Doctorates, Divisons, and the Death of God

It’s finally happened. I’m now (or at least am soon to officially be) a doctor of philosophy. My viva took place on Friday the 13th of January (an ominous date, but then, I was born on the 13th, so I suppose it’s my lucky number). It all went much better than expected. My examiners were Peter Poellner (internal) and Stephen Mulhall (external), and they were both very pleasant and helpful in the points they made about the thesis. They also passed it without corrections, which is incredibly nice of them. So, as of right now, I’m on the job market (offers anyone?). My biggest problem is that I currently have no publications (despite the several hundred thousand words posted on this blog). So, my goal this year is to turn all of the various bits of philosophical material I’ve written over the past few years into as many publications as I can manage, plus a few more original ones for good measure. I’ll let you all know more about them as they appear.

In other news, it appears that at the same time I was having my viva, I was being discussed in some small capacity in a paper given by Louis Morelle at the ENS (see here). I’m completely delighted by this, and I’d love to hear from anyone who was there (or from Louis himself, if he’s out there!) This was in the context of giving an overview of the philosophical divisions that have emerged in (or perhaps out of) Speculative Realism. On Morelle’s account, I stand allied to Ray Brassier’s naturalistic strand of SR, along with Martin Hagglund (who I’m afraid I haven’t read very much, which I must rectify). This is correct, as far as it goes. I’ve just recently laid out in brief the relationship between my work and Ray’s (here) and although there’s more to be said about it, it’s clear that he’s my closest philosophical ally. However, I didn’t say anything about my relation to SR there, and so I feel it appropriate to say something about it in light of this development.

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What are Concepts?

Well, it looks like it’s that time again. Following a prolonged exchange we had over twitter (itself precipitated by this post), Levi put up a few posts which, although they don’t mention me directly, are pretty clearly pointed this way (herehereherehere, and perhaps here). Given this, I feel it beholden upon me to respond to them, both to dissect some of the more problematic claims made therein, and to correct what seems to me are some serious misunderstandings of Brandom’s work. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not famous for concision. This has lead to accusations that I practice ‘proof by verbosity’ or simply that I am ‘boring’. As I’ve said elsewhere recently (in the comments here), I don’t expect others to use their blogs in the way I use mine, or to keep up with reading the amount of material I publish. Nonetheless, I think it’s my right to criticise others in a manner of my own choosing, and to respond to criticisms of myself in kind. I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but there is a lot to respond to here, so I’m going to have to be selective.

It has equally been suggested (in the posts I am addressing no less) that the kinds of questions I focus on are too ‘academic’ (or perhaps not ‘feral’ enough), given my penchant for focusing on ‘What is…?’ questions. There is more to be said about this in relation to the matter at hand, but I think it’s worth pointing out that this form of questioning has an eminent philosophical (or perhaps ‘philosophical’) lineage, stretching back to literally pre-academic times. It is the preferred question form of Socrates, that most feral of philosophers, and most engaged with the needs of his time. Following his inspiration, I’ve decided to frame my response by confronting the difficult question underlying the debate: What are Concepts?

Do I adopt this mode of expression because I have a noxious and priestly will to power? Because I wish to stand in judgment over the fates of others? Because I wish to police, dominate, and render others subservient to my philosophical vision (one which is fascistically terrifying)? Or simply because I am a pervert? Perhaps. Does it make a difference? Probably not. Let’s see.

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Stranger than Fiction

Well, it looks like I’m going to have to break my moratorium on posting about OOO again, given that Levi has just thrown down the gauntlet on his blog (here), specifically challenging us Sellarsians/Brandomians to account for the paradoxes of material implication. Moreover, he’s done it in the context of resurrecting the first debate between himself and I, concerning the reality of fictional objects (all of the appropriate references to which should be trackable from here).

I’ll say up front that I don’t think what Levi’s written poses any problems for either me or anyone else he references (including Brandom, Sellars, Ladyman and Ross, and Ray Brassier (given the reference to ‘eliminative materialists’, ‘scientism’, and his explicit remarks in the comments)). I don’t think it poses any problems for me because it completely misses my own position on the nature of reality (in the sense of ‘realness’ – it can also be read as a substantive, roughly synonymous with ‘the world’, or ‘the universe’, but I tend to call that ‘the Real’) and thus what it is for fictional objects to lack it. I don’t think it poses any problems for anyone else because it’s not clear what consequences Levi is trying to draw from the paradoxes of material implication. I’ll tackle these points in turn, along with a number of others along the way.

