Saturday, February 17, 2018

Ubiquitous (and inexcusable) ignorance in a “knowledge society” during the “information age”

I’m sharing the following, sans substantive comment, from the beginning of Daniel R. DeNicola’s book, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know (MIT Press, 2017):

“In the familiar metaphor, our ignorance (whether individual or collective) is a vast, fathomless sea; our knowledge but a small, insecure island. Even the shoreline is uncertain: both the history of the human race and psychological research suggests that we know even less than we think we do. Indeed, our ignorance is extensive beyond our reckoning. [….] 

[Moreover,] [d]espite the spread of universal, compulsory education; despite new tools for learning and great advances of knowledge; despite the breathtaking increases in our ability to store, access, and share a super-abundance of information—ignorance flourishes. [….] 

[The sort of ubiquitous ignorance found] “in [our] ‘knowledge society’ during the ‘Information Age,’ … is what might be termed public ignorance, by which [is meant] widespread, reprehensible ignorance of matters that are significant for our lives together. Functional illiteracy and innumeracy are examples. Such ignorance might once be explained, if not excused by lack of educational opportunity; but that seems obtuse when applied to countries with rich educational resources. [And yet these ‘educational resources’ may be subject to grossly inegalitarian distribution for proximate reasons, say, of class and race, so ‘lack of educational opportunity’ need not be an ‘obtuse explanation.’1] Besides, the rate of functional illiteracy may be higher in today’s America than it was in colonial New England.2 Stubbornly high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy are a public shame, no doubt. This is remedial ignorance. The need is for learning—except that many such forms of ignorance thrive despite years of schooling.”
Notes 
1. And of course even an abundant supply of “educational resources” may not suffice to remedy obdurate problems and obstacles that may be rooted in the regnant philosophies of education and/or pedagogical strategies and methods, as is perhaps suggested by reference to the apparently high rate of “functional illiteracy.”
2. An endnote somewhat qualifies this claim and speaks to the meaning of “functional literacy.”

Friday, February 02, 2018

Self, Selves, and Persons: Questions of Human Nature & Personal Identity—A Very Select Bibliography

I have been reading about human nature and the notion of “self” (and selves) after being inspired by P.M.S. Hacker’s consecutive chapters on “the self and the body” and “the person” in Human Nature: The Categorial Framework (Blackwell, 2007), as well as several titles by Raymond Tallis. I thought I’d share a list of books I’ve found helpful in thinking about human nature and personal identity. It is comparatively short, and I cannot claim it well represents the philosophical literature on these topics although several of the titles have, in fact, been very influential among professional philosophers. This compilation is therefore unabashedly idiosyncratic, yet I’m convinced its contents would be of help to anyone leisurely or systematically exploring questions of human nature and personal identity.
  • Albahari, Miri. Analytical Buddhism: The Two-Tiered Illusion of Self (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
  • Cassam, Quassim, ed. Self-Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Duerlinger, James. Indian Buddhist Theories of Person: Vasubandhu’sRefutation of the Theory of a Self” (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
  • Elster, Jon, ed., Multiple Selves (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  • Fingarette, Herbert. The Self in Transformation: Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and the Spirit of Life (Basic Books, 1963).
  • Ganeri, Jonardon. The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • Ganeri, Jonardon. The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance (Oxford University Press, 2012).
  • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics (Imprint Academic, 2008).
  • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework (Blackwell, 2007).
  • Hacker, P.M.S. The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).
  • Hacker, P.M.S. The Passions: A Study of Human Nature (John Wiley & Sons, 2018).
  • Hutto, Daniel, D., ed. Narrative and Understanding Persons (Cambridge University Press/Royal Institute of Philosophy, 2007).
  • Midgley, Mary. Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Routledge, revised ed., 1995).
  • Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons (Oxford University Press, with corrections, 1987).
  • Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. Divine Self, Human Self: The Philosophy of Being in Two Gītā Commentaries (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
  • Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg. Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Beacon Press, 1988).
  • Schechtman, Marya. The Constitution of Selves (Cornell University Press, 1996).
  • Siderits, Mark, Evan Thompson, and David Zahavi, eds., Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • Smith, Christian. What Is a Person? (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
  • Sorabji, Richard. Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death (University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  • Strawson, Galen. Selves (Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • Strawson, Galen. Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment (Princeton University Press, 2011).
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness (Palgrave Macmillan, with a new preface, 1999).
  • Tallis, Raymond. I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (Edinburgh University Press, 2004).
  • Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011).
  • Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  • Velleman, J. David. Self to Self: Selected Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Black History Month: Reading Guides

