Sunday, 10 March 2019

In Honour of Donald Brook

From the cover of "Get a Life", Donald Brook, 2014.
The following is from a memorial service held in honour of Donald Brook (1927-2018) held at the Ron Radford Auditorium – Art Gallery of South Australia, Thursday 7 March, 2019.

When invited to give a lecture to accompany a group exhibition in 2015, Donald didn’t attempt to massage any egos or to ingratiate himself by means of praise and adulation for the work presented. Instead he made an important observation about the difference between art on the one hand and works of art on the other; between the discovery of repeatable acts of ingenuity and a particular class of items, only very few of which are the result of such acts. I suspect that this was a great disappointment to his audience. After all, not even the most incorrigible art enthusiast is likely to welcome the suggestion that their favourite works of art are almost certainly bereft of art.

Donald was obviously well aware of “the awful truth about what art is”—of the logical impossibility of our ever deliberately making art. Works of art, on the other hand, are easily contrived, but the discovery of new forms of ingenuity—art in this stricter sense—is not a contrivable circumstance. Donald’s slogan “Art is the driver of cultural evolution” was never about works of art, it was always about innovations that change the face of culture.

He never stated it explicitly, but Donald’s theory of art is a theory of illumination, insight, discovery and revelation. It is a revelation about revelation itself. However, if art has almost nothing to do with works of art and even less to do with the machinations of the artworld, then it follows that art theory is not what we usually take it to be. More to the point—and I’m sure Donald recognised this with more than a pinch of irony—it follows that as an art theorist he really was one of a kind! Had he lost his marbles? Was he playing with words? Or worse still, was he Theorising with a capital T? No. None of these. He was merely following the logic of the most important philosopher of his lifetime: Ludwig Wittgenstein.

For Wittgenstein, as for Donald—indeed for all of us—representational communication is a sociocultural enterprise. It necessarily emerges at the level of communities, not at the level of individuals or their subsystems. In recent years, Donald took this insight a stage further by linking art, cultural evolution, nonverbal representation and purposeful action in what might be regarded as a unified theory of revelation. I realise this may appear grandiose. But put simply, Donald’s work enables us to see that the discovery of new forms of action is only possible in virtue of skills that we first gain as members of a community and moreover as users of representations.

Wittgenstein once famously invoked Goethe by declaring “In the beginning was the deed.” He was referring to the origins of language. Donald long knew, and very frequently argued, that this must necessarily have been a nonverbal deed. But we are now in a position to see that this first deed was in fact art: the first ever discovery of a repeatable act of ingenuity. In the beginning was art! This is a momentous realisation with profound implications.

It wasn’t only Newton who stood on the shoulders of giants. We all do. But Donald stood taller than most, and by standing on his shoulders we have an opportunity to appreciate the intimate relations between art and representation. As the privileged inheritors of everything that comes with our elevated position we owe it not just to Donald’s memory but to one another, in the broadest sense, not to squander his insights or the clarity that comes from his vantage point. We owe it to humankindto art in factto revisit his work, to share it, to discuss it, to make use of his insights and thereby, and most especially, to ensure that his discoveries do not languish in obscurity. Culture flourishes in virtue of the things we repeat, not in virtue of the coruscating flotsam that we leave in our wake. Donald lives on not merely or even mainly in the vividness or vagueness of our memories but in the public sharing of his outstanding contributions to culture.

I miss him dearly, but I never cease to be astounded by the light that Donald’s work continues to shed.

Farewell Donald

Your friend Jim
Glasgow, February, 2019.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Death, Metaphysical Darkness and Revelation

©Artlink Australia, 2013 

Sadly, my friend and mentor, the British-Australian art theorist Donald Brook, died last month at the age of 91. I will dearly miss our correspondence, his encouragement, advice and inimitable wit. Over the last seven years, we exchanged more than 1700 emails, almost all of which are on the subject of representation and cultural evolution. For someone of his advanced years, he was always incredibly lucid and insightful and I often felt humbled by his keen intelligence. Despite the complexity of the many issues we discussed, he almost always found a way to inject humour into the discussion and it was rare that he failed to respond to the many rabbits that I sent running across the field (as he once teased me for doing). The following is his last email to me, written shortly after my previous post on this blog. 

Hi Jim:

Yes, you are right. I was trying to compress too much into what I was trying to say in a single sentence (or two).

An individual kangaroo is an item of the kangaroo kind. The kangaroo kind evolves, whereas the individual kangaroo does not evolve. The variation of complex genetic constitution that is subjected (significantly but not exclusively) to external environmental pressures is responsible for the evolution of the kind of animal.

Similarly an individual cubist painting (or an individual greeting by handshake) is an item of the cubist painting kind (or of the relevant greeting kind). The variation of complex memetic constitution that is subjected (significantly but not exclusively to revelatory discoveries) is responsible for the evolution of the relevant cultural kind.

I don't know how I came to identify memes with cultural kinds (or, indeed with items of cultural kinds), unless it was in a misguided effort to associate memetic activity so intimately with cultural evolution (or with cultural kinds) that I could move on unimpeded to the point about the idea of self-consciousness being logically dependent upon the manifest existence of other items of the same kind as oneself that are regularly and predictably manipulable by the performance of behaviours that qualify (because one can represent them and their anticipated consequences in advance) as actions.

