Tag Archives: philosophy

Dialogues with computers?

9 Jul

At the conference on Human Computer Interaction in Paris (CHI-2013), one of the more interesting panels asked why spoken word dialogues between humans and computers have not had the success predicted. Voice recognition is now good, and the points of interaction with machines make voice-based dialogues not only easy but often preferable for safety reasons. Using voice commands when driving a car, for example, is certainly less hazardous than keyboard data entry. Voice-based systems are quite common, too; most people can hardly say they reject them because of unfamiliarity. Finally, voice-based dialogues seem ‘natural’; ‘intuitive’ one might say.

One would think that, taken together, these reasons would make voice-based interactions, dialogues with computing, the norm. And yet it isn’t.

Many of the participants in the panel (and those who added comments from the floor) suggested that the reason(s) for this had to do with a profound resistance amongst users to speaking with computers. Something about doing so left people feeling as if trust was at issue. Users either don’t trust in the systems they are dialoguing with, fearing they are being misled or fobbed off with interactions designed to trap them. Or they don’t trust in their own participation in such interactions: they fear they are being made fools of in ways they cannot understand.

These discussions led me to reflect on my own current reading. Dialogues with computing is certainly a hot topic – though the concern here is not with the adequacy of the technology that enables this – speech recognition engines, dialogue protocols and so forth. It has to do with the purposes or consequences of such dialogues.

For example, Douglas Rushkoff argues in his brief and provocative book, Program or be Programmed (2010), when people rely on computers to do some job, it is not like Miss Daisy trusting in her chauffeur to take her car to the right destination (an allusion to a film and book of the same name). It’s not what computers are told that is the issue. It’s what computers tell us, the humans, as they get on with whatever task is at hand. And this in turn implies things about who and what we are because of these dialogues with computing.

According to Rushkoff, there is no knowing what the purpose of an interaction between person and machine might be: it is certainly not as simple as a question of command and response. In his metaphor about driving, what comes into doubt are rarely questions about whether the computer has correctly heard and identified a destination. The dialogues that we have with computers lead us to doubt in why some destination is chosen. This in turn leads to doubts about whether such choices should be in the hands of the human or the computer. The computer seems to ‘know’ more, why should it not decide?

John Naughton, in his From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg (2012), raises similarly large issues again illustrated with destinations. For him we need to ask whether we can trust computing (and the internet in particular) to lead us to dystopia or to heaven–though the contrast he presents is not entirely without irony: heaven is represented in the duplicitous appeal of Huxley’s Brave New World or dystopia in the self-evidently bleak form of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1984).

Meanwhile, Pariser complains in his Filter Bubble (2011) that we cannot trust in the dialogue with have with search engines: today, in the age of ‘the cloud’ and massive aggregation systems, search engine providers can hide things away from us in ways that we cannot guess. When we ask search engines something we cannot know what the answer will be for search engine technology is now deciding what we need or want; even what is good for us to know. That this is so is at once sinister and capitalistic, Pariser argues: sinister since it is disempowering of the human, capitalistic since it places the market above the public good. Search engines take you to what companies want to sell, not to what you need to know.

These books, subtle though they are, seem to miss something: they all assume that the issue is one about trusting either the computer or ourselves: that dialogues are between two parties, and the issue is that not both can be trusted – at least not all the time. And, importantly, it is not always the computer that breaks trust: sometimes a computer does know more than the human interlocutor, and so should be trusted to make the right decisions in certain circumstances. What these authors seem to miss is the question of what speaking with computers says about the value that people – that society more generally gives – to speech. John Durham Peters argues in his book, Speaking into the Air (1999), that one of the essential values that came out of the Old Testament was the Hebrew idea that speech distinguishes people from beasts. Or, rather, it is the capacity to speak to God that distinguishes humanity from the wild animal.

At the CHI conference I mention above, one of the panellists argued something similar: that people treat speaking as something hallowed, precious, a unique bond between people. It is therefore not a skill that should be debased into being a method of dealing with computers. As it happens this individual, Professor Matt Jones, of Swansea University, is a trained priest and so this view might reflect his desire to honour the spoken word as does the Old Testament. But as I listened to the various points of view put forward, including his own, I began to think that perhaps there is something to do with the status given to speech that leads people to resist defiling it with the mere task of communicating with computers. Perhaps there is something about our capacity to talk with other people (and our Gods if we so choose) that we want to preserve as well as honour.

This lead me to think of Wittgenstein and his remarks that if lions could speak we would not find anything to talk about with them. In his view, our conversations are about our human experience; what it means and feels to be human.

