Humanities at Large

Epistemic Interactions and the natural origins of skepticism

Submitted by Jennifer Nagel on April 22 2019.
Research presentation by Jennifer Nagel

24 January 2019

There’s something strange about the verb “to know”. It is one of the most common verbs—in English and in other languages—and we are ordinarily very generous in our use of it. We freely describe ourselves and others as knowing all sorts of things on the basis of casual gossip and quick glances (just search your own social media posts or emails for the word “know…” to see how naturally generous you are).

image of milk carton with face of cow
Is there milk in your fridge?

Here’s the strange thing: with a tiny nudge, we can become very reluctant to say that anyone knows anything. Do you even know that there is milk in your fridge right now? Perhaps someone in your household has finished it up behind your back, or dumped out the rest on discovering it was spoiled. Or perhaps that unopened carton you bought yesterday actually just contains water, thanks to a manufacturing error at the dairy plant (this actually happened to me once). You might think that you could settle the matter once and for all by pouring yourself a glass and tasting it, but even here, you could wonder: Could this be a dream? Maybe the dream of someone who has actually run out of milk? And, even supposing you are now awake and tasting milk, do you actually know that you are? What does any of us really know for sure?

Philosophers have felt the attraction of skepticism for centuries, and across continents: there were skeptics in Ancient Greece, in China, and in the Classical Indian tradition as well. The sense that no one really knows anything is also easily triggered in modern populations. But why?

This year, I have been studying the mechanisms that govern our instinctive sense of who knows what. These mechanisms play an important guiding role in conversation. If we want to avoid telling people things they already know, or asking them questions they can’t answer, we need to have a strong sense of who knows what. Sociologists working in the field of conversational analysis have developed a theory of “epistemic territory” according to which we instinctively tend to see others as knowledgeable over a predictable field of topics. If someone is talking about something ‘close to home’—his job, his dog, what just happened to him, where he is now headed—then we will take what he says on trust, seeing him as knowing, unless we have a special reason to think that he might be mistaken this time. Recognizing other people as local experts helps us share the work of figuring out what is going on in our world: we don’t automatically trust everyone on every topic, but we can ask the person who has just come into the building whether it is raining again outside.

Armee Anglaise a Yorktown, 1781
English army at Yorktown 1781: expanding territory

If we have default settings for assigning epistemic territory, we can also override these settings, in both directions. People can expand their territory by using arguments. Sometimes you know something that lies outside the range of what others would instinctively see you as knowing, and you can still share this knowledge with others by persuading them, on the basis of an argument that starts from premises they will take on trust.

Epistemic territory can also shrink: you will usually see me as an expert on what I am drinking right now, but if you happen to notice that someone has tampered with my glass while my back was turned for a moment, dumping the milk and pouring in white paint as a practical joke, then you would know more than I do on this close-to-home point.

But the skeptic who asks you whether you are sure that this is milk in your glass isn’t like the friend who has seen that a practical joke has been played. That friend really knows more than you do, while the skeptic just asks how much you really know, and not because the skeptic knows better than you do what liquid is in the glass. Perhaps in the hope of understanding knowledge itself, the skeptic decides to challenge a very close-to-home fact, deep inside the territory that most people would grant you instinctively, and asking you to prove what you know. You will be instinctively driven to argue, but you won’t be able to construct an argument that will satisfy the skeptic, because he can just keep challenging any premise you reach for.

Usually, human beings seek to pool their knowledge in conversation, cooperatively telling each other about the rainstorm outside or their plans for dinner, until everyone is on the same page. The sociologist John Heritage has argued that conversation naturally continues until the side that was seen as lacking knowledge on a point admits satisfaction: the questioner or unknowing audience has to grant that they have learned something (“oh, OK”). The skeptic’s great trick is to hold onto the conversational role of questioner no matter what happens, refusing to grant that he has ever learned anything from what you are saying. Like any other cooperative conversational partner, the skeptic is trying to get everyone onto the same page; the catch is, it’s a blank page. The challenge for philosophers is to sort out what this pattern tells us about knowledge itself, and what it tells us about the conversational and argumentative strategies we use to share knowledge socially.



Affect and Vision in Thucydides' History of the Peleponnesian War

Submitted by Bradley Hald on March 25 2019.
Research presentation, 7 March 2019

Bradley Hald, Chancellor Jackman Graduate Fellow in Classics

Long celebrated as the ‘most scientific’ historian of the ancient world, the fifth-century BCE chronicler Thucydides was also deeply concerned with human emotionality. His History of the Peloponnesian War records twenty years of a conflict that raged for twenty-seven years in ancient Greece between Athens and Sparta, the two preeminent powers of the day. The conflict left a mark on Greek society, as it did on Thucydides himself, not only for the seismic shifts in political power it brought about, but, as he says himself, for the unparalleled human suffering it entailed for the Greeks and non-Greeks who were dragged into it. My research tries to better understand Thucydides’ conception of how the emotions functioned throughout these historical processes. What was their role in domestic and international politics? on the battlefield? To what ends were they invoked in political rhetoric? in the various representations of Athenian civic ideology we encounter throughout the text?

The most pervasive emotion in Thucydides’ History is fear. It turns up in every major person and place in the war narrative. In fact, Thucydides cites the Spartans’ fear of Athenian power as the ‘truest cause’ that set this whole war in motion in the first place. But its macro-scale causality is replayed again and again in the micro-scale of the text’s narrative of individual events. For Thucydides, fear is a prime mover of history.

In the first military action of the war, a night assault by a band of Theban soldiers on the Boeotian city of Plataea, soldiers on both sides of the action are affected by fears according to what they are able to see of their opponents in the darkness. And so Thucydides establishes, already at very beginning of this war narrative, a clear relation between fear, visibility, and subjective understanding. Vision acts as the chief conduit for knowledge for the characters in this scene, and their visual knowledge, in turn, sits in a direct relation with the fear they feel (or don’t feel).

