This summer I learned to walk. More precisely, I learned to walk normally. My gait had gotten unsteady, and I was dragging my right foot. Work with an excellent physical therapist helped straighten me out. But balance problems, tremors, and hesitations continued.
At the beginning of August I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I want to describe the phenomenology of my version of it, and begin thinking through its implications for the philosophy of perception and action. But first the disease itself.
▶ For a first-person account of Parkinson’s by a neurologist, see this recent article in Nature.
What Parkinson’s is
The immediate underlying problem is a deficiency of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Levels at diagnosis are typically 30% to 70% below normal. Dopamine is involved in many neural processes, not only motor activity but decision-making and the regulation of emotion. The symptoms from which Parkinson’s is diagnosed — tremor, bradykinesia, rigidity, and postural instability — will in time be accompanied by others, including loss of smell (mine, however, is rather more sensitive than less), autonomic dysfunction, troubled sleep, and dementia.
Diagnosis typically occurs five to eight years after the conjectured onset of the disease. Before diagnosis, in the so-called “presymptomatic” phase, there may have been nonmotor symptoms, including rigidity, aversion to novelties, and depression. In my case the presymptomatic phase may have begun as early as 2005. With no doubt fallible hindsight I can recall evidence of motor problems at least two years ago.
Dopamine deficiency, once regarded as the cause of Parkinson’s, is now accounted rather as a symptom. (Progress in understanding “causally deep” diseases like Parkinson’s consists in travelling back along the chain of causes; the aim, however, is not to find ultimate causes but to find the most effective points of therapeutic intervention; manipulability is key.) It is now thought that Parkinson’s, like Alzheimer’s, includes the buildup of aggregates of proteins that eventually disable or kill the neurons that contain them. A cascade of further problems ensues. In Parkinson’s the proteins in question are “synucleins”, smallish proteins which, in aberrant forms, tend to stick together. Mitochondrial malfunctions [pdf] are also present that may both cause and be caused by the protein aggregates. As yet there is no cure for either abnormality. Consensus on the chain of causes that issues in Parkinson’s ends here.
What degrades first is the substantia nigra, the “black stuff”, responsible for production and regulation of dopamine. Like other parts of the midbrain, it is very old, and was perhaps already present in the first vertebrates, 500 million years ago. The breakdown of proteins eventually spreads to other areas associated with motor activity and with impulse control, and ultimately to the cortex. Motor symptoms improve upon the administration of levodopa (a dopamine precursor that can pass through the blood-brain barrier, made famous by Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings). But eventually its effects diminish, as the condition of the brain worsens. For nonmotor symptoms there is no established treatment. Nothing is yet known to stop or slow down the progress of the disease, although exercise, especially “forced” exercise, is thought to have some positive effect. I now own a treadmill.
▶For a recent survey on Parkinson’s diagnosis, etiology, and treatment see Nature Outlook (2010) [paylink], and Michael J. Fox’s website.
I will mention two striking perceptual effects of my symptoms. The first is that my perception of spatial relations has changed. Things a block away seem — unsurprisingly — further, no doubt because it requires more effort than it used to to walk five hundred feet. Things within fifty feet or so, on the other hand, feel closer. I say “feel” because I’m referring not to visual perception, not to how things look, but to how close they seem [paylink], and thus how threatening if they are moving toward me or I toward them. The involuntary fear of heights that Hume notes is impervious to reason has become almost overwhelming; the involuntary flinching that occurs if something large looms too quickly now kicks in sooner. Crowds have become more unnerving. Even when I am in the kitchen with only my wife I sometimes stop short three or four feet from her, though I realize even as I stop that there’s no risk of collision.
This is owing, I suspect, to my decreased mobility. It takes effort to turn, effort to bend at the waist, effort to start moving out of the way. My awareness of that — I don’t mean explicit thoughts of being immobile but the feeling of stiffness, of effortful change of posture — seems to have resulted in a recalibration of my “proximity detectors”, and that in turn to altered perceptions of the ambient space and objects within it.
