Books on Northern European and Norse Religions

As a philosopher and historian, I have a great interest in understanding and reconstructing the past. This includes religion. During my days as a Classical studies undergraduate, I read a lot about Greek and Hellenistic religions, but now I have shifted into the Norse and Northern European traditions. Below I will review some of my favorite books in these areas (I should also mention that as a philosopher (Ph.D.) I read a lot in philosophy of religion both as a student and later as a philosophy instructor, but so much philosophy of religion focuses on the monotheistic religions. However, if you are examining pagan traditions you need to get a stronger grasp of polytheism, animism, and panpsychism. I plan to write a separate blog post on those areas).

Daniel McCoy’s book, The Viking Spirit, is the easiest book to read of those I’ve shown, and is written for the layperson. It is an enjoyable read that provides an overview of Norse religion and mythology. It is a great way to introduce yourself to the ideas, or as a light-hearted review if you are already familiar with the main concepts.

H.R. Ellis Davidson was a great scholar. I really love her writings, you can tell because I have several of her books! Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe was the first book of hers that I read. When it comes to her other books, I am currently part way through all of them. I work through each somewhat slowly so that I can digest what she is saying, highlighting things along the way (I treat these books as if I were a graduate student again). Then, days, or even a few weeks later I return to the book, re-read what I had previously highlighted before continuing on for another chapter. I find her books are worth taking my time to explore. One book not shown here but one I intend to get is the first book she wrote: The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. This is another classic and I look forward to examining it.

The Thomas DuBois book: Nordic Religions in the Nordic Age, is a stand-out and respected academic volume if you want a rigorous source for the Nordic religions. Like the books of H.R. Ellis Davidson, I am working my way through this book at a slower place to increase my understanding. As the blurb on the back cover accurately says “DuBois examines Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Mediterranean traditions to locate significant Nordic parallels in conceptions of supernatural beings, cults of the dead, beliefs in ghosts, and magical practices. These beliefs were actively held alongside Christianity for many years, and were finally incorporated into the vernacular religious practice.” The book does an exemplary job of showing the interplay and exchange of ideas between these different cultures.

John Lindow’s: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, is a thorough encyclopedic reference for all things related to Norse heroes, rituals, and beliefs, including insightful prefatory material examining concepts of mythic time, cyclical time, narrative, and language, to help the reader understand the encyclopedic entries that follow for the main body of the book. As an encyclopedia, this is not a book you read cover to cover (although I would recommend that you read the first chapters on conceptions of time), but dip in when you need a clear and detailed clarification on a concept.

I also find it informative to study modern practices in Norse Paganism. The views presented will vary depending on whether the author leans towards reconstructionism, or eclecticism (in how they present and interpret beliefs and practices). One also has to be attentive when exploring this literature, since Norse Paganism has a problem with a vocal minority of white supremacists trying to appropriate the symbols and beliefs of Northern European faiths for their own muddled ideology. The Asatru/Norse Paganism books I have shown above are not written by racists.

Patricia Lafayllve’s A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru has very informative chapters on conceptions of time, land spirits, charms, magic, ethics, and rituals.

Ryan Smith’s The Way of Fire and Ice: Living Traditions of Norse Paganism has chapters on how to develop practices and core ideas with a focus on building community (a healthy and supportive community).

Both these books I have only dipped into. I am currently focused on academic examinations of the ancient and medieval traditions on which to build a foundation – I want to understand the beliefs as much as I can from the perspective of the original practitioners (which is admittedly difficult since we have only fragmentary archeological and historical evidence to rely upon). Then, with a semi solid historical foundation I will more confidently move into modern practices to see how they have taken past views and re-interpreted them to meet the current challenges facing our societies. And as I alluded to earlier, I am also reading through academic texts on polytheism, animism, and panpsychism, for these are the philosophical and religious ideas which underlie past and current pagan practices, and as a philosopher I have the need to analyze and critique the foundational concepts and themes being drawn upon to see how they hold up to examination. The problem with being a philosopher is the constant need to obsessively question, examine, and interrogate concepts! It can be very tiresome to systematically dismantle and reform ideas, but it is oh so fulfilling when you discover a new way in which to view, or interpret, the world!

Philosophy and Outreach

I think Philosophy is the most profound discipline. I learned so much about the world and myself on my journey to completing my PhD, and it is the accomplishment I am most proud of in my life. Yet during my time in graduate school I began to feel a distance from the discipline as I came to view far too many philosopher detached from real world engagement. When I expressed these views I was told every discipline needs people who can chisel away at the edges where you may not find direct application in the real world. There is truth to that, but from my perspective too many academic philosophers were doing this.

As I’ve read about philosophy departments being reduced in numbers or even being shutdown, I feel sadness at the loss for the philosophers and that of the students who may now never have the opportunity to see the world in a new way. And yet with so many philosophers not engaging with the public and demonstrating the relevance and vital importance of their discipline to lived life, there is a part of me that thinks this may be a good thing in the long run, perhaps it can shake the discipline enough to actually go out and demonstrate its importance. The great philosophers of the past engaged with the people and places of their times and had impact on their society (e.g. Socrates, Plato, Locke, Russell, Sartre), more need to do it in our time.

