Comments on Capitalist Realism (Part 1)

I recently finished reading Mark Fisher‘s Capitalist Realism. I’m very sorry it took me so long. Now I’m at the end of my thesis I’m starting to finally do things I’ve been putting off for a long time. Mark really must be praised for writing such an accessible and yet eminently perceptive and persuasive book. It touches on a number of issues I’ve been thinking about myself for a long time, and gives names to several phenomena that have been on the edge of my intellectual awareness for even longer. I don’t agree with all of it, and I can see numerous points where the discussion needs to be taken further, but these are merely signs of how thought provoking and well-written the book is.

As I’ve said, now I’m at the end of the thesis, I’m starting to pick up things I’ve put off, and start new projects again. Politics is what originally got me into philosophy. Specifically, I was motivated to take up theoretical philosophy by precisely what demotivated me to engage in practical political action: the problem of how it is possible to change anything in the current environment (an environment Mark so perspicuously circumscribes). I remember attending the big anti-war march just before the beginning of the Iraq war in London, the biggest peace protest in history at the time (I think), and seeing how easily it was assimilated and dissipated by the media-democratic complex. It struck me that a smaller number of people (with a smaller amount of public support behind them) brought down the Vietnam war, and yet this did precisely nothing. I was 17 at the time, and hoping to go into politics. That event disrupted my perspective and made me want to understand why it did nothing, and how it would be possible to do something. I’ve spent the last 7 years or so on a journey into high theory, acquiring a number of abstract theoretical tools along the way, and I think I’m finally ready to make my descent back toward concrete political issues. Capitalist Realism has only reinforced my resolve on this front.

To this end, I’m in the early stages of starting a new blog to discuss more concrete political issues. Deontologistics has always been very much a blog about abstract issues, and although I’ve touched on the odd bit of political and ethical theory here and there, that’s never been its purpose. The arrangements for the new blog are still coming together though (it doesn’t even have a name yet), so watch this space. The one thing I can tell you is that if there is one phrase that sums up its modus operandi, it’s this: political rationalism. Given all this, I feel that it’s a good idea for me to write up my thoughts on Capitalist Realism (or CR), as a preliminary to the work I’m hoping to undertake. This will be less of a summary of the book’s core ideas than an exploration of the terrain it covers from within my own theoretical perspective. This means adding some theoretical supplements and using these to sketch the ways in which I think some of Mark’s ideas can be developed. The other qualification to add here is that I’m not as well versed in political theory as I’d like, and so it’s quite possible that I’ll reinvent some theoretical wheels as I’m going here (especially with regard to Marx and Habermas). I’m very happy to have this pointed out to me.

As should be no surprise to regular readers, this will be a long post (this part is 16,000, which I believe is a new record). It started out life as an email to Mark and became somewhat excessive. It’s gotten so long that I’ve actually had to split it up into parts (the second has yet to be completed). Here is the first part, which involves more theoretical supplementation than political musing. The second part should get more concrete, or at least, as concrete as I am known to get.

Anyway, here we go…

Continue reading Comments on Capitalist Realism (Part 1)

Dundee Epilogue

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 (PDFPPT 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.

Continue reading Dundee Epilogue

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…

Back From The Dead

Hello everyone, I can confirm that I am still alive. I recently realised that it’s been over 3 months since I’ve posted anything, for which I must apologise. The reason for this is the usual – I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to finish my thesis. There’ve been several points at which I thought about posting up ideas on the blog, but told myself not to for the sake of getting thesis work done. However, this strategy hasn’t resulted in a great deal of thesis progress, and so I think I’ll take a different tack and see if writing some stuff on here will help speed up my writing elsewhere. As such, I’m going to write up some of the ideas I’ve been having about normativity of late, and hopefully clear up some confusions my earlier writings on the topic may have engendered.

Continue reading Back From The Dead

Response to Levi (part 3)

I have to apologise that its taken so long to get this third part up. I had section 7 written when I posted the last part, but a number of things came up at the beginning of this week which have made it difficult for me to finish section 8. Anyway, it’s done, and this caps off my response to Levi’s posts. I had originally wanted to say more about Levi’s claims about Kant, specifically regarding the bits of Kant that he claims to take up, but I need to get on with other things.

