March 1, 2015

Academic Writing

When I was in academia I often didn't identify with what I wrote. I experienced my writings as modes of expression in which I was trapped, and within which I couldn't express my deeper feelings about academia. I see now this was because some of what I wanted to express back then were the kind of things I have been saying on this blog, and the essay writing I was learning to become a professional philosopher was not making possible the kind of sharing which this blog enabled for me. This doesn't mean I didn't really believe what I wrote in those academic essays. Only, until I could express myself about what I felt in academia, I couldn't embrace my own academic writing as speaking for me.

Recently I found the main essays I wrote as an academic. My dissertation and other essays. Things I didn't really try to publish or to present at conferences. This blog seems as good a place as any for to me put them. To remind myself that even with all the other stuff I have been talking about on this blog, I was also a normal academic, or one who was trying to learn and develop his views. These are essays I have written in the past decade, and so naturally I don't agree with everything in them. But they do capture the general framework of my beliefs, and it is helpful to realize that yes, this is roughly what I believe.

A few things I wrote as a graduate student:
* Action Without Inner Representations: An essay I presented at the dissertation workshop at Harvard, though this essay was not part of my thesis. At the time I was reading parts of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, and I tried to connect for myself that reading with my education.
* Toward a Direct Realism of Communication: This was an essay I co-authored with my brother Gautam Vallabha, who was at the time a post-doc in psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He was in psychology and I was in philosophy, and to our mutual surprise it turned out both of us were having similar views oriented towards, broadly speaking, embodied cognition. This essay was an attempt to bring together issues in speech perception, which was the focus of his work, with issues in ordinary language philosophy and phenomenology, which was the focus of my work. Working on this essay was one of the highlights of my time in academia, and one of the few times there was a kind of bridge between my school and my home life. We tried to publish the essay in a few places, but it didn't work out, and we got too busy with other things. Gautam left academia a few years before me and he currently works as a computer scientist, though his experience of the transition might be different from mine. There are of course many ways to leave academia, and many kinds of stories.
* Dewey's Neutral Monism: This was an essay I co-authored with my then friend, and now wife, Zoe. She was an undergraduate taking Peter Godfrey-Smith's class on Pragmatism, which I was auditing as a graduate student, and we got interested by something Godfrey-Smith said in class about Dewey, and the essay was our attempt to articulate what we found exciting. What we attribute in the essay to Godfrey-Smith might not capture what he believes, and to see what he thinks you should look at his work on Dewey. Zoe and I didn't think of this as something for publication, as much as something to get some of our ideas down on paper. Zoe decided not to pursue academic philosophy, though her experiences as a philosophy student, and her reasons for making this decision, might not be the same as mine. Again, there are many ways to leave academia, and many kinds of stories.
* On Dreyfus and Kelly on Dennett: This was an email I wrote to Sean Kelly about the essay he co-authored with Hubert Dreyfus on Dennett's view of heterophenomenology. Normally when I tried to engage with philosophers about their views I would become unnerved in some way about the fact of the interaction. I see now this was because unable to express my background concerns about the profession, I felt ungrounded while engaging in the ordinary business of philosophy. This letter is one of the times when I was free of such worries, and was able to engage just with the ideas.
My dissertation:
* Agency and the Mind-Body Problem: The thesis consisted of four essays. The first was on Chalmers' zombie argument for dualism, in which I argue against the conceivability of a zombie world. The second is on David Lewis' argument for functionalism, which I argue misdescribes folk psychology. The third and fourth essays argue against Kantian views of action as defended by John McDowell and Christine Korsgaard.
Some things I wrote while I was at Bryn Mawr:
* The Abilities Theory of Belief: I wrote this in the Fall of 2010, and sent it to a few journals as part of my reapplication process mid-way through my time till tenure review. In it I argue that beliefs are abilities, which are different from behavior or dispositions to behave.
* Reason, Faith and Self-Transformation: A grant proposal I wrote in Fall 2010, again as part of my reapplication process. It is the beginning of my connecting issues in the philosophy of mind to topics in the philosophy of religion, multiculturalism and broader issues of secularism.
* The Unity of Religions: An unfinished essay. In it I try to say what it means to say all religions have a essential unity, and why that is right.
* Truth and Power in Education: An essay for an group online blog and magazine at Bryn Mawr, Serendip, it is also part of The Breaking Project, a collection of essays edited by Alice Lesnick. I wrote the essay as I was trying to make sense of some of what I felt didn't work in my education, and what kind of a teacher I wanted to be.
* Rorty, Non-Foundationalism and Story-telling: A blog exchange I had with biologist Paul Grobstein on Rorty, relativism and academia. Paul, who passed away in 2011, was a great influence on me, and a wonderful inspiration for me, while I was at Bryn Mawr.
* The Work of Being a Person: This is not something I wrote, but it is a student's notes of a  guest discussion I led in Spring 2010 in a literature course on the James Family taught by Anne Dalke. The discussion was based on our reading of William James' essay "The Types of Philosophical Thinking". In part the discussion considers the issue of whether the kind of philosophy James espoused could be professionalized or taught in a classroom.

