Tuesday, June 26, 2007

PC #49: Vacation edition

Not too many revelers at this Carnival (must be too hot), but check it out all the same.

Friday, June 22, 2007

What the heck?

HT: Pharyngula, who's rated G for some reason.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Why cats make a huge mess (like they need a reason)

Over at Crooked Timber the other day, I opined (uncontroversially enough) that Rorty’s preference for novels over philosophy as a vehicle for moral progress shows his belief in the priority (in this sense) of imagination over deduction or even cognition. I then revealed that a book I was reviewing had as its epigraph Albert Einstein’s dictum that “In order for something to be so, we first have to think it.” I like this quote. First it provokes, with its apparent flirtation with idealism, offending our everyday intution (i.e. the one that makes realism seem obviously true and idealism wacky) that things can indeed be a certain way, even though no-one has ever thought it. Then we see a more congenial reading, more in line with Rorty’s attitude: we cannot work effectively toward a future we have not imagined. No imagination means complacent capitulation to the status quo. Or perhaps (more in line with this case, as we shall see), it says that we cannot see something to be the case unless we first think it, i.e., as a hypothesis (very plausible, if a bit boring). Finally (maybe, if we’ve been thinking about this stuff already) we take another look at the “idealistic” reading. Is it really “idealistic” to suggest that objectivity cannot in principle outstrip our conceptual capacities? In other words, is Kantian “transcendental idealism” really idealism?

Naturally realists will say it is. And if you were determined to spin it that way I suppose you could; but then “idealism” wouldn’t be so bad (i.e. if realism were the only alternative, it looks like a wash). I’m with Putnam here: the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world. Or at least that’s as good a slogan as you’re going to get. But let’s leave that business for another time.

Anyway, that’s the epigraph. Let us turn, at long last, to the book itself. I say “at long last” because in a post some time ago describing my haul from a local library’s semiannual book sale, I mentioned that I would put off until later my account of a particularly remarkable book. Here, finally, is that account.

Our book is entitled Why Cats Paint: A theory of feline aesthetics, by Heather Busch and Burton Silver. As you can see above, the cover photograph looks for all the world like a cat making a purposeful, indeed determined, stroke across a painted wall with his paw, in the manner of [insert name of your favorite action painter here], and the unfinished mural is striking, a colorful and dynamic assemblage of streaks and smudges. The photo credit, on the back inside flap, reads:
Front: MAX, Birdies (detail), 1991. Acrylic paste on painted wall. 86 x 130 cm. Private collection.
Flipping through the book reveals many similar photographs of cats at work, or of the finished products themselves, some of which, like Birdies, are quite eye-catching. Are these cats really "painting"? One's first reaction cannot but be: no way (we know the titles how, for instance…?). But when John McEnroe exclaims "You cannot be serious!" he knows full well that they are: that's why he's upset about it. But this – is this a parody? A hoax? A sincere but deluded claim? (A startling discovery?) At first it's not clear.

The publication info page, across from the table of contents, contains two interesting tidbits: at the top, the aforementioned Einstein quotation, and at the bottom, an official-looking notice that "Why Cats Paint is a recognized international experiment in inter-species morphic resonance and is designed to test the hypothesis of formative causation. I.E.# 644-38837-59." Curiouser and curiouser.

The book is divided into four chapters. "An Historical Perspective" tells the story of cat painting (again, that's painting by cats) throughout history, from ancient Egypt (presumably real mummified cats are shown with their possibly not-so-real papyri) through medieval times (a somewhat less authentic-looking illustration of a cat at an easel, c. 950 A.D.), up to the modern era (a poster advertising in idiomatically purple prose ("Spellbinding Displays of Artistry Hitherto Unknown") an 1880's appearance by Mrs. Broadmore's Amazing Painting Cat).

