All 4 entries tagged Merleau-Ponty

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November 16, 2005

Research Notes: what would an anti–humanist conception of science be like?

Follow-up to Research Notes: Merleau–Ponty, humanist and anti–humanist science from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

To reiterate, a humanist conception of science argues that there is some ineliminably human aspect to scientific activity. An anti-humanist conception must show that all aspects of scientific activity could occur independently from human activity, for example as the result of the behaviour of an assemblage of non-human processors and networks.

Key features of scientific activity that are commonly thought of as being essentially human are:

  • Attending to certain phenomena to be observed, quantified, classified, manipulated;
  • Collecting and isolating phenomena into experimental arrangements;
  • Postulating connections between phenomena as models of reality;
  • Hypothesing and seeking the existence of objects not represented by presented phenomena;
  • Prioritising and valuing certain instances of the above over other instances;
  • Planning the execution of all of the above.

I don't think it is implausible that these activities could occur without human involvement. Note that an anti-humanist does not need to demonstrate that a single clearly individuated intelligence, a robot scientist, need be responsible for all of these activities. It is just as valid, and perhaps more realistic, to argue that some of them are carried out by widely dispersed agencies (networks, environments, ecologies).

An anti-humanist conception of science is certainly plausible. To prove the point, do we need to point to an activity that includes all of the above processes, but without human intervention? Or perhaps it is enough just to show that each of these processes could be carried out by a non-human agency?

Research Notes: Merleau–Ponty, humanist and anti–humanist science

Follow-up to Research Notes: Merleau–Ponty, the philosopher as perpetual beginner from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Can we concieve of a science that operates independently of humans? The humanist Merleau-Ponty says no.

Eric Mattews, in his The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, argues that the recasting of the phenomenological reduction is driven by a need to make sicence, and the objectivist view of the world that it encourages, realise that there is always a human element to it: perception, and the phenomenology thereof. For Merleau-Ponty, perception is always already inextricably tied to a human perspective, with psychological, historical, political. and social specificities. Following this, we could say that Merleua-Ponty argues for a humanist appreciation of science.

This makes some sense. Consider for example a science that were to conform to the most rational and well-ordered model: that of Popper for example. There is still something at the heart of such a science that we could recognize as science: perception, the attentional force that drives its selectivity, and the scientific imagination that pushes its investigative focus beyond the obvious, thus making new conjectures.

Is there an anti-humanist response? It would be necessary to demonstrate that a science without humans could percieve in an intelligent and selective attentional way, going beyond the obvious, forming new conjectures. Could there then be an AI scientist? A science without humans?

Considering the failure of the AI business, one would be encouraged to reject, laugh even, at the idea of a robot scientist. But another argument has arisen from the failure of traditional AI. Andy Clark has argued that the kind of cognitive perceptual processes that we are describing may actually happen more in the world as the operations of an extended cognitive apparatus. This is, in part, a deliberate application of Merleau-Ponty to AI. But it's side effect could be to undermine some of the humanism of Merleau-Ponty. The extended cognition thesis could demonstrate that processes such as the scientific imagination are actually much less human than we commonly think.

But we should still be cautious in calling this an anti-humanist position, suggesting an anti-humanist conception of science. Clark seems to believe in an inelliminable human element driving from some super-subjective level. To see an example of that refrain abandoned, we could turn to a more extreme position: Deleuze and Guattari. In a similar way, D&G see perception and thought as being the property of rhizomes (networks) of machines (processors). The networks and processors of human and scientific thought are multivarious, distributed and in most cases inhuman. Or rather, humans are in fact spread out across these assemblages which include social and economic organisations that control us more than we control them. This is a genuinely anti-humanist position.

But they go further. There is no recourse to an organizing driving super-subject. The drive behind perception, attention, innovation, that which can be seen as inelliminable to scientific activity, its desire, is said to be an emergent property of the assemblages of networks and proicesses: the ghost in the network. In his War in the Age of Intelligent Machines the Deleuzian Manuel De Landa demonstrates how AI science is the product of non-human forces (the military machine). In fact it is more likely that real working AI will be assembled out in the field from components combined without the conscious design of humans.

Note that this argument goes much further than the sociology of science in that it abandons the model of "rational subjects trapped in and manipulated by social, political and economic circumstance". If there is any rationality, it is out there amongst the machines. A long way from the phenomenology of perception.

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November 15, 2005

Research Notes: Merleau–Ponty, the philosopher as perpetual beginner

I have just read the first two chapters of The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by Eric Matthews. Of greatest interest is the conception of the "phenomenological reduction" (and by implication, the purpose of philosophy), which is not really a reduction at all, but more like a phenomenological refocussing on detail, context and engagement with the messy reality of the world.

So far it has dealt well with the historical context, including a high-level overview of the differences between the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Husserl and Hegel. These are all philosophers whom one would expect to see in the same sentence. But something marks out Merleau-Ponty as being very much different. Matthews states that the purpose of philosophy for Merleau-Ponty:

…is not a discovery of transcendent or eternal truths, but the adoption of an attitude of wonder, of being a "perpetual beginner". p.41

As Matthews explains, Husserl may have turned towards this position in his later work. However, much of phenomenology aims in the other direction: either epistemological of ontological transcendence. Even when trying to return to the world, it is only to recast the world as something other than its complexity.

Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is entirely different. It shares with Nietzsche a liking for a child-like openness, a highly rational position of naivety and innocence. That's also the same ethos that sees Deleuze and Guattari talk of playing with circuits and concepts like a child plays with toys.

I suspect that this is not simply a result of Merleau-Ponty's work on psychology and pedagogy. This philosophy, like that of Deleuze and Guattari, is for a very different purpose. It is, as they say, an itinerant or nomadic philosophy. One that equips us to deal with change.

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June 23, 2005

Deleuze, active memory, living germinally

Follow-up to Spirit and the virtuality of concepts and their personae from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

I'm now into the second chapter of Germinal Life, which turns its attention to Gilles Deleuze's early work Difference and Repetition. After a few difficult pages in which it is placed in relation to the a broad range of other thinkers (including interestingly Merleau-Ponty and Satre), this superb passage...

The aim of this new art of living is not to identify with the line, though madness and suicide always exist as a risk, since this would destroy all thinking and life. Rather, the task is to both 'cross the line' and make it endurable and workable; in short, this is the line of life cracked by death and concieved as germinal. The 'outside' is the line of life that links up random and arbitrary events in a creative mixture of chance and necessity. Ansell Pearson, 1999, p.85

…note the allusion to Jacques Monod's book…

A new thought of the outside, and a new way of living on the outside, involves drawing new figures of thought and mapping new diagrams, in short, an intensive and vital topology that folds the outside into the inside. The passion of the outside is the passion of germinal life, releasing the forces of life from entropic containment and opening them up for a time to come. ibid p.85

Or as I previously wrote, the virtual of active memory works on the singularity so that a "trait can be extracted, picked up and carried onwards….traits that give a sense of the possible, a future, a continuity, a return".

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