The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel

A while back I did some Googling to find out whether someone out there had written a book similar to mine, and in my research I came across Charles Johnson’s novel, Faith and The Good Thing. Too good to be true. He too makes use of the most powerful centerpieces in Plato’s works: The Allegory of the Cave and The Divided Line in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. To name a few. 671564(See this for more on the meaning of Diotima’s Ladder.) I wondered how he turned these theories about the relationship of reality, truth, and beauty into a story that people would be able to appreciate as fiction.

I’ve always felt that Plato’s ‘harmony of the soul’ would make for a great story, if only I could figure out the right angle. I know the phrase sounds antiquated, but if we change the language a bit, we’ll find a remarkably current philosophy of lived experience, a nuanced one that doesn’t ignore all-too-human truths, and, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t ignore the  world we inhabit. But it’s true that Plato’s more concerned about the inner workings of our minds, and for him this needs to be understood before we can make sense of the world. We have complicated emotions and desires that can really mess us up, in so many ways, even intellectually, and we might not realize it. But Plato also says that these are an integral part of us, and necessary for attaining knowledge. Without desire, there’s no impetus to do much of anything, much less study philosophy. And yet, philosophers tend to think of emotion and desire as something that ‘gets in the way’ of reason, if they bother to discuss it at all. Plato plunges headfirst into the mess of the human psyche, and leads us to ask: How do we make sense of ourselves as creatures with noble ideas in a world that doesn’t seem to live up to our expectations? Should we lower our expectations, give ourselves a so-called ‘reality’ check? What if we get it wrong, and don’t realize it? What if  transcendent ideas actually are real? What makes something real anyway? How can something be said to be not real?

I think Plato has meaningful answers to these questions. My challenge is to turn something as technical as the Divided Line into an engaging story, to bring these questions back to life.

I was surprised to find that Charles Johnson and I came up with the same idea—we both independently thought to create characters that represent segments of the line. (Of course, he did it first.) My “Faith” character is also a religious young woman who represents picture-thinking on the line. Johnson’s characterization makes perfect sense to me, obviously, but it might not make sense to those who don’t know the intricacies of the allegory.

But that doesn’t matter. Faith’s plight as a religious young black woman whose mother dies, leaving Faith to roam the earth (well, Chicago) in search of “The Good Thing” makes for an intriguing story. She wonders what The Good Thing is, and so do we. Faith becomes a prostitute in order to survive, constantly searching, constantly changing as she encounters dodgy characters, each of whom represent other aspects of the divided line. She’s moving up the line or ladder, but from her original standpoint as a fairly stable innocent figure (representative of right opinion), moving up to higher levels of knowledge and sophistication is dangerous. Plato would agree, and the events in the novel exemplify what would otherwise be a yawn-inducing epistemological threat. Johnson has shown that the theoretical has serious, material consequences. Plus, there’s an element of magic to the tale, which lends an epic feel to the novel, a bit like John Gardner’s Grendel, (Gardner was apparently his writing mentor.) There’s a surprising merging of science and witchcraft, of art and reason, of myth and truth, and these create a thematic tension that sustains us throughout.

All of these elements make the philosophy come alive, but Johnson may have lost a broader audience was when he had characters dropping references to philosophers/philosophies that the average reader might not understand. What worries me is that I didn’t even notice that these references were problematic until I got feedback from my book group. So much about this novel was, in my opinion, brilliantly successful. Members of my group all agreed that the writing sparkled. And yet, these references were enough to make erudite people, some of whom are professors, dislike the book as a whole. The online reviews echo this complaint. Yet I missed it, so eager was I to make my comparisons and theories. This was an eye opener for me.

My takeaway from The Good Thing:

Don’t reference without clearly explaining. Better yet, don’t reference without being prepared to integrate the point into the plot and theme in such a way as to make the idea come alive on its own, with no need for you to call attention to the reference. OR—reference with such a light touch that readers who won’t get the reference won’t feel that anything’s missing.

Don’t make the characters wooden in order to drive home a theme. Give your reader time to figure out what’s being exemplified, and don’t worry if the philosophical theme isn’t crystal clear from the get-go. Don’t worry if it never becomes crystal clear. If you stick too closely to the archetype, you lose that breath of life that makes fiction fiction. Johnson juxtaposed his children’s fairy tale narrative style with a dark subject about modern life to make his archetypes worth following. But what he did is hard to do. And while I don’t know what segments of the Divided line all his characters represent, I got his overall interpretation well enough to let those details go.

