Response to Levi (part 3)

I have to apologise that its taken so long to get this third part up. I had section 7 written when I posted the last part, but a number of things came up at the beginning of this week which have made it difficult for me to finish section 8. Anyway, it’s done, and this caps off my response to Levi’s posts. I had originally wanted to say more about Levi’s claims about Kant, specifically regarding the bits of Kant that he claims to take up, but I need to get on with other things.

Also, Levi has since posted a response to part 2 (here). I don’t want to tackle the points he makes in the detail I’ve gone into below, again, because I need to get on with other things, but I think there are perhaps four quick points that can be made:-

1) Levi now claims that my criticisms of his account of withdrawal can be circumvented by means of his distinction between first order and second order observation. In essence, this is a perspectivalist solution to the problem of how to understand direct and indirect access. The claim is effectively that because we can observe that other systems lack our own particular sensitivities to the environment, we can see that there is some loose sense in which they are not accessing aspects of the environment that we are. We can then by analogy hold that there must be bits of the environment that we are not accessing. I think this will prove very problematic, but I won’t elaborate here.

2) At several points in his response Levi makes the claim that he can address problems I’ve raised for him in regional ontology. For instance, he claims that any problems I’ve raised for him regarding the differences between intentional and non-intentional systems can be handled at the level of the regional ontology of intentional systems. The important thing to point out here is that if Levi introduces new metaphysical resources to account for the intentional relations that we enter into, then he abandons what was supposed to be the real thrust of OOO, because this is tantamount to reintroducing special metaphysical relations that only humans (or intentional systems more broadly defined) can enter into in order to secure the possibility of knowledge. However, if what Levi means here by regional ontology doesn’t involve introducing such specialised metaphysical resources, precisely what does it involve, and how can it help?

3) Levi seems to think that my discussions of a ‘shared apparatus of meaning’ imply something like a static background of meaning available in advance as a condition of the possibility of communication. This couldn’t be further from the truth, indeed, the Brandomian position I adopt more often gets accused of being too dynamic, insofar as it denies that there are anything like analytic truths that fix the meaning of our claims (i.e., it is a form of semantic holism). There are two important upshots of this. On the interpersonal level, communication is less like the exchange of fully formed meanings than it is a co-operative activity in which we negotiate one another’s commitments, the meanings of which are determined by their relations to others. On the broader social level, the inferential norms (or concepts) which determine the relations between sentences (and thus their meanings) are subject to continuous revision, insofar as the process of revising our commitments just is the process of revising our concepts. The only thing which is fixed here is the fundamental norms governing these dynamic activities. Incidentally, Levi also at one point says that Brandom is insufficiently concerned with non-discursive practices. This misses the point that such practices are in fact Brandom’s answer to the objections that his approach is too dynamic. For Brandom, it is shared practices of talking about and engaging with things (what he calls ‘thick’ or ‘object-involving’ practices) that allow for the possibility of interpersonal communication and conceptual revision. To explain this in detail would require too much space (I also don’t think Brandom’s account of this is quite adequate even if it’s on the right track), but it’s important to see that Levi is well off the mark here.

4) Finally, Levi responds to my concerns about representation by invoking what he takes to be adverse connotations of the word. He thinks that focusing upon representation tends to produce epistemologies in which there is too much focus placed upon mental contents, and this tends to obscure the importance of concrete practices, along with the social and historical dimensions of knowledge development and retention. All I can really say to Levi here is that although there are a number of good historical examples in which these coincide (e.g., Descartes), that the connotations he finds say more about his own prejudices than anything else. Brandom’s approach to representation takes account of everything he thinks it would exclude: semantic holism (against self-subsistent mental contents), thick practices, and an account of how both social and historical dimensions of linguistic practice are necessary for representation. Much as was the case with the word ‘normativity’, I think Levi’s reading too much into the notion of ‘representation’, and he needs to get over this if he’s to deal with the variety of issues that it involves (and which I sketched in the last post).

Anyway, onto the main event once more. Here are sections 7 and 8.

7. Rationality, Normativity and Eliminativism

I can now start to clarify my own position, and in doing so address Levi’s criticisms of my use of the notion of normativity (here). However, it will be useful to first get to the core of Levi’s position, in order to reveal its underlying motivation. I’ll then try to show that this is similar to the motivation for my own position. To this end, the final paragraph of his post on my transcendental realism (here) is perfect:-

As an aside, I think philosophers really need to relinquish situating epistemological questions in terms of things like thought, propositions, and perhaps even knowledge. This sort of terminology suggests far too passive a relation to knowledge and invites metaphors of specularity or mirroring. Instead, we should focus on knowledge practices or what people actually do in producing knowledge. The problem with thought is that it cuts all of those practices out of the story at the outset, as if they can safely be ignored and we can just talk about consciousness, thought, representations, and proposition. I think a number of problems in epistemology are just poorly posed because of this tendency. It might sound strange to say that we should relinquish talk of knowledge in epistemology. However, my point here is that we should instead talk about inquiry. Knowledge has connotations of factoids you look up in an encyclopedia. The concept of inquiry gets at the real work involved in producing knowledge. Philosophers, in their way of talking about knowledge, seem strangely disdainful of the practices that actual knowledge-producers use in producing knowledge. We seem to like the results of that inquiry while simultaneously treating the process of inquiry as philosophically insignificant.

This sums up Levi’s approach to knowledge neatly. He rejects propositional accounts of thought and knowledge because these treat knowledge as products indifferent to the processes of production through which they are arrived at, and thus invite the introduction of illicit metaphysical relations such as representation.

It’s not hard to see that Levi is strongly influenced by Deleuze’s critique of such accounts of knowledge in ‘The Image of Thought’ in Difference and Repetition. In this chapter, Deleuze suggests that philosophy has traditionally been too concerned with knowledge as a product, and recommends refocusing upon the processes of learning through which such knowledge is produced. He also advocates a concomitant refocusing upon knowing-how in opposition to knowing-that. Deleuze takes these position because of his commitment to the strong version of the principle of univocity, which demands that he think of all things in the same metaphysical terms. This means he that he must be able to account for knowledge in the same terms as other system states, and that he must be able to account for its production in the same terms as the production of such states. Deleuze thus ends up with a position in which the world is composed of material processes that reciprocally constrain one another’s development, such that the sociological processes through which we produce new scientific theories are viewed as metaphysically on par with the processes through which species acquire new evolutionary adaptations. Although Levi’s metaphysics differs from Deleuze’s on a number of crucial points, we can see that the motivation for his position is largely consonant with Deleuze’s.

Now, as I’ve noted above, my own metaphysical position is largely Deleuzian. Importantly, I don’t disagree with the metaphysical conclusions that Deleuze comes to in ‘The Image of Thought’. From a metaphysical standpoint, I think that the evolution of species and the evolution of scientific paradigms should be thought in the same adaptational terms. What separates me from Levi then? Why do we come to such different conclusions about propositional content?

To answer these questions it’s useful to point out the similarities between Levi’s position and another familiar position that he’s often argued against, namely, the Churchlands’ eliminative materialism. There are of course plenty of differences between Levi and the Churchlands. He doesn’t accept the particulars of their neurophilosophy, and they wouldn’t accept the particulars of his broader metaphysical project. Nonetheless, they seem to be united on one particular point: that we must cease to understand human beings’ (and other organisms’) behaviour in terms of anything like propositional attitudes. This is the point of the Churchlands’ rejection of folk-psychology – the rejection of our common understanding of one another in terms of propositionally contentful states such as beliefs and desires (e.g., x believes that P, and x desires that Q). Moreover, despite the fact that they adopt a loosely representational approach (albeit a non-discursive one), the Churchlands are also driven toward a broadly pragmatist approach to the assessment of knowledge (i.e., ‘truth’ is abandoned in favour of some kind of adaptational criteria). However, the truly crucial similarity is that they both accept that the whole way in which we talk about knowledge, and thus epistemology as such, must be radically changed to avoid appeals to anything like propositional content. On this basis, I will characterise both positions as forms of radical eliminativism.

The problem for radical eliminativism is that it ends up being self-defeating. This isn’t because it involves believing that there aren’t any beliefs, or even that it can’t claim to mean what it says. Both think that there are phenomena correlated to the notions of ‘meaning’ and ‘belief’ that must be explained, they simply deny that they should be explained in propositional terms. The problem is rather that in doing so they undercut the practices of rational justification through which they are themselves to be justified. There are at least two ways they do this.

First, both approaches undermine the idea of normatively articulated inferential relations between the propositions expressed by assertions. This is to say that they undermine the very idea that there are good reasons for accepting any given assertion. They try to replace this with some pragmatic analysis of the practical effectiveness of accepting the assertion, explained in terms of some deeper informational dynamics. Leaving aside the general problems I pinpointed for Levi’s account of effectiveness above, and the general problems Ray Brassier locates for the Churchlands in the first chapter of Nihil Unbound, there is the more specific problem that it is entirely unclear that either theory meets this proposed standard, and thus should be accepted over and above the intentionalist approaches they are rejecting. Of course, one could try and come up with some general argument for the effectiveness of reasoning in order to shore up the arguments they have provided, but this would be subject to the next problem.

Second, both approaches make it impossible for us to explicitly specify the content of our commitments, insofar as separate what determines the ‘meaning’ of what we say from the ordinary ways in which we talk about what we mean. To explain, most debates generally involve each side making additional statements to clarify the meaning of other statements they’ve made (e.g., when I said that ‘the fattest man in the world lives next door’, I meant that ‘the man with the greatest girth lives next door’, not that ‘the man with the greatest weight lives next door’). This is an integral part of the process of negotiation through which we reach an acceptable level of understanding regarding which statements we agree about and which we disagree about. For this to be possible it must be in principle possible to effectively use ‘that’ clauses to explicitly use different sentences to mean the same thing (i.e., to express the same proposition). However, if we hold that sameness of meaning is really just congruence between deeper informational dynamics, then this kind of explicit negotiation becomes impossible. Until we start examining the deep structure of one another’s information processing mechanisms, we can’t effectively negotiate anything like common understanding of what something means. This is absolutely crucial if we’re going to be able to argue about the goodness of inferences, i.e. about what follows from what and why.

It’s important to point out here that we don’t need anything like discrete ‘meanings’ that are ‘traded’ in communication in order for this kind of negotiation to work. On the Brandomian account there’s a good sense in which no one completely grasps the content of any proposition, not even the one’s they are themselves committed to, insofar as inferential roles (which determine semantic content) are potentially infinite (what follows from what follows… from the proposition and all possible sets of auxiliary premises). The important point is simply that we can take ourselves to grasp the same proposition, even if our grasp of it is potentially divergent. It’s this ability to count as talking about the same proposition that enables us to negotiate the discursive terrain of argument, and to explicitly work out where we agree and disagree.

Anyway, the point is that these forms of radical eliminativism end up insisting that we abandon forms of discourse that are essential to the process of argument through which they are supposed to be justified and assessed. The challenge is thus to articulate and justify a position which is attentive to the concerns that motivate radical eliminativism: the empirical inadequacy of intentional forms of psychological explanation (the Churchlands) and the metaphysical illegitimacy of hypostatised forms of representation (Levi and Deleuze), while nonetheless avoiding the trap of invalidating the very institution of articulating and justifying positions. This is the goal of my own approach, which by contrast I will characterise as moderate eliminativism (see here for a detailed treatment of my opinions on eliminativism).

