New Blog: Morbid Symptoms

My new blog — Morbid Symptoms — is now up and running.

The plan is to write about philosophy, politics and psychiatry in a way that develops some of the discussions that will be familiar to old readers of this blog but which also brings in lots of new topics and concepts too. There’s an introduction here and the first proper post on ‘Paternalism and Anti-Authoritarian Authority’ is here.

Division Day

The blog has been quiet for a few months while I’ve been finishing my thesis and settling in to my postdoc here at Essex. I submitted in August and passed my viva a fortnight ago, and so with marginally more time to myself, I’ve been wondering whether to start posting here again. But after considering it for a while, I’ve decided to mothball the blog.

On the whole, it has been brilliant to interact with so many people interested in similar philosophical issues, and then even to meet some of you (like Nicole, James and Pete). Thanks to everyone who has been reading, commenting and linking here over the years. I’ve been greatful for it all.

Originally, what I’d intended to do here was to chart the progress of my thesis. As it happened, I didn’t end up doing much of this, but nevertheless the end of my PhD seems like an appropriate occasion to stop, or to at least take an extended break. There’s a few reasons for wanting to do so.

Although I was never that frequent a blogger, I feel like I need to take some time for the kind of issues I’ve been discussing here to percolate without disturbance for a while. In short, I want to do some rethinking and reformulation in relative silence. As Deleuze puts it: “What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.” Secondly, whilst I’ve been amazed at the response the blog has gotten, it has also made me a little uncomfortable (especially if the number of hits is remotely near the 45000 that the WordPress counter claims). What I’ve posted here have essentially been rough notes — some of which are several years old now. Of course, people can appreciate that I’ve changed my mind in that time, but nevertheless I feel a bit too tied to this history, especially when I meet someone who has stumbled across this place before. Though I don’t intend to delete the blog, bringing it to a close might help to create a little bit of psychological distance from the things I’ve written here.

Hopefully, I’ll make a fresh start blogging elsewhere at some point. There’ll be another post here if and when that happens. In the meantime, I’ll continue to be active on Twitter, where you can follow me here. Thanks again to everyone who has been reading!

Workshop on Autonomous Judgement

Details of the inaugural workshop for the Essex Autonomy Project (on which I am the postdoctoral research officer) below.

The Essex Autonomy Project is pleased to announce the opening event in its three-year research initiative, ‘Deciding for Oneself: Autonomous Judgement in History, Theory and Practice’. The aim of the research is to advance theoretical understanding of the capacity for autonomous judgement and to provide orientation to those who must navigate its complexities in social, medical and legal practice.

Challenges and Strategies

The Essex Autonomy Project
Inaugural Workshop (21-22 May, 2010)

Participation is free but seating is limited; advanced registration is required. To register, send an email to . Full details of the event can be found at:


Day One : Friday, 21 May, 2010
Location: Senate Room (4.722, off Square 1), University of Essex Campus

11:00-11:30: Welcome and Overview of the Research Project Prof. Wayne Martin (Principal Investigator; Dept. of Philosophy, University of Essex)

11:30-13:00: Philosophical Models of Autonomy: An Overview Dr. Joel Anderson (Dept. of Philosophy, Utrecht University)

13:00-14:30: Lunch. Network Centre Foyer, 1N1.3.3.

14:30 – 15:45: The Mental Capacity Act and the Mental Health Act Prof. Genevra Richardson (School of Law, King’s College London)

15:45-17:00: The Law of Consent
Dr. Sabine Michalowski (School of Law, Essex University)

17:00-17:15: Coffee

17:15 – 18:30: The Clinical Assessment of Capacity.
Prof. Matthew Hotopf (Maudsley Institute of Psychiatry)

Day Two : Saturday, 22 May, 2010
Location: Wivenhoe Sailing Club

9:30-10:00 Coffee

10:00 – 11:15: Assessment of Capacity in Social Welfare Contexts Graham Sharp (Welfare Rights Officer, Suffolk County Council)

11:15-12:30: What Can We Learn About Autonomy From the Case of Anorexia Nervosa?
Dr. Jacinta Tan (Centre for Philosophy, Law and Humanities in Health Care, Swansea University)

12:30-14:00 Lunch

Letter to Middlesex University

I am sure you have already heard about the planned cuts at Middlesex University. Much more info is available over at Infinite Thought. Here is my letter to the University management:

Dear Professor Driscoll, Professor Ahmad, Professor House and Professor Esche,

I am hugely dismayed to hear of the decision to close the philosophy department at Middlesex University. The quality of the teaching and research which the department undertakes is excellent — something its recent RAE results make plain. So too, its contribution is a distinctive one, acting as a vitally important hub for the study of European philosophy, and which sees it punch far above its weight on both the national and international level. It has achieved these results with very good value for money, both in terms of its relatively modest budget and its success in attracting external funding for fellowships and AHRC projects. On any reasonable measure, the department is highly successful. In light of all this, the planned closure appears nothing short of absurd.