This is another long post, so be warned. If you’re only interested in my own account of fiction, try sections 1 & 2. If you’re only interested in my criticisms of Levi’s thoughts on logic, try sections 3 & 4. If you’re only interested in my interpretation of Brandom, try sections 5-7. And if you’re only interested in my brief comments on how this applies to Ray (which will be hard to read in isolation), read section 8. Now, on with the show.

[Update: Anyone who wants a more concise analysis of the problems with Levi’s appeals to logic should look at Zachary Luke Fraser‘s comments on the original post (here), and David Roden’s post on his blog (here). As I’ve noted before, brevity is not one of my virtues.]

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Response to Levi (part 3)

I have to apologise that its taken so long to get this third part up. I had section 7 written when I posted the last part, but a number of things came up at the beginning of this week which have made it difficult for me to finish section 8. Anyway, it’s done, and this caps off my response to Levi’s posts. I had originally wanted to say more about Levi’s claims about Kant, specifically regarding the bits of Kant that he claims to take up, but I need to get on with other things.

Also, Levi has since posted a response to part 2 (here). I don’t want to tackle the points he makes in the detail I’ve gone into below, again, because I need to get on with other things, but I think there are perhaps four quick points that can be made:-

1) Levi now claims that my criticisms of his account of withdrawal can be circumvented by means of his distinction between first order and second order observation. In essence, this is a perspectivalist solution to the problem of how to understand direct and indirect access. The claim is effectively that because we can observe that other systems lack our own particular sensitivities to the environment, we can see that there is some loose sense in which they are not accessing aspects of the environment that we are. We can then by analogy hold that there must be bits of the environment that we are not accessing. I think this will prove very problematic, but I won’t elaborate here.

2) At several points in his response Levi makes the claim that he can address problems I’ve raised for him in regional ontology. For instance, he claims that any problems I’ve raised for him regarding the differences between intentional and non-intentional systems can be handled at the level of the regional ontology of intentional systems. The important thing to point out here is that if Levi introduces new metaphysical resources to account for the intentional relations that we enter into, then he abandons what was supposed to be the real thrust of OOO, because this is tantamount to reintroducing special metaphysical relations that only humans (or intentional systems more broadly defined) can enter into in order to secure the possibility of knowledge. However, if what Levi means here by regional ontology doesn’t involve introducing such specialised metaphysical resources, precisely what does it involve, and how can it help?

3) Levi seems to think that my discussions of a ‘shared apparatus of meaning’ imply something like a static background of meaning available in advance as a condition of the possibility of communication. This couldn’t be further from the truth, indeed, the Brandomian position I adopt more often gets accused of being too dynamic, insofar as it denies that there are anything like analytic truths that fix the meaning of our claims (i.e., it is a form of semantic holism). There are two important upshots of this. On the interpersonal level, communication is less like the exchange of fully formed meanings than it is a co-operative activity in which we negotiate one another’s commitments, the meanings of which are determined by their relations to others. On the broader social level, the inferential norms (or concepts) which determine the relations between sentences (and thus their meanings) are subject to continuous revision, insofar as the process of revising our commitments just is the process of revising our concepts. The only thing which is fixed here is the fundamental norms governing these dynamic activities. Incidentally, Levi also at one point says that Brandom is insufficiently concerned with non-discursive practices. This misses the point that such practices are in fact Brandom’s answer to the objections that his approach is too dynamic. For Brandom, it is shared practices of talking about and engaging with things (what he calls ‘thick’ or ‘object-involving’ practices) that allow for the possibility of interpersonal communication and conceptual revision. To explain this in detail would require too much space (I also don’t think Brandom’s account of this is quite adequate even if it’s on the right track), but it’s important to see that Levi is well off the mark here.

4) Finally, Levi responds to my concerns about representation by invoking what he takes to be adverse connotations of the word. He thinks that focusing upon representation tends to produce epistemologies in which there is too much focus placed upon mental contents, and this tends to obscure the importance of concrete practices, along with the social and historical dimensions of knowledge development and retention. All I can really say to Levi here is that although there are a number of good historical examples in which these coincide (e.g., Descartes), that the connotations he finds say more about his own prejudices than anything else. Brandom’s approach to representation takes account of everything he thinks it would exclude: semantic holism (against self-subsistent mental contents), thick practices, and an account of how both social and historical dimensions of linguistic practice are necessary for representation. Much as was the case with the word ‘normativity’, I think Levi’s reading too much into the notion of ‘representation’, and he needs to get over this if he’s to deal with the variety of issues that it involves (and which I sketched in the last post).

Anyway, onto the main event once more. Here are sections 7 and 8.

