Response to Levi (part 1)

For those of you don’t know, a few weeks back there was an intense discussion (or set of discussions) across a couple blogs, started by a comment I made on Jon’s thread about the viability of OOO (here). Levi challenged this comment, and I provided a slightly extended response (here) and this has lead to some discussions in the comments thread and to an extended series of posts by Levi (the first two responses here and here, with a series of follow-ups herehere, and here). My original comment basically just recapitulated much of what I’d said in my recent post about the affinities between Graham’s OOP and Meillassoux’s speculative materialism vis-a-vis their relation to correlationism (here), and the problems I see with them, although it did also repeat a few other criticisms I’ve made of the position on this blog before (check here). However, in Levi’s responses and in the subsequent discussions the debate turned back upon the place of normativity within philosophical inquiry, and thus upon the viability of my own position in contrast to OOO.

One of the upshots of this discussion was that Levi discovered that he hadn’t been using the term ‘normativity’ in the same sense as many of us over the past year or two, which will hopefully help move the debate forward. Despite this realisation, I’m still not sure that Levi actually has a good grip on what’s actually being discussed under this heading. Of course, he doesn’t have the same philosophical background as myself and others, and so this is perfectly understandable to some extent (Tom has done a really good job of writing a basic primer on these issues here). However, I think he’s still misunderstanding the claims being made by myself and others regarding both the general importance and specific nature of normativity. I think this is evident in the most recent exchange between Reid (here) and Levi (here and here), over how to interpret Marx’s philosophy, where it strikes me that Levi has missed the point of the contrast Reid was drawing between Marx and Latour entirely. Reid was making points very similar to the critique of Latour’s a-modernism I’ve outlined before (here and here), and tying these in to Marx’s theory of fetishisation and ideology critique. Levi seems to have interpreted this as some form of correlationist gesture, wherein the natural is made dependent upon the cultural, rather than an attempt to rethink the relation between the natural and the cultural that does not fetishise (or hybridise, in my terms) cultural objects so that one can talk about them engaging with the natural directly, in the form of hybrid ‘networks’.

All of this indicates that in addition to responding to Levi’s counterpoints and criticisms, I’m again going to have to explain just what norms are, what they are not, and what role I think they should play within the philosophical enterprise. I understand that Levi has a book to write, and I equally have a thesis to finish, but given the number of posts he dedicated to these issues and the number of points he made I felt a thorough response was called for. Unfortunately, for various reasons, it’s taken me longer to put this together than I wanted. The response is also much longer than I’d wanted it to be, due to the sheer number of issues Levi raised and the difficulty of providing a comprehensive treatment of them (the initial posts came to just over 13,000 words, not counting comments, more recent posts, or previous posts he referenced). As such, I’ve taken the decision to divide the response up into a series of posts, each of which will contain a number of sections from the full response. Earlier sections can generally be read without later sections, but the later sections will point back to the earlier ones.

This first part (sections 1-3) deals with preliminary issues, the stakes of the original debate, and my criticisms of Levi’s notion of ‘translation’.

The second part (sections 4-6) will deal with the place of knowledge in OOO, the points of convergence and divergence between myself, Levi and Graham, and my criticisms of Levi’s accounts of meaning and knowledge.

The third part (sections 7 and 8 ) will deal with how my own position responds to the motivations underlying Levi’s approach (among others), and will address Levi’s view about the nature of epistemology and it’s relation to metaphysics.

I intend to leave a little time in between posts to let people digest them, as they’re still quite long in themselves. Thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to read any of these, let alone all of them!

1. Preliminaries

Before I get to the meat of the response, there are a few things that must be cleared up:-

1) Much of my initial criticism was primarily levelled at Graham’s position, which I feel that I have a better grasp of than Levi’s. This isn’t because I haven’t read much of what’s said on Levi’s blog. Indeed, I’d already read the posts he linked to in his response, and have now read them again in more detail. The difficulty is that it is sometimes hard to gage the proximity between Levi and Graham’s positions. Of course, there are certain issues on which they clearly disagree, such as whether actuality (Graham) or potentiality (Levi) has metaphysical primacy. However, there are other issues on which this is not so clear cut, but which should hopefully become clear once Levi finishes his upcoming book. The issue with which I’m specifically concerned is precisely what ‘withdrawal’ means between their two philosophies. This is also where my concerns with the term ‘translation’ come in, which is closely linked but used more specifically by Levi. I worry that despite presenting themselves as defending a shared metaphysical thesis with the term ‘withdrawal’ that really they’re just defending a shared metaphor which loosely connects two distinct metaphysical apparatuses. This isn’t to say that the apparatuses themselves are vague, but I do think that Graham has a better idea of what he means by ‘withdrawal’ than Levi does, and I’ll endeavour to demonstrate this point in the ensuing discussion.

