What’s Wrong With This Picture? Phenomenological Foibles at the Symphony

Last night, I went to the symphony with my good friend Jess. We had to rush out of the late afternoon talk we had heard Drucilla Cornell give at Emory because Jess had looked at the tickets and found that they said 7 pm, rather than 8 pm as she’d originally thought. We scurried off and weaved through Atlanta rush-hour and cursed the slow-moving suburban in front of us, skidding into a parking spot, darting up to the elevator (with Jess nearly getting taken down by a tiny car also rushing into the parking garage– leading a nearby man to scoff, “Almost hit by a SmartCar, how embarrassing!), and entering the music hall just a minute late.

The woman who handed us programs whispered, “You’re too late to sit on the stage, but you can have any seat you like.” Nice joke, I thought. The music hall was almost empty, so we decided to take her advice and sit front and center rather than take our seats in row L. I felt bad for the orchestra, having such a tiny audience. As we took our new seats, I thought, “they sure are dressed down tonight– that’s strange,” as a man seated onstage in a gray suit jacket and pink bow tie caught my eye. No white tie and tails for the orchestra tonight! And then, I noticed that the woman singing in the middle of the stage was…facing away from the audience. Jess and I wondered, are they still rehearsing? We looked at our tickets, and it said 7:00.

It took us nearly a full aria to analyze our tickets and realize that the 7:00 performance was a preview and the real show started at 8:00. The people onstage were other civilians, like us, who were invited to sit in the musicians’ seats while they took in a preview of an upcoming performance at the symphony: a soprano and a string quartet doing Beethoven.


At which point Jess and I ducked out quietly and headed to the lobby for a drink.

What struck me about this experience was how long it took us to figure out what was going on. Or, put differently, how long it took us to figure out that there even was something amiss. Rather than walking in, perceiving instantly that the opera singer was turned around and that (aside from the string quartet surrounding the singer) everyone onstage was a symphony-goer and not a member of the orchestra, it took me minutes to gradually figure out each piece that finally led to me recognizing what was up. It took an overwhelming amount of evidence pressing upon my perceptions to counterbalance my assumption that I was going to see a 7:00 performance by the symphony.

An oft-mentioned psychological phenomenon is that of “change blindness.” The basic idea is that, when focused on a particular part or set of parts of our field of vision, we can be entirely blind to changes in other aspects of that field of vision even when they change drastically.

This related video changed my life when I saw it in Psych 101:

In the case of the symphony, I didn’t experience change blindness, but I did experience the related phenomenon of approaching a situation with certain beliefs about what it was going to be like, beliefs that were so unconsciously strong that they actually prevented me from perceiving my surroundings as they were. I only realized after Jess and I figured out that this was a 7:00 preview of a different performance before our 8:00 show that it dawned on me that the people onstage not only were not playing instruments, they did not even have instruments! I was shocked that I didn’t notice this right away. Sure, there are certainly times when much of the orchestra is not playing their instruments– when a flute is soloing, or the oboes are doing their bit– but no one even had instruments! Or music! I was completely blind to this omission. And I interpreted the “orchestra’s” casual wear as a befuddling aesthetic choice, rather than instantly recognizing that because the men weren’t wearing white ties and tails and the women didn’t have on tasteful black numbers, this might not actually be an orchestra’s performance.

We often tend to think of our perceptions as taking in the world around it as it is. But it’s experiences like these that force one to recognize that there is in fact a complex interrelation between our habits, assumptions, and ideas and the way that we actually perceive the world around us. When I perceive, I am not passively taking in things around me. I take part in constituting the perception of the world around me (leading many philosophers to leave out the middleman and argue that, in fact, I take part in constituting the world around me), and this constitution occurs at an unconscious level every second of my life.

One philosopher to really emphasize this constitutive nature of perception is Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. He says of perception:

“Every perception of a physical thing has, in this manner, a halo of background-intuitions…and that is also a “lived experience of consciousness.” [1]

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Sites of Reflection: Mineral King Valley, California

Sites of Reflection: Mineral King Valley, California

Mineral King is one of my favorite places on earth, abounding in hiking trails, stunning views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, tall sequoias, tiny wildflowers, shooting stars, icy lakes, and sometimes even pink snow. My family has been going there for at least three generations, and I have undertaken much fruitful reflection there over the years.

