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.

The other side of Brandom’s project that goes hand in hand with eliminativism is the fact that ‘he doesn’t officially believe in beliefs’. Brandom replaces the notion of intentional states with the notion of normative statuses, and he replaces the notion of belief with the notion of commitment. The idea of normative status improves on the idea of intentional state because it is something that is conferred upon one in virtue of occupying a certain position in a social practice (the game of giving and asking for reasons) rather than being an objective state one is in (or that is in one’s head), very much in the way that being a goal keeper in football (soccer for you yanks) is not an objective state you are in but a social role one takes on in a particular practice. The idea of commitment improves on the notion of belief insofar as it disambiguates two different (but intimately related) roles that belief has traditionally played. If p implies q and you believe that p, do you believe that q? Even better, if you believe that p implies q and you believe that p, do you believe that q? It is entirely possible that there are cases a person will not assent to q (or some much more complicated chain of consequences), because their ability to work out the consequences of the positions they hold is exceeded by those consequences. Brandom splits the notion of commitment in two, into acknowledged commitment and consequential commitment. The former is what one takes oneself to be committed to, and the latter what one is really committed to. This is a marked advance on the notion of belief, where we inevitably had to compromise somewhere in the middle (between acknowledgement and consequence).

I think that Brandom’s analysis of rationality lets us see why it is that we have folk-psychological notions. The game of giving and asking for reasons involves argument about practical as much as theoretical commitments (although they need to be understood in quite different ways). This enables us to appeal to people’s commitments and pro-attitudes (another normative status of which desires are a species) in determining how they should act, and this same competency allows us to reverse-engineer a set of commitments and/or pro-attitudes out of some basic assumptions (aided by Davidsonian charity, which is effectively always operative in a special sense for Brandom anyway) and a description of how someone did act. We can also apply this same process by analogy in interpreting so-called intentional creatures (small children and animals) that can’t acknowledge commitments or pro-attitudes at all. Now, if you don’t understand the normative character of what is being ascribed, this can look very much like one has a proper causal theory about how the behaviour of ourselves and other intentional creatures is produced. It’s only one further step to hypostatizing the normative statuses into intentional states. Boom! folk-psychology is born. This is a move that Wittgenstein described and argued against in much of his later work. This has been described by Cavell as Wittgenstein’s depsychologizing of psychology (as Kant depsychologized epistemology, and Frege depsychologized logic).

What is problematic about folk-psychological notions is that they have a kind of hybrid status. We use them as if they enable us to make objective claims about the causal structure of intentional agents, but their origin in the normative structure of our rational practices shields them from the kind of revision that properly objective notions undergo in relation to experience. As Brandom shows, if we have an empirical concept like ‘acid’, and we take it that a good reason for thinking something to be an acid is its tasting sour, and a consequence of something being an acid is its turning litmus paper red (these are both inferential commitments, which constitute the content of the concept ‘acid’), then when we are confronted with something that is both sour and turns litmus paper blue (an ordinary non-inferential commitment acquired through observation) we must revise our inferential commitments and thus our concept. Brandom thinks that all empirical concepts are subject to such revision through conflict with experience. However, the quasi-empirical status of concepts such as ‘belief’ and ‘desire’ prevents them from being revised in this way. This is why folk-psychology hinders our real causal understanding of how we function as material entities, by blocking the active development of better concepts that yield better causal inferences predicting behaviour through conflict with experience.

However, getting rid of hypostatized folk-psychological notions doesn’t mean the eradication of the ordinary way we understand ourselves in terms of the normative structure of rationality. We can still maintain Sellar’s ‘manifest image’ insofar as doing so is just continuing to be rational agents. This can happily be supplemented with an independent scientific understanding of us as causal systems. Indeed, as Ray Brassier shows in Nihil Unbound, Churchland’s attempt to eradicate the manifest image undermines his own project because it undermines the rational norms on the basis of which there can be anything like a reason for adopting it.