Image, painted marble eye from the prow of an Athenia trireme
Painted marble eye from the prow of an Athenian trireme, late 5th c. BCE

The scene establishes a basic three-way interaction that recurs throughout the text, not only in its battle narratives but also in the political and ideological rhetoric Thucydides puts into the mouths of his historical agents. The Athenian general Pericles, for instance, in his famous Funeral Oration, outlines a highly prescriptive way of seeing and knowing about the world whose target is Athenian citizen fear. The speech is a public eulogy given for the Athenian citizen-soldiers who have died at the end of the first year of fighting, and in it Pericles exhorts his Athenian audience to emulate the sacrifice of these exemplary dead. These men, he assures his listeners, felt no fear in their final moments of life, because they understood the value of the honourable death as the only pathway to the pinnacle of civic renown. When they saw mortal danger approaching in front of them, Pericles insists, they did not see their impending death but rather their impending glory. In this way, Pericles enlists the visual, the epistemic, and the emotional in the coercive ideological agenda his speech presents to its audience of Athenian citizens and soldiers.

By reading Thucydides in this way, I am able to focus on the ways the actors of the History are shown to read, understand, and feel their own world within the text. But the relation between seeing, knowing, and feeling can extend to the reader outside the text as well. Thucydides offers his reader an explanation of this particular war at this particular time in the late fifth century BCE. But his text is also far more ambitious than this—as he says, ‘a possession for all time’ that seeks to uncover a set of universal truths that obtained in Thucydides’ day and will continue to influence historical processes as long as human nature remains the same.

photograph, marble votive offering to Asclepius, south slopes of the Acropolis, ca.350 BCE
Votive offering to Asclepius, South Slope of the Acropolis, ca 350 BCE

So then, while the History as a whole cannot hope, nor does it claim, to prevent future conflicts from occurring, my research suggests it may offer a certain emotional utility to its prospective readership: by providing its reader with a framework for making sense of the mechanics of such future catastrophes, it can serve to alleviate the subjective fears that, as the text itself demonstrates, arise from failures of clear understanding. Breaking down the otherwise inscrutable complexities of historical causation, Thucydides’ text presents itself as a comprehensive vision of humanity, a powerful tool for the discerning reader against the anxieties of his/her present day. In short, it offers to shine a light onto the processes that propel human events, and in so doing, to render the darkness of history clearly visible, knowable, and less daunting.


Medieval Persian Mirrors for Princes

Submitted by Maria Subtelny on March 22 2019.
Research presentation, 8 March 2019

Maria Subtelny, JHI Faculty Research Fellow in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations

The Persian tradition of advice literature dates back to pre-Islamic times and the Middle Persian, or Pahlavi, works of the Sasanian period. It was one of the central areas of Persian cultural expression and constituted a major contribution to Islamic civilization. The use of the term “mirror for princes” which has been appropriated by scholars in Perso-Islamic studies to refer to books of advice on kingly ethics and royal conduct, is borrowed from the medieval European genre of the speculum regis or Fürstenspiegel. However, the trope of the mirror figures prominently in Persian culture and it occurs as a didactic image in the Zoroastrian Denkard (Acts of the religion) which counselled that, “in teaching one’s fellow this is best: That a man discipline his character, make a mirror of himself and hold it in front of his fellows. The other man looks at it, sees it, and learns from it.” The precepts and testaments of Sasanian kings like Ardashir and Khusrow Anushirvan found their way into Islamic culture through translations into Arabic during the high caliphal period of the 8th to 9th centuries, thanks to Iranian translators like Ibn al-Muqaffa’, who also famously translated the Sanskrit-inspired animal fables Kalila and Dimna—another mirror for princes—into Arabic.

Persian mirrors for princes of the Islamic period begin to be written in New Persian (i.e., Persian written in the Arabic alphabet) from approximately the 11th century until the 18th century. They overlap with works on proper conduct (adab), ethics (akhlaq), administrative manuals, and even historical writing. One of the most influential early works was the Qabus-nameh, or Book of Qabus, which was composed by an aging Iranian kinglet for his son. Although the author was a Muslim, the work reflects the ethos of Sasanian wisdom literature. It counsels to strive to gain a good reputation in life, to observe measure in all things, to acquire manly virtues, and to be one’s own best friend. Most important, if the son becomes king he should consult wisdom (khirad) in all things: “O my son, in everything you do, make your opinion obedient to wisdom, and in everything you propose to do first consult with wisdom, for the chief minister of the king is wisdom.”  

Books on statecraft that were written for kings by chief ministers, such as the Siyar al-muluk (The conduct of kings) by Nizam al-Mulk, reminded the king that he was divinely elected and that the highest ethical quality he should strive for was justice. The Akhlaq-i nasiri  (The Nasirean ethics), a work by Nasir al-Din Tusi, the preeminent philosopher and scientist of 13th century-Iran, was inspired by the classical Aristotelian topical divisions of Ethics, Economics, and Politics. In the discourse on Politics, Tusi cites the Aristotelian dictum, “Man is by nature a civic being.” He argues that in order to ensure the survival of the human species, man requires civilization, that is, live in an urban environment, which alone makes it possible for the various classes of society possessing different skills to cooperate with each other in order to furnish each other’s needs. Because man’s natural disposition is to dominate others, a hierarchically structured society is necessary, headed by an absolute ruler, whom Tusi construes as a kind of philosopher-king. The king’s duty is to uphold and administer the Law and to exercise Justice, which is equated with the maintenance of equilibrium in society.