I'm sorry to say that my head has most of the dominant characteristics, these days, of a boiled cabbage.


As is often the case with Brook’s writing, the convolutions of the cabbage can be a little forbidding. Basically, our conversation was about Brook’s theory of cultural evolution. “Meme” is a technical term, originally coined by Richard Dawkins, conceived as the cultural equivalent of the biological “gene”. Unlike other meme theorists, Brook insists that items of culture cannot be memes for the same reason that items of a biological kind (“members of a species” if you prefer) cannot be genes. It makes no more sense to say that a slogan or song is a meme (in the meme theorist’s sense) than it does to say that a kangaroo or a carrot is a gene. For Brook, repeatable actions are the only logical equivalent of genes. If meme theory was clear on this point, then perhaps it wouldn’t be languishing in obscurity.

I don’t wish to attack or defend meme theory here, but rather to discuss theory itself and especially theory as it relates to the work of Donald Brook. Earlier this month I attended a conference with the title: “Philosophy of Film Without Theory”. I was attracted to the conference especially because of its focus on the rejection of theorisation and the likelihood that it would include discussion of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s views on theory. I wasn’t disappointed.

Of the papers presented, the first was undoubtedly the most relevant to my interests. Dr Andrew Klevan, from the University of Oxford gave a paper about Ordinary Language Philosophy. Like Wittgenstein, most Ordinary Language Philosophers were very wary of the philosophical tendency towards theorisation born of what Wittgenstein called a “craving for generality”. These philosophers devoted themselves to the study of the ways that we use language and to dissolving the sorts of confusions that arise when certain words or phrases are used in unfamiliar or inappropriate contexts.  Somewhat relatedly, and this is something that Klevan emphasised, Wittgenstein is often quoted as declaring that “Nothing is hidden!” He urged philosophers not to regard human intentions or the rules of language as being somehow mysteriously concealed from view but as being fully manifested in the things that we do and say.

At one point in his presentation, Klevan mentioned how understanding can sometimes strike one as a “revelation”. Afterwards, I asked him whether he saw any conflict between the idea of revelation and Wittgenstein’s view that nothing is hidden. He agreed about the appearance of a conflict, but he wasn’t worried by it. What Wittgenstein objected to, was the tendency to make generalisations and essentialist claims about the nature of the world. He had no quarrel with the possibility of illumination. Getting clear about something—understanding it—is usually a more modest enterprise than theorisation. It doesn’t seek to convert the uninitiated.

But what about the theories of Donald Brook? Was he attempting to theorise in the way that scientists do; in the way that Wittgenstein claimed leads philosophers into complete metaphysical darkness? I don’t think so. The roots of Brook’s approach lie firmly planted in the soil of Ordinary Language Philosophy and in the rough ground of non-verbal representation. He freely acknowledged the importance of J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle and Wittgenstein in the development of his philosophical approach and he was evidently convinced that conceptual analysis is key to disentangling metaphysical muddles. Nonetheless, Brook seemed to have no qualms about describing himself as a theorist and there is little doubt that he felt that genuine insights can sometimes be revealed through careful theorisation. Indeed, one of his books, “The Awful Truth about what Art is”, is in many ways a theory of revelation. I’ll try to explain.

Brook begins, like any Ordinary Language Philosopher, by examining the concept of “art”. He notes that we use the term in two quite different ways. For example, we commonly speak of things like the “art of pastry making” or the “art of motorcycle maintenance”. On the other hand, we speak of objects and events broadly recognised as art by the artworld. So, at this point, Brook is merely making a perfectly reasonable distinction. 

Brook’s next step is to remind us of what we all already know: “Art is not instantiated in every work of art just as sucrose is not instantiated in every date; and certainly not in dates such as the 17th of September.” Brook playfully uses this homonym to echo the two senses of the word “art”, but his point is worth emphasis. We don’t need to be cynical to know that there is no prospect of finding art in every object regarded as work of art. And we also know that there is plenty of art to be found outside the objects, institutions and norms of the artworld.

Brook then goes on to show that we commonly distinguish between artworks or works of art on the one hand and art on the other. No sign of metaphysical darkness so far!

So, what does Brook suggest art is? In this sense, art is the revelation of the genuinely new and significant. To discover something new is to gain a previously unrealised ability, whether this be a new way of representing the structure of the universe, a new way of doing the high jump or a new way of splitting the atom. Repeatable actions (or memes according to Brook's important revision) lie at the core of this understanding and are the reason for the recognised parallel between memetic evolution and biological evolution. As Brook often put it: art is “memetic innovation”. It is the “driver of cultural evolution.”

Of course, Brook’s theory demands that we view the concept of “art” with a different lens, but I don’t think he is making any metaphysical claims. I suppose it might be argued that he is making an essentialist claim about “what art is”. That can hardly be denied. But if he has been led into complete darkness, it seems to me that he has taken a very bright light with him and there is a lot to be gained from the illumination it provides.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Atoms of Experience and Beetles in Boxes

In one sense we can regard our whole life as an experience and we can also regard specific events within our lives as experiences. But does it make sense to regard experiences as being divisible into ever more finely dissected particles? For example, are the individual colours, flavours, temperatures, sizes, shapes, positions, orientations and numerous other properties of the things we experience, experiences in their own right? Or are these just the ordinary properties of the things that populate our experiences?

