Douglas Adams’ character of Dirk Gently describes himself as a “holistic detective”. He understands the world as being extremely interconnected. In Gently’s view it is merely a matter of time before the connection between two phenomena becomes apparent. This has a certain resonance with the idealist metaphysics of Plato. In his understanding, the ‘real’ is an ascendant idea of something. The examples that we encounter in our lives are merely second-hand instantiations of the perfect original idea.

An implication of this metaphysics is that relationships between objects are also earthly representations of Platonic ideas. In addition, relationships between relationships are also instantiations of Platonic ideas. This expand infinitely, and one criticism of Plato is that his ideas become infinitely recursive. Let us take a more limited example, that exists mundanely in our phenomenal world. Let us consider the chocolate chip cookie.

Chocolate Chip Cookies, by Georgie_grd
This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 10 May 2010, 16:32 by Mindmatrix. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.

We could imagine the relationship between water, flour, sugar, butter, and chocolate chips is represented by the chocolate chip cookie. In Plato’s view there exists an idea of the chocolate chip cookie which is reflected in every chocolate-chip cookie ever made. There are at least two problems here, that I will set aside for the moment: How Plato’s conception of the Ideal deals with perceived errors i.e. a bad chocolate chip cookie, and how much of Plato’s concept of Idea is framed by out own, apparently flawed, second-hand experience of specific ideas, or indeed, our concept of Idea, itself. Before I digress any further I will return to the kitchen.

I put forward a concept of the chocolate-chip cookie as representing the idea of the relationship of its ingredients. But those same ingredients as comprise a relationship with chocolate-chip pancakes. This implies that there is a further relationship between cookies and pancakes. Additional relationships are brought into these accounts. The roles of the baker, the kitchen, heat, utensils and so on. Plato recognized there are myriad relationships, mediated by other relationships. I think Plato’s desire to apply logical analysis, in favour of the logical clarity that could be imputed on abstract Ideas in his metaphysics, drove him to derogate physical/phenomenal reality.

But Dirk Gently engages in a physical/phenomenal universe. For him, these connections emerge because these are already there. This accords with Plato’s concept of learning as rediscovery, versus invention. We already know our world, but we must be reminded through learning. We must also be mindful that we are being deceived by the flawed representations that we encounter, and look to finding the Ideal reality that accords with logic.

This view of learning is at odds with our contemporary, abstract understanding of the forces that underly our world. Quantum events exist as ideas that we abstract from perceptual phenomena. That our understanding of these forces is incomplete does not corrode our experience of utilizing them. For example, the communications technology that this blog post is disseminated on required an understanding of quantum forces that we only perceive second-hand as impacts on our phenomenal scale.

As I lie here, writing in bed, I am aware of the softness of the sheets, the warmth and weight of the blanket, the texture of the paper I first composed this essay on, and the familiar tapered cylinder of my pen. I have the sense of my weight pressing into the mattress. Sounds are conveyed to my ears. The birds outside, chirping and rustling the thick curtain of grape vines growing past my bedroom window. The sounds of my wife preparing herself “first breakfast”. Yet on another scale these are all the movements of atoms and molecules, often shifted in waves that pass through them. The bed, the birds, my body, and the space between my ears are mostly space, with particles ordered by fields of energy. David Chalmers explores this idea, which I have borrowed, in his essay “The Matrix as Metaphysics” (Chalmers, David. “The Matrix as Metaphysics.” In Philosophers Explore The Matrix. Oxford University Press, 2005.)

Handwritten notes in bed. photo by author.

Plato’s metaphysics seems to value logical clarity over phenomenal experience. Although his analytical claims are germane, his ontological claims are certainly up for dispute. We notice relationships that we can deal with, such as the baking, sharing and eating of cookies. Obviously, we take some relationships as more critical and more urgent than others. We perceive what effects us and attempt to respond to them. These can be relationships, such as those of electrons and other particles that permit our technologies to function as they do. These relationships, more significantly, include the social relationships that condition our lives in the world.

The symbolic systems that we use to consider and render account of our lives are very much how we convey what matters to us. From these we take our received understanding of what and how to cope with the world in which we dwell. (See Dreyfus, Hubert L. Skillful coping: Essays on the phenomenology of everyday perception and action. OUP Oxford, 2014.)