manuscript text in Arabic showing list of 40 chapters of Kashifi, Akhlaq-i muhsini
 Akhlaq-I muhsini, Tashkent, fols. 7b-8a

Some mirrors for princes contained a chapter on physiognomy (firasat), the assessment of a person’s character based on his physical features. With roots in Late Antiquity, especially the treatise by the Greek author Polemon, physiognomy was regarded as a “science” that was indispensable for kings in choosing courtiers and administrators. The late 15th-century treatise Akhlaq-i muhsini (Ethics for prince Muhsin), written by the Persian preacher and polymath Kashifi for the son of a ruling descendant of Tamerlane, outlined the ethical qualities a king should possess and how he should manage his retainers. The descriptions of physiognomical signs are largely taken from an earlier work entitled Zakhirat al-muluk (The treasure-house of kings), but Kashifi seeks to convey the utility of the science by means of anecdotes about emblematic historical figures such as the Sasanian ruler Khusrow Anushirvan.

manuscript painting of the Sasanian ruler, Khushrow I Anushirvan
The physician-minister Burzoye returns from India with the Panchatantra and presents it to Khusrau Anushivan. Painting from Nasrullah Munshi, Tarjuma-i Kalila va Dimna. Jalayrid period, ca. 1370-74. Istanbul University Library, F. 1422, F. 22b

According to the first anecdote about Khusrow Anushirvan, a short man came to his court to voice a grievance against someone who he claimed had oppressed him. Anushirvan accused the man of lying because, according to the science of physiognomy, a short-statured person is malevolent, plotting, and tyrannical, so he could not have suffered an injustice from someone; rather it was he who had done an injustice to someone else. When the matter was investigated—presumably by Anushirvan’s courtiers—they found that Khusrow had indeed judged correctly. The second anecdote about Anushirvan, however, is a cautionary one with a humorous twist. On another occasion another short man came to Anurshirvan’s court, also seeking redress for an injustice that he claimed someone had committed against him. Following physiognomical rules, Anushirvan said that was not possible because he was short-statured, and people of short stature are tyrants who oppress others and not the other way around. The man then replied, “O king, the man who did me an injustice was shorter than I am!”

Kashifi concludes by observing that the physiognomical indicators that have been worked up by sages are really just for the common people who normally do not strive to change their moral character and who will never reach the level of what he calls “humanity.” But he says that if a person disciplines his character, places himself in the hands of spiritual masters, takes direction from religious scholars, and studies the accounts of the ancients, despite physical signs that point to the contrary, no one can judge him to be evil.

manuscipt illustration from Pseudo-Aristotle (1490) of Aristotle sending a letter of Alexander in Iran via messenger
Source: BnF Gallica online.

Gesture as Utterance

Submitted by Michela Ippolito on March 20 2019.
Research presentation, 2 February 2019

Michela Ippolito

JHI Faculty Research Fellow in Linguistics

As Kendon (2004) says “gestures are an integral part of the act of producing an utterance”. In Kendon’s work, a gesture is a visible action that is used as part of an utterance, and an utterance is a complex action delivering information, which can have both a gestural and a speech component. Gestures form a coherent complex with intonation and with the content of the speech that is part of the utterance. The goal of this talk was to introduce the basic structure of one of the most cited Italian gesture: the mano a tulipano, also known as the mano a borsa. In the aforementioned work, Kendon classifies this gestures in four types: in one type he claims the mano a tulipano serves to nominate a topic for consideration (Figure 1); in a second type the speaker’s expectations are challenged and demands an explanation (Figure 2); a third type marks the topic-comment structure of a sentence (Figure 3); and, finally, a fourth type is used to express the idea that what is being said is the essence of something.

Illustration, mano a tulipano indicates a topic for consideration
Illustration, mano a tuplipano challenges speakers expectations and demands explanation
Illustration, mano a tulipano marks the topic comment structure of a sentence

The goal of my work is to unify as much as possible these four types of mano a tulipano and provide a linguistic analysis of this gesture that combines insights from the study of sign language with the semantic and pragmatic theories we are familiar with from the study of natural language as expressed with speech. The objective of natural language semantics is to provide a clear mapping between form and meaning. Traditionally, the form that is being considered is the verbal form. The goal of the present study is to extend this mapping to the non-verbal form.  At this stage of my research I’m focusing on the second type of gesture identified by Kendon and exemplified in Figure 2. In this presentation, I argued that there are two variants of this gesture. In terms of the gesture features, these variants seem to share a core (for example, the hand configuration and the location of the gesture with respect to the body of the speaker) but differ with respect to some important features of the gestures (for example, speed and amplitude). In a parallel fashion, these two variants seem to share the same interrogative core meaning, but seem to differ with respect to what kind of question is being asked by the speaker. I have collected preliminary data by video-recording native speakers of Italian in Toronto as they speak and gesture. I am planning a trip to Italy to expand the data set and the variety of tests used to probe this modality of communication.

Adam Kendon, Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance (Cambridge UP, 2004)

Plutarch's Prism

Submitted by Rebecca Kingston on March 20 2019.
Research presentation, 14 February 2019

Rebecca Kingston

JHI Faculty Research Fellow in Political Science


Plutarch (46-120 CE), author of both the Parallel Lives and Moralia, had a tremendous impact on the development of European intellectual life throughout the early-modern period. We can demonstrate this in two very different ways.