Be funny. Yeah, easier said than done. But humor makes readers more likely to forgive you your heavy ideas. Johnson did just this, and it worked. He had a way of spinning out yarns that I’m incapable of. But there are more ways to be humorous than telling jokes. Consider goofy ordinary things that people do, and bring those into a heavy philosophical moment, grounding that scene in the mundane. Consider the setting and how that can contrast or illuminate the point in humorous ways. If all else fails, just put a dog or a baby in the mix. Interruptions can do double duty by being both funny and revealing, especially if your characters react in different, revealing ways.


Don’t be tempted to put all your philosophical ideas inside heads. This is sort of the default for philosophical fiction: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s a kind of info dump when you think about it. When I don’t know how to convey some idea, I tend to just stick it into dialogue and run with it. Or I have someone thinking about the idea. But that’s lazy of me. Try conveying those ideas with no dialogue, at least as an exercise, and see where that leads. You might be surprised.

Don’t be too brief. If you want an idea to resonate, make it resonate. Don’t whittle it down to nothing out of fear of being boring. More than likely, you’ll make it boring by scraping away the meat of it. There are other ways to deal with dense material than to strip it down to a Cliff’s note. And if you want to let readers get their geek on, but you’re worried you might still be putting out too much info, put the diagrams and equations in an endnote. That way everyone can have their cake.

That said, brief nuggets of wisdom can work well.  Especially when repeated in a certain thematic rhythm. Johnson used a few snappy lines to crystalize various ideas, and the repetition of those lines gave a sense of movement in its own right. Also, these gave a sense of finality: “Don’t be interrupting to ask if the tale is true. Was it Good? Was it Beautiful? All right.”

Use subtext. The best of all possible worlds is when material conflict converges with ideological tension. When one character has something to hide from another, he or she might speak in generalities—in our case, in dry philosophical terms—while really being concerned about something much more mundane, which is, in a sense, more important. Make that mundane worry crystal clear for the reader, make it clear that this worry is bubbling beneath the surface of what’s being said or done, and you’ve virtually given yourself a free pass to go wild with theoretical musings.

For instance, when Faith meets Tippis, one of those dodgy characters she encounters on her travels, he takes her to a bar and drowns his sorrows in pontifications: “Everything you want is an object for the satisfaction of drives developed in childhood, and you, in society, are an object for others, hardly ever yourself…” and so on. This doesn’t feel like a lecture in the context, because they’re at a sleazy bar, and we know Tippis is eager to use Faith as an object for his sexual gratification. Faith realizes this too, and now we wonder how she’ll react to his professed philosophy. We also get a sense of just how pathetic Tippis is, and can feel sorry for him in this sense, just as Faith does, even when she’s powerless to stop him.

Give those ideas relevance by making them a stake in the game. If you can make the philosophical idea a necessary feature of your plot, you’re golden. If the protagonist doesn’t figure out the mind-body problem in time, his lover will literally lose her head. Well, maybe you can tell me how that might work.

By the way, tomorrow I’m going to the Tucson Festival of Books to see Charles Johnson do a workshop. Maybe I’ll get to thank him in person!

Any ideas on how to write a philosophical novel? Or a novel about ideas? What tricks or tools would you use?


Translating in the Dark

I’m working on a project with Andreas (you may know him as “Nannus”) to translate Frege’s “On the Scientific Justification of a Concept Script,” which is funny since I don’t know much about Frege—close to nothing—and I don’t speak German. Nannus, however, is a native German speaker with a strong grasp of English and logic, so I thought my work would be a simple edit of what he’d already published on his blog. I believe I told him it would be nice to move away from the original German syntax to make the writing more accessible to English readers, and I thought it would take very little work since the article’s so short. Professional translators are probably laughing at me now.


This has been an entirely new sort of writing project for me. Normally when I write, I craft sentences to approximate the idea I have sitting in my mind, and yet, this act lends the initial idea a distinctive clarity, tethering it in specificity. I can’t say I have no idea of what I’m gonna say before it becomes formulated into words, but the idea is usually cloudy, a mere outline. It’s not controversial to say that writing clarifies thoughts, but we don’t always like to acknowledge that it can uproot an initial idea by displaying, sometimes all-too-concretely, its incoherence. Thanks to the delete button I can contradict myself without embarrassing myself, I can change my mind in private so that by the time my idea comes across to an audience, it seems as though my thoughts have always been relatively clear, as if it were only a matter of putting them on paper. In seeing my ideas so concretely, almost objectively, I can revise them, altering them to make them more logical, qualifying them to soften their rough edges, tweaking them to make finer points that otherwise
wouldn’t be available to me. This is part of Frege’s point (as I understand him)—that “external signs” make more permanent what is otherwise transient, that thoughts would not be what we think they are without written language.


