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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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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