In the half decade since I’ve moved on from academia I still do a lot of reading, but I am surprised how much smaller a portion of my reading time is dedicated to philosophy. At any given time I have several philosophy books in my large academic library which I’ve partially pulled out from the surrounding books on the shelf to remind myself to sit down when I have a free moment and dip into them. Yet when the free time comes I usually find myself reaching other books. My field of specialty was in 4EA Cognition (Embedded, Embodied, Enactive, Extended, and Affective). The field emerged in the early 90’s, and when I jumped into it from 2007-2014 there was a large amount of time spent arguing how the 4 E’s and the A should be defined. This is an area which could have important applications in areas like education, psychotherapy, and sport when it comes to how we teach, learn, navigate, and dwell in the world, and yet I struggle to see much real-world application being done in this area.

Still, there are a few academic philosophers who get together with others outside their discipline to examine the challenges of our time, and the DailyNous blog post linked below discusses some of these gatherings as well as a recent eBook made available for free called Pandemic Ethics.

“If philosophy is to thrive, it must be sensitive and responsive to the world it is meant to engage with. The non-philosophers in our reading group shed light on a world that may be difficult for us philosophers to see and point out aspects of  lived experiences that we may not have access to.”

An Age of Insecurity and Anxiety


It was an age of insecurity and anxiety. Nationalism had transitioned to cosmopolitanism. People had developed a new sense of individualism, but with this came a feeling of alienation and insecurity. This was what the Hellenistic-Roman Age was experiencing from roughly 330 BCE to the 4th century CE.

Over the last couple days I’ve been revisiting some old university texts from my undergraduate days, as well as delving into additional books in this area. I have always been interested in transitions in thought and belief over time, especially when it is being driven by anxiety and existential angst.

That in itself is intellectually interesting, but the fact that we ourselves are in a time of anxiety and existential angst makes philosophical reflection on these ideas even more important and relevant to work out how we can respond to what is happening now.

How do people respond to thoughts and feelings of insignificance and neglect? Who responds with emotional reactions? Who responds with overly intellectual analysis? Who tries to merge the two? What causes shifts to extremism? Religions have been one of the greatest forms of unification as well as division. If we can get some grasp on this matter as it has played itself out over history, then we might acquire a greater understanding of the self, both individually and collectively.

For the Hellenistic-Roman period after the success of Alexander, it was the mystery cults (e.g. Demeter, Dionysus, Mithras) that became the spiritual solution for the people’s needs. It was purification rights, ecstasy, and promised rewards of immortality that helped to satisfy the inner longing of the average individual. For the educated minority there were three philosophies that helped meet their needs: Stoicism, Epicurianism, and a revived version of Platonism.

As this span of time developed we also saw Jewish-Hellenistic apocalyptic writings emerge, Gnosticism, and Christianity. As this period came to an end Mithraism and Gnosticism fell by the way-side and Judaism and Christianity continued and evolved into the Medieval period where change continued unabated.

04_01_2020 a

Teaching Diary: Philosophy Club (3/10/2015)

[Originally published on 3 October 2015]

Teaching Diary. Kids say the funniest things:
During Philosophy Club this week I continued my theme of identity (last week it was the Ship of Theseus, this week it was brain swaps). After several minutes of discussing whether Jenny (who was pretty and popular) was the same person as Alma (who was smart and studious girl), one boy asked: “is Jenny more popular because she isn’t wearing a shirt?” (see the diagram I drew to start the discussion). Featured image

The kids and the parents couldn’t stop laughing at that comment. Luckily, we moved beyond that and moved into some good discussion as to what are the most important characteristics of selfhood (i.e. body, brain, personality). I even had a girl who had an identical twin, so her and her mum had a great time thinking through this scenario with her twin just a few feet away!

My popularity seems to be growing!
When I am walking down the hallway I am used to seeing the kids who visit my room wave at me or say ‘hi’ as they are moving with their class down the hallway to a new activity. But on a couple of occasions this week, kids who who I have never met have cheerfully said “Hello Dr. Welch!” And I say hello right back, and then when I turn the corner I pause as it hits me ‘Wait a second – I don’t even know that kid!’

On another day a kid wandered up to me and asked “Dr. Welch, how come you come and take [the name of a student in his class] to read with you, but you don’t come and take me for this fun reading? – I want to read with you too!” So I had to explain to this kid that I am very busy at the moment, but that one of my fellow Reading Corps friends might have him visit them, or that I might get to him, but it might take a few weeks.

I am always tired.
I am dealing with 18 kids each day, one-on-one. Which is quite tiring, as they each deserve my full attention, plus I am still getting to grips with all the prep work that is necessary or each day (for once the day starts, except for a brief lunch, I have no time between each kid – I help one kid for 20 minutes and as we leave my room, I am off to pick up the next, and I do this for all 18 kids). So when I finally get home at night, I desire to do…Absolutely Nothing. I am an introvert, so although I can very much enjoy interacting with people, it nonetheless really wears me down. So when school is over, I prefer to be alone. Until I can catch up with my prep time and try and adjust to all this constant face-to-face people interaction, I need my time to veg-out by myself.

