Responding to Adam Curtis’ “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”

NOTE: I only finished watching this film series last night, and I intend to watch it again. As such, I reserve the right to come back and rethink this essay if I need to.


You’ll probably get the most out of this essay if you’ve already watched it, but it is intended to also be an argument for why you should seek out his work.

There’s absolutely no way I’ll be able to dig through the overwhelming mass of content Curtis swims through in these films. In any case, that’s not really how I tend to approach problems– I’m not a cultural theorist or a historian by training, after all. I just don’t have the memory for it.

So I won’t bother. Instead, I’ll talk about the unique formal qualities Curtis’ work has, and the ways they are unique among public thinkers today.

You’ll probably get the most out of this essay if you’ve already watched it, but it is intended to also be an argument for why you should seek out his work.

But first, some criticism.

I.

I’m not sure if these films formed a masterpiece or what. This uncertainty is my perennial problem with Curtis, and anything bad I have to say about his work I can justify on two counts.

The problem with these problems is that I’m not certain if they’re problems or virtues. That might be confusing. In fact, I wrote it to be confusing. I hope you don’t mind. Basically, any of my critcisms here might indicate a flaw in Curtis’ work, but either of them might also indicate a virtue. I’ll explain in a minute. First, the problems themselves:

My first problem with Curtis is that he constantly repeats himself. As in, he has a formal critique style that he pretty much applies to everything. If you look up parodies of his style, you’ll find that it’s a very easy target, which is only because it is so repetitive. He tends to accuse ever technological, psychological and political movement he sets his sights on of a form of willful blindness, or otherwise of attempting to draw people into a dream world so as to establish the power of the movement itself.

I’m not gonna say that’s a bad approach. Falsehoods are like dreams, so accusing oversimplified theories of inducing a dream-like state in adherents could be a good way to start pointing out its flaws. The problem is that Curtis doesn’t go into sufficient depth with the theories he discusses. This, as far as I can see, is another problem of form. He certainly needs his films to be entertaining in order to keep people watching. Presumably, this is an objective he needs to meet to stay funded. But also on the flip side because he is in essence a popularizer first and a theorist second.

So it’s a limited form. That’s fine. But my other problem is just that it’s quite easy to get lost sometimes with him. He tends to jump from theme to theme and subject to subject so fluently that the overall picture can be lost. What he’s trying to say to us can get lost. From a purely aesthetic perspective, it’s a briliant editing choice: it allows us as the viewers the experience of creating the meaning of the film by providing us a sequence of otherwise dislocated narrative slices. Or basically, it challenges us to find our own meanings in the text.

As we’ll find out in part two, this is also an excellent example of aligning form with content. The problem with it, though is that it makes it very difficult to grasp the content at all. If part of the virtue of an argument is how effectively it conveys its point, then I don’t know that Curtis can ever be said to argue anything.

This might not be a problem, given a few assumptions, and I hope I’m not being arrogant when I say that the best response to this is to analyse Curtis in his best possible light so we can try and figure out what he’s really up to. That is to say: let’s view the best possible intent in his work, and then attribute it to him. Maybe unorthodox, but hey, this is a niche internet blog written by an oddball like me, so I don’t think anyone is expecting orthodoxy from me.

II.

The best way we can understand Curtis is as a Socratic figure. This is because he aims to frustrate everything, and conclude nothing. The first time I saw Hypernormalization, I thought he was happy to leave us there, but now that I’ve seen Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I’m suddenly not so sure.

When I first saw Hypernormalization, the only thing I could conclude was that the world was truly impossible to understand. I don’t know if that was his intention. If it was, then Can’t Get You Out of My Head was the antithesis to this thesis. If it wasn’t, then perhaps Curtis realized he had unwittingly induced the very same Oh Dearism in the viewer of which he accused Putin and Trump.

If Curtis is a Socratic figure, then Can’t Get You Out of My Head is his Republic.

It’s generally understood that the Platonic dialogues through which we learn about Socrates can be divided into two categories. We usually understand those two categories in terms of how much of his own thought Plato actually put into the writings.

We can understand this first category, the category where it’s mostly Socrates coming through as aporetic texts. Aporia is the state of mind a little like being paralyzed. In Zen, I hear about the idea of having an iron ball in one’s mouth, that you can neither swallow nor spit out. The ancient Athenians sometimes described a long conversation with Socrates as like being stung by a stringray.

This is maybe where the formal approach Curtis takes can be understood as a virtue. When you read the earlier Socratic dialogues like Meno, you find yourself trapped in a maze of arugmentation that leaves you without any hope of answering the question the text ostensibly sets out to resolve. The nested objections, conversational dead ends and the non-stop whirling itinerary leaves one with the fatal sense that the key questions were always nonsense.

Does that feeling sound familliar to anyone? It sure sounds like how I felt after watching Hypernormalization.

But the saving grace of Can’t Get You Out of My Head maybe that it explicitly sets its sights on this sense of helplessness, and it tries in some sense to cure us of it. He references David Graeber, who tragically died last year, in affirming that “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

This is, as far as I can tell, the first time that Curtis actually sets out a positive claim in one of his films. If so, we can understand this as him departing, for once, from the aporetic approach.

III.

At this point, we can come to grips with the virtue of Curtis’ formal approach, in that it does challenge us in some sense to create the world again. There is a constant tension between individualism and collectivism in Can’t Get You Out of My Head. It’s along those lines that the struggle to meet the challenge Graeber and Curtis set us will be met.

On the one hand, there is the individualist mode of creating the world. This is illustrated in the sixth episode by Curtis’ when he recounts the origin story of tech giant Google, and compares it to Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man.

The upshot of this comparison is that both creative efforts– on the one hand an effort to make information accessible to all, and on the other an effort to demonstrate experientially the ways in which the individual is forced to make meaning– are centred around the assumption that making the world must occur inside an individual.

In each case, the assumption is that the individual must, but also will inevitably form a dreamlike story under which to function given the paralyzing deluge of images and phenomena. For Google, Curtis presents, the idealistic aim was always to provide these means.

I think we can understand Curtis as offering us this option, simply through his formal approach. But I also think it would be a mistake for us to take it, and I think we can understand the central weakness of Hypernormalization to be that it did not adequately underscore this notion. Perhaps this was a consequence of the times. It was a very populist year in 2016. I can imagine Curtis might have wanted to veer away from collective sentiment against that backdrop, and if so then as a matter of survival.

But if we do reject the metaphorical Blue Pill, and opt to refuse individualism, powerlessness, and the internalist dream, what are we left with? This is something Curtis can’t help us with, and admittedly so, as he calls us to imagine new futures; ‘ones that have never existed before.’

