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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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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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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