This is a bit of an intermediary post. I’m currently working up a response to Levi’s recent posts responding to my criticisms of his position (and criticising my position), but may take a couple days to get it together. However, Levi has recently started reading my Essay on Transcendental Realism, and has posed a few clarificatory questions about the way I define the notions of ‘world’ and ‘Real’ (here). I happened to have a really good email discussion with Daniel Brigham about this, after he heard my TR talk from the Warwick workshop, and so I can copy and paste much from my email explanations without taking too much time. So, here’s a bit of a clarification of the notions of ‘world’ and ‘Real’ and a response to some worries about the role of propositions in defining them.
Following up yesterday’s the day before yesterday’s post, I should probably just add a few notes in response to Graham (see here). I’ll try and not let this spiral into a 7 message exchange though. I’ve always wanted one of those epic sounding monikers you have to put in quote marks, and I think Pete “the relentless” is the best suggestion I’ve come across so far (I take everything Graham says in good spirit). Before leaping in though, I should perhaps say a little bit about the way I approach philosophical disputes like this.
Graham does rightly note that I have a habit of trying to point out what I see as confusions or insufficiently precise uses of terminology, and this does reflect a bit of my more analytic background (although I’m sure if you ask those analyticians who know me I’d get accused of being wildly speculative!). This kind of nitpicking can come across as pedantic, or as labelling the other person as ‘confused’, ‘muddled’ or something similar. I’m trying to avoid this, as such things can be quite offensive, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that it’s much easier to offend people by accident here (there’s so little way of modulating one’s tone that attempts to do so can wildly backfire), so it’s at the very least good practice to be careful with one’s words.
However, I’d like to defend my nitpicking to some extent. It’s all well and good to say that we should just take our (and by this I mean more than just myself and Graham) differences to be disagreements in all cases, and then to try and resolve them directly, but I think that it’s often the case that it’s not entirely clear what exactly we’re disagreeing about. Sometimes you have to do a bit of preparatory work in order to figure out where a given disagreement lies. It can be very frustrating for all involved, but it can pay us back for this frustration tenfold if done right. Of course, perspicuity can devolve into pedantry, and this can lead to obscuring what is genuinely important in a discussion. Perspicuity is a virtue, and as such, the Aristotelian in me strives for a golden mean. I don’t always find it, but I try regardless.
Brevity, on the other hand, isn’t a virtue I have any success with. This post will be quite long (8,000 words or so), largely because it includes the additional material hinted at in the last post, which is quite in depth. To Graham: don’t think I’m forcing you to ratchet up a current account deficit in our discussion. You’re a much busier man than I, and you can feel free to get back to me whenever you like (or not to at all). As our Australian friends say: no worries.
Jon Cogburn has just put up a post about the ethical implications of Brandom’s thought (here). As much as I respect Jon, I’m afraid I almost entirely disagree with the post. I think he’s being really unfair to Brandom. I mean no offence to him, but his claim that some of Brandom’s remarks (to the effect that pain has no intrinsic moral significance) are evil strikes me as hyperbole. I haven’t yet fully gone through Reason in Philosophy, but I’ve been thinking about the ethical implications of Brandom’s work (see my speculative heresy piece on ethics) and have come to very much the same position expressed in these remarks, yet without any of the more horrific implications Jon seems to see in them. To warn you, this is another fairly long post (coming up 7,000 words).
Graham Harman recently responded (here) to my musings on his argument for his fourfold structure (here). That post was quite brief, but it suggested that the way to reject his approach is to reject the phenomenological standpoint that its based upon, loosely summed up in the idea that ontology must begin with experience. Given that Graham has picked up on the points I made, I feel that I should probably go into a bit more detail, although this will unfortunately fall short of presenting my alternative to phenomenology (fundamental deontology) in full. First though, I think it’s important to say a little bit more about what the core features of phenomenology are, before we try to provide possible reasons for rejecting them. I am of course no expert on Husserl, so my analysis will be faily crude, but hopefully fair nonetheless.
