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Inverting the Philosopher’s Method: A Paper in Honour of Christian Heath

13 Jun

Reflections on a Colleague

Christian Heath has been one of  the most productive researchers in the sociological field known as ethnomethodology. I wrote this essay in honour of his birthday this July which is being treated as a kind Festschrift. Since it is reflective I thought I might post it here.

Inventing a topic

Christian’s research has been primarily focused on one thematic: the co-proximate, temporally bounded collaborative determination of meaning or, to put it more simply, ‘how people come to agree what they are about in whatever situation they are in’. There are lots of phrases used to define this topic: the ‘mutual constitution of meaning’ is another to add to this list. Christian typically labels the doings in question as ‘work’ though it is not understood as work by the individuals who undertake it: for them it is simply just what they do, how they get things done, an altogether practical affair.

One can examine this constitution of meaning in different ways, needless to say, and one’s focus will be confined whatever one’s choice. One focus is on the empirical instant – the micro-management of interaction and the production of meaning in the ‘here and now’. One can look at the larger temporal canvas of time – not just looking at seconds or minutes of interaction and the meaning produced therein but at hours, even months and what is produced as meaningful in that time scale. A contrast here can be made between, for example, Charles Goodwin, whose studies of medical practice focus on the micro-organisation of professional gaze (Goodwin: 1994) and D.L. Wieder, who examines how ‘tales’ about loyalty and trust in halfway houses in LA impose a moral order through time – over years. The convict code is as old as the halfway houses, Wieder implies (Wieder,1974). The bulk of Christian’s work – and of course that of his intimate colleagues, Paul Luff, Jon Hindmarsh, and others – has been of the former kind. Its merits have been in its remarkable exploration of the diversity of the work constitutive of the production of social organisation in ‘moment by moment’ interaction.

Christian was trained, as was I, in the robust and philosophically oriented environment of Manchester University’s Sociology Department. There the link between, on the one hand, a philosophical concern with epistemology, the nature of language, ‘other minds’ and more generally the key ‘problems’ of modern, post-Kantian philosophy and, on the other, the conceptual and empirical tools of sociology, were being played out.

Considerable passion was given to grappling with a critique, by Wittgenstein, of a notion that had been fundamental in philosophy since the time of Kant: namely that language and hence meaning exists in some kind of (Kantian) abstraction. Wittgenstein urged a ‘turn to the social’  and this was explained to us as being a kind of philosophical method that would correct the excessive idealism or abstraction of Kant. To put things very simply (and indeed to caricature the richness of debates at that time) we were taught that philosophers had always been taught to have a sense of words, but Wittgenstein suggested that they needed to get that sense refined by looking at the social practices in which the words are to be found.

In Manchester’s Sociology Department, however, this was inverted into the idea that one ought not to presume one knows anything about words until one looks at practices in the first place. It was only through looking at social practices that one uncovers meaning. The philosopher’s presumption that they are trained to know something about words without reference to the real was mocked as a kind of arrogance. The expectation in the Manchester common rooms was that the empirical endeavours instantiated by Wes Sharrock, John Lee and Rod Watson and, following in their footsteps, Christian, would lead towards a more grounded sense of ‘what things mean’, and thus a respecification of philosophy. In being more empirical it would be more like a kind of sociology. At the same time and by the same token a new kind of sociology, more philosophical, more Winchean (as in Peter Winch’s The Very Idea of a Social Science book of 1959) would appear. This would entail studies of concepts in action: it was to be a Wittgensteinian ethnomethodology.

A topic ignored

In this view, instead of philosophers coming up with problems of meaning or epistemology through their training in words and then solving these problems by looking at social practices, the Manchester technique held that ‘real’ problems would be found by looking at social practices in the first place; in the study of words and language in everyday life. The expectation was that the practical properties of, for example, epistemology, could be understood by looking at real cases of ‘doubts about facts’ in the ‘real world’. These would be found in the utterances of ordinary people in ordinary situations – though ordinary here meant both in everyday life and in professional (work) settings. As this was undertaken, it was expected that it would become unclear what was to be sociology and what philosophy; the prospect appeared to be a marriage.

