Utrecht University            

Rob van Gerwen's | Welcome | Teaching | Research | Contact | Weblog | Sitemap | Consilium Philosophicum

Research: | Bibliography | Resume | Directions | Download | Dim Lit Philosophy
Weblog | Dim Lit Philosophy | Kort Commentaar | Teaching | Technical

Rob van Gerwen

May 21, 2016

Index Supervenience Agency Lanzmann's ban Propaganda Cave Gaze
Grammar Memory Schopenhauer Art practice Music Art's Morale Issues

Philosophical Directions
The effort of understanding

Philosophical Grammar of the Language Game of Expression

Abstract of the argument on this page

Facial expressions or emotions are no clear-cut entities---treating them as if they are is probably done for theoretical/philosophical reasons.
Let us sort out these reasons by way of a philosophical grammar of the ways in which we talk about expressions and empathies.

Expression: the paradigm situation

What would be the paradigm situation to study facial expression? Would it be a room with two people in it who are already fully socialized with each other, say a woman, Jean, and her husband, Pete? Or two people who have never before laid eyes on each other? Or is the paradigm situation that, of a patient, Carl, and his therapist, Frank? Or is the paradigm that of you observing your own expression in the mirror? Or, lastly, should we take that mirroring metaphorically, not literally; should we take the other as our mirrors?

Frank, the therapist seems to be in a great position to understand Carl's expressions. Frank is schooled in psychology, so he'll know how to interpret each and every aspect of Carl's expressive behaviour. He'll also know which aspects of that expressive behavious is due to projections of emotions felt towards the therapist, as in transference, etc.

The other situation has something in it too. The husband will not only know his wife very well, he also shares an emotional system of interaction. His wife merely has to nudge at times, or he will know what she wants, etc.

Seeing our own reflection in the mirror has something to speak for it too. We know exactly which elements in our facial displays are sincere and which aren't, and we know 'from the inside' what it is that is expressed outwardly. Can we facially lie to ourselves in the mirror?

Apparently, we learn about our own expressions through other people's responses. We are not normally, puzzled by our own faces in the mirror, nor are we pleasantly surprised if we see our faces do what we expect them to do. Yet, whenever others respond to our faces the way we would like them to, we realize that our faces express what we want them to express.

What goes wrong?

Now for the disadvantages: the therapist is in a sense a distinct observer. He shall interact with his patient, like any person will, but being the schooled psychologist that he is, and given the expectations that his patient will have of him, Carl's, the patient's expressions are bound to be quiet and indrawn, instead of clear and distinct. The therapeutic situation is, in a sense, an artificial situation, not one where expression and empathy are in their natural surrounding.

Yet, the everyday situation of husband and wife have a different disadvantage: the interactions between these two people tend to be determined by habit and mutual expectations, rather than by spontaneous expression and empathetic response. That is, the expression-response relation relation tends, here, to be coloured by a system that makes it rather unsuitable as a paradigm situation to study expression and its responsive counterpart.

When do we ever actually see our own expressions? Hardly ever, do we? Yet we seem to know how to hold our faces in various circumstances. How did we actually get to know our own facial expressions? Whenever we study see them in a mirror, we immediately become self-conscious about our faces and this will change the expression. If we cannot fool ourselves in the mirror, then there is, also, no need for us to interpret our face in any way. To ourselves our faces do not speak. (The only exception is physical, for instance when we see in the mirror just how ill we are.)

Lastly, if we learn about our own expressions via other people's responses, is it our own expressions that we learn about or is it, perhaps, really only their responses?

The penultimate question

The penultimate question seems to become: can we ever know our own facial expressions? Maybe, then, wanting to find the way in which a person knows (about) his own facial expressions is a wrongheaded approach of what social interaction really is. Put differently, we may have been conceiving facial expression in third-person terms (an observer coming to grips with an object), whereas we should have conceived of it as a second-personal process of reciprocal adjusting between an I and a you.
What might our next step be?

