“Just tell them that I shit on the republic, on democracy, on socialism, on communism, on Marxism, on idealism, on materialism — whether it’s dialectical materialism or not, because I shit on dialectics too, and I’m going to give you further proof of that.”
These letters from Ireland, sent to various recipients in France between 14 August and 21 September 1937, are incendiary epistles detailing Antonin Artaud’s mental, physical and economic breakdown while synchronously foreseeing and foretelling the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust. In The New Revelations of Being, Artaud’s manifesto published two months before his fateful journey, he wrote, “I have felt the Void for a long time now, but for all that time, I have refused to throw myself into the Void.” Ireland would be that void, would be the topography of his own flesh, his own mind. In The New Gods, Emil Cioran could be explaining Artaud’s revelations, “Always to have lived with the nostalgia to coincide with something, but not really knowing with what … It is easy to shift from unbelief to belief, or conversely. But what is there to convert to, and what is there to abjure, in a state of chronic lucidity? Lacking substance, it offers no content that can be disclaimed; it is empty, and one does not disclaim the void: lucidity is the negative equivalent of ecstasy,” and these diatribal dispatches from the edge of the Old World tremor with faith and doubt, pulse with spirit and flesh, and oscillate with language and silence.
Artaud’s problems were manifold but his main argument was with the world and being in the world – with reality – whatever that is and, therefore, with language. Artaud goes beyond Rimbaud’s claim that “Je est un autre” (letter to Paul Demeny of 15 May 1871) by stating “I, Antonin Artaud, am my son, my father, my mother, and myself.” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue that this is how Artaud viewed the world, “The schizo has his own system of co-ordinates for situating himself at his disposal, because, first of all, he has at his disposal his very own recording code, which does not coincide with the social code, or coincides with it only in order to parody it. The code of delirium or of desire proves to have an extraordinary fluidity. It might be said that the schizophrenic passes from one code to the other, that he deliberately scrambles all the codes, by quickly shifting from one to another, according to the questions asked him, never giving the same explanation from one day to the next, never invoking the same genealogy, never recording the same event in the same way” (Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). These letters embody this apocalyptic vision – Artaud’s anti-language is his own recording code, a secret language that reveals everything. His magic spells are to protect and to harm, their surfaces burned with cigarettes to injure and yet to purify. Artaud’s behaviour was contrary to the prevailing social code – he never paid his bills, he dressed like a seer in the costume of a tramp, he got into fights, he was finally deported from Ireland and locked in the ship’s cabin after brawling with the crew. Artaud’s mind constantly contradicted itself until it too became a void.
From Galway on 5 September 1937, Artaud included a magic spell in a letter to André Breton and proclaimed, “You need to listen to the Pagan Truth. There is no God, but gods still exist. At the summit of the gods’ Hierarchy there’s the greatest God that Plato speaks about, who like everything else that exists is Nature’s victim. That greatest God isn’t a criminal, but a Powerless One, like Us. It’s Nature that is criminal – and what is Nature exactly? In itself, it’s Nothingness. It is that Nothingness that Lao-Tzu talks about, but even so, Life itself issues from that Nothingness,” Artaud’s scrambling of the codes of faith and existence read like a schizo-amalgamation of his contemporaries – H.P. Lovecraft (The Great Old Ones) and the Kyoto School philosophers Kitaro Nishida and Hajime Tanabe’s theories of absolute nothingness. Artaud’s letters show, in Nishida’s words, an “identity of the absolute contradiction”. But Artaud goes beyond the “assault on rationality” and śūnyatā and wu/mu by insisting that his visions aren’t hallucinations, that demons really exist, that his apocalyptic hypothesis is more than that, “All of this isn’t a theory – it’s the Truth. It’s the Truth as I’ve seen it and that I can translate, in as much as these matters can be translated. Whoever doesn’t want to understand this Truth, I’m going to smash them in the face this time. Because this Truth is going to have to be imposed by force.”
[Artaud 1937 Apocalypse book illustrations. Artwork by Martin Bladh]
In his afterword Stephen Barber explains that, “After being detained on his arrival in Le Havre (from Ireland) on 30 September, he was taken to a lunatic asylum near the city
of Rouen, and from there, on to numerous other asylums in different parts of France, over a period of nine years which encompassed the entirety of the Second World War”. Artaud’s apocalypse was a culmination of his lifelong fight against the Law, the Law of language, of cinema, of theatre, of progenitors, of family, of surrealism, of the body and of the mind. And it is Jacques Lacan (once one of Artaud’s detested psychiatrists) who we can turn to for a summation of everything Artaud detested, “This law, then, is revealed clearly enough as identical with an order of language. For without kinship nominations, no power is capable of instituting the order of preferences and taboos that bind and weave the yarn of lineage through succeeding generations” (Écrits: A Selection). Artaud had already prepared his response in September 1947, “psychiatry is nothing but a slump of gorillas, themselves obsessed and suffering from mania of persecution and which, to relieve the most appalling states of anxiety and suffocation of humans, have only a ridiculous terminology, worthy product of their atrophied brains.” For Artaud, “The Force of Nature is the Law, and that Law is the Nature of things which in all cases makes the Law, whether you accept or reject the Law. And it’s We, too, who made the Law and are the Law – whether the officials and accomplices of the Law want it or not.”
[Galway Bay, Ireland. Photo by Karolina Urbaniak]
Artaud 1937 Apocalypse is published to mark the end of copyright on Artaud’s work. The translation by Stephen Barber captures the intensity of Artaud’s language and thought, his afterword provides the context and history of Artaud’s journey and the provenance of the letters. As with their other publications, Infinity Land Press has produced a beautiful book, which includes artworks by Martin Bladh and photographs by Karolina Urbaniak. The collages show Artaud’s fractured sanity and his mental and physical disintegration, while the powerful landscapes of Inishmore, part of the Aran Islands off Ireland’s western coast, portray the sublime turmoil of Artaud’s mind in a dark geography of revelation. Artaud wrote that, “I made my debut in literature by writing books in order to say that I could write nothing at all. My thoughts, when I had something to say or write, were that which was furthest from me. I never had any ideas, and two short books, each seventy pages long, are about this profound, inveterate, endemic absence of any idea. These books are l’Ombilic des limbes and le Pèse-nerfs.” And commenting on this assertion, Jacques Derrida could, again, be quoting the Kyoto School, “It is the consciousness of nothing, upon which all consciousness of something enriches itself, takes on meaning and shape” (Writing and Difference).
[Dún Aonghasa stones, Inishmore, Aran Islands. Photo by Karolina Urbaniak]
With the expiration of copyright on Artaud’s work and the subsequent event of Artaud 1937 Apocalypse, one is to hope that more of Artaud’s writings are unveiled and translated into English. The majority of his works published in the UK – notably the four-volumes of the Collected Works published by John Calder in the 1970s – are out of print, as are biographies and critical texts, Stephen Barber’s Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs, Artaud: The Screaming Body and Artaud: Terminal Curses being notable exceptions. To mark the 70th anniversary of Artaud’s death and to launch Artaud 1937 Apocalypse, Stephen Barber will give a talk on the last decade of Artaud’s life, from the date of the Ireland letters, through the asylum years to freedom and his death from rectal cancer. “My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud” is at the Whitechapel Gallery’s Zilkha Auditorium at 7pm on 31 May 2018. In ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now’, Derrida claims, “Literature belongs to this nuclear epoch, that of the crisis and of nuclear criticism, at least if we mean by this the historical and ahistorical horizon of an absolute self-destructibility without apocalypse, without revelation of its own truth, without absolute knowledge.” These letters from Ireland with their magic spells (atomic magic numbers) show a writer of nothingness, of anti-articulation, proclaiming a personal apocalypse that will engulf the planet, a prophesying of the Truth of self and being, a revelation of Artaud’s own absolute knowledge, “The Truth, dear Anne – and you really have to let this inside your head – is that in 1 year’s time, and happening simultaneously at that time, everything you see and everything that constitutes your life in that world, WILL HAVE BLOWN APART.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Steve Finbow’s fiction includes Balzac of the Badlands (Future Fiction London, 2009), Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom (Grievous Jones Press, 2011), Nothing Matters (Snubnose Press, 2012) and Down Among the Dead (Number Thirteen Press, 2014). His biography of Allen Ginsberg in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series was published in 2011. His other works include Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books, 2014) and Notes from the Sick Room (Repeater Books, 2017). He is currently writing a book on Nietzsche and attempting to finish a novel set in Tokyo.
‘The double truth thesis states that philosophy and religion do not hold the same views, in other words, their positions vary on given subjects. They explain reality in different, even incompatible, ways.’
‘My comparison between Averroes and Hegel on philosophy and religion is not purely historical but rather thematic. Averroes and Hegel have remarkably similar views on the relation between philosophy and religion. ‘
‘The key to harmonising all kinds of discourse consists in the manner of reading the Qur’an. Averroes states that philosophers, rather than theologians, should have the final say on how to interpret the Qur’an.’
‘ The Bible is a greater authority than Plato or Aristotle. A non-literal reading of the Bible is already in place with Augustine and is also accepted by Aquinas, although the literal meaning of scripture cannot be overlooked. Aquinas accepts various kinds of metaphorical readings of scripture, but they must be subordinated to the literal sense of the text. ‘
‘Both Avicenna and Averroes seek to harmonise philosophy and religion, but Averroes does this explicitly, especially in his Decisive Treatise on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, while Avicenna does it implicitly, by incorporating Islamic themes into his philosophy. ‘
‘In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel equates his conception of spirit with the Holy Spirit of scripture and Christian theology. However, his views on spirit cannot be said to be compatible with Christian theology, Lutheran or Catholic, given that he downplays or appears to criticise the religious imagery to be found in the Bible, such as the notion of father and son as attributed to God. ‘
Catarina Belo is a specialist in medieval Islamic philosophy, in particular Avicenna’s and Averroes’ physics and metaphysics. Other interests include medieval Islamic theology (kalam), and medieval Christian philosophy, with a focus on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. She has also conducted research on German Idealism, in particular Hegel’s philosophy. In addition, she has studied the intersection between philosophy and religion in the Middle Ages, and in Hegel’s works. She has more recently conducted research on the concept of ‘spirit’ in philosophy. Here she discusses the double truth thesis, the connection between Hegel and Averroes, their different contexts, Averoes’ version of the double truth thesis, his handling of chance and freewill, Avicenna and determinism, Hegel’s approach to the double truth thesis, how the thesis became associated with Averroes within Islamic philosophy, why medieval Christianity failed to manage the harmonisation of philosophy with religion, links between Averroes and Jewish thinking, whether Hegel was religious, and whether there are possibilities of harmonisation between religion and philosophy in contemporary Islam.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Catarina Belo: When I was growing up in Portugal, philosophy was a compulsory subject in secondary school. All schoolchildren had to take philosophy for two years, starting from the age of 15, with a possibility of a third year (the final year before university) if they were planning to enrol in a humanities subject at university. The first year of this discipline focused on ancient Greek philosophy, the second on philosophy of science and the third (the last before going up to university) focused on specific philosophers, namely Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche.
My brothers are older than me and were already taking philosophy at school. In my early teens I was learning about ancient Greek history and culture at school. In addition, I found some books by Plato in my father’s library, so I started reading them, a couple of years before starting taking the subject in secondary school. When I began reading Plato, I realised that I had found my favourite subject of study. As a result, I decided philosophy would be the subject I would enrol in at university. I was attracted to philosophy because it dealt with essential questions in great depth, more than any other subject of learning I had known until then.
3:AM: You’ve looked at Hegel and Averroes on philosophy and religion and the ‘double truth’ thesis that these two figures are enmeshed with. So can you first sketch for us what the ‘double truth’ theory claims, and is this the same as saying that we have to admit a double standard of truth?
CB: The double truth thesis states that philosophy and religion do not hold the same views, in other words, their positions vary on given subjects. They explain reality in different, even incompatible, ways. If we wished to illustrate this theory we might point out that while religion (Christianity, and Islam) states that the world is created in time, a philosopher like Aristotle holds that the world is eternal, in the sense that there was never a time when the world did not exist. This makes it difficult to equate Aristotle’s views with the Biblical and the Qur’anic account of creation.
The double truth theory emerged in medieval Europe, when Scholasticism was taking shape at universities. In medieval universities in Europe the faculty of arts and the faculty of theology were separate and philosophy professors could choose to confine themselves to teaching philosophy, independently of any theological positions. This implied that philosophy and religion did not hold the same view on a given matter. Arts professors would simply state the philosophical position without attempting to reconcile it with the religious or theological position on the same issue.
However, the double truth thesis was probably not explicitly propounded by arts professors, rather it was formulated by the religious establishment (in particular, Bishop Étienne Tempier in the 13th century), as a condemnation of any position that was contrary to theological doctrines, with a view to making religious truth prevail. One of the main targets of the criticism was Siger of Brabant, who emphasised the ability of natural reason and philosophy to enquire independently of revelation and faith.
The entire question must be seen in the context of the adoption of Aristotelian works in 13th century European universities. It was a gradual process of acceptance, with occasional condemnations by the bishops of Paris, to ensure the harmony between philosophy and religion which sought the subordination of religion (or rather, theology) to philosophy.
