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 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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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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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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Transcendental Realism

Greetings to all. It’s a bit late for an update, but, as others have already noted (here and here), the Transcendental Realism Workshop that happened last week went very well. I was most pleased with the way the various papers fitted together. A number of important issues recurred throughout the whole day: the relation between metaphysics and science, the nature and importance of rationality, the structure of concept revision, the interface between the natural and the normative, the role of the social in the structure of knowledge, and the significance of Kant’s philosophy.

As Dave Allen has pointed out, one of the most heartening things about the day was the that the great divide between Continental and Analytic philosophy was notable only by its absence. There was no attempt to bring one to the other, but simply a willingness to work as if the boundaries were not there.

I won’t comment too much on individual papers, as I’ll let those of you who’re interesting hear (or read) them for yourselves. We have the audio for the first three papers (Tom‘s, Reid‘s, and mine), but not for any of the others. Reid and Tom should provide revised electronic copies of their papers at some point (I believe). James Trafford didn’t want to make his paper available, as it is going to form part of his book for zerO on revisionary naturalism. It was an interesting paper, so we’ve got lots to look forward to there. Nick’s paper is available below in electronic form.

Tom O’Shea – On the Very Idea of CorrelationismTom O’Shea Q&A

Reid Kotlas – Transcendental Realism, Historical Materialism, and the Problem of Freedom / Reid Kotlas Q&A

Pete Wolfendale – Objectivity, Reality, and the In-Itself: From Deflationary to Transcendental RealismPete Wolfendale Q&A / Handout

Nick Srnicek – Traversing the Gap: Actor-Network Theory and the Forward March of Science

Unfortunately, we forgot to set up the mike for Ray’s talk, which is a testimony to how extremely tight the schedule was, and how stimulating the inter-talk discussion was. Doubly unfortunately, his presentation was given from notes, and so I can’t even give you all an electronic copy. To give you a brief low-down, he gave a fascinating introduction to Sellars as the best kept secret of 20th Century philosophy. He presented him as something of the Captain Beefheart of philosophy – nobody reads him, but his influence is everywhere. He also presented him as trying to make good on the promise of Kant’s philosophy.

The importance of Kant’s work was something which hung over the whole workshop, and when I came to revise my paper to put it online it stuck with me. I was unhappy with the final argument of my paper, and so my initial intent was only to extend that particular section. However, this turned into over a weeks worth of work (which is part of the reason for the delay), extending the paper into something more like a small treatise on transcendental realism, and the possibility of radicalising Kant’s philosophy. Given that Graham has just posted about the datedness of Kant’s work (here), I think it fitting to post this extended essay as a systematic rebuttal of sorts.

The essay contains the original paper (although somewhat extended), but also contains a large section working out the consequences of the argument for transcendental realism it provides. This recapitulates a lot of thoughts I’ve laid out on the blog over the last year, but in a more systematic and polished form. It’s far from a finished piece. It points in the direction of a larger project, but it provides a very good overview of this project, which reveals what I believe to be its philosophical depth and systematic scope. For anyone who finds the argument of the audio version wanting (as you should) and anyone who wants to know where I intend to take it (as I’d like to think you should) I strongly recommend giving this a read. It also contains a stripped down but fairly incisive critique of both Meillassoux and Graham, which I think many of you will find enlightening. However, it is rather long (24,000 words or so), thought it should be quite easy to read in parts.

Anyway, here it is: Essay on Transcendental Realism

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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The Question of Being

When I began my thesis, I started with the naive assumption that most people knew what was meant by Heidegger’s ‘question of the meaning of Being’. Indeed, I thought I knew. The first two years were a systematic exercise in uncovering just how much others, and myself, had taken for granted that we understand what this question is, and simply proceeded to talk about other things, be it the specifics of Heidegger’s own philosophy or the relative merits of other attempts to answer this question.

