Remembering Dr. John J. Glanville

I recently was saddened to discover that a former professor of mine, John J. Glanville at SF State University, passed away. Dr. Glanville, as I knew him (he referred to me a Mr. Brown, saying he would call me ‘Richard’ after I had earned my M.A.), was one of those professors who you either loved or hated. He had very high standards and was not squeamish about hurting one’s feelings if he thought one’s answers/work was sub-par. I was one of the one’s that loved him (I took 5 class with him, where I learned everything I know about Ancient Philosophy. He would often remark that for someone with my modern interests I gave “unusual attention to the history of Ancient and Medieval philosophy”) so I thought I would take a couple of minutes to reflect on his influence on me.

I transfered to SF State as an undergraduate in the Spring of 1997. Coming from a community college, I was very excited to be at a four-year school and to be taking classes in my major. In the Fall of 1997 I took Ancient Philosophy and History of Christian Thought, both with Dr. Glanville. Dr. Glanville was a very intimidating figure in the classroom, always asking questions about the readings and chastising those who did not know the answers. But he was also a teacher who took his job seriously and I have never had so much feedback on papers and exams as I did from him. I would turn in 10 double-spaced pages and get back the same 10 pages with copious notes in the margin and between the lines full of challenges, comments, queries, encouragement, etc. All written in tiny print and in pencil. He once famously wrote on one of my classmate’s papers (who shall remain nameless), “I have stopped reading for fear of what I might find,” a testament to his blunt no-nonsense approach. It was the first time I had ever felt like someone was taking my work seriously. For me it was a tremendous feeling. But beyond this gruff task master exterior lay an intellect and wit that was hard to surpass. He could be quite funny in the class, often making jokes that dated him, and it was obvious that he kept up with the literature, often making a comment about a new book or article on Parmenides or Democritus. As tough as he was on our work, he was twice as hard on his own work. We read a couple of his papers in grad seminars and they were excellent. He would say ‘I’ll send them off when they are better’ and we would be blown away; how could they be better? I surmise that there must be several books worth of material lying around in his house. I hope these come out some day and he is recognized for the tremendous scholar that he was.

I remember one particular incident in the History of Christian Thought class I took with him. I was to give a presentation on the section of Acts (I don’t recall the specific passage) where they discuss an encounter with Greek philosophy. Those who know me know that I am agnostic about the existence of God but I am not, nor have I ever been, agnostic about extant religions. I find that they have been a major force for evil in the history of Human Beings, well, at any rate, the point is that I started that presentation by writing on the board a quote from Neitzsche: “There is only one Christian and he died on the cross”. I then proceeded to criticize the metaphysical and epistemological principles of Christianity, arguing that they lost the argument with the Greek philosophers. I later found out that Dr. Glanville was deeply religious but he did not stop me or show anger of any kind (some annoyance seeped out as I recall ;). Rather, he engaged with the arguments that I was presenting in a serious way, trying to show me that I did not quite have it right, and that some of what I said was apt, etc. Now, as an instructor myself, I can only imagine what his real thoughts must have been!

In spite of all this Dr. Glanville ended up writing me a letter of recommendation when I applied to PhD programs in late 2001. He sent me a copy of the letter with a short handwritten note on it. I still to this day find it to be some of the nicest things ever said about me and one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. I here quote a short bit of the letter,

Brown has a lively imagination which he knows how to apply in the service of philosophy. This put him in sync with the thought experiments found in the Pre-Socratics and the response in kind needed by modern readers to test their hypotheses. I am reminded of Heisenberg’s observation on the challenge to his imagination in arousing his mind to a life of work in theoretical physics –the challenge offered, he says, by his study of the Pre-Socratics on the Gymnasium level of German education. –Just the sort of stimulus so often missing in the education of our American youth.

In my considered judgment Richard Brown will one day make significant contributions in the area of Philosophical Psychology. His record of talks and publications already portend that, as does his MA record with us at SFSU.

