No Givenness Please, We’re Sellarsians

Dan Sacilotto over at Being’s Poem has just put up an excellent post discussing some issues that myself and Ray Brassier have been working on, in the light of a comparison between the two titans of Hegelianism in contemporary philosophical world: Badiou (the paragon of mathematical ontology) and Brandom (the paragon of inferentialist semantics). As Dan was so generous in the complements with which he opened his post, I feel I should say a little something in return. The pleasure in our correspondence has been entirely mutual. Dan is an incredibly enthusiastic and sincere interlocutor, and he’s consistently challenged me to improve both the content of my ideas and their form of expression. He’s also patiently and valiantly attempted to explain Badiou to me, and has been very helpful, in spite of my persistent inability to grasp what Badiou means by ‘presentation’. Dan exemplifies a lot of the virtues of a good philosopher: he’s intensely autodidactic, philosophically omnivorous, he doesn’t pull his discursive punches, and he refuses to write about things unless he thinks he understands them. All in all, a top chap.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to address a few of the aspects of Dan’s post. I’m not going to cover everything, as it’s filled to the brim with interesting content. However, I do think that I can present my own point of view on several issues in a bit more detail, and provide some additional context for those who aren’t aware of the way mine and Ray’s Sellarsian projects have been developing of late. To this end, I’m going to carry on my recent practice of quoting from my own correspondence, and post a few snippets from my correspondence with Ray.

However, before I get down to this it’s useful to quickly summarise the central point of Dan’s post. His basic idea is that, although their rejection of the primacy of phenomenal givenness is highly laudable, both Badiou and Brandom end up going too far in minimising the role of experience, especially in their rejection of the role that sensation plays within it. Although the way this happens within each philosophical system differs, he takes it that they both seem to collapse back into something like Hegelian idealism, albeit from opposite directions. He sees myself and Ray as attempting to avoid this danger by championing the work of Sellars, ameliorating the Hegelian dangers of Brandom and Badiou by returning to a more Kantian approach to the relation between thought and Being. The aim here is to give experience its due, without collapsing back into the Myth of the Given, and thereby establish both the principled separation and effective connection between mind and world. However, Dan also suggests that Ray’s greater interest in Sellars’ account of sensation (and the associated notion of picturing) keeps him safer than my own more Brandomian proclivities. Needless to say, I’ve got a few points I’d like to make about this.

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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.

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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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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Praying to the Evil Demon

This is a short thought, but it struck me when reading a post on the Event (a la Badiou) over at Fractal Ontology. As I have mentioned before, I find Badiou’s conception of the Event to be somewhat troubling, precisely insofar as it suspends the principle of sufficient reason, and appeals to the ever present possibility of some occurrence which comes without reason, changing the given state of affairs. It seems that a lot of the appeal of this kind of position is political. This is because it holds out the promise of something, anything, that could change the current political state of affairs of which we are currently sick. Moreover, because this change will come in a way which is unthinkable from within the present situation, we are thereby excused the burden of trying to think how such a change could come about.

As I have stated before (here), this kind of position, in which an Event irrupts literally ex nihilo, i.e., out of ‘the Void’, to be a negative theology. Badiou’s conception of the Void seems to push Levinas’ Absolute Other even further than he was willing, stripping it of all possible predicates, be they divine (e.g., perfection, benevolence, etc.) or otherwise (e.g., hardness, warmth, etc), until we are left with pure nothingness. But nonetheless, we find ourselves hoping, praying to this Nothingness that it will deliver unto us some change, because even though there is no reason for it to do so, there is no reason for it not to.

This negative theology is not really something other than onto-theology, as much as it is the limit-point, or ‘degree zero’ (a popular phrase these days) of onto-theology, wherein everything is grounded in an un-ground, an abyss, but nonetheless something, even if it is distinctly other than beings. This otherness has two dimensions: the denial of any of the determinations of beings to the ground (as indicated above), but also the separation of the ground from beings.

However, what struck me just now is how much this harks back to Descartes. It is as if we have abandoned all hope of proving that whatever it is that has power over the apparent (or presented) world is really benevolent, and yet in our desperation we are praying to the evil demon to bring us change, to overturn the apparent world, because we are so thoroughly sick of it.

Of course, there is some virtue to the Event for Badiou, insofar as it is the irruption of Truth, rather than a mere rejigging of appearances for its own sake. Still, even this just gives the Void a minimum of ‘benevolence’ and it still strikes me as theological, and the corresponding language of fidelity as precisely eschatological.

