Transcendentalism Vs. Naturalism

This is a very brief post to point people in the direction of a few other posts that I’ve enjoyed and commented upon (at length). I increasingly find myself using other people’s blog’s comment sections in the way many people use their own blogs, to expound and develop upon thoughts and topics that other people have brought up in brief, and saving my own blog for more fully developed thoughts.

I find this interesting, insofar as I increasingly feel like reading and commenting on other people’s blog post is part of my ‘job’ as a career researcher, not merely something I do on the side. I don’t mean this in a perjorative sense, as if this makes me enjoy it less. Rather, I mean that I feel like this is where many of my most interesting ideas get fleshed out, in much the way that philosophical correspondence or exchanges of short papers in journals has traditionally enabled various debates and ideas to blossom. This is weird, insofar as I still think that these forms of communication would be looked down on, as some sort of ‘hobby’ from the perspective of traditional academia, despite the fact that they’re often far more interesting and productive than some of the minor journal exchanges that a lot of us engage in to earn our keep. I’m not going to say much more than that, but it’s something that I intend to think more about in the future.

On to the posts and comments themselves, which deal with the implications of philosophical naturalism, and the extent to which this is compatible with transcendental philosophy. I’ve opined before that I think there’s a certain amount of excessive naturalism going around in contemporary philosophy (here and here), which, in its hostility to both transcendental and other forms of a priori philosophising, has a tendency to cut off its own nose to spite its face. I don’t say this as an anti-naturalist, but as a proud naturalist who thinks that naturalism requires careful delimitation, both in order to curb excessive ‘more naturalist than thou’ arguments, on the one hand, and weak ‘I’m a naturalist honest’ apologias that are about as meaningful as ‘I’m a spiritual person’ claims in religious/ethical debates, on the other. Performing such a delimitation is just what the Kantian critical project was about, and this applies equally to the successor project of his intellectual scion Wilfrid Sellars. This is the historical root of naturalism divorced from the epistemological and semantic baggage of empiricism (in its traditional and logical forms, respectively).

Anyway, bearing this in mind, here’s a short post by Catarina Dutilh Novaes on the normativity of logic (here) with a short exchange between her and myself on the topic in the comments, and a much larger post by David Roden on Ray Brassier’s development of Sellars’ ideas in the philosophy of mind (here) with a very in depth exchange between him, myself, and Scott Bakker (author of the existentially gripping Neuropath amongst other books, and whose own blog (Three Pound Brain) is now linked to in the sidebar). This exchange covers a massive range of topics, from the comparative advantages of Davidsonian truth-theoretic semantics and Brandomian inferentialist semantics, to the potentially nihilistic consequences of neuroscience and the nature of naturalistic skepticism. It’s a great exchange that I’ve enjoyed immensely (and too much for my own good, given my other writing commitments). I thoroughly recommend you check it out.

Now, back to the conceptual coalface!

Published by


Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

16 thoughts on “Transcendentalism Vs. Naturalism”

    1. I’ve genuinely encountered hostility here from both philosophers and non-philosophers, though to varying degrees. They seem to take offence at the very idea one might defend the position I do, as if it has all obviously been solved by the history (it hasn’t) and as if asking them to justify their rejection of it (they usually can’t) is somehow in bad taste. It’s pretty frustrating, but it at least means I’m now developing an almost martial art style argumentative technique for dealing with these situations (‘immaculate transcendental razor technique’).

      So many philosophers don’t realise that if they deny the possibility of a priori reasoning they have to abandon philosophy and just do hard science (which they don’t want to/can’t do). I think the idea of ‘experimental philosophy’ is a contradiction in terms. Not to say that you can’t do *both* philosophy and scientist (while primarily being either a philosopher or scientist), it’s just that so many people end up doing *neither*, because they refuse to draw the necessary methodological distinctions between the two.

      Similarly, many non-philosophers open up their discussion with a visceral attack upon the pointlessness of philosophy (‘It’s all bullshit!’) only to then veer off into the most undisciplined *philosophical* speculations afterwards (‘Now let me tell you how to derive ethics from evo-psych!’). Methodology is king, and if you refuse to make the requisite procedural distinctions in working through the consequences of scientific discovery then you’re on the road to cognitive catastrophe.

      In short, many people think the battle has already been won, when really it *is* a matter of arguing about the scale of the retreat, and signing a peace treaty so we can get on with more productive co-operative endeavours.

      1. Part of the problem, I think, is that there is very little serious work done on specifying exactly what a philosophical explanation of a phenomenon, say, value would be, let alone a naturalistic one. A lot of serious philosophers of science (Wimsatt and Stephen Horst come to mind) have made it pretty clear that what philosophers call “reduction” doesn’t have much to do with reductions in actual sciences and that not all scientific explanations are reductions. So, so the “naturalism” so prevalent in metaethics or the study of normativity generally or in philosophy of mind has a very cargo cult feel to it. I think this leads to a lot of defensiveness and needless aggression.

