The Demands of Thought (Book Outline)

I must once more apologise to anyone waiting for things from me. I’m snowed under with writing commitments still, but I managed to discharge one of them today, and it’s one that some of you may be interested in. I’ve harped on about a lot of things since I started this blog several years ago, but perhaps the most mysterious of these has been the systematic philosophical methodology I’ve been working on, occasionally (and perhaps tantalisingly) referred to under the heading of ‘fundamental deontology’. I’ve said a little bit about it now and again (see here and here), but I’ve not gone so far as to really explain it in detail. This is largely because the ideas are complicated, and I haven’t had the time to do the work necessary to flesh them out.

However, the ideas have slowly built up over time, and I have now been handed the excuse I needed to work on it. My girlfriend is studying Chinese/English translation, and has asked me to provide her with a piece of work for a translation project. Despite my prodigious writings on here, I don’t have anything I consider either polished or accessible enough to warrant translation, so I have decided to write something with this purpose in mind. I’ve wanted to write a small book summarising my ideas about fundamental deontology for a while, but haven’t had the excuse. Now is the time.

Today I finished writing the outline of the book. Following the subtitle of the blog, its working title is: The Demands of Thought. It’s going to cover quite a lot of ground, but I hope it’ll still be concise. It’s also going to deal with some pretty abstract concepts, but I hope it’ll nonetheless be accessible. These are tough constraints to meet, but I think that it’s best to aim high and revise downward. Moreover, I hope that by posting the outline here I’ll tie myself to the project in such a way that I can’t extricate myself from it. I have too many ideas for projects like this, and at some point they need to be given a fixed form and pushed out into the world. So, please do hold me to this commitment! It’ll be good for me, even if I can already see myself regretting it. Also, if you happen to know somewhere that might fancy publishing it, do let me/them know!

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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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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…

Back From The Dead

Hello everyone, I can confirm that I am still alive. I recently realised that it’s been over 3 months since I’ve posted anything, for which I must apologise. The reason for this is the usual – I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to finish my thesis. There’ve been several points at which I thought about posting up ideas on the blog, but told myself not to for the sake of getting thesis work done. However, this strategy hasn’t resulted in a great deal of thesis progress, and so I think I’ll take a different tack and see if writing some stuff on here will help speed up my writing elsewhere. As such, I’m going to write up some of the ideas I’ve been having about normativity of late, and hopefully clear up some confusions my earlier writings on the topic may have engendered.

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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 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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Brandom and Ethics

Jon Cogburn has just put up a post about the ethical implications of Brandom’s thought (here). As much as I respect Jon, I’m afraid I almost entirely disagree with the post. I think he’s being really unfair to Brandom. I mean no offence to him, but his claim that some of Brandom’s remarks (to the effect that pain has no intrinsic moral significance) are evil strikes me as hyperbole. I haven’t yet fully gone through Reason in Philosophy, but I’ve been thinking about the ethical implications of Brandom’s work (see my speculative heresy piece on ethics) and have come to very much the same position expressed in these remarks, yet without any of the more horrific implications Jon seems to see in them. To warn you, this is another fairly long post (coming up 7,000 words).

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Politics and Ontology

Given the recent bevy of posts spawned by Nina‘s comments on what she sees as a problem inherent in “certain corners of contemporary continental philosophy”, with regard to the relation between politics and ontology, I feel drawn to say something about the issue. I think straight off I should say that for the most part I agree with Nick’s opinions on the matter (here and here), although I think he made claims for Speculative Realism as a whole that were perhaps more true of his own approach (and that of some others in the loosely defined SR paradigm). Not being a speculative realist, I’m not going to frame anything I say in terms of what a speculative realist approach allows us to do with politics, but rather try to spell out what the relation between politics and ontology is from my own perspective (which I’ve been slowly elaborating on this blog over the past couple months). Also, I’m not going to summarise all of the discussions that have been going on, but I do need to say something about Nina’s brief remarks and the comments Nick made in response to them.

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