On the one hand there is that uncertainty. But I suppose on the other hand, there is the danger of the collective dream, most fearfully illustrated in the gorgeous collective nightmares summoned up by Jiang Qing.

IV.

In some ways, I was very disappointed by this film. As far as I can tell, Curtis neglects some very important details in cognitive science and psychology he references. Sometimes he’s just flat wrong, and when he isn’t wrong he hollows out the spirit of the theories.

For one example, anyone who has any familiarity with Carl Rogers will understand that his therapeutic method amounted to a lot more than “simply repeat(ing) what the patient had just said.” Rogers thought that acceptance and unconditional positive regard for the client were crucial in developing a therapeutic relationship. He thought that active listening was one way to foster this relationship. To analyse him in terms of simply parroting people is cynical and myopic.

Likewise, in this series, he seems to oversimplify the discussion around the replication crisis and its consequences for the findings around priming effects. While it is true that priming studies around age priming and a few other areas have clearly failed to replicate, that doesn’t mean that priming effects themselves can be rejected wholesale. He fails to distinguish between social priming effects and cognitive-availability priming effects, throwing the second set out with the bathwater of the first.

Regardless of how the chips fall for priming effects in the end, the simple fact of the matter is that this is a complex issue with a lot of fine-grained detail. But we have to recognize that Curtis has no time for it. Based on that recognition, I have to wonder whether he does by any of the theories he critiques.

At the same time, I think we would be doing ourselves a real disservice if we ignored Curtis or wrote him off. Regardless of whether the world is impossible to understand, we must admit that doing so is difficult. If we’re happy to say that more comprehensive perspectives tend to be harder to comprehend all at once– and that seems fair enough to say– then we should also give Curtis some leeway, and that leeway should come in the form of not dismissing him out of hand.

What can Curtis offer us if he can’t make sense with the material he’s presenting? Well, I think the answer becomes clear if we stop treating him as a theorist and start treating him as an artist. That is to say, someone who works in tone and emotion, not fact. We shouldn’t read Curtis as giving us a factual story– we all know too much about how stories are really incompatible with fact. Instead, what Curtis offers us is an opportunity to meditate in an indepth way on that incompatibility, and in the end he somehow finds hope in it.

Howl’s Moving Capital in the 21st Century.

‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, Studio Ghibli,
No copyright infringment intended.

Last night I watched a pair of films with my girlfriend, and they got me thinking about all the different ways we can approach the world, and the contents thereof. Usually on this website what I talk about links in with Heidegger, and I suppose these ideas will as well.

The first film was Howl’s Moving Castle, obviously. It makes me cry I think every time I see it. Studio Ghibli movies are always so earnest, and I’m a real sucker for it. Something about this one does it for me even more.

What makes it so much different for me is how naive it is in its pursuit of the idea that life without love is a curse. Each of the three main characters (Howl, Sophie, Calcifer) are either trapped in forms of life that they can’t escape, or are at constant risk of it– which means they’re still trapped, but just in a different way.

Sophie, the female lead, is trapped not only in a form of life that she sees as devoid of possibility, which is the condition we find her in at the start of the movie; she also literally gets trapped in an old woman’s body.

Howl and Calcifer meanwhile are stuck in a sort of narcissistic dyad: Calcifer, being a demon, is the sort of being that just does displace people’s hearts. Howl, being a transparently Faustian sort of guy, is just all too happy to trade his heart for power, regardless of the risk therein.

In the end, it’s the arrival of Sophie at the Moving Castle that makes it possible for Howl and Calcifer to break out of their cycle. What makes me cry is the bit at the end where the war is over, where love has conquered all and the main characters are all living in a beautiful harmony. It’s like an expression of the Platonic form of Home.

That’s why it was such a shock when decided to carry on our double bill by watching the documentary based on Thomas Picketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century. Which also made me want to cry but in the other way.

There is no strong throughline for Picketty’s like there is for Howl‘s. So it’ll be easier to describe the emotional effect in terms of contrasts: Where Howl‘s scenery is door-to-door gorgeous scenery handpainted in the sorts of colours you wish your dreams would show up in, Picketty’s is grey, and where it isn’t grey, it is in the garish, explosive shades of the ultra-rich. Think Donald Trump’s golden toilet. Where Howl’s is populated by people for whom the ultimate dream is harmony and wholeness, the persons referenced in Picketty’s are so dominated by enravelment in the financial system that personhood is something I maybe wouldn’t want to attribute to them.

Consider the following: Howl and Calcifer can be understood as trapped in a dysfunctional dyad because they’re each using the other instrumentally. Calcifer feeds on Howl’s heart and Howl uses Calcifer to power his magic, move about his castle, and show off to pretty girls.

Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology, would maybe refer to them as ‘enframed.’ Or otherwise as ‘being held in standing reserve.’ This is a dysfunctional form of relationship, where the thing being enframed is unable to be as it is uniquely in the context in which it originated, and towards the end to which it would naturally find itself oriented without outside interference.

Compare this dysfunctional relationship to the perils of colonialism and globalization outlined in Picketty’s: wherein the wealthy are depicted as relocating sites of industry internationally to maximize profit, and where their profits are cleverly hidden in offshore accounts to minimize taxes paid to the original contexts in which the transactions taxable originate.

We could understand this as a form of enframing, where the context in which the value originated ceased to be in a relationship of mutual relevance with the value itself. We could say that value extraction is problematic precisely because of the ex-tractive nature of it.

In The Gift of the Artist, Lewis Hyde describes a gift first as the primary carrier of value in human relations, ontologically prior to the transaction. Second, he describes a gift which is removed from its original context as ‘dead’; unable to propagate the original value which it signified through having been offered and accepted.

For Heidegger, it was an abomination that the Rhine would be dammed. This represented a harnessing of the otherwise self-determining and autopoetic operation of the world as expressed through the forces and resistances of a flowing river.

I’m not the first person to suggest in reaction to the Anthropocene Chaos that we might be best to treat the world like a gift and less like a resource that serves a part of a ‘standing reserve.’ So I won’t deliver any sermons on this topic.

At the same time, the contrast was so bitter because of what the awkward truths presented in Picketty’s entail, which is that it will become harder and harder across time to establish meaningful communities.

We could compare the empty shells of nations and communities hollowed out by rent-seeking to fields that have suffered from soil erosion. Where once it was possible for complex organisms– whether social or organic– to take root and find some nourishment in an environment that had not yet been completely instrumentalized, now we find ourselves like grains of dust, blown on the wind in whichever direction it decides to take us.

