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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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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The Perils of Representation

Following up yesterday’s the day before yesterday’s post, I should probably just add a few notes in response to Graham (see here). I’ll try and not let this spiral into a 7 message exchange though. I’ve always wanted one of those epic sounding monikers you have to put in quote marks, and I think Pete “the relentless” is the best suggestion I’ve come across so far (I take everything Graham says in good spirit). Before leaping in though, I should perhaps say a little bit about the way I approach philosophical disputes like this.

Graham does rightly note that I have a habit of trying to point out what I see as confusions or insufficiently precise uses of terminology, and this does reflect a bit of my more analytic background (although I’m sure if you ask those analyticians who know me I’d get accused of being wildly speculative!). This kind of nitpicking can come across as pedantic, or as labelling the other person as ‘confused’, ‘muddled’ or something similar. I’m trying to avoid this, as such things can be quite offensive, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that it’s much easier to offend people by accident here (there’s so little way of modulating one’s tone that attempts to do so can wildly backfire), so it’s at the very least good practice to be careful with one’s words.

However, I’d like to defend my nitpicking to some extent. It’s all well and good to say that we should just take our (and by this I mean more than just myself and Graham) differences to be disagreements in all cases, and then to try and resolve them directly, but I think that it’s often the case that it’s not entirely clear what exactly we’re disagreeing about. Sometimes you have to do a bit of preparatory work in order to figure out where a given disagreement lies. It can be very frustrating for all involved, but it can pay us back for this frustration tenfold if done right. Of course, perspicuity can devolve into pedantry, and this can lead to obscuring what is genuinely important in a discussion. Perspicuity is a virtue, and as such, the Aristotelian in me strives for a golden mean. I don’t always find it, but I try regardless.

Brevity, on the other hand, isn’t a virtue I have any success with. This post will be quite long (8,000 words or so), largely because it includes the additional material hinted at in the last post, which is quite in depth. To Graham: don’t think I’m forcing you to ratchet up a current account deficit in our discussion. You’re a much busier man than I, and you can feel free to get back to me whenever you like (or not to at all). As our Australian friends say: no worries.

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Normativity and Rationality

Over at Grundlegung, Tom has put a few thoughts together on some of what I said in my post on Normativity and Ontology. He’s focused on my somewhat rushed claims about the nature of normativity, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to clear some of my opinions up, not least because they aren’t entirely settled yet. I’ve already put some initial thoughts down in a comment on his post, but I’m going to offer some more detailed thoughts here, some of which overlap with what I said there. First of all though, I’m going to clear up a few things about my approach, before I specifically address Tom’s worries.

1. The Primary Bind

The first thing I must repeat from my old post is what I called there the primary bind. This names the fact that there are some norms, which I have called the fundamental norms of rationality, that we are bound by insofar as we make any claims at all. This is because, although we may indeed argue about how we should argue, this kind of argument has a special structure insofar as we cannot disavow the standards (or norms) which determine what is correct in this case. To put it in a different way, we can neither deny the existence (formally pseudo-existence) of such standards (‘There is no way we should argue’), nor can we posit the existence of divergent standards (‘How I should argue is different from how you should argue’), without invalidating the argument itself, i.e., without ceasing to occupy a position (or make a claim) at all. Tom correctly identified my positing of this primary bind as a properly transcendental claim.

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Normativity and Ontology

I seem to have gotten quite a lot of traffic over the last few days, so thankyou to all of you taking time to visit. I must break my promises again, and write about something entirely different to what I have so far suggested. Someone pointed me in the direction of the Grundlegung blog (now linked in the sidebar), which I’m finding very interesting. It’s nice to see someone else interested in contemporary ontology and the philosophy of normativity at the same time. Specifically, I was very interested by his musings on how to reconcile a univocal account of Being and  the essentially normative character of rationality/subjectivity. This seems to be an ongoing discussion with Levi at LarvalSubjects (now also linked in the sidebar) to which I chipped in a little bit. I have promise to chip in more however, and so I’m going to try and explain the outlines of my own work on the relation between normativity and ontology. This also expands on a discussion I was having with Ray Brassier at the last speculative realism conference, about how to reconcile the normativity of thought with ontology.

Coming out of the discussion between Tom and Levi, there seem to be three major issues that need to be addressed:-

1) In what sense is the philosophy of normativity (or deontology) prior to, or foundational for, ontology?

2) If we understand subjects as uniquely normative, how can we reconcile this with a univocal ontology in which no kind of being has any ontological privilege?

3) If ontology is somehow grounded in the normative, how do we account for the ontological status of norms, and how do we avoid the same problems vis a vis univocity?

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