Tuesday 26 May 2020

Experts in Mental Health

Rosa Ritunnano

This post is by Rosa Ritunnano, consultant psychiatrist and doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham, reporting from the 21st Annual Conference of the International Network for Philosophy and Psychiatry (INPP). 

The event took place from 22nd-24th October 2019 at the University of Warsaw; it was organised by the Open Seminars in Philosophy and Psychiatry Foundation, with support of the Polish Phenomenological Association and the Phenomenology and Mental Health Network (Collaborating Centre for Values Based Practice, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford). A special thank you note goes to Marcin Moskalewicz (member of the organising committee) for sharing some of photos included in the post.


The INPP conference brought together researchers and professionals working at the interface between Philosophy and Mental Health from 32 countries and provided a lively forum to discuss developments and challenges for the next generation – particularly in relation to psychiatric expertise, methodological pluralism, and issues of values and ethics in mental health. This overarching theme provided a broad framework for other assorted topics cutting across cultures of healing, psychiatric models and “psy” disciplines (psychiatry, psychology, psychopathology, psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, the philosophy of mind and the like). Keynote lectures, parallel sessions and workshops ran enthusiastically over three full on days and across beautiful historical locations in Warsaw such as the Staszic Palace (seat of the Polish Academy of Sciences), pictured above.

Due to the abundance of notable contributions which I cannot address comprehensively in this brief report, I have decided to focus on a few talks in the areas of phenomenology and psychopathology (very much overlapping with my current research interests). Here is a full list of speakers and abstracts.

Louis Sass

In his keynote lecture “Everywhere and nowhere: reflections on phenomenology as impossible and indispensable (in psychology and psychiatry)”, Louis Sass offered some crucial reflections concerning the question of what phenomenology is intended to reveal. Louis addressed the concept of subjectivity as a focus of attention which is both indispensable and–from a certain perspective–impossible. It seems obvious, he argued, that the investigation of consciousness would lie at the heart of the “psy” disciplines as the most important of subjects. However, there is much about the study subjectivity that remains both enigmatic and obscure due to the complex ontological and epistemological nature of this domain. Granted, phenomenology needs to maintain a complex and self-critical attitude towards its own project, so how can we approach the investigation of subjective life?

To clarify this point, Sass discussed how subjectivity should not be approached and guarded against three specific forms of error: 1) prejudice and the failure to “bracket”, 2) problems associated with reflection, and 3) Heidegger’s “forgetting of the ontological difference”–which is arguably the most fundamental error. Following this via negativa, Sass took us through a powerful intellectual journey through the well-know tradition of phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty) and offered a critique of logical positivism, reductionist physicalism and other strands of analytic philosophy that might conceive of phenomenology as some kind of ill-defined mysticism, superficial introspectionism or na├»ve foundationalism. 

Bill Fulford and Giovanni Stanghellini

Among others, Giovanni Stanghellini offered precious insights into the nature of the phenomenological endeavour and described it akin to a “dance around the heart of being”, an “infinite approximation to phenomena” (where what really counts is the very art of approximation). It could be also assimilated to architecture, he said (quoting the Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi), which is concerned with the art of “building columns in the void and turn emptiness into a quasi-liveable space”.

Panel with Francesca Brencio, Veronica Iubei and Valeria Bizzari

Francesca Brencio (Assistant Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Seville) led a panel session along with Veronica Iubei (PhD candidate, Clinic University of Heidelberg) and Valeria Bizzari (Postdoctoral researcher, Clinic University of Heidelberg). The panel aimed at discussing moods, feelings and atmospheres and how their disruptions can affect psychopathological phenomena–such as affective disorders and schizophrenia.

Brencio kicked the panel session off with a talk entitled “How do you feel? Disruption of moods and feelings in affective states”, during which she provided the philosophical framework for a truly interdisciplinary discussion of affective psychopathology. Brencio turned to Martin Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein and his pivotal conception of “disposition” (Befindlichkeit) to develop an understanding of the constitutive role of moods in the context of human existence. Moods, she argued, are the means of access to the world as we understand it and signify it; they cannot be confused with emotions or feelings.

