Tuesday 27 December 2022

Philosophical Perspectives on Memory and Imagination

This post is by Anja Berninger (University of Göttingen) and Íngrid Vendrell Ferran (University of Marburg). Today their post is on the edited volume Philosophical Perspectives on Memory and Imagination (Routledge 2022).

Íngrid Vendrell Ferran

Having been neglected for many years, the subjects of memory and imagination have started to gain more attention in recent philosophical debates. While there has been some interaction between philosophers working in these different fields (for publications that make significant headway towards establishing a more integrative perspective, see, for instance, Perrin and Michaelian 2017; MacPherson and Dorsch 2018; Michaelian, Debus, and Perrin 2018, and Michaelian, Perrin, and Sant’Anna 2020), we still lack a properly integrative approach to these issues. 

With this volume our aim is to fill this lacuna. Our objective is to both broaden and deepen current debates on memory and imagination within the philosophy of mind. This volume explores the structure and function of memory and imagination, as well as the relation and interaction between the two states. The papers contained in the volume address a series of questions that can be summarized under the following main headings:

  • What are the central structural features of memory and imagination?
  • Are memory and imagination two clearly distinct kinds of mental states?
  • What are the norms that govern imagination and memory?
  • How do memory and imagination interact with each other and with other mental states (such as emotions)?
  • What roles do memory and imagination play in our lives? 

The contributors to this volume have chosen a wide array of different approaches and methods to discuss the topic. Some authors draw heavily on empirical research, while others take inspiration from phenomenology or conceptual analysis. Quite a few of the papers take novel perspectives on the issues by looking at memory and imagination through the lens of other central concepts such as skills, abilities or directions of fit or by putting both in relation to other concepts such as the notion of forgetting.

Anja Berninger

The volume is structured into four main parts. The first consists of novel contributions to ontological issues regarding the nature of memory and imagination and their respective structural features. These topics are explored in chapters by Langland-Hassan, McCarroll, Barner, Michaelian and Noordhof.  The second part focuses on questions of justification and perspective regarding both states. 

These issues are explored in chapters by Miyazono and Tooming, Arcangeli, and Peeters, Cosentino, and Werning. The papers in the third part discuss issues regarding memory and imagination as skills or powers. These issues are explored by Kind, Hopkins and Robins. The last part explored by Vendrell Ferran, Berninger and Teroni focuses on the relation between memory, imagination, and emotion. 

Each contribution to this volume contains pioneering work in examining the interrelation between memory and imagination. We hope that this volume will be of value and interest to researchers working in fields relevant to both mental states, and that this collection will serve to advance the recently inaugurated debate on memory and imagination. 

Tuesday 20 December 2022

Bipolar Autonomy: Excellent Agency and Marginal Agency

This post is by Elliot Porter. Elliot is a lecturer in bioethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, and is finishing his PhD at the University of Kent. His research focuses on personal autonomy and mental disorder.  His research involves themes in metaethics, moral epistemology, and epistemic justice.

Elliot Porter

We have largely, but not entirely, moved past the intuition that significant mental disorder constitutes, ipso facto, an injury to an agent’s autonomy. Part of this shift stems from increasingly multidimensional approaches to autonomy that allow us to track, in finer detail, where injuries to autonomy do and do not lie.

We can identify autonomy-threatening influences at a higher resolution than simple ‘mental disorder’ language offers. The movement has also been pushed by the significant and growing literature that articulates the substantive normative and identity claims made by the neurodiversity movement.

The status of minority minds as test cases, to sharpen theories at their edges, is increasingly replaced by status as interlocutors in discussions about what typical and atypical, ordered and disordered, or appropriate or inappropriate workings of the mind involve. Where these influences meet, we have an opportunity to think about autonomy in quite new ways.

The core questions about autonomy are still hotly contested. Is it constitutively social, or only formatively? Are there contexts, such as in bioethics, where procedural conceptions of autonomy are sufficient, or do we need to bring in more substantive content there? Do substantive theories undercut autonomy by imposing values that even apparently autonomous agents are not free to reject? 

An attractive way of framing these disagreements focuses on autonomy’s status as an agency concept, casting these as disagreements about when agency flourishes. Even among theorists who do not share eudaemon approaches to ethics, there is an underlying teleology involved in taking autonomy to be an agency concept. How far we think agency relies on favourable social conditions to meet its teleological end tells us where we lie on the constitutively/non-constitutively social axis. 

Substantive and procedural conceptions of autonomy differ on whether agency is an engine more for making appropriate moves, or producing appropriate outputs. Our position on the substantive/procedural axis is set by how we characterise that teleological end.

What it takes to flourish is hostage to the description under which we are a subject of flourishing. The classical Aristotelian model considers what an excellent example of a man looks like: a political animal with rational capacities, who excels insofar as he exercises those capacities in ways conducive to his living well with others. 

