For the Love of Spinoza

Happy New Year everyone. Levi recently put up an interesting post about Spinoza’s account of the relation between causal knowledge and ethics (here). As some of you may know, I’m quite a big fan of Spinoza. Not just of his metaphysics, but also of his resistance to Aristotelian teleology and his resolve to think freedom in a way compatible with his completely deterministic metaphysics. As I’ve argued elsewhere (here), Spinoza reconciles freedom with the principle of sufficient reason in a much healthier manner than Leibniz, and a lot of contemporary debates on this issue can be interpreted as taking place between neo-Leibnizians and neo-Spinozists. I’m firmly in the neo-Spinozist camp, but this doesn’t mean that I agree with Spinoza completely. Levi’s post very clearly outlines one of the points where I have an important disagreement with him (and his heirs), so it’s useful to address it. It also gives me a good excuse to work through some of the ideas I’ve been having about ethics and politics over the past few months.

This post is another fairly long one (8,000 words or so), but it not only contains my thoughts on Spinoza, but also some thoughts on Kant, Foucault, Sellars, Hegel, and Plato, which it pulls together to provide the outline of a theory of Justice. That may sound a bit over the top, but I’m nothing if not ambitious. Anyway, on with the show…

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One from the Archives: Negativity

Although I’m working on other things at the moment (though very slowly, due to this rotten cold), it occurred to me that I’ve got a bunch of material lying around in my email account from various conversations I’ve had with terribly interesting individuals. Some of this is fairly easy just to copy and paste onto the blog, so there’s no good reason not to do so. I’m going to post them pretty much as is, and any necessary corrections or revisions will appear in ‘[…]’.

To start with, here’s something I wrote in response to a really excellent question from Alex Williams on my understanding of the relation between politics and negativity. It doesn’t really talk about politics much, but rather tries to disambiguate various ways in which the concept of negativity can be deployed philosophically. Hope you enjoy.

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I haven’t read Benjamin Noys book on the matter, which I suspect I should, but I’m generally very skeptical of the way ‘negativity’ and ‘positivity’ get used in much of mainstream continental philosophical discourse. It’s one of my pet peeves actually, because it often ends up running together logical and metaphysical issues with metaphorics of affectivity (‘we must be positive’ or ‘we must be negative’, etc.). That said, I’ll try and disentangle the bits I think something can be said about as best as I can.

There’s basically three different registers in which talk of negativity is relevant: philosophy of logic, philosophy of subjectivity, and metaphysics. These overlap insofar as subjects can be conceived as necessarily having the capacity for reasoning (which is made explicit using logical vocabulary) and insofar as there are questions about the subjects place within reality (and the relation between logical and metaphysical structure more broadly). To understand the relations between these different ways of talking about negativity I’d like to trace a few historical debates running through Spinoza, Hegel, Deleuze, Heidegger, Sartre and Brandom.

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What are Concepts?

Well, it looks like it’s that time again. Following a prolonged exchange we had over twitter (itself precipitated by this post), Levi put up a few posts which, although they don’t mention me directly, are pretty clearly pointed this way (herehereherehere, and perhaps here). Given this, I feel it beholden upon me to respond to them, both to dissect some of the more problematic claims made therein, and to correct what seems to me are some serious misunderstandings of Brandom’s work. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not famous for concision. This has lead to accusations that I practice ‘proof by verbosity’ or simply that I am ‘boring’. As I’ve said elsewhere recently (in the comments here), I don’t expect others to use their blogs in the way I use mine, or to keep up with reading the amount of material I publish. Nonetheless, I think it’s my right to criticise others in a manner of my own choosing, and to respond to criticisms of myself in kind. I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but there is a lot to respond to here, so I’m going to have to be selective.

It has equally been suggested (in the posts I am addressing no less) that the kinds of questions I focus on are too ‘academic’ (or perhaps not ‘feral’ enough), given my penchant for focusing on ‘What is…?’ questions. There is more to be said about this in relation to the matter at hand, but I think it’s worth pointing out that this form of questioning has an eminent philosophical (or perhaps ‘philosophical’) lineage, stretching back to literally pre-academic times. It is the preferred question form of Socrates, that most feral of philosophers, and most engaged with the needs of his time. Following his inspiration, I’ve decided to frame my response by confronting the difficult question underlying the debate: What are Concepts?

