26 January 2011

Portraits of the Imaginary

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:24 am

Here are a few more of daughter Kenzie’s pieces. You can see the whole gallery here.

“Brianne Tweddle,” acrylic on paper, 2008

“Lashes” and “Flairflare,” acrylic and house paint on canvas board, 2010

“The Creative Process,” watercolor on paper, 2010

“So Dead,” charcoal and acrylic on canvas board, 2010

22 January 2011

Brassier’s Concepts and Objects

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:00 pm

1. The question ‘What is real?’ stands at the crossroads of metaphysics and epistemology. More exactly, it marks the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology with the seal of conceptual representation.

Ray Brassier’s essay in The Speculative Turn consists of a sequence of numbered paragraphs. I’ve found Brassier’s longer works to be pretty tough sledding, which I attribute as much to the scantiness of my own philosophical background as to the density of the author’s prose. Right from the top, though, I can tell I’m going to agree with much of what Brassier has to say about the real in this essay. Take ¶1. In discussions elsewhere I and others have asked “But how do you know that the real is such-and-such? To ask this question, I’ve been informed, is to confuse ontology with epistemology. I agree that how one knows about things is different from what one knows about them, which in turn is different from what is. Of course the universe exists independently of what I know about it and how I know it. But if I claim to know something about the universe, then I have to talk about the knowing bit too, don’t I? Or, like Brassier says in ¶2:

2. Metaphysics understood as the investigation into what there is intersects with epistemology understood as the enquiry into how we know what there is. This intersection of knowing and being is articulated through a theory of conception that explains how thought gains traction on being.

So I’ll just read along, paragraph by paragraph, jotting down and commenting briefly on some of Brassier’s ideas that I think are right.

3. …Thought is not guaranteed access to being; being is not inherently thinkable. There is no cognitive ingress to the real save through the concept. Yet the real itself is not to be confused with the concepts through which we know it. The fundamental problem of philosophy is to understand how to reconcile these two claims.

Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science has been invoked as justification for the premise that the universe must be a certain way in order for it to be intelligible to sapient beings like humans. But I don’t know why that should be the case. I remember reading theoretical physicist David Bohm’s contention that scientists don’t truly understand quantum mechanics and other aspects of the subatomic world. Scientists take the empirical observations and calculate the formulae and invent metaphors for explaining their the results but, Bohm insists, that isn’t really understanding. Suppose there are absolute limits to human understanding, even when enhanced by technologies that haven’t yet been invented. Does this absolute epistemological frontier necessarily chart the edge of what the universe could possibly be like? That seems awfully presumptuous to me. Here again I’m with Brassier.

9. …The claim that ‘everything is real’ is egregiously uninformative…

Is a photograph of a crow as real as the crow depicted in the photograph? Sure, in a way: photo and crow both exist in the world. But isn’t there a relationship between crow photo and photographed crow that needs to be acknowledged and described? Isn’t the crow somehow more real than the photo of it? I think so.

15. Unless reason itself carries out the de-mystification of rationality, irrationalism triumphs by adopting the mantle of a scepticism that allows it to denounce reason as a kind of faith. The result is the post-modern scenario, in which the rationalist imperative to explain phenomena by penetrating to the reality beyond appearances is diagnosed as the symptom of an implicitly theological metaphysical reductionism. The metaphysical injunction to know the noumenal is relinquished by a post-modern ‘irreductionism’ which abjures the epistemological distinction between appearance and reality the better to salvage the reality of every appearance, from sunsets to Santa Claus. It is not enough to evoke a metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality, in the manner for instance of ‘object-oriented philosophies’, since the absence of any reliable cognitive criteria by which to measure and specify the precise extent of the gap between seeming and being or discriminate between the extrinsic and intrinsic properties of objects licenses entirely arbitrary claims about the in-itself.

Just as a crow is more real than the photo of the crow, so is a crow more real than my perception of the crow — or at least it seems that way to me.

18. However, in the absence of any understanding of the relationship between ‘meanings’ and things meant… the claim that nothing is metaphorical is ultimately indistinguishable from the claim that everything is metaphorical. The metaphysical difference between words and things, concepts and objects, vanishes along with the distinction between representation and reality…

Just as a crow is more real than my perception of the crow, so is a crow more real than my saying “That is a crow” — or so it seems to me.

