Transcendental Realism Ahoy!

Hello all, the Transcendental Realism workshop is on tomorrow. I’m busily finishing my paper, and the some of the speakers will be congregating later today (in my house). This post is primarily a series of brief announcements for those who both read my blog and might be turning up, followed by a little excursion on something related to my paper.

1. Announcements

First, the running order of the speakers hasn’t been decided yet (apart from Ray, who will be on last). We should have it up tonight though, once we’ve had a chance to talk it through between us. However, whichever way it turns out, it’s going to be a tight schedule. Registration begins at 12:00 in LIB2, so there’s a bit of time to mill about and chat beforehand, and the first talk starts at 12:30. We’ve then got 5 talks, each of which is 30 minutes + 15 minutes of questions, to squeeze in between then and 5:00pm. This means that we’ve only got time for one measily break of 15 minutes during that time. At 5:00pm there’ll be a 30 minute break, where we’ll shift rooms to to S0.11, which is quite close. Ray’s talk will then begin at 5:30, and you can expect it to go on till 7-7:30.

All of this means that there will be precious little time for grabbing food, so I recommend getting yourself some food before you get here (or during the registration period, from the library cafe around the corner). We should be heading for food an drinks afterward Ray’s talk, depending on where will accommodate us.

Second, I’m still writing my paper, and it’s currently a bit long. This means it might have to be a bit dense to fit into my timeslot. I’ll do my best to make it as comprehensible as possible, but, if you wanted to do a bit of preparatory reading, I’d recommend Meillasoux’s presentation at the original SR conference, published in Collapse III. As well as tackling Meillassoux, I’ll be taking you on a whistle stop tour through analytic metaphysics (Quine, McDowell, Blackburn, Lewis, Price and Brandom), and even taking some time to talk about Hegel’s concept of natural consciousness from the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit. It should be very interesting, if I can squeeze it all in.

2. What does ‘real’ mean? Vs. What is the real?

Given that it is relevant to my paper, I thought I’d comment briefly on something Graham Harman and Peter Gratton talked about yesterday (herehere and here). It all starts with this point by Graham:-

I suppose you could take the eliminativist route and claim that the sensual objects don’t necessarily exist in any sense (this seems to be the heir of Russell’s response to Meinong). But the problem with eliminativism, as I see it, is that it makes no room for real objects at all. Its sense of realism is that of scientific realism, and so there isn’t any concept of withdrawal there. The difference between real and unreal, for that position, is is simply a difference between realimages and scientific images. It is a mere metaphysics of images, despite all its huffing and puffing about reality.

You can see this in Ladyman and Ross, and you’ll also see it this summer in Brassier’s piece in The Speculative Turn, which takes a few digs at the “metaphysical” distinction between real and sensual, demands “criteria” for distinguishing between real and unreal, and neglects to admit that it has already made a metaphysical decision by assuming that all that’s at stake is the development of criteria for calling some images Bad Folk Images and others Good Scientific Images.

But philosophy is not just about images, and the sense of the real in scientistic philosophy is generally quite feeble. These positions collapse into pragmatism or instrumentalism at the slightest touch. “Realism” for them really just means: using science to beat up unscientific people. The real is never addressed at all.

Now it may come as a surprise that I have a certain amount of agreement with Graham here. The main point of the paper I’m going to give tomorrow is that most forms of realism don’t know what they mean by ‘real’. The only form that I think has a good idea of what it means is what I call deflationary realism.

Deflationists point out that classical realism wants to deploy a thick sense of ‘real’, but that it doesn’t know what it means by it, and so in response they propose a thin sense of real. This thin sense of real is usually indexed to truth. So for example, whereas the platonist (a local realist) says numbers really exist, and the nominalist (a local anti-realist) says numbers don’t really exist, Quine (the deflationist) comes along and says that the ‘really’ doesn’t make any sense here. Quine says that if we take there to be true statements in which we quantify over numbers, then we’re committed to their existence. If it is true that ‘there are infinitely many primes’ then numbers, and more specifically prime numbers, exist. This makes the question of whether numbers exist a completely trivial matter. So, yes, deflationists have a fairly feeble notion of ‘real’, but they’re pretty explicit about it. However, there are many others who have quasi-deflationist positions which are very problematic (I’d even go so far as to say inconsistent).

However, I’m not sure that Graham has the high ground here. Yes, like many other classical realists he has an account of what the real is. I just don’t think he’s got any better an idea of what ‘real’ means. This is the difference between having an account of what the real is, and having an account of what it is to have an account of what the real is. This is analogous to the difference between knowing who the president of the united states is, and knowing what it is for someone to be president of the united states. It’s perfectly possible to know that Obama is president, and nonetheless have a hazy idea of what this means. I think there’s a fairly simple way to demonstrate this point.

If we take ‘real’ to mean ‘that which is radically independent of thought’ in such a way that this is equivalent to ‘that which withdraws’ in Graham’s sense, rather than simply to be ‘that which withdraws’, then the concept is not sufficiently broad to perform two different functions that it’s required for. First, it is required to distinguish between real objects that withdraw and the sensuous objects that don’t. It does this adequately. However, it is also required to describe precisely what such a distinction is doing. We need to be able to say that this distinction is getting at the real metaphysical structure of objects. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (here and here), Graham thinks that the real properties of each object are unknowable (except through allusion), insofar as they withdraw, but he nonetheless thinks that this very fact (which is not a fact about any given object, but about objects qua objects) is knowable. This means that the second use of real cannot be equivalent to ‘that which withdraws’, because it would automatically disqualify the possibility of such metaphysical knowledge (in effect, we’d be back in correlationist territory).

Now, this second use of ‘real’ is necessary in order to delineate the task of metaphysics. Specifically, it is necessary in order to counter deflationism and positivism. When the deflationist says “there is nothing more to the structure of objects than our talk about the objects”, and when the positivist says “there is nothing more to objects than decreed by science”, Graham must be able to turn around and say that no, there is a real structure of the object in excess of either, and it involves withdrawal. As such, I don’t think that Graham is in a much better position than scientific realists, and I certainly don’t think he’s entitled to claim that he’s more of a realist than they are.

Anyway, there will be more on this problem tomorrow. Back to writing my paper!

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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.

5 thoughts on “Transcendental Realism Ahoy!”

  1. Hi Mikhail,

    I’ll be putting up some audio from the talk, plus some electronic hardcopies of papers fairly soon. I’m just in the process of extending the hardcopy version of my paper to fill out the argument a bit more. I’m just writing the new conclusion, titled ‘Kant’s Revenge’, so I’m pretty sure you’ll find it interesting. I’ll email you a copy as soon as it’s done. Watch this space for stuff to be posted up.

  2. For sure, as the kids say. Trying to kill time on the long plane ride recently (to and fro), I’ve been rereading some first critique stuff – one doesn’t even need to dig too deep to find all sorts of delicious “revenge” material – looking forward to reading your paper.

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