The crux of my position is this: I accept that in there is a good sense in which there are no such things as propositions or anything with propositional content (e.g., beliefs, desires, theoretical and practical commitments, norms, etc.), and thus that nothing like propositional or more broadly representational content should play any role in either empirical or metaphysical accounts of the world. In my preferred terms, the propositional is not real. Nonetheless, I think that not only can we still engage in propositional talk intelligibly, but that there is a good sense in which we must engage in such talk. Propositions and norms (among other things) are like elaborate fictions, but they are elaborate fictions that we can’t avoid. It is the idea that we can be bound to talk about things that aren’t real, and that the description of this talk plays some kind of foundational philosophical role, that most people find hard to understand let alone swallow. Because of this I usually end up being accused of giving propositions and norms some different kind of metaphysical status, rather than no such status at all. I’m now going to try and provide some ways of thinking about these ideas that should alleviate the most common fears they spark (a different treatment of the same issues can be found here). This will recapitulate some of what has already been said in previous sections.

In essence, I think that we are all playing a very complicated and ongoing game – that of giving and asking for reasons for what we think and do. Although it is best understood as a game, it is not for that matter something trivial. In this game we use sentence tokens to make moves which have the significance of assertions, thereby undertaking various theoretical commitments. There are various other types of moves we can make (e.g., questions, retractions, declarations of practical commitments, etc.), but all moves alter our score in some way, both by changing what we are committed to and changing whether or not we are entitled to those commitments. In playing the game, we must engage in what Brandom calls discursive scorekeeping. We keep track of the commitments and entitlements of ourselves and those we discourse with. The ways in which these moves alter the score are determined by rules describing the inferential relations between sentences. We say that two assertions express the same proposition just in case the sentences they use have the same inferential role, i.e., just insofar as they alter the score in the same way. This means that propositions are individuated by inferential norms governing the the proper use of sentences in making moves and keeping score within discourse, and they do not pre-exist this individuation. This elaborate practice of trading in reasons (and acting upon them) is just what rationality consists in.

Now, I don’t want to recapitulate the whole of Brandom’s scorekeeping pragmatics here. What I want to get across is the idea that rationality is matter of engaging in a social practice in which we ascribe to ourselves, others, and the tokens we use certain normative statuses. The salient point is that these normative statuses are socially instituted. Whether or not something has a certain normative status, and what the content of that normative status is, are not things which are independent of our attitudes about them (not just our individual attitudes, but the attitudes of the relevant social group). Moreover, the content of the normative status consists in a set of norms governing how we are to behave in relation to the thing in the context of the practice. To give an example from a different game, if we have a game of poker, we can stipulate that different coloured chips are to be used in place of money, and that these will have differing values (e.g., £1 for white, £5 for blue and £10 for red). For the sake of argument assume that there is no pre-existing convention governing which colour chip should be more valuable or what the value should be. The normative statuses that are ascribed to the chips thus specify how they are to be used in the context of the game, and also ultimately play a role in determining what the consequences of the game will be (i.e., how much money people will take away), but that the chips have these statuses, and what the statuses are is something which is entirely dependent upon an agreement we make at the beginning of the game. This is an example of normative statuses which are explicitly instituted, but there are also implicitly instituted statuses. It’s very common for practices of treating things in certain ways to slowly emerge in ways which only later become codified in the form of explicit rules (or not at all).

What I draw from this social institution of normative statuses is that even though they may be predicated of real things, they are not for that matter real properties (I’ve talked about this here too). It is not an objective matter of fact whether a poker chip has a normative status, or whether that status has a certain content, in the same way that it is an objective matter of fact that the chip is a certain size and colour. Normative statuses may have a certain amount of objective content, insofar as there are objectively assessable criteria for their application, but this does not make them objectively assessable. For instance, it is a condition of being a legal adult that one is over the age of 18, but although it is an objective matter of fact whether someone is over the age of 18 (and thus whether they count as a legal adult) the consequences of being a legal adult are not objectively discernible (i.e., without appealing to the attitudes of those who institute the laws governing legal adulthood). This latter claim requires a certain amount of additional justification.

Without going into detail about my account of objectivity (which can be found in my TR essay here), its possible to provide a basic justification of this idea by looking at a common objection to it. The objection is that it’s perfectly possible to study the behaviour of any social group in entirely objective terms, and that it is thereby possible to give a purely objective account of any social roles that are instituted by the group. For instance, such accounts would explain the status of the chips in the poker game by describing the way those chips tend to be treated. The crucial point is that there is an important difference between describing the way things tend to be treated and describing the ways they ought to be treated. There are at least two good reasons for this. On the one hand, there are plenty of cases in which behavioural tendencies run completely counter to the instituted norms. To give a fairly trivial example, the vast majority of games of Monopoly I have played have ended up abandoned part way through, with victory assigned to one player on the basis of arbitrary criteria, even if there is a good sense in which we should have kept playing until one player won in the proper fashion (on the basis of this sample, the tendency and the norm would diverge). On the other hand, normative statuses are supposed to determine the appropriate way to treat something in situations which have not yet occurred. The only option here is to identify what should be done with what some individual or group are disposed to do. The major problem is that these dispositions underdetermine what is correct. There will be cases in which there simply is no coherent disposition either way. What all this means is that behavioural tendencies fail to achieve normative closure – they do not completely determine correct and incorrect behaviour in advance.

This is the point at which another objection is usually levied at me. This is that the only way to achieve such normative closure is to posit norms as some special kind of entity that completely determine the appropriate behaviour in all cases in advance. However, this is precisely the approach I’m trying to avoid. Rather, the point is that if we are engaged in a given practice, and we come to a situation in which we disagree about what the normative statuses dictate we should do, then we can proceed to give reasons for our different interpretations so as to determine the right course of action. What this means is that if we are unsure about or disagree about what the content of a norm is, we can nonetheless proceed to make this content explicit through the process of interpretative argument.

The crucial point here is that there need not be some special metaphysical thing – the propositional content of the norm – which pre-exists our argumentative interpretation of it. What it is to treat things as possessing normative statuses is to treat them as if the correct way to treat them is completely determined in advance, in such a way that when we come up against indeterminacy we can engage in a rational process through which we progressively determine the content of the norm. Normative closure is not some strange metaphysical property, but rather is itself something which only makes sense within the context of the practices of rationality, i.e., in a context where we can talk about determinate propositional contents.

There is one last objection to pre-empt here, namely, that I’m arguing in a circle: I’ve explained rationality in terms of normative statuses and I’m now explaining normative statuses in terms of rationality. The answer to this is that I am indeed arguing in a circle, but that it is a virtuous rather than a vicious one. On this approach normative notions are taken to be explanatory primitives, insofar as we do not attempt to reduce normative statuses to anything else, such as causal dispositions. Nonetheless, how these primitives function is still explained in a way which usefully elaborates their relationships to a variety of other concepts. We do not simply appeal to an implicit understanding of normative notions, but try to make explicit this understanding. The virtue of the circle lies precisely in the fact that it makes this explicit (indeed, this is why Brandom’s masterwork bares the title it does). The strategy is to explain what one must do in order to count as saying anything, including what one must do to say what one must do.

I’ll conclude this section by returning to the claim made earlier in response to Levi’s points about the relation between meaning and normativity: the notions of meaning and normativity are inseparably bound up together. Propositional content is articulated by norms governing the use of sentences, but these norms themselves have propositional content that is made explicit through the process of using sentences within interpretative debate. This is all metaphysically licit because all of the actual behaviour that this consists in can be described in terms which make no appeal to mysterious entities like ‘propositions’ and ‘norms’ (i.e., the description of talk about ‘propositions’ and ‘norms’ need make no reference to them). It is only when we engage in this behaviour ourselves – when we play the game of giving and asking for reasons – that we must start talking about such things, because playing the game involves treating what we and others say (theoretical commitments), and what we and others must do (practical commitments), as having determine content. It is simply the case that the fact that we must talk about such things in order to play the game doesn’t imply anything about their reality.

8. Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Realism

Now that I’ve cleared up the major differences between our positions, I can finally turn to the dispute over the relation between epistemology and metaphysics. This will also involve tackling the differences between the position which I call ‘transcendental realism’ and the position of the same name that Levi inherits from Roy Bhaskar. Unfortunately, as with Luhmann, I simply do not have the time to go away and steep myself in Bhaskar’s work before addressing the conclusions Levi draws from it. As ever, the consensus that we’re simply unable to read everything the other references will have to prevail here. I will base my analysis on several different posts Levi has made about what he takes from Bhaskar (including, but not limited to here, here and here). I’ll start by trying to briefly sketch Levi’s position, before pointing out the flaws I see in it, and then recapitulating the argument I provided in my original comment.

The major cornerstone of Levi’s position is something he takes from Bhaskar, which he calls the epistemic fallacy:-

The epistemic fallacy does not lie in engaging in epistemology. That would be absurd. Of course we should raise epistemic questions. The epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis that properly ontological questions can be fully transposed into epistemological questions.

This is also combined with a very particular (and, I think, peculiar) conception of what epistemology is:-

Epistemology, as I understand it, is a meta-inquiry into how we know. It doesn’t presuppose any particular object of knowledge. (from comment 10 here)

This leads to a very specific understanding of what it is to commit the epistemic fallacy:-

Epistemologically driven arguments will always pitch questions of what beings are in terms of our access to these entities.

Now, I’m happy to accept that reformulating questions of what things are in terms of our access to them is indeed fallacious. I’m also happy to concede that reducing metaphysical questions to epistemological questions is equally illegitimate. I have two problems here though. First, I don’t think that these two things are equivalent. This is because Levi’s definition of epistemology is far too narrow: not all epistemological questions are questions of access, or rather, questions of how we know. There are at least also questions of what knowledge is, along with various crucially interrelated notions such as justification, truth, and so on. Indeed, the question of what knowledge is should be the central question of epistemology, given that it is quite literally the science of knowledge. Second, to claim that one should not reduce metaphysics to epistemology is not yet to say anything positive about the relation between the two. For instance, it says nothing about which has methodological primacy. However, Levi seems to draw precisely these kinds of conclusions on the basis of the above claims:-

Moreover, it is ontology that is the condition of epistemology, not the reverse. The world must be a certain way in order for knowledge to be possible and these ontological conditions cannot be swallowed by an epistemological reduction to questions of what is given for or to consciousness.

These conclusions represent the core of the ‘transcendental realism’ he inherits from Bhaskar. This approach uses transcendental arguments to deduce ontological (or metaphysical) claims about the nature of the world from the fact that scientific inquiry is possible. This is to say that it deduces ontological conditions of the possibility of scientific practice. From such arguments Levi deduces various things, including the fact that the virtual structure of objects (or generative mechanisms) must be distinct from their qualities, and that objects must be distinct from their relations. At a glance, this seems to fit reasonably well with Levi’s approach to knowledge as I’ve so far described it, wherein knowledge must be understood in metaphysical terms (even if not all interactions should be understood as matters of knowing). However, there is a very serious problem with the conjunction of these ideas, and thus with his thoroughgoing subordination of epistemology to metaphysics.

The problem follows from the way that transcendental arguments work. This has nothing to do with the fact that Levi is using transcendental arguments to derive ontological results, rather than epistemological ones (i.e., that he’s talking about the world rather than thought). It comes from the fact that if one is to derive conditions of the possibility of anything, one must first have an initial account of that thing, i.e., one must have some idea of what it is one is locating the conditions of. This does not mean that one must have a complete account, as often the transcendental argument will extend the initial account of the thing by  demonstrating that, if the thing conforms to the initial account, then it must also have certain additional features. However, arguments about the validity of the conclusions of transcendental arguments can always regress to disputes about the validity of the premises, and the initial account of what one is grounding functions as a premise here. This means that if one wants to derive the conditions of the possibility of experience, one must have some account of what experience is, and equally that, if one wants to derive the conditions of the possibility of scientific practice, one must have some account of what scientific practice is. For example, in trying to demonstrate the conditions of the possibility of mathematical knowledge, Kant actually had to provide a detailed (and substantively original) account of what mathematical knowledge is (i.e., of the synthetic a priori). Of course, in uncovering the conditions of the possibility of this knowledge he extended this provisional account (i.e., by grounding it in the pure forms of intuition and the productive imagination), but one of the best ways to dispute his conclusions (as many have) is to dispute his premises (e.g., by arguing that mathematical truths are analytic). Applying this idea then, we can examine another quote from Levi:-

In other words, the onticological thesis is that the world must be a particular way for certain practices like perception, experimentation, discourse, etc., to be possible and that the world would be this way regardless of whether we perceived, experimented, or discoursed about it. This is what is known as a transcendental argument.