The work of Islamic philosophers had a central role in the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy and ideas into Europe. There were important translation movements in the Middle Ages. In a first instance, Aristotelian works were translated into Arabic in the Islamic Caliphate, starting in the 8th century. A few centuries later the same works were translated from Arabic into Latin and Hebrew in southern Europe. However, making Greek and Hellenistic philosophy and science available to European scholars was not just a matter of translation. The commentaries on Aristotle’s works by Averroes (which were translated into Latin and into Hebrew) were crucial in shaping the understanding of Aristotle in medieval Europe, since Aristotle’s text was considered to be dense and intricate. The condemnation of the double truth thesis was levelled directly at those who taught Aristotle in Averroes’ interpretation, who were known as Averroists, and thus the doctrine of the double truth came to be associated with Averroes.
Nevertheless, in a work which was not translated into Latin, Averroes explicitly defends that the truth is only one, whether phrased in a philosophical or in a religious way.
With regard to Averroes and Hegel, it must be said that neither of them defended the double truth thesis in the medieval sense of the phrase. They both advocated that the truth can be expressed in different ways by philosophy and by religion. The content which these disciplines conveyed remained the same. Perhaps an ambiguity remains in the case of both philosophers as to their views on religion, because they both stated that religion portrays the truth in a metaphorical way, while philosophy expresses the truth in a rigorous, explicit or literal way. There is clearly a preference for the philosophical way of expressing the truth in both Averroes and Hegel.
3:AM: Hegel didn’t actually study Averroes or have a very good opinion of Islamic medieval philosophy did he? So why is the connection important?
CB: Hegel made a very significant contribution to the study of the history of philosophy. It was a subject which he emphasised in his works, to the point of lecturing extensively on the topic in Berlin. He even identified philosophy with the history of philosophy. He is known to have incorporated the scholarship available in his own time into his lectures and into his philosophical works. However, research into Islamic philosophy as a scholarly subject was inaugurated by Renan’s Averroès et l’averroïsme, first published in 1852. In this sense, Hegel was limited by the sources available to him. He viewed medieval Islamic philosophers as simply commentators on Aristotle’s works. He identifies true Islamic thought with medieval Islamic theology (kalam). He appears to have studied Maimonides, who engages in a debate with Islamic theologians, as a source for his views on medieval Islamic thought.
My comparison between Averroes and Hegel on philosophy and religion is not purely historical but rather thematic. Averroes and Hegel have remarkably similar views on the relation between philosophy and religion. The historical connection could be further explored, although I have not done that in detail in my book. If we wished to trace back in greater detail the historical connection between both philosophers, we could point out that Hegel was acquainted with Maimonides and he was also a great admirer of Spinoza’s philosophy (who in turn was a reader of Maimonides). One of the great philosophical influences on Maimonides was al-Farabi (d. 950) a medieval Islamic philosopher who before Averroes defended, in his main work, the view that reality could be expressed differently by philosophy and by religion. In other words, Averroes’ position on the subject is not radically different from that of al-Farabi, and Averroes was conversant with al-Farabi’s thought. In other words, Hegel could have learned about the double truth thesis through Spinoza and Maimonides.
3:AM: Can you say something about the two very different contexts out of which these two figures were working. Can you say what are the main differences – and any overlaps if there are any – between Averroes’s medieval Sunni Islam and Hegel’s post-Enlightenment Lutheran Christianity?
CB: Perhaps it is easier to start with the differences between the respective historical contexts of Averroes and Hegel. The latter lived in a post-Enlightenment society, which led to a gradual secularisation of society. Averroes lived in medieval Islamic Spain and Islam was not simply a religion but a way of life which dominated all aspects of society. It must be noted, however, Hegel’s Germany was still profoundly conservative. It is well to remember that there were charges of atheism against philosophers, first against Fichte and later charges of pantheism against Hegel in Berlin. The latter did not lose his professorial position unlike Fichte before him, but Germany was a deeply religious society.
Averroes lived in a religious society but there were powerful individuals who were interested in, and promoted, philosophy, regardless of whether it was in harmony with religion, such as the emir who read Aristotle and commissioned some of Averroes commentaries, Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf.
In addition, Averroes has been considered by some as a precursor of the Enlightenment (given his emphasis on the powers of reason to speculate independently of revelation, a certain rationalism), while Hegel was deeply interested in religion, and integrated Christian themes into his philosophy. The most important work, in my view, expounding the Christian themes in Hegel’s works is Claude Bruaire’s Logique et religion chrétienne dans la philosophie de Hegel (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1964).
In other words, Averroes and Hegel lived in fundamentally different historical periods but they were both keenly interested in the intersection between philosophy and religion, reason and faith.
3:AM: So how does Averroes lay out the ‘double truth’ theory in his ‘The Decisive Treatise’, ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence’ and his works explaining Aristotle? In particular how does Averroes see the relationship between Islam and philosophy and the harmony between them? Is it an Islamic legal perspective that he uses and how radical was his non-literal reading of the Qur’an at the time? Was it easier then to be non-literal than nowadays?
CB: Averroes explicitly states that there is only one truth, but it is expressed in different ways in philosophy and in religion. He believes that the truth is expressed in a literal way by philosophy. When stated by philosophers, the truth cannot be phrased differently. However, religion expresses the truth in a metaphorical way. For instance, the Qur’an refers to God’s hand. However, according to the medieval Islamic philosophers, God cannot have human characteristics, such as a body (which would imply a limitation of God’s infinite nature), and therefore he does not truly have a hand. References to God’s hand must be understood in a metaphorical way as meaning God’s power. On this point Averroes distinguishes different approaches to the same reality, namely the demonstrative, the dialectical and the rhetorical. He explains the nature of these three kinds of language in his Decisive Treatise, which is formulated as a legal question as to whether Muslims should be allowed to study (ancient Greek and Hellenistic) philosophy. The distinction among these disciplines or kinds of discourse is based on Aristotle, demonstrative discourse being presented in his Posterior Analytics, a work on which Averroes composed several commentaries, including a very detailed long commentary. Demonstrative discourse is defined by Aristotle as required for science and scientific investigations. As such, it admits of no ambiguities and it does not use metaphors or allegories. Averroes subscribes to this view. Naturally, this kind of discourse or language applies not only to science in the modern sense of the term today but also philosophy, under which umbrella most forms of knowledge were included in the Middle Ages.
Averroes identifies religious language with dialectical and with rhetorical discourse. Aristotle writes on dialectic in his Topics and on rhetoric in his book titled Rhetoric. Averroes wrote commentaries on both of these works, as well as on Posterior Analytics, prior to composing the Decisive Treatise. Moreover, Averroes does not view these as simply methods, but identifies them with three classes of people in medieval Islamic Spain. The demonstrative class he identifies with the philosophers, who are a minority. Medieval Spain had a distinguished tradition of Islamic philosophy, having produced such distinguished thinkers as Ibn Hazm, Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl (who was a personal friend of Averroes). The dialectical class he identifies with the theologians and the rhetorical class with ordinary Muslim believers. He is particularly critical of the theologians for having misled the majority of believers, who are not trained in philosophy or any kind of abstract thought. Islamic theology (kalam) engages in speculation about the meaning of the Qur’an but does not fully take into account ancient philosophy, on the one hand, and is too complicated for the majority of people to understand, on the other. Averroes holds that it is better for the philosophers (rather than the theologians) to indicate the way in which particular Qur’anic verses should be understood by the majority of Muslims.
The different ways in which fundamental truths can be grasped, such as the existence of God (which no one is allowed to question), means that the philosophers have to think of God in purely abstract ways, while the majority of Muslims, who do not have the ability to understand or engage in the study of philosophy, are allowed to think of God in more anthropomorphic ways. According to Averroes, the Qur’anic message suits all classes of people, from the philosophers to all other Muslims.
The key to harmonising all kinds of discourse consists in the manner of reading the Qur’an. Averroes states that philosophers, rather than theologians, should have the final say on how to interpret the Qur’an.
For Averroes philosophy and religion have the same content but express it differently, for instance with regard to God’s nature. The philosopher will understand God’s omnipotence as his being the absolute cause of everything, while the majority of Muslims can rely on the more anthropomorphic depictions of God available in the Qur’an. The anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Qur’an must be read in a metaphorical way by the philosophers, but not by other Muslims. Averroes does not say that everything in the Qur’an is metaphorical, indeed some verses can be understood literally by any Muslim.
With regard to interpretation, in his Decisive Treatise Averroes stresses that from the early history of Islam it was accepted that metaphorical readings of the Qur’an were necessary with regard to certain verses, but not others. He lays out the rules for the interpretation of such verses in accordance with Arabic grammar and usage. He also states that when a Qur’anic verse is at variance with Aristotle’s thought, the verse must be read metaphorically, given that Aristotle’s texts are of a demonstrative nature and must be taken literally. In this way, he always seeks to harmonise Aristotle’s thought with the Qur’an.
For instance, he claims that the references to God’s sitting on a throne before creation, present in the Qur’an, indicate that something existed alongside God, eternally, and he used this as indication of the eternity of the world. This interpretation, however did not seem to convince some Islamic theologians, since the Qur’an also mentions God’s creation of the world in six days.
In medieval schools of Islamic theology an earlier school such as the Mu‘tazilites preferred a metaphorical reading of certain passages while a later school, the Ash‘arites, favoured a literal reading of the Qur’an. Today, the Ash‘arite school of theology prevails in Sunni Islam, but there have been attempts at reviving Mu‘tazilite views, so the way one reads the Qur’an is open for debate. There is clearly a medieval tradition of non-literal ways of understanding the Qur’an, and these can be revived by Muslim scholars.
3:AM: Another area of controversy for reconciling a religious world view with one of philosophy is that of chance and determinism. So how did Averroes deal with issues such as freedom and responsibility alongside divine providence and God’s will? Did he think he should tailor his philosophy to his religion or vice versa? I guess all this comes down to the question of how does he manage to square his Aristotelian account of nature with that of the Qur’an?
CB: Yes, the question of chance and determinism is also indicative of Averroes’ attempts to reconcile religion and philosophy or science.
With regard to the question of freedom and responsibility one must take into consideration the two types of sources he employed, Aristotle on the one hand, and the Qur’an on the other. It must be said that Aristotle himself in his extensive works does not appear have a clearly defined position on the question of human freedom. While he appears to stress human responsibility in his ethical works, there is a sense of a strong emphasis on causality or causation and even necessity in his natural works. Moreover, for Aristotle chance is not an essential cause, rather it is an accidental cause associated with other essential causes, such as the final or the efficient cause, as he clearly states in his Physics.
Some Qur’anic verses indicate that human beings are free to believe or not, others indicate that God is the cause of belief and unbelief in human beings.
In medieval Islamic theology, with which the medieval Islamic philosophers were in dialogue, there are early schools which favour the notion of human freedom, as a safeguard of God’s justice, while later there is an emphasis on divine omnipotence and a downplaying of human freedom, which can never stand in the way of divine omnipotence and predestination
I believe that the progressive deterministic nature of medieval Islamic theology influenced the thought of Averroes, and that of Avicenna before him. Averroes stresses the strict necessity of natural processes in his commentaries on Aristotle. He views chance as an accidental, not an essential cause. This means that whenever we speak of a chance event, there is an essential cause to which the casual element is linked. For instance, if a musician accidentally builds a house, it is simply the case that the architect who built the house also happens to be a musician.
When Averroes discusses the theological aspects of God’s predestination of events in a work on Islamic theology, he notes the importance of upholding human freedom (otherwise God’s attribute of justice would be called into question) but he also states that the causality in human actions is subject to divine causation and omnipotence.
[Avicenna (ibn-i sina)]
3:AM: Avicenna was another giant of Islamic philosophy. Was Averroes’s approach to chance and determinism significantly different from that of Avicenna’s, and did they disagree about the harmonisation of philosophy and religion?
CB: I believe that Avicenna was much more explicit in his defence of determinism than was Averroes. Unlike the latter, Avicenna was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism –..
A bit of fun… Stuff I’ve done over the years here at 3:AM thanks to legends Andy Gallix and Andrew Stevens… It’s all DIY – hardly proof-read and done too fast in between day jobs to be anything but jump-start writing. So forget about the writing. What matters is what its about. It adds up to a boss reading list and a cranked up gang of characters smoking up the haunted back bars of the eerie early morning. 3:AM’s been around since 2000 and I joined Gallix’s punkstorm early on. It’s one of the oldest literary sites on the web. And back in the early days there was hardly anything out there so we were literally making it up as we went along. We still are. Lots of things have changed since the start and people have come and gone of course. There’s a new crew now. Still, I like that Andy’s still throttling the helm and Andrew keeps lighting fires. I’ve used paintings by Billy Childish because he’s got the right stuff and was someone who I interviewed early on. He played for us at the Horse Hospital gig near the beginning too. All this stuff is pretty temporary and outside the walls of more conclusive materials. So think of this as a personal Golgotha.
[Billy Childish: Robert Walser Lying Dead in the Snow]
3:AM: What led you to set up the blog? Did you feel its subject matter was not being addressed elsewhere?