Feelings (which are always connected to our lived body) are the key structures of one’s affective life and the basis for intersubjective attunement and intercorporeality. Psychopathological features of affective disorders can thus be understood as originating from a disruption in moods or feelings, through a transformation of the pathic dimension of human existence. This has significant implications for practitioners, who should be aware of the impact of affectivity on meaning-making processes within the clinical encounter.

Moving on to interaffectivity, Iubei’s talk “Expanded bodies. Atmospheres as collective spaces of affective intentionality”, focused on the phenomenological role of atmospheres as “spatialised feelings”. Atmospheres, she argued, are the “in-between” phenomenon for excellence; they create an emotional space where bodily feelings and environmental features merge into an open and constantly evolving intersubjective landscape. Atmospheric disruptions, occurring for example in the context of schizophrenia, reveal that something has happened in this space in-between, where an “abyss” seems to open up and segregate the subject from the familiar world of everyday life. Iubei's doctoral research aims to enrich the phenomenological-existential approach to psychiatric disorders by drawing attention to atmospheres of living as potential therapeutic targets for patients with psychiatric disorders.

Bizzari closed the panel session with a talk entitled “Atmospheric Corporeal Interactions in Schizophrenia”. She argued that most important core disturbance of schizophrenia lies in the inter-corporeal self, and arises already during the atmospheric phase, when the self is not only embodied, but also already involved in the constitution of the social realm. Bizzari briefly addressed the role of disembodiment in the development of schizophrenia and then went on to argue that embodiment is present both in personal and interpersonal atmospheres. 

To support her claim, she offered an analysis of first-person reports from the book Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl by M. Sechehaye (1962), which powerfully describe Renee’s struggle against unreality during the onset of illness. She concluded by arguing that a deficit in the intercorporal self–which is already present in the atmospheric stage–also hinders the development of higher social levels, such as collective emotions.

The conference ended with a closing session: “What are experts for?” involving all keynote speakers, followed by a unique performance of Polish singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Kasia Tercz.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Agency and Rationality Workshop

Mount Fuji from the venue, Komaba campus

On 14th and 15th December 2019 Kengo Miyazono and John O’Dea organised a workshop at the University of Tokyo on themes related to agency and rationality. In this post, I summarise some of the talks presented at the conference.

On day 1, Nikolaj Jang Lee Linding Pedersen (Veritas Research Centre, Underwood International College, Yonsei University) kicked off the workshop with a talk about social media, data analysis, psychological profiling and freedom. Although social media enables connectivity and has a number of other advantages, it represents a threat to privacy. That is because when we register for platforms like Facebook, we give consent to our data being shared, but that does not count as informed consent.

People are often attributed five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Can people be profiled based on their “likes”? It is said that computer-based judgement is better than human judgement about one’s personality if it is based on a large number of likes (based on 10 likes, a computer’s judgement beats one’s co-worker’s judgement; based on 300 likes, a computer’s judgement beats one’s spouse’s judgement).

This raises the problem of unknown, illegitimate influence: this happens when someone wants you to act in a certain way and intentionally does something to make it more likely that you act in that way; now, that person’s action does make it more likely that you act in that way but you would disapprove of your acting in that way in these circumstances if you knew about the person’s influence on your actions and its implications.

According to Pedersen, unknown, illegitimate influence is a phenomenon that should be studied in relation to social media as it appears to be as a limitation of freedom that can happen due to (a) personal information being shared, and (b) data being applied to the personal information that is shared.
The second speaker was Richard Dietz (University of Tokyo) and discussed agency and inconsistency. We make lots of plans in our lives but then we also make choices that conflict with them. One normative question is: What should agents do in order to prevent dynamic inconsistency? One descriptive question is: Why are agents inconsistent?

