Toward a Political Philosophy of Mind: Principles and a Case Study

5 September 2023

I’d like to thank Tim Elmo Feiten for inviting me to present my Covid paper to Dialectical Systems. The paper can be found here:


I wrote the article in Spring of 2022, after ruminating for two years on a story that appeared in my local newspaper about the life and death of Shenetta White-Ballard, a nurse in a senior residential facility, from Covid in May 2020. Here is the link to the story:

I wanted to contextualize the story as much as I could by looking at the multiple dimensions of the event. The widest context I chose was the “great risk shift” that accompanied the ascent of neoliberalism, whereby individuals were deemed responsible for health choices. I use Foucault’s analysis of the “self-entrepreneur” there to categorize Ms. White-Ballard as the person with the most stable income in the family in a context of little social aid. I then looked at the notion of “risk factors” or “pre-existing conditions,” and connected that with research on “weathering,” which is postulated to be the somatic effects of living as a black-racialized subject in the US, and to constitute a marker of chronic stress, which has deleterious long-term health effects. The next step was to look at the Free Energy Principle (FEP) concept whereby active inference (on-line action or off-line belief adjustment) serves, in principle, to resolve conflicts between prediction and input and thereby minimize entropy, which is seen as the key to maintaining organismic viability. However, there’s a bodily cost to active inference, in that various physiological changes can increase your perceptual acuity to help you gather more information to resolve the discrepancy you find yourself in. While in many cases that price is worth paying for the entropy-minimizing effects, when you’re in a no-win situation, you can get stuck in a chronic stress loop, which is theorized to be the mechanism behind “weathering.” Such a no-win situation was that facing Ms White-Ballard, who had to balance financial risks with virus exposure risks. Part of the reason she chose the latter, I hypothesized based on reports from her friends and family, might have had something to do with her having self-subjectified as a member of the “caring professions.” So, in effect, I wanted to politicize the FEP; it’s all well and good to minimize entropy, but success there is contingent on your particular material circumstances. I don’t think FEP proponents would deny that, but it’s not something I found thematized in much of the FEP literature I looked at (admittedly not an exhaustive survey).


The paper is a case study. I think that’s a relatively underused philosophical genre. I’ve done several case studies, starting with the Columbine High School killings, the Terri Schiavo case, and Hurricane Katrina, which are collected in Political Affect (Minnesota 2009). A recent one is “Under the Dome,” a piece on the January 6, 2021, Capitol invasion, available here along with other recent papers:

Case studies allow us to follow events with multiple dimensions. I use Deleuzean metaphysics as my frame, but I don’t think it’s necessary to buy all that; a simple metaphoric notion of events as crystallizations of the surrounding social and environmental processes will do. Case studies are interdisciplinary or synthetic. The world doesn’t follow the disciplinary boundaries of university departments. To follow the threads of an event you have to do science and philosophy together, that is you have to use philosophy as bridge between various sciences and social theories.

The choice of which events stand out to you, and which dimensions to pursue in investigating the event is going to have something to do with the personal history of the researcher, though I try to tackle subjects of political, cultural, or philosophical interest, and once on the hunt, I try to let the subject tell me where to go. Nonetheless, while there’s no guarantee someone else looking at this case would see the same connections I did, I do hope there’s something in there to resonate with people reading it.


The interdisciplinarity of my approach fits the multiple dimensions of events. I’m a big fan of hyphens, so at the minimum I would say Covid was geo-bio-social. I fully buy the slogan “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” a truth I grasped in considering the disparate impact of Hurricane Katrina on different segments of Louisiana society. There’s a political­­ geography in Louisiana, where money follows high ground, and there were social gradients to Covid infection and sickness trends.

The Covid event needs the “geo” prefix because the zoonotic origin hypothesis points to collapsing wilderness barriers, via human economic interventions, between human populations and reservoirs of viruses from which we were previously relatively insulated. (I’m not a lab leak proponent, but even if one is, the bio-social aspect holds as a virus lab is nothing if not bio-sociality, and the “geo” comes back with mass air travel allowing disease vectors from Wuhan to Northern Italy.

I struggled with the relative social positions of me and my subject. I’m a white male professional middle class knowledge worker and Ms White-Ballard was a Black female working class health care provider. As I note in the paper, Lindsey Stewart’s The Politics of Black Joy alerts us to the “neo-abolitionist” focus on Black pain. I nonetheless decided that telling the story of Ms White-Ballard might have some benefit in reminding us of the life and death struggles behind the facts and figures of infection and mortality rates.


I begin the paper with a sketch of “political philosophy of mind.” This has been on the horizon of my work since Political Affect (Minnesota 2009) – though I took a detour through biological and political anthropology to produce Edges of the State (Minnesota, 2019).  My refrain in Political Affect was to analyze the way in which classic extended mind discourse tended to use a socially unmarked subject position, and to have a positivity bias. At the risk of being uncharitable, I picked up some implicit technophilia vibes, which overlooked the way in which some social positions are disadvantaged or even harmed by technological add-ons. I then applied a standard critical social theory position, that an unmarked subject often hides a socially privileged position.

In the Covid paper I refer to the “critical phenomenology” school, a relatively new name for a tradition dating back at least to Beauvoir and Fanon. A classic in that field is Iris Marion Young’s “Throwing Like a Girl” essay, which reveals an unstated masculinist (or at least non-feminized) competent body subjectivity in Merleau-Ponty. I often use the following image: for me, with my subject position, the opening to a subway is a call to adventure: the city opens up for me, allowing me to travel where I will (of course I have my fears of “bad neighborhoods at night” but we can at least say that I have a wider range of anxiety-free travel spots open up for me than those with other subject positions, for whom subways are sites of surveillance, harassment, and general uneasiness). Similarly, for the most part, police officers appear to me as potential aids should I call on them (even though I know intellectually that they have no duty to intervene in an ongoing assault on me, the effects of 50 years of copaganda are such I still feel they would help me if I needed it).

At the moment, my formulation of a political philosophy of mind is that it seeks to integrate third-person political analysis of subjectification practices with the traditional philosophy of mind topics of third-person scientific investigation of sub-personal neural, endocrinological, and somatic mechanisms, first-person phenomenological explorations of experience, and studies of second-person interaction, as in “participatory sense-making” (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007). A successful political philosophy of mind must avoid reduction (collapsing the sub-personal and first-person perspectives), individualism (society is just an aggregate of individual subjects), and strict structuralism (subjective actions and experiences are mere consequences of one’s social position).

A political philosophy of mind gravitates to the enactive approach. As we all know, for the enactivists, cognition is rooted in organismic maintenance. Although I don’t provide a thorough sketch of enactivism in this paper, I can say a few things about where my thought of a political philosophy of mind is going. I try to stress that autonomous norm generation that enactivism emphasizes occurs in a political context for humans. While there has to be some minimal meshing of organismic needs and institutional context to ensure viability for some time, sometimes the social norms (what keeps social system functioning) are incompatible with individual flourishing for many social positions. For individuals to flourish they need to be in mutually empowering relations at multiple scales. That’s just what domination and exploitation prevent; they funnel surplus (material or prestige) from bottom to top. This is accomplished by the manipulation of artificial scarcity producing coercive generational poverty (which can include deprivation of respect or mutual recognition of worth as well as material supports).

When enactivists talk about bringing forth worlds, we have to remember that this isn’t de novo. We have discrepancies in time scales with social lives in built environments. I can produce significant changes in small scale patterns of daily life: if having the window open is too noisy because of cars and trucks and taxis and ambulances and … I can shut the window, but I cannot do anything myself about traffic patterns built up over a century of gasoline cars, other than move to another zone with a different pattern. But the patterns move and change much more slowly than window closing or house-moving. It takes long scale political action to change an urban environments car-centric design. But urban traffic is itself caught up on discrepancies of time scales with global climate change. Gaia is self-specifying; life produces its environment on planetary scale. But do we have time to slow down industrial climate change?

In a recent piece on enactive politics ( I describe how Francisco Varela shows in What Knowledge for Ethics? the way in which bottom-up causality allows the emergence of social regularities that risk being reified, their constitutive processes erased. In pursuing a political philosophy of mind, I would like to enrich the Varelian perspective of social emergence with an analysis of the downward causality of these regularities, since it is through them, in slow temporal scales, that we can grasp the diachronic formation of bodily competences, micro-identities or dispositions to act in this or that way.

Hence, we need to analyze a differential social field channeling perception, action, and affect, along lines of social roles. Varela has shown that laws, rules, institutions, etc. are produced emergently by bottom-up causation in a social emergence; what we want to look at are broad lines of top-down causation operated on a slow “socio-ontogenetic” scale by those regularities that guide the development of the individual person.

To have a political philosophy of the mind, therefore, it is necessary to think a prepersonal social field of the formations, of the apprenticeships, of the training programs, of which the individual bodies are resolutions — crystallizations or actualizations — of the concretions that form the cognitive-affective topology of the person, the repertoire of its micro-identities.


In the main argument, I use an outside-in approach, setting the stage with long-term social trends and gradually focusing in on the case of Ms White-Ballard. I provide a Foucauldian analysis of the long development of “biopower” regimes for public health and disease management. I connect this to Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism in Birth of Biopolitics. Foucault claims that we are induced to subjectify ourselves (to think and act as if) we were “self-entrepreneurs,” that is, considering all actions as investments in our human capital which are realized in returns on that investment (there’s no guarantee that each person realizes a profit on their investments). Other social theory sources look at the “financialization of daily life,” which, coupled with public disinvestment and privatization of risk management in both finance and health.


I also look at race and COVID-19 in the United States, specifically the notion of “pre-existing conditions” or “co-morbidities” and their relation to “weathering,” the thesis that chronic stress in populations suffering anti-black racism will accelerate aging as measured by telomere length. Hence, when faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, those who are negatively racialized and precariously employed, deprived of a robust social safety net so that they are left as life-management agents responsible for both self and family, face an intense entanglement of financial and viral risk management. Turning briefly to the FEP and to enactive accounts, we see that searching for epistemic solutions itself imposes a physiological cost that contributes to weathering.


The key move in the essay is linking the Bayesian Brain, the Selfish Brain, and the Stressed Body. There is a physiological cost even to sub-personal, off-line simulations in conditional mode (“what would happen if I adopted this strategy?”). In high-stakes situations, with high-risk scenarios abounding on all sides, you get some allostatic load even before you act and get the real-world feedback that predictive processing is supposed to save you from.

People in vulnerable social positions, that is, deleterious affective frames, then, are doubly punished, especially in double-bind or no-win situations: even thinking about your options can exert a physiologically inscribed emotional cost, and then you must absorb the cost of the real-world feedback on top of that. In other words, in traditionally conceived allostatic action, you’re trying to change the world to restore a stable environment fit to habitual predictions. But if the world is recalcitrant, if the deck is stacked against you, then you get a double dose of allostatic load: not just a high cost to those allostatic actions which are swimming upstream in a racialized world, but there’s even a high cost to simple internal scenario generation.

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