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Letter from the Third Realm

Post #1877 • November 4, 2020, 11:45 AM


I have just put down Varieties of Presence (2012) by Alva Noë. In it he makes an attractive argument about consciousness, which I attempt to sum up without injuring it by noting:

1. “The world shows up for us,” as he delightfully puts it. This is presence.

2. Presence is something that we achieve. We achieve it by means of two systems, sensorimotor activity and intellectual or conceptual activity. These two systems are distinguishable but not separable. Thinking a thought, as Noë describes it, is like rolling a pebble around in your fingers.

3. Presence is fragile. Limits of the two systems of awareness makes things partially, and in most cases minimally, available.

4. The best account of consciousness is one that he terms actionism.

In short, an object or quality is present in perceptual experience when it is perceptually available. An object is perceptually available when our motorsensory relation to the objects satisfies movement- and object-dependence.

That is to say, when the body moves, the experience of the object changes, and when the object moves, the experience of the object changes.

5. We do not have internal representations. The world represents itself. Rather, low sensorimotor availability and high intellectual availability of a given object accomplishes the job of awareness of things that we can’t detect with our senses at a given moment. (The notion of internal representations rests on a long history of assumptions that have not panned out well in phenomenology. Noë goes into them. I need not here.) Because presence is achieved, availability is something that we accomplish through sensorimotor and intellectual skills. Every act of perception or thought is the exercise of such skills. The term for this model is direct realism. Noë’s position is that of direct-realist actionism.

6. The division of reality into the subjective and the objective is wrong. The last chapter of the book explores the idea that philosophical discourses take place

...neither in a realm like chemistry, which is, so to speak, straightforwardly objective, nor in a realm that is merely subjective, where there is no call for reason-giving and argument. [Gottlob] Frege’s insights into our thought and talk belong in neither of these realms, but rather in a third realm. To understand philosophical analysis, we need to understand the character of this third realm. This is our challenge.

Noë then suggests in the afterword that we also need to do this regarding everything else.

Really we need to reject outright the inside/outside, interior/exterior metaphor. A practice is not a space, it is an organization of our habits, and these are slippery, and changeable, subject to different sorts of pressures. Pictures can hold us captive. But our captivity is never total. Which means that this tension between the ways our understanding opens up and the ways it closes off the world for us is conversation we can’t help but keep having. And here’s the beautiful thing: the having of the conversation—which, really , is the work of philosophy, and of art—is the very process whereby we remake ourselves and enact new skills and new understandings. And so achieve new styles of contact with the places we find ourselves.

This caught my attention in particular because I attempted to get rid of the subjective/objective split in 2007 in a post titled Taste, Quality, and the Panjective World. I reread the comments just now, and get the sense that the attempt was well-received but I didn’t do much of a job of convincing anyone about my argument. But this is, in fact, the view of a working phenomenologist. In retrospect, I think I did a better job than I was given credit for, and made an eminently decent attempt for someone who had never studied consciousness formally. I suspect that my circle of modernists were so dismayed at the art coming out of postmodernism that they concluded that one ought to avoid postmodernist philosophy at all costs. It took me a long time to realize that when postmodernist art was reaching into postmodernist philosophy for justifications, they had been developing on separate tracks for decades prior. A lot of what we were looking at with revulsion in the ’90s and 2000s was actually the product of supremely difficult intellectual material getting handled by coarser and coarser minds. I’m now of the opinion, expressed formulaically, that

IW = p ÷ ii

where IW is woke ideology, p is postmodernism, and i is grade inflation. That’s 2020 for you in a nutshell. But I digress.

My 2007 formulation is consistent with direct-realist actionism, although I was perhaps over-emphasizing the self for want of another way to put it.

We have an awareness with an active, energetic center, and that activity and energy decrease by degrees towards a periphery. That periphery is mobile and variable. Even parts towards the center become highly charged or not depending on whether we’re applying our awareness to it. Most importantly, the shape of this awareness corresponds to the material facts about the world in which the awareness takes place: our brains, our bodies, our dwellings, our city, our planet. Our awareness does not have a shape of its own independent of these facts. On the other hand, within this material template, it has enormous freedom of movement and configuration.

