Why normativity?

One of the main themes of my research is normativity. In this post, I want to provide something of a primer on normativity. Hopefully, this will go someway towards explaining why this is an issue we should take seriously and why normativity acts as a core concept for philosophers like myself. The immediate prompt to this post is the ongoing discussions between Levi and Pete, which keep running aground whenever normativity arises. Pete has set out the pertinent issues a number of times, but I thought it would be useful to approach them from my own perspective too, since a bit of triangulation might help us get a clearer sense of what is being said.

In short, normative issues concern correctness. Obviously, there’s many different senses of correctness and many different ways in which it arises as an issue. This helps to explain the tendency for normativity to to become a monolithic topic, which can seem to suck all philosophical light towards it like some supermassive body. One crucial distinction here though is between first-order normative inquiry and metanormative inquiry. I’ll explicate this in relation to some philosophically familiar topics.

In ethics, we are often asking what we ought to do — what would be good in the way of practical action. Should I give up philosophy and train to be a psychiatrist? Was it too callous to have decided not to meet your friend because you felt too drained to listen to their problems? Is a society without socialised medicine thereby unjust? These are first-order ethical questions, and they are normative because they are oriented by the question of how it is correct to act.

But we can also ask (as metaethicists do) about the metaphysics, epistemology and semantics involved. What does it mean to say I should do something? What is it for an action to be good? Is it possible to know whether I did the right thing? How? What, if anything, separates ethical demands from those of social etiquette? These are metanormative questions, also oriented by the notion of correctness in action, but which try to uncover what this notion of correctness amounts to. At its limit, it might even conclude that there is no sense in which actions are appropriate or inappropriate — they just are.

Similar distinctions between the first-order normative and the metanormative arise in other areas too. Another familiar example is deliberation about empirical facts and epistemology. Again, there are first-order matters: What is that animal? Would it be true to believe it is a chaffinich? Are physicists justified in believing that the Higgs boson exists? Do these problematic observations imply that the standard model of particle physics must be revised? These are normative matters, but only in the thin sense that they, arguably like all inquiry, are oriented by the question of what is good in the way of belief. The usual (and right) answer is that we should believe the truth, but we can also assess correctness along a number of other dimensions: justification, entitlement, inference, probabilifaction, consistency, coherence, accuracy, and so on.

One of the functions of epistemological inquiry is to examine the status of these first-order matters. What does it mean to say that we are not entitled to believe that P, even though P might turn out to be true? What is it for our perceptual beliefs to be justified? What is problemtic about inconsistency in belief? These questions have a metanormative dimension insofar as they abstract themselves from the immediate issue of what beliefs are good or bad along various dimensions in order to ask what any such assesments consist in.

The tentacles of normativity reach far and wide beyond these two examples too. We find them in the philosophy of language, where many have argued that meaning is normative insofar as terms have a correct and incorrect usage, and where the task is to flesh out this normative dimension to linguistic practice. The same goes for concepts and their conditions of application (alongside the murky notion of ‘mental content’ more generally) in the philosophy of mind. Aesthetics can be thought to be a discipline with a metanormative aspect too, especially when beauty and art are notions entangled up with endorsement, which a theory of aesthetic judgement may need confront. The theory of agency is another locus for normative issues, especially insofar many people (myself included) think that there is a distinctive logical form to action-explanation which needs to be articulated in relation to reasons in addition to brute causality. The list goes on… I certainly do not mean to endorse all these projects — I think many of them are misguided ventures — but merely to point to some of ways in which metanormative matters appear within contemporary philosophy.

Hopefully, it will now be clear that we can pitch normative inquiry at different levels. One worry that Levi has expressed is moralism: doesn’t an obsession with normativity lead us to fixate on judging people, weeding the unworthy from the worthy, and seeking to police people’s activity? With our distinction between first-order and metanormative inquiry in hand, we can respond by saying that focusing upon the normative does not necessarily betray a desire to be the judge of what is right and wrong. Instead, for philosophers interested in normativity, there is more often an attempt to understand the conditions under which assesments of correctness can succesfully be made at all and what the upshot of such assessments is. One way of articulating this is to say that we want to understand ‘the force of the better reason.’ I take this to be quite some distance from the right-wing obsession with ‘values’ that seems to be incensing Levi.