2. Purification and the Real

Moving beyond Brandom and Churchland, I want to discuss some of the implications of the approach I recommended in the previous post. There I stated that we can formally understand Being as the structure of ‘what is the case’ independent from what happens to be the case, or the essence of ‘what is the case’. Moreover, I said that understanding Being as it is in itself, involves developing our grasp of the formal structure of this essence (which is to be found in explicating our pre-ontological understanding of Being) into a properly ontological understanding. Now, I also said that the first move in this process is still a formal one – it is a matter of purging ‘what is the case’, which is just the totality of truth, of all but objective truth. This is still a formal move because the distinction between objective and non-objective truth can be effectuated in purely formal terms, as consisting in differences in the structure of argument, rather than in anything to do with any ontological relations between certain claims and the world. The formal notion which is produced by this purification of ‘what is the case’ of all but ‘what is objectively the case’ is what I call the Real.

Now, at this point in the last post I started talking about how purchase on Being as it is in itself could only be guaranteed by the move to metaphysics, which on the basis of such purification is now the metaphysics of real existence, as opposed to a metaphysics of generic existence (see here). However, I would now like to say more about the process of purification itself.

Of course, producing the formal notion of the Real is not really a process of purification at all. It is simply a matter of demonstrating that we have the formal resources within our pre-ontological understanding in order to construct such a notion coherently (and demonstrating that this notion is essential to thinking Being as it is in itself). However, if we are going to carry out the task of metaphysics, we will be abstracting from the totality of beings in order to develop a general set of concepts (a conception of beingness) that is adequate for understanding all beings. The only way for us to perform this abstraction properly is if our abstraction is not corrupted by the confusion of pseudo-beings with real beings, or even of pseudo-properties of real beings with real properties (real beings can have pseudo-properties, such as teleological purposes, or, indeed, normative statuses).

In the last post I suggested that this makes metaphysics (and through it ontology proper) sensitive to science. This is entirely true, but it should not be read as advocating that any one science or set of sciences is the arbiter of the distinctions between real beings and pseudo-beings and between real properties and pseudo-properties. They are the arbiter of what exists and what properties those existents have insofar as they carry out the complex processes of observation and argument which establish ‘what is’. However, the analysis of the structure of those arguments to determine that they adhere to the structure of objectivity proper (in virtue of not allowing certain kinds of reasoning, and maintaining the possibility of revision described above), is something that is in the domain of philosophy (albeit not philosophical ontology – it is a matter for Critique). It is this analysis of the structure of the arguments deployed in determining ‘what is’ that constitutes what I am calling purification. The brief analysis of folk-psychology given above is an example of it, and another example would be the Kantian analysis of the notion of biological purpose which shows that it is regulative and not constitutive (although I think this analysis needs re-tooling). It is through carrying out this process that we maintain and affirm the identity of Being and Nature.

3. Nature and Culture

Does this thereby mean that I give the natural sciences some privileged position? Yes and No. Yes in the sense that I am giving a privilege to those epistemic endeavours which try to describe nature, namely, those discourses which aim at full blow objectivity (there is a difficulty with regard to mathematics here, but I will ignore it for now). No in the sense that I do not take there to be any established set of given discourses (e.g., physics, chemistry and biology) that has a monopoly on objectivity.

This means that the process of purification is not meant to exclude the cultural from the Real, it is rather meant to exclude those analyses of the cultural which think in terms which are internal to culture, rather than treating cultural entities and their properties in a rigorous and external fashion. This is to say that purification does not amount to the eradication of culture, but to its naturalisation. Now, how it is that the positive part of such naturalisation takes place is something which ontology can contribute to, by providing a conceptual framework in terms of which we can reinterpret the kinds of entities and properties talked about in non-rigorous discourse upon culture. As has been mentioned before, my own favoured view is that provided by Deleuze, whose materialist ontology gives us a rich set of concepts in terms of which to situate cultural entities such as ‘families’, ‘institutions’, ‘governments’, and even ‘concepts’ as elements within a world constituted by reciprocally individuated interacting processes. I disagree with a lot of the specifics of DeLanda’s book A New Theory of Society, but it is to be lauded for attempting to carry out just this kind of project – a reconstruction of the cultural realm using the resources provided by ontology.