It’s possible that’s just my own experience as a ‘third culture kid.’ In which case I shouldn’t be projecting it. But I suspect that plenty of people have the experience of displacement from home that I’m talking about. Sometimes I wonder how many people would be willing to accept the agonizing atomization and loneliness of the lockdowns this year had they not had access to the internet. It poses an interesting question: what now valid incentives would we never have accepted before as worthwhile, that now we must act on because of what we can do with technology?

Regardless of what you think of Ted Kaczynski– I personally don’t think that nailbombing people is the right way to get your point across, though I can acknowledge it sure worked for him– he was right to point out that an industrial society is inevitably going to start instrumentalizing its citizens. He didn’t think there was any way around it. We can understand him as maybe a prototypical victim of technologization– an absolutely atomic subject. If so, then there’s plenty to fear. Or maybe we can understand him as a lone nutjob, and conclude that most people wouldn’t quite go that way if cut of wholly from society. But who’s to say?

In any case, I don’t know how to get my mind off the contrast between a beautiful garden, floating in the sky, populated by a chosen family in perfect love on the one hand, and a melting globe of plastic and smog, populated by animals who don’t know what’s good for them on the other. That’s the contrast I can’t live with: between that ideal harmony of the home and the screaming chaos of the planet. It sort of overwhelms me.

Burnout and The People I Met At Work.

Art: ‘Cry of the Masses,’ Vachal

Note: I want this post to land in a caring way, and not an angry way. But maybe angry needs people to care.

I think it would be fair to say that I am currently in the deepest portion of the empathy burnout spectrum that I have previously here-to-fore inhabited. Maybe that’s why I’m considering a post comparing the types of people I’ve supported at work. I don’t think mental health workers get enough support. So let’s talk about burnout, which is what I’ve been dealing with lately.

Continue reading Burnout and The People I Met At Work.

Slate Star Codex and the Crisis of Scott Alexander

Recently, Scott Alexander, the psychiatrist-intellectual behind Slate Star Codex has decided to delete the entirety of the blog in reaction to an NYT reporter refusing to maintain his pseudonymy in an article written about the blog.

I don’t really know how to articulate the magnitude of this loss. While it’s true that his work will remain publicly accessible through websites like The Wayback Machine– if he decides to step back from public discourse then we will have lost not just the best current writing on the internet, but maybe also the only current writing that aims to remain high quality, considered and non-partisan in an increasingly divisive and emotionally violent period of social history. Which would be a tragedy.

Sometimes I think politics is a plague. If it is, then it’s a plague in the same way that war is a plague. Not because there are no just wars, and not because there are no just political conflicts. But because the collateral damage can sometimes be more than I can stand.

That Scott decided to take his website down over the fear that his public work might alienate him from his psychiatric clients, whom he has stated run the political gamut from extreme right to extreme left, is just a sign of what a good-natured and morally practical person he is.

That he has made this decision has to be his to own, and I have to respect it. But I can still mourn the existence of a world where the smartest, brightest thing he could do is to remove all his frankly fantastic work from the public sphere to care for his clients. It seems problematic to me that we live in a world where that’s the best choice.

I don’t know who to blame. I want to blame somebody, but I think that would be contrary to the basic idea. Sometimes, things just happen. I won’t get into the whole drama of the who-saids here, because I hate recounting things like that. But maybe everyone really was out for the best here and the permanently raised stakes of cancel-world have just prompted a meltdown of the most game-theoretically unsatisfying kind.

For those of us who cared about his blog, it will be like so many other awful things that happened this year. I think we’ll just have to learn to live with it.

Luckily it’s still possible to find archives and backups of Slate Star Codex. While I heartily recommend it, I’ll leave that to you. Something feels dirty about linking to a blogger who chose to delete their blog. That being said I do want to promote it in some sense by mentioning it. Just because I value quality thinking and intellectual content.

Those are my thoughts on the matte I guess. I hope this somehow gets undone, but I have the somehow sinking dread that it won’t be.

Exploring Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.

Note: While I intend this piece to be readable for those who haven’t also read Fear and Trembling, I suspect that this piece will be a lot more valuable to those who are interested in the text itself, which can be found in loads of places on the internet, but also at least here.

A few months ago I was writing up a storm about Heidegger. The ultimate purpose of this storm was because I find him fantastic. But I like Kierkegaard a whole lot more. I’ve recently been re-reading his Fear and Trembling, and the concept in it I find the most interesting and worth discussing is the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical that he describes in the first main section of discussion.

Whew. The phrase itself is somewhat of a mouthful. Therefore, in order to make sense for you readers, I should explain what a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical is. That would make sense before I start telling you why it’s important.

And once you know what it is and why it’s important, then we can maybe start talking about it. Or perhaps I’ll save it for a later post. We’ll have to see!

Continue reading Exploring Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.

Thoughts on “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”

I recently watched this fantastic 1969 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais and written by the exceptional Marguerite Duras. I’d also recommend the film to anyone who likes a classic, or who has an interest in things that are beautiful. I thought I might say a few things about it. Also, Hubert Dreyfus talks about it in his lecture series on Kierkegaard– which I think is just brilliant.

This film smoulders at the edges with incoherent light, like the edges of burnt newsprint. It is black and white, which means that the fire has gone out. It is covered in coal dust, and the coal might be from wood or metal. Or perhaps, the ashes might be flesh.

Flesh, human life, cities and memories all are subject to the law of impermanence. Even when they are shot through with violence and love, those tethers can’t hold them down– and they float away into the sky.

We could say that Nevers (Emanuelle Riva)– the female character as she is named at the end of the film– and Hiroshima (Eiji Okada)–the male character of whom can be said the same disgrace themselves together. But do so only to re-enact a trauma that is passed and which therefore can never be touched again. It’s an experiment in fossilizing pain. At least in the case of Nevers, her defining pain is something she clings to, and which she is compelled to relive again and again through her affair with Hiroshima and other men, as we come to learn..

Hiroshima was a city that disappeared in an instant. It was also a horrible scar, left by the most brutal and impactful conflict in human history. These assets fix it as a perfect scapegoat for a sacrifice.

In the first scene, Nevers and Hiroshima are entangled, as they question each other over documentary footage detailing the horrific aftermath of the atomic bomb. In this light, it is significant I think that the trauma of Nevers was individual, while the trauma of Hiroshima was collective.

There is something essentially audacious about comparing the loss of a single individual to the loss of an entire city. I suppose the way we can satisfy our concerns as viewers of this film would be to acknowledge that his own knowledge of Nevers’ secret love is what brings Hiroshima to accept her on his own grounds. Where previously– as in the beginning of the film– he did not believe that she had seen suffering that was comparable to his own.

