A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A New Look At New Realism

It is finally out! A New Look at New Realism was officially published two weeks ago, and is now available on Amazon!  This is the first book about the philosophy and psychology of E. B. Holt. It shows convincingly (if Vincent Colapietro's kind words are to be believed) that Holt's work is relevant to contemporary issues, both empirical and theoretical. The book is an edited volume that I began soliciting contributions for 4 years ago, while still a lowly post-doc who could have been gone from the academic scene in a blip. I am still amazed at the quality of the scholars who agreed to contribute, and the quality of the chapters they produced.

To give people an idea of the scope of the book, I am going to paste the chapter summaries from the introduction below. This is quite a bit over the word limit the publisher wants me to give out for free, but as it is just a series of teaser paragraphs, I'm hoping that if they ever notice, they will agree it is fair.
I've used a near-final copy, rather than the published version, to hedge a little more.

Not mentioned below is a short forward by Jaan Valsiner, editor for the book series, and an excellent preface by Cornelis de Waal, contextualizing Holt's work both in its time and in the larger American philosophical tradition. 

Chapter Summaries
With rough sections indicated in italics
Chapter 1) Edwin Bissell Holt shows a bit of his contentious personality in this letter to William James, sent during travels in Europe. Holt reports progress on his book and acknowledges James’s assertion that Holt’s work falls within the Radical Empiricist tradition. Holt also criticizes both academic and social mores. Thus this letter serves to ground our coverage of the middle of Holt’s career, presaging the events to come, and the ideas at play, in the subsequent decade. The photo used at the beginning of this book comes from a letter written to Mrs. James a short time later. 

The Specific Response and the Problem of Illusory Experiences

Chapter 2) Joel Michell shows the Australian school of realism to be a living tradition descended from Holt’s realism. His brief glimpse of the history of this movement focuses on Holt’s assertion that minds are a publically observable phenomenon: the “obsevability thesis.” Michell follows this broad overview with a narrow focus on John Anderson’s “categories of being.” These are properties that Anderson, a prominent member of the Australian school, argued are present in any real situation. Michell then extends Anderson’s work back to Holt’s notion that a specific response constitutes the cognitive relationship. Michell asks us to consider Anderson’s categories of being as a critical missing part of Holt’s story, the minimum properties to which a response must be specific. That is, to the extent that any response is specific to some real situation, Michell argues, it has some aspect unique to each of the categories of being. 

Chapter 3) François Tonneau continues his argument that behavior analysis must adopt a realist epistemology and metaphysics, and shows how such a stance helps behaviorists through several thorny problems. In particular, he tries to argue that the behavior analyst must allow for the direct, causal influence of past events on present behavior. This would allow a straightforward way of dealing with the phenomenon of ‘memory’: current actions being a response to the past objects and events themselves. Context-dependent memory and similar phenomenon are talked about in a similarly concise manner: an object or event in the present causes the relation between current actions and the past object or events. As will be the case with other authors, Tonneau’s focus is on causal relations, rather than physiological intermediaries. If such a schema is accepted, Tonneau’s account may also be able to explain several phenomenon behavior analysts find even more awkward. For example, a hallucinated blue horse may be a response to something blue in the past, and a horse in the past, but without responding to independence of the two objects nor their temporal location in the past. This flips the common logic that states that the victims of such effects are responding to something added to reality, and declares instead that the problem is that the victims are not responding to enough of reality. In essence, these and other varieties of ‘erroneous’ mental phenomenon can be viewed as responses to real objects and events, where the response lacks the specificity Michell insists is characteristic of a complete ‘specific response’!

Chapter 4) Eric Charles takes us through Holt’s own attempt to deal with the ‘argument from illusions,’ the argument that sometimes people seem to have inaccurate experiences, which is the historic bane of realism. The fact that people often experience the same thing in more than one way, and sometimes experience one of those ways as illusory, is traditionally understood to demonstrate that some experienced things are merely mental, which leads to a dualism between the world that is and the world experienced, which in turn leads to extreme idealism. Holt’s approach to the problem of illusion is rooted in James’s Radical Empiricism; because of this, Holt must try to put so-called ‘illusory’ experiences on par with so-called ‘real’ experiences. Because Holt is also a realist, he puts the experiences on par by arguing that both experiences can be explained without reference to anything ‘mental’ and that the content of both experiences are ‘out there’ not ‘in the head.’ Holt deploys several types of arguments to support this position, and several are continued in Gibson’s Ecological Psychology and in contemporary illusion research. 

