Deleuzian Catharsis

I’ve probably written before about my history with Deleuze, but I can’t think where exactly. For those who don’t know, I began my PhD thesis with the intent of working on Deleuze’s metaphysics and its implications for the philosophy of language, with an eye to combining it with Wittgensteinian pragmatism. The story goes that I couldn’t find the methodology I needed to adequately explain (let alone justify) Deleuze’s metaphysics, and so took a detour into Heidegger to acquire it. This was supposed to last a month or so, and ended up consuming four years of research and my entire thesis. I was also converted to Brandom’s Hegelian pragmatism in that time, and that has monopolised a lot of my other research efforts in the meantime. I’ve written the odd thing about Deleuze on this blog, but I haven’t seriously touched the books (let alone kept up with the secondary literature) in a good few years.

However, courtesy of my good friend (and prominent Deleuze scholar) Henry Somers-Hall, I recently got invited to give a paper at Manchester Metropolitan University on Deleuze’s theory of time. This was part of a larger workshop on Deleuze that was very successful indeed. A great event all around. Lots of things kept me from writing my paper until far too close to the deadline (I was working on it right up until the last minute), but it was a cathartic experience from beginning to end. Three years or so of pent up Deleuzian ideas came out all at once, and it produced a paper that is very dense, but not for that matter unaccessible. Moreover, the paper served as a wonderful vindication of my methodological detour, insofar as it displays the power of the critical framework I’ve been developing here and elsewhere. I’ve sometimes been accused of getting stuck at the level of critique, and never getting to the actual metaphysics. I think this is a pretty performative refutation of those criticisms.

I’m enormously pleased with the paper, and I was enormously gratified by the positive reception it received from the people at the workshop. There were some excellent questions and some great discussions afterwards. I’m reliably informed that the video of the various talks will be going up online soon, including Q&As, but I’ve decided to make minor revisions to my paper and post it up on the blog (here) while it’s still at the forefront of my mind. It’ll no doubt get revised further and turned into a proper publication at some point, but for now, enjoy!

How Perception Yields Knowledge (McDowell Lecture 2)

I’ve finished editing and commenting on my notes from the second McDowell lecture after a hectic weekend of travel and whatnot. I hope as many people like these as seemed to like the last ones (here). It was fascinating hearing McDowell talk and getting to grips with his position from my own Sellarsian/Brandomian perspective. What’s most interesting is that I’ve independently been hitting on some similar ideas to McDowell, but coming from a different, and I believe slightly more productive direction. I’m hoping to give a paper at the upcoming Dublin Sellars’ workshop which deals with these issues (‘Is there a TV in my head?: Content, Functional Mapping, and the Myth of the Given’). I’ve made the abstract available (here) for anyone who is interested (I’m free to give the same paper elsewhere, if you’ll invite me!), along with the abstract for my prospective paper at the Liverpool Thinking the Absolute conference (‘Absolute Spirit as a Work of Art’), which is on unrelated and much more speculative topics (here). Right, back to work then.

Lecture 2

1. The question of this lecture is this: how does perception yield knowledge? The basic answer provided by the last lecture is Charles Travis’: that it does so by placing our surroundings in view. However, this answer must be elaborating. McDowell is going to break with Travis’ approach in elaborating this idea. Travis thinks that perception places our surroundings in view simpliciter, but that this means perception has no particular content.

2. McDowell thinks that Travis’ view is correct for some cases of perceptual knowledge, but that there are cases (those of what Husserl would call ‘direct bodily presence’) that this account doesn’t properly account for. There are cases of indirect empirical knowledge (say, on the basis of inference) where the world is in view, but not because of the content of our experience on its own.

3. The problem for Travis is that he thinks any account of perceptual content would debar us from holding that its epistemic role is placing our surroundings in view. McDowell’s task is to show that we can retain this insight while nonetheless ascribing content to experience, and to show that there are cases in which the ascription of content is necessary to explain some cases of how the world is brought into view (or as Heidegger would say ‘disclosed’) by perception.

4. What McDowell wants to do is to draw a distinction between certain features of direct perceptual experience that only bring our surroundings into view in the same way that indirect perception, and other features of direct perceptual experience that provide us with knowledge that cannot be given otherwise. This is roughly the distinction between seeing that there is a pig in front of you (which can be indirectly as well as directly available) and seeing that the pig is a certain shade of pink, or has a certain surface texture (which are supposedly barred to indirect perception). McDowell thinks that this distinction is something to do with differences between the perceptual capacities that are involved in bringing the world into view in each case.