        What I find that I like about Brandom’s programme is that it seems to me to be (borrowing Habermas’s phrase) quasi-transcendental. Expressivism is the rational reconstruction of our inferential practices. So there’s engagement with evidence of a sort that we might if we wanted to stretch terms call “empirical.” (Or not, really… who cares.) Its plausible that that is enough of a genuflection in the direction of naturalism for the project to remain “respectable,” as they say.

        BTW–if you’re still reading–have you read Stephen Turner’s new book “Explaining Normativity”?

      2. Hi
        I am new to your blog, and I enjoy reading it !
        I fully agree with you on the impossibility to disregard the Apriori, saying that from a largely non-philosophical perspective, as far as this is possible at all. I just would like to add one minor objections. It is about your refutation of “experimental philosophy”.
        I think you got trapped by a certain image of science that is largely determined by logical positivism, or, to render it more fuzzy, by the area delineated by the areas of contributions issued by persons from Schlick, Reichenbach, Schmid-Hempel, Popper, Salmon or van Fraassen, among others. Usually, and if understood “experimental” just in this (limited) sense I would agree to your rejection, experiments are conceived of as being directed to the design some conditions of material processes.

        The claim that there is no such thing like “experimental philosophy” is problematic, though. Implicitly it also claims that there is something like non-experimental philosophy. Let us now equate philosophy with (fasten seat belts now) a technique to think (or:to get clear) about conditions, probably in the Wittgensteinian flavor. Then your refutation would culminate in the claim of some kind of “direct” insight. Such direct insight however would only be possible if logic would be a universal, transcendental AND factual condition. In other words, you would commit the same mistake as the logical positivists.

        Another strain of argument against your rejection could be developed from an hermeneutical perspective, especially the autonomy of the text (following Schleiermacher, not Derrida, here). In the very moment there is a thought as a recognizable thought, that is some brainy process that we then experience as a precipitation in language, we never could know about the consequences of such thought. There is some autonomy of the “text” in the head while we are weaving it into a story. Regardless the details of that process, the autonomy of that text prohibits any “directness” and renders, so my guess, any thought, inclusive philosophical thoughts into some kind of experiments.

        Finally a third argument would be that for the mind-brain itself, a philosophical thought does not “look different” than any other, whether it is sourced by some “empiric” data or by some “measurements” of the brain-mind onto itself. As a conclusion I would propose that there is necessarily a cascaded network-like dynamics of modeling=experimentation in thinking, or more precisely, thinking is probably nothing else than that.

  1. Drag. It just goes to show, I suppose, just how natural it is to become emotionally embroiled. There’s a lot fascinating work about reasoning and what psychologists call affect heuristics out there.

    I have a neuroscientist on my board who have the same dismissive attitude toward philosophy: I like to remind him that what Marvin Minsky once (correctly) said about genetics, he’s now saying about neuroscience. So much of what they say and assume is philosophical through and through. Representationalism, just for instance.

    The whole evopsych/morality thing just boggles me. Any moral theory that Ted Bundy could use to cogently rationalize his behaviour (he actually used social constructivism) has more than a few problems, I think. “Like, hey, man, my modules are just, like, more original…”

    Bioemotivism. Nihilism.

    The thing to remember, though, is that we’re of ‘pre’ side of another Enlightenment, one which will make the last look like a party favour. Nobody knows where this is going.

    Have you ever tried thinking through the ‘interface’ between the natural and a priori on your SA account?

    1. I like to think that the subtitle of Nihil Unbound should really have a disjunction instead of a conjunction: “Enlightenment OR Extinction”. We’re certainly about to hit the next phase of disenchantment, after rolling along on an enchanted plateau for the latter half of the 20th century, constructed almost entirely out of skeptical challenges to science (some of which, ironically, are built on the back of science). How we deal with the upcoming sharp drop will be definitive for the present century. I’m merely advocating that we take it at enough speed to execute a stylish jump (triple somersault with a conceptual twist) when we hit the edge. Anything less is likely to result in either total wipeout, or insufficient points to stay in the competition.

