Cyberg Applications

Network globeOver on the Journals of Doc Surge, Chris Billows has some additional thoughts about cybergs, the networks of technology and humans that are a definitive feature of our time. He suggests that literacy, toys, telephone networks, and vision correction technology also comprise cybergs.

While there are certainly technological networks around these four things, only two of them are strictly cybergs in my sense, since the term assumes “we must be dealing with a network that spans its entire breadth with some kind of active relation, even if merely one of potential.” I should note, however, that this isn’t really a criteria of exclusion: all technology forms a network of connections at some scale; the discussion of megacybergs and gigacybergs merely set a criterion for what to count together.

Literacy meets this large-network criteria, because the exchange of written media through all the available channels flows in every direction. Indeed, the advent of writing methods was a significant turning point in human thought. This might even be the second largest cyberg after money.

Toys do not meet the criteria directly, which is to say, traditional toys (like hammers) do not form large networks, but only small networks of productions. However, with most of the toy industry now intimately caught up with film and television (go to a toy superstore and see how many unbranded toys you can find!) this is all-but subsumed in the movie and television cybergs.

Telephone networks meet the criteria, even if it is merely the potential for global communication that elevates this to he big leagues. As, for that matter, does the global mail services – which was the cyberg that made the original Republic of Letters possible!

Finally, vision correction technology like glasses and contact lenses do not obviously meet the large-network criteria, since their networks are all relatively small (national scale). There is no connection to my knowledge (even of potential) between, say, French contact lenses and US contact lenses. That said, most contact lenses are manufactured by large multinational corporations such as Johnson & Johnson or Novartis – and in that sense they are part of megacybergs. But it would be the corporation, more than these specific tools, that would be the obvious network to point to.

What’s interesting about these four examples, and about the cyberg concept in general, is that thinking in this way about technology immediately draws us into a different point of view on tools. I had not really thought about toys as a technology before (despite defining them as a ‘tool for play’ in 21st Century Game Design), and putting the into this framework really does emphasise the way play is conditioned by existing media property. There’s something faintly disturbing about that.

Many thanks to Chris for sharing his perspective on this! I’d also like to thank him for his helpful feedback on the manuscript for The Virtuous Cyborg, not to mention his continued friendship and support!

Lessons from the MUD

AccursedLandsAnonymity and technology mix badly. While you are required in most countries to pass a test of skill with cars, our most dangerous tool, and even the US licenses and records the identity of firearm owners, any fool can appear on Twitter or Facebook with a fictional or falsified identity and act abusively towards the cyborgs they encounter there. However, eliminating anonymity by forcing the use of public identities is a heavy-handed solution that would almost certainly prove insufficient for eliminating the problem, as Brian Green has carefully outlined. But there are lessons that can be learned from earlier digital public spaces that offered anonymity but had less of a problem with abuse, and this can put a different slant on these kinds of problems.

The Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, began as spaces for creative adventures, greatly conditioned by the play of the pivotal tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. These imaginary worlds were entirely made of databases of text, arranged to create the impression of connected rooms and spaces, within which players could move around and encounter one another. Players would join a MUD using network protocols from the early days of the internet, creating an account with a name that would become their identity in the shared space of the game world. The MUDs would go on to provide the basis for graphical games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft that would achieve tremendous commercial success.

A player coming to a MUD for the first time was likely to have been invited by someone else, and as such was not strictly alone. Nonetheless, players typically entered the text world as individuals, and since players would connect at different times they were often (if not always) alone. Starting players were always unknown to the existing players, so there was always an element of uncertainty about the arrival of someone new. Nonetheless, the community surrounding each MUD, which was typically a few hundred players or so, generally welcomed newcomers, and there was an air of hospitality extended in most MUD communities. Abusive players, then as with in the larger digital spaces today, were the minority, and would quickly come into conflict with the more responsible players who would report them to the administrators, typically entitled Wizards.