We were excited, passionate as I say, though in hindsight one can see that the results of the research turned out to be rather disappointing; there was certainly no marriage. The impact on sociology was not as we thought; no new conceptual sociology has really emerged (for a review by two of those involved from the outset, see Hughes & Sharrock, 2007). But it turned out to be disappointing to philosophers too. It turned that much of the ‘work’ put in to social action, into making meaning, into the ‘co-proximate, temporally bounded collaborative determination of meaning’ are related to concerns that aren’t very philosophical. On the contrary, they are very prosaic as Christian might have put it. One could put it more strongly: they are often boring: boring to philosophers that is, if not sociologists.

Take Christian’s (and of course Paul’s) studies of control rooms: what do they report? They show that the ‘work’ entailed in the setting entails members instructing each other to ‘Look at this’, and ‘not to worry about that’: it has to do with attention. Meaning production doesn’t seem to have any Kantian overtones, no absolutes, no fixed categorisations or anything contentious: in particular no fundamental doubts about whether one person can trust another’s mind. ‘Are they really sentient?’ hardly seems like a problem controllers in the London Underground apply when they ask their colleagues to work. Certainly this is what I take from that remarkable corpus of investigations.

For another example, this time not one related to a domain Christian became re-knowned for but worth mentioning nevertheless, studies in the Manchester tradition of everyday conversation showed that meaning management sometimes – oftentimes – has to do with the enforced insistence that people listen to each other and demonstrate that in each turn of talk. ‘As you say’, ‘Yeah, I understand’, and most ubiquitously, the repeated phrase of acknowledgment that a prior utterance has been heard, ‘Uhuh’, were the commonplace stuff of the research seminars at that time just as they are commonplace in every conversation wherever it is held.

One can hardly be surprised that philosophers stayed away from either these studies of ordinary talk or Christian’s studies of work talk. For, philosophers then (and now as I shall come to remark) were seeking solutions to things that weren’t to be found in the everyday life—the things that I am calling the “Manchester approach” focused on. The concerns of philosophers were with, at that time, for example, what one might call the problem of interpersonal scepticism. To put this into a context familiar to Christian, this might mean a concern with the idea that people don’t trust in each other’s commonality of experience and that they (might) live in distinct universes. In this view, a concern for philosophers was how people came to ‘solve’ this differentiation – assuming of course it existed. They (i.e. people) needed to ‘bring together’ or ‘merge’ their views into one, it was presumed. The philosophers wanted to ask they did this? How did people solve the problem of “Other Minds”?

A topic for the 21st Century?
This was a philosophical topic. What Christian and others were showing however was that when people work together they did not have that sort of problem; all they had was the problem of shared attention – as I say, ‘Looking at this’ was the work that they had to attend to. There was a misfit between what the data showed and what philosophers wanted.

It is perhaps no wonder then that philosophers have not learnt from the insights of the Manchester creed of Wittgensteinian ethnomethodological inquiry – they don’t find what they want. So it is no surprise to find that today, either, some thirty years after Christian graduated from Manchester, there is an almost total lack of referencing to this work in the philosophical corpus. Jane Heal, until recently the head of the department in which Wittgenstein worked (Cambridge), not only fails to mention any of the vast published record of Manchester ethnomethodology in her own extensive work (for a review of arguments related to some of the topics here see Heal 1978) but even admits informally to have ‘never heard of it’.

The so-called ‘constructionists’ in the current philosophy of mind,  people like Bratman (1992, 1993), are similarly ignorant of this work. They refer instead to studies of a very different kind: in particular to psychological and laboratory studies of infants such as those by Tollefsen (2005) (see also Gräfenhain, et al, 2009; Tomasello, et al., 2005). These studies arbitrarily take segments of talk from the subjects ‘caught’ in their research apparatus (in the experiments for example) to affirm a conviction: that meaning production has to do with solving scepticism, with the problem of Other Minds. Infants in Tollefson’s laboratory tests don’t ‘really know that each other has a mind’, it is claimed.

Researchers like Tollefson and Bratman make such claims whilst ignoring the actual order of talk in the real world or even in the peculiar settings of the lab –in the sequential and embodied properties of the interactions between individuals. It seems to me that they thus miss just the kinds of things that Christian’s work has for so many years demonstrated are important and which show that the ‘work at hand’ is not one to do with solving the problem of Other Minds: it has to do with the much more prosaic task of agreeing the joint focus of attention, mutual acknowledgement, or the worked-at-listening to quality or essence of conversing with each other. Studies by Tollesfson and others attest not to the merits of philosophical claims they seek to address but to the remarkable naivety of these same researchers. These individuals seek to address concerns despite the evidence, their own evidence, that shows that those concerns are spurious – mere chimera. Christian shows what can be found in that evidence, but philosophers like Bratman don’t want to use Christian’s tools and instead turn to ‘scientistic’ psychology – in Tollefson,  Tomasello,  Gräfenhain.