      I have done some work on the interface between empirical and non-empirical reasoning. I’m on a train right now, and so can’t easily supply links, and it’s all too lengthy and insufficiently summarised, so I’ll have to point you in a number of directions. First, the most detailed semantic ideas are tackled in an insufficient yet overly dense way in my Essay on Transcendental Realism (available in the other work section). It’s antiquated now, but I haven’t yet had the time or incentive to update and expand it. Second, you may find my post on ‘Eliminativism and the Real’ (linked in important posts) from a few years back to be helpful in understanding my moderate eliminativist position. Third, you might like to look at my long post on ‘Dissecting Norms’ (also in important posts) as an example of this methodology. It’s flawed, but perhaps interesting. Finally, you might find my guest post for the Science and Metaphysics event for Speculative Heresy (I emailed you the link) to be a good short intro to some of my ideas vis a vis science and my deflationary account of the a priori.

      All this stuff needs condensing and sharpening into a nice argumentative kata, but I’m busy with other things right now!

  2. There are (at least) two issues regarding values/norms at issue here. The first is: can they be naturalized; what would this involve? The second is: are they constitutive of the semantic.

    It not obviously inconsistent to hold that norms are unnaturalizable but not constitutive of representation or semantics either.

    As to what a naturalization of the normative would look like: well, there’s always supervenience, I suppose. Put in this way it sounds a bit weird. Supervenience is usually thought of as a dependence relation between facts and the idea that there are normative facts is question-begging to some. But (with this precaution) it’s not implausible that certain epistemic norms supervene on facts about the way the world is.

    A toy example: the principle that humans are entitled to believe third-person testimony by other humans if they have no positive reasons not to trust them depends on the social fact that lying prompts tit-for-tat retaliation. If humans were less co-operative, the entitlement wouldn’t stand. The norm might not apply to vampires because vampires suck at co-operation.

    I’m not sure if this is “naturalizing normativity” but it suggests a simple way in which some norms reflect the state of the world.

    1. I really fear that I might be alone in finding most appeals to supervenience in philosophical explanations less than helpful. I think Kim is right that it ‘merely states a pattern of property covariation between the mental and the physical,’ which is unfortunately conflated with an ontological relation of ‘dependence,’ and then treated as an explanation of the supervenient in terms of the subvenient. But covariation is not very interesting in itself, and appeal to a dependence relation is going to have to be cashed out in concrete terms, metaphysical, physical, or normative. That’s where the action is, and there’s no a priori reason to think that for any given dependent phenomenon its dependence relation will be identical in form or content to another of another kind. Its a further question as to whether or not a properly identified and characterized dependence relation will be reductive in the way that many naturalists seem to think desireable. But, if I’m close to right so far, its the details of explanation that matter, not whether or not they are “naturalistic.”

      1. I agree that supervenience claims are weak claims compared to more informative metaphysical identities like “sounds are vibrational events in objects”. However, supervenience claims have a law-like character with grades of modal force. Where true, they say something about the degree of dependence between properties even if they do not explain why. A world in where all other property kinds supervene on mental properties is one in which the mental is fundamental in a way that it does not seem to be the case in ours. When physicalists deny that mental properties have any invariant role determining the way the world works, they are not just asserting a contingent pattern of co-variation.

        Though supervenience is not explanatory it calls for explanation. Chance co-variation is not interesting but principled or law-like dependence is. A theory like functionalism in the philosophy of mind goes beyond asserting the supervenience of the mental on the physical but seeks to explain it – as, arguably, do interpretivist accounts like the one Pete favours. Likewise if some normative principles depend on human psychological dispositions, this calls for further explanation.

  3. Is there any question whether norms reflect something of the world? I thought it was more the question of whether they are what we think they are. If we are at all concerned with human communication as a natural phenomena then we need to know what norms are in functional terms. I’m inclined to think that the a priori normativity Pete is defending is actually the easiest one to model naturally: it is a fact that interaction patterns of the kind you find in computation exhaust inference patterns of the kind you find in mathematics and logic. (Church’s thesis, which is wholly empirical, has actually been used to do a substantial amount of formal work, if I remember correctly). It seems to me that the mysteriousness of formal inference patterns (their acausality and aspatiotemporality especially) can be chalked up to information neglect, which can in turn be attributed to the quantity and range of information available to conscious cognition.

    The apparent split between the a priori and the a posteriori could then be attributed to the fact that the brain is an information processing – which is to say, interaction patterning – system, and as such, capable of grasping the laws of interaction patterning ‘from the inside,’ performatively. As performances they find themselves caught up in questions of competence and therefore the web of normativity more generally. But in point of fact, they are no more normative than the law of gravity.

    The basis idea is that the apparent split between the a priori and the a posteriori is simply due to 1) the position the brain occupies within the natural order; and 2) the position the neural correlates of consciousness occupy with respect to the greater brain. Any information system located in our universe, you might surmise, would find itself in the same bind, forced to grasp the most elementary laws of interaction ‘from within’ before puzzling through the rest of creation. It’s all natural: you just need to recall that you are part and parcel of your environment.