Teaching Diary: Philosophy for Kids (24/9/2015)

[Originally published on the 24 September 2015]

Teaching Diary: Reading to kids and Philosophy for Kids! 🙂
Today was an exhausting 12 1/2 hour day! Tonight was Family Library Night at my primary school. The first event of the evening was reading a story to a group of kids in the library.

Then it was time for me to introduce and facilitate my new ‘Philosophy Club’ for the first time! I first had a bunch of tiny kids looking at me with puzzlement after some parents/teachers shooed them in my direction and said “listen to what this philosopher guy has to say about something or other.” So they sat down not knowing who I was or why they were there (although there were a few kids of my co-workers who showed up because they seem to think I’m kinda cool).

I decided to talk about the infamous paradox of the ‘Ship of Theseus.’ This first group turned into pure chaos. After laying out the problem of one ship possibly turning into another (or does it remain the same ship?) I soon found myself helplessly watching them after they got a hold of my whiteboard marker and began drawing more ships on the whiteboard until there was an entire bloody fleet of them…which one of them was THE Ship of Theseus? I’ll be damned if I knew!

After 15 minutes a second group of kids magically appeared, and this time many of the parents remained to listen. This group didn’t have the obsession to use my whiteboard marker, but one girl kept asking “why are we asking all these questions?” She was in effect asking the question that some adults pose when they say “what’s the point of philosophy?” Her older sister tried to tell her that we were asking questions, and as we came up with answers we were then asked even more detailed and difficult questions, which over time gave us a greater understanding of the overall idea we were thinking about. The younger sister wasn’t impressed. So I think I lost one kid (although her other two sisters did seem to like this class, so they might drag her to Philosophy Club every week anyway).

Once we had covered the basics of the Ship of Theseus, some of the parents then got involved and began asking questions (since the questions I am asking are the same questions that philosophers have been asking and discussing for thousands of years and haven’t arrived at an answer, even adults want to get involved). I ended up talking with one parent for 45 minutes after my Philosophy Club ended.

Exhausting day but it looks like enough kids will show up to keep my class going every Thursday, and who knows, they may even tell their classmates and through word of mouth others might show up (that is how things worked when I was a university tutor).

Philosophy reading: ‘The Scientific Image’

24 April, 2015

Last night and today I have dipped into Bas van Fraasen’s book The Scientific Image, a classic philosophy of science text from 1980 where he presents and develops an empiricist alternative (what he calls ‘Constructive Empiricism’) to scientific realism.  Both are intriguing perspectives within Philosophy of Science worth thinking about when it comes to understanding the relationship between science and the world.

Before going any further, one should have a definition of both ’empiricism’ and ‘scientific realism.’  We can define Empiricism simply as: “the only source of real knowledge about the world is experience” (Godfrey-Smith, p.8).  Expanding upon this by combining Empiricism with Science we have: “Scientific thinking and investigation have the same basic pattern as everyday thinking and investigation. In each case, the only source of real knowledge about the world is experience. But science is especially successful because it is organized, systematic, and especially responsive to experience” (ibid).

By comparison, a workable definition of ‘scientific realism’ would be: “[T]here is a real world that we all inhabit and that one reasonable goal of science is describing what the world is like” (Godfrey-Smith, p.241). Put another way, the world that science describes to us is the real world (we will see van Fraassen’s perspective on this below).

As a means for developing an alternative to scientific realism, van Fraassen seeks to put forward three theories which use each other for support:
1. A relation of a theory to the world.
2. A theory of scientific explanation.
3. An explication of probability as it occurs within physical theory (van Fraassen, p.vii).

At the very beginning of the introduction he asks “what sort of philosophical account is possible of the aim and structure of science?” (p.2).  He divides philosophy of science into two parts:
(i) foundational issues which are concerned with the content and structures of scientific theories, and
(ii) the relations theories have to the world and the user of the theory (ibid).
These views, in his mind, aim to provide us with “a true description of unobservable processes that explain the observable ones, and also of what are possible states of affairs, not just of what is actual” (p.3). The problem that arises with empiricism, he claims, is that that it requires theories to give us an account of only what is observable.

If we are pondering what the relation is between a theory and the world, then one concern that might arise is to ask what is involved in ‘accepting’ a scientific theory – “how much belief is involved in theory acceptance” (p.4). On the ‘Constructive Empiricist’ view that van Fraassen wants to develop, this belief serves only to ‘save the phenomena,’ which as the empirical position states according to van Fraassen’s interpretation, will only describe for us what is observable.

In van Fraassen’s words:
“I use the adjective ‘constructive’ to indicate my view that scientific activity is one of construction rather than discovery: construction of models that must be adequate to the phenomena, and not discovery of truth concerning the unobservable” (p.5).

“We never have the option of accepting an all-encompassing theory, complete in every detail. So to accept one theory rather than another one involves also a commitment to a research programme, to continuing the dialogue with nature in the framework of one conceptual scheme rather than another. Even if two theories are empirically equivalent, and acceptance of a theory involves as belief only that it is empirically adequate, it may still make a great difference which one is accepted” (ibid).