JB: I began the blog five years ago now, initially to record and celebrate a broad municipal heritage that I felt was unjustly neglected. That included the early schools and libraries, the baths and washhouses and health centres. But given its scale and significance, housing – council housing – always took centre stage and it became a dominant focus as housing became a huge and controversial issue in British politics.
In that context, the blog was intended to be a political intervention too – not a polemic, I hope, but a simple reminder of the overwhelmingly positive role the state, local and national, has played in improving the lives of millions over the years. It seemed important to say this when, for many decades, state intervention has been so systematically maligned and the market so uncritically lauded.
I can’t say that council housing, the subject of the book, wasn’t being addressed elsewhere but it was being addressed so badly. Media coverage tended to be caricatured and stigmatising; political discourse was generally pretty ill-informed and simplistic. There was some decent academic writing on the topic but nothing serious in the mainstream for a general reader. It seemed time to put that right.
3:AM: Was it always your intention to use the blog as a platform to write such a book?
JB: No, I can honestly say it wasn’t and, to be honest, I didn’t start out as a particular housing expert – I’m a social historian by background. But two things happened. One, the blog gained interest and readership beyond my wildest expectations (it’s now attracted almost 950,000 views) and I also developed a pretty impressive social media presence. Two, I realised that, in looking at individual council estates across the country as well as the specialist literature, I’d built up a tremendous resource. At that point, it really made sense to bring that together and attempt some kind of synthesis. I’m pleased to say that Verso responded immediately to my initial tentative enquiry.
3:AM: What was your background as a social historian?
JB: My PhD back in the day was on working-class politics in Birmingham and Sheffield in the interwar period, both industrial towns but the former staunchly Conservative and the latter a Labour stronghold. That contrast made me interested in the complexity of lived experience – an appreciation of nuance and variety which I hope I’ve brought to the blog and the book. For most of my working life, I’ve been a chalkface teacher of nineteenth and twentieth-century British and European history so the blog and now the book represents my first major foray into publication.
3:AM: You mention the blog as a political intervention and you’ve said elsewhere you’re coming at this from a distinctly Marxist perspective?
JB: Yes, I think it is a political intervention. The question of what is the proper role of the state has probably been the dominant one in British politics since 1979. Mrs Thatcher pledged to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ and, in her own terms, was very successful in doing so. New Labour, while seeing a greater role for public investment, was also quite sceptical about what central and local government could or should do and placed far more emphasis on the market and the ‘third sector’ – voluntary organisations and the like – than previous Labour governments. Nowhere was this shift better exemplified than in the field of housing provision. So, in this sense, a blog which defends state intervention and praises – though not uncritically – its generally positive role is political; it’s a conscious defence of another and, in my view, better way of doing things.
That reference to a Marxist perspective was perhaps slightly provocative and it probably dates me but it reflects my training as a social historian and the influence of a number of superb Marxist historians, notably EP Thompson. In a way, it means little more than I still think that economics and class are determinant influences in people’s lived experience. Again, nowhere is this truer than in the field of housing and, in particular, in the council estates that I write about. Those estates and their communities are shaped by class and ideas of class and moulded by the economic vicissitudes they suffer. Put simply, estates were once a symbol and manifestation of working-class affluence and upward mobility. In more recent years, many have seen them as a site of poverty and social decline.
I was briefly a Labour councillor – I served my four-year term in the unlikely setting of Winchester, a cathedral city known for its relative wealth but it had two large council estates, one of which I represented. I also worked in local government for three years for Norwich City Council. Those experiences consolidated my belief in the powerful constructive role of the local state and its elected politicians.
3:AM: The book and blog are framed as largely concerned with council housing, but I think to some extent you actively cover the withdrawal of the local state, to use Cynthia Cockburn’s term, from all aspects of civic life under various waves of austerity, e.g. parks, schools, libraries etc. many of these being housed in magnificent municipal buildings now sold off?
JB: I agree that you should certainly place the themes of the book and blog in that context. The writer Sue Townsend expressed this wonderfully in an article written in 2005: “I’m a child of the municipal. Everything good had this word carved above its grand entrance. In Leicester … there were municipal libraries, majestic solid buildings with beautiful entrances, windows and doors, oak furniture and bookshelves. Then there were municipal baths, which had a swimming pool and what were called slipper baths … There were municipal parks, which were delightful places in which to take the air.” And as a single mother of three, she was immensely grateful for the decent, secure home provided by the local council.
All that speaks to an immense civic pride but also to a culture of betterment and aspiration, understood as a collective endeavour and an obligation of one to all. Much of that has been lost in our reckless embrace of individualism and the free market since the 1970s.
3:AM: Just like Sidney Webb and his ‘individualist town councillor’ on a warped dérive. But if you look at Townsend’s work with Adrian Mole, the ‘sink estate’ narrative had already begun to creep in with its treatment of council housing.
JB: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read much Adrian Mole but I think your observation is even truer of Townsend’s 1992 novel, The Queen and I, which sees the Royal Family rehoused on a council estate in a newly republican Britain. It’s pretty heavy-handed satire, to be honest, and I was disappointed to see its depiction of the rather run-down estate to which the royals are exiled. It’s quite a stereotypical portrayal of a rather ‘chavvy’ (I use that term with the heaviest of scare quotes) and dysfunctional community. That said, there is clearly an underlying affection for the residents and a recognition of their underlying resilience and humanity. In the end, it’s those qualities which shine through and see the royals happily settled among the least of their former subjects. So even in what could be legitimately be seen as a rather coarse portrayal of a ‘sink estate’, Townsend’s politics and loyalties are obvious.
3:AM: Rather than Charles in a shellsuit, I want to talk about Patrick Abercrombie and Liverpool’s Department of Civic Design in the global vanguard and the demise of retained council architects. Do you see these inter-twined with the demise of the civic and the rise of the free-market individualism you mention?
JB: The loss of local authority architects’ departments has been an enormous loss. One thinks back to the time in the 1950s when the London County Council Architect’s Department was regarded as the foremost architectural practice in the world, as well as the largest with some 350 professional architects and trainees. Sandy Wilson (who would go on to design the British Library) likened job adverts for the department to “a summons to join the Forces again but in this case to win the peace by rebuilding London.” Equally, there were high-quality departments and major architects working in the London boroughs – most obviously in Camden in the 1970s – and across the country; too many to name individually but all thinking their work superior to and more important than that in the private sector and far above that of the speculative house builder.
The departments atrophied when their work dried up and then, because such work as there was could be so readily contracted out, were simply axed in the drive to cut costs. The figures are staggering: in 1976, 49 percent of all UK architects worked for the public sector; today the number stands at less than one percent. Planning departments have suffered a similar decline.
This loss of public sector expertise and capacity absolutely reflects the assault on local government since 1979 – a reflection of Thatcherism’s free-market fundamentalism and visceral disdain for the state and the public service ethos which, at best, underlay it. This has been little challenged until perhaps quite recently. It’s notable that many in a new generation of young architects and planners do want to work in the public sector. The recently founded social enterprise Public Practice – which is placing newly qualified professionals in local authority planning departments – received over 200 applications for 17 posts.
3:AM: The book barely mentions Scotland at all, which compared to England probably resisted that Thatcherism more?
JB: It’s true that Scotland is neglected in the book. In my defence, I’d advance two good reasons for that. Firstly, I tried to travel the country and visit as many of the estates I write about as possible. For practical reasons, it simply wasn’t possible to visit Scotland. Secondly, I’m acutely aware of Scottish particularity – it’s a separate nation after all. There is, for example, a Scottish cultural tradition of high-rise living which isn’t replicated in England and Wales.
There are, as you suggest, political differences too. Even in Westminster terms, Scottish housing legislation has sometimes diverged from that of the rest of the country. The combination of devolution and the decline of Scottish Conservatism has emphasised this divergence. Right to Buy was abolished in Scotland in 2016 and there is now a significant public housing programme north of the border. For all that and for all the political resistance to Thatcherism you mention, I think it is still the commonalities of Scottish and English housing politics that are more striking.
3:AM: You mention statism, for want of a better word, as a “better way of doing things”? Colin Ward was mainly thought of as an anarchist proponent of squatting and tenant takeovers rather than state provision, but at the TCPA and on the BBC he championed the New Towns.
JB: Colin Ward criticised British socialists for being “intoxicated with power and bureaucracy and the mystique of the state”. As you imply, in that context, his championing of the New Towns in particular is ironic given how the Development Corporations which built them were government quangos bypassing even the limited democracy of the local state. Ward’s critique of what he called the authoritarianism and paternalism of the state is beguiling and not without merit; at the very least, it’s a reasonable rebuke to prevalently top-down forms of planning, design and management.
That said, I’m very sceptical of housing solutions predicated on individual or tenant activism. Most social housing tenants (like their private counterparts) simply want good landlords; they don’t want to be landlords themselves. For most people, life lies in what happens beyond politics – work, family, leisure – rather than in politics itself. Maybe that’s a rather lazy and glib repudiation of anarchist principles of self-help and direct democracy but it feels to me a realistic one.
For similar reasons, I’m really not very interested in the self-build ideals of Walter Segal which Ward also supported. They offer a constructive alternative housing model for a small number of people but are incapable of meeting housing need on the scale and in the form required by the majority. It is, in my view, precisely the ‘power and bureaucracy’ of the state which have enabled it to act so positively for the public good – in housing and other fields – over the last hundred years or so (though I’m equally aware that state power is not always exercised benignly).
3:AM: In what way not benignly? I’m thinking here the ‘sons and daughters’ policy of the GLC which left behind a legacy of all-white estates, particularly in South London.
JB: There’s no doubt at all that the state sometimes gets it wrong; the most obvious example being many of the poorly supervised, shoddily constructed system-built schemes of the late-60s and early-70s. A lot of these, such as the notorious Hulme Crescents in Manchester, have been demolished since. Other innovations which seemed a good idea at the time – such as Radburn layouts (separating cars and people) and walkway and deck-access schemes – worked less well in practice. Conversely, the large, low-rise peripheral estates were sometimes sharply criticised for their isolation and lack of facilities. In most cases, I feel the social and economic problems which afflicted a wide range of estates from the 1970s were at least as important as any alleged design flaws.
Allocations policies are always controversial. Local connection policies were a well-meaning attempt to foster and sustain community but they were clearly racist in effect, sometimes in intention, as our BAME population grew. The shift to needs-based allocations, which became systematic by the late 1970s, was a necessary corrective to this and it rightly prioritised minority families living, disproportionately, in the worst of the private rental sector. That created racial tensions which might have been avoided had wiser policies been pursued previously.
3:AM: Indeed, you end the book noting the unfortunate circumstances of Grenfell, but also the rise in council attempts at reintroducing council-built housing to local areas. Some cause for optimism there or too little, too late?
JB: There is cause for optimism. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have abolished Right to Buy and are supporting significant programmes of building for social rent. In England, councils now have greater borrowing powers and have found various means to build. Too often, in my view, these rely on public-private partnerships and far too high a proportion of homes are built for sale or at so-called ‘affordable’ rents. Nevertheless, greater numbers of genuinely social rented housing are being built than for some time. Whether or how far we go beyond this is an essentially political question. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have committed to a significant programme of social housing. For the moment, the Conservatives remain committed to a failing model of home ownership so the next election may be decisive. It is, I believe, ‘too little’ at present but it is never ‘too late’.
3:AM: Finally, for the curious readership of 3:AM, can you recommend five or so estates of note to take us further into the world of municipal housing?
JB: In some ways, I try to celebrate the ordinary and unheralded – the experience of the vast majority of council tenants over time. Obviously though, there are estates which stand out. The best of the early cottage estates are very good indeed: the pre-First World War Old Oak Estate in Hammersmith and the Dover House Estate in Roehampton built just after the war as part of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ movement, are verdant, Arts and Crafts, red-brick idylls. Moving forward there are the more obviously ‘showpiece’ estates which might be familiar to a wider readership – the Camden schemes of the 1960s and 1970s, especially Neave Brown’s wondrous Alexandra Road Estate; the Alton Estate in Wandsworth, New Humanist to the east and Brutalist to the west; streets-in-the-sky Park Hill in Sheffield; the community-led, contemporary vernacular Byker Estate in Newcastle, for example. The Churchill Estate showcases the daring and ambition of the early post-war years. If you travel further afield, a number of beautiful schemes in Norwich under City Architect David Percival merit attention. And I’ll give a special shout-out for the unsung Orlando Estate in Walsall which I stumbled across by chance – a beautiful example of high-quality mixed development and, as a resident described it to me, a ‘time capsule of the 1960s’.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Andrew Stevens is senior editor of 3:AM and lives in West Essex.
I encountered Aamer Hussein in a decaying bookstore, through a slim volume called Insomnia. This book would lose its spine over the years, and have it reattached by hand—an object that travelled with me across spaces I hadn’t thought I’d traverse when I bought the book, foolishly in awe of literature. Hussein’s fiction lends itself to personal affective intensities of this sort, the stories breathing an aura of quiet and melancholy—an afterhours pleasure. It is also a radical pleasure.