A bit of doodling from high school which I found as I was cleaning out my mom’s house. I decided to photograph this bit and then throw away the journal. No regrets. I like the photo better than the original, especially that glare in the corner.

I found that this distinctive benefit of writing—the clearing out of cobwebs in one’s own mind—gets lost in translating, which instead forces words into what feels like a jigsaw puzzle, the emerging picture being some mysterious original content, the author’s intent, somehow graspable though difficult to re-articulate. This isn’t a perfect metaphor since there’s room for some structural alteration which a jigsaw puzzle wouldn’t allow. For instance, I could break apart sentences that an English reader would find tediously long, within limits. But this breaking apart sometimes meant changing a word or two, which then required changes further down the sentence often due to seemingly trivial things like syntactical expectations in English. And after doing this sentence-level reconstruction, all this had to be looked at from a paragraph level, and the reformulations had to be altered yet again to form a coherent whole. And so on. Not to mention the odd dynamic here since I couldn’t consult with the original text myself, which felt a bit like I was playing out some inverted version of the Chinese room argument…and of course I would be the one locked in the room with nothing but vapor clouds of propositional content, wasting most of my time wondering about pizza delivery options. Plus, I wanted to make changes in places I felt there was inconsistency or superfluous detail clouding the author’s message, but that was not only not my job, but not allowed. The irony here is that Frege’s article is about the cloudiness of language and the need to create a new form of communication free from equivocation, hidden premises, and mental muck. Good luck with that, Frege. I suppose a thin crust pizza might make it under the door relatively intact, don’t you think?

Do you have experiences of translating other people’s words? Or lost in translation experiences? What did you learn?


The Will to Believe

A few years back I went to a lecture intended for professors and graduate students in philosophy. It was open to the public, even minimally publicized, but the second I entered the classroom I realized no other ‘outsiders’ had attended. The lecture turned out to be very technical, chock full of scholarly jargon. But after whispering a few questions to my in-house philosopher (“What’s he talking about? Pascal’s Wager?”) I realized that the thesis could be understood by considering a few statements:

1.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know is not true.

On the surface, this seems fair enough. Boring actually. Yet when you think about it, you realize there are very few instances when you know something is not true. The statement reveals how often we must act without certain or even strong knowledge.

Everything turns on what it means to know something is not true, which is sticky. People seem to be perfectly capable of believing in all sorts of nonsense. Even when challenged with irrefutable evidence, nonsense-believers stick to their guns. The lecturer clarified by saying that all psychological rationalizations and self-deceptions must be excluded (he said this in a rather sticky way, the finer points of which I’m probably missing.) In other words, you can believe in all sorts of crazy things, as is evidenced everywhere, but you can’t say to yourself, “I’m gonna believe in this untrue thing!”

2.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you don’t know to be true.

A slightly different statement, but an entirely different meaning. The lecturer did not make this statement. I only bring it up to clarify the next one:

3.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true.

Now it’s clear we’re dealing with the religious sphere, and the hidden premises that the existence of God, the afterlife, etc., cannot be known. I happen to agree that these cannot be known, but the lecturer concluded that we can’t will ourselves to believe in these cases. I’m not sure. The question that remained for me (and which I was too shy to bring up in the Q&A session) is this:

Can you will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true if believing will make you happy? 

In other words, suppose you believe there is no evidence either way for the existence of God, you are Pascal’s intended audience (as I interpret him)—i.e., really and truly agnostic in heart and mind—can you then will yourself to believe for the sake of your well being? Because you want to?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but it occurred to me that the answer could affect practical scenarios, not just these theological questions. In our personal lives we often have to make decisions based on very little evidence, but we can do some research and make a choice based on probability. But what if we found ourselves in a state of what I’d call “epistemic neutrality” about the issue? Suppose the answer is not something just around the corner, but is in theory answerable. Time limits our query, rendering it somewhat analogous to the question of God’s existence. In other words, we know we can’t know the correct position or action to take, the answer is not likely to come in our lifetime, but we still have to make a choice now-ish. In these cases, suppose one live option will make you happy, the other will not. There is no harm that can come from choosing the “happy” option, and you’ll never know if you’re right or wrong. Can we then will ourselves to believe?


Belief in a bottle! Problem solved.

Is it possible to will yourself to believe? What do you think?

Eidos and AI: What is a Thingamajig?

To understand this post, you might have to read part I and part II on phenomenology and artificial intelligence.

The question I’m asking is not: Can computers think? Or: Can AI have consciousness? But: Can meaning “run ahead” for AI the way it does for us? Can we program intentionality, the “about-ness” or “directed-ness” toward things, as well as the horizon that makes things/objects possible? And, most of all, does it matter what processes are involved in arriving at the correct response or behavior?