1. The Basic Problems with Phenomenology
Skipping over the methodological details of phenomenology (which are certainly most interesting), I think the two most important features to pick out are the theory of intentionality, and the correlative theory of meaning or content. The first encapsulates the real advance of phenomenology (via Brentano) over both the empiricist and Kantian accounts of experience. The advance over empiricism is threefold. First, phenomenology surpasses the empiricists’ indirect realism, holding that we do not experience ideas or representations of things, but that our experiences are directed at the things themselves. Secondly, experience is the encountering of objects as objects, not the encountering of bundles of sense data that must be actively united into objects. Thirdly, phenomenology takes the objects that our experiences are directed at to transcend our experiences of them. As Graham is fond of pointing out, this has the effect of opening up a distinction between the objects of experience and the qualities that they present to us.
Levi recently launched a couple new salvo’s in the debate over normativity (here, here, here and a bit earlier here), and although he hasn’t mentioned me, I think his reference to ‘transcendentalists’ who are concerned with guaranteeing normativity is probably aimed in this direction, especially after our earlier exchange over Latour (here and here on deontologistics, which petered out in a comment exchange here on larvalsubjects), and his reference to the ‘howler’ that norms don’t exist.
The major thrust of Levi’s argument still seems to be that concern with transcendental normativity precludes the possibility of first analysing the real social conditions (and their causes) that underlie undesirable political states of affairs, and then acting upon these analyses in strategic ways to undermine these and potentially produce new and better social configurations. This is put in a slightly more inflamatory way in his comparison of philosophers of normativity with the kid in the playground that thinks shouting at the top of his voice that the bully is in the wrong is enough to stop the bully. I’ll try to take this jab in good spirit.
I’ve had a couple people ask me about my thoughts on eliminative materialism, and the response I give the usually makes them do a double-take. It has just struck me that my musings on the question of Being provide a good background in which to lay out some of my thoughts on the matter. A disclaimer I will make up front is that although I am sympathetic to the project of eliminative materialism, I have next to no knowledge of the internal details of the Churchlands’ neurophilosophy. What I will be discussing here is that general thrust, with perhaps a few additional ideas thrown in.
As a side note, I appologise to anyone who is waiting for the third part of my series on Deleuze and sufficient reason. It is coming, but I’ve had to rethink the order of explanation so I had to chuck what I had written for it.
1. Strange Bedfellows
I’m possibly the only person in the world who thinks that eliminative materialism and Brandomian anti-naturalism are good bedfellows. It makes more sense than you’d think. Brandomian anti-naturalism denies that the normative dimension can be reduced to the natural dimension. It provides excellent arguments why approaches like teleosemantics (which attempts to build a view of representational content out of biological functional norms) are doomed to failure. What most people see in this is the bestowing of some peculiar and special kind of Being on norms, one which would indeed be alien to eliminativism, but what I’ve been advocating is the idea that it does not, that indeed what it does is deny that norms have any Being at all. On the flip side, it also purifies nature of the normative entirely, including the teleological dimension that the teleosemanticists are appealing to.
Over at larvalsubjects (in order: here, here, here, here and most recently here), I’ve been having a discussion with Levi about existence, and the idea of fictional existence more specifically (more like pestering him about it, but I digress). I’m very interested in fictional existence because I take it to be a prime example of what I call pseudo-existence. This is a concept I have mentioned before in relation to my claim that norms have no real Being, i.e., they are pseudo-beings. The discussion has forced me to start clearing up a few things, and it struck me that explaining this concept of pseudo-existence is a good way of showing how my methodology is a critical one, in the sense I laid down earlier in this post. It will also let me justify a number of claims made in my post on normativity and ontology.