But both know what it’s like to be mad with grief. The film-makers wisely unplumb the depth of world-death. They use the death of one’s lover to point at it indirectly. That’s probably because it’s impossible to fit something so large in something as small as a film. It would be easier to fit an elephant into a tea-cup.

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Summary and Notes.

NOTE (22/02/2021): I would encourage anyone interested in criticisms of individualism/consumerism to look into Adam Curtis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head. I think it aims to explicitly address some of the problems of depressive hedonia Fisher worried about. You can also read my discussion of Curtis’ work.


I recently read Mark Fisher’s fantastic Capitalist Realism. It’s a short book and all, but engrossing. So I put it down in one sitting.

Here are the notes I took on each chapter. It’s a fantastic book, and I’d recommend anyone who is interested in the same sort of societal themes and critique that I am to look into it. My intention is for these notes to help you get more out of it, though it’s also a nice, straightforward text. Maybe let them replace discussion, if you can’t find anyone else to talk about the book with.

Chapter 1

The brutal dystopia as a cultural concept in entertainment serves to justify our increasing alienation, and increasingly competitive economic context. It idealizes the brutal individual, because this is what we are forced to become.

If we are increasingly driven to adopt the ideals of the brutal survivor in the post apocalypse, what might that say about the economic and spiritual realities we’re currently navigating?

This is, in the worst case, simply known as ‘being realistic.’ But we need to valorize it. Otherwise we are only victims of a horrible world, rather than possible victors.

Chapter 2

Much as per Zizek’s critique of Starbucks: do not worry, you can save the starving African children by purchasing this latte. Would you like a venti or grande?

Chapter 3

There are tacit ontologies we take on board as a matter of course. These assumptions make their rounds on the basis of their compatibility with the dominant narrative of economic success. Namely, they are that there is no way but capitalism; that there are infinite resources for capitalism; and that there is infinite affective capacity to endure the stresses of capitalism including individualization and the privatization of stress in the absence of the sort of communities that capitalism is hostile to.

Chapter 4

It is now ‘known’ that there is no way to get around capitalism. Once you accept this, whether it is true or not, there is only the pursuit of pleasure. Fisher calls this ‘depressive hedonia: wherein constant distraction and stimulation is the only solution to hopelessness.

He cites his experience teaching hopeless students– Capitalism’s new illiterates. Deleuze via Fisher: ‘Capitalism is profoundly illiterate.’

Strangely, the role of the teacher is no longer the disciplinarian who uses power to impose form and function a la the sort of analysis we see in Foucault. Instead, the teacher is present to justify the exercise of sitting in a classroom without any desire to learn at all. It would be difficult to believe the students had satisfactorily consumed the knowledge in the lesson without the presence of a teacher, though much more than that is unneccessary.

One of Capitol’s most effective ploys was to orient success around motivation: this was the privatization of stress. For Fisher, this was the moment whereby winners became the most effective perpetrators of the system.

Flexibility as an idol becomes a chain for the freelance professionals that embrace it.

Chapter 5

If schizophrenia is the disease at the edges of capitalism, as per Deleuze and Guattari, then bipolar disorder is the disease of the interior.

When workers are incentivized by the ‘freedom’ of neo-liberalism, they get chained to it too. But those chains aren’t external any more. Instead, they’re internal. The modern workplace offers pensions schemes after all, which are investments. Workers themselves become part of the market– they are psychically coupled to its cycles.

Chapter 6

Work in both public and private sectors have ceased to be oriented towards production, and instead have become oriented towards the image of production, with a constant battery of assessments, objective statements, targets, outcomes, etc.

This in some sense is a repeat of late stage Stalinism, according to which the plan was all that mattered: a valuation of symbolic achievement over achievement.

For capitalism this can be explained in terms of the stock market, wherein the perception of success is far more important for valuation than genuine success. This, ironically, is what trickles down.

Who isn’t allowed to know how bad things really are? Why are we performing as though this were a perfectly oiled machine? Who would be upset if we admitted how dire circumstances really are?

TV’s Big Brother as a perfect paradigm case of internalization. We are Big Brother. There is no Big Orwell, there is only Big Us.

My own thought: the only way to overcome the continual deferral of the beaurocratic instinct is to willingly act where you would not be empowered to: beuro-kratos.

Chapter 7

We are deciding to ignore this. We are complicit. ‘Life is but a dream’ and we are willing to pay for it. We are willing to forget that we have done this. The only remainders are our implicit memories– the procedures that we use to forget in the first place, and which we employ without any memory of why.

Chapter 8

The call center as the clearest illustration of decentralization. The generation of a hatred that has no proper object, because this mess is no one person’s fault in particular.

The collective entities that in actual fact make up the capitalist structure do not have agency the way we think of it; therefore, they cannot have moral standing and cannot be responsible. This is not a problem of people. Anyone would do the same if they were a CEO or a banker.

Chapter 9

The death of paternalism. Now, there is only the injunction to enjoy. The idea that there might be anyone who ought to tell you how to live, as if they could possibly know better than you do, is dead. This structure requires people to know what they want. Which means that nothing new can ever be made.

But consider the following: From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” (PP.81)

Some Ways Meditation Has Been Affective for Me.

Some people think this is Freud. I think he’s doing Yoga.

In this piece, I’ll recount the experience I’ve had with practicing contemplation or meditation, or whatever you want to call it, and the way it effected my personal and professional lives.

Update (29/05/2020): It’s worth noting that I don’t take meditation very seriously these days. At the minute, I’m questioning a lot of things. That being said, I thought it would be better to keep this up because otherwise I’d be a bit of a revisionist and those types can get annoying.

I. Note on Method.

I’m intending this piece to fit within the broad tradition of qualitative research in the phenomenological tradition. Without getting overly technical that means I intend to be as precise as possible about my own experience in the hope that it will be knowledge bearing, in the hope that it might be useful for someone else.

In our day to day lives, we are often perfectly happy to act on a piece of observational simply because the observation is interesting or relevant. The inclusion criteria of a personal observation into this discussion is simply that it seemed noteworthy to me. If you also see my observations as noteworthy, I encourage you to experiment with the ideas I present later on.

I absolutely see the epistemic status of any conclusions I draw here as: something to consider, rather than something you must absolutely accept. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what would constitute ‘something you must absolutely accept…’

II: The Basic Observations.

A. Contemplation and Skill.

Let’s get into the idea that contemplation involves some skills. But first, what do I mean by contemplation? I’ll offer you a model that is synthesized from my study of a few different traditions and my own experimentation. This is my view on contemplation.

Contemplative practice is any regularly pursued exercise that involves a posture of stillness, solitude, silence in-as-much as is possible, a bodily orientation, and calm. The aim of a contemplative practice is to still yourself to such a degree that your attention is naturally drawn towards personal content that is usually inaccessible.