Another worry of Levi’s may be more pressing though: turning to norms can seem to be a turning away from the world. We can think of this in terms of a kind of ‘cognitive ascent’ which proceeds in two steps. First, there is a distinction between talking about the world and talking about our orientation towards the world. On one view, there are plenty of philosophically interesting features of the world to talk about — the structure of objects, the nature of causality, the individuation of social actors — and we should just get on and do that. Talking about norms is not talking about the world in this way: either it is talking about how we should talk about the world, and not plainly talking about the world; or it is talking about how we should act in the world, which is both tediously anthropocentric and still not talking about the great outdoors. Furthermore, there is a second ascent here too, since there is not only first-order normative inquiry but metanormative inquiry. It is either talking about how we should talk about how we should talk about the world, or it is talking about how we should talk about we should act in the world. The reassuring cruch of reality is thus even further from being underfoot.

In response, there a few things to be said. Firstly, I do take discussions of normativity to be about the world directly — they are no mere escape from it. I will be brief here because in a way this does not meet Levi’s worries head on. Nevertheless, whilst it may be démodé in some quarters to be concerned with rational agency as a distinctive phenomenon, I think it is a pressing descriptive task for which marshalling the vocabulary of normativity is essential. (See Pippin’s excellent piece and the surrounding discussion for more on this.) Beyond this, normativity is itself part of the world and is threaded throughout countless human practices. When McDowell gives us an account of virtue alongside the capacities, social practices and formative processes needed to make sense of our responsiveness to it, or when Brandom excavates the structure of the practice of giving and asking for reasons, they are talking about real phenomena which need to be elucidated. It is perhaps worth stressing that there needs to be nothing a priori about these normative investigations, even if figures like Habermas (and Pete for that matter) sometimes try to derive minimal rational norms in a quasi-transcendental fashion.

It is the intersection of metaphysics and normativity that seems to be worrying Levi here though. I am less enamored of constructive metaphysics than Levi or Pete, but I think the latter does a brilliant job of demonstrating the methodological role that metanormative inquiry should have within any such metaphysics. I can’t do better than his own exploration of these issues in this essay.

Finally, I want to underscore the possibility of detatching normativity from deontology. The latter understands normativity in terms of necessity imposed through legislation. In Kant’s practical philosophy, this is bound up with a system of duties and rights which takes a rigorist form that many people find both implausible and distateful. Indeed, Lukács tries to show how the Kantian subject, delineated through reference to an abstract set of duties, is the one presupposed by capitalism, being a reactionary ideological symptom of modern forms of exchange.

My own understanding of normativity, both in the practical and theoretical realm, has a more Aristotelian character to it. I do not take the reasons we have to stem from legislation but rather from the concrete situations we face as agents. Nor do I typically articulate rational requirements in terms of necessities imposed on us by reason. Instead, I help myself to the less austere vocabulary of the good as well as the right, and try to extend the concern with what one can do to who one should be as well. In addition to my own, there are innumerable other ways of approaching normativity too. It is important that this point be made in order to correct the assumption that recourse to normative themes is meant to bolster to some quasi-Kantian project, when this is certainly not always the case.

I could continue but that’s more than enough for now.

Autonomy, Normativity and Dependence

Autonomy is a kind of independence through self-governance. Kant was the most famous advocate of autonomy, thinking that it held the key to morality, though scores of other philosophers have thought it to be vitally important. It's one of those essentially contested concepts, though. People mean many different things by it — and this diversity seems not merely to be a product of linguistic dispute, but arguments over what sort of life is most worth living.

My conception of autonomy takes it to consist in being responsive to rationally authoritative norms. In short, we exercise an important sort of independence insofar as we manage to act upon reasons rather than any other contingent motivations we happen to be struck by. Here, what reasons we have are understood widely, and are not limited to the results of reflective inquiry: any rational actions could count, insofar as we've grasped what, if anything, we ought to do.

Constructivism about norms thinks that normative authority comes from correctly following procedures of practical reason. What we should do, ultimately, results from the structure of reason itself. Constructivists, taking their cue from a reading of Kant, also think that autonomy is important. Indeed, they think that autonomy somehow grounds normativity, providing internal criteria which broadly determine what we ought to do. This too involves the claim that freedom involves a kind of responsiveness to norms — those prescribed by the very structure of agents' practical reasoning and thus ones which are not externally imposed on the agent, and thus fit for expressing the agent's own autonomy. This is a sophisticated and ambitious kind of 'bootstrapping' strategy, as it is often called.