I could list more such studies. The empirical inadequacy of them tends to be obscured in the grand narratives of philosophy one finds on the bookshelves of University towns: these  mainly disregard both empirical detail and empirical method. The narratives Andy Clark offers come to mind in books such as his Supersizing the Mind (2008).

Current philosophy of action

I have already suggested that one of the reasons why philosophers have not been receptive to the kind of work Christian exemplified is because it doesn’t answer what they are interested in. So why don’t they change their interests? We thought we could change them when we embarked on our studies of work all those years ago; we thought it would change sociology too but that is another matter.

There are I think two main kinds of reason for this. One has to do with the obsession most philosophers have with a certain set of problems. They had them when Christian was at Manchester; they have them now as he retires. Wittgenstein also called this obsession a kind of bewitching. He suggested  – and I am still convinced he is right – that this is driven by the grammar of language and its deceptive implications (for an excellent introduction  to this particular aspect of Wittgenstein’s view see Hanfling’s (2000)  book with the subtitle, The Bent and Genius of Our Tongue).

These obsessions are also driven by a certain construction, manufactured by philosophers themselves (Kant, Descartes, Frege, Russell, the early Wittgenstein, others), that builds on this grammar and its bewitchments and which both create and preserve the centrality of certain problems or topics for philosophy. These define a kind of field for philosophical inquiries and seem almost inviolate, and certainly seem resistant to change or the assault of evidence.

This is the claim that Rorty makes in his magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). His canonical example of this combination of ‘bewitching’ and ‘constructionism’ is in the concept of qualia: the idea that there is an internal screen or picture in the human brain that the body’s sensory data produce. It is these qualia that the individual as it were ‘sees’ and ‘interacts’ with. The crucial point about qualia is not whether the concept is empirically testable; Rorty notes that its value resides in its capacity to ensure that philosophers can still inquire into the same old problem they have looked at since Descartes: the problem of Other Minds.  For though sensory data might produce qualia, but how does an individual know it is that same data as another sees? Answering this conundrum is (apparently) a philosophical problem and requires philosophical techniques.

There is as I say a second reason. This is I think more unsettling, though it is related to what philosophers think is a philosophical problem and the techniques they think of as their own. If the first reason has to do with how ideas incarnate in the grammar of words can be built upon with structures about the nature of ideas that can lead one to peculiar places (to the idea of qualia, for example), then this second reason has to do with prejudice and disciplinary neurosis.

What I am thinking of here is the profound fear that philosophers seem to have that their trade might dissolve into a subsection of sociology – into another (rival) trade that makes meaning its business just as philosophy. This trade is not a science, such as psychology or, say, economics – neither of which care much for meaning. The problem for philosophy is how it can accommodate itself – fight with and survive as an independent entity – when another discipline is so like its self  –  which is in the ideas business where the analysis of  meaning is the trade at hand.

Let me illustrate the problem that this poses for philosophy in the way Rorty does: If meaning is to be found in social action, then techniques for studying social action could constitute philosophical techniques. But, and here is the rub, if those techniques have been developed by some other trade in the first place, sociology say (or anthropology, which one can treat as effectively like sociology in this discussion) then they might not lead to philosophically suitable data. Worse, use of those techniques might start to blur philosophical data into sociological data – what then of philosophy? Of course one might propose the reverse: that philosophical techniques could be used in sociology (think of Peter Winch) and that therefore sociology might submerge into a subcomponent of philosophy. But Rorty argues that that is unlikely. Philosophy doesn’t really have any techniques, only topics: Wittgenstein’s urging to look at social practices was an attempt to introduce such a technique and we can see what has happened to that: it is now forgotten (see Rorty’s 1992 edition of his The Linguistic Turn).

And here lies another problem for philosophers. Just as they might be vulnerable over method they might be vulnerable over this matter, over topic. This is particularly so if philosophers start defining their problems in the way that we imagined would be ideal when we sat around and argued in Manchester: through examination of the everyday, everyday talk, everyday work.