However, in order to achieve the sort of calm that is required for contemplative practice, it is also important to develop the ability to focus quite cleanly. Focus is also a kind of stillness. You can learn focus in plenty of different ways. You can learn it by focusing on your breath, or by sitting perfectly still. Kierkegaard would probably call focus ‘willing one thing.’ Erich Fromm highlights the ability to will one thing as an essential part of switching into the being mode.

I think ‘willing one thing’ is probably a more important or useful way to understand the quality of samadhi than ‘focus’ is. The reason for this belief of mine is that in my own case, trying to focus is associated with a whole bunch of baggage from my time in school, etc. Focusing is something you force yourself to do. Willing one thing is something you let yourself do.

So here’s what you do in contemplation: you will one thing until you are quiet and alone enough to notice things about yourself that you’ve never been able to notice before. It sounds kind of simple, right? Well, what do you notice?

In my case, I started to build skills around my automatic emotional responses. I found that certain bodily responses were associated with emotions and thoughts, and that thoughts could lead emotions to arise, and that bodily responses could come before either in some cases. I found that certain tensions in the body were associated with certain persistent thoughts and feelings, and that a simple effort to relax the tension in the body sometimes resulted in the thought or the feeling passing away as well.

It’s difficult to describe the phenomena as if there was any sort of taxonomy I could make, or any set of if-then propositions. As far as I can see, what happens when you learn how to contemplate is that you acquire a sort of judgement about and intimate familiarity with your own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as well as their relations.

Beyond that, in the process of trying to learn how to contemplate, you’ll have to learn how to will one thing, which is by no means easy. There is a reason that traditional meditation teaching starts with samadhi before it moves onto vipassana or ‘insight.’ I don’t like the term insight either– I feel like it implies some sort of sudden light-bulb moment which isn’t necessarily how change will occur in you, if any does at all.

One problem with learning to will one thing is that it is incredibly powerful, and that contemplation is ultimately a morality-neutral practice. I do not have nearly enough evidence or science in order to start commenting seriously on visualization as a practice, which may be another instance of using the ability to will one thing. That being said, I have suspicions. If it’s just a coincidence, I don’t think it’s a meaningless coincidence that so many skilful athletes and artists cite visualization as a contributor to their success.

In my own practices of Tango dance and climbing, I think I can attribute a good amount of my progress in either case to visualization, and therefore to my practised ability to will one thing.

B. Skill and Outcomes.

But back to contemplation: I want to talk a little bit about how the skills I learned through the whole practice of contemplation have emerged as useful for me in my life.

I’m current pursuing an odd and difficult career in psychology. This means that I have committed to leave myself hanging in professional limbo for the period of time it will take me to gather enough relevant experience to be admitting onto the program. It also means that intend to become a trained therapist, and that I benefit from studying therapeutic literature in my day-to-day contacts with clients.

There is one quality which is very useful for the pursuit of an uncertain future, and which is very important to an honest attempt at helping someone who is suffering deeply. That is the ability to tolerate uncertainty on a bodily level.

You’ll note when you feel anxious or angry or afraid that your body might seem to be on fire. From a psychological perspective, we’d call this a state of extreme behavioural activation. Your heart rate is likely higher than normal, along with your body temperature. You may start to sweat. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may recognize these signs and fear them due to their tendency to runaway into a panic attack.

As far as I can see, the point of these emotions– in their phenomenological quality– is to demand action. This isn’t always the best idea. It’s usually a pretty terrible idea if you’re doing any sort of fine emotional work with someone else or yourself. Imagine working on a watch or a circuit-board by hand, and then suddenly suffering a violent sneeze or muscle spasm.

That whole delicate order you had been trying to preserve for your purposed would disappear in a second. Or think about playing ‘Operation!’ during an earthquake. Sensitivity requires precision and patience, and both qualities require calm.

I’m illustrating the importance of this concept with my own life, but I can make it relevant to yours, too. If you hope to do anything with your life that requires risk, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty will be an asset. If you hope to have a relationship that involves intimacy and vulnerability on your part, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty is essential.

Every life-course worth living involves risk, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a relationship worth having that did not involve vulnerability. Your relationship to your world and your relationship to the people that are important in your life are joined by another important relationship: your relationship to yourself.

The ability to tolerate uncertainty is a consequence of your ability to tolerate your self. The psychologist Carl Rogers spoke about an important principle in the process of self-transformation: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”

III: Results and Interpretation.

Consider more the idea that contemplation refines the sensitivity of your instrument, and you get an idea for the range of applications of the technique: any domain that demands intellectual or emotional sensitivity will be more easily accessed if you are sharp. At the same time, any domain that benefits from a degree of non-reactivity is more easily accessed by a contemplative.

That’s just if we want to talk about the more mundane consequents of contemplative practice. But it doesn’t seem like spiritual consequents necessarily fit in this discussion, and I feel like I speak enough about them elsewhere, so I’ll leave them out for now.

One example from my own life: it is common in psychotherapy to talk about counter-transference. In the literature on borderline personality disorder, counter-transference is understood in terms of the emotional reactions, sometimes prompted by personal baggage, in the therapist toward the emotional content brought forward by the borderline client in the course of the session.

Having had my own one-on-one encounters with the emotional content of borderline clients, I can tell you without any hesitation that the ability to take a contemplative stance can save the relationship and the interaction.

This skill is by no means important just when it comes to borderline clients. Any time you are faced with exploring someone’s emotional world, you are faced with a situation where your own history and experiences might become present and obscure the reality of the person you’re faced with. In the worst case, this can end up in a complete misinterpretation of the person– with possibly disastrous consequences.

But it seems that even in the ‘best’ cases it can significantly hinder your ability to actually relate to the person. In any of these cases, the ability to ‘calm the waters’ is invaluable in getting a clear picture of what is reflected through them. Namely, the other person.

It can often be very difficult to focus your effort on setting your own emotional content aside for the purpose of understanding the person to whom you are trying to relate. In these cases, the ability to ‘will one thing’ is once again relevant. Our emotions are compelling for a reason– usually they prompt some sort of action that would be the best thing to do in a certain context. But that doesn’t mean that we should be led by them, rather they should inform us.

It is the ability to ‘will one thing’, and the ‘sensitivity of instrument’ developed by contemplative practice that allow us to do this.

IV. A Little Discussion

A.

There is a notion that comes from Spinoza that power is not just the capacity to affect, but that it is also the capacity to be affected. In meditation, we get the ability to be sensitive from the ability to be still, and that is its own form of power. Affect and effect are interestingly different. I think the best way to distinguish them is like the difference between your heart and your hands.