2) I do believe that Levi did break blog etiquette in referring to remarks I made in a private email conversation to which he was not a party:-

At the risk of breaching blog etiquette, Pete was recently asked if he wouldn’t care to carry out this debate in a formal setting. He responded by claiming that he holds his published writing to a higher standard than his blog writing and that we just don’t have enough in common to have a debate. This raises the question of why Pete has obsessively and endlessly written lengthy posts on OOO, striving to undermine our positions, while withdrawing from any sort of serious debate with us. Perhaps Pete should take the time to determine what our arguments are, rather than treating us as fodder or matter to run through the machine of his Brandomian-Habermasian mill from afar.

This wouldn’t be so bad if Levi hadn’t misrepresented what I’d said in this conversation, and then used it to make claims about what my intentions are. I’m not saying Levi deliberately misinterpreted me here, but I do think he was careless in publicly leaping to conclusions on the basis of second hand information. The above paragraph seems to suggest that I’m insufficiently rigorous in reading those I criticise and that my unwillingness to engage in a more formal setting (such as in journal articles) indicates that my criticisms are driven by some kind of ulterior motive, rather than by good reasons.

To explain the context of this, I recently had an email exchange with Graham about the bevy of posts I’ve put out criticising his position. He feels that he doesn’t have time to respond to such elaborate criticisms on the internet, because the payoff is simply not worth the time. I entirely understand his point, and accept his decision completely. He suggested that it might be better for me to write a single article summing up my criticisms, and that this would be a better way of handling the matter. Here is the relevant part of my response, quoted verbatum:-

I have actually considered writing an article on this (for Speculations no less), but I don’t think I have the time to commit to it at the moment. This might strike you as paradoxical, given the sheer amount of writing I do on the blog in my spare time, but there’s at least two reasons behind it: a) I have a much higher standard for what I’d publish than what I’d put on the blog, and I’d really like to read more of your work for the sake of thoroughness (I’ve got Guerilla Metaphysics left to read, and I didn’t quite finish Tool-Being, though I have read Heidegger Explained and Prince of Networks), meaning that it’d take quite a bit more devotion than the average blog post; b) I don’t yet consider myself to have mastered the art of article writing. The blog has done wonders for my writing speed among other things, but I haven’t yet acquired the skills to be able to churn out an article I’m happy with quickly. This just requires more practice (which I’m intending to get once the thesis is done), and will hopefully lead to re-channelling my energies from the blog into more traditional modes of publishing. For the moment though, I don’t think I can commit to writing an article. This doesn’t mean I won’t do it, just that I won’t do it in the near future.

Note that I did not decline to engage in more formal debate entirely, but I declined to do so now. Moreover, my reasons for this are precisely that I would like to do more thorough research than I have time for (given that I’m finishing my thesis), not because I’m not inclined to do such research. I would like to state for the record that I’ve probably read more of Graham and Levi’s work than they’ve ever read of mine. This isn’t a shocking fact by any means (nor should it be), but I take the accusation that I do not attempt to understand those I criticise quite seriously. I put a lot of effort into trying to understand anyone I criticise, and I would hold myself to higher (and more time consuming) standards if I was to do it in a more formal setting.

