Directions of Dependence

Skholiast over at Speculum Criticum Traditionis has been kind enough to write up his thoughts about my take on transcendental realism. I’m very grateful to him for taking the time to read the essay in detail, and so it’s only right that I link to it (here). He seems to have got me mostly right too.

I would like to clarify one little thing though, just as a matter of emphasis. A big part of my paper is defining a position which I call deflationary realism, which I take to be exemplified in different ways by Quine, McDowell, and David Lewis, and to be explicitly articulated by Brandom. The key point of this position is that it takes the notion of ‘real’ used in classical metaphysical debates to not be doing any useful work, and thus deflates this notion from a ‘thick’ to a ‘thin’ one, whereby metaphysical questions about the world become questions about how we think and talk about the world. Brandom’s way of cashing out this position shows how it can do this without collapsing into idealism, by taking there to be two different kinds of dependence relations that there can be between the structure of the world and the structure of thought: sense-dependence and reference-dependence. Jon Cogburn has talked about this before on his blog (here).

In essence, if P is sense-dependent upon Q, then one cannot understand P without understanding Q, and if P is reference-dependent upon Q, then there cannot be P without Q. The former is a kind of epistemological dependence, whereas the latter is a kind of ontological dependence. Brandom’s insight is that one can have sense-dependence without reference-dependence, and this means that he can claim that the structure of the world and the structure of thought are reciprocally sense-dependent without holding that they are in any way reference-dependent. Deflationary realism can hold that the structure of the world and the structure of thought are isomorphic, and yet that there could be a world without thought, thus avoiding classical idealism.

Transcendental realism, as I see it, modifies this deflationary position by breaking the reciprocity of sense-dependence. Skholiast has me totally right here. The only thing I want to add is that the way the reciprocity is broken can look counter-intuitive, but it is really unproblematic. Instead of claiming that one cannot understand the structure of the world and the structure of thought in isolation from one another, the transcendental realist takes it that we cannot understand the structure of the world without understanding the structure of thought, but that we can understand thought without the world. This means that the world is sense-dependent on thought but not vice-versa. This is fine, because what it means is that there is more to the structure of the world than the structure of thought, i.e., that there are real metaphysical questions that are more than simply logical or semantic questions. This is a proper realism. However, if one were simply to look at the direction of the dependence relation, one might conclude it had more in common with idealism.

45 Responses to “Directions of Dependence”

  1. “the transcendental realist takes it that we cannot understand the structure of the world without understanding the structure of thought, but that we can understand thought without the world.”

    Because this is categorical in claim, can you give a single, simple example of something understood about the “structure of thought” that is utterly and completely devoid of understanding something about the world?

  2. Isomorphic?!? So they have a group structure… what?

  3. deontologistics Says:

    I think it’s best to respond to James first, then I can phrase my response to Kvond in terms of it.

    James: It’s helpful to see exactly what I mean by saying that Brandom takes the structure of thought and the structure of the world to be isomorphic. He thinks that there are pairs of concepts, one describing a feature of thought, and one describing a feature of the world, which one cannot understand independently. One can only grasp these concepts together. Examples include: ‘singular term’ and ‘object’, ‘predicate’ and ‘property’, ‘assertion’ and ‘fact’, ‘law’ and ‘counterfactual robustness’, ‘world’ and ‘what we take to be true’, etc.

    He can then derive various facts about the structure of the world on the basis of facts about how these concepts fit into the structure of thought (which for him is really just the structure of language). So for instance:-

    1. Facts are just true assertions, there are normative assertions, therefore there are normative facts.

    2. Propositions (which assertions express) necessarily have subject-predicate structure, therefore the world is articulated into objects and properties.

    3. The content of propositions and the concepts that compose them is implicitly modal, and we must understand the semantics of this in terms of incompatibility relations between propositions and between predicates, therefore, there are incompatibility relations between facts and between properties (e.g., ‘Pete has a sister’ and ‘Pete is an only child’, ‘red’ and ‘green’, respectively).

    I didn’t use the word ‘isomorphic’ in a technical mathematical sense. I’m not sure the extent to which it could be made so technical, but I don’t think it matters. For the deflationary realist the two structures are not identical and yet their structural features can be mapped onto one another, and it seems best to describe this as isomorphism.

    Kvond: I think it’s probably possible to say things about thought that tell you absolutely nothing about the world, insofar as the structure of thought is a normative matter, e.g., ‘If one makes an assertion then one undertakes a responsibility to give reasons for that assertion’ doesn’t say anything about the structure of the world, because the various concepts deployed in it ‘assertion’, ‘responsibility’, ‘reason’, etc. are non-objective concepts.

    This doesn’t mean that everything you say about thought tells you nothing about the world. Indeed, you need to understand thought in order to understand the world, so it would be strange if it didn’t. For instance, I agree with Brandom to some extent, in that I think that the subject-predicate structure of propositions tells us that the world is articulated into entities and properties. However, I don’t think that it tells us what entities and properties are. These are metaphysical questions that aren’t exhausted by logical and semantic ones.

    The important point is that one needn’t understand anything about the metaphysical structure of the world in order to understand the normative structure of thought. So, carrying on the example, one needn’t fully understand what entities are in order to understand what the logical structure of existence is, or fully understand what properties are in order to understand the logical structure of predication.

