Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Amateur and Expert Practice - Cognitive Humanities

I recently spoke at a Cognitive Humanities conference in Oxford, always my favourite conference of the year because of the fascinating talks, challenges to my thinking, and excellent dancing! Below is the paper that I gave this year, about Object-Oriented Ontology and amateur and expert perception. It's certainly something I want to think through more, and hopefully in an article this Summer, but this and the work on similar in my book (out in May...) is at least the start of my thinking about how philosophy and cognitive science can describe the different experiences of experts and amateurs with the same object. I've included some Andy Goldsworthy images for reasons that will hopefully become apparent. The last image is by a photographer called Martin Hill and has really stuck in my head, performing some of what I was thinking about two sides of the same thing.

Oxford Cognitive Humanities 2015
Amateur and Expert Practice: What Encounters with Technologies Reveal
About Our Access to the World.


  • I keep getting tricked by things. Every time I think I know how to do something I get surprised by some unforeseen aspect of this or that object which reminds me how much I still have to learn.
  • I don’t think that this is an unusual experience. I think that it’s part of why we marvel at experts – how did the craftsman manage to make the whole statue, the dancer get through the whole piece, the driver the whole race, the guitarist the whole song, without making a mistake?
  • They must know both themselves, and the things that they work with perfectly.
  • But the philosophy that I’ve become interested in has profound problems with this idea of knowing things perfectly, and in fact with our ability to encounter real things at all.
  • I’m committed to finitude, to the inability of our encountering objects on their own terms, of our always having to distort and to reduce them, and thereby never being able to know them completely.
  • But then... how to account for all these experts who seem to draw so close to the things that they’ve practiced with, who seem to make them a part of themselves.
  • How do I preserve my faith in our not encountering the real with a group of people who seem to encounter an increasing amount of it?
  • And it’s that increase that’s the key – if you’re getting better you must surely be getting closer.
  • So that’s what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the different experiences of amateur and expert users of the same object, this or that guitar, or car, or chisel, to see how their encounters with the same artefacts must necessarily cause us to reflect on our reaching any aspect of the world.
  • I want to briefly set out two philosophical approaches to what is occurring here, one from classical phenomenology and one from the contemporary field of Object-Oriented Ontology.
  • I’ll start with two terms from Edmund Husserl, the originator of modern phenomenology.
  • The first is “adumbration.”
  • For Husserl, an adumbration is the reduced way that an object manifests itself in the perception of a viewer with a specific vantage, that is, an object must always appear as an adumbration of the whole.
  • Quite simply, because of the way our bodies work we cannot see all sides of an object at once, or, as Husserl puts it, “[o]f necessity a physical thing can be given only ‘one-sidedly’” (Husserl, Ideas 82). 
  • We know, however, that any object that we encounter has a fixity, a reality, independent of its various different adumbrations; for example we know that a television viewed from the side is the same television when viewed from the front even though its appearance is completely different.
  • But this ability to distinguish between the aspects of a thing is born from our prior experience. As we explore the world, as we move around an object, and open it up, and look inside, and view it from different angles, we encounter more and more of its profiles, fleshing it out.
  • There is a change in richness as an object is explored, what Husserl describes as a move toward an “intuitional fullness.”
  • As we move around an object that we’re familiar with we know what to expect, we know what is likely to appear before our eyes; it is a more complete thing than that which we encounter naively, than an object that we encounter for the first time.
  • In this regard we can borrow a second idea from Husserl: “horizon.”
  • An object’s intentional horizon is what gives our perception of an object its fixity and fullness; just beyond what we cannot currently perceive there are features that we “anticipate.” 
“the perception has horizons made up of other possibilities of perception, as perceptions that we could have, if we actively directed the course of perception otherwise: if, for example, we...were to step forward or to one side, and so forth” (Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, 44). 
  • If I were to walk around my television then I know that it would have a back and sides; if I were to open it up then I know that it has circuit boards and screws and wiring. In this way, perception, and its substantial component of anticipating what isn’t immediately there, is always an embodied experience.
  • If I move my body in this or that way then I know what the effect will be, and those “missing” aspects that I know would be revealed by my movement are a part of my perception for Husserl; they are “co-present,” just waiting to be brought to light. 
  • Our understanding of any object as what-it-is is dependent on this fact. As the philosopher Dan Zahavi puts it: 
“[Husserl] is not merely arguing that every perception of an object must necessarily include more than that which is intuitively present; in order to see something as [e.g.,] a tree, we will have to transcend the profile that is intuitively given and unthematically co-intend the absent profiles of the tree” (Dan Zahavi, Husserl, 96). 
  • All objects appear, therefore, against this interplay between perceived presence and anticipated absence, and such anticipations must be conditioned by our prior experience. 
  • So, for Husserl, this building up of fullness, of encountering of a thing’s various adumbrations or profiles so that we might know what exists beyond the horizon of perception, this is a gradual progression towards knowing the object as-it-is.
  • It’s a getting closer, a drawing nearer to the real thing despite the inbuilt limitations of immediate perception from a fixed perspective. 
  • But a relatively new branch of philosophy, Object-Oriented Ontology, radically challenges Husserl’s claim for our approaching access to the real through perception.
  • Predominantly developed internationally and online, Object-Oriented Ontology, or (oh-oh-oh) OOO, seeks to remedy an anthropocentric turn in Western Philosophy after Kant that sees real objects reduced to their correlation with perception by human observers.
  • OOO therefore asks how can we do justice to the rich existence of the real lives of the things themselves whilst also fully recognising that the ways in which they appear to us are not those things – how do we not reduce objects to the ways that they appear to us? 
  • As Zahavi argues, phenomena for Husserl are 
“understood as the manifestation of the thing itself, and classical phenomenology is therefore a philosophical reflection on the way in which objects show themselves” (Dan Zahavi, Husserl, 55). 
  • In an object-oriented approach this is anything but the case – the ways in which objects appear to us may be related to real things in the world, but they should never be mistaken for them as the way that things present themselves have their own distinct effects and are, in substantial part, the product of the affordances of the observer. 
  • So, the ideas from Object-Oriented Ontology that I principally want to work with are:
    • Objects can never be wholly known.
    • The objects that we encounter are not the real objects in the world.
    • And objects can never be reduced to the sum of their qualities or components. 