For the last question, I don’t know. I see efficiency in the way we experience, but a specific kind of efficiency. Our efficiency is not in grasping everything equally and honing in on the correct answer or response. When we make mistakes, it’s often not just computational error. Error sometimes comes from grasping meaning and relevance in context, grasping it in a plausible and maybe reasonable way, but not necessarily in the technically or scientifically-correct way. Can a lookup device be designed to act as we do (in a timely manner)?

I’m starting to break free from the well-known philosophers here. If you hope to learn about phenomenology as it appears in the history of thought, in a technically precise way, you might not want to read this. I’d recommend my other post on Husserl as a starting point (which has been checked by the in-house philosopher).

Things might get messy, but hopefully not messy in a pedantic, overly-hyphenated-German-philosophy way.

Also, I’d promised some of you I’d bring up things in this post that I’m not actually going to bring up now. I realized I’d crammed too much into one post and this is not the platform for long discourses. Speaking of brevity…

The Ashtray Example


What do you see above?

This isn’t a trick question. It’s an ashtray. Or you might say it’s a representation of an ashtray, being an image on a blog post. In any case, let’s pretend it’s a physical ashtray sitting before you, one in which you can put out a cigarette if you so desire.

The act of calling an ashtray an ashtray may not seem particularly amazing, but consider this: the ashtray has an infinite number of perspectives. You are looking at it right now from one perspective, and you will never in fact see with your eyes or feel with your fingers the entire ashtray in all of its possible states. (We won’t talk about the smells or tastes…) You could spin the thing around and around all your life, but hopefully you won’t—in this case one glance gives you all you need: ashtray. More importantly, one unified object.

First of all, let me make clear that we are not talking about a priori ideas in the usual way. There is no ashtray-form sitting in your mind and some ashtray-ish-stuff ‘out there’ pushing the impression buttons of your senses, which then get interpreted by the mind. We’re still doing phenomenology and we’re still confining ourselves to experience as it’s experienced. There’s no mind vs. objective mind-independent stuff in our investigation. There’s only experience.

Plus, we needn’t compare various ashtrays and wonder how it is that from this multitude of ashtrays, each one of which is not exactly identical to any other, we are able to label them all the same: ashtray. We’re not looking at what every single possible ashtray has in common. We’re not talking about ashtray-ness. We’re talking about one particular ashtray. This ashtray. (Okay, strictly speaking, the hypothetical physical one before you.) How is it that this ashtray, despite it’s infinity of perspectives, is perceived as one unified self-same object?

Take another example, an object you’ve never seen before. Let’s imagine it’s a solid plastic wad. You have no idea what its function is, but you still experience that nameless plastic as a unified object.

You could argue that we err in leaping to this unity, that we shouldn’t say we actually experience a unified object, but instead particular moments of the ashtray. When we see a particular moment of a particular ashtray in a particular way, we theorize about the rest of the ashtray. The unity of the ashtray is nothing but leaping to conclusions, a story we tell ourselves to get by, a quick synthesis, perhaps subconscious. We impose unity. Since the unity itself is never something we actually see (with our eyes), it’s “just” a theory. Like gravity. Like causality. Like necessity. Completely invisible and possibly not really there. We had a sense impression yesterday that the sun rose, and the same impression the day before that, but who’s to say the sun will rise tomorrow? (If you start having apocalyptic nightmares, you can blame David Hume). In other words, there is no visible or perceivable necessary connection between events/impressions. We see event A, then event B. That’s it. Like constellations in the night sky, it’s we who connect the dots and make up stories about them.

Kant comes in here to say something like: “Wait. The sun’s rising is not just a theory! Necessity, causality, synthesis of the manifold of experience, etc. are indeed ‘in our heads,’ but they cannot be taken off like a pair of sunglasses. We couldn’t experience anything at all without these a priori conditions.”

I’d argue that neither have hit upon experience as it’s experienced. Hume errs in supposing that experience is equal to or derived from sense perception. Kant errs in making this same presupposition, but he adds that knowledge is derived from both experience (sense perception) and the a priori conditions which make experience possible. Kant nobly tried to bridge the rationalist-empiricist divide, but maybe a bridge wasn’t needed. Perhaps experience itself needed to be re-examined. It seems we’ve made ‘experience’ too narrow.

Here is where you must decide for yourself by ‘looking at’ your own experience.

