Tuesday 28 March 2023

"A Philosophy Museum in Every City": an Interview with Anna Ichino

As part of a University of Birmingham Women in Philosophy initiative to promote inclusion and diversity in access to philosophical research, I interviewed Anna Ichino (University of Milan) on the creation of the very first Philosophy Museum. Anna originally blogged about the Museum for us and for the Daily Nous in 2020 and she is offering here an exciting update on the uptake of the initiative and on her future plans to further develop the idea into something bigger and permanent. 

Why do we need a Philosophy Museum? Can Philosophy be engaging and fun, as well as informative, for the wider public? 

The first hall of the museum


Lisa Bortolotti (LB): How did you and your collaborators develop this idea of creating a philosophy museum?

Anna Ichino (AI): The idea originally was of my colleague Paolo Spinicci who kept saying, there are in the world museums about almost everything. There are museums of art, science, cinema, sex, and toys. There are even a museum for socks and a museum for frogs. Is it possible that there aren't yet philosophy museums in the world? It seems to be an important topic, and there isn’t a museum devoted to it.


And, in fact, a quick Google search, then confirmed by a more careful inquiry, showed that apparently there are none. So, we felt it was time to fill the gap and create the very first Philosophy Museum. So that was the starting point, and it was at that point 2018, and our department got some generous extra funding from the Ministry of Research within an Excellence Award scheme, and part of this funding had to be used for activities of outreach and public engagement, so we decided to use this funding for this project. It was about €50,000, and, thanks to this funding, we could rely on the help of experts in this area. So, museum experts, graphic designers, multimedia studios, and all the sort of expertise that you need to create a proper museum.

We tried to build that like an aesthetically appealing and stimulating environment, where philosophical ideas can be communicated in fun and engaging ways. That was the idea. So our model was science museums: we didn't have in mind a historically minded museum where you just passively contemplate relics about the lives and works of philosophers but more dynamic and interactive environments where you have a number of games, activities, experiments, aesthetic and intuitive experiences that lead you into the nature of philosophical problems.

As it was quite an ambitious project, to put it into practice we had to proceed gradually. So, we started with the temporary exhibition which took place in our university in November 2019, and there we created the first two halls of what we would like to become a permanent museum plus a third programmatic hall where we presented the plan for what still needs to be done. That’s what we did, in short.

Anna Ichino

LB: A very good idea, I think, to have a Philosophy museum. You already said that you meant to fill a gap, the absence of a Philosophy Museum. But what were your other objectives in creating the Museum? What did you want to achieve?


AI: The main objective was to make philosophy widely accessible, accessible to people who are not, and probably will never be, into academic philosophy. So showing that philosophy is not just an abstract and perhaps boring discipline that can be addressed in libraries by reading long books and studying. Of course, that's a way an important way to access philosophy. But that's not the only way.


Philosophy can also be something understandable and fun and playful that can be accessed by people who are not academics, and are not interested in being academics. So the idea was that if you make the gateway to philosophy enjoyable and entertaining, then people maybe are willing to engage with the issue, becoming in general more curious, and open minded and willing to explore some important philosophical tools and methodologies.

The Philosophy Museum experience could be the first step into a pathway of fruitful interactions where people eventually become better thinkers, more critically minded, and better agents in the public debate. We thought this could, in the long run make a difference to the climate of a healthy public debate in a healthy democracy. So, that was the ambition.

LB: It is a very ambitious aim, but it's also very important, and very timely, because nowadays philosophers are getting really interested in our environment being epistemically polluted or not being conducive to us thinking clearly and rigorously. So the idea that there could be some fun and engaging ways to encourage people to think more critically sounds excellent. What were the main challenges that you encountered in this project? I imagine that many of you did not have experience in creating resources for a museum space.

AI: It was difficult, because we were not really trained for that. It's a bit like teaching experience, even if you know something very well, and you study the subject for a long time, then teaching it in a way that is understandable and engaging for students sometimes is hard.