And then, as I reflected on the tribulations that using voice-based dialogues with computing induce, how foolish they can make one seem as they force us to keep repeating words and phrases, I began to realise that this foolishness might be making us feel less human. It degrades our hopes for what we want to be: gifted with words and talk, talk that bonds us with each other (and for some, like Matt Jones, to their God).

And then, as I recalled also the tasks one often seeks to undertake in such dialogues, I thought there was even more credit to the idea that talk with people is special. After all, a typical use of voice dialogues is to be found when someone calls a company to complain about a service or product. They find their attempts to speak with someone are spurned: they end up in engaged in endless and seemingly pointless dialogues with a computer!

This too, like the shame we feel when we are instructed on how to speak by computers, attests to our desire to speak to people.

Speech is not then a mere modality of interacting with computers; it’s a modality that has especial status for people: it’s the modality for being human. No wonder then that voice-based dialogues are not as popular as predicted. We really don’t want dialogues with computers.

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.

Conclusion

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’.

References

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.

All the dialogues about trust, computing and society: why?

18 Apr

Any glance at the contemporary intellectual landscape would make it clear that trust and computing is of considerable interest. And by this I do not mean that this has to do with whether computers can be relied upon to do their job; that they simply have to do as they are told. If only it were as simple as that – an interface. As Douglas Rushkoff argues in his brief and provocative book, Program or be Programmed, (2010) when people rely on computers in their everyday life it is not like Miss Daisy trusting in her chauffeur to take her car to the right destination. It’s not what computers are told that is the issue. It’s what computers tell us, the humans. With computing, so Rushkoff wants to have us believe, there is no knowing what the destination is: it is unclear what it is that the humans are trusting in or for. John Naughton, in his From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg (2012), asks similarly large questions and here too the topic of the ‘interface’ seems inconsequential: for him we need to ask whether we can trust computing (and the internet in particular) to bring us dystopia or a heaven – though the contrast he presents is not entirely without irony: it is the duplicitous appeal of Huxley’s Brave New World or the bleakness of Orwell’s Nineteen Eight Four. Meanwhile, Pariser complains in his Filter Bubble (2011) that we cannot trust search engines anymore; today, in the age of The Cloud and massive aggregation systems, search engine providers can hide things away from us in ways that we could not guess. Doing so is at once sinister and capitalistic, Pariser argues; sinister since it is disempowering, capitalistic since it places the market above the public good. Search engines take you to what companies want to sell, not to what you need to know. One time capitalist himself William Davidow is likewise agitated, though it’s not salesmanship that worries him: we are now Overconnected (2011), as he argues in his eponymous book: we cannot trust ourselves to reason properly. This is merely a list of well-known texts in the public domain, there are equally many in the more scholarly world of philosophy, sociology and, of course, computer science. In the first of these there are so many journal papers as to be immense, whether it be Holton’s Deciding to Trust, coming to Believe paper of 1994 or Baier’s book Essays on Moral Prejudice (1994); in sociology there at least as many, including Mitstzal (1996), Mollering (2006) and Gambetta’s edited collection of 1988 (including as it does some philosophers, such as Williams). In computer science and human computer interaction (HCI) there are as many, with Piotr Cofta’s The Trustworthy and Trusted Web of 2011 being one of the most recent. The sheer volume and scale of this discourse leads one to doubt whether any single, unified view will arise out of it even if many of the authors in question want to offer one: Bruce Schneier, though not an academic, comes to mind with his highly readable Liars and Outliers, Enabling the trust that society needs to thrive (2012).

Navigating the domain

So what is one to make of this all? It seems to me that we have to stop rushing to answer what trust is – even if in the end we might come to seek such an answer. Rather, at the moment, and given the wealth of views currently being presented on the topic, we need to ask something about trust that is as it were prior to the question of what it is. We need to ask why all the fuss about trust now? Having done this we can inquire into how these current concerns are effecting what is treated as trust, how that trust is ‘theorised’ and what are the ways that evidence are brought to bear on discussions about that theorised object.

The sociologist Luhmann noted in his essay Familiarity and Trust (1988) that societies seem to make trust a topic of concern at certain historical moments – they need to arrange themselves so as to make trust a possibility and a worry. This interest does not seem to have much to do with trust itself – in its a-historic or transcendental conceptual sense (even if Luhmann had an interest in that himself). It has to do with a particular confluence of concerns that lead societies to reflect on certain things at particular times. This argument is in accord with Richard Rorty’s view about how to understand ideas and concepts in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In this view, appreciating debates about some concern requires one to see them as historical (even contemporary debates). Doing so entails dissecting the links between views of other apparently disconnected concerns, to create maps of the historical topography of ideas and investigation into the performative goal or goals that lay behind the development and deployment of the ideas in question. It requires, in sum, understanding the ‘when’ of an argument and the ‘so what?’ of it – what it led to.