This model has an interesting implication: Your self includes awareness of distant things. I’m in California at the moment, but in twenty seconds I could go on the Web and look up the weather in Hong Kong. Weather in Hong Kong thus would become part of my self, at the periphery. Richard Dawkins asserted the idea of the extended genotype, which implies that our cultural products, even culture as a whole, is as much of an expression of our genetic material as our limbs. I’m proposing an extended self that includes everything in our awareness.


Presence is a matter of degree. Things are more or less present, For presence is grounded in availability and access. [My distant friend]’s presence is greater when he is right there before me. It is less when he is in Berlin. We can think of our skills, of our know-how, as defining an access space. Things can be nearer or farther away in access space. To distance in access space there corresponds the intensity or degree.

We can also speak of the modality or quality of presence, as opposed to merely its intensity or degree. And this is fixed not by position in access space, but by which space of access is in question. Spaces have different structures; their structures are determined by the repertoires of skill that structure them. And to these different structures there correspond distinct qualities.

Noë’s formulation is attractive, for one, because it makes possible a restatement about the objectivity of taste that has always struck me as, well, distasteful. I should say that I stand by what I wrote in On the Objectivity of Taste in 2018. If you insist on the subjective-objective split, then it holds that taste is objective. What follows from there, I tried to put as nicely as possible.

One of the unfortunate corollaries of the objectivity of taste is that it implies that when taste is wrong, it’s objectively wrong. That is, if I like an art object and you don’t, there must be something wrong with you, either cognitively or perceptually. I would say instead that if one of us is wrong, it’s in the contingent part of the objectivity. You or I are not wrong in the sense that calling a chair a banana is wrong. You or I are wrong in the sense that calling a chair “soft” is wrong, even though, as discussed earlier, from a certain standpoint it actually is.

Noë’s conception allows for art-value, quality in the Greenbergian sense, to be a variety of presence that we can attain instead of an objective trait that we can detect in spite of the fact that it’s not measurable, which rather insults the word objective. It likewise allows for taste to be a variety of access, a skill that we use to achieve the presence of art-value. This feels much more like the way things work than the scenario in which an ineffable but somehow objective characteristic of art is there for the taking, if only the viewer would show up with the right premises. Bringing the skill of taste to the presence of art-value puts us all in the same boat, existentially—reaching out with varying degrees of talent and craft that inhere to any skill, in order to achieve what art has to provide for us. Characterizing taste as a skill of access makes it easy to see how taste can season (or sour) with experience—it’s something we do more or less well, rather than something we have, or don’t.

That said, it’s still possible to show up to a work of art with garbage premises and make a hash out of the experience of looking. The Noëist conception allows for that too. Skills can be inappropriate as well as inadequate to the task of achieving presence.

Phenomenologically unsplit direct-realist actionism (what’s worse, abbreviating this mess as PUDRA or calling it Noëism? I don’t want to insult the man by summing up his life’s work too patly) also allows for taste to work in a way that Clement Greenberg described to be possible in Homemade Esthetics, acting upon raw experience to produce an aesthetic effect. He admitted that Duchamp demonstrated this—while pointing out that demonstrations become boring upon repetition, whereas art can only be known by looking at it again and again. On the other hand, there seems to be something extremely important about the ability to glean an aesthetic effect from raw experience. That must be where all the art is coming from in the first place, and explain the naturalness of fashioning art after nature.


I have three criticisms of what Noë has laid out in Varieties of Presence. The first is that he does not deal explicitly with memory, imagination, or prediction (which I believe to be the same function, tagged qualitatively as Has Happened, Has Not Happened, and May Happen respectively). This strikes me as negligent. I can willingly if not enthusiastically go along with the idea that, following his example, when I recall my first girlfriend, that I’m achieving her partial presence in a low-sensory and high-intellectual manner. But if I’m visualizing a new painting idea, or anticipating my opponent’s next move in a game of go, what am I achieving the presence of if I’m not using representations? Do all possible (and impossible!) futures coexist, and we’re glimpsing at them as we imagine and predict? I’ve seen things like that claimed in physics, but I’m just spitballing here. I would like to see this worked out more thoroughly.

