Academics required to gear research to coalition slogan

If they want to get funding. Really.

Academics [in the UK] will study the “big society” as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a “significant” amount of its funding on the prime minister’s vision for the country, after a government “clarification” of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.

Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government’s national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects.

It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the “big society” was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year….

…A principal at an Oxford college, who did not want to be named, said: “With breathtaking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy.”


It seems to me the only hope is for the AHRC to understand ‘research into big society’ extremely broadly. E.g., “The big society’ contains the word ‘big’. The meaning of ‘big’ varies with context in some important ways. I will study contextual variation as a way to gain further insight into ‘The Big Society’.”

Sigh. Actually, that’s just farcical. And disgusting.

[Expletives deleted.]

Do you probe your environment?

There are a number of reasons to think men and women receive different socialization with regard to their occupancy of space. In particular, women seem to be less able to imagine spatial transformations, though a lot of evidence suggests the causes of the differences are environmental, not innate; see here, for example. This post asks whether such differences might show up in some areas of recent philosophy. If nothing else, regard it as a case of going out on a limb.

So let’s take the question of environmental probing to be about the fit between philosophical theory and life (yikes!). And, in particular, who finds the idea of seeing as exploring and probing anything like ‘natural’.

At the end, below, are some quotes from theorists who are challenging the idea that our cognitive/sensory states are basically brain states. Seeing is acting, as opposed to a kind of receiving, they claim. Alva Noe, the author of the first quote, is a major source of enactivist thought in anglophone philosophy, and Rowlands, in the second, is explaining a basic idea.

The views are exciting, and they amount to a challenge to a very Cartesian-seeming picture of perception and cognition. But do they really appeal to a basic, generally shared mode of being in the world? To whom in fact does the idea of seeing as exploring and probing seem anything like ‘natural’?

No one who systematically reads this blog will be surprised by my observation that cats – or at least every cat I have observed – do probe their environment. Curiosity, after all, is their major vice. My cats fearlessly cross any new threshold available to them. Open a closet door and they start to do an inventory. One cat has recently devoted a significant part of his day to removing the panel that separates him from the recesses below a bath tub. This pursuit of knowledge is relentless, if circumscribed by the need for 18 or so hours of napping.

While such behavior may be cute in cats and tolerated in little boys, I suspect that, at least in my childhood, it was deeply discouraged in little girls. Of course, I might well be wrong in thiinking of such differences in terms of gender. Perhaps it was a matter of fearful parents who insisted that both little girls and little boys sit demurely with their ankles crossed. But still I have the uncomfortable feeling that there is a gendered difference in the permissibility of environmental probing.

Could such a difference in socialization show up in philosophical theorizing? Conjecturing that it might seems to me to be asking for trouble and rebuttal. It applies a simple dichotomy to what must be an extremely complex situation. So I’ll stop here and ask, what do you think?

Except, in case you are wondering, I’ll add that in recent literature about embodied cognition, many in traditional anglophone philosophy have seen embodied cognition in terms of an extension of our understanding of an individual’s abilities. Feminist philiosophy, in contrast, has tended to emphasize the social embedness of the cognizer. How one views this difference may depend on whether one has some sense that the apparent limits to an individual’s knowlege can be satisfactorily addressed on an individual level.   And perhaps this reflects how optimistic one is about the results of individual probing.

Alva Noe:

Seeing, I argue in Action in Perception, an activity of exploring the environment drawing on one’s understanding of the ways ikn which one’s movements affect one’s sensory states… Perceiving is an activity of exploring the environment drawing on an understanding of the ways in which one’s movements affect one’s sensory relations to things.

Mark Rowlands:

… seeing consists in combining the results of environmental probing with knowledge of laws of sensorimotor contingency [therefore] we are indeed seeing the whole scene, for probing the world, and knowledge of these laws, is precisely what we do and have as we cast our attention from one aspect to the next.