Do I adopt this mode of expression because I have a noxious and priestly will to power? Because I wish to stand in judgment over the fates of others? Because I wish to police, dominate, and render others subservient to my philosophical vision (one which is fascistically terrifying)? Or simply because I am a pervert? Perhaps. Does it make a difference? Probably not. Let’s see.

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Comments on Capitalist Realism (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

Anyway, here we go…

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The Light at the End of the Tunnel

I’ve just added a new page to the blog called: Thesis. I’m now at the point where I almost have a complete draft (and I emphasise that it is a draft). All I am missing is the concluding chapter, which I’m currently writing, along with a bibliography and complete and consistent footnotes (bad practice, I know). Given that I’m so close, and so many people have kindly offered to take a look at the thesis for me, the easiest thing for me to do is put it up here and let whoever wants to take a look at it do so. Comments are welcomed.

The current title of the thesis is The Question of Being: Heidegger and Beyond. This pretty much encapsulates what it is about. If you’d like a more detailed idea, read the introduction, which is only a couple thousand words long (shorter than most of my blog posts!). Right, now I can get back to the conclusion, and maybe the paper on Hegel I’m giving at the 21st Century Idealism conference in Dundee!

Stranger than Fiction

Well, it looks like I’m going to have to break my moratorium on posting about OOO again, given that Levi has just thrown down the gauntlet on his blog (here), specifically challenging us Sellarsians/Brandomians to account for the paradoxes of material implication. Moreover, he’s done it in the context of resurrecting the first debate between himself and I, concerning the reality of fictional objects (all of the appropriate references to which should be trackable from here).

I’ll say up front that I don’t think what Levi’s written poses any problems for either me or anyone else he references (including Brandom, Sellars, Ladyman and Ross, and Ray Brassier (given the reference to ‘eliminative materialists’, ‘scientism’, and his explicit remarks in the comments)). I don’t think it poses any problems for me because it completely misses my own position on the nature of reality (in the sense of ‘realness’ – it can also be read as a substantive, roughly synonymous with ‘the world’, or ‘the universe’, but I tend to call that ‘the Real’) and thus what it is for fictional objects to lack it. I don’t think it poses any problems for anyone else because it’s not clear what consequences Levi is trying to draw from the paradoxes of material implication. I’ll tackle these points in turn, along with a number of others along the way.

This is another long post, so be warned. If you’re only interested in my own account of fiction, try sections 1 & 2. If you’re only interested in my criticisms of Levi’s thoughts on logic, try sections 3 & 4. If you’re only interested in my interpretation of Brandom, try sections 5-7. And if you’re only interested in my brief comments on how this applies to Ray (which will be hard to read in isolation), read section 8. Now, on with the show.

[Update: Anyone who wants a more concise analysis of the problems with Levi’s appeals to logic should look at Zachary Luke Fraser‘s comments on the original post (here), and David Roden’s post on his blog (here). As I’ve noted before, brevity is not one of my virtues.]

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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.

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Back From The Dead

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

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On Ereignis

I’m back to working on the thesis now. It’s a hard slog, but I made some good progress yesterday. I’ve been in denial about a serious structural problem in the thesis for a while now, and it’s prevented me from getting anything constructive done. I think I’ve tackled it head on now, and even though I haven’t fixed the problem, I think I now know how to do so, which is good. Given that my head is in Heidegger mode, I’m in the right frame of mind to respond to the question Paul has just posed over at anotherheideggerblog (here): ‘What do we know about Ereignis?’

Now, I haven’t performed an exhaustive reading of Heidegger (I can’t even read him in the original German, alas), but I’ve got a rough reading of what Ereignis is. I’ve mentioned this a bit before, but it can’t hurt to repeat myself a bit. On my account, it’s pretty much synonymous with a couple of other terms: Seyn, Being as such (as opposed to the Being of beings), Truth, and the Fourfold. The best way to understand this is in relation to an important duality that runs throughout Heidegger’s thought: that between beings as such and beings as a whole. Heidegger takes it that this duality presents the object of all metaphysics (i.e., beings as such as a whole). However, he takes it that the metaphysical tradition has systematically misunderstood this insofar as it thinks both in terms of beings. Heidegger’s relation to metaphysics is complicated. In his early work, he tries to leverage the criticisms of the tradition in order to complete the project of metaphysics, whereas in his later work he comes to see the problem of the tradition as an essential aspect of metaphysics, and thus attempts to overcome metaphysics entirely.

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Response to Levi (part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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