Richard Dietz

One reason for inconsistency is that preferences are “unruly”, that is, they violate expected utility. We are either risk-averse or influenced by regret avoidance under uncertainty. Moreover, sometimes the options to choose from can be difficult or impossible to compare. Another reason for inconsistency is that we are subject to changes in preferences, due to time bias effects (disproportionate weight on present experiences) or other factors.

Choice can be resolute (the plan with the best prospects is followed) or sophisticated (the feasible plan with the best prospects is followed). Resolution has been defended based on economy of efforts, coordination facilitation, and insurance against biased discounting of long-term benefits and costs. In the second part of his talk, Dietz asked whether rational resolution is possible, in terms of continuing a resolute plan and embarking on a resolute plan, for individual reasoning and team reasoning.

After the lunch break, Akiko Frischhut (Akita International University) talked about the experience of time passage and intelligibility. The question is whether we do experience the passing of time: Frischhut argues for Deflationism, an anti-realist view suggesting that all temporal experiences involve representation of succession that ‘feels like’ time is passing.

The presentation reviewed different accounts of the passage experience and highlighted their weaknesses. For the Realists and the Reductionists, the intelligibility challenge is to explain how we can experience passage in a world where time does not pass.

There is also a problem for the Phenomenal Modifier View, according to which there is a unique feeling of temporal passage (passage quale), but the feeling is not representational. We only feel as if the world is dynamic. On this account it seems that we need conceptual resources to know what we are experiencing as changing. And this is not compatible with phenomenology which should be immediate. What we experience is succession.

This leaves Deflationism. Motion, succession, duration, and persistence are experienced and they give rise to our belief that we are experiencing the passage of time.

Last talk was by Laurie Paul (Yale University) who presented on deliberation and the paradox of empathy for possible selves. She asked how empathy changes when one has transformative experiences, that is, experiences that are both personally and epistemic transformative (e.g., a core preference changes). One example is the choice to become a vampire or have your first child (functionally irreversible choices).

Laurie Paul's slides

To make up your mind whether to become a vampire, you ask a friend who has already become a vampire. Your friend says that it is fabulous to be a vampire, but she cannot explain how—the experience is transformative after all. You lack the information you need to make the choice to become a vampire. That means that these choices cannot be made rationally.

But because we cannot simulate our future (we do not know what it will be like to be the future us), then the risk with transformative choices is that we become alienated from the selves that we are making ourselves into. Paul made an analogy between the incommensurability of the choices we make when we deliberate about undergoing a transformative experience and the incommensurability of Kuhnian paradigms.

When you make a decision for another person, you perform an imaginative act, imagining to have the same cultural background and preferences of the person you want to advise. But, in some cases, you may want to avoid cognitive empathy for fear that by changing perspective you lose control (e.g., opening your mind to one conspiracy theory being true.) You risk ‘cognitive corruption’.

This can be applied to the relationship between us and our future selves. We may become alienated from a future self and refuse to undertake an experience that might change us irreversibly.

Derek Baker (Lingnan University) presented a talk entitled, Deliberation without Authority. He defended a view called deflationary normative pluralism according to which there are multiple different normative domains and widespread incommensurability between kinds of norms and values. There is supposed to be a weak form of normativity in contrast with authoritative normativity but it is not clear what the latter is. Baker argued that the property of authority is either metaphorical or characterised in ways that lead to vicious circularity.

Derek Baker

One objection from Spencer is that pluralism either collapses onto nihilism (standards make no normative difference); or collapses onto subjectivism (some standards make normative difference, those that apply to the domain the agent belongs to). But Baker maintains that pluralism does not work this way; standards do make a difference but there is no overarching normative standard. What is ruled out by the pluralist is an all-things-considered verdict.

The main issue is that critics of pluralism seem to think that arbitrariness needs to be eliminated by normativity but a reflection on the nature of deliberation suggests that arbitrary decision making is necessary to get through life and is there due to epistemic and cognitive limitations.

The conference was very thematically coherent and a great success in terms of speakers exchanging views and learning more about each other's recent work.