This leads me back to Dirk Gently, holistic detective, and the fictive world that he dwells in. He shows all the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactive disorder. His is impulsive, easily distracted, and filled with a certain nervous energy. Yet his character often seems to recognize connections before others. Of course, as a fictional character the world he lives in exists as a construction from the mind of his author. Yet his behaviour is recognizable for many high-functioning ADHD people. Understanding connections long before the logical analysis of these of these connections is available to them is a bane in academic settings. Given time to develop their analysis, they can show the logic. But given the tendency to blurt out conclusions, they may lead others to assume that those who think in the ADHD style are being premature or fabulatory.

This reaction ignores the essentially mechanical nature of logic. If, as Heidegger describes it, thinking is the possibility of synthesis, (see Heidegger, Martin. What is called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York, 1968) 8 (1968)) and logical analysis is simply mechanical, similar to walking, then the idea of an unconscious logic is not so farfetched. The idea that the ADHD-style of thinking is erratic fails to account for their recognition of connections which later seem prescient. To be sure, there is no guarantee of 100% accuracy with these insights. This prescience may only be heuristic, but they are none-the-less valuable for the speed of their arrival.

It would be a mistake to use this argument to defend ‘going with your gut’ which is often simply an emotional appeal to an existing bias. But in so far as ‘everything is connected’ it seems that the the term ADHD can be applied to people who think holistically, at least part of the time. The challenge is identifying the mechanism by which such logic functions, and addressing the dichotomy of the power of logic, against the wisdom of skilful coping that allows humans to function in their worlds.

Galen Strawson argues that regardless of whether or not we are determined, that is, capable of choice, moral responsibility is impossible. His argument for this expands on what he calls the Basic Argument: because we are a product of heredity and early experience, over which we have no control, we cannot be held morally responsible for our choices that are intrinsically conditioned by those seminal forces. But Strawson is not an advocate for the impossibility of moral responsibility. He is constructing the strongest possible defence he can for this basic argument, so as to reveal points where that defence can be evaded. At the end of his essay, he raises the question of how to resolve the problem of justice given that our moral choices are so constrained.

The Author is conflicted.

“In this paper I want to reconsider the Basic Argument, in the hope that anyone who thinks that we can be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions will be prepared to say exactly what is wrong with it.”

Galen Strawson, “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” in Russ Shafer-Landau, ed. Ethical Theory: An anthology, 2ed, 2013, p.312

The primary starting point, for Strawson, is that we have no control over our heredity or early conditioning. Obviously, we cannot choose our parents. He points out that we have no more control over our origins, than we do over our superficial and more profound physical traits: Ethnicity, skin colour, height, innate physical abilities, and so on. Similarly, our early experiences as children are beyond our control. We are born into social situations that we only gradually gain agency in. I would add that the limits of that agency seem much more likely to be reduced, than expanded, given our understanding of human agency as described by contemporary social science.

Strawson notes that if we can allow for any possibility of moral responsibility, it must be considered in terms of mental faculties. I think this is one potential crack in his putative defence of the Basic Argument. Recent advances in phenomenological thinking, which build on discoveries in cognitive neuroscience, suggest thinking is much more embodied than simply em-brained. This may not alter Strawson’s argument, but mat further constrain the limits of choice. But as he does not address this, it should be considered more in depth at some point.

Part of his argument is that even our possibility of making choices arises from heredity and early experiences. Even our desire and ability to overcome those conditions as constraints on choice reflect our originary conditions. Strawson argues that following this line of thought, we find ourselves in an infinite regress. That regress does not lead out of the original premise that we cannot escape our early conditioning, so leaves that observation, that nothing arises from nothing, intact, and still informing our future moral choices.

As I noted, Strawson does not seem to endorse the Basic Argument as the final argument for eliminating ethical thought and action. He addresses two points using anthropological arguments. The first is that while exact courses of action may be up for debate, all human groups seem to have some sense of individuals as having a responsibility to follow codes of mores and laws. It would seem contradictory to argue that there is no moral responsibility possible when all humans seem to live as if there is a right-or-wrong, even if that is so limited, if I may say, a sociopathic ‘good is what I like’. But if the limitations on choice posed by the metaphysics of causality must be at least addressed, then surely we must at some point account for human desire to choose morally good behavior, even if this this an illusory choice.

Strawson’s second anthropological observation is more acute. In christian thought justice is thought to include eternal damnation for wrong behaviour, and eternal bliss for right behaviour. But if there is no possibility of making actual moral choices, either outcome seems unjust. I would add, at this point, that a certain psychological recognition of this may exist in the notion of the Elect, as annunciated by some christian sects. The Elect are those thought to born to be carried to heaven at some point. Pre-ordained, the Elect perform ‘good’ behaviour to demonstrate their elect-ness. But regardless of sin—which they can of course repent—they are bound for heaven, in their view. But if moral responsibility is impossible due to the metaphysics of causality, then why not embrace this insurmountable condition by simply declaring bliss and damnation a fait accompli from birth?