In this case it was even harder, even for those of us who were already a bit into public philosophy. What we were used to do in public philosophy is to speak or to write in a fun and engaging way. But in the case of the museum you really had to build activities and games that must be accessible for someone who has no background whatsoever and must be able to use the resources independently. So, someone who walks into a room must find the resources, understand what they are for, finding it all interesting enough to spend maybe ten minutes there. So the challenge is to create resources that speak for themselves, and that can be enjoyed by visitors independently. It's pretty hard to create games. One of the things we did was to develop proper game like board games, and game to play in teams.

Another challenge was obtaining the funding. Running a museum is expensive. If you want to build something that lasts, you need beautiful materials that can be used by many people, and that can be appealing. In our case, with the Philosophy Museum being at that time a temporary exhibition, at least we didn't have to rent a location because the Museum took place in the University of Milan, in a very beautiful historical building. It was in the main courtyard, made of two beautiful rooms with a nice view. But of course the long-term aim is to make the museum permanent. So we will need money to rent spaces, and for the materials. Good quality materials that can be used by many people.

The third hall of the museum

LB: What does a philosophy museum look like?

AI: The museum entrance was like a big open book, shaped as a big open book to symbolize the fact that doing philosophy is not just passively reading books, but walking through them and getting into them and playing with their contents. The first hall was mostly an introductory hall devoted to the nature of philosophical problems and philosophical methodology. So, we used images of Mary Midgley’s conceptual plumbing and Wittgenstein’s fly bottle to convey the idea that philosophical problems are conceptual problems which amount to reflect on the concepts that we use. Visitors were led to appreciate the difficulties that arise as soon as we try to define common concepts like the self, freedom, time, and moral responsibility. In this first room we also introduced the philosophical tools that philosophers use to analyze concepts such as the construction of paradoxes and thought experiments. There were activities and small games to play.

Paradoxes and Imagination

In the second hall, visitors could play literally with paradoxes and thought experiments, in order to appreciate their heuristic role in philosophical inquiry. One very popular game among our visitors was "Guess: Who Are You?", a personal identity game. People start the game by adopting one among different theories of personal identity: the bodily continuity theory, the psychological continuity theory, or the brain theory. When you land on a square on the game board, you have to pick a card where a thought experiment is described. Scenarios include brain fission, brain transplant, teletransportation, metamorphosis, and so on.

Games in the second hall of the museum

If you pick teletransportation then you have to guess whether, according to the theory you adopted, teletransportation is a scenario where you would survive or not. If you guess correctly, you can roll the dice once again. Otherwise, you are stuck. And then there are a number of other possibilities and interactions you can have. You can try to kill your opponents, for instance, by putting them into scenarios in which, according to their theory, they would die. The point is to put the various theories of personal identities to the test and to understand which ones work in which scenario.

To illustrate the complex relations between imagination, emotion, and belief we replicated a series of famous experiments where visitors were asked to do things like eating chocolate shaped as dog feces, or signing a pac giving their soul away to the devil, or wearing a fully sterilized pullover which they were told belonged to a serial killer. Visitors appreciated how difficult it was to eat chocolate shaped as dog feces, even if they knew that it was safe.

The paradox of fiction card game,
the chocolate shaped as dog feces game,
and the pact with the devil.

LB: Do you think that initiatives like the Philosophy Museum can really enhance diversity and inclusion in the access to philosophical research?

AI: Our aim was making philosophy accessible to a really wide and diverse audience. So, you may think I'm not the most objective person, but I would say that to a reasonable extent we achieved this goal. The Museum opening times were organised as follows: in the morning the museum was open for high school students and classes, and then the afternoon for the general public, people of the city of Milan. Both students and general public responded very well. The museum was open for a bit less than 3 weeks, and we had more than 3,000 visitors, and a third of them were high school students. Almost every afternoon, we had long queues outside, because the rooms were quite small. We also had really large media coverage, most Italian newspapers and TV, but some media abroad too, talked about us in an enthusiastic way.

