Tuesday, 7 March 2017

An uncertain view of Cartesian dualism: from a beginning researcher sitting on a fence

(Friman, 2005)
Some contributions from my student colleagues, and readings, posted to this blog reflect aspects of our in-class discussions by problematizing the persistent influences of Cartesian dualism on the study of cognitive science.  These and similar criticisms may be recognisable to those of you who are familiar with accounts from radical/ critical sociology and history that describe the epistemological leanings of ‘Enlightenment’ philosophy.  I found a worthwhile example of such criticism in the work of the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault.  I’d like to share Foucault’s ideas with you and then reflect on how they relate to my experience as a beginning student of cognitive science and novice researcher.

Foucault (2000) attributes an orientation in his work towards explorations of power to his analyses of ‘modes of objectification that transform human beings into subjects’ (p.326).  Through these analyses Foucault (1984) traces the development of particular forms of inquiry, that were increasingly adopted by the human and social sciences in the early 20th century, to a ‘classical age’ (p.180) in Western philosophical thought between the 17th and 18th centuries.  

Emerging from this ‘classical’ period, by Foucault’s reading, is a Cartesian philosophy that can be ‘defined in terms of the development of the knowing subject’ (ibid.) which presents to us the ‘non-ascetic’ (p.372), or morally/ religiously independent, knowledge-subject.  Later Kant adds to this a moral dimension by postulating the possibility for ‘Enlightenment’, obtainable through our application of reason, as emancipation from our self-imposed state of ‘immaturity’ (p.34).

For Foucault, while ‘the classical age discovered the body as an object and target of power’ (p.180), the period of Enlightenment made ‘possible the institutionalization of modern science’ (p.372).  Fusing these together, Foucault contends, has resulted in the legitimisation of notions that ‘knowing-subjects’ might discover [T]ruth and new knowledge by directing their inquiries towards the site of the objectified human body.  Consequently, so Foucault’s argument goes, Western thinking, education and research have become increasingly epistemological in their orientation.  Importantly, he explains, this epistemological focus is not to be taken as a natural progression of reason (2000).  Rather, it simply represents one possible way of being, which is profoundly epistemological in its focus and derives from a very specific historical context (1984).

Relating Foucault’s arguments to my modest attempts at social research, I’m certainly guilty of assuming a possibility for furthering my own knowledge by engaging research.  Perhaps less obvious though is how, in my doing so, on some level I invariably implicate myself as a knowing-subject.  I unwittingly cast myself as being seemingly capable of harvesting knowledge from (essentially objectified) human ‘research participants’ by interrogating and observing them, and somehow I become imbued with the authority/ power to interpret and represent their experiences.  I‘m certainly not comfortable assuming that role at all!  

Taken together, these points and their implicit knowledge/ power assumptions reveal how I may inadvertently hold certain attitudes to my research and about my role as a researcher.  I’d even go far enough to suggest that beneath these attitudes is an underlying sense of Positivism.

I find support for my assertions in the work of Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre (2014).  St. Pierre identifies positivism as being endemic to Western thinking about academic research; she finds it manifest in her own work and in that of her student researchers.  Like Foucault, St. Pierre also traces the roots of these positivist influences to the period of Western Enlightenment, which she views as having imposed a state of being, of knowing, upon scholarly research ‘where doubt was no longer possible' (2014, p.13).  But, St. Pierre asserts, while various subsequent epistemological  ‘turns', such as a greater appreciation for social, cultural and linguistic domains, as well as the challenges presented by the ‘posts‘ (structuralism, modernism, etc.), may well have expanded and democratised our view of what counts as knowledge and
who the knowledgeable are, more meaningful progress requires imagining new ‘Post-Positive’ ways of being (i.e. an 'ontological turn').  Once again, as with Foucault, the view in which the knowing-subject is valorised becomes merely posited as one distinct way of being among many other possibilities.

The discursive power of positivism is certainly evident in education and research today.  As an example, imagine, if you will, that your employment as a manager at a university depends on identifying opportunity to generate greater financial return on investment.  You might be excused for assuming that the work of student scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians (STEM), who toil away in campus laboratories seeking ways of improving existing things or making new ones, is seemingly more immediately useful and worthwhile than a room full of disinterested philosophers debating whether or not there is 'something' rather than 'nothing' or if indeed numbers really do exist.  But, formulating policy on the basis of these kinds of gross oversights can have a real and detrimental impact on university departments and particularly during times of financial austerity and increased competition for research funding.

That positivism prevails is no real surprise to me; particularly given how, historically, it has driven the successes of many of our greatest, and indispensable, medical and technological advances.  This is not where I'm poised to take aim and I'm not pitting the value of STEM subjects against anything else.  Rather, I want to assert my deep distrust for unsuitable applications of positivist approaches to research which attempt to generalise, undermine or ignore the subjective and messy character of human lived-experience. 