Strawson’s discussion does not address christian theological concerns beyond questioning the possibility of justice given that heaven and hell seem preordained by conditions over which we have no control. Being condemned to bliss or damnation for that which we no control exemplifies notions of injustice. Justice seems impossible in a deterministic universe. And as I outlined, Strawson equally negates the relevance of a non-deterministic universe to moral choice. Addressing this binary, at the very beginning of his essay he writes:

“We cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions in either case.”

Galen Strawson, in Shafer-Landau, p.312

His use of truly, implies the epistemological problems of ascertaining all facts pertaining to the ethical analysis of moral responsibility, both in a given case, and generally. His use of the term ultimately implies the need to ascertain the nature of the metaphysics that conditions ethics, and such ethical concepts as moral responsibility and our ability to choose. Strawson’s brief essay touches on those concerns, analyzes one basic argument for the impossibility of moral responsibility, and raises the possibility of redefining our concept of justice as a means to resolving the problem of addressing moral responsibility.

Werner Herzog: VR is a completely new tool, separate from other mediums and genres; not simply an extention of documentary filmmaking, nor 3d cinema, or video games. (Interviewed by Ben Markuch, Vice Talks Film s1 ep17, YouTube video, 19 August 2016 down loaded 11 March 2020)

Marconi’s first receiver.
Source: wikipedia

Can we support this claim, that virtuality is a new tool, a new medium, that bears an analogous historical trajectory to theatre, cinema, radio, and television? That is to say, theatrical conventions of a proscenium that frames the action, gives way to a moving shifting camera lens. Similarly, early television broadcasts were presented as if by an actor addressing an audience on stage. Less has been written about the earliest presentation and reception of broadcast radio. Oration, and the face-a-face presentation of music, are the antecedent experience to radio. At their introduction, radios were rare, and often experienced through headsets. Gradually, they became centres for entertainment in the home, a shared experience via amplified sound. This bears further consideration as to varying anthropological accounts of the cultural experience of encountering radio. In the western experience, radio eventually became ‘back ground’ in both work, and domestic life. The radio would play in the background, perhaps to be turned up for the news, or a favourite song.

Radio’s place in our experience of the automobile is specific as it auditorily defined an environment that moves with us. Now, with portable headsets, we move singularly through space, bringing our recordings and broadcasts with us. We stream music and podcasts, selecting our choice. At any given time we can hear what we want to hear. Unlike radio, we directly control, in granular fashion, what we hear, much more than simply changing stations. This is reminiscent of the relationship of gramophones to radio. Portable radios appeared in the mid twentieth century. FM Walkmans combined the functions into a single, and singular unit.

The appearance of portable blue-tooth speakers that we sometimes hear being carried through the street at once echo the experience of car radios, and of augmented reality as it appears in speculative fiction. Experiments like GoogleGlass, which emphasize the visual, have failed to become ubiquitous. However, portable auditory experiences, both shared and private, are commonplace. Is auditory virtuality a subset of virtual reality? Or is it fundamentally a different experience compared to visual virtuality?

The structures of audiality, visuality, and tactility vary as to their immanence. Human vision is focussed within a different field of experience, than that of human hearing. The first has the closest experience of ‘infinite’ sense. We observe stars so distant that they do not actually exist in our time. Hearing is more present, and also, though directional, surrounds us. We may hear something that draws our attention without physically having to shift our bodies to address it. Vision is dependent on some degree of movement in a way that sound is not. Tactility is the most immediate, and the most intimate. We feel something when it touches us. We may anticipate such encounters, as the first whisper of a draft heralds the cold of a winter’s day awaiting us. We may feel a visceral thrill as a loved-one’s hand reaches for us. But these effects at a distance rely on the integration of the body to let us sense them.

This anticipation comes partially through memory, through experience. I hear the familiar squeak of a floor board before I feel my partner get into bed. I see the flash of lightning before I hear the crack of the accompanying thunder. Memory lets me anticipate these sensations. A headset insulates us from these, or at least, changes our experience. Yet we often go about our business with music filling our ears. As yet, we do not have the same immanence with visual data.

This raises the question of how accurately Virtual Reality, as a visually dominated medium, parallels our auditory experience of radio, and of portable headsets. Is it reasonable to call our experience of listening to the radio a form of virtual reality?