Also, Levi has since posted a response to part 2 (here). I don’t want to tackle the points he makes in the detail I’ve gone into below, again, because I need to get on with other things, but I think there are perhaps four quick points that can be made:-

1) Levi now claims that my criticisms of his account of withdrawal can be circumvented by means of his distinction between first order and second order observation. In essence, this is a perspectivalist solution to the problem of how to understand direct and indirect access. The claim is effectively that because we can observe that other systems lack our own particular sensitivities to the environment, we can see that there is some loose sense in which they are not accessing aspects of the environment that we are. We can then by analogy hold that there must be bits of the environment that we are not accessing. I think this will prove very problematic, but I won’t elaborate here.

2) At several points in his response Levi makes the claim that he can address problems I’ve raised for him in regional ontology. For instance, he claims that any problems I’ve raised for him regarding the differences between intentional and non-intentional systems can be handled at the level of the regional ontology of intentional systems. The important thing to point out here is that if Levi introduces new metaphysical resources to account for the intentional relations that we enter into, then he abandons what was supposed to be the real thrust of OOO, because this is tantamount to reintroducing special metaphysical relations that only humans (or intentional systems more broadly defined) can enter into in order to secure the possibility of knowledge. However, if what Levi means here by regional ontology doesn’t involve introducing such specialised metaphysical resources, precisely what does it involve, and how can it help?

3) Levi seems to think that my discussions of a ‘shared apparatus of meaning’ imply something like a static background of meaning available in advance as a condition of the possibility of communication. This couldn’t be further from the truth, indeed, the Brandomian position I adopt more often gets accused of being too dynamic, insofar as it denies that there are anything like analytic truths that fix the meaning of our claims (i.e., it is a form of semantic holism). There are two important upshots of this. On the interpersonal level, communication is less like the exchange of fully formed meanings than it is a co-operative activity in which we negotiate one another’s commitments, the meanings of which are determined by their relations to others. On the broader social level, the inferential norms (or concepts) which determine the relations between sentences (and thus their meanings) are subject to continuous revision, insofar as the process of revising our commitments just is the process of revising our concepts. The only thing which is fixed here is the fundamental norms governing these dynamic activities. Incidentally, Levi also at one point says that Brandom is insufficiently concerned with non-discursive practices. This misses the point that such practices are in fact Brandom’s answer to the objections that his approach is too dynamic. For Brandom, it is shared practices of talking about and engaging with things (what he calls ‘thick’ or ‘object-involving’ practices) that allow for the possibility of interpersonal communication and conceptual revision. To explain this in detail would require too much space (I also don’t think Brandom’s account of this is quite adequate even if it’s on the right track), but it’s important to see that Levi is well off the mark here.

4) Finally, Levi responds to my concerns about representation by invoking what he takes to be adverse connotations of the word. He thinks that focusing upon representation tends to produce epistemologies in which there is too much focus placed upon mental contents, and this tends to obscure the importance of concrete practices, along with the social and historical dimensions of knowledge development and retention. All I can really say to Levi here is that although there are a number of good historical examples in which these coincide (e.g., Descartes), that the connotations he finds say more about his own prejudices than anything else. Brandom’s approach to representation takes account of everything he thinks it would exclude: semantic holism (against self-subsistent mental contents), thick practices, and an account of how both social and historical dimensions of linguistic practice are necessary for representation. Much as was the case with the word ‘normativity’, I think Levi’s reading too much into the notion of ‘representation’, and he needs to get over this if he’s to deal with the variety of issues that it involves (and which I sketched in the last post).

Anyway, onto the main event once more. Here are sections 7 and 8.

Continue reading Response to Levi (part 3)

Transcendental Realism

Greetings to all. It’s a bit late for an update, but, as others have already noted (here and here), the Transcendental Realism Workshop that happened last week went very well. I was most pleased with the way the various papers fitted together. A number of important issues recurred throughout the whole day: the relation between metaphysics and science, the nature and importance of rationality, the structure of concept revision, the interface between the natural and the normative, the role of the social in the structure of knowledge, and the significance of Kant’s philosophy.

