Our Lord of the Infinitely Revised, A History Boy, 03/01/2015

I had this job last year.
Now that 2015 has seriously started, I’ve begun work revising the chapter of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity that needs the most work of all (not counting the new introduction, which will start from scratch, or rather blank). Chapter five reunites the concept of autopoiesis (the only kind of body that can literally generate itself) from its foundational role in systems theory with its interpretation as conativity from the cybernetics / cognitive science / philosophy of mind tradition to form the essential core of an ecological conception of subjectivity.

Confused yet? Good. I just summarized a 14,000 word chapter in a single sentence. Of course it’s not going to be easy. When I worked full-time in the university sector, I could always tell that a colleague was going to bug me when he (and it was always he) would say that any complicated idea can be explained in a single sentence. No, the reason I need more than one sentence to explain an idea precisely is because it’s complicated.

One moment of bitterness about the academically closed-minded taken care of, chapter five did need the most work. Really, it’s received the most work already of any chapter in EEFH. 

(§5, the prototype)

The ideas in the chapter began as my master’s thesis, which explored the concept of autopoiesis in theories of mind in analytic philosophy as enactive or embodied. That investigation convinced me that the feedback loop, the essential movement of autopoietic processes, is the foundation of self-consciousness and any kind of subjectivity at all.

(§5, Draft I) 

I started writing the original draft of chapter five of my doctoral dissertation over Xmas of 2010. I tried from then until February 2011 for about 7000 words to connect this theory of subjectivity that I had developed to my chapters on environmental moral thinking and the core concepts of my ecological philosophy. Success was limited. It was basically a condensed version of my old thesis. I wasn’t nearly done, and I wasn’t nearly close to figuring out this connection.

While I was on vacation to my mother’s home in St. John’s, my laptop’s hard drive died and I lost the entire chapter. Every other chapter, already completed, was backed up on a small flash drive. This was actually quite a blessing, as my draft was terrible and deserved to disappear on a fried hard drive disk. 

Jerry Fodor's writing incensed me from
my first encounter, but I wasn't able to
say precisely why until I watched this
dialogue he had with scientist Elliott
Sober in reaction to Fodor's book on the
theory of natural selection. Fodor is the
most skilled craftsman of straw man
arguments in philosophy today. And no
one called him on it until 2010.
(§5, Draft II)

So I wrote a new chapter five in a hurry that combined a few core ideas from my old thesis with a polemic about Jerry Fodor’s compositional theory of mind from a paper I had written for one of my courses at McMaster. My supervisor quickly informed me that most of what I’d written were blind alleys, or diversions so deep into philosophy of mind and cognitive science debates that they were, at the most charitable, tangents distracting from the project’s major plot.

(§5, Draft III) 

Realizing that I actually had quite a lot of time left in my program to write my dissertation, I took my time with the next version of this chapter. By this point, my continuing research had given me a clear idea of where the following two chapters would take the inquiry, so I had a clear destination for the end of chapter five. With a clear endpoint, I had a clear focus. 

The chapter had four movements. First, I’d introduce the concept of the body self-generated from feedback loops in a historical context, describing how it was first developed in the cybernetics community. Then I’d discuss how it was treated in systems theory and my critiques of this conception.* Third, I’d introduce the concept in Arne Næss’ ecological philosophy of the self as a place and the critiques this idea received as being ridiculous.

* Reading I did after I completed the degree made me realize that my critique wasn’t entirely fair. I was criticizing an interpretation of the closure of a body made of feedback loops as being absolute, because it was based on a concept of affect that saw it as incapable of carrying information or meaning. Both I and some major figures in systems theory actually understand affects as able to do pretty much everything we want physical interactions to do. So this aspect of the chapter is getting seriously revised.

The chapter ended, and it will still end, with my interpretation of the autopoiesis concept showing how conceiving the self as a place actually makes sense. It just means you have to understand every body that exists, not as an isolated figure, but as a dynamic field of interactions with surrounding fields. 

What are confusing ideas and apparent contradictions when you conceive of physical bodies as discrete and stable entities make perfect sense when you think of existence as processual. 

(§5, Draft IV)

Really, all that’s left is the editing. A chapter that went through that many different approaches and revisions will still have a lot of detritus from all that change hanging off it. When I look at the manuscript, it really is true. Even aside from softening the tone of my critique of systems theory concepts, I still have a lot of redundant sentences and vague formulations to trash. And I really did write in the passive voice a little too much for comfort back then.

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