Chapter 2 discusses "Theories of Feline Marking Behavior," suggesting a biological basis for this activity in territorial marking, and revealing soberly that there remains some controversy over whether and to what extent we can regard cat painting as having anything like an aesthetic or expressive motivation. A biologist is quoted as demurring, seeing this behavior as "no more than obsessive-compulsive play activity resulting in randomized marks of no meaning whatever." But it seems there are other views.

Chapter 3 introduces us to "Twelve Major Artists" and their painting styles, which range from Pepper's traditional portraiture to Charlie's "Peripheral Realism" to Rusty's "Psychometric Impressionism." Naturally, streaks and smudges dominate, as in some forms of human painting, rendering some of the paintings rather dull, but some of them are quite attractive. In this section the authors acknowledge the difficulty of interpreting cat painting, but claim, at least with respect to Misty's "Formal Expansionism," as manifested by 1993's A Little Lavish Leaping, that "[t]he power of this sort of cat art lies in its very incomprehensibility which enables it to provoke and intrigue." Hmmm.

Chapter 4 adds another dimension to the story of feline creativity, discussing "Other Forms of Artistic Expression," including "appropriated" household objects (usually clawed furniture), litter box patterns, and installations (wool, dead mice). Here the joke (for that is of course what it is) gets a little thin. The cited review of Radar's 1994 Infra-mice gives it the old art-school try ("Their tiny bodies, wet and dishevelled, merge together as if swept along by some powerful force, yet only their heads join—a union of spiritual intent, a brief harmony of vision that is made all the more painfully real by the wide gulf that opens between their bodies and long flowing tails"), but the accompanying photo shows all too clearly, alas, just a pair of dead mice. No one could possibly believe otherwise.

What I found particularly interesting about this, philosophically speaking, was not the cleverness of the joke (which is only moderate, given its somewhat tired genre, that of pretentious-art-criticism/my-kid (or whatever)-could-do-that spoofery) or the difficulty (which after all was not great) of determining that that’s what it was. Rather it was the very idea of what to consider in deciding between such wildly competing interpretations. After all, Davidson’s radical interpretation thought experiment of course assumes sincere and cooperative informants, not elaborate hoaxters. Equally obviously, however, the principle of charity notwithstanding, such a possibility is an intelligible one. Once you consider this possibility, however, not only the correct interpretation of your observations up for grabs, but also the content of these observations themselves. At first I thought that this context added a particularly Davidsonian wrinkle to this unoriginal (e.g. Hansonian) observation – but eventually I decided it was more like your garden-variety “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” increase in level of doxastic circumspection.

Still, the phenomenon is an interesting one. At first, we see the pictures of cats “painting” and simply doubt that that’s the right way to think of it. The resulting marks do resemble abstract painting; but who knows what the cats are actually doing? They’re probably just using the wall as a scratching post (and are presumably declawed). Maybe they're "marking their territory"; or maybe they're just trying to get the paint off their paws. Or maybe they are fascinated by the marks they're making, and they're even dipping their paws in the paint for that very purpose (as B & S imply that they're doing).

Or maybe they're not doing it at all. Again, once the idea of a hoax or parody is considered, much of what we had been taking for granted (for the moment anyway) is now in doubt. Now the interpretive possibilities multiply: and my “Davidsonian” point again here is that "interpretive" activity must include determination of fact as well as of meaning. (Actually, that is a good point, even if this example doesn’t actually make it any better than the original thought experiment did; still, some people still aren’t getting it….)

That is, what's really happening here? By which I mean not: what's the real explanation for this behavior? but instead: what IS this "behavior"? In some of the photos it certainly seems that the cats are themselves making the marks. But of course there are many kinds and degrees of photographic trickery. Even if they are making the marks – which in itself seems plausible – maybe the owners/handlers (whether the authors or others) dip their cats' paws in paint in order to encourage it (though when the artist, e.g. Misty, decides to extend the work “off canvas,” rendering the work more of an installation than a detachable (sellable?) piece of art, that may not be such a good idea).

