TfE: Incompetence, Malice, and Evil

Here’s a thread from Saturday that seemed to be quite popular. It explains a saying that I’ve found myself reaching for a lot recently, using some other ideas I’ve been developing in the background on the intersection between philosophy of action, philosophy of politics, and philosophy of computer science.

In reflecting on this thread, these ideas have unfolded further, straying into more fundamental territory in the philosophy of value. If you’re interested in the relations between incompetence, malice, and evil, please read on.

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TfE: Corrupting the Youth

Here’s a twitter thread from earlier today, articulating some of my thoughts about the philosophy of games in general, and the nature of tabletop roleplaying games more specifically.

Here’s a rather different set of thoughts for this morning. Some may know that one of my many interests is philosophy of games. This is a topic close to my heart, but I also think it a timely one, insofar as games are now culturally hegemonic.

The concept of game cuts across everything from the philosophies of action and mathematics to the philosophies of politics and art. We ignore it at the risk of our own cultural and intellectual irrelevance.

If you want to know more about the history of the concept and my own take on it, check out my ‘What’s in a Game?’ talk.

To be concise: I think that if games are art, then their medium is freedom itself, and that there is a case to be made that RPGs, whether tabletop, LARP, computer based, or some cross-modal mixture thereof, realize this truth most completely. RPGs are experiments in agency.

This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily very good experiments. Computer RPGs have suffered from very obvious constraints for decades, and I’ve played enough dull dice based dungeon crawls to last a lifetime. But I’ve equally experienced heart-breakingly imperfect art.

Tabletop RPGs have given me the sorts of barely expressible, intensely formative, and deeply connected experiences that others hope for and occasionally find in art, literature, and the collective projects of politics and culture. People will no doubt laugh at this fact.

Again, most RPGs aren’t this good, and it is much harder to plan and execute good ones as you and your friends get older. Boardgames, a representational art form in their own right, become much more tempting for their ludic precision and easy self-containment.

But I pine for the days of dice and character sheets, exploring the weirder fringes of inhuman narrative and the familiar shores of the human condition simultaneously. Werecoyotes and Psionics, insatiable curiosity and crippling anxiety, joyous battles and crushing failures.

So, after this personal preamble, here is the philosophical thought I came here to express: RPG systems are procedural frameworks for interactive narrative generation, and they contain engines for simulating worlds.

They are therefore deeply philosophical, because they must contain a metaphysics (narrative/fate) and a theory of personhood (identity/agency/destiny), but they may also contain a logic (GM/PC/NPC interaction), a physics (simulation/means), and an ethics (alignment/ends).

My first encounter with philosophy wasn’t reading Nietzsche, Sartre, or Popper, but reading grimoire-like RPG manuals, searching for the hidden secrets of worlds they contained, many of which I have never visited even in play. What is creation? Why is there suffering? Who are we?

My partner in conceptual crime (@tjohnlinward) likes to say that RPG manuals are tour guides for worlds that don’t exist, but in many ways they’re more like holy texts. Many even have completely explicit and thoroughly fascinating theology.

An RPG system/setting is a universe in which the throne is empty, awaiting a new godhead, or a new pantheon to play the games of divinity. An adventure supplement is like an epic poem, awaiting heroes ready to test their mettle in struggle against the whims of fickle gods.

Narrative is a product, but the process that produces it is a complex, concurrent, and creative interaction between ideas and inspirations; brimming with contingency; some of which may even be embodied in distinct creators and muses. Games are our window into this process.

And that is why games disprove Hegel’s thesis regarding the end of art, precisely by being the most deeply Hegelian of art forms. The world-spirit arrives, no longer Napoleon riding into Jena on horseback, but Gary Gygax corrupting the youth with pens, paper, and polyhedra.

If you want to read more along these lines, check out my ‘Castalian Games’ piece in Glass Bead.

TfE: Sincerity vs. Honesty

I often talk about the virtue of sincerity, and how important it is to me. There’s even a section of my book devoted to disputing Harman’s interpretation of sincerity as authenticity (‘being oneself’) and contrasting it with my own take on sincerity as fidelity (‘meaning what one says’). However, a question William Gillis asked on Facebook gave me a concrete opportunity to articulate my ideas more concisely, by contrasting sincerity with honesty:

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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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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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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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Dundee Epilogue

I’ve now had a day or two to recover from Dundee, and I thought I ought to put my thoughts up on the blog. I would have had them up yesterday, but I got an unexpected offer to go see Earth play live in Newcastle yesterday, and I try not to turn down such offers. To sum up the 21st Century Idealism conference, I wasn’t sure it would be able to top last years Real Objects or Material Subjects conference, but it completely surpassed my expectations. The organisers did a fantastic job, not only of picking a truly excellent set of papers, but of creating the most congenial and downright fun atmosphere. The main organisers (and other Dundee students, who did their fair bit) deserve a serious pat on the back for organising one of the best (and perhaps the best) conference I’ve ever been to.

I think my own paper (‘The Greatest Mistake: A Case for the Failure of Hegel’s Idealism’) went pretty well, and it achieved it’s goal of agitating the Hegelians in the audience (who were a great bunch of people, and took my criticisms very well). However, I was working on it right up until the beginning of my panel, so it was missing a few slides, and the conclusion was not as sharp as I would have liked. I’ve taken the intervening few days to remedy these defects a bit, and it can now be found here (PDFPPT Slides) and on the ‘Other Work’ page of the blog. Even those who saw me deliver it might find it worthwhile taking a second look, as I’ve expanded the conclusion a bit to clear up some of the issues from the Q&A.

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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…

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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