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Love as a (Kantian-like) Moral Emotion

I first read J. David Velleman’s Self to Self: Selected Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2006) when it came out over ten years ago; reading it afresh leaves me far more impressed and moved by its arguments and insights. I used to discuss the chapter, “The Genesis of Shame” in my class on comparative world religions. It’s a moral and philosophical meditation on the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, which I thought gave the students a taste of what it means to look at religious narratives as (possibly) containing “interpretations” and “meanings” that stretch beyond those emphasized by adherents to a tradition or subscribers to a specific worldview (it was not intended to belittle or deny what those believers thought about this same material), much as we understand good literature to be “speaking” in some manner to all of us (of course we need not agree on what it is saying, but its qualities appeal to our nature as persons, as human animals with all their powers, capacities and possibilities). 

I was motivated to post something on the book upon reading the following passage: 

“ … [Iris] Murdoch’s ethic of attending to particulars is not necessarily at odds with the ethics of impartiality. On the contrary, Murdoch emphasized that the attention required is ‘impersonal’ and ‘an exercise of detachment.’ To be sure, Murdoch equates attending to individuals with a form of love for them, and a morality based on love might naturally be assumed to differ from any morality that is impartial. Yet the attention that embodies love, in Murdoch’s view, is strictly objective and fair-minded: 

‘Should a retarded child be kept at home or sent to an institution? Should an elderly relation who is a trouble-maker be cared for or asked to go away? Should an unhappy marriage be continued for the sake of the children? [….] The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking.’ 

In Murdoch’s language of impersonality, detachment, realism, and justice, there is no suggestion that particularity entails partiality.” — From the chapter, “Love as a Moral Emotion”  

As to what precisely is meant by “Kantian-like” in the title of the post, one should read the essay in its entirety.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Dreaming (lucidly) a Dream

On rare occasions, I disagree with something written by P.M.S. Hacker (a philosopher who frequently swims against the current or is decidedly out of fashion). Here is one such instance. First, he notes correctly that “philosophers [this invariably refers to Western philosophers, but his observation is equally apt for those of Asian provenance as well] since antiquity have been plagued by the thought that illusions, hallucinations and dreams are (or can be) indistinguishable from veridical perception,” a fact that accounts for one of the roots of skepticism. But in his brief discussion of dreams, he claims that, “When one has a lucid dream, one dreams that one is dreaming.” I doubt things are so simple and clear-cut if only because of my own dream experiences (I’ll not here attempt to discuss supporting evidence from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition). For example, when on occasion I am in a dream that is (or borders on) a nightmare, usually one in which I seem to have no way out in confronting some imminent harm or even death, I’ve on occasion been able to say something like the following to my (dreaming) “self:” “OK, this is just a dream, and you need only wake up to escape the danger or banish your fears,” whereupon I wake up, thinking to myself, “Ah, it’s nice to have been rid of that awful dream.” I tend not to engage in any further dream analysis, having put the dream behind me, thus not believing—perhaps wrongly, in an act of self-deception or state of denial—that the contents of the dream are a potential source of psychological insight into something troubling me or some aspect of my character, what have you. Is this merely another instance of “dreaming (albeit lucidly!) that one is dreaming?” Is the “self” speaking to the dreaming “self” one and the same? 

Image: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503—1504)

Mohandas K. Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, affectionately christened by his devotees and admirers “Mahātmā” Gandhi, was assassinated 70 years ago on this date in 1948.

Please see Vinay Lal’s blog post, “Gandhi and His Assassins–Then and Now,” as well as the embedded link to his excellent article, “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate,”* a snippet from which follows:

[….] My contention is that Gandhi furnishes no solace or anchor to those who are accustomed or inclined to view the world in Manichaean categories, and that one of the many reasons why Gandhi creates a profound uneasiness among the many constituencies which had to deal with him – Brahmins and Sudras, Sanatanists and Dalits, Indians and the English, Hindus and Muslims, liberals and Marxists, feminists and patriarchs, communalists and secularists, modernisers and traditionalists, developmentalists and ecologists, even militarists and pacifists – is that he came to embrace the idea of an open-ended conversation even as he stood unequivocally for certain moral, political, and epistemological positions. [….]

