Literature review is often considered an onerous but necessary part of academic writing, especially while writing a doctoral dissertation. One of the fears of the doctoral researcher is that they have left something out, or missed a publication that negates or superannuates their specific argument.

I recently encountered this app which appears to assist with the process:

VOSviewer allows the user to import data from repositories such as Web of Science, and Scopus and then demonstrate connections according to categories such as keywords or authors. Thus a researcher could quickly create a corpus of literature directly relevant to their primary concepts and authors, and be reasonably confident that they have not missed anything significant. This leaves more energy to actually addressing the literature, and less time sorting it, or manually sorting through book indexes and library search-hits.

The VOSViewer is open source and platform agnostic. The developers, Ludo Waltman and Nees Jan van Eck, mention that this software can be applied to network analysis other than bibliometric purposes. I’m looking forward to experimenting with it to create bibliographies and corpuses for my various projects.

Here is a link to their page of literature about VOSviewer:

I readily imagine two responses to the title of this essay. The first is “yes, well of course. And as long as you have another pencil, why would you even need to?” The second response would be an attempt to construct a pencil that could write on itself. However, in the course of activities, the closest we might come to having a pencil writing on itself is to draw a picture of said pencil, with said pencil. We might object to this, as it is not actually making marks on itself, but merely aiding in creating a representation of itself. It is not modifying itself in a physical way, although by its nature, the marks that create an image of a pencil, also indicate the slow reduction of the pencil. Even here, assuming we start at the end of the pencil, and conclude the drawing with the last marks made with the most recently sharpened tip of the pencil, we are still offering a facsimile of the pencil, regardless of how detailed our marks on paper are indexed to the pencil that we grasp. We nonetheless use the pencil and other instruments, to examine and record our world. It is this tension between pencils, writing on each other at our behest, and our tension as marking on and being marked by the world which I want to draw out.

There are many types of pencils-the ubiquitous yellow HB pencil, the lozenge- profiled carpenters pencil, the mechanical pencil with replaceable leads, and the coloured pencil, found in the hands of architects, designers, and children. Pencils share the same characteristics-a rigid, durable outer shell, encasing a softer material that can be used to leave marks on surface. It most cases, the exterior shell is made of wood, and the interior is made of graphite. The soft metal, lead, has long be abandoned is favour of non-toxic materials. Other materials, such found in grease pencils, or colouring pencils, serve the same purpose. The exterior of the pencil may be circular, hexagonal, or ovoid. Frequently, the name of the pencil maker, the hardness of the lead, or its colour may be stamped or stencilled onto it. Usually much longer than it is in width, it is intended to be grasped in hand, although some specialized devices, such a geometric compasses may hold a pencil to mark circles, or other abstract data. We can imagine the pencils marking the vibrations measured in seismographs.

But it none of those cases can the pencil write on itself. We can imagine an articulated instrument that bend back and so make the pretension of writing on itself. But attaching a pencil by a string, or a universal joint, does not make it a pencil. Frequently, we will see a pencil firmly attached by a string to a store shelf, in order to mark the SKU number of objects such as nuts and bolts. All though the pencil can mark the string or the shelf, we would not say that the string or shelf is part of the pencil. But this example asks us to refine our observation that a pencil cannot write on itself. The portion of the string nearest the pencil, approximately equal to length from the tip of the pencil to the point where the string joins the pencil, is also now unavailable for the pencil to mark. Similarly, the pencil though attached to the shelf, is limited by the string as to where it can write. Presumably, with a long enough string, any part of the shelf would e accessible. But it is absurd to then attribute those parts of the shelf, and the string, that are inaccessible to the pencil as part of the pencil because it is attached to them, and that those parts of string and shelf which are accessible are part of the pencil. So while a pencil cannot write on itself, that statement is not intrinsic to its pencil-ness.

The stiffness of pencils reflect the purpose its purpose-to let humans put marks on surfaces. We can imagine a pencil made of a flexible material, so that it could curve back on itself, thus being able to write on part of its length. But part of its length, where marking is actually involved, cannot turn back on itself. At a certain point, trying to bend sufficiently to write on itself would require an asymptotic spiral. It is at this point where how we cope with the world, and how we a delimited by the world can be considered.