On the far side of this tradition, Philippa Foot takes the subject of flourishing to be an organism; an entity defined in part by a set of biofunctional norms. To flourish is to be an excellent example of the kind of organism one is, and so humans flourish insofar as we reason and pursue goods accordance with a normative structure confined by our biological nature. In both of these cases, excellence in the kind of thing that we are turns on the description of what we are (rational political animal, a sapient organism). On a more or less eudaemon framework, someone can be autonomous when they flourish qua agent.

This is where the freedom to think about autonomy in new ways is liberating. We need an account of agency to understand flourishing if autonomy involves flourishing qua agent, but if agency admits of a plurality of models, as the growing neurodivergence literature indicates, then we can excel as agents under many different descriptions. Whilst we’re used to trading in cases of depression or mania as negative examples, where normal or ideal functioning has gone wrong, or as a test case to clarify the margins of normal agency, these shifts in the literature invite us to consider how depressive, manic, or any other type of mad agency works and what it’s excellent state would involve. 

The problem with bipolar autonomy, to take the example I have focused on in my research, is not that it involves defective agency, but that it extends more and less far in various dimensions in unusual ways. It is a lumpy and strange looking autonomy if we are used to the autonomy we get from neurotypical kinds of agency, but the key claim of the neurodiversity movement is that madness is owed recognition on its own terms. If there are different kinds of agency at work when we are depressed, anxious, manic, or even psychotic, questions of autonomy must address what kind of agency that is, what it looks like when it works as well as it can, and so what autonomy might look like when built on that kind of agency. 

Whilst we will often want our affective or psychotic episodes to end as quickly as possible, these episodes still can’t be written off for a great many people. They will come back over an over again, and so the kinds of agency available during these episodes will make up a significant portion of the tapestry of a life. We can try build autonomy around them, and find a spotty, porous, and inconstant kind of recognisable autonomy. 

Alternatively, we can build a relevant sort of autonomy on top of the agency we have. It will be lumpy, it will vary in its qualities as episodes begin and end, and will look a little foreign to familiar conceptions of autonomy. But if autonomy is a value we should aspire to and support others in achieving, it is still valuable when it is lumpy and built on atypical sorts of agency. Mad agents have as much reason to pursue the kinds of autonomy available to them as do neurotypical peers.


Tuesday 13 December 2022

Emotions, Cognition, and Behaviour

Emotions Brain Forum

BrainCircle Italia and BrainCircle Lugano organised a series of events where women scientists presented their work on emotions in various cities from October 2021 to November 2022 (see full itinerary). The initiative, conceived by Viviana Kasam, was inspired by the work of Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi Montalcini who promoted the work of scientists worldwide and was interested in supporting research on the brain. 

Campus Biotech
Campus Biotech

The last stop of the itinerary was Geneva, where on 25th November 2022 the Emotions Forum featured an interdisciplinary programme of talks on the relationship between emotions and cognition, and emotions and behaviour. The event was hosted by the Centre for the Study of Affective Sciences in the stunning Campus Biotech.

Eva Illouz, Professor of Sociology in Paris and Jerusalem, discussed the role of emotions in democracy. Eva started from Adorno's idea that fascism is not alien to democracy but is like a worm in the apple: we don't see it but it rots the fruit from the inside. Only emotions shape motivation and compete with self-interest. Emotions are neither rational nor irrational: they are responses to social conditions that come in the form of collective narratives that offer solutions to predicaments. Democracy is under attack from nationalist populism. People feel alienated from institutions. 

What characterises populism is a combination of four emotions:

  1. fear of destruction of the state, leading to tyranny;
  2. disgust of minorities, leading to racism;
  3. anger against enemies, leading to discrediting adversaries;
  4. love for one's country, leading to a common culture of patriotism.

Hermona Soreq's photo
Hermona Soreq

Hermona Soreq, Professor of Molecular Neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, talked about the hidden long-term impact of traumatic experiences. Seneca said that the everyone is a slave of fear and indeed we are all susceptible to fear. What is the impact of fear on people? People who experience earthquakes have bad health and die earlier. Why? 

Hermona's research found that living in a traumatic environment, for instance one where the person is severely affected by terror, causes changes in health that can be measured by merely taking the person's pulse regularly over a period of time. For instance, when people have more traumatic experiences, their heart beat increases, and this reflects a higher risk for heart attack. In the series of studies Hermona presented, the effects of different emotions (such as stress) were observed and interesting differences were noticed between men's and women's health which has important implications for clinical practice.

Julie Peron
Julie Peron

Julie Peron is both a clinical and an academic based at the University of Geneva and is Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology. Julie talked about a long-covid project where she observed that prevalence of cognitive disorders and fatigue have increased in people who experienced COVID. This has a very negative impact on quality of life and productivity. 

Julie described a case study of a 50-year-old man who was hospitalised with COVID and as a consequences of this presented a series of problems, especially with memory, concentration, and emotion recognition. However, the man did not acknowledge such cognitive impairments and claimed his memory and concentration was fine. This is a case of anosognosia (denial of illness). The impact of viral infection on the central nervous system is well-known--but the conclusion from this study was specifically that self-monitoring is altered after COVID.