“The condition for the possibility of what is at hand not emerging from its conspicuousness is that the world not announce itself. And this is the constitution of the phenomenal structure of the being-in-itself of these beings.”(BT p75)

When the utility(at hand, or handiness) of something does not appear from the conspicuousness that its un-handiness reveals, then the world does not announce itself. That is to say, the world is not proclaiming itself, making a statement, or a pronouncement of itself. Its ontological state is not thematized. But this is when our phenomenological examination can best go ahead, because, Heidegger argues, then we can engage with the phenomenal structure of the being-in-itself of what we previously observed as its utility to our care.

This seems to be relevant to the methodological concept of bridling that many methods of phenomenology propose. In that case, the goal is to set aside our cares and concerns, to set aside how we thematize something to hand. By bridling (a refinement of Husserl’s concept of bracketing) we can engage on the structures that are elided by our rush to cope skillfully with whatever phenomena we engage. So if we consider a hammer, at its most extreme everything looks like a nail,and the hammer’s relationship to us is reduced to its nail-driving capabilities. Of course, the size, exact form, materials are important to its ability to drive nails. But it is easy to simply say that a hammer drives nails. But thematizing its being in such crude terms fails to address the broader range of its being.

The weight, for example, of a hammer, determines its effectiveness in a given context. A 22 oz framing hammer with drive a a 4” framing nail more easily than a 16 oz common hammer. And small brass brads will be less likely to bend beneath the blows of a smaller, 8 oz hammer. The weight of the head, the length of the handle, and the proportions will reflect the ease with which the hammer can be swung. But the action of the hammer must also account for the being swinging the hammer.

In this case, issues of strength, practice, experience, and purpose play a part in the relationship of the hammer to the hammerer. A 22oz hammer is heavy,and requires a certain amount of strength to be wielded. For example, although I am quite strong, I prefer to use a lighter hammer. This also reflects experience—after 30 years of practicing carpentry, my muscles and reflexes better let me handle a heavier hammer. But as a child, a utility hammer seemed too clumsy, too bulky, to ever control. It was only when necessity for a paycheque drove me to swing a hammer, that my strength, skill and experience as directed towards hammering began to develop.

As that experience developed, and I encountered different hammers, I began to appreciate differences in material, in weight, in balance and in handling. Some would tire me more quickly, others would allow me more consistent strikes. And this was not simply due to the hammer. These reflected me as the one wielding the hammer. Was I driving nails for fence boards or picture-framing tacks? The purpose also framed my relationship with a given tool. Heidegger describes this “noticing” as being framed by the “whole workshop as that in which taking care has always already been dwelling”.(BT p74)

This sense of dwelling, of being part of, is created by the references that surround us(BT p74) Those references become unavailable when a object ceases to be handy. We notice a conspicuous difficulty, and we cease our hammering, or else obstinately continue, noticing that each swing fails our purpose, missing the nail, bending it, failing to drive it, perhaps injuring our hand or arm. We become aware that more is going on than the simple driving of a nail. That phenomenal experience disappears with the ease with which it happens. But now, we become aware of the object’s being-in-the-world. But that is not to say, that we can immediately discern that being. It becomes conspicuous because it is more than just the tool I use to drive nails.

Why can’t I drive these nails? is it the weight or shape? Is it the appropriateness to the job, or to my abilities? Has the hammer developed a fault that I am only aware of due to my failure to drive nails? It is at this point I begin to ask questions about the hammer, the work and myself.

Prior to the necessity of questions, I could use the hammer with actions and without words. My engagement with the worldliness of the hammer was simpler, and didn’t require conceptual structures to use it. Certainly, discussions with clients as to what required nailing, where and why reflected strategic conversations. But to take up the hammer requires the action, and if the nails were driven in with ease, then words were not necessary. Hubert Dreyfus illustrates this in his lectures about Merleau-Ponty and The Phenomenology of Perception. At one point he describes how Greek warriors’ arms pulled the food to themselves. “The Hungry warriors sat down and their arms went out to the food.” There is not a representational model, nor a philosophical zombie here. The sailors act because they can, and because of the tension of hunger and fatigue. Conceptualizing occurs after the fact.

