Qualia (sing. quale) is a term used in philosophy to mean “the subjective qualities of conscious experience” or the “raw feel” of sensation, for example, how a blue sky looks, how a rose smells or the pain of a toothache. I would also include things like thoughts, intentions and emotions, but maybe others would not. How the issue of qualia is handled is an important feature of the various theories of philosophy of mind (as referred to in this Wikipedia article and this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Qualia).

The issue of qualia would appear to pose a problem for proponents of the theory of Physicalism (also known as Eliminative Materialism). In Physicalism all that exists is considered to be that which can be described by physics.

According to physics the universe is comprised of ordinary Matter (fundamentally the fermions of the Standard Model) and Energy, which was shown by Einstein with his famous formula E = mc^2 to be interchangeable with Matter. These material entities are supplemented by non-material entities such as the fundamental Forces, which are represented as bosons in the Standard Model, as well as Space and Time (or Einsteinian Space-Time). I suppose we now have to include Dark Matter and Dark Energy as well, although we know almost nothing about them. From the point of view of Physicalism the foregoing (the domain of physics) is all that exists and so all that needs to be explained.

Some proponents of Physicalism (like Prof. Daniel Dennett) consequently deny the existence of qualia altogether e.g. here. Dennett has also declared “We are all zombies” (denying subjectivity). In a footnote to the passage where he wrote this, Dennett cautioned: * It would be an act of desperate intellectual dishonesty to quote this assertion out of context! (Consciousness Explained, p. 406).

If, on the other hand qualia are conceded to exist then proponents of Physicalism run up against the Explanatory Gap problem, i.e. if qualia exist and they are non-physical, then what is the nature of this non-physical entity necessary to fill the gap? If they say that qualia are “mental” phenomena then they are not Physicalists but rather Cartesian Dualists.

To my mind Physicalism is equally as unsatisfying in its extreme position of denying the subjective and its qualia as was the Immaterialism or Subjective Idealism of Bishop Berkeley who flatly denied the existence of matter and argued that everything was a product of mind. “Esse est Percipi” was his motto (“To Be is to Be Perceived”). In a famous passage in Samuel Johnson’s “The Life of Boswell”, Johnson relates discussing Berkeley’s views with Boswell on a walk, saying that he thought Berkeley’s position could not logically be refuted. “I refute it thus!”, Johnson was reported as replying, while kicking a heavy stone.

Nevertheless, the admission that qualia exist and that their nature is irreducibly non-physical surely does not necessarily force denial of a physical basis for their existence. In particular, I do not see how this belief (that qualia exist and are not reducible to the physical) means that one also has to believe that individual consciousness may continue after the death of the body. It seems to me to be perfectly possible to admit that a physical body is a necessary precondition for consciousness and for qualia to exist, or even go so far as to admit the possibility that science may eventually demonstrate that brain states and electrochemical processes within the brain and nervous system are perfectly correlated with and necessary causal agents of qualia without having to say qualia themselves are physical or that they are identical to brain states or processes (clearly impossible since a physical thing cannot be identical to a non-physical thing).

Two seminal articles introducing some thought experiments about qualia are:
1. What is it like to be a bat? by Thomas Nagel (1974)
2. What Mary Didn't Know by Frank Jackson (1986)

The problem of reconciling the existence of qualia with the philosophically materialist sciences has been dubbed Chalmers’ Hard Problem of Consciousness and “The ghost in the machine”.

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Shapes of space

There is a branch of mathematics, topology, which can be described as the study of the possible “shapes of space”, referring to the 3-dimensional space as we experience it in the world, as well as 4-dimensional space-time and other more abstract spaces (such as those of higher dimensions). It is the study of structure at a more basic level than geometry because it contains no notion of distance or angles. It is sometimes dubbed “rubber sheet geometry”, for reasons which will be clear shortly.

Topologically speaking, a brick is the same as a ball and a coffee cup is the same as a doughnut. In both cases each could be morphed into its counterpart smoothly with only stretching, squeezing, folding or twisting allowed, but not tearing, breaking or hole-filling (assuming the objects were made of pliable enough material), or in the jargon of mathematics “remaining invariant under homeomorphic deformation”. Topology is also concerned with the definition of regions and their connectedness (within and between), for example the notions of “inside” and “outside”.