Geraldine Coppin
Geraldine Coppin

Geraldine Coppin looks at the psychology and neuroscience of olfactory world. She is a Senior Researcher at the University of Geneva and Unidistance Suisse. Her presentation was focused on the relationship between olfaction and emotions. Humans have incredible olfactory capacities and smell triggers vivid memories (the Proust effect). 

Odours are considered triggers of emotional reactions and have important functions: (1) they help us to avoid environmental hazard by identifying food; (2) they help us regulate our expectations (is it sweet or savoury? is it rotten or still fresh?); (3) they help us detect fire or gas or decaying matter; (4) they assist with social communication, helping us choose sexual partners and feel other people's emotions.

Carien Van Reekum
Carien Van Reekum

Carien Van Reekum is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Reading and she delivered a talk on being emotionally flexible. People differ in their emotional responses to the same situation. Does the situation determine our emotions? Not really: it is the meaning that I give to that situation that generates my emotional response. This is good news, because if the meaning is what counts, then we can modify the meaning and change our emotional response. 

Carien reported on a fascinating study where people trained to reappraise either the emotional context of feeling pain or the interpretation of their sensation felt less intense pain and this was shown not only in their self-reports but in the pain sensation itself. Although this flexibility can be preserved with ageing, when cognitive decline starts then the capacity to regulate our emotional responses also decreases.

I also presented at the Emotions Brain Forum event, and it was a great honour for me to participate in an initiative dedicated to Rita Levi Montalcini featuring so many women-in-science heroes. To learn more about what I discussed, please see this post, as I presented one aspect of our agency in mental health project, the idea that healthcare practitioners need to be empathetic and curious to preserve young people's sense of agency in clinical encounters.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Educating Character through the Arts

In this post, Laura D'Olimpio (University of Birmingham) asks whether we can educate for good character by drawing upon the arts, presenting a new book co-edited with Panos Paris and Aidan Thompson and entitled Educating Character Through the Arts (Routledge 2022).

Laura D'Olimpio

Can we learn, morally, from artworks? Is it possible that the various multiple arts may shed light on what it means to be human and help us come to better understand what we mean by ‘good character’? How might one distinguish morally insightful from morally dubious art? And might we be able to cultivate virtuous character habits through engagement with non-narrative or non-traditional art (such as music, video games or gardening)? 

The publication of a new edited collection, Educating Character through the Arts (Routledge, 2022) seeks to probe such questions and stimulate a dialogue on the intersection between the arts, ethics, and education. Our guiding question asks how might the arts be taught in a morally educative manner?

Over the last two decades, considerable interest in three overlapping areas of aesthetics, ethics, and education has developed. First, the question of whether or not, and in what ways, artistic value and moral value are related. Second, the question of whether artworks have the capacity to teach us, about matters including human psychology, character, virtues, and vices. Third, in the burgeoning field of character education, which includes moral education, civic education, etc., the question of whether or how the arts may contribute to the formation of one’s character is among many important topics. The theoretical links between these areas and the potential for fruitful interaction between them should be immediately obvious. It is therefore all the more striking that there has been little, if any such interaction.

From antiquity to the present, the virtues—which include such excellences of character as honesty, fairness, compassion, and courage—have been widely regarded as fundamental to a human life well lived. But how might human agents—particularly the young—come to understand, or acquire, virtuous character? While many might nowadays look to empirical psychology or neuroscience for pathways to understanding and cultivating virtuous character, the arts offer a time-honoured source of insight into good and bad or virtuous and vicious human behaviour and its relationship to human flourishing.

We believe that these classical sources of reflection on character—and their contemporary counterparts—deserve closer attention. Of course, some might doubt—in an age of science with its emphasis on empirical research—the potential of works of art to serve as credible sources of ethical understanding. There exist both ancient arguments for the view that poetry and other arts are more conducive to moral corruption than improvement, and modern claims to the effect that the aesthetic purposes of the arts have little to do with moral value. It is far from clear what ethically edifying role the arts may play, if any, and thus there is a need for further critical investigation into the place of the arts in character education. 

Narrative artworks have long been considered as fruitful sources of ethical knowledge and enlightenment. Yet, the mass art of our time appears to be increasingly preoccupied with ethical questions, including questions about character, as seen in pop songs (from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Kendrick Lamar’s D.A.M.N.), television series (Breaking Bad and Succession), and Oscar-winning films like Parasite. At a time where the audience loves an antihero, we ought to delve into the educational potential of such artworks.

This edited collection, with contributions from Karen Bohlin, David Carr, Noël Carroll, Amanda Cawston, Laura D'Olimpio, John Haldane, Ian James Kidd, Jeremy Page, Panos Paris, Nathan Wildman, and James O. Young, attends to how certain artworks—such as music or television series, poetry, or video games, or even gardening—may offer ethical insights and how more traditional artforms like the novel can not only offer such insights but contribute to character formation and education.