It is also important to point out that although I’m advocating the naturalisation of culture, I’m not thereby saying that all discourses that are carried out in purely (or even partially) internal or non-objective terms are therefore worthless or that they should be abandoned. Indeed, the critical project I have been endorsing – fundamental deontology – is carried out purely in such terms. Just as the critique of folk-psychology does not thereby invalidate the ‘manifest image’ of ourselves as rational individuals, so need not the critique of folk-politics or folk-sociology invalidate the ‘manifest image’ of ourselves as (relatively) rational groups governed by norms. In these cases, the trick is to free up our external (or empirical) understanding of the real causal structure of our social structures so that it may adapt and develop in the light of experience, so that it may ultimately supplement our internal understanding of our social structures  (for instance, as egalitarian, or democratic). It is only through keeping these dimensions separate, and avoiding such external-internal or empirico-normative hybrids like the notion of belief that one kind of understanding can usefully inform the other.

To give an example: a hybrid social notion analogous to the notion of belief is that of consensus, which is profoundly useful in the internal register in normative projects (e.g., Habermas’ discourse ethics), but which is also useful in an external register in understanding how the real causal mechanisms underlying collective decision making in a given democratic system function (e.g., in a more Foucauldian analysis of power flows in democratic systems). The former ideal notion of consensus, and the latter real notion need to be allowed to part ways, in order that the one can stop hindering the other. This does not mean that the two cannot inform one another, but that this relation needs to be explicit and subject to critique.

What is interesting is that I do believe that the direction of supplementation can go in both ways. For instance, the more detailed our understanding of the real nature of the social (what is the case), the better we are able to develop and implement our ideal understanding (what should be the case). Conversely, the ideal social norms governing our action, although not reducible to real social structures are nonetheless manifest in them. This means that although such manifestation can be realised in multiple ways, and that its realisation can be imperfect (even systematically imperfect), it still provides us some clues in our attempt to understand the underlying causal structure of social systems. For instance, the ideal norms of reasoning provide us with a framework for understanding the real propagation of patterns of reasoning such as Lakoff’s ‘conceptual frames’.

4. Conclusion

What I have proposed here is a complex relationship between critique and ontology. As I have described it, critique has two functions: the explication of the pre-ontological understanding of Being, or the critique of ontology, and the delimitation of the Real, or the critique of science (where science is understood in a very broad sense, as that which concerns itself with ‘what is’ in opposition to ‘what should be’). However, this critique of science is really only one half of a larger process that involves ontology. The critique of science carries out the negative part of this process through the purification of the Real. This purification itself enables the practice of ontology through enabling the practice of metaphysics (which is a necessary part of it). Ontology then provides the resources for the positive part of the process, which is the reconstruction of those domains of science (again, thought very broadly) which were subject to purification.

What I have also suggested is that the phenomena that motivated eliminative materialism in the philosophy of mind – the role that folk-psychology has played in hindering our understanding of ourselves in purely objective terms – is replicated elsewhere within the social sciences, leading me to posit the existence of what we might call folk-politics and folk-sociology (maybe even folk-economics). The real details of the critique of science are to be found in the diagnosing of such empirico-normative hybrid theories and the picking of them apart into their constituent empirical and normative parts.


23 thoughts on “Eliminativism and the Real

  1. One needs to be very careful with Eliminative Materialism, especially as a Brandomite!

    Folk Psychology has been Churchland’s main target in his criticisms, or more precisely, those philosophies of mind which incorporate within their theories. However, FP only deserves so much attention because it is the most trenchant of all false theories, forming as it does the ‘manifest image’ in Brassier/Sellar’s words. With Eliminativism an enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. If Churchland’s neurophilosophical researches do not yield something looking like Brandom’s account of normative statuses (and it seems unlikely) then that theory will be as illegitimate as FP.