It is here that I am pausing to reflect on a difference between visualization and representation. One is an action that we undertake similar to hammering a nail. Our imagination occurs and we picture something. Then by another action we might render it to paper. Here it may become obstinate, or conspicuous, as we attempt to cope with visualizing an object, event or action that may only exist in our imagination. Representation, on the other hand, seems like a second-hand action. We create a representation in the mind and that guides our action. But this is not visualization as imagination; representation is one way that we conceptualize phenomenal consciousness. If this were true, it seems to me it overly complexifies actions like hammering, which seem to happen through the body, and would make imagination a second hand form of representation, which seems both conceptually redundant, and fundamentally a mis-characterization of visualization. Moreover, visualization as preparation for successful performance of actions, as in sports, seems different from representation as an element of phenomenal consciousness, as described by some philosophers and neuroscientists. In those cases, the mental process of visualization is deliberate, guided, and ceases once the activity has begun.

One can imagine Homeric warriors trudging towards the table, imagining the foods they wished to enjoy. They might visualize the foods, the smells wafting from the canteen calling to them. But one they sat down, imagination yields to eating, and they did not have to imagine themselves eating, to grasp the food, and consume it. So too, the carpenter may imagine the drawings that guide them, or visualize the structure. They may pause to consider a difficulty that emerges from the work. But the actions that occur through the body simply happen. And at that point the the world does not announce itself, because the hammerer or the eater is dwelling in it without need for propositions to engage with it.


N.B lightly edited in Aug 2020 for typos and clarity.


Dreyfus, Hubert, recorded lecture “The Phenomenology of Perception” 2005 downloaded from Youtube.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, Joan Stambaugh, tr. 2010

The US secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, in describing how his government would pursue the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, infamously described his problems as: Known knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns.

What do we know, what gaps in our knowledge are we aware, and what gaps are we not aware of. At the time, this idea was greeted with much laughter. I felt that, on the other hand, this was probably the brightest thought I’d heard him express.

When I think of research, in the academic sense, we move between the known unknowns(questions left unanswered by the existing literature), and the unknown unknowns. Knowledge gaps that we had not yet theorized.

We could present this situation graphically, like this:

The problem is that, as phenomenologists have long observed and argued, much of what we know, that we ascribe meaning to, becomes invisible to us. We act without questioning as we walk across a floor, for example. We are not actively aware of our ‘unknown knowns’. If, as Hubert Dreyfus observes, we are cast ‘ always already’ into meaning, then we can consider the origins of meaning as ‘unknown knowns’. Max van Manen discusses ‘unknown Knowns’ extensively in Phenomenology of Practice.

To be sure, accounting for the borders between these categories isn’t simple. Epistemologies provide conflicting arguments as to what it means to be known, and hence, what is unknown.

This is where philosophy and anthropology function most significantly. As disciplines focussed on uncovering meaning, they deal with unknown knowns. Perhaps if more consideration were given to the unknown knowns, we would better address the other three categories.

Interaction is a noun. Vaguely, it can be used to mean some force affecting another. The cue striking the eightball would be an example. But this could also be described as a reaction. in that sense, we could consider one use of ‘reaction’, as in a chemical reaction. There, chemicals react predictably. To act is to perform some action, but also initiate some action. Thus,  intentionality seems to be implied in the word ‘interaction’.

“Inter” means between. While this could be the action of one body towards another, it is better captured by the sense of two or more bodies acting upon one another. Thus while one pool ball may be deformed when it impacts another, this is not the same category as when a person gestures at another. The struck pool ball has no intentionality towards the first. The change in the first pool ball is due to its motion and conveys no intentionality. In the second case, the act of waving (a gesture) may change the person waving. They may anticipate a smile or a wave back.

So, my brief account here defines interaction and its various conjugations as describing a change in the initiator of the interaction as much as the object. Indeed, it would be a mistake not to consider both (or more) parties as subjects.

A colleague of mine suggests this might require thinking dialectically about interaction, rather than causally. Causality may be to limited a concept to properly address interaction, as I’m starting to think about it.

But I’m early in my thoughts…

Demonstrating how to do research by answering a research question

A doctoral degree represents both a program of research and a demonstration of knowing how to do research. In a dissertation, there is extensive discussion as to the process of how each section was addressed, in order to demonstrate a strategic or philosophical grasp of the alternatives to each decision. Thus the dissertation demonstrates the student’s broader grasp of disciplinary concerns, techniques and history. A dissertation deeply explores its justifications for methods, structure, theoretical frameworks, choice of topic, and so on. In a typical research paper or an academic monograph, these categories are more baldly stated. Generally, the authors of a paper leave unspoken as to alternative approaches rejected for the research documented in the given paper. Like a academic journal article, or academic monograph, a dissertation functions primarily as a platform for writing extensively and critically about an original thought in relation to existing research literature.

