Friday, March 21, 2014

'Making sense of our world' a presentation given by Professor Nick Braisby and Philosophy in (lots of) Minutes

Yesterday evening I went once more to the St. Mary's Road Ealing Campus site of the University of West London to attend a public lecture

This is the third of such events that I've attended and they've been great covering a wide variety of topics with engaging  delivery by knowledgeable  speakers and they're only a walk away from home.

Last night's talk was great in that it was by an accomplished academic and it neatly dovetailed into a topic that's on my radar at the moment (Analystics) but from a different angle (Psychology rather than Philosophy).

The title of the talk was  'Making sense of our world: Perspectives from the psychology of categorisation and deference' and it was delivered by the UWL's  Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Student Experience) Professor Nick Braisby who is a a Chartered Psychologist, and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.

Nick comes from Swansea and has had an impressive academic career to date including an undergraduate degree from Cambridge University and a PhD from Edinburgh as he told us a little about his history he spoke of the inspiration he got from Carl Sagan and Konrad Lorenz (with his book Behind the Mirror it is clear that Nick took note of what Konrad espoused).

As Nick got into the theme of his research and academic interest  'Deference and Essentialism' he spoke about the importance for humans of classification and gave the example of how those who had not visited the campus and lecture hall before managed to navigate the journey including realising what were chairs and what were other attendees!

Nick showed a slide of Dogs and Cats showing how we allocated categories but then spoke about a 'doggy dog' and Philosophical and Psychological perspectives citing Aristotle (for Philosophy and forms)  and Medin (for Psychology)  .

Nick then spoke about the challenges that Captain Cook and his colleagues had when they arrived in Australia seeing creatures that they'd not encountered and the particular categories that a Platypus might fit into (It's a bit reptilian, but it's got a mammals warm blood and is almost a fish in some ways).

This look at categories then led to his research into experts and deference, if someone (an expert/authority figure) told us that Genetically Modified  chicken was not chicken would we agree? Well there were mixed results with some conforming and some resisting or showing 'contrariness' but in fact further research in this disputed territory showed a more complex negotiated result with communication and social norms playing a significant part.

Nick then spoke about work around deference done by Putnam in the Meaning of Meaning (1975) and  the philosopher Jerry Fodor (1998). 

Nick has also done work around categorisation of  Sexual Orientation (2009) with his partner Ian Hodges and Mental illness (2013) that have led him to believe that Essentialism is not supported.

Following the presentation Nick answered questions on:

Q Why were his researches generally binary inviting yes or no when many responses elicited more nuanced or creative  answers particularly when children were responding ?

A It was easier to analyze and often people did have a yes/no answer

Q. Are there similarities with Wittgenstein's work?

A . Yes it is, perhaps tied in with intentions 

Q How do History and fantasy play into concepts and deference 

A Yes they do play in (particularly History) and are interesting 

At the end of the  lecture Nick's  view was clear that Concepts have Multiple senses perhaps a view that many of us  would  agree with from our real life experiences but for me I felt  that (surprisingly to me ) the Psychological framework and research appeared woolly and less rigorous than an exhaustive philosophical analysis would demand.

Introduction to my trip with ' Philosophy in Minutes' book 

Last year I completed a somewhat exhaustive look at a book about 'Big Ideas' by Ian Crofton I've just got a similar volume called Philosophy in Minutes again with 200 concepts and I am to struggle through this volume in a similar way.

As I try to make some sense I will also be using The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy and of course Wikipedia and Youtube.

The author of  the  Philosophy in Minutes  book  (it's published by Quercus at £7.99)  is a guy called Marcus Weeks, who has worked as amongst other things a musician , language teacher and writer - I'd like to thank Marcus for attempting the subject matter covered in this wide ranging book, it's the sort of thing that children should be set at school but of course aren't.

The first thing Marcus does is explain the field of study and some of the categories which make up what we call  Philosophy -the ones he mentions are:

Metaphysics - as Bradley says 'Bad reasons for what we believe on instinct',

Epistemology - Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge and is also referred to as "theory of knowledge",

Ontology - Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations,

Ethics -a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct,


Political Philosophy -  the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority.

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