A typical conversation

Two friends communicate:

Peter last time, when we ate in the Thai restaurant, you remember?
Dan Yes, I remember.
Peter I felt afterwards, when I returned home, that you had not treated me the way I would have wanted you to.
Dan How is that? What did I do wrong?
Peter I felt you were agressive towards me, didn't listen to my tales the way you used to do.
Dan What did I do?
Peter Like I am trying to tell, but again, you are not listening. You are being aggressive towards me, now. What is the matter with you? What did I do wrong?
Dan Hey, there is no anger here. I am not aggressive.

Who is right?
How could we decide?
Is the issue settled with Dan's denial? Surely he knows whether or not he has been (and is) aggressive towards his friend? Well, is that so? Does he recognize his own feelings of jealousy? Does he know he is depressed and hates his friend for being at ease with himself?
Is the fact that Peter feels within himself the feeling with which he responds to an act of aggression decisive, then? He might be projecting things too?

Which model should we pick to think this through?

Emotional wars and peaces

Isn't facial expression (and all physical movement that comes with it) the arena where we fight our emotional wars and enjoy our emotional peaces?

We say this and that but a single glance may tell the other how much is meant by it and who we betray through it. Our expressions provide the necessary qualifications. Other people tend to flawlessly get our meaning.


The following examples of philosophical grammar from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations give one an inkling as to its nature, and, at the same time provide the beginnings of an analysis of the language game of expression.

on p. 217e (c):
'Talking' (whether out loud or silently) and 'thinking' are not concepts of the same kind; even though they are in closest connexion.
[I added the bracketed letter to refer to the exact paragraph on the page, RvG]

We might rather say that they are different types of events because talking includes a social context of listeners (whether real or fictional), thinking does not, and this will make a difference for the nature of the contents at stake. There is feedback from social effects onto these contents---there is an analogy, here to be elaborated, with expression.

On p. 217e (d):
The interest of the experiences one has while speaking and of the intention is not the same. (The experiences might perhaps inform a psychologist about the unconscious intention.)

This is a good distinction. Asking about the emotional nature of someone's expression is not by far the same as asking what his intentions were. Intentions are conscious rational considerations. What one feels while speaking is a qualifier of the propositions uttered, which need not be conscious or rational at all. Yet, they need not be less real because of that. Wittgenstein seems to be neutral as to that point, maybe so as to avoid mingling in the often non-falsifiable discourse of psychological explanation. I think the non-falsifiability of our attributions in this context are 'essential', and they ask for a functional approach, rather than an intentional one. My interest is in how the experience's colouring the intention shows.

On p. 217e (i):
The language-game "I mean (or meant) this" (subsequent explanation of a word) is quite different from this one: "I thought of ... as I said it." The latter is akin to "It reminded me of ...".

What one means by saying or doing something is not identical to what one thinks explicitly; hence: one's rational, conscious considerations need not be the sole explanators of the meaning of some expressive display. There is something like a personal history of meanings though (and, hence, of being reminded) in what you mean(t).

After these specifications it becomes possible to understand what Wittgenstein says on the top of

p. 217e (a):
Meaning is as little an experience as intending.

What you mean or intend shows from the things you do. Meanings and intentions are not identifiable experiences in your mind.

Ready to analyse emotion

Analogous to Wittgenstein's remark about the different concepts 'talking' and 'thinking', we should view (facial) expression as a different concept from emotion. Expressing is not an experience, feeling (an emotion) is.

Now that we are here, we are ready to finally proceed towards a head-on analysis of the emotions. We are now ready to address questions such as

My thesis

I suggest that we conceive of emotional attributions as merely one subset of attributions derived from an understanding of expressiveness---the subset that corresponds to mental events that the other (the expressor) is consciously aware of (and which listen to some definition of `emotion').The larger set of attributions comprises Frijda's states of action readiness and, moreover, Fridlund's behavioral ecological meanings.