A second effect has again to do with spatial perception. I notice a marked reluctance to reach down. A book on the floor feels farther away. It is as if the perception of something like Gibsonian affordances has been altered, or the locomotive field, the viscosity, of nearby space. The same applies more generally to reaching in general, especially if the thing to be reached is behind me.
A third effect, more cognitive than perceptual, and thankfully infrequent, has occurred when I find myself in a kneeling position on the floor and momentarily unable to rise. The thought that immediately comes to mind is not that I can’t stand up, but that I have forgotten how. Incapacity is refashioned into ignorance.
It would follow, if I had indeed forgotten, that I would now have to learn anew the sequence of acts by which one rises to a standing position. That is indeed what I did this summer as I worked on my gait and balance. One exercise consisted simply in this: from a standing position, lean forward until you start to fall, and (deliberately) take a single step forward to maintain your balance. I was taking several small steps, which is more likely to be ineffective.
Until new habits have worn in, I must plan acts that before were performed “on the fly”, without deliberation. To get off the floor from a kneeling position if I cannot give myself a boost with my arms, I have learned to first set my left foot on the floor in front of me, and then, as I unbend my left left knee, pull up the right leg so that at the end both legs are straight and my feet are flat on the ground. I’ve described the act in Molloy- or Kafka-like detail; in such detail must I construct it. Needless to say doing things thus is slow and inefficient by comparison with the fluent, unreflected doing I was used to. The slowness associated with Parkinson’s has to do not only with the reluctance of the nervous system to respond to one’s intentions, but with the need to substitute plans for long-standing habits.
All this provides further illustration, if any is needed, for the close relation between perception and action argued for by Merleau-Ponty in the 1940s (Phénoménologie de la perception, 1945; see Jean-Luc Petit "La Spatialité originaire du corps propre", Revue de synthèse 124.1 (2003): 139–171) and more recently by Susan Hurley [pdf], Alva Noë, and others. Parkinson’s, in its early stages, has no direct effect on perception (although it may hinder visual perception by affecting the basal ganglia, which control visual saccades). What it does to perception will therefore be by way of its influence on motor control. Early-stage Parkinson’s provides a natural settingf in which to test the so-called ‘enactive hypothesis’. The more general point that loss of motor capacity provides a test has, of course, not gone unnoticed. What I would urge is a more fine-grained analysis of its effects, for example, that the space around one could feel different than before in various ways — with respect to “looming”, for example — that do not consist in its looking different, and that the feel I am trying to articulate — with respect to heights, say — seems to be an amalgam of perceptions, motor inclinations, and emotions.
I see some evidence in my experience also that for certain emotions, notably anxiety, the Jamesian theory may be true, at least in a weak form according to which certain bodily goings-on, though not perhaps necessary, suffice for it to be present. The awkward tension I often feel in my muscles, especially in the abdomen and upper torso, resembles that of anxious anticipation, and it requires concentration not to feel anxious as a result. On the other hand, if the capacity to have emotions depends in part on the capacity to express them, then one can make sense of the impassivity of Parkinson’s patients even without invoking the “dopamine hypothesis” alluded to earlier.
I am sobered by the thought that it was child’s play for my understanding to make intelligible to itself my altered dispositions in terms of more-or-less reasoned preferences. I’ve noticed that to the extent that I’ve become more impulsive (more likely to interrupt, for example), reasons come readily to mind both to explain and to excuse my behavior. The higher capacities seem to operate here in the manner of an overly accommodating servant who manages to make sense of even the most outlandish expressions of his master…
Adversaries and disputants, gender and argument
Inspired by some comments of Jennifer Saul on Rebecca Kukla’s remarks concerning the “aggressive, argumentative” style in philosophy, Eric Schliesser and Catarina Dutilh Novaes here at NewAPPS have taken up the question of what I would call the character of philosophy. Does it consist in contests in which adversaries, having occupied positions, not only defend them vigorously but also attack those positions which, being contrary to their own, they take to be opposed to their own? Readers of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we live by will recognize here a familiar conceit: argument is war. How warlike should philosophy be?
Consider an ideal type: the (pure) adversary intends that his or her position should prevail. To be an adversary is, by presumption, to be engaged in a contest, that is, in a collective endeavor in which it makes sense to occupy a position.