Prolific in the short genre, Hussein has authored over ten collections of short fiction and novellas, in addition to his work as an editor and critic. The subject matter of his fiction loops on itself: myths, fables, pill heads, depressives, failed loves, strained friendships, and lonely Third World transplants, attractive matter for bookish sorts stained by melancholy. His work inspires a cultish love, born of deep affiliation, so astutely does it map a certain kind of experience, tracing marginal lives that frequently find themselves caught between contexts. Hussein’s stories display an audacious ability to synthesize complexities of social subjectivity; yet behind this complex surface lies a rich silence. His stories remain porous, marked by gaps and holes—a kind of silence which, rather than a lack, represents a positive capacity, Hussein’s most potent mode. What Aamer Hussein offers us is an invaluable model of resistance in literature: resistance that works through silence, through that which remains unsaid.
Why is silence so easily associated with oppression, speech with resistance?
Foucault offers us an answer when he identifies confession as a technique of power. “Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth”, we’re told in The History of Sexuality, “Western man has become a confessing animal.” As a primary tool in the creation of subjectivities, confession acts a means of rendering identities legible. As a technique of power, it proliferates to the point of ubiquity: in all forms of discourse, no matter how specialised or mundane they might be. The contrasting valuations of speech and silence pervade Western society, mapping a binary almost as simplistic as good and bad. Every mode of public discourse—literature no less than any other—is shaped by this peculiar binary. Silence, reticence—the refusal to furnish an account of oneself as demanded by others—is associated, variously, with the negative states of repression, criminality, secrecy and delusion.
Anthropological studies of rehab centres (such as Summerson Carr’s exemplary Scripting Addiction: The Politics of Therapeutic Talk and American Sobriety) provide poignant examples of the magical power ascribed to speech. The precise formula “Hi, my name is X and I am an addict” is supposed to medically cleanse the subject by providing a “confession” of a state which cannot be allowed to remain secret. It is a scripting enabled through force, through the threat of violence; not the freely chosen, natural outpouring of an inner state, but speech that is forced upon the subject at the hands of power. As in the clinic, so elsewhere. Like the addict, the immigrant—the foreigner visible as foreigner—has a compromised subjectivity and does not have the right to stay silent. Speech is demanded at every moment—the confessional speech of self-identification, of naming what one is, confirming and reinforcing through such speech that one is indeed the suspected Other. The position of the migrant of colour in the West is a position of hypervisibility, of a constantly and ubiquitously denied privacy. Every moment is policed. The confession is extracted constantly, demanded as the extractor’s right. Violence embedded in the fabric of the everyday, in life’s minutiae, its smallest moments, its most mundane. Forced speech—the denial of the right to stay silent—is, for the foreigner, an organising principle of everyday life in the West.
The interworkings of such regimes of speech should give us pause when faced with literary discourses that insist on identitarian speech as a resistant act, the composition of characters and plot action as an appropriate response to geopolitical realities. We should take issue with valorisations of “literature in extremis”, literature that purports to navigate this violent world by writing about it. Hans Erich Nossack is prescient here. In his deceptively straightforward and correctly paranoid essay ‘Translating and Being Translated’, he refers to the condition of a world riddled with supersized tragedies and ubiquitous micro violence as a “negative reality” which, by the very nature of its constitution, renders the speech of protest—speech that would attempt to name this violence—inherently absurd. What is required, instead, is a strategic silence, strategic because aware of the insidious incitement to speech. Faced with such violence, for Nossack, “Respect for humanity requires literature to be silent about it yet convey the silence perceptibly between the lines.” Thus a weaponised silence, silence that is more than emptiness or lack. It is in light of considerations such as these that an aesthetics of interiority, one that refuses to be mapped by external coordinates, stakes one’s silence, becomes a resistant act.
“Do you still feel Pakistani?” The Venezuelan to my left asks me.
“I do, when I feel anything at all.”
The Venezuelan drones on.
“Muslims in Europe are a demographic problem. In Andalucía, I hear, they want to reclaim ancient sacred places. They should be loyal to their country of adoption. Wouldn’t you say?”
“I guess I’m a Muslim in Europe too,” I say. “And foreign everywhere I go.”
With one desultory gesture I dismiss an uncongenial conversation.
Thus goes an exchange between two strangers thrown into each other’s company while touring in Cádiz in ‘Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda’ (appearing in Hussein’s 2007 collection Insomnia). The story takes the form of pointillist postcards sent to an absent beloved, though sometimes their pithy terseness is perturbed by irruptions such as the above, where everyday speech takes on the aspect of a drone. Weaponised and violent, this passing moment of aggression is folded into the deceptive innocence of casual conversation, appearing in the longest postcard of the pearl-like nine, as if such violence distorted the miniature form. Our narrator responds to this invitation to engage in the discourse of confession by means of a shrug, a “desultory gesture.” This desultory gesture, the refusal to participate in the speech of forced confession, is the characteristic mode of Hussein’s stories, and the means of its resistance. The gesture refuses the question, dismisses it both as unwanted and uninteresting. The speech we do receive is an assertion of interiority (“when I feel anything at all”), a description of an emotional state (ennui, emptiness, void) rather than a discussion of identity such as the questioner might have hoped for. What we receive, in other words, is a representation of subjectivity that exceeds the narrow terms of subaltern experience, the formula that requires the Other to exist in literature as a litany of its scars. Doubly damned: first to suffer the abuses of power, and then to forever recount it.
Rather than a naiveté in which characters are scrubbed clean of identity—the usual way in which “silence” is channelled in fiction—Hussein’s fiction offers us fully-formed literary landscapes in which characters are embedded in and alive to history. The discourse of identity exists, more than anything else, between the lines of his fiction, as an animating presence that lies just behind the surface of the stories. So, in a few terse sentences we are told about Lamia, “who left Palestine when she was seven, and at thirty-four Beirut…exile after exile after exile: Egypt, Lebanon, Paris, London, New York and finally Indonesia.” And that’s it. The rest of the story, ‘This Other Salt’ (in the 1999 collection of the same name), concerns itself with other matters—her life as a painter, her friendship with the narrator, cancer, love, loneliness, death—without scripting these events in terms of what such geographical displacements might do to a person. In ‘Benedetta, Amata’, another story in this same collection, the narrator, who calls himself a “pill head,” recounts a summer of violent, near-fatal depression:
I didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror so I grabbed a disposable Bic razor from the dresser and started to sketch signs on my forehead…Then I got to work on my wrists. I didn’t really like the sight of my blood on the sheets but I don’t think it was death I was looking for, just a long, long sleep.
This is the kind of event of which Hussein’s fiction is composed. Searing, sudden explosions of deeply personal pain, verging on the incommunicable. These characters’ interiorities are a terrain that Hussein traverses without submitting them to external regimes of value, the literary shorthand that requires characters’ experiences to be mediated by their status as Other, effecting a constant re-enactment of their otherness. It’s a perverse, closed feedback loop, and it’s his rejection of this that makes Hussein’s writing so liberating.
There is an intensity to these experiences, an extremeness that places them right on the edge of the communicable, and it’s here that Hussein’s prose style works particularly interesting effects. Hussein’s syntax is pellucid and lean. The directness of address (“I didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror”) would be unsettling if it didn’t carry with it the sense of dulled, flat affect. The voice has been anaesthetised, events evacuated of drama and left only with their mechanics, chronology. Reading Hussein is often a soothing experience, even when he’s writing about pain. We could find an analogy for this style—quiet, poised, unexcited—in the protagonist of ‘The Angelic Disposition’ who carves through her tranquillity a kind of private space in the face of geopolitical trauma. This is a dignity Hussein reserves for all the characters in his fiction, writing them without the humiliation of making of them object lessons in oppression.
Secreted within Hussein’s undemonstrative syntax, neglected histories and spectral connections quietly persist. The rich intertextuality of his prose makes room for Han Suyin, Cesare Pavese, Manto, Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Muhammadi Begum, and countless others. “I’m scattering traces of the past in the present” is the occult formula in which Hussein explains this habit; charging the literary present with particles of the past, providing a pathway for interlingual ghosts. Hussein’s texts are easily global, conversant in a diversity of signs and references. His is a language animated by a lived globality, by a disciplined and sophisticated navigation of the field of signifiers which lies open to Third World writers writing in English.
Some forms of resistance are more easily recognized than others. In ‘Painting on Glass’, the final story in Hussein’s collection This Other Salt, the narrator recounts his years in the company of Third World writers in London, who were:
Really angry. About imperialism and exploitation and racism. I learned their language. I began to write protest poetry too…We carry our histories on our backs, I wrote, in our blood and in our bones. But at the same time I knew somewhere in these bones of mine that what we were doing was only ranting and raving and preaching to each other and to the ranks of the already allied, our words wouldn’t get us to where we really wanted to go…we didn’t have the courage to face an era which had placed us in a safe asylum, where we could scream the screams of dumb bright birds just as long as we didn’t make a noise in the neighborhood, disturb the local residents by shattering the glass walls of our aviary.
We can read, in these references to “a safe asylum” in which “angry”, “political” writing is tolerated, even rewarded, as an articulation of the logic of enforced confession, whereby the subject is required to identify themselves as an Other, even if this identification takes the form of protest. This kind of “protest literature” renders the subject legible in the terms set by the oppressor; it is legible speech, reproducing the oppressor’s mode of discourse.
Nossack is once again helpful here. Ostensibly about translation, Nossack’s essay swerves midway to cryptic references to a language that is little more than the “official jargon” of “the system”. This is language that always achieves the aims of “the system”, no matter its own goals, no matter even if this language would claim for itself the work of “resistance”. We can find a contiguous line of thought in Rana Kabani’s observation that the Third World writer writing in English is forced into a position of “assimilation or confrontation, when you wanted neither” (a sentiment Hussein echoes in the afterword to his 2002 collection Cactus Town). Assimilation or confrontation, either way you remain oriented towards “the system”, addressing it, interpellated by it, reinscribing it with every utterance. This “system” remains nebulous and ill-defined in Nossack’s essay, though we are given hints and clues as to its personality—such as its power to defuse all attacks against itself by absorbing the attacker into its mechanism: “revolutions are a planned part of the system….A methodical and calculated change in the machinery is accomplished, yet the system remains the system.”
The system remains the system. It’s in this state of perfect paranoia, constant confession, that silence acquires its destabilising force. The confessional injunction impoverishes literature’s capacity to house a discourse of alterity, constricting the space of possibility for writers of colour writing in English to the binary Kabani identifies: confrontation or assimilation. Over and against these cultural forces, Aamer Hussein’s fiction offers us a potent example of the mobilisation of silence as style, of resistance that won’t declare itself. The landscape of his fiction is, most of all, one where the terms of engagement for the outsider are neither confrontation nor assimilation, but a new third thing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Ali Raz’s work has appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cosmonauts Avenue, Occulum and Journal 69. Tweeting @ trashy_chicken.
When we think of important centres of philosophy we have not hitherto thought of Monaco. Yet, because of the passion for philosophy on the part of Charlotte Casiraghi, daughter of Princess Caroline and grand-daughter of Grace Kelly, philosophy has now established an admirable and happy presence in the Principality. Moreover, the circumstances that have led to this presence are the outcome of that always very happy and wonderful event in life that is the happy and beautiful coincidence albeit that in the present case, alas, this happy denouement was initially impelled by a grievous event.
When Charlotte Casiraghi was four years old, her father, Stefano Casiraghi, was tragically killed in a boating accident. Consequently, her mother, having lost her husband decided to move the family to Fontainebleau in order to create a more private and serene upbringing for her children away from the celebrity and paparazzi in big cities. And so it was that Charlotte Casiraghi, in her last year of studies at the Lycee Francois Couperin, encountered the philosopher, Robert Maggiori, who was the professor of Charlotte’s philosophy class. And Robert Maggiori’s teaching led Charlotte Casiraghi to fall in love with philosophy. Yes, the initial moment leading to this lovely coincidence was a tragic one, and the happy coincidence in question cannot provide solace for the initial tragic loss, yet we can feel and know the charm carried in the happy coincidence in question.
Of course, for those who know Robert Maggiori, the fact that one of his students–indeed many of his students–should fall in love with philosophy does not come as a surprise. Robert Maggiori is one of the great philosophy professors of our time just as was his teacher at the Sorbonne, Vladimir Jankelevitch, in his time, and just as were those such as Alain and Leon Brunshvicg in the days when Jankelevitch was a student in the years immediately following WWI. Maggiori was a student Jankelevitch especially esteemed and admired (Jankelevitch was one of the greatest and most original of 20th Century philosophers) and Jankelevitch’s 1980 expanded and revised three-volume version of one of his major works, Le je-ne-sais-quoi et le presque-rien (The I-know-not-what and the almost-nothing), which originally appeared in 1957, bore a dedication to Robert Maggiori. Certainly Jankelevitch was one of the great teachers of philosophy and Robert Maggiori in his marvelous little book, La metier de critique: journalisme et philosophie (The craft of criticism: journalism and philosophy), which describes and presents his practice for almost forty years now as the principle reviewer of books of philosophy (and books in the human sciences) for the newspaper, Liberation, writes that “teaching philosophy is among the most beautiful of professions”.
In his teaching Robert Maggiori combines in great virtuosity the most supple and incisive of presentations, analyses, and depictions together with an ethical and ethico-pedagogical attention and tenderness whereby he is ever and always in tune with the many specificities and textures in the thinking and perceiving of his students.