Group picture

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Knowledge from a Human Point of View

This post is by Michela Massimi who tells us about a collection she co-edited with Ana-Maria Cretu, Knowledge from a Human Point of View (Springer Synthese Library), available fully open access, courtesy of the European Research Council OA policy.

Knowledge from a Human Point of View is the second edited volume planned for the ERC Consolidator Grant "Perspectival Realism. Science, Knowledge and Truth from a Human Vantage Point" and in my original intentions it was meant to explore the historical roots and epistemological ramifications of the view known as ‘perspectivism’.

Better known these days among philosophers of science working on scientific modelling and pluralism (albeit not exclusively), perspectivism is a view with a long history. What is at stake in the prima facie platitude that our knowledge is always from a human point of view? Whose else’s point of view if not ours, one might immediately retort? Historically, the shift from knowledge sub specie aeternitatis (think of Plato’s theory of knowledge qua knowledge of eternal and immutable forms, just as an example) to knowledge from a human point of view marks a watershed. When is it that we started caring about the conditions that make us—finite human beings—capable of knowledge?

The first half of this edited collection surveys some of the salient historical moments (with no expectation or presumption of offering a complete treatment, of course) that marked this watershed: Zuckert’s chapter on Kant, Hales’s discussion of Nietzsche, Brown’s analysis of the American Pragmatist tradition and De Caro’s of Putnam. In their diversity of philosophical concerns and goals, these chapters remind us of how perspectivism does not lend itself easily to a single unifying definition. Historically very different figures appealed to views that can be called ‘perspectival’ for a variety of reasons—e.g., as a way of marking the boundaries of metaphysics, or of stressing the situated nature of our human knowledge.

The second half of the edited collection looks at the legacy of perspectivism for contemporary debates in epistemology. And here too perspectivism is a fruitful umbrella for a number of cognate philosophical positions. Khalifa and Millson explore how perspectivism relates to inquisitive truth monism as a more promising view than traditional true-belief monism. Ashton discusses the relation between Giere’s scientific perspectivism and feminist standpoint theory. Carter analyses Sosa’s virtue perspectivism and some of the challenges raised against it by Fumerton, Reed and Stroud. Treanor discusses what he calls the perspectival challenge to a family of views in epistemic normativity that see truth as the aim of knowledge.

Michela Massimi

The book concludes with an essay by Barry Stroud that raises the following invitation to aspiring perspectivalists: “can we really understand what we most want to understand about the enterprise of human knowledge by thinking of those who investigate the world as exercising only the concepts needed for the less-committal epistemic attitudes and responses that perspectivism concentrates on, not a concept of knowledge that implies truth and so apparently resists perspectival treatment? This is a question I recommend to aspiring perspectivists. As I think I have found with philosophical scepticism, I think it promises, at the very least, a deeper understanding of the puzzles that confront us.” Barry sadly passed away before this book got published. We dedicate the book to his memory as a little token of gratitude for sharing with us some of the long journey ahead to better understand perspectivism, its promises and challenges.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Group Identification, Joint Actions, and Collective Intentionality

In this post Alessandro Salice (UCC) and Kengo Miyazono (Hiroshima) summarise their new paper “Being one of us. Group identification, joint actions, and collective intentionality”, in which they defend a minimalistic account of joint actions that is based on a theory of group identification. 

In the relevant literature it is generally assumed that, in order to explain joint actions (in contradistinction to actions in strategic equilibrium), one needs to appeal to shared intentions. To use Margaret Gilbert’s famous example, if Pam and Sam are walking together (rather than walking in parallel), then Pam and Sam’s collective action is explained by the fact that they share the intention of walking together (Gilbert 1990). However, the question immediately arises as to what it means for several individuals to share intentions.