The Wizard system provided legislative, judicial, and executive power within the MUD. While the first Wizards would be those who set up the software and provided the hardware to run the game, many MUDs used a democratic system to elect additional Wizards, who worked as a collective to maintain order and community. Legislative acts concerned the code of conduct that applied, and thus set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour – such matters were always resolved by the Wizards working together, and generally involved consulting the wider community of players as well. Judicial and executive power was expressed by taking action against troublemakers – in many MUDs, miscreants could be ‘toaded’, which reduced a character to a powerless amphibian. Wizards would hold tribunals in this regard to determine the justice of any such punishment meted out. Although I have heard of some instances of ‘corrupt Wizards’, my own experiences showed the Wizard system to be highly effective at minimising abuse in MUDs.

While on the surface, MUDs were play spaces, in practice the division between game and communication system blurred. This was especially so because MUDs provided the first networked text communication system that didn’t require manual delivery, like a telegram. As such, many attracted a community of ‘players’ using them solely as a chat interface. These were the original chatrooms, since players would typically congregate in a room of the MUD’s fictional world to engage in conversation. This occasionally caused tension with other members of the community who were using the game differently, but for the most part it was a fact of life in MUDs that some people were there solely to chat, and facilities to do so were expanded in the code for MUDs as the 1990s progressed.

The MUD was the direct precursor to Facebook and Twitter, which descend from earlier copies of the chatroom concept, such as AOL’s offering, which lacked the fictional world but kept the name. Yet abuse in MUDs was comparatively rare, and rapidly resolved by Wizards whenever it occurred. Anonymity may still have fostered abuse, but the systems were in place in MUDs both to guard against it, and to discourage it from happening in the first place. The most effective deterrent against online abuse is community – and the MUDs fostered this far more than the latest digital public spaces.

Thus while a new MUD player might arrive alone and unknown, they were never unguarded – both in the sense of protected from the abuse of others, and watched for signs of conducting abuse. Conversely, a ‘tweep’ (as a user of Twitter is colloquially termed) is alone, unknown, and essentially unguarded – and these are the optimal conditions for abuse to fester. Twitter has an abuse reporting system, but it is distant and bureaucratic, with no community to manage the warnings and reporting, and no community-engaged Wizards to act as magistrates.

Here we have three different senses of ‘anonymous’, all of which contribute to cyber-disdain, and thus a greater risk of cyber-cruelty. To be alone in a digital public space is to lack a community, and crucially ‘follows’ and ‘friends’ do not mark the authentic social bonds of a community relationship but merely an open communication channel. To be unknown is to be anonymous in the sense of having a concealed identity – a situation that fosters abuse if it is not offset by community relations. Lastly, unguarded marks an invisibility to the systems of justice within a digital public space – a situation worsened by being unknown, and by being alone.

Thus Facebook’s requirement to use conventional identities (to eliminate being unknown) is insufficient to stop abuse, both because its users are mostly alone and unguarded, and also because the size of its membership means that with random encounters, cyborgs are still effectively unknown to each other. This is the fertile soil in which abusive behaviour online grows: as the cybernetic networks increase in scale, community is unsustainable since humans can only sustain viable communities at a scale of hundreds and never at a scale of billions. Two Facebook users, even with public identities, are effectively unknowable to each other – and nothing much can solve this problem short of managing encounters in a way that most would find intolerable. Guarding against problematic behaviour is more tractable when there is a village-scale community to engage, respond, and react – while at planetary-scale even robot-assisted magistrates are rendered impotent by the sheer scope of the network.

Anonymity is the root of online abuse, but there are at least three senses of this term that matter. We tend to focus on unknown anonymity, and thus miss the importance of alone anonymity and unguarded anonymity. My emphasis on being alone may seem misplaced. For instance, in his discussion of the problems of anonymity, Brian reports that “people in groups are more likely to transgress.” I agree with this claim, even though this may seem to run counter to my suggestion that alone anonymity is a key part of the problem. However, Brian’s point concerns ‘mob mentality’, and a mob is not a community in any relevant sense. Indeed, precisely what makes a mob dangerous is that people are alone together when they are a part of it – and this anonymity of the crowd (which also operates fairly innocently in audiences for musicians and so forth) becomes dangerous when the people concerned are also unknown and unguarded, as happens all the time in our digital public spaces.

