Precis of my Research

The tree stump refuses to budge. It is substantial, but the judicious application of a shovel blade, an axe, and a chain saw, all lubricated by choice language, has severed most of the root structure. It should be moveable with a strong back. Now with a length of rope secured round it, I am still cursing its parentage, its probable future and itsself. I tug vigorously, and for long moments it seems to tug back. My opponent says nothing (when stumps start talking to you, you’ve been too long in the sun). It occasionally creaks, then as it seems about to give way, it springs back. Eventually, my adversary is extracted from the ground, I wipe the sweat from my eyes, and give it a final curse, before turning my attention to the next chore.

Alfred Gell, in his book Art and Agency(1998) discusses at length how people grant agency to inanimate objects. One familiar example is how drivers ascribe betrayal to their cars, when the vehicle suffers a breakdown. The actual facts in the situation, that normal wear and tear, or more bitingly, lack of maintenance has caused a part to fail is often not acknowledged. It is perhaps more satisfying to berate that “stupid car”. Ascribing agency to objets d’art is another facet of this behaviour, in Gell’s view. “Guernica”, Picasso’s response to atrocities from the Spanish civil war, as moved many people. Other works can be said to have an effect. Yet, we understand that the agency of an art object is not the same as that of a human. After all, unlike objects, humans move, speak, gesture……………hmmmm.

The way we understand that we are subjectivities has been described as folk psychology by some philosophers. People, and recent research has shown, many animals, exhibit a theory of mind. That is to say, we interpret other’s behaviour based on the assumption that it is driven by another mind. Yet the nature of our own subjectivity is still poorly described, questioned by psychology and critiqued by such philosophers as Daniel Dennett. He argues that there is no such thing a subject. He has developed a theory where what he describes as mental fields interact creating in humans the false impression of a subject. Our experience of agency, that we choose and intend towards the world around us, is an error according to Dennett(1993). I will refrain from discussing exactly what his arguments are for his position, at this time. However, I do not accept this position.

What I do accept, is that explaining consciousness is difficult. Philosopher’s have conjectured about it at least since Descartes, with is cogito ergo sum. Contemporary philosopher’s, especially Alva Noe, Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi argue that subjectivity need not reside in a metaphysical soul, but actually relies on the fleshy bodies of human beings. In that respect, they reject the mind/body duality espoused by Descartes, and instead try to accommodate human consciousness in a material world. I take as axiomatic that we are subjects. This subjectivity is important because the fact of its existence, I believe, has potential for important insights into ontology. Currently, modern science cannot account for consciousness. It cannot clearly explain how matter generates consciousness. But the current absence of a adequate theory does not seem to require that we abandon the quest. Galen Strawson recently wrote “The mistake is to think we know enough about the nature of physical reality to have any good reason to think that consciousness can’t be physical.”(Strawson 2015). He has also said more pithily that we must use math to describe the physical universe because we understand it so little, that math is all we have.

My three research proposals, intertwined as they are:the exploration of consciousness through playing physical games, phenomenological analysis of that play, and demonstrating the utility of abductive logic in research endeavours, such as my doctoral research.

We can explore consciousness,(the Other Minds problem) through physical play. This play can be refined somewhat by means of structuring it as game, which allows us to select our variables. Indeed, examining variations is considered vital to most approaches to phenomenological analysis. It seems to me that artistic variations offers a means to that. Another element of phenomenology is the concept of bracketing, or attempting to temporarily examine phenomena separate from the greater social and historical context in which it occurs. This sounds remarkably like the accounts of a “state of play” that theorists such as Huizinga describe.

Considering playfulness as an aesthetic experience opens up new research methodologies. These methods deploy abductive logic, which might be considered the logic of art, to complement the humanities and the sciences. Thus my research reflects on why these methods should be deployed as opposed to more conventional approaches. Thus I want to not only use playful, artistic methods to explore the nature of human consciousness, but I intend to make an argument as to why I should use these methods, and how they can be deployed to complement methods found in the Humanities and the Sciences, both social and physical.

I began this precis with an account of pulling a stump with a rope. By contrasting this with the experience of playing various instantiations of tug o’ war against fleshy human bodies, I home to make progress toward explaining how we come to awareness of our own subjectivity through the movement of fleshy bodies, and in the specific experience of play. The theoretical arguments for this approach I will only nod to here. Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological methods and subsequent refinements by other scholars are significant. Artistic practices, such as the early work of Chris Burden provided inspiration. The discussion of research-creation by Kim Sawchuk, Owen Chapman and Andrew Murphie initiated my interest in exploring the nature of art-as-research and its potential affordances. An elaboration as to how exactly to consider the ramifications of this research lies ahead in conversations with my committee members, and other scholars.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness explained. Penguin UK, 1993.
Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Clarendon Press, 1998
Strawson, Galen.”Consciousness myth”. Time Literary Supplement, 25 February 2015