And we had very positive feedback from visitors via the satisfaction surveys, and the thing that was most pleasing for us was the follow up. Many people kept writing to us on the social media profile of the Museum. A lot of visitors kept asking questions and asking when the museum would open again. In some schools, students created their own Philosophy Museum, for instance a room about freedom and relevant philosophical issues. So, that part of the interaction was very fruitful. I think there is a diversity and inclusivity gain in experiences like this.

LB: One very last question, what's next for the Philosophy Museum? Have you got any plans?

AI: We applied to a public engagement award scheme, and we had some funding for a project on conspiracy theories and fake news, which basically consists in building another hall of the museum devoted to this topic. This exhibition will take place in February 2024.

Since the very beginning though our goal was the creation of a permanent museum, and the idea was to go ahead immediately. Then the pandemic started, and everything was frozen. Now we have resumed the project, and we are really determined to give it a future. In a permanent Philosophy Museum, we would like to have rooms devoted to many different problems and theories and traditions. We are working on this at the moment, and applying for funding and looking for partners.

We would like it if many philosophy museums flourished around the world. As there is a science museum in almost every city, we should have a Philosophy Museum in every city. If your blog readers are interested in collaborating, they can get in touch with us. We are on Facebook and InstagramWe already collaborate with some Italian universities, and also some institutions abroad.

LB: Thank you Anna. This is very, very inspiring for anybody who loves philosophy, and is interested in bringing philosophy to as many people as possible. Thank you so much for telling us about the Philosophy Museum. And best of luck for the future steps. I hope what what you have envisaged will soon become a reality, a philosophy museum in every city.

Here is the full version of the interview on YouTube:

Tuesday 21 March 2023

An Intersectional Approach to Phenomenological Psychopathology

Today's post is by Lucienne Spencer, currently working on the Renewing Phenomenological Psychopathology project. In this post, she argues for the importance of an intersectional approach.

Lucienne Spencer

In the search for alternative approaches to psychiatry, there has been a reignited interest in phenomenological psychopathology: an approach that uses the phenomenological method to highlight the lived experience of the person with mental ill-health and invites a person-centred approach to diagnosis and treatment. Phenomenological psychopathology has its roots in Karl Jaspers’ seminal work General Psychopathology (1913), which surpassed the limited scope of pre-structured interviews and diagnostic criteria by examining the patient's life-world. After a long period during which phenomenological psychopathology fell into obscurity, new work in the field and amplification of the patient’s voice through mad-pride activism have led to a resurgence of the approach, giving it a valued place amongst once more dominant methodologies.

Promising as phenomenological psychopathology might be when it comes to liberating our understanding of psychiatric illness, the methodology remains rooted in the philosophy and social science of the mid-20th century. As such, it risks falling into siloed thinking and, in turn, falling back into obscurity. I argue that one meaningful way to revise the methodology of phenomenological psychopathology is by employing an intersectional approach.

Intersectionality has deep roots in Black feminist literature, championed by the likes of Audre Lorde (1977), bell hooks (1981) and Patricia Hill Collins (1990), however, this methodology is used to examine not only the intersections between sex and race but other intersecting social identities such as disability, age, sexuality and psychiatric illness. 

Turning to the realm of psychiatry, Frantz Fanon (1952) argued that it was impossible to truly understand a Black person’s psychiatric illness outside their colonised situation. For Fanon, the colonised situation saturates every aspect of one’s existence. Consequently, he observes that the attempts of his fellow psychiatrists to examine a patient in abstraction from their colonised situation end in failure. Fanon is aware that one’s social situation permeates the meaning structures of one’s world. It gives one’s entire life-world a particular hue. 

Despite the work of Fanon, phenomenological psychopathology in its current form is insufficiently sensitive to the intersectional character of lived experiences. The patient's life-world is structured by gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality and other characteristics that give their illness a unique meaning. Therefore, I argue that we should consider how these structural factors intersect at a primordial level of the illness experience. Ignoring these aspects of the patient’s identity gives us only a partial view of the patient’s life-world, thus obstructing psychiatric knowledge. 

