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Against Empathy and Other Philosophical Beefs

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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When it comes to neuroscience itself, the chief agenda is one about coming to terms with the shocking magnitude of the basic task: to investigate the most complex object in the known universe with a set of methods and practices that are obviously still massively inadequate. How to bring all the various levels from chemical transmitters, to single neurons, to cell assemblies to entire brain regions together, how to juggle the many different often incompatible measurement techniques, data types, processing protocols etc.? How to do all that moreover in the absence of a workable and agreed-upon general brain theory?

Empathy is one of these fashionable watchwords of popular science that is being publicly promoted in recent years (comparable to ‘resilience’, ‘depression’, ‘neuroplasticity’, ‘well-being’ and so much more). There is a real and important phenomenon here, but it tends to gets misconstrued, taken out of context, and then set absolute as if everything depended on it when it comes to the future of humanity.

What I still find interesting is the ongoing re-formatting of parts neuroscience into effectively an ICT-driven data science, and the increased prominence of simulation and all sorts of activities that are removed from messing around with actual biological brains. Neuroscience becomes a branch of computer science instead of a part of biology, that’s a relevant trend. There are many reasons for this, some of them no doubt scientific, but some also economic and cultural. Put simply: None of the promised breakthroughs of human neuroscience have materialized, what have we today that we didn’t have in, say, 2004? On the other hand, networked computer systems have changed the world, they have transformed everyday life, business, finance, science, everything, and that’s where the money is. So no wonder in a way, that neuroscience is absorbed by ICT – the winner takes it all.

Jan Slaby is Professor in Philosophy of Mind at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His work spans the area between the philosophy of mind, social philosophy and philosophy of science (esp. of neuroscience and psychiatry). One part of his work is in developing a non-mentalist phenomenological account of personhood (with affinities to enactivism, extended mind, embodied mind approaches); a key focus therein is on emotion and affectivity (esp. on the affective dimensions on selfhood and on affective disorders such as depression). A further, more recent orientation is toward the affective dynamics of social interaction and toward a ‘political philosophy of mind’. This relates to a further research interest in the methodology of interdisciplinary affect studies, and on bringing philosophy in conversation with recent work in cultural studies, including postcolonial, feminist and critical race theory. Here he discusses what really matters in the philosophical study of neuroscience, the shocking magnitude of the task, why he challenges the current discourse on empathy, affective intentionality, why the social dimension is more important than the individual, mind invasion, Heidegger’s importance for his approach, the Human Brain Project and the impact of cultural transformations on philosophical projects.The earth turns through space, you start to hear it turning and wonder…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Jan Slaby: Initially I just wanted to study a Humanities subject in a big city, so I chose philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin. After a first year of staggering around in ignorance, I got hooked thanks to some good teachers and engaged fellow students. Looking back, it was probably my close reading of Heidegger’s Being and Time over the summer of 1998 that got me going, but also studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason with my friend Lutz over several years. Upon graduation in 2001 I got a job offer to join Achim Stephan in Osnabrück. Achim was beginning to build a philosophy of cognitive science working group there. That’s when I turned pro, so to speak. That was a lucky break because there where many more talented philosophy majors around me in Berlin back then.

3:AM: You’re interested in claims made for neuroscience and ethics. Before saying how you think we should engage with neuroscience and ethics could you sketch what are some of the claims about this that you critically engage with and in particular what you see, I think, as the ideological colouring much of this work?