The ashtray’s unity comes first in most ordinary experience, and this entails assuming properties about the object that are not strictly visible with the eyes in the moment (I use the word “assume,” but this is not meant to be taken as an active thought process or a matter of logic…it’s grasped immediately, intuited wordlessly.) The object appears to us all at once in its past and possible states, maybe only in a vague way, but it’s all there in that moment. We don’t experience these disjointed perceptions—a certain temperature + a certain color + a certain shape + a certain weight, etc.—and then add on unification, except when we theorize about experience in analysis. But in that case, when we theorize, we experience a theory, not the disjointed perceptions that we suppose we’ve experienced, at least not directly and “in the order in which they were received” (to quote telephone answering services, which may be a faulty analogy, but I couldn’t resist.)

In other words, when we theorize about experience by analyzing it, we change the experience from a naive ordinary one to a conceptual one. I repeat, this sort of theorizing is also within experience as a certain kind of experience, and therefore it’s possible to study phenomenologically too…but that’s a complex matter that I don’t want to get into. That’s advanced phenomenology, and we’re in phenomenology 101. Here we’ll stay with this: the “adding up” of sense data doesn’t quite fit the bill as an explanation of the ordinary, original experience.

Much of what we experience as we experience it isn’t given as sense data. 


Husserl uses the term “eidos”—literally “seen,” but here we’ll go with: shape, form—in a way that’s similar to what I’ve called “leaping ahead” in previous posts. His term is way better than mine for technical reasons, but I thought “leaping ahead” might make more sense in earlier contexts, as a means of preparation and to avoid scary words.

So, eidos = form, like Platonic ideas. However, Husserl does not use eidos in a fully Platonic sense; he does not (and cannot) posit a world of forms separate from the world we experience, but rather, eidos is constrained by its particular manifestations. I think of Aristotle here, but I hesitate to make that comparison…so take that with a unified self-same grain of salt.

With eidos Husserl seeks to do a different kind of analysis, one which he thought would uncover the basic elements of phenomena.

The Eidetic Reduction is described in the IEP, which I’ll quote here:

The eidetic reduction involves not just describing the idiosyncratic features of how things appear to one, as might occur in introspective psychology, but focusing on the essential characteristics of the appearances and their structural relationships and correlations with one another. Husserl calls insights into essential features of kinds of things “eidetic intuitions”. Such eidetic intuitions, or intuitions into essence, are the result of a process Husserl calls ‘eidetic’ or ‘free’ variation in imagination. It involves focusing on a kind of object, such as a triangle, and systematically varying features of that object, reflecting at each step on whether the object being reflected upon remains, in spite of its altered feature(s), an instance of the kind under consideration. Each time the object does survive imaginative feature alteration that feature is revealed as inessential, while each feature the removal of which results in the object intuitively ceasing to instantiate the kind (such as addition of a fourth side to a triangle) is revealed as a necessary feature of that kind. Husserl maintained that this procedure can incrementally reveal elements of the essence of a kind of thing, the ideal case being one in which intuition of the full essence of a kind occurs. The eidetic reduction compliments the phenomenological reduction insofar as it is directed specifically at the task of analyzing essential features of conscious experience and intentionality.

In other words, in the eidetic reduction, we seek to determine whether the “actual thing” (not thing in itself, remember) qualifies as an instance of the eidos we assign it. What we seek is whether or not the particular instance meets the essential qualifications of, say, a triangle, or a building. The eidetic reduction is a process in phenomenology which is indeed descriptive, but on the more theoretical side, being analysis. So what, then, makes this sort of analysis truer to experience as it’s experienced? I don’t have the answer. The use of the term “eidos” seems fine, but then to go on and try to create a science out of it seems to be a stretch. All I can say is my inner Plato lover is completely biased in favor of such an exploration, but I’ll admit that few have taken this “science of essences” stuff seriously. Perhaps this is the particular juncture at which people turn away from Husserl. It’s not quite Plato reincarnate, but it’s close enough.


Science of Essences: why we should resurrect Husserl

It seems to me that eidetic intuition applies everywhere in ordinary experiences, including those cases in which we experience something novel. Taking this as given, we might then use analysis to find out more about essences, a science of essence for a specific purpose. We might find out general things about essences; for instance, there’s an infinite number of them, given that each particular is unified in eidetic intuition. The plastic wad is a unity by virtue of being one thingamajig, and there can be an infinite number of such thingamajigs (that’s my technical term). Then there are named unified objects that we classify either according to likeness or some other classification system. Trees, bushes, flowers, vegetables, etc. might have a different classification system than plate, chair, ashtray or 3.14, -5, 1/2 or justice, truth, God. Plus, objects that were designed for one purpose can be used for other purposes, and often are (those of you who’ve taken a sip from a beer bottle-turned-impromptu ashtray know this all too well.) The difference may not be so much in the material, but in the function. Function is an important part of the way we classify things. Other times the classification will depend on the material. There are so many ways of adjusting our lenses here to suit our purposes.