Dictionaries explain that "Experience" can be used as either a verb or as a noun. But what dictionaries do not suggest is that it makes sense to describe objects or their properties as experiences. We have experiences in virtue of things, but the elements of these experiences cannot themselves be experiences. This observation will be useful in a moment.

Some contemporary philosophers discuss experience by reference to its “phenomenal feel” or “phenomenal character". They talk of such things as “the experience of redness” or “what it feels like to see the colour red”. In a panel discussion on the subject of experience, David Chalmers claims that: “There is a distinctive character to seeing the colour red.” He remarks that it is notoriously difficult to describe this character to a colour-blind person because “they don’t know that particular subjective character of redness.” Another member of the same discussion, Peter Hacker, identifies several confusions in Chalmers’ view. Whilst Chalmers acknowledges one or two of Hacker’s observations, he seems to be so beholden to his account that no amount of careful analysis will enable him to see things more clearly.

Although we can usually differentiate between many thousands of colours, it doesn’t follow that a rainbow is an abundance of distinctive feelings. To look at Barnett Newman’s painting “Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV” (1969-70), is not to have three experiences, but one. And consider the proposal that the distinctive feeling of wool has its own distinctive feeling.

It might be argued that Chalmers doesn’t appeal to distinctive feelings as such, but only to the “particular subjective character of seeing the colour red.” This is no less circular. Even a distinctive subjective character, could be regarded as having its own distinctive subjective character. And even if there were a distinctive character of salty, or a way that salty things uniquely “feel”, it couldn’t itself be an experience, for if it were, it would fail to answer the very question it is supposed to illuminate. Most people would rightly say that we experience things and events, not unique feels or the distinctive subjective character of things.

Is Chalmers’ point unsalvageable though? Surely there is something about scarlet that makes it distinctively scarlet and not crimson, round, big or soft. And surely this unique quality is what we find so difficult to describe to someone with colour-blindness? It turns out though that the difficulty we find in describing such experiences isn’t because we are “inarticulate”, as Chalmers suggests, but because there is something irreducible about them, beyond which it is silly to venture. Wittgenstein made a very similar point with his famous “beetle in a box” analogy:
Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. — Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. — But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? — If so it would not be used as the name of a thing? The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. — No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is. (Wittgenstein, 1958, §293)
Whether or not there is something in our experiential beetle box, it makes no sense to try to characterise it, and any attempt to do so will only lead to nonsense and confusion.

In an important sense, experiences are events that we participate in, witness or observe and they are the basis of empirical knowledge. Some philosophers regard dreams as experiences because—or so they claim—dreams have distinctive phenomenal character. If dreams are experiences, then they must be a very unusual category of experience, because we do not participate in, witness or observe our dreams, nor are they a source of empirical knowledge.  To dream is to gain experience of dreaming, not to gain experience of the things that one dreams of. If, after someone recounted a dream, we were to ask if they had actually experienced the things they described, they couldn't easily say "Yes" and mean it. And, if they did say "Yes", we would think that they didn't understand the difference between dreams and experiences (at least not experiences of the ordinary sort).
If a man had certain thoughts and feelings in a dream it no more follows that he had those thoughts and feelings while asleep, than it follows from his having climbed a mountain in a dream that he climbed a mountain while asleep. (Norman Malcolm 1959/1962: 51–52)
Norman Malcolm is well known for his denial that dreams are experiences. He writes: “if a person is in any state of consciousness it logically follows that he is not sound asleep” (p.21). Thus, according to Malcolm, we cannot do anything or have any experiences whilst dreaming. Hacker takes a similarly uncompromising position on the subject of lucid dreams: “…a lucid dream is a dream in which the sleeper dreams that he is dreaming, not a dream in which he is conscious that he is” (2013 p. 58). I agree with Malcolm that we do not encounter anything in our sleep, but are Malcolm and Hacker right to suggest that a dreamer could never think, but only ever dream that they are thinking? What about those times when we say “The idea came to me in my sleep”? It seems perfectly right to say that we cannot reason while we are unconscious, but can nothing even occur to us in our dreams? And when Malcolm’s climber dreams that he is falling from the mountain, must we deny the terror that shocks him into wakefulness? Are parents wrong in believing that their children are frightened when they have nightmares?

When someone says that they had a terrifying dream, it wouldn’t be odd if they acknowledged that the dreamed events didn’t really happen, but it would be distinctly odd if they were to say that the dream wasn’t really terrifying or that they hadn’t really been terrified. I’m not claiming that these sorts of examples show that Malcolm in particular was wrong to deny that dreams are experiences, but I’m not sure that ordinary language is as strict in this instance as both Malcolm and Hacker suggest. People can be semi-conscious for instance and the concept of experience seems to accommodate this. When I had my wisdom teeth removed several years ago, even though I was heavily sedated, I distinctly remember the crunching noise and the strain as the dentist tore the most stubborn tooth from my jaw. In every other respect I was oblivious to the world. Did I experience the removal of one of my wisdom teeth? Evidently I did to some extent. Was I unconscious at the time? Only if we conclude that there is such a thing as unconscious experience and I agree with Malcolm and Hacker that there is no such thing. Was I conscious then? Yes, partially.