Consequently he is ever able in his expository and explanatory discourse to create in an always collaborative effort just that meeting point of possible comprehension on the part of his students with the contours and layers of his pedagogical portraitures of concept and idea and their various constellations and figures. All this to also say that Robert Maggiori is a philosopher par excellence of generosity at once in his writing and philosophical works and above all in his pedagogical practice.
Furthermore, his classroom teaching is always imbued in his journalistic practice with Liberation. To bring philosophy and all its dense and difficult notions to a general public is not an easy task and it is all the more difficult because complicated ideas and extensive tomes most be presented in the very short and condensed space of a newspaper article. In addition Maggiori always and properly wants to present not just the ideas of a book but the biographical features of the book’s author and the historical and socio-historical conditions and geographies of author and book so that he is presenting a preliminarily extensive and intensive picture. And time and time again in article after article, year after year, decade after decade, he has done just this and always with such admirable clarity and virtuosity. Many of these articles have been collected over the years in wonderful books that he has brought forth and in this sense in the wonderful gifts he has given us all.
Yes, it makes so much sense, indeed, how could it have been otherwise, that Charlotte Casiraghi would fall in love with philosophy and develop a passion to pursue the philosophical life. And yet if Charlotte Casiraghi fell in love with philosophy it is not just because of Robert Maggiori’s teaching but–and even more and this is the paramount truth and resonance in all good and happy pedagogy–because of an already existing desire and passion for learning, learning in life. What she already brought to his teaching is what, precisely, made this teaching in all its most admirable affects and effects, in all its admirable modalities and qualities, possible and actual. Life! Philosophy if it is to truly be a vocation of the mind must necessarily be an existential vocation, the vocation of our living immediacies and trajectories.
Following her year in Robert’s class Charlotte Casiraghi pursued the two year study course for preparation for the Ecole Normale Superieure entrance exam and then pursued university studies in philosophy at the Sorbonne. But throughout these studies and ever thereafter her dialogue with Robert Maggiori continued ever renewed and ever invigorated. And so we could say that just as Robert Maggiori brought to Jankelevitch his own beautiful aptitude for philosophy and for the philosophical life and quest so to did Charlotte Casiraghi bring to Robert Maggiori her own aptitude and talent for philosophy and for the development of her own admirable philosophical culture and quest. And in this conjuncture she conceived the idea of bringing philosophy to Monaco and to its publics. Enlisting Robert Maggiori and also two other philosophers, Joseph Cohen and Raphael Zagury-Orly, a plan was devised whereby once each month from October to April several philosophers or thinkers in other fields would be assembled to give presentations on various topics within a theme chosen for that year. Following this in June a two day conference would be held with a larger gathering of philosophers and thinkers and also a book prize would be awarded from an initial list of nominations of books appearing during the year. And the theme chosen for the first year, 2015-2016, of the newly established Philosophical Meetings of Monaco was, perfectly, Love. Various topics of discussion included “Being in Love”, “Jealousy”, “Betrayal”, “Self-Love and Love of Another”, “Can We Forgive Everything,” “Loving One’s Neighbor as Oneself”, and “The Gift of Love”. And the year-ending two day conference in its various themes exhibited the expansiveness and relevance of philosophy in all its realms, i.e. “Philosophy and Children,” “Philosophy and Dance,” “Philosophy and Sports,” “Philosophy and Music,” “Philosophy and Theater,” and “Philosophy and Cinema”. The conference was dedicated to the memory of Umberto Eco who was due to speak at the April session but, alas, passed away just prior to that. Sadly there were to be further commemorations since two of the speakers from the first year, the philosopher, Ruwen Ogien, and the psychoanalyst and philosopher, Anne Dufourmontelle, passed away subsequently, Anne Dufourmantelle’s death the result of a successful effort to rescue children caught in a riptide at the beach, but which effort led to her own drowning. Courage and generosity, cardinal virtues in any philosophical or existential “treatise of virtues”, were translated directly by Anne Dufourmantelle.
In the second year of the Philosophical Meetings the theme was “The Body” and the year-end conference topic was devoted to “Conversation” in its various temporalities and forms. And in the present year the theme has been so pertinently, “Responding to Violence”. As for the book prize, in the first year the philosopher, Vinciane Despret, won for her book Au bonheur des morts: recit de ceux qui restent” (Happy are the dead: A narrative for those who remain)” and in the second year Emanuele Coccia won for his book, La vie des plantes (The Life of Plants) whereas Jean-Claude Milner won the associated Prize of the Principality for the body of his lifetime work. Additionally, various lectures and talks have been collected together in a print journal that has now reached its third number.
Robert Maggiori writes in presenting the project to the public: “No one is foreign to philosophy simply because the problems which philosophy treats are those that traverse every human life: love, justice, truth, time, desire, power, technology, freedom, the nature and role of society, art, etc. The Philosophical Meetings of Monaco have as their ambition to create an unprecedented ‘place’ in which philosophy can find its home, giving thereby hospitality to French thinkers and those of other countries who today nourish philosophy with their research and in this way assemble a large public to which philosophy can bring the necessary tools and forms of reflection necessary to understand the world, society, people other than ourselves but also ourselves as well. Consequently in organizing a series of lectures and colloquia, in bringing together the most eminent personalities of philosophy such as it is practiced today in France and in Europe, and what is more in including students in high schools and younger students as well the Philosophical Meetings of Monaco aims to become one of the most important occasions for the elaboration, communication, and sharing of philosophy in its contemporary elaboration.”
It is an ambitious project, of course, and it is now, happily, in its third year and has seen its audiences’ grow and its range and activities increase. Indeed, it has expanded beyond Monaco to Paris where from time to time lectures and colloquia have been held at the Paris Institute of Oceanography. Certainly Charlotte Casiraghi has had access to considerable resources in Monaco and Mont Blanc is the official sponsor of the Philosophical Meetings and various important institutions in Monaco and in France serve as partners in support. But better that resources for such an admirable project be available as opposed to being provided for much less worthy projects.
But there is more to praise. The Philosophical Meetings of Monaco have from the very start been mindful that philosophy is relevant and important to those of all ages including students in their youngest of school years. On several occasions the philosopher, Edwige Chirouter, who has been at the forefront of engagement in a project to bring philosophy to children and indeed the youngest of children, has given talks in Monaco and Paris sessions. She is it should be noted a leading member in an enterprise that UNESCO has established in relation to the bringing together of philosophy and children. Additionally the film of Fanny Clement, Ce n’est qu’un debut (This is only the beginning) devoted as it is to the presentation of very young children in engagement with philosophy and its pedagogy, indeed with children as young as four years old, has been shown under the auspices of the Philosophical Meetings and has been the theme of a conference involving one of the producers of the film, Cilvy Aupin, along with Robert Maggiori, Joseph Cohen, Edwige Chirouter, and Jean-Philippe Vinci. The film with subtitles is already making its way to other countries and it is to be hoped that it will be shown in Anglophone countries.
In this regard, the Philosophical Meetings have been devoted to an outreach program to high school students in Monaco. On a regular basis philosophical speakers visit high school philosophy classes for philosophical discussions with the students. As the program of the Philosophical Meetings states: “[A program] will be established in the high schools of the Principality whereby each month an invited philosopher will meet with high school students and present at their school a talk on a theme decided upon in collaboration with the students. In this manner meetings of rare intensity can take place animated by a desire for investigation and questioning and for comprehension in a most vigorous and unconstrained way. These meetings can, thereby, give rise to an authentic and emphatic enthusiasm for philosophical thinking, dialogue, and transmission in their most vivid and vivacious instantiations.”
Monaco like France is unique in that philosophy has long been taught in the final year of high school which is unfortunately not the case in the United States. Moreover if in Italy students in the specialized Classical High School (Liceo Classico) study philosophy for three years, yet these high schools are quite limited in their enrollments whereas if in France only students on the Baccalaureat track take the philosophy course, nonetheless the number of students studying philosophy is significantly larger. It should be hoped that at some point the teaching of philosophy in high school might be something that could begin to take place in the U.S. although it would in many respects be marred by the complete dominance of analytical philosophy where-in philosophy is considerably reduced and constricted in its vitalities and vivacities. Elsewhere, in Ireland, for example, just a couple of years ago philosophy became a subject available in high schools, all though it is not required but merely an elective so that the number of students reached remains quite small.
Vladmir Jankelevitch wrote that we can very well “live without philosophy but not so well.” Yet we could counter that we can live without philosophy and still live just, ethical, and happy lives, indeed that we could still live well, but it is also true that philosophy, when it is undertaken and lived in its better forms, can very well, and happily, enhance life and all its ethical and socio-existential comportments. Living well is not a necessary outcome of living with philosophy but no doubt it is an ever happy and available potentiality.
Enhancement! In this third and thus far most fecund year of the Philosophical Meetings of Monaco, Robert Maggiori and Charlotte Casiraghi have also published a book written together, Archipels des Passions, which is the result of the aforementioned dialogue they have carried out since they first encountered one another.
Life is passion, life is affection. Doubtless passions can bring difficulties to our lives and as Robert Maggiori says we can certainly live passions in a way damaging to our lives and the lives of others but, as he sagaciously adds, without passion life cannot be lived well at all. The manner and mode by which we live our passions and affections, that is ever and always the key–and in this sense, precisely, a manner and mode of truth. Philosophy is not indispensible in helping us find a way to live in the best and most just of ways ethically and existentially, but in its proper and supple manners it can be a boon and benefit. In their book Robert Maggiori and Charlotte Casiraghi present forty entries, each writing about half of the entries on their own but always with the other’s voice and thoughts in mind, at once in agreement and disagreement, and in relation to which the differing aptitudes of the one and the other come together in syntheses of greater aptitude, insight, notion, and, if you will, truth. And so they write of joy, sadness, adoration, disaffection, love, jealousy, malevolence, kindness, ennui, cruelty, benevolence, guilt, pity, fraternity, and so on and so forth. The book is not only a little treatise of passions but is also a history of passions, since these states of our soul are ever in transformation and tumult, ensconced as they always are in the existential vibrato of our lived-trajectories and tribulations. As Charlotte Casiraghi writes, each of our passions always “puts us to the test, a test which, however, can enable us to emerge stronger, more fortified, more able.” Each entry then is a modulation of their dialogue and in this sense the book, in its assemblage is a book of–beautiful affection–friendship. And the Philosophical Meetings of Monaco are and seek to be the ever renewed friendship of thinking and life, of the thinking of the good and of the good of every ethico-existential and socio-existential action, gratitude, and generosity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset–and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins–is also a philosopher and poet. He is the translator of Jean Grenier’s Islands: Lyrical Essays and his translations of poems (and in instances essays) by the Italian poets Pasolini, Solmi, Ungaretti, Quasimodo, Saba, and Carraba, the French poets Jean-Baptiste Para and Alain Suied, as well as Rilke, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak have appeared in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. His own writings have appeared in the U.S., Canada, Jamaica, the U.K., Australia, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, Germany, China, Kenya, Argentina, and Brazil.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Stephen Nelson’s last book was a Xerolage of visual poetry called Arcturian Punctuation (Xexoxial Editions). You can buy his other books too. Try Lunar Poems for New Religions (KFS Press) or Thorn Corners (erbacce-press). He frequently appears in journals and magazines around the world, including Otoliths, Utsanga, Big Bridge and Eratio, and even appeared in The Sunday Times Poet’s Corner once. He speaks and sings and writes light language, the multi-dimensional language of the soul. He has exhibited vispo and asemic writing internationally, most recently in Germany and Italy.
‘I like forgotten figures in the history of philosophy, they are like smaller, tortuous roads, sometimes leading nowhere, sometimes leading to bizarre, undreamed of places… James Ward is one such figure, both personally and philosophically intriguing.‘
‘In a way, his life illustrates the basic metaphysical principle that slumbering monads may achieve the highest levels of rationality in the course of time.’
‘One reason why theologians read Whitehead today is that they find in his writings an original, truly novel conception of God. That theologians read him, I fear, is also one main reason why he is not much read by philosophers…‘
‘Whitehead would make an ideal conversation-partner for modern thinkers – after all, as he wittingly says, the acme of philosophical success is not to have reached the truth, but to be refuted at each century. As to the question of verification: I am not aware that any philosophical theory has yet received empirical confirmation.‘
Pierfrancesco Basile is an expert in the philosophy of Whitehead, Idealism, consciousness and panpsychism. Here he discusses James Ward, Leibniz’s influence, C.S. Peirce, panpsychism and evolution, Ward’s relationship to Whitehead, Whitehead’s connection with both Leibniz and Hume on causality, dangerous beliefs, process metaphysics, and links between early modern and contemporary approaches to panpsychism.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Pierfrancesco Basile: Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein… given such great ancestors, how could I call myself a philosopher? This does not mean that I consider myself a historian of philosophy, although I see historical research as a legitimate, even as an important enterprise. More simply, it means I am a person who finds himself pondering about philosophical questions. I was captured by it (as Plato lets Parmenides say in an imaginary dialogue with a still young Socrates) when I first encountered Kant’s first Critique. That book’s unique combination of rationalism, skepticism and metaphysics still appeals very much to me.