    Now, Brandom might have arguments for why his account normativity is irreducible to natural facts, and thus why Churchland’s theory of mind leaves it relatively untouched. Churchland would definitely not agree with Brandom here though. He would regard it, I think, as a spurious roadblock to the progress of scientific understanding.

    Now, Churchland’s views aside we might nevertheless think his eliminativism and Brandom’s account of normativity are compatible. Certainly Brandom’s account of normativity seems to give elbow room to the ‘neurophilosopher’ who is not in the business of finding the physical instantiation of beliefs or propositional attitudes. However, the conflict is still intractable. The eliminativist will claim that, when his work is done, the theory of normativity will be fundamentally redundant. It will be just one of many theories replaced by the most advanced physical description of the human nervous system.

    So I don’t see much bed-fellowship in the works here. However, the stand-off between the two thinkers is fascinating.

    In relation to this you may find this paper by Brandom interesting:


    (“An Arc of Thought: From Rorty’s Eliminative Materialism to his Pragmatism” )

  2. I entirely understand that Churchland probably won’t endorse Brandom, and that Brandom is pretty unlikely to endorse Churchland. This is exactly why they are strange bedfellows.

    The important thing to point out is that Brandom’s account of normative statuses doesn’t conflict with EM because it isn’t a theory per se. It has next to no empirical implications (other than that there must be some very minimal sense in which rational norms are manifest in our behaviour). Instead what it provides is the normative structure of such theories and the rational process of evaluating them. As Brassier showed, it is attempting to supplant this normative structure of rationality that undermines EM.

    Ultimately, the two approaches are not _about_ the same thing at all. Brandom is trying to tell us what we should do, whereas Churchland is trying to give us a framework for predicting what we actually do. The confusion emerges from the fact that the way we _should_ interpret someone within a rational debate (in scorekeeping terms) can be transposed into what seems like a theory about how we should interpret how their causal structure brings about the way they actually act. If we suspend this transposition, then EM can get on with the dirty work of providing a proper theory of our causal structure (including giving an account of the way our behaviour manifests rational norms).

    Nonetheless, the norms of rationality will never be redundant unless we cease to be rational. Although other aspects of the way we treat ourselves and eachother might change because of a better understanding of objective constitution.

    I will take a look at the Brandom paper though, thanks!

  3. “If we suspend this transposition, then EM can get on with the dirty work of providing a proper theory of our causal structure (including giving an account of the way our behaviour manifests rational norms).”

    I suppose my worry is that the the is/ought worlds won’t quite fit as snugly as all that. One of the uncertainties of EM is that it might well provide us with a picture of the human animal which radically differs from our current one so much that our talk of what we should do, is undermined. But how could this be so? The problem as I see it as that even a normative description of how we behave (i.e a guide as to our best rational practice) relies on some minimal ontology of agents and language, and I suppose EM might in the end do away with these categories as we know them. Of course, we’ll still have to keep on being rational, but the trouble is that this then looks like minimal ontology Brandom relies on for his normative work then looks like necessary fiction. But hey, perhaps that’s the way things will go…

  4. The most important point for me is that if we read Brandom right, or at least, if we re-work his insights in more radical terms, we see that there is precisely no ontology underlying them. This is why I suggest the notion of a fundamental deontology as a critique of ontology, because it makes no claims about what is, only about what we should do. If there are any genuine ontological commitments of this approach to rational norms then my overall theoretical project is screwed.

    Now, of course, there appear to be substantive terms like ‘subject’, ‘commitment’, ‘entitlement’, ‘norm’, and so on, that are involved in the specification of the fundamental norms of rationality. The important point is that they have no content outside of those norms (unless we mistakenly give them some content by transposing them into a folk-psychological ontology). To be a subject is just to be treated in a certain way, to have a certain status, it has no (or as I’ve said, almost no) empirical implications. We do not infer that we are subjects, we are simply _obligated_ to treat ourselves as subjects insofar as we make any inferences at all, and to treat others as subjects insofar as we take them to do the same.