  4. Hi,

    The word “understand” pops up a lot in your article. Perhaps if we understood understanding it might clarify matters. In a 3D world I cannot compare anything because there is no motion so perhaps understanding is related to time. In a 3D world that can exist as a succession of 3D states (arrangements of objects) I am also at a loss as to how to compare anything because any comparison just results in a 3D object (cf:The Symbol Grounding Problem). If I had a structure that was composed of events over a period of time so that I could appreciate the directedness of these events then I might get usable comparisons. For instance I could appreciate a ball fitting inside a box as the whole motion of a ball into the box. But such comparisons would require me to have a real specious present and futhermore would require this time extended set of events to be available at an instant. This seems like a contradiction – can two different times be simultaneous? See An Introduction to New Empiricism.

    • deontologistics Says:

      It’s true that the term understanding is not itself explained in the essay, but I would strongly resist any kind of phenomenological analysis of the idea, which seems to be the direction you are taking. The account of understanding I would adopt is essentially Brandom’s. On this pragmatist account, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical understanding, but theoretical understanding is a special form of practical understanding, namely, inferential competence. One has a theoretical understanding of a statement if one has a practical grasp of the inferential roles it plays within discourse. The question is then one of developing an adequate notion of practical understanding, which Brandom tends to explain in terms of sets of capacities for doing things. I don’t think his account is either complete or as explicit as it should be here, but it goes in the right direction.

      • Thank you for your interesting reply. Are you sure that what you are calling “understanding” is not actually a mixture of function and consistency? Function in the sense that this approach seems to be seeking relations such as 2+2=4 and consistency in the sense that, having discovered relations it investigates whether new concepts fit these relations. The end result of such a functionalist approach is literally symbols such as “42” and the process of discovering these symbols is just the application of mechanical filters to incoming data (see note 1).

        So function and consistency can produce an output such as “42” but what does “42” mean? At any instant there is only the symbol, frozen on the page, at the instant “42” is just a mark. You say that you would “strongly resist any kind of phenomenological analysis” of the idea of understanding but you seem happy to deal with 3D symbols, instantaneous arrangements of objects on a page or in a Turing machine. Why should you strongly resist the consideration of objects arranged in the four dimensions of everyday experience?

        Take a word such as “forest”. As a symbol the object “forest” can be linked to a pointer that locates the symbols “trees” and “green” but all you have at any instant is “forest”, “trees” and “green”, pixels on a screen or paint on a page. However, if you listen to the real word, you hear the whole word, not just a fraction of a phoneme. As William James pointed out, it extends through time. The word has a poetic meaning because as it stretches through time it can rhyme and dance. It has an emotional meaning because as it stretches over time it intertwines with greenness and dampness and walks in the trees. Why would you strongly resist the consideration of objects as extended phenomena when investigating meaning?
        Why is the presentism that divorces symbols from reality so deeply embedded in modern philosophy?

        Note 1: Brandom (Woodbridge Lectures) describes this process of discovering relations and mechanically filtering data to see if it fits: “By applying concepts to novel particulars one is “determining” the conceptual contents in the sense of making it the case that some applications are correct, by taking it to be the case that they are. One is drawing new, more definite boundaries, where many possibilities existed before. By investing one’s authority in an application as being correct, one authorizes those who apply the concept to future cases to do so also. If they in turn recognize one in this specific respect, by acknowledging that authority, then a more determinate norm has been socially instituted. From this point of view, conceptual norms are never fully determinate in the Kant-Frege Verstand sense, since there is always room for further determination. The conceptual norms are not completely indeterminate either, since a lot of actual applications have been endorsed as correct by potentially precedent-setting judgments. All the determinateness the content has is the product of that activity.”

      • deontologistics Says:

        The important point is that Brandom’s account of practical understanding is based on describing the capacities of creatures from a completely external perspective. It’s not only got nothing to do with ‘everyday experience’, but insofar as Brandom and myself adopt a Sellarsian account of perception it eliminates the category of ‘everyday experience’ as a useful explanatory category. There is the normative structure of thought on the one hand (‘the space of reasons’) and the natural structure of the world on the other (‘the space of causes’) and there isn’t anything that mediates between the two. If your account of understanding is based on operations performed within experience (as it seems to be) then I’m afraid it’s antithetical to the approach I’m taking. I’d take a look at my post on ‘Phenomenology, Discourse and their Objects’ if you’re interested in reading more about this.

  5. “‘If one makes an assertion then one undertakes a responsibility to give reasons for that assertion’ doesn’t say anything about the structure of the world”

    Well then, I would have to disagree, because it entails knowing things about the world like, “When Deoontologisists makes an assertion he undertakes a responsibility to give reasons’ and “Deontologistics is NOW undertaking a responsibility”. These are not only things about thought, but necessarily are braided with our causal understanding of things in the world (including your gesticulations and typy-type actions). One cannot abstract from these understandings of the world and say that you know something about thought that not include this knowledge. In fact, this is fundamental Davidson. As Davidson puts it, when someone teaches you a language it is impossible to completely decide when then are teaching you something about language, and when they are teaching you something about the world. Correspondently, when someone teaches you about thought, you cannot categorically decide when they are teaching you something about thought, and when they are teaching you something about the world. In point of fact, you cannot understand the former without necessarily understanding the latter.