There is one aspect of topology that I think is relevant to philosophy, particularly Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. That is the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic points of view. The intrinsic viewpoint is from the perspective of the mathematical object itself (or a being living on it). For example, for a 2-dimensional being living on a torus (the surface of a doughnut) the universe is just the surface. Nothing else exists. That is the intrinsic viewpoint. This being can carry out experiments which will confirm that its universe conforms to a Euclidean geometry (for example the angles of triangles add to 180° and the circumference of a circle = 2πR).

It would also be possible in principle for the being on the torus to verify that travel in a straight line in either of two orthogonal directions would result in return to the same place, and that some loops cannot be contracted to a point (the loops that from the extrinsic viewpoint are snagged around the inner “hole”). From the intrinsic viewpoint there is no “hole”. The world is complete in itself. From the extrinsic viewpoint on the other hand, the torus is situated in an ambient 3-dimensional space. Travel paths that from the intrinsic viewpoint are geodesics (shortest possible routes or straight lines) are from the extrinsic viewpoint curves (such as circles).

The analogous situation arises for a being on a sphere (the 2-dimensional surface of a ball). From the intrinsic point of view the surface is the whole universe. The angles of triangles will add up to more than 180° and the circumference of circles will be less than 2πR, hence the geometry is non-Euclidean.

The point is that due to a theorem Theorema Egregium (Remarkable Theorem) proved by Gauss, the curvature of the “world” (curvature being a purely theoretical notion since as far as the resident being is concerned the world is perfectly flat and curvature has no physical meaning – curved through what?) can be measured purely on the surface (“in the world”) alone, which will determine the appropriate geometry of “the world” (Euclidean or non-Euclidean) without recourse to a mystical “3rd dimension”.

I am thinking that perhaps topology might be fruitful in somehow shedding light on those terms, such as connectedness, boundary, inside, outside etc. which also crop up in philosophy and related disciplines, and I am not the first to have this idea.

Philosophers such as René Descartes and Jacques Lacan, for example were very interested in topology. Descartes was a pioneer in the field, discovering what became known as Euler’s characteristic more than 100 years before eminent mathematician Leonhard Euler did so in 1752. Lacan is another kettle of fish entirely, however. But while someone like physicist Alan Sokal (perpetrator of the “Sokal hoax” resulting from the publishing of this paper) would no doubt mock Lacan’s use of examples from the field of topology to illustrate points in the fields of philosophy and psychoanalysis, I have a more charitable view. At the very least, the contemplation of such wonderful objects as the Möbius strip, the Klein bottle and Borromean Rings (employed by Lacan as described here and here ) should be encouraged to help us think more imaginatively and less dogmatically about concepts such as connectivity and inside/outside-ness.


Topology abounds in even more astoundingly intuition-defying objects, for example fractal objects such as the Koch snowflake (which has finite area but infinite length perimeter) and Alexander’s Horned Sphere.

“Although they separate space into two regions, those regions are so twisted and knotted that they are not homeomorphic to the inside and outside of a normal sphere”.

Rather, the inside is, but the outside is not, because it is not simply connected (some loops cannot be contracted to a point).

My point with these curious topological oddities is this. If the (apparently) two sides of a surface can in fact sometimes be just one side and if sometimes the regions of inside and outside are unable to be cleanly distinguished, then perhaps the apparent Cartesian dualism split (“mind is interior and matter is exterior and never the twain shall meet”) might turn out not to be so hopelessly clearcut, with tendrils of each realm ambiguously and inextricably embracing the other, taking the form of a topological entity. I am attracted to the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty for just that reason. And, after all, the fractal objects of pure mathematical thought have turned out to be highly useful in modelling natural systems, so why not consider topology as one more tool for modelling ontology?

I know this post has been pretty far out there in the speculative stratosphere for me, but it was good to indulge my passion for topology and mix it up with my new found interest in phenomenology. I expect the next few posts will be more down to earth.