We can contrast van Fraasen’s view with a naive statement of scientific realism, which is that “the picture which science gives us of the world is a true one, faithful in its details, and the entities postulated in science really exist: the advances of science are discoveries, not inventions” (p.6-7). This view provides an answer to the two questions mentioned above by telling us ‘what there is’ and that science is an enterprise of discovery. Van Fraassen puts the scientific realist position more firmly by defining it as: “Science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is like: and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it is true” (p.8). With the definition and description of ‘constructive empiricism’ as well as ‘scientific realism’, we now have a basic idea of how they are oriented toward each other in relation to a theory’s relation to the world and what a scientific explanation entails.

Is scientific realism the better approach? Constructive Empiricism? Or perhaps some other view not mentioned yet? Is scientific activity one of ‘construction’ or of ‘discovery’?  It should go without saying that these ideas are inquired into and developed in much greater depth for the remainder of the book.

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2003. Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Van Fraassen, Bas.  1980.  The Scientific Image. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Conversing with a Philosopher…

I have spent the last 6 1/2 years living in Scotland. During that period I was a Masters student, a PhD student, and then (briefly) a full time tutor. Moreover, I was doing this in a Philosophy department.  If there is one thing that happens in upper level academic environments like this (especially Philosophy), it is the need to constantly demand evidence and support for the statement(s) people you are conversing with have. You are trying to work out the different lines of reasoning behind their claims so that you can trace step-by-step the journey they are making from one point to another, and see if it all holds up. As you adjust to this environment (from Masters student, to PhD student, to full Academic), the conversational intensity and demands grow. At first this can be quite daunting – even off-putting – but after a while you acclimate yourself to this environment and sometimes you even come to enjoy the demanding give-and-take of a rigorous philosophical exchange, and look forward to a competitive head-to-head of critical reasoning.  Conversations with your colleagues and students are all based on this demanding requirement for an exchange of evidence and reasoning. The vast majority of my Scottish friends were academics, so that has been virtually all I’ve known for the last 6 1/2 years in a postgrad environment.

But now I’ve left Scotland and have returned to Minnesota (where I am currently not employed in academia), and virtually none of the people I know here are even remotely academic.  I have found in the few weeks I’ve been back, that my interactions with people can quickly be misunderstood, with the person I am conversing with thinking I am being confrontational with them (or that I’m being ‘a bit of a dick’).  They sometimes are taken aback and wonder why I am being ‘confrontational’. But this is not my intention at all, I simply want to understand the different threads of their thought and reasoning, and to work out how it all fits together within a larger framework (I want to see the fine points of their argument as well as the ‘big picture’).

Philosopher’s are naturally skeptical of claims that people make. So if you find yourself in conversation with a philosopher like myself, please don’t take personal offense to my questions. I am simply seeking clarity of thought, and I am used to the rigorous and forthright demands for evidence that one finds in a lively academic environment. I am not trying to ‘be a dick’, or trying to humiliate you, or find some creative ‘intellectual’ way to put you down and make you feel stupid. In fact, it is quite the opposite, for if I am spending a good deal of time with you, and asking you a lot of questions, then this is because I am very much interested in what you have to say and want to know more. My questioning  –  and the way I am going about doing it – is so that I can get hold of the best and strongest argument you have for your viewpoint. Instead of seeing me as wanting to tear your idea apart, think of me as trying to sort through your idea and bring forth your strongest position. As a philosopher I seek clarity, I have been training in this for over a dozen years (when you add together my undergraduate and postgraduate years of study). It is possible that I might not just come to understand what you are saying, but also that I might be able to help you draw out and clarify your position even further. Think of me as your conversational and intellectual ally and friend.

In the original Greek ‘Philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom’, and I take that idea very seriously. I can never claim to be of the same calibre as Socrates, and yet I strive to follow in his footsteps in the way he drew is friends close to him and attempted acquire a greater understanding of concepts and ideas through extended dialogue and conversation. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my philosophical journey so far, it’s that a viewpoint can acquire a stronger foundation the more it is analyzed and assessed.  I know there are a lot of people who we converse with out there who are ‘dicks’ and love to take on the role of a troll and sabotage conversations, but a philosopher might just be your friend.

Before I end, there is one concern I have regarding this matter, and that is whether I can maintain the stricter and more demanding philosophical/academic approach I’ve acquired in analyzing ideas in conversation, with the expectation which the non-academic is familiar with. I hope this gap can be bridged, but does doing so mean the philosopher has to ‘lower’ their methods and approach, or can we expect to ‘raise’ the level of normal, everyday discourse?

What are the Minimal Conditions for Human Selfhood?

[Originally published on 13 November 2013.  This summarizes some of the main points of my PhD Thesis]

Have you ever wondered what makes up your sense of self?  One popular interpretation is based on the narratives we tell about ourselves and others tell about us.  This ‘narrative self,’ unsurprisingly, has a strong basis in language use.  Another recent trend to emerge is simply to declare the self an ‘illusion.’

