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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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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Response to Levi (part 2)

Continuing the post from yesterday, here are sections 4-6 of the response, dealing with the place of knowledge in OOO, the points of convergence and divergence between myself, Levi and Graham, and my criticisms of Levi’s accounts of meaning and knowledge. Levi already has a brief counter-response up (here). I don’t want to address his counter-points in great detail here, as I’m still finishing the final part of the main response that will deal with some of these issues. I would like to pick up on one of them though, as I think it can be addressed fairly quickly.

Levi has misinterpreted my challenge to his notion of translation. He thinks that my claim is something like: we must in each particular case be able know what is being translated in order for the notion of translation to make sense. He then claims that this argument illegitimately places epistemological criteria on a metaphysical point, and that the whole point of translation is that we can’t know what something is like prior to translation. This is not the claim I made though. My claim was that we must have a general understanding of what is being translated in order for the notion of translation to make sense. We must be able to make sense of the very idea of direct contact between entities in order to make sense of the very idea that they can only encounter one another indirectly. I take the last post to have shown why the ‘translation’ of perturbations into information, and of information into system states, doesn’t provide us with the resources to think such directness in general, and thus why all talk of indirect access is at best metaphorical. This has nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with the coherence of metaphysical concepts.

Anyway, onto the main course…

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Response to Levi (part 1)

For those of you don’t know, a few weeks back there was an intense discussion (or set of discussions) across a couple blogs, started by a comment I made on Jon’s thread about the viability of OOO (here). Levi challenged this comment, and I provided a slightly extended response (here) and this has lead to some discussions in the comments thread and to an extended series of posts by Levi (the first two responses here and here, with a series of follow-ups herehere, and here). My original comment basically just recapitulated much of what I’d said in my recent post about the affinities between Graham’s OOP and Meillassoux’s speculative materialism vis-a-vis their relation to correlationism (here), and the problems I see with them, although it did also repeat a few other criticisms I’ve made of the position on this blog before (check here). However, in Levi’s responses and in the subsequent discussions the debate turned back upon the place of normativity within philosophical inquiry, and thus upon the viability of my own position in contrast to OOO.

One of the upshots of this discussion was that Levi discovered that he hadn’t been using the term ‘normativity’ in the same sense as many of us over the past year or two, which will hopefully help move the debate forward. Despite this realisation, I’m still not sure that Levi actually has a good grip on what’s actually being discussed under this heading. Of course, he doesn’t have the same philosophical background as myself and others, and so this is perfectly understandable to some extent (Tom has done a really good job of writing a basic primer on these issues here). However, I think he’s still misunderstanding the claims being made by myself and others regarding both the general importance and specific nature of normativity. I think this is evident in the most recent exchange between Reid (here) and Levi (here and here), over how to interpret Marx’s philosophy, where it strikes me that Levi has missed the point of the contrast Reid was drawing between Marx and Latour entirely. Reid was making points very similar to the critique of Latour’s a-modernism I’ve outlined before (here and here), and tying these in to Marx’s theory of fetishisation and ideology critique. Levi seems to have interpreted this as some form of correlationist gesture, wherein the natural is made dependent upon the cultural, rather than an attempt to rethink the relation between the natural and the cultural that does not fetishise (or hybridise, in my terms) cultural objects so that one can talk about them engaging with the natural directly, in the form of hybrid ‘networks’.

All of this indicates that in addition to responding to Levi’s counterpoints and criticisms, I’m again going to have to explain just what norms are, what they are not, and what role I think they should play within the philosophical enterprise. I understand that Levi has a book to write, and I equally have a thesis to finish, but given the number of posts he dedicated to these issues and the number of points he made I felt a thorough response was called for. Unfortunately, for various reasons, it’s taken me longer to put this together than I wanted. The response is also much longer than I’d wanted it to be, due to the sheer number of issues Levi raised and the difficulty of providing a comprehensive treatment of them (the initial posts came to just over 13,000 words, not counting comments, more recent posts, or previous posts he referenced). As such, I’ve taken the decision to divide the response up into a series of posts, each of which will contain a number of sections from the full response. Earlier sections can generally be read without later sections, but the later sections will point back to the earlier ones.

This first part (sections 1-3) deals with preliminary issues, the stakes of the original debate, and my criticisms of Levi’s notion of ‘translation’.

The second part (sections 4-6) will deal with the place of knowledge in OOO, the points of convergence and divergence between myself, Levi and Graham, and my criticisms of Levi’s accounts of meaning and knowledge.

The third part (sections 7 and 8 ) will deal with how my own position responds to the motivations underlying Levi’s approach (among others), and will address Levi’s view about the nature of epistemology and it’s relation to metaphysics.

I intend to leave a little time in between posts to let people digest them, as they’re still quite long in themselves. Thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to read any of these, let alone all of them!

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Hijacking Correlationism

Graham recently put up an interesting post about the various positions within Meillassoux’s philosophical ‘spectrum’, and where OOP stands in relation to them (here, linked by Gratton here). This is most interesting, because it goes some way to confirming the diagnosis of OOP I made in my TR essay (here). Since most people don’t have the time to read the whole thing, I’ll recreate the basic elements of the argument here (with a certain amount of tweaking).