On the surface, it can seem that the shared commitment of myself and various constructivists to the idea that freedom is a form of normative responsiveness means that our views are substantively similar. However, my position with respect to normativity is a modest form of realism, whereby there is a kind of irreducibly normative authority of which people can become aware. In contrast, constructivism is a proceduralism which models normativity on the structures of a conception of democratic public reason. This is not what I want.

Instead, my variety of freedom as a kind of normative responsiveness is not one wherein we follow structural rules in order to achieve a legitimate outcome, but rather one in which we have a normative vision. (Ocular imagery is now deeply unfashionable in philosophy, but I think it ought to be reclaimed.) The point of the visual metaphor here is to emphasise that there is something there to be discovered, and its revelation to ourselves provides the backdrop against which we can act freely. So understood, being free requires us to see the world aright — understanding the significance of some situation which we are in, the requirements which it imposes upon us, whether or not we recognise them as ours. Acting upon this basis and within these bounds, with our eyes open and the particulars of the situation clear, including the nature of currents of motivation and the virtue and vices of different responses, provides us with a kind of autonomy. This is an ability to avoid being pushed around by brute forces and act with some purchase over ourselves. We thereby avoid being merely determined — the alternative is being influenced by factors whose significance is unclear, such that we have little basis for orienting ourselves and knowing what to pursue.

We may be unable, or just plainly fail, to resist unfavourable motivations or influences upon us. Even when fully aware of them and their true significance, this may still be so — the lure of the seedy desire, the satisfactions of high-handed moralism, may be too great — but this points to another sort of freedom: autocracy. This is the strength, favourable make-up, acuity or psychological agility to manage one’s psychology so as to execute a sense of what ought to be done. Autonomy and autocracy form a distinction but not a dualism: often knowing what to do is best conceived as a hands-on practical activity, where we are not guided by a clear intention nor criteria reflectively arrived at.

Autonomous agency, especially when put forward as an ideal, has often seemed retrograde though. It seems to hark back to the patriarchal ideals of the eighteenth century bourgeois: the rugged individual, independent and beholden to no-one who he does not choose to contract with in his own self-interest. Obviously, this is an ideological fiction: as a description of the conditions of any recognisably human life, which are ineliminably social, and always contain some moments of radical dependence, such as in childhood, sickness and infirmity; and as an ideal, with its autistic disregard for genuine communication, non-self-interested openness to the needs of others, and so on.

In implicitly endorsing autonomy then, it must be recalled that this is balanced through its entwinement with a conception of normative vision. So, we are not faced with egoism, and certainly not as an ideal. All sorts of things, people and situations make demands upon us and otherwise bend normative space in ways that we ought to respond to beyond our self-interest. On my conception of autonomy, failure to see this is a paradigmatic abrogation of freedom: fully free acts are those taken in as much awareness of their significance as possible.

Still, isn’t autonomy taken as an ideal in a problematic way? Egoism may fall by the wayside, but don’t other types of independence enter here as putatively valuable without justification? For example, it can seem that the influence of institutions, traditions and our peers are hastily too disdained, whereby it is ourselves who must pronounce upon right and wrong, whereby they are treated as mere interference. However, this charge would neglect two further features of my view.

Firstly, there is a role for second nature, as the training and conditioning which we all acquire in our development. In other words, we need to understand normativity in the context of the educative formation of people. This will involve acquiring and then being able to refine the skills of language use, empirical perception, coalescing of an emotional character and cognitive inquiry which are vital to being able to make the kinds of discriminations necessary to see the world in its full normative significance. Fully formed human agents are not possible without the nurtured and guided development which social forms such as institutions and traditions enable.

Secondly, often it will be difficult or impossible to exercise such skills without the concrete help or input of others. There may be more or less empirical cases of this. For example, there are inquiries so big as to be impractical if undertaken alone, as with many scientific projects. Or else, loneliness may retard our emotional health, leaving us unable to calibrate and hone our reactions. There are also cases where dialogical interaction seems integral. For example: intervening in an academic debate, in the humanities, say, where it is important that you are responding to ways of looking at the world which conflict with your own conception, going beyond your own horizons and ‘prejudices’. So, there may be various kinds of prompting from others which the social world affords us, and which enable us to get a better grip on the world, including its normative significance. This helps realise and sustain the skills which socially-mediated Bildung endows.

So, I think it is possible to advocate autonomy without falling into the ideological traps which have doubtless motivated many of its champions. We can accomodate varieties of dependence within the normative landscape which autonomy, as I conceive it, must be parasitic on. In this way, dependence becomes a condition of independence. The lesson here is that any attempt to think of autonomy as an ‘inner citadel’, an existentialist leap of willing, or an egoistic rugged individualism, ought to be challenged by the advocate of autonomy themselves.