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Why is Philosophy Important? Part I

In 1947, German philosopher Max Horkheimer wrote,

“Today there is almost general agreement that society has lost nothing by the decline of philosophical thinking, for a much more powerful instrument of knowledge has taken its place, namely, modern scientific thought.” [1]

This general agreement appears equally prevalent in 2013, if not even more deeply entrenched. I was recently scoffed at, not for the first time, by a scientist claiming that philosophy is useless. Sure, philosophy might have been useful back before we had the scientific method: indeed, for centuries, what we would now call science was under the heading of “natural philosophy,” and philosophers such as Democritus, Aristotle, and Descartes developed a  number of scientific theories under the heading of philosophy. But–these contemporary scientists seem all to often to think–now that we have science, we don’t need philosophy anymore. We have better modes of accessing truth than philosophy does: namely, we have the experimental method of empirical science.

The worst aspect of this view is not the fact that it overlooks the fact that there are a myriad of sources of meaning in life, which cannot be encapsulated by the scientific attitute (artistic meaning instantly springs to mind for me). In fact, our scientifically-minded society often retains a kind of veneration for the worth of art, although this veneration is nearly always coupled with an implicit marginalization and subordination of artistic meaning to scientific truth. This is certainly an issue. But it’s not the primary one for me.

The primary problem is the way that this veneration of science as the best–and, for some, only–mode of attaining truth fails to recognize that this veneration itself is a philosophical attitude. I am often shocked by the continued need to remind people that science is not neutral. That the very people undertaking scientific inquiry are, after all, people. That the hypotheses that scientists establish do not come out of the ether, but rather are always already inscribed within cultural and ideological matrices.

And that the rejection of philosophy as a “useless” discipline is in fact based in a philosophical standpoint, and a bad one at that: the standpoint that “use,” efficiency, productivity, are the highest goals. In other words, the standpoint of modern capitalism.

Philosophy is the discipline that encourages reflection on the very assumptions and foundations of values, attitudes, and discourses. As John Dewey aptly put it, philosophy is “criticism of criticisms.” [2] In this sense, philosophy is the most abstract discipline, because it requires a movement of reflection and abstraction from concrete conditions. In order to perceive that the scientific model of use, efficiency, and productivity that our society valorizes and perpetuates is inextricably bound to capitalist ideology and to a notion of what Horkheimer calls “instrumental reason,” we need to take a step back in a sense, moving from concrete facts to an analysis of those facts and the structures that are underlying them. This is what philosophy does.

But philosophy is also the discipline that can then critique this very movement of abstraction, this ‘stepping back,’ and recognize that no abstraction is pure or removed from concrete conditions. Philosophy thus always entails a double and doubling movement, oscillating or circulating between the abstract and concrete, and finally troubling the very distinction between them. And this is, perhaps, a neverending project.

Horkheimer states that the problem with the view that scientific truth is the only kind of truth lies in its “lack of self-reflection, its incapacity to understand its own philosophical implications.” [3] Based on society’s valorization of scientific truth above all else blindly persists, philosophy (as well as all the other disciplines that do not answer to the model of use, efficiency, and productivity) certainly appears “useless.” But is “usefulness” the highest value? It is my belief that philosophy is the discipline that allows us to pose, and to problematize, this question. And to critique a society that forces disciplines to answer for themselves in hard facts and results.

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Happy Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine's Day

courtesy of benkling.com

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As for what “begins” then “beyond” absolute knowledge, unheard-of thoughts are required, thoughts that are sought across the memory of old signs.

– Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon

As for what “be…


I need to upload all of me

Just in case you weren’t sure you heard the message of this commercial right, I’ve written it out below:

“The miraculous is everywhere. In our homes, in our minds.
We can share every second in data dressed as pixels.
A billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience, and it is spectacular.
So why would you cap that?
My iPhone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama.
The entire gallery of humanity.
I need to upload all of me.
I need– no, I have the right– to be unlimited.”