First, as just one indication of the pervasive references to Plutarch in European intellectual life let us juxtapose two very different sorts of readers of Plutarch within the literary traditions. On the one hand, we can invoke the inhabitants of Thomas More’s Utopia who are said to undertake the reading of Plutarch on a regular basis. On the other hand, beside these Utopians we can sit the famous creation of Mary Shelley, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. The monster has a lot to catch up on in a short time before heading out into the world, but he is given only three books: Milton’s Paradise Lost, presumably for matters theological and divine; Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, one would assume for matters of the human heart and emotional intelligence; and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, it would appear for everything else… Of course, in the end, Plutarch appears to be of little use to the monster, in the same way that the modern world has pathologized the idea of utopia, and both foreshadow how the modern world will first trivialize and then largely forget Plutarch, a process insightfully reflected upon by the eminent classicist and cultural historian Simon Goldhill.

Second, here is a table depicting the circulation of the work of classical historians in the early-modern period that corrects earlier analyses (esp. Peter Burke) that were based on incomplete information.
Table illustrating the popularity of Ancient Historians during the Renaissance

This table confirms the impression gleaned in even a cursory reading of the canon of political thought in which references to the work of Plutarch are much more pervasive than dominant analyses of the history of ideas might suggest.

A basic upshot of this is that we may not have a deep understanding of the early-modern roots of our current era without a better understanding of how Plutarch came to shape the culture and outlook of that world and of how and why his thought came to be rejected for insight into moral and historical questions. This is particularly true for the field of political thought where both overt and implied references to Plutarch are pervasive in the tradition.

As one example, Hobbes’ famous depiction of the state of nature as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ in Leviathan (1651) bears some resemblance to Holland’s translation of Plutarch’s   “How to Profit from your Enemies” where the same state is described as ‘brutish, poore, needie and savage’. While not the same argument, it may be that Hobbes, drawing on Plutarch, did acknowledge how a presumption of adversity and hostility could in fact be a basis for the cultivation of certain virtues, and not just a motivation for peaceful coexistence. This bears resemblance to the logic of Pythagoras’ Y, in the famous version below by Tory (translator of Plutarch).

woodcut diagram of Pythagoras's Y



Reading Spirits Through Bodies

Submitted by Brigidda Bell on February 19 2019.
Research presentation by Brigidda Bell, 27 November 2018

A perennial problem in the study of religion is A recurring difficulty in the study of religion is navigating practitioner descriptions of the intersecting axes belief and knowledge. My research focuses on loosening the threads around a particular knot: the anxiety produced by the threat of false prophets in early Christianity. In matters where the gods are involved, how did one know who has true access to the divine?

Wolf in sheep's clothing

On Jesus’ lips we find predictions of false prophets “who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15); “false prophets will appear,” Jesus says, “and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (Mark 13:22). The stakes are high; how could one know the true from the false?

To avoid the folly of being swept up by someone filled with the wrong spirit, followers of Christ are asked to ‘discern’ the spirits to determine if they are from God. The Greek word used, diakrinō, means to distinguish, interpret, question, and decide. In short, our earliest texts ask their audiences to judge the spirits before trusting their bearers. My research examines what this process of spirit discernment entails. What signs did a truthful prophet, one purporting to be possessed by the right spirit, evince to pass the test of discernment? New Testament scholarship has been interested in the doctrinal basis of this distinction: prophets had to espouse right teaching, right doctrine, to be deemed true. Our sources, however, point to a much more robust catalogue of behavioural signs, belying a rich Mediterranean cultural tradition of interpreting action and behaviour as revelatory of the truth hidden within. Visible amidst the intellectual discussions and lay practices of physiognomy, culturally appropriate scripts for the performance of possession-trance, and even in legal accounts of torture, reading bodies was key to discerning truth.

My rereading of early Christian discernment practices is based in evolutionarily-grounded research on human judgment that investigates the embodied and affective components of human decision making and animal signalling. Human and other-than-human animals communicate by means of subtle and overt, simple and complex, patterns of signs that are received and interpreted within specific environmental, contextual, and social frameworks. Some signs contribute more to our knowledge than others. This body of biological research informs my reading of the New Testament and apocryphal Christian texts, pushing me to more carefully consider the weight of signs of the body, and how behaviour shapes our interpretation of human intention.

painting by John Collier, The Priestess of Delphi, 1891
John Collier, The Priestess of Delphi, 1891

Reading bodies was key to discerning the provenance of spirits. We see this play out in contemporary Greek and Latin literary accounts where prophetic ability is scrutinized. In his mid first century CE epic, Lucan describes the pythia of Delphi possessed by Apollo, and how the petitioner discerns the presence of the god based on the movements of her body (Luc. 5.67-236). In Lucan’s narrative, true possession has a distinct bodily script, and the petitioner can tell by watching her when the pythia is faking her trance. Lucan suggests that you know true possession when you see it.

Lucian of Samosata, writing in the second century CE, also points to the body as a site for the discernment of truth. In his account of Alexander the False Prophet, Lucian describes Alexander running half-naked through the streets tossing his head of loose hair “as a devotee of the Great Mother in a frenzy,” and shouting incomprehensible words. The crowd, in Lucian’s account, is drawn in by this bodily performance of possession, as they “marvelled, prayed, and made obeisance” (Alex. 13). In order to portray Alexander as a fraud, Lucian needs to subvert this compelling bodily performance, and he does so by introducing anxieties about the manipulation of bodily truth. He tells us, for instance, that Alexander’s perfect hair is in part artificially enhanced. Alexander may appear perfect, says Lucian, but that is because he is a master manipulator of appearances: if we cannot trust his hair to be his own, why should we trust anything else we think we know of him?

sketch, The Prophet Alexander of Abuteichos with Glykon
Alexander of Abunoteichos

In discussing discernment, early Christian sources follow their Graeco-Roman contemporaries in demonstrating concern for a prophet’s behaviour. The Shepherd of Hermas describes the righteous character of the true prophet, and the self-importance and greed of the false prophet, as demonstrated through his actions (Mand. 11). Within the context of the importance of bodily signs, the more enigmatic statements of the Gospel of Matthew, “you will know [the false prophet] by their fruits” (Matt 7:16), and the Didache, “the false prophet and the prophet shall be known by their habits” (Did. 11:8), become clearer: we should look to prophets’ actions, their behaviour, their bodies, to know their spirits.