21 comments:

  1. Re: Actions and Representations it seems that you mainly mean by "representations" concepts, or the aspect of our thinking which involves having a kind of mental picture of different things associate with other pictures, i.e., which stand in relation to them. You grant that perceptions are also a kind of "representation" but seem to be saying they aren't what you're getting at here.

    Via the chimp experiment you suggest a way of making sense of how the ritual behavior of the Arunta had meaning for them in a non-conceptual way, a way which melds the doing of the different ritual behaviors with what is, in contrast to the way we think of rituals as, say, symbolic of something else. For the Arunta the rituals ARE the things they represent and participating in the said rituals is just to live that set of experiences. In other words, rather than telling themselves (or one another) stories in a linguistic way, they live their stories, collapsing the distinction we recognize between the real and the fictional/metaphoric/mythical.

    At least one explanation for the distinction you highlight between the Arunta and ourselves may be a lack of sufficient linguistic sophistication but perhaps that can be traced back to an insufficiently developed conceptual capacity at the neurological level. Presumably the Arunta are not significantly different from us biologically, as the chimps are, which would mean that if we took an Arunta child and raised it in the modern world it would develop intellectual capacities roughly on par with ours (with allowance for genetically effected differences in brain capacity which presumably exists among modern humans anyway). So what do you think is the missing element between us and them? Is it language development or conceptual structures which they may have, at least at that point in their history, simply failed to develop to match the conceptual structures of modern humans?

    Another issue that strikes me: Certainly the Arunta are far above the chimps' capacities or they would not have had such complex rituals as a means of interrelating with the world around them. The chimps, after all, in a wild state don't have any of these sorts of things (e.g., language, a notion of "dream time," self mutilation, complex dancing and acting out rituals). One may see some fairly primitive forms of some of this in the way chimps in the wild cavort with one another and display among the males and in the presence of other groups. Presumably this suggests a continuum of development though the Arunta are a huge leap ahead of the chimps in terms of culture, even though they are so far distant from us moderns. At what point would it make sense to say that conceptualization and abstraction actually kick in in human beings? Doesn't what the Arunta do in your text already involve some level of conceptualization and abstraction that sets them apart from the more primitive chimps?

    If so, what does that say about our conceptualization capacities? If language is embedded in our behavior as one kind of practice, is it that practice that enables us to have concepts? In which case the Arunta, having language, must have some rudimentary concepts at least. But then isn't it fair to say they also have representations in the sense you're using the term?

    Perhaps they are representing not just in words as we may do but as part of an integrated linguistic/behavioral practice. But isn't that representing too?

    Indeed, doesn't it make sense to speak of ourselves, the Arunta and even chimps as having a similar kind of mental life, i.e., that we all can recognize others, have some notion of ourselves and have social practices which express these recognitions/notions? At some point would it be sensible to say that the moral sort of thinking that characterizes our modern human behavior stands on something more basic, e.g., a capacity to see and, in seeing, recognize other subjects like ourselves?

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