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.

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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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A Quickie on the KK Principle

I’m now in London, bumming around until I head off to Beirut on the 9th. If there’s anyone out there in London who wants to meet up with me in the meantime, feel free to email me, or communicate by some other means. On that note, I’m also now on twitter, for anyone who hasn’t already spotted me. This is a very quick post in response to Catarina Dulith Novaes’ post on the KK principle (here), because I couldn’t seem to post a comment on it. It’s thus pretty short (by my standards).

I won’t recapitulate Catarina’s post in any detail, as it’s a very short post itself, but the suggestion she makes is that the problem of whether the KK principle (i.e., if someone knows p, then they know that they know p) is true is amenable to empirical resolution to some extent, on the basis of research into metacognition. She also suggests that Kantian approaches to epistemology are incompatible with such analyses, the implication being that this is another reason why they don’t cut the mustard. I’m an unabashed Kantian on these matters. I take the widespread hostility to transcendental approaches to cognition to stem largely from the assumption that they place illegitimate constraints upon, or are downright incompatible with, empirical approaches. However, even Kant is fairly explicit that transcendental psychology is supposed to be a complement to empirical psychology, rather than a substitute for it. Whether or not Kant’s account of it is correct is another matter (though I increasingly suspect that it is less silly than it is often portrayed to be), rather, the issue is whether there are such things as legitimate constraints upon empirical approaches to cognition.

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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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Deontologistics on Tour: Conferences, Posts and Comments

I’m currently sitting in a cafe in Dundee, waiting for  the the 21st Century Idealism conference to kick off, and writing my paper (don’t worry, I’ve got a detailed plan!). It seems that I’m going to be quite busy over the next few months polishing off the thesis and going to conferences. After this, I’ll be going to the Metaphysics of Evolutionary Naturalism conference at the American University of Beirut, which Ray Brassier has organised, and it looks fantastic (I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Dan Dennett and Ruth Millikan). Following that, I’ll be in Prague for the Normativity of Meaning conference, where I’ll get my first chance to see Robert Brandom present in person (the prospect of which makes me giddy as a schoolgirl). I’m then thinking of visiting a friend in Slovakia before heading across to Munich for the Aspects of Reason Conference (where I get to see Brandom again!). If there’s anyone out there who fancies catching up with me on my prospective European tour, drop me a line. I can’t guarantee anything, but it’s always nice to bump into people who read the blog (and it’ll be even nicer to do so on the continent!).

On another note, there’s been a couple great posts of late from a number of directions. I’ve commented on some of these, in ways that elaborate my positions on a few matters (especially on the nature of philosophical practice and philosophical style), so they might be of additional interest to some. I’ve also coined a few turns of phrase which I’m quite pleased with, so don’t be surprised if they turn up here or in published work.

First, there’s Reid Kotlas’ second post in his latest series – Preface on Clarity – which picks out a little bit from Brandom that is wonderful and elaborates on it a bit in discussion with myself and the Philosopher Sans Oeuvre. I go into my opinions about the famous analytic/continental divide a bit more there, along with my opinions on the correct use of stylistic devices such as metaphor in philosophical writing.

Second, there’s Duncan Law’s recent post on Brandom – Embodied Norms – where we’ve been having a cracking good discussion about our different perspectives on Brandom’s work, the nature of language (conception) vs. communication (information transmission), and the possibility of transcendental philosophy. I’m increasingly convinced that the distinction between the ability to grasp conceptual content and the ability to receive information is a piece with the Kantian distinction between the faculties of understanding (and reason) and sensibility (and imagination), with the bracketed faculty in each case being the ability to process what is grasped/received. These pairs can then be viewed as indicating that there is no conception/sensation without the relevant kind of processing. These correspond roughly to the Hegelian insight that there is no understanding without reason (to view them separately is to be in the abstract standpoint of Verstand), and the Heideggerian insight that there is no perception without concerned practice (no Sicht without Umsicht). It’s also where we locate the boundary between causal systems that are configured correctly so as to count as rational agents (and thus susceptible to certain forms of normative assessment) and causal systems that can’t (those that merely process information).

Third, there’s Jonas Jervell Inregard’s recent posts on inner sense and time in Kant and others – Inner Sense Part I: On Asking Better Questions and What is Time? – I haven’t added anything much here (though I’ve certainly been thinking about the topic a lot), but it promises to be a really interesting series of posts.

That’s all for now. Back to my paper! Absolute Idea won’t explicate itself…

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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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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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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The World and The Real

This is a bit of an intermediary post. I’m currently working up a response to Levi’s recent posts responding to my criticisms of his position (and criticising my position), but may take a couple days to get it together. However, Levi has recently started reading my Essay on Transcendental Realism, and has posed a few clarificatory questions about the way I define the notions of ‘world’ and ‘Real’ (here). I happened to have a really good email discussion with Daniel Brigham about this, after he heard my TR talk from the Warwick workshop, and so I can copy and paste much from my email explanations without taking too much time. So, here’s a bit of a clarification of the notions of ‘world’ and ‘Real’ and a response to some worries about the role of propositions in defining them.

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