What I have been interested in, is to go back and get at the core or foundation of what makes up ‘the Self’ – the most minimal element.  In my view, those who declare it an illusion are not so much providing an explanation, but just explaining it away.  As for the advocates for a ‘narrative self,’ I agree that an autobiographical and narrative element are vital to a mature, developed and robust sense of human self, however, I think there is something which lies behind the narrative self, something which lays the foundation for it, and once the narrative self emerges, this ‘minimal’ self remains with it, continually influencing it throughout our life.

The minimal self is the experiential subject.  The minimal self is the subjectivity of experience; it is the sense of first-person mineness which our experiential life contains. This phenomenological mineness is formed through a bodily and dynamic integration of sensorimotor coupling and affective experience. The data I use to support this draws on the primal and evolutionary basic affects (i.e. moods, feelings, and emotions) that all animals possess prior to any higher-level – or second-order – cognitive development and language use. It also draws on infant development studies and how they make sense of their world.

I want to argue that the minimal conditions of self are based in bodily movement.  Although this is now changing, for a long time the things that were emphasized as vital to selfhood were language use, and rational thought (which allow us to create the narrative stories we tell about ourselves and others). But there is something deeper.  New research is showing that: (i) Affects underly and colour our rational thinking.  (ii) Bodily movement seems to underly verbal lanuage use.  (iii) Affects and Bodily movement are interwtined.  Affects are based in Kinaesthetics (Kinaesthesia is the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation which arises from stimuli within the body), the felt process of bodily movement and engagement with the environment.

The Minimal Kinasethetic Self is at its most basic, the experiential subject.  A minimal sense of self exists whenever there is self-awareness (although much of this is pre-reflective, and lies behind our conscious awareness).  How does this self-awareness emerge?  It is formed by a bodily and dynamic integration of three components: the sensorimotor, spatial perspectivity, and affective experience.  It is, ontologically speaking, the lived body in enactive engagement with the environment.

The minimal self is the simplest structure that can exist which we can call a self. It anchors and forms the foundation for the later ‘narrative’ self, which emerges from it and which is continually influenced by it. The minimal form of selfhood is necessary but not sufficient for more complex forms of selfhood (that is, a ‘full’ or ‘robust’ self would include both the minimal self and the narrative self).  What does this mean and what is the supporting evidence?

Infant Development.  A first line of evidence comes from work done by psychobiolgists, developmental psychologists, and infant and child psychologists (e.g. Daniel Stern, Colwyn Trevarthen, Vasudevi Reddy). Studying human development from its time within the womb, to the first few years of life, have shown a developmental history which is based in affective attunement with the caregiver and a bodily exploration of its immediate environment which lays the bodily/affective foundation for later self development.

Referring to infants and our evolutionary ancestors as ‘pre-lingusitic’ or ‘proto-lingusitic’ shows a strong linguistic bias. The most important element of selfhood emerges through bodily affects produced in the processes of bodily movement (kinaesthetics). We should probably refer to our language self (or narrative self – which comes later) as ‘post-kinetic’ and make body and affects primary and language secondary. We are bodily affective beings first and language users second.

Mirror Neurons.  A second line of evidence comes from work done with mirror neurons (see Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia).  It needs to be pointed out that our understanding of mirror neurons is quite early at this point, so we need to be wary of relying too much on them for an explanation.  But at a minimum, it seems that mirror neurons can provide one of the explanatory elements for how the meaning of people’s movement is understood and interpreted by us.

Gesturing.  Developmental psychologists (such as Susan Goldin-Meadow) who study gesturing, with children, the blind, and the deaf, are providing evidence that our use of verbal language use has its basis and origins in gesturing and bodily movement.  Restrict bodily movement and development, and you will impair the person’s ability to express themselves.

Evolutionary Origins of Affects.  Affects are involved in brain processes which make up our primary sense of self.  This primary self gets elaborated upon at higher levels of cognition.  Different evolutionary layers exist in the brain (eg. the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, etc).  Affective neuroscience (see work by Jaak Panksepp) and evolutionary studies are showing us that there are primal, action-based emotions (e.g. seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic, play), which are triggered, moulded, and refined by our life experiences.  This research also shows that these primal, action-based affects are not something simply human-based, but are something we have in common with our primate and mammalian cousins.  These primal affects emerge through and with movement (e.g. ‘seeking’ involves movement that deals with our appetitive desires, such as our exploration for food; it reflects our goal-directed urges.  And ‘fear’ is manifested with body tenseness and sometimes shaking, or shivering).

Affects as Creating our Relationship to the World.

If we examine the phrase ‘the feeling of being…’ (as philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe has done), we find that the everyday usage of this term is usually completed by words and phrases such as: ‘flawed and diminished’, ‘lost’, ‘in control’, ‘empty’, ‘watched’, ‘there’, ‘abandoned’, etc.  These descriptions reflect our relationship with the world – the different ways in which the world may appear familiar/unfamiliar, real/unreal, or disant/close.  Our intentional states, one could argue, always incorporate a feeling of some kind that alters how the world and its objects appear to as meaningful or valuable.