As Dave Allen has pointed out, one of the most heartening things about the day was the that the great divide between Continental and Analytic philosophy was notable only by its absence. There was no attempt to bring one to the other, but simply a willingness to work as if the boundaries were not there.

I won’t comment too much on individual papers, as I’ll let those of you who’re interesting hear (or read) them for yourselves. We have the audio for the first three papers (Tom‘s, Reid‘s, and mine), but not for any of the others. Reid and Tom should provide revised electronic copies of their papers at some point (I believe). James Trafford didn’t want to make his paper available, as it is going to form part of his book for zerO on revisionary naturalism. It was an interesting paper, so we’ve got lots to look forward to there. Nick’s paper is available below in electronic form.

Tom O’Shea – On the Very Idea of CorrelationismTom O’Shea Q&A

Reid Kotlas – Transcendental Realism, Historical Materialism, and the Problem of Freedom / Reid Kotlas Q&A

Pete Wolfendale – Objectivity, Reality, and the In-Itself: From Deflationary to Transcendental RealismPete Wolfendale Q&A / Handout

Nick Srnicek – Traversing the Gap: Actor-Network Theory and the Forward March of Science

Unfortunately, we forgot to set up the mike for Ray’s talk, which is a testimony to how extremely tight the schedule was, and how stimulating the inter-talk discussion was. Doubly unfortunately, his presentation was given from notes, and so I can’t even give you all an electronic copy. To give you a brief low-down, he gave a fascinating introduction to Sellars as the best kept secret of 20th Century philosophy. He presented him as something of the Captain Beefheart of philosophy – nobody reads him, but his influence is everywhere. He also presented him as trying to make good on the promise of Kant’s philosophy.

The importance of Kant’s work was something which hung over the whole workshop, and when I came to revise my paper to put it online it stuck with me. I was unhappy with the final argument of my paper, and so my initial intent was only to extend that particular section. However, this turned into over a weeks worth of work (which is part of the reason for the delay), extending the paper into something more like a small treatise on transcendental realism, and the possibility of radicalising Kant’s philosophy. Given that Graham has just posted about the datedness of Kant’s work (here), I think it fitting to post this extended essay as a systematic rebuttal of sorts.

The essay contains the original paper (although somewhat extended), but also contains a large section working out the consequences of the argument for transcendental realism it provides. This recapitulates a lot of thoughts I’ve laid out on the blog over the last year, but in a more systematic and polished form. It’s far from a finished piece. It points in the direction of a larger project, but it provides a very good overview of this project, which reveals what I believe to be its philosophical depth and systematic scope. For anyone who finds the argument of the audio version wanting (as you should) and anyone who wants to know where I intend to take it (as I’d like to think you should) I strongly recommend giving this a read. It also contains a stripped down but fairly incisive critique of both Meillassoux and Graham, which I think many of you will find enlightening. However, it is rather long (24,000 words or so), thought it should be quite easy to read in parts.

Anyway, here it is: Essay on Transcendental Realism

Brandom and Ethics

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).

Continue reading Brandom and Ethics

Ideology and Subjectivity

Levi has a post up riffing on Dominic’s response to my piece for the Speculative Heresy/Inhumanities crossover event. It revisits a line of thought he’s touched on before, namely, that neo-liberalism is somehow founded upon the formal conception of the subject that emerged out of Kant, a conception which I endorse to some extent.

Dominic’s very insightful point was that neo-liberalism is more than just a false antropology. Although it has at times deployed an egoistic conception of the essence of man, it is no longer dependent upon this conception, which is evident in the fact that neo-liberalism is still dominant, despite the widespread rejection of this egoisitc image. I wholeheartedly agree with this. His other point, which Levi has tried to take up and expand, is that neo-liberalism “also goes to considerable lengths to modify the “soul” of society (its basic normative commitments and symbolic co-ordinates) so that individuals will perceive this to be their true nature and act accordingly.” I start to have reservations here, specifically in relation to the way Levi develops the point.

Continue reading Ideology and Subjectivity

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).

Continue reading Critique and Correlationism

Normativity and Rationality

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.

Continue reading Normativity and Rationality