9.24.2002

I'll grant you your critique of philosophical renditions of color perception, though I am not completely convinced by the language of neruo- & cognitive science, either. The 17th century, certainly, lacked our technical vocabulary, but it may have possessed a more human-scale vision of the world. One of the things I like about Wittgenstein's example of "bring me the broom in the corner" is that it shows the absurdity of atomism. How do we reconcile the game of neurpphysiology with the human world of language & perception.

Okay, I'm going to crawl into bed with a big comforter--first cold night of fall--& read the PI remarks in the 60s, then get back to you. A note on reading Herr Wittgenstein: When you begin, his analytical style is attractive, even intoxicating in its plain-spokenness; after a while, though, a poet like me wishes for a bit of variation. Perhaps it will come in good time; I'm growing surprisingly patient in my dotage.

9.10.2002

Sorry to have let things slide. I grant the cognitive scientists the observation that human beings construct even color "in the brain," but I don't think this is as corrosive to philosophy as you seem to think. That's because philosophy, as I understand it, is about how we live in the world & we don't live in the world that cognitive science describes. It is one of those useful but limited reductionisms we have talked about before. And it is interesting. I recall hearing an account years ago of a woman who regained her sight after a long period of blindness: she literally had to learn to see all over again; that is, she had to learn to organize her visual field in a coherent way so she wouldn't walk into shadows on a wall thinking they were empty space.

This afternoon I went out with the dogs & noticed that the maple trees on our property were beginning to turn color--nothing unusual about that this time of year, except that the color was not the usual fall red, but a kind of baked-out brown. We haven't had any rain in weeks & it's been hot. I was thinking about your account of the way Hoffman describes the perception of color: "Instead you construct several visual properties at once, and try to make them all mutually consistent: you organize your visual world into objects, you endow those objects with three-dimensional shapes, place light sources that illuminate those objects, and assign color to both the light sources and the objects. As always, images are infinitely ambiguous. There are countless ways that you could interpret an image in terms of objects, their shapes, their colors, and their illuminants." As I said: granted. But I was also thinking about voting this afternoon. I'm a compulsive voter, even when it makes no rational difference, as was the case today. I especially like voting out here in South Colton because it is very freaking rural & I know all the ladies who man the single voting booth at the Town Hall. As I was leaving, I commented that the weather had been "Nice, but a little dry." They seemed disappointed in me: "We really need rain," one said & it was clear that this city boy had no idea of how important rain was to the late corn & pumpkins & to the shallow wells most of us (me included) use for water out here. It was one of those moments in which a slightly errant member of a society is brought around to a new & better understanding of the way things are.

So in addition to Hoffman the cognitive scientist I was thinking of my neighbors as I noted the changing color of the leaves. I submit that Hoffman's account is, though true, largely irrelevant to the way we live. And as for my earlier claim about "underlying reality," though I am dissatisfied with the phrase, I remain committed to the idea that the fall leaves this year are different in color from those I saw last year & that the cause is less rain. It rains in the world, not in our brains.

[60,61,62] Last Thursday I posted a blog that re-analyzed the color question. Where philosophy has something interesting to say about color perception is in the realm or game of aesthetics. Beyond aesthetics what philosophy has to say about color consciousness -- how we perceive color and how we reflect on how we see color -- is archaic. It is a vestige of seventeenth century rationalism that philosophers would do well to surrender to the vocabulary of neurophysiology. This is a variation on the arguments of those calling themselves "eliminative materialists."

It is time to get back into the text of Philosophical Investigations , even though I remain consumed by color-related questions (as was Wittgenstein). But Wittgenstein offers another anti-reductionist remark in 60. What Positivists wanted to accomplish was the complete reform of language to accommodate science's mission to disenchant reality. There would be, as members of the Vienna Circle argued, only word/object relations; language would be broken down analytically into simples. Animating this enterprise was a deep distrust of ordinary language. Here Wittgenstein comes to the philosophical defense of ordinary expression. "My broom is in the corner," is the example Wittgenstein deploys. The analyzed sentence would break the broom down into its components or simples: the brush and the stick. Expressing this analyzed version leads us to say, "Bring me the broomstick and the brush that is fitted onto it." We feel the awkwardness of the expression. It is alienated from the ordinary expression, "Bring me the broom" (and this extends to the kind of philosophy represented by Positivists, metaphysicians, and other dualists). Wittgenstein offers a pragmatic conclusion to this example of Positivist reformism/analysis: "This sentence, one might say, achieves the same as the ordinary one, but in a more roundabout way."