Many advocates of the phenomenal character of experiences claim that dreams and experiences stand on the same phenomenal footing. So for example, they will say that an actual colour and its dream equivalent are the same in respect of their distinctive phenomenal character. What these philosophers fail to realise is that the phenomenal is not a footing. You cannot kick a phenomenal character of solidity or measure a distinctive subjective character of long, heavy or hot. These are not perceptible entities upon which any public agreement can be reached. Whatever phenomenal characters you have dancing around the stage of your private Cartesian theatre is of concern only to you, if at all.

Most experiences involve all of our senses operating as a unified system. Obviously we often focus our attention on certain aspects of an experience, but this doesn’t mean that the rest of our senses are inoperative and make no contribution to the experience overall. References to “visual experiences” or “auditory experiences” etc. usually indicate attention to a single mode of interest, nonetheless philosophers are not always clear in their use of these terms. In her 2010 book, “The Contents of Visual Experience”, Harvard Professor of Philosophy, Susanna Siegel writes: “A visual experience is one of the states (among many others) that you are in when you see things.” One can be in a state of anxiety, confusion, terror, vexation or boredom etc. but it makes little sense to say that we can be in “a state of visual experience”? If Siegel is correct, then a sporting experience is one of the states (among many others) that you are in when you are in a marathon. I see nothing to commend this view.

Several other contemporary philosophers believe that it makes sense to describe pictures as experiences. Robert Hopkins (2012), claims that photographs are “factive pictorial experiences”, Mikael Pettersson (2011) argues that pictorial experience involves “pictorial perceptual presence” and Dominic McIver Lopes asserts that “when people look at a picture, they typically have a visual experience of its subject.” These claims deserve much closer scrutiny and analysis than is appropriate here, but I will make a general point. We do not gain any experience from looking at photographs, reading books or watching films. Or at least the experience we do gain is merely of looking at photographs, reading books or watching films. We often gain knowledge in these ways of course, but the distinction between experience and knowledge is not a trivial one that philosophers can simply ignore or override. If someone spent their life in a room looking at photographs of animals they would gain no experience of looking at animals. The knowledge they gain might be encyclopaedic, but someone else with the briefest visit to a zoo would gain more experience.

It is helpful to be aware of how strict we can be about the application of the concept of experience. If you experience a representation of thing X, then you cannot be having an experience thing X, even if the representation is a perfect replica. So the claim that photographs are experiences threatens to obliterate a vitally important distinction. Yes, of course photographs, films and books trigger many of the same responses, thoughts and feelings as the things they represent. This is not at issue. What is at issue is the integrity of our conceptual scheme. Is it unreasonable to expect philosophers to be a little more careful with the concepts that we all know and love?


The tendency to reduce experiences to their component parts and then to regard these as experiences can be a significant source of confusion.

It makes no sense to try to characterise any irreducible component of our experience.

The phenomenal is not a footing upon which anything can stand or from which anything can be established.

Norman Malcolm may have been wrong to deny that we have certain feelings in our dreams.

“Visual experience” is not a state that you can be in.

Representations do not provide experience of the things they depict.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Naturalism or Preternaturalism?

"Dream Vision" by Albrecht Dürer, 1525.*

Naturalism in philosophy is (roughly) the view that the structure and behaviour of the universe is governed by natural—not supernatural—laws. Many naturalist philosophers also hold the view that science is the best means for investigating the nature of reality, including the reality of consciousness. Others would point out that many contemporary perplexities are not due to a lack of scientific evidence or insight but are instead the result of various conceptual errors over which science has no authority. After all, we don’t look to science to adjudicate on questions of logic. Sense is not science.

I’m a member of a Facebook discussion group on the subject of naturalism. The group is managed by Tom Clark, who also runs a website by the same name ( In an article about lucid dreaming, Clark writes: “As people learn about lucid dreaming, an interesting fact about the brain will become known: it is a virtual reality generator. But an even more remarkable fact is waiting in the wings: waking experience is virtual reality too.”

Like Clark, I sometimes have lucid dreams, but unlike him, I don’t regard these as evidence that “the brain constructs a conscious phenomenal world”. Clark’s view is very similar to what is known as “mind-body dualism”, since it seeks to explain the relation between mind and matter by way of supernatural, or in Clark’s case preternatural, powers. I hope it is clear that even a preternatural explanation conflicts significantly with the aims and commitments of naturalism. This post is a very brief attempt to bring this conflict into relief.

Across the natural world, many organisms have developed deceptive strategies that aid their survival. Camouflage is just one example of this evolutionary achievement. Dissimulation is another. It might not be obvious, but all forms of deception exploit various weaknesses, whether these be perceptual weaknesses or weaknesses of knowledge or understanding. This raises a very serious problem for Clark, because in order to generate any form of virtual reality, the brain would have to exploit some form of weakness, constraint or limitation on the part of the consumer/victim/user. In the competitive context of organismic life, there is something to be gained from deceiving potential predators or prey. But in the case of the internal organs like the brain, the advantages are obscure. Organs obviously don’t prey on other parts of an organism and nor can they exploit anything or be exploited in any way that isn’t to the advantage or detriment of the organism as a whole. So from this evolutionary perspective, Clark’s dualistic claims simply do not stack up.