When Sherry Turkle raises concerns about the way we are alone together online, she is not talking about the mob as such, but her work also emphasises this same concern: the undermining of authentic community by the current design features of the new communication systems. Yet different designs will produce different results. It is notable that blogs, which assign executive power to the blog owner (and thus are close to unguarded), and are ambiguous on the question of being unknown (since it is the blog owner’s choice how they identify) still manage to be less of a locus of abuse than the large-scale digital public spaces since bloggers are never alone. Forums tolerate contributions that are alone and unknown because they are not unguarded, thanks to the presence of moderators who can work effectively because the scale of the network of contributors is manageable. When a moderator ‘knows that such-and-such is a troublemaker’, they mean that particular cyborg is not anonymous in the sense of being unguarded. Different solutions to fostering cyber-respect (and minimising cyber-cruelty) hinge upon the different senses of anonymity.

What does not work – indeed, cannot work – is expecting our robots to plug the gap caused by scaling networks beyond human capacity to form a viable community. Abuse will remain endemic on Facebook and Twitter for as long as their cyborg participants can be functionally alone, effectively unknown, and inadequately guarded. If there are solutions to this problem, and it is not clear that there are, the most important lessons to learn are those revealed by the stories of the MUDs, the pioneering digital public spaces, the first cyborg communities of their kind.

With grateful thanks to Peter Crowther, both for feedback on this piece, and for running UglyMUG, a game that changed both his life and my own. Also, my thanks to Brian Green for his outstanding summary of the relationship between privacy and anonymity, which this piece responds to.

Brian Green on Online Anonymity

Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:

  • Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
  • Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
  • Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
  • Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.

I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD, but in the meantime a few quick remarks.

Brian’s example that we are now used to people pulling their phones out all the time in the final part sits badly with me; I do not think this an example of a cultural shift to deal with technology consequences so much as I think we have instituted our rudeness and now accept a higher degree of impoliteness towards each other. The same thing happens in big cities, of course: we learn to be less polite. I do not think this specific example upholds the point Brian wishes to make, in terms of adapting to technology, although I do agree with him that this adaptation both needs to and will happen. We just need to be careful in recognising the active role required in shaping norms.

At several points, Brian trots out the example of people who need to protect their identity. I do not think this is as strong an objection as he and others do; his more general arguments about everyone’s need for privacy are much stronger in my view, in particular because they apply to everyone. If we thought public identities would solve all the problems, the need for some people to adjust their permanent identity online would be a manageable issue. But as Brian nicely outlines, public identities aren’t a guaranteed fix. This is not even a likely fix, as Brian elaborates very clearly in part 3.

We need to be having these discussions, and I am enormously grateful to Brian for wading in here, and making such a thorough report on the issues. I heartily recommend you check out all four parts.

Kawaii Hyper Capitalism

PeeqoOver at the O Creative Studio website from wonderful Barcelona, Víctor Navarro Remesal becomes the first writer to join me in mulling over cybervirtue outside of Only a Game. Víctor’s piece, entitled The Rebellion of Robot Mates, discusses the charming image-flashing robot Peeqo, and the implications of this kind of design. It’s a great read, and full of animated gifs that demonstrate how Peeqo’s gif face expresses itself.

Here’s an extract:

Its design thins the thickness of everyday life by convincing us that everything should be festive, and I don’t know if I want a Dr. Who GIF in an ATM machine. Besides, with its chutzpah, Peeqo has managed to place another camera and another microphone inside our house, and keeps on compiling our data, a little bit more sugar for the Big Data pill and the Always Online motto. I think of Meitu hiding spy code and the sweetness of Peeqo acquires a new hue: that of kawaii hyper capitalism.

You can read the entirety of The Rebellion of Robot Mates over at the O Creative Studio website. Vive la república de los bloggers!