On the Ontological Principle


In my previous post, I outlined Levi’s Principle of Translation, which states that “all transportation is translation.” This principle opposes the idea that objects are mere passive items which simply acquisece to influences upon them. Instead, onticology is an ontology of resistant objects, which struggle with each other. The point of these dramatic metaphors is to insist that influences must be taken up by objects, where this involves a ‘fusion of differences’. For example, when oxygen and water cause iron to rust, then the iron itself is active here, entering into a network with the oxygen and water to produce the difference, rather than being a mere container for their effects.

One of the philosophical upshots of this principle is that objects are not simply vehicles of some set of differences. In other words, they are not inert items that can have a form imposed upon them and yet not redound upon the process of formation. I think Levi thinks this is significant because it is incompatible with certain types of correlationism, where a correlate would determine objects without being determined and with the object playing no role in its determination. (Again, I will stress that I think the concept of correlationism is a red herring.) In this way, it helps to avoid Levi’s Hegemonic Fallacy, namely that difference cannot be reduced to ‘one difference that makes all the difference’ or ‘the most important difference’.

I take the Hegemonic Fallacy to be Levi’s main target. This is significant because it not only sets him against correlationism but also against the speculative realisms of people like Ray Brassier. Brassier embraces eliminativist lines of thought and would doubtless not shrink from the charge of scientism. Here, materialism would seem to introduce matter as ‘one difference that makes all the difference.’ In contrast, Levi is keen not to debunk the human and his ontology is oriented to be open ended and inquiry led: if it is found to make a difference, then it is real — whether it be Oedipus, evil, Edith Piath or an electron. This is captured in the Ontological Principle which results from the Ontic Principle: “Being is said in a single and same sense for all that is.” Indeed, this is all that Levi thinks can be said about being qua being; thus, ontology must be pursued on the ontic level, dealing with beings themselves.


The Ontological Principle demands a flat ontology. One contrast here would be with vertical ontologies, where one sort of being overdetermine the rest. Correlationism and platonism would fit the bill here. However, Levi refuses to equate the univocality of being with a univocality of translations. In other words, no one type of being dominates others, and they all sit alongside each other, but that does not mean that every object must act and be acted upon in the same way. This comes out in this Deleuze passage which he quotes:

Being is said in a single and same sense [...] of all its individuating differences or intrinsic modalities. Being is the same for all these modalities, but these modalities are not the same. — Difference and Repitition, p.36

So, we can make sense of existence at “different levels of scale” whereby each level is not reducible without remainder into another level. This idea — no reduction without remainder — Levi calls the Principle of Irreduction. One consequence of this principle is that “the relation between individuals is not one where one type of individual explains the rest without remainder, but where processes of translation must take place.” Levi’s example is DNA. It is a condition of my body existing and explains my anatomy, but cannot serve as an autonomous explanation since it must act upon resistant objects which take up that action according to their affections: “DNA, in unfolding, must nonetheless undergo translation as it transports itself [...] and the body formed in translation with DNA produces its own differences.”

It is at this point which I am interested in the explanatory consequences of onticology. This is because I am sympathetic to something like the Ontological Principle and also want to accomodate different explanatory modalities within it (note here that my concern is primarily explanatory rather than metaphysical, though I don’t think I am guilty of Levi’s Epistemic Fallacy). In my case, I want to hold onto a form of naturalism which does not degenerate into scientism. Thus, I reject supernatural entities, like divine beings, along with platonic Forms (sympathetic readings of Plato aside). But I also resist any hegemonic move on behalf of the natural sciences to act as final arbiter for acceptable forms of explanation. The main clash here come with our understanding of rational agency, which I think neither requires nor can be given an exhaustive explanation in natural-scientific terms. This is because many of the locutions which we (legitimately) use in explanations of rational agency — such as ‘justified’, ‘perceptive’ and ‘immoral’ — are not employed as empirical descriptions of behaviour but ascriptions of a standing in what Sellars calls the ‘space of reasons.’ A different mode of intelligibility is required to characterise the empirical properties of natural objects than to characterise rational proprieties like entitlement, permission or inaccuracy.