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Response to Levi (part 2)

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

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

Anyway, onto the main course…

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Response to Levi (part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Harman Debate

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

Against Experience

Phenomenology, Discourse and their Objects

Once More with Content

Scientific Vs. Metaphysical Realism?

A Quick Response to Graham Harman

Reductionism and Materialism

The Perils of Representation

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

Applied Critique: Existence, Pseudo-Existence and OOO

The Perils of Representation

Following up yesterday’s the day before yesterday’s post, I should probably just add a few notes in response to Graham (see here). I’ll try and not let this spiral into a 7 message exchange though. I’ve always wanted one of those epic sounding monikers you have to put in quote marks, and I think Pete “the relentless” is the best suggestion I’ve come across so far (I take everything Graham says in good spirit). Before leaping in though, I should perhaps say a little bit about the way I approach philosophical disputes like this.

Graham does rightly note that I have a habit of trying to point out what I see as confusions or insufficiently precise uses of terminology, and this does reflect a bit of my more analytic background (although I’m sure if you ask those analyticians who know me I’d get accused of being wildly speculative!). This kind of nitpicking can come across as pedantic, or as labelling the other person as ‘confused’, ‘muddled’ or something similar. I’m trying to avoid this, as such things can be quite offensive, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that it’s much easier to offend people by accident here (there’s so little way of modulating one’s tone that attempts to do so can wildly backfire), so it’s at the very least good practice to be careful with one’s words.

However, I’d like to defend my nitpicking to some extent. It’s all well and good to say that we should just take our (and by this I mean more than just myself and Graham) differences to be disagreements in all cases, and then to try and resolve them directly, but I think that it’s often the case that it’s not entirely clear what exactly we’re disagreeing about. Sometimes you have to do a bit of preparatory work in order to figure out where a given disagreement lies. It can be very frustrating for all involved, but it can pay us back for this frustration tenfold if done right. Of course, perspicuity can devolve into pedantry, and this can lead to obscuring what is genuinely important in a discussion. Perspicuity is a virtue, and as such, the Aristotelian in me strives for a golden mean. I don’t always find it, but I try regardless.

Brevity, on the other hand, isn’t a virtue I have any success with. This post will be quite long (8,000 words or so), largely because it includes the additional material hinted at in the last post, which is quite in depth. To Graham: don’t think I’m forcing you to ratchet up a current account deficit in our discussion. You’re a much busier man than I, and you can feel free to get back to me whenever you like (or not to at all). As our Australian friends say: no worries.

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Once More with Content

Greetings to everyone. My hit total passed 10,000 a few days ago, and I’d just like to thank everyone who has been reading this blog since I started it up in August last year. I’m still working my way through writers block, but this was going around in my head, so I’ve put it on paper (so to speak).

Graham recently posted a two part response (here and here) to my last post (here) in our ongoing discussion over the viability of his object-oriented philosophical position. There’s a lot there to respond to, and I suspect that he’s misunderstood some of what I said, and sidestepped some objections I don’t think he’s entitled to sidestep. However, its also clear that I’ve misunderstood him in a few places (and that I still don’t get other bits of what he’s doing, alas more reading required…), so I’ll try to be as even handed as I can.

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Phenomenology, Discourse and their Objects

Graham Harman recently responded (here) to my musings on his argument for his fourfold structure (here). That post was quite brief, but it suggested that the way to reject his approach is to reject the phenomenological standpoint that its based upon, loosely summed up in the idea that ontology must begin with experience. Given that Graham has picked up on the points I made, I feel that I should probably go into a bit more detail, although this will unfortunately fall short of presenting my alternative to phenomenology (fundamental deontology) in full. First though, I think it’s important to say a little bit more about what the core features of phenomenology are, before we try to provide possible reasons for rejecting them. I am of course no expert on Husserl, so my analysis will be faily crude, but hopefully fair nonetheless.

1. The Basic Problems with Phenomenology

Skipping over the methodological details of phenomenology (which are certainly most interesting), I think the two most important features to pick out are the theory of intentionality, and the correlative theory of meaning or content. The first encapsulates the real advance of phenomenology (via Brentano) over both the empiricist and Kantian accounts of experience. The advance over empiricism is threefold. First, phenomenology surpasses the empiricists’ indirect realism, holding that we do not experience ideas or representations of things, but that our experiences are directed at the things themselves. Secondly, experience is the encountering of objects as objects, not the encountering of bundles of sense data that must be actively united into objects. Thirdly, phenomenology takes the objects that our experiences are directed at to transcend our experiences of them. As Graham is fond of pointing out, this has the effect of opening up a distinction between the objects of experience and the qualities that they present to us.

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