            Chapter 5) Arthur Shapiro and Kai Hamburger continue the discussion of illusion, providing empirical reports on several recent projects. The illusions discussed include the classic Hermann grid, in which people report seeing illusory dots at the intersection of white lines over a dark background, similar effects created with ‘woven’ black and white lines, and several interesting effects gained by flaring the ends of the woven lines. They also report on several motion illusions, in which the foreground or background of a picture are changed in a uniform fashion, but viewers report seeing movement, i.e., they report seeing the spatial displacement of picture elements when no movement is occurring. In all these cases, Shapiro and Hamburger argue, people experience these ‘illusions’ because they are sensitive to local contrast in the displays. That is, a direct and accurate sensitivity to relative contrast would yield the experiences reported. In some important sense, the content of these illusory experience is ‘out there,’ in the light. If so, these ‘illusions’ can be explained by people’s inability to attune themselves to the requested aspects of the displays, and the related inability to report the variable to which their visual system is responding at any given moment. This approach to illusion research runs contra to many traditional approaches, perhaps most notably the Gestalt approach which sought to explain all illusory experiences through mental rules of organization. That is, the Gestalt school denied a priori that the organization experienced existed ‘out there’ and were forced to look for the organization ‘in the head.’ Shapiro and Hamburg reject the Gestalt approach, and instead support Holt’s methodological agenda – that our task as researchers is to determine those elements of the world being responded to – and one of Gibson’s main arguments for ecological optics – that people are sensitive to higher-order patterns in light. However, Shapiro and Hamburger do not go as far as Holt, and perhaps Gibson, to suggest that all illusions can be explained through similar analysis. Rather, they are satisfied to show that any variant of the belief, “illusory experience must be explained by virtue of mental processes” is bunk. 

Holt’s Legacy and Holt as Legacy

Chapter 6) Eugene Taylor brings a critical eye to Holt’s claim to continuing James’s work. It is clear that Holt saw his work in that context, and in particular as continuing James’s Radical Empiricism. It is also clear that Holt’s students learned, in part through him, an appreciation of James. However, in James, Radical Empiricism was balanced by a commitment to Pragmatism and Pluralism. After summarizing James’s ‘tripartite metaphysics’, and discussing Holt’s relationship to James, Taylor argues that Holt never really understood James’s larger system. This conclusion is not too surprising, as Holt explicitly disavowed Pragmatism, and one could guess he was not overly keen on Pluralism. However, Taylor also suggests that Holt’s system never even did a good job with Radical Empiricism. To supporting this point, Holt’s other influences are brought out and explored, including Münsturberg, Peirce, Royce, and in particular Flournoy. In the end it is concluded that Holt’s works from the New Realism era cleverly captured many important aspects of James’s Radical Empiricism, but that they stretched some terms too far and that at least a few of Holt’s original ideas are contradictory to James’s intent. Taylor finds Holt’s Animal Drive far less satisfactory. Ultimately the verdict is that, though highly influenced by James and intellectually in touch with Radical Empiricism, Holt fell short of his mentor’s vision. 

Chapter 7) Thomas Natsoulas brings his many years of experience dissecting theories of consciousness, James’s, Skinner’s, Gibson’s, etc., to bear on Holt’s work. As with his other subjects, Natsoulas begins by simply trying to embrace and understand Holt’s system. This leads initially to tentative agreement: Many aspects of Holt’s system seem appealing, such as its insistence that the object of consciousness is the actual object, its seeming compatibility with Natsoulas’s concept of ‘retrowareness’, and the view of consciousness as a relation. Yet, Holt’s continued insistence that consciousness is not ‘in the head’ is found to be off putting. A deeper reading leads to further concerns: Identifying consciousness with a specific response seems to be a bait-and-switch; one that places Holt in the company of several researchers Natsoulas sees as eliminating consciousness, rather than explaining it. A still deeper reading brings things to a head: When Holt uses this new concept of consciousness to seemingly do away with experience altogether, Natsoulas can follow him no further. In the end Natsoulas believes that rather than creating a foundation for the science of psychology, Holt has done away with that which psychology is supposed to be a science of. With that conclusion, Natsoulas voices the concerns common to many who try to understand Holt’s system – that is, the battle line is familiar – but Natsoulas works through these objections with a level of sophistication and attention to detail few can match. 