The advantages of this thesis

Consequences of this thesis

Analysing the emotions head-on

Analysing the emotions head-on, as the disjoint occurrent events that we (common sense, folk psychology) take them to be, may, thus, be little more than elaborating the cultural system used to identify them in the first place. Not coincidentally Elster concentrates on the role of propositional attitudes---this tendency is even stronger in Peter Goldie and Robert Solomon's cognitivism. It is too weak in william James and Lange, and just right in the approaches that put a premium on non-conscious processes that underlie the emotion, which our thesis views like the mental correlate of the continuous process of expressing.

Inside the Brain in the Vat [The Emptied Room argument]

The Brain in a Vat-argument

The Brain in a Vat-argument is a globally scepticist argument based on the counterfactual scenario that we are not the embodied persons whom we think we are, i.e. that we do not act or perceive things and events like we think we do, but are a brain in a vat, fed with neuro-electronic currents by a machine or a mad scientist. (The argument is a contemporary variation upon Descartes' famous dream argument, in the first of his Meditations.)
The point is, that we cannot prove not to be a brain in a vat by referring to things we can do, such as our being able to get up and fill ourselves a cup of coffee, arguing that certainly these are things no brain in a vat could possibly do. Whatever it is that we think we can counter the sceptical argument with, it could be produced by mere neuronal activity fed to the brain.

Against the globality of this scepticism [the neutrality issue]

The strength of the Brain in a Vat-argument is its global scope: it goes against each and every knowledge claim; nothing can be really known. One could opt out easily by arguing that the argument's strength is, at the same time, its flaw. If every claim whichever is to fall under it, then it will have no effect on any particular claim. Its globality neutralises the argument. It is as inconsequential to deny that we know anything as it is to claim that we know everything.
Popper might say that the brain in a vat scenario cannot be falsified and, hence, is meaningless.
Barry Stroud has argued that the argument universalises over a particular scenario without further argument, even though the scenario is highly counter-intuitive. David Lewis argues that the relevance of a counterfactual depends on the measure of its similarity to real-life cases.

Against the counterfactuality of this scepticism [the impracticality issue]

Expanding on Stroud's and Lewis's arguments, we can argue that the counterfactual scenario of the brains in a vat argument just is too far off.
We can come up with as foolish and far-fetched counterfactuals as imagination possibly allows for. David Hume warned us against this: imagination can play with our ideas in absolute freedom, but that does not prove viable any of the arguments based on such free associating. Hume's warning was to keep asking for the basis of our ideas in our impressions, or else ... "Commit it to the flames".
In keeping with this warning, an alternative approach to the brain in a vat argument would be to seek out its practical, perceptual or psychological applicability.

The Matrix

In fact, the film The Matrix (1999, directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski) can be interpreted as trying to do just that: trying to find out what freeing the brain from its vat might be like in reality.
Neo, the main character in the film, can be seen to live in a reality that befits the brain in a vat scenario: everything he experiences, all of his perceptions and thoughts and feelings, are fed into a brain by machines. The brain is kept by the machines as a battery; they found out it produces more energy than it consumes. [First concession: the machines need a reason to keep brains in a vat, don't they?]
Mind you, in the film, the brain is in a vat, but it is not a brain at all: it is full grown human body. [Another concession: the brain, when freed, should be capable to live the kind of life that it is fed to believe it was already living.]
But obviously the neuronal tracks in this body have not developed into anything resembling the muscle structure of a living human body. The nerves have been unemployed for decades, so how can they be activated? In the film an accupuncturish device is used to reactivate the nervous system. Like this the impracticality of the freed brain is 'solved'. [It is not very convincing, but the necessity for some such solution is evident.]

In short, The Matrix-project is an effort as serious and intelligible as it could possibly get, to think through the applicability of the brain in a vat scenario. Once you start down this road, though, the sceptic's global plight evaporates. It becomes evident that you would need all sorts of realities to set it up in the first place.
So, are we through now with this silly philosophism? Hell, no.