The question here is this: what are perception, experimentation and discourse? Any account of what makes them possible is dependent upon a prior account of what they are, and these are eminently epistemological questions. If Levi’s metaphysics is to begin with these transcendental arguments, then he can’t depend on metaphysically loaded accounts of any of these in order to derive his ontological conditions of possibility. This means that either he needs an epistemology prior to his metaphysics (i.e., a non-metaphysical account of knowledge), or he needs to abandon this transcendental starting point.

Moving on, let’s examine one of the specific transcendental arguments Levi makes. This is the argument that is meant to establish the split between substance and qualities, or generative mechanisms and their local manifestations. The argument is roughly that the split is an ontological condition of both the possibility of experimental practice and its practical necessity for the acquisition of scientific knowledge. To quote Levi:-

if experiment is indispensable, then this can only be because objects do not manifest their powers or capacities under ordinary conditions. Objects do not manifest or “give” their powers under ordinary conditions. Rather, it is only under the highly structured and isolated conditions of the experimental setting that we are able to encounter– or better yet, dis-cover –the powers that lie within objects. As a consequence, passively given sensations are not the origin of knowledge. Ontologically, then, the condition under which experiment is both possible and necessary is only in a world where objects can act without manifesting their act in either nature or for a perceiving subject.

The first thing to note here is that the argument turns around an opposition between experimental conditions and non-experimental conditions, or between what Levi calls ordinary and isolated conditions. The second thing to note is that it is formulated in terms of givenness. The core idea is that there is something ‘given’ under experimental conditions that is not given in ordinary conditions, and that this is a matter of the mechanisms which generate the effects encountered in ordinary conditions being revealed (or dis-covered). I’ve got a number of problems with this.

First, how are we meant to draw the distinction between ordinary and experimental conditions? For Levi’s argument to hold up, he has to be able to draw it in a way which has nothing to do with the fact that we choose how the situation is composed in the experimental case, but must instead focus on differences in the composition of the situations themselves. Put another way, it must be entirely possible that what Levi is here calling an experimental situation could occur naturally. A good example of this would be the 1919 solar eclipse that created the conditions under which the effects of general relativity were observed for the first time. In this case, although there were obviously measuring instruments involved, there was nothing else in the way of experimental setup. Levi’s approach seems to be to argue that the number of interacting factors involved in an experimental situation is somehow less than that found in an ordinary situation. A good example of this might be working out the effects of a particular microbe on a certain plant by monitoring their interactions in a controlled environment in which all other plants and microbes have been removed (but can potentially be reintroduced in different arrangements). The problem is that, once we discount the fact that the experimental situation is controlled, it’s not clear that we can draw a clear distinction between ordinary and isolated conditions just on the basis of the number of factors involved. It’s obvious that there are situations in which there are more or less causal factors involved in producing the outcome, and thus that it makes sense to talk about relative isolation, but it’s not obvious that there is a point at which a quantitative difference in the number of such factors becomes a qualitative difference between types of situation, and thus that it makes sense to talk about absolute isolation. Unfortunately, it seems that the argument Levi is giving depends on such an absolute distinction.

Second, it’s unclear precisely what is supposed to be ‘given’ in experimental conditions that isn’t in ordinary ones, and what this ‘givenness’ is supposed to consist in. At first glance, it seems like what he’s saying is that whereas we only observe the actual effects of causal powers under ordinary conditions, we can somehow observe the powers themselves in experimental conditions. This goes against Hume’s point that we don’t observe modal aspects of things at all. Rather, we must always infer the modal features underlying the production of the actual (e.g., laws, capacities and tendencies) from the actual. One doesn’t need to accept the general empiricist suspicion of modal notions that follows from this, or Hume’s argument that all such inferences are invalid, in order to accept this basic point. One can still hold this even if one accepts, as I do, that observation claims are always implicitly modal, insofar as understanding them involves grasping certain counterfactual inferences one can draw from them, because these inferential relations are part of the content of the concepts that make the observations possible. In essence, our observation claims about the actual are implicitly modal, but this implicit modal dimension (i.e., the content of our concepts) is revised indirectly by drawing inferences from new observation claims, rather than through directly observing modality. Moreover, most experiments do not produce single observations that imply facts about generative mechanisms, but instead produce whole series of observations from which such facts are induced. In these cases it is especially clear that scientific discovery involves drawing inferences on the basis of a variety of evidence (some produced in controlled conditions and some not), rather than producing some special kind of event in which a generative mechanism manifests itself. Indeed, the reason for experimental controls is usually to make sure that one gets the right range of evidence (e.g., a full spectrum of the various possible ways in which the different variables can be altered in relation to one another).

Now, I don’t think that Levi actually means ‘observation’ when he talks about ‘givenness’ here. This is because he does at points talk about the way science gets at generative mechanisms by inferring them from what is given in observation. However, this raises further questions. First, it raises the question of how observation and inference are related. This brings us back to the above objection, insofar as this is an epistemological question if there ever was one. Second, it’s hard to see how he can give an account of how generative mechanisms are ‘given’ in a sense distinct from ‘observed’ without using the very metaphysical terms that this argument is supposed to justify. Third, even if he can get around the first two problems, this still produces a certain tension within his account of withdrawal. Take the following quote:-

No one has ever perceived a single object, but we do perceive all sorts of effects of objects. Traditional epistemology has confused these effects with the objects themselves. Fortunately we do occasionally manage to cognize objects through a sort of detective work that infers these generative mechanisms from their effects; without, for all this, ever exhausting the infinity of a single object. At any rate, if objects were not withdrawn in this way, the practice of experiment would be unintelligible.

Here he seems to indicate that it is the very fact that we must infer the generative mechanisms (or modal aspects) rather than observing them directly that constitutes the withdrawal of these mechanisms (or substance) from their effects (or qualities). Moreover, he seems to indicate that the excessive dimension of this withdrawal is in fact quantitative, rather than qualitative, i.e., that inference enables us to genuinely grasp the powers of things in part, just not in full. This differs markedly from Graham’s account of withdrawal, which is strictly qualitative (as evidenced by his distinction between real and sensuous qualities). However, this kind of description of withdrawal contrasts completely with other things Levi has said. For instance:-

OOO doesn’t deny that all entities encounter other entities in their own unique way. This is, in fact, a core hypothesis of OOO. What OOO does reject is the idea that somehow the manner in which one entity grasps, encounters, perceives, or interacts with another entity has anything to do with the withdrawn being of that entity.

How can generative mechanisms be ‘given’ in experiment, by a process through which they may be at least partially inferred, and this still have nothing to do with these mechanisms themselves (i.e., the withdrawn being of objects)? Levi proceeds from the premise that we do somehow produce knowledge of generative mechanisms, and from this argues that the ontological conditions of producing such knowledge somehow imply a limit upon it (withdrawal). However, he can’t formulate this limit in the same terms that Graham does (i.e., that we simply can’t know these mechanisms) without undermining the very premise from which he proceeds. Once more, this raises the question of what is common to Levi and Graham’s use of the term ‘withdrawal’. To what extent does this pick out a common metaphysical position, and to what extent is it a common metaphor or rhetorical gesture?

Leaving these objections to one side, I can now explain the central differences between my transcendental realism and that of Levi and Bhaskar. Before getting into the meat of the matter, I’d like to make one small point. In the second half of his original response to me (here), Levi said the following:-

(it’s very odd that Wolfendale continues to refer to his position as transcendental realism in, apparently, complete ignorance and opposition (!) to Bhaskar who coined the term)

Although I haven’t read Bhaskar, I’m pretty certain he didn’t coin the term. Kant originally coined the term ‘transcendental realism’ in order to opposite to (and thus better delineate) his own transcendental idealism. Reid spoke about this a bit in his paper at the Transcendental Realism Workshop (here). Kant’s sense of transcendental realism isn’t very deep – it simply involves transposing the conditions of thought onto the world itself (e.g., holding that the forms of intuition (space and time) provide the real structure of the world). Both Bhaskar and myself (among others) appropriate the term and give it a much a more determinate sense. Nonetheless, I do think it’s possible to say that one appropriation is better than another, and I will endeavour to show why I take my own to be superior.

The crucial point is that although Levi’s approach (and presumably Bhaskar’s) is both a form of realism, insofar as it makes claims about the real structure of the world as it is independent of our thought about it, and a form of transcendental philosophy, insofar as it arrives at these claims by means of transcendental arguments, its realism is not a conclusion of these transcendental arguments, but a premise of those arguments. Put another way, it assumes both that there is a world independent of thought, and that this world has a metaphysical structure independent of the structure of thought, rather than demonstrating either of these facts (by transcendental or other means). It simply uses transcendental tools to determine what this structure is.

By contrast, it is just these facts which my own transcendental realism attempts to establish by means of transcendental argument (see my essay for details). On the one hand, it attempts to show that the very structure of thought implies that there is an objective world, by showing that, if we are able to think and talk about anything, then the truth of some of our thought and talk must be absolutely independent of all our attitudes about it. On the other, it attempts to show that the very structure of thought also implies that there is a real structure of the world that is in excess of the structure of thought, by showing that objectivity cannot be limited to the particular questions of natural sciences, but extends to those most general questions that lie at their foundations (e.g., what are entities? what are properties? what is essence? what are part/whole relations? etc.). The former amounts to a refutation of most forms of epistemological relativism, and the latter amounts to a refutation of both metaphysical idealism, anti-realism about metaphysics, and what I have called deflationary realism. I don’t think these arguments are entirely water tight yet, but we are more concerned with the aim here rather than with its achievement.

There is a further contrast between these two positions which is best approached through Levi’s comments about what differentiates Bhaskar’s transcendental philosophy from more classical transcendental approaches:-

Bhaskar is engaged in a transcendental inquiry. However, what distinguishes Bhaskar’s transcendental inquiry so much from prior transcendental inquiries is that it does not have recourse to mind, culture, language, or the human in formulating its answer, but rather to the world. In effect, Bhaskar asks not what our minds must be like for science to be possible, but rather, in a jaw dropping and audacious move, what the world must be like for science to be possible.

I suspect that Levi would use this point to show that my position is regressive in comparison to Bhaskar’s, because my ‘transcendental realism’ only talks about the structure of thought about the world, rather than the world itself. There is a certain sense in which he would be right in claiming this. This is because my transcendental realism is not as much a metaphysical position as it is an account of what metaphysics is. My aim is to give an account of what it is to do metaphysics by providing an account of metaphysical discourse that both situates it within a more general account of discourse and shows why it is a necessary complement to natural scientific inquiry. However, the crucial point is that although this project does not itself produce positive metaphysical results, it does nonetheless critically delimit the range of viable metaphysical positions.

For example, I believe that my approach demonstrates a priori that numbers don’t really exist. Many will have problems with this, insofar as it excludes from metaphysics what was previously seen as an exemplary metaphysical debate. However, the metaphysical tradition has undergone a long process through which it has critically delimited its subject matter and the kinds of answers that are appropriate to it. It is enlightening to look at the earliest metaphysical positions we find in the presocratics, in which everything is fundamentally water, fire, love and hate, amongst other things. These are bold gestures towards giving an account of the fundamental nature of reality, but they don’t yet really have any idea about what it is to give such an account. We have since realised that these gestures just aren’t viable metaphysical positions. This isn’t to denigrate the achievement of the presocratics. Without them we would not have metaphysics at all. It is simply to recognise that they lie at the very beginning of the gradual development of metaphysical self-consciousness (i.e., the self-consciousness of what we are doing in doing metaphysics). We know that saying everything is fire just doesn’t answer the question, but in order to know why we need to properly understand what the question is.