Jon Cogburn's Commentary on Babich and Bateman, Dialogue I

Pleased to report that Jon Cogburn, who is one of the professional philosophers interested in games (rather than professional games designers embroiled in philosophy, such as Ian Bogost, Stefano Gualeni, and myself…), took an interest in the first Babich and Bateman dialogue, The Last of the Continental Philosophers. Over at the multi-author Philosophical Percolations blog, Jon provided some excellent commentary on our discussions under the title One more difference between analytic and contintental philosophy. Here’s an extract:

I do have one quibble with Babich’s characterization of analytic and continental philosophy. I think that in characterizing continental philosophy she tends to characterize what the Mighty Dead of that tradition have done and in characterizing analytic philosophy she tends to characterize what standard academic philosophers get up to. But if you do this, then of course analytic philosophy ends up looking stupid when contrasted to continental philosophy. It’s dangerous too as we might lose sight of the fact that philosophy is egregiously difficult, so much so that most of it is going to be mediocre. The problem with analytic philosophy isn’t that the overwhelming majority of it is mediocre, but that the self appointed (though widely recognized) mandarins of analytic philosophy don’t have enough humility to recognize this. I would hate to see Babich unwittingly recapitulate this vice.

This makes this dialogue into part of the Republic of Bloggers, and that is always good news. My thanks to Jon for his thoughtful contributions to the topic. And speaking of Babich and Bateman, Dialogue II is on its way – look out for that soon!


In a Matter of Aesthetic Preference

Over at The Journals of Doc Surge, Chris Billows has written a blog-letter to conclude our exchanges over philosophy and psychology over the last two years. Here’s an extract:

Philosophy is the eldest thinking system and is deserving of respect. In pre-Modern times Philosophy was imbued in all aspects of life including an understanding about human purpose and afterlife. Today, Philosophy plays the role of being thought pioneers since secularism has demanded that metaphysics be kept in the private domain of religion. Rationalism and secular thinking has led to inflation of secular professions such as scientists, engineers, psychologists, who have replaced Philosophy’s once prominent role in human thought. Philosophy is being replaced by its children…

You can read the entirety of Chris’ letter, In a Matter of Aesthetic Preference at his blog. I’d like to thank Chris for these Republic of Bloggers exchanges, which have been productive for both of us. Given the note of conclusion, I feel that Chris should have ‘the last word’... I ought to make two clarifications, though.

My defence of philosophy is never an expectation that others will take it on; pursuing philosophy as I have done is a major task, and my goal is not to drum up more practitioners as such. I seek, in all things, a mutual respect. My goal is thus to have philosophical practices understood for what they are, that their contributions to knowledge and reflection might be appreciated; never ignored or dismissed, nor overvalued as ‘prophecy’.

Today, we end up justifying paths not taken (‘I don’t need to know that, because…’) through some strange pressure to ‘know everything.’ It ends up with hostility to certain practices that we have excluded, as they become an outsider that we must justify as being ‘outside’. Wikipedia Knows Nothing shows this as absurd: knowledge-practices are always distributed, no individual can know everything, and the impression that they could stems from a confused view of the nature of knowledge.

Thus the second clarification: positivists are not my enemy. I argue against short-cutting knowledge as it is mistaken, but those that do so are not my enemy. I seek a world where all religious practices and all forms of positivism can coexist. This is, as Kant puts it “merely possible” – ah, but what a possibility!

With grateful thanks to Chris for this engaging series of exchanges. The Republic of Bloggers is always open for discourse.

A Blog Letter from Charles Cameron

Over at Zenpundit, Charles Cameron has written a response to my blog letter to him (Beyond Space) entitled The Republic of Bloggers, SpiralChris & Pundita. It touches upon many of Charles’ key interests, such as the Glass Bead Game, as well as the double meanings of fruit in paintings.

I think this is the first Republic of Bloggers exchange I’ve been involved with to merge two threads of conversation, since Charles also folds in another blogger, Pundita, and her post O Magnum Mysterium: Why has Christianity declined so much in a land that produces the greatest Christian choirs? This in itself is an intriguing development, and I am doubly interested in the theme of her post, which discusses the decline of Christianity in Britain. About this I might have more to say later.