I’ve also got to explain where this idea of us “not having enough in common to have a debate” comes from. Graham had various stylistic problems with my criticisms, one of which was that he feels that it is better to first emphasise what one agrees with in one’s opponent’s positions, before outlining disagreements. This is what I said in response:-

On the point of the actual disagreements themselves, I’m afraid that there’s just not that much common ground. We disagree on a lot of things, and so it’s hard to start from a point of agreement. I did pinpoint one point of agreement in the comments on the newest thread, namely, that we agree on your R7 thesis addendum to Braver, but only if it’s interpreted in a weak rather than a strong way. In brief, we agree that all relations and interactions between entities must be understood in the same metaphysical terms, but disagree over whether knowledge is a metaphysical matter that needs to be accounted for in these terms. This leads to some quite big fault lines between us. Nonetheless, as much as I have a whole host of objections, both to your philosophical position and to your reading of Heidegger, I don’t for that matter think there’s no value in your work. I’ve gained a great deal from trying to spell out precisely where I disagree with you and why I think you’re wrong (the ‘perils’ post was especially productive). I’m with Nietzsche on the point that a great error is infinitely more valuable than a trivial truth (this is why I have so much esteem for Hegel btw, if there was ever a way to be wrong, that was it).

Notice that I’m providing reasons why I couldn’t present my arguments in the way Graham would like, rather than saying anything about the impossibility of argument. I also specify why I find arguing against OOO worthwhile despite such systematic disagreement. Now, further down, I’ll try to take Graham’s advice and emphasise the little common ground we have before outlining disagreements. Surprisingly, it seems that I share some common ground with Levi and some common ground with Graham that they don’t seem to share with each other.

3) Finally, Levi has said a bunch of stuff in his response, in comments, and elsewhere, about psychological character of those of us with broadly Kantian approaches to normativity. I must emphasise again that one can be a Kantian about normativity insofar as one takes the notions of obligation, permission, legislation, and autonomy to be the fundamental basis of all normativity, and nonetheless deny Kant’s own particular ethical views (e.g., the categorical imperative). I would also emphasise that rule-based approaches to normativity need not imply some kind of strict ethics of external enforcement as opposed to internal developement(a la virtue ethics). It’s totally possible to think that what needs to be developed is rational autonomy, and thus an internal recognition of rules one should rationally follow. However, these are side points.

The main point is this: whatever the psychological tendencies of the loose philosophical grouping to which I belong are, they are irrelevant to the truth of either our individual or jointly held opinions. Truth is indifferent to this kind of stuff. Feel free to assume that I am a creature of pure ressentiment, whose only pleasure comes from forcing others to bow to my own preferred rules for whatever. The question is still whether this has any bearing on whether the reasons I give for my positions are good ones. If you think the answer to this question is yes, then we’ve got a far bigger disagreement than anything else I’m going to talk about in this post.

2. The Stakes: Translation, Withdrawal, and Knowledge

Moving onto the substance of the dispute, it’ll be helpful to outline the major issues that need addressing. Most of these stem from the elaborated list of objections I posed to Levi on Jon’s blog (here). In summary, these were:-

1) That Levi’s notion of ‘translation’ is essentially metaphorical, because it has not yet been cashed out adequately.

2) That OOO has no good account of how there can be anything like standards of correct or adequate knowledge in the face of the ‘withdrawal’ of objects.

3) The justification of the claim that objects ‘withdraw’ that has so far been provided is inadequate.

4) Metaphysics (or ontology) cannot be prior to epistemology, because what metaphysics is is an epistemological question.

5) That the strategy OOO adopts for explaining causation in terms of perception prevents it from accounting for differences in the form of perceptual content in causal terms.

Out of all of these, the only one I’m inclined to retract is (5). I’ve come to see that although this is still applicable to Graham’s OOP, it’s not applicable to Levi. This is loosely because, whereas Graham attempts to explain causation in intentional terms, Levi seems to have abandoned the notion of intentionality entirely. This produces it’s own problems, and I’ll address them later. I must point out that Levi accused me of ‘moving the goalposts’ on this objection. However, it should be clear that the latter formulation was meant to be more careful than the former, which I retrospectively realised could easily be misinterpreted. There shouldn’t be anything problematic about this.

I also need to substantially clarify (1), as it seems to have irked Levi somewhat. Of course, in making this remark I wasn’t saying that Levi hadn’t written a lot about translation on his blog, or that he hadn’t described in detail a metaphysical process which he has named ‘translation’. Instead, my point was twofold. On the one hand, I was claiming that the reason for associating the term ‘translation’ with this metaphysical process is as yet under-developed, and insofar as this is the case, the use of the term ‘translation’ to describe it remains metaphorical. Levi can say that he’s adequately defined ‘translation’ just insofar as he defines the term to be the metaphysical process he’s describing, but this doesn’t address the real issue which motivated the adoption of the term in the first place. On the other, I was claiming that, insofar as the metaphysical account of ‘translation’ Levi has already provided is supposed to be substantively original in relation to non-object-oriented accounts of causation, the only way I’d been able to understand it so far lacked any such originality. I’ll elaborate the latter point later, but the former point requires more attention.