3:AM: James Ward is now little known but in his days he was considered an important philosopher. What drew you to him?
PB: I like forgotten figures in the history of philosophy, they are like smaller, tortuous roads, sometimes leading nowhere, sometimes leading to bizarre, undreamed of places… James Ward is one such figure, both personally and philosophically intriguing. He grew up in a very poor family, went through a religious crisis, studied in Germany, and eventually became a professor in Cambridge. He was also a teacher to Russell and Moore, and Russell always writes of him with great respect and affection. Ward lived at a time when Idealism was the dominant philosophy in Britain. With some simplification, it seems correct to say that the first British idealists looked to Hegel (as well as to other monist metaphysicians like Spinoza and Lotze) as their main source of inspiration. Ward, who disliked Hegelian monism as much as materialism, turned to Leibniz. His metaphysics, which he expounded in a book titled The Realm of Ends, or Pluralism and Theism, is a form of pluralistic metaphysical idealism (or spiritualism), according to which the basic constituents of the world are experiential substances.
3:AM: Although influenced by Leibniz, Ward didn’t slavishly follow him, but adjusted his ideas. Can you sketch for us the system of metaphysics that he developed?
PB: As you say, he did not slavishly follow Leibniz, but tried to adjust the theory of monads to his own needs. His monads differ from Leibniz’s in that they have windows, that is to say, they are capable of direct causal interaction. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but there has been progress in the course of evolution. How is this to be explained? There must be a God working within history, Ward insinuates, leading the monads towards an ideal end, but leaving them free to do their own choices and mistakes. There is a fascinating parallel between this metaphysics and Ward’s own development. Born in a very humble family, he became one of the most respected philosophers of his time (he held the prestigious Gifford Lectures twice). In a way, his life illustrates the basic metaphysical principle that slumbering monads may achieve the highest levels of rationality in the course of time.
3:AM: Why did he disagree with CS Peirce regarding tychism, the idea that absolute chance was of the essence of the universe?
PB: Ward’s metaphysics is an evolutionary process philosophy. In a paper titled “The Architecture of Theories” Peirce had stated the basic conditions that any evolutionary philosophy would have to satisfy. Ward acknowledges his indebtedness to Peirce’s paper, from which he probably derives the idea that natural laws are not eternally fixed, but contingent; they emerged in the course of evolution and may therefore change in the future. Besides order and necessity, Peirce also held, there is an irreducible spontaneous element in things, one that brings the cosmic process forward. This is the view called “tychism” (from the Greek tyche, chance). Ward goes further than Peirce in that he identifies this irreducible spontaneous element with what we are used to call “freedom of the will”. But to the best of my knowledge, he never subjected this notion to any serious scrutiny.
3:AM: Do you think panpsychism is the only viable sort of physicalism we have?
PB: The theory of evolution lead philosophers to ask this question: if consciousness is a product of evolution, how could it have emerged from insentient matter? How could experience originate from the utterly non-experiential? The panpsychist’s answer is that you cannot get experience out of matter if this does not already contain its seeds. Experience must therefore be in some way a fundamental feature of the natural world, which is why panpsychism is a form of physicalism. It is widely acknowledged that traditional (materialist) versions of physicalism fail to account for the qualitative aspects of consciousness. Unless this is done, panpsychism remains a serious competitor; and the same is true of idealist theories such as Ward’s.
3:AM: In a critique of William Kingdon Clifford’s ‘On the Nature of Things-in-Themselves,’ we see Ward dealing with the combination-problem. Can you say what his arguments were and where you think he doesn’t quite answer all the issues the theory of panpsychism raises?
PB: As I have just explained, panpsychism is a reasonable reaction to a real problem; as such, it must be taken seriously. But that does not mean that it is true. The main difficulty for the panpsychist is to explain how the experiences in a person’s brain could “sum up” and give raise to a person’s unified experience. This is the so-called “combination-problem” and panpsychists are far from having solved it. At the same time, the combination-problem cannot be regarded as the conclusive refutation of panpsychism; for we have no reason to think that mental combination is impossible in principle.
PB: In its general outlines Whitehead’s system of reality, as developed in Process and Reality, closely resembles Ward’s own. Since the two thinkers were colleagues at Cambridge, one can safely assume they discussed philosophical problems together. Ward must have been stronger in psychology and the history of philosophy, Whitehead more informed about the most recent developments in physical science. Ward and Whitehead were also deeply religious spirits, yet they were both unsatisfied with traditional doctrines. One reason why theologians read Whitehead today is that they find in his writings an original, truly novel conception of God. That theologians read him, I fear, is also one main reason why he is not much read by philosophers…
3:AM: You’ve linked Whitehead’s thinking about causation with both Leibniz – which isn’t surprising given the link with Ward – but also Hume via phenomenology. What’s the link with Hume here then?
PB: Whitehead argues that we experience causation all the time. Notoriously, this is precisely what Hume denies; according to him, we just experience succession, not the action of one thing upon another. Whitehead does not deny that we apprehend sense-impressions; when an object hits me, however, I have direct experience of causal forces acting upon me. This experience of causal force cannot be accurately described in terms of clear-cut, distinct impressions. This critique is not new, James makes this very point in the Principles of Psychology; like James, Whitehead also charges the entire British tradition with having neglected this fundamental dimension of experience. This failure has led to the strange view that experience is like a cage – that it encloses us within the circle of our perceptions, instead of doing what it so obviously does, namely bringing us in touch with the outside world. This is an interesting point, also stressed by John Dewey in another process-oriented book, Experience and Nature.
3:AM: At the beginning of ‘Process and Reality’ Whitehead condemns a list of what he considers are dangerous beliefs widely held by his contemporaries. Could you mention some such beliefs?
PB: The notion that experience is mainly apprehension of sense-data is one such myth. It turns philosophy into a sterile enterprise, one concerned with dialectical, fictitious problems nobody, not even the professional philosophers ferociously debating them, can really take seriously. The consequence is that philosophy has become divorced from the actual concerns of science as well as from the most urgent problems of humankind. This is, I submit, a critique worth pondering. Another myth is the traditional concept of substance as the underlying bearer of properties, a concept inherited from Aristotelian logic.
3:AM: He is indeed a process metaphysician, one who holds that being and power are the same; can you sketch for us this claim as developed?
PB: Whitehead replaces the concept of substance with that of an actual entity. In the already mentioned The Principles of Psychology, a book Whitehead greatly admired, James rejects the concept of the enduring self; a human self, he argues, is a series of momentary pulses of experience, each of which possesses duration, that is to say, it lasts for a brief moment before being superseded by a novel such pulse. These “momentary selves”, as they may be called, are linked together to form unified experiential streams – the inner life of a human being, his or her soul. Whitehead now applies this model to all basic constituents of reality. This move has the consequence that actual occasions, which are the basic constituents of things, now acquire a spatial dimension. Each occasion is thus (i) a quantum of experience as well as (ii) a quantum of space-time. Can these two notions be intelligibly unified? Is Whitehead making a decisive conceptual breakthrough here, or is he simply talking nonsense? I find this question very difficult to answer.
3:AM: You conclude after looking at Russell’s interpretation of Spinoza’s theory of reality that both Russell and Spinoza also held that process and activity are fundamental realities rather than enduring things. Can you sketch for us how you arrive at this conclusion?
PB: In his early book on the philosophy of Leibniz, Russell argues that the traditional notion of substance is irremediably flawed; the basic ontological concept should be that of event. Whitehead obviously follows on Russell’s footsteps with his concept of the actual occasion; this is a power-unit of sorts, for an actual occasion not solely acts upon other existing occasions, but is also responsible for the coming into being of other superseding occasions. Interestingly, Whitehead thinks that all past metaphysical systems link the notion of substance with that of power. As a matter of fact, even the atoms of Democritus possess movement as an intrinsic property, that is to say, they are not moved around by a transcendent reality, but are themselves essentially dynamic. This fundamental metaphysical insight, however, has been spoiled by its association with the logical idea that substances are unchangeable, enduring bearers of properties. There is thus a deep tension pervading the entire history of Western metaphysics, as a faulty logic prevents a sound metaphysical insight to be coherently articulated. Whitehead detects the contradiction in Spinoza’s theory as well. It may not be immediately evident that Spinoza is a process-thinker; and yet, Whithead observes, Spinoza’s substance is not solely natura naturata, but also natura naturans.
3:AM: Does Whitehead link his metaphysical system to an ethics of creativity?
PB: Whitehead aims not solely at solving the mind-body problem, but also at providing an account of moral experience. To this end, he speculates that specific future possibilities are presented to us by God as especially worth pursuing; this is the mysterious way God lures the world towards greater perfections…On this view, values are not produced in the course of human history, but have their source in a superior, extra-worldly Being. It would take a longer exposition to do justice to this idea, as well as to criticize it fully. What I can say here is that it doesn’t square very well with the evolutionary spirit pervading Whitehead’s philosophy.
3:AM: Recent interest in panpsychism has been signaled by Dave Chalmers and Galen Strawson. Are contemporary versions improvements of those of Ward and Whitehead – and do you think either Ward or Whitehead have much to tell us about how we might proceed in the future, especially in the face of the incredulous stare and the lack of scientific experiments to test it so far?
PB: Chalmers and Strawson belong to a different philosophical epoch, which makes comparison with Whitehead difficult. Still, I think contemporary panpsychists have just reached the point at which Whitehead begun to develop his system. One should blame the Zeitgeist here: there is no way one can work out a panpsychist theory unless one develops a whole new set of ontological categories applicable to both mental and natural phenomena; and to do this requires developing a complete system of metaphysics. Now, if there is something academic philosophy has taught us to abhor in the last century, it is precisely this kind of ambitious speculative thinking. This does not mean, of course, that we can take Whitehead’s system as it stands. Whoever has read Whitehead’s books knows how frustrating they can be, full as they are of obscure, nebulous passages. Nevertheless, Whitehead would make an ideal conversation-partner for modern thinkers – after all, as he wittingly says, the acme of philosophical success is not to have reached the truth, but to be refuted at each century. As to the question of verification: I am not aware that any philosophical theory has yet received empirical confirmation. Sure, panpsychism sounds strange on a first hearing – but then, which interesting philosophical theory squares well with common-sense? (And what is so common-sensical, say, in relativity-theory?)
3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend other than your own that will take us further into your philosophical world?
William James’ Principles of Psychology
and Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality should obviously be mentioned here.
To these, I would like to add Voltaire’s Le Philosophe ignorant – good-humored skepticism remains the best medicine for an overinflated imagination; especially the philosopher of mind may need to take a look at it every now and then…
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!
Without David Foster Wallace, it’s hard to imagine Wittgenstein’s Mistress reaching as many people.
Pretty much the high point of American experimental fiction, Wallace called it, in his essay “The Empty Plenum”, published in 1990.
Hard to argue that Infinite Jest, published six years later, would not be considered by many to be the high point of experimental American fiction now. Though maybe it transcends the experimental tag.
I vaguely remember a blogger referring to IJ as an elegy for the written word, as if it were the last novel to exist, or matter—if there’s a meaningful decision between those two words.
I do not feel that IJ is the last meaningful novel written, though I do think it says something that it gets treated that way. I’m just not sure what that something is.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel about, or from the perspective of, a woman who believes she is the only woman left on earth. Since Kate can’t interact with people, she interacts with works of art.
The interactions are not what one might call substantial or analytical. Kate thinks about art, artists, and history, but the insights she has are accidental, or at least infrequent.
Is Wallace writing an essay about WM the literature equivalent of Kurt Cobain wearing a Dinosaur Jr. or Daniel Johnston t-shirt?
WM was released in May 1988, thirty years ago now.
Markson died in 2010, surviving Wallace by two years.
Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Sigrid Nunez, Jenny Offill, David Shields, and Kenneth Goldsmith are some authors that are influenced by Markson. The list is more female than male and none of them resemble Wallace.
In his essay, Wallace opines that there is something genuinely female about the voice of WM.
Most readers, if they were compelled to make such a distinction, would not hesitate to define Wallace’s voice as male.
I am tempted to look to Lincoln in the Bardo as a possible bridge between Markson and Wallace.
This essay is supposed to be about WM, given that it’s the 30th anniversary, and underappreciated in comparison to Wallace’s work.
The setting of WM is threadbare but evocative. Kate’s alone on the beach, and eventually there are some houses and roads too, though neither of those offer anything satisfying.
Satisfying meaning what though? It’s hard to say in Kate’s world.
Satisfying in the way people can find spaces more satisfying than facts, which isn’t an experience I’ve had, but one that I’m sure can be had. Other people can describe places, at least.
It would be hard to argue that WM and David Markson influenced Wallace as much as he influenced it.
Impossible to argue probably.
Wallace’s essay on WM is one of the best things he’s written, someone more confident than the present writer might say.
Wallace did, after all, get his nose broken in a fight with an apartment neighbour defending WM’s honour.
The essay was also the first thing he wrote in the post alcohol and drug addiction lead-up to IJ.
I think part of why WM is so hard for me right now is that I’m feeling very Kate-ish, Wallace wrote to Steve Moore, while living at a halfway house and working on the essay.
This writer is trying to figure out a way to write through Kate-ish-ness, which might as well be my medical diagnosis.