Chapter 8) Robert Shaw explores the ways in which Gibson enhanced Holt’s framework, adding many strong arguments for realism along the way. In so doing, he firmly positions ecological psychology as a living tradition descended from Holt, while emphasizing the problems in Holt’s original system that Gibson seems to remedy. The discussion is contextualized by the notion of realism, dualism, and idealism as competing ‘worldviews.’ The context for Holt and Gibson is provided by discussion of William James, Alexander Bain, Bertrand Russell, Ernst Mach, and Alexius Meinong. Finally, Shaw comes to focuses on the main criticisms of New Realism leveled by the critical realists. The most devastating criticism, both for Shaw and many contemporary philosophers, was that the New Realism, particularly as espoused by Holt, fell victim to ‘Meinong’s fallacy’, multiplying the number of existing things to ridiculous proportions in clear violation of Ockham’s razor. By the critical realist’s count, Holt fell victim to this fallacy in at least three important ways, multiplying objects across perspectives, across different sensory modalities, and across different people standing in those different perspectives. Shaw deftly shows how Gibson’s notion of ‘invariants’ solves all three problems! 

Chapter 9) Harry Heft focuses on one of Holt’s major conceptual innovations, the ‘recession of the stimulus.’ Correcting earlier interpretations, Heft notes that the recession of the stimulus is not related to the distinction between proximate and distal stimuli, rather it is about the importance of sensory stimulation as an explanation for current behavior: Whereas individual reflexes are a constant function of immediate stimulation, behaviors are a function of factors external to the organism. The more complex a behavior being studied, the further the immediate stimuli will have faded into the background, i.e., the larger a swath of the world the organism is behaving towards. This brings us to the specific-response relation, that is, it explains why we are attempting to identifying those aspects of the world with respect to which the organism is behaving. This relates to Gibson’s insistence that organisms see ‘objects’ and ‘events’, and to the notion of affordances. Connecting Holt’s thinking with that of Dewey and Lewin, Heft also shows a strong relationship between Holt’s work and the work of Roger Barker (1903-1990). Barker showed, empirically, that people’s behaviors were often better predicted by the situation than anything known about the person’s idiosyncratic history – people behave not only towards individual objects and events, but towards much more global ‘situations.’ Attempts to reduce these relations break the very thing psychology is supposed to be studying. 

Beyond Representation

Chapter 10) Nicholas S. Thompson shows, through an interview format, his perspective on a career and a life as a new realist. The counter-intuitiveness of the new realist position is explored; the claim is made that the new realism has few absurdities, but they are all up front, whereas alternative approaches have many absurdities, but they hide in the background. The connection between Holt and Tolman is explored, and the approach is linked with the broader field of ethology. We also see glimmers of Thompson’s extensions of that approach to try to solve problems in evolutionary biology. At the heart of this work is the new realist stance that things are what you see when you see those things. From this, Thompson asks, “What is it that researchers see when they see adaptation?” and this leads him to postulate ‘natural design’ as an objective property of organism-environment matching. Other topics include Gibson, James, Holt’s observability thesis, and the relation between this position and plain-language everyday occurrences. The chapter ends with a discussion of the implications of this way of thinking for psychological research in general, and for clearing away mysterious sounding challenges such as “Can a robot feel pain?” 

Chapter 11) Alan Costall focuses on Holt’s devastating attacks on representationalism, and Gibson’s odd failure to deploy them. While adding depth to our understanding of Gibson’s debt to Holt, Costall also draws out the mystery of that debt not being more obvious. The wit and piercing insight similar to Gibson and Holt are displayed. Included are many examples of Holt’s arguments against dualism in general, and against representationalism in particular. The mistakes Holt rallied against, and hoped to ward off, a century ago are still standard practice in the field. The absurdities can be hard to see, buried as they are in commonly accepted ideas that are rarely put side-by-side. Costall demonstrates the continued presence of these absurdities adeptly. Costall’s driving question is this: When Gibson was better positioned than anyone to try to counter these excesses of the budding ‘cognitive revolution,’ why did he sit so idly by? While stopping short of saying that part of Gibson’s legacy to Holt was that Gibson did not feel the need to fight the representational model more aggressively, Costall concludes that Gibson missed a major opportunity to steer the field in a better direction – that Gibson missed ‘the opportunity of a lifetime.’

Chapter 12) James J. Gibson focuses on his debt to Holt in this letter to his colleague and biographer Ed Reed. The letter is unfortunately brief, but it gives a flavor of Holt’s influence on those he worked with. The last line is telling: “You have chosen well to concentrate on Holt.”

1 comment:

  1. Eric, congratulations on the new book. Something that might also be constructive is another post on the book, but not one about it being done and polished, but something on the process of editing a book in the first place. How did you find authors, and what sorts of reviewing did you do? etc...