There is, needless to say, no singular Gandhi that everyone loved to hate, and the advocates of many critical worldviews on Gandhi have all authored their own Gandhi. This is far from being as unreasonable as it sounds, for if environmentalists, pacifists, conscientious objectors, non-violent activists, nudists, naturopaths, vegetarians, prohibitionists, social reformers, internationalists, moralists, trade union leaders, political dissidents, hunger strikers, anarchists,  luddites, celibates, anti-globalisation activists, pluralists, ecumenists, walkers, and many others  have at one time or a not her claimed Gandhi as their patron saint, or at least drawn inspiration from him, then one is also free to choose the Gandhi that one dislikes. It may even come as a surprise to many, who know of Gandhi only as a prophet of non-violence, a beacon light to a beleaguered humanity, and an instigator of change through peaceful means, three among other sentiments which have ceaselessly circulated about him, to discover that Gandhi provoked, and continues to provoke, considerable resentment, and often sharper reactions, among a wide swathe of his and our contemporaries.” [….]

* Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 43, No. 40 (October 4, 2008): 55-64.

My basic bibliography for the life, work, and legacy of Gandhi is here.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Happy Birthday to Herbert Fingarette (b. January 20, 1921), emeritus professor of philosophy

Today is the birthday (97 yrs!) of Herbert Fingarette. The late Robert C. Solomon wrote that “Herbert Fingarette has long been one of the most original and provocative philosophers in America.” As a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, I was a Teaching Assistant (TA) for Fingarette’s introductory course on Asian philosophies (with Mary I. Bockover, now a philosophy professor at Humboldt State University in norther California), the first graduate student from outside the Philosophy Dept. chosen to be a TA (I was downstairs in Religious Studies), owing to a recommendation (solicited by Fingarette) from Ninian Smart (whom I miss dearly), a fact I remain perversely proud of.
Fingarette has penned philosophical works on a wide variety of subjects with remarkable clarity and insight, some of them now “classics” in their respective areas of inquiry (e.g., the books on self-deception, Confucius, and alcoholism). He struck me as uncommonly kind, at least for a professional philosopher. I’ll cite just two instances of this kindness that came quickly to mind (after many years!): offering me a ride into town on more than one occasion upon learning I commuted by bicycle and bus to the university, and answering a late night phone call (as if we were having a convivial conversation in his office at school) about analogical reasoning and correlative thinking I had after reading A.C. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court, 1989). Happy birthday Professor Fingarette!
Books by Herbert Fingarette (one title with co-author Ann Fingarette Hasse, his daughter, an attorney):
  • The Self in Transformation: Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and the Life of the Spirit (Basic Books, 1963).
  • Self-Deception (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969; 2nd ed., University of California Press, 2000).
  • Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (HarperSanFrancisco, 1972).
  • The Meaning of Criminal Insanity (University of California Press, 1972).
  • Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease (University of California Press, 1988).
  • Death: Philosophical Soundings (Open Court, 1999).
  • Mapping Responsibility: Explorations in Mind, Law, Myth, and Culture (Open Court, 2004).
  • (co-author, Ann Fingarette Hasse) Mental Disabilities and Criminal Responsibility (University of California Press, 1979).
See too: Mary I. Bockover, ed. Rituals, Rules and Responsibility: Essays Dedicated to Herbert Fingarette (Open Court, 1991).
From his Wikipedia entry:
“Herbert Fingarette [b. January 20, 1921 (age 97)] is an American philosopher and emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. [….] Fingarette’s work deals with issues in philosophy of mind, psychology, ethics, law, and Chinese philosophy.
In his 1969 [Routledge & Kegan Paul; 2nd edition, University of California Press, 2000] monograph Self-Deception, Fingarette presents an account of the titular concept influenced by the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Sören Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud, as well as contemporary work in physiology and analytic philosophy. Fingarette argues that traditional accounts of self-deception fall invariably into paradox because these accounts see self-deception in terms of perception or knowledge. Such paradoxes may be resolved, Fingarette claims, by re-framing self-deception as a problem of volition and action. On these new terms, he defines self-deception as an agent’s persistent refusal to ‘spell out’ (explicitly acknowledge) and to avow some aspect of her engagement in the world.
Fingarette’s 1972 monograph Confucius: The Secular as Sacred was described in a peer-reviewed academic journal as ‘one of the most significant philosophical books on the subject to be published in a long time.’
Fingarette has also influentially applied his work in moral psychology to pressing social and legal issues, particularly those surrounding addiction. In his 1988 book Heavy Drinking, Fingarette gainsays the disease theory of alcoholism popularized by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.” [embedded hyperlinks courtesy of yours truly]