  • Graham Harman, OOO’s originator and leading proponent, describes an inner essence for objects which will always retreat – anything encountered, for Harman, is necessarily not the thing itself, no object is ever encounterable as what-it-is.
  • That which we do encounter, by action or perception, the phenomena that Husserl saw as emanations of a fundamental reality, are, instead, something else entirely. 
  • Harman posits a radical division between real objects, and sensual objects.
  • A real object is the thing out there in the world that we can never meet as what-it-is. A sensual object is the phenomenon that we encounter, a separate object with its own distinct effects that is at least partly the product of the real, but offers us no direct access.
  • Where Husserl saw the phenomenon in our perception as giving us a way to increasingly access the real object, Harman instead sees two entangled objects where we would normally think of one. 
  • Cognitive Science certainly supports the idea that our perceptions have a troubled relationship with reality.
  • We’ll hear throughout this conference the influence of experience and embodiment on perception, how the language that we use and the postures that we take and the things that we encounter impact on the ways in which we meet the world.
  • From the prioritisation of space near the hands to interviewers taking candidates more seriously if their CVs are presented on heavier clipboards, from the influence of the tools that we use to car buyers accepting worse offers in more comfortable chairs, the ways that we perceive are, at best, distortions or misrepresentations of reality – never a pure access.
  • Even in the ways in we touch and smell and taste things, we are conditioned and our bodies offer a mediating, translating layer. Our bodies are the enablers, structurers, and limiters of our experience of, and access to, the world, and this deeply affects our perceptual experience. 
  • Such findings support OOO’s position which sees the unstable phenomenon as consistently being mistaken for an inconceivable and ever-escaping essence.
  • Whilst it is only ever a sensual object that we encounter, they are not, however, simply “made up”. As Harman puts it: 
“The various qualities of a hammer do not emanate only from the sensual hammer that I have in view. They also emanate from the real hammer that withdraws into subterranean depths beyond all access. Sensual qualities serve two masters, like moons orbiting two planets at the same time: one visible and the other invisible” (Harman, Quadruple, 77). 
  • The sensual object, and its distinct qualities, are a product of both the essential object and the phenomenal experience, of both the reality of a thing and the distorting effects of any and every perception.
  • What’s important here, though, is that the phenomenon is its own sensual object, not simply a misperception of the real thing. 
  • The sensual object has its own effects, independent of the real object, because of those qualities that I perceive.
  • If I look at something and see that it is broken, or sharp, or dirty then I don’t pick it up, or I avoid it, or I don’t attempt to use it – the real object the phenomenon originates from may be working, soft, or clean, but I act, instead, on the basis of the sensual object that I encounter. 
  • It must be the case that we always encounter things, not as they are, through some kind of simple direct perception or completing of intuitional fullness, but instead as something like reduced, translated, or misperceived approximations, because we can always be surprised, and we can always alter our perceptions to include, typically more and more subtle information about a thing that we can base any future actions upon.
  • So here’s where we get into the importance of expertise.
  • The violin sensual object that I encounter is not the same as that met by the concert violinist; my computer sensual object isn’t the same as that of the computer scientist; seeing a Formula One car sensual object I don’t perceive what the professional driver climbs into.
  • That these are, in some real way, still the same real objects is clear from inter-subjective report of the same events: the violinist says “draw the bow across the strings and they will vibrate to make a sound” and she’s always right and right for everyone who tries to do so – there’s absolutely a real thing out there with its own qualities.
  • But that I encounter these objects differently from the experts is equally true, revealed by the real effects of what I encounter in comparison to the real effects of what they encounter, what we can relatively conceive of performing, and our particular anticipations.
  • I don’t drive, and I have no idea what the underside of a Formula One car looks like; what is co-present to me looks much like the underside of a Ford Fiesta that I saw up on blocks in my teens, and this necessarily structures my actions, intentions, and prehensions – my sensual object has different real effects in the world than the sensual object of the expert mechanic. 