This brings me to another of the arguments from my comment on Jon’s blog (here), which rearticulated a point I’d made at the end of an earlier post (here). I’ve so far provided an argument that shows specifically why Levi’s position requires some form of epistemology prior to ontology, but the argument I provided on Jon’s blog was a more general argument to the effect that epistemology has methodological priority in relation to metaphysics. Here is the argument quoted in full:-

i) If we are to be able to have a proper argument about which metaphysical position is correct, then we must be able to make explicit what we’re arguing about, i.e., we must be able to make explicit precisely what metaphysics is. Otherwise we are either talking past one another, or open to the objection that metaphysics is hopelessly confused and should therefore be abandoned.

ii) The questions regarding what metaphysics is are epistemological questions.

iii) We can’t define metaphysics in metaphysical terms without begging the question.

iv) Therefore (i, ii & iii), there must be at least some part of epistemology, sufficient to define metaphysics, that is independent of metaphysics.

v) This means that we must at least be able to legitimately discuss knowledge in non-metaphysical terms, and and any position which denies this thereby denies the possibility of adequately circumscribing metaphysics, and thus the possibility of genuine explicit metaphysical debate.

There is the possibility of arguing that the vicious circle presented in 3 is a hermeneutic circle, rather than a vicious circle, but this requires a genuine argument. Moreover, this argument would have to be an epistemological argument that did not deploy metaphysical assumptions without thereby making it into a genuine vicious circle. I think this is an impassible bind, but if you have an argument, I’d love to hear it.

Although Levi quoted this argument in his response, he didn’t actually address any of the specific points made in it. Instead, he claimed that the argument missed the point of Bhaskar’s transcendental realism. Since I’ve now gone to some lengths to unpack the significance of the latter (at least, as Levi presents it), I think I’m entitled to claim that none of it counters any of the points made in the above argument. Metaphysics is a form of inquiry, and thus one must give an account of inquiry in general if one is to give any account of metaphysics specifically. This is just to do epistemology. This means that if we are to be at all clear about precisely what we’re arguing about in metaphysical debate, we’ve got to be able to do epistemology, and if we’re going to do so without entering into a vicious circle, then that epistemology must be independent of metaphysics. This is precisely the approach that I adopt in articulating my transcendental realism.

To conclude, I think I can provide at least two reasons why my position is more deserving of the title ‘transcendental realism’ than Levi’s. First, as I’ve shown above, my approach is not simply a realism that happens to deploy transcendental arguments, but a transcendental defence of realism itself. Second, despite being fundamentally different from Kant’s transcendental idealism, my transcendental realism is more directly comparable with it, insofar as it represents not a particular metaphysical position but a reorientation of what metaphysics is. Kant’s critique of metaphysics was supposed to demonstrate that metaphysics is an a priori discipline concerned with unpacking the content of the categories and the rest of the transcendental machinery, so as to provide the structure of any possible nature. My approach carries out an analogous critique of metaphysics, but comes to the conclusion that metaphysics is an a posteriori discipline that is both continuous with and distinct from natural science. The results are very different, but the methods are importantly similar. The similarities and differences are much more intricate than this (as is detailed in the essay), but this point suffices to show why my position has a greater claim to the title.

This raises one final point, which serves as quite a good example of the superiority of the methodology I’m advocating. In his manifesto (here and here), Levi criticises Kant for making metaphysics (or just philosophy more generally) an a priori matter. On this point, we are agreed: metaphysics cannot just concern itself with our thought about the world, but must concern itself with the world itself. However, Levi has no substantial argument for this claim, and it seems to me that he cannot have any substantial argument for it without giving methodology priority to epistemology. How are we to argue against those who claim that metaphysics is a priori? One cannot prove a posteriori that metaphysics is a posteriori. The only solution is to beat Kant at his own game, and to argue a priori that metaphysics is a posteriori. This is precisely what I aim to do.

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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.

34 thoughts on “Response to Levi (part 3)”

  1. I really don’t find much to disagree with here in your post, though I do find a lot of it trivial/tedious and condescending. For example, your points about giving and taking reasons and revision, as if somehow that’s excluded within the framework I’m proposing. You are aware, aren’t you, that social systems are among the objects of the world in OOO, aren’t you?

    At any rate, I’m curious about something. First, you describe your metaphysics as broadly Deleuzian. Deleuze was able to formulate that metaphysics without anything like what you’ve done here. If you believe he’s articulated an adequate metaphysics and was able to do metaphysics without this, then why is any of this necessary or anything more than a distraction? Second, I’m curious as to whether your knowers are entities in the world. If they are entities in the world then they are beings. Doesn’t this entail that what turns out to be metaphysically true necessarily constrains what models of knowledge we can propose or adopt insofar as minds and whatnot must be structured according to these structures of being as well? In this respect, it seems odd to simply wave away Deleuze’s critique of representation in “The Image of Thought”.

    1. I don’t see what’s “trivial/tedious and condescending” about any of this, certainly not the example you cite, where Pete is simply restating his own position and the reasons he finds it incompatible with your own. You may think that you can accommodate the content of Pete’s position, but his whole point is that it must have methodological priority over any metaphysical considerations, whereas you try to reduce it to a matter of regional ontology (a point which Pete explicitly criticizes at the beginning).

      Being a “knower” as you put it is a socially-instituted status that certain entities bear within the context of the “game of giving and asking for reasons”, not an objective character of the entity in-itself. It is simply a way we *treat* certain entities (in this case, those entities being ourselves and others). And while the objective character of those entities certainly entails certain limits on what statuses it can bear, insofar as one cannot be legitimately obligated to do something it is not possible to do (ought implies can), this is only a constraint, not anything like a complete determination. Moreover, we can’t begin from what is objectively true about the knower without first having specified what it is to be ‘objectively true’ or ‘metaphysically true’, and hence what ‘objectivity’ and ‘metaphysics’ are. These are (epistemological) questions about our “model of knowledge” that must be answered prior to more precisely determining how the content of claims that bear this truth-status might require us to recognize material constraints on the possibility of knowledge-acquisition.

      Pete has provided above a very sound argument as to why we should begin by considering epistemological questions (including the role of propositions and norms), an argument to which you haven’t responded. If he hasn’t gone into greater detail about the place of “actual practices”, it’s probably because fully fleshing out these fundamental concerns is more important to him at this point.

      1. Reid,

        You keep making this argument, but I just don’t see it. Pete has already argued that he adopts a Deleuzian metaphysics. This is a highly curious thing for him to say as 1) Deleuze did not engage in such an analysis, yet still nonetheless, in Pete’s view, managed to develop a largely adequate metaphysics. And 2) because one wonders how, within the framework of his own argument, he could find Deleuze’s ontology to be largely adequate as such a decision requires, according to Pete, a prior investigation of the sort he proposes to do here. In other words, Pete seems to be violating his own methodological claims or pretensions. Additionally, we can point out that scientists do not do this sort of work, yet seem to get on just fine. How and why is that?

        Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we should just say whatever we want, that we should be free from criticism, or that we don’t work with preconceptions in our work. I just disagree with the idea that we must engage in a propodeutic investigation prior to inquiry. Criticism and revision is something that arises over the course of inquiry and investigation. Again, think of the young person who wishes to become a doctor. Do they know what being a doctor is prior to undergoing their training? No, they have only a vague knowledge of what it is to be a doctor. In the course of their training this notion is revised and reworked becoming richer and richer. So too in philosophy, I believe. The problem with the “prior to” thesis is that it wants knowledge before doing the work of knowledge.

      2. Pete’s pretty clear in his comment below that while he finds the claims of Deleuze’s metaphysics to be largely compelling, he does not think Deleuze himself provides adequate justification for these claims. Pete’s project is to build an appropriate structure of justification for these (or really, any) metaphysical claims. The fact that Deleuze does not himself adequately justify these claims does not prevent them from being compelling or worthy of justification.

        The fact that an adequately justified set of metaphysical claims requires an epistemological specification of the nature of metaphysical discourse does not mean that any claims made without taking such a specification into account before hand cannot for that reason be justified within a discourse that is so grounded.

        Pete is not violating his own methodology, a key premise of which you have either consistently overlooked or ignored: he is aiming to explicate the normative structure of rationality that is implicitly operative within every rational discourse, including those of metaphysics and natural science, so as to clarify our understanding of how justification operates within these discourses and hence reinforce the inferential relations between the claims made within them. The point is not that science or metaphysics can’t be done without such a methodological grounding, but that they can be done better with it. Pete, in this regard, is trying to *improve* upon Deleuzean metaphysics.

        “I just disagree with the idea that we must engage in a propodeutic investigation prior to inquiry.”

        Well that’s fine, but in that case, you have to challenge Pete’s argument for the necessity of epistemological grounding by either challenging some of the premises or the soundness of the inferential relations between them. You have not done either, and hence have not shown yourself to be entitled to this disagreement.

        Your example about doctors is a strange one. Of course doctors need to receive preliminary training, but this is precisely what Pete is arguing for: in order to engage in the activity of being a doctor, one must beforehand develop an adequate grasp of what normative requirements are involved in ‘being a doctor’, and thus what proper conduct is in the context of medical inquiry; similarly, Pete is claiming that one should develop an adequate grasp of what normative requirements are involved in ‘being a rational agent’, and concomitantly, what requirements are involved in ‘engaging in metaphysical discourse’. It seems that your approach would advocate that doctors get all the training they need on the job. Of course, before the modern formalization of the medical establishment, this was trivially true in that the norms of proper medical practice were not fully explicated, nor was obligation to them instituionally and legally instated. But these days its down right illegal to practice medicine before proving one has an adequate grasp of the norms by which a practitioner is bound. Pete is not suggesting anything nearly as rigorous when it comes to metaphysics, but nonetheless, the analogy works far better in favor of his position. From what I can tell, you’re arguing that doctors can learn all they need from practicing medicine, and should not be obliged to engage in a propodeutic prior to such practice.

      3. Reid,

        I think you entirely miss the point of my argument. The fact that Pete can recognize that someone is capable of doing adequate metaphysics without engaging in the sort of project he’s proposing indicates that the project he’s proposing is superfluous from the standpoint of metaphysics or unnecessary. Of greater concern, the fact that Pete can endorse a particular metaphysics before completing his propaeduetic project of grounding indicates that, in point of fact, the criteria by which he endorses or does not endorse a particular metaphysics do not arise from this project of epistemological grounding. If this is of deeper concern– within Pete’s framework (I’m making an immanent critique here) –then this is because it suggests that Pete is backloading his epistemology from a prior set of metaphysical commitments he’s already made.

        Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that a project of the sort Pete wishes to engage in can’t be interesting and valuable, only that it is not necessary in the manner that he’s suggested. Deleuze got along just fine without it, just as the scientist gets along just fine without it. I do think, however, that such a project can be particularly valuable at the level of second-order reflexivity in various social systems. What Pete is up to, I think, is a second-order reflexive analysis of the norms governing knowledge in a particular social system. To wit, in philosophy. Through a reflexive analysis of these norms implicit in various practices, these norms can be codified– if others buy them –and become regulatory devices within a particular social system– e.g., among philosophers –assisting in the intensification of certain domains of research and how that research is conducted. That is a potentially valuable enterprise and I really have no objection to it. This is one of the ways in which social systems come to be formed and autopoiesis within social systems is set in action.

        My objection to Pete– apart from some other objections I’ve made –really revolves around Pete’s constant suggestion that I or others should be engaging in this project. As I said over at Larval Subjects, my questions revolve more around what’s going on in ant and ant colonies, whereas Pete is much more interested in observers of ants and ant colonies and the norms governing their observations. With respect to my own questions and problematics, I just see Pete’s proposal as a needless distraction– though valid in its own right –and already believe I have the resources to integrate a number of the claims he’s making without making his type of work an explicit focus of my own research.