Beyond Space

An open letter to Charles Cameron responding to his blog-letter No Man’s Sky at Zenpundit as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

Full Moon Above PinesDear Charles,

The second of my five religions, Zen Buddhism, came about entirely as a consequence of a famous tale you allude to in your wonderful letter. The library at the University of Manchester, where I studied until gaining my Masters degree, was a wonderful resource for me during my time as a student. Although I do not remember the details, I read something about the Last Patriarch’s teachings there, and it went something like this:

The nun Wu Jincang once asked Huineng to explain passages of the Nirvana Sutra to her. Huineng couldn't read, and he asked her to read the passages aloud. Astonished that the revered Zen master could neither read nor write, Jincang wondered how Huineng could understand the teachings. Huineng replied: “Words are not truth. Truth is like the moon, and words are like my finger. I can point to the moon with my finger, but my finger is not the moon. Do you need my finger to see the moon?”

I spent a great deal of time that night meditating upon the gloriously full moon, a little about my finger, and a great deal about the space in between. Space. The space between. The space beyond. When I could be any or all of these, I went to bed. I thought to myself: How arbitrary it is that we should see ourselves as the finger, and as not-the-moon, when we might just as well consider ourselves the spaces in between – since without that, we could never be not-anything!

This lunar encounter served me well until about five years later I hit a terrifying crisis of identity when I lost faith in any ability to use words to communicate at all. I began to fray at the edges… If everyone’s words were their own symbols, how could we ever manage to communicate? Did we? Or were we just braying at each other at random, each one watching a different play on the stage we had been thrown together upon? I was a practicing Discordian at the time, getting my religious community fix from a cabal of strange and wonderful folks who had come upon the journey into chaos with me. We were all wrapped up in our own strange adventures. That was always the risk of leaving the clearly marked paths behind… of being set adrift, becoming a nomad. And we are all becoming nomads these days.

With a flair for the Biblical inherited from the time when Christianity was my only religion, I spent forty days and forty nights hitchhiking across the country, staying with friends. Upon my return, I left Manchester and moved to London, where I began working as a professional videogame designer. I had the honour of working with Sir Terry Pratchett – although not a knight of the realm in those days! – and indeed spent a launch party sat next to him and his agent, Colin Smythe, having a marvellous chat about writing and publishing. Alas, I was young and cocky, too arrogant to truly appreciate how much that night was to come to mean to me. My first book came into print soon afterwards.

Years later, Wittgenstein helped me make sense of my problem with words. He was long gone, of course, but he left his words behind, which meant I could listen to him even if he could not hear me. He made clear how words could be understood as belonging to the many different games of language: the meaning of the word was its use within the game it was deployed within. (“I don’t buy that” means one thing in a courtroom; quite another in a shop.) That meant if you wanted to be sure you were using the words correctly, you had to know which game you were playing. That’s precisely the problem with what you call the God NoGod argument: two very different games are being played that just happen to have identical rules. But once you realise that, once you take that idea aboard, you risk being set adrift from living life in one particular way – you risk becoming a nomad.

Peter Lamarque, perhaps Britain’s greatest living aesthetician, awoke in me a whole new way of riding Wittgenstein’s thought when he expressed how beneath it all was the concept of a practice, of lived practices. At which point, Isabelle Stenger’s idea of an ecology of practices, as a manifold of games, or (as I put it in Chaos Ethics) a multiverse, was the only way to understand our mutual predicament. This multiverse, or pluriverse as William James also puts it, is an idea I develop from Michael Moorcock, who – rather amazingly – is also origin of the use of ‘multiverse’ to mark the physicist’s imagined plurality of universes, a quaintly nontheological reverie if ever there was one. Yet at least one of my Discordian friends speaks of having personally experienced this physical multiverse… Should I treat him differently from those who speak of God, or the Goddess, or even of the Universe? What does a nomad do confronted with any singular way of being? What kind of reply is: there are other ways

Thank you for the letter, and your continued friendship, albeit of the nomadic, disembodied kind where we have never met in the flesh. I place more stock on flesh these days, but then, I also have a great deal of faith in words.