The Philosophy of Reading Faces

Submitted by Mason Westfall on February 13 2019.
Research presentation by Mason Westfall, 6 December 2019

image of three faces

We commonly make judgments about what people are feeling on the basis of seeing their face. Suppose you see Tessa smiling and come to know that she is happy. Though we routinely know what people are feeling in this way,  I’ll suggest giving a philosophical account is rather difficult. It’s difficult because what is intuitively obvious about these judgments is, upon reflection, puzzling.

There are two intuitively obvious claims about coming to know Tessa is happy. First, you don’t literally see Tessa’s happiness. Let’s call this ‘the invisibility intuition’. Second, your knowledge that Tessa is happy is direct. That is, you don’t need to infer or rely on background beliefs in judging that Tessa is happy. You can just tell by looking. Let’s call this ‘the directness intuition’. These two intuitions immediately pose a puzzle, though. How could our attributions be direct if we don’t literally see other people’s emotions?
Perhaps the puzzle has a simple solution. Maybe we should give up one of our intuitions. After all, lots of things that seem intuitive are false. Turns out, you need 23 people in a room in order for it to be more likely than not that two people share a birthday. Intuitively, the number is much higher, but our intuition is just wrong. Maybe we should regard, say, the invisibility intuition the same way. I think our intuitions are correct in this case. The way to test them is to see if they stand up to philosophical scrutiny.

Let’s start with invisibility. Here’s something you might say:

‘People used to think visual experience just presented patches of colors! Now we recognize perception is much richer than all that. We get depth, shape, cause and effect. . . Why think emotions are specially hidden? You just think that because you think minds are ghostly and we can’t see  ghosts!’

Okay, first of all calm down. But let’s consider the proposed view. We can represent different views using schematic diagrams. Here is the current proposal:

schematic diagram: Tess is happy = Tess is happy

In these diagrams, blue rounded boxes represent experiences, white rectangles represent judgments, the text inside represents the content of the state, and arrows represent justification relations.  We are disagreeing about the bottom box. I want to suggest that there is no experience that presents Tessa as happy.

Compare these two pictures.


left image, optical illusion; right image, Mason Westfall headshot

These are both misleading images. On the left, the squares labeled A and B are exactly the same color.  On the right, I am creating the ‘illusion’ of happiness. I   am simulating the appearance of happiness despite being quite uncomfortable—my picture is being taken—and generally depressed. (Incidentally, I’d like to thank the Jackman Humanities Institute for their generosity in providing professional pictures of me.)

Compare your visual experiences of these two images. Though we can grant that they are both misleading, they are misleading in quite different ways. On the left, our experience is impenetrable. No matter how hard we try,  we can’t see A and B as the same color, even once we know how the illusion works. (It works by giving your visual system cues that suggest that B is in shadow while A is in direct light. Your  visual system attempts to compensate for this lighting difference, which isn’t real, resulting in a lightened experience of B and a darkened experience of A.) The same can’t be said for the right hand image. We do  seem  to  have  freedom  with respect to whether we take my face to indicate happiness. When you hear that I am actually uncomfortable, you may be surprised, but not in the same way the left hand experience is surprising. On the left, your eyes are not to be trusted. On the right, your eyes are doing just fine. They’re presenting the configuration of my face as it is. It’s up to us to interpret my expression.  Our theorizing should mark this distinction. Perhaps there is some attenuated sense in which we ‘see’ happiness. But it isn’t the literal sense in which we see the colors on the right. If that’s right, then we should reject the view that our knowledge is explained by ordinary seeing.

Perhaps instead we should reject the directness intuition. Recall, the directness intuition is that we can ‘just tell by looking’ that Tessa is happy. We need not rely on general beliefs and inference. Here’s what you might say if you were inclined to deny directness.

‘Of course emotion attributions are the result of inference. Just because it doesn’t feel like you’re performing an inference, doesn’t mean that isn’t what you’re doing. It doesn’t feel like an inference when I check my gas gauge and conclude that I need gas. But it isn’t magic. Some inferences just happen fluently. Everyone already knew that. I don’t understand why you’re being so obtuse about this.

There’s really no need for that kind of belligerence, but maybe you have a point. We can represent a view that rejects directness with another diagram.

schematic diagram: Tess looks happy vs Tess is happy

Here, in keeping with the invisibility intuition, our experience falls short of presenting the emotion. So all our experience can directly justify is a judgment falling short of the emotion. But, together with background knowledge, this judgment inferentially supports our emotion attribution (this inferential support is represented by a dotted line).

There are lots of versions of views that deny directness, since there are lots of options for what we put in the lefthand boxes: ‘she looks like that’; ‘she looks happy’; ‘she’s smiling’; her face is so configured; etc. I won’t try your patience by considering all of these. I’ll briefly consider ‘she looks happy’ and ‘she’s smiling’.

Do we know Tessa is happy by first judging that she looks happy? No, we don’t. The problem is that we can’t put ‘Tessa looks happy’ in the blue box. Experience purports to present the world as it is. The recognition of an appearance–reality distinction is achieved reflectively. But if that’s right, then experience does not present mere appearance properties. If we put something other than ‘Tessa looks happy’ in the blue box, though, then our initial puzzle re-arises, now with respect to looks. How does an experience that presents something other than Tessa looking happy enable us to know that Tessa looks happy? This was the puzzle we started with about emotions. So this view does not constitute progress in solving our puzzle.