The way extension works, prevents a pencil from writing on itself. It also prevents it from writing on many other objects. They must proximal to the tip of the pencil. But the tip of the pencil, is not proximal to its self. The tip of the pencil occupies the volume it occupies. And that is inviolate. This point of contact cannot at once be in two places. And when we say something acts on something else, we are actually observing part, or separate individuals that we have chosen to gather together, both conceptually and physically. We conceptually join wood and graphite together as a pencil. That guides us as we physically join components into a pencil. But how we imagine a pencil must be reflects the immediacy of a problem we wish to solve (to leave marks on surfaces) and also a world which precludes a pencil writing on itself.

This returns us to another one of the three ways we can consider how a pencil can write on itself. This speaks not so much to the physical limitations, as to purposes of writing on a pencil. Perhaps the most common example is when school children label their pencil with their names, somas to keep track of their school supplies. A second reason might be to decorate the pencil, or to while away the time. In both these cases, the pencil in question has no specific need to write on itself, even if it could. The third reason, and I think the most compelling reason, is to visualize the pencil differently. It is this case where the pencil has a figurative ability to write on itself.

We can use the pencil to draw an image of the pencil. We can then embellish the image with in the limits of our imagination, and the representation of material objects as two-dimensional images. In that sense, we have used figurative means to overcome a physical limitation, for a conceptual purpose.

At this point one might shrug and say “ yes, we use pencils, and other instruments to portray both what is possible, and even what we wish were possible. This is common place”. My response is the point of this discussion. The pencil, and the one that wields it, must conceptualize at a distance. Some form of representation symbolic or figurative serves to mirror our conceptions of the world. I go as far as to say symbolic or figurative representations mirror our ideological concerns. That is to say, the cultural forms that allow us to realize our fundamental drives. Our choices of house design, of dramatic narratives, of political structures reflect an externalized system of representation that resolves the tension between the absolute physical limitations imposed on us by our world, and the fundamentally inextinguishable drives that motivate us. Insofar as we as a species have created and utilized pencils, these present an example of how we attempt to satisfy those drives. The pencil, as an artifact, represents a tool to engage with the world around us as conditioned by our symbolic, or more precisely, ideological realm, in the face of being at once part of, yet alienated from, the world around us.

Parmendides argued that all change is illusion. Broadly, all that can be, is now, always has been, and always will be. Change is merely an illusion, a result of the limits of human experience “Change implies that that something can arise out of nothing, and that is impossible”. Opposing this view, Heraclitus argued that all is influx, and that permanence is an illusion “We can never step in the same river twice”. Parmendides premise, that something cannot arise out of nothing seems entirely logical. But the logic of his argument that change is an illusion is undermined by the possibility of human illusion, as changeable unto itself. Heraclitus’ observation seems to jibe better with our experience of a dynamic world. Yet we could argue that if change is all there is, then the universe would be totally chaotic, and we could not have any understanding of it. I argue that this reveals fundamental flaws in our understanding of change and duration, and that we must reconsider the conceptual models of change, of static being, and the relationship between human experience and its role within being. Our relationship to our symbols and symbolic systems, such as words and maths, and our experience as taking place within a world requires a profound reconceptualization of change, permanence, and experience if we are to understand the world around us.

To be continued…

To be continued…

Some folks seem to walk up to the edge, them turn from it as it wasn’t even there. Others follow along the edge, perhaps daring to peek over occasionally, but keeping a slight distance from its line.

Other folks point hither and yon, declaring edges everywhere, recoiling in horror from these imaginary edges. The edge, for them, is a wall.

But some of us linger at the edges, peering over, and full of hope, considering how to step through the wall that is the edge as we imagine it to be.

Philosophy, as a human practice, is subject for Anthropological research. Yet as a model for applying logic and rigour to qualitative research questions, it seems to recede to the ground upon which anthropological inquiry rests. So too does Philosophy rely on language. Manipulating and analyzing the meaning of symbols is both the subject and methodology of Philosophy. The question then arises are our symbols indexed on perfectly with the reality we live in, or must these symbols—words—always be imperfect or limited to a human scope of understanding? Thus Philosophy attempts to answer what the  absolute limits of qualitative inquiry maybe, while always being confined in those limits.