For the record, as you may know, there is indeed an ongoing research program in "formative causation,” as instigated by Rupert Sheldrake's A New Science of Life for example (here is the Amazon link to prove it; see also here). Of course maybe he's kidding. But then we would have to ask (given his own straightfaced prose): do the authors know this? In any case many defenders of "homeopathic medicine" (or do we even need those quotation marks? What difference does it make?) look to this hypothesis as providing a theoretical basis for their practices. They at least don't think he's kidding (nor do I, as it happens). In any case, when we have multiple layers of possible hoaxing, or even bizarre error, our interpretive possibilities can get out of control in a hurry.

Anyway, here's how I myself in fact decided once and for all that it was not meant seriously (i.e., even as a hoax). After continuing to flip through the book looking at the pictures (it is a coffee-table book, after all), I finally found conclusive evidence in the back of the book, in the "selected bibliography." I seriously doubt there's really a periodical called New Cat Art, or a book called More Paw Less Claw: Helping Your Cat Develop a Better Technique (let alone Paws for Thought: The Magic & Meaning of Litter Tray Relief Patterns) but not all of them are so obviously phony. Understanding Art Writing, for example, is probably real – and maybe The Cat's Mind, or even The Language of the Tail. Hard to say. After all, that the thesis is wildly implausible doesn’t mean it’s a joke. But here's the kicker:
Mutt, R. Decorative Retromingency. Urinary embellishment as a major problem in the curation of feline art. Journal of Non-Primate Art, Vol. XV, 1991.
At first this isn't any more questionable than More Paw Less Claw. But of course "R. Mutt" is the signature on Fountain, Marcel Duchamp's infamous inverted urinal, to which this is a sly if unmistakeable reference – through the idea of "urinary embellishment" as well as to the issue of the artistic interpretation of found objects more generally. (There are other intentional giveaways: on p. 75, Bootsie's opus Cocking for Cockatoos (1993) is listed as being part of London's "Scraatchi Collection" – alluding to the actual Saatchi collection.)

For more on this purr-fectly fascinating subject, check out the Museum of Non-Primate Art.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Rorty links

More stuff on Rorty continues to pour in.

Here are a few from the Continental Philosophy blog, including (generally positive) remarks from Habermas and (generally dismissive) remarks from Roger Scruton.

Here is more comment from Crooked Timber, with a few links of its own.

Here's a good summary of Rorty's path (and a comment on his most famous book).

Some more personal blog reflections here and here.

Here's a 1995 interview.

Here's a brief respectful note on Rorty's passing (with a link to something with a bit more bite to it).

Monday, June 11, 2007

Iceman Submenu is dead

Today's New York Times has a muted and respectful obituary for Richard Rorty. While including a couple of scathing remarks from Daniel Dennett and Simon Blackburn (both of whom have actually, in some places anyway, been much more receptive than many in philosophy were to Rorty's ideas), it seems unlikely to produce the howls of outrage that greeted their treatment of Derrida (that "abstruse theorist"), last year was it?

Right next to Rorty's obituary was another, that of Senegalese film director Ousmane Sembene, whose films include Xala (1975) and Faat Kiné (2000). The obituary quotes someone claiming Sembene to be the most important African director ever. That may be; but what I particularly like about him is the way spellcheckers mangle his name (i.e., in suggesting improvements to what you actually typed). You know, the way when you type "Heidegger" it suggests that maybe you meant "headgear."

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Richard Rorty, RIP

Via Crooked Timber (also Leiter Reports), I have just learned of the passing of Richard Rorty.

As I've mentioned several times on this blog, Rorty was a major influence on me, solidifying my inchoate but deep-seated anti-Cartesianism and turning me on to Davidson, Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche (i.e., as possible allies in this context). As I read these other philosophers and my own views developed, I ultimately became dissatisfied with Rorty's particular approach toward (what I continue to see as in some way) our joint project. He even comes in for some pretty harsh treatment in my dissertation (esp. ch. 3 – yow!). But if it weren't for him I can't imagine where I'd be, philosophically speaking. Probably just another clueless epistemologist or something.