For soft AI, perhaps a “science of essences” could be applied in a particular environment in which we can predict and control the objects within that environment according to essence classification alongside image identification (which already exists to some degree.*) The assumption of eidetic intuition is not to be taken lightly in philosophy, but in AI, it seems to make sense of the problems AI research has faced by explaining that there’s this bizarre unity of the manifold in our experience. It’s a tangible problem, regardless of how it arises in the human brain or whether it arises there or whether it has something to do with self-awareness or consciousness. The mere fact of this “transcendence within immanence” might be enough to outline a strategy to be taken in replication.

A quick Google search showed me that algorithms for object identification have come a long way. The difficulty lies in speed of object recognition. I’d guessed that there must be some sort of way to eliminate unlikely possibilities, to cut corners, but apparently that process is not as good as random sampling. Weird.

Claire, the Robotic Maid

Let’s get concrete. Let’s create a maid robot and name her Claire. This way we start small: the confines of a house. We don’t have an infinite horizon—otherwise known as the entire universe—on top of an infinite number of perspectives of each individual object. That’s just too hard.

Also let’s assume either: a) we don’t need an infinite number of perspectives to have Claire identify a self-same object* or b) we can figure out how to replicate an infinite number of perspectives in a unified way, which sounds impossible, but maybe it isn’t.

And let’s assume the robot mechanisms work fine. Maybe she’ll be better than human in terms of mechanics. Now it’s a matter of getting her to see objects as we see them—to know when that plate is not being used as a plate, but as a saucer; to know that a photograph of a human is not a real human; to know that she doesn’t need to water the plastic fern; to know to stay away from the rare book collection and not smoke your stash or rat you out, etc.

If an object appears to us with all possible variances of it alongside the self-same-ness of it, we should want that for Claire…to some degree. After all, she must know that the refrigerator is dirty, not that it’s a new thingamajig that doesn’t need her attention. And she shouldn’t need to know what a refrigerator looks like after it’s been smashed to smithereens at a monster truck rally either. There must be some threshold of experience that mimics our awareness of differences in objects. Claire might have the capacity right now to know what a refrigerator is—the mere name—but she also needs to know what various components do or at least how to deal with them, what to use to clean them, that she doesn’t need to clean the Coke bottle in there, etc. Perhaps for moveable objects she needs to know their function as dictated by the environment, but for other things she doesn’t need to know much. She doesn’t need to know what an escutcheon is in order to clean it (hence our need for a class of objects called thingamajigs). If she wasted her time finding out what an escutcheon is, that would be inefficient.

*I’ve taken Husserl’s object identification—an infinite number of perspectives somehow alongside a unity of this infinity—throughout this post as true. In consulting with my own experience, I wonder if the unity we perceive, while still being a priori in a phenomenological sense, is not quite infinite, but a shadow of the infinite. In other words, perhaps this “infinity” he speaks of is theoretical and not directly experienced, and what we actually experience is openness or possibility, but not quite infinity. Maybe we experience a very larger number of possible perspectives, but at some level there’s a vanishing point. Maybe infinity as we actually experience it in our usual naive way is nothing more than: “A lot more than I wanna count.” Not infinity infinity. (And certainly not infinity times infinity.)

How would you create Claire? What stumbling blocks do you foresee? What is an escutcheon? 


Intentionality and Meaning

In the previous post, I put forth the question of whether Husserl’s phenomenology could be of use to AI, weak or strong. This is a genuine question that I put out there to discuss…I have no thesis to support. Just curious to hear what you think.

In writing this post, I realized I’d have to break this down into several segments. From now on, I’ll be using Husserl for the most part, not Heidegger, to explain aspects of phenomenology…although I do like Heidegger’s readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand distinction. But I prefer the bracketing methodology of Husserl for these purposes. I could see Maurice Merleau-Ponty coming into the picture, especially on the issue of AI embodiment, but I haven’t read him. (Perhaps those of you who have can weigh in. I’d love that.)

I might stray from Husserl too, setting out on my own. In other words, not everything here will be a lesson on Husserl. I don’t want to be encumbered by referring back to his works to verify what I’m saying, because that would make what should be a simple blog post an academic enterprise. I’m not feeling that game right now.

Conditions of experience

Phenomenology allows us to describe experience as it’s actually experienced. In doing so, we look for conditions that make experience possible—the constitution of meaning. These “rules” are not likely to be revelatory in describing what happens inside a biological brain. However, phenomenology could run parallel to neuroscience. After all, in order to know what’s going on in the brain, we must know what brain states correspond to—the so-called “subjective” experience, i.e. 1st person accounts. One might argue that 1st person accounts tend to miss the mark, fall into error, but we can’t allow all 1st person accounts to err on a grand scale. There must be a back and forth here, perhaps only a preliminary one at the outset. There is no mapping of the brain without knowing what it is we’re mapping.