The outcry against the decision has been massive and will doubtless continue to grow, reflecting the esteem in which the department is held in the humanities across the world. I am sure you are keenly aware of the damage already caused to the reputation of the University. If the planned closure is not reversed, this will only escalate. It should become increasingly clear to you that there will be no tame acceptance of this decision. Even at this early stage, it is readily apparent that opposition to these plans will be intense, organised, and extremely prolonged.

I strongly urge you to rethink the proposed closure.

Tom O’Shea

Senior Postdoctoral Research Officer
Department of Philosophy
University of Essex

Please write to the University management:

The full set of emails is;;;

The co-ordinators of the campaign against the closures request that if you send an email, you also blind copy (BCC) it to the campaign email,

Kierkegaard Graduate Conference

The 13th International Graduate Conference in Philosophy is being held next month on the 15th May here at the University of Essex. It’s called: ‘Become who you are: Kierkegaard, literature, and the philosophy of religion.’ The keynote speakers are Stephen Mulhall and Michael McGhee. There’s also a philosophical film festival which takes place on the 12-14th May, with film showings and talks, including a screening of ‘The Conformist.’ More details about both events can be found here.


I’ve started using my Twitter account and will be posting regular philosophy links, as well as the occasional tidbit on music and literature. If you’re a regular reader here, I’d reckon there’s a fair chance you’ll stumble over something interesting there now and then. Either way, I’ll try to keep the noise-to-signal ratio as healthy as possible. My user name is bombthepast — alternatively, just follow this link.

3 Quarks Daily Nomination

Some kind soul has nominated my post Philosophy as Bildung for the 3 Quarks Daily philosophy prize. Due to an error it has only just been added to the voting round though. You can see a list of nominations and cast your votes here. Much like Levi, I think there is less than a snowball’s chance in hell of being highly placed, but it is nice to be nominated regardless.

Might and Right: Against Latour (part 2)


In the previous post, I outlined some of the background to Latour’s denial that there is a distinction in kind between force and reason. In this post, I shall say why I think he is wrong to do so. A good place to begin is Latour’s explicit comments on reason and logic. He says:

A force establishes a pathway by making other forces passive. It can then move to places that do not belong to it and treat them as if they were its own. I am willing to talk about ‘logic,’ but only if it seen as a branch of public works or civil engineering. (PF 171)

What a daring and suggestive analogy! This is the sort of stuff that makes Latour a great read. Later, he continues this thought: “We cannot distinguish between those moments when we have might and those when we are right.” (PF 183)

One obvious worry here is that no accommodation is made for distinction between persuasion by means of inveigling, deceptiveness and threat, and by means of argument and sincere discussion which tries to make itself answerable to the facts and the well-being of the participants. Perhaps academics, politicians and scientists do not operate without the consuming cynicism of the advertiser or the predatoriness of the bully; but must this be the case — could there be no principled distinction between brainwashing and being convinced in light of evidence?

In the excellent discussions of Latour in Prince of Networks, Graham Harman defends him from this line of attack by reminding us that the relevant forces extend beyond the human to nonhuman actants:

A charlatan might convince a roomful of dupes that they can walk on hot coals without being harmed, but the coals remain unconvinced–leading the charlatan into lawsuits or beatings from his angry mob of victims.

This move tries to defuse the charge of having a crude cod-Machiavellian conception of the ubiquity of power in human affairs by extending the analysis to both the human, the nonhuman and hybrid networks inclusive of each. However we manage to convince humans, we need to ‘convince’ nonhuman objects too in order to be effective. There is no slide into relativism insofar as weak theories will collapse under the pressure of their inability to command actants. Or rather, we can hold onto them, but only at a cost:

We can say anything we please, and yet we cannot. As soon as we have spoken and rallied words, other alliances become easier or more difficult. (PF 182)

Is then rationality only one type of efficacy amongst others, fighting it out on a flat battlefield?


Latour implies that rationality must either take the form of some spectral a priori process, entity or interaction, or fall under the thrall of networked objects. For example, he says:

There has never been such a thing as deduction. One sentence follows another, and then a third affirms that the second was already implicitly or potentially already in the first. Those who talk of synthetic a priori judgments deride the faithful who bathe at Lourdes. However, it is no less bizarre to claim that a conclusion lies in its premises than to believe that there is holiness in the water. (PF 176)

If we want anything like a deduction, we are supposed to earn it: we must subsidise the labour of translation which allows us to glide seamlessly from antecedent to consequent, from P to Q. Behind any such translation will be a massive apparatus of networked actants which we ‘black box’ in practice (treating them as uncontroversial) but which must ultimately be accounted for. One of Latour’s concerns with approaches which make rationality stand apart from force seems to be that they ignore the process of the genesis and reproduction of rationality and rational behaviour.

