The World and The Real

This is a bit of an intermediary post. I’m currently working up a response to Levi’s recent posts responding to my criticisms of his position (and criticising my position), but may take a couple days to get it together. However, Levi has recently started reading my Essay on Transcendental Realism, and has posed a few clarificatory questions about the way I define the notions of ‘world’ and ‘Real’ (here). I happened to have a really good email discussion with Daniel Brigham about this, after he heard my TR talk from the Warwick workshop, and so I can copy and paste much from my email explanations without taking too much time. So, here’s a bit of a clarification of the notions of ‘world’ and ‘Real’ and a response to some worries about the role of propositions in defining them.

One way of thinking about the world is as the correlate of the most general question we can ask, namely: what is the case? or what is true? All questions leave something indeterminate, insofar as the answer to the question is meant to determine it. However, most questions determine this indeterminacy to some extent. This is to say that they are specific questions. What they leave open to determination is something very specific and delineated. The question ‘what is the case?’ is a kind of limit-case of questioning, insofar as it does not determine this indeterminacy at all (i.e., it is not specific). It leaves everything open to determination. It requires no specific answer, but rather the sum of all answers to all possible questions. The world, as the correlate of this question, (as ‘what is the case’) is what determines the answers to all questions. The world simply is ‘all that is the case’.

The problem here is that in the case of specific questions, we’d say that the correlate of the question is the object or entity they are about. If I ask ‘Where is my debit card?’, we’d say that the correlate of the question is the debit card, insofar as this is what determines the answer. We wouldn’t say that the assertion ‘Pete’s debit card is in his pocket’ (or the proposition expressed thereby) was what determined the answer to the question, but rather that it is the answer to the question. If we interpret the claims that ‘the world is all that is the case’ as the claim that ‘the world is the totality of truths’, then this would seem to produce a disanalogy between the limit-question and specific questions. This is because it would seem to make the world into a set of truth-bearers, be this understood as assertions, sentences, or propositions, and this would seem to make the world the same as the answer to the limit-question. Now, I think that this problem does not mean that this initial definition of world should be dismissed, but in fact points towards some crucial philosophical insights. I’ll try to explain this further below.

The reason I think we should think about the world in this way is because it avoids thinking about it as either a special kind of entity, which is problematic because entities are what are in the world, or as a set of entities, which is problematic because it treats the world as if it were one set of entities among others (this ties in with Badiou’s problem about the non-existence of the set of all sets). We can only say that the world is ‘the totality of facts’, if we do not take facts to be a special kind of entity. I’ll leave the term ‘fact’ behind for now, as I think it has a more specific meaning than Brandom does (he thinks it just means ‘true proposition’ whereas I think it means ‘objectively true proposition’). The important point is that Brandom is right to claim that our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence. Our understanding of true claims (or ‘facts’) is more primitive than our understanding of things (objects or entities). This isn’t to say we can understand one without the other, but simply to say how the order of explanation should go. What this means is that we must understand the totality of things in terms of the totality of truths, and that means that we can’t really understand truths as things in anything but a weak sense.

Here’s some additional distinctions that make thinking about this easier. There is a trinity of notions that are both central to language and importantly intertwined: assertions (pragmatic), declarative sentences (syntactic), and propositions (semantic). We can only understand propositions in terms of the way that they are expressed by assertions, and understanding assertions involves understanding the way they use sentences to express propositions. This is why there just isn’t language (or thought) without sentences. Nonetheless, we can’t reduce sentences to propositions, because the same sentence can be used to express different propositions, and different sentences can be used to express the same proposition. The syntactic dimension and the semantic dimension are essentially connected, but they do pull apart, precisely insofar as they are connected by the pragmatic dimension of language.

What this means is that we need to talk about propositions precisely insofar as we need to be able to say that two different assertions have the same content, indeed, so we can say that two different people take the world to be the same way. We need to be able to say that they take the same proposition to be true, just insofar as we need to be able to say that they represent the world in the same way. Now, this is really a matter of representing some part of the world in the same way, but we must also be able to say that two people agree in how they represent the world as a whole. Our representation of the world as a whole is just the totality of propositions that we take to be true. The formal idea of the world is then just the ideal set of true propositions, i.e., the set of propositions which is actually true, as opposed to what we take to be true. This is essentially Kant’s Idea of world, as a regulative ideal implicit within the structure of thought. The question then is whether we should understand the world as constitutively made up of entities called propositions. I think the answer to this is no.