    To put it in my preferred terms, subjects are pseudo-beings. They are in fact the archetypal pseudo-being, insofar as there is nothing true about a subject that that subject does not have some form of authority over, making anything which is true of them non-objectively true.

  5. Thanks for the Brandom paper, it was very interesting. My knowledge of Rorty is very limited, but this makes me want to look into him a bit more, as there were some definite similarities between some of the things Brandom was saying about his position and my own. Overall, I still agree with Brandom more, the representational dimension of language is an irreducible part of it, and indeed, so is the subjective dimension, as long as we separate it from the objective representational dimension properly.

  6. We’re probably at a bit of a theoretical impasse here, which could only (if at all) be resolved with a far ranging sorting out of various ideas and assumptions we both have. I find your idea of a ‘fundamental deontology’ quite alluring, and will probably have to wait to see it more fully so that I understand your point here. But just in case it helps, I’ll try and frame my qualms in respect to what you say above.

    My main concern is with the suggestion that subjects making inferences, and treating others as subjects, involves no empirical implications. Now even if you say that roles of subject, and the action of making inferences, are functionally realised, there will still be some empirical implications. Whatever way the subject is realised empirically it must be admitted that it thinks, and is conscious of itself. Now the wager of EM is that thinking and being conscious will turn out to be radically different to what we naively imagine it to be. Now, prejudge what those discoveries will be, but I don’t think it is possible to protect our notions of normativity in advance of that.

    _However,_ if your own fundamental deontology proves convincing it may be the case that you can show how normative practices are recognisable/realizable across all kinds of different empirical setups – well, I guess I’ll have to wait and see! But for now I’m being cautious…

    (Yes it is interesting isn’t it? The relation between Brandom and Rorty is pretty fascinating. I felt sympathetic with Rorty’s comment, reported in the preface (or introduction perhaps…) of Between Saying And Doing, to the effect that he didn’t see why Brandom was so keen to marry the two projects of semantics. I suspect Brandom likes at times to situate himself in such a way that he seems a little less radical and ‘scary’ to his more conservative analytic peers. There is a magnaminous tendancy in all his work to unite disparate thinkers and schools of thought (I look forward to his version of Hegel!).

    I think Rorty never quite saw how to explicate and accept rthe representational dimension of language without giving in to a metaphysical picture…

    • Sorry, that should have read: “Now, [we can’t] prejudge what those discoveries will be, but I don’t think it is possible to protect our notions of normativity in advance of that.”

  7. Rory: “Whatever way the subject is realised empirically it must be admitted that it thinks, and is conscious of itself. Now the wager of EM is that thinking and being conscious will turn out to be radically different to what we naively imagine it to be.”

    This is precisely what I’m denying. We needn’t deploy any such notions in a ‘naive’ way that could be undercut by EM in treating ourselves and others as subject to assessment in accordance with the fundamental norms of rationality. The only empirical constraint that this places on such theories is that the norms be realised in SOME way, but it implies precious little about that realisation itself.

    “_However,_ if your own fundamental deontology proves convincing it may be the case that you can show how normative practices are recognisable/realizable across all kinds of different empirical setups – ”

    This is exactly what I’m claiming. There must be realisation, but there is full multiple realisability. We could theoretically build machines that were assessable in accordance with the fundamental norms of rationality, which would thereby be treatable as subjects. The same goes for aliens or evolved animals, or whatever your favourite example is. The crucial point here is that normativity is not grounded in anything ontological.

  8. Church land and Brandom will both be at the Sellars Centenary conference in Dublin next month. If you make it over, you might be able to put it to them.

    • I will be presenting a paper at the workshop there myself! My views on this have come on a way since, as I’ve really embraced Sellars’ functionalism in the mean time (in combination with Brandom’s provisional foray in the same direction in BSD). Nevertheless, I still think there’s some useful discussions to be had between the two sides.

      • Oh sorry. I won’t be going to the workshop or I would have noticed that. Both events look certain to be lots of fun and very informative too. Best of luck with your paper.

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