Let me illustrate what is meant by this in relation to arguments about trust and computing. A decade ago, the philosopher Onora O’Neill offered an account of trust in the Reith Lectures (2002). She wanted to characterise some of the essential, true elements of trust and its basis in action. Hers purported to be an a-historic view, a concern simply with the conceptual fabric of the term. She claimed that trust between people is a function of being near one another. By that she did not mean near in a moral or social sense. She meant in terms of the body. This might seem a strange argument, but bear with me. It comes down to the idea that people trust each other because they can touch each other; because they can see each other, their every movement; that people can, say, grasp another at will and be grasped back in turn: because they are altogether, in one place. Trust would seem to turn on cuddles. This is of course to paraphrase O’Neill. But, given this, a problem occurs when distances are introduced into social relations such that people can no longer cuddle. Trust is weakened if not dissolved. Mechanisms need to be developed, O’Neill argued, that make ties between bodies separated by space possible. In her lectures, she explored various answers to the question of how trust could be made.

Why did O’Neill come up with this view? It seems quite stark; almost startling certainly to one who has not confronted it before. If truth be told, I have simplified her case and used a colourful way of illustrating it, though I do not think mischaracterised it. In presenting it thus, however, one can begin to see that there might be very profound links between it and the context, the historical context in which it was presented. This was just a decade ago and although it seems an eternity in terms of the internet it is the internet that I think is key to that context. And, it is in light of that context, that the credit one should give to O’Neill’s views lie. It seems to me that O’Neill was putting forth a view about the relationship between our bodies, our location in space, and the trust that was fostered (or not) by the use of contemporary technologies of communication, most especially internet-related ones. Her theory of the nature of trust (assuming for the moment that one can call it a theory), was created against the backdrop of the problems of trust and communication highlighted by the internet. With the latter, the human body seemed to be visibly absent and, since trust was problematic on the internet, by dint of that the body must be the seat of trust in ‘normal’ (non-internet) settings of action. Hence O’Neill’s theory.

As it happens, O’Neill did not refer very much to the internet in her lectures. The important point I am wanting to make is that, to understand O’Neill, one does not have to accept the idea that the presence of the body in any universal sense is always essential to trust: one simply has to accept that the absence of the body in acts of communication is a problem in the context of contemporary society, in the internet society. If one places her argument in context one sees that that is in fact what she is writing about. It is, as it were, her starting point. Something about the acts of communication we undertake on the internet make the location of the body – its presence/absence – salient. So, following in Luhmann’s and Rorty’s view, what we have in O’Neill’s lectures is a historically situated claim. Now one could say that historisizing her argument is perhaps reducing the credit it should be given. That is not my intention – though this might not be clear at the moment. One of the reasons why I choose her view to illustrate my case was because her argument was quite often presented at that time. It is in this sense exemplary. As it happens the argument has continued to be argued. Be that as it may, what I have thus far sought to show is the topographical relationship between O’Neill’s ideas and socio-technical context. But one also needs to consider its performativity. In having raised an argument, an argument can thus be assessed, considered, brought to bear; one has to consider also where the argument was deployed, for whom. In my view, what O’Neill was doing in her Lectures was getting the public to think about the role of philosophy, and to suggest that, despite appearances otherwise, philosophy can concern itself with everyday concerns, ones even to do with the body. Whether she succeeded in persuading the public of the relevance of philosophy I do not know, but what one can say is that she got the argument widespread attention, even if she was not the only advocate of it. As Charles Ess and May Thorseth (Eds) discuss in Trust and Virtual Worlds (2011), the idea that it is the absence of the body that undermines trust came to be cultivated when new communications technologies enabled by the internet began to take off – in the nineteen nineties – O’Neill’s the Reith Lectures are illustrative of this ‘cultural moment’. In research since, as Ess and Thorseth show, this link between body and trust can be seen to have been exaggerated. O’Neill can now be seen to be putting forth too strong a case. The purpose of placing arguments in context and exploring their performative consequences, however, should be to make it clear that one ought not to judge attempts to explore trust by a simple right or wrong metric. In historisizing a point of view, we can also see what that point of view might help create, the dialogues it led to and the richer understandings that ensued. It seems to me that O’Neill (and others who put forward her perspective at that time) helped foster discussions, analysis and debate and more nuanced understandings about the role of the body in social relations. The value of O’Neil, part of the success of her argument, is to be found in the fact that this topic was (and is still being) more thoroughly examined than it might otherwise have been.