It is clear from the discussion that no-one really thinks that philosophers should be pure adversaries. We don’t intend that our position should prevail come what may, but that our position should prevail, given that it is (as we think) true, or given that it has (as we think) the balance of reasons in its favor (a condition for which I will use the word “probable” in its older, scholastic sense). We aren’t pure adversaries, but rather adversaries in good faith. (For completeness’ sake I should have an account of devil’s advocacy, i.e. of arguing for positions that one does not in fact regard as true or probable. That would be either a mere exhibition of skill or else a component of some larger act of advocacy in good faith.)
So: a second ideal type. The (pure) disputant intends that his or her position should prevail, provided that it is true (or probable). The scholastic conception of philosophy was of a disputational, not an adversarial, endeavor whose end is the discovery of the true or the probable. In the American court system, on the other hand, because the legal question of guilt or innocence is decided (ceteris paribus) by a jury’s or a judge’s verdict, the proceedings are not, in an immediate way, disputational; instead there is a strong tendency for lawyers to become pure adversaries, their proximate end being not truth but persuasion. (On a distinction between “negotiation” and “scholarly communication” which is analogous to the distinction made here, see Andrew Gelman on “Different modes of discourse”.)
In philosophical discussion (as always, I presuppose good faith) it is understood that assertions must either be defended if questioned or explicitly taken as assumed (locally if not globally) for the sake of argument. A philosopher writing in an aphoristic mode may proceed as if that requirement had been suspended: but it is only suspended, not removed. To remove it would be to shift the aims of philosophy, e.g. toward spiritual exercise (historically, a character of philosophy no less prominent than truth-seeking: see Pierre Hadot’s Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique, Matt Jones on Descartes, Pierre Force on Montaigne and Pascal, and John Sellars on Justus Lipsius).
Philosophical discourse is in that respect always disputational. At minimum to offer reasons for p is also to offer reasons against not-p, and thus to implicate a sort of contest between the proposition asserted and its negation. (On the agonistic origins of Western philosophy see G. E. R. Lloyd’s Revolutions of wisdom and Demystifying mentalities and Marcel Detienne’s Maîtres de vérité; on scholastic disputation, see John Marenbon’s Later medieval philosophy, and on disputation as ritual spectacle see Enders 1993 in the bibliography below; Catarina Dutilh Novaes has written here on argument as dialogue). Kukla is right in exhibiting contempt for anyone who is put off by mere disagreement among philosophers (see also her further remarks at Facebook). But I see no reason to suppose that philosophy must be aggressively disputational. Must an objection be cast as an attack? Disputation needn’t be agonistic, in my view; on the contrary, if the collective aim is to conduct an inquiry into truth, cooperation may be just as productive. Placing a “high premium on verbal sparring and cleverness” (where cleverness denotes something other than or in addition to skill in argument) is at best an imperfect means to that aim; and it exacts a significant social cost insofar as it amplifies disparities of power which have nothing to do with the capacities needed to conduct inquiry.
An intense aggressive style can be used as an instrument of oppression: on that point I suppose there will be agreement. “Your objection has no merit” can be a way of saying “Shut up”, an exercise of power. But I take it that Kukla would include browbeating among the activities she agrees should be discouraged. So the question resolves itself to this: does the intense aggressive style itself (if indeed we can detach the exercise of that style from the social meanings of aggressiveness in particular social contexts) function as a filter in academic philosophy in ways that we would reject, once it became apparent that it was functioning thus? Kukla tries to arrange it so that the burden of proof is on the person who says yes, demanding evidence for that position while offering (so far as I can tell) only her own experience on behalf of her own. If you are antecedently persuaded of the benefits of the intense aggressive style, that may be enough. (I am not so persuaded. Perhaps that is because I am not solely concerned with who should be a philosopher, but with the social profile of philosophy generally.)
Kukla holds that, as far as she can tell, the intense aggressive style puts off people of all sorts equally, and so no social harm will result from its being a common or the prevalent style in philosophy. That, of course, is an empirical claim. Evaluating it would require an intimacy with the literature on small-group dynamics and on negotiation (since I think it reasonable to regard the activity of a seminar, e.g., as consisting partly in negotiations about group beliefs) that I lack. Perhaps others more qualified can comment on that point. I will conclude with some impressions.