The second regards a challenge to his view from Andy Clark, citing an example of Sean Dorrance Kelly’s, that of an opera singer sustaining a high note over a long interval. If you only have access to the note itself, the last instance of the note gone from the moment, how can you experience its sustain? Noë replies,

The argument is pointed. One cannot explain the perceptual sense of the presence now of musical episodes that have elapsed in time by means of access to those episodes (sensorimotor or otherwise), for the episodes are over, past, done with, inaccessible. But then, Clark can be read as asking, what is left of the idea that sensorimotor skills play a constitutive role in making the world present in experience?...

A clue to the needed account: the difference between objects and events. Objects, as already noted, are timeless in the sense that they exist whole and complete at a moment of time. Objects have no temporal extent. Events, in contrast, are creatures of time. They are temporally extended in nature. They are never whole. At the beginning, they have not yet achieved a conclusion. At the end, their beginning is done with. To suppose that the beginning of an event would be available, and so present, at its conclusion, in the way that the rear of the tomato is present, would be to suppose, confusedly, that events were in fact object-like structures. This would be to obscure the basic difference between objects and events.

Philosophers of mind so commonly refer to hypothetical apples as objects of contemplation that it has become a bit of an embarrassment to the field. Hence a tomato in Noë’s book. At any rate:

What you hear when you experience the temporal extent of the note are not the sounds that have already passed out of existence (any more than you hear the sounds that are yet to come). What you experience, rather, is, to a first approximation, the rising of the current sounds out of the past; you hear the current sounds as surging forth from the past. You hear them as a continuation. This is to say, moving on to a better approximation, you hear them as having a certain trajectory or arc, as unfolding in accordance with a definite law or patter. It is not the past that is present in the current experience; rather, it is the trajectory or arc that is present now, and of course the arc describes the relation of what is now to what has already happened (and to what may still happen).

This last bit, about the arc, is plausible. But I disagree that objects have no temporal extent. Objects, I say instead, are a subset of events. They too have an arc, one that reveals relative lack of change from moment to moment. That tomato grew out of a tomato plant flower, then got harvested, brought to market, purchased, carried home, then held contemplatively as someone wondered how we know it has a reverse side when we look at its obverse. Then maybe it got used in a salad.

This seems incontrovertible, and it seems like it would be necessary to characterize objects in this way in an actionist universe. Movement-dependence and object-dependence hinge on change, hence time. For that matter, the observer is also a special case of event.

This is partly why I think prediction, at least, needs to be dealt with. (Andy Clark is associated with an idea about consciousness called predictive processing, which is also interesting but relies on representations, to which Noë has responsible objections. There is the also the observation by Jeff Hawkins that the brain has a feedforward mechanism as well as a feedback mechanism. The activity of the former predominates by a factor of ten and is predictive in character.) The opera singer is playing on the listener’s sense of probability. Yes, there is a temporal arc present, which is important. But the experience of that arc changes. At five seconds, we hear a well-held vocal note. At ten seconds, we experience surprise. At fifteen seconds, we’re astonished at the athleticism and starting to worry whether her voice will falter. Not only is there a temporal arc, there’s an arc of expectations getting contradicted with increasing force as the moments roll on. In contrast, if we looked at the tomato sitting peacefully on the table, glanced away, then glanced back to find it sliced in half with no apparent cause, our reaction (at least my reaction) would be terror.

I accept Noë’s arc (sorry, I had to), but in order for PUDRA to work there would need to be both a temporal arc and a probabilistic arc to the event or event-as-object. (Maybe I just reconciled Noë and Clark here.) If the temporal arc correlates with memory, and the probabilistic arc correlates with prediction, the question arises as to whether this already burdened event or event-as-object can further support an arc associated with imagination. This risks asking too much, I think. But it could be the source of criticism—the ability to sense what the singer (or painter or sculptor) might have done instead of what transpired.

(I can tell you anecdotally from meditation that it’s possible to stop experiencing that arc of continuity. Every pulse of the sensory environment hits you anew.)

Noë’s thinking leads him here:

One reason why art matters to us, I think, is that it provides opportunities for us to recapitulate this basic fact about ourselves: understanding and skill enable us to bring the world into focus for perceptual consciousness.