B.

When you’re meditating, you’re sitting perfectly still, which means you can’t do drugs or eat unhealthy food or hurt people or get irritated with those you love. If you meditate a lot, then you might learn how to remember what it feels like to not do all those bad things when you get the opportunity to. That might help you avoid doing them later if that’s the sort of thing you want to do.

Status Consumption and the Costly Signalling Treamill.

I’m not sure when it will be sensible to end the measures we’re currently taking to kerb the spread of coronavirus. It is by a long-shot not my field.

But I do think this is an opportunity for us to reconsider the course that society is currently taking. Some of my more climate conscious friends have been rejoicing at statistics in the news to the effect that carbon emissions are down 50% in some areas. Some workaholics I know have been reflecting on the surprising value of being forced into a small space with their families.

For me personally, this has been a period of time where I’ve allowed myself to slow down on my own pursuit of career goals. The lockdown hasn’t made me spend more time at home than I would have otherwise, but it has given me the opportunity to sit still for a second, comfortable in the assumption that everyone else that I’m racing is also sitting still.

I’ve described three facts of the life that we usually live: pollution, isolation, and stress. With nothing to say of pollution, the scientific literature is pretty unequivocal in the way it describes the effect of stress and isolation. These effects aren’t just mental or emotional, by the way, social isolation and stress have demonstrable correlations with physical health measures like heart rate variability and risk of heart attack.

I wonder whether we’re going to go back to normal after all our respective lock-downs are lifted. When I consider that eventuality, I ask myself: do we have to!? The answer is somewhat complicated. While we certainly don’t have to, we won’t be able to avoid it without some serious self-reflection.

I tend to lose patience with pieces of writing that recommend self-reflection and then don’t provide anything useful to reflect on, so let’s try and come up with some reasons to change, and some ways to change. It’s very easy to point out that something is broken without even contemplating an alternative. My alternatives might not be particularly attractive– but neither is going sober from the perspective of an opiate addict. From where I’m standing, we are substantially addicted to a few things, and it’s always important to admit there’s a problem.

I. Progress Mythologies

One of the biggest cited advantages of the capitalist system is that it incentivizes growth through competition. Now, it might be true that competition pushes innovation– though Noam Chompsky has some rather convincing evidence to the contrary, citing the range of important research in the 20th Century prompted by government funding as opposed to the free market— but we also need to recognize that growth is only necessarily valuable in the context of the social mobility mythology.

When I say social mobility mythology, I’m not trying to say that social mobility doesn’t occur. I’m instead trying to use mythology to point out a socially sustained conception of morality or good-ness that is propagated via the stories we tell ourselves and each other as opposed to a set of propositions.

The social mobility mythology is attractive because it lets us feel good about ourselves. Beyond that, it’s attractive because it prompts us to work for ourselves and for the good of those around us that we care about. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a story. It might even be true— though I’m not sure what truth means in this context. But it’s still a story.

Stories need to be revised when they cease being adaptive. While we might be able to justify the social mobility story as adaptive just by a fingernail from our current perspective, I’m not convinced that pushing for individual or even local-collective progress is going to be morally defensible once we realize that we really were all in this together and that we really don’t have anywhere to live any more.

The point of a critical approach to culture is to be able to appraise the values of these mythologies in a multiple step process. The first step of this process is always to acknowledge that these are mythologies. Unfortunately, many would-be critical eyes point out the mythological component of a cultural practice they don’t like, acknowledge to everyone else that it’s simply mythological, as if that were sufficient to motivate throwing it out, and then they conveniently ignore the mythological component of their own favorite cultural practices.

One common criticism of baby-boomers is that they believe they’re responsible for their successes, where in reality it was an economic serendipity that they were able to purchase their homes at ridiculously low rates while making relatively massive salaries stocking shelves at the grocery store.

The difficult part to acknowledge is that we’re all capable of that sort of cognitive dissonance, and in fact we do it all the time. I’m not particularly responsible for my own success– I was lucky enough to be born into a family with enough money to send me to good schools, and at those schools I was lucky enough to be inculcated with a belief that knowledge was valuable, which prompted me to work hard enough… and so on.

II. Status Consumption.

As long as we believe that progress is the aim, and as long as we acknowledge that individual progress is important because it’s scarce, then we’re always going to be trying to beat each other. That’s great as long as we aren’t leaving behind loads of out-dated luxury goods to rot in landfills, for example, but that’s also exactly what we’re doing.

Status consumption is when you make a purchasing decision on the grounds that is either explicitly or implicitly associated with what we usually call a ‘lifestyle statement.’ The costly signalling treadmill is what happens when the exclusivity of a given commodity is a component of its status value; when signals for that exclusivity become reproducible without the actual exclusivity; and where as a result those who yearn for status.

In its worst form, this can result in a sort of status costume: purchasing decision can be made on the grounds that the decision signals social status or the association with it. The problem with this is that it the actual good that had once been inherent in the thing to be desired, which is that it resulted from the ability to do difficult things– such as acquire scarce or exclusive resources, for example– ceases to be associated with the actually positive quality with which it had been originally associated. 

In the course of working with some of the most putatively deprived members of society, I’ve noticed odd purchasing decisions. I have come into contact with homeless schizophrenics who can afford to abandon council properties costing far in excess of my own rent in housing benefit, and who still have enough money left over to spend multiple hundreds of pounds on designer clothes. 

What struck me as most salient here wasn’t the incongruity of a homeless man having so much gross income as such. Instead, what I noted was that his decisions all were oriented around consuming goods that we usually think of as high-status, or luxury goods and that those goods took such high priority. I how on Earth that situation could have come about, and I wondered at what sort of implicit mythology must have been at work supporting it. I also feel the need to note that this was not uncommon. It is in fact so common that you would be dumbfounded. In the absence of any meaningful long-term purchases, some of these people resorted to flash sneakers instead.

I came up with one of two possible explanations: the first is that money is an analgesic, and that we as a society are happy to give it to those who suffer the most so as to absolve ourselves of the very difficult work of helping them in more substantive ways; the second is that a vibrant consumeristic lifestyle is actually one of the best things we can think of to give someone who is suffering. Maybe we see it as a genuine improvment to furnish our poorest and most downtrodden with the ability to buy a bunch of status signalling personal possessions. Though the reality, I suspect, is somewhere between the two.

I hope you agree with me: the idea that our social structures are uninfluenced by own our unconscious biases and beliefs is a pretty ridiculous one. It doesn’t take much psychonanalytic insight to realize people project their values without meaning to.

It’s also my experience that people are far more likely to ignore ugly truths rather than act on them. That might support the money-as-analgesia explanation, but it also might support the consumption-as-genuine-gift explanation. 