The claim that this sort of rational intelligibility is irreducible to empirical intelligibility can be expressed by saying that the space of reasons is sui generis. It is this claim which I think we need to maintain, where Levi’s talk of the mind’s translations not being special seemed to threaten it. He has now clarified his position, where his talk of the lack of the mind’s specialness is only meant to stretch to it not being included in every relation. So, it seems that on these grounds there may be no source of objection to my approach, though there may be other reasons to object to it which stem from onticology. Nevertheless, in the next post I will fulfil my promise to say more about how we should understand the distinctively spontaneous translations of the subject, and how this bears upon metaphysical issues.

On the Principle of Translation


Levi has been developing a version of object-oriented philosophy which he calls ‘onticology’. In doing so, he recommends understanding objects as ‘actors’ which produce ‘differences’ in each other. Significantly, these modes of production include but are not limited to causality, such that anything which produces differences counts as acting. I am not sure exactly what sorts of non-causal production Levi wants to allow here, but we might think of examples like individuation, such that something counts as information, say, because of its place in a informational network even if it does not have to be in causal relations with all the parts that make up the network. So, objects can act in both causal and non-causal ways. Levi thinks that we should understand this action in terms of translation:

The Principle of Translation states that there is no transportation without translation. What I mean by this is that when the difference of one object acts on another object it translates or transforms that difference in a way unique to the receiving object. Thus, for example, my pepper plant “translates” the difference of sunlight producing energy in the form of sugars that it uses to produce its fruit and leaves. The process of translation thus transforms the differences of other objects in a way particular to the object doing the translation.

A second way in which Levi expresses this idea is in terms of affect (in Spinoza’s sense). The affective aspects of objects are those through which it can act and be acted upon. If influences upon objects must be transmitted through their affections, then there is a sense in which the production of difference in an object must be particular to it. Levi’s example of this is the neutrino, whose small mass, high speed, and lack of charge leaves it with a limited set of causal powers to act and be acted upon.

Thirdly, Levi frames his Principle of Translation in terms of an extreme radicalisation of the Kantian insight about the activity of the subject, which he claims “transforms data of the world such that it does not represent the world as it is “in-itself””. The polemical suggestion is that Kant did not go far enough — why stop with subjects? So, Levi advocates a “generalized Kantianism of objects”. All objects are active because they transform what affects them, just as Kant rejects the Lockean idea that the mind is passive with respect to what effects it. This forms part of the call for a flat ontology, which develops a univocal analysis of objects which treats subjectivity and sociality as contiguous with everything else.


There is something to be said for a flat ontology. We ought to be wary of supposing that reality contains discrete levels, where the relations between them become hard to fathom. For instance, Cartesian dualism is reviled for good reason; it is understandable how it arose in response to the pressures of a mechanistic philosophy of nature, but it nonetheless invites mystification. So too, more recent appeals to sociality risk reprising its mistakes in another key. Latour has done much to expose the emptiness of those sorts of social explanation which do not pursue to the composition of the social itself, and which he sees as the primary task of sociology. Levi introduces a further worry, that we turn to a vertical ontology, where one ontological level dominates — subjectivity being present in all relations, for example, as certain ‘correlationists’ are meant to believe (though see my previous posts on Meillassoux for my reservations about the charge of correlationism). But I think this should be kept distinct from the epistemological problems which would be created from a discontinuous ontology, which appear to force on us the explanatory task of showing how these distinct levels of reality interact. This kind of gap-bridging task — which rarely fares well — is the main fallout of non-flat ontologies.

Even with these difficulties in mind, I think that some of the aspects of Levi’s attempt to construct a flat ontology ought to be resisted. There is something distinctive about subjects which makes some forms of flat ontology problematic. We can talk both about objects translating objects and about subjects translating objects. But the translations of the subject include those of a unique kind, which are not adequately addressed by simply increasing the complexity of a unitary flat ontology. So, there is no objection to saying that objects are active and possess affections which translate influences upon them in particularised ways. But there is a highly significant type of activity which subjects engage in, which the Kantian tradition characterises as spontaneous. It is in virtue of their spontaneity that subjects are responsible for the translations which they undergo: and this brings with it many of the traditional distinguishing traits which have been used to mark out subjects, namely freedom, normativity, rationality and intentionality. In the next post, I shall say more about how we should understand the spontaneity of subjects and how that impacts upon metaphysical issues.

Realism and Correlationism: Truth

This post will take a closer look at Meillassoux’s treatment of truth in Kant and correlationism. I think something crucial goes amiss here which distorts the account of so-called correlationist positions. This can make them seem vulnerable to Meillassoux’s charge that they cannot handle ‘ancestral’ events anterior to the development of life. However, this charge is misplaced, which I hope to go someway to showing in this post.