There is a horrible irony in this. Heidegger raised the question of the meaning of Being in response to the fact that although we think we know what we mean by ‘being’, when pressed we are unable to say what it is precisely that we mean. Moreover, he showed that the fact that we did not see this as itself problematic indicated a historical trend of the forgetting of Being, perpetrated largely by metaphysics. Many of the thinkers who come after Heidegger acknowledge Heidegger’s diagnosis, and they go on to talk about Being in a properly theoretical register, but I get the sense that if they are pressed they are equally unable to say what it is they mean. Being thus becomes an almost empty concept in much philosophical discussion, used in a haphazard way that hinders real attempts at understanding and obfuscates its philosophical import. If anything, this is a worse forgetting of the issue than that perpetrated by metaphysics itself, because we have moved from mistakenly thinking that we know what ‘being’ means in a pre-theoretical way to mistakenly thinking we know what it means in a properly theoretical way. The former is a matter of familiarity while the latter is a matter of hubris.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that all post-Heideggerian thinkers are prone to this misunderstanding. However, I do think that much Heidegger scholarship, and some post-Heideggerian philosophical projects are simply not rigorous enough in delineating what they mean when they talk about Being or the question of Being. In this post I want to try and undo some of the obfuscation this causes by laying out what I take the question of the meaning of Being (or simply the question of Being) to be. Hopefully, this should also illuminate some things I have said elsewhere about the nature of ontology and its relationship to metaphysics (especially here).

One final warning: this post is very abstract. Such is the peril of thinking about Being. If you don’t want to deal with such heavy abstraction, my advice is to think about beings. This post is also very long, pushing 7,000 words this time. I thank anyone who takes the time to read the whole thing in advance, although it need not be consumed in one sitting.

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Applied Critique: Existence, Pseudo-Existence and OOO

Over at larvalsubjects (in order: here, here, herehere and most recently here), I’ve been having a discussion with Levi about existence, and the idea of fictional existence more specifically (more like pestering him about it, but I digress). I’m very interested in fictional existence because I take it to be a prime example of what I call pseudo-existence. This is a concept I have mentioned before in relation to my claim that norms have no real Being, i.e., they are pseudo-beings. The discussion has forced me to start clearing up a few things, and it struck me that explaining this concept of pseudo-existence is a good way of showing how my methodology is a critical one, in the sense I laid down earlier in this post. It will also let me justify a number of claims made in my post on normativity and ontology.

In explaining this I want to combat an objection that Levi has made against my approach, namely, that I am “conflating an issue of epistemology– how our statements link up with objects –with an issue of ontology.“, and the implication that I am thereby falling into correlationism. The reason I am not conflating the two is precisely that I take a critical approach to ontology: I try to work out exactly what it is to do ontology and the demands it places on us before engaging in it. What Levi takes to be a conflation of epistemological and ontological claims is actually the making of certain critical claims (which do have epistemological implications) that delimit the nature of ontology. In virtue of their delimiting role, these claims are not themselves ontological claims. The relation here is just what Heidegger would identify as the relation between the formulation of the question of the meaning of Being and the actual inquiry into the meaning of Being itself.

I’m going to try and make this relation clear first, in order that we can then draw some conclusions about existence. I should also note here that I do not take Being (Sein, the Being of beings) and existence (Seiendheit, as in ‘Pete exists’) to be equivalent. I take existence to be simply one of the many ways in which Being is said. I also follow Heidegger in holding that ontology and metaphysics are not exactly the same thing, even though they are closely interlinked (see my earlier post on this here). This is because ontology is the inquiry into Being, and metaphysics is the inquiry into beingness, and this is just what beings are, or the essence of existence. If we recognise that Being is more than existence, we must separate ontology and metaphysics. However, it does not mean that we can’t do both, or even that we can do them properly in isolation from one another.

As a final note, this is a long post (over 6000 words). It’s length and density is due to necessity rather than desire. I appologise in advance for my inability to condense it further.

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Metaphysics after Heidegger

I’ve mentioned Heidegger a twice already on this blog, once in relation to Deleuze and Spinoza, and once in relation to my own work on Being and normativity. Kvond recently posted a question on the former post, asking why I take Deleuze’s reworking of Spinoza’s metaphysics to be a specifically post-Heideggerian one. I think it was fairly clear in that post why I take it to be post-Heideggerian, but I feel that I could reiterate the basic point, and in the course of it examine what it is to do genuinely post-Heideggerian metaphysics.

The phrase ‘post-Heideggerian metaphysics’ is meant to have an important resonance, given that metaphysics is usually taken as the name of that philosophy which came before Heidegger, whose inadequacies he correctly diagnosed and overcame. We are often told that we can either accept Heidegger’s insights regarding Being and metaphysics and abandon metaphysical thinking, or revert to a pre-Heideggerian metaphysics, and that there is no middle ground. To do genuinely post-Heideggerian metaphysics would be to embrace certain of Heidegger’s insights but nevertheless reject his turn away from metaphysics, pursuing metaphysics in a way that is at least partially characterised by Heidegger’s portrayal of it. In short, it would be to pursue a metaphysical project through an explicit concern with Being (and thus, I would add, the question of the meaning of Being).

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