        Lately, in light of these discussions, I’ve also found myself wondering whether there aren’t, in a manner analogous to E.O. Wilson’s famous thesis, two cultures in philosophy and theory. On the one hand, there is that philosophical culture that sees the core of philosophical questioning as lying in questions of epistemology. On the other hand, there is that philosophical culture that sees the core of philosophical questioning as lying in ontology. The two cultures have a very difficult time talking as they’re just talking about two very different sets of things. In a number of respects, they’re opposed by the two poles of the subject-object relation. The ontologists want to talk about the object-pole and treat the subject as just one more object, with unique properties to be sure, among other objects. The epistemologists want to talk about the subject-pole.

        I will say, however, that I think a particular rhetoric pervades Pete’s discussion of these issues. His points about methodological rigor and so on mark all those not doing the sort of work he’s doing as lacking in methodological rigor and as being incapable of accounting for what he’s seeking to account for. This is what I was getting at in characterizing Pete’s discussion as uncharitable and condescending. Pete doesn’t seem to recognize that when you’re talking about the ants you can’t simultaneously talk about these other epistemological issues, but that that doesn’t, in principle, entail that it’s impossible for you to talk about these other issues. Pete has charged me with making a number of rather absurd claims, which begs the question of just how well he’s applying Davidson’s principle of charity in his discussions. When I characterize his remarks as a rhetoric, this charge, I believe, is supported by the fact that Pete endorses a metaphysics prior to having done his epistemological work that would allow him to endorse such a metaphysical system, yet does not extend this same charity to those he’s arguing against.

      4. And honestly, Reid, do you really truly believe that I’m arguing what you’re suggesting about doctors? Would a reasonable person advocate such a position? I certainly don’t think so and, given your criticism of such claims, don’t think you think so either. If that’s the case, why would you attribute such claims to me? My point is not that we just jump in and learn everything by doing it, but that normativity is something that arises in process while engaging in certain activities. Part of this is inherited from prior generations as in the case of the student that goes on to study medicine and finds herself enmeshed within a social and institutional framework that preceded her and that represents the accumulation of prior knowledge and norms. Part of it emerges at any given time among doctors, revising norms and standards, etc., as a result of new experience and research. My point is that these dimensions can never be neatly separated such that we can speak of a “prior to” that must first be accomplished before engaging in research. The Lacanian clinic would be another example. To be sure, analysts begin the treatment of any analysand with certain norms about how to conduct themselves with respect to their analysand. However, there’s also a strong sense in which the clinic is tremendously open normatively in the sense that the analyst doesn’t begin with an idea of how analysis should be concluded and what should become of the analysand. In this connection, a good deal of analysis consists in the analysand constructing norms for herself over the course of analysis.

      5. “The fact that Pete can recognize that someone is capable of doing adequate metaphysics without engaging in the sort of project he’s proposing indicates that the project he’s proposing is superfluous from the standpoint of metaphysics or unnecessary. ”

        This is wrong. “Doing metaphysics” does not involve only making metaphysical claims, but justifying those claims. One can make relatively compelling metaphysical claims without adequately justifying them. Pete’s project is not superfluous because it provides the necessary means of ensuring sound justification for metaphysical claims.

        “the criteria by which he endorses or does not endorse a particular metaphysics do not arise from this project of epistemological grounding.”

        Of course, but this is simply, as Pete has striven to show, because metaphysics is not a priori but a posterori. His epistemological grounding is intended only to provide the means of precisely discriminating between adequately justified metaphysical claims from ones that are not so justified, and hence to strengthen a discourse that, as Pete and anyone would readily admit, has been well under way for millenia.

        “If this is of deeper concern– within Pete’s framework (I’m making an immanent critique here) –then this is because it suggests that Pete is backloading his epistemology from a prior set of metaphysical commitments he’s already made.”

        This is wrong. Pete’s epistemological claims have no metaphysical assumptions and are not themselves metaphysical. The fact that Pete has metaphysical commitments apart from his epistemological concerns is not sufficient to show that his engagement with the latter is tainted by the former. You would have to show how his commitment to Deleuzean metaphysics is an implicit premise of his epistemological arguments, or how the latter implicitly favor metaphysical conclusions of a Deleuzean stripe, neither of which you have done.

        “My objection to Pete– apart from some other objections I’ve made –really revolves around Pete’s constant suggestion that I or others should be engaging in this project.”

        And again, if you are to be entitled to this objection you will have to show why his argument for the necessity of this project (or at least something like it) is invalid, something you still have not done.

        “With respect to my own questions and problematics, I just see Pete’s proposal as a needless distraction– though valid in its own right –and already believe I have the resources to integrate a number of the claims he’s making without making his type of work an explicit focus of my own research.”

        But his argument isn’t that you should ‘integrate claims he’s making’. His argument is that you cannot adequately justify your metaphysical claims without explicating, in an epistemological manner prior to metaphysics, what ‘metaphysics’ is, what ‘knowing’ is, etc. However, as I keep insisting, this epistemological grounding is only necessarily prior to an *adequately justified metaphysics* (including the justification that one’s claims are legitimately metaphysical ones), not to the making of metaphysical claims per se.

        “On the one hand, there is that philosophical culture that sees the core of philosophical questioning as lying in questions of epistemology.”

        Neither Pete nor myself, as you seem to imply, subscribe to the thesis that “the core philosophical questions” are epistemological. Indeed, metaphysical, ethical and aesthetic questions, to name only a few, are significant parts of philosophical inquiry and are irreducible to epistemological questions.

        “I will say, however, that I think a particular rhetoric pervades Pete’s discussion of these issues.”

        Whether or not there is such a rhetoric (I don’t see it), the fact remains that distaste for the rhetoric in which an argument is furnished is no excuse for rejecting the argument. If you don’t like the tone, that’s fine, but you’ve all but conceded the point in refusing to answer the argument.

        “Pete doesn’t seem to recognize that when you’re talking about the ants you can’t simultaneously talk about these other epistemological issues, but that that doesn’t, in principle, entail that it’s impossible for you to talk about these other issues.”

        Pete has not suggested that your “talk about ants” does not provide an insufficient epistemological grounding, but that your *epistemology* provides an insufficient epistemological grounding.

        “When I characterize his remarks as a rhetoric, this charge, I believe, is supported by the fact that Pete endorses a metaphysics prior to having done his epistemological work that would allow him to endorse such a metaphysical system, yet does not extend this same charity to those he’s arguing against.”

        If you believe Pete is being insufficiently charitable or mischaracterizing your positions, then it is incumbent on you to correct him.

        As I’ve already said above, endorsing metaphysical claims does not in and of itself undermine the validity of methodologically prior epistemological claims made afterward. Having an adequate epistemological grounding is not necessary for endorsing metaphysical claims. It is, however, according to Pete’s argument, necessary for *justifying* one’s endorsement of metaphysical claims. However, Pete’s epistemological framework does basically nothing to favor Deleuzean metaphysical claims, and one could presumably adopt it in order to advocate for something resembling an “object-oriented” metaphysics. Unfortunately, you don’t seem to be in a position to do so insofar as you insist on treating epistemological issues as a subset of metaphysical issues. Pete has, moreover, provided a pretty sturdy argument for why such an approach is flawed, one which, again, you haven’t answered.

        “And honestly, Reid, do you really truly believe that I’m arguing what you’re suggesting about doctors? Would a reasonable person advocate such a position? I certainly don’t think so and, given your criticism of such claims, don’t think you think so either. If that’s the case, why would you attribute such claims to me? ”

        I don’t think you intend to argue as much, which is why I saw fit to employ a reductio ad absurdum: the premises you provided, when carried through, led to an absurd conclusion I don’t assume you’d endorse. In this case, the argument implicit in your example, taken together with your broader commitments, led to an absurd extension of the example, an absurdity which moreover did not appear to arise from a limitation of the analogy. This absurd conclusion was intended to be evidence that your premises need to be reevaluated.

        “My point is that these dimensions can never be neatly separated such that we can speak of a “prior to” that must first be accomplished before engaging in research.”

        The point is not that one must explicitly engage in epistemology before engaging in metaphysics, but that 1) one already subscribes to certain implicit norms of conduct insofar as one can recognize oneself and be recognized by others as engaging in metaphysics (or any other kind of research); 2) some of these norms include fundamental norms that hold in any rational discourse; and 3) explicating the norms of both rationality and general and of a specific field improves the research done in that field, in that it makes clear what one must do, allows better understanding of violations of the norms of the field, opens those norms to explicit revision in cases of outmoded or politically prejudiced expectations, and ultimately provides better resources for justifying ones claims and thus defending the positions developed in the course of research. So your characterization of Pete as indicting researchers of undue haste is, once again, mistaken. The point is not that such research is impossible without epistemological grounding, but that it would greatly benefit from it. The further argument he’s advancing here is that your position is incoherent, because one cannot consistently reduce epistemological concerns to metaphysical ones, as doing so strips one of the necessary means of justifying one’s metaphysical claims.

      6. Reid,

        I guess we’ll just have to disagree. I believe there’s a massive contradiction between Pete endorsing a particular metaphysics and claiming that one must have an epistemological account of what metaphysics is and how its possible prior to endorsing any particular metaphysics. Given that Pete has not yet completed his project, he’s not, by his own lights, entitled to endorse any particular metaphysics because he doesn’t yet know what metaphysics is and the norms governing such claims. In short, his argument autodeconstructs. Additionally, the repeated claim that such a project is necessary coupled with the claim that these norms are already implicit in the discourse and research of others severely diminishes the force of the entire argument for the necessity of such a project. Why is it, for example, that scientists are entitled to get along without such an inquiry in their work, yet ontologists are not? There also seems to be a double standard in how this argument is being deployed. On the one hand, it is conceded that these norms can already be operative in a particular investigative project, yet on the other hand, it is implied, when convenient, that any inquiry that doesn’t engage in such a project is nonsense on stilts, making outrageous dogmatic claims, in the absence of such an inquiry. Of course, this form of argument is only advanced against other ontologies, and never at those scientists or Deleuze, which is peculiar. Finally, I do believe I’ve provided epistemic grounding for my claims and have simply moved on to doing the work of ontology having done that work.

        As for treating these sorts of issues as questions of regional ontology, the point is very simple. Knowers are beings or existents. Knowledge is a relation that a specific entity or variety of entities are capable of, not a power common to all entities. As a consequence, an inquiry into knowledge is a matter for regional ontology. Although I don’t share his particular metaphysics, I think the philosopher Samuel Alexander puts the point very nicely at the beginning of Time, Space and Diety:

        …the effect of the empirical method in metaphysics is seriously and persistently to treat finite minds as one among many forms of finite existence, having no privilege above them except such as derives from its greater perfection of development. Should inquiry prove that the cognitive relation is unique, improbable as such a result might seem, it would have to be accepted faithfully and harmonised with the remainder of the scheme. But prima facie there is no warrant for the assumption, still less for the dogma that, because all experience implies a mind, that which is experienced owes its being and its qualities to mind. Minds are but the most gifted members known to us in a democracy of things. In respect of being or reality all existences are on an equal footing. They vary in eminence; as in a democracy, where talent has an open career, the most gifted rise to influence and authority. (6)

        I understand– I think –that Pete is not among those who claim that objects are dependent on minds insofar as he claims to be a realist. I just object to the focus on the particular relation of knowledge, that’s all. If you’re concerned with whether or not I advocate the law of identity and non-contradiction, we can put that concern to rest. I do advocate these things. However, it seems pretty trivial to argue that because one is not making the truth of the principle of non-contradiction and identity a matter for their inquiry or because they are not belaboring the question of what metaphysics is, they reject these things. I suspect that the scientist would respond quizzically to these Meno-esque questions, shrug, say sure, and get back to work.