Wallace defined WM as: a classic for the impotent unlucky sort whose beliefs inform his stomach’s daily state.
What it limns, as an immediate study of depression & loneliness, is far too moving to be the object of either exercise or exorcism, writes Wallace, in one of the many lines in this essay that hinted at his own fiction’s trajectory.
In contrast to other experimental icons whose genius shouts, Markson’s genius whispers, Wallace writes, in one of the many lines that hints at why WM was alien to Wallace, and would remain to be.
Still, Wallace’s essay about WM is possibly one of the more personal essays he wrote.
Similar but more different, the way WM and IJ draw attention to themselves as texts, as written.
Seems silly now, reading that and being a person in 2018, to imagine as David Foster Wallace did, that one would need endnotes to flip to to be reminded that they are reading an 1,100-page book.
More accurately, a more confident person might say, it is a reminder that one is reading a book by someone who wanted to remind you that you were reading a book, even though the heft of it, both physically and stylistically, would hardly allow you to forget.
Though there is something charming in a lot of what you can find out about Wallace that he wouldn’t just be grateful for anyone reading at all.
I for one, wouldn’t just be grateful, but be convinced I was in a dream if anyone had an 1,100-page volume of my writing.
It is insecure, maybe, my tendency to think that the stature of writing as a medium has to decrease in proportion to other mediums flourishing.
More confident people talk about the “cult of David Foster Wallace,” although it doesn’t quite sit right, on the grounds that hardly anyone seems concerned about the details of the work.
Of course, maybe people not being concerned with the details of the work is what makes it a cult, and not just a readership.
From someone named Dave Eggers, in a foreword for Infinite Jest: This book is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. It is very shiny with no discernible flaws.
A comedian named Jamie Loftus performed a stunt where she consumed IJ over the course of a year. Consumed as in eaten, not read thoughtfully.
A harsh person might suggest those who claim to have consumed it in the intellectual sense have, in actuality, done no better.
If Mr. Wallace were less talented, you might be inclined to shoot him—or possibly yourself—somewhere around page 480. In fact, you might anyway, Jay McInerney writes in his review.
Some of this is to say, at least, that David Foster Wallace did the opposite of what he admired most about Markson’s novel.
David Foster Wallace’s genius never whispered, one doesn’t even need to be confident to say.
Though it might have been trying to, toward the end, with the project of The Pale King. To say something profound about boredom.
Even then though, the meta-insertion of the David Wallace character seventy pages in. And still with the footnotes.
Not to say it’s bad, someone more confident might argue. It would feel dishonest for Wallace to go straight-up, to totally give into his interest in imitating later-period Dostoyevsky.
Thinking Wallace’s writing is always better when he’s bringing so much of himself to it.
I would cut out all that Quebecois shit. Most of the stuff that’s good there is nonfiction. Was stuff he took from real life, said Mary Karr.
People killed themselves after Kurt Cobain died too, there are some dumb motherfuckers out there, she also said about people getting quotes from IJ tattooed on their arm.
This is still about Markson, though it’s hard not to think about Wallace when talking about Markson.
Wallace would want to be remembered for his work, but one might feel that he exists more as thousands of Markson like factoids, reflecting the angst of people who are still writing.
Easier to weave Wallace factoids into this Markson-style essay than stuff Wallace actually said or wrote, I think.
Easier, someone more confident might say, for everyone to remember what Wallace said about loneliness and literature, than any particular scene in his work.
I imagine the blank page is a lonelier feeling place than it used to be. So many outlets are less blank and less lonely.
It can feel like Kate’s situation. I’m on a beach with a typewriter without anyone else who has the same set of references.
The only other things existing being formed works of art, which only draw more attention to the mess my own thoughts are managing.
Anecdotes about artists providing some kind of comfort, though potentially unsatisfying comfort.
David Foster Wallace being the biggest source of those anecdotes, because there are so many about him and he’s so frequently referenced.
Almost another inhabitant of the beach? A haunting?
David Markson feels particularly relevant now. Twitter is the revenge of modernism, said Kenneth Goldman on the importance of our current President’s favourite social media platform to modern literature. Though he said that in 2014, well before we had this President.
Wondering about Wallace’s response to Trump would be is something I feel like I should be doing, but it leads nowhere. The ghosts I’d like to imagine having insight have nothing to say other than what’s obvious. What Wallace would say he already has said.
Remembering that Wallace voted for Reagan, possibly twice.
Maybe talking about literature’s relationship with Twitter is dumb now, although that would also make literature seem adrift. Weird that a book with such an obscure and ancient set of references would be made to seem more relevant by Twitter.
Wallace sheds light on why, discussing the curative bent of WM, and its incredible loneliness.
All the anecdotes offered about Wallace’s capacity to watch TV for hours on end.
Prestige TV as novel replacement. Binge watching Netflix.
The difference between what Wallace was doing and modern binge watching is the quality or at least the appearance of quality associated with Netflix. Wallace was watching undeniable garbage and acknowledged it as such.
The quality of Kate’s set of artistic references is something I want to point out, but something that I also think might not matter at all.
A hell of utter subjectivity, Wallace calls Kate’s existence.
Trying to imagine a way it wouldn’t be. If what we experience being saturated by art and culture can be more than a metaphysical hell.
Artistic taste is going to be the new good manners; Kanye West has suggested.
Another Wallace evaluation: Kate’s monograph has the quality of speechlessness in a dream, the cold muteness urgency enforces, a psychic stutter. If it’s true our ladder goes noplace, it’s also true nobody’s going to throw everything away.
I changed the original quote. Our was her and everything was Tractus and WM—either book, it said. Quotes aren’t changed anywhere else in this essay.
For better or for worse, it’s also true that no one is likely to eat WM.
Haven’t discussed Wittgenstein much here, but Wallace does. Discusses him in the way some people discuss Wallace, and the way—in 1990 when he wrote his essay on WM—he was probably wishing to discussed.
By all evidence [he] lived in personal torment over the questions too many of his academic followers have made into elaborate empty exercises, Wallace writes, in the most salient example of such an observation.
The long list of voice-y, clever writers who try to resemble Wallace in so many ways, but almost never attempt to convey his profound sense of loneliness and emotional pain.
A spaceship with no recognizable components, is what Dave Eggers called IJ.
There are parts of WM that allow me to imagine something outside of a metaphysical hell.
A favorite fragment of WM: For some reason a part I always liked was Achilles dressing like a girl and hiding, so that they would not make him go fight.
For some reason I always liked the parts of WM that are like that. Finding something weird that happens in art or history, rather than something simply depressing or sad.
Kate always notes “the things men used to do” after talking about something like child sacrifice or torture.
I like how that wouldn’t work for the Achilles section, how Kate is able to find an example of a man running from “the things men used to do” as we might imagine they should.
In that way it is a lot like finding something worth being happy about on Twitter. Which is not to say that Twitter is necessarily bad, just that it mostly seems to be repeating the same thing despite the number of different voices.
But also that a lot of it is bad, and that there are a lot of us on there noting the things men do, rather than noting the things they used to.
The things they used to do never seems all that remarkable.
IJ feels like a thing men used to do, someone more dramatic might say.
Not that WM doesn’t feel like a thing men used to do.
It’s true that no one is going to throw it or IJ away, though I’ll say that WM offers a more useful way out of my own problems as a writer.
Then again, a ladder that goes noplace?
The curator’s job—to recall, choose, arrange: to impose order & only so communicate meaning—is marvellously synecdochic of the life of the solipsist, of the survival strategies apposite one’s existence as monad in a world of diffracted fact.
A Wallace quote, if you couldn’t tell.
If art and evoking art by way of reference can allow for a more adequate map of our emotions, one may be tempted, like Kate, to live more and more in that map.
Which would make it an inadequate map, or no longer a map at all.
And would make the art facts, and disconnected from actual emotions.
Markson’s style makes facts sad, Wallace writes.
Again with Wallace’s reputation being more prevalent than his work.
You have to deal with Wallace’s shadow in your fiction, this writer was told by his professor.
Wallace’s own response to such a demand, was something I liked imagining back then. Now it seems sad, his shadow being more real than his work to a writing professor.
Wishing ghost was the more appropriate word here, rather than shadow, but I’m confident enough to say that it is not.
Though if his shadow is a problem, maybe WM and Wallace’s essay about it offer something of a solution.
To keep in mind that one of the novels Wallace loved most was so different from anything he ever wrote. To write in that direction.
Wallace did, after all, get his nose broken over the book.
If he didn’t care that much, surely I would not have been so invested in the novel.
And not just because I would not have heard about it. One of the best things he’s written, I’ll say about the essay.
Rarely is our uncritical inheritance of early Wittgensteinian & Logical Positivist models so obvious as in our academic & aesthetic prejudice that successful fiction:
encloses rather than opens up,
organizes facts rather than undermines them,
diagnoses rather than genuflects,
Wallace writes, commenting on a strength of WM and a weakness of everything he didn’t like about contemporary American literature.
One of his most personal essays I’ll argue.
There’s a reason people don’t read books like WM, I was told by the same professor who brought up Wallace’s shadow.
The professor didn’t want me to use the book or Markson as an influence.
It is important to genuflect from time to time, to write and read desperately.
Even then, it will feel lonely.
There are living writers on this beach, too.
The biographical information about Wallace is indebted to D.T. Max’s excellent Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. The content and style are heavily indebted to the works of Wallace and Markson (clearly). The minimal amount of Wittgenstein this writer understands is indebted to both Wallace and Ray Monk’s How to Read Wittgenstein.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Brad Baronner is a writer and recent graduate of Allegheny College. He hasn’t spent a lot of time outside of rural Pennsylvania, but wanders all over the place in his writing.
Michael Madary works on the philosophy of mind and the ethics of emerging technology, especially immersive technology such as virtual reality. His research is interdisciplinary, drawing from psychology and neuroscience. In February of 2016, he published with Thomas Metzinger the first code of ethics for research and consumer use of VR, which has received widespread media attention. In addition to the ethics of technology, he has also published widely in the philosophy of perception. Here he discusses theories of visual perception, anticipation and fulfillment, the nature of anticipation, whether anticipation is something distinct from belief, perspectival connectedness, conditional contents, whether fulfillment equates with accuracy, why time matters, sub-personal and person level anticipations and fulfillments, whether anticipations are causal and the importance of Husserl. Then he talks about virtual reality, his code of ethics for VR and whether developers of technology are sufficiently aware of the ethical challenges of their work.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Michael Madary: Probably the main factor that led me into philosophy was my educational background. I was raised and educated as a Roman Catholic and decided around the age of 17 or 18 to investigate the philosophical ideas behind the religious doctrine that I had been taught. So I started, at my father’s suggestion, with G. K. Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas. Around that time, a friend of his gave me a used copy of Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Russell is unfair to a number of philosophers in there, so it’s not a work I would recommend to beginning students of philosophy, but it did open my eyes to some of the diversity of philosophical thought over the centuries. In an attempt at intellectual honesty, I thought it would be important to learn more about philosophical views that were critical of monotheism. This decision motivated me to pick up Nietzsche, whose writing I found exhilarating at that age.
My formal study of philosophy then began as an undergraduate at the University of Dallas, which has a rigorous “core curriculum” – all students regardless of major are required to study great works of literature, history, and philosophy from the Western tradition. There I studied under Robert Wood, who impressed upon his students that the major thinkers throughout history offer valuable core insights into human experience. He emphasized the commonalities rather than the differences between major historical figures, reading Plato and Aristotle, for instance, as proto-phenomenologists. Instead of focusing on the history of philosophy, I wanted to apply this ecumenical approach to the contemporary landscape. In particular, I decided to pursue the dialogue between analytic philosophy of mind, continental phenomenology, and the empirical sciences of the mind.
3:AM: You’re working in the field of philosophy of mind, and have written extensively about visual perception. You argue that seeing things is an ongoing process of anticipation and fulfillment. Before telling us what you mean by this, can you say what alternative models have been taken seriously to explain this, and in particular what you call ‘the historical tension between subjective and objective methods of investigating the mind’ looks like?
MM: There have been numerous accounts of visual perception on offer throughout history. In recent times, the most influential alternative to the account that I propose has been David Marr’s theory of vision. On Marr’s account, visual perception involves the computation of increasingly sophisticated visual representations in stages that progress from the retinal image to what he called the primal sketch and then the 2.5 dimensional sketch and finally the 3-dimensional model representation of shape for the purpose of object recognition. The process, according to Marr, is entirely feedforward, with information flowing in one direction from the retina. It is important to note that Marr himself was not concerned with explaining conscious visual experience. His ideas were put to the service of explaining conscious vision by Ray Jackendoff and, more recently, Jesse Prinz. They both hold that Marr’s 2.5 dimensional sketch, which is a representation of visual surfaces relative to the perceiver’s perspective, is the level at which visual consciousness occurs.
The historical tension between objective and subjective methods of investigating the mind arises because objective methods in natural science rely on what is publicly observable but conscious experience is, by nature, not publicly observable. This tension can be found both in the history of psychology as well as familiar themes in philosophical work on consciousness. Early experimental psychologists around the beginning of the 20th century, such as Wundt and Titchener, made use of introspection in their laboratories. Behaviorism then followed as an attempt to purge psychology of subjective methods such as introspection and establish psychology as an objective science. This tension is addressed in various ways through canonical works in the philosophy of consciousness, such as Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” and Chalmers’ hard problem.