  • So we’re left with these two strange objects orbiting one another – a real object that we never meet and the changeable, phenomenal sensual object that we produce with its own distinct effects. 
  • I want to emphasise how clear Harman is on the matter of never being able to access the real object, and his position rests upon objects always being more than the sum of their qualities: 
“Why exaggerate and say that things cannot touch at all? Does it not seem instead that things [at least] partly make contact with each other?...The problem is that objects cannot be touched ‘in part,’ because there is a sense in which objects have no parts. It is not as if things were made of seventy or eighty qualities and there were a mere practical limit ensuring that five or six of these qualities would always be withheld from the organs of sense” (The Quadruple Object, 74–75). 
  • For Harman, because objects are always more than the sum of their qualities, simply revealing more qualities of an object cannot draw you any closer to it.
  • Simply describing every little bit of an apple, its colour, weight, texture, etc. etc., even infinitely, never takes you toward what the apple is in itself.
  • I want to argue, however, against the strong form of this claim whilst maintaining its core.
  • A weaker form of Harman’s claim would be that we can approach a real thing through a build up of qualities its, but never fully realise it.
  • Why do I want to say this? Why can’t I accept that we can never get closer to things as they are? Because of the expertise that I started with. 
  • Although I accept that we can never satisfy an object, can never encounter it completely, expertise, the increasing of our ability to reliably and successfully interact with a real thing in the world, must mean that something changes, within ourselves, that draws us closer to that thing – I really can’t get past this.
  • Put bluntly again – an expert mechanic must come closer to the reality of a car than does someone opening the bonnet for the first time.
  • In order to support this claim, to say that I can have a faith in Harman’s assertions about the nature of real and sensual objects whilst also maintaining a faith in expertise as a getting closer to things in the world, I need to say more than that we can keep experiencing additional qualities of an object.
  • Harman is very clear that this doesn’t bring us closer to a thing so long as we acknowledge that objects are always more than the sum of the qualities that they possess. 
  • The only way that I can see such an approaching of essence being possible, therefore, is by our altering the sensual object that we do encounter in such a way that it better relates to the real object that it is always-already partly indebted to. 
  • In this way, we wouldn’t somehow reveal and combine more and more qualities of the real object until it was somehow fully discovered, but instead the sensual object that we encounter would become more closely aligned with the ever-escaping real, a moving into phase. 
  • I want to argue that successful, expert action with an artefact is based upon a real alliance with something beyond mere sensual, phenomenal qualities - prior experience with and knowledge of an object prepares us for interactions with that object in such a way that we brush up closer to its realness.
  • The very notion of expertise necessarily relies upon exactly this approach – expertise is about the minimisation of surprise following experience – but my argument is certainly not that we can solve the issue of access and encounter things directly. 
  • In Tool-Being, Harman, for his part, again explicitly argues against some of what I want to say: 
“There must be some sort of complicated way in which being announces itself in appearances; otherwise, even approximate forms of knowledge would be utterly impossible...But in negative terms, it cannot possibly be through an...adequate...mirror[ing of] the things themselves, or even...a closer and closer but merely asymptotic approach to the things. The gap between the two dimensions remains absolute” (Tool-Being, 160). 
  • Because of the absolute distinction that he sets up between the real essence of a thing and the phenomenal object produced during interaction, Harman sees no way for us to access any aspect of that essence through appearances, directly counter to Husserl.
  • And I agree; we cannot get closer and closer to a real object as a real object – our perceptions, in the myriad ways that they can be affected and mediated, are always too distorting for one.
  • But I also believe that there is a way to embrace a variety of asymptotic approach, i.e. an approach which gets closer and closer while never finally meeting the thing, whilst maintaining an absolute distinction between the real and the sensual, and expert use of technologies gives us the perfect example. 