The reason is that saying that two assertions express the same proposition is more like saying that two people are pointing in the same direction than it is saying that they have some kind of special metaphysical relationship to the same entity. There no more are propositions than there are directions (they are both pseudo-entities – fictions that we can nonetheless quantify over). Just as there is the pointing, the direction pointed in, and the thing pointed at, in representation there is the act of representing (assertion), the content of representation (proposition), and the object represented (things within the world, and in the limit, the world itself). We no more want to say that the thing pointed at is in some way constituted by the pointing, or the direction of the pointing, than we want to say that the world is constituted by our representing it, or by the content of our representations (i.e., by propositions). Nonetheless, in the case of the world, the only grip we have on it (qua world) is by understanding its relation to our representation of it, i.e., in relation to the structure of thought. Any other way of looking at it either turns it into an entity or a set of entities, and neither of these approaches are adequate. The disagreement between the deflationary realist and the transcendental realist (me) is just whether understanding the structure of thought (or our representation of the world) exhausts the structure of the world, or whether there is more to the world (qua world) than can be understood this way. The problem is just to articulate what it is to say that there is a real structure of the world (or a fundamental nature of reality) without talking about the world in a way that slips back into entity-talk. This is just to attempt to define the central question of metaphysics (i.e., the question of Being) without slipping into the onto-theological modes of thought that have vitiated the metaphysical tradition.

The way I try to make sense of this is by drawing a distinction between the world and the Real. If the world is the totality of what is true, this also includes things that are true in virtue of our authority, such as ‘Harry Potter is a Wizard’, ‘Pete is theoretically committed to transcendental realism’, ‘George Osborne is practically committed to cutting the deficit’, ‘In the UK, one should drive on the left hand side of the road’, etc. These are not the same as facts that are true in virtue of the existence of humans, such as ‘J.K. Rowling writes books’, ‘Pete is 5’6″‘, ‘George Osborne lives in London’, ‘In the UK, people tend to drive on the left hand side of the road’. The latter are true regardless of anyone’s attitudes about them, but the former are true only in virtue of some people’s attitudes about them (even if no one person’s attitude has special authority). In virtue of their truth being attitude-transcendent, the latter claims are objective. The Real is just the totality of everything that is objectively true (or what is really the case), which is thereby a subset of the world. We must make this distinction because if we want to get at the structure of the world in-itself, we must separate out that part of the world which is in-itself (i.e., attitude-transcendent) from that which is not.

However, this is only the first step, because it still only gives us the formal structure of the Real, i.e., we’re still only talking about the structure of thought about the Real, rather than the Real as it is in-itself. This is why we must draw a further distinction between the formal structure of the Real and the real structure of the Real. This leaves us with a trio of related notions: the formal notion of world, the formal notion of the Real and the real notion of the Real. The formal notion of the world is just that of the totality of truths. The formal notion of the Real is just that of the totality of objective truths. And the real notion of the Real is the world as it is in-itself, or the real world. What is the latter? Well, that’s THE metaphysical question. I take it to be the same as the question of Being proper. Moreover, it’s not something that can be answered in epistemological terms. Nonetheless, what this question is must be answered in such terms, and doing that involves these formal notions of world and Real.

In short, it turns out that getting clear about what we mean by ‘the fundamental nature of reality’, ‘the real structure of the world’, or ‘Being’ is a lot more complicated than it can initially seem. Nonetheless, making all this explicit is essential if we are to do metaphysics properly.

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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.

11 thoughts on “The World and The Real”

  1. Thanks for the clarificatory post, Pete. There are a couple of further points I was wondering if you could clarify.

    (1) Does your conception of the relation between the structure of thought and the structure of the world assume the large-scale veridicality of our thoughts about the world?

    To elaborate: You identify the world as the correlate of the totality of true propositions. In your response to Bryant, you emphasise that this is logically distinct from the totality of propositions held true by any existing thinkers. Given this distinction, it seems that the totality of true propositions might be massively divergent from the totality of held-true propositions.

    If this were the case, however, then an analysis of the structure of thought would fail to inform us about the structure of the world, insofar as our thoughts have largely failed to track true propositions.

    Given that you take the investigation of the structure of thought to be informative regarding the structure of the world (and thus of the Real), do you have some sort of argument against large-scale divergence between the totality of propositions held true and the totality of true propositions? (Perhaps something like Davidson’s transcendental argument against massive-scale doxastic error?)

    (2) Having identified the question of Being, that is, the task of metaphysics, where are we methodologically speaking? That is to say, having specified the question metaphysics is to answer, how are we to go about legitimately offering answers to it?

