I’ve now had a day or two to recover from Dundee, and I thought I ought to put my thoughts up on the blog. I would have had them up yesterday, but I got an unexpected offer to go see Earth play live in Newcastle yesterday, and I try not to turn down such offers. To sum up the 21st Century Idealism conference, I wasn’t sure it would be able to top last years Real Objects or Material Subjects conference, but it completely surpassed my expectations. The organisers did a fantastic job, not only of picking a truly excellent set of papers, but of creating the most congenial and downright fun atmosphere. The main organisers (and other Dundee students, who did their fair bit) deserve a serious pat on the back for organising one of the best (and perhaps the best) conference I’ve ever been to.
I think my own paper (‘The Greatest Mistake: A Case for the Failure of Hegel’s Idealism’) went pretty well, and it achieved it’s goal of agitating the Hegelians in the audience (who were a great bunch of people, and took my criticisms very well). However, I was working on it right up until the beginning of my panel, so it was missing a few slides, and the conclusion was not as sharp as I would have liked. I’ve taken the intervening few days to remedy these defects a bit, and it can now be found here (PDF, PPT Slides) and on the ‘Other Work’ page of the blog. Even those who saw me deliver it might find it worthwhile taking a second look, as I’ve expanded the conclusion a bit to clear up some of the issues from the Q&A.
I can’t describe every paper at the conference, but I will say something about each of the keynotes, which were truly fantastic:-
1. Markus Gabriel: I’ve never come across Markus’ work before, but I will be eagerly awaiting the publication of the English collection of his essays. In many ways, he’s working on issues that are very close to my own interests. He has obviously been influenced by Brandom, and Brandom’s reading of Hegel, along with bits of Schelling, Frege, Wittgenstein, Badiou, Meillassoux and others. What’s most fascinating about his position is that he explicitly takes up Brandom’s definition of objective idealism, which I characterise as deflationary realism in the TR Essay. However, unlike Brandom, he develops this in a much more traditionally metaphysical direction, developing a metaphysics of sense, and fields of sense, not unlike a Meinongian or Harmanian theory of objects. In the heat of the moment I suggested that he is essentially David Lewis. Though this was said in jest, I think it harbours a couple important truths. I see a fault line in contemporary metaphysics forming between neo-Leibnizians and neo-Spinozans regarding the nature of modality. The neo-Leibnizians seem to dominate at the moment (e.g., Kripke, Lewis, Badiou, Meillassoux, etc.), but I think there’s good reasons to reject these kinds of position in favour of a Spinozan one (e.g., Deleuze). In his paper, Markus presented the most interesting form of neo-Leibnizian metaphysics I’ve seen so far, and so he’s definitely someone I need to read more of.
2. Beth Lord: Beth presented some of the material from her most recent book on Kant and Spinozism (which I must read). The paper focused on Kant’s Opus Posthumum, and tried to articulate its relation to Kant’s debates with Maimon, Spinoza’s influence upon him, and the relation this bares to Deleuze. Most importantly, she presented a reading of the work that reads it as largely continuous with the critical project, rather than a lapse back into pre-critical metaphysics. What blew my mind about this reading was that it both vindicates my reading of Kant’s earlier work (as revisionary metaphysics, rather than as anti-metaphysical epistemology), and suggests that the later work incorporates a number of themes I’ve been trying to develop in my own project.
Specifically, she showed both that Kant has a much more nuanced view of the relation between metaphysics and science (particularly physics) than he is often given credit for, and that he seems to push transcendental idealism to the point at which it becomes something like a transcendental realism. The latter involves a transformation of the regulative notion of the world into a constitutive notion, which he names the ether. This is remarkably close to the transition I’ve been trying to trace between the formal structure of the Real and the real structure of the Real. On top of this, the metaphysics of the ether that Kant develops has some stark similarities to the reconstruction of Deleuze’s metaphysics I’ve been developing. All in all, a historical precursor I cannot ignore.
3. Iain Hamilton Grant: I had a number of really good conversations with Iain over the course of the conference, and his book on Schelling has leaped high up on my list of things to read (though, alas, not to the top…). His paper was very interesting, going over his continuing concern with the problem of ground, and the relationship between reason and nature. The major thrust of the paper was an attempt to argue for the necessity of posteriority, or the idea that nature is organised into a series of successive grounds and consequences organised in an asymmetric fashion, thereby constituting temporality, producing a picture in which a fundamental past immanently grounds an indefinite succession of consequences (that are themselves grounds of further consequences). This is a very schematic reading of Iain’s position, and it’s something I need to do some work on.
However, all this has convinced me that I need to articulate the distinction between the general logical notion of ground (generic ground), the transcendental logical notion of ground (the category of real ground), and the metaphysical notion of ground (the interpretation of the content of the former category). This is important for at least two reasons. First, the concept of ground is intricately linked to the notion of inference, or the relation wherein one proposition serves as a reason for another, and this is obviously a big part of my project. Second, the whole distinction between sense-dependence and reference-dependence in terms of which I’ve defined transcendental realism are essentially different types of grounding relation. It is thus very important to develop an adequate taxonomy of grounding relations, taking on board the sense/reference distinction, the particular/general distinction, and the real/ideal distinction. I think that doing this properly will let us understand the relation between meaning and essence in clearer terms, as well as provide resources to think about the relation between the order of reasons (the normative order) and the order of causes (the natural order).
It is the last of these which is important with regard to the proximity between my own project and Iain’s. I suspect that the big issue is whether or not there are genuinely non-metaphysical grounds, which I would affirm and Iain would deny. This parallels the disagreement between myself and many others (including Iain, Markus, and the OOO crowd), over whether there can be unreal objects, pseudo-objects, or objects that aren’t entities. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that these are both examples of the more general distinction between generic logical concepts and transcendental logical concepts, or categories. We can motivate these distinctions (meaning/essence, reason/cause, object/entity, etc.) only if we can demonstrate a distinction between objective and non-objective forms of truth, but I think that if we can demonstrate the latter distinction, we can also show that we must make the former distinctions. This is essentially just the ideal of a transcendental argument for realism, showing that we have no choice but to do metaphysics, or talk about the real structure of the world. I don’t yet taken myself to have adequately delineated this argument, but I think it can be done, and I intend to do it.
That’s all for now. I’ll be back at some point soon with a concluding chapter to my thesis, and maybe something else that’ll interest one or two of you. We’ll see.