A Brief Sellarsian Retort
Happy New Year to everyone out there in internet land. I’m currently feeling a bit awful, due to a combination of excessive merriment and a rather nasty cold I can’t seem to shake. I know I said I’d stop commenting on Graham’s posts, but as someone affiliated with the “Sellarsian scientistic wing of what used to be called speculative realism”, at least insofar as I work on metaphysics and am influenced both by Sellars, Ray Brassier, and his other philosophical descendants, I feel compelled to respond to what Graham has recently said about it (here) in the context of rebutting some of David Roden’s claims about his work (here). The relevant passage is a response to David’s claim that Graham’s position is a form of phenomenological idealism:-
2. “His famous reading of Heidegger’s tool analysis ups the metaphysical ante by presupposing that not being explicitly represented is a modality of things (or thinging, or whatever). If this isn’t good old phenomenological idealism, I don’t know what is!”
What is idealism is enemyindustry’s own next sentence: “In contrast, I hold that intentionality brings us into contact with the real with numbing regularity.”
This is idealism, because it holds that the real is convertible into the accessible. It gives no adequate account of the difference between the tree that grows and bears fruit and the tree that I encounter. No matter the level of “numbing regularity” with which I encounter a tree, that encounter is not the tree itself. Until you account for the difference between the two (as I do) then you are an idealist.
Ultimately, I think this is why Meillassoux remains in the Idealist camp, and the same holds even more for the Sellarsian scientistic wing of what used to be called speculative realism. They aren’t realists. They’re partisans of math and science.
Now, I agree with Graham that David’s characterisation of his position as idealism is incorrect, but I find the counter charge of idealism to be extremely thin. I’ve addressed some of these themes before (here, here, here and here), but I feel it’s worth restating the problems I have with this line of reasoning in a condensed form.
First, I’ll try and briefly reconstruct (and flesh out) the argument Graham is giving here. The overall argument goes something like this: i) realness implies ontological independence, ii) ontological independence implies epistemic inaccessibility, iii) realism demands that entities be real, therefore iv) realism demands that entities be epistemically inaccessible. However, the important step of the argument is (ii): demonstrating that ontological independence implies epistemic inaccessibility. This is where Graham’s claims about the difference between the tree itself and the tree I encounter are relevant. This argument goes something like this: v) epistemic accessibility implies the possibility of adequate knowledge, vi) adequate knowledge of an entity implies that the entity for-us and the entity in-itself are identical, vii) this contradicts ontological independence, therefore (ii).
Let’s put the question of whether this is a good argument to one side for the moment. If it is a good argument, then all positions that hold that the real is anything other than accessible are forms of idealism, because by holding that the real is some way they thereby commit themselves to its accessibility. This means that those who take the real to be composed of one-dimensional strings vibrating in 11 dimensions (or whatever your preferred fundamental physical theory holds) are idealists just as much as those who take it to be composed of water, fire, or a single self-causing substance (or whatever your preferred traditional metaphysical theory holds). In fact, it means that pretty much everyone who doesn’t occupy Graham’s position in the dialectical landscape is an idealist. It’s not just us partisans of science who should be worried.
Now, there’s a legitimate worry here that such broad applicability of the term ‘idealism’ voids it of its traditional substantive content. For instance, if it’s not useful for differentiating between Hume and Berkeley, or between Hegel and Russell, then there’s a good sense in which it’s just not doing the same job the traditional notion does. However, I’ll leave such semantics aside, because I think that the above argument isn’t a good one, and thus that most of us have nothing to worry about. There are two problems with the argument, corresponding to premises (i) and (vi), respectively.
The first problem I’ve talked about quite a bit elsewhere (here and in the TR essay). The fundamental idea that underlies the notion of realness is the possibility of error, i.e., the possibility that our beliefs/claims about a real entity could be wrong. This can be articulated in two ways: in terms of mind-independence, or in terms of attitude-independence. The former is a matter of the ontological independence of the objects of thought from the thoughts themselves; at minimum, that they are numerically distinct. The latter is a matter of the epistemic independence of the way things are from the way we take them to be. I take it that Graham’s argument takes the former route, whereas I prefer the latter. It is important to recognise that there is an alternative way of cashing out the notion of realness, not because this lets us advocate for a real that is ontologically dependent upon our thought, but because it allow us to articulate the relation between the real and thought in non-metaphysical terms. This opens up the possibility of treating thought in an entirely non-metaphysical fashion. There is more that could be said here, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
The second problem I’ve also talked about elsewhere (here), but I’ll try to be more concise here. Premise (iv) – the claim that the adequate knowledge of an entity implies that the entity for-us and the entity in-itself are identical – is already dependent upon Graham’s metaphysics of objects. This is because it depends upon us treating the for-us and the in-itself as two different types of entity, rather than as different modes of apprehending one and the same thing. This is the basis of Graham’s famous distinction between sensuous and real objects. It is only given the assumption that we must analyse knowledge as a metaphysical relation between two types of entity that (iv) makes sense, because it is only under this assumption that relations of identity and distinctness could be at all relevant. There are two independent objections to this assumption. First, one might challenge that knowledge should be understood in metaphysical terms at all (as hinted at above). That it must be requires some further justification that I think Graham has yet to provide (see here), especially when there are seemingly viable non-metaphysical approaches (such as my own, I would hope). Second, even if we admit that knowledge should be understood in metaphysical terms, there are reasons to reject the specific metaphysical analysis Graham provides.
The most prominent reason to reject the analysis is that it implies that what it is to represent (e.g., believe/claim) something as having a certain property to stand in a relation to a special kind of object that possesses that very property. To believe that the real tree is an elm is to stand in a certain relation to a sensuous tree that is an elm. This means that in order to believe that a piece of coal is combustable, I must be related to a sensuous piece of coal that is combustable in the very same sense. The argument to inaccessibility would not work if the properties in question were proxies for their real counterparts. A sensuous object that had all the right proxy properties would not be identical with the corresponding real object. This account of representation seems to lead to absurdity, because we have no idea what it would be for a sensuous object to combust, and thereby what it would be for it to be combustable.
Now, Graham’s position isn’t quite as absurd as this, because he takes it that the properties (or qualities) that sensuous objects possess are entirely different than those that real objects possess (this distinction between real and sensuous qualities is the other aspect of his fourfold). This effectively downgrades the status of those properties we ascribe to things. Combustability is a phenomenal matter, rather than a noumenal one. Science (and most other activities) only ever deals in appearances, never with the things themselves. However, this distinction is motivated on the basis of epistemic inaccessibility, which (on this reading) is itself motivated by this account of representation. In essence, the distinction between types of qualities is motivated by the absurdity that the distinction between types of objects leads us to. Although Graham’s approach is certainly a viable way out of the absurdity (albeit at great expense), it is just as easy (if not easier) to reject the account of representation and the distinction between types of object it is based upon. Again, what’s needed is a stronger justification of the initial split between types of objects. I suspect that this is where Graham would fall back on his interpretation of the tool-analysis. It seems that all roads lead to the tool-analysis, and if you don’t find that convincing (which I don’t), then too bad. Anyway, I’ll leave explaining my worries about that till a later date.
In conclusion, there are plenty of alternative accounts of knowledge and representation (both metaphysical and non-metaphysical) which don’t support Graham’s argument. Given that those of us of a Sellarsian bent advocate such accounts, I think it’s safe to say that we’re immunised against this particular charge of idealism.
This entry was posted on January 1, 2011 at 6:20 pm and is filed under Discussion, Exegesis with tags Epistemology, Graham Harman, Metaphysics, OOP. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.