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The poetics of stutter

Canadian poet Jordan Scott is a stutterer, one for whom the act of speaking is a minefield. Jordan’s blert consists of longer poems interspersed with short “Chomp Sets”, followed by a prose meditation:


“Having stuttered all of my life, blert represents a spelunk into the mouth of the stutterer, a trek across labial regions, a rappel through the stalagmites of molars and canines, a lexical navigation into the cavernous poetics of what it means to stutter.  blert performs the stutter in and through language itself, enhancing the characteristics of the individual who stutters in his or her speech by invoking a stuttering in the language system as a whole.  In blert, the unique symptoms of the stutter, both sonic and physical, are utilized in order to reveal language as a rolling gait of words hidden within words, leading to granular rhythms and textures, all conducted by the mouth’s slight erosions…The stutter here appears on its own terms, rejecting the metaphoric, thematic, graphic . . . or representational aspects of this language disturbance. The text is written as if my own gibbering mouth chomped upon the language system, then regurgitated the cud of difference. My symptoms are the agents of composition.”

 Some excerpts from blert: 


Some will not when by themselves

Some will not when speaking to children

Some will not when they sing

Phonemes flounder brickette warmth. Tethered to seven molluscs, an osteoblast chomps into the burger of kelp’s wreck; an osteoclast nibbles a puffin’s scapula in mid-afternoon weight. Each webbed foot tussles, the soft hum of slipper, on hardwood floors.

What is the utterance? 

Dewlap syllables Mesozoic.  The billabong passes as gung-ho through scaffolded throats, blotches lobule curves until Mesozoic ricochets cochlea, at a slow freight. The palate thermoregulates, camouflages, the antelope roll. 

What is the utterance?

My mouth drew the swallow’s panic.  Chew pteryla; the spaces between them chomp apterium; gizzard beat Broca, Broca. Chirped electrode. Sing fuming. Sing furious. Now, open your mouth and speak. Incisive fossa in labial turbulence, sing  fuming, sing furious.  In neuroimaging, filoplumes blitz.  Now open your mouth and speak.  Sing frumious.    

What is the utterance?

What a poor crawling thing you are!

Valsalvas (11)


lactic acrobat

pretzel lumbar

licorice ganglia

crackulates scapula

calliope tremor coccyx


crypt walk

jaw arctic

Chomp Set (20)


As this review says: “blert attempts to crack open the disgust felt by those trying to normalize the disfluent; it is a bomb at the psychological gates of the phobic.”

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The witness body

“Can one imagine the Holocaust without thinking about bodies? The graphic images of the slaughter are now etched in Western consciousness like the tattoos imprinted on the arms of inmates. Emaciated limbs, gaunt faces and hollow eyes stare out at us from countless photographs since the camps were liberated, and numerous survivor accounts have filled in the details of daily life during the Holocaust. As Primo Levi observed, in the camps the human body was treated as ‘an object, an anonymous thing belonging to no one’; it was thus capable of being put to any number of uses – medical experimentation, sexual violence, casual brutality, pointless killing.” 

This quote was taken from “The Body,” in Writing the Holocaust, Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Daniel Langton, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), in press.

The literature on the holocaust (the genocide of six million Jews by the National Socialist regime in Germany during World War 2) is vast. A sample can be found here. The Hebrew word Shoah (meaning calamity) is preferred by many Jews for a number of reasons, including theological. A subset of this literature is “witness” literature, written by the victims themselves.

 3 witness poems:

  1. Primo Levi (Italian original “Se questo è un uomo”, English translation “If This Is a Man”)
  2. Paul Celan (German original “Todesfuge”, English translation “Death Fugue”)
  3. Miklós Radnóti (Hungarian original, English translation)

Se questo è un uomo

Voi che vivete sicuri
Nelle vostre tiepide case,
voi che trovate tornando a sera
Il cibo caldo e visi amici:
Considerate se questo è un uomo
Che lavora nel fango
Che non conosce pace
Che lotta per mezzo pane
Che muore per un sì o per un no.
Considerate se questa è una donna,
Senza capelli e senza nome
Senza più forza di ricordare
Vuoti gli occhi e freddo il grembo
Come una rana d’inverno.
Meditate che questo è stato:
Vi comando queste parole.
Scolpitele nel vostro cuore
Stando in casa andando per via,
Coricandovi alzandovi;
Ripetetele ai vostri figli.
O vi si sfaccia la casa,
La malattia vi impedisca,
I vostri nati torcano il viso da voi.