    There are a couple of sub-questions here:

    (a) I’m pretty sure you’ve posted on this before, but I can’t find it so I’ll ask you to explain again: What role do you envisage scientific inquiry playing in informing us about the real structure of the Real?

    (b) If metaphysics is to be an empirically informed task, then how does perception relate to thought?

    (3) Previously (unless I’ve misremembered, which is eminently plausible), you’ve talked about the difference between the world and the Real in terms of ‘excess’. But here, ‘attitude-independence’ seems to be doing the job. To what extent is this a substantive shift, or is this just a better way of cashing out the same thing?

  2. Oh yes, and one final question.

    How do you think the picture presented here relates to Heidegger? How, if at all, does the concept of world put forward here relate to Heidegger’s? In what ways is it superior to Heidegger’s conception?

    Hope you can find some time to answer these in the not too distant future. (-:>


  3. Hi Dave,

    I need to do some work on the question of large scale veridicality. I do have a certain sympathy for Davidson’s ideas about the necessity of most of our beliefs being true, just in order that there can be falsity, but I have a feeling that it needs to be expressed differently. I think it might be better to say that we have to agree about the majority of things in order for there to be any meaningful disagreement, or that we have to take it that much of what we think is true in order for the assessment of truth and falsity to get off the ground.

    The reason I think I’d shy away from the specific Davidsonian formulation is that I’m tempted by Brandom’s claim (motivated by a semantic holism that I share with him) that we’re always going to be in a position to revise not just our claims about the world, but the content of the concepts that are deployed in those claims. This kind of position, that he gets out of Hegel, seems to imply that there’s a good sense in which all of our claims are false in some sense, which doesn’t mix well with the Davidsonian version of the former insight.

    However, I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick when you say this:-

    “If this were the case, however, then an analysis of the structure of thought would fail to inform us about the structure of the world, insofar as our thoughts have largely failed to track true propositions.”

    You’ve got the structure and the content of thought mixed up here. It doesn’t matter which propositions we take to be true, the structure of thought just provides the formal characteristics of us taking any such propositions to be true in a systematic way. Regardless of *what* we think, we’d still be thinking in the same way. So, the objection you pose can’t get any traction.

    If you want to know about my thoughts on the relation between science and metaphysics and the role of perception, I’m going to have to refer you to the TR essay, as I’ve dealt with that stuff in a decent bit of detail in there. I haven’t actually said much about what metaphysics consists in here, but I do elaborate this further there.

    As for the relation between excess and attitude-independence, I don’t use the terms to talk about the same thing. All it is to claim that the Real is attitude-independent is to say that we could all be wrong about it all the time. The claim of excess is to say that there is some fundamental sense in which we will always be wrong about it. This corresponds to the Brandomian-Hegelian claim I parsed above very briefly. If you’re interested in this further, there’s a good paper by Brandom called something like ‘Sketch of a Program for a Reading of Hegel’ which does a good job of explaining it, that’s available on his website. Email me if you’d like a link.

  4. I have a very simple question. When Brandom defines sense dependency, he is talking about a relation between concepts. So, as Daniel Lindquist makes clear here, when he talks about sense dependency between “mind” and “world”, he is talking about the sense dependency between the concept of MIND and the concept of WORLD. Yet, when I read your post, it seems that you slide between this relation of sense dependency to a relation between mind and world, without making a clear distinction between mind and MIND and world and WORLD. As this may be a reason for Levi’s confusion (and it certainly made me confused), could you please clarify your position on this?

  5. Hi Dan,

    Sorry for not responding sooner. That’s an extremely good question, and one I probably should have already addressed.

    I’m well aware of the difference between talking about relations between things and talking about relations between the concepts that pick out those things. The reason I’ve slipped from describing sense-dependency relations between the concepts of THOUGHT and WORLD to talking about sense-dependency relation between thought and world is simply that it makes a better contrast with the debate between classical realism and classical idealism, wherein the issue is whether thought and world are ontologically dependent upon one another. This ontological dependence could also be phrased as a matter of reference-dependence between the concepts of THOUGHT and WORLD, but I feel that to do so is slightly alien to the classical approach.

    However, in doing this, I don’t think I’ve fallen into anything like the trap that Lindquist diagnosed Jon as falling into. I certainly haven’t made any claims to the effect that the world somehow shares properties with thought. I’ve simply gone from saying that WORLD is sense-dependent upon THOUGHT, to saying that one cannot understand world without understanding thought. This was just a more convenient way of describing it at the time. I don’t think that the relation of ‘being unable to understand x without understanding y’ is any more problematic than the relation of ‘being unable to understand the concept of x without understanding the concept of y’. These things only become problematic if one is committed to interpreting knowledge and understanding in metaphysical terms.