Whether western philosophy, in its analytic mode, focuses entirely on symbolic meanings, within language, or in the continental mode, which emphasizes the embodied experience as immanent factor for philosophical  discourse, both still are trapped within language. The possible limitations of human language, including symbolic systems such as sentential logic and mathematics set certain absolutes on discourse. As paradigmatic for qualitative research such as Anthropology, Philosophy still rests as a human practice, with the aforementioned limitations. Just as a pencil cannot write on itself, so too philosophy must take some axiom as a starting point, but cannot mark that axiom without then shifting its focus to another axiom that then becomes that which marks, and not that which is marked. Where is the inside,and where is the outside? Where is the beginning and the end? Like a möbius strip it exists, but has a certain continuity that confounds our concepts. 

The standpoint that a philosopher takes can be consider from an Anthropological point of view. The philosopher reflects the time, and place where they were born, raised, and educated. The particular era of the Twentieth and early twenty-first centuries gave rise to professional philosophers working in the particular structures of contemporary academia. Schools of thought developed, reflecting past practices and hierarchies within philosophy. Earlier I mentioned two that invoked debate and rancour with in the discipline the Continental-Analytic divide. That this could today be considered a First-world problem, reflects a broader issue, that would be obvious to most contemporary anthropologists. The term philosophy tends to mean ‘philosophy derived from Western European, and Turtle Island Settler tradition. The traditions of thinking about coherent systems of meaning that arose in China, India, the Indigenous societies of the Americas have often been ignored by Western philosophy. This in-group, out-group division would be familiar to contemporary Anthropology. They would tease out the underlying ideologies, the why of the why for the direction of work practiced by the communities and groups of philosophers. 

The terms we use to categorize the practice of philosophy reflect the society of which it arose. Thus Philosophy, as a practice, reflects the underlying beliefs—the ideologies—of the society from which it arose. In Europe and North America, Philosophy has, until recently, meant Western Philosophy. This is not simply ignoring the range of other traditions, and its practitioners. The term Western comes packed with meanings tied to the colonial relationship of Western Europe to “the Orient”, the “New World” and “Africa”. 

Anthropology as a Western academic discipline has its own history of supporting colonial projects. By tying material(stone, wood, copper, and steel) to the supposed sophistication and value of a given society , it celebrated Europe’s age of steam as the apotheosis of human civilization. It ignored and derided the sophistication of lithic societies, such as that of the Mayan empire, choosing to see the lack of ferrous metallurgy as a sign of overall moral and intellectual inadequacy. This despite having for example, an advanced mathematics, and a prolonged period of social stability rivaling that of historical European regimes.

In more recent times, Anthropology has gained a greater humility, not the least of which is that it is becoming a more global enterprise. Its practitioners increasingly represent those that European anthropologists would have considered ‘subjects’ in the past. Thus perspectives from other cultures observe the practices of European derived-anthropology. 

But these reflections and accounts still occur within a world that is bounded by language and practice. Anthropologists increasingly emphasize their own standpoint in their work. They acknowledge that their accounts of other human practices and beliefs reflect their own history of practices and beliefs. To a great extent, their analytic tools are drawn from philosophical traditions. The assumption then is that logic, as developed and practiced, is at the very least, heuristically reliable. That logical arguments actually provide a coherent grounding for the documentation and analysis of human beliefs and practices.  Thus there is a presumed metaphysics that logic represents, a ground that can be relied on, beyond the cultural standpoint of a self-critical anthropologist.

What I have tried to think through here is two related problems: firstly, that Philosophy can be subjected to Anthropological analysis, the same as any other human practice, and Anthropology relies on philosophical methodologies, in so far as it relies on language to document and analyze groups and cultural practices.

The second problem is that while we acknowledge the real and potential limits of human language to describe the world, we accept its fundamentality as a human practice in the world, even as we attempt to use it to step outside and observe the world.

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.