As far as I understand it, Levi takes the term ‘translation’ from Latour. The point of using this term to describe interactions between objects is to indicate that objects do not interact directly (much as speakers of the same language are generally assumed to communicate directly), but only interact indirectly (much as speakers of different languages that can only communicate through some interpreter that translates from one language into the other). This is meant to expand upon the key idea that Levi and Graham share – that objects withdraw from one another – insofar as it’s meant to give us give us a way to think about what underlies it. The idea here is that there is some sense in which each object has something like its own language (or what Levi has recently called a ‘subjective form’), and that any communication (or causal affection) between two objects is always in some sense ‘filtered’ by this language. If interaction between objects is to be understood in terms of communication, then it is always a matter of miscommunication.

This is clearly a metaphor, but it is one that Levi has tried to cash out in terms of his account of systems and information. I’ll talk about the specifics of this account later on, but the question I’m raising is this: does the way Levi cashes out the initial metaphor of translation adequately explicate the master notion of withdrawal? I think the answer to this is no, and it is for this reason that I take the idea of ‘translation’ to still be primarily metaphorical.

To understand the reason for this one has to understand what withdrawal is supposed to be. As I indicated above, this is easier said than done, given that it can be difficult to see exactly how close Levi and Graham are on this point. From what I can tell, it is meant to present two major insights about objects: that they are independent of their relations, and that they are in excess of knowledge of them. Lets just call these independence and excess. Importantly, these aren’t supposed to be separate insights, but to constitute a single fact about the fundamental nature of objects. The difficulties emerge in trying to understand the connection between independence and excess, and thus the unity of the notion of withdrawal, between Levi and Graham’s approaches. It seems to me that this is because Graham and Levi adopt opposite approaches to the connection: Graham argues from excess to independence, and Levi argues from independence to excess.

Both Graham and Levi talk about withdrawal in terms of a split between that which one object presents to another in an encounter, and that which the object withdraws from the other. Graham cashes this out in terms of the distinction between thesensuous object (and its sensuous qualities) and the real object (and its real qualities), respectively, whereas Levi cashes it out in terms of the distinction between the proper being of an object and its local manifestations (this is also talked about in terms of substance/qualities and virtual/actual), respectively. There are obviously a number of important differences here, but the crucial one is this: Graham begins with an account of intentionality that justifies an epistemological point about relations of knowledge (excess), and then universalises this into a general metaphysical point about all relations (independence), whereas Levi begins with a metaphysical account of relations between entities (independence) which he uses to justify his epistemological views (excess).

Now, I’ve already presented a number of criticisms of Graham’s approach (main summary here, and most recently here). The major thrust of my criticisms is that I think that the account of intentionality he starts from, and the epistemological point he derives from it, are already metaphysically loaded, and that there are better ways of understanding intentionality and knowledge that aren’t so loaded. This was the original point of objection (3) above. I now see that this specific criticism doesn’t quite work against Levi, insofar as he doesn’t use either intentional notions or epistemological notions to set up the metaphysical position that he starts from, but rather tries to use this metaphysical position to justify his epistemological position. However, this doesn’t mean that Levi is immune to objection (3). There is a serious problem regarding how we are to articulate withdrawal within Levi’s system, specifically with how we are to articulate the notion of excess which seems to be part of it. The metaphor of translation most definitely indicates that he endorses such an excess. Indeed, the whole point of translation is to further cash out the excessive dimension of withdrawal.

However, there is a legitimate question as to whether he’d want to describe it as an excess in relation to knowledge, insofar as there is a question as to whether Levi endorses Graham’s view that all encounters between objects can be described as matters of one object ‘knowing’ another. Moreover, he has recently suggested that we stop talking about ‘knowledge’ entirely and start talking about ‘inquiry’ instead (here). In order to leave this exegetical question to one side, I’m going to replace the term ‘knowledge’ with ‘access’, a term which Levi seems to be more fond of. Regardless of whether he calls it knowledge, Levi needs to think of encounters between entities in terms of something that can meaningfully fail, because the whole point of the excess thesis is to say that whatever this relation is, there is some important sense in which it fails in every case. When we characterise encounters between two entities as a matter of one accessing the other, the excess thesis is the idea that this access always fails to achieve the standard of direct access, and is therefore only ever indirect. Understanding excess in terms of directness of access is precisely what the metaphor of translation is supposed to do.