  6. “I didn’t use the word ‘isomorphic’ in a technical mathematical sense. I’m not sure the extent to which it could be made so technical, but I don’t think it matters. For the deflationary realist the two structures are not identical and yet their structural features can be mapped onto one another, and it seems best to describe this as isomorphism.”

    It would seem that you are not using it technically (mathematically), but that you are using the technical sense in some way metaphorically. But more so, because you are saying “mapped” I assume you mean literally mapped (perhaps something like early Wittgenstein and his atomic language. What does this “mapping” of structures process consist in?

    How do you check the map against the territory?
    When I point to a dog and I say with query “Cat?” is this mapping the isomporphic structure? Or checking the map?

    And how do you justify the notion of an “isomorphic structure” and Davidson’s categorical preclusion of a Conceptual Scheme? Is an isomorphic structure a conceptual scheme?

    Or it just one great big metaphor?

    • I should add, De, that it goes further than that when it comes to the understanding of the world implicit in understanding anything about thought, and that is that the normatives that you suggest are paramount to our ability to interpret mental predicate attributions, under just such an normativity. For example, when someone appears not to be be following the normatives of logic and responsibility this could be attributed all kinds of mental states, such as irrational belief, or intense desires which distort, but ALSO attributed to all sorts of physical states of the world (his frontal cortex has received damage, he has consumed a lot of alcohol, from where he stands – literally – he does not see what I see, the list of physical states that are read as causal to mental states being endless.

      In fact the normativity that you appeal to runs part and parcel with a causal understanding of the sources of actions, a double diagnosis that allows us to filter through mental-predicate attribution/assessment, and state of the world physical assessment, so as to pick out the relevant, causal features of the world. In this way understanding of the nature of thought in necessarily an understanding of the world.

    • sorry for the typos, “is” and not “in” in the last sentence.

      And “it goes further than that when it comes to the understanding of the world implicit in understanding anything about thought, and that is that the normatives that you suggest are paramount to our ability to interpret mental predicate attributions, under just such an normativity.”

      should read, “it goes further than that when it comes to the understanding of the world that is implicit in understanding anything about thought, and that is due to the normatives that you suggest are paramount to our ability to interpret mental predicate attributions themselves.”

  7. deontologistics Says:

    I could sense you waiting to disagree🙂 Let’s break this down a bit.

    1. ‘If one makes an assertion then one undertakes a responsibility to give reasons for that assertion’ does ‘When Deoontologistics makes an assertion he undertakes a responsibility to give reasons’, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the world, because it also entails ‘When Santa Claus makes an assertion he undertakes a responsibility to give reasons’. You’ve got to put in statements about real individuals like ‘Deontologistics has made an assertion’ to get consequences like ‘Deontologistics has undertaken a responsibility’.

    One might hold that this is also true of ‘If x is a cat then x is a mammal’, but that nonetheless this tells you something about the world. That’s true, but this is the point of me saying that concepts like ‘responsibility’ are not objective concepts, and thus not like the concepts ‘cat’ and ‘mammal’. This is because there is no sense in which the world can force us to revise the content of the former concept in the way that it can force us to revise the latter. What this amounts to is the idea that there is a distinction between predicates that pick out real properties of things (the application of which is objectively assessable) and those that pick out pseudo-properties (which is not). I’d recommend looking at the essay itself for a further discussion of this point.

    2. The Davidsonian point that we cannot separate out the contribution that our language makes in describing the world from the world is a consequence of Quine’s rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction. This is because everything is in principle revisable on the basis of experience, and so a sense in which the world can force us to reconfigure any of our concepts. This is actually best demonstrated by examples like the taxonomy of biological species, of which the cat/mammal conditional above is an example. Here we can’t separate out what parts of the taxonomy are our arbitrary decisions (which must always be made in such classifications) from those that reflect the real structure of the biological world. In being taught the taxonomy we can’t separate out what we’re being taught about how we talk about biology from what we’re being taught about biology.

    I also reject the analytic/synthetic distinction, and so am mostly fine with this. However, the important thing to note is that both Davidson and the later Quine would accept that there is at least one thing that is not revisable, namely, the logical structure of revision itself. Indeed, Davidson’s whole argument against conceptual schemes rests on this point. It is the fact that the basic logical structure of language is held in common that means that anything can in principle be subject to debate, and it is this which underlies the possibility the we can in principle always communicate (and thus translate). There is thus a good sense in which the concepts which articulate this unrevisable structure (which I would call transcendental concepts) can in principle be distinguished from those that revisable in accordance with experience (objective concepts). We thus can establish a sharp distinction here, capable of supporting a distinction between the structure of the world and the structure of thought.

    I’d also suggest that there are other concepts that are revisable, though not in accordance with experience (or at least not entirely). These are what I call interpretative concepts, such as ‘unicorn’, the content of which we have some special authority over, precisely because there is nothing in the world (i.e., a bunch of unicorns) that has authority over it. There can even be interpretative concepts like ‘bachelor’, which can be used to pick out things in the world (i.e., a set of men, who are unmarried), but are nonetheless non-objective because we hold fixed their content from revision in relation to experience. Claims such as ‘x is a bachelor’ are just as synthetic as ‘x is a human’, but the social structures underlying the structure of their possible revision is different, and this is what means that the latter describes the objective world (or the Real) and the former does not.