 (Primo Levi, 1947)

If This Is a Man

You who live safe
In your warm houses;
You who find on returning in the evening
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a bit of bread
Who dies because of a yes and because of a no

Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
Without enough strength to remember
Vacant eyes and cold womb
Like a frog in the winter:

Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart
When staying at home and going out,

Going to bed and rising up;
Repeat them to your children:
Or may your house fall down,
Illness bar your way,
Your loved ones turn away from you.

(Trans. Robert E. Williams)

Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge is here (in the original German). The translation “Death Fugue” is here.

Mellézuhantam, átfordult a teste
s feszes volt már, mint húr, ha pattan.
Tarkólövés. – Így végzed hát te is, –
súgtam magamnak, – csak feküdj nyugodtan.
Halált virágzik most a türelem. –
Der springt noch auf, – hangzott fölöttem.
Sárral kevert vér száradt fülemen.

(Miklós Radnóti, 1944)

I fell beside him; his body turned over,
Already taut as a string about to snap.
Shot in the back of the neck. That’s how you too will end,
I whispered to myself; just lie quietly.
Patience now flowers into death.
Der springt noch auf, a voice said above me.
On my ear, blood dried, mixed with filth.
(Translated by Emery George and included in Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché)


“In November of 1944, a Jewish Hungarian poet known for mixing innovative and classical styles, was shot into a mass grave with his notebook of last poems in his coat pocket. One of 3,200 Hungarian Jews forced by fascist militia to march hundreds of miles in retreat from Tito’s advancing armies, Miklós Radnóti remained under that mound for eighteen months before he was unearthed and later identified by his wife. What she found in that notebook damp with his body fluids were his last poems, including love poems scribbled to her, Fanni, known to her friends as Fifi.”


I will finish with some more quotes from “The Body,” in Writing the Holocaust, Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Daniel Langton, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), in press.

Rather than viewing state-sponsored anti-Semitism merely as a development localized in a specific time and place, theorists like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno see it as one possible consequence of the general movement of Western civilization. Since ancient times, they claim, the body has played a double role in Western culture. Historically rejected as a source of weakness and vulnerability and the seat of emotions that threaten to cloud rational judgment, it is also secretly ‘desired as something forbidden, objectified, and alienated’…

In The Jew’s Body Sander Gilman describes the key role played by physical difference in the anti-Semitic imagination (mostly in the nineteenth century), where everything about Jews – noses, penises, chests, speech, and even the way they walked – was made to speak volumes about the gulf that separated these people from the human mainstream. Outright Jew haters have not had a monopoly on Jewish corporeal stereotyping, and if some insisted on the irredeemable differences between Jews and Gentiles, others argued that such variations were mainly due to custom and environment. Even non-racist forms of antiSemitism, which were sometimes applauded as ‘philosemitic’ proposals to ease the assimilation of Jews into the Gentile mainstream, demanded the erasure of Jewish differences in creed, culture, hygiene, and dress. The eighteenth-century fascination with neoclassical forms placed greater pressure on Jews as well as Gentiles to conform to idealized corporeal forms, which led pro-Jewish writers like the Abbé Grégoire to insist that the ‘regeneration’ of the Jews be partly carried out in relation to their sick, weak and nervous bodies…

In this way some of Horkheimer and Adorno’s broad claims about the body and Western civilization make some sense: in anti-Semitic logic Jews are said to represent sheer corporeality (as opposed to mind or spirit) and possess diseased and contaminating bodies…

While we cannot minimize or forget the specific circumstances that produced the Holocaust, we must also acknowledge its more general conditions of possibility. In many ways the beaten, starved, humiliated, and finally murdered Jewish body encapsulated the conflicted and often destructive relationship that many Westerners have had with the body in the modern era, notably the clash between its idealized capacities for youthful beauty, strength, and vitality and the abject facts of ageing, weakness, disease, decay, and death. As Martha Nussbaum argues, wishing for a body that denies the latter is to engage in a ‘fantasy of self-transcendence’ in which ‘crucial elements of the human are lacking. . . . Next door to the fantasy of a pure state is a highly dangerous and aggressive xenophobia’. If exterminating millions is rightly dubbed ‘inhuman’, so too are the fantasies of corporeal purity that coax such deadly projects into being.