Filling this out with my alterations above, art brings the world into focus by generating durability or persistence of experience, which the world does not readily lend us and never grants us once and for all. Even a song or a play encodes experience into a kind of pattern, one that can be performed a second time, which in a universe marked by utter impermanence is extremely novel. Sculpture gravitates towards metal, stone, wood, and fired clay for a reason. (And yet, while a marble carving may last for ages, it’s hardly indestructible, and we may easily predecease it as we’re events too.) We get wandering minds and constant change and time rushing by and mediocrity for free. Stability, focus, stillness, and quality we must fight for.

Third, regarding this:

Art and philosophy are one; this is our surprising upshot. Philosophy aims at the kind of understanding that lets us find our way about and make contact with the world. Philosophy aims at the sort of understanding that an art work occasions and that aesthetic criticism produces. Philosophical discussion and argument is a modality of aesthetic discourse; it is a species of criticism. Philosophical arguments, no less than aesthetic ones, never end with a Q.E.D., pretensions of philosophers to the contrary notwithstanding. This troubled Plato in the Meno and it has continues to puzzle philosophy all along. Philosophy—and again, the same is true of art—is always troubled by itself, always seeking better to understand its project. We can see our way clear of this by recognizing that the value of philosophical conversation, like aesthetic conversation about a work of art, consists not in arrival at a settled conclusion, but rather in the achievement of the sort of understanding that enables one to bring the world, or the art work, or one’s puzzles, into focus. This is the transformation we seek, in philosophy and in art.

Get off my lawn.

I don’t know if Noë has ever run across Arthur Danto, but the above comports with Danto’s definition of art as embodied meanings. It is very much a philosopher’s take on art, and it is not adequate. Art can embody meaning, but it exists to embody art-value, the goodness of art as art. If you come away from a work of art with an achievement of understanding, you have responded to the illustration component of the work, and that guarantees neither that you connected with its art-value nor that the object supplied any. This is not to knock the honorable discipline of illustration, or the illustrative aspect of much fine art. It is to defy the characterization of art as a kind of tool, which Noë ultimately does—he wrote a book about art called Strange Tools, which I suppose I’ve obliged myself to read, and will do so with pleasure. But my intimation from here is that while criticism is a tool of access, as is aesthetic and philosophical conversation, as is perception, art itself is presence, the thing we achieve by way of perception, criticism, and discussion.

One of the more readable sections of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the chapter discussing the various commodities that have been used as money, from salt to gold. The effort to store value, which is another way of saying “generating durability or persistence of experience” because we only put that effort into experiences we value, seems to be a fundamental human activity. There are also a lot of ways of going about it, and myriad kinds of value to store. One of them is making art objects to store art-value. The socialists aren’t going to like hearing this, but stored value of any kind is by definition capital. This is not to say that art reduces to capital, merely, but it reduces better to capital than it reduces to philosophy if we’re going to reduce it. The difference ought to be clear when you consider how much philosophy has been directed at questions regarding capital, speaking of socialists. Unless Noë is ready to advance that capital goods are philosophy, it seems that his proposition that art is philosophy isn’t going anywhere.

(Let’s pause to appreciate that all of the art world’s socialists, and these newly-arisen art-world progressives who believe the premise that capitalism is racism, are together doomed to an eternity of disappointment. Art is stored value and they cannot remake the art world according to their dictums. They can only destroy it outright, and they seem too willing to do the latter in the attempt at the former to entertain their demands.)

In conclusion, Noë has accomplished a philosophical work of significance. The broad outline is apt and useful, and the wrong turns are not so wrong as to prevent navigation back towards veracity. This may be the first time I’ve encountered philosophy that proved legitimately helpful to understanding art better, without patently and wholly contradicting what I experience as an artist and a critic. Earlier this year I fantasized about a scenario in which

...a philosopher in 1945 would have situated art quality in the objective world, defined expansively but in a way that accommodates Kant (instead of rejecting him as object-oriented ontology does). It would have anticipated someone like Sidney Janis coming along and recognizing Dadaism (which, by 1945, hardly anyone had thought about for thirty years) as the ultimate commercial venture, and started a critique along those lines in advance. She—let’s make her a she—would have done this with such force that her contribution was seen to do for aesthetic philosophy what Pollock had done for painting.

How that might have been done has just swung into view for me. Having achieved its partial presence, I wonder how I might access more.




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