JS: I began to work in philosophy of mind and of cognitive science at a time where neuroscience enjoyed its peak phase of public appeal in the early 2000s. These days, if you had an fMRI study in your grant proposal, you could be almost sure to be funded. I confess that we also jumped on that bandwagon back then in Osnabrück, with a project called “animal emotionale” that was a joint venture between philosophy and neuroscience – with somewhat more careful scientists but still a rather shaky proposal. But for the most part I was shocked and estranged by a stunning combination of self-aggrandizement and utter ignorance in several leading neuroscientists in Germany. They were advocating a neural reductionism and 19th century version of determinism that was zero percent backed up by their empirical studies, 100 percent ideological. That they got away with this in the public, even the more educated public, and with the funding agencies was abhorrent to my young philosophical sensibility. Some neursocientists claimed that there was no freedom of will because there where things going on in the brain during the time a person makes a decision; others argued that evolution had programmed present-day ethical dispositions; still others held that consciousness was epi-phenomenal and thus not worthy of study, and so on. A whole fabric of rubbish claims was erected and often went unchallenged.

Only later did I get a better sense for the intricate practice of high-quality neuroscience. I understood that the real issues in the field have nothing to do with the popular philosophical topics like free will or naturalized ethics but with questions of complexity, levels of explanation, mechanistic models, conceptual outlooks, and most of all technological protocols, statistics, and data processing practices, and so on. I didn’t know how hard it was to conduct and evaluate a study in neuroscience. That is all immensely fascinating but for entirely different reasons than the ones that occupied the public spotlight 10-15 years ago.

3:AM: What alternative approach do you suggest?

JS: Well, here we have to differentiate. When it comes to neuroscience itself, the chief agenda is one about coming to terms with the shocking magnitude of the basic task: to investigate the most complex object in the known universe with a set of methods and practices that are obviously still massively inadequate. How to bring all the various levels from chemical transmitters, to single neurons, to cell assemblies to entire brain regions together, how to juggle the many different often incompatible measurement techniques, data types, processing protocols etc.? How to do all that moreover in the absence of a workable and agreed-upon general brain theory? Neuroscience – which is in fact not one single discipline but a whole universe of subfields, approaches, techniques with often wildly differing agendas – is a fascinating case study in how modern high-tech knowledge practices unfold, evolve, intersect on a global scale, but also how they conflict with one another, produce social impacts, get hyped, get bashed, ignored, and so on. Indeed, vast materials for sociologists, anthropologists, political theorists, and surely philosophers of science – but not something that will give us any ‘answers’ on questions of human nature, ethics, or other grand philosophical themes.

And when this is so, then this obviously means that we have to resort to other avenues for thought when it comes to understanding the human mind, or human nature more generally, or answers to the grand questions of philosophy. We need to stick to and further cultivate the good old philosophical and humanistic modes of inquiry, but we also have to work hard to make these modes of inquiry fit for present-day conditions of living and styles of thought, modes of talk and interaction. I hope to give some tiny examples of this in the responses that follow.

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3:AM: You mount two challenges to the current discourse on empathy. So what is the discourse claiming that you’ve got problems with? What’s wrong with it? Is it again a case of ideology ?

JS: Empathy is one of these fashionable watchwords of popular science that is being publicly promoted in recent years (comparable to ‘resilience’, ‘depression’, ‘neuroplasticity’, ‘well-being’ and so much more). There is a real and important phenomenon here, but it tends to gets misconstrued, taken out of context, and then set absolute as if everything depended on it when it comes to the future of humanity (think of Jeremy Rifkin’s manifesto The Empathic Civilization). The first challenge I pose to the popular construct of empathy is a philosophical one, revolving around agency. The way empathy is defined on these mainstream accounts usually misconstrues agency. That is the tricky bit about another person’s thoughts and feelings – these are inextricable from the other’s agentive perspective on the world, that is: from the simply fact that we are agents. What I have on my mind at a given time is not some passive and static object, not something that I am just saddled with, but an active attitude, something that I actively bring about, or at least have a significant say in shaping, continuing, modulating or, at times, blocking out.