5. The conclusion of the first lecture was the negative claim that naive realism is compatible with the ascription of content to experience, whereas this lecture aims to prove is the positive claim that we must ascribe content to experience in order to have an adequate account of it. The real point around which the discussion turns is just how we conceive the epistemic character of experiences. McDowell’s argument against Travis is essentially that the relation between the epistemic character of experience and the phenomenal content of experience differs between kinds of experience, and that the incompatibility argument his position is based on depends upon treating experience as unitary in a way it is not.

6. It is a standard philosophical idea that experience never provides better than defeasible warrant about the environment, insofar as the possession of the relevant content is compatible with the fact that content misrepresents the world. This idea breaks down in two different ways: one that claims experience has no warrant, but accepts it has content, and one that claims experience has warrant, but no content. This is a straightforward split between internalist and externalist views of the nature of experience. McDowell wants to avoid both of these positions. Of an experience that purports to disclose the world, it’s possible that it succeeds doing so. The question is what possible role the subjective character of that experience can play in producing this representational success. McDowell seems to want to say that this role can vary between different kinds of perception.

8. What McDowell wants to argue is that there is sometimes conclusive warrant for beliefs about the features of our environment provided by the content of direct perception. An example of these are those perceptual cases discussed in the first lecture under the heading of ‘incompletely describable’ experiences, or those features of experience which are in some sense intrinsically inexhaustible by descriptions of them through that clauses. The detailed phenomenal features of our experience are describable (e.g., the pig’s shade of pink, or surface texture), and they may yield knowledge about features of our environment, but the way the content of our experience yields this sort of knowledge is distinct from non-phenomenal features.

9. To show this we have to go into detail about the nature of those capacities required to have contentful experiences and the way these capacities are tied together. For instance, McDowell thinks that one cannot activate one’s capacity to have an experience of redness (and thus have red things disclosed to one) without it being activated in conjunction with a capacity to have an experience of something that can display this quality, such as an experience of a rectangle. One can only have red things disclosed to one if one can have red things disclosed to one. This togetherness is thus a crucial feature of the way experiential content is tied to perceptual capacities. What’s interesting then is that even defective activation of these capacities, such as the hallucination of a red rectangle (which doesn’t disclose such a rectangle), will still display this sort of functional interconnection. Second order capacities for identifying aspects of our internal capacities can thus identify invariant features between defective and non-defective activations of capacities. This shows a disconnect between the defectiveness of first order capacities and second order capacities.

Q1. Functionalism Revisited: This stuff about togetherness and the complex interconnection between first order capacities and our second order capacities for assessing defects in the former is the most opaque part of this lecture. It’s not that it’s necessarily wrong, but that it invites us to tell a much more complicated story about both the possible cognitive architectures of perceiving beings and the actual cognitive architectures we as humans display. The togetherness example shows (or purports to show) that our perceptual capacities are not just defective/non-defective when considered in relation to the features of the environment that they’re supposed to track, but that they have internal relations to one another that allow for more nuanced forms of error/success. However, this leads into the point I made in my last post about between the two different styles of functional explanation on offer (abstracted from the environment and situated in the environment) and the way they are connected. It seems like McDowell should want to tell a seriously explanatory functionalist story about both sides of the purport/success divide and how they relate to one another, but he shies away from functionalism. Some suggested to me that to describe McDowell as a functionalist is perverse. Frankly, I think the linguistic lengths he goes to to avoid using the simpler language of functionality that is available here are what is perverse. To talk about capacities that can be judged to be defective is just to talk about functions. It’s pretty much that simple. If you’re going to go this far, why not go for the whole functionalist hog?

10. Someone can mistake defective exercises of their perceptual capacities for non-defective ones. This seems to imply that no exercise of a perceptual capacity can provide conclusive warrant in the way McDowell thinks. He thinks that this doesn’t apply to all kinds of experience though, because some of our perceptual capacities are second-order capacities for discriminating the features of our first order ones (including fine-grained descriptions of internal representational states (purport) such as shades and textures). Importantly, there are fallible second-order capacities for determining the fallibility of our first-order capacities, but the point is that the fallibility in each case is distinct. The kinds of modal reasoning (counterfactual variation) we are dealing with in each case are subtly different, and are related through functional considerations regarding the relations of the capacities. This is supposed to show that we can just *know* that there’s a pig bodily present before us, because our second-order capacities give us reason to think that the first-order capacities producing the experience are functioning properly. Moreover, these second-order capacities do so by discriminating features of the internal representational states of the first-order capacities, meaning that it is through paying attention to the way in which the content of our experience purports to represent that we see it succeeds in representing. Experiential content thus plays an important role in the process of bringing our surroundings into view in some cases.