    3. Again, I think I’ve got every right to use the word isomorphic in a non-mathematical sense here. It’s not the province of category theory alone. Secondly, you haven’t appreciated the distinction between the structure of the world and the contents of the world. That there is a cat on a mat is indeed part of the world, but not part of its structure. That the world is articulated into entities and properties on the other hand is a matter of its structure. What is more, this notion of structure is perfectly intelligible in the context of Davidson’s denial of conceptual schemes, which both Brandom and myself accept to some extent. This is because, as just pointed out, the very structure of the process of revision through which we revise our picture of the world is not itself revisable. This is the structure of our thought about the world, as opposed to the content of our thought about it.

    Now, of course there cannot be any ‘checking’ of the map against the territory in this sense. We cannot ‘check’ that the world is structured into objects and properties (or entities and properties, in my preferred terms). That’s the whole point of having these a priori arguments to define what it is to talk about the structure of the world. Brandom would say that it is the very fact that such checking doesn’t make any sense that necessitates his deflationary position. I would instead claim that it just necessitates that we take the structure of thought to provide the outline of the structure of the world, but that this must be filled in by metaphysics. We can’t check whether the world is articulated into entities and properties, because this is a transcendental fact, but we can ask genuine metaphysical questions about what entities and properties really are.

    4. Your final point about the causal structures in which thought inheres doesn’t fly either I’m afraid. The important point to recognise is that there could be a whole variety of different causal structures which could instantiate the game of giving and asking for reasons, a whole variety of ways in which the institution of rationality could be made manifest, and that the transcendental norms (which provide the structure of thought) do not determine between them, and thus do not provide any information about the way the world must be.

    Nonetheless, this does raise an interesting point, which I haven’t yet had time to properly articulate. This is that there must be what I call instantiating norms which mediate between the transcendental norms and the particular configuration that the institution of rationality takes. So, for instance, there must be norms that govern what kinds of action (e.g., making certain noises or symbol strings with certain kinds of syntactic structure in certain contexts) should be counted as assertions. There must be certain criteria (with an amount of objective content) that enable us to pick out what instantiates various transcendentally defined roles, in order for us to be able to play the game at all.

    It is transcendentally necessary that there are these instantiating norms, but they are not themselves transcendental, insofar as there could be a variety of different ones. Understanding these norms might amount to grasping some form of objective content, although it would not be entirely objective. However, this objective content (which would amount to an implicit understanding of human beings and their interactions) would certainly not tell you anything about the *structure* of the world, even if it tells you something about its contents.

    I hope that clears things up to some extent.

  8. I’m afraid, in your lengthy response you have not answered either of my main objections.

    1). The normatives behind “thought only” understanding entail mental predicate attribution which necessarily involve explanatory understanding of “world” actions. The physical movements and events that are EXPLAINED by reference to thought and intention. IF you don’t understand these events as events in the world (that is, if you don’t understand the world), the “thought only” normatives are meaningless (and unteachable). These normatives don’t REFER to the world, but the require understanding the world.

    2). And more damagingly to your point, these same mental predicate normatives, when applied diagnositically, require ALSO a physical world causal understanding upon which they are set against.

    The giving of reasons (and be careful that you adhere to the difference between a reason and a cause), requires that you also understand that the explanation of cause might very well diagnosis the issue better.

    “My interlocutor is being irrational now, he is refusing to answer my objections and give a reason for his position, so now under fire”

    vs.

    “No, your interlocutor is not being unreasonable, a piano has just fallen on his head, and is dead.”

    Mental predicates and the normatives that govern them, are meant to pick out intersubjective states that when in agreement or disagreement help us triangulate around certain important features of the world. It is a triangle. Self, Other, World. In this triangle the mental states of others kind of operate in an inbetween ground, somewhere between World and Self. Understanding them is a bit of both. If you don’t want to concede that the understanding of these states is understanding the world, that is okay. But the reason why understanding the mental predicates is important is not JUST to judge them (beliefs as true or false, desires as good or bad, etc.), but to judge them so that we can organize ourselves around certain features of the World.

    The Subjective and the Intersubjective are two points in a Triangle that creates the third point, the Objective. If you have no understanding of the World, that is, if you have no sense of Objective knowledge, then the Understanding of thought, along with the normatives which govern it, would have no means of being grasped. The norms which govern the Subjective and the Intersubjective, require a world, without referencing it.

    • De, because we tend to get drawn into long winded pre-fab presentations that often talk passed each other, you can perhaps skip my entire response, and just answer one question for me.

      Can you have the “understanding of thought” alone that you claim, without having any Objective Knowledge about the world?

      If you can answer this simple question we can get right down to the nuts and bolts of the disagreement. Perhaps it is only a terminological issue. I am using “objective knowledge” here in the explicit Davidsonian sense.

  9. deontologistics Says:

    Kvond: Well, the sense in which I’m using the notion of objectivity is very specifically defined and I think it’s probably much thicker than Davidson’s. I have to refer you to my essay on this point.