      7. “I believe there’s a massive contradiction between Pete endorsing a particular metaphysics and claiming that one must have an epistemological account of what metaphysics is and how its possible prior to endorsing any particular metaphysics. Given that Pete has not yet completed his project, he’s not, by his own lights, entitled to endorse any particular metaphysics because he doesn’t yet know what metaphysics is and the norms governing such claims.”

        This is wrong on several counts. First, Pete’s position is not, and I’ve already said this in several different ways in the preceding comments (not to mention that Pete also makes this point regularly), that one can not be entitled to any metaphysical claims without a complete and exhaustive epistemological grounding. His point is that, in justifying entitlement to metaphysical claims, we must resort to implicit (epistemological) norms governing what it is to make such claims, and that one can better justify one’s claims by explicating these implicit norms.

        Second, the notion that Pete “doesn’t yet know what metaphysics is and the norms governing such claims” is a profound misunderstanding. The point is not that we begin not knowing what metaphysics is and so have to figure it out before we can do it. Rather, the point is that we begin with an implicit understanding of metaphysics, one which is relatively unclear and potentially untenable and in need of revision. This understanding is implicit in the practice of doing metaphysics. Pete’s point is that we can clarify what we mean by metaphysics and thus explicitly articulate the norms governing it (norms which we already implicitly obey), and in doing so, we can rid the discipline of imprecise and inconsistent ideas of what doing metaphysics entails, and in doing so, both strengthen justifications of our positions and create a more substantial debate within the discipline that does not run aground on disagreements about the nature of the discipline.

        Third, Pete does provide a preliminary, but nonetheless relatively fleshed out definition of metaphysics in his “Essay on Transcendental Realism”, and while his ‘fundamental deontology’ project isn’t complete, he certainly has provided an adequate basis on which to reground metaphysics (at least adequate for his own purposes).

        Once these mischaracterizations are dispelled, you are left with very little in the way of justification for your claim that “there’s a massive contradiction” in Pete endorsing certain metaphysical claims.

        “Additionally, the repeated claim that such a project is necessary coupled with the claim that these norms are already implicit in the discourse and research of others severely diminishes the force of the entire argument for the necessity of such a project.”

        Maybe I haven’t been entirely clear on this point. It is not the project of explicating the implicit epistemological norms governing metaphysics that is necessary. Rather, what is necessary is *that* there are shared norms implicit in the practice of metaphysics, that these implicit norms *can* be made explicit, and that this can be done without construing these norms themselves in metaphysical terms.

        “Why is it, for example, that scientists are entitled to get along without such an inquiry in their work, yet ontologists are not?”

        Obviously, no researcher from any discipline answers to Pete, and in that regard, they are certainly entitled to get on with their work without his approval. Yet that’s not the point. The point is that the members of a common field of research all agree that there are norms that they share in common. In the case of science, many of these norms have been made explicit, and participation in the field is in large part regulated by institutions that verify norms are being properly observed. Ontology, while also institutionally regulated, has far less strenuous standards for what institutional legitimation.

        Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I’d even argue that philosophy needs looser institutional regulation than science), but the problem is that lack of institutional enforcement should be compensated for by self-policing of the practitioners, who should hold themselves and each other to high standards so as to make progress. Yet while metaphysics and ontology are by no means complete free-for-alls, both have become relatively stunted on both sides of the pond insofar as there is so little agreement on what it is to engage in these disciplines (not only between analytics and continentals, but within both camps as well).

        The point of a project like Pete’s is it allows us to both sift through existing metaphysical claims and see what is and is not worthy of the title, and thus worthy of future argumentative effort, and to establish a solid, unambiguous common ground on which different positions can engage in genuine arguments and make progress.

        “On the one hand, it is conceded that these norms can already be operative in a particular investigative project, yet on the other hand, it is implied, when convenient, that any inquiry that doesn’t engage in such a project is nonsense on stilts, making outrageous dogmatic claims, in the absence of such an inquiry.”

        I’m not sure where you’re seeing this implied. What is a point of concern is not positions that *don’t* explicitly ground themselves epistemologically, but positions that render such grounding *impossible*. Pete has provided an argument that your position is guilty of the latter insofar as it makes epistemological concerns wholly dependent on a metaphysical framework.

        “Of course, this form of argument is only advanced against other ontologies, and never at those scientists or Deleuze, which is peculiar. ”

        If a scientist were to reduce epistemological concerns entirely to their field of study, they’d be equally indicted by this argument. As for Deleuze, Pete is very explicit that he only selectively endorses his metaphysics on the basis of methodological considerations alien to his system. Nonetheless, Pete sees the Deleuzean critique of representation as limiting the metaphysical status we can legitimately ascribe to epistemology, and seeks to extend it by proposing a manner of thinking about epistemology in non-metaphysical terms.

        “Finally, I do believe I’ve provided epistemic grounding for my claims and have simply moved on to doing the work of ontology having done that work.”

        The problem is that you insist on making this epistemological grounding supervene on the metaphysical system it is intended to ground, thus leading to exactly the problem Pete diagnoses in his five-part argument above.

        “I just object to the focus on the particular relation of knowledge, that’s all.”

        But on what ground do you object to this focus? Is it a matter of taste? This focus does not add up to giving relations of knowledge the questionable metaphysical status idealism ascribes them, nor to rendering metaphysical questions unintelligible in the manner of correlationism. So what is the objection?

        “However, it seems pretty trivial to argue that because one is not making the truth of the principle of non-contradiction and identity a matter for their inquiry or because they are not belaboring the question of what metaphysics is, they reject these things.”

        But that is not the argument. The argument is that norms of this sort are socially-instituted and have no metaphysical reality (although they may reflect certain characteristics of the world, but making that point is explanatorily secondary), and moreover, that what metaphysics *is* cannot be explained solely in metaphysical terms: one must be *capable* of giving an account of what metaphysics is that is not dependent on any metaphysical claims (even if one does not in fact give such an account). If the definition of metaphysics depends on particular metaphysical claims, then one is employing a classically circular argument. This is what Pete argues you are doing, and so you must either show why doing so is not viciously circular (ie you must show how this is a hermeneutic circle), or you must show how doing so is not circular (ie you must show how the premises of Pete’s argument or the chain of inference between them are invalid).

      8. Levi: I can’t do a better job responding to your points than Reid is doing, but I can add a couple things. First, you’re again confusing methodological and temporal priority. As I said in the post, the tradition of metaphysics does not start with me. I’m simply trying to bring a certain level of explicitness to it in order to work out the parameters of metaphysical debate. This involves rejecting certain metaphysical positions a priori, but many can’t be so rejected. There’s nothing contradictory about this unless I endorse a metaphysics that is ruled out by this critical project, and so far, nothing I’ve come across has undermined any of the metaphysical views I’ve endorsed.

        Here’s a better analogy though. What I am doing is analogous to a meta-ethical inquiry. Such inquiries have methodological priority in relation to ethics insofar as they clarify the terrain of ethical debate, in doing so rule out certain ethical positions as being untenable. Does this mean that one can’t hold ethical positions until one has satisfactorily answered all meta-ethical questions? No. It’s perfectly consistent to still have ethical opinions while engaging in meta-ethical debate. It’s simply not consistent to retain those opinions if meta-ethics ends up ruling them out in principle.

        I’ve gone to a great deal of effort to make sure that none of my critique of metaphysics is dependent on the particular metaphysics I’m inclined towards, and that the metaphysical positions I tentatively endorse stand up to the results of this critique. I’ve strived for both explicitness and consistency. If you’d like to claim otherwise you’ve got to actually point out specific points at which I’m inconsistent.

    2. Levi: Reid’s done a pretty good job of responding to much of what you said, but here’s the clarification on my relationship with Deleuze. My project has grown out of a singular frustration with Deleuze’s metaphysics, to whit, that although we can reconstruct a pretty good picture of *what* Deleuze thinks, *why* he thinks it is less clear. In short, as much as I like his metaphysics, I think he lacks the methodological resources to adequately justify it. My project began as an attempt to figure out how one could possibly justify a Deleuzian metaphysics, and to some extent I’ve had to go against Deleuze in order to do this. Nonetheless, my own metaphysical opinions are still largely Deleuzian, even if my epistemological and meta-metaphysical opinions are somewhat divergent.

      I haven’t brushed aside Deleuze’s critique of representation in the image of thought. I’ve taken it to heart. I simply see it as placing constraints on how we are to understand the *metaphysical* reality of knowledge and inquiry. I just think that there are a number of reasons (which I’ve presented above) why we should think of knowledge in non-metaphysical terms.

      Yes, I’m aware (and indeed wrote about) the fact that OOO talks about social systems. The point is that it can’t talk about them in the requisite terms, because it seems to insist that everything be understood metaphysically, including the social statuses constitutive for rationality.

  2. I’ll also note that in treating norms that are constantly revised and negotiated you’ve pretty much conceded my point or critique. Additionally, your three posts here perfectly exemplify my worries about representation. You talk about how Brandom’s theory is premised on “thick practices” (metaphor?), yet throughout your three posts you only ever talk about propositions, representations, and norms. Real concrete practices never figure heavily in your discussion anywhere but are merely evoked like some sort of place-holder that’s alleged to be important without playing any important role in your discussions. I don’t think your comparison of my position to the Churchland’s holds up and believe that it indicates that you haven’t understood the point of the critique. My point has never been that there aren’t representations, propositions, etc. My point is that we need to focus on actual practices and what people genuinely do in arriving at knowledge in their engagement at the world. We focus far too much on propositional content and not nearly enough on knowledge producing activities.

    1. I’d beg to differ here. As I’ve repeated ad nauseam, there is a distinction between socially instituted norms (which are revisable) and transcendental norms (which aren’t). The latter provide the structure of the revision of the former. See for example a previous discussion we’ve had on your blog:-

      With regard to practices, I’ve written about them quite a bit elsewhere. In particular, I’ve had a number of good discussions about them with Jon on his blog. I might not put forward quite so many examples about chefs and analysts, but I don’t think this should detract from my general remarks about the role practices play in epistemology and the philosophy of language. I haven’t said perhaps as much about them as I could in these posts, but these are responses to your arguments. I’ve explained my own position in more detail elsewhere, and there’s not enough space remaining here to recapitulate it in full again.

      Finally, I still think the comparison with Churchland fits, surprising though it is. The reason for this is that you’ve only got so many options vis-a-vis the nature of propositional content:-

      1. Account for it in metaphysical terms, but restrict it to certain special kinds of entity (Descartes et al).

      2. Account for it in metaphysical terms, but expand it to all entities (Graham, with a few provisos).

      3. Deny that it can be accounted for in metaphysical terms, and exclude it from the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, and epistemology (Churchlands).

      4. Deny that it can be account for in metaphysical terms, and deny that the philosophy of language and epistemology should be directly beholden to metaphysics (me). This doesn’t deny all relations between epistemology and metaphysics, but it certainly denies thoroughgoing subordination of the former to the latter.

      In the above, I’ve interpreted you as holding 3. Your responses seem to shift you to something more like 1, but this is precisely what OOO is supposed to be avoiding. If you don’t like either of these options, you’ve either got to become closer to Graham (and use representational notions as metaphysical primitives) or closer to me (and do epistemology in non-metaphysical terms).

      1. Pete,

        I just can’t help but feel that you are rather uncharitable in your treatment of my positions and reduce them to strawmen. Take the following:

        At several points in his response Levi makes the claim that he can address problems I’ve raised for him in regional ontology. For instance, he claims that any problems I’ve raised for him regarding the differences between intentional and non-intentional systems can be handled at the level of the regional ontology of intentional systems. The important thing to point out here is that if Levi introduces new metaphysical resources to account for the intentional relations that we enter into, then he abandons what was supposed to be the real thrust of OOO, because this is tantamount to reintroducing special metaphysical relations that only humans (or intentional systems more broadly defined) can enter into in order to secure the possibility of knowledge. However, if what Levi means here by regional ontology doesn’t involve introducing such specialised metaphysical resources, precisely what does it involve, and how can it help?