In a quick review of studies of negotiation, the firmest general conclusion I can draw is that small differences in setting and expectation can generate significant differences in the importance of gender to influencing behavior. There is no easy answer to the question raised above. For example, if an activity is framed as a winner-take-all competition, women, even those who do well, are less likely to choose to take part than men (Bertrand 2010:1555), which suggests that we not frame discussion in such a way that only one person can be right. Or again: “women’s performance in negotiation improves significantly when negotiating for someone else as opposed to for themselves” (Bertrand 2010:1557), which suggests that we frame the task of discussion not as that of defending my opinion as against yours, but rather as that of determining which of the alternatives we should maintain.
It would seem that the trend of the later literature points to two major conclusions: (i) the differences are usually not large, and are exhibited only when conditioned on other features of the situation; (ii) other relations, notably power relations, with which gender relations are correlated may have a greater role in social interaction. In short: under favorable circumstances, prevalence of the intense aggressive style need not, perhaps, aggravate inequality, in particular gender inequality. But it is up to us to ensure that circumstances are favorable.
Marianne Bertrand. “New perspectives on gender”. In: Handbook of labor economics 4b: 1545–1592.
Linda L. Carli. “Gender, language, and influence”. Journal of personality and social psychology 59.5 (1990) 941–951.
Renee Edwards, Mark A. Hamilton. “You need to understand my gender role: an empirical test of Tannen’s model of gender and communication”. Sex roles 50.7/8 (2004) 491–504. (Also a nice example of modelling complex causal relations.)
Jody Enders. “The theater of scholastic erudition”. Comparative Drama 27.3 (1993) 341–363.
Annette Hannah, Tamar Murachver. “Gender and conversational style as predictors of conversational behavior.” Journal of language and social psychology 18.2 (1999) 153–174.
Michael A. Gilbert. “Feminism, argumentation and coalescence.” Informal logic 16.2 (1994) 95–133 (with bibliography of earlier literature).
Deborah M. Kolb. “Too bad for the women or does it have to be? Gender and negotiation research over the past twenty-five years”. Negotiation journal Oct 2009:515–531.
Laura J. Kray, Leigh Thompson, Adam Galinsky. “Battle of the sexes: gender stereotype confirmation and reactance in negotiations.” Journal of personality and social psychology 80.6 (2001) 942–958.
Alex J. Novikoff. “Toward a cultural history of scholastic disputation”. The American historical review 117.2 (2012) 331–364.
Amy E. Walters, Alice F. Stuhlmacher, and Lia L. Meyer. “Gender and negotiator competitiveness: a meta-analysis”. Organizational behavior and human decision processes 76.1 (1998) 1–29.
Janice D. Yoder, Arnold S. Kahn. “Toward a feminist understanding of women and power”. Psychology of women quarterly 16 (1992) 381–388.
On bad anecdotes and good fun
My initial topic is the attractions of scandal, and an oft-told story: Diderot, humiliated at the court of Catherine by his inability to answer Euler’s supposed mathematical proof of the existence of God, limps back home to Paris.
The moral generally drawn from the story is: Learn your algebra! My moral will be an admonition to historians (but not only to historians).
I’ve read the Diderot anecdote many times—mathematicians seem to like it—and I’ve long been suspicious. Inspired by a colleague’s use of it in a talk last semester, I did some checking. Here’s what I found.
Dredge: new frontiers
Some of the largest structures built by humans are invisible or go largely unnoticed. The shorelines around big cities like New York have been almost completely subordinated to the needs and wants of their inhabitants. Dredging plays a large role in the building of artificial boundaries between land and sea. BLDGBLOG, a must-read for anyone interested in architecture, reports on an exhibit by the Dredge Research Collective.
The Dredge Cycle is landscape architecture at a monumental scale, carving the coastlines and waterways of continents according to a mixture of industrial need and unintended consequences. Thus far, dredge has remained the domain of logistics, industry, and engineering, a soft successor to the elevated freeway interchanges and massive dams that captured the infrastructural imagination of the previous century.