Here’s another option:

schematic diagram: Tess is smiling vs Tess is happy

This proposal looks plausible. The idea is that we see Tessa smiling, quickly judge that she is smiling, and then on the basis of this, infer that she is happy. We plausibly make inferences like this all the time. You were quite right about the gas gauge, after all. We know that there is a relationship between where the gauge points and how much gas we have, and then we infer we need gas from our knowledge of where the gauge points.

This proposal makes a prediction. Because knowing someone’s facial expression is a precondition for knowing how they’re feeling, we should be able to quickly and fluently categorize people’s facial expressions independent of the underlying emotion. (Note that this is trivial in the gas gauge case. Of course you can determine where the gas gauge points.) We actually can do this with happiness. But the same doesn’t hold for other emotions. Try it with these pictures:

six faces express different emotions

We can quickly and fluently identify the emotions in these pictures, but not the  facial expressions. We can categorize them as ‘looking scared’, for example, but we’ve already dismissed that view. But if we can’t fluently categorize these expressions independent of emotion attribution at all, we certainly can’t do so in service of attributing emotions. This indicates that our ability to categorize facial expressions is actually downstream of our ability to attribute emotions. But if that’s right, then this view is wrong. More could be said about this, and other proposals, but I want to turn briefly to   how to vindicate both directness and invisibility. Briefly, the answer has to do with recognitional capacities. Consider this picture:

image of Joshua trees in the desert

Many people aren’t in a position to know what it is. Many of those people have heard of Joshua Trees. They could wonder whether it was a Joshua Tree, but they can’t know that it is. Perhaps that was you before reading this paragraph. What’s missing is a recognitional capacity. Roughly, they can’t link up experiences of a certain kind to the judgment expressed by ‘that is a Joshua Tree’. In my view, recognitional capacities need not link up experiences and judgments that share content. Though of course we often judge what we see, sometimes we judge *more* than we see.

I think recognitional capacities that outstrip perception are operative in attributing emotions on the basis of facial expressions.  Though  our  experiences  present  facial configurations, our recognitional capacities enable us to directly judge about emotions. Or, pictorially:

schematic diagram: Tessa is smiling vs configuration of Tessa's face

This vindicates both intuitions. The blue box does not contain emotions, satisfying invisibility, and our judgment issues directly from the experience, satisfying directness. This view has a surprising consequence for how experience supports judgment. People commonly assume experience supports judgment by presenting things ‘as true’. For this reason, we are entitled to take our experience at face value. People who think this take the ‘testimony of the senses’ metaphor quite literally. We gain perceptual knowledge by ‘listening’ to what vision is ‘saying’. But if I’m right about emotion attribution, this view is false. Our experience does not support judgment by presenting content ‘as true’. If our experience can directly support attributions without presenting the relevant properties *at all*, then it cannot be that perceptual knowledge is explained by how things are presented. Vision doesn’t tell us the way things are; it enables us to judge for ourselves.


Commemorative Pollution in Post-War Iran

Submitted by Amir Khadem on February 13 2019.
Research presentation by Amir Khadem, 17 January 2019

In 2015, Stephen Greenblatt travelled to Iran for a conference on Shakespeare as keynote speaker. He found the very idea of travelling to Iran quite tempting and on his return, wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books ruminating over the trip. His hosts arranged at cross-country trip for him, which he’d gladly accepted. He travelled not only to Tehran, but also to cities such as Kashan, Esfahan, and Shiraz. An astute observer, Greenblatt makes politically shrewd but also seemingly naïve comments about what he saw in the streets of Iran’s several metropolitan areas. “Billboards advertising computers, detergent, yogurt, and the like,” he notes, “alternated with inspirational images of the Ayatollah Khomeini, political slogans, satirical depictions of Uncle Sam and of Israel, and many, many photographs of ‘martyrs’ from the Iran–Iraq war.” He observes the ubiquity of martyr imagery in the cityscape:

There were martyrs along the avenues, in traffic circles, on the sides of buildings, on the walls around the buildings, on overpasses and pedestrian bridges, everywhere. On the light poles, the martyrs’ images were generally in twos, and the pairings, which may have been accidental, were sometimes striking: a teenager next to a hardened veteran, a raw recruit next to a beribboned high-ranking officer, a bearded fighter next to a sweet-faced young woman.

photo of martyr flags along Iranian highway
Photo by Amir Khadem, 2017

What Greenblatt sees, the presence of war commemoration as an imposing force in the urban environment, is only half of the picture. Had he been able to read Persian, he would have also noticed that most streets, highways, parks, back alleys, bridges, parking lots, and other urban structures are named after martyrs. The question of remembering the war and those fallen in it has long transformed not just the public discourse of the postwar period, but literally, has left its mark on the public space.

What matters more is the way this inundation of official remembrance practices has effectively obstructed any alternative remembering of the war. In postwar Iran, the practice of commemoration is almost entirely appropriated by the state. By establishing official organizations for documentation of war’s oral memories, or oral history projects, organizing film festivals and art exhibitions, and funding publication houses exclusively focused on war-related literature, the Iranian government effectively chokes alternative paths of the war’s remembrance. Greenblatt’s observation is, therefore, a testimony to a certain type of “commemorative pollution.” 

A curious side-effect of this corruption of public memory is that many counter-narratives of war become as erroneous as, if not more than, the official narratives they purport to dismantle. When independent verification of historical accounts becomes increasingly difficult, the commemorative practices that tend to resist the state-sponsored histories are themselves highly susceptible to counter-factual statements.