    Does that help?

  6. A measuring instrument has an output in the form of definite symbols but the underlying physical phenomena are not definite (this applies to classical events as a result of old fashioned, irreducible, measurement error and is exacerbated by qm events). The result of this is that there are approximations in science but no absolute truths. I notice that even “drosophila” is likely to lose its name soon because it was not the fruit fly we thought it was. This leaves the “truth” of much of the real as a truth than can never be absolutely known.

    Your distinction between the “world” and the “real” seems to be a distinction between symbols and physical phenomena. Harry Potter being a wizard is a relationship between symbols as is the Newtonian formula f=ma but neither are real physical phenomena.

    You say: “The formal notion of the world is just that of the totality of truths. The formal notion of the Real is just that of the totality of objective truths. And the real notion of the Real is the world as it is in-itself, or the real world. ” I would put this as: the formal notion of the world and the formal notion of the Real are relations between symbols governed by computational rules that vary according to what is being described, the rules for a assessing the “truth” of a formal notion of the Real being broadly those laid down for conducting scientific experiments.

    Can there be a “notion” of the Real? Surely a “notion” is composed of symbols.

  7. Pete, a very quick (I hope) clarifying question, and I apologize if you have addressed it elsewhere or if I should have looked this up in Brandom myself. When you agree with R.B. that “our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence,” can you clarify the sense in which you are using “primitive” here? Do you mean, e.g., sense dependency? My sense is that these are related but not synonymous, but if I’m wrong I could seriously be misunderstanding things. I assume that what you mean is that understanding the claim that a thing exists somehow requires or depends on understanding what it would mean to be make a true claim. (The latter is the broader language game, if I may mix my early and late Wittgenstein). A related question is — do you take meaning to be (in the same sense) more primitive than truth? I.e., in order to grasp whether a claim/assertion is true, we have to grasp what it would *be* for it to be true *or false*. Because you seem to be making (here and elsewhere) arguments that bear some resemblance to L.W.’s Tractatus, I assume you will agree with this, but if not, I’d perhaps best start over.

  8. Skholiast: I talked a bit more about this on the Ktismatics thread in comment 8 ( The notion of explanatory primitiveness is not the same as sense-dependency. Although we can’t understand either existence or truth without the other, the idea is that truth has explanatory priority in relation to existence, as can be seen if you follow the basic Quinean ideas about existence. You’re right to think that truth isn’t THE primitive notion though. Whereas truth-conditional approaches to semantics would explain semantic content in terms of truth-conditions, and generally take truth to be the primitive notion (e.g., Davidson), the approach I take up from Brandom take the notion of inference to have explanatory priority. Brandom’s account of truth in Chapter 5 of MIE does a really good job of explaining all of this.

    John: There are of course problems encountered in the process of inquiry. Indeed, I happen to think that the process of inquiry is never ending, and that we’ll never reach anything like a complete set of truths objective or not. Nonetheless, we can understand the formal structure of the world and the formal structure of the Real as regulative ideals implicit within the normative structure of inquiry itself. It is only through these ideals that we can get a purchase upon what metaphysics is (as the attempt to describe the fundamental structure of the world, or the real structure of the Real).

    There can be a notion of the Real because concepts are not about symbols but the norms for manipulating symbols in relation to one another, in the context of discourse. This makes it perfectly possible to grasp regulative notions, and notions which are further constructed out of them (such as ‘the real Real’).

  9. You say: “the process of inquiry is never ending, and that we’ll never reach anything like a complete set of truths objective or not”

    True. However my concern would be that we can also be in the dark about formal structures.

    You say: “we can understand the formal structure of the world and the formal structure of the Real as regulative ideals implicit within the normative structure of inquiry itself”.

    What bothers me about this is that there are probably an infinity of worlds that could be created by formal structures. Gravity is a good example of how formal structures can exceed reality: Riemann had discovered the basic mathematical underpinning of the theory of gravity long before Einstein but Riemann’s work was just a mathematical curiosity until it had a physical realisation. However, there are many potential Riemannian universes that do not occur so the formal structures did not provide truth, they merely hinted at possibilities. In view of this any formal structures would need to contain a formal structure that limits or constrains the form of theories so that they conform to reality. As far as I know the only formal structure that fulfills this role is the structured experiment.

    How would you prevent inferences from a formal structure from exceeding the constraints of reality?

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