The problem for Levi is that, if the notion of withdrawal is to make sense, all relations between entities must be normativelyassessable in relation to some standard of directness, because otherwise it would make no sense to say that they all fail to meet this standard. This has nothing to do with morality, rules or any of the stuff Levi seems to find objectionable about the use of the term ‘normative’, but is simply a matter of correctness. This might look similar to objection (2) above, which I levelled against Graham. It’s not quite the same. Graham has no problem here insofar as he describes encounters between objects in intentional terms, and doesn’t try to cash out intentionality in terms of anything more basic. The objection I posed to Graham was how there can be any other kind of normative assessment of knowledge claims (such as our ordinary talk of truth/falsity) if there is a good sense in which all knowledge fails. In essence, if everything fails in relation to the primary standard, what precisely are thesecondary standards that make sense of the idea of some claims being better than others? Now, I suspect that Graham would want to tell some story about how the sensuous object plays this function. I have some further problems with this, but don’t want to get into them here. The problem I am posing to Levi is not where secondary standards come from, but how he can even make sense of a primary standard within the framework he’s adopted.

So, to reformulate objection (1) precisely: if Levi cannot make sense of what direct access between entities would involve, then the whole notion of translation, which introduces the idea of indirectness in order to cash out the excessive dimension of withdrawal, is no more than a metaphor. In the next section, I’ll try to pick apart Levi’s account of ‘translation’ in order to show that he doesn’t have the resources to do this.

Before I move on to that section though, it’ll be helpful to mention the other major issues that needs to be tackled in this post. These all revolve around the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics, and precisely what both of these are. These issues obviously come out of objection (4) above, but they interconnect with everything else insofar as questions about what knowledge is will inevitably get bound up with questions about the nature and viability of the metaphysics Levi and Graham are espousing. I’ll try to trace these links where possible. Levi’s main response to objection (4) was to invoke the ‘transcendental realism’ he gets from Bhaskar, which is markedly different from my own transcendental realism. I will try to explain my problems with this approach later on, along with why I don’t think it’s entirely suited to the name ‘transcendental realism’.

3. Information and Directness

I’m now going to try and justify criticism (1) by analysing Levi’s explanation of translation in terms of systems and information. Before doing this, it will also be helpful to examine the quick explanation of withdrawal that Levi prefaces this with:-

The qualities of a substance can change, while the substance remains the same substance. Aristotle gives the example of a man turning from light to dark. This simple observation leads Aristotle to define substance as, among other things, that which can entertain or possess contradictory qualities at different points in time. Within the framework of my onticology, this simple observation is among the reason that I’m led to distinguish between the withdrawn virtual proper being of objects and their local manifestations. If substances can remain the same while actualizing different qualities, then there must be something to substance that is radically anterior to any qualities an object must come to possess. Putting this in somewhat “transcendental” terms– I say “somewhat” because these terms here have nothing to do with minds –there must be something in or of substances that is not itself the order of a quality but that functions as the condition under which actualized qualities or properties are produced. With some modifications, I treat this dimension of substances in terms of Deleuze’s concept of multiplicities as developed in Difference and Repetition. Deleuze’s multiplicities are structures of differential relations and singularities that preside over actualizations of qualities and geometric spatial structures. I treat these multiplicities as endo-structures or endo-consistencies that can be actualized in a variety of different ways under different conditions. The endo-consistency of a substance is not itself ever actualized precisely because it’s a range of unlimited potentials anterior to any quality. I realize these points are abbreviated here, but hopefully they give Pete some sense of what I’m getting at. For me the relation between withdrawal and quality is a relation between virtual concrete being and actualization.