Inside the Brain in a Vat

Cognitive Science in its reductionist varieties, thinks it can skip the applicability issue altogether, and look straight into the brain and at the electric currents it measures at work there, not bothered by any questions of meanings, knowledge and the lives of organisms. [Think of McDowell's criticism of Daniel Dennett's views on the contents of perception.]
There is really only one difference with the brain in a vat scenario. It is that, in Cognitive Science, the currents that are fed into the brain are viewed as originating from the body, not from an external source, such as a machine or a mad scientist.

Emotions in the brain? [The Emptied Room argument]

What can be learned from these arguments for the reductionist thought that emotions consist in electric currents in our brains? Let us expand the horizon of the ambitious project of cognitive science. Imagine a future in which we shall finally be capable to identify each and every emotion by sets of brain processes. [I will not stretch your imagination too far by asking you to think of that future as one in which we talk about our emotions in terms of electric currents and brain processes. But obviously that part of it belongs to the fantasies of cognitive science, too.]
Now imagine two rooms. The one is decorated and furnished in standard manner and contains two men, Pete and John, who are having a fight over a woman whom they both claim to love. At a certain point, Pete enrages over something John said, and he lashes out and smacks John in the face. Suppose now, that whatever happens in Pete's brains when he lashes out in anger is caught by some kind of Blue-toothed infra-red device, and beamed straight into the brain of Jack, who is in another room, that is emptied of everything, decoration, objects, people. There is only one chair in this emptied room, and Jack is sitting in it whilst being fed the neuro-physiological data that made Peter feel angry and lash out at John (when they were still in Peter).
Would you say that Jack feels angry? Does he feel an emotion in the first place? Does it make sense to think that whatever Jack experiences is emotional in any way comparable to what Peter went through (love, jealousy, hatred, rage)? How could it be?
In all probability, Jack will experience all kinds of weird things, he might even think he were looking at another man, whom he might feel the need to call 'John' [perhaps those data were beamed over in the process], but does that mean that he is looking at a person whom he knows to be John? Of course not. There is no-one in the room, is there? Whatever Jack is going through, and whichever concepts are implanted in his brain-waves, he will not be capable of making any sense of them, because he could not possibly embed them in a narrative with a psychological history that he feels he should call his own, nor in a more narrowly conceived narrative about the input of his senses of the last few minutes, or hours.
He would feel some physiological disturbance of sorts, but fully lack the language to understand it [the James-Lange theory is of no help]. This way to put it is in accordance with a Wittgensteinian approach, such as presented by Anthony Kenny, in terms of language games and meaning is use.
[As a matter of fact, I have applied a similar argument to what I call the ontological fallacy in aesthetics: it is impossible to make sense of the behaviour of fictional characters on the film screen if you take them to be constructions in the imagination of the audience on the basis of the behaviour perceived in real actors. Human agency calls for an extended mind]

Killing our Species by Science. Eliminative Materialism as a Pseudo Science

The central claim

Yesterday, I explained an argument to my class, and one of the students stared at me in disbelieve. Then, after taking my explanation into consideration, he smiled---some sort of smile of defeat.
Eliminative Materialism claims that that smile is all and only physiology---muscle contractions and neurophysiology.
In a sense, that is indisputably true, but in what sense? And is it saying much about why the student smiles and what the smile means (to him, or me)?

... is in the Configurational Mode

There is only one viable way to be Eliminative Materialist, and that is in the Configurational Mode of Comprehension. (My thesis, but Mink's terms). We might imagine a post-human future where strong computers "survey" all the "details", and "describe" the smile exhaustively, thus providing the whole configuration. The major problem with such a configurative survey is that its truth requires the survey to be total.
[I have to put all these terms in quotation marks, as they willl all, in that far future, have changed their present meanings into something inconceivable at present. Which will be the relevant details? What will surveying amount to? And what will describing consist in?]