Clark repeatedly uses terms like “generates”, “constructs”, “builds”, “models” and “represents” to characterise the alleged creative abilities of the brain. When we speak of a gust of wind creating a mess or a tsunami creating destruction we do not suppose that the wind or sea are creators. Clark’s use of these terms, on the other hand, invokes a very different sense of “creation”; a sense that is little different from the supernatural explanations that naturalism ordinarily seeks to avoid.

What is true of terms like generation, construction, creation etc. is also true of action in general: 

When we describe a wheel as rotating, a ball as rolling downhill, water as flowing, a pendulum as swinging back and forth, a ship as steaming ahead, we are not describing them either as acting or as acting on anything. We are merely describing what they are doing. (Hacker 2010, p.144. Original emphasis)
Brains certainly do things in the same way that other inanimate objects do things, but any actions brains are involved in are actions of the organism as a whole. No organ, not even a brain, can take action on its own behalf. This is why we rightly regard brains as integral to the organisms of which they are parts. It makes no sense to treat brains as autonomous agents with their own generative powers.

Naturalism usually takes the view that explanations should seek to make as few assumptions as possible. But the virtual reality hypothesis requires an order of complexity, coherence, organization and generative action far beyond anything found in the natural world. In fact it is far beyond anything found in the cultural world either. The assumption that brains are devious creators is almost as extravagant and implausible as it is possible to conceive. Only an omniscient deity would be a more unlikely puppet-master.

*Dürer's text reads: "In 1525, during the night between Wednesday and Thursday after Whitsuntide, I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. I was so greatly shocked at this that I awoke before the cloudburst. And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace. But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time. When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it. May the Lord turn all things to the best."

Long before making this image, Dürer wrote: "How often do I see great art in my sleep, but on waking cannot recall it; as soon as I awake, my memory forgets it."

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Structure of Representations

[C]lassification cannot be embodied in, or reduced to, or dissolved in, discriminant behaviour directed towards the classified objects, but involves the use of symbols specific to the purpose. These symbols will be explicit symbols: they will not be mistaken for the things classified; they will stand off from the world whose contents are being classified. (Raymond Tallis 2000)

It’s almost a platitude to say that representations come in all shapes and sizes, but it isn’t a platitude to observe that there is no representation without structure. Even in their most ephemeral and ethereal forms, words, images, models and performances are far from immaterial, and when we consume them, their contours rarely escape our notice. If not for this awareness of the differences between representations and the things they are used to represent, there could be little, if anything in the way of representations or acts of representing. A clone of an apple is just another apple[1]. If on waking, we were to find ourselves in an identical copy of this world, we would accept it as readily as this one. Interestingly, such a copy would not qualify as an illusion because the concept of sameness logically excludes illusion. If you surreptitiously swap your dog’s dinner bowl with another of the same design, there is no illusion involved and no representation either. So much for the suggestion that we might be dwelling in a simulated universe!

Not only are representations structured, they must be crafted, manufactured or otherwise performed, and thus the skills necessary to do so must first be discovered, developed and refined through social and environmental feedback. Nothing as sophisticated as representation could just spring out of the evolutionary sandbox fully formed. Deaf songbirds never learn to sing, let alone to pick-up the localised “dialects” paraded by their chirruping friends (Marler 2004). Without feedback, there could be no opportunity for the shaping or “grounding” (Harnad 1990) of communication. There could be no right way and no wrong way of depicting, characterising or even mimicking aspects of the environment. Even camouflage, which is arguably not a form of representation[2], would be impossible, because there would be no constraining mechanisms guiding its evolutionary development.

Perceptibility in Principle

Must representations always be perceptible? Can imperceptibly small images, models or words still be representations? So long as a candidate representation remains perceptible in principle, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that it qualifies as a representation. But if we divide a representation into fragments and rearrange these in an unrecognisable form, then I think it is fair to say that they would no longer qualify as representations.

"Imagine a painting cut up into small, almost monochromatic bits which are then used as pieces in a jig-saw puzzle. Even when such a piece is not monochromatic it would not indicate any three-dimensional shape, but should appear as the flat colour patch. Only together with the other pieces does it become a bit of blue sky, a shadow, a highlight, transparent or opaque, etc. Do the individual pieces show us the real colours of the parts of the picture?" (Wittgenstein, “Remarks on Colour” §60, 1977)

Data Processing and Storage

It might be argued that the data stored on a hard drive is representational. At best, this would be “representation” dressed up in a lab coat, not representation in its ordinary non-technical attire. Many objects and patterns have representational utility (i.e. they are apt for representational interpretation and use), but they do not constitute representations unless we treat them as such. So for example, the highly patterned structure of DNA is widely regarded as a code, but few self-respecting biologists would wager that the “genetic code” is anything other than a convenient metaphor for the exquisitely computable structures of Guanine, Adenine, Thymine and Cytosine. Similarly, the facial movements of ordinary speech are not representations in addition to the words we produce, but they are nonetheless a visible component of speech and can be reliably interpreted as representations by lip readers.

So when we say that photographs, videos and emails etc. are stored on digital media, it needn’t follow that this storage is representational too. Computation relies on the fact that we can convert analogue signals into the meaningless binary states of digital processing and storage media. Think of Wittgenstein’s jigsaw again. When the picture is disassembled, it no longer represents anything. Only when the fragments are reassembled do they become an image once more. So even though computers disassemble their various inputs in highly structured ways (into what we commonly refer to as “data’), this structuring alone is not sufficient to constitute representation. Data stored on digital media has to be converted back into representational form before we can recognise it as such.