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The epicene body

Epicene syn. hermaphrodite, intersex, gynandromorph, androgyne def. having the characteristics of both sexes

“When you came home,” Cathleen Sullivan told Chase about her return from the hospital after surgery, “there seemed to be no effect at all. Oh, yes, wait a minute. Yes, there was one thing. You stopped speaking. I guess you didn’t speak for about six months.”

Discourse on intersex (the preferred modern term) conditions (there are a number of them, it’s complicated) has entered the mainstream, as evidenced by the 2006 New York Times article What if It’s (Sort of) a Boy and (Sort of) a Girl? from which I extracted the above quote. Apparently, intersex births are roughly as common as cystic fibrosis. The issue raises profound questions (about body image, sense of self, parental control, society’s attitude to the “abnormal”, medical ethics, to name a few) as I guess do many other congenital “abnormalities”.

Here is another quote from the NYT article spoken by an intersex person: “Now I think being intersex is pretty weird but kind of sweet”. I like that a lot. I know exactly what it means, because it’s just the way I think about myself, a healthy and humane outlook in my opinion.

To help us ponder these questions from another angle, the angle of poetry, here is a poem by Andy Jackson, All is not as it seems from his latest book Among the regulars.

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The enjambed body

The enjambed body…what a great phrase! I love poetry, so I even know what enjambed means. Good for me. Now I’ve got all that self-congratulation out of the way, I have to admit I stole the phrase from Jim Ferris. Read Jim’s essay The Enjambed Body: A Step Toward A Crippled Poetics. No, I mean it! Do yourself a favour and read it now. I’ll wait right here.

Back? Good.

Here are a few poems by Jim Ferris. First, Clubbing. Next, three poems: Poet of Cripples, Normal and Child of No One from his book The Hospital Poems.

It might be timely to drop this link in about here: A Short History of Disability Poetry.
The names of several poets were mentioned: Larry Eigner, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley among them.

Here is an essay about Larry Eigner: Missing Larry: The Poetics of Disability in Larry Eigner and you might be able to read the poem “The plan is in the body” from the Google books view of Selected Poems, 1945-2005 by Robert Creeley. And here is Olson’s poetry manifesto Projective Verse (1950). Make of all that what you will.

Next is a blurb for a book “Cripple Poetics: A Love Story” by Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus.

Finally (for this post), the Seneca Review whose Fall 2009/Spring 2010 issue (Vol. 39 No. 2) is a special double issue on the lyric body, disability and difference. It looks interesting enough to buy a copy. In the meantime, here is the Introduction and an essay “Walking to Abbasanta” by Anne Finger. Did you know that Antonio Gramsci was a hunchbacked dwarf? Neither did I.

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The phenomenology of Edith Stein

I have just come across another 20th century phenomenologist whose work seems relevant to this blog: Edith Stein, also known as Saint Teresia of the Cross. She is a martyr and saint of the Catholic Church, one of the six patron saints of Europe. She received her PhD under Edmund Husserl in 1916 and became his assistant, along with Martin Heidegger. Born into an observant Jewish family, she became an atheist in her teenage years, and later was baptised into the Catholic Church, eventually becoming a Carmelite nun. Her order transferred her from Nazi Germany to the Netherlands, where she was later arrested and shipped to Auschwitz concentration camp, along with her sister Rosa, also a convert, where they were gassed to death. Her canonization took place under Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Edith Stein’s PhD dissertation was Zum Problem der Einfühlung (On the Problem of Empathy). Here are some accounts of her work in philosophy:

  1. Personal Connections: The Phenomenology of Edith Stein
  2. From Empathy to Solidarity: Intersubjective Connections according to Edith Stein
  3. Empathy and Consciousness (Part VI: Empathy, p.16-20)
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