Monday, October 31, 2016

Facing death

A picture can say more than thousands words. Or sometimes it can. When the volcano Mount Vesuvius near Naples in Italy erupted in the year of AD 79, at first nobody in the region understood what was happening. The volcano had been sleeping for 400 years and people had forgotten that living on a volcano could be dangerous. So the first reaction was going to see what it was. But soon it became clear that there was only one thing to do: flee. So that’s what most people did. Nevertheless many people in Pompeii, the biggest city in the region, died. The inhabitants of Herculaneum were more fortunate and almost everybody survived. Or so it was thought, when the town was rediscovered in the 18th century. But not so long ago, in the 1980s, some 300 dead bodies of men, women and children were found in the boat houses along the beach. Maybe they had been enclosed by the volcano and the sea, because they had no boats to escape, or maybe they had taken shelter and waited till they could go home again. Suddenly, “a scorching cloud of superheated volcanic ash burst into the crowded shelters. They were instantly fried alive.” The refugees thought to have escaped the danger, but death has overtaken them. However, it didn’t occur that fast that these poor people didn’t realize what was happening and what was waiting them. Look at the positions of the bodies. Look at the faces. Even though not more than the skulls remain from the faces, we still can see how afraid these people were and that they looked into the death’s eyes. They were literally facing death.

For more information and for the quote see

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Framing the mind

If framing is a way of organizing our experiences, as Erving Goffman puts it, then misframing can be a source of a lot of trouble and a source of manipulation as well. Moreover a situation we are confronted with can be that way that we don’t have a scheme for it: We are puzzled about what is going on.
In his book Frame analysis Goffman devotes a big part to examining what can go wrong with framing. Sometimes errors in framing or discord about what is going on is even a matter of dead and life. Indeed, framing is not an “innocent” affair but it is substantial for meaningful action, for in many respects framing and acting are one. Didn’t the sociologist W.I. Thomas say some 25 years before Goffman published his book that “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”? For sustaining the same view, Goffman quotes another sociologist, namely Aron Gurwitsch, who said that “to experience an object amounts to being confronted with a certain order of existence” (see Frame Analysis p. 308). Misframing, so Goffman, will involve the framer in “the breeding of wrongly oriented behavior” (ibid.). But, as he continues, “then the misperception of a fact can involve the importation of a perspective that is itself radically inapplicable, which will itself establish a set, a whole grammar of expectations, that will not work. The actor will then find himself using not the wrong word but the wrong language. And in fact, this metaphor is also an actual example. If, as Wittgenstein suggested, ‘To understand a sentence means to understand a language’, then it would seem that speaking a sentence presupposes a whole language and tacitly seeks to import its use.” (id. pp. 308-309) Everybody who knows more than one language knows how much it is true that a langue gives you a framework of the world and how the same sound spoken within one language frame can mean something very different within another language frame, with all its consequences. When a Frisian – a speaker of a minority language in the North of the Netherlands – says “it kin net”, he means the opposite of what a Dutchman thinks he does if he wrongly interprets it as “’t kan net”, as often happens. For although the Frisian says “it cannot”, this Dutchman thinks that he means that “it just can”, so that it’s just possible (with sometimes fatal consequences).
Goffman’s remark on Wittgenstein brings me to philosophy. Also here we find the idea of framing everywhere, but often in another wording. Thomas Kuhn analyzed how the transition from one theoretical paradigm to another leads to a scientific revolution. But what else is such a paradigm shift than looking at the world through a new frame? And actually it is so that theories are frames of a lower level that are continuously renovated, polished and painted until the wood has become so rotten that the frame has to be replaced by a new structure.
When Gilbert Ryle attacked Descartes’ idea that man is a kind of machine with a ghost in it that steers the machine (the body), he introduced the idea of category mistake. Once in a blog I explained this idea with the example of a river. A river consists of a countless number of water molecules. Nevertheless it is a category mistake to say that a single water molecule streams. It is not the water molecule that streams but the river does. So if we want to study fluvial processes like erosion or the velocity of the flow, we do not study the movements of the water molecules but we study the river. Nevertheless it is possible to study the river molecules as such, just as it is possible to study the river and fluvial processes. And so it is also a category mistake, I continued in the same blog, if we confuse brain and mind. It is true, as a river cannot exist apart from the water molecules that produce it, so also the mind cannot exist apart from the neurons and what else makes up the brain. In this sense the mind is the brain. Nevertheless it is a category mistake to reduce a typical phenomenon of the mind like thoughts to a phenomenon of the brain and its neurons. It is not our brain that thinks but our mind does, i.e. “we” do. But as we can study the river molecules and the fluvial processes, we can study the brain and the mind. It’s simply a matter of perspective; it’s simply a matter of aspect. Seen from the view that I have developed in my last blogs, is it then too far-fetched to say that a category mistake is nothing else but using the wrong frame? And that confusing brain and mind (and reducing the mind to the brain) is also nothing else but applying the wrong frame? In many respects, science is a matter of developing frames and then making the right choice.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Frame analysis