With unlimited love,


Any and all replies are welcomed, whether in the comments, or via a blog.

No Man's Sky (Blog Letter)

Over at the marvellously eclectic Zenpundit, Charles Cameron sends me a blog letter that mashes together my recent lightweight post on atheology with my recent featherweight post on No Man’s Sky. Written in what Charles terms a “poetico-philosophical” language, it combines Borges’ Library of Babel, the Zen koan about the moon, and apophatic theology. Here’s an extract:

The marks, the comma and period, I am habituated to. They are articulation points among the bare bones of the letters, bodying them out into words, langue, langue, language – again, fire and insight, but also scratches, pecked out with pen, keyboard or chisel – but space.

And I was reading about this game, No Man’s Sky, this game gaming space, deep space, as the books within Borges’ book, within Borges and now shared out among us, game all possible verbal coherences with all possible incoherences, all partials, wholes, and almost nothings, an “a” that may be word or mark, an ‘o” that may close the book, galaxy, universe, be zero, lack sound or howl fury.. and those illimitable periods, commas, spaces.

You can read the entirety of Charles’ No Man’s Sky over at Zenpundit. It feels difficult to adequately respond to something written in this style, but in the spirit of the Republic of Bloggers, I will give it a go…

Wherefore Philosophy? Whence Emotions?

An open letter to Chris Billows responding to his blog-letter Depths, Mirrors, and Mine Detectors at The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

Kwang Ho Shin paintingDear Chris,

A particularly disturbing aspect of the era in which we live is the certainty with which some people admit to not understanding something, but then confidently dismiss or condemn it. We have taken to using a suffix derived from the Greek ‘phobos’ – fear – to describe such hatred... homophobia, Islamaphobia and so forth. The arguments against such reactions, which it seems really do involve fear, tend to invoke our ideals of diversity, a move that cannot work in practice and tends to lead to what I have called intolerant tolerance – the hatred of haters.

What a muddle we have all made of things! So it is that you yourself can claim a commitment to diversity, then pour scorn on the practitioners of an entire discipline who are “missing the boat”, engage in activities that are “complicated, prescriptive, and arcane”, “limited” and that amounts to “mental masturbation”. Wow – can’t help but wonder why you would want a discourse with me at all given such a terrible assessment! Joking aside, your phobosophy is not really your unique possession, but in fact a structural problem of our time – one well worth examining. (Doesn’t it seem like it should be ‘philophobia’? But that would be ‘fear of love’, which would be a very different problem!) If you genuinely want to make diversity your ideal, you need to understand how this rejection of philosophy undermines rather than supports your position, and for that I would first have to offer a different image of philosophy.

Hence the first question that heads this letter: ‘Wherefore philosophy?’, meaning ‘What is the purpose or reason for philosophy?’ And here we need to begin by clearing up the confusion we have created around the difference between a person’s philosophy and the discipline (or disciplines) of philosophy. For Brian Eno is correct that you can’t avoid doing philosophy, and thus everybody does it – although often badly. And unfortunately being a philosopher does not necessarily mean that you can help people with their philosophy, in part because of the insane specialisation that infects academia today, which has emerged from the formalisation of the sciences. It can indeed seem that academic philosophy is a waste of time – but that’s also true of a lot of scientific research, which oddly is rarely accused of this. And this points to the first of three crises of contemporary philosophy.

The first crisis is that ever since the sciences split from philosophy there has been a tendency to see this division as making philosophy redundant, instead of seeing that as well as continuing what was once called ‘natural philosophy’, scientists have begun doing other kinds of philosophy badly. Let’s call this the counter-philosophy revolt – the desire to tear down what philosophers do, and to fail to recognise what is replacing it. Secondly, in response to the revolt, philosophers have increasingly allied with those voices in positivism (i.e. elevation of the sciences) most hostile to philosophy, perhaps thinking aiding the sciences is now the only worthwhile task philosophy can perform. Call this collaboration. Lastly, and crucially, philosophy is assumed (as you say) to “make claims to provide a deeper understanding about life and its problems” – call this the authority on life problem.

I take your core complaint to be that philosophy is a poor guide for life if it ignores the emotions. My rebuttal has two elements. Firstly, why would you think philosophy ignores the emotions? In my experience, it is solely the collaborators who fall prey to this. Secondly, why would you think studying philosophical problems would grant authority at all? Perhaps the single greatest achievement of Modern Philosophy (a period, incidentally, that ended about a century ago) was the invention of autonomy, and thus our potential liberation from all centralised claims to authority, like that of the Christian church you criticised two letters ago, or the alleged authority of a rather nebulous thing called ‘Science’ invoked by counter-philosophy.

There may be no better place to start than looking at where contemporary ideas about emotions come from – namely Modern Philosophy. Hence the second part of my title: ‘Whence emotions?’


The Passions of Philosophers Past

Both Modern Philosophy and the word ‘emotion’ begins in the 17th century with Descartes. There is not a single philosopher in this era who views the emotions – or, as they are more commonly known at this time, ‘the passions’ – as anything less than an indispensable element of human life. It is Descartes’ 1649 Passions of the Soul that gives us the first systematic study of what we now call the emotions, although that particular word (which Descartes coined) meant little more than ‘motion’ (i.e. movement) at the time. Other terms in use in this century include ‘affect’ (particularly with Spinoza) and ‘sentiment’ (especially among British philosophers). As for the passions, this term was often reserved for those ‘violent’ feelings that were either particularly agitated or unresponsive to reason.

Questions about our emotional lives were the exclusive purview of philosophers at this time, since ‘science’ was just a synonym for ‘knowledge’, and (as I already noted) what we would call ‘science’ was known then as ‘natural philosophy’. A good half of Spinoza’s monumental Ethics in 1675 is concerned with defining and categorising the ‘affects’ and contemplating the possibility of freedom, discussions that obviously built upon Descartes. Spinoza, however, denied we could gain control over our passions – an argument that in many respects lives on today – and had a rather low opinion of every feeling more extreme than the kind of moderate joy that comes from being active. It is Spinoza who first puts reason and the passions into opposition, a tendency than many today – you included – have inherited.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Scottish philosopher (and incorrigible wag) David Hume offered an even more refined account of the passions, which he divided into ‘calm’ and ‘violent’ passions while noting that even calm passions can be strong and violent passions can still be weak. His most innovative idea in this respect may be to suggest that the passions are what motivates all our actions, and that reason would be impossible without them. His infamous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is still widely discussed today. In addition to his own substantial contributions to philosophy, Hume has the distinction of inspiring Kant, who famously described this experience as being wakened from his “dogmatic slumber”.

At the close of the eighteenth century, Kant develops an anthropology that has three different terms for what we would now call emotions. Two of them – affects and passions – are judged as hindrances, entailing a lack of morality and a motivation towards ‘evil’ respectively. Yet the third, feelings, are viewed as an aid to moral thinking, and indeed conducive to virtuous living. Despite the popular view of Kant as emotionally repressive, he continues the general tradition of Modern Philosophy in holding our emotional constitution essential to a life well-lived.


Logical Seduction

So if Modern Philosophy did not, as you erroneously alleged, exclude our emotional lives from importance – and, indeed, placed great value upon this side of being – where did it all go wrong? A full answer to this question goes far beyond what I can hope to cover here, but the shortest answer I can give is that excessive faith in the sciences messed everything up, and is still causing problems today. It is not that the sciences don’t do good work or aren’t useful, but rather there has been a kind of logical seduction that has affected primarily English-language philosophy, collectively termed Analytic Philosophy and contrasted (somewhat derisively) with ‘Continental’ Philosophy. Both Mary Midgley and I tend to point fingers at an early twentieth century movement known as the Logical Positivists, who seemed convinced it would be a simple matter to exorcise humanity of everything that was not the sure and certain revelations of empirical research. They were so very, very wrong about this, yet they still have conceptual descendants today.