  • When we can use a hammer again and again and again, reliably, predictably, successfully, we must be encountering not just a sensual phenomenon, but also at least some relative of its real essence which allows for the work to be done.
  • This must be the case because the real object doesn’t change even as our potentials with it do.
  • In short, expertise changes the nature of the sensual objects that we can produce.
  • The computer encountered by the expert is not the computer encountered by the amateur; when you’re a child with no knowledge of biology you do not encounter the same human body as when you grow up and become a surgeon.
  • What happens during the more informed perception, I’m claiming, is that the sensual object we encounter has become more coordinated or coherent with the real object without ever requiring an increase in our direct access to the thing itself. 
  • In this view, perfect expertise, perfect knowledge, would be the complete coordination of sensual and real objects, i.e. they would have the exact same qualities in our experience of them, and I agree with Harman that this is impossible. 
  • But the potential for a higher concordance must be true in order to explain the potential for an increase in expertise with the concomitant change in the nature of the sensual object encountered.
  • So, against Harman, I’m arguing that the way that things appear to us, and the ways in which we encounter them more broadly, can allow a potentially asymptotic approach to the essence of things, but without requiring an increase in direct access.
  • We still only ever meet sensual rather than real objects, but, following the effects of training, these sensual objects increasingly match with the world, during expert use, at action-facilitating points. 
  • The asymptotic approach to knowledge, to inadvertently knowing the real, that I have described is about increasing the coherence of how something appears with what it real-ly is, but it is a progression with no end and an infinite array of false paths.
  • We change something inside us as we become experts, combinations of memory, muscle memory, sensitivity, expectation, intuition, that each enable the production of more reliable, more coherent sensual objects.
  • If the sensual objects had too little in common with the real objects that they are mistaken for, then action could not take place.
  • An amateur, who is constantly surprised by how the hammer and wood and nail and her body react, produces and acts on sensual objects that cohere far less with reality – this is what characterises amateur experience.
  • And this demonstrates that the objects that we first encounter as amateurs are not the things themselves, and also shows the ways in which our perceptions are shaped by all sorts of external influences.
  • But expertise is not dependent on full or perfect knowledge, just better, just closer. 
  • Andy Goldsworthy, a sculptor who works almost exclusively with materials found in the landscape in which he works, offers sympathetic descriptions, in this regard, of the development of his expertise with, and knowledge of his sources.
  • Firstly, he acknowledges the parity between his art practice and craft expertise more generally: “I understand snow and leaves and feathers and mud and sticks and stones a little bit like the way a carpenter will understand wood, because he’s worked with it” (Hand to Earth, 166).
  • He also recognises that his interactions lead him toward a greater knowledge of a thing, but that this knowledge is always hard won and insufficient: 
“All my work concentrates on a particular aspect of material or place. The grass stalk is hard, brittle, hollow and fractures at angles; the seed-head is supple, thin, strong, whippy.  It takes many works to come to some understanding of ‘stalk,’ let alone ‘grass’; it will take many more” (Hand to Earth, 162). 
  • Finally, there is some recognition that he is revealing something real through practice, something that transmutes initial perception: 
“The most rewarding thing ever said to me was by a Dutch woman of a shape I had carved in sand. She said ‘Thank you for showing me that was there.’ That is what my work does for me myself, the discovering ‘what was there.’ If it does for others, then so much the richer” (Hand to Earth, 163). 
  • I don’t believe that Goldsworthy ever thinks that he has solved the mystery of any thing, but what is good and important about his practice for him, and for those who spend time with his work, is that sense of getting somewhere closer to reality without a solution in sight.
  • In the terms that I have set out here, his increasingly expert understanding of the materials is tied to an increase in the coherence of the sensual objects that he is able to produce. He gets somewhere.

  • Human knowledge, in this conception, is at best good enough in a moment, an asymptotic edging-towards that is reflected by the success and repeatability of an activity, but it’s mostly a gliding through a sea of objects that we don’t even recognise as infinitely alien.
  • For our expertly produced, increasingly coherent sensual objects though, what something is-to-us begins to match some aspects of the real thing in the world, but it should never be mistaken for that thing; we can always be surprised.

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