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.