    However, I think you’re often disingenuous in portraying your questions as ‘simple’, as if they can always be answered without qualifications. They can’t, and you can’t take the high ground because I must resort to such qualifications. So, I’m going to parse the question, and then I’ll do my best to answer it.

    What we’re interested in is _theoretical_ understanding, and particularly _adequate_ theoretical understanding. The sense dependency claim is that one cannot have such adequate theoretical understanding of the _structure_ of the world without having an adequate understanding of the _structure_ of thought, but that it’s possible to have such an adequate understanding of the structure of thought without having such an understanding of the structure of the world. All this says that one can have a adequate theoretical understanding of the normative structure of thought without a corresponding understanding of the metaphysical structure of the world.

    Technically, I can allow that adequate theoretical understanding of the structure of thought depends upon some understanding of the world (but not its metaphysical structure) and this claim is would still hold.

    However, I still don’t think that there is anything about understanding the bare normative structure of thought which requires you to have any specific objective knowledge about the world.

    The important point here in relation to your concerns is that although one must have some kind of practical understanding of the behaviour of others in order to engage in any kind of explicit discourse, including discourse about the structure of thought, i.e., one needs to be able to interpret them, I don’t think that one needs to be able to explicitly interpret them, or that one needs to have theoretical understanding of their behaviour.

    At best, one must have some practical understanding of the behaviour of one’s interlocutors, who must be real entities within the world, in order to engage in any kind of explicit discourse. This is unsurprising, because discoursing is something one does with others, and thus it makes sense that understanding how to do it involves some understanding of these others. Nonetheless, this doesn’t amount to proper objective knowledge about the world, because it isn’t made explicit in the form of discourse about the world.

    • Or to clarify:

      “At best, one must have some practical understanding of the behaviour of one’s interlocutors, who must be real entities within the world, in order to engage in any kind of explicit discourse. This is unsurprising, because discoursing is something one does with others, and thus it makes sense that understanding how to do it involves some understanding of these others. Nonetheless, this doesn’t amount to proper objective knowledge about the world, because it isn’t made explicit in the form of discourse about the world.”

      In particular the ending. When one has this capacity to understand the behaviour of others, which you require as necessary, are denying that such an understanding ALSO requires that you have specific understanding of the world, as such. That is, are you denying that one needs the objective CAPACITY (Davidson) and some content of World knowledge, whatever that may be?

  10. “However, I still don’t think that there is anything about understanding the bare normative structure of thought which requires you to have any specific objective knowledge about the world.”

    I would want a tiny bit of clarification. Do you mean that understanding the “bare normative structure of thought” does not require any specific objective knowledge of the world, such as specifically knowing “This is an apple” (pointing to it).

    OR (and this is important).

    Do you mean that you can have knowledge of this bare structure of thought and NOT BE CAPABLE of this objective kind of knowledge. That is, you have no knowledge that includes such things as “This is an apple” and “John’s hair is brown”.

    If the former, sure. but the understanding of this bare structure still requires knowledge of the world, just not a specific knowledge (this fact vs. that fact). If the latter, I don’t know how you can say this. Perhaps an example of such would elucidate.

    On the larger issue. I’m not being disingenuous at all. I am attempting to apply Davidson’s well thought out (and to me rather simple) concept of objectivity to the nature of your claims. Referring me to your “essay” as if all the answers are over there isn’t really an answer, but sounds more like a dodge. If you have a grasp of the issue I would hope that the grasp involves being able to give simple examples instead of long-winded theoretical strings. When someone truly grasps their own position their illustrations become lucid and convincing. This is just a general character of philosophical thought. Example givings and simple question answers does not make up the whole of the philosophical endeavor, but is the product of digesting the rather detailed matrix of precise arguments. Davidson wrote marvelously subtle and complex arguments, but his position is rather simple and obviously illustrated, once you get it.

  11. It occurs to me that your position might be a variation of Wittgenstein’s old Empirical and Grammatical. Is that what it is?

    Grammatical statements do not rely upon the truth or falsity of any Empirical Statements, but they necessarily entail the capacity to make empirical statements which can be regarded as true (to add a slight Davidsonian twist).

    Is that what you mean by precluding the requirement of knowledge of the world?

  12. deontologistics Says:

    In response to the first question I definitely mean the former, not the latter. I think that if one has the ability to talk about anything explicitly (including the norms governing such talk), then one can do everything one needs to do to talk about objective matters of fact.

    On the Wittgenstein point, I suppose it’s not the worst comparison. The only point I’d make is that Wittgenstein seems to suggest that grammar can vary, whereas for me the normative structure of thought in invariant. This is why I’d call it transcendental rather than grammatical.

    On the other point though, I feel entirely entitled to refer you to the essay, given that this whole post is an explicit clarification of a point presented there. If you don’t want to read it, fine, but don’t act surprised when I tell you that the issues are dealt with in more detail there. Referring you to what the post your commenting on is talking about is hardly a ‘dodge’.

    Moreover, although simplicity is indeed a virtue we should aim for, but it is dangerous to demand it in exclusion of all else. When questions are posed from within a given framework (which you’re admittedly doing), then a genuinely explanatory answer which comes from within a different framework requires making explicit the difference between the frameworks and the various issues that result. I don’t like being told that doing this work is somehow bad philosophy, because it’s necessary in many cases, even if ultimately we end up at a simpler and more palatable form of expression.