Next Wittgenstein suggests that there is an analytic dimension to ordinary expression. There is always the potential when we find ourselves not understanding a command to break the command down to its components. A good example comes from Derrida. The command is "Straighten your closet!" If we stop to think about the command, we notice its ambiguous quality. Am I being asked to hang up my clothes and put my shoes in order? Or do I need to get a hammer and nails to repair the structure? Wittgenstein suggests in 61 that the ambiguity is overlooked because there is some general agreement about what this command is meant to achieve. We can break the statement down into components, but this analysis does not achieve greater clarity. He notes in 62 that "it is not everywhere clear what should be called the 'point' of an order." And so inexactitude is to be understood as an inescapable part of communication and, indeed, the human condition. Analysis does not lead us beyond ambiguity and into some deep essence or logic. What is essential about a "lamp" when one orders one? It gives light, decorates a room, fills a space, etc. Wittgenstein sounds like he is responding critically to Husserl when he states, "there is not always a sharp distinction between essential and inessential."

We started with a critical encounter with the sort of reductionism we associate with the various enterprises of science. We end with a flash of insight into the ethical character of Wittgenstein's investigations. How do we live well (justly, happily) in this messy world? If we are going to talk about the just life as the happy life, then we need to jettison the Aristotelean idea that happiness, defined in terms of flourishing, is a unitary ideal. What Wittgenstein wants us to see is that eudaemonia cannot be a "one size fits all" goal or telos.

9.01.2002

I have been wandering through a number of works by cognitive psychologists on perception and color perception. Their vocabulary is derived uniformly from what we can call the neurophysiology of binocular vision. What is remarkable is how far our understanding of perception has moved from the idea that the visual cortex serves as a passive receiver of information and toward a more dynamic conception to the effect that we create what we see according to neurologically wired rules. Let me cite Donald Hoffman on this point and then move on to an anti-philosophical conclusion. "When you construct color," writes Hoffman, "you do not construct just color. Instead you construct several visual properties at once, and try to make them all mutually consistent: you organize your visual world into objects, you endow those objects with three-dimensional shapes, place light sources that illuminate those objects, and assign color to both the light sources and the objects. As always, images are infinitely ambiguous. There are countless ways that you could interpret an image in terms of objects, their shapes, their colors, and their illuminants. You could trade off surface color for illuminant color, or surface shape for surface color. The possibilities are endless. But, again, you have rules, quite sophisticated rules that researchers are just beginning to uncover, by which you select one interpretation from the countless possibilities." [Donald Hoffman, Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See N.Y.: Norton, 1998, pp. 113-14]

As I read Hoffman, I had an odd feeling that I had seen another, remarkably similar, description of seeing color. Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote an essay on Cezanne's technique that focuses on how the artist achieved the effect of illumination from within the still life on canvas. "The use of warm colors and black shows that Cezanne wants to represent the object, to find it again behind the atmosphere. Likewise he does not break up the tone; rather, he replaces this technique with graduated colors, a progression of chromatic nuances across the object, a modulation of colors which stays close to the object's form and to the light it receives...The object is no longer covered by reflections and lost in its relationships to the atmosphere and other objects; it seems subtly illuminated from within, light emanates from it, and the result is an impression of solidity and material substance." (Merleau-Ponty, "Cezanne's Doubt," in Sense and Non-Sense Northwestern U. Press, 1964, p. 12)

What Hoffman argues is that we are all Cezanne's. Ordinary seeing is actually an act of artistic creation. The idea of seeing as representational simply goes out the window. And, yet, philosophers remain enamored with the idea of truth as the accurate representation of reality. They remain so despite devastating critiques from fellow philosophers. If anything, although Hoffman is not nearly the writer Wittgenstein was, his argument is more persuasive because it is backed by evidence advanced in the vocabulary of science. In the boundary dispute between philosophy and neuroscience, the latter eliminates the former. Or it forces an opening of philosophy to what is going on outside its disciplinary boundaries. We can make the opposite point as well -- that scientists would do well to keep up with what philosophers are saying about our relation to reality -- but it is philosophy that is facing the fate of phrenology.

On your point regarding non-human species, we can extend Hoffman to say that because there are neurological similarities in the visual cortexes of humans and dogs, both engage in creative perception. We can make the same case for extending rules against torture of humans to non-human species. Indeed, we could go so far as to extend rights to any species with a central nervous system. Pace Thomas Nagel, we can indeed know something about what it is like to be a bat.