A Craft of writing critically about a discipline’s literature

It cannot be over-emphasized .

Doctoral research is primarily about reading a vast amount of relevant literature, then writing critically about that body of works.

As an activity, doctoral research is primarily developing a craft of writing critically about the existing literature in a given field of research. The idea of craft speaks to clarity, elegance, and coherency in the argument conveyed by the student’s writing. The candidate’s own research is a pivot or fulcrum upon which to critically address the broader field. As such it attempts to reveal previously undiscussed connections between existing nodes of knowledge. These nodes can be considered as books, and academic papers, but also researchers and their careers, institutional structures such as universities and their departments and research clusters, conferences, and topics actively debated. There are two considerations that further complexify this research. These address intra-disciplinary conventions of how research and criticality are conducted, and address extra-disciplinary bodies of knowledge that have bearing on the question at hand.

The craft must address and respect existing disciplinary doctrine for criticality, even as it may critique those doctrines. This is challenging as the relatively subordinate position of the doctoral student renders them subject to normative standards that may reflect institutional bias or personal ego as much as disciplinary standards for rigour. Thus the question asked, and answered by a dissertation and its author must be imbued with a certain modesty, but also persistence and resolve. This aids in strengthening the works central argument while achieving a completed project, and also resolves the practical concern of the dissertation over-expanding into a decades long inconclusive project.

The craft may also address research and literature from outside a given discipline. For example, the depth and breadth of the relationship of literary novels to English-as-an-academic-discipline is obvious. Novels also draw the attention of philosophers, historians, anthropologists, and other researchers. Thus a philosopher may find themselves reading literary analysis, historical accounts, or ethnographic research in order to refine their philosophical understanding of themes taken from a given novel, poem, or other fictional narrative. However the value of a broader and holistic understanding of themes poses a challenge to the sharp focus required of a doctoral project. It also involves introducing, clarifying, and defending the relevance and stakes of extra-disciplinary research methods and concerns. It may require study outside the received disciplinary boundaries.

Colleagues, Courses, and Comprehensive Exams

The coursework component serves several purposes. It aids the student by deepening their knowledge of given nodes of knowledge. It also allows them to develop collegial relationships with faculty and other students. This societal element is critical as it underlies the research writing/process, as Wendy Belcher notes in her book on academic writing. It cannot be overstated how discussions, collaborations, mentoring and supporting ones colleagues is vital to long term success and nourishment in the academic milieu. The regular rhythm of coursework helps to provide structure that will develop and sustain these collegial relationships in the student’s career.

The comprehensive exam is often considered the least pleasant element of doctoral studies. These are seen to serve two purposes. The first is to demonstrate a breadth of disciplinary knowledge that would permit a student to teach a first year undergraduate course. The second purpose of a comprehensive exam is to demonstrate a student’s grasp of a core body of literature relevant to their research question. There is a sweeping breadth as to how these exams are structured. They range from 3 hour examinations to months-long writing projects, and from institutionally mandated reading lists to a body of work negotiated between the student and their doctoral committee. That this raises question of the pedagogical value of comps. Are they simply a hazing process that has no bearing on actual academic practices, such as writing a journal article in three hours? Or do they reflect a reading history that arguably should have been obtained during an undergraduate degree, then refined through the more disciplined writing craft developed during a masters degree? It is perhaps unseemly for a prospective student to critique this element of doctoral studies. Yet given that these are a specific cultural phenomenon found in anglo-North American universities, it raises the legitimate question of the purpose and value of these exams. At the very least, it should be considered carefully by the student in discussion with their supervisor.

Supervisors and Students

The relationship between supervisor and doctoral student tends to be fraught. On a certain level, there is an intrinsic selfishness involved in academic research. At its core, academic research reflects the specific question that arises out of a researcher’s passion to answer that question. The parameters of the question reflect the focus of the researcher’s thought. So both the student and the supervisor have questions they passionately seek to answer, but these questions may be only be peripherally relevant to each other’s work. At its best I see the student’s research complementing and expanding on the supervisor’s work. The student provides an answer to a question that is either in an array of the faculty member’s project, or addresses a related question that is just outside the scope of a given faculty researcher’s current project. In some rare cases, this collegiality extends to favouring a candidate because their work is interesting, though not directly relevant to the researcher’s own work.