    Davidson’s approach might be simple (once you digest the myriad of papers which it is unsystematically presented across, and the variety of weakenings it goes through over the years), and it may be right, but we shouldn’t reject other approaches, including ones that build upon his ideas, just because they are not so simple. Making It Explicit, which presents Brandom’s successor approach to Davidson’s is 680 pages, and few have the stamina to get to the end. But it is broad in scope, systematic in its approach, and economical in terms of the ideas it uses to explain a diverse range of phenomena. Sometimes, complexity can’t be avoided.

  13. I really feel like we made progress De when you say that you mean the former and not the latter of my two examples.

    But I would want to know, isn’t the “structure of the world” causal to you? keeping in mind the distinction between reasons and causes. That is to say, can we not have objective knowledge of the causes of events in the world?

  14. deontologistics Says:

    I think we’ve made some progress to. There is a sense in which I think the structure of the world is causal, and a sense in which I think it isn’t. For one, I think that the objective world is pretty much just nature (and the mathematical structures that apply to it), and nature is thoroughly causal. This is a claim about nature qua nature, that it is causal through and through. In that sense, the structure of the world is causal.

    However, the metaphysical structure of causality is not itself causal. The metaphysical structure of the world, in which the causality of nature consists, is not itself causally efficacious. It’s a bitch of a distinction, but I think it’s important.

    Nonetheless, it’s very important to emphasise that I’m a determinist through and through, I’d even class myself as a Spinozan determinist at that (which isn’t to say I agree with everything in Spinoza, just that I think he’s substantially right about a lot of things).

    • If you concede that the “structure of the world” is causal, and will further concede that this entails that we can have objective understanding of the causes of events in it…

      …I don’t know how you can claim that we can have an understanding of the “structure of thought” without having an understanding of the “structure of the world”. We necessarily must have a causal relationship TO the world, experience events in it causing our experiences, or order to even have normative thought in the first place, do we not?

      To put it another way, reason giving makes no sense if we do not have, at minimum, a causal understanding of the world and our relationship to it. No?

      • deontologistics Says:

        We are causal creatures and thus our understanding of stuff is necessarily realised in causal structures. Perception, action, and discourse are all causal matters. The question is whether we must have _theoretical_ understanding of anything causal in order to have _theoretical_ understanding of the norms of thought.

        I suppose I could go so far as to say that if one is to theoretically understand the norms governing normative discourse, then one must nonetheless understand the norms governing causal discourse, insofar as ought implies can. This still isn’t understanding the structure of the world though, or at least, it is not understanding anything about the structure of the world that is not reflected by the structure of thought.

        Lets draw a threefold distinction in this talk of world:-

        1. Formal structure of the world.
        2. Metaphysical structure of the world.
        3. Content of the world.

        The basic notion of causality is part of (1), what causality _really_ is is part of (2), the actual causal facts about what causes what, and what causal laws there are are part of (3). We properly understand (1) by properly understanding the structure of thought, but we actually have to inquire about the world in order to know (2) or (3).

      • “Lets draw a threefold distinction in this talk of world:-

        1. Formal structure of the world.
        2. Metaphysical structure of the world.
        3. Content of the world.

        The basic notion of causality is part of (1), what causality _really_ is is part of (2), the actual causal facts about what causes what, and what causal laws there are are part of (3). We properly understand (1) by properly understanding the structure of thought, but we actually have to inquire about the world in order to know (2) or (3).”

        So WHICH of these 1,2 or 3 do you claim that we need have no understanding of while still being able to understand the structure of thought?

        And when you say “theoretically” understand, do you mean a philosopher such as you or Brandom, or do you mean an implicit understanding that everyone has?

      • deontologistics Says:

        We need have no explicit theoretical understanding of either (2) or (3) in order to understand the transcendental norms of discourse (i.e., the structure of thought).

        And yes, explicit theoretical understanding of either the structure of thought or the structure of the world is philosophical understanding, the former being transcendental and the latter (in its completion) being metaphysical.

    • Or to give an elucidating example.

      If I am to normatively give the reasons why I believe that thunder is created by hot and cold air and not Zeus, our discourse relies on the fact that I (and you and well) have an understanding of the “structure of the world”, namely, that events in it are causing our experiences of thunder. The world is causal, our relationship to the world is causal, and we understand that. My reason giving norms make no sense without this fundamental causal relation AND understanding. Doesn’t that make perfect sense?

      • deontologistics Says:

        I think that’s fairly clear. The important point to make is that what you’re giving a reason for is a (supposedly) objective matter of fact, and those end up bottoming out in perception, and to make that explicit you’ve got to talk about how the causal factors underlying one’s perception (this is the basics Sellarsian account of perception).

        However, there is a genuine question as to whether discourse about the norms of discourse has this structure. One of the claims of my essay is that it doesn’t. Transcendental discourse has this kind of reason giving subtracted from it.

      • But this discussion of reasons necessarily assumes that you and I are both causally related to some event in the world (thunder clap), and that we both understand this as part of a larger understanding the the world (and us in it as such) is structured this way.