To locate the discussion of trust, computing and society in time, in the contemporary moment, and to present and consider those arguments in terms of what they seek to attain is of course a big enterprise. There are many such arguments, and there are various goals behind them. Their topography is diverse, their performativities also. Some come from quite particular specialist areas, such as the computer science domain known as Human Computer Interaction (HCI). This has been looking at how to design trust into systems for many years. Criteria for success have to do with the practical use of designs, and less to do with any philosophical aspirations to define trust in a universal sense. Other arguments have their provenance in, for example, sociology and here the topic of trust turns out to be specifically how the concept is used performatively in social action: it is not what the sociologists think trust ought to be that is the topic but how people in everyday life use the concept. In addition to the sociological and the HCI perspectives, there are also philosophical points of view, and here the concern is to address the topic as a species of concept, as illustrative of the stuff of philosophical inquiries. Methods and means of argument are different from those found in, say, sociology, just as they are from those found in HCI. There are also arguments from the domain of technology itself (if not from HCI), and by that I mean from the point of view of those who engineer the systems that constitute the internet as we know it and as it is coming to be: this is the view, broadly speaking, of computer science. From this perspective –admittedly a broad camp – issues to do with distinguishing between systems trustable in engineering terms and systems whose use begs questions about the trustability (or otherwise) of users is prominent. And then we have arguments that are more in the public domain, of the type that were listed in the first paragraph. These are ones that are helping constitute the narrative of our age, what society thinks it is about and what it needs to focus on.

These diverse arguments cannot be added up and a sum made. As should be clear, they need each to be understood as part of the mis-en-scène of contemporary life. And each needs to be judged in terms of their diverse goals. Key, above all, is to see how they variously help foster a dialogue and sense of perspective on the large and sometimes worrisome topic that is trust, technology and society: maybe that is the answer to my question, to the question that led to this blog: why are there so many dialogues about trust, computing and society.

 

Selected Bibliography

Davidow,W. Overconnected, Headline Publishing (2011).

Cofta, P. The Trustworthy and Trusted Web, Now Publihsers (2011).

Ess, C. & Thorseth, M. (Eds) Trust and Virtual Worlds, Peter Lang (2011).

Gergen, K. Relational Being, OUP. (2009).

Hollis, M Trust withing Reason, CUP, (1998)

Lessig, L. Remix, Penguin (2008)

Luhmann,N. (1988) Familiarity and Trust, in Gambetta,D. (Ed) Trust, Blackwell, pp 94-107.

Masum, H. & Tovey, Ms The Reputation Society, MIT (2011).

Mitzal, B. Trust in Moderr Societies, Polity Press, (1996)

Möllering, G. Trust: Reason, Routine, Reflexivity, Elsevier (2006)

Naughton, J. From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg, Quercus (2012).

Pariser, E. Filter Bubble, Viking (2011).

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

O’Neill, O. the Reith Lectures, The BBC (2002).

Schneier, B. Liars and Outliers: Enabling the trust that society needs to thrive, John Wiley (2012).

Rushkoff, D. Program or be Programmed, Soft Skull Press (2010).

The Philosophy of Nowness: Time, Facebook and Poetry

27 Mar

I have been doing some research with a PhD from Austin, Texas, Eryn Whitworth. Eryn has been interviewing users of Facebook both here, in England, and in the USA, particularly younger users – late teens, twenty some-things. Most of them are complaining that Facebook makes them feel constrained, constrained as regards how they orient to time. Apparently, it makes everything seem too instant, their actions on Facebook seem ‘kind of rushed’. To paraphrase, they feel that their actions on this SNS  ‘are like too now’.  To put it in more sterile words: something about the experience of Facebook affects their sense of the past, the future, of how the temporal arrangements of their doings normally are.

I think these complaints, although not expressed in ways that might be immediately clear, are pointing to real issues, though I think it is in the use of Facebook as much as anything intrinsic to Facebook technology that produces that oddness – this is socio-technical shaping we have here, not technological determinism. Be that as it may, the research I have been doing with Eryn – what it is pointing towards – is leading me to think not just about SNS, but about much contemporary philosophy and HCI, the design space I work within. It is allowing me to make links between, for example, the causalism avowed by many Anglo Saxon analytic philosophers from the Sixties onwards and the contrasting concerns of Wittgenstein in Cambridge, England, before that; it leads me to Derrida too and his fellow Parisian Lefebvre; and it leads to contemporary Wittgensteinians, such as Theodore Schatzki at the University of Kentucky, whose work has been published in the past twenty years. And this, in turn, is making rethink some of my own research (such as reported in my book, Inside the IMF (1998) and in my current research on designing new social network experiences.