Human minds are essentially active affairs, they are a matter of my actively adopting a stance, of my bringing about an active self-determination with regard to what goes on around me. But empathy – if understood as a kind of mental projection ‘into the other’ – misses this decisive active dimension. Instead, it tends to objectify the mind, attributing to the other person merely a range of externally construed mental states. Empathy as cognitive perspective-shifting (‘imagining oneself in the other’s shoes’) does not capture what is most crucial about a person: that there is an agentive autonomy with regard to what we ‘have on our minds’, that we have a decisive say in what goes on with or ‘in’ us. At root, this is an old problem; Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, surely Heidegger and Wittgenstein – they all were grappling with this problem in one way or other, and they all were no friends of empathy as mental perspective shifting.

My second objection to the empathy trend concerns present-day human sociality, the way that we are all suddenly told how ‘inherently social’ we humans are, and how this default sociality is allegedly an ancient biological trait. It is first of all striking how this narrative has changed over the years – and how it tends to co-evolve with salient social formations in developed societies. Think of the rampant individualism – culturally, scientifically, philosophically, certainly in economics – of the Reagan/Thatcher 1980s. It was all biological back then (e.g., ‘cognitive science’, ‘evolutionary psychology’); and it is all biological today – only that the story has changed completely. This indeed leads to some sort of ideology critique of the human sciences, more precisely to a critical questioning of the entanglement of scientific outlooks with broader societal trends. The worst case here is a kind of closed loop of conceptual infiltration on the one hand and naturalization on the other: The human sciences borrow cultural metaphors to describe their subject matter, in return, they naturalize cultural conditions by presumably providing a scientific confirmation of them. I’m oversimplifying, obviously, but this is the basic pattern: Think of all the talk of networks today, the fascination of contemporary culture with networks of all kinds, the internet, traffic patterns, financial flows, social networks, how we all need to be networked individuals to succeed in this world. Then you have neuroscientists mapping the brain to unveil the so-called ‘connectome’, the totality of all the information flow patterns in the brain. You see, when the brain is a network, when it works according to principles of network science – isn’t it then only logical that the social world is likewise organized in the form of networks? And maybe the social demand to be a diligent ‘networker’, to amass more and more ‘network capital’ sounds more plausible, too.

The empathy research trend and its popularity as a piece of contemporary pop science fits right in, it is at high risk to be instrumentalized as a narrative that simply confirms the socio-economic status quo instead of help us look beneath it.

3:AM: You’ve also investigated problems in the literature dealing with emotions and feeling, in particular with something called affective intentionality. What is this and what’s the problem in the way it has been discussed? Is it to do with the way philosophers tend to construe affective phenomena as individual mental states with intentional content and you want to see them in relational, social terms?

JS: Your question addresses to very relevant stages in contemporary philosophical work on emotion. The first is about individual affect, the second is thoroughly social and relational. The first important point about emotion and feeling is quite general: emotions are not blind urges or mere sensations – rather, they are embodied ways of being in touch with the world. ‘Affective intentionality’ is essentially this property of emotions, that they are essentially ways of revealing the world to us, ways of being oriented or disoriented in our current situation, the modes of our being in touch (or out of touch) with what is significant to us. If you elaborate this dimension philosophically, you will come to appreciate the complex narratives embodied in our manifold emotional attitudes and how these reveal a lot about ourselves, our attachments and values. And you can provide refined accounts of specific emotion types and the self- and world-orientations these embody, for instance fear, anger, grief, jealousy or shame. This is affective intentionality.

Now, most of the philosophical discussion about affective intentionality is focused on the individual – how do I relate to the world affectively? what are my emotional commitments? etc. This is understandable, as emotions are undeniably a key dimension of individual experience. But in fact, much of our affective lives is inherently social – to a fundamental and irreducible degree. How we feel, what we feel often unfolds in intimate relational to others, not only feeling about others, but feeling-for others and crucially also feeling-with others. This is where ‘relational affect’ comes in: Our manifold ways of being absorbed, immersed in affective interaction. What is striking about many of these social scenes of affect is that we’re often literally drawn-in, carried away, even disowned by what goes on around us – think of exuberant parties, protests, situations of play, or simply a group of friends having a good time. We cannot break these scenes up into assortments of individual affective orientations. What we deal with here are affective ways of ‘being in this together’. Crucially, in many of these cases the individual does not have a grasp of what goes on with or around them – there is more to relational affect than an individual ‘participant’ in such an intra-actional scene can consciously process and self-attribute. Relational affect exceeds individual orientations, it is larger than us. Would we focus solely on the individual and her sense of what goes on, we’d be restricted to an impoverished, fragmented picture, a big part of the relational dynamics would be lost from view.