If we look at a sufferer of severe depression, we see that they experience:

(i) A shift in bodily feeling.  A feeling of meaninglessess may ‘take up bodily occupancy in the eyelids,’ or the the heart and lungs ‘hurt’ and there is a ‘contraction of muscles involuntarily.’

(ii) Objects and situations appear different to them.  They may describe a detachment from the ‘nourishing earth.’  Happenings in the past become ‘intolerable,’ as well as all ‘the moments to come’ in the future.  Past situations are reinterpreted, and future possibilities take on a completely different character.

(iii) The person’s relationship with the world takes on a different tone.  Life itself becomes ‘meaningless.’  One’s outlook on life and the world is viewed as ‘tumbleweed’ – a weed blown about without control by the chance character of the wind – that ‘thrives on thin air.’  [Quotes taken from Andrew Solomon’s book ‘The Noonday Demon’]

Consciousness Studies.  A couple different theories of consiousness can explain how this might work:

1. Dual-Process Theory of Consciousness (see work by Keith Frankish, Peter Carruthers, Jonathan B.T. Evans).  This theory makes a distinction between what is called ‘System 1’, which encompasses an evolutionarily old, pre-relective intuitive system, and ‘System 2’, which is evolutionarily recent, conscious, reflective, and uniquely human.

2. Nested Neural Hierarchy (see Todd Feinberg).  This breaks things down into three hierarchically arranged interrelated systems: the ‘interoself,’ which deals with the homeostatic and self-preservative functions, the ‘exterosensorimotor system,’ which deals with responsiveness to the external environment, and the ‘integrative self system,’ which assimilates and mediates the organisms internal with the external environment.

All this empirical data, I think can be pulled together and united under two research paradigms – Phenomenology and Enactivism.

Phenomenology.  Phenomenology had its modern development in the early-to-mid 20th century through the work of the philosophers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  Phenomenology is concerned with articulating the ‘conditions of possibility’ of our experience. Phenomenology is the collection of the situations which we find ourselves involved.  Our experiences are charged  with significance and meaning. Most of the time this goes un-noticed, or we take it for granted. Phenomenology seeks to analyze this.  Phenomenology tries to show us how phenomena manifest themselves in our consciousness, along with its shape and structure (as was briefly done above regarding the feeling of being severely depressed). It is an enterprise which tries to describe things as they appear to our consciousness.  One of its core ideas is that we as agents of thought and action are already situated in a world; we are agents already in-the-world engaged in pragmatic and socially defined projects.

Phenomenology regarding the minimal self emphasizes the sense of givenness, ownership, and mineness that accompanies our experiences.  As Dan Zahavi says “The mineness is not something attended to, it simply figures as a subtle background presence” (Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 124).  The minimal sense of self does not stand apart from, or above our experience, the mineness experienced is pre-reflective, it lies before any attempt on our part to consider, analyze, or reflect upon what our experience is.

Enactivism.  Evan Thompson, one of the main proponents of enactivism, has proposed the following ideas that serve to characterize the view, some of these points are:

1. Living organisms “are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and…enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains…and their own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity.”

2. “[C]ognition is the exercise of skilful know-how in situated and embodied action.”

3. “[A] cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain” (Thompson, Mind in Life, 13).

Enactivism says there is a sensorimotor coupling that occurs between us and the environment in a way which modulates the dynamic patterns of our self development. The laying down of these basic patterns helps make us who we are – by giving rise to the phenomenological mineness highlighted above.  The infant studies I looked at (amongst other areas) fit within an enactive approach quite well, as we see infants, both on their own and with others developing and maintaining meaning and continuity while they also generate new and novel elements of meaningful activity.

Where phenomenology attempts to analyze the ‘structures of experience’, but falls short in explaining what those structures are or look like, I think enactivism provides a way to articulate what those phenomenological structures are.

This theory of minimal self has ethical implications as well, for if we consider someone who has extreme Alzheimer’s, and they lose *all* narrative access to their own stories of self, friends and family (i.e. they no longer remember who they are or anyone else), they may still have a minimal self, in that their basic gestures, mannerisms, posture, basic like/dislike for a certain food, etc, may remain.

Additionally, consider someone in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Their higher level functioning is gone. They no longer have higher level, narrative, cognitive thoughts at all. If you ‘pull the plug’ on them, they won’t ‘think’ anything as they die, yet they might still feel the basic, primal feeling of starving to death as the feeding tube is pulled out and their body fades away. They may no longer be a ‘full’ self or person, but they might still possess a ‘minimal’ self. And I suppose now we would have to wonder what that means – if anything – when it comes to the ethical dilemmas of a PVS patient, or a person with the worst case Alzheimer’s. Higher order language and thought is gone, but feelings and moods may still exist – a sense of ‘mineness’, perhaps. How much value should we put on this?  Does this warrant a change in our practices?

I list a few of the useful books that one could examine to get a clearer grasp on these ideas below.