The links that have been formulating in my mind are as follows. There is a so-called orthodoxy in main stream analytic philosophy that derives from Donald Davidson who wrote, in 1963, that ‘common sense’ reasons are, more or less, descriptions of ‘the causes’ of human action. His view was that, though common sense may not be equal to a scientific analysis, nevertheless it was the right way to think of human action in this particular respect: action is caused in the way that common sense implied, he wanted to argue. Davidson hoped to add some sensitivity to this claim by noting, amongst other things, that there might be lots of causal reasons that could be deployed to explain or describe action. It might be difficult therefore to actually ascertain what the ‘real’ ones were in any particular instance. This made scientific studies of human action different from scientific studies of, say, physical objects, where the essential true cause of things could be found with certainty. This led him to coin the odd term anomalous monism, to label the fact that, in his view, science is the way to understand human experience, but there are oddities about the problem: it presents anomalies to standard science.

In my view – and the views of many though it has to be said not the vocal majority – Davidson’s argument is peculiar for a whole host of reasons. Most particularly it is odd in that it limits the ways that human nature and experience can be understood, explored and described. Instead of relying on and exploiting the enormously rich everyday forms of expressions we have, his view is in effect a proposal to replace that richness with what can what best be described as the stubborn and narrow  language of one who awkwardly insists on there ‘having to be’ only ‘one’ way of understanding human action. This narrow view turns around the idea, the dogma, that actions are always caused, and hence only the vocabulary of causality can be used to explore that action. This view can also be said to make human time linear: a thing causes action through time, in sequence. Thus Donaldson’s causalism is also a kind of temporal linearism.

Without saying any more about the limits of Davidson just now, basically what he did was disregard the transformation that Ludwig Wittgenstein had brought about in philosophy in the decade before Davidson wrote, namely, a transformation that freed philosophy of its dogmas. Davidson unfortunately allowed dogmas to be revived, and indeed added a dogma, that actions were caused and had to be caused (and hence a dogma that human action is to be understood through time, as linear).

Wittgenstein had created his transformation by arguing that explanations of, for example, ‘ultimate causes’, was really a corruption of how to properly understand the nature of language and the way it is used to account for, describe and constitute human life. In Wittgenstein’s view (in my opinion the correct view), causes are sometimes evoked to explain human action, but this use is, typically (in ordinary life, that is to say), deployed in unusual circumstances. Causes are invoked to explain how actions have an unusual hue, such that for example one might say of some one that he or she is forced to do something because of some cause – they are obliged to and hence ‘could not act normally – as they might choose to’. Or, to put it another way, causality is a phrase that points towards certain thresholds of comprehension, where the borders of what is understandable have been reached. Causes do not explain all action in other words; quite the reverse. Davidson got the wrong end of the stick with his claim that common sense made causes central to how action is accountable. Wittgenstein wanted to argue, in contrast, that ordinarily the ways in which human action is understood, described and accounted for in and through language (words) is so rich that causes are only sometimes a useful way of understanding or accounting for behavior; more often other better vocabularies of explanation are at hand and should be deployed.

Accordingly, Wittgenstein’s argued that when philosophy wants to investigate the relationship between human action and understanding, when it wants to answer the sorts fo questions Davidson was interested in, it should not turn to science. Science privileges reductionism and temporal sequencing as the cine qua non of all reasoning; this is apposite for certain tasks but not, in Wittgenstein’s view, when investigating meaningful human action. Investigations of that ought to be of a more philosophic kind. They should explore human nature by describing and investigating the diverse and huge topography of understanding encapsulated in and made possible through ordinary language – and this would  include the complex relationship humans have to time made visible in the sense of time oriented to and described in everyday life.

There is an especial claim here that I ought to mention since it will bring us back to the contemporary world and Facebook (in a moment, if not in the next few paragraphs!). This claim is that language and the contexts language describes are not limited but are enormously rich and diverse: the forms of life that people make, the topography of their societies, have not only developed dazzling diversity but have constantly and endlessly been re-crafted;  in small ways and in large: changes occur as people do new things and discover different ways of leveraging their aspirations. As they do so, so their sense of ‘being’ is pushed and the boundaries of language stretched into new meanings: this affects not only the causes of their actions, if there are such, but also their relationship to other elements of the way of being, including their management of and sense of being ‘in’ time, of the sense of actions as having a before and an after, of being sequenced or otherwise.

Resisting dogma and seeking to explore human experience

Let’s get back to Davidson. Though his article was viewed by many (especially in America) as putting an end to the Wittgensteinian revolution in philosophy, others since have kept the Wittgensteinian candle alight – though falteringly. In France, for example, in the early Seventies it seemed that Derrida was leading investigations into the ways in which language terms encapsulated not just the everyday routines of life but also the psychological experiences of existence, particularly as it was felt through and articulated by the reading of text: books, novels, philosophy, prose of all kinds (See his Of Grammatology of 1974). This seemed to point to a new territory for the kinds of inquiries Wittgenstein thought the philosophical imagination could apply to.