        Neither I, nor other OOO theorists, have ever suggested that all entities are the same. We readily recognize that different entities have different powers and capacities and relate to other objects in the world in different ways. If I read you correctly, your criticism here is premised on the thesis that for OOO all entities are exactly the same and relate to the world in exactly the same way. That would indeed be a rather absurd thesis, but neither I nor anyone else has argued such a thing. Take the title of Bogost’s forthcoming book Alien Phenomenology, for example. Why do you suppose it’s called Alien Phenomenology? Precisely because it’s a phenomenology of how entities other than the human relate to the world, i.e., it’s premised on the thesis that entities have different powers and capacities.

        In this regard, I’m really not clear as to what you might have in mind by “special metaphysical relations”. Just as I cannot sense the world through sonar like a bat, what is so objectionable to the thesis that humans and social systems have unique powers and capacities such as the ability to engage in second-order observation or formulate propositions? This is what I mean when I say an issue is an issue for regional ontology. General ontology deals with those features common to all entities. Regional ontology is the investigation of the powers of a specific class or type of entity. To repeat again, I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that we should reject propositions or representations, but that we should de-emphasize our focus on these things in our discussions of epistemology. Indeed, in Difference and Givenness I actually defend the existence of representation, arguing that Deleuze retains a place for it, against those who hold that representation is just some sort of illusion. This is why I’m rather startled by you equating my position with that of the Churchland’s.

        I’ll also add that you misrepresent Bhaskar’s argument. It is not the epistemic fallacy that is crucial to his argument, but the experimental setting. The point is that for experimental activity to be intelligible it must be premised on the possibility of entities being out of phase with the events they’re capable of producing, such that the world is differentiated and structured. In other words, the point is that the world must be a certain way for experiment to be possible. At any rate, enough for now.

      2. Levi: The issue is precisely what regional ontology amounts to. Of course I’m not accusing you of thinking that all entities are the same. Indeed, you seem to accept two different levels of differences between entities: empirical differences as studied by the sciences, and metaphysical differences as studied by regional ontology (which presumably is to underlie scientific inquiry). This is clear from another example you’ve used before, namely, numbers, which you take to exist, but which certainly can’t exist in the same *way* as physical systems (I’m curious as to how they can be understood as systems at all, but I’ll leave this to one side).

        However, your claim that you can address the problems I’ve posed at the level of regional ontology is subject to two questions:-

        1. What exactly does a regional ontology add to general ontology? Or, how does the a type of existence modify the genus of existence?

        2. How exactly will what is added in the case of intentional systems counteract the problems I’ve posed for accounting for representational content using the resources of general ontology?

        The important point is that whatever is added by the regional ontology cannot retract anything at the level of general ontology. It can’t retract the idea that however else the relations these entities enter into are understood, they must be understood in terms of systems and information. One must then either show how these regional ontological features (e.g., normative closure) emerge out of the general ontological features, or you simply have to posit them as ad hoc supplements. If you take the former route, you still have to confront all the problems I’ve posed, and if you take the latter route, then you simply start appealing to ad hoc representational primitives, and this fails to actually explain what’s at issue.

        In short, I’m not sure you’ve got a clear enough idea of either what regional ontology is or of the specific regional ontology you’d be providing to claim this as a solution to the problems I’ve posed. A lot more work needs doing on your part here.

  3. Monumental effort, Pete, eternal gratitude from the masses – I think Levi’s response here is rather immediate and hopefully he’ll write up a more detailed response with arguments.

  4. Pete – What a long, extensive post. I have a couple questions or points. I too approach many of the issues you address from a Deleuzian perspective and I’m curious about how you have to go against Deleuze to justify a Deleuzian metaphysics. Is this because you believe epistemological issues, a la Brandom, are necessary in order to justify Deleuze’s metaphysical approach? If so, that’s a fair point and I will not quibble with it. You may have answered my question already in your post and I was simply not careful enough in reading through it. As for my other point, I did have something to add to what you say in the context of discussing radical elimanitivism. You say:

    “I accept that in there is a good sense in which there are no such things as propositions or anything with propositional content (e.g., beliefs, desires, theoretical and practical commitments, norms, etc.), and thus that nothing like propositional or more broadly representational content should play any role in either empirical or metaphysical accounts of the world. In my preferred terms, the propositional is not real. Nonetheless, I think that not only can we still engage in propositional talk intelligibly, but that there is a good sense in which we must engage in such talk.”

    This position is almost exactly what Davidson sets forth with his theory of anomalous monism. Davidson agrees that all of our mental states and events, including beliefs and desires with propositional content, are each ‘identifiable,’ as Davidson puts it, ‘in physical terms,’ even though ‘intentional descriptions are not reducible to behavioral or physical descriptions.’ Such intentional descriptions reflect the fact that ‘we must engage in such talk’ if we are to navigate with others through a world of things. In fact, for Davidson intersubjectivity is crucial to thought itself. To cite Davidson again: “The possibility of thought as well as of communication depends, in my view, on the fact that two or more creatures are responding, more or less simultaneously, to input from a shared world, and from each other.’ In other places Davidson admits that such abilities to respond to the world and each other depends on already established modes of generalization. It seems that at this point one could introduce Deleuze’s metaphysics – in particular passive synthesis – and then bring in a Davidsonian intersubjectivity and hence epistemology without going against Deleuze’s metaphysics. I’ll be curious to read how this fits with your take on transcendental realism.

    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      These are good questions. On the point about Deleuze, what lead me to the position that I’m at now is that the closest thing I could find to a first principle in Deleuze’s philosophy, from which much of the rest could be deduced, was the principle of univocity (which I’ve written about here: However, Deleuze simply provides no adequate justification of this principle. In D&R he treats it more like an aesthetic demand than anything else, praising Duns Scotus and Spinoza without really explaining why they are praiseworthy.

      This lead me back to the question of the meaning of Being. I reasoned that Deleuze was attempting to answer this question, even if he had not adequately formulated it, and that if the principle of univocity was to be justified it would be justified as a constraint upon any adequate answer to the question. This is what drove me into working on Heidegger, trying to clear up precisely what the question of Being is, and what if any constraints it places upon an adequate answer. This was itself fairly frustrating, as much Heidegger scholarship simply doesn’t take the problem of precisely what the question is as seriously as it should. Nonetheless, I now think I’ve got a pretty good answer, and this gives me a pretty unified account of what metaphysics is.

      I’m yet to find an adequate justification for the principle of univocity on the basis of this, though I still aim to do it. I have however come to a number of interesting insights about how various aspects of Deleuze’s system should be fitted into the project of metaphysics as I see it. For instance, the way that the two sides of the virtual (capacities/affects and tendencies/singularities) answer the question of what modality is. I’ve come to a few other interesting conclusions, but as yet haven’t had time to develop them much, as Deleuze is completely gone from my thesis at this point.

      On your question about Davidson, there is definitely some affinity between my position and his (especially on the matter of nomological character), though it has been a number of years since I’ve studied his anomalous monism, and so I wouldn’t like to stress the convergences too much. I do need to refresh my Davidson at some point. Nonetheless, this affinity shouldn’t be too surprising insofar there is a good sense in which Brandom’s account of deontic scorekeeping is an extension of Davidson’s account of radical interpretation. The best thing Brandom has written about this is the introduction to ‘Tales of the Mighty Dead’, in which he examines a variety of approaches to rationality, and locates Davidson’s as a predecessor of his own. I suspect the major difference between Davidson’s approach and my own is that I’ve got a more robust framework for saying precisely why intentional description and causal description are incommensurable, and for talking about the status of purportedly mental states. This comes from my account of the difference between objective and non-objective modes of discourse (which can be found in the TR essay).

      With regard to whether Deleuze’s metaphysics can be added in to something like a Davidsonian account, I think that there is promise here. However, I must insist that I think univocity is the most important aspect of Deleuze’s system, and that this means that his account of the various passive syntheses applies to absolutely everything (not just humans or other loosely ‘psychic’ systems). To this end, I think that Deleuze’s metaphysics just provides us with a framework for understanding human knowers and the social networks which makes their knowledge possible as natural systems adapting to their environment. This isn’t to down play how useful such a framework could be. I’ve previously sketched some ideas about how this can be used to think about the real structure of the practices in which our concepts are implicit, or how Deleuze and Brandom’s idea about concepts can be synthesised (

      I hope some of this is of interest.

      1. Thanks for this Pete. This was indeed of interest and helpful. I especially like your explanation of how Deleuze moves beyond Spinoza by affirming a univocity of existence rather than being. I am one who is inclined to read Spinoza along Being-being lines – or virtual-actual – and draw much from H.F. Hallett’s interpretation. But detailing all this would require another post. I want to make sure I’ve understood your concern about the question of the meaning of being, and, as you put it, “what if any constraints it places upon an adequate answer.” From what I gather you are working to develop an understanding of these constraints, using Brandom’s inferentialism as a crucial part of this project, and then applying them to what you see as an adequate answer to the question you see Deleuze left hanging: namely, what justifies the principle of univocity? Deleuze thus provides the metaphyisical framework and you’re working to provide the meta-metaphyiscal constraints that warrants this framework. I hope I’ve understood you correctly; regardless, you’re doing interesting work. Now I don’t have any of my books with me so I can’t check references, but I’d like to argue that equally important to the principle of univocity is the notion of expression, and in particular the Hjelmslevian manner in which Deleuze understands expression. Developing this line of thought, it is sense, as event, that is the expressed in expression (or substance is the expressed in both the attributes and modes). The distinction between objective and non-objective modes of discourse follows quite naturally from a fleshed out Hjelmslevian theory of expression. I must admit, however, that Deleuze does not flesh out such a theory – he does refer to and draw from Hjelmslev but not to the degree that would provide for the constraints you seek, and so your concerns probably still stand. Turning to Brandom to provide for these constraints is a smart move, though there may be some resources within Deleuze to move in that direction.

      2. I’m glad it’s of interest. With regard to the Deleuze-Spinoza connection, although I think it’s incredibly important for understanding Deleuze, I also think that some people have a tendency to overplay their similarities, and overlook the extent to which Deleuze moves beyond Spinoza. Indeed, I think that how Deleuze modifies Spinoza is as important as how much he takes from him.

        I think you’ve pretty much got me on the question of Being. I think Heidegger essentially uncovered the question which underlies and unifies the metaphysical tradition, despite never being properly posed within it. He also identifies a few very interesting constraints upon this question, such as the ban upon onto-theology (or understanding Being in terms of beings). However, I think his approach is tainted by phenomenology, and I strive to replace this with something resembling Brandom’s philosophy of language. I do have some important differences from Brandom though, especially in relation to the notion of objectivity, which is crucial for the whole project. I’ve elsewhere called my alternative method fundamental deontology.

        I’d also stress that although I’m nominally Deleuzian, I’m not opposed to revising and correcting Deleuze’s metaphysics. I simply haven’t come across much which is problematic in relation to the constraints upon metaphysics I’ve been deriving (or for other less methodological reasons). Nonetheless, at the very least I think it needs to be reconstructed in something like the way he attempted to reconstruct Bergson’s metaphysics in his Bergsonism book, and extended to address certain questions that Deleuze didn’t adequately treat (e.g., the metaphysical status of mathematics).