III. How to Get Off The Costly Signalling Treadmill.

But what happens to luxury goods when the lowest strata of society can purchase them in ridiculous amounts? They cease to be worth much in terms of signal value. That means that something new must emerge, just so that there is something more exclusive, less easily procured, and therefore signalling greater amounts of social capital. 

I’m pretty sure that’s the best thing we can conceptualize as the good: just the unending refreshment of social capital and the refreshment of our self-image. I don’t think that needs to be the case.

In some cases, one of the really wonderful things that emerged in recent history is the idea that consumption is less of a signal of excellence than the ability to self-deny. The problem is that it’s possible to commodify the image of self-denial through sorts of rough-textured health food or aesthetically pleasing water bottles. It is oh-so-easy to be diverted from genuine self-control. 

I criticized above the sorts of people who complain and don’t offer alternatives, so here’s my offer. It seems like one of the best ways as a society is to orient away from unhindered consumption towards an increase in self-control as an acetic-aesthetically pleasing end in itself.

It would even in theory be possible to justify this on a social signalling level. Self denial is hard, it requires skill and training, and it requires focus. All of these are valuable and difficult and scarce and beneficial. But we don’t really make much of them in the public sphere, which strikes me as so odd.

At one point in the near past, we were able to take these skills seriously– to the point that we accidentally landed ourselves in all sorts of Protestant-authoritarian intellectual wastelands. But certainly we can look back on then, look squarely at the present, and then realize the two aren’t mutually exclusive nor mutually exhaustive alternatives.

If anything, it seems as though the skills of focus and self denial are even more important to develop in the current age of multicolored and ubiquitous advertising designed to drive us into decision fatigue, alongside the near ubiquity of sugar– which I’m sure you no doubt know is potentially more difficult to kick than cocaine.

What does this look like in concrete terms? It means wearing second-hand clothing, preferably old enough to still have been made to last. It means using old phones, again, as old as possible so they can still have been made to last. It means boycotting companies at our own inconvenience simply because despite convenience offered, they still operate in immoral ways– that’s one of the real keys to untangling this issue, but without religion it’s unclear how we might rescue morality.

How can we make it so self-denial constitutes a good? I certainly don’t think we can ground the value of self-denial in the mythology of improvement per se. If we tried that, then it would be difficult to stick with when it became uncomfortable or difficult or when it actually started costing the individual in a material sense.

In order to undertake the sort of collective reorientation that a rejection of capitalism entails– the reorientation toward ecological sustainability for example– the idea of the energetic individual as the consumptive end in itself has to be consigned to the flames. The idea that the growth of the self and its development has to go the same way. The idea that the natural and domesticated spheres serve as nothing more than clay for the live expression of the individual has to be rejected.

Pragmatically speaking, we’ll need to get people to feel good about having less rather than by having more. I think the best way to achieve this is to promote an ethic of neighborly giving, as trite as that might sound. If anything, the apparent triteness might go some distance to indicate how alienated that value has become at the moment. We could say that a good metric for the necessity of considering an alternative to the mainstream in the case of particularly all-encompassing ideologies is to examine how absurd the alternatives might seem; the more absurd the alternatives, the more all-encompassing the ideology has become under our noses.

IV. Joy at Loss for the Self and Others.

Consider the following thought experiment: a young professional has been working as a manager at a job for the past two years after having worked there for a prior three. At a review, it is collectively decided that our young professional is to be demoted again– they are simply ineffective in their role and were doing a much better job in their previous position.

In the managerial position, they were an active drain on the group, and in their return to their prior role, they are once again a net positive for themselves and for everyone with whom they work. Anyone who has ever had a job has also met someone who was both a manager who should not have been a manager. I put it to you that we will have become appropriately self-determining when we can earnestly see this move as something to celebrate rather than something to lament.

The initial intuition is to be sad for our young professional, because they have lost status. Instead, we should be happy for everyone, because a bad structure has been reoriented towards actually producing good again.

If the young professional, their family, and their co-workers could be happy that a collective benefit had been rendered rather than sad because one individual’s status had been lowered, then I suggest this would be a social mythology that was, if not free from the status-progress mythology, at least less enthralled by it than our current society. 

That would indicate we had done away with the obsessive compulsions toward status and personal progress that are currently alienating us from those around us, and which continue to incentivize the destruction of our planet and already anaemic communities.

Against the Computer Model of the Mind: Can We Reduce All Properties to Quantities?

Source: Ghost in The Shell.

I. Strong and Weak Representationalism

Despite Western thought’s persistence to the effect, there are nevertheless reasons to doubt the idea that the mind comes in contact with the world through the mediation of a representation. For that matter, there are also good reasons to doubt the idea that the mind is in some way separate from the world– or that it is made of a different kind of substance.

The first idea, that the mind relates to the world via the mediation of representation is in some sense necessitated by the second idea. If the world is made of something different from the mind, then there is some uncertainty regarding the relations that the world and the mind bear towards each other, especially in terms of causation.

Representationalism, which is the idea that the world relates to the world in some cases via the mediation of representations, allows mental entities to in some way relate to entities ‘out there’ in the world. On this picture, non-representational mental contents relate to the world via relation to representations in the mind. The representations themselves are the way that mental contents gain transitive access to entities in the world. Entity x has transitive access to z if x and z either relate or are related to by some intermediary entity y.

There are two types of representationalism that are worth discussing. The first form is the strong form, where the mind relates to the world solely via the mediation of representations. The second is the weaker form, where the mind bears some relations to the world that are mediated via representation, but that it also bears some direct relations.

The problem with weak representationalism is that it is by no means clear how the mind might bear direct relation to the world. If we adopt the stance that uncertainty about the hows or the whys of some proposition motivates rejecting it, then we are unable to defensibly hold the weak representational position. When a proposition paints a picture that is uncertain or unclear in one or more features, and we say this uncertainty motivates us to reject the proposition, then we have rejected it on the grounds of the uncertainty criterion.

Is this condition similar to Descartes method of doubt? It is true that the picture painted by the weak representationalist claim is neither ‘clear’ nor ‘distinct.’ However, if we opt for strong representationalism, then we rapidly find ourselves in Cartesian sceptical territory. If we rejected weak representationalism on the grounds that its own representation of the direct relation between mental and physical entities was uncertain, where does that leave us on the nature of the representations that mediate on either side of the representationalist fence?

If we reject weak representationalism, then representations cannot be physical entities– this would imply that mental entities could relate without mediation to physical entities. Therefore, we need to make representations into a special class of mental entity for the strong representationalist position to remain tenable. They must be special, because they must bear some feature that enables them to directly relate to physical entities without violating the condition imposed by the strong representational claim.