To-date, the fruits of my tentative research endeavours have mostly seemed to expose the extent of my naivety and ignorance rather than affirm my position in any positive sense.  Yet, positivist thinking sets me up to anticipate that some magical, unattainable, revelation will settle my uncertainty.  Despite my best efforts to remain cognisant of post-positive sensibilities, I somehow still expect I might reach a point in my studies from where I can articulate a clear position on my ‘being’.  It seems to me that the more I reflect the less confident I am about what I can claim to know (epistemologically).  More study only seems largely to serve to improve my vocabulary for describing (more exactly) that which I don‘t know.  Perhaps I can only be positive about the inevitability of change; the rest then can only ever remain reliably uncertain.  But, acknowledging how the legacy of certitude inherited from positivism can manifest as my dissatisfaction with never-really-knowing has helped me, on occasion, to feel more at ease with being uncertain for most of the time.

Admittedly, I’m probably failing here to fully heed the warnings about the dangers of straying too far down the dark path that leads to philosophy of mind - whatever and where ever my mind might be at this point.  Skirting around the contentious edges of such treacherous territory, for me, the pervasiveness of dualism, with its separation of mind from matter, and the inherited unshakeable certitude of positivism often make it difficult for me to really think anywhere beyond them.

It’s painful for me to note the frequency of familiar fuss I find about perceived gaps between the realm of ‘this’ and ‘that’, or how there are issues with separating ‘x’ from ‘y’ (e.g. mind/ body), or that knowing ‘a’ means we can never really fully ascertain ‘b’, etc. - or so many of the age-old arguments go.  These postulations put my mind on a merry-go-round; I circle between mindfulness and mindlessness, pass through non-dualist literature (see Bailey, 2011), tend towards Nihilism, pine sometimes for a ‘murdered’ God (Nietzsche, 1974), and even lament my loss of positivist notions of absolute [T]ruth!

Seriously though, if I’m honest, what my [t]ruth is... I really don’t know!  However, I do know it’s rarely a plausibly fixed positive notion of either ‘this’ or ‘that’.  The more I ponder loftier metaphysical questions, or even humble research ones, the less faith I have in any possibility for an answer.  My thoughts and ideas change so much and so often; I’m stuck here sitting on the proverbial fence and sometimes my fence spins like a carousel.  What may be worse is how all my fence sitting never leaves me in a firmly defensible position.  As a result, academic work is often difficult for me because, in some circles, stand-points and reasons are a staple of scholarly pursuit.  I simply don’t hold many reasons or at least, if I do, it’s not for very long.

The roots of cognitive science are disparate and interdisciplinary, reaching fields as diverse as philosophy, psychology, robotics, mathematics (Clark, 2010), neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology (Thagard, 2014) and computer science.  Given such extensive breadth, and proximity to the human and social sciences, it seems inevitable to me that radical/ critical approaches should emerge within cognitive science to challenge the assumptions borne by the legacies of the disciplines it comprises.  These inherited legacies are tied to specific historical contexts with all their assumptions and attitudes (what Fred called 'baggage').  As such, the application of legacy-laden approaches to support contemporary research and new understanding can sometimes prove contentious.  This contention is certainly a core characteristic of my own burgeoning experience as a novice (and aspiring post-positive) researcher.

To close on a slightly more hopeful note, insights into new ways of being may emerge from shifting the primary concern of human and social researchers from epistemologically-obsessed pursuits and towards a (re)imagining of new ontological possibilities.  As disheartened and frustrated as I can get with my own research, I’m encouraged to see how areas of cognitive science are challenging orthodoxies and are making in-roads in these kinds of new and exciting directions as a result.

Now, it’s back on the
fence/ round-a-bout for me…


Bailey, D. 2011. Essence revisited: slipping past the shadows of illusion. Salisbury: Non-Duality Press.

Clark, A. 2010. Clark review of Adams and Aizawa and Rupert. Man without qualities [Online], 6 November 6. Available from: https://manwithoutqualities.com/2010/11/06/clark-review-of-adams-aizawa-and-rupert/ [Accessed 8 February 2017]. 

Foucault, M. 1984. What is enlightenment? IN: Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault reader, translated by Porter, C. New York: Pantheon Books, pp.32-50.

Foucault, M. 2000. The subject and power IN: Faubion, J. (ed.) Power: essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. 3, translated by Hurley, R. New York: The New Press, pp.326-348. 

Friman, I. 2005. Presidio Modelo prison, inside one of the buildings [Photograph]. Wikipedia [Online]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon#/media/File:Presidio-modelo2.JPG [Accessed 6 March 2017]. 

Nietzsche, F. 1974. The gay science: with a prelude of rhymes and an appendix of songs, translated by Kaufmann, W. New York: Vintage Books.

St. Pierre, E. 2014. A brief and personal history of post qualitative research toward post inquiry. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 30(2), pp.2-19. 

Thagard, P. 2014. Cognitive Science IN: Zalta, E. (ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Fall ed. [Online]. Available from: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/cognitive-science/ [Accessed 9 February 2017].  

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