Moreover, without an intersectional understanding of psychopathology, we risk committing what Miranda Fricker calls hermeneutical injustice. Hermeneutical injustice occurs when a person cannot make sense of their experiences as their marginalised perspective is excluded from the interpretive framework. For example, if the unique experience of being a woman with psychosis is not examined, we fall back on a gender-neutral understanding of psychosis, and the female experience of psychosis is obscured.

In my forthcoming work, co-authored with Matthew Broome, I introduce an intersectional framework to phenomenological psychopathology to develop a more hermeneutically just interpretive framework and provide a richer understanding of the lived experience of psychiatric illness.

Tuesday 14 March 2023

The Puzzle of Addiction and Knowledge of the Good as an Achievement

Today's post is by Reinier Schuur, who is a PhD candidate in philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. His primary research interest is in philosophy of medicine. Reinier won the 2022 Peter Sowerby Prize for his essay ‘The Puzzle of Addiction: Knowledge of the Good as an Achievement’. This is a short version of his essay for a wider audience. 

Reinier Schuur

The puzzle of addiction refers to the problem of explaining how addictive behaviour appears to be both voluntary and destructive. This puzzle arises when we assume that people will stop engaging in a voluntary behaviour if the costs outweigh the benefits, all else being equal. The main solution to the puzzle had been to argue that addictive behaviour is in fact involuntary. This solution, however, has come under criticism over the last few decades, with both empirical data and theoretical analysis arguing that addictive behaviour is voluntary in some significant sense. But this raises again the puzzle of why addicts keep using despite negative consequences.

While specific voluntary explanations have been proposed, others have argued that the puzzle of addiction can only be solved by rethinking our fundamental assumptions about the nature of voluntary behaviour as such. Gene Heyman in particular has argued that the view that addictive behaviour is involuntary is based on a wider view of voluntary behaviour as necessarily rational with respect to acting in our best interest. Heyman has argued that we should reject this assumption and instead adopt an alternative vision of voluntary behaviour as being biased towards irrationality with respect to acting in our best interest.

The purpose of my essay was not to refute Heyman’s view of voluntary behaviour. Rather, it was to argue that such a view is unnecessary once we realise that knowing what is in our best interest is an achievement and therefore that failures to act in our best interest need not necessarily be explained by voluntary behaviour being irrationally biased with respect to acting in our best interest. I drew on Hanna Pickard’s work on denial as an explanation for the puzzle of addiction, which rests on the view that addicts can fail to know what is bad for them. I build on that view and argue that people in general can also fail to know what is good for them.

In particular, Pickard’s work on denial in addiction argues that the puzzle of addiction only follows if we assume that the severe negative consequences for continued drug use are known. However, there are many cases when such knowledge is either unattainable and hard to achieve. Pickard makes this clear with the example of addicted rats, who cannot possibly know the long term negative consequences of continued drug use. 

There is therefore no puzzle of addiction with rats because they cannot know that what they are engaged in is overall bad for them. Human beings are also sometimes in a state where they cannot know the long-term negative consequences of their actions, such as when such knowledge has not yet been discovered. The causal link between smoking and cancer, for example, does not pose a puzzle for why nicotine addicts keep smoking prior to the modern scientific discovery of this causal link. Knowing when generalisable causal knowledge applies to you as an individual can also be difficult to ascertain.

Because gaining knowledge of the causal relation between one’s actions and their negative consequences can be difficult to attain, gaining such knowledge is therefore also vulnerable to forms of motivated reasoning to not gain such knowledge, such as denial. Pickard argues that denial can therefore explain the puzzle of why addicts keep using despite the severe negative consequence. Addicts may keep using not despite the negative consequences but because they keep themselves from gaining knowledge of those consequences to begin with.