This is absolutely terrifying. A summation of the ideology of contemporary American society. The replacement of experience with simulacra of experiences. The absurdity of free-market democracy in which “being unlimited” is a RIGHT. In which having unlimited access to taking pictures of my experiences is a RIGHT. Wow.

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First World Problems Read by Third World People

This video appeared as an ad for the clean water charity “Water is Life” a few months ago and currently has over 2 million views on Youtube. I have tried to put my finger on why this video makes me so uncomfortable. Sure, there is the good kind of discomfort of being forced to take a look at how insignificant many of the first-world problems that irk me are (my phone charger not reaching my bed is a failure I deal with daily, and the farcical quality of this video helps those of us in the first world to laugh at ourselves– which, I think, is the whole reason for the popularity of #firstworldproblems). But there is also a kind of discomfort at wondering about the production process involved in shooting this ad– did the individuals know what they were saying, know the farcical quality of the filming?– and a vague sense of exploitation that I feel but am not sure is merited or not.

Furthermore, I’m concerned by the video’s overall message. Toward the end of the video, words appear onscreen reading “#FirstWorldProblems Are Not Problems.” This is succeeded by the message, “Donate to help bring clean water to those in need.” Although a valuable attempt to face “first-worlders” with the insignificance of our problems in a discomfiting and potentially transformative manner, I can’t help but wonder: is the ultimate message of the Water is Life not precisely the message that if you visit the website, enter your credit card number, and donate some money, all in the comfort of your first-world home, that you’ll be atoning for some of the guilt you feel at being a first-worlder?

Is not the guilt that we have for being members of the first world– a #firstworldproblem?

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Present Self vs. Future Self: How Do We Make the Right Decisions

I recently watched this TED talk given by behavior economist Daniel Goldstein. The talk, entitled “The battle between your present and future self,” argues that we have two selves– a present self and a future self– and that in order to make good decisions based on more than mere impulse in the moment, we need to attend to our future selves.

How do we do this, given that we are not our future selves? Goldstein suggests “commitment devices,” which are tools we can use to “level the playing field” between the struggle of the present self and the future self. He gives the example of a commitment device he once used: resolving to write 5 pages a day while in grad school, and committing to giving away $5 (leaving it in an envelope on the subway so as not to feel the gratification of charity) if he did not reach his goal. This dis-incentive from not writing 5 pages a day helped him to achieve his positive goal.

Goldstein assumes that the present self is out for instant gratification, while the future self is out for…? Here, Goldstein’s argument is unclear. It seems that he is implicitly putting forth two different theses about the future self’s desires: that, on the one hand, the future self also wants instant gratification, inasmuch as that future self will, in the future become a present self, and that, on the other hand, the future self wants long-term satisfaction. I think when he uses the term ‘future self’ in this second sense, he is not in fact talking about a future self, but is talking about a present self with regard to long-term future goals. I feel that my present self wants both instant gratification in the present and achievement of long-term future goals. Don’t we all? I think that Goldstein’s argument is insufficient in conceiving of the present and future selves in this way (that is to say, I think it is obvious that our present selves are always also bearing a relation to the future, rather than merely wanting immediate gratification, and that our future selves, too, will both want immediate gratification and future gratification).

But, perhaps the more important question is: how do we know what our future selves will want? I may be able to infer that, in the future, I will want both immediate gratification and future satisfaction (the desire to have one’s cake and eat it too), but I don’t know how I will conceive of that. What will satisfy me in the future? What will I want?

When I was applying to high school, one of my applications asked me to envision what my life would be 15 years down the road. I wrote (In Bradley Hand font, naturally) that in 15 years, I would be a successful interior designer with my own firm specializing in the “shabby chic” style. Here I am now, almost 15 years later, with a completely different life than that one. Not because I tried to be an interior designer and failed, but rather because I made entirely different choices. Interior design is a perfectly wonderful career, and I’m still passionate about creating beautiful spaces (although, let’s be honest, shabby chic is somewhat passé by now)…but as I grew older, my ideas changed, and I developed different passions and goals that have led me to where I am today, as a doctoral student. If I had employed “commitment devices” in order to help me reach this goal, I would have relegated myself to a future that sounded ideal for me way back then, but might not at this point in my life. We cannot imagine how we will feel in the future, and yet we try and live our lives as though we do. This is necessary to some extent. Of course, I should save money (the extended example Goldstein gives) so that I will have extra funds if something unexpected happens– yeah, there was that time when I wish I’d saved up because of the unexpected money I had to pay for car repairs. We have to make plans with regard to our futures in order to succeed. And yet we never know what those futures will look like. This is the paradox of relation to our ‘future selves.’ 