Among the most interesting of these anti-establishment narratives is the widespread story of “keys to heaven,” which is also relevant to the question of underage conscription in Iran. According to this narrative, the Iranian state systematically sought to recruit child soldiers, and took recourse to incredibly ludicrous, and yet chillingly vicious propaganda tactics, one of which was to distribute golden plastic keys in schools and telling the students such keys are symbolic relics to open the doors of heaven for whoever wishes to join the war front. This was supposedly a tactic in brainwashing teenage boys to conscript. It is quite difficult to trace a genealogy of this narrative, but there are plenty of examples in oppositional personal narratives by Iranian expatriates, most of whom were never themselves in the war, but claim to have heard the story of boys getting fooled by plastic keys to heaven. One instance is in Marjane Satrapi’s highly celebrated graphic memoir, Persepolis.

image from graphic novel Persepolis of golden key
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003)

While beside these testimonial accounts, there is no evidence to corroborate the plastic keys to heaven narrative, there is at least one conjecture to what might have been the possible ground beneath this claim. In modern Shi’ Islam, there is a famous and widely circulated book of prayers, collected in the 18th century and remains in print to date, called Mafatih al-Janan. In almost every Shi’ite Muslim religious household, right beside the Quran a copy of this prayer book can be found. The book’s title simply translates to Keys to Heaven. It is highly probable that many young volunteer troops carried or were given a free copy of this book. This might be the reason behind the fallacious, and even ridiculous, story of golden keys. We should note that no definitive answer to the key-to-heaven narrative’s question has yet been offered by any historian of modern Iran, which is the whole point of what I call commemorative pollution. The postwar Iranian public memory is a densely populated arena of problematic official histories and equally troubling counter-histories.   

New Perspectives on the Postcolonial Prison

Submitted by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart on February 07 2019.
Research presentation, 15 November 2018

by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, SSHRC/CHCI Postdoctoral Fellow

image of prison bars

Prisons represent one of the most vexed yet persistent features of the contemporary justice landscape. In 2018, an estimated eleven million people were incarcerated worldwide, a number that is likely much higher in reality. While most of the media attention focuses on mass incarceration in the United States, prisons have become a favoured option for dealing with offenders across the globe.

This phenomenon is relatively new. Until the advent of European colonialism, most communities in the Global South had alternative means of dealing with people who violated social norms. However, in the rhetoric of European colonizers, the punitive practices of the colonized were deemed “barbaric” and “backwards.” These discourses flattened and condemned indigenous modes of maintaining social order while also fuelling European calls for the “civilizing mission” and, by extension, colonialism itself.

Scholars’ inquiries into the history of the prison have focused on three particular moments: the “birth” of the prison in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, its expansion into colonized spaces, and the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. Historians, however, have yet to engage deeply with the carceral landscape of the postcolony. Representations of the prison in postcolonial African nations, for example, often reproduce the discourses that characterized European accounts of precolonial punitive forms. This tendency is perhaps most apparent in accounts of Uganda under Idi Amin, the military dictator responsible for the deaths of an estimated three hundred thousand Ugandans in the 1970s. Medievalesque descriptions of Amin’s “gaols” and “dungeons” appeared regularly in Western media at the time, generating images of the nation’s prisons as sites of unmitigated torture and suffering.

TIME magazine cover featuring Idi Amin, 7 March 1977,16641,19770307,00.html

Focusing on Uganda, my research examines the prison’s endurance after colonial rule. In particular, I am interested in the period between Uganda’s independence in 1962 and the inauguration of Yoweri Museveni, the current president, in 1986. During this time, the country experienced significant political instability, including a military coup led by Amin in the 1970s, war with Tanzania, and a civil war in the 1980s. Uganda’s prisons were thus operating in an environment marked by violence and unpredictability. However, their history cannot simply be reduced to the well-worn narrative of postcolonial institutional dysfunction. While there were (and are) grave problems of neglect and abuse within Uganda’s prisons – as can be said about the Canadian, American, and other penal systems – scholars must expand their analysis beyond a singular focus on coercion in order to understand the prison’s endurance in postcolonial states.

Sign, Republic of Uganda, Uganda Gov't Prison Fort-Portal
Photo by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart

One way of doing this is to focus on the social lives of the people who animated penal spaces. While scholars have written extensively about prisoners’ experiences, my work illuminates the perspectives of prison officers. It traces how they harnessed the prison’s status as a “monument to modernity,” linking the institution’s development to the wider goals of the postcolonial state.[1]  Prison officers fashioned a professional identity that was based on the ideals of service, expertise, political neutrality, and integrity. Under the leadership of Fabian Okwaare, the first Ugandan to serve as the Commissioner of Prisons, the Uganda Prisons Service’s approach was driven by criminological and penological perspectives. Particularly in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, senior prison staff engaged in global networks of criminologists and penal practitioners. Many attended the United Nations Congresses on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, as well as professional training programs and conferences held overseas. Junior officers were also well-versed in the language and ideas that animated global circuits of penal knowledge and practice in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Overall, prison work was seen as respectable and in keeping with the wider modernizing goals of the nascent nation.

Uniformed prison officers dancing
Photo by Miriam Namutembe*

Officers’ pride in their work and sense of purpose was profoundly challenged in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, extrajudicial detention in spaces ranging from basements to luxury hotel rooms became commonplace, resulting in the torture, disappearances, and deaths of many Ugandans. Government prisons, too, were greatly impacted by the militarization of the state, tasked with holding a wide range of criminal and political prisoners, coping with wartime insecurity, and dealing with an influx of paramilitary agents. Through examining the Prisons Service’s response to state-sponsored violence, my work thus explores an issue that numerous societies have grappled with, from Nazi Germany to Pinochet’s Chile: how to create public service institutions that provide a counterweight to political extremes.  

Ultimately, the importance of my research lies in how it recasts the parameters of studying the global history of the prison. Scholars must look more deeply at both the postcolonial period and prison staff in order to understand why the prison has become a universal phenomenon.



