Monday, 15 May 2017

Toomas Karmo (Part A): Analytical Philosophy of Perception, Action, and "Subjectivity"

Quality assessment: 

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his  grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to develop the scant number of currently necessary points to reasonable length. 

Revision history:
  •  20170516T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version (already  reasonably polished). He reserved the right to make  further tiny, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, changes over the coming 96 hours, as here-undocumented versions 1.0.1, 1.0.2, 1.0.3, ... .

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity to generate HTML that is formatted in different ways on different client-side browsers, perhaps with some browsers not correctly reading in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets" which on many Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect "Cascading Style Sheets" problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Finally, there may be blogger vagaries, outside my control, in font sizing or interlinear spacing. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via]
Among the blessings in my occasionally tumultuous life has been my in-depth exposure to both of the "Two Cultures" in the 1959-through-1962 Snow-Leavis debate. 

The humanities (largely, to be sure, as philosophy) I encountered through studies at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University from 1970 through 1974, and at Oxford from 1974 through 1978. I was able to consolidate my period of study through philosophy teaching appointments and a pair of philosophy post-doctoral fellowships, from 1978 through 1991, at Monash University in the Melbourne suburbs, at the University of New England (a little confusingly, in New South Wales), at the National University of Singapore, at Indiana's University of Notre Dame, at British Columbia's University of Victoria, and (where I was, fortunately for my general intellectual horizons, denied tenure-stream entry) at Ontario's York University.

So much, then, for the Leavis side of the "Two Cultures" chasm.  On C.P. Snow's side, I cite first a four-year honours B.Sc. from the University of Toronto, in computing and physics, completed in 1996. Second, I cite, as a 1996-through-1999 supplement to my initial programme of science study,  the suite of astrophysics courses in the University of Toronto astrophysics honours B.Sc. programme

Formal science curriculum aside, I have also managed to engage at various levels with the David Dunlap Observatory in the outer Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, in the period leading up to its unhappy 2008 sale - most notably through a pair of 2006-November-through-2008-June concurrent part-time "Telescope Operator" (night-assistant) and  research-assistant contracts. 

Since 1991, I have found Leavis's world thin and weak, and have considered myself instead to be marching under the more robust banners of C.P. Snow. I profess my academic allegiance to (robust?) Science, as opposed to (nutriernt-poor?) Humanities, even while admiring Leavis's witty brilliance and deploring Snow's occasional banalities. It is therefore with some unease that I turn this blog to a set of topics not in the fully respectable world of science (where C.P.Snow's heart lay) but in the mildly disreputable world of philosophy (a mere step removed from the Literature that was F.R. Leavis's heartfelt passion). I plead in extenuation that if one has something to write which may help others, one had better write it out, at whatever cost to one's dignity.  


My chosen topics are in the analytical philosophy of perception, action, and what I shall be calling "subjectivity". These are topics which have been tackled by a parade of recurrently depressing (because recurrently unclear) writers - in the bare-bones "History of Post-Mediaeval Philosophy" of our Anglo-Saxon university-department curriculum by Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Among modern analysts, or developers, or critics, of the dispiriting Historical Parade are twentieth-century writers in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition, such as the postwar Frank Jackson (noted for his probing of perception) and the postwar Danto and Anscombe (noted for their probing of action) - and from the decades preceding Jackson, Danto, and Anscombe, other such respected figures as A.J.Ayer and C.D.Broad. This stream goes back to a couple of founding authorities whose initial work is now beyond the reach of living memory, in Edwardian times. I will return shortly to one of these founders, the mathematician-cum-philosopher-cum-activist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), rather strikingly active in 1912.

And I found my own thinking stimulated this past northern-hemisphere winter by American social critic, and Schopenhauer student, John Michael Greer, in a sequence of blog postings, starting from his 2017-02-08 posting entitled "The World as Representation" (at, and concluding with his 2017-03-08 posting "How Should We Then Live?" (at

A brief introduction to these topics can be made by posing some questions in an imitation of the unclear language of the weaker - because less cautious and less rigorous - of today's professional Anglo-Saxon philosophers. So picture yourself, Gentle Reader (as Mr Greer sometimes says) in some not-very-good school - but not, for the purpose of this exercise, in my own normally favoured pair of downmarket schools, the grubby and imaginary Alexandr Stepanovich Popov Institute of Heroic Radio and the grubby and imaginary Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics. Instead, transport yourself tonight to a new, and quite Anglo, campus - to my grubby and imaginary "Tallahassee Swampwater Junior Training College". 

Here we are, in that low-budget College, yawning in our plastic chairs, sipping coffee from our styrofoam cups, and thinking in English, as some rather weak professor in the Bertrand-Russell-onward philosophical tradition poses a couple of questions in feigned accents of wonder: 
  • Do you really see a coffee cup before you? Or do you, rather, see a mere sensory representation of a coffee cup? If the latter, then how are you guaranteed that a coffee  cup is even there?   
  • Do you really raise that cup to your lips by moving a hand? Or do you, rather, merely make an "act of will" which causes the hand to rise? if the latter, than how are you guaranteed that it was your act of will that was the true cause of your hand's rising?
Before finishing for tonight, I add a detail to the Tallahassee scene. We students have with us (as I now imagine it) not only our coffee, but our dog-eared paperback copies of Russell's 1912 Problems of Philosophy. And we nod in solemn approbation as our professor quotes to us from near the end of Chapter One (the emphasis on the word "immediately" is in the original): 

/.../ if we take any common object of the sort that is supposed to be known by the senses, what the senses immediately tell us is not the truth about the object as it is apart from us, but only the truth about certain sense-data which, so far as we can see, depend upon the relations between us and the object. Thus what we directly see and feel is merely an "appearance", which we believe to be a sign of some "reality" behind. But if the reality is not what appears, have we any means of knowing whether there is any reality at all? And if so, have we any means of finding out what it is like? 

This is the kind of stuff with which I shall have to be grappling, at least intermittently (I might occasionally change topic), in upcoming weeks of undignified blogging. 

[This is the end of the current blog posting.]  

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