According to Jerry Fodor (1981): “There is no computation without representation.” This assertion lies at the foundations of computationalism; the doctrine that our brains are biological computing mechanisms. Fodor is half right. There can be no computation without representation because computation is a human invention necessarily dependent upon a history of cultural innovations involving the manipulation of symbolic representations. If not for this thoroughly human knowhow we would never have discovered how to create machines capable of saving us the trouble of crafting, producing and manipulating (including computing) representations in the first place.

[1] This is not to suggest that apples are any less apt for representational use than anything else of course.
[2] Because it isn’t performed for the purposes of communication.

Thanks to John Ragin, for some very helpful discussions about digital processing and storage.

Monday, 11 September 2017

I Refute It Thus!

Some theorists take the view that we have no direct perceptual access to the world. They argue that perception is mediated by our representational skills, creative techniques and—if they are to be consistent—the raw materials we use as well (although—tellingly—many would deny this latter condition). This doctrine is known as Transcendental Idealism and was first propounded by the German philosopher Emanuel Kant in the 18th Century. Idealism also comes in a vanilla edition which takes perception to be a creation of the mind or brain for the benefit of... well for the benefit of the mind or brain I guess. Many withering and sometimes funny attempts have been made to discredit Idealism, but its followers seem to be incurable. In contrast to both forms of Idealism, Realism—which also comes in various flavours—takes the world to be very largely as we find it.

The Realist philosopher Karl Popper claimed that Idealism (including Transcendental Idealism no doubt) and Realism are “neither demonstrable nor refutable”. Perhaps he was right. However, some would argue—with a tinge of irony—that his claim itself is not beyond refutation. One famous attempt at a refutation of Idealism was performed by Samuel Johnson, who kicked a neighbouring stone and quipped: “I refute it thus!” Most philosophers find his demonstration to be thoroughly unconvincing. Nonetheless, Johnson’s perfunctory gesture may have more to commend it than is ordinarily conceded or acknowledged.
Natural or manufactured objects, like the heart [or brain], chemical agents, the planets or engines, have an action, which may be slow, complicated or beautiful; but they do not take action, they do not act, however much they may act on other things. (Alan White "The Philosophy of Action", 1968 p.2)
Johnson had to take action to kick the rock; in order to make his demonstration. There is no such thing as a representation without some actions being taken to produce it. But a brain or mind cannot take action, least of all representational action. Brains are obviously significantly involved in the taking of actions but they do not have agency or take actions on their own or anyone else's behalf. The Idealist's claim that the mind/brain creates representations simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Even Transcendental Idealists reject Idealism as wholly incoherent.

When we act, our actions are comprised of countless unthinking physiological processes that have been shaped by millions of years of evolutionary development. Representation is merely a very recent cultural and fully public outgrowth from a winnowing process that has left countless behaviours and sensory failures in its wake. Life in general is a testament to the undeniable efficacy of mindless sensory responsiveness. It is this sensory integration, and not our representations or even our perceptions, that determines what we reliably take for granted.
“The thesis that ‘our representational practices determine all the divisions’ is vulnerable to the criticism that the de facto success of our representational practices can only be attributable to regularities that are implicit in the relationships between the components of the universe itself.” (Donald Brook, in personal correspondence 20/09/16)
Some people find Brook a little difficult to grasp, so perhaps I can try to put it differently. If the world were not comprised of objects and circumstances in precisely the configurations that we find them, then our representations, not to mention our biological processes, would never have gotten off the ground in the first place.

Saturday, 5 August 2017


A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers to the bartender, and says “Five beers please.” 
A two-fingered gesture can be used as a stand-in for two objects or (according to a different convention) five. It can symbolise a “V” for victory or be thrust in the air as a symbolic act of defiance. Evidently even the simplest gestures can be interpreted in various ways. But what may not be clear is that the meanings we ascribe to things often have much less to do with their nature than with our “nature” as communicators; with our “form of life” as Wittgenstein helpfully put it. The following discussion is intended to show that symbolic/semantic content—or “meaning” as it is ordinarily known—depends upon the shared conventions of a discursive community and is therefore fundamentally grounded in culture. I also hope to shed some light on one or two of the confusions that can arise when theorists discuss the notion of content.

In ordinary language, we frequently speak of films, books, images etc. in terms of their content, usually in reference to their meaning. At other times we might refer to their content in a different way: in respect of its ethical implications. In this sense, to describe a film say, as having explicit content, need not suggest that it has explicit meaning. Explicit, graphic, adult and other forms of what we might call “ethically sensitive content” are therefore conceptually distinct from the symbolic content (the meaning) of a film, story or picture etc. This is why Picasso's “Guernica” is not censored, because its violence is largely implied. Figurative or abstracted pain, suffering or violence of this sort is generally considered to be of less concern than its more literal, explicit or graphic incarnations. Goya’s depictions of the horrors of war, on the other hand, are unquestionably disturbing because they leave so little to the imagination. 