I met him once, when he gave a talk. I'd seen him a couple of times before but never spoken to him), but we didn't talk then. I later emailed him, on the urging of my advisor, asking him for an as yet unpublished paper, which he supplied immediately, with a few others to boot. He wrote that he admired the "audacity" of my thesis, but thought that the difference between Davidson and McDowell was too "abyssal" for them (i.e., their positions) ever to be reconciled. (I think he never got what McDowell was up to, seeing him as simply another outraged realist; but I also think Rorty's reading of Davidson makes that inevitable – one of its problems by my lights.) I never sent him my dissertation (not that I regret not doing so or anything).

As some commenters on the CT thread, myself included, have opined, Rorty was blatantly disrespected by a large segment of the philosophical community. Even now, many commentators seem to regard his willingness to challenge "common sense" as an excuse not to read him at all charitably (or even, in some cases, at all). Maybe Rorty does, ultimately, fall into relativism or instrumentalism. (That is, after all, my own verdict.) But it takes some careful engagement to show this; and I would argue that rejecting Rorty's position simply to defend "common sense" realism amounts at best merely to salvaging an unenlightening draw. And that's at best. Some purported refutations (I won't name names, not this time) are simply shameful – there's no other word.

My own advisor was a student of Davidson and a personal friend of Rorty's, so it is not surprising that he was (as I am now – and yes, the two facts are causally related), a sympathetic critic; but he did warn me not to write a dissertation on Rorty "if you want a job." As I've mentioned, I partly ignored this warning – partly from obstinacy, but also because to explain my views without engaging Rorty's would be impossible. Our differences notwithstanding – and perhaps this will motivate me to make them clearer – Rorty still strikes me as in some ways the most important pioneer of the second half of the last century. Would that more than a handful of us had had the courage to follow him where he himself was unable to go. If that makes any sense.

Here's a fitting quotation from the man himself, writing on his hero Davidson:
As befits a reviewer [i.e., of Davidson's fourth volume of papers, Problems of Rationality] who is also a fervent disciple, I have used the space at my disposal to expound Davidson's views rather than to criticize them. I think that most of his critics have failed to grasp the audacity of his outlook—to realize that he is calling for what he once referred to as a "sea-change" in philosophical thinking. That change would make much of contemporary philosophical discussion seem as absurd as scholastic philosophy seemed to Hobbes and Descartes.

Davidson had no taste for polemics, and he was too courteous ever to adopt a merely dismissive tone toward colleagues with whom he disagreed. But his ideas were as radically subversive of the traditional problematic of post-Cartesian philosophy as were Wittgenstein's.

Many who have no use for Wittgenstein have none for Davidson, and for the same reason: to adopt the views of either would be to dissolve problems which they have spent the best years of their lives trying to solve.

Wittgenstein is no longer much read in graduate philosophy programs, and perhaps Davidson too will cease to be assigned. But if these five volumes of essays do suffer the neglect presently being suffered by Philosophical Investigations, they will remain, like time bombs, on the library shelves. They will be detonated sooner or later.
With any luck (and subject to the by now familiar caveats), the same may be said of Rorty's work as well.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A less than perfect storm

As ever, I have a bunch of half-written posts I want to get to, but let me get this one out of the way first. As I think I mentioned when we were all listing the SF and fantasy books we'd read, I think that (along with Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, my favorite book as a tween) Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) is the definitive treatment of Mars colonization, and required reading for anyone even thinking about such a thing. I also liked his more recent The Years of Rice and Salt, an involving marriage of alternative history (Black Death wipes out Europe completely) and reincarnation (enabling us to follow our characters through many lives lived in this alternative world, not to mention interludes in the Bardo).

