Tuesday, 21 January 2020

The Philosophy Museum

This post is by Anna Ichino, University of Milan.

Have you ever visited a Philosophy Museum? I bet not. Apparently, indeed, there aren’t any Philosophy Museums in the world. Or better: there aren’t any yet… But together with my colleagues at the Philosophy Department of the University of Milan we have decided that it is time to build the first one. In this post, I’ll tell you about this exciting project.

What we had in mind was not an historically-minded museum collecting relics about the lives and works of important philosophers; but something more dynamic and interactive – built on the model of the best science museums – where philosophical problems and theories become intuitively accessible through a variety of games, activities, experiments, aesthetic experiences, and other such things.

Easier to say than to do, no doubt. It’s an ambitious project, and to put it into action we had to proceed gradually. We started with a temporary exhibition, which took place in our University from November 5th to 21st. There, we created the first two actual halls of what we hope will soon become a permanent museum, together with a third ‘programmatic’ hall where we presented the plan for what still needs to be done.

Thanks to a generous funding awarded to our Department as a part of a MIUR Excellence Scheme, we could rely on professional help from museum experts, graphic designers, and multimedia studios, in order to build an aesthetically appealing environment where complex ideas were communicated in fun and engaging ways.

The first hall was quite introductory– devoted to the nature of philosophical problems and methodologies.

We used images like Mary Midgely’s ‘conceptual plumbing’ or Wittgenstein’s ‘fly bottle’ to convey the idea according to which philosophical problems are in important respects conceptual problems, which amount to analysing concepts that we commonly use in unreflective ways. Visitors were led to realise the difficulties that arise as soon as we try define common concepts like ‘self’, ‘freedom’, ‘time’, ‘moral responsibility’, etc... We then introduced two important tools that philosophers use to analyse such concepts: the construction of thought experiments, on the one hand, and the formulation of paradoxes, on the other.

On this basis, visitors were ready to move to the second hall, where they could literally play with paradoxes and thought experiments in order to appreciate their heuristic role in philosophical inquiry.

In the ‘Personal Identity Goose Game’, for instance, different theories of personal identity were illustrated through a journey into the relevant thought experiments (figure 3). To begin, every player had to ‘adopt’ one theory – choosing between the psychological theory, the bodily theory, or the brain theory. Then, every square on the track corresponded to the scenario of a different thought experiment (scenarios like teletransportation, brain transplant, fission, metamorphoses, etc…); and when one landed on each of them, she had to guess whether or not, according to the theory she adopted, that was a scenario in which she’d have survived. If she guessed correctly, she could roll the die once again. She could also try to ‘kill’ her opponents (i.e. to make them miss a turn) by moving their pawns into squares-scenarios where, according to ‘their’ theories of personal identity, they wouldn’t have survived.

In the ‘paradox of fiction game’, the three mutually inconsistent propositions that give rise to the paradox corresponded to three different cards: players were asked to solve the paradox by discarding one of the three, and finding a suitable alternative from a deck of cards describing different philosophical theories. So, for instance, one who ‘discarded’ the proposition according to which we can feel genuine pity for Harry Potter, could pick the card describing Walton’s ‘quasi-emotions’ theory.

To further illustrate the complex relations between imagination, belief, and emotions, we did also replicate a series of famous experiments in which participants were asked to do such things as eating chocolates shaped as a cat’s excrements, signing a pact where they gave their soul away to the Devil, or wearing the (perfectly sterilized) pullover that (so they were told) previously belonged a serial-killer.

The second hall also included a ‘paradoxes of perception game’, a ‘trolley-problem game’, and several animation-videos devoted to other intriguing paradoxes and thought experiments.

To conclude the visit, the ‘School of Athens’ game’ – in which visitors had to decide whether to back Plato or Aristotle; then they could also take a souvenir-picture portraying themselves in the shoes (or better, in the face!) of one or the other.

Whilst building all this was a really hard work, it was definitely compensated by the enthusiastic response of the public. We had more than three thousand visitors in less than three weeks (including thirty-four high-school classes), who gave us very positive and stimulating feedbacks. We now hope to find soon a permanent home for our Philosophy Museum.

In the meanwhile, you can visit the project’s website and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. There is also a photo gallery published by La Repubblica

You can look at the Museum’s catalogue, and watch this short video presenting the project. (Unfortunately, all this material is currently in Italian only; but English translations are on their way!)

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Phenomenological Psychopathology

Today's post is by Joseph Houlders, doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham. In this post, he reports on the book launch for the new Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology. The event took place on 22 July 2019, and was chaired by one of the editors of the handbook, Professor Matthew Broome, Director of the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Birmingham.

Five contributors to the handbook spoke at the launch:

  • Professor Christoph Hoerl, Understanding, explaining and the concept of psychic illness 
  • Dr Clara Humpston, Thoughts without thinkers: The paradox of thought insertion 
  • Professor Femi Oyebode, Consciousness and its Disorders 
  • Dr Anthony Vincent Fernandez, Phenomenology and Psychiatric Classification
  • Dr Gareth Owen, Psychopathology and Law: what does phenomenology have to offer? 
The launch began with an apt question: to what extent can we understand and explain psychic illness? The central theme of the afternoon was how phenomenology may, or may not, shed light on issues in psychopathology – a field of research which studies ‘abnormal’ mental events. This involves asking what phenomenology is, to think about how best to put into dialogue with psychopathology. The answer to this is complicated, owing partially to a diversity of approaches and emphases amongst phenomenologists (and phenomenologically-inclined psychiatrists). Husserl’s phenomenology is different to Merleau-Ponty’s, and Merleau-Ponty’s is different to Heidegger’s, though there are of course many similarities too. To make matters more complicated, these figures differ not only with each other, but also with themselves: there are marked differences between their early and later writings.