The upshot of this is that treating philosophy as a monolithic enterprise and then making general pronouncements about it isn’t going to get anyone very far since the range of different methods and perspectives on offer within the field is vast. Those suffering from logical seduction are quick to make the accusation that the variety of positions within philosophy must show it must be deeply flawed in some way. The assumption is that if there is only one true world, all valid investigations must converge. E.O. Wilson calls this consilience (although the term was originally coined by the Modern Philosopher William Whewell) and there is clearly some validity to the idea of evidence converging. However, I urge anyone truly committed to diversity to be cautious about such simplistic unifying principles, since there is an ever-present risk of claiming a god-like capacity to adjudicate all truth-claims in an absolute manner, in total denial of the plurality of human existence. Here is a context where your concerns about narrow cognitive perspectives can indeed be manifested, and while it is a philosophy, it is one that is primarily peddled by certain scientists and their collaborators.

So wherefore philosophy? What is the reason to persist with an activity that can’t even agree with itself? Well, for a start, nothing is going to make philosophy go away so it would seem prudent for at least a few people to try to do it well. Also, lack of unequivocal consensus doesn’t seem to bother us in art, history, sport, literature and so forth so why single out philosophy? The answer appears to be the aforementioned authority on life problem: people tend to think philosophy is claiming to have the ‘ultimate answers’, even though no philosopher I know ever makes this assertion. The philosopher has been confused with the prophet, to everyone’s loss. Philosophy is so much more about exploring questions than it is about providing unshakeable answers, and the importance of this skill is all too easily missed.

The eclecticism of philosophy stems from the near-infinite space of ideas: rejecting philosophy as a discipline because of that vastness may simplify what a person feels they ‘need to know’, but it can’t plausibly change the true dimensions of the realm of possible concepts. Furthermore, people should not feel – as I fear explains the tendency to phobosophy – that they must oppose philosophy or else be condemned to get involved with its horrendous intricacies, as if no-one could truly claim knowledge without either practicing or negating philosophy. We are happy to defer both empirical and historical research to experts in those fields; we should feel the same way about what might be called the technical problems of philosophy. You are not lacking something essential if you can’t explain how Modern Philosophy established talk about the emotions any more than you are deficit in not being able to explain 14th century crop rotation – nor micro-crystallography for that matter! No-one – quite literally! – can know everything, and that truth does not require anybody to denigrate anything.

In her forthcoming book, What Is Philosophy For? Mary Midgley provides the following explanation of our academic discipline:

...the philosophers’ business is not – as some people mistakenly think – merely to look inward. It is to organise what concerns everybody. Philosophy aims to bring together those aspects of life that have not yet been properly connected so as to make a more coherent, more workable world-picture. And that coherent world-picture is not a private luxury. It’s something we all need for our lives.

The point being, once again, that we all do philosophy, and the philosopher is merely someone who has dedicated more time to it, and has perhaps been drawn into working upon certain specific complexities. Few philosophers are certain that this habit makes them better at living life (like scientists, we tend to get awfully wrapped up in our abstruse problems!), but every philosopher hopes to clear up some persistent confusions, or to provide a better understanding of a certain problem. That’s why Isabelle Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre talk about philosophers as ‘sounders of the depths’ – and isn’t this a form of what you are calling a mine detector?

Let me close with another apposite quote from one of my philosophical correspondents, Allen Wood:

Reason and emotion are not opposites: emotions – even irrational ones – always have some degree of rational content, and healthy emotions are indispensable vehicles of rationality.

For Wood, the ‘cognitive intellect’ probably does count as a primary tool in the human toolbox, as you say in your letter, but even he does not deny the importance of our emotions. I’m not sure who does... maybe the die-hard consequentialists who think morality can be calculated? Whoever it is, it’s certainly not me. I am acutely aware that curiosity, compassion, and satisfaction are core emotional components of my philosophical inclinations. Neither is it enough for me to pursue my work in isolation: if I cannot share it, there is no point in doing it at all. Which is precisely why the letters you and I exchange are so important to me.

With great love and respect,


The opening image is an untitled oil painting by KwanHo Shin, which I found here, and which may have originated from his Behance site at As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.