Photographic frames are actually nothing but instantiations of what are called “cognitive schemas” elsewhere in these blogs: schemas that help organize what you see; that let out what is unimportant; and bring to the foreground what is relevant for you. It’s a term that is especially used in linguistics and psychology. The philosopher Antonio Damasio calls them “maps”, while the term “frame” is common in sociology for the phenomenon (although the word is also often used in psychology). The classic book on “frame analysis” in sociology still is the one by Erving Goffman with the same title, published in 1974. Maybe the subtitle of this book describes best what framing is about: The organization of experience. The photo of the napalm girl discussed by me last week shows well how this works.
Goffman’s Frame Analysis is quite a thick book (nearly 600 ages) and in my blogs I can’t do justice to it, but let me pick a few elements from it. As we just have seen, for Goffman framing is a matter of organizing experience. More exactly, for him framing is a method we use for defining a situation we are involved in; so it is a way to give it an interpretation. He sees frames as “principles of organization which govern events – at least social ones – and our subjective involvement in them” (pp. 10-11). For instance, suddenly I hear a bang and I see people running. I wonder what is happening and what I have to do. Is it an explosion? Is it a terrorist attack? Does it come from the exhaust pipe of a car? Depending on how I interpret the bang, so how I frame it, and the reason I am there – am I a passer-by, a policeman or do I live there? – I decide what to do: Nothing, or going to the site for getting more information, calling for help, running away, etc. A frame is individual, as Goffman says a few pages further, it is subjective and, as I want to add – but certainly Goffman says it elsewhere in his book – it has consequences for our behaviour: from doing nothing and accepting as it is till taking action.
Most framing doesn’t happen explicitly and consciously. Goffman’s explanation is a bit complicated, so let me say it in my own words: As soon as someone recognizes a situation, he or she automatically applies a framework or schema of interpretation. Since everyone has gone through a shorter or longer period of education and internalization, initially he or she falls back on the concepts and standard interpretations typical for his or her culture when interpreting an event or situation. Goffman talks here of “primary frameworks”. So if we see someone taking a book from a shelf in a certain type of building and giving a sheet of paper to another person, we automatically apply the framework “buying a book” (p. 21; the example is mine).
Primary frameworks can be of two kinds, so Goffman: natural and social. Again I want to use my own words. A framework is “natural” – not to confuse it with the term “natural frame” as I used it in my blog last week – if it is purely physical and if its meaning does not depend on the willful agency and intentionality of other people. On the other hand it is “social”, if it gets its meaning from the wills, aims and intentions of others. So a certain object is for us just a round thin piece of copper if considered in the natural way or a five-cent piece if interpreted within a social framework. (cf. pp. 21-22) Dealing with objects within a natural frame requires instrumental action, while within a social frame it involves rule-guided action.
By applying frames we constitute what we see and experience. Often frames are shared among individuals in the sense that they apply more or less the same frames to the same situations or events. Then all share an understanding of what it is that is going on and what everyone is doing, and then the frame concerned is “effectively correct” (cf. p. 301). In this way shared frames make that people stick together so to speak.

Reference: Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986 (my edition).

Framing the world

Photos give a representation of reality. At least many people think so. But do they really do? Recently I had a photo exhibition in my town in which I tried to make clear that they don’t. The photos showed landscapes, city views and the like but all had, what I would call, “natural” frames. Often photos on an exhibition are put in wooden, plastic or metal frames, but I had taken the photos that way that the frame was in the photo itself, for example because I had taken a photo through a window together with the window frame (see for example the photo above). Of course, you cannot capture the whole world in one picture, so a photo must have an edge, but what many people don’t realize is that just the edge makes that the photo doesn’t give an objective view, but that it is subjective because there is an edge. The edge directs the contents of the photo and makes that it presents a perspective on the world and that it is a subjective interpretation of the world. In other words, the edge of a photo functions like a frame. In order to stress this and to make the viewers of my photos aware of it, I had the photos on my exhibition provided with natural frames.
In sociology, a frame is a set of concepts and theoretical perspective on how we perceive reality. Framing is the social and perspectival construction of a phenomenon. The frame tells us what is valuable and it excludes what isn’t, because we don’t find it interesting; because it distracts; because we want to ignore it; and so on. Actually in psychology it is the same but the difference is that psychology concentrates on other themes than sociology does – which just makes that the sociological and psychological perspectives are also frames! – Prejudices and testimonies are instances of such frames. Prejudices are ways to order the world and to pigeon-hole persons and phenomena. And when an accident has happened and a policeman asks the witnesses what they have seen, he will hear different stories, for each person interprets what took place from a different point of view.
Framing can have quite extreme and improbable effects. Take this psychological experiment:
Imagine you are asked to watch a video in which six people – three in white shirts and three in black shirts – pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a gorilla – actually a man in a gorilla suit – strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Would you see the gorilla? I think you’ll say “yes” but actually half of the test persons did not: Their frame of attention was counting the passes which made that much what didn’t fit this frame was excluded from their attention, including the gorilla facing the camera. (source:
To take yet a photographic example: Recently there was much to do on Facebook about the famous photo of a little Vietnamese girl hurt by napalm and fleeing from her village that had been bombed with napalm ( The photo is very dramatic. However in order to emphasize the drama – and with right, I think – the photographer had cut off the right part of the photo, which showed a relaxed soldier looking at the camera in his hands ( If the photographer wouldn’t have cropped the picture, it would have been less dramatic: A matter of framing.
Compared with the photo of the napalm girl, my photos with natural frames are not dramatic. Their contents is innocent. However, they show what you can do with a frame, and what we in fact all do every time when we look at something: Frames stress what we want or expect to see, just as in my photos the frames emphasize landscapes and their beauty, or the dullness of a rainy day. But actually we don’t know what happens outside the frames and where they have been taken.

My photos with natural frames can be viewed here: