Applied Critique: Existence, Pseudo-Existence and OOO

Over at larvalsubjects (in order: here, here, herehere and most recently here), I’ve been having a discussion with Levi about existence, and the idea of fictional existence more specifically (more like pestering him about it, but I digress). I’m very interested in fictional existence because I take it to be a prime example of what I call pseudo-existence. This is a concept I have mentioned before in relation to my claim that norms have no real Being, i.e., they are pseudo-beings. The discussion has forced me to start clearing up a few things, and it struck me that explaining this concept of pseudo-existence is a good way of showing how my methodology is a critical one, in the sense I laid down earlier in this post. It will also let me justify a number of claims made in my post on normativity and ontology.

In explaining this I want to combat an objection that Levi has made against my approach, namely, that I am “conflating an issue of epistemology– how our statements link up with objects –with an issue of ontology.“, and the implication that I am thereby falling into correlationism. The reason I am not conflating the two is precisely that I take a critical approach to ontology: I try to work out exactly what it is to do ontology and the demands it places on us before engaging in it. What Levi takes to be a conflation of epistemological and ontological claims is actually the making of certain critical claims (which do have epistemological implications) that delimit the nature of ontology. In virtue of their delimiting role, these claims are not themselves ontological claims. The relation here is just what Heidegger would identify as the relation between the formulation of the question of the meaning of Being and the actual inquiry into the meaning of Being itself.

I’m going to try and make this relation clear first, in order that we can then draw some conclusions about existence. I should also note here that I do not take Being (Sein, the Being of beings) and existence (Seiendheit, as in ‘Pete exists’) to be equivalent. I take existence to be simply one of the many ways in which Being is said. I also follow Heidegger in holding that ontology and metaphysics are not exactly the same thing, even though they are closely interlinked (see my earlier post on this here). This is because ontology is the inquiry into Being, and metaphysics is the inquiry into beingness, and this is just what beings are, or the essence of existence. If we recognise that Being is more than existence, we must separate ontology and metaphysics. However, it does not mean that we can’t do both, or even that we can do them properly in isolation from one another.

As a final note, this is a long post (over 6000 words). It’s length and density is due to necessity rather than desire. I appologise in advance for my inability to condense it further.

1. The Pre-Ontological Understanding of Being

There are many different conceptions of the nature of Being (which include conceptions of the nature of existence), both explicit philosophical ontologies (and metaphysics), and the conceptions that are implicit within certain cultures or historical epochs. Heidegger has done his fair share of uncovering and de-constructing both, although it must be said that he took any of the explicit metaphysical conceptions of Being to not be fully explicit, insofar as they did not think Being proper but only thought beingness. Perhaps most importantly, Heidegger identified a persistent error in the history of western thought as such – an implicit conception of Being as presence -which haunted all philosophical thought from Plato to Nietzsche.

In relation to this plurality of ontologies, both implicit and explicit, we must ask: What do they have in common? What is it which guarantees that they are even about the same thing?

If there were not some minimal meaning that all of these different theories or implicit conceptions had in common, then it would be legitimate to say that they weren’t talking about the same thing, that at best, ontology is just a sort of family resemblance term which groups a bunch of interrelated attitudes and theories that have no unifying thread. In this case, ‘Being’ would be a sort of empty signifier that floated between disparate discourses, and the question of its meaning would be without good sense.

Heidegger’s answer to this question is that what is common to all of these conceptions of Being, be they implicit, explicit or somewhere in between, is what he calls the pre-ontological understanding of Being. This is that minimal understanding of Being that we all share insofar as we can understand anything, that is insofar as we can understand beings. For Heidegger, this pre-ontological understanding is necessarily held in common and ahistorical. This is not to say that our conceptions of Being aren’t historical. As already noted, Heidegger does a great deal of work trying to trace the historical development of our implicit and explicit conceptions of Being. It is simply the case that what makes them all conceptions of Being is not itself subject to historical change. Conceptions of Being, including fully explicit philosophical ontologies, are developed out of our common pre-ontological understanding.

Heidegger’s other important insight, which I take to be a critical insight, is that the formulation of the question of the meaning of Being, or what I have called the delimitation of the constraints upon ontology, must be carried out through first making explicit the structure of this pre-ontological understanding. This does not mean that answering the question is simply a matter of clarifying our existing understanding. This is the kind of approach that analytic philosophers inspired by Quine take (‘to be is to be the value of a bound variable’, or ‘there is nothing more to Being than the existential quantifier’). Rather, the explication of the structure of our pre-ontological understanding is not yet ontology at all. Ontology proper proceeds from that understanding, but develops it into an account of Being as it is in itself.

Where I and Heidegger differ is that he takes the pre-ontological understanding of Being to consist in some special kind of Being (Existenz) that all of us share, in opposition to those beings that don’t understand anything, but are merely understood (extant entities, like toasters, jam sandwiches and meteorites). Thus, for him, the explication of the pre-ontological understanding takes the form of an existential analytic, or an account of that special kind of Being. My problem with this approach is twofold:

1) It ultimately leads Heidegger into what is legitimately identified as a correlationist position, whereby Being is indexed to that special kind of Being (Dasein). This is a bold claim that demands more attention, and I can’t give it that attention here. However, I did go into this in a little more detail here.

2) It requires making a substantive assumption about Being, which is not part of our pre-ontological understanding, in order to pursue it. This is the assumption that it is legitimate to divide Being into different kinds of Being (such as existence and extance), i.e., that Being is not univocal (in the strong sense I outline here). Such an assumption could only be vindicated in the course of the inquiry into Being itself, and as such it is not a legitimate methodological assumption. This is a point at which Heidegger conflates critical and ontological claims.

I differ from Heidegger insofar as I take the pre-ontological understanding of Being to consist in our implicit grasp of the fundamental norms governing discourse, or the fundamental norms of rationality. In essence, I take it that we find our pre-ontological understanding of Being in the ways we talk about beings. I won’t rehearse all of the reasons why we should take it that there are fundamental norms of rationality that we are all bound by (see here). The important point to recognise though is that the explication of such norms, if it is methodologically rigorous (in the way I propose fundamental deontology to be rigorous), can entirely avoid making the kinds of conflation between methodology and ontology that Heidegger made. This is because it need only say what it is we should do, and need say nothing about what it is that we are. Indeed it need not, and should not, say anything about what is at all. If our explication of the pre-ontological understanding of Being says nothing about what is, then it says nothing that could possibly be construed as ontological.

Moving on, our implicit understanding of fundamental norms contains our understanding of the purely formal notions of existence, predication, identity, essence, truth, and ‘what is’ or ‘what is the case’. Our pre-ontological understanding of Being consists in our grasp of these formal notions, insofar as they are what establish the basic structure of discourse, or ‘talk about’ anything. The interesting insight here is that the pre-ontological understanding of Being is a formal understanding of Being. At this point, people usually accuse me of simply being Quine, and trying to reduce pre-ontological understanding to symbolic logic (at which point a counterstrike style announcement echoes “Logicians Win!“). I’m doing nothing of the sort, as there is much to the structure of the way we talk about things that is irreducible to symbolic logic (at least as its classically understood). What is good about this notion of formality is that it lets us restate why pre-ontological understanding is common to all conceptions of Being: it is the common form to which all those conceptions supply a content.

Now, I’m obviously not going to give a complete account of my methodology for uncovering the structure of discourse (though I have sketched it in other posts) and neither am I going to carry out in full here. What I’m now going to do is simply look at one, very fundamental, part of the structure of discourse – the notion of existence – and try to draw some conclusions for how ontology proper must proceed from it.

2. Generic Existence, Quine, and Existential Commitment

The formal notion of existence is principally a generic notion of existence. It is univocal (that is said of all existents in the same way) in a purely trivial sense. This is because to be a generic existent is just to be an object of thought, or the referent of a claim. I will simply use the word ‘object’ to indicate what I mean by ‘generic existent’.

So, all objects have generic existence in common insofar as the formal structure of generic existence is to be found in all forms of thought and talk about anything, regardless of whether it is mathematical (e.g., ‘there is a solution to this equation’, ‘there is no largest prime number’, etc.) or literary (e.g., ‘Harry Potter has no sister’, ‘there is a tragic arc in Hamlet’, etc.), whether it is part of the natural sciences (e.g., ‘there is a black hole at the heart of the milky way’, ‘there is a lowest possible temperature’, etc.) or the social sciences (e.g., ‘there is no such thing as society’, ‘there is a special relationship between the US and UK’), or even part of formal and informal logic (e.g., ‘there are self-contradictory propositions’, ‘there are no consequences of adopting this claim’, etc.).

Quine correctly identified this formal structure as quantificational. Insofar as we quantify over a domain of things (e.g., the domain of numbers), we are in a certain sense committed to the existence of the things in that domain. If one holds that there are a certain number of things in that domain which have a certain characteristic, then one is committed to the existence of a number of such things, or if that number is 0 the non-existence of any such thing. One will note that issues of existential commitment are essentially tied up with issues of number here.

In current discussions within analytic ontology there is a lot of talk about quantifier variance. This just means variance between the domains which are quantified over. This is used to define different kinds of existence relative to the domain which is quantified over. This means that we can talk about numerical existence, physical existence, and propositional existence as being distinct insofar as we quantify over, or count, numbers, physical objects, and propositions in different ways (I prefer Brandom’s substitutional account of quantification to the objectual account most analytic ontologists use, as it gives us more insight into how domains are constituted out of a certain kind of relations that establish a set canonical designators, but I digress). What is important is that what I’m calling generic existence is the genus of which all of these different notion are species, insofar as a generic existent or object is just something which is quantified over at all. This can be interpreted as implying a domain which includes the totality of objects (something that I believe Badiou is very much against), but it need not be.

We can characterise Quine as an ontological formalist insofar as he takes it that there is nothing more to Being than this formal notion of generic existence and the other aspects of symbolic logic which it depends on (predication, as handled by predicate calculus, and identity). This is the content of Quine’s famous phrase: “to be is to be the value of a bound variable”. This means he takes it that there is nothing more to Being than given by our pre-ontological understanding, which I of course disagree with (I also disagree with his explication of this pre-ontological understanding, but that will become clear).

What this position does is to effectively deny that there are any interesting questions of existence independent of questions of truth. We take it to be trivially true that ‘2 is the smallest prime number’, and so we are committed to the existence of both numbers in general (to numerical existence as such) and more specifically to the existence of the number 2. Quine’s central insight should thus be taken to be the following: we are committed to the existence of anything about which we take there to be something that can be truly said, other than that it does not exist. This means that if we take ‘Harry Potter is a wizard’ to be true, then we are committed to the existence of Harry Potter. Quine thus rejects any division of objects into those that are real and those that are unreal, or those that really exist and those that exist in another sense. He sees such approaches (the classic target being Meinong, who advocated a distinction in Being between subsistence and existence) as simply pushing back the question of existence, so that we must then regress and ask after the sense of existence common to both real existents and unreal existents.

However, this does not mean that Quine has to allow the existence of anything and everything. Quine is not only an ontological formalist but also an ontological conservative. He wields Occam’s razor like a scalpel to eliminate any entities that play no explanatory role. In effect, what Quine does is to distinguish between casual talk about ‘what is’ and the rigorous talk of ‘what is’ that takes place (or rather, should take place) in the natural sciences. Essentially, Quine holds that we should work out what exists (or what our existential commitments are) on the basis of a sanitized version of the claims held true by the natural sciences. This sanitization requires reformulating the claims of the natural sciences in rigorous quantificational terms to eliminate any terms that play no explanatory role. For instance, statements like ‘man is the rational animal’, need not be taken to imply the existence of an entity named ‘man’, but can be rephrased in quantificational terms as referring to a set of entities (‘if something is a man then it is both rational and an animal’, or ‘the set of men is the intersection of the set of rational entities and animals’).

Quine’s central insight is thus qualified, as he is not concerned with all claims to truth, but only a certain kind of claim to truth. Importantly, this does not mean that Quine talks about a different kind of truth. Quine’s notion of truth is just as formal and generic as his notion of existence.

Overall, Quine’s view is a very good example of the Kantian view that existence is not a predicate. There are not some objects of which we predicate existence, and some of which we predicate non-existence. There are only objects. Anyone interested in Critique’s of this general position should look at Colin McGinn’s book Logical Properties, which is excellent, if wrong (he takes the bull by the horns and denies the Kantian view entirely) and Kit Fine’s paper ‘The Quesiton of Ontology’ (I’m far more sympathetic to Fine, who puts forward a host of good criticisms to Quine, and argues that ontology is concerned with the notion of reality).

3. Object-Oriented Ontology as Generic Metaphysics

It will come as a surprise to most that the OOO crowd (Graham and Levi et al) have a certain amount in common with Quine. They also reject a distinction between real and unreal objects. This seems to be primarily what Levi means when he endorses the notion of ‘flat ontology’. The idea is thus to treat all the different kinds of objects that we think and talk about as being on the same footing. Hamlet, differential equations, the mood of a party – all these things are objects, and should be treated in the same terms (although they are all very different types of object). It thus seems as if OOO is concerned with generic existence in similar way to Quine.

Now, before I can move on to explaining how OOO differs from Quine, I must pre-empt some accusations that I’m misunderstanding OOO in an obvious way:-

1) I am not saying that insofar as OOO puts ‘all the different kinds of objects that we think and talk about’ on the same footing, that it is thereby only concerned with those objects that we in fact think or talk about (or perhaps even can think or talk about). This is to misread OOO as a crude form of correlationism, and this is obviously wrong. It is simply the case that, for OOO, if we do think or talk about something then we should take it at face value as an existing object. What exists and what we think exists (or what our existential commitments are) is not the same thing, for OOO or for Quine.

2) The fact that we can think and talk about non-existent objects should not be taken to imply that non-existent objects exist, i.e., that there are such things as objects which have the property of non-existence. OOO allows for the possibility that our thought or talk fails to connect with anything that exists. To take a page from Hertzog, many people talked and thought about Eldorado, but this does not mean that Eldorado is an object. In this sense, I think that OOO endorses some form of Quine’s central insight, and simply takes talk about Eldorado to be false rather than about some special kind of object.

Moving on, OOO differs from Quine in at least two important ways:-

1) Ontological Liberalism: OOO rejects Quine’s conservatism and the whole project of trying to sanitize our existential commitments by appeal to explanatory criteria. This does not mean that OOO can’t eliminate some entities by reconsidering certain forms of ordinary talk. For instance, the other aspect of ‘flat ontology’ that Levi gets from DeLanda (which I think is perhaps unrelated to the first) is that universals are not objects. In this sense at least some advocates of OOO can endorse the results of some Quinean analyses of language, such as the elimination of ‘man is a rational animal’ in favour of ‘if something is a man, then it is both rational and an animal’. Of course, I am well aware that they would not think about it as the practice of mere linguistic analysis.

2) Metaphysics: OOO rejects Quine’s ontological formalism insofar as it wants to give content to the notion of generic existence. OOO is not interested in simply analyzing the way we talk about objects, but wants to know what objects are. This is to say that they want to do metaphysics. They want to inquire into the essence of existence.

On the basis of these insights, I think that we can characterise what OOO is in a unique way: it is the metaphysics of generic existence.

4. An Alternative Approach

Now that I’ve adequately delimited OOO, I can say precisely where my own approach differs from it. There will obviously more differences than I can present here (and most likely more than I am even aware of), but the fundamental difference is that I accept precisely what both OOO and Quine reject: that there is a distinction between real and unreal objects, or, to put it in my preferred terms, that there is a distinction between real existence and pseudo-existence (or between beings and pseudo-beings).

This means that I think there are in fact three different notions of existence: the genus – generic existence, and two mutually exclusive species – real existence and pseudo existence.

Importantly, this division does not fall foul of Quine’s criticism of Meinong. On the one hand, I accept Quine’s analysis of generic existence (for the most part), and this staves of the accusation of regress in the formal dimension. On the other hand, I do not split Being in two, because I take the distinction between real existence and pseudo existence to itself be a formal distinction, not an ontological distinction. Pseudo-beings do not have a different kind of Being to real beings, rather, they have no Being whatsoever. I take pseudo-beings to be mere projections generated by the way we talk, some of them necessarily so. For instance, on my view, we cannot help but talk about entities such as propositions and norms, but this does not mean that we are thereby committed to their really existing.

The crucial thesis I am putting forward in opposition to OOO is that the distinction between real existence and pseudo-existence is not an illegitimate methodological posit that elides the distinction between critical claims and ontological claims, as Heidegger’s distinction between Dasein and non-Dasein does, but rather that the distinction is already implicit within our pre-ontological understanding, and as such it demands that we think it through.

What I share with OOO is the desire to do metaphysics. Indeed, I think that we are obligated to do metaphysics insofar as we do ontology (though the reason I think this might have to wait for another time). However, I think that in contrast to OOO’s metaphysics of generic existence, I think we must pursue a metaphysics of real existence. We must ask after the essence of beings, whilst excluding pseudo-beings from contaminating our inquiry. Such contamination prevents us from getting at Being as it is in itself.

I must add a clarificatory point: We must not confuse the question ‘What is the essence of (real) beings?’ with the question ‘What is the essence of actual beings?’. Some physicalists have a tendency to make this conflation, which is why they say that  ‘All and only physical entities exist’ and yet say things like ‘However, there might be a possible world in which there exists something that is not physical’. We are not interested in the contingent common characteristics of what really exists, but in what is essential to real existence. For example, if it is true that ‘to be is to be material’ then there is only an epistemic sense in which ‘there could have been immaterial beings’, but no alethic sense. This would equally hold if ‘to be is to be ethereal’ was true.

Now, so far, I’ve only explained what my approach is and how it differs from Quine’s and OOO. I haven’t yet provided reasons why one might think I am right, and thus that we should pursue a metaphysics of real existence. To do this properly would simply be to carry out the Critique of ontology I have been advocating – what I call fundamental deontology. It is only by carrying this out properly that I can demonstrate that there is a formal distinction between real existence and pseudo-existence implicit within our pre-ontological understanding of Being, and also that this fact demands that we think develop a contentful notion of such existence. I am under no illusions that I can carry out this project here. However, in the rest of this post I will try to gesture at some of the moves I intend to make in the Critique proper.

5. Truth, Objectivity, and Reality

I think that the proper place to start with the explication of our pre-ontological understanding of existence (not of Being as such) is with Quine’s central insight: insofar as we hold certain claims about an object to be true, we are committed to the existence of that object. This points toward an important relationship between existence and truth (one of the other ways in which Being is said).

Now, even Quine himself couldn’t take this insight neat, but had to qualify it (in terms of the notion of explanation). OOO comes about as close as one can to accepting this insight in its pure form (although, as I’ve suggested, they can qualify a little it if they want to). I don’t want to take it neat either, as it is precisely this claim which mandates that we concern ourself with generic existence. However, I don’t want to qualify it in the way that Quine does, as that seems fairly haphazard (and there has been plenty written on just how hard it is to get a handle on precisely what Quine’s explanatorily accented notion of ontological commitment commits us to). I think the important point to recognise is that despite all of his qualifications regarding precisely which truths imply existence, he never introduces different kinds of truth. He maintains a formal, and generic concept of truth.

Taking this clue in hand, my suggestion is that the way to properly qualify Quine’s central insight, is by making a distinction between objective and non-objective truth. If we do this, we can modify the insight accordingly: insofar as we hold certain claims about an object to be objectively true, we are committed to the existence of that object.

If we accept this modified insight, we find that it becomes a lot easier to be ontologically conservative. If we deny the existence of any object that we are not committed to (and why should we accept the existence of anything we aren’t committed to?), then we deny the existence of any object of which we hold nothing to be objectively true. This replicates a certain claim that OOO endorses, namely that whatever exists exists in the manner it does in a way that is at least partially independent of us. The only things that don’t exist are those things that are entirely dependent upon us. However, the real difference between this approach and that of OOO is that I take this distinction to be another formal distinction. The kind of dependence in question is a formal dependence, not an ontological dependence of any kind, be it mereological, causal or otherwise.

The problem is articulating the difference between objective and non-objective truth in a purely formal, non-ontological fashion. If we are to do so, we must avoid talking about objective and non-objective truths as if they are objects, and as if their status is dependent upon the objects to which they refer (in just the way that Heidegger warns us not to take truths to be present-at-hand), because this would leave us in a vicious circle. Brandom provides us with the insight which is required to conceive of objectivity in a purely formal way (indeed, Brandom himself claims that objectivity is ‘form’ which is present in the structure of the game of giving and asking for reasons).

The first part of Brandom’s insight is that instead of talking about truth as if it were a general kind, of which truths are particular instantiations, we should instead talk about truth-assessment. Truth assessment is part of the structure of discourse (indeed, according to Brandom and others it is the heart of discourse), and as such it is governed by the fundamental norms of rationality. It is thus susceptible to an explication in purely normative terms (i.e., in terms of what we should do, rather than what is the case). To differentiate objective truth from non-objective truth we simply have to differentiate between the normative structure of assessments of objective truth and those of non-objective truth.

There is an additional premise that must be added here, which I argued for in a paper I gave a few months ago (‘Truth, Correctness and Normativity’), but the argument for which would take too long to reproduce. This is the claim that what distinguishes truth-assessment from other forms of correctness-assessment is the way in which truth-claims (or assertions) license challenges to them (i.e., that one may demand reasons for them). This implies that precisely what distinguishes truth-assessment is that to be able to assess the truth of a claim, one must be capable of engaging in an argument about it (or the game of giving and asking for reasons for it). This also implies that, because asserting a claim is implicitly involves assessing it as true, making claims is dependent upon exactly the same argumentative capacity. This is a sort of backdoor argument for Brandomian inferentialism, which is based on the thesis that linguistic competence is essentially inferential competence. Leaving this complex network of commitment to one side, the important thing this premise tells us is that if we are to look for differences in the normative structure of objective truth assessment and non-objective truth assessment, it is going to be found in differences between the kinds of argument that are had about objective and non-objective truths.

The second part of Brandom’s insight is that what is distinctive of claims that are subject to objective assessment is that whether they are true or not swings free of any of our attitudes about what is true. It is this which produces the independence which we take to be characteristic of real beings in opposition to pseudo-beings. What we thus need to show what it is about arguments about what is objectively true which frees the truth-assessment they carry out from any reference to our attitudes, or show what it is about arguments about what is not objectively true which yokes them to our attitudes.

However, Brandom can only take us so far here, because at this point his notion of objectivity becomes somewhat schizophrenic. He does not really have one notion of objectivity, but several. Unfortunately, to explain this properly requires a post in itself.

7. A Partial Conclusion (To Be Continued…)

I’m very aware that this post has gone on for too long, so I’m going to make some final gestures in the direction I intend to proceed before promising to examine it further in a later post.

It is important to note that non-objective truth is not the same thing as subjective truth. A properly subjective claim is one in which a sole individual has authority over whether the claim is true or false. The paradigm example is the authority a subject has over which claims it acknowledges commitment to (e.g., ‘I’m committed to p and q, but not r’). It must be noted that subjects do not have sole authority over what they are committed to as a consequence of the commitments they acknowledge, they can even be wrong about them (i.e., I can be committed to r even though I deny it). There are of course some tricky examples to deal with, such as lying (e.g., ‘me, committed to p?, ha!’), but I don’t think we have too much trouble as long as we remember that the concept of commitment is not that of belief. This subjective authority over one’s commitments is just the same as the authority one has over what one has decided, where this notion of decision is not the same as the notion of intention (just as commitment is not belief). It is thus on the basis of this authority that one can gain any other kind of authority (e.g., legal power, or military command), through which one’s decisions become binding on others. If one had no authority over which decision one had taken, then one could have no authority at all. This is a sort of stuttering authority (one decides what one decides and no one else).

The important point to note about this kind of authority is that people can still argue about what commitments someone has acknowledged or what decisions they have made in the absence of that person. If I am in another room, my friends may argue about what shirt I will decide to wear, as if my decision is an object the properties of which are contested. When I come back into the room (regardless of whether I’ve actually put the shirt on yet) I end the argument, because I have the authority to stipulate what is true. I decide. I take it that my decision is a pseudo-object, because I have complete authority over its content, and thus it has no independence whatsoever. This is an overly crude story, but I don’t have space here to tackle the counter-examples that will inevitably turn up (lying, self-misunderstanding, etc.).

My rough thesis, which needs a great deal more elaboration, is that all arguments about non-objective truths share a certain structure in common with this kind of argument. When we argue about the content of a norm (for instance), we argue as if there is someone who has authority standing in another room, waiting to come in and put us out of our misery. This gives arguments about non-objective truths a certain characteristic structure, which we could describe loosely as interpretational.

Another good example of this structure is arguments about what someone who is dead meant by some statement or text, such as a dead author. We can indeed treat an author as if they are dead (a la Barthe), which is just stripping them of this authority to the point at which they get to take part in the interpretational argument themselves. It precludes them from making certain moves, but they can give reasons like anyone. However, removing their authority does not thereby make what they’re talking about into a determinate object that is independent of them. In fact, as Derrida and others have argued, it undermines the notion that there is a determinate object that is ‘the author’s meaning’ at all.

Another good example of this structure which focuses less literally on authority of an originating individual is law based on precedent. In this case, when a question arises which seems undetermined in relation to the body of cases, a judge has to extrapolate from those cases (interpret) how to go on. He deploys reasons garnered from those cases to justify his decision. However, he does so under the pretense that they do indeed determine an answer (which they indeed do in part, but not in full). His interpretation then becomes part of the set of cases which only partially determines the next judge’s interpretation, even though this interpretation is made under the assumption that there is some completely determinate answer implicit within them. In this case, there is a kind of progressive determination of legal norms, even though they are never determinate. I thus take ‘laws’ to be pseudo-objects, in the same way the ‘the author’s meaning’ is.

However, even legal systems involve certain authoritative acts of origin (the pronouncements of lawmakers) to which interpretations explicitly appeal. What about norms that are completely implicit? Take for instance the norms of dinner party ettiquette. They seem to have formed over centuries, and there is no one person or group of people at which we can point the finger for originating them. How are we to engage in an interpretation of what is involved if there is no one to interpret? The point to be made here is that there need not be specific individuals in order for the argument to have the structure of an interpretation. Indeed it still proceeds as if there is a purely formal interpretant. This is essentially what Heidegger calls Das Man, or the One.

All of this requires a great deal more development, but it does outline the basic distinction between beings and pseudo-beings. Beings are real precisely insofar as they are determinate and they constrain our talk about them. Pseudo-beings are not real precisely insofar as they are indeterminate and the only thing that constrains our talk about them is ourselves (and by this I do not mean that we each of us only constrains themself, but rather that in inter-subjective cases that we constrain eachother).

In this post I’ve tried to lay out a whole chunk of my thinking in relation to a couple other positions, and I’ve tried to do so in a way that focuses on the particular strategy (or strategies) I adopt at the expense of where those strategies take me. Hopefully, after I finish my continuing post on Deleuze and sufficient reason, I will find the time to examine the notion of objectivity in more detail, which will help make the schematic conception of reality and pseudo-existence I have worked out here more robust.

If you’re reading this sentence, thankyou for getting to the end!

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

24 thoughts on “Applied Critique: Existence, Pseudo-Existence and OOO”

  1. I’m fascinated by your discussion of things which seem to exist, but are ‘projections generated by the way we talk’, these ‘pseudo-beings’.

    (It seems to me that yours and Larval’s debate is partially generated by some disagreement about what it is that is really making a difference in the case of, say, Harry Potter. If I’m right, it seems that your saying that Harry Potter does not make a difference, it just seems like he does because we speak in this group of ways which seems to grant him existence. Larval on the other hand straightforwardly seems to identify Harry Potter as making a difference as soon as he is created – but perhaps this prejudges the very issue, whether ‘he’ has actually been created at all. Having said this, I don’t want to impute the ‘difference’ criterion for existence to your position.)

    I think my intuitions are somewhere near yours on this, but unfortunately in terms of convincing other the weight will always be on you to show them. Why is this? Not because your position is a priori more absurd but because our ways of talking seem, and ‘seem’ is the important word, to undermine your very point. “How”, an interlocutor asks “can you say all these things are pseudo-beings, when we talk about them doing this and that all day long?” Perhaps with fictional entities it is easier, you can draw on resources such as Gareth Evans’ position in the Varities Of Reference.

    However, with things like ‘norms’ and ‘propositions’ things are going to get even harder. One anticipates what David Lewis called the ‘incredulous stare’. I suppose in this the task becomes a heroic Brandom-esque recasting of our language so as to tie these pseudo-beings into an account of actual practices? I’m currently working my way through Between Saying And Doing; here he has not dispensed all together with ‘meanings’, rather, the task seems to be to show how those things we call meanings, and think are real objects of some sort, are (to use your nice turn of phrase) ‘projections generated’ by our practices. You’ve probably got a lot on your blog-plate right now, but at some point a post about how Brandom plays into your work would be interesting.

    1. Rory: “It seems to me that yours and Larval’s debate is partially generated by some disagreement about what it is that is really making a difference in the case of, say, Harry Potter. If I’m right, it seems that your saying that Harry Potter does not make a difference, it just seems like he does because we speak in this group of ways which seems to grant him existence. Larval on the other hand straightforwardly seems to identify Harry Potter as making a difference as soon as he is created – but perhaps this prejudges the very issue, whether ‘he’ has actually been created at all.”

      Kvond: Peirce has an interesting shorthand for things that are real: anything that is real is something that causes belief. Now Peirce has an elaborate diagnostics for how to separate out true belief from false or fiction, but the shorthand goes in a positive direction for answering the question of the difference that makes a difference. Does “Harry Potter” make a difference, or is this only the illusion of a difference? Perhaps it is good to suggest that yes, in many cases it makes very good sense to say that it seems that something real called “Harry Potter” causes us to hold beliefs. If we were to be Spinozist about it, one might be tempted to say that certain material reations which are parallel to the idea “Harry Potter” put our own material relations into such a diposition that beliefs (ideas) about Harry Potter are held, and this causal relation is not “psuedo” or even an illusion. What is missing from claims about the illusional existence of fictional types is the actual circumstances of their progenitor and persistence. And such descriptions, such as the love that Levi wants to have for things like “memes”, is cashed out in the very power of the causal explanations. If indeed the force of “Harry Potter” (let us say, the identifiable properties of his character) carries a real appeal to persons within the economy, it makes very good sense to say that not only in “Harry Potter” having a causal effect upon our beliefs, but in parallel, having a material effect (in parallel, if one is Spinozist) upon the very organizational nature of the world (stock just went up in certain companies, some decided that they can afford to put a swimming pool in as well).

  2. Hi Rory, thanks for the comment.

    You’re totally right that the onus is on me to show why we need this distinction between real and pseudo-existence, precisely because a lot of our ordinary talk seems to elide the distinction. You’re also right that all of this depends on a Brandom style analysis of language which shows that the distinction is indeed something found within the ordinary structures of language (and by ordinary, I do not mean historically contingent and uninteresting, but subjectively universal or transcendental).

    Fictional entities are a good touch stone because we have conflicting intuitions about them: we tend to think that they don’t exist, but we also tend to think that there are true things that can be said of them.

    This is related to the whole Quinean/Russellian problem of non-existence, in which they simply interpret claims about non-existent entities as false (e.g., ‘Eldorado is a city of gold’ is false because Eldorado does not exist). The difference between the case of Eldorado, or the crystaline spheres that contained the planets, or anything that someone has posited as being there and it turned out it wasn’t, is that the posits we make about ‘Harry Potter’ and other fictional objects can genuinely be the structure of argument. It doesn’t seem right to tell two kids who are arguing over whether ‘Harry Potter is a Gryffindor’ that neither of them is right because Harry Potter doesn’t exist.

    Disentangling fictional existence and straighforward non-existence thus tells us a lot about how our talk about existence functions.

    I will get around to writing something more concrete on Brandom at some point soon. I’ve been working through BSD again myself of late, and I’ve got a few interesting points to make about his incompatibility semantics, but its fitting it all in. If you haven’t read my posts on Normativity and Ontology and Normativity and Rationality I recommend doing so, as you’ll pick up a bit more about my Brandomian leanings there (even though they are not always explicit, ironically enough).

  3. Kvond: To keep this brief, I take it that there can be something which causes or at least regulates our usage of the term ‘Harry Potter’, something which both regulates our production of thoughts and claims about ‘Harry Potter’, such as ‘Harry Potter is a wizard’, and is constituted out of the patterns of our production of such claims. This corresponds to what Levi calls a ‘replicator’ as opposed to the ‘signs’ it replicates (which are part of the claims about ‘Harry Potter’ which are produced). Whatever this is, it is not a subjective idea in some individual’s head, but is a properly social and material process which can be described in objective terms.

    The essential point is that whatever this thing is, it is not ‘Harry Potter’, because ‘Harry Potter’ is a wizard, and it is not. The replicator is not the fictional object whose signs it regulates the production of (despite being composed out of said production, i.e., being ontologically dependent on those sign-tokenings).

    What fictional objects like ‘Harry Potter’ and non-existent objects like ‘Eldorado’ have in common is that they both have such ‘replicators’ regulating the production of claims about them (or the production of sign-tokens that refer to them). What distinguishes these replicators from those which regulate the production of signs that refer to real existents, is that the real existents have an affect upon the replicators, they constrain them, and thus the sign-tokens (and the claims they are involved in) which are produced through them. Indeed, in these cases the real existents that the replicator’s signs refer to constrain the evolution of the replicator, or to put it another way they constrain the way the usage of the sign changes.

    I’m not entirely happy with this terminology of replicators, but it is the closest analog I can find amongst Levi’s terminology to what I’m looking for. I initially tried to frame this in terms of the Quinean point that talk about ‘ideas’ of an object and talk about the object itself are distinct. To many this sounds too subjective. What is appropriate about the concept of ‘replicators’ is that they are obviously not subjective in any way, they have real objective Being. It is simply that some of them do not have real objective interactions with those objects to which their signs refer. These are those that ‘project’ pseudo-objects as referents.

  4. If you would delete the early posting…

    de: The essential point is that whatever this thing is, it is not ‘Harry Potter’, because ‘Harry Potter’ is a wizard, and it is not.

    Kvond: But Harry Potter IS a wizard. Ultimately any nominalization is not what “it” is, whether it be the “sun” or a “wizard”.

    de: Quinean point that talk about ‘ideas’ of an object and talk about the object itself are distinct.

    Kvond: It is distinct for Spinoza as well, but let’s not fall upon Hume’s Fork. Ultimately any reference is both an ontological and an epistemic relation, because any epistemic state is also composes a change in ontological power.

    The idea that the “object” itself somehow resides beneath discourse, or eve n is the anchor for the “idea” is mistaken materialism. The beauty of Spinoza’s solution is that he splits it right up the middle.

    de: It is simply that some of them do not have real objective interactions with those objects to which their signs refer.

    kvond: This gives the illusion of an either/or. As Spinoza tells us, there is nothing positive in ideas which constitutes the form of falsity. Or expressed another way, even the most false idea is to some degree true.

  5. Or to put it another way, as Augustine tell us, following Plotinus: “Nothing comes about or is brought into existence which is not brought into existence through some cause”. To think that “Harry Potter” has only a pseudo existence is only a weaker form of saying that there is some confusion over the causes that have brought him or it into existence. Indeed he or it has existence, but knowledge of that existence is brought about by understanding the causes that have brought it into being.

    For instance knowledge of who Harry Potter’s parents were (that causal ideational chain), is not psuedo-knowledge. It leads to questions about how that causal chain come into being itself (was the author thinking of her own mother and father), and the entire exhumation of causes, both ideational and extensional (i.e., taken to be material).

  6. Or, to a question extremely important to Levi’s project because Levi takes his “difference that makes a difference” defintion of what is real from Bateson…

    Does information have only pseudo-existence?

  7. Information does not have pseudo-existence, but this is because, as far as I’m concerned, following Deleuze, all beings are sign-systems that have informational links with other beings. Causation is fundamentally informational, in a way I think Spinoza would be perfectly happy with. Both Spinoza and Deleuze take the interaction of two entities or modes to involve the transmission of a sign between them.

    However, this Spinozan/Deleuzian notion of ‘sign’ is not exactly the one I was borrowing from Levi above (in terms of replicators and sign-tokens). It is better to talk about ‘symbols’ to indicate the kinds of communicative interactions of humans (this isn’t to say humans don’t transmit signs between one another, or transmit information, just that the universal concept of information (which applies to all things), and that of representational content (which doesn’t apply to all things) are quite distinct).

    As you point out, the Spinozan question is: what causes the sign? What causes our inadequate idea (which is precisely inadequate insofar as it does not express either its formal or material cause (ourselves, and the object interacted with, respectively)?

    In order for there to be anything like a Spinozan ‘sign’ which corresponds to Harry Potter, Harry Potter must be a mode (present in extension) which in some (most likely indirect way) causes our idea through interacting with us. But there is no mode which IS A WIZARD. Therefore there is no mode which is Harry Potter. This means that there is not properly a ‘sign’ of Harry Potter, in the rigorous sense. That there can be a ‘symbol’ for Harry Potter is a quirk of the structure of human communication (discourse).

    This does not mean that when we read about and talk about Harry Potter that there are not signs (or information) exchange, or that there is no interaction with something that causes that change of state which is us coming to have beliefs about Harry Potter (which I won’t call an inadequate idea _of_ Harry Potter, because that would undermine my point), simply that whatever this thing is, it is not what we _mean_ (which is a representational notion, not an informational one) by the symbol ‘Harry Potter’, because, amongst other things, it is not a boy or a wizard.

  8. de: In order for there to be anything like a Spinozan ‘sign’ which corresponds to Harry Potter, Harry Potter must be a mode (present in extension) which in some (most likely indirect way) causes our idea through interacting with us. But there is no mode which IS A WIZARD. Therefore there is no mode which is Harry Potter. This means that there is not properly a ‘sign’ of Harry Potter, in the rigorous sense. That there can be a ‘symbol’ for Harry Potter is a quirk of the structure of human communication (discourse).

    Kvond: Honestly, as much as some have tried to extract a notion of “sign” from Spinoza, he does not have a theory of “signs” (though one can see a kind of semiosis), at least signs in terms of referents. Ideas are NOT signs for Spinoza, and even inadequate ideas are not signs. But even more than this there is no theory of Symbols. Spinoza is at pains to distance himself from questions of linguistic truth. So when you say that “there is no mode which is Harry Potter” this is a confused thought in Spinoza’s terminology. Because Harry Potter indeed does exist as an idea, there most definitely exist extentional modes wihich correspond to it. It would be pretty ridiculous so say that the idea of Harry Potter has pseudo-existence in Spinoza’s world view. Now it would be for him an imaginary, or confused idea, but one of Spinoza’s great contributions is that even (or one might say especially) confused ideas have discrete historical effects. There may not be an “object” that corresponds to many of the theological anthropomorphizations of God, but these imaginary ideas about God indeed have powerfully shaped history. To say that God the Father has only pseudo-existence is to neglect the real existence, the real effects that the confused idea have had. And this I take it, is Levi’ point (again citing Bateson), that any difference that makes a difference is real. It just might not be real (be making the differences that you think it is making) in the way that you imagine it to be.

  9. de: “Information does not have pseudo-existence, but this is because…all beings are sign-systems that have informational links with other beings.

    kvond: So, if I understand your position well, you want to say that “Harry Potter” because it is part of a sign-system has “informational links” with other beings, but despite this real existence of “informational links” Harry Potter has only pseudo-existence. I’m not sure if I follow you, but this seems to be what you are saying. The links are real, but the thing linked is only psuedo-real.

  10. You’ve still got the wrong end of the stick on both accounts.

    There are no informational links with ‘Harry Potter’. The claim was that real entities, which I take to be material, are constituted out of informational linkages and can enter into informational linkages with other systems. The central point was that this notion of information is different from the notion of representational content. It is quirks in the nature of the latter which produce the problem of fictional entities (and non-existent entities for that matter).

    On the other point, I’m not arguing that ‘confused ideas’ like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Eldorado’ have historical effects, simply that they do not correspond to modes in extension which are respectively a wizard and a city of gold. The additional claim is simply that if what these ideas correspond to is not a wizard or a city of gold, then it isn’t either ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Eldorado’ as we understand it, but something else.

    Regardless, I think there is really only so far that one can go with Spinoza’s theory of ideas here, precisely because it doesn’t do a very good job of accounting for the notion of representation properly, and it is the notion of representation which is producing all these problems. It’s not a good answer to then simply say that we should do away with the notion of representation, because then you just get yourself in further confusions, as I’m trying to show you have.

  11. de: “There are no informational links with ‘Harry Potter’. The claim was that real entities, which I take to be material, are constituted out of informational linkages and can enter into informational linkages with other systems.”

    But this is what you said: “Information does not have pseudo-existence, but this is because…all beings are sign-systems that have informational links with other beings.”

    I cannot understand the union of both these statements. I assume you grant Harry Potter to ba part of a “sign-system”. Do you think that we make sense of the term “Harry Potter” because it lies outside of “sign-systems”. As a part of a “sign-system” it then would seem to have informational links (as an “other system”) to real entities.

    de: “On the other point, I’m not arguing that ‘confused ideas’ like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Eldorado’ have historical effects, simply that they do not correspond to modes in extension which are respectively a wizard and a city of gold.”

    kvond: This statement simply makes no sense in Spinoza’s terms because not only is there not a mode that is “a wizard” there is not a mode that is a “a horse”, which is to say that no mode is REDUCIBLE to its nominalization. This is not to say there is no difference between wizards and horses for Spinoza, indeed there is. But there is nothing “psuedo” about the existence of the IDEA of wizards. It is indeed imaginary, but its existence as an idea is full, as Spinoza would phrase it, “in the Mind of God”.

    The problem is that you are thinking strongly in terms of reference and Spinoza is little concerned with reference. Because of this you write,

    ” I think there is really only so far that one can go with Spinoza’s theory of ideas here, precisely because it doesn’t do a very good job of accounting for the notion of representation properly, and it is the notion of representation which is producing all these problems.”

    Actually, it is precisely the opposite. It is dead end of Idealism nominally begun with Descartes that most problematically placed “representation” at the core of what knowledge is supposed to be, presenting a primary picture-object correspondence sense of what truth is. This is, what latter-day Wittgenstein exposed as a wrong-headed “picture of the world”. It is taking the language game of ostension, of matching up words with the things you point to, as the grounds of all truth-making. Indeed, it is best that we “do away” with Representation as the grounds of truth-making, we should stop “thinking in pictures” as Spinoza argued. It is simply taking a picture of how the mind and the world works (that mistaken dichotomy), and pushing it too far. In another sense, as Quine’s student Davidson presented in suitably Spinozian, non-Representationalist fashion, there is always a triangle to truth-making. Representational dualities of knowledge are simply too simple, lacking a dimension. Mind/World, Self/World, Soul/God, Self/Other, Word/Referent, Meaning/Object, Phenonomena/Object…philosophy at one time or other, due to the problems of dualism given rise by Representationalism, finds itself preoccupied with any one of these dichotomies, never realizing that they all are dependent on each other.

    I’ll llet you have the last word on this if you like.

  12. I will take it again, thankyou.

    Firstly, the symbol ‘Harry Potter’ might be deployed in an informational link between two sign-systems, in the sense that there are _tokenings_ of it. This does not imply that there is therefore some third sign-system called ‘Harry Potter’ that they are interacting with indirectly. There might be (and indeed I think that there is) some additional sign-system that they are indirectly interacting with here, which constrains the way the symbol ‘Harry Potter is deployed. It’s just that this sign-system can’t be Harry Potter, because whatever it is, it isn’t a wizard.

    Secondly, the difference between wizards and horses is that if we develop and adequate (or more adequate) understanding of what causes our ideas of horses then we uncover more about those features that we represent (or should represent) horses as having (e.g., certain kinds of internal composition which provide certain capacities). If we do the same with what causes our ideas of wizards, we do not uncover anything about the features and capacities that we represent wizards as having. We might uncover the reasons why we represent them as such, for instance the causal history of the development of the concept of wizards, magic and history of wizard fiction. However, these are two different kinds of understanding.

    I still think that a lot of these problems come from a confusion of the Spinozan ‘idea’ and concepts, one being a universal ontological notion and the other being a properly representational notion (which is restricted to certain beings/modes). To put this in Deleuzian terms, the Spinozan idea corresponds to the virtual multiplicity of any give system/being/mode. There is no virtual multiplicity of Harry Potter, because there is no Harry Potter. However, Deleuze also thinks that there are concepts, which are virtual multiplicites, even if not all virtual multiplicities are concepts. They are virtual multiplicities corresponding to systems which consist in and regulate the production of symbol tokenings (what Levi calls ‘replicators’). So, there is a virtual multiplicity or Idea which corresponds to ‘Harry Potter’ insofar as it regulates the production of tokenings of that symbol, but it is not an Idea of Harry Potter, insofar as it does not give us the virtual structure (capacities and tendencies) of a wizard.

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