Unfortunately Derrida disappointed many on this count. One reason was that he seemed more interested in creating a cult of obscurity than in exploring human experience in clear, articulate ways. He still seems to suffer from this problem as evidenced, for example, in the contrast between the Preface he provides for Malibou’s book, The Future of Hegel (2005) and Malibou’s own writing in that book. Malibou’s writing, though difficult at times, suffers from none of the deliberate obscuratism of Derrida’s own Preface. The pain of those that had hoped Derrida might provide a robust creative leader for a resistance to the reemergence of dogma is manifest in for example in Anthony Kenny’s book series, A New History of Philosophy.

Be that as it may, other philosophers have sought to keep alive the flame of clarity and resistance to dogma that Wittgenstein momentary brought to philosophy. In Britain, for example, there is (the late) Oswald Hanfling; there is P.M.S. Hacker at Oxford and his now passed away colleague Baker; there are others – there is even a gang called the New Wittgensteinians. All these philosophers have been complimented by the Wittgensteinian tradition in sociological associated with the Manchester school of Ethnomethodology (See Ethnomethodology and the Human Sciences). In the USA there are equally many in sociology and philosophy:  I won’t list them all.

Time and Human Experience

But I do want to turn to a Wittgensteinian philosopher from Kentucky: Theo Schatzki. Recently he published a book with the rather awkward title, The Timespace of Human Activity: on performance, society, and history as indeterminate teleological events, (2011: Lexington Books). Here he argues that the way we understand ourselves is through a particular understanding of time: our acts have a purpose to them, they are teleological as he puts it, but the purpose is not predetermined: we act in ways that are essentially and profoundly indeterminate: we can change our minds, we falter, or we choose to do another thing.

When put as simply as this, his claims seem obvious and not really connected to Facebook. It might also appear that the suggestion that we have ‘indeterminacy’ (as he puts it), is unacceptable since it is evidently not the case that ‘anything can be’ – as seems to be implied in the phrase. Schatzki would be the first to admit, however, that we are bound by a complex weave or matrix of commitments, routines, expectations, our own abilities and inclinations and these order the things we do. Nevertheless, he would go on to insist that at the heart of human action indeterminacy is always there.

The main target of his argument is not with, say, causalists, though that is the way I am wanting to take it here and their implied temporal linearity. Rather his concern is to get a sense of how time and space are interjoined in human activity in a way that does not look like the simple space and time fit as a physicist might imagine it.

Schatzki’s  concern is to describe time and space in ways that fits the human experience. His argument is with wrong theories of time and human action. So, for example, he argues that whereas there is such a thing as linear or clock time, the sense of time constitutive of experience in everyday life is, in contrast, different because it makes out the present to have a particular order to it that includes the past and the future. The distinction between the past, the present and the future, so obvious and clear with linear time, is somewhat distracting if you are trying to understand this sense of time (time as it is lived), he argues.

It can be put this way: the order of time in everyday life isn’t best thought of as linear, as an action being the output or consequence of prior events, as if time were merely a series of events in a cause-like order. Rather, things often seem to turn out as if they naturally follow on from prior events but, in the actual moment when a person is undertaking an act, a person is aware that they might choose to do something in some other way, i.e., do it differently. Of course these choices are made given the circumstantial constraints that have to be navigated through and taken heed of there and then. Nevertheless, though a person is constrained by habits, rules, regulations and such like, a person is always confronted with the possibility that what happens next may take various forms.

Consequently, the experience of living entails experiencing how the past constitutes threads that exist in the present and lead to the future. There are numerous of these at any moment or juncture, framed by the diverse things that we are about, our personal affairs, our business activities, our practical tasks, each of which constitutes its own set of frames or threads. Each of these unfold in various ways, sometimes with the past imposing itself upon us and at the other times the present (or the future) imposing itself in different ways. In some cases the past might still excites us, for example, just as what might happen in the future might excite us prospectively, in another case.

All this seems a long way from Facebook. But Schatzki goes on to say that, as a result of this, this complex organization of how time is for the human,  that people therefore sometimes feels – indeed often feel – as if they are rushed headlong into things, as if these threads or trajectories impose themselves on people in ways they cannot resist. ‘One cannot stop’, one can hear them say.

Poetry and time

I mention this now not merely as a way of reflecting on my reading but to open up a discussion about the sense of nowness that many feel is too constraining when the use Facebook.