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Principles of Charity and Humane Sensibility in Philosophy

The following from the “Overture” to Raymond Tallis’s The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness (St. Martin’s Press, 1999; first edition, 1991) strikes me as an insufficiently recognized example of one dimension of the “principle of charity” in philosophy. As such, it is a more “globalized” conception of the principle, which is usually in reference to a “localized” application entailing the “maximization” of coherence, rationality, or truth of the specific arguments of one’s interlocutors (and of course the ‘global’ and ‘local’ dimensions are complementary), particularly if they are ambiguous, vague, or open to interpretation; thus one formulates the “best” or most generous construal of the argument” of one’s interlocutor before criticizing it or assessing its plausibility, soundness, or persuasiveness:

“In the pages that follow, several books are subjected to repeated criticism. They include The Computer and the Mind by P.N. Johnson-Laird, Mindwaves edited by Colin Blakemore and Susan Greenfield, and Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness. They have been singled out for their merits, not their deficiencies: they seem to me to provide the clearest, the most lucid, the most comprehensive and the most honest accounts of the current state of play in the philosophy of mind and cognitive neurobiology presently available.* I have found them immensely helpful and am grateful to their progenitors. My enormous debt to these books is in no wise diminished by my disagreement with pretty well everything of theoretical substance that is contained in them.”

Tallis (in the Preface to the 1999 edition of The Explicit Animal), an intellectual polymath, also exemplifies what we might term the principle of humane sensibility in philosophical discussion and debate when he praises the prominent philosophers and psychologists bewitched by neurophilosophy for being exemplary prose stylists well-versed in the rhetorical arts of exposition and persuasion, despite the conclusion that their “ingenious” arguments contain “daft ideas” rife with “deceptions and self-deceptions:”

“Materialist, computational, Darwinian [used here primarily in reference to the field of ‘evolutionary psychology’] accounts of mind seem to attract the most gifted and witty expositors resourceful in their use of metaphor and are extremely skilled at assuming the appropriate linguistic register to communicate their ideas in a user-friendly and non-patronising manner [this is quite rare in the halls of professional philosophy, although increased acknowledgment of this from both inside and outside the profession, as well as an apparent uptick in the literary styles and modes of exposition in philosophy, may indicate welcome changes are afoot]. It is always a pleasure to read Daniel Dennett; and, even when his in the throes of conceptual confusion concealed by the most cunning use of transferred epithets, the impression is always one of lucidity. And the same is true of Pinker, the Churchlands [Patricia and Paul] and many other expositors of what has (to expropriate the term used by Gilbert Ryle of Cartesian dualism) become The Official Doctrine.

* This was written in 1991, hence the books cited were published prior to that (in 1987 and 1988).

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Raymond Tallis on the sterility of neuroaesthetics

“An extreme expression of the faith of neuroscientism is the emergence of a so-called neuroaesthetics that looks to neuroscience to explain aesthetic experience. Neuroaesthetics has attracted adherents from many disciplines. Certain literary critics, musicologists, and art critics are excited by the idea that examination of the brain of a person enjoying a work of art will throw light on what art does, is, and means. Artists, they believe, are unconscious manipulators of our nervous systems, awakening particular regions of the cortex, or particular types of neurons, singly or in combination.