28. …The gap between conceptual identity and non-conceptual difference—between what our concept of the object is and what the object is in itself—is not an ineffable hiatus or mark of irrecuperable alterity; it can be conceptually converted into an identity that is not of the concept even though the concept is of it…

Though the crow is more real than my idea of a crow, my idea of a crow is still related to and contingent on the crow. All ideas about crows are real, in the sense that they exist in people’s heads, and heads are part of the world. But the idea “crows are black birds” isn’t merely different from the idea “crows are fungi that live at the bottom of the sea”: it’s better, truer, more accurate in its description of the thing that the idea is about.

29. …The scientific stance is one in which the reality of the object determines the meaning of its conception, and allows the discrepancy between that reality and the way in which it is conceptually circumscribed to be measured. This should be understood in contrast to the classic correlationist model according to which it is conceptual meaning that determines the ‘reality’ of the object, understood as the relation between representing and represented.

Sure. Most scientific research concerns itself with incrementally closing the measured discrepancy between the object under investigation and the scientific conception of that object.

33. …It is undoubtedly true that we cannot conceive of concept-independent things without conceiving of them; but it by no means follows from this that we cannot conceive of things existing independently of concepts, since there is no logical transitivity from the mind-dependence of concepts to that of conceivable objects. Only someone who is confusing mind-independence with concept-independence would invoke the conceivability of the difference between concept and object in order to assert the mind-dependence of objects.

I’m thinking of crows that fly and nest in trees. Now I’m thinking of crows that live at the bottom of the sea. Both are real ideas. I could imagine the second kind of crow, but that doesn’t mean I’ll find any down there on the ocean floor. But crows flying, crows in trees — they really are there even when I’m not thinking about them. Are there real philosophers who don’t believe this, or they imaginary philosophers?

34. …To claim that Cygnus X-3 exists independently of our minds is not to claim that Cygnus X-3 exists beyond the reach of our minds. Independence is not inaccessibility. The claim that something exists mind-independently does not commit one to the claim that it is conceptually inaccessible.

Also this: The claim that something is conceptually accessible does not commit one to the claim that it is not the real essence of that thing.

36. …Argumentative stringency has never been the litmus test for the success of any philosopheme…


42. …the first humans who pointed to Saturn did not need to know and were doubtless mistaken about what it is: but they did not need to know in order to point to it…

It seems pretty far-fetched that the first humans would have thought about a Saturn before perceiving it: first comes the thing that is, then the knowing that it is. You’ve probably heard the apocryphal story that the American Indians couldn’t see Columbus’s ship because they had no concept for it. That’s always struck me as crap — beginning in infancy, a person’s attention is drawn to the unusual, the unexpected, the unknown thing. Knowledge-about a thing can be wrong of course, but what if I discover that the thing I perceive, or the thing I’ve heard about, is an illusion or a fantasy — that the thing isn’t? Then I learn that knowing-that can also be false.

20 January 2011

Sad Little Monkey

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:04 am

Last night’s dream… I’m riding a city bus to a scheduled meeting with a woman who went to college with my wife. Somehow I fail to get off at the right stop. I hop on another bus, but quickly I realize that it’s taking me even farther from the rendezvous point. I call my wife and tell her to let her friend know that I’m not going to make the meeting. I’m already way off course, and my poor sense of direction means that I probably won’t be able to find my way at all now.

Eventually I get home. As I recount my navigational failures to my wife and daughter I start getting weepy. I try to explain: “It’s like I have a sad little monkey perched on my shoulder pointing the way to go, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Immediately I start feeling better, smiling even.

I wake up.

18 January 2011

Academically Adrift

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:48 pm

Here’s the summary of a new book showing that US university students don’t learn much while they’re in school. The study, conducted by two sociologists, focused on the acquisition not of specific content but of critical thinking and analytical reasoning. While students showed improvement over four years of college, the improvements, say the researchers, weren’t large: on average, seniors scored about half a standard deviation higher than newly-enrolled freshmen.

According to the statistical rule of thumb, a 0.5 standard deviation change constitutes a moderate effect, so maybe the researchers are being unduly pessimistic. As far as I can tell, however, the researchers didn’t compare seniors with an age-matched cohort of non-students, so it’s not possible to distinguish school learning from other learning experiences from maturation. The write-up also doesn’t say whether the study accounted for dropouts — it’s possible that those students who make it all the way through to graduation score better not because they learn in school but because they have more innate aptitude for abstraction and analysis.

Some other key findings cited from the article:

The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Further, the authors note that students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.

The research then goes on to find a direct relationship between rigor and gains in learning:

  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge — while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
  • Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
  • Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

“[E]ducational practices associated with academic rigor improved student performance, while collegiate experiences associated with social engagement did not,” the authors write.