"Guernica", Pablo Picasso, 1937.
Whilst content is commonly associated with representational media, it is not exclusive to them. To the extent that any object or event can be measured or interpreted, it can also be said to have content. Familiar examples include the nutritional content of foodstuffs, the mineral content of soil deposits or the energy content of chemicals and other substances. Light from distant celestial events also carries content, as do our genes. Even the style and state of our clothes has content that can convey information about our preferences, social position and sometimes even our political tendencies.

Many of the sciences are concerned with the discovery, observation and measurement of quantifiable forms of naturally occurring content. The arts, on the other hand, are much more concerned with the interpretation of content of the cultural sort. Unlike quantifiable forms of content, symbolic meaning (sometimes called “semantic content”) is not an essence that can be extracted, distilled or derived from representations by probing their constituent parts. So a satisfactory answer to the question "What is the meaning of Picasso’s 'Guernica'?" would not be given by describing its depicted features, no matter how exhaustively or precisely. And a detailed appraisal of the materials used in its manufacture would miss the point entirely. Instead, the meaning of representations is largely (perhaps entirely) dependent upon the interpretive and associative abilities that we bring to bear upon them. In other words, we imbue things with meaning, and we do this according to skills that we acquire to a very significant degree through our participation in discursive culture.

It might be helpful to consider the difference between content and contents. I can read the contents-page of a book, and this may give an indication of the book’s content, but if I turn the book upside-down, it would be absurd to suggest that its content has also been turned upside-down. Similarly, I can pour the contents of a packet of nuts into a bowl, but it would be misleading to suggest that I have also tipped their energy content into the bowl. The point here is that content and contents are often liberated, released, extracted or otherwise accessed in very different ways. Where representations are concerned, it makes little sense to say that we can extract, release or liberate their meaning, because, as I have already tried to make clear, the meaning of a representation is not a quantifiable feature. Meanings can be accessed of course, but this relies on a familiarity with the ideas and associations that make things intelligible not on any form of determinable magnitude.

In the visual arts, we commonly distinguish between the form of an image, its pictured subject and it’s meaning. The terms used to describe this triangular relationship may vary, but in general, everybody understands the difference between what a depiction shows, what it is about and it’s material constituents. Interestingly, this relationship is also reflected in ordinary language: in the basic prepositions we use to describe images. We distinguish between what an image is of, what it is about and what it is made from. So even though some of the preferred terminology may vary, this need not suggest any underlying confusion over the conceptual differences involved.

Some theorists also use the terms “connotation” and “denotation” to discuss the content of words and images etc. Definitions of these terms typically correlate them with literal and figurative content. So the literal/denotative content of the Jolly Roger design is a skull and crossed bones, whereas it's figurative/connotative content is piracy. Note however, that the denotation/connotation distinction applies differently to non-verbal representations than it does to verbal ones. A poem's denotative content is its literal or obvious meaning and is primary in a sense that the meaning of an image or other non-verbal representation is not.  A photograph of an apple does not mean an apple, it depicts one. Accordingly, any meanings an image might have are in fact secondary connotative content. So it turns out that the denotative content of an image is exactly the same its pictorial content, and thus there is little need for the additional jargon, especially if this misleadingly characterises images sculptures, models, maps and other forms of non-verbal representation as quasi-linguistic artefacts.

Some philosophers, claim that experience and consciousness have representational content. Strangely, many of these same philosophers make no clear distinction between “contents” and “content” (see here). In fact they seem to take “contents” merely to be the plural form of “content”. This is equivalent to saying that the subversive content of Piero Manzoni’s infamous can of “Artist’s Shit” is the same as its unappealing contents. Something is awry. Furthermore, when philosophers speak in this way of “contents”, they misleadingly imply, and may even mistakenly believe, that it makes sense to regard this as a detectable—and thus measurable—feature of the brain. As should be clear from the “Guernica” and Manzoni examples, the content of a representation is not to be found by prodding around in its contents.

It might be argued that the brain/mind is different in this regard, that it contains our thoughts and that these are therefore rightfully described as content. If “mental content” means anything, surely it refers to our thoughts, and these happen in our heads? It is true that we sometimes talk of thoughts being “in our heads”, but consider the following question: “Where were you having that thought about buying a new phone?” Not “In my head” but “At work”, “On the way to the shops”, “In the car driving along the High Street” etc. Thinking is an activity, and it is carried out wherever we happen to be. The fact that a significant portion of its biological operations occur in the brain, does not mean that its performance can be intelligibly reduced to the neural level, even if it seems scientifically shrewd to do so. Thinking is something whole people do, not their brains, minds or neurons.

Another problem with “the content view,” as it is known in philosophy, is that it confuses the kinds of accounts we give of experiences with the kinds of accounts we give of objects experienced. To describe what an object “is like”, is to make a comparison of some kind, invariably with a familiar object or some feature of it. Interestingly, to do so is to pick out a suitable representational relationship—a likeness in fact. But to describe what an experience is like is entirely different. We don't say that our experience of a lime is like a green lemon or even that it is like a lime. We say that the experience is nice, horrible, disgusting or whatever. As Peter Hacker makes clear (here), the qualities of experiences are given in hedonic terms, not in terms of the qualities of objects.