Why should we care about a philosophy that sounds very much like navel-gazing? Well, this navel-gazing isn’t about the stuff we ordinarily think of as “subjective”: our favorite ice cream, the personal feelings we get when we listen to music…that stuff we generally agree is “a matter of taste.” Husserl’s direction is actually scientific (like, Wissenschaft scientific, “the sciences” scientific) in the sense that we are looking for elements of experience that are essential to it.

For example, those of you familiar with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason may remember that space is the a priori outer form of experience, and time, the inner form. Causality was explained in this way too; everything we experience will be shaped by the categories because these are necessarily presupposed. (Kant also believed there were inexperience-able things “out there”—noumena—which causes phenomena. Let’s leave this aside.) Husserl goes further than Kant by setting forth a philosophy that seeks to ground the content of experiences individually, on a case by case basis. We’ll see how this works in later posts. Let’s just say for now that Husserl’s phenomenology is a lot more detailed and specific.

The very fact that phenomenology seeks out “rules” makes me wonder if it could apply to AI in some capacity, especially in areas that have to do with perception and learning. It might actually be preferable to bracket the “natural world”: “objective” reality, Kantian “things in themselves.” In a way, we’re looking at our own experience as if it were virtual reality. Like a computer.

However, phenomenologically speaking, we live in an environment that is not closed, which seems to imply that computers just aren’t like us. It seems that AI would have to progress significantly to allow for open-ended possibilities if we want to achieve those hard-to-accomplish tasks that for us seem basic. Does that which allows for creativity and learning in us preclude algorithmic AI? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not well-informed in this area, but it seems at the very least we’d have to know what makes our experience what it is in order to answer the question. Do we really take in new information just as it comes to us, spontaneously, or do we have to synthesize that information onto pre-existing charts? I suspect the latter, and I suspect if we could “crack the code” that allows us to understand our own learning methods, we’d be better able to do the same for AI (even if only in weak AI, or for certain specific goals).

In my last post I told you I’d explain how phenomenology operates by exploring Husserl’s intentionality. Let’s do phenomenology.


Husserl’s Intentionality is at the heart of his phenomenology. Intentionality is our directed-ness toward things, and it’s basically this: Consciousness is always consciousness about or of something. Pause here for a moment. Really stop and give this consideration. Much of phenomenology is reflection on experience. If you don’t do it, if you read articles on phenomenology and look for ways to summarize the logic, to relate to it only on the level of mere verbal cohesiveness, you’re missing a crucial aspect of it. The process is intuitive. You analyze the veracity of such statements as “consciousness is always consciousness about or of something” via intuition, reflection on your own experience.

Try not to think about anything. You might think you’ve experienced something like this once: a dreamless sleep, a coma perhaps. But were you conscious? No. So right now do this: Really try not to perceive something, to be aware of. You can close your eyes, close the windows, block out the sound, but time goes by. What happens? Well, if you’re like me, perhaps even more happens in your consciousness now that the senses are closed off. Ideas, daydreams, random thoughts…these are included as content, “about-ness.”

Those of you who meditate may raise objections, and these will be well taken. I, for my part, have never found myself to be conscious while being conscious of nothing, absolutely nothing.

It is the nature of our experience to be directed towards things or about things. (What I’m loosely calling “things” are not just objects of sense perception, but can include thoughts, ideas, memories, etc.) Intentionality is always there. In other words, it plays a pervasive role in every kind of experience: perceiving, judging, remembering, dreaming, screwing up, etc.

Imagine an omniscient camera (or recorder of some sort) that captures the infinity of experiences, all sense data, equally, without any directness toward things, without signifying any particular experience. We are not even a time-limited “subjective” version of such a camera. We can speak of this omniscient experience just as we can speak of a square circle, but we can’t really picture it. That’s because, in an a-logical—non-logical—way, it is nonsense. Through intuition we know that in such a world, there would be no objects. No objects, no intentionality. No intentionality, no objects.*

You might’ve guessed by now that intentionality is broader than what we mean when we say, “I intend to fix this,” but includes such statements and meanings. Plus, intentionality is not attention, necessarily, but includes attention.

What intentionality does is acknowledge that there is always a foreground and background to experience. The background is a vague summation of the world. This world may not be the world of science, may not include the world ‘in itself’ (or it may, phenomenologically, but let’s not get too complicated here). Let’s say for now that, at a minimum, it’s a world that’s available for us, and therefore it coheres in a loose sense—it must. This background is what Husserl calls the “horizon.” It can be thought of as a potential experience, past or future, which has not yet shown itself or is not now in view. The horizon is also infinite (more on this later.)