Writing this characterization of doctoral work brought forth thoughts about how each element reflected my particular concerns, enthusiasms, and experience in my own doctoral studies. In a sense, each idea could be a subheading for an element of a proposal, or a section of a dissertation. At the very least, a student would discuss, and where necessary, negotiate with their supervisor, committee, and institution to structure their doctoral work so that it addresses both their research interests, and the institutional and collegial goals and norms under which they are studying. It is to aiding that end that I wrote this short essay.

It is also to aid me in reflecting why I might want to continue my research in the context of a doctoral program, and why pursuing this work as an independent scholar might be more appropriate.

U/Me (Adam van Sertima; electro-acoustic interactive sculpture, Plywood, Steel spring, electromagnets & Arduino mini-computers.) exhibited in the Milieux Institute during the Society for Visual Culture March 2018. photo by Artist

In trying to write clearly about my research/creation, I often return to very basic questions, and starting points. This often makes me feel as if I have gone only a little distance. But perhaps that is my perception. So please bear with me as i again return to the well of what I’m thinking about.

In no particular order, and sometimes tenuously linked in logic or object:

Cultural play is an expression of play as a metaphysical category.

Prof. Bart Simon, in a 2010 presentation, once attempted to define play (a fraught concept) as “doing something differently”. Often play is denigrated as the proper activity of children, to be abandoned once they are sufficiently developed. Play is more positively framed as relief or escape from the demands of society. This was Johann Huizinga’s position. These are examples of considering play as primarily a cultural phenomena. An example of shared meaning around given activities. But if we consider how play can arise in a deterministic universe, we can consider examples of cultural play as instantiations of play as a metaphysical category. The german philosopher Eugen Fink examines this in his Spiel as Weltsymbol(1959). The possibility of “doing something different” in a deterministic universe.

Making expressive objects is a means of knowing the world.

By making things, especially expressive objects, we not only illustrate meanings, but discover questions regarding the material world that we live in, and suggest philosophical directions that illuminate our relationships to the world around us. I have taken to using the term expressive objects to refer generally to paintings, interactive sculpture, poems and so on so as to de-center concepts that western thinkers have in the last 300 years refer to as ‘Art’. Our contemporary definitions of art often lead to misinterpreting the meanings of expressive objects from other times and cultures. These definitions also can delimit our concepts of our relationship to the expressive objects of our own time and culture. For example, the physical sciences probably consider expressive objects as illustrative of knowledge, not a specific, specialized source of knowledge. These do not acknowledge, not can they, that expressive objects engage with metaphysics, and so happen before the powerful, but limited, explanations offered by the physical sciences. Explaining how expressive practices give us knowledge of the world is a large part of my research interests. Making expressive objects that demonstrate this is a large part of my artistic practice.

Philosophy is the synthetic search for coherent meaning

Philosophy, in the western tradition, has dealt with the conceptual analysis of propositional claims. Attempts to describe the elements of our world, both physical and cultural were critiqued as to how they contradicted themselves. Platonic dialogues illustrate this. in them, Plato’s teacher, Socrates, critiques the notions of others regarding the nature of justice, love, the natural world and so on. However, two important things strike me about Plato’s writings. They emphasize how our conceptual models are often contradictory, but none-the-less use language to self-critique…language. Secondly, the dialogues are essentially very wordy plays. They could be performed on stage, or over the radio.(platonic podcast?) So as philosophy they are expressive objects, and do not attempt the apparent objectivity of prose.(This suggests that I should stop writing in prose lol)

The synthesis, the possibility of new questions, is somewhat denied by Plato, who argues that all knowledge is simply memory. This is a particular notion of memory, and suggests that Plato thought that, as we are reasonably successful in living in this world, that we have become oblivious to its ‘truths’. Hubert Dreyfus, in his Skilful Coping (2014), makes a somewhat parallel argument.

While I fully support the continued use of language, both written and spoken, I am arguing that making, be it paintings, performance art or prose, give us insight and knowledge that language cannot do. So to do philosophy we require synthesis that can be both physical and linguistic. Moreover, making material things can drive new conceptual models.

Compatiblism is useful notion of how our minds are structured in our world.

Contemporary science characterizes the world as determined, or at least subject to a stochastic (limited chance) limit as to how things happen. A causes B causes C. Things don’t just happen, they are a result. This apparently renders human choice as an illusion. Compatibilism is the school of thought that says humans have choice and intention within a determined universe. This is a fundamental starting point for my thinking, even though I have not developed or closely examined arguments beyond ‘any other theory of meaning would contradict my lived experience, and the demonstrable explanatory power of contemporary science’.