But I cannot endorse his most recent venture, a trilogy about climate change in the near future. I read the first volume, Forty Signs of Rain, but I plan to skip Fifty Degrees Below and the recently released Sixty Days and Counting. One of the strengths of KSR's work is his ability to weave together the personal concerns of his characters with the bigger historical picture (as well as, of course, the geeky techno stuff). Here, though, it doesn't work. One character, Charlie, is the climate change expert for a U. S. Senator trying to pass meaningful environmental legislation. Charlie is married to Anna, an administrator at the National Science Foundation. The couple has recently had their second child, and a great deal of Charlie's scenes relate his travails as a Mr. Mom juggling job and child care responsibilities. For instance, this particular toddler seems to be quite a handful! Two words about this: Bo. Ring.

Equally tiresome is the stuff about the politics of climate change in Washington. Apparently, well-meaning legislation is difficult to enact, due to the opposition of corporate and other special interests, not to mention bureaucratic red tape. Who knew?

And we get even more of this when we look over the shoulder of our other main character, a scientist who works for Anna at NSF. Frank is (hold onto your hats) driven by a love for pure science, yet worldly-wise about (you guessed it) the politics and bureaucratic red tape, not to mention the commercial profit-motive, contaminating the search for truth. He's been impressed by the potential of a particular young researcher associated with a start-up with which Frank is also associated, and we are to be struck by the ambiguity of Frank's own motives in his handling of the researcher's NSF grant application: he supports the project, of course, but stands to profit immensely if the grant is denied and the research delayed until Frank can rejoin the company and get the researcher under exclusive contract. A promising moral dilemma in theory, but the treatment here is uncharacteristically dull.

Frank has also, per SF convention, messed up the main relationship(s) in his life to date, and we are treated to many of his cynical ruminations on the biology of human mating (significance of hip-to-thigh ratio, the inconvenient obsolescence of traits evolved for life on the savannah a million years ago, etc., etc.). Plus he's a sportsman, a climber in fact, and in one decidedly bizarre set piece, we follow the technical blow-by-blow of his unsuccessful attempt to retrieve an overly vitriolic letter of resignation from the director's office, which attempt involves breaking into the building and climbing down into the atrium from the roof in the middle of the night.

Here's what one reviewer said at Amazon (from a comment on the third book (which apparently mainly features Frank rather than Charlie), but relevant to Forty Signs as well):
What Robinson really wants to talk about is why primitivism is the best way of life, why outdoorsy people are the only completely realized humans, why rock climbing is so interesting, and why Californians should be infinitely more snobby about their state than New Yorkers could ever be about New York. These themes interrupt Sixty Days so frequently, and at such length, that they essentially hijack whatever the book was trying to be.

I would like Robinson to go back to his word processor and give Sixty Days a fair shot, dispensing with the kayaking, backpacking, rock climbing, and feral life. That book would be more like a novel -- but unsatisfying, I suspect, to Robinson. And thus we are left with this question: if Kim Stanley Robinson's main priority is to preach primitivism and impress upon us the virtues of the California landscape and outdoor sports, does he really want to be in the business of writing novels, or is there a better way to communicate this?
How about the natural disaster angle? In this first book, at least, not much actual climate change occurs – there's a big storm and flood in DC, and the Arctic ice is breaking up, affecting the ocean currents – but nothing really exciting. I suppose this is part of KSR's point, that it won't go down like The Day After Tomorrow, but it doesn't exactly make for interesting reading. There is a suggestion, in a subplot involving Tibetan exiles, of possible future paranormal activity (this is a science fiction book, after all), but I'm afraid I'm not going to stick around to find out.

If you're interested in a better (quasi-SF) book about the politics of science, check out Carter Scholz's Radiance.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Oops, I did it again

What I have done again is not (presumably) break your heart, but instead neglect to post, in particular such that consecutive posts direct you to the latest Philosophers' Carnival. I do try not to do this, but, like many of us, I've been busy. New stuff on the way, I promise. In the meantime, you know what to do.