I first became aware of neurological approaches to literature when I read a Commentary in the Times Literary Supplement by the novelist A.S. Byatt (TLS, Sept. 22, 2006). She argued, on the basis of theories advanced by the neuroscientist Pierre Changeux, that the particular pleasure associated with John Donne’s poems was due to syntactic structures which made them especially effective in stimulating certain kinds of neurons; especially those associated with ‘reinforced link ages of memory, concepts, and learned formal structures like geometry, algebra, and language.’ When I researched the background to her article, I realised that Byatt was speaking for a vast congregation of practitioners of “neuroliterary criticism.” There is an equally thriving academic industry using neuroscience to explain why certain paintings give us pleasure. Many art critics have been inspired by the eminent neuroscientist Semir Zeki who, in Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999), attributed the distinctive effects of the paintings of Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and the Fauves to their acting on different kinds of neurons in the visual pathways. Mondrian, apparently, speaks preferentially to cells in regions V1 and V4, whereas the Fauves stimulate V4 plus the middle frontal convolutions.

John Onians in Neuroarthistory takes neuroaesthetics further. He explains the propensity of art historians to espouse certain theories on the basis of the kinds of experiences they themselves may have had. These, he argues, will have shaped their ‘neural formations’ during their period of development. John Ruskin’s skill as an art critic and his emphasis on the relation of art to its environment is connected with his being driven around England in a specially adapted cart by his father who was a wine merchant: as a result ‘his neural networks will have increasingly predisposed him to reflect on the relation between art and the environment.’ The self-observation that made Ernst Gombrich’s art criticism so thoughtful was triggered by ‘the amount of time he would have spent in London waiting for and traveling on buses and underground trains’ during the Second World War ‘while the city was being destroyed around him,’ which would have reinforced certain connections in his brain. Onians grades art theorists of the past according to the extent to which they anticipate the theories that he and his fellow neuro aestheticians espouse. Aristotle, for example, is praised for seeing the importance of neural plasticity induced by repeated similar experiences. Appollonius of Tyana gets a pat on the back for ‘acknowledging the way in which the imagination, the emotions and the body are all linked’ which is, apparently, a discovery of modern neuroscience. The 19th-century German professor of architecture Adolf Goller is admired because Onians can link Goller’s observations on the effect of new styles of architecture with more recent research on the reinforcement of behaviour in pigeons and rats. Rarely can the past have been condescended to so comprehensively. It is disturbing that these often ludicrously tendentious ideas—the reductio ad absurdum of neuroscientism—are being advanced not by some mad autodidact on a park bench but by a serious academic. [….] — From a short article by Raymond Tallis, “The limitations of a neurological approach to art,” The Lancet, vol. 372, no. 9632 (July 5, 2008): 19-20. The full article is here.

*           *           *

I have the temerity (or perhaps it’s impertinence) to suggest that neuroaesthetics (including neuro-art history and neuro-evolutionary aesthetics) is a field of study (a ‘relatively recent sub-discipline of empirical aesthetics’) that should disappear, as it has virtually nothing of significance or value to teach us should we have an abiding interest in or passion for (the) art(s), aesthetics, or the psychology and philosophy of art. This view is supported, in part, by examples from its literature alongside supporting arguments proffered by Raymond Tallis which starkly illustrate the “findings,” crudity, and faddish hype that render neuroaesthetics, in the beginning and end, a “sterile exercise.” Please see, in addition to the above, the material in his chapter, “Defending the Humanities” (the section, ‘Repairing the Canvas: Art on the Brain’), in Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011): 284-396.

Lest the reader unfamiliar with Tallis’s book be tempted to draw premature inferences from the title as to his general views on either the neurosciences or Darwin’s theory of evolution, I should note that Tallis was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences for his research on clinical neuroscience, describing the knowledge gained and the “panoply of techniques that go under the name of ‘neuroscience’ … [as] some of the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind.” As for Charles Darwin and his scientific accomplishments, he has “no quarrel with Darwinism,” indeed, he writes that Darwin ”is the Newton and Einstein of biology rolled into one,” and while it is “astonishing” that Darwin was able to “arrive[] at his theory on the basis of comparatively little evidence,” “[t]he mass of information [in the natural sciences] that has been gathered since 1859 justifies [Richard] Dawkins’s assertion that Darwin’s theory should now be upgraded to a ‘theorum.’”