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[Pic: Edward Colver]

3:AM: As part of a strand of cultural studies and continental philosophy in the Spinoza-Deleuze tradition you’ve introduced the concept of ‘affective arrangement’. So first can you sketch what this tradition is and what this concept is for?

JS: This directly continues my previous response. If indeed much of our affective lives is relational affect – i.e., social dynamics not restricted to individual experience – then we need concepts that help us capture how these social affective dynamics unfold, what gives them their specific contours and ambience. One such concept is ‘affective arrangement’. Think of being at a rock concert. There is a stage, an audience room, a sound system, lighting and decoration, a crowd of fans in full gear and fired up for the event, then the main act enters the stage to light effects, smoke and booming intro sounds, excitement all around – all of this together and in its operation is an affective arrangement. It is a coordinated ensemble of elements, including the affective displays of a number of individuals, that combine to prompt, channel, modulate, amplify instances of relational affect. Affect breeds affect, as it were, but always within the machineries and set-ups of social arenas, often purposefully designed. Examples abound: a corporate office, a family dinner, a self-help group going at it in their meeting room, even simply a lively street corner in an inner city, most of what happens in the performing arts, not to forget the many devices and interactive architectures of social media. The point is that once we understand that affect is in many cases not an individual affair, not a matter of what goes on “in” a solitary individual, we have to look elsewhere for hints as to how affect takes shape, is prompted and modulated, gets its content. Affective arrangements are just that: domain-specific set-ups of various elements by way of which relational affect is ‘machinated’, orchestrated, disseminated. This takes us to a number of exciting fields: architecture, human geography, performance studies, anthropological field work, surely media studies, microsociology and much more – fields that have long ago acknowledged how dynamic spatial arrangements are implicated in producing and in-forming individual experience and behavior.

Deleuze and Guattari operated with a similar intuition, and interestingly they favored describing such arrangements in terms of ‘machines’. In fact, they used a veritable panoply of machinic notions. This of course strikes a chord with many modern-day devices, media environments and socio-technological set-ups, with how our humanity gets more and more entangled with technology, how we become posthuman, Cyborgs and all that. Sometimes, philosophers remain stuck in a backward naturalism of the naked individual, unscathed by technology, a kind of provincialism of the noninvaded body. It sure won’t kill us to go a little cyberpunk here, on pain of losing touch with the realities of prosthetic, multiply invaded, engineered human embodiment and sociality. We humans might not be machines yet, but we’re surely machinic in many respects, and it’s time to reflect that more in philosophy (and I don’t just mean consumer-friendly ‘extended mind’ theory!). Affect studies is a good field for this kind of work, as machines are affect-generating like little else. Deep down, we all love our machines, and we love becoming machines – that’s the profound insight we can take from Deleuze & Guattari.

3:AM: You say your approach to situated affectivity is not just mind extension but more also mind invasion. You also speak of a ‘corporate life hack’. What do you mean by that?

JS: When we look a little closer at some of these machinic arrangement of contemporary civilization, we find what we might call ‘machines of extraction’ – devices that lure us into their ambit by offering opportunities for pleasurable attachment, but on the backside they suck live, creativity, energy or simply time and money out of us, and feed it into the beast of empire. I call this the ‘corporate life-hack’. A simple, obscene example: an interactive video game that trains the employees of an ice cream chain in getting the scoop sizes right, that is: small enough for being profitable to the firm. By ‘mind invasion’ I mean the pervasive habituation of our mental capacities into arrangements of this kind: a creative profession that lets us dream of an exciting life and fulfilling career when all it does is capture our labor power, energy and time on the cheap (low wage, contract labor, unpaid internships and so on) – social media sites that make us share intimate information, habituate us to certain forms of orchestrated sociality, the gamification of routine labor, which often nudges individuals into hours and hours of unpaid labor.