It is not immediately clear what this special condition could be. One possibility is that representations of physical entities relate to the physical entities themselves through some form of resemblance. This would allow the representations to relate directly to the physical world in a way that is directly explicable, and which therefore does not violate the uncertainty criterion.

While it is by no means clear how the representations come to acquire their resemblance to physical entities, this is not strictly necessary in order to accept the claim that they do resemble physical entities. This move is motivated by the vacuum of any other suitable explanation for the relation between representations and physical entities.

II. The Mode of Representation.

Once we have accepted strong representationalism, and once we have accepted that strong representationalism can be explained in terms of mental entities called representations that bear a resemblance relation to the physical entities that they are supposed to represent, there is still an explanation that we must provide, which is the explanation for how that resemblance is bourne.

For strong representationalism, there is only one option, which is that mental entities resemble physical entities is that the mental representations describe similar ratios between extended magnitudes given by the physical entity that they are supposed to represent. This is why Descartes– the premier strong representationalist– referred physical entities as res extensa: the extended substance.

This means that mental entity x is resembles a physical entity y if the ratios of various quantities described by entity x are congruent with the ratios of various quantities given by physical entity y. This condition is quite strict, so we’ll say that x is a representation of y to a greater or lesser degree if x resembles y to a greater or lesser degree. This also entails that mental representations are the sorts of entities that describe sets of quantities.

It also entails that of all the properties a mental representation could describe, they are either explicable wholly in terms of quantity or else are not representative of the physical entities themselves. This leaves us in a potentially precarious position with properties such as color or taste, which are not obviously explicable in terms of extension in the same way as things like speed, texture, or pliability. It leaves us in a much more precarious position with respect to another certain set of properties.

Before describing the nature of that precarity, and the nature of the properties that we are describing so precariously, it will be necessary to describe another important feature of the Cartesian picture.

III. Entities as Independent.

If the res extensa is the entity whose properties are such that they are determined solely in terms of sets of quantities, then it is also true that every single one of its properties is intelligible without reference to any other property or quantity– each of its properties must be intelligible in isolation. To say that a property is intelligible in isolation is the same thing as saying that a mental entity could represent only that property, and no other property in one instance.

This means that for any given instance of res extensa, any singular property it bears can be represented by a mental entity without any other property borne by the physical entity needing to be represented.

This entails that every instance of res extensa is representable without reference to any other instance of res extensa. To say of something that it is intelligible in certain terms is the same as to say it is representable. This entails that every mental representation of a physical entity is intelligible as isolated from any other mental entity, and therefore that every mental representation is independent from any other mental entity.

To say that x is independent from y is to say that x would not change in itself if y were to change. X changes in itself iff one of its identity-determining properties changes. A property P is identity determining if some entity is an instance of type x iff it bears property P (1).

On the Cartesian picture, all identity determining properties are non-relational. If they were relational, then they would not be intelligible independently, and therefore could not be properties of a representation.

IV. Heidegger’s Critique of the Uncertainty Criterion.

Heidegger’s critique of Descartes’ as found in Sein und Zeit can offer us at least three good responses to the account of mental representation given in sections (I – III). One response is that it may be unwarranted to assume the uncertainty criterion. Another response is that it does not allow for the mind to represent entities that bear identity determining properties as given by the relationships that those entities bear to other entities. The third response, which builds on the first two, is that it is not clear how evaluative properties might be reduced purely to quantitative ones.

The second and third responses will need us to lay more groundwork. As such, we’ll just cover the first response in this section.

Regarding Heidegger’s response to the uncertainty criterion, we might make the following argument: in normal day to day life, we assume a mode of relating to our thoughts and experiences that seeks to deal with them on their own terms, and which does not seek to take a special perspective on them. Heidegger suggests that instead of taking our experiences as something to be interrogated beyond their context, they should instead be understood in terms of their ‘average everyday-ness.’

The fact of the matter is that you and I both manage to get along just fine in our day-to-day lives without the certainty that Descartes demands. While it might seem intuitively true that a more clinical perspective– such as the one implied by adopting the uncertainty criterion– might in some sense allow us a privileged understanding of the phenomena we seek to understand through it, it is also true that in day-to-day life, we are forced to accept as true propositions about which we are not suitably certain, and whose propositional content we cannot fully explain.

If we were to take the uncertainty criterion with complete seriousness, everyday life would not be possible– living simply requires us to believe too many uncertain claims in order to function on a daily basis.The assumption of strong representationalism over weak representationalism solely on the grounds of the uncertainty principle may not be as defensible as it seem.

V. Being-in-the-World.

Heidegger’s analysis also affords us a response to the Cartesian picture inasmuch as it requires the identity determining properties to be relationally independent. If there are some entities whose identities are such that they are not relationally independent, then we have reasons to reject the Cartesian picture.

One example of an entity which may not be relationally independent is a hill or a mountain; or a slope, more generally. To an ant, a hill which is easily surmountable within an hour’s walk for a human being is not easily surmountable. As such, given a particular slope, humans might qualify as the sort of beings which could easily surmount it while ants might not. If ease of surmountability is an identity condition for a given slope, which it may be, or if ease of surmounting a given slope is an identity condition for the type of being which surmounts slopes, then we have a reason to reject the Cartesian picture on the grounds that its independence condition cannot be satisfied.

Furthermore, if ease of surmountability is an identity determining property for entities such as slopes, then we may have an example of a case whereby the qualitative reduction condition cannot be met. In the case of a slope of certain length and incline, while we certainly can analyse the properties of the slope in terms of numerical extension and angle from horizontal, these properties tell us nothing about its surmountability unless we reference the sort of being that can or cannot surmount it.

While it may be possible in theory to offer a relational analysis of the extended properties of the mountain in relation to the extended properties of whichever being is proposed as possibly surmounting it, this would likely require deepening the base of knowledge collected via the behavioural sciences to a degree completely precluded by practicality. While it might be possible in theory to quantify the conditions required for evaluative properties like ease to obtain across cases, it is by no means clear how this could be done. As such, claims in favour of a quantative reduction can be suspended as premature, at least.

Footnotes.

(1). In this sentence, I use the abbreviation ‘iff’ twice– this is not a typo. In analytic philosophy, ‘iff‘ is often written in place of ‘if and only if‘: ‘x iff y‘ means if y then x and if x then y.

Bibliography.

Descartes, R., & Cottingham, J. (1986). Meditations on first philosophy: With selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J., & Robinson, E. (1962). Being and time. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Further Reading.

Clark, A., 1997, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. (Cbapter 8)