Q2. Defeasibility, Monotonicity and Modality: McDowell wants to insist that he can have conclusive warrant, but this seems too strong. This is because he doesn’t seem to want the warrant to be conditional upon anything. He somehow wants it to be absolute and yet fallible. This is really strange. The way to see this is to think a bit about the nature of defeasible warrant, or non-monotonic reasoning (inferences for which ‘if P the Q’ holds good by default, but which can be invalidated by the addition of sets of additional premises). There is a useful distinction to be had here between global non-monotonicity and local non-monotonicity. The former is what we have in mathematics. It is precisely deductive, in such a way that absolutely no addition of further premises can undermine a good inference. The latter is more complicated, and very important, insofar as it is what is made explicit by the panoply of possible modal operators (e.g., historical necessity, physical necessity, political possibility, etc.). We might say that these latter kinds of reasoning are imprecisely deductive, insofar as they depend on a more or less implicit form of restriction very much like the more or less implicit forms of quantificational restriction we find outside of mathematical contexts. What gets restricted between the different localities is the potential defeasors that we are willing to consider, and thus which inferences are treated as defeasible in practice. Take the example of political possibility/necessity: someone might claim that if a political candidate is caught stealing, then they will not be elected. This is a monotonic inference in all but those reasoning contexts in which we are willing to ignore very outlandish possibilities (e.g., group mind control, the legalisation of theft, etc.). This kind of variation in potential defeasors is basically what we’d call restriction of the range of counterfactual variation in most hypothetical reasoning contexts.

The problem for McDowell is that if conclusiveness is interpreted as global monotonicity, then his thesis is simply false, whereas if it’s interpreted as local monotonicity, then it’s fine, but not quite in the way he means it.  What McDowell seems to be getting at is that the ranges of defeasors for our first-order and second-order capacities are different, and thus we can assume that the second-order capacities work (by simply not considering the specific factors that would cause them to fail) while still actively reasoning about the fallibility of our first-order capacities. From the perspective of a subject who makes this assumption, then, there is a sense in which they can just know whatever their first-order capacities are telling them in certain cases, insofar as their second-order capacities can determine the correct functioning of their first-order capacities and thereby provide the beliefs they produce with warrant. This means that the relation between first-order and second-order perceptual capacities handles the relation between the abstracted representation (purport) and situated representation (success) in the proper functional terms, as long as it is handled right. The big problem seems to be that McDowell isn’t willing to become a full blown functionalist (a la Kant/Sellars), because he seems to think that this abandons the sort of common sense correctness of naive realism. He’s right to be afraid of this, but wrong to let this fear prevent him from pursuing the explanatory thread to the end. You have to get outside of the perspective of the subject in order to understand the nature of representational purport properly. If you don’t, you’re just re-importing a cartesian epistemic privilege on the subject’s behalf. You’re not taking second-order fallibility seriously. There could easily be third, fourth, fifth, etc., orders of perceptual capacities, related to one another in complex and overlapping ways. There is no upper limit, and we shouldn’t pretend that the first-person perspective defined by the highest factual order somehow reintroduces subjective certainty.

We end up with a bizarre hybridisation of folksy phenomenological wisdom and quasi-functionalist apology for it. The fundamental problem for McDowell is that he wants to explain the unity of the two sides of the subjective character he’s talking about in introspective phenomenological terms. It’s a matter of what it’s like to be in that state according to you, rather than what it is to be in that state, according to a dual functionalist account that ties together our internal and external causal economies. This is disastrous, as only the latter could in principle incorporate the externalist element McDowell is trying to incorporate in order to save naive realism. At the end of the day, it only works if we’re naive about how we’re able to describe our relation to the external world, which is to say, if we think we can genuinely explain this relation without engaging in natural scientific causal explanation. This naivety goes hand in hand with his collapsing of the second level of defeasibility into global monotonicity. The discursive space becomes one that is once more defined by my personal prejudices, or by *my* authority, and the point of the functionalist story about higher-order perceptual capacities should be precisely to take away precisely this kind of authority (a la Sellars).

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!

‘Only the Death of God Can Save Us’

My talk for the Newcastle Philosophy Society on Saturday (discussed in the last post) went very well . Although I didn’t get to prepare as much as I might have liked, the ideas came together in a way that people seemed to understand, and it provoked a lot of interesting discussion. Despite the controversial thesis of the talk, there was no hostility or incredulity in the face of the claims I was making. What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon: eating pizza, drinking coffee, and talking about the death of God with a bunch of non-philosophers who are just interested in the topic.