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But there are also quite different cases of ‘mind invasion’: Think of how Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks famously described the way in which his embodied self-image was fabricated from without by the colonizers’ perspective, how he was objectified under the white gaze and how this led to an ‘epidermalization’ of a racial schema, of a self-understanding as inferior, as outcast, as savage, and threatening. This hetero-construction of a ‘black’ identity, this going under the skin of the oppressor’s image and world view – that’s a horribly clear case of mind invasion, a form of parasitic ensoulment, ‘alien possession’ at its most pernicious.

‘Machines of extraction’ and mind invasion more generally are the politically dangerous flip side of relational affect and affective arrangements. Analyzing and critiquing such arrangements is part of a perspective I call “political philosophy of mind”. It ranges from critique of present-day technology, online culture, corporate life to work in feminism and critical race theory.

3:AM: How does Heidegger fit into your work on affect and the broad question of why philosophy has become so interested in affects?

JS: I think Heidegger got a lot right about the basic predicament of how we are in the world, and how affectivity is a key part of the enabling ground of our experience, agency and sociality. Heidegger can teach us to avoid the traps of mentalism, objectivism, problematic construals of self-consciousness, and much more. In terms of affectivity, Heidegger shows how all our comportment is affect-imbued from the outset, including our understanding and our cognitive operations, and also how affect itself is always inherently social, a matter of how we ‘are in this together’, about shared situations and atmospheres. Most importantly, he shows how our affectivity leads right into the dimension of existential temporality, how our very being is basically temporal – we are not existing ‘in time’, but our being as such is time. How we are what we are is a temporal affair, and a lot of interesting consequences follow from that; but we tend to misconstrue this and objectify our being, as if we were just some physical object among other objects. Studying Heidegger can help one get one’s thought in a position were one will avoid all these kinds of objectifying misconstruals.

However, one should not stay there. Heidegger is in many respects a problematic thinker, first of all politically, of course, but also philosophically. There is something assholy, off-putting, painfully self-obsessed about his style of thought and the way he writes – don’t do it at home, folks. Still, I prefer philosophers who have worked themselves through Heidegger over those that haven’t, but you cannot stay there and think it’s just okay to ‘be a Heideggerian’. I plan to work more on an immanent critique of Heidegger, especially his views of the subject, how he keeps adhering to the image of a stratified, hierarchical subject, even where he avows to abandon any sort of subject-thinking altogether. We had critiques of this kind within French philosophy, but there is little in English so far. In effect, this would about using Heidegger like a ladder one has to climb in order to reach a certain level of thinking on the subject, but then, once atop, one is well-advised to kick, or better still: burn that bloody ladder.

3:AM: You discuss the Human Brain Project which is a project involving neuroscience and ICT. How do you assess it in terms of the differences it will make to neuroscience and philosophy of mind?

JS: When I wrote a paper with my colleague Philipp Haueis on the Human Brain Project in early 2014, we deliberately focused on a few areas where we thought the project might lead to interesting new developments in neuroscience. We were obviously very skeptical of the benchmark research goal, this fantasy of simulating the full active human brain in silico in a span of ten years. Even 100 years would have rung fictional to anybody with remote knowledge of the brain’s complexity and given current technological capacities. By now, in mid-2016, all the world knows in how much trouble the Human Brain Project is, that it was repeatedly on the verge of collapse for all sorts of reasons, organizational, personal but also scientific. But let’s not focus on that.