One way of understanding shared intentions is by identifying the conditions under which standard individual intentions (intentions in the I-form: “I intend…”) interlock or mesh (Bratman 2014). Although this understanding of shared intentions seems able to shed light on a large number of joint actions, it has been claimed to have important limitations: not all joint actions can be explained by invoking intentions shared in that sense. First, joint actions modelled by certain coordination games (most notably, the Hi-Lo) are not amenable to that treatment: the solution of these games seems to require the capacity to frame the game from the perspective of a group, rather than from the perspective of the individual players (Bacharach 2006). Secondly, the conditions for sharing intentions in the I-form appear to be cognitively too taxing to accommodate joint actions performed, e.g., by infants: the fulfillment of these conditions requires complex mentalizing skills that are not yet fully developed by pre-school children (Tollefsen 2005).

To fill these gaps, some authors have suggested that intentions can also be shared on the basis of group identification. Group identification, as the name suggests, is a psychological process by means of which the subject conceives of oneself as a group member (Turner 1982). Based on this process, subjects can form intentions in the we-form (“we intend…”): intentions in the we-form (which differ from intentions in the I-form the previous account operates with) appear to offer a solution to the challenge raised by the Hi-Lo (Petersson 2017). But also, group identification, being a rather unsophisticated process, promises to pave the way for an understanding of joint action among young children (Pacherie 2013).

In our recent paper, we develop a theory of group identification that delivers on those two goals. The account distinguishes two elements that are often collated together in various accounts of group identification: transformation of self-understanding (or self-transformation for short) and adoption of the group’s perspective (or we-perspective). Self-transformation relates to the way in which the individual experiences and understands oneself in group identification: this notion captures the idea that, when one has group-identified, one sees oneself as similar to other in-group members (self-categorization) and one de-emphasizes one’s idiosyncratic traits in favor of a stereotypical self-representation. We call the representation of oneself as a group member a “social self” (Brewer 1991). By contrast, taking the group’s perspective is the ability of evaluating the world from another agent’s perspective, which happens to be a group agent’s (rather than another individual agent’s) perspective. This perspective secures an understanding of the group’s preferences and sustains deliberation on the best course of action (from the group’s perspective) to achieve the group’s goals.

By drawing on recent findings in developmental and social psychology (esp. related to the so-called ‘black sheep effect,’ Abrams et al. 2009, Schmidt et al. 2011), we conjecture that the adoption of the group’s perspective is an ability that children develop from the 3rd year of age, but more reliably from the 8th. Under this assumption, the adoption of the group’s perspective cannot be factored in in the explanation of joint actions among infants (of which we know that they take place from the 21st month of age, Brownell 2011). Therefore, self-transformation (or, rather, the outcome of that process: the social self) seems the only factor to do the explanatory work. But how does it? And what is, exactly, a social self?

In the paper, we reject the idea that the social self is a doxastic representation: one could believe (as one indeed believes) to be member of a myriad of groups without this belief having any impact on one’s action. In addition, the social self can’t be a conative representation either: we have already seen that standard individual intentions, to be shared, require complex cognitive abilities. Moreover, the formation of we-intentions presupposes the ability of adopting the we-perspective and, thus, to set for oneself the goals pursued by the group, which again is a capacity that children acquires only later in development.

At this stage, we introduce the idea that the social self is a representation of a hybrid kind, as it were, because it is descriptive and directive at the same time. We adopt here Millikan’s idea that this hybrid kind of representations (Pushmi-Pullyu Representations or PPRs, Millikan 2004) is phylogenetically and ontogenetically prior with respect to purely doxastic or purely conative representations. According to our hypothesis, to acquire a social self is to describe oneself as a group member and, concomitantly, to be directed to act as such. Of course, actions that are motivated by the social self will only be rudimentary as the agent does not yet activate more sophisticated cognitive states. However, they will also be sufficiently structured to count as joint actions proper.

Endorsing this view ultimately entails relaxing two assumptions usually made in the current debate about joint actions. The first assumption is that a bodily movement is either a reflex or an intentional action. The paper supports the idea that in between these two extremes there is a wide territory populated by various forms of quasi-intentional actions. The second assumption to revise is that the explanation of joint actions has to invoke the notion of intention. If we are on the right track, more primitive presentations (like PPRs) can explain joint actions of the kind one can observe among young children.