Karl Marx thought a lot about this idea of the future with regard to the developmental progress in history. Thus, he was thinking about the future not with respect to the individual person, but with respect to society in general. He suggested that, in order to envision such a future, we must consider the concrete facts of the present and what they might give rise to. Because we don’t know what future those future conditions will give rise to, though, we should limit our ideas about what the future might look like to the “near future.” Marx guarded against thinking up ‘recipes’ for the ‘cookshops of the future’ that he thought characterized the work of utopian thinkers trying to plan out every detail of what a future, ideal society a long way down the road would look. If we apply Marx’s analysis to our own relation to our ‘future selves,’ we can see that it suggests that we try and analyze what decisions to make to secure a good near future (for instance, I should book my plane ticket for a trip I’m planning to take in a few months– or even, that I should do my best to publish an article in the next year in order to build my résumé so that I can eventually get a good academic job), but leave the details of the far future up in the air. There’s no point in me trying to plan out my life 30 years down the line in exact detail, because there are far too many contingent factors, not least of which is a succession of personal changes in attitude and values. Surprisingly, Goldstein does not even note this. He thinks that the solution to disparity between present and future selves is in fact to help us to think about our futures in more detail so that we can plan accordingly. He and his co-workers created a computer program that helps people to visualize how their lives will be in the future, in order to give their present selves greater impetus for actualizing that future. I think this is going about it the wrong way entirely.

I have written down in my journal somewhere from when I was younger, “Don’t let these be childish dreams that you forget. Stick to them!!” That has stuck with me. But the specific dreams that I imagined back then simply are no longer my dreams of the present. It’s pretty obvious that what we aspire to changes over time, and that that’s okay.

Not to mention the fact that the ‘present self’ is never present to itself. How do I even know, in this very moment, what I want? Goldstein talks about the division of the self in terms of present self and future self, but he doesn’t acknowledge that even in the present, there are all kinds of divisions in my attitudes, feelings, hopes, desires, ideas. Some are conscious, some are unconscious, some are semi-conscious; some are confabulations, some are fictions, some seem right but are not. (Another TED talk in this same group, by philosopher Daniel Dennett, argues along these lines with relation to consciousness, and is actually pretty good, though I disagree with the general conception of consciousness at play in his work: you can find it here, along with a number of other talks on similar topics, including Goldstein’s.) I find Goldstein’s talk definitely worth watching: the idea of ‘commitment devices’ can certainly be useful, and give rise to interesting questions about what constitutes the self in the present and in the future. But who these selves are is a far more difficult question, and one that Goldstein does not explore here.

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Today I taught Marx.

I did this to my students’ ideas that the free market is a good thing:


And tried to show them that this is what happens to the worker in the service of the capitalist:


And then this happened when one of my students asked, “Ok, I get that alienated labor is a bad thing. But what is non-alienated labor, and how is it different from private property?”


But then by the end, my students seemed to come around to Marx and were looking like this:


At which point, I was like:


I’m just hoping they don’t write this in their papers. Uh, yeah, commodity fetishism. Totally comparable to a foot fetish.

One of my favorite passages from our reading (which was the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, section on Alienated Labor), is this:

Under the conditions of capitalism, “the worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feeling miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. The worker, therefore feels at eas only outside work, and during work he is outside himself. He is at home when he is not working and when he is working he is not at home. His work, therefore, is not voluntary, but coerced, forced labor. It is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means to satisfy other needs. Its alien character is obvious from the fact that as soon as no physical or other pressure exists, labor is avoided like the plague.” That’s why so many workers go home and veg out by watching TV, right? And feel most free during the work day when we get to take a bathroom break?

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