I think that something goes awry here. In short, Latour has reified the rational in an attempt to save it from platonism. But the normative dimension of rational action does not primarily consist of any kind of object. We will not find it by looking to heaven with the platonist nor to earth with Latour. Nevertheless, Latour’s approach is right insofar as it treats rationality as unintelligible apart from an understanding of how something is treated or mobilised as a reason, where this requires us to grasp features of our form of life and their inextricable embeddedness amongst nonhuman objects. But this does not mean that we should only talk about such mobilisations. The pressure to do so appears to stem from a sceptical bent: what else could we be talking about if it is neither objects in action nor mysterious rational Forms? Again, Latour is right to adhere to a flat ontology; there can be nothing above the one plane of the natural world crowded with interacting objects. But the vocabulary of rationality, as with normativity in general, can be deployed from a distinct standpoint within and upon this self-same reality.


We undertake normative talk from a practical perspective, which inflects the theoretical mode of explanation in important ways. Normative vocabularies do not seek to describe the efficacious dimension of objects alone but rather throw another kind of light upon them which illuminates their place in the space of reasons. This neither takes normatively inert events and projects human interests upon them nor domesticates normative phenomena by reconstructing them in terms of their power to exert leverage on humans and nonhumans alike. Rather, it exploits anthropocentric modes of responding to the world — informed by our history, preoccupations, social organisation, physiology, art, environment, language, and technology, inclusive of all the hybridity that involves — in order to reveal distinctive aspects of certain situations which are not themselves directly parasitic on elements of our points of view. For example, decrying an action as cruel may only make sense within certain forms of life, but that does not mean that cruelty is a second-rate property or a cruel action is so only in light of us taking to be so. Some degree of epistemological anthropocentrism does not preclude genuine objectivity.

We ought to act in certain ways in virtue of how the world stands, but without supposing our characterisation of the world must only encompass those features identifiable from within an explanatory matrix focused exclusively upon ”wide cosmological role’ (i.e. those things which have effects upon things other than human attitudes). Seeing a badly injured friend, deciding whether to go to a protest, or it striking us that we have failed to balance an equation, can authoritatively demand things of us that overspill how we actually respond in these situations. Here we can use normative concepts, absent from the natural scientist’s official toolkit, to capture what is going on — being obliged to help, having reasons to go, being inaccurate in our calculations, and so on. But there should be no pressure to evacuate incipient normativity here from either our characterisation of the original situation (e.g. ‘injured’, ‘failed’) or its implications (e.g. ‘obligation’, ‘having a reason’). The absolute standpoint of the scientist, engineer or anthropologist, which sees only objects in action and their epiphenomena, although essential, has no claim to exhaust any legitimate account of reality.

Latour suspects hocus-pocus when we say that the premises are present in the conclusion. But this will only be the case on a crude reading of this claim which is shored up by the prejudice that if something cannot be slotted alongside all the other properties of objects in the same respect then it must be bogus or in need of reclamation in more causally respectable terms. Yes, rational agents will have to perform the translation from premises to conclusion themselves. Logical practice must be undertaken by someone (or something) somewhere, and such behaviour can be described. But to suppose that the only legitimate framework for such description is one of battling actants is false and will lead to a distorted picture of reasoning and its significance. No good basis for a revisionary account can be found. There is nothing spectral about the force of the better reason, what we ought to do, what virtue demands: distinctions of this kind pervade our language. All we need is the philosophically won confidence to take our own practices seriously.

Constructivism workshops and conference

There are a series of workshops here in Sheffield in the next year dealing with constructivism in practical philosophy. Here is list of speakers and dates, with more details available here.

7th February 2009
Workshop: Constructivism in Political Philosophy
Kirsten Budde (University of Sheffield)
Aaron James (University of California at Irvine)
Miriam Ronzoni (European University Institute, Florence),
Andrew Williams (University of Warwick)

28th March 2009
Workshop: Constructivism and Normative Epistemology
Simon Blackburn (University of Cambridge)
Matthew Chrisman (University of Edinburgh)
James Lenman (University of Sheffield)
Valerie Tiberius (University of Minnesota)

20th June 2009
Workshop: Constructivism and Practical Reason
Carla Bagnoli (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Michael Ridge (University of Edinburgh)
Yonatan Shemmer (University of Sheffield)
Jussi Suikkanen (University of Leeds)

14th-16th August 2009
Conference: Constructivism in Practical Philosophy
Michael Bratman (Stanford University)
Dale Dorsey (University of Kansas)
Nadeem Hussein (Stanford University)
Aaron James (University of California at Irvine)
James Lenman (University of Sheffield)
Michael Ridge (University of Edinburgh)
T. M. Scanlon (Harvard University)
Yonatan Shemmer (University of Sheffield)
Sharon Street (New York University)
Valerie Tiberius (University of Minnesota)
Jay Wallace (University of California at Berkeley)
Andrew Williams (University of Warwick)