    Am I wrong in thinking that a story like this only need to be possible to fatally undermine Pete’s case?

    1. If I understand correctly you seem to be arguing that the distinction between a priori (norms) and a posteriori (natural laws) is a projection of neural systems that cannot adequately and comprehensively grasp the vast number of physical interactions that go into an a posteriori physical explanation of our behavior, say. Our performative grasp of interaction patterning raises questions of competence which seem to us to be normative, but really are not. So, norms then are like clandestinely predictive rules of thumb, and when they are “violated” we blame the violator and not the rule, since we are typically blind to the real nature of the norms.

      I would say that this seems to be question-begging in the following way. The assumption is that were we to establish a comprehensive and adequate account of all physical interactions that would amount to or entail eliminativism about a priori norms. But it seems to me that the viability of just such an eliminativism is one of the things that is at issue in the first place. So the possibility of the story is undermining only if we grant that its the right sort of story from the get-go.

  4. The overarching cartoon is simply that what we call normativity, or intentionality more generally, could simply be artifacts of the severe informatic constraints faced by those parts of the brain responsible for consciousness (the thalamocortical system (TCS) is a favourite candidate at the moment). What we call ‘a priori,’ simply reflects TCS access to INTRAneural interaction patterns, which due to constraints (which look to be quite severe) are experienced as ‘inferential.’ This not only explains the so-called ‘Way of Negation,’ why abstract objects and universals exhibit ‘information neglect,’ it also explains the antipathy of the normative and the intentional to the etiological more generally – why it seems ‘irreducible.’ And it explains the mysterious priority of the a priori. The TCS, and therefore conscious awareness, just gets a (systematically integrated, and so to all appearances entirely efficacious) taste of what’s going on, a taste which is all second-order reflection has to go on.

    My final question is in response to a debate Pete and I have been pursuing on enemyindustry, where he has been trying to argue the immunity of formal semantics to the very possibility of scenarios of the kind I mention here.

  5. Hi Scott,

    Consider this scenario: A jazz trio have a tacit agreement born of habit to open their set busking through the easy 12 bar blue in B Flat and not the trickier 14 bar in B Flat which is identical to the 12 bar apart from the additional two bars. First chorus, the pianist restarts the sequence after bar 12 while the bassist (lost in philosophical thought) turns around at bar 14. The band members realize that the consensus they imagined about the 12 does not now obtain. Things fall apart or a new consensus to go free-form emerges.

    The 12 bar norm collapses. For it to collapse there must be brain states that track to others’ motivational states (“Crap! The bassist’s playing the 14 bar”) and maybe also their their equivalent expectational states. If these consist in trajectories or cycles through the huge state space of the TCS it’s no wonder that we are not conscious of anything much beyond a conditional impulse to do as others (Conformity seems pretty hard-wired in humans. As a pre-university psychology student, i found that you could get people to make false judgements on easy perceptual tasks by getting some stooge made the false call).The heavy lifting is all being done by dynamically updated internal states that track the motivational and representational states of others. So as Dan Sperber has suggested in a recent paper ( we don’t need to posit norms, just representations of norms.

    1. I almost forgot, in addition to my reply (which is below, I think), to link the paper that got Sperber so much attention in The New York Times last year:

      I always try to push this cogpsych on philosophers because I don’t think many realize just how big its cultural footprint is becoming (it seems you can’t go a month without some new lay oriented title coming out – they’ve been racking up huge sales). Human stupidity has become a bona fide industry.

      Thank God.

  6. I’m a big Sperber fan. A precis of his ‘epidemiological approach’ can be found here:

    These kinds of hybridized accounts are probably where the social sciences are heading, simply because of the complexities you reference. But this is precisely my question: once you realize the boggling informatic disproportions between what the brains of the jazz players are doing and what they think is going on (and by extension, the what philosophers think is going on), the obvious questions become, What do these asymmetries entail? What is lost? What is distorted? Could this be the reason we have so much difficulty making sense of: consciousnes/experience, propositional attitudes, normativity, intentionality, meaning/content/representation, universality, abstraction – to list the biggies.

    Sperber’s rationale strikes me as primarily pragmatic: How do we concede the causal (and anchor our discipline in the natural sciences) while holding onto the levels of description we need to carry out our research? But I can see the kind of ‘semantic ascent’ (from talk of norms to talk of representations of norms) he advocates being problematic for many. And short of answering the questions I pose above (which may suggest an entirely different way of conceptualizing social ontology – or not) I don’t see how his justification could be anything more than theoretically pragmatic. A pick your poison approach – which I have no problem with, save that it leaves my particular questions unanswered.

    As a former psych major, you simply have to check out Kahneman’s new book, David. Easily the best (lay oriented) overview of the field I’ve read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s