We found out early on that if one did this a real disaster happens, for philosophers anyway. Many of ‘their’ problems turn out often to be not problems at all. Other minds are not a problem when people are working together, for example. This is certainly what I think one ought to take from Christian’s work, as I mention above. Real questions have to do with the social production of focus on some particular thing; in agreeing the details that need to be treated skeptically, not in epistemological or ontological ones to do with, say, another’s mind. Of course this does not mean that scepticism vanishes: it is just that its place alters. As Stanley Cavell notes, it is a hugely powerful device in theatre and art (Cavell, 1994). The trouble is that, if this is the case, then what one might call the glory of philosophical inquiry is lost. By this I mean that the big topics, the preferred topics, the elementis profundis that philosophers since the time of Kant have claimed as they their moral right to study and answer. These vanish or diminish.


One of the things that comes to my mind, then, as I look back at Christian’s work is noting just this: that philosophers fear they will lose out if they turn to his sort of work despite its relevance. This shows a lack of courage, for me. It also shows a lack of scholarship. If only they had read the research that is undertaken in the field that Christian exemplifies then they would see how much richness is there, how much food for philosophical thought that lies there awaiting their visit. If only they read Christian’s papers and books they could see there is so much to uncover and research, so much to reflect upon and examine. To be sure some philosophical problems would come to be seen as chimera, like the ones to do with Other Minds, but others would remain as vital as ever and, besides, new ones would appear.

The passion of Manchester in the Seventies and Eighties might now be abating as the cadre of researchers produced at that time start wrapping up their careers – as Christian is now. But the contributions they made, the paths that they began to explore, don’t need to be abandoned. Those of us who are still hoping to keep at the academic millstone can add to their contributions, can further explore those paths, and carry our own bags down those avenues even as Christian packs his own up and takes them off to wherever he goes next (Hereford perhaps?). We can rekindle the passion Manchester fostered all those years ago, even if Christian has decided enough is enough. As he would say, ‘There is work to be done, let’s go and have a look at it’.


Bratman, M. (1992) Shared Cooperative Activity, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 101, No. 2 (April 1992).

(1993) Shared Intention, Ethics, 104(1), pp.97-113.

Cavell, S. (1994) A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises, Harvard University Press.

Clark, A. (2008) Supersizing the Mind, Oxford University Press.

Goodwin, C. (1994) Professional Vision, American Anthropologist, Volume 96, Issue 3, pages 606–633, September.

Gräfenhain, M. et al., 2009. Young children’s understanding of joint commitments, Developmental Psychology, 45(5), pp.1430-1443.

Heal, J., (1978) Common Knowledge, The Philosophical Quarterly, 28(111), pp.116-131.

Hanfling, O. (2000) Philosophy and Ordinary Language: The Bent and Genius of Our Tongue, Routledge, London.

Hughes, J. & Sharrock, W.  (2007) Theory and Methods in Sociology, Palgrave, Basingstoke.

Rorty, R (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton.

(1992) (Ed) The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Tollefsen, D. (2005) Let’s Pretend! Children and Joint Action, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 35(1), pp.75-97.

Tomasello, M. et al. (2005) Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(5), pp.675-691.

Wieder, D.L. (1974) Language and Social Reality, Mouton: The Hague.

Winch, P. (1959) The Very Idea of a Social Science, Routledge, London.

The Absence in Kinect

23 Jan

It seems to me that the message Kinect advertisements deliver emphasizes an absence; attention is drawn to how something is missing in the relationship between the human and the technology. It makes the claim that there is no ‘how’ when someone interacts with Kinect.  Indeed, the claim is stronger than this: if the publicity is to be believed, there is no interaction at all. This is because, as the adverts put it, with this technology, ‘You are the Controller’.

Obviously this is simple publicity; advertising does not pretend to be science. Nevertheless, there is much to consider in what is being emphasized in phrases such as this. What is being proposed is that, with Kinect, there is isomorphism between, on the one side, the human and what they want to do, and, on the other, the machine’s ability to understand, grasp, comprehend or, in this case more accurately, to ‘see’ what those intentions are and then respond to them. It is because Kinect can ‘comprehend’ these intentions without any intermediation, no keyboard, mouse-clicks or consul, that the publicity has this odd absence at its heart: it seeks to celebrate the removal of mechanical means for controlling computers.