Shaun Gallagher (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the Self

Shaun Gallagher ‘How the Body Shapes the Mind’

Dan Zahavi ‘Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective’

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone ‘The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader’

Daniel N. Stern ‘Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development’

Evan Thompson ‘Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and The Sciences of Mind’

Matthew Ratcliffe ‘Feelings of Being: Phenomenology, Psychiatry, and the Sense of Reality

What is a Law of Nature?

[Originally published 29 January 2013]

We’ve all heard references to ‘laws of nature’, but have you ever wondered what is really meant by that? Let us think about this a bit more deeply.

The Regularity Theory

Perhaps you support this theory of laws, which says that the world possesses certain fundamental truths, or facts, or things, and that a law of nature explains why there are such regularities (examples of regularities include the boiling point of water being 100 degrees, gravitational attraction, or how a species produces offspring).

Yet, there are other views, for depending on the scientist or philosopher you talk to, laws of nature can be understood in many different ways:

Let us reconsider the Regularity theory of laws of nature (as being understood as regularities of universals (*) that occur in every instance). Water doesn’t always boil at 100 degrees (pressure can change the boiling point). When it comes to species propagation, at some point a descended organism may become a member of a different species from its distant ancestor. So it would seem that regularity is less than universal.  A regularity view can probably only be said to be true ceteris paribus (other things being equal).  Can the regularity theory still be defended?

Best Systems Theory

The ‘Best Systems’ theory says that whether something is a law is not because of some purely intrinsic feature that it possesses, but instead, something is a law when it is part of a system which can provide part of a systematic account of the world’s history.  The laws must cohere with each other in a systematic unity.  This view doesn’t rely on just regularities, but rather on the whole history of the world, which includes the regularities and anything else.  Of course, the problem with this type of coherence theory, is that an element of subjectivism is brought into the idea of laws, it is not entierly an objective matter, for we might very well find other systematizations of the same history which can be considered ‘best.’

Constructive Empiricism

The philosopher Bas van Frassen has a view called ‘Constructive Empiricism’ which says that “science aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate.” And that “the belief involved in accepting a scientific theory is only that it ‘saves the phenomena’, that is that it correctly describes what is observable.”  He is saying that laws are nothing more than a set of important features of some model that has been adopted.

Consider this elaboration of van Frassen by Stephen Mumford (who doesn’t necessarily support this view): “Science tells us what the particular, observable patterns in the world are, usually expressed in mathematical form.  It does not tell us in more general terms what it is to be a law of naure, what a law of nature does and by what means it conducts its business.  In ‘saving the phenomena’, science gives these metaphysical concerns a wide berth.  What matters, for science, is the epistemic integrity of the discovered patterns explicated in terms of explanation, sustaining of counterfactuals and supporting inductive inference.”  What do you make of van Frassen’s theory?


The last view I will present (just to keep this note short, for Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics has produced many considerations of what constitutes a ‘law of nature’!) is the ‘Essentialist’ theory.  This view – best put forth by Brian Ellis – says that there are natural kinds (**) in nature, and these are what they are irrespective of what our thoughts are about them.  Sometimes it is said that nature has ‘joints’, or ‘real cleavages’, essentialism says that science discovers what these are, rather than invents them.  Ellis structures these ‘real’ natural kinds in a hierarchical structure, with the most basic at the bottom (something like physics), and the most general kinds at the top (think of the world).  The laws of nature spell out for us the essential properties of these natural kinds.

But there is more to this, because for Ellis, an understanding of some particular entity is to be understood entirely by its essential or dispositional properties (think of the negative charge of an electron, chemical reactions, or energy transfer processes).  This means for Ellis that the essential or dispositional properties are the laws of nature.  Which leads to one possible conclusion which might concern some people: If this is true, then what purpose is there in even speaking of laws of nature?  Is there any reason to bring them up at all if everything can be explained by the activity and dynamism of the particulars themselves?

I will leave you with some final thoughts regarding Laws of Nature: Are the law of nature we are considering just the pattern we see in some natural occurence, or are they something which underlies and produces the pattern? What do you think?

Mumford says in regards to laws of nature that: “What we lack are clear and uncontroversial necessary and sufficient conditions for lawhood.”

* Universals in philosophy are defined as a property or relation that can be instantiated by several particular things (eg. a red object is an instance of redness).  But some metaphysicians raise concerns with this concept, for how do we perceive the general property as well as the particular instance of it?  Can sharing the same property be analyzed in terms of resemblance?

** Natural Kinds are also controversial in philosophy, for example: if nature can be divided into different categories or species, is this ‘carving of nature at the joints’ something that can be considered a real division, or is it more historical or theoretical based on the scientific taxonomic system in use at the time.

[The discussion for this note drew in part on Stephen Mumford’s book “Laws in Nature.”]

What is Phenomenology?

[Originally published 26 February, 2013]

Phenomenology is concerned with articulating the ‘conditions of possibility’ of our experience. The lifeworld is a core concept in phenomenology. It is the collection of all the situations in which we find ourselves involved. It is our lived world as it opens up for us in all its possibilities.  Our experiences are charged  with significance and meaning. Phenomenology seeks to analyze the meaningful background for all our possible and actual actions. Most of the time this lifeworld goes un-noticed, or is taken for granted by us. Phenomenology tries to show us how phenomena manifest themselves to our consciousness, along with its shape and structure. It is an enterprise which tries to describe things as they appear to our consciousness.