        As for the importance of the notion of expression, I’m slightly sceptical. This isn’t because I don’t think that the concept plays an important role in the exposition of his system (or the notion of ‘sense’ for that matter’, but simply because I’m wary about mixing metaphysics and semantics. As I’ve indicated, I think that the core of the philosophy of language is not only methodologically prior to metaphysics, but must also be elaborated in non-metaphysical terms. This includes features such as the distinction between objective and non-objective discourse (which actually involves a heavy dose of pragmatics, but I digress…). So I’m very wary about trying to use one concept (expression) to do both metaphysical work and semantic work.

        This isn’t to say that I ignore Deleuze’s account of sense and the things he says about language, only that I think they need to be properly parsed so as not to conflate the various levels we’re interested in (i.e., metaphysical structure of entities in general, real structure of linguistic systems, ideal structure of linguistic systems). If you’re further interested in my thoughts on Deleuze’s account of sense (as it pertains to all entities) then I’d recommend taking a look at this post: though you might want to read the first part of that if you’re further interested in my take on Deleuze’s relation to Spinoza and Leibniz (I never finished that series, but hopefully I’ll go back to it at some point).

        Not to throw too many links your way, but if you haven’t looked at it, and you have the time, my essay on transcendental realism ( is the most comprehensive account of my position vis-a-vis the nature of metaphysics. Although I don’t say much about Deleuze, I do put forward several hints about how he fits into the picture I present.

  5. Levi, your response is basically “you’ve misread and misunderstood me” – this is generally a good reaction to have when people just started talking about something, but you and Pete (or you and me before that) discussed these issues for many many months now – by accusing him of being “condescending” are you not here prove to be quite condescending yourself when you suggest that after months and months of reading and thinking about the issues, Pete still just doesn’t get it – neither your philosophy, not philosophy of others (Bhaskar). I realize that we all have a tendency to blame others for misunderstanding our positions, but isn’t it the time you asked yourself a question: “Is it me? Am I possibly not making enough sense for all these people who try to engage me to so complete and so often misrepresent what I am trying to say?”

    1. Mikhail,

      I don’t know what else can be said when a person does, in fact, misunderstand another’s position. Certainly I’ve misunderstood Pete’s claims on a number of occasions despite the fact that I’ve read him for quite a while now. Returning to Pete’s points about normativity and discourse in the post, this is just part of the process of any communication. X says Y, Y says no that’s not quite what I meant, and so on. The suggestion that we should simply accept however one characterizes one’s position would spell the destruction of discussion altogether. Additionally, as both Pete and I have conceded, we both come from very different theoretical backgrounds and points of reference. It therefore comes as no surprise that we misunderstand one another quite a bit. Finally, to the same degree that there are people that don’t understand me, there are also many people who do seem to have a good grasp of what I’m arguing. Is it just me? Sure. That’s true of all communication between people though. There’s always misunderstanding and one can never fully calculate or control how one’s remarks will be taken, they can only clarify as they go along in response to the remarks of others.

      1. But did you not at some point argue that to say “oh, you’ve misunderstood me” or “this is a misreading of my position” is a cope out worthy of those who try to avoid discussion of real issues? I distinctly remember you offering this against those who refuse to engage the claim’s of others and simply claim that they have been misunderstood. I mean you are using the same defense here, are you not? I am by no means denying that misunderstandings take place all the time, my point is that after so much time it’s hard to believe that we are still dealing with some sort of “clearing up misunderstanding and misreadings” stage and I wonder if we have entered a stage of defensiveness and refusal to understand that you have criticized in others (did you not call that type of a thinker a Minotaur?) – see this example:

        “One of the most frustrating things about the trollish figure of the scholar is the manner in which they proceed as minotaurs presiding over labyrinths. For the Minotaur it is never possible for there to be a genuine philosophical difference or a genuine difference in positions among philosophers. Rather, the Minotaur converts every philosophical opposition into a misinterpretation.

  6. I don’t, I’m simply saying that in your critique of the minotaur you ridicule the scholar whose only recourse, when explaining the objections to his position, is to refer to misunderstandings and misinterpretations, i.e. to convert every philosophical opposition to his position into a misunderstanding – the problem is not the argument, but the reader of the argument, argument is solid and make sense, it’s the reader that doesn’t get it. I think everyone would subscribe to the view that such an approach is mildly annoying, as you pointed out in many posts on the figure of minotaur.

    Surely, misunderstandings/misinterpretations happen, but in this particular case it’s difficult to think of anyone more diligent in reading and trying to understand others than Pete, therefore there’s a logical conclusion that either he is doing this misunderstanding/misinterpreting intentionally (and therefore with some ulterior motive) or he is just not smart enough to get it, despite all of his efforts. I find it hard to believe that either one is the case and I find it hard to believe that you would dismiss his points by a simple gesture of the “minotaur” turning everything into case of massive misinterpretation.

    I think your use of the figure of Minotaur is interesting, as I pointed out when you originally proposed it, because it is itself based on a rather strange misinterpretation – Minotaur is not guarding the labyrinth, it is locked up in the labyrinth that prevents it from escaping. If Minotaur is a model for any sort of a scholar, it is a model for a scholar caught up in his/her own labyrinth and unable to escape the very intricate corridors he/she create with such care.

    Surely misunderstanding/misinterpretations happen, but they don’t happen on such scale – unless, of course, you suspect a great ideological repression at work, some inherent “correlationist” inability to see the truth of your approach?

  7. I have a notion that Pete and Levi don’t [fundamentally] misunderstand each other so much as they just disagree about what is most important. These are questions not of interpretation (much less of facts), but, in some sense, of values. Having said this, getting to exactly what the disagreement is about does often involve all kinds of misunderstandings along the way, so the hard work of “did you mean this, or that?” & “no, I meant THIS” is (while sometimes tedious) worth the effort.

    Now of course, even once you do find some root disagreement, this isn’t the end of the matter, for then the conversation often goes, “Well, if you really meant THAT, then how can you possibly say this?” And then the other guy goes, “Well, when I said this I meant–” and we go around again.

    Sorry to back up and get all meta- on everyone, when the meat of this conversation is in the actual post and the rejoinders.

    1. Yet, but the question is whether Levi is entitled to the oppositional claim he has made. Certain debates on substantive matters can collapse into questions of whether the interlocutors have compatible definitions of the basic concepts they are using. Yet Levi’s definition of metaphysics already presupposes the metaphysical claims he would advance. He therefore cannot agree with his interlocutors on a commonly accepted definition of what metaphysics is unless they concede fundamental elements of his argument about what metaphysical claims are true.

      Now Pete has above advanced an argument that making the definition of metaphysics supervene on substantive metaphysical claims is circular reasoning, and thus an invalid argument. Levi has several options here: he can show that Pete’s argument about the circularity of this argument is invalid; he can argue that this circularity is not vicious, but virtuous; he can concede that we must be capable of delineating what metaphysics is in non-metaphysical terms, and thus that there are certain epistemological truths independent of metaphysical truths; or he can show how Pete has mischaracterized his position as being circular, and thus that he has already accepted the relative independence of epistemology. He seems in his comments to this post to be leaning toward the latter, but the claims he has used to defend this argument – namely, claims that these epistemological concerns are covered by regional ontology – don’t get him where he wants to go, in that this is tantamount to arguing that fundamental ontology is grounded by a regional ontology that would in turn need to presuppose the foundation it is meant to underlie. In short, this argument is simply a different way of advancing the same argument Pete has already shown to be invalid: the argument that epistemology is dependent on metaphysics.

      Certainly, Pete and Levi can have substantially different beliefs, or commitments, about what metaphysical claims are true, but unless Levi can provide a counter-argument, Pete has shown why certain metaphysical commitments are untenable in that they involve circular reasoning and thus undermine the capacity for a rational debate about metaphysical issues. Levi can hold whatever beliefs or commitments he wants, but whether these are justified is doubtful until he can prove otherwise.

      So you’re right that it might come down to fundamentally incompatible beliefs, but this does not get Levi off the hook.

  8. Pete. You’ve convinced me that I need to spend some time reading Brandom. His position seems quite close to that of Davidon’s interpretation-based semantics, which I’ve written on elsewhere (, but with a more explicit treatment of the pragmatic basis of meaning. His semantic deflationism is something I find appealing and plausible.

    One question, if Brandom’s conception of semantics is normatively based, then why shouldn’t something like a Churchland-style higher-dimensional brain state acquire comparable semantic status? There doesn’t seem to be any syntactic qualification here since if propositional content supervenes on inferential role, any structure we impute to a vehicle of content must be a construal of the inferential roles they already have. If syntax determines content, then either inferential forms fix syntax, or inferential norms don’t fix content.

    It might be objected that non-propositional vehicles wouldn’t subtend inferential roles. But this seems unmotivated. If syntax supervenes on inferential role, then to undermine the eliminativist claim we would have to show that there couldn’t be norms governing representations of this kind or that any such norms would be propositional anway, simply by virtue of being inferential. I’m not sure how either position could be demonstrated. The only way I can see of sustaining the first claim is to show that brainstates are not apt for normativity by virtue of their non-public nature. But this may be just a current technical limitation. There seems to be nothing intrinsically private about a brain state. The second claim intrigues me, I admit, but I can’t see any non-dogmatic way of demonstrating the inference is an inherently propositional matter.

  9. David: I’m always glad to hear that people are picking up Brandom. If you want any advice on what to read, just send me an email. There are definitely some important parallels with Davidson that I need to do more work on, and I’ll take a look at your paper when I get a chance.

    I’m not entirely sure I get your questions, but I’ll do my best to answer.

    A Churchland style brainstate could only function as a representation in a way which is derivative upon the core practice of giving and asking for reasons. It is of course possible that such states could become part of this practice, insofar as there is nothing intrinsically private about them. We could develop practices in which we observed one another’s brainstates rather than trading vocal utterances. Nonetheless, they would only be properly representational insofar as they were actually involved in such practices, which they currently are not.

    Moreover, the relationship between syntax and semantics is mediated by the pragmatics of discourse. Of course, there could be a whole variety of different possible syntaxes, meaning that the tokens traded in discourse could be radically different from the sentences we trade, but this nonetheless places certain constraints upon what could possibly play the required role. Put in another way, there are certain logico-syntactic categories that are necessary features of discursive representation. Brandom has an elaborate argument for why tokens must at minimum have a subject-predicate structure in chapter 6 of MIE. I won’t recapitulate this, but it involves showing that there must be expressions that play the unique role of both predicates and singular terms if there is to be the logical vocabulary of conditionals and negation, and without this the inferential roles which constitute semantic content can’t be expressed (or made explicit). This is an argument for why what we’d normally call propositional structure is essential.

    In short, brain states would have to be publicly involved in a practice of giving and asking for reasons in order to count as genuine representations, and in order for this to be the case they’d have to have a certain minimal syntactic structure to qualify them for standing in the proper inferential relations to one another. In addition, I’m really just not sure what you mean by *inference* if you think it can be non-propositional. There can obviously be non-inferential information processing, but what would non-propositional inference be?

    1. I suspect that a wider conception of inference could be specified by abstraction. But a lot depends on how we understand the notion of inferential rules.

      If inferential rules are understood syntactically, then they are specifiable apart from any semantic values for the expressions to which they apply. One lot of values might correspond to some notion of truth. For example, to truth as the limit case of satisfaction – such that an expression is true if it is satisfied by all sequences (Tarksi). But there are many ways in which a formal system can be interpreted. So it would be question-begging to constrain inference semantically.

      If we are still working with a syntactic account of inference, then an inferential rule is presumably one that specifies ‘permissible’ derivations within the system. There is clearly no subject-predicate qualification here since, otherwise, modus ponens would not be an inference rule for ‘propositional logic’ (which says nothing about the sub-sentential structures of its expressions).

      I take it from your gloss that Brandom is not working with a syntactic account of inference but a theory of possible discourse or some such. His argument sounds very interesting and rather relevant to my current work on the scope of cognitive enhancement, but without having read it I can’t venture a critique here.

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