3:AM: So against such ideas you propose a new model. Can you sketch for us what you mean by saying that seeing is this ongoing process of anticipation and fulfillment.
MM: Both Nagel and Chalmers endorse the positive recommendation that we might make progress with understanding consciousness if we focus on the structure instead of the content of different conscious modalities. My strategy is to follow this recommendation by investigating the general structure of visual experience. To that end, I identify three features of all visual experience that any account of the structure of vision ought to accommodate: visual experience is perspectival, temporal, and indeterminate. Marr’s 2.5 dimensional sketch accommodates the perspectival nature of vision, but neglects the other two features.
My suggestion that vision is an ongoing process of anticipation and fulfillment is an attempt to accommodate all three features at once. Due to the perspectival nature of perception, our experience of factual (non-perspectival) properties such as volumetric shape and size is always incomplete. Some aspects of objects are always outside of one’s current perspective. The basic idea is that vision always involves implicit anticipations about how things will appear as we move and obtain new perspectives on the world. When things are going well, those anticipations are fulfilled. The structure of anticipation and fulfillment accommodates the temporality of visual experience because visual anticipations are inherently future-directed. The indeterminacy of vision is also built into the structure because movements bring what is indeterminate in the periphery into more determinacy as we gain better perspectives on objects of interest.
3:AM: It makes it sound like seeing is a kind of constant guessing, or betting, or anticipating. It doesn’t feel like that to me, and yet you say that the phenomenology of perception is best described as that. Where am I going wrong? Can you give me an example to get it clear what this anticipation is.
MM: The visual anticipation that I am describing is ongoing and continuous. It’s what enables us to see when we open our eyes and look around. Although it is possible deliberately to anticipate something in vision, deliberate anticipation is not what I have in mind here. It may not be obvious that we always expect the world to appear a particular way as we move, but there are situations in which anticipations can be noticed fairly easily, especially situations that involve disappointment of anticipations or perceptual novelty. Recall a situation in which you moved to gain a better perspective on a novel object and were surprised by how it appeared from the hidden side. That surprise occurs, I argue, because the new appearance doesn’t match what you had implicitly anticipated. Modern sculpture can be helpful for illustrating visual anticipations because the precise shape of the sculpture is often unclear from one’s initial perspective. Our anticipations regarding the hidden side of a modern sculpture tend to be more indeterminate than our anticipations about the hidden sides of more familiar objects. Contrast a situation in which you look at a modern sculpture for the first time with a situation in which you look at a familiar object, such as your favorite coffee cup. I suggest that you will anticipate seeing the hidden side of each object as you change your perspective. But the anticipations in the case of the sculpture will be more indeterminate than in the case of the coffee cup. It may even seem to you as if you are “guessing” in the case of the sculpture.
Another way to see the ongoing nature of visual anticipations is to consider the mechanics of virtual reality using a head-mounted display. VR only works when the visual display changes in precise ways corresponding to our movements. Without such precision, the illusion of being in a virtual world is broken and people experience motion sickness. So it seems as if the visual display must correspond, within a set of possibilities, with how our visual systems expect visual sensations to change as we move.
3:AM: Is anticipation as you’re using it then something distinct from having beliefs? I’m not clear how this works: if I anticipate I’m going to see a tiger in the next room don’t I have to have a belief that there’s a tiger in the next room, or if my anticipation is certain then mustn’t I know that there’s a tiger there. Again, where am I going wrong?
MM: It depends on how you want to understand beliefs. If we take a relatively standard understanding of beliefs, then visual anticipations are similar to beliefs in some ways and unlike beliefs in other ways. For instance, visual anticipations are similar to beliefs in that they have a mind-to-world direction of fit. They are unlike beliefs in that they cannot be individuated and completely reported in natural language. Visual anticipations are far more fine-grained than typical reports of visual content using natural language.
The difference between believing that there is a tiger in the next room can be distinguished from visually anticipating that there is a tiger in the next room by considering the details of one’s perceptual situation. Husserl suggested that visual anticipations are “stirred-up” (erregen) based on our movements and perceptual context. So your belief that there is a tiger in the next room may never lead to visual anticipations if you take the safe course of action and avoid entering, or even peering into, the room. If you take action to visit the tiger, then those anticipations will be stirred-up and then fulfilled if indeed there is a tiger waiting for you.
One could have a liberal conception of what counts as a belief in order to include visual anticipations as a type of belief. Or one could place visual anticipations as a separate type of mental state. The important point is that the case for visual anticipations should be evaluated on the basis of my arguments for it, not on whether it fits with an existing taxonomy of mental states.
3:AM: What does your notion of perspectival connectedness explain?
MM: The notion of perspectival connectedness was initially developed by Susanna Siegel. She developed a thought experiment involving odd experiences of a doll on a shelf in conjunction with her method of phenomenal contrast to conclude that we are perspectivally connected to the world during our normal course of perceptual experience. To be perspectivally connected means that when we substantially change our perspective on objects, we expect changes in our visual phenomenology. She leaves it open whether we expect a specific type of change in phenomenology as a result in our change in perspective. I argue that we do expect a specific change by introducing a variation on her thought experiment, one involving surprising changes in experience. We do not just expect any kind of change, but rather expect change with some degree of specificity. When I change my perspective on a tea cup, for example, I expect to see the hidden sides of the tea cup. Nearly anything apart from a change that reveals a hidden side of the cup as a result of my self-generated movement would be surprising to me, indicating that it was an unexpected change. This variation of her thought experiment is at the center of my phenomenological argument in support of visual anticipation.
3:AM: Can you explain how important the notion of conditional contents as well as contents are for your explanation?
MM: There are more-or-less two views on perceptual content that have been taken seriously recently in the philosophy of perception. The first, orthodox view is that perceptual content is a kind of propositional content, such as “I see that the cat is on the mat.” The second view, gaining acceptance in recent years, is in the family of disjunctivism or naïve realism. According to the second view, very roughly, perception itself has no content whatsoever. I propose a middle ground between these two extremes.
On the view that I have developed, which is based on some of Husserl’s work, the content of visual perception is the content of the visual anticipations that are stirred-up as we visually explore the environment. Such content can be expressed in the form of conditionals because visual anticipations are conditional upon self-generated movements or upon changes in the visual environment: If I lean forward in such-and-such a manner, then the handle of the teacup will enter into view. If the ball rolls into the shadows, its surface will appear differently. The content of visual anticipations is messy and dynamic because it is closely dependent upon our ever-changing perspective on the world. I always only see that the cat is on the mat from a particular perspective and in particular lighting conditions. Importantly, even though visual anticipations reflect our perspective, having such anticipations depends upon one’s being intentionally directed to perspective-independent properties such as volumetric shape. We are intentionally directed to volumetric shape (and other perspective-independent properties), but this intentional directedness becomes manifest in perception through the conditional fine-grained contents of visual anticipations. As the visual anticipations are fulfilled, our perceptual evidence for non-perspectival properties increases accordingly.
The orthodox propositional view of perceptual content is flawed because it is not well-equipped to accommodate the perspectival, temporal, and indeterminate features of visual perception. It is a holdover from the dominance of philosophy of language in the 20th century. The view that I am recommending is specifically designed to accommodate those features of vision. Those who would reject perceptual content entirely tend to do so out of the problems with the orthodox propositional view. Charles Travis, for instance, argues forcefully that there is no particular proposition, no “face value” that perception offers for us to reject or accept. I agree with him, and I have tried to show a way that avoids these shortcomings of the propositional view without rejecting perceptual content altogether.
3:AM: Do fulfilled anticipations equate with accuracy about the external world?
MM: No. It is possible to have a series of fulfilled anticipations during, for example, a rich and extended hallucinatory episode. We may conclude that we had been hallucinating due to a subsequent series of fulfilled anticipations that “cancel out” the entire hallucinatory series. It is also possible that we never have a series of fulfilled anticipations that conflict with the hallucinatory series. In that case, we may never realize that we had been hallucinating.
3:AM: One element that you are particularly keen to emphasise, and one that you think some models exclude to their detriment, is the temporal dimension to all this. Can you say why temporal extension is important, and why you conclude that momentary experiences don’t have contents attributing factual properties?
MM: Kant placed great emphasis on the fact that all of our experiences unfold in the flow of time. I take this insight to be undeniable and valuable. Following Kant, the temporality of experience is a central theme in classical phenomenology. Apart from some notable exceptions, such as Susan Hurley, Alva Noë, and, in his own idiosyncratic way, Dan Dennett, recent analytic philosophers of perception have investigated perception as a separate issue from that of temporality. My view is that omitting temporal structure from one’s description of perceptual experience leaves one with a distorted description that can generate pseudo-problems. For example, without temporality, one is unable to include the important ways in which previous experience influences future experiences. Similarly, one is unable adequately to accommodate the fact that visual perception typically involves active exploration. As my friend Sascha Fink pointed out to me, it is not unlikely that the absence of temporality as a theme in recent philosophy of perception is partly due to the fact that much of perceptual psychology throughout history has involved subjects remaining still and looking at relatively static images on a screen. This situation will soon change as the new affordability and availability of virtual reality technology enables perceptual psychologists to investigate the dynamics of visual perception more easily.
On the issue of the content of momentary experiences, I suggest that focusing on momentary experiences is not optimal and prefer to consider experiences as temporally extended, for reasons just given. That said, examples of momentary experiences can be helpful at times for the purposes of illustration. My claim, again following Husserl, is that the representation of factual (non-perspectival) properties such as volumetric shape is always incomplete at any particular moment. The factual properties of objects become increasingly manifest to us through fulfillments that involve multiple perspectives over time.
3:AM: Do you think there are systematic structural correspondence between sub-personal and person level anticipations and fulfillments? Is there evidence you can draw on to support this?
MM: There are a number of empirical models of sub-personal visual processing that are structurally similar to the personal-level description of vision as anticipation and fulfillment. Some of these models are becoming increasingly popular these days under the banner of predictive processing. The evidence in support of these models comes from both perceptual psychology and theoretical neuroscience. For example, there is the psychological evidence in support of the close connection between action and visual perception, familiar from sensorimotor approaches to vision. Also, it well-established that the cortex has massive feedback connectivity as well as its own intrinsic ongoing dynamics. These are the properties that one would expect in a system that is essentially predictive or anticipatory. One of the main themes in my recent book is that these two methods of investigating visual experience – the methods of phenomenological description and empirical research – independently converge on the conclusion that vision is an ongoing process of anticipation and fulfillment.
3:AM: Couldn’t we have anticipations, as you describe them, but they fail to cause fulfillments? Isn’t it possible to have anticipations that are causally inert? Doesn’t that look a bit like a Humean problem for you, that there’s no necessary link between anticipations and fulfillments, and without such a link we have still more to explain?
MM: The phenomenological description of anticipations and fulfillments is not itself a causal explanation. It is merely descriptive. Still, if the experiential flow of anticipations and fulfillments share a structural similarity with sub-personal causal models, then that flow should exhibit some kind of causal regularity reflecting that of the models. Here is a sketch of such a causal regularity among anticipations and fulfillments: Suppose that anticipations correspond roughly to predictive top-down signals and that fulfillments correspond roughly to the match between incoming sensory signals, on one hand, and the predicted top-down sensory signals, on the other. (This match likely occurs at multiple levels of neural processing, but the details are not crucial to illustrate the point.) If there is going to be fulfillment, then there must be a match between sensation and prediction. This match is partly caused by the incoming sensory signal and partly caused by the prediction. Thus, anticipations, understood as top-down predictions, partially cause their fulfillments, understood as the match between sensory signals and the top-down predictions. There can be no fulfillment without anticipations because there can be no match between sensory input and predicted input without a predicted input. To give an analogy, the bicycle that you give a child for her birthday cannot fulfill her wish to receive a bicycle unless she had a wish for a bicycle to begin with. The wish partially causes the fulfillment. A similar causal role can be identified when there is disappointment or surprise instead of fulfillment. A perceptual experience that fails to fulfill anticipations cannot occur unless there is some anticipation that remains unfulfilled, some prediction that the incoming sensory signal fails to match.
3:AM: Which philosophers in the past have been important to your thinking in the area of phenomenology of perception – is your work a break from old style phenomenologists or is there a genuine link which would suggest that in this area there has been genuine progress in philosophy of mind?
MM: Easily the biggest influence on my thinking about the phenomenology of perception has been Edmund Husserl. He first developed the idea that the structure of perception is one of anticipation and fulfillment. This idea can be found in his early Logical Investigations (1900) and it is revisited throughout his later works. So, there is undoubtedly a strong link between the view that I am developing and these ideas from early phenomenology. I do see this continuity as progress.
There are two main areas in which there is an obvious difference between my work and Husserl’s project. First, Husserl’s writings did not make reference to empirical results. My work draws heavily from psychophysics and theoretical neuroscience. Already in the 1940s, though, Maurice Merleau-Ponty was exploring connections between phenomenological themes and empirical work, so my interdisciplinarity shares methodological similarities with at least some..
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