Now, I understand that this is an abbreviated form of what is yet to come in Chapter 4 of Levi’s book, but it’s how Levi chooses to introduce the notion of withdrawal, in order then to explain how the notion of translation elaborates this. The thing I’d like to point out is that this presentation of withdrawal as yet entails nothing about excess. In essence, what Levi does here is to explain his various equivalent distinctions between that which is withdrawn and that which is presented (proper being/local manifestation, substance/quality, and virtual/actual) by integrating three other classical distinctions: that between essence andaccidents, object and property, and potential and actual. The Aristotelian argument he presents only establishes the necessity of the first of these distinctions. It’s consistent with the Aristotelian argument to maintain that there is a distinction betweenessential properties and accidental properties, and that both are strictly speaking actual. Indeed, this is closer to Aristotle’s own position.

Levi’s approach makes whatever properties could be ascribed to the object’s proper being (or virtual structure) of an entirely different kind from the properties (or qualities) it manifests, and it makes the former describe the potentialities of the object and the latter describe it’s actual states. These additional moves require more justification than the Aristotelian argument, although it’s obvious that some of this justification is supposed to come from Deleuze. Nonetheless, although it’s clear that the distinction between virtual and actual is an important one, it’s as yet still unclear how this distinction involves any kind of excess, and thus how it involves anything like withdrawal proper. At this point, the notion of withdrawal is an interesting metaphor, and it is one that Levi aims to cash out by appeal to the further metaphor of translation. Levi’s subsequent discussion of systems and information is then supposed to cash out the former by cashing out the latter. I’ll now try to explicate the claims Levi makes here.

First of all, Levi takes it that all objects are systems, and that all systems are closed insofar as there is a distinction between the system and its environment. He then provides an account of how systems receive information from their environment, through interacting with other systems. As he defines it, information is an event which connects differences to differences. I’ve always had some misgivings about the way Levi uses the term ‘difference’ (see here and here), but I can just about make sense of the three different ways he thinks information facilitates these connections:-

1) Information connects the proper being of an object with its qualities, insofar as it selects an actual state of the system from its virtual potentialities.

2) Information connects the system and perturbations within its environment. These perturbations are themselves events, and they correspond to state-changes of the other systems within the first system’s environment.

3) Information connects the withdrawn proper being of a system with that of another, albeit it indirectly.

The important thing to realise is that these are not separate things that information can do, but that every information event involves all of them. Taken together, these are supposed to provide the basis of an account of causation. A causal interaction between two systems involves a change of state in one of them (or the production of a new local manifestation) bringing about a change in state in the other. The affecting system’s state-change (or the cause) is a perturbation of the affected system’s environment, and this produces information which selects a new state for the affected system (or the effect). Although both the perturbation and the information it produces are events, they are distinct events, and a single perturbation can produce different information for different systems. This means that a single cause can produce multiple effects, and that these effects can be different depending upon differences between the affected systems. What Levi means when he says that information is system specific is that the information events produced by perturbations are dependent upon the virtual structure (or ‘subjective form’) of the systems they affect. He’s talked about this in terms of the structure of ‘indications’ and ‘distinctions’ but I don’t think the specifics of this are very important for the point I’m going to make.

Before examining how this all this is meant to cash out the metaphor of translation, I think it’s worth taking some of Graham’s advice and pointing out some common ground I share with Levi here. Because much of what I write on the blog is about philosophical methodology and issues of normativity, people have a tendency to think that I’m either somehow opposed to metaphysics or that I will never get around to having any concrete metaphysical views. Levi slips into this interpretation of me at times, and seems to just default to interpreting me as Kant if he’s unsure about something. In truth, as anyone whose read my Essay on Transcendental Realism will know, I simply think that the critique of metaphysics is methodologically prior to metaphysics itself. This still leaves me open to the challenge that, because I haven’t yet finished the critique of metaphysics, I’m never going to actually get into metaphysics itself, and will end up caught in the kind of endless propadeutics that Rheinhold was famous for. Now, I haven’t even finished my thesis yet, so I think that any judgments about whether or not my project can be completed are entirely premature. This being said though, it’s not as if I’ve been shy about talking metaphysics. As I’ve said many times before, I’m still nominally Deleuzian as far as metaphysics goes, and I’ve written a number of things on what I take this to involve (check here). I’m still developing these metaphysical thoughts in parallel with my critique of metaphysics, and so they aren’t in a final form, but then again, neither are Levi or Graham’s metaphysics, so I don’t think that can be held against me.