For the past year, the Dredge Research Collective have been exploring the choreography of these interconnected sedimentary landscapes, visiting dredged material confinement areas, from Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay to Hayden Island in the Columbia River, talking with dredge experts, such as the transnational materials conglomerate TenCate, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Land Management, and publishing and lecturing widely on dredge.
Mammoth, another architecture blog that includes two members of the Collective, defines the Dredge Cycle:
[…] dredging is better understood as a component of a wider network of anthropogenic sedimentary processes which generate a fascinating array of interconnected landscapes. Fluid topographies are restrained by bright orange silt fences; dredging barges continuously empty shipping channels which are promptly re-filled with sediment disturbed by upstream farms and new subdivisions; sensate geotextiles monitor the stability of landscapes they are literally embedded in; hulking geo-tubes lay engorged with dredged sediments in streams on Filipino golf courses and along Mexican beaches and on the coastal dunescape of Virginian spaceports. Silts, sands, and clays flow rapidly between these landscapes in liquid suspension, linking them and re-shaping the earth’s surface. Collectively, the choreography of these landscapes embodies a vastly quickened counterpart to conventionally defined geologic cycles — the Dredge Cycle.
One site, still being planned, where the Dredge Cycle will make itself apparent—in the form of several billion dollars of real estate—is the Lo-Lo Ma project, which could connect Governor’s Island to the southern tip of Manhattan. Core77 explains how it will be done.
Texts as pretexts, or: the practitioner’s attitude
Mohan Matthen has been commendably frank in expressing his attitude toward the history of philosophy. But in fact what he has expressed does not pertain to history in particular: it pertains to any source of inspiration. It is what you might call the practitioner’s attitude.
When one reads Julia Annas or Margaret Wilson or Michael Friedman one thinks: Gee that’s really interesting. Could Aristotle or Descartes or Kant really have thought that? […]
And then one thinks: Oh who cares? It’s so interesting that it’s worth tackling on its own. But, no doubt, it gives the question a certain beautiful frisson that Kant could have held it.
[From NewAPPS.] Nothing at all changes if you substitute ‘Susan Wolfe’ or ‘Mohan Matthen’ for ‘Aristotle’ or ‘Descartes’. For me as a practitioner it’s of no especial import to get Aristotle or Mohan right so long as I have arrived at something of interest to me. It may be that a historian has helped me along toward that end. But what matters is that I have been inspired, that I am having interesting thoughts.
To that end presumably whatever works is licit, so long as it is not morally objectionable. I could just as well as have consulted tea leaves. I am, so far as inspiration is concerned, a pure egoist, a solipsist even, since it hardly matters whether I have listened to you or merely dreamt of listening to you.
The attitude of the practitioner ought not to be given any weight, therefore, to in judging the worth of history. It is too indiscriminate. The practitioner is indifferent to anything that fails to inspire interesting thoughts, and will value anything that does, whatever its intrinsic worth.
“Une trace impérissable de ces fugitives mélodies”
The earliest known recording of the human voice from which intelligible sound has been recovered was made by the French scientist Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on 9 April 1860—seventeen years before Edison’s first phonograph recording. It is a bit of “Au clair de la lune”.
On 20 April another recording, longer and with better fidelity, was made. Earlier recordings exist, but for lack of calibration they have not been converted. Scott calibrated his later recordings with a tuning fork of known pitch.
The recovery was carried out by First Sounds, a group devoted to preserving, recovering, and publishing old recordings.
Below is a sketch from Scott’s patent application (“brevet d’invention”), dated 25 Mar 1857.
A piece of their mind
Addendum: Republished from NewAPPS. See there the informative comment by John Protevi on the substance of Balko’s column—the fallibility of drug-sniffing dogs (and their trainers), and the resulting miscarriages of justice.
My late cat Mr. H came to be very good at knowing when I was finished playing a piece on the piano. I have recordings in which, a second or two after the piano stops, Mr. H’s characteristic yowl supplies a coda. One might almost think he had a grasp of musical form, but I’m quite sure that his grasp was rather of my habits than of anything to do with music. He had likely picked up something in my posture that correlated with finishing a piece, something distinctive enough that he was rarely deceived by pauses during a piece.
