Related Endeavours


In my P-world musings, I am at some pains to avoid pinning down the P-world.  Indeed, the P-world is not an object, or thing of some sort, and considered as such, a P-world does not exist.  Husserl seems to have trodden a similar path in his later work, the Crisis of European Science.  In that work, he makes liberal use of the notion of the Lebenswelt, which, as far as I can see, is roughly co-extensive with the P-world.  Like any good phenomenologist, he clings rigorously to the centrality of lived experience, but with the Lebenswelt, he seems to move further from the silly idea that there might exist a technique that would allow you to capture, and then describe, experience in some raw form.  He also correctly points out the tragic consequences of ignoring the P-world/Lebenswelt by science.

This argument has to be worked out in some more detail, but in essence, given my claims about the match between the phenomenal world and the nervous system/organism, it is clear that one might develop a probe of ones self by exposure to stochastic stimuli: like listening to static. But unstructured noise, like static is not rich. Entrails, and tarot cards, and such, are uniformly very rich in structure, albeit without any additional forcing of interpretation. Thus it is not too surprising that they can serve as sounding boards for reading oneself, to find out what is latent within oneself, but not otherwise triggered by the environment.

In a similar vein, the interpretation of coincidences may prove to be a useful technique. Coincidences are important for illustrating what it is that the subject sees. In this way, the world is the sounding board.

More on this anon.

Watching an interesting documentary on economics, which pits Keyensian interventionism against von Hyeck and free markets, it strikes me that this tension, which stretched throughout the 20th century, derives from two views of markets: to the free marketeers, markets are forces of nature, not to be controlled, but to be accepted. To the Keyensians, they are a big machine, to be tuned and fiddled with. From where I stand, they are neither. They both miss the fact that markets are us! The issue of how we control them, how we constrain them, these are questions of self-definition. We therefore need to resolve this collectively, and ideology (either) simply will not do!

I’m watching Evan Thompson on Neuroscience and Free Will (Part 2 here), and he is merrily talking about reconciling or aligning a third person point of view (give to us through instruments such as imaging, eeg, etc) and the phenomenological “side”. Underlying the images etc is neural activity; however, they do not record it directly. Rather, the signals presented to us are highly mediated and at some remove from the raw neural activity of an individual. Furthermore, what neural activity is to the signals we record, experience is to self-report. It is not a direct read-out of experience, and we need to better understand how the self-report arises, just as we need to know how an fMRI signal is related to neural activity. He expects his audience to get the distinction.

I waffle on about experience, and am stuck, mute, dumb when I am asked what that is. How could you possibly point to it? Sometimes we talk of the theatre where stuff happens. But that isn’t it, because a theatre is another thing. Likewise, we cannot picture or imagine an Umwelt without presupposing another Umwelt.

I think immediate experience is understandable as the experiential counterpart to the Perception/Action relation. But given that nobody seems to agree on what the word experience refers to, might one not simply turn things around, and call the P/A relation the P-world, and see what gives then?

With wonder, I have stumbled upon the work of Jakob von Uexküll, who died in 1944.  His work is hard to find, out of print or never even translated into English.  One article is available (I have scanned it in below.  Enjoy!).  It is a translation of a 1934 original, and it appeared in the obscure journal Semiotica in 1992, almost 60 years later!  It is called “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, and my copy tells me that it was originally published in English in “Instinctive Behavior”, trans by Claire H. Schiller in 1957.  It is the most charming academic article I have ever come across.  The discussion is helped along by no less than 53 figures, most of which are slightly fanciful attempts to depict the subjective experience of non-human animals, ranging from the humble paramecium up to the dog chasing a stick.  Each of these is an Umwelt, and they are amazingly close to my notion of the P-world!  In fact, von Uexküll even calls them “phenomenal worlds” that arise from the unification of a “perceptual world” and an “effector world”, or from the unification of perception and action.  How good is that!