Dr. Glanville then hand wrote on the letter “Richard, now you have to live up to it!” (This was the first time he had ever called me ‘Richard’, by the way). I used to joke that my 2006 paper “What is a Brain State?” which was published in the journal Philosophical Psychology had discharged this obligation. I always thought I would run into him at some apa meeting and get to make that joke in person. Sadly I won’t get that opportunity. Nor will I get the opportunity to thank him in person for his belief in me, his patience with my ignorance, his stern criticisms of my sloppiness, and his impact on my life. But I like to think he knows already. I am sure he had that level of impact on countless students. We should all be so lucky.

Rest in Peace Dr Glanville.

Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint

On Monday I attended a discussion of James Stazicker‘s paper Attention, Visual Knowledge, and Psychophysics. I have talked about Block’s argument before that recent experimental work on attention suggests that there is mental paint (i.e. that there is more to phenomenology than what’s in the world or in our representations of it). In this paper Stazicker wanted to offer an account of the representational contents of vision that denied any kind of illusion (like Block) but at the same time rejected Block’s argument for mental paint (Stazicker says that his view is compatible with mental paint but not with the argument that Block gives for it).

The basic idea that Stazicker wants to develop is that vision represents determinable properties rather than determinate properties. That is to say that our visual representations while we are looking at a line of (say) 5 centimeters will be something to the effect of a line that is, say, 4.5-5.25 centimeters long. If this is right then there are many different ways of veridically representing the line of 5 cm length. We could represent it, as above, or as 4.75-5.5 or many others. Stazicker wants to maintain that these two different representations will produce different phenomenologies but that each is perfectly veridical. If this is what happens in Carrassco type cases then we can still say that our belief are veridical even though we agree that attention changes our phenomenology. He also argues that we have independent reason to think that vision does deal in determinable representations stemming from considerations about the limited spatial resolution of our representations.

Block is aware of this kind of objection and responds to it in Attention and Mental Paint. As he says,

The problem with this proposal is that it if the phenomenology of perception flows from representational content, then indeterminacy in content would have to be reflected in an indeterminacy of look. But there need be no such indeterminacy.

If our experience represents something indeterminately as, say, 4.5-5.25 cm in length then we should expect the phenomenology to be indeterminate as well, but since our phenomenology isn’t this way we have some evidence that there is more to it than the indeterminate representation; there is also the phenomenological mode of presentation, that is what it is like for the subject to have that conscious experience.

Stazicker responds to this line of argument in the paper. He argues that there is no problem with saying that our phenomenology is indeterminate. He denies that saying that conscious experience is indeterminate is the same as saying that it is blurry (though blurriness does involve indeterminacy, it also involves something else, something like the phenomenology of blurriness), nor is it the same as representing a disjunct of possibilities. He rather appeals to notions of seeing things in the distance. When one sees something that is far away one’s representations are indeterminate but without being burry or fuzzy or disjointed.

During the discussion Dan Shargel brought up the issue of how we can tell if our normal conscious vision is blurry or not. He reported an experience of having his prescription updated on his glasses. Suddenly he realized that his vision had been blurry before but had not realized that it was that way before the update. Perhaps that is what conscious vision is like for us. Block argued that there is a phenomenological difference between seeing a clear image blurrily and seeing a blurry image clearly. In each case one would be tempted to say that a subject would draw the same ‘pixel array’ even though there is a distinct phenomenological difference (the difference between feeling like you see it clearly or blurrily). Block also argued that one could not cash this out merely in terms of determinable versus determinate contents. Chalmers suggested that you might be able to capture that difference representationally in the following way. In the case of seeing the blurry image clearly one has a visual experience which represents the various smudges in a very determinate way (so one has a determinate representation of the indeterminate thing itself), whereas when one see a clear image blurrily one has an indeterminate visual experience in that one represents the determinate thing in a smudged way. Block insisted that this did not meet his objection since one would end up drawing the same thing in both cases.

I have to admit that I lean towards Block view here. It does seem to me that conscious visual experience presents things as being some determinate way. So, when I look at the frame of a painting it seems to me that the frame has some determinate length even though I am unsure what that length is. One interpretation I have long been attracted to is to see higher-order thought-like states as (phenomenal) modes of presentations for first-order sensory qualities. The higher-order states may very well represent the indeterminate first-order states as being determinate. This would allow one to endorse Block’s view that experience doesn’t seem indeterminate while also taking the empirical evidence to suggest that first-order states are indeterminate.