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The “informationalization” of the universe ( … and the dire need for philosophical anthropology)

“ … [T]he illegitimately, and at times insanely, extended misuse of the term ‘information’ is absolutely pivotal to establishing the conceptual confusions necessary to the seeming fruitfulness and explanatory power of much modern thought about the mind and the brain [in philosophy, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science, for example]—and ourselves. This converges in the computational theory of mind [which can be traced back to the early work of Hilary Putnam, becomes particularly influential with the philosophical work of the late Jerry Fodor and the writings of the philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett, and is well popularized by the linguist and cognitive psychologist, Stephen Pinker]. By playing on different meanings of ‘information’ and transferring epithets like a volleyball [across several nets!], it is possible to argue that minds, brains, organisms, various artefacts such as computers and even non-living thermodynamic systems are all information-processing devices. Because they are deemed to be essentially the same in this vitally important respect, they can be used to model each other; homology and analogy can run riot. Once the concept of information is liberated from the idea of a conscious someone being informed and from that of a conscious someone doing the informing, anything is possible.”—Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011): 208

Tallis demonstrates the manner in which this slippery slope ends with a logical conclusion postulating the “informationalization” of the universe itself (among both computer scientists and physicists, with some individuals, like Edward Fredkin and Stephen Wolfram, possessing expertise in both fields). 

Image: Ella Bergmann-Michel, Untitled, 1918

Friday, January 05, 2018

Mental illness is, in the first instance, a disturbance of the mind (and thus not the brain)

Apologia:

“It has in recent years become fashionable to conceive of ourselves as the helpless products of our genes; free will and responsibility are commonly thought an illusion, to be displaced by genetic and neural determinism; and the theory of evolution in invoked to explain morality and altruism in terms of natural selection. Our affinity with other hominidae has become a subject of extensive research, often aimed at cutting us down to size. The prowess of the great apes is exaggerated, often in order to narrow the perceived gap between animals and us. This development in the Zeitgeist is sadly understandable, but unwarranted [Lest somebody is tempted to draw the wrong inference: this is not, however, the principal motivation of animal ethicists or those hoping to widen and extend our sense of care and concern for our animal brothers and sisters … or cousins. There need be no necessary connection between the extension of our moral compass to embrace nonhuman animals (which may include highlighting aspects of our animal nature we hold in common: like consciousness, the capacity for suffering, proto- and basic emotions, etc.) and the project of diminishing or failing to distinguish the distinctive features, attributes, and powers of human beings or persons.]. We are, to be sure, hominidae—but the only language using ones. No other creature has eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We are animals, but the only animals who can aspire to live under the rule of law [or simply, and especially, moral norms], and who can achieve happiness [or eudaimonia, flourishing, or self-fulfillment as defined by philosophers and sages] (as opposed to mere contentment). It is well that we should bear in mind our rational nature and what is distinctive about us—what makes us ‘darkly wise and rudely great,’ ‘a pendulum between smile and tear,’ ‘the glory and the shame of the universe.’ … [In distinguishing and comparing man and beast we must bring to the fore] the applicability and reasons for the applicability of many cognitive and cogitative concepts to human beings, and to all other animals that are neither blessed with, nor cursed by possession of, the powers of reason, thought and understanding.”—P.M.S. Hacker, from the Introduction to The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature (Wiley Blackwell, 2013)

*           *           *

And now a snippet from Olivia Goldhill’s brilliant essay, “In the Dark: 30 years after Prozac arrived, we still buy the lie that chemical imbalances cause depression,” Quartz, December 29, 2017

“ … [T]he idea of chemical imbalances has remained stubbornly embedded in the public understanding of depression.

Prozac, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration 30 years ago today, on Dec. 29, 1987, marked the first in a wave of widely prescribed antidepressants that built on and capitalized off this theory. No wonder: Taking a drug to tweak the biological chemical imbalances in the brain makes intuitive sense. But depression isn’t caused by a chemical imbalance, we don’t know how Prozac works, and we don’t even know for sure if it’s an effective treatment for the majority of people with depression.