Intentionality is mostly passive as we go about our everyday lives, and on philosophical-phenomenological reflection we can “see” it operating, to some extent.

We quickly disregard what isn’t relevant to us at the moment while simultaneously knowing that those things that are currently irrelevant or out-of-focus—on the horizon—are possible experiences that could come into the foreground. Those background possibilities constitute our foreground experiences. We know what’s behind us in a loose sense. We have expectations about what’s behind us and those inform our foreground experiences.

I repeat, these foreground experiences are not necessarily “paying attention.” More often than not, we’re not trying to focus.

We grasp content in its context, leaping ahead to the most likely meaning or its totality, its unity, often unaware of other possible meanings or interpretations of the content, although further investigation may warrant a change. This is all done in a flash due to the intentional nature of our experience. The horizon, the background, is operating at the same time that we make the leap. The meaning of words/objects are constituted in time and situation, and this constitution is holistic, yet adaptable and subject to constraints.

Furthermore, the object or content of the experience is the way we look at it. Here’s a good example found in this article:

Consider the plight of poor Oedipus Rex. Oedipus despised the man he killed on the road from Delphi although he did not despise his own father; he desired to marry the Queen although he did not desire to marry his mother; and he loathed the murderer of King Laius before he came to loathe himself. But of course the man he killed was his father, the Queen was his mother, and he himself was the King’s murderer. How shall we describe the intentionality of such acts? Oedipus’ desire, for example, seems to have been directed toward Queen Jocasta, but not toward his mother. But Queen Jocasta and Oedipus’ mother were the very same person…Oedipus’ desire was therefore not simply “for” Jocasta: it was for Jocasta as conceived in a particular way. And the same sort of thing is true, not only of Oedipus’ mental states, but of everyone else’s as well…The intentionality of an act depends not just on which object the act represents but on a certain conception of the object represented.

The intentional conception of an X is not just an imposition of our minds on “facts” and therefore subject to error. (Remember, intentionality is always there, and it doesn’t always err. Error is just a clear way of showing the difference between fact and intention.) The example above demonstrates how meaning is constituted, but also how new conceptions can arise from new evidence. The meaning of Oedipus Rex would be entirely lost on us if we did not understand Oedipus’ intentions and the context which guided those intentions.

*Here I’m combining “object” and “content” for the sake of avoiding pedantry. We’ve established we’re not talking about noumena, so I hope you’ll excuse my sloppy language.


Meaning Constitution

Let’s look at our intentionality, our guiding mental behavior, linguistically.

Consider the sentence: The pig is in the pen.

I would be incredulous if you interpreted this sentence to mean, “There is a pig that is inside a writing instrument.” (Unless you happened to look down at the picture first, and you probably did because images tend to command attention. And there’s another topic for discussion…but anyway. Pretend you didn’t.)

The truth about the world, the background—that pigs don’t fit in writing instruments—informs your foreground interpretation. Yet you did not (I hope) have to analyze the sentence and determine all possible meanings of the word “pen” in order to arrive at your interpretation. You probably didn’t even think of writing instruments.

Consider the sentence: The pig is in the pen. Then imagine someone pointing to this while saying the sentence:


The pig is in the pen?

You might laugh and say, “Well, the pig is on the pen, or maybe the pig’s relationship to the pen is something about which we don’t wish to speculate.” Whatever the case may be, the sentence now has a different meaning constitution. You might wonder…why would the speaker say, “The pig is in the pen?” Does this person speak English? Is this person having a prepositional brain fart?

And the best question: Would you have considered “pen” in this case as signifying “an enclosure for animals”? Probably not in this situation.

Or maybe the speaker of the sentence is a moderately funny, punny person who has this whole theory about truth and language and you two have discussed this pig in the pen example on many occasions.* In this case, you might grasp both meanings of “pen” simultaneously to get the joke. You might only get the joke because you know this person makes this sort of joke on a regular basis.

As you can see, the holistic interpretation is adaptable and situational; even as it “runs ahead of itself,” it is subject to all sorts of constraints. In other words, intentionality is not just some willy-nilly imagining of the world, some sort of act of creation from nothing.

Also, this “leaping ahead” applies to all experience of objects, not just language interpretation. In my next post, I’ll go into further detail on this topic. Be on the lookout for eidos…

Ha ha. (Okay, not funny. But you’ll “see” what I mean later.)

*This is my husband’s example, which he used in a different context in his unpublished book on language and generosity (Donald Davidson’s “charity”).