What I still find interesting is the ongoing re-formatting of parts neuroscience into effectively an ICT-driven data science, and the increased prominence of simulation and all sorts of activities that are removed from messing around with actual biological brains. Neuroscience becomes a branch of computer science instead of a part of biology, that’s a relevant trend. There are many reasons for this, some of them no doubt scientific, but some also economic and cultural. Put simply: None of the promised breakthroughs of human neuroscience have materialized, what have we today that we didn’t have in, say, 2004? On the other hand, networked computer systems have changed the world, they have transformed everyday life, business, finance, science, everything, and that’s where the money is. So no wonder in a way, that neuroscience is absorbed by ICT – the winner takes it all.

It is interesting philosophically what this entails for how we understand the brain. Suddenly, the long-discredited computer metaphor of the brain sounds plausible again. It seems to make sense again to treat the brain abstractly as an information processing device, if a non-linear, massively parallel one, and bother less with the slimy biological details. But I can only hint at this very crudely here, much more analysis is needed.

3:AM: Your work is multidisciplinary. Some scientists have indicated that there is no need for philosophy anymore – so what do you say to those who say there’s no need to heed the philosophers anymore?

JS: It is usually dubious scientists saying this. Have you noticed? Those scientists who are fully in the game usually have no time and no interest for bothering with other academic fields, let alone in sweepingly general ways. But then there is this dubious lot who sit on governing boards or in the public spotlight, or those who have long settled on producing only pop science. As far as these folks are concerned, I do not waste my time and my limited empathy on them.

The deeper point your question hints at is a much larger cultural transformation that has effects on the Humanities and on academia at large. It is not only the sciences that have changed the landscape, but also culture more generally, the present stage of capitalism, media and communication, finance, new forms of governance, lifestyles and consumption habits, new forms of political expression, new people making there presence felt on the global stage, and so on. There is some truth to the claim that some forms of classical philosophical inquiry might have lost their purchase on human reality in the wake of these transformations.

It is unclear whether the self-reflection of individual agents can still have substantive bearings on these cultural dynamics; it is doubtful whether normative judgments issues from high up the ivory tower get any foothold, or whether there can still be something like a ‘public intellectual’ today who is not either a nuisance, an unwitting provincial figure or simply a clown, better for entertainment than enlightenment. We also must not forget what an incredibly white, eurocentric, colonial endeavor modern philosophy is, and how this history is a bit like a rotten foundation that is slowly gnawing at the whole endeavor, lest there is substantial change sometime soon. I think that things do not altogether look all this bleak, but philosophy is definitely well-advised to change its ways. It needs to open up more to forms of cultural inquiry… it shouldn’t shy away from political engagement… it must dismount from the disciplinary high ground (always a fiction but an effective one at that) and instead be ready to immerse itself within concrete lived realities. Philosophers need to acknowledge multiple types of subjects, histories, experiences and struggles, they have to thoroughly de-colonize, diversify, swing the gates to their castle wide open.

Procedurally, philosophy should strife to be less of a solitary matter of heroic (usually male, pale, anti-social) individuals, and become instead a thing of intellectual communities, writing collectives, grassroot organization, non-academic events, where people mix and mingle, not just intellectually but in the full thickness of life.

So it is certainly not science that brings salvation for philosophy, quite the contrary. Much rather, it is concrete life, the messy stuff of culture, the struggles of real people for dignity, recognition, freedom or just for a life that is worth living.

3:AM: And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend to take us into your philosophical world?

JS: That’s a hard one! I’m a bit embarrassed by the prevalence of dead white males on my list, but I’m afraid that’s what I have read the most. I don’t really have five that stand out, so I list five and then also a ‘honorable mention’ of five more, if I may.

Top 5:

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Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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Heidegger Being and Time

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Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectics of Enlightenment

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Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations

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Deleuze & Guattari What is Philosophy?

Honorable Mention: Aristotle, Nichomachian Ethics; Arendt, Vita Activa; Foucault, Discipline and Punish, McDowell, Mind and World, Judith Butler Frames of War

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 7th, 2016.