In explaining this I want to combat an objection that Levi has made against my approach, namely, that I am “conflating an issue of epistemology– how our statements link up with objects –with an issue of ontology.“, and the implication that I am thereby falling into correlationism. The reason I am not conflating the two is precisely that I take a critical approach to ontology: I try to work out exactly what it is to do ontology and the demands it places on us before engaging in it. What Levi takes to be a conflation of epistemological and ontological claims is actually the making of certain critical claims (which do have epistemological implications) that delimit the nature of ontology. In virtue of their delimiting role, these claims are not themselves ontological claims. The relation here is just what Heidegger would identify as the relation between the formulation of the question of the meaning of Being and the actual inquiry into the meaning of Being itself.
I’m going to try and make this relation clear first, in order that we can then draw some conclusions about existence. I should also note here that I do not take Being (Sein, the Being of beings) and existence (Seiendheit, as in ‘Pete exists’) to be equivalent. I take existence to be simply one of the many ways in which Being is said. I also follow Heidegger in holding that ontology and metaphysics are not exactly the same thing, even though they are closely interlinked (see my earlier post on this here). This is because ontology is the inquiry into Being, and metaphysics is the inquiry into beingness, and this is just what beings are, or the essence of existence. If we recognise that Being is more than existence, we must separate ontology and metaphysics. However, it does not mean that we can’t do both, or even that we can do them properly in isolation from one another.
As a final note, this is a long post (over 6000 words). It’s length and density is due to necessity rather than desire. I appologise in advance for my inability to condense it further.
Over at Grundlegung, Tom has put a few thoughts together on some of what I said in my post on Normativity and Ontology. He’s focused on my somewhat rushed claims about the nature of normativity, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to clear some of my opinions up, not least because they aren’t entirely settled yet. I’ve already put some initial thoughts down in a comment on his post, but I’m going to offer some more detailed thoughts here, some of which overlap with what I said there. First of all though, I’m going to clear up a few things about my approach, before I specifically address Tom’s worries.
1. The Primary Bind
The first thing I must repeat from my old post is what I called there the primary bind. This names the fact that there are some norms, which I have called the fundamental norms of rationality, that we are bound by insofar as we make any claims at all. This is because, although we may indeed argue about how we should argue, this kind of argument has a special structure insofar as we cannot disavow the standards (or norms) which determine what is correct in this case. To put it in a different way, we can neither deny the existence (formally pseudo-existence) of such standards (‘There is no way we should argue’), nor can we posit the existence of divergent standards (‘How I should argue is different from how you should argue’), without invalidating the argument itself, i.e., without ceasing to occupy a position (or make a claim) at all. Tom correctly identified my positing of this primary bind as a properly transcendental claim.
I seem to have gotten quite a lot of traffic over the last few days, so thankyou to all of you taking time to visit. I must break my promises again, and write about something entirely different to what I have so far suggested. Someone pointed me in the direction of the Grundlegung blog (now linked in the sidebar), which I’m finding very interesting. It’s nice to see someone else interested in contemporary ontology and the philosophy of normativity at the same time. Specifically, I was very interested by his musings on how to reconcile a univocal account of Being and the essentially normative character of rationality/subjectivity. This seems to be an ongoing discussion with Levi at LarvalSubjects (now also linked in the sidebar) to which I chipped in a little bit. I have promise to chip in more however, and so I’m going to try and explain the outlines of my own work on the relation between normativity and ontology. This also expands on a discussion I was having with Ray Brassier at the last speculative realism conference, about how to reconcile the normativity of thought with ontology.
Coming out of the discussion between Tom and Levi, there seem to be three major issues that need to be addressed:-
1) In what sense is the philosophy of normativity (or deontology) prior to, or foundational for, ontology?
2) If we understand subjects as uniquely normative, how can we reconcile this with a univocal ontology in which no kind of being has any ontological privilege?
3) If ontology is somehow grounded in the normative, how do we account for the ontological status of norms, and how do we avoid the same problems vis a vis univocity?