First of all, the core point of the essay is that the ‘spectrum’ of positions provided by Meillassoux is incomplete, and that there are at least two further important positions (not including OOP) that need to be added to it, which I call deflationary realism and transcendental realism. The revised range of possible positions should be something like: classical realism (Aristotle, Locke, etc.), classical idealism (Berkeley, Hegel, etc.), weak correlationism (Kant), strong correlationism (Wittgenstein, Heidegger, etc.), speculative materialism (Meillassoux), OOP (Graham, and perhaps related OOO variants), deflationary realism (Quine, McDowell, Brandom, etc.), and transcendental realism (me and potentially a few others). I won’t line these up in a spectrum, because I think there’s too many dimensions at work here.

The other relevant point that I made is that both Meillassoux and Graham justify their respective positions by hijacking the arguments for correlationism, albeit in different ways. This is very explicit in Meillassoux’s work, though has been somewhat more understated in Graham’s (although his post makes this explicit to some extent). On the basis of this, my argument was that if we undermine the arguments for correlationism directly, then we undermine the most powerful arguments in favour of both speculative materialism and OOP. This was then done by showing that despite the fact that correlationism is meant to be an epistemological position (or at least that we are supposed to be able to formulate it in purely epistemological terms), it depends upon certain implicit ontological (and thus metaphysical) assumptions. In effect, what Meillassoux and Graham do in hijacking correlationism is just to try and make these assumptions explicit, and work out their consequences. The problem is simply that once one recognises this, one sees that these are not metaphysical positions that are necessitated by non-metaphysical (epistemological or phenomenological) facts, but are just different ways to develop some existing metaphysical assumptions. Arguing against those assumptions thus undermines correlationism, speculative materialism, and OOP all at once.

This is a very schematic presentation of these ideas, which doesn’t show how the two sides link up. As such, I’m going to try and flesh it out a bit.

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The Harman Debate

I’ve noticed that I’m getting a consistent amount of traffic on those posts that constitute the ongoing debate I’ve been having with Graham Harman about his object-oriented philosophy. However, these posts aren’t indexed in any proper way on the site, so I thought it would be good to provide a complete list of them for those that have caught only part of the back and forth. I’m not including links to Graham’s half of the discussion here, as the relevant posts from his blog are linked at the beginning of each of my posts. Here they are in chronological order:-

Against Experience

Phenomenology, Discourse and their Objects

Once More with Content

Scientific Vs. Metaphysical Realism?

A Quick Response to Graham Harman

Reductionism and Materialism

The Perils of Representation

For those who’re interested in my thoughts on OOO, there is also a much earlier post, written before I’d had too much contact with Graham’s work. As such, it’s not quite right. It doesn’t take proper account of the fact that Graham takes their to be two types of object (real and sensuous). However, I still think it’s interesting, and itt’s probably not that far off the mark on Levi’s position, so here it is:-

Applied Critique: Existence, Pseudo-Existence and OOO

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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Reductionism and Materialism

As seems to be the case with half of the philosophy blogosphere, I have just been to Dundee, at the Real Objects or Material Subjects conference. It is somewhat strange meeting so many people from the internet in the flesh. I had a very good time of it though. The papers have were of an excellent standard and the discussion was stimulating. I might have gone a bit over the top at points though, as evidenced by Graham’s experience of me (here). I don’t really get to talk to people about philosophy that much, and so I tend to get a tad over enthused at conferences. My apologies to anyone who has been hit by the full force of this enthusiasm. The one point that I got consistently from anyone who reads the blog is that my posts are perhaps too long and involved at times. As such, I’ll try to keep this one short. My main aim here is to explain the issues I had with Graham’s paper. In this post I’ll explain the two I made in the questions after the paper, and I’ll handle the problem I accosted him with after it in a separate post.

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A Quick Response to Graham Harman

I’m glad to know that Graham thinks my criticisms are thoughtful. He put up a few quick responses to my last post yesterday (here and here). I understand he has a busy schedule, and thus can’t always respond in detail (I still would really like to hear his response to this post), but I think it might be helpful to briefly clarify some of my remarks in the last post in response to him.

His first point is that I’m overdetermining his use of ‘scientific’ and ‘metaphysical’, and that this produces some misunderstandings on my part. This is thoroughly possible, and I understand that he put them in scare quotes for a reason. However, his response reinforces one of my problems, namely, that he is confusing specific issues to do with the metaphysics of consciousness with issues about the role of philosophy as such. To explain further, Graham says in his response that the distinction was mainly meant to distinguish between himself and Whitehead on the one hand, who take it that there is some metaphysics of consciousness that escapes scientific description, and those who take consciousness to be fully described by the sciences. However, his major criticism of those in the latter position was that they try “to turn philosophy into something it is not”, by making philosophy a slave to science. This strikes me as too bold a conclusion to draw solely on the basis of their attitude to consciousness. I’ll admit up front that I’ve got my own (very deflationary) opinions on the philosophy of consciousness, but I don’t think the standard for what counts as proper philosophy should be determined by this particular area.

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Scientific Vs. Metaphysical Realism?

This is a brief post to take issue with something Graham recently said on his blog (here). Graham has said similar things before, but I think this is one of the clearest examples of his opinion about the relation between science and realism. Graham first notes that the increasing fashionability of the term ‘realism’ in continental circles means that it can be misleadingly appropriated by those who aren’t genuine realists. He repeats the idea, stated elsewhere, that it is not enough to consider the real as something which constrains consciousness/thought, but that one must be able to allow it some structure independently of a relation to consciousness/thought. One must be able to say something about the interaction of fire and cotton in order to count as a genuine realist. Now, I agree with this, for the most part. My problem comes when he draws a dichotomy between two ways in which one can be genuinely realist:-

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