  15. I just don’t see how you preclude an implicit and involved understanding of the causal nature of the world’s structure in understanding the normatives of discourse. Clearly, at least in my view, when you and I are discussing the norms of thought this is couched in our mutual and necessary understanding of the world as causal. I don’t get how you are able to cross this understanding out.

  16. deontologistics Says:

    I’m not crossing implicit understanding out. I never have done. That was the point of drawing the distinction between our practical and theoretical understanding. None of this is possible without implicit understanding of causality, insofar as its not possible without understanding how to interact with one another in a discursive context.

    • So, when I pinch you and you say “ouch” this is “implicit undertanding”, but when I ask you “do objects in the world have a causal relationship to your body” and you say “yes” this is “explcit” understanding?

      I don’t see how you draw the line?

    • or I should say “practical” and “theoretical” which is your terminology. I don’t see how you make the distinction.

    • deontologistics Says:

      Practical understanding is a matter of being able to deal with things (in the sort of Heideggerian coping sense), theoretical understanding is a matter of being able to talk about them, which means being able to reason about them. As I said above, theoretical understanding is actually a kind of practical understanding.

      Implicit theoretical understanding is when one has an ability to make track the inferential relations governing claims or concepts without being able to say what one is doing. Explicit understanding is being able to say (i.e., make explicit) the principles what one is doing in this case (i.e., the rules governing one’s inferences).

      Implicit practical understanding is simply being able to cope with something, to be able to perform certain tasks. Explicit practical understanding involves being able to make explicit the rules governing one’s actions.

      This is pretty much just Brandom, is this straightforward enough for you?

    • To give an example from Davidson, “the majority of another persons’s beliefs must be true” is something that is BOTH practically true, that is it is something that we implicitly know for there to be rational discourse at all, but it is ALSO theoretically true (it can be sufficiently argued and acceded to). That is practically so does nothing to affect its theoretical standing, and vise versa.

  17. I just referred to Davidson on practical and theoretical, and this seems to answer your Heideggerian response.

  18. This is to say, the “practical” understanding of our causal relationship to the world is linked to the “theoretical” understanding of our causal relationship to the world.

    The reason why we can theoretically ARGUE that the world has a causal structure is due to the very inter-dependent relationship between rational discourse and objective causal understanding. Our norms of discourse make no sense without our understanding of the causal nature of the world (not laws, or events, but that it IS causal). This sufficiency is the exact thing that GROUNDS the theoretical understanding of causal nature of the world. In fact, the normatives of discourse must assume this.

    I guess I just don’t know what it is about the world that you are trying to cross out.

    Gotta run.

  19. One more thing before I run out the door.

    Didn’t Spinoza’s theoretical understanding of the structure of thought entail as well his theoretical understanding of the structure of the world?

    Or,

    You say you are determinist. Are you saying that what you hold about the “structure of thought” do not require you to be a determinist? There is a disjunction between your theoretical understanding of thought norms and your theoretical understanding of the structure of the world?

  20. deontologistics Says:

    At this point, all I can say is, read the essay if you want to understand what the consequences of the position I’m trying to outline are. I think we’ve bottomed out here.

  21. […] Kevin is back. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Drink up! “Beer Wars”SUNDANCE […]

  22. Kvond: “I just don’t see how you preclude an implicit and involved understanding of the causal nature of the world’s structure in understanding the normatives of discourse.”

    Deontologistics: “None of this is possible without implicit understanding of causality, insofar as its not possible without understanding how to interact with one another in a discursive context.”

    I think the problem goes deeper than “causality” where this might be defined as the sequencing of events. There is also the problem of “cause”: how a set of events at an instant becomes arranged in a different way in the next instant. The problem of cause is the really big problem.

    The current scientific view is that previous interactions (history) create an “environment” that predisposes interference between possible outcomes to adopt a classical pattern. This interpretation is becoming even more complex because it has recently been shown experimentally that objects can interfere with themselves at different times (ie: the present configuration may generate its own history as well as vice versa…).

    Another problem with cause is that relativity posits a particular ‘block universe’ in which historical events (events prior to the surface of the future light cone of a point) are existent. This means that when we see one event cause another it has generally already been caused.

    Returning to the problem of how a particular form, or arrangement of events, can become another form, the current answer seems to be extraordinary: the universe is an infinity of forms and whatever point is occupied by a classical observer the form available for observation will have a consistent history obeying near classical rules of physical change. What we call “causality” then becomes the rules of history, not a guide to the future. This description is clearly not complete but it does show that simple causality is probably not at all simple. It also suggests that interference between forms supercedes the classical idea of functions as classical causal sequences.

    Here is an excellent summary of the idea of change as interference between forms:Quantum physics explains Newton’s Laws of Motion (
    http://www.eftaylor.com/pub/OgbornTaylor.pdf )

  23. […] Deontologistics Researching the Demands of Thought « Directions of Dependence […]

  24. Your reference was an interesting article but it’s three way split of the positions on epistemology seemed simplified. It also failed to answer how we can use “causal efficacy” as a filter for the truth of ideas about experience when we cannot define cause adequately.