I was reminded of this in reading first a column by Radley Balko on police dogs and then some extracts from a book cited by Balko, Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a dog (the title alludes to a Groucho Marx joke, in case you’re wondering). Horowitz describes experiments in which domestic canines, when humans are present, tend to do much worse than their wild cousins.
Tested on their ability to, say, get a bit of food in a well-closed container, wolves keep trying and trying, and if the test is not rigged they eventually succeed through trial and error. Dogs, by contrast, tend to go at the container only until it appears that it won’t easily be opened. Then they look at any person in the room and begin a variety of attention-getting and solicitation behaviors until the person relents and helps them get into the box (180).
Anyone who has a dog or cat will recognize the phenomenon. Are dogs, then, dumber than wolves? Horowitz doesn’t think so.
Translate: carry across
The metaphor implicit in translation is that of something being carried over from one “place” to another. The most fortunate, the most deserving of saints might be translated into heaven; their earthly remains were often translated from one church or monastery to another, along with the prestige of possessing them. Translate in this older sense bears a clear relation to transfer, of which it is merely the irregular past participle.
In those cases a thing was carried over or across: a person, a relic. In the now most common case, that of translation between languages, what’s carried across is not at all obvious. Decades ago, when theories of meaning—or rather speculation about theories of meaning—were all the rage, one would have said that translation consists in the construction and use of a systematic mapping of the sentences of one language to those of another, a mapping that preserves meaning or truth. The first attempts at computer translation worked from a similar definition.
Translation so conceived “carries across” only abstracta: the meaning or truth-value of the source. For anyone who has taken seriously the task of translation, that is a sort of caricature. The truth in it—what makes it caricature and not outright falsehood—is that something can be captured by the algorithms employed by Google and other automatic translation services. Call it the “gist”.
499 Words: Tuzet’s Cosmos
The philosophy of science directs its attention mostly to successful science—to Darwin, not to Lamarck or Driesch—and even when it turns to theories that have proved false, it tends to study only the “honorable” failures.It avoids the Helmonts and Fouriers, the Fechners and Josephsons—those who have sinned (or so it thinks) against reason, and given too free a rein to imagination. After all, if your aim is to understand how reason works, how knowledge is most efficiently attained, you will want the best specimens; the ill-formed, the dubious, the fake, you leave aside.
The past of science, especially before 1900, presents a much more heterogeneous picture than one would gather from the carefully tended cabinets of the philosophers. Where established truths are sparse, the imagination roams freely; and, as Descartes and Kant have warned us, to speculate beyond experience (let alone “all possible experience”) puts us at risk not merely of believing falsehoods, but of allowing the spirit of pure inquiry to consort with phantasms of desire.
Cosmology—the study of the translunar universe, and (latterly) of the earth itself as one world among many in that universe—has given ample scope to both fantasy and desire. Hélène Tuzet’s study, first published in 1965 …
On Rosenberg on Science
A quotation first:
“But what about other items on Professor Williamson’s list of disciplines it would be hard to count as science: history, literary theory? Can science and naturalistic philosophy do without them? This is a different question from whether people, as consumers of human narratives and enjoyers of literature, can do without them. The question naturalism faces is whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding.
“Naturalism faces these questions because it won’t uncritically buy into Professor Williamson’s ‘default assumption … that the practitioners of a well-established discipline know what they are doing, and use the … methods most appropriate for answering its questions.’ If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.
“That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than foregoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.”
Rosenberg starts here with a brief list: history, literary theory. He forgets history (after implying that all history is narrative history: so much for the Annales school and hundreds of other historians), and turns to “disciplines like literary theory”.
Then we get a seriously defective bit of non-argument. In form:
If A, then B.
Here A = “semiotics etc. flout science’s standards or seek to limit the reach of scientific methods”, and B = “naturalism can’t take them seriously”.
No doubt Rosenberg holds A true. But it is bad manners in philosophy, even op-ed philosophy, to pretend you’ve proved or been granted a controversial premise that you haven’t gone one step toward proving.