Given the recent bevy of posts spawned by Nina‘s comments on what she sees as a problem inherent in “certain corners of contemporary continental philosophy”, with regard to the relation between politics and ontology, I feel drawn to say something about the issue. I think straight off I should say that for the most part I agree with Nick’s opinions on the matter (here and here), although I think he made claims for Speculative Realism as a whole that were perhaps more true of his own approach (and that of some others in the loosely defined SR paradigm). Not being a speculative realist, I’m not going to frame anything I say in terms of what a speculative realist approach allows us to do with politics, but rather try to spell out what the relation between politics and ontology is from my own perspective (which I’ve been slowly elaborating on this blog over the past couple months). Also, I’m not going to summarise all of the discussions that have been going on, but I do need to say something about Nina’s brief remarks and the comments Nick made in response to them.
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.
Levi has put down some initial comments on my last post (here and here), and I feel that I really must clear up what appear to me to be some obvious misunderstandings of my claims. Fortunately, I think that the major misunderstanding Levi puts forward allows me to clarify some of the less clear points I made about causation and its problematic status within Levi’s variant of OOO. It also appears that I need to say some more about my own political pretensions in order to stave off the objection that I demand an appeal to ‘transcendent’ norms or that my approach ignores the reality of the political situation. Here we go then.
1. Varieties of Force
The major objection Levi has to my account of Latour is my characterisation of the first of the two moves I identified in his position (although Levi has yet to say much about the second, and I think he’ll find it equally problematic). I described this in two ways:-
1) The collapsing of the distinction between might and right.
2) The reduction of normative force to causal force.
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 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?