Pickard’s basic insight is that while the severe negative consequences for continued drug use may appear to be obvious to the external observer, this may not be the case for the addict, and that the puzzle of addiction may in part be due to assuming that knowledge of the bad is obvious. I take this basic insight and expand it to offer an alternative framework for thinking about the puzzle of addiction in general. 

In particular, I argue that just as knowledge of the severe negative consequences of drug use is not obvious, neither are the positive non-drug alternatives that the negative consequences are an obstacle to attaining. Put simply, the puzzle of addiction arises when we assume that the costs of drug use outweigh the benefits. Pickard has argued that the overall costs are not always obvious. I argue that the benefits of drug-free alternatives are not always obvious either, these too are products of knowledge that are an achievement to attain.

Tuesday 7 March 2023

Social Media and its Negative Impacts on Autonomy

Today's post is by Paul Formosa (Macquarie University) on his recent paper (co-authored with Siavosh Sahebi at Macquarie University) "Social Media and its Negative Impacts on Autonomy" (Philosophy and Technology, 2022).

Paul Formosa

Social media plays a crucial role in the lives of many people. It can entertain, inform, influence, and even transform who we are and what we believe and care about. This can include both more extreme cases of radicalisation, where a person is led down rabbit holes of misinformation that can fundamentally rewrite who they are as a person, to more mundane cases of being pushed by an influencer to buy a new pair of shoes you didn’t really need. 

But whenever technology has the potential to change who we are, what we do, and what we care about, it raises important questions about our autonomy. When technology changes us or leads us to act or believe in a certain way, does that technology and its use constitute an authentic expression or extension of our autonomy, or does it override, constrain, or disrespect our autonomy? There is, of course, no single answer to these questions. 

To try to partly answer them, in a recent paper written with Siavosh Sahebi and published in Philosophy and Technology, we set out to explore the negative impacts of social media on autonomy. This is not to deny that social media can also have positive impacts on autonomy, such as helping us to build authentic social connections with others or realise our ends, but only that we wanted to focus on the more important negative aspects. 

After reviewing various accounts of autonomy, we take autonomy to be broadly a matter of: 1) developing autonomy competencies (e.g., having the ability to reason and imagine different possibilities, and being able to maintain appropriate self-attitudes such as self-respect; 2) having authentic ends (i.e. ends that upon critical refection you would endorse, acknowledge, or take responsibility for) and some control over important aspects of your own life (e.g. who your friends are); and 3) not being manipulated, coerced, and controlled by others. 

Social media can impact negatively on all three aspects of autonomy through the control it can have over its users’ data, attention, and behaviour, since these platforms are (mostly) designed to generate enormous amounts of data, and use that data to fuel algorithms that direct our attention, which in turn can impact our behaviours and beliefs in ways that we are often not aware of and would not endorse if we did. The excessive extraction of data from us by social media platforms can constitute a form of exploitation and an expression of disrespect for our autonomy as we typically do not, and cannot, offer informed consent for all the data that is captured about us, and which is combined with the data of others to drive the platform’s algorithms. 

These algorithms in turn are used to focus our attention on content that will keep us on, and engaged with, the platform. This can end up pushing us toward various political extremes without our knowing it, expose us to false views we can come to accept as reliable, and erode our autonomy competencies, such as self-esteem, through exposure to unrealistic or harmful norms and standards. 

Finally, social media can manipulate and control us and our emotions by exploiting our vulnerabilities, such as our FOMO (fear of missing out), towards the achievement of its own ends for us (i.e., our continued engagement with the platform and its advertisers) at the expense of our own authentically endorsed ends for ourselves. 

Whether the benefits of social media use justify any autonomy harms that it may inflict on individuals is a personal issue, and one that can be partly addressed through the cultivation of relevant digital virtues. However, these autonomy harms also raise broader political questions about the impact of social media on the health of our democracies that demand collective solutions, and various forms of proposed regulation of social media, such as rating the reliability of information, better privacy protections, banning targeted advertising, and stopping the infinite scroll of new content, are all steps in the right direction.