One of the French philosophers of the quotidian who emerged somewhat in the wake of the disappointment of Derrida, was Lefebvre. Amongst his books is rhythmanalysis (2004). Just as Schatzki and others mentioned above, he argued that experience is best thought of as a set of interlinked threads or practices and processes that tie the past and the future in the present moment. But he also said that there are certain social practices that allow people to stop and pause and grasp the rush of nowness in a clear view. Certain art forms did this, he proposed, like poetry. With poetry the tempo of experience is paused, albeit fleetingly, so that it can be seen in clear light and calmly, with no afflicting sense of the past or the future rushing headlong. In a sense, poetry (and certain other forms) allow the sense of time to stop, to pause.

It seems to me that one can interpret the complaints we are hearing about Facebook as being ‘too now’ in just these terms. One could say that users of Facebook recognize that there is no poetic moment available in the system. Nor have they been able to define a social practice for themselves that lets them make that ‘pause’. With Facebook they cannot stop, ever; there is no pause. There is no poetic mechanics to allow it.

We are not alone in coming to these findings. Other researchers are finding the same. This is what Sosik, Zhao & Cosley argue in their “See Friendship, Sort of” paper of 2011, for example. They report that new functions developed by Facebook, like ‘timelines’, make the situation of feeling stuck in ‘nowness’ worse: timelines simply presents the past as a literal series of sequential events that lead to ‘now’. If one comments on one of these things from that past, that comment is not treated as having a complex relationship to the past, the present and-or the future, as a delicate part of a complex timespace matrix that one is working through, but as something that can only be to do with the present: the past becomes NOW. This is evidenced by the fact that buddies on Facebook remark on those comments by saying things like: ‘Oh why are you mentioning that? What has that got to do with what we are doing now?’, etc.

Thus the time – human time – is corrupted by Facebook (and functions like timelines) in a way that destroys the patterned ways that time is experienced. Facebook users find the technology makes the past subservient to, and constitutive of a present in a way that is so crude it ends up making everything become just ‘now’, just the present. This present is feeble, without rich temporal colour: no subtle looking back at the present, looking at the past from the future, looking at the present from the past. And because of this, Facebook somehow tyrannizes its users. Facebook freaks people out: ‘it’s too like now’.

References

Davidson, D. (1963) Actions, Reasons, and Causes’ in Davidson, Action & Events, OUP, 1980: 3-20

Derrida, J. (1995) Preface, in Malabou, 2005, op cit, ppvii-xlix. Harper, R. (1997)  Inside the IMF: An Ethnography of Documents, Technology, and Organizational Action, Academic Press, Inc. Orlando, FL, USA.

Lefebrve, H. (2004) rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life, (Trans S,. Elden & G. Moore), London Verso Books. Derrida, J. (1974) Of Grammatology (Trans G. Spivak) The John Hopkins University Press, USA.

Malabou, C. (2005) The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, Routledge, (first published in French in 1995).

Schatzki, T. (2011) The Timespace of Human Activity: on performance, society, and history as indeterminate teleological events, Lexington Books, Maryland.

Sosik, V.S., Zhao, X. & & Cosley, D. (2011) See Friendship, Sort of: How Conversation and Digital Traces support Reflection on Friendships, in Proceedings of CSCW 2011: ACM Press, Seattle: pp1145-1154.

Culture versus modern analytic philosophy

6 Mar

I have been bringing together another edited collection, this time on philosophy, sociology and technology – in particular cloud technologies and their impact on the internet (prior collections have looked at the Future Home, at  SMS, and Wireless Connectivity, amongst other things: I have previously mentioned my most recent, on the Connected Home). The philosophy arguments have been drawing my attention not because I think that the latest arguments in philosophy are appealing; I don’t think they are: but they are current and people are espousing them: their oddness dismays me and I feel as if I ought to say something. ’Hey, that can’t be right,‘ I want to shout.

Let me be boring on this: the reason why I don’t find the appealing is because these philosophical arguments seem to distract attention from the enormously rich tools of culture we have in such a way as to diminish those tools, almost to discredit them. A current concern in philosophy, for example, has to do with how you explain, through experimental evidence, how people understand each other (Bratman’s work comes to mind as an example of this (1992) – though I think it mostly derives from Donald Davidson’s essay ‘Action, Reasons, and Causes’ of 1963). The starting premise of these enquiries is oftentimes the idea of free will, how this is to be accounted for, and how this in turn leads to questions about how the acting agent understands (and thus acts upon) other’s intentions; thus to collaboration, etc, the theme of Bratman.

Leaving aside the details about that, what I am suggesting is that the premise of freewill turns into enquiries about a sort of  solipsism (though this word isn’t used in the narratives in question -I am inclined to think that using that word or alluding to it would be too literary for current ‘empirical philosophers’).

Let me put it another way: some philosophers commence their thinking with the idea that people do not share a world on common; people are all essentially isolated (if not physically) – certainly without the gift of understanding the motives or purpose or aspirations of others. People are Cartesian entities, if you will, that exist without an intimate sense of others (and needless to say without a common God who can bring them together – there isn’t much religion in the mis-en-scène of contemporary philosophy).