Anyway, I managed to record a video of the talk on my laptop (giving it a slightly weird angle), and I’ve uploaded it to youtube (see here). The talk takes up the first 30 minutes. This is followed by a 30 minute Q&A session with a respondent, and a further 50 minutes of less focused discussion.

As another point of interest. Ray Brassier’s most recent talk ‘How to Train an Animal that Makes Inferences: Sellars on Rules and Regularities’, is now available online courtesy of Lorenzo Chiesa (see here). It’s Ray at his best: clear exegesis of Sellars with wonderful and incisive commentary upon the consequences that must be drawn from it. It also contains a small exchange between Ray and Zizek, which fans of both/either may find interesting/entertaining.

Finally, I’ve just finished making the final edits to the submission draft of my thesis. It contains no substantial changes from the current available draft, other than the fixing of a few typos and the inclusion of an acknowledgements page. However, I feel bound to put it up here for the sake of completeness if nothing else. It’s available on the usual page, linked in the sidebar. Now I’m free to finish a paper I’ve been working on for a couple months now. I’m sure you’ll all be interested to read it once it arrives!

Doctorates, Divisons, and the Death of God

It’s finally happened. I’m now (or at least am soon to officially be) a doctor of philosophy. My viva took place on Friday the 13th of January (an ominous date, but then, I was born on the 13th, so I suppose it’s my lucky number). It all went much better than expected. My examiners were Peter Poellner (internal) and Stephen Mulhall (external), and they were both very pleasant and helpful in the points they made about the thesis. They also passed it without corrections, which is incredibly nice of them. So, as of right now, I’m on the job market (offers anyone?). My biggest problem is that I currently have no publications (despite the several hundred thousand words posted on this blog). So, my goal this year is to turn all of the various bits of philosophical material I’ve written over the past few years into as many publications as I can manage, plus a few more original ones for good measure. I’ll let you all know more about them as they appear.

In other news, it appears that at the same time I was having my viva, I was being discussed in some small capacity in a paper given by Louis Morelle at the ENS (see here). I’m completely delighted by this, and I’d love to hear from anyone who was there (or from Louis himself, if he’s out there!) This was in the context of giving an overview of the philosophical divisions that have emerged in (or perhaps out of) Speculative Realism. On Morelle’s account, I stand allied to Ray Brassier’s naturalistic strand of SR, along with Martin Hagglund (who I’m afraid I haven’t read very much, which I must rectify). This is correct, as far as it goes. I’ve just recently laid out in brief the relationship between my work and Ray’s (here) and although there’s more to be said about it, it’s clear that he’s my closest philosophical ally. However, I didn’t say anything about my relation to SR there, and so I feel it appropriate to say something about it in light of this development.

Continue reading Doctorates, Divisons, and the Death of God

No Givenness Please, We’re Sellarsians

Dan Sacilotto over at Being’s Poem has just put up an excellent post discussing some issues that myself and Ray Brassier have been working on, in the light of a comparison between the two titans of Hegelianism in contemporary philosophical world: Badiou (the paragon of mathematical ontology) and Brandom (the paragon of inferentialist semantics). As Dan was so generous in the complements with which he opened his post, I feel I should say a little something in return. The pleasure in our correspondence has been entirely mutual. Dan is an incredibly enthusiastic and sincere interlocutor, and he’s consistently challenged me to improve both the content of my ideas and their form of expression. He’s also patiently and valiantly attempted to explain Badiou to me, and has been very helpful, in spite of my persistent inability to grasp what Badiou means by ‘presentation’. Dan exemplifies a lot of the virtues of a good philosopher: he’s intensely autodidactic, philosophically omnivorous, he doesn’t pull his discursive punches, and he refuses to write about things unless he thinks he understands them. All in all, a top chap.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to address a few of the aspects of Dan’s post. I’m not going to cover everything, as it’s filled to the brim with interesting content. However, I do think that I can present my own point of view on several issues in a bit more detail, and provide some additional context for those who aren’t aware of the way mine and Ray’s Sellarsian projects have been developing of late. To this end, I’m going to carry on my recent practice of quoting from my own correspondence, and post a few snippets from my correspondence with Ray.