    My starting point for an analysis of experience and epistemology is to observe. My observation is events arranged in a structure. These symbols “event” and “structure” are just shorthand for parts of experience. You would need to have an observation to understand the symbols. I notice four independent directions for arranging events (space and time), for instance, I have an object that I call a “bird” in my experience and its song has many parts although the song remains at its its beak so I have an independent direction that I call “dimensional time”. What I call “I” is this experience plus memories and skills that just pop into experience. When I inspect the centre point of my experience there is nothing there – it is just a point equivalent to any other point within the experience.

    What is knowledge? If I take the symbol “bird” and look out the window my eyes fall on the bird feeder. If there is a bird on the feeder my eyes locate it. Knowledge therefore seems to be a conjunction of a symbol and an action in experience. The symbol and action are concurrent and time extended. That is all that is there. I might ask “how do I know I know?” but such recursions and regresses are an attempt at imposing a Newtonian idea of time onto my experience – I knew all along, my experience is time extended, there is no need to ask how the present could know the immediate past, they are both present in the same way as left and right or the song of the bird.

    Could there be an ontology of my knowledge? Why not? If the world permits events to be organised in the way they are organised in my experience then it is explained by the world. Does my experience control the organisation of the world? No, it is clearly a small part of the world and does not even seem to control its own organisation, it is largely epiphenomenal although without it I am near enough dead and my brain fails to function in an organised manner so my experience is obviously essential for my body.

    Is this correlationism? Maybe, however it does not suffer the problems you described in your reference. It is also free from accusations such as pan-psychism because particular concurrent actions were needed for knowledge to arise.

  25. deontologistics Says:

    I’ve just responded to your comment on the earlier thread, so this is somewhat of a follow up to that.

    I think the thing you have to recognise is that in all of my discussions of the role causal reasoning plays in epistemology I’m using a very thin notion of causation, precisely because it’s understood in terms of the structure of causal reasoning, rather than in terms of any metaphysical interpretation of what such reasoning latches onto in the world. Again, this isn’t because I don’t think there are interesting metaphysical questions regarding the nature of causation (some of which you are raising), but because I take these to be distinct from epistemological questions.

    Now, I think we simply can’t get by without causal reasoning, and that this is a properly transcendental fact. In this respect I agree with Kant against Hume. Of course there’s a problem with regard to isolating particular causal connections – we can never have dispositive reasons for positing any such connections, only probative ones (i.e., inductive rather than deductive) – but we nonetheless can’t get by without positing some such causal connections. To *know* that there is a bird in my garden involves grasping certain counterfactual inferences that follow from this being the case, such as the fact that if my cat were here it would probably chase after it, and so on. We can’t help but understand things that we observe in causal terms, because our concepts exhibit this kind of modal structure. How we are to understand the metaphysical status of this modal structure is another matter however.

    In short, I think that all of your challenges to my use of the concept of causality in epistemological explanations fail, because they’re attacking specific metaphysical conceptions of causality, when this has no impact upon appeals to the structure of causal reasoning. When it comes to your own attempts to explain knowledge in terms of the framework you’re putting forward, I find them somewhat impoverished. However, this is besides the point, because I still think you have yet to show that I must adopt any of the elements of your ‘ontology of knowledge’, be it ‘experience’, ‘symbols’ or other notions. I can get by quite happily without any of these things, and I’d suggest that you could too, if you just stuck to metaphysical questions about the nature of time, space, and causality, rather than confusing them with all these epistemological issues.

  26. I agree that the “metaphysical status” of our experience is the matter at issue.

    We have been discussing this issue at a several locations on your site so perhaps I should briefly summarise my understanding of the arguments.
    I have put forward the argument that experience should be taken seriously because the form of experience is not forbidden by current theories. You have countered with the argument that experience does not seem to do anything therefore it should be discounted as a phenomenon. I have responded by maintaining that change is not understood so the use of ‘causality’ as a filter is using an obscure concept to judge events. I have also pointed out that ‘form’ may be prior to change if change is correlated with the interference of forms. Your riposte is that none of my arguments affects the need for some causal connections nor undermines the structure of causal reasoning.

    My response to this is that I don’t disagree with your riposte. What I am arguing is that we can have a phenomenon without as yet having any explanation for what it does in the multiverse (which is not the same as suggesting that we can have a phenomenon that does nothing in the multiverse). In fact I believe that the unconscious state of a person who lacks ‘experience’ is evidence that experience has a generalised stabilisation function, the brain won’t work properly without it. However, I believe that you would not accept this pairing of phenomenon with function because it would suggest an ontological basis for epistemology that you reason is impossible. Is this the case or have I misunderstood your position?

    If this is indeed the case then my problem with your argument is that you *know* the content of a discourse, you accept that ‘knowing’ can involve a one dimensional stream of bits over time, but you reject forms such as ‘experience’ which, as far as I can tell, are just bits laid out in more than one dimension/independent axis for arranging objects.

    I propose an approach that asks for a description of an event before accepting it whereas, as far as I have understood, you
    there are causal structures expressed as rules that can be used to decide

  27. Please ignore:
    “I propose an approach that asks for a description of an event before accepting it whereas, as far as I have understood, you there are causal structures expressed as rules that can be used to decide”
    In my last post.

    I really should post these comments with less haste. I give myself until the end of a large mug of coffee to enjoy a bit of contemplation before embarking on the day’s work and have a tendency to click “submit comment” at the last sip!

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