object an action has many descriptions true of it; under some it is intentional. But not all the intentions which an agent thinks an action of his falls under are in fact true of it. For example we all mean to do well for ourselves but that doesn’t mean we do”

Peter Geach
“I have been in love with logic ever since my father started me on logic in my teens. Logic of itself cannot give anyone the answer to any questions of substance; but without logic we often do not know the import of what we know and often fall into fallacy and inconsistency.”

John McDowell
14 June 1990

“My main concerns in philosophy centre on the effects of a metaphysical outlook into which we easily fall, at the point in the history of thought that we occupy. This outlook might be called naturalism or scientism. I believe it tends towards a distortion of our thinking about the place of mind in the world: the damaging effects show up not only in metaphysics itself, but also (for instance) in reflection about language, and in the philosophy of value and action. The task of philosophy, as I see it, is to undo such distortions.”

Michael Dummett
21 May 1990

“Philosophy attempts, not to discover new truths about the world, but to gain a clear view of what we already know and believe about it. That depends upon attaining a more explicit grasp of the structure of our thoughts; and that in turn on discovering how to give a systematic account of the working of language, the medium in which we express our thoughts.”

More here.

‘We talk, we utter words, and only later do we get a picture of their life’ (PI p. 209)

Recent works by the like of Sam Harris which challenge religion seem to me to belong to this way of seeing things. It is not clear presently what is to be done, how the atheist criticism of religion is to be used or taken by religious believers. It is much too soon to say. Both parties each have a ‘battlecry’, and there is a lot of talk. And this is how it is, because we do not learn everything at once, and our grasp of each part is complete only once we have mastered the whole.

Sam Harris claims to understand the ‘whole’ that comprises the more pernicious or dogmatic aspects of monotheistic religion – do we say the same of religious believers? Carl Sagan once said: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. Harris directs this challenge to the religious believer. What is his expectation? He talks, certainly – but, to believers, he utters mere words. They do not have any whit of their life, or so it seems to me.

By the way, the disturbing irony of the zoo is this: human desire for intimate contact with nature in the zoo robs it of its natural fitness and strength. The result of animal containment in cages is emaciation and muscle-wasting; is this the intended picture of human contact with wildlife?

Nothing shames me more than the spectacle of a zoo animal robbed of its strength. It is troubling to feel shame for those creatures who have no capacity for it. We use them.

The difference between kinds of smile (e.g., a cruel smile, ironic smile, joyful smile) may be no more than a minute difference in the orientation of the facial features. The difference may reside in no more than a thousandth of an inch, but we recognize the difference, and not by measuring it. Moreover, we do not explain our different descriptions by reference to measurement.

We cringe when we hear of another’s fear, and grit our teeth when confronted with someone’s anger (motor mimicry). And we can reproduce such expressions without looking in the mirror, that is to say, without checking on the exact orientation of our features. It is a fact that human beings are extremely sensitive to the play of features on a human face. ‘We see emotion’ (RPP II 570).

A small quantitative difference can make a significant qualitative difference. I think here of Moebius Syndrome. People with Moebius are born without the 6th and 7th cranial nerves which innervate the facial muscles, and so they cannot make facial expressions. This leads to difficulties in communicating emotion on the face, and the ability to read it in others, altered understanding of character and selfhood, being less available to others, and a disturbed self-other balance.

Just as pain can get no foothold in the absence of behavior that expresses pain, the same applies to the emotional experiences of others which we observe in human behavior. Wittgenstein makes out a strong case for thinking that the intelligibility of psychological terms presupposes the possibility of behavioural manifestations. If I cannot make facial expressions, I am denied a mental life by almost every other person except those who know me exceptionally well, and I become less available to others, and therefore less available to myself. The transition ‘from quantity to quality’.


From the Independent, May 13, 2008 

Choosing a name for our second child was hard but we finally settled on the name Isaac, which we especially liked because it means “he laughs” in Hebrew, and every parent wants their child to be a smiley, happy person. Ironic that choice was to be – for Isaac will never smile, blink or even frown. 

When I walked into hospital to have a caesarean (Isaac was in the breech position) little did we know what a journey we were about to begin. Surgery was uncomplicated, and our first few hours with Isaac were relaxed and beautiful. Me, my husband and our perfect baby son were left in peace for hours before being transferred to the ward. Isaac’s brother came to meet him a few hours later and, other than worrying about whether I would be able to see the last episode of Life on Mars that night, all seemed fine. That all changed as my favourite programme was about to start.

By 9pm that night, Isaac had still not fed properly and we started to be concerned. As he had still not fed sufficiently, every other hour we were woken to try to feed, and in between that time poor Isaac had a needle in his foot (eight times in total) to check glucose levels. When no amount of prompting could encourage him to feed, he was taken to special care at 3am and I was left alone, with no baby to cuddle, in a ward full of crying babies and feeding mothers. It took five days before we could go home and, even then, no one knew why he was having problems feeding.

The consultant paediatrician decided that Isaac should have some genetic tests to see if any specific problems could be identified. Investigations continued and we had two agonising weeks to wait to see what the tests revealed. We cried with relief when those tests came back negative. This relief was, however, short-lived. Although Isaac was feeding slightly better, I still instinctively felt something was wrong.

Entire article here.

When I am in deep sleep, I often dream, and in this altered state I usually experience sensory-images, visions, sensations and feelings of various sorts. Sometimes, I occupy my dream as I do the visual field in wakefulness, and the experience is wholly subjective, in other dreams I occupy the periphery of some event I stand to observe. In any event, these experiences also occur in the waking-state, except that we don’t call them ‘dream phenomena’. Wakefulness has a fair share of images, sensations and feelings which parade before my mind’s eye, and which, like dreams, are not amenable to explanation: I ‘dream’ in sleep; why shouldn’t it happen in wakefulness?

In the waking-state, I am completely conscious, and mentally perceptive. Communication, ingestion, ambulation and procreation are activities typical of this state. But, I often experience images and sensations seemingly unconnected with these activities. They materialize on a wing not of my own making.  Like dream phenomena, they sometimes tell or narrate something, as though they are fragments of a story which I cannot fully explain.

We define ‘being awake’ as the opposite of ‘sleep’, and unwittingly make of each a discrete realm of consciounsess (wakefulness and sleep) to be contrasted with the other. This polarization of the two states of consciousness may yet conceal the more ‘dream-like’ features of waking existence.

May 2008
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