But what does it amount to?

Of course, such an ultimate description may not involve use of the words "smile", "defeat", "response", "consideration", "explanation", etc.---lest Eliminative Materialism would fail its claim of eliminating reference to meaning.
How would this description start, though? Surely, it may not base its beginnings on a description like the one I provided above? That would beg the question. Eliminative Materialism would lose all its acclaimed explanatory powers.

How would it start?

Assuming, for the sake of the argument, that these issues of semantics are successfully avoided---where would the description then start? With which physiological event? Birth? Conception? Any other particular moment? Sunrise at January 8th, 2008? The starting point would have to be legitimated without having recourse to any of the terms used in the description above.
Assuming we allow the eliminativist to start at some moment that we decide upon, for our obvious reasons, but without telling the eliminativist about those reasons---and, similarly, with regard to the moment where her description may stop; What would make the Eliminative Materialist's description count as a reductionist description of the smile described above?
[What if our student was actually reminded of a certain situation where he himself triumfed over his dominant father, 18 years ago? And his smile concerned the entrance of his mother in that particular situation?].
An Eliminative Materialist scientist might claim he could discover such discrepancies, but how would he come to know what they entail? Surely he would have to reintroduce the semantics he claims to be able to eliminate.

No theoretical description of agency

As a corollary, Eliminative Materialism can never be in a theoretical mode, applying laws, predicting responses. It can, at best, provide us with that Leibnizian God's eye point of view that is in the Configurational mode, meaning that it will at best provide us with a temporal slice of reality (without any semantic structuring)---correction: not a slice: all of time.
Lastly, supposing that this point of view will indeed ever be reached, what good would it do people in everyday circumstances---apart from providing it with a shadow world consisting of primary qualities alone. We could not relate to Eliminative Materialism's conclusions and would be asked to obey them without being able to critically assess them.
[Embedded in the heart of modern democracy is a counterdemocratic movement.]

A world without objects or events

In all, Eliminative Materialism should ask itself which of the resultant data found a description like the one I provided above. Perhaps, in that far away future such questions are evaporated and inapplicable---we will have turned into non-logical, non-semantic, nonmoral, non-rational fleshy machines. Presently, no human can wittingly desire such a future that lacks love and hate, meaning and value, without objects or events even.

As to prediction

Can one predict a person's next action on the basis of the processes identified within his neurophysiology? Could there be laws of agential consequences that go beyond the apparent existence of processes within this one particular person? Why did not all students in my class respond with a similar smile (why not: the same smile)?
Eliminative Materialism probably retorts by claiming the interference of other as lawlike processes---but shouldn't such unfalsifiable claims remind us of other pseudo-sciences like astrology?

Consequences and Conclusions

From this, one might derive a moral argument against a certain type of scientific progress (which goes by the name of Eliminative Materialism).
Also, why would Eliminative Materialism's description be restricted to what goes on in our nervous system? Surely, data from without should enter the picture as well. But again: which?
A Configurational narrative approach (Mink) is viable, tenable, and adequate to social "texts" (Ricoeur's term), but Eliminative Materialism is neither.


dancy:contempDancy, Jonathan. 1985. An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. kenny:actionKenny, Anthony. 2003 (1963)a. Action, Emotion and Will. London and New York: Routledge. lewis:counterfactualsLewis, David. 1973. Counterfactuals. Oxford: Blackwell. mcd:contentMcDowell, John. 1998. “The content of perceptual experience.” In Mind, Value, & Reality, 341-58. Cambridge, Mass and London, England: Harvard University Press. mink:comprehensionMink, Louis O. 1969. “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension.” New Literary History 1:541–58. ricoeur:modeltextRicoeur, Paul. 1973. “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text.” New Literary History 5:91–117. stroud:scepticismStroud, Barry. 1984. The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell.


Brain in the Vat, Inside the [The Emptied Room argument]
Eliminative Materialism [as Pseudo Science]