Thus one will see already that the new breed of philosophers don’t look at what people do and experience in the real world – since having a sense of what others are about is the cornerstone of how we arrange our affairs even if we often do a bad job of it. Instead what lots of philosophers do is a kind of weird science: they put people in laboratories – Bratman is exemplar here – and set them tasks that they have to do together – playing a game, solving a puzzle – and then the philosopher’s watch what happens. The philosophers claim that through the evidence they garner thus they can discover how people come to understand each other.

So far it sounds sensible, if a bit odd: why put people in a peculiar setting to understand their normal affairs?

But now, hear this: the really curious thing is this (not merely the fact that philosophers think you can understand people by putting them in labs): it is that the philosophers transcribe what the subjects say to each other (in the experiments) and then ‘analyse’ those words. How bizarre: the philosophers are pretending that they cannot listen to what is being said by their subjects (i.e. as these poor compliant individuals who are getting on with the tasks they have been given and talk about it as they do); they cannot listen to them in an ordinary way but rather they, the philosophers, can only ‘understand’ what these ‘subjects achieve’ through a form of scientific magic, the mechanism of transcription and ‘analysis’. It is as if philosophers make other people, not themselves, other than human and somehow like Martian’s issuing forth grunts and animal calls that need to be ‘interpreted’. The philosopher’s art is to figure out how these sounds (words to you and me) point towards how people, these Alien- like animals, come to understand each other and ‘collaborate’. It seems to me that these philosophers think they are doing something like a cognitive science allied with an analytic philosophy but really they are corrupting understanding, the understanding that is constitutive of the world.

In my mind, these views draw attention away from the possibility that people already have tools that let them (us, you , me, all of us) understand each other. These tools have taken centuries to work out and cultivate. They are not the things one finds in laboratories or experiments.

The kinds of tools I am thinking of are big things and little things. As regards the latter: the kinds of things I am thinking of are, for example, little things like books, novels, poems, all of which are, in my mind, cultural devices that have been devised as ways to let people tell their stories, the tales as it were of their unique voyage, which they then tell (give?, share?) to others. These tales are, of course, both real and imagined.

Novels, poems, books of all sorts, are written around a different premise to the one that philosophers like Bratman start with. They are begun with the understanding that everyone lives in a world shared and known in common. It is also assumed that each person voyages in different places and in different ways and their nature (for want of a word, though this is powerful) colours the experience of this differently. Some philosophers agree with this view, this starting point: Cora Diamond is a case in point in her ‘The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy’ (2008).

Be that as it may, let me say more about nature. By that I am thinking of such things as character, personality, education, the stuff that makes us what we are: people. We all know that different people have different reasons for articulating their experiences; we know too that people have different abilities; some have eloquence and artfulness, and some insights that are unusual, even unique.

Amongst the reasons we read books, then, is to hear the tale of how it might have been for us but for circumstances, but also to read the insights of those who see more clearly things that we ourselves experience but can’t articulate as well (and sometimes don’t even see).

Books, poems and such like aren’t then a solution to solipsism or the skeptics dilemma (viz ‘are there others in the world?’); they are then devices to let people explore a world in common. The charm in such things is provided through discovering (learning, reading) that other’s voyages are more interesting, other’s views are more articulate, theirs deeper than one’s own. Otherness here is not a philosophical problem; it’s a poetic one: one that is interesting for the way it is articulated.

I read some literary theorist who put these views forward some weeks ago: he claimed it was Emerson’s view, but I don’t know enough about literary theory to be sure. But anyway  I wholeheartedly agree: I think this view is the correct one. Views articulated by philosophers who think we need to discover what others are about –  and who think they can discover how people ‘do this’  through looking at this experimentally- undermine the credit we should give tools like the novel and thereby also distract attention away from those tools to other modes of practice – ones that offer little on this subject – like experimental ones.

It is for these sorts of reasons that I read current philosophers and despair. I also get a bit annoyed since it seems to me that Wittgenstein more or less argued for a sensitivity to such cultural tools in his own later work, but that seems mostly forgotten in the corridors of philosophy now: Donaldson’s myopia is the rage; Bratman’s research simply the output of a distraction.

So there you go!

Bratman, M. (1992) Shared Cooperative Activity, The Philosophical Review, 101(2) pp 327-341.

Davidson, D. (1963) Actions, Reasons, and Causes’ in Davidson, Action & Events, OUP, 1980: 3-20

Diamond, C. (2008) ‘The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy’ in Cavell, S. et al, (Eds) Philosophy and Animal Life, Columbia University Press, New York