But it gets better.  He pegs and discusses the subject/object distinction in many places.  He produces an early cybernetic model showing the reciprocal relations between subjective experience and environment, and says “the subject and the object are dovetailed into one another, to constitue a systematic whole”.  His beautiful description of the Umwelt of a tick has been reproduced in Andy Clark’s “Being There”.  He points out how each animal encounters an entirely subjective form of space and time, and how the activity of the animal is related to the experience of time.  “Without a living subject, there can be no time”. Mind you, he makes the questionable assumption that there is something like a quantum of experience that in humans is about 1/18 sec, and that is modality independent.  But that is more than compensated for by his delightful Fig 14 showing a snail held atop a large rubber ball carried by water.

This ought to sound familiar: “As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence.”

Where I speak of a “phenomenal bubble”, he says “We may therefore picture all the animals around us, be they beetles, butterfliesm flies, mosquitoes or dragonflies that people a meadow, enclosed within soap bubbles, which confine their visual space and contain all that is visible to them….Only when this fact is clearly grasped shall we recognize the soap bubble which encloses each of us as well.  Then we shall also see all our fellow men in their individual soap bubbles, which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs.  There is no space independent of subjects.  If we still cling to the fiction of an all-encompassing universal space, we do so only because this conventional fable facilitates mutual communication”.

He has a view of nervous system activity appropriate to his time.  He considers central organization, and the relative independence of reflex arcs, when he says: “when a dog runs, the animal moves its legs; when a sea urchin runs, the legs move the animal”.  That’s a nice quote for later use in discussing agency!

Long before Gibson’s theory of affordances, we see von Uexküll saying: “How do we manage to see sitting in a chair, drinking in a cup, climbing in a ladder, none of which are given perceptually?  In all the objects that we have learned to use, we see the function which we perform with them as surely as we see their shape or color.”

There are limitations.  He reminds me of Dennett in his ability to drive a whole wagonful of arguments up to the edge of a cliff, but he then refuses to jump off.  Thus, at one point toward the end we read: “…Thus we ultimately reach the conclusion that each subject lives in a world composed of subjective realities alone, and that even the Umwelten themselves represent only subjective realities… Whoever denies the existence of subjective realities, has failed to recognize the foundations of his own Umwelt.”  And yet earlier, he commits just this error when he says: “The Umwelt of any animal that we wish to investigate is only a section carved out of the environment which we see spread around it-and this environment is nothing but our own human world.”  Aarghh, how did he not notice that error?

He comes across as a well meaning pantheist at the very end: “And yet all these diverse Umwelten are harbored and borne by the One that remains forever barred to all Umwelten.  Behind all the worlds created by Him, there lies concealed, eternally beyond the reach of knowledge, the subject – Nature.”

Thomas Nagel does not cite him.  Hang your head in shame, Thomas!

Here’s the article, in two scans: [Part 1] [

It is increasingly apparent to me that we need to develop an aesthetics of thought.  Once we rid ourselves of the illusion that we are “doing” our thoughts, rather than simply having them, we will recognize that some thoughts are inherently more beautiful than others.  What separates a beautiful thought from an ugly one is not a matter of content in any simple sense.  And we will learn to coordinate our lives such that the beautiful thoughts have a greater likelihood of occurrence than the ugly ones.  Perhaps they will be mathematical in nature.  I don’t know.  I would like to devote my life to the proposition that we can and will develop an aesthetics of thought.

Memory is to be reevaluated under the new framework.  Here’s one.  I just started watching a youtube clip I had seen a few days ago.  I recognized it.  The present story has it that the best way to describe this situation is that I recognize a video I have seen before because I have a memory of that video.  All about me, the non-existant subject.  Here’s another way of describing the same situation:  We have a recurrence.  The same conjunction of some variables (which?) occurred.   Therefore we have a recurrance, or a resonance.  At any rate, we have discovered a recurrent pattern.  That’s a good structural description as long as the fabric is P-worlds and their interaction, and not people and their volitional acts.

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