Charles Travis (here) is also critical of the view that experience has representational content. His arguments are quite lengthy and involved, so for the sake of brevity, I will mention what I think is a decisive point: "If we are going to be represented to in experience, then the relevant representing must be something we can appreciate for what it thus is." In other words, if we fail to recognise that something is a representation, then there is no question of our grasping its intended use. As Wittgenstein famously remarked of an arrow-like “dead line on paper”: “The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it.” This is because representations and the symbolic content that we often ascribe to them are cultural contrivances. The representational currency of an object is necessarily secondary to its form; the “dead line on paper”. We first have to recognise the line, before we can appreciate its application.
We can apprehend the representational properties of representations only because we can perceive the non-representational ones. (Hacker 2003 p.193)
It is silly to suppose that the world is representing itself to us or that we must necessarily be representing it to ourselves in order to perceive it. Meaning is attributed to the world; we imbue things with it according to skills we learn as representation-users; as communicators. 
“Anything can be a symbol and, in human life, almost anything is.” (Noble and Davidson 1996)
Angus' "Ant City". Cambridge 1/8/17

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Illusionistic Innovations

If you see the drawing as such-and-such an animal, what I expect from you will be pretty different from what I expect when you merely know what it is meant to be. (L. Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations. 1953, p205e)
If you merely know that a young child’s drawing is meant to be of a cat, it is probable that the drawing shares very little in common with a cat. But if you momentarily mistook a photograph or skilful drawing of a cat for an actual cat, it would be extraordinary if the picture turned out to share nothing in common with a cat.
Now a simple phenomenological inspection of any representation, either a drawing or a photo, shows us that an image possesses none of the properties of the object represented. (U. Eco. “Critique of the Image,” 1970)
For Eco, the relation between images and “real phenomena” is “wholly arbitrary”. But this is surely mistaken. Words like “cat” certainly do have a "wholly arbitrary" relation to the things they refer to. Consequently there is no question of our mistaking the word “cat” for a four-legged animal of the feline variety. But if, as Eco claims, images also share “none of the properties” of the things they represent, then how is it possible that we can very occasionally mistake what turn out to be images for the things they represent? Eco offers no explanation. I suggest that if it is true that we can sometimes mistake the properties of one thing for the wholly different properties of another thing, then it is reasonable to suppose that we must be dealing with some form of illusion.
It is important to realise here how familiarity, so to speak, takes the edge off illusion. Is the cinema a case of illusion? Well, just possibly the first man who ever saw moving pictures may have felt inclined to say that here was a case of illusion. But in fact it's pretty unlikely that even he, even momentarily, was actually taken in; and by now the whole thing is so ordinary a part of our lives that it never occurs to us even to raise the question. We might as well ask whether producing a photograph is producing an illusion—which would plainly be just silly. (J. L. Austin. “Sense and Sensibilia.” 1960, p26)
Silly as it might be to ask such a question, it wouldn't be silly to suppose that we could use a photograph to construct an illusion. Nor would it be silly in certain circumstances to momentarily mistake a life-sized photograph of a person for an actual person. So whilst familiarity may take the edge off illusion, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of illusion and nor might it diminish the importance of the concept.
“The application of the concept of an illusion in general presupposes a concept of being wrong in the sense that were we never wrong in what we perceive, were we never to make a false judgement about what we perceive, we should not have the concept of an illusion.” (D. W. Hamlyn. Sensation and Perception. 1961, p196)
A few years earlier, Hamlyn (no relation by the way) made some similar remarks on the same subject:
There is not necessarily anything about an illusion which tells us that it is one, for if there were it would not be appropriate to say that we were ever taken in. This is not to say that it is always right to say of someone who sees something wrongly that he is taken in; for he may see it in this way despite the fact that he knows the thing in question is not like this. But in order for it to be appropriate to talk of illusions it must sometimes be the case that people are deceived.” (D. W. Hamlyn. “The Visual Field and Perception. 1957, p112)
Now if this person “knows the thing in question is not like this” then he is not seeing it “wrongly” at all. He is seeing it as anyone else with the same perceptual faculties would see it. Moreover he sees that it is illusory in some respects and he probably also knows that other people would find it illusory in the same ways. So if I say that the moon looks like a proximate flatly presented silvery circle, I am not making a perceptual claim that should be regarded as an instance of false or wrong perception. I am using a commonplace expression that will usually be readily accepted by anyone familiar with the ways in which illusory appearances are generally expressed in language.
Shared discriminatory capacities are a precondition for shared concepts of colour, taste, sound, smell, etc. Moreover, shared propensities for perceptual illusion are a precondition for shared concepts of perceptual appearances as distinct from actualities, viz. concepts of objects publicly looking thus-and-so although not being so. (Baker and Hacker. Wittgenstein: Rules, Grammar and Necessity. 2010, p.215)
One of my principal aims in exploring these issues is to show how these “concepts of perceptual appearances” are linguistic outgrowths from innovations in illusionistic representation. In other words, without these techniques, it would make no sense to say that yonder house looks small or that a glossy surface looks wet or that a static white cinema screen looks like a multi-coloured window onto a world of moving objects and people.
It may be that people without any experience of pictorial simulation would not say that the distant hills look blue, but even such innocents would probably be tricked, by being smuggled into a good planetarium, into believing that they were looking at the open night sky. (D. Brook. “How to Draw the Curtains.” 1985)