Play as a metaphysical category underlies expressive media

That we can ask new questions, make new objects, embrace new meanings suggests that our thought is not so determined. Moreover, opportunities to ‘do things differently’ seem to arise despite the apparent determinism of our world. I think that part of the challenge is dealing with the language we use when discussing a universe that seems to harbour a deterministic physics and intentional minds. It is here where expressive practices come into play. They give physical expression to phenomena that may be obscured by the language and theory that we use. They let us, sometimes, reappraise our conceptual models, and lead to a deeper understanding. They help us to synthesize answers to our formerly intractable answers.


Escaping utility in favour of understanding.

Write hard & clear about what hurts

Touch something. Reach.

Grasp. Grope.

Use the quality of your hand to surround something.

Possess it.

Touch is always with you.


It is not experienced as a temporary state of sensorimotorism.

Most consciousness studies tend towards a positivist, deterministic model for research. They infer findings from non-material neural strata which is claimed to be representative of experience. This neural ‘evidence’, however, is only ever drawn from selective material data.

It is not my task to refute the consciousness corpus. I can only gesture towards a richer alternative that is already evidenced; does not need inventing.

Experience (the core of phenomenology) tells through written description. In this we can read structures that are already present; we do not need impose, nor ‘retro-fit’, structures that justify our per-existing narratives about things. Description from first-person experience shows the ‘how it is’ of our world.

A good example of this, in action, is…

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Heidegger Being and Time

An Arduino synthesizer that uses capacitative sensors to generate tones.(Prototype).

“Da-sein, that is the being of human-being…the creature whose being is essentially determined by its ability to speak” (p.22) !!!
The characterization of Heidegger as a phenomenologist becomes clearer if we consider this qoute taken from early in Being and Time:
“Not arbitrary and accidental structures but essential ones are to be demonstrated in this everydayness…by looking at the fundamental constitution of the everydayness of Da-sein we shall bring out in a preparatory way the being of this being” (p.15)

Much of Heidegger’s discussion to that point is setting up how Being (everything that is) partakes of isn-ess. But he frames that in terms of Da-sein, the being that reflects on being. So what is it about Being that it is shared by all beings, that it is not a being like others, that it is realized in Da-sein partially as reflecting on Being?

This places Heidegger’s concerns as dealing with metaphysical problems, i.e. the nature of time, but above and beyond ontic concerns of temporality to understand how Being realizes through Da-sein”

The focus of Heidegger’s question is
“In what way—the central range of problems of all ontology is rooted in the phenomenon of time correctly viewed and correctly explained” (p.18)

This problem is shrouded by the ‘ontic’ or the specific examples of being. The ontological, that which is, seems distant and irrelevant, even though without it, there would be no ‘ontic’ beings. Heidegger notes that research itself, and any specific event within a research project is an ontic phenomena. (P.17) in other words, research never gets to stand outside the ontology that it arises from. Heidegger emphasizes the historical nature of research, as how it takes place in time, as does all being. Moreover, it is conditioned by history, and tradition, so that it fails to see the origins and effects of its history. (P.19)

I suspect that as I read on, Heidegger will argue against emminant being (beings which exist outside of time, like God, for example) and this will give force to his position of his critiques as overcoming metaphysics.

A clue to a phenomenology of making, in the sense of making as the necessary element of maker-culture, lies in Heidegger’s account of appearance (p.26). Appearance can be a superficial perception of a phenomena, when the ontological ground that a given appearance rests on is one of presupposition. This could equally apply to ship wrecks, appearing on a beach(think Merleau-Ponty, here) or FMRI accounts of mind via brain activity. Each can have a presupposed nature.  Appearing (real appearing) (ibid) is ”on the basis of self-showing of something”.(ibid) ‘Appearing’ can mean a process versus ‘appears’. And appearing is simply indicating what we see, or more broadly, perceive.Something appears to be, can in one sense, indicating it is partially concealed. The sense of the term reflects our perspective, including our presuppositions. Heidegger makes an appeal to Husserlian accounts of going “to the things themselves” and avoiding presuppositions.

It is here that Heidegger’s turn of phrase becomes telling. Something “makes itself known”(p.26) a new thing demands a new perception of its appearance. Presuppositions can be overcome because they cannot easily accommodate this new artifact. Moreover, the maker doesn’t understand the thing until the intimate process of making is done.
The materiality of a made object can overcome the propositions that describe it. And the process of making lets the maker perceive beyond the presuppositions of the object’s original design or use.