Taking this into account, it shouldn’t be surprising that there is some common metaphysical ground between myself and Levi, given that we both have some debt to Deleuze’s metaphysical thought. The most interesting thing is that I’ve put forward an interpretation of Deleuze’s notion of sign-systems that is very similar to the account just outlined (see here). This also holds that all entities are systems, that they have virtual structure (understood in terms of capacities and tendencies) and that they transmitsigns between one another which select system states. I think there’s a number of ways in which my elaboration of Deleuze is more comprehensive than Levi’s approach (at least, in the cut down form he presented it). I think the most important one is that I provided a more detailed account of what I call link-systems, which are the information channels which signs are transmitted along. I think that it’s important to maintain that there can be no information transmitted between systems without such an information channel between them. Such channels can be both spontaneous and temporary, but it’s also possible for them to be more permanent and thereby to facilitate continuous exchanges of information between systems. Levi seems to have pointed in the direction of something like this in a more recent post (here), by talking about ‘structural coupling’, but I still think my treatment of the issues is more integrated. Anyway, I say all this to make clear that I’m not only not opposed to metaphysical accounts of causation based on the concept of information, but even actively endorse one. It should thus be clear that the ensuing criticisms aren’t about the viability of the concept of information, but rather about precisely what one can and can’t do with it.

So, we can now turn to the way that Levi uses this account of systems and information to cash out the notions of translation and withdrawal. I think there are two important quotes here:-

No substance ever directly encounters another substance precisely because substances always have different organizations and therefore produce different information when encountering perturbations. Each system transforms perturbations into information in its own specific way as a function of its organization. Consequently, through information different objects come to be linked, but in such a way that they simultaneously withdraw from one another.

Translation is the manner in which substances transform the perturbations of other substances according to the substance’s own endo-structure or internal organization, producing new qualities as a consequence.

In essence, Levi holds that causal interactions between objects involves some form of communication between the proper being of each object, but that this communication is indirect, or subject to translation, insofar as the information involved is dependentupon the specific virtual structure (i.e., proper being) of the affected (or receiving) object. The withdrawal of each object’s proper being in relation to the other thus consists in the system specificity of information.

Before saying anything else, it’s interesting to note how this construal of withdrawal actually differs from the way Levi presented it above, and thus also how it differs from Graham’s approach (this connects up with Levi’s more recent post here). Levi initially described withdrawal as being a split between proper being and local manifestation, much as Graham describes it as a split between real objects and sensuous objects. However, the way it is described here suggests that it is a split between the local manifestation (or perturbation) and the information it produces. This is reinforced by Levi’s suggestion that information plays the same role in his system that sensuous objects play in Graham’s. This means that Graham’s split between real qualities andsensuous qualities is not analogous to Levi’s split between substance and quality. If anything, the latter distinction is closer to Graham’s distinction between real objects and real qualities. The difference is that substance must have something likeproperties that are distinct from the qualities it manifests, because there must be particular features of objects’ virtual structure that distinguish them from one another, which are nonetheless distinct from their actualised qualities. Whatever is analogous to sensuous qualities for Levi must be part of the information communicated in causal interaction. One final implication here is that what Graham would call the intention, which both composes the causal interaction between two real objects and contains the sensuous object which mediates between them, is analogous to what I above called the information channel between two systems. This is a good analogy because information (i.e., the sensuous object) is contained within it, and it is itself some kind of system (i.e., a real object).

Moving on, we are now in a position to raise the question of whether Levi’s account of information is actually sufficient to cash out the metaphors of translation and withdrawal. As we identified above, the key issue is whether Levi can account for this idea of directness and indirectness in informational terms. Levi seems to have done this by appealing to the idea that information is system specific. However, Levi has actually used the metaphor of translation, and the corresponding talk of directness in order to cash out the idea of system specificity, rather than the other way around. This can be seen if we ask one simple question: What would it be for one object to have direct access to another? Or, put in the terms Levi is adopting: What would non-system-specific information be? Unless we have a good idea of what direct contact between entities would involve, the claim that there is no such contact makes no sense.