  1. Frank Dikötter, ‘Introduction: The Prison in the World’, in Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia and Latin America, eds. Frank Dikötter and Ian Brown. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 4.



The Indian Act as a Method for (Mis)Reading Indigenous Peoples

Submitted by Danielle Taschereau Mamers on January 24 2019.
Research presentation by Danielle Taschereau Mamers

10 January 2019

In my second year as a postdoctoral fellow at the JHI, I have been exploring the ways that the Canadian state has made Indigenous peoples visible as so-called “Indian” subjects. Broadly, this project examines the broader visual-political scene of settler colonialism through the nexus of vision, documentation, and power. Taking Canada’s “Indian” documentation techniques as a case study, I am investigating the world-creating capacity of documents and their role in mediating settler colonial political visions.

To develop the concept of settler colonial ways of seeing, this project addresses four key moments of documentation: the Indian Act, the Indian Register, Certificates of Indian Status, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Each of these moments of documentation contributes to making Indigenous lives visible as objects of knowledge and governance, yet invisible as lives that matter. My research presentation for the JHI Fellows on January 10 focused on the Indian Act.

Indian Act 1876
The Indian Act of 1876

The Indian Act, first passed in 1876, asserts the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and some Indigenous peoples, who the Act defines as “Indians”. At the heart of this legislation is the definition of “Indian status”. This category is defined in restrictive, explicitly gendered terms designed make it much easier for someone to lose status than to gain status. By design, the definition leads to a shrinking population of “status Indians” and serves colonial logics of elimination through forced assimilation. For Indigenous peoples, the stakes of being visible to state agents as a “status Indian” are high, as status determines one’s ability to participate in reserve governance, eligibility for on-reserve housing, and access to treaty-owed healthcare and education[1]. Val Napoleon, a Saulteau and Gitanyow (Gitksan) legal scholar, diagnoses the Act’s restrictive definition as “extinction by number”[2].

In addition to defining “Indian status” and who is eligible to pass status on to their children, the Act seeks to govern all aspects of life for “status Indians” in Canada. While the Act has undergone several amendments and the specific modes of restrictions on Indigenous lives have changed over time, the assimilationist intent of the legislation and Canadian state’s claim to have the “authority to control the reserve land base, the definition of ‘Indian’, and reserve governance” remain constant[3].

Indian Act 1951
The Indian Act of 1951

My project approaches the definition of “status Indian” as a state technique for making Indigenous peoples visible in ways that align with settler colonial political visions. The ways of seeing at work in this legal definition and the documents it gives rise to are part of broader attempts to arrange the field of the perceptible. Invested with the claimed authority of colonial law, the definition of “Indian” contains a claim to reflect the world as it is. Settler colonial ways of seeing do not merely mistake “Indians” for Indigenous life. Rather, the settler bureaucratic gaze is designed to only see “Indians”. This gaze operates as if the two were identical. This is fully separate from how actual Indigenous peoples live their identities, memberships, and relationships.

A key insight from Kahnawà:ke Mohawk political theorist Audra Simpson provides a point of departure for my thinking about how the conditions of perception and settler colonial power work together. In her 2007 article, “On Ethnographic Refusal”, Simpson argues that colonial framing and its concepts have shaped the “terms of even being seen” for Indigenous peoples and nations[4].  Similarly, in Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues that states try to order the world by rendering it in the abstract terms of bureaucratic representation, like maps, land surveys, and population registries[5].  My broader research project develops the concept of “settler colonial ways of seeing” to clarify the conditions of possibility that establish such “terms of even being seen” and to examine the documentation as a technique through which this seeing—and unseeing—unfolds.

“Indian status” and its documentation—and revocation—are one way that state agents work to bring the settler colonial vision of Canada into being. From early band rolls compiled by Indian Agents in the mid-19th century to the contemporary system of registration and status cards, administrators have used documentation to assert the existence of “status Indians”. Invoking Suzanne Briet’s conception of documents as things produced to represent, reconstitute, or prove the existence of a phenomenon[6],  I read state-generated identity documents as a method of producing—and reproducing—evidence of the material existence of a legal fiction. Where the Indian Act first asserts “status” as a phenomenon, official documents produced to account for a specific individual as a “status Indian” then iteratively reproduces the fact of “status”, as a fixed, material concept. Collectively, the body of documents reflecting “status Indians” creates an administrative population using terms and processes unilaterally imposed by policymakers. This effort to classify, order, and govern Indigenous peoples—a governance strategy premised on eventual disappearance by assimilation—disregards how actual Indigenous communities govern membership.

The legal definition of “status” and the iterative process of its documentation are designed to erase the social and political fact of multiple Indigenous nations, their epistemologies, their relations, and their histories, while generating abstract “status Indians” and the conditions for their forced assimilation into the settler body politic. However, this settler colonial way of seeing is neither totalizing nor fully successful. Indigenous voices—such as Sharon McIvor[7], who has spent more than three decades fighting the sex discrimination that mediates the Act’s assimilationist effects —have disrupted and continue to refuse the Indian Act taxonomy and its torqueing effects on relations and communities.



  1. Chelsea Vowell, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada (Winnipeg: Highwater Press, 2016), 25-35.
  2. Val Napoleon, “Extinction by Number: Colonialism Made Easy,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society Vol. 16, No. 1 (20001), 113-45.
  3. Mary-Ellen Kelm and Keith D. Smith, Talking Back to the Indian Act (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 11.
  4. Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures 9 (2007), 67-80.
  5. James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
  6. Suzanne Briet, What is Documentation?, trans Ronald E. Day, Laruent Martinet, and Hermina G. B. Anghelescu (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006[1951]).
  7. Pamela Palmater, “What You Need to Know About Sharon McIvor’s Major UN Victory on Indian Status,” Indigenous Nationhood, 20 January 2019,