Whereas once the computer mouse might have been the centre of an advertising campaign, now in a world where the technology can let you be the controller, all those sorts of technologies can go. This future holds less – less technology to get in the way. And thus, so the hype goes, we are allowed to be ‘natural’. All other means of interacting with a computer are, by dint of this phrase, implied to be somehow other than natural. In this view, the keyboard was merely a technological step on a path to this ‘natural’ mode; the computer mouse simply a cute technological aid that, like the keyboard itself, is soon to disappear, to be found in the future only in museums and histories of innovation.

So, what is one to make of the phrase ‘You are the controller’ and relatedly the term ‘natural? The trouble with both is that they are pregnant with numerous meanings and interpretations – it’s not that they are vague; it is that they are too evocative.

For example, the word natural is bound up with what its use implies as unnatural. Given that Kinect does away with a keyboard, one interpretation that goes with this usage could therefore be that people do not ‘naturally’ want to communicate by written words – the primary output of a keyboard. Doing so is an artifice of technology, one might think. Yet one only has to think of linguistics and one of their continual bugbears. As Baron laments in her book Alphabet to Email  linguists are regularly asked to explain to those with little knowledge of their discipline that the written word is not a surrogate for some other human activity that is ordinarily preferred or more ‘natural’. The other activity that is often invoked in these discussions is, of course, the spoken word. Speaking is natural, this vexingly wrong view holds, while writing is a forced necessity when speaking is not practical (see also my own book Texture 2010). As Baron explains, this is completely wrong; writing is a different social act than verbal communication; it is not a replacement or a proxy.

Consequently, when Kinect is said to offer users a more natural form of interaction what is it that is being contrasted? It would appear not to be the creation of text.  Perhaps then, the kind naturalness in question has to do with other tasks. One is sorely tempted to make a pun: Kinect is natural for certain kinds of interaction, when a person wants to a computer to do certain sorts of things, but evidently not for all things – so what then? Just what is the ‘natural domain’ of Kinect? Games? But is natural what comes to mind when one thinks of games? Surely artifice, rule-boundedness, the temporary abandonment of the natural and everyday attitude is what comes to the fore.

Similarly, what is one to make of the phrase ‘You are the controller’? Is a person not a controller when they use a keyboard and mouse? Does an individual somehow relinquish some control when they use these devices? Presumably that is not what is being implied when the phrase ‘you control’ is coined. Alternatively it might be immediacy is being implied: with Kinect one can get the machine to do as one wishes instantly, as quickly as one can move one’s hand: this brings to mind the idea of direct interaction, so beloved by some in HCI.

And then besides these concerns there is the bigger question of what is meant by ‘you’. For it is not the inner self that is being alluded to, assuming that is that there is such a thing. After all, one only needs to recall Turkel’s account of the joy that early programmers felt when they could see how what went on ‘inside their head’ could sometimes, with the right coding, appear to manifest itself externally, on the computer screen. This was certainly her thesis in The Second Self even if she has now recanted. No, what seems to be of concern here is the body; this is what is meant when the phrase you are the controller: for it is what one’s body does that acts as the mechanism to control the system. It’s one’s torso and limbs that do the controlling, not thoughts in the head. But just as this is so, then this also means that the social who, the status of the individual who plays, is therefore not part of the vocabulary of Kinect: bodies are not just thoughtless, they are without status too.

All of these questions highlight then the oddness of the phrase ‘you are the controller’ and relatedly the term ‘natural’. It seems to me that, though they might be odd, one ought not to think that they are therefore wrong; it is more probable that the terms need grounding in rather prosaic particularities. One imagines that what is natural needs to be understood and evoked in references to spaces where a user and their machine can see each other without interfering with other domestic activities, for example, in spaces where it is natural to game, say; one imagines that the phrase ‘you are the controller’ makes sense when one disregards certain aspects of the self, and privileges others.

The bottom line is that even though the interaction that Kinect enables might indeed be immensely appealing and may make users experience a new sense of control and wonder at how easy and ‘natural’ it seems to be, for those in research, ‘just what’ the experience of Kinect is, what it affords and how it can be designed around, needs careful investigation……

to report on this soon..