One reason the theory of chemical imbalances won’t die is that it fits in with psychiatry’s attempt, over the past half century, to portray depression as a disease of the brain, instead of an illness of the mind. This narrative, which depicts depression as a biological condition that afflicts the material substance of the body, much like cancer, divorces depression from the self. It also casts aside the social factors that contribute to depression, such as isolation, poverty, or tragic events, as secondary concerns. Non-pharmaceutical treatments, such as therapy and exercise, often play second fiddle to drugs.

In the three decades since Prozac went on the market, antidepressants have propagated, which has further fed into the myths and false narratives we tell about mental illnesses. In that time, these trends have shifted not just our understanding, but our actual experiences of depression.”

The complete essay, which is, as we say, spot-on, is here.  

Update: I’ve just learned of a recent piece in the Guardian that provides us with a similar, albeit more personal argument that nicely complements Goldhill’s article: “Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?

*           *           *

One of the underlying problems (or presuppositions, essential assumptions, animating premises) here is the failure to conceptually—and properly—distinguish the mind from the brain and, correlatively, to understand what it means to be a human animal and/or person (the latter in a metaphysical sense; thus one might advocate for a conception of legal personhood by way of  granting a small cluster of legal and perhaps moral rights to—some class of—nonhuman animals, while denying that these animals are persons in a metaphysical sense, or in the terms of a philosophical anthropology, which is based on a concept of a distinctively human nature). Furthermore, what Raymond Tallis describes as “Neuromania” (an uncritical and philosophically indefensible understanding of the various neurosciences) and “Darwinitis” (e.g., in the form of evolutionary psychology) has contributed to and exacerbated this failure. What follows are titles that help us understand why we should adamantly refuse to conflate the mind with, or reduce it to, the brain, or to believe that the mind simply arises or emerges from the brain (it might rather be understood as a necessary yet not sufficient condition of mind).

  • Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
  • Bennett, Maxwell, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker, John Searle, and Daniel Robinson. Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. (I prefer the arguments of Bennett, Hacker, and Robinson over Dennett and Searle.) 
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. Self-Knowledge and Resentment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Descombes, Vincent (Stephen Adam Schwartz, tr.). The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Finkelstein, David H. Expression and the Inner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2008.
  • Gillett, Grant. The Mind and Its Discontents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2009.
  • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Hacker, P.M.S. The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
  • Hodgson, David. The Mind Matters: Consciousness and Choice in a Quantum World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991
  • Horst, Steven. Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. The Presence of Mind. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
  • Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson. Minds, Brains, and Law: The Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Patterson, Dennis and Michael S. Pardo, eds. Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Smith, Christian. What Is a Person? Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999 ed.
  • Tallis, Raymond. I Am: An Inquiry into First-Person Being. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham, England: Acumen, 2011.
*           *           *
Finally, I happen to have three bibliographies that are directly relevant to the topics broached in Goldhill’s piece:

Image: Ella Bergmann-Michel (20 October 1896 – 8 August 1971) I don’t know the title or date of this painting.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

“Semantic infiltration” of right-wing propaganda via euphemisms to characterize regressive public policies in the mainstream mass media:

From Michael Hiltzik’s column, “A New Year's pledge: Don’t let politicians and pundits say Social Security and Medicare ‘reforms’ when they mean ‘cuts,’” in the Los Angeles Times (January 2, 2018):
“Just after Christmas, for example, Politico achieved a multi-fecta in an article about disagreements between House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over Medicaid and Medicare. Reading from the top down, the article referred to ‘overhauling’ the programs, to ‘reform,’ ‘welfare and entitlement changes’ and ‘policy modifications.’ These are Republican terms for benefit cuts. There’s no excuse for journalists repeating them without defining them. But one has to drill pretty deeply into the Politico piece to find the first mention of benefit ‘cuts’ (to paragraph 12, actually). Other weasel words often found creeping into what purport to be objective reports about social programs are ‘reshape,’ ‘revamp,’ ‘modernize’ and especially ‘fix.’ As we’ve observed in the past, Republican plans for Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and other such programs are ‘fixes’ in the same sense that one ‘fixes’ a cat or the Mafia ‘fixes’ an informer.
I’ve mentioned (in another context) the warning delivered in a 1965 speech by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) about what he called ‘semantic infiltration’ in policy debates: ‘If the other fellow can get you to use his words, he wins.’”
The rest of the article is here.