However, before I get down to this it’s useful to quickly summarise the central point of Dan’s post. His basic idea is that, although their rejection of the primacy of phenomenal givenness is highly laudable, both Badiou and Brandom end up going too far in minimising the role of experience, especially in their rejection of the role that sensation plays within it. Although the way this happens within each philosophical system differs, he takes it that they both seem to collapse back into something like Hegelian idealism, albeit from opposite directions. He sees myself and Ray as attempting to avoid this danger by championing the work of Sellars, ameliorating the Hegelian dangers of Brandom and Badiou by returning to a more Kantian approach to the relation between thought and Being. The aim here is to give experience its due, without collapsing back into the Myth of the Given, and thereby establish both the principled separation and effective connection between mind and world. However, Dan also suggests that Ray’s greater interest in Sellars’ account of sensation (and the associated notion of picturing) keeps him safer than my own more Brandomian proclivities. Needless to say, I’ve got a few points I’d like to make about this.

Continue reading No Givenness Please, We’re Sellarsians

Deontologistics on Tour: Conferences, Posts and Comments

I’m currently sitting in a cafe in Dundee, waiting for  the the 21st Century Idealism conference to kick off, and writing my paper (don’t worry, I’ve got a detailed plan!). It seems that I’m going to be quite busy over the next few months polishing off the thesis and going to conferences. After this, I’ll be going to the Metaphysics of Evolutionary Naturalism conference at the American University of Beirut, which Ray Brassier has organised, and it looks fantastic (I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Dan Dennett and Ruth Millikan). Following that, I’ll be in Prague for the Normativity of Meaning conference, where I’ll get my first chance to see Robert Brandom present in person (the prospect of which makes me giddy as a schoolgirl). I’m then thinking of visiting a friend in Slovakia before heading across to Munich for the Aspects of Reason Conference (where I get to see Brandom again!). If there’s anyone out there who fancies catching up with me on my prospective European tour, drop me a line. I can’t guarantee anything, but it’s always nice to bump into people who read the blog (and it’ll be even nicer to do so on the continent!).

On another note, there’s been a couple great posts of late from a number of directions. I’ve commented on some of these, in ways that elaborate my positions on a few matters (especially on the nature of philosophical practice and philosophical style), so they might be of additional interest to some. I’ve also coined a few turns of phrase which I’m quite pleased with, so don’t be surprised if they turn up here or in published work.

First, there’s Reid Kotlas’ second post in his latest series – Preface on Clarity – which picks out a little bit from Brandom that is wonderful and elaborates on it a bit in discussion with myself and the Philosopher Sans Oeuvre. I go into my opinions about the famous analytic/continental divide a bit more there, along with my opinions on the correct use of stylistic devices such as metaphor in philosophical writing.

Second, there’s Duncan Law’s recent post on Brandom – Embodied Norms – where we’ve been having a cracking good discussion about our different perspectives on Brandom’s work, the nature of language (conception) vs. communication (information transmission), and the possibility of transcendental philosophy. I’m increasingly convinced that the distinction between the ability to grasp conceptual content and the ability to receive information is a piece with the Kantian distinction between the faculties of understanding (and reason) and sensibility (and imagination), with the bracketed faculty in each case being the ability to process what is grasped/received. These pairs can then be viewed as indicating that there is no conception/sensation without the relevant kind of processing. These correspond roughly to the Hegelian insight that there is no understanding without reason (to view them separately is to be in the abstract standpoint of Verstand), and the Heideggerian insight that there is no perception without concerned practice (no Sicht without Umsicht). It’s also where we locate the boundary between causal systems that are configured correctly so as to count as rational agents (and thus susceptible to certain forms of normative assessment) and causal systems that can’t (those that merely process information).

Third, there’s Jonas Jervell Inregard’s recent posts on inner sense and time in Kant and others – Inner Sense Part I: On Asking Better Questions and What is Time? – I haven’t added anything much here (though I’ve certainly been thinking about the topic a lot), but it promises to be a really interesting series of posts.

That’s all for now. Back to my paper! Absolute Idea won’t explicate itself…

Planomenology Returns

Over a the long dormant Planomenology, Reid Kotlas has just announced his return to the blog with a very frank and eloquent post on his continuing philosophical development (here). In it he promises to take us all through his foray into the analytic tradition, including a number of it’s more important thinkers. I’m looking forward to reading these posts immensely, and I’m sure that others who’re unfamiliar with, but curious about, this material will find Reid’s thoughts on the matter useful. Despite the humility he displays in the post, I know Reid will provide some top notch analysis, so watch this space. Reid also touches on a number of interesting themes in his post that I’d like to briefly address.

Continue reading Planomenology Returns