13 January 2011

Maybe Not So Much

Filed under: Culture, Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:38 am

Chinese mothers are superior, says the Chinese mother in this Wall Street Journal article.

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.”

Sure, these kids’ White Swan might be perfect, but the Black Swan…?

(I don’t know how long the WSJ makes its online articles available to nonsubscribers, so the link might go dead soon.)

11 January 2011

Rififi by Dassin, 1955

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:00 pm

8 January 2011

Dessert of the Real

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:26 pm

4 January 2011

I Love When This Happens

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 12:22 pm

I’m working on a novel, Part Two Chapter Eight: Yeats, the daughter of the long-lost Tyler Misch, has just arrived in town. Or I should say alleged daughter: Martin and Stephen, the two guys we meet in the bar at the beginning of the story, aren’t persuaded that Yeats’s claim is true. Tyler had been moving around a lot just before he disappeared twenty-one years ago: why, Martin wonders, would Tyler have acknowledged this particular child from what might well have been a multitude of dalliances? Besides, if Tyler had been right and people really were out to get him, why would he expose his daughter to possible danger by acknowledging her existence?

So this morning I’m writing the part of the story where Yeats first tells Martin that, every year on her birthday, she receives a letter from Tyler:

“Jesus,” Martin whispered. “What’s he been doing all these years? Where is he?”

“Every year the letter is mailed from a different place.”

“Still on the move.”


“What, you think Tyler takes a lot of vacations? Or business trips? Sorry, but I mean… all these years…” Martin held his head in his hands.

“Tyler could…” Yeats hesitated. “Dad might arrange for other people to mail his letters.”

“But why? Of course, because the bad guys are after him. But he always mails them to your address, right? Pretty cavalier with other people’s lives. His daughter’s life.”

“I don’t think anyone knows about me. You said it yourself: he stayed in our town for only a very short time, just one of his layovers.”

“Layovers – that’s a nice way of putting it.” Martin, who had been pacing around the small room, grasped Stephen’s desk chair and rolled across the floor, positioning it just in front of Yeats…

Usually while I’m writing I listen to classical music, or sometimes instrumental jazz. This morning though I tuned in an online radio station that I suppose is classified as “adult alternative”: stuff like Neko Case and the Black Keys and Massive Attack, along with some oldies. So I’m writing this bit of dialog between Yeats and Martin when a tune by the Choir of Young Believers wraps up and this song begins.

As it plays I finish Martin’s little speech and continue the dialog:

“…If your papa was a rolling stone, he might have been dropping little bundles of joy all along his trail. There might be a dozen kids who every year anticipate with eagerness, or with dread, the arrival of Dad’s birthday letter.”

Yeats leaned forward, confronting Martin. “So what? Maybe all of Tyler Misch’s illegitimate spawn are converging on this town, preparing for the big showdown. Maybe when you get back to your office another one of us will be sitting in your waiting room.”…

2 January 2011


Filed under: Fiction, Movies — ktismatics @ 9:50 am

[A few years ago a cinematographer friend and I started talking about making a short film together. I put together a few ideas for screenplays, and we even agreed on which one to shoot, but we never actually got started making the movie. Several of the ideas I wrote up as scenes in a novel I was working on at the time. Here’s one that stayed an orphan. At the time it seemed like such an obvious story that somebody must already have written it and that I had unconsciously stolen it.]


A priest is in the confessional. He lifts the screen to talk to the sinner, whom the priest sees only in silhouette. The guy confesses to robbing a church. The priest offers absolution and assigns penance; the forgiven sinner goes away. The priest opens the screen on the other side of his little booth to talk to the next penitent. Awhile later, somebody rushes in to tell the priest that the church has been robbed. The guy had confessed and received forgiveness before, or maybe just after, committing the crime.

Sometime later:  a guy confesses to rape. The priest forgives, the sinner goes away. A minute later a scream:  someone discovers a bound-and-gagged woman, clothing torn, lying on the floor of the confessional. The rapist was confessing while in the act of perpetrating the crime.

Third time: the priest recognizes the voice immediately. The guy confesses to murdering a priest. The priest understands:  it’s going to be me this time. The priest engages the sinner in dialogue. The sinner believes he has no control over his actions, that his crimes are inevitable, and he wants to be forgiven in case he’s shot and killed while escaping the scene of the crime, so he can go to heaven.

(I’m not sure how this one ends yet. It could end just as the guy is confessing to murdering the priest. Confession doesn’t work this way in the Catholic church anymore, so it’s sort of retro. )

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