The application of the metaphor of translation, or the idea of directness and indirectness of access, trades on a conflation of the notions of information and meaning. We can understand the idea that the meaning of what is said can modified through translation, because we have an idea of what the meaning is beforehand. We can understand the idea that we have failed to adequately convey something only because we can understand what it would be to do so properly. Unfortunately, as Levi himself has pointed out, it makes no sense to talk of information existing in some form prior to its reception by the affected system. But if it makes no sense to talk about information both before and after its modification by the affected system’s virtual structure, then it makes no sense to say that anything has been modified. It thus makes no sense to talk about anything having been translated at all. This is why translation ends up being nothing more than a metaphor: it can’t say anything about what is translated let alone about how it is translated.

There is perhaps one clue as to why, despite the fact he admits that there is no information prior to translation, Levi thinks that there is something like translation here. This can be found in the fact that he emphasises that the qualities produced in the affected object are new. He has repeated this idea in a more recent post (here):-

The point is that every translation makes something new. A translated text is never identical to the original text. Whenever an entity encounters another entity, the entity encountering the entity transforms the perturbations of the encountered entity into something new. The mechanisms of translation are very different here from entity to entity– and in many instances we can observe how these mechanisms work –but the basic phenomenon is the same.

It seems the idea is that what is being translated is the qualities themselves. The quality displayed by the affecting system ismodified by the virtual structure of the affected system, thereby producing a new quality in the latter. The kinetic force of the cricket ball is translated into the shattered state of my window. The implication here is then that direct contact between to objects would not produce new qualities, but would simply result in something like a transfer of qualities. If this is the case, it would be a strange thing to deny, given that crystalline lattices form through state-changes in molecules bringing about identical state-changes in others. I’m sure there are similar examples of like for like qualitative changes, such as the aligning of domain polarities in ferromagnetic materials. Now, in response to this, one could claim that although the qualities produced are similarto those that brought them about, they are not for that matter identical. However, in order to do this, one either has to claim that all qualities are haecceities (i.e., purely unique), which would be metaphysically disasterous, or one has to claim that it is the fact that they are qualities of a different object (and thus part of a different set of qualities) which makes the cause and effect non-identical. This amounts to saying that for their to be direct contact between entities, one entity would have to become identical to the other. This is very interesting, because it lines up with Graham’s claim that I can never know a tree adequately because my knowledge of the tree would have to be the tree. This amounts to saying that entities withdraw from one another simply because they are different from one another.

If this is indeed what Levi thinks, and this is what he bases his epistemological position on this conception of withdrawal, then he’s open to precisely the same criticisms I’ve made against Graham’s claims about knowledge and identity (here). To sum up the crux of those criticisms here: that the possibility of error implies numerical distinction between the content of one’s knowledge and the object of one’s knowledge does not mean that the adequacy of one’s knowledge implies either their numerical or qualitative identity.

To be continued….

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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.

10 thoughts on “Response to Levi (part 1)”

  1. “To explain the context of this, I recently had an email exchange with Graham about the bevy of posts I’ve put out criticising his position. He feels that he doesn’t have time to respond to such elaborate criticisms on the internet, because the payoff is simply not worth the time.”

    It would have been more honest if he just went ahead and said that openly: “I don’t think I want to waste time writing up a blog response” and didn’t feed the public with empty promises of “I got to sit down and respond and I will of course” – as for “payoff” business, I think this is why many academics refuse to do their academic work online, you can’t put it on your CV and argue for a promotion, therefore they mostly blog on everyday thoughts and other minute things (it’s easier that way). As excited as I was 5 years ago or so about this new blog medium, it’s clear that only people with institutional commitment (graduate students and non-professionals) take their writing seriously and that unless one shows academic some kind of “payoff” they just won’t do. This is not to accuse academics of careerism, but simply to restate the well-known fact – the academic efforts to increase their value as commodities (adding various entries to their CV) take most of the time, and there’s no time for playing around…

    I’m sure if Harman found your criticisms to be serious, he would have found time to respond – his academic position is secure, he don’t need to get tenure or promotion.

  2. This from Levi is classic: “At any rate, where Pete is inclined to raise questions of how we know whether the meaning of a text has changed in translation, I’m inclined to raise questions about what’s going on in aphid and ant development. These are just two very different sets of questions and concerns. For Pete it always goes back to someone observing the ants, whereas I’m just interested in what’s going on with the ants themselves, regardless of whether anyone knows it or observes it.”

    As if the problems you’ve drawn attention to with the concept of translation apply only to its literary form. And I wish him good luck with observing the ants without observing them.

    Pete, you’re clearly winning. just a final push now.

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