One from the Archives: Negativity

Although I’m working on other things at the moment (though very slowly, due to this rotten cold), it occurred to me that I’ve got a bunch of material lying around in my email account from various conversations I’ve had with terribly interesting individuals. Some of this is fairly easy just to copy and paste onto the blog, so there’s no good reason not to do so. I’m going to post them pretty much as is, and any necessary corrections or revisions will appear in ‘[…]’.

To start with, here’s something I wrote in response to a really excellent question from Alex Williams on my understanding of the relation between politics and negativity. It doesn’t really talk about politics much, but rather tries to disambiguate various ways in which the concept of negativity can be deployed philosophically. Hope you enjoy.

I haven’t read Benjamin Noys book on the matter, which I suspect I should, but I’m generally very skeptical of the way ‘negativity’ and ‘positivity’ get used in much of mainstream continental philosophical discourse. It’s one of my pet peeves actually, because it often ends up running together logical and metaphysical issues with metaphorics of affectivity (‘we must be positive’ or ‘we must be negative’, etc.). That said, I’ll try and disentangle the bits I think something can be said about as best as I can.

There’s basically three different registers in which talk of negativity is relevant: philosophy of logic, philosophy of subjectivity, and metaphysics. These overlap insofar as subjects can be conceived as necessarily having the capacity for reasoning (which is made explicit using logical vocabulary) and insofar as there are questions about the subjects place within reality (and the relation between logical and metaphysical structure more broadly). To understand the relations between these different ways of talking about negativity I’d like to trace a few historical debates running through Spinoza, Hegel, Deleuze, Heidegger, Sartre and Brandom.

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A Quickie on the KK Principle

I’m now in London, bumming around until I head off to Beirut on the 9th. If there’s anyone out there in London who wants to meet up with me in the meantime, feel free to email me, or communicate by some other means. On that note, I’m also now on twitter, for anyone who hasn’t already spotted me. This is a very quick post in response to Catarina Dulith Novaes’ post on the KK principle (here), because I couldn’t seem to post a comment on it. It’s thus pretty short (by my standards).

I won’t recapitulate Catarina’s post in any detail, as it’s a very short post itself, but the suggestion she makes is that the problem of whether the KK principle (i.e., if someone knows p, then they know that they know p) is true is amenable to empirical resolution to some extent, on the basis of research into metacognition. She also suggests that Kantian approaches to epistemology are incompatible with such analyses, the implication being that this is another reason why they don’t cut the mustard. I’m an unabashed Kantian on these matters. I take the widespread hostility to transcendental approaches to cognition to stem largely from the assumption that they place illegitimate constraints upon, or are downright incompatible with, empirical approaches. However, even Kant is fairly explicit that transcendental psychology is supposed to be a complement to empirical psychology, rather than a substitute for it. Whether or not Kant’s account of it is correct is another matter (though I increasingly suspect that it is less silly than it is often portrayed to be), rather, the issue is whether there are such things as legitimate constraints upon empirical approaches to cognition.

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Eliminativism and the Real

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.

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Critique and Correlationism

Just a little interruption to clear up a point I made in a comment, which Levi has rightly called me on. The statement I made was as follows:-

“One of the problems I have with the general trend of speculative realism (and one of the reasons I don’t identify as a speculative realist) is precisely its reactionary tendency to reject the major figures of philosophy (primarily Kant and Heidegger) without trying to figure out what needs to be salvaged from their work. When it comes to Kant and Heidegger, there is a great deal of worth to salvage, and much of it would prevent speculative realists from repeating some of the mistakes that Kant/Heidegger were themselves reacting to.”

Levi has rightly called my on this by pointing out that there is some engagement with figures like Heidegger (particularly by Graham Harman) and Kant (I imagine Iain Grant is a touchstone here). What is more, Levi argues (as he has on his blog here, and here), for what he calls a re-construction of the history of philosophy, in which Object-Oriented philosophers (indeed, only one of the species of speculative realist) go back through the history of philosophy and read them as if they are object-oriented metaphysicians, to liberate hidden insights of their work. These points would seem to undermine the thesis I put forward above.

Now, I still think that thesis holds, but I am forced to make it more clear and specific (a good thing!). I do not object to the kind of creative exegesis that Levi is proposing through re-construction (hell I’m a Deleuzian, who am I to argue about creative appropriation?), but I think that there is a certain bit of a whole tradition of philosophy that SR won’t touch with a ten foot barge pole. I am thinking of the methodological insights of the critical tradition (and Heidegger).

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