OftA: Science, Metaphysics, and the A Priori / A Posteriori Distinction

If there’s one topic that I’ve probably done more work on than anything else, it’s what you might call the methodology of metaphysics. My PhD thesis attempted to extract insights regarding what metaphysics is and how to go about doing it from Heidegger’s work on the question of Being, my Essay on Transcendental Realism attempted to extend these ideas in a Kantian direction using Sellarsian/Brandomian tools, and my book attempted to show how not to do metaphysics by critiquing one strand of the return to metaphysics in the Continental tradition. The latter probably contains the most sustained analysis of the provenance of metaphysics in my extant work, and probably the best available account of its evolution into Continental and Analytic strands in the 20th century.

However, the best stripped down overview of my opinions on the nature of metaphysics is an essay I wrote for Speculative Heresy nearly 8 years ago. I’ve worked out a lot more of the technical details in the years since, but they fill in rather than revise my position. With that in mind, I’m transferring it here.

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Atheology on Deleuze and Sufficient Reason

This is a very quick post to point people at a new blog called Atheology (now linked in the side bar), which has just put up a post (see here) commenting on my ‘Song of Sufficient Reason’ series of posts on Deleuze and the PSR (see the Important Posts section). That series of posts never got finished for various reasons, the third instalment being lost somewhere along the way. However, a lot of the unresolved threads are picked up in my more recent ‘Ariadne’s Thread’ paper on the overall shape of Deleuze’s metaphysics (see the Other Work section, or the Video section). It’s wonderful to find someone commenting so perspicuously on work I thought everyone had forgotten about (myself included). I look forward to reading more from Atheology on these and other topics as it appears.

Deleuzian Catharsis

I’ve probably written before about my history with Deleuze, but I can’t think where exactly. For those who don’t know, I began my PhD thesis with the intent of working on Deleuze’s metaphysics and its implications for the philosophy of language, with an eye to combining it with Wittgensteinian pragmatism. The story goes that I couldn’t find the methodology I needed to adequately explain (let alone justify) Deleuze’s metaphysics, and so took a detour into Heidegger to acquire it. This was supposed to last a month or so, and ended up consuming four years of research and my entire thesis. I was also converted to Brandom’s Hegelian pragmatism in that time, and that has monopolised a lot of my other research efforts in the meantime. I’ve written the odd thing about Deleuze on this blog, but I haven’t seriously touched the books (let alone kept up with the secondary literature) in a good few years.

However, courtesy of my good friend (and prominent Deleuze scholar) Henry Somers-Hall, I recently got invited to give a paper at Manchester Metropolitan University on Deleuze’s theory of time. This was part of a larger workshop on Deleuze that was very successful indeed. A great event all around. Lots of things kept me from writing my paper until far too close to the deadline (I was working on it right up until the last minute), but it was a cathartic experience from beginning to end. Three years or so of pent up Deleuzian ideas came out all at once, and it produced a paper that is very dense, but not for that matter unaccessible. Moreover, the paper served as a wonderful vindication of my methodological detour, insofar as it displays the power of the critical framework I’ve been developing here and elsewhere. I’ve sometimes been accused of getting stuck at the level of critique, and never getting to the actual metaphysics. I think this is a pretty performative refutation of those criticisms.

I’m enormously pleased with the paper, and I was enormously gratified by the positive reception it received from the people at the workshop. There were some excellent questions and some great discussions afterwards. I’m reliably informed that the video of the various talks will be going up online soon, including Q&As, but I’ve decided to make minor revisions to my paper and post it up on the blog (here) while it’s still at the forefront of my mind. It’ll no doubt get revised further and turned into a proper publication at some point, but for now, enjoy!

‘Only the Death of God Can Save Us’

My talk for the Newcastle Philosophy Society on Saturday (discussed in the last post) went very well . Although I didn’t get to prepare as much as I might have liked, the ideas came together in a way that people seemed to understand, and it provoked a lot of interesting discussion. Despite the controversial thesis of the talk, there was no hostility or incredulity in the face of the claims I was making. What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon: eating pizza, drinking coffee, and talking about the death of God with a bunch of non-philosophers who are just interested in the topic.

Anyway, I managed to record a video of the talk on my laptop (giving it a slightly weird angle), and I’ve uploaded it to youtube (see here). The talk takes up the first 30 minutes. This is followed by a 30 minute Q&A session with a respondent, and a further 50 minutes of less focused discussion.

As another point of interest. Ray Brassier’s most recent talk ‘How to Train an Animal that Makes Inferences: Sellars on Rules and Regularities’, is now available online courtesy of Lorenzo Chiesa (see here). It’s Ray at his best: clear exegesis of Sellars with wonderful and incisive commentary upon the consequences that must be drawn from it. It also contains a small exchange between Ray and Zizek, which fans of both/either may find interesting/entertaining.

Finally, I’ve just finished making the final edits to the submission draft of my thesis. It contains no substantial changes from the current available draft, other than the fixing of a few typos and the inclusion of an acknowledgements page. However, I feel bound to put it up here for the sake of completeness if nothing else. It’s available on the usual page, linked in the sidebar. Now I’m free to finish a paper I’ve been working on for a couple months now. I’m sure you’ll all be interested to read it once it arrives!

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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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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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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On Ereignis

I’m back to working on the thesis now. It’s a hard slog, but I made some good progress yesterday. I’ve been in denial about a serious structural problem in the thesis for a while now, and it’s prevented me from getting anything constructive done. I think I’ve tackled it head on now, and even though I haven’t fixed the problem, I think I now know how to do so, which is good. Given that my head is in Heidegger mode, I’m in the right frame of mind to respond to the question Paul has just posed over at anotherheideggerblog (here): ‘What do we know about Ereignis?’

Now, I haven’t performed an exhaustive reading of Heidegger (I can’t even read him in the original German, alas), but I’ve got a rough reading of what Ereignis is. I’ve mentioned this a bit before, but it can’t hurt to repeat myself a bit. On my account, it’s pretty much synonymous with a couple of other terms: Seyn, Being as such (as opposed to the Being of beings), Truth, and the Fourfold. The best way to understand this is in relation to an important duality that runs throughout Heidegger’s thought: that between beings as such and beings as a whole. Heidegger takes it that this duality presents the object of all metaphysics (i.e., beings as such as a whole). However, he takes it that the metaphysical tradition has systematically misunderstood this insofar as it thinks both in terms of beings. Heidegger’s relation to metaphysics is complicated. In his early work, he tries to leverage the criticisms of the tradition in order to complete the project of metaphysics, whereas in his later work he comes to see the problem of the tradition as an essential aspect of metaphysics, and thus attempts to overcome metaphysics entirely.

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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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