Maybe I am being too harsh, but I cannot but help see this in appeals to the power of Events to bring us change.

The Plane of Immanence

Over at The Naked Void, Nikola recently put up a post about Deleuze’s proximity to idealism (here). Very loosely, his argument ran that any philosophy of presence is essentially idealism, and that Deleuze’s notion of the plane of immanence commits him to such a philosophy of presence. As might be expected, I strongly objected to this characterisation of Deleuze, and I posted quite a long (albeit dense) comment, which tried to undermine the Badiouian assumptions latent in Nikola’s argument. Nikola has since posted a reply to my objections (here), and I feel like it would be more productive to re-present some of my original points and then show what appear to me as the inadequacies of Nikola’s response in light of them.

Insofar as this means that I have to discuss the plane of immanence, this also gives me an opportunity to better formulate some of the issues I have with Levi’s claims about ‘flat ontology’ and immanence (which are linked to here). I do like hitting two birds with one stone, and so I’ll address these after I discuss Nikola’s points.

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Deleuze: The Song of Sufficient Reason – (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my discussion on Deleuze and sufficient reason. In this post, I’ll be explaining the some more of the details of my interpretation of Deleuze’s metaphysics. This won’t yet explain how Deleuze manages to reconcile sufficient reason with the principle of univocity, but it will start developing the necessary theoretical resources to to so.

3. Virtuality Contra Possibility

As I said in the last post, we are forced to choose between onto-theology and sufficient reason on the one hand, and negative theology and the rejection of sufficient reason on the other, only insofar as we think in terms of the possible and actual. Thus, in order to demonstrate how Deleuze escapes from this trap it is necessary to elucidate in brief his alternative to thinking in these terms, namely, his account of the virtual and it actualisation. Now, I don’t claim to understand the virtual in full. Grasping the proper nature of the virtual is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy, and I’m not sure anyone has done so entirely. However, I can explain it in part.

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Deleuze: The Song of Sufficient Reason

After another post on the structure of normativity I owe people some metaphysics, so I’m going to return to my continuing elaboration of Deleuze. In my earlier posts I have indicated how what I have called the strong version of the principle of univocity is at the heart of Deleuze’s metaphysics, in that many of the other decisions he makes in his metaphysics follows from it. I have also said that Deleuze’s system can be understood as a reinvention of Spinoza’s system to incorporate this principle (and thus also the ontological difference). In this post I want to talk about the other principle at the heart of Deleuze’s metaphysics, one which he shares with Spinoza: the principle of sufficient reason. In talking about this I hope to elaborate how other aspects of his metaphysics function, most importantly his monism.

I’ve been working on this post for a little while, and it’s ballooned to nearly 6000 words and climbing, so I’m going to break it up into parts. The first two parts I’m posting now will set the stage, and the following one’s will do some more in depth metaphysical work.

1. Sufficient Reason and Onto-theology

People have a tendency to ignore the fact that Deleuze accepts some form of the principle of sufficient reason, despite the fact that he says at one point that D&R is a book about sufficient reason. The fact that Deleuze accepts this is of a great deal of relevance in contemporary debates, given how fashionable it has become to reject it (see Badiou and Meillassoux, who I’ll will talk about a little below). However, the other important thing about Deleuze’s acceptance of the principle is that it at once both underscores his similarities with the key rationalist thinkers – Spinoza and Leibniz – but in doing so highlights the relevant ways he moves beyond them.

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Deleuze: Some Common Misunderstandings

To carry on the general theme of the last post, I thought I’d list in brief a few other common misunderstandings that I have encountered a number of times in Deleuze scholarship. These are my pet peeves.

1. Deleuze is not a transcendental philosopher

A lot of people do a double take when I mention this one, but its very true. Deleuze is indeed a transcendental empiricist, but the sense of transcendental here is different. There are really two different senses of the transcendental, a methodological sense (hence ‘transcendental philosopher’) and a more ontological sense (e.g. the ‘transcendental field’). To pursue a transcendental methodology is to inquire after conditions of possibility. Traditionally this is the Kantian project of the conditions of the possibility of experience, but there can be different objects of transcendental enquiry. The ontological sense refers to the conditions themselves, for instance, Kant’s categories, his pure forms of intuition, and the rest of his transcendental apparatus. These two senses neatly overlap in Kant, because what is sort in a transcendental enquiry is the transcendental conditions (conditions of possibility).

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