Clara Humpston

There is a rich history of work in phenomenological psychopathology to help think about what the interaction between phenomenology and psychopathology can consist of, and when this interaction seems to work best. Many interesting examples were discussed during the presentations, for example: insights from the original phenomenological psychiatrist, Karl Jaspers; and ongoing interdisciplinary work carried out by Dan Zahavi and colleagues at the Centre for Subjectivity Research.

The talks and conversations that followed were often, at root, about the limits of communication and empathy. Mental disorder can include global alterations in experience of self and environment, and radical departures from ‘normal’ modes of experience, which can be very difficult to understand and to put into words. So, whilst we might agree that psychiatry should be about more than biological processes, there is still a worry about whether it is possible to conceive of and describe many of the subjective aspects of mental illness. Many argue that it is possible, and suggest that whilst there are, of course, limits to what we can describe (there is always a gap between the description of the phenomenon and the actual experienceof the phenomenon), this does not preclude improving our understanding of subjective experience of mental disorder to at least some degree.

The question of precisely what the phenomenological tradition offers to psychiatry was raised during the launch. For example, what does familiarity with the thought of Heidegger give a psychiatrist that they do not already have / would not eventually learn from their practice? Would they not already be aware of / would they eventually become aware of the importance of e.g. time, mood, and death in a patient’s experience? Do some of the concepts from phenomenology only serve to make conversations about a patient more abstract? Or are they, on the contrary, vital for the conceptualisation of certain symptoms reported by patients, which could otherwise seem mystifying? 

Femi Oyebode

One of the things that phenomenology appears to offer to psychiatry, or at least certain iterations of psychiatry, e.g. ‘operational’ psychiatry, known for its checklists of symptoms and tendency towards reductionism, is a reminder of the fundamental importance of the wider context of an individual’s experience. Whilst this reminder may seem like common-sense, the subjective, existential aspects of patients’ experience can be undervalued, forgotten, or ignored in psychiatric practice. By the lights of phenomenology at least, this appears to be a profound mistake.

The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology is the result of a large and interdisciplinary collaboration: it took around 5 years to complete, and it has 98 chapters in total. It covers historical and contemporary work in the field and, of course, devotes a lot of analysis to first-person experience of a host of mental disorders, including schizophrenia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Congratulations to all who have been involved in putting it together!

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Self, Others and the State: Relations of Criminal Responsibility

Today's post is by Arlie Loughnan who is Professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Law Theory and Co-Director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Manifest Madness: Mental Incapacity in Criminal Law (OUP 2012).

Criminal responsibility – the basis on which individuals are called to account for criminal conduct, and the form or structure of the criminal law – is now central to criminal law, but it is in need of re-examination. In the context of Australian criminal laws, my book, Self, Others and the State: Relations of Criminal Responsibility reassesses the general assumptions made about the rise to prominence of criminal responsibility in the period since around the turn of the twentieth century. In my account, I pay close and careful attention to the intricacies of developments in criminal responsibility, and reconsider the role and significance of criminal responsibility in criminal law. I argue that criminal responsibility is significant as it organises keys sets of relations – between self, others and the state – as relations of responsibility. Recognising this role for criminal responsibility shows that it is the means by which matters of subjectivity, relationality and power make themselves felt in the criminal law in particular ways. My analysis reveals the gradual and distinctive way in which criminal law came to be organised around criminal responsibility, and exposes the complexity and dynamism of the relations of responsibility that subtend criminal responsibility principles and practices.

My book comprises detailed studies of decisive moments and developments in criminal law since the turn of the twentieth century, and presents original explorations of relations of responsibility. For the readers of this blog, one of these three explorations of relations of responsibility may be of particular interest: relations of responsibility around the self. In my analysis of the self in relations of responsibility, I focus on the gendered self and examined women’s responsibility for crime. I argue that, on the level of legal form, women’s responsibility for crime is marked by particularity and specificity – as opposed to the generality and universalism claimed for criminal responsibility under the dominant legal-philosophical account. This particularity and specificity is evident in what I call atypical responsibility forms – those forms that are restricted to particular individuals committing particular offences in particular contexts, and in which elements, such as offence and defence, conduct and fault, that are usually separate, are mixed together. Together, two sets of atypical responsibility forms determine the contours of women’s responsibility for crime over the twentieth century.

These two sets of atypical responsibility forms governing women’s responsibility for crime correspond to different relations of responsibility between self, others and the state. In the first half of the twentieth century, legal accommodation of violence by women meant that relations of responsibility centred on the relations of the accused woman with herself, where this relation was oriented around a personalised and psychologised notion of individual integrity. In recent decades, legal accommodation of violence against women oriented the self in relation to others, encompassing an extended sense of women’s autonomy, and implicating other actors, including state actors such as the police, in fulfilling that autonomy. This has meant that women’s responsibility for crime now has an ameliorative tenor, with the atypical responsibility forms that now populate the criminal law constituting an admission of state failure to protect women from violence.