One of its core ideas is that we as agents of thought and action are already situated in a world. Instead of examining experiences as they are empirically perceived as some type of ‘real fact,’ it is concerned with examining the pure essences of experience as they are intuitively given to us in their generality. It seeks to describe the experience of meaning. There is no ‘first fact’ which is preceded by a series of other facts. Instead, our instances of consciousness are already situated in a specific circumstance. There is an emphasis on ‘intentionality’ – all of our experiences are of or about some object or state of affairs. We as agents are already in-the-world engaged in pragmatic and socially defined projects.

This approach does not support the reductionistic tendencies we see in some sciences. Instead of being concerned with how things in reality actually are, it is instead focused on how we experience things in consciousness. Consciousness is our window onto the world.  All the knowledge we possess comes to us through consciousness. This is why phenomenologists give primacy to this, over how things ‘actually are in reality.’ Since, epistemologically speaking, our conscious perspective comes first, we need to be concerned about the condition of our perspectival window onto the world first, before we can attempt to understand what is outside this window.

Consider the following ‘naturalistic’ explanation of the phenomenal world, and compare it with the phenomenological description just below. First, ponder this quote from the philosopher W.V.O. Quine (from the ‘Ways of Paradox’):

“I am a physical object sitting in a physical world.  Some of the forces of this physical world impinge on my surface.  Light rays strike my retinas; molecules bombard my eardrums and fingertips.  I strike back, emanating concentric air waves.  These waves take the form of a torrent of discourse about tables, people, molecules, light rays, retinas, air waves, prime numbers, infinite classes, joy and sorrow, good and evil.”

Now compare that with this piece from Edmund Husserl’s Ideas:

“I am conscious of a world endlessly spread out in space, endlessly becoming and having endlessly become in time.  I am conscious of it: that signifies, above all, that intuitively I find it immediately, that I experience it.  By my seeing, touching, hearing, and so forth, and in the different modes of sensuous perception, corporeal physical things with some spatial distribution or other are simply there for me, ‘on hand’ in the literal or figurative sense, whether or not I am particularly heedful of them and busied with them in my considering, thinking, feeling, or willing.  Animate beings too – human beings, let us say – are immediately there for me: I look up; I see them; I hear their approach; I grasp their hands; talking with them I understand immediately what they mean and think, what feelings stir within them, what they wish or will.”

Edmund Husserl, instead of trying to use empirical methods, attempted to use a ‘transcendental attitude’ and implement a ‘transcendental reduction.’ He sought out the conditions of possbility for knowledge. Martin Heidegger thought that what shows itself to us is not necessarily the things in consciousness, but to some degree Being itself. He engaged in an examination of the question of the meaning of Being – fundamental ontology – via the manner in which it appears – or is hidden – to us in our experience. There is a high degree of hermeneutics (or interpretation) in phenomenology as practiced by Heiddeger. Maurice Merleau-Ponty shifted the approach and attempted to integrate phenomenology with psychology and neurology, with an emphasis on the body and our embodied existence. He drew heavily on experimental case studies to understand more clearly phenomenological experience.  He tried to bring phenomenology into the sciences to show how life is lived. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir tied phenomenology in with existentialism, and Karl Jaspers put it to work in psychiatry. It’s incorporation into guiding and influencing scientific approaches, analysis, and practice, have resulted in the creation of Existential Phenomenological Counselling and Daseinanalysis, and the influence of Ecological-Embodied-Enactive Cognition in recent Cogntive Science.

Whereas early on Husserl was sceptical of phenomenology becoming ‘naturalized,’ it has progressed much since, and in recent years there have been several attempts to ‘naturalize’ phenomenology. Nowadays there are three main approaches. One is ‘formalized’ phenomenology, where the phenomenological analysis of lived experience that has been done is translated into a formal (almost mathematized) language that allows areas like psychology to improve their ability to formulate experienced intersubjective shared meaning. ‘Neurophenomenology’ utilizes dynamic systems theory to try and show that we can’t just rely on explanations that are based on purely mechanical interactions of parts in isolated moments of time. Genuine interaction is non-linear, and is based on reciprocal, dynamic interaction. There is a process of self-organization and sense-making based on our brain/body/environment coupling together. To do neurophenomenology practicioners need to be trained in phenomenological methods. Lastly, we have what is called ‘front-loaded’ phenomenology. Instead of beginning with empirical results (such as ‘formalized’ phenomenology), or with training subjects (as is done in ‘neurophenomenology), front-loaded phenomenology begins with the specific design of experiments based on the insights of phenomenology.

[The above discussion drew heavily from the following books (shown below): ‘Phenomenology’, by Shaun Gallagher.  ‘Understanding Phenomenology’, by David R. Cerbone.  ‘Introduction to Phenomenology’, by Dermot Moran.]