Meillassoux thinks that Kant’s “transcendental revolution” leads to a reconceptualisation of truth, since the inaccessability of the ‘in itself’ means that truth can no longer be thought of adequation with it:

From this point on, intersubjectivity, the consensus of a community, supplants the adequation between the representations of a solitary subject and the thing itself as the veritable criterion of objectivity, and of scientific objectivity more particularly. Scientific truth is no longer what conforms to an in-itself supposedly indifferent to the way in which it is given to the subject, but rather what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community. (AF p.4-5)

There are a number of things wrong with this passage. For example, in describing Kant’s position, Meillassoux employs his own very simple contrast between the ‘thing itself’ and ‘for us’ in place of Kant’s own sophisticated understanding of the ‘thing-in-itself’ which is bound up with the frameworks of transcendental realism and idealism. There are more tractable problems though, which require less familiarity with Kant’s wider project in order to understand, and which have more implications for those of us who do not embrace transcendental idealism. Initially, we will need to disentangle some potential conflations operative in what Meillassoux says.

The first such conflation is between two sorts of intersubjectivity: consensus and publicity. Consensus is general agreement, whereby a group arrives at a conclusion which earns majority or unanimous endorsement. So, if we all agree that the moon is made of cheese or that Menshivism ought to be condemned, then we have reached consensus on the matter. But publicity is something very different, namely the ability to be shared — there being a common space in which multiple people, perhaps everyone, can come into a relation with something. For example, a proposition like ‘the moon is made of cheese’ is public because all suitably competent langauge users can understand it and then come to assert or deny it. So too, the moon and its properties are also public, since it exists in the same world as we all do, and we stand in all sorts of relations and networks with it — e.g. it exerts a gravitational pull upon us and our environment, emits electro-magnetic radiation which shines down on billions of people at the same time, and anyone can in principle investigate it. In contrast, candidates for privacy would be pains, illusions, dreams or phenomenal experiences (though some of these are contentious), insofar as we might think that they are only directly available to their possessors. Being private in this sense will mean failing to subsist in a common world: a territory on which multiple agents, or everyone, can interact with them equally.

The second distinction which ought to be emphasised is between objectivity and truth. Both concepts have long and contested philosophical histories, but it is only one simple contrast I want to highlight here. Objective matters are susceptible to correct responses, where ordinarily a proposition about such a matter can be true. This is sometimes captured by the label ‘cognitivism’ applied to a domain like ethics, science or aesthetics. But one can be cognitivist about a class of propositions whilst still thinking that some of them are in fact false. For instance, many people think that well-formed scientific claims are objective whilst those concerning taste are subjective, but that does not entail that all well-formed scientific claims are true. To see this, consider the claims that protons are composed of three quarks and that it is not the case that protons are composed of three quarks. Both are objective, yet only one can be true.

Meillassoux’s argument risks blurring both the public-private vs. consensual-nonconsensual distinction and the true-false vs. objective-subjective distinction. If so, this would be fatal. The most charitable interpretation of the argument he attributes to the correlationist which I can construct is the following:

(1) If things-in-themselves are inaccessible, then objectivity cannot be conformity of representations to things-in-themselves. (Premise)

(2) Things-in-themselves are inaccessible. (Premise. Established by the ‘Short Argument’)

(3) Therefore, objectivity cannot be conformity to things-in-themselves.

(4) Either objectivity is conformity of representations to things-in-themselves or it is a property of subjective representations. (Premise)

(5) So, objectivity is a property of subjective representations.

(6) Objectivity of representations requires universalisability of representations. (Premise)

(7) Universalisability of representations requires their capacity to be shared [perhaps by everyone] (Premise)

(8) Therefore, objectivity of representations requires their capacity to be shared.

(9) Scientific truth requires objectivity of representations. (Premise)

(10) Therefore, scientific truth requires representations to conform to the conditions for being shared.

On this charitable reading, the argument begins by trying to show that objectivity must be a property of representations rather than a relation between representations and things-in-themselves. Here, I think the most plausible way to understand objectivity is as a kind of semantic or epistemological form, which supports a distinction between something being the case and it merely seeming to someone to be the case. Meillassoux would thus be saying that both pre-Critical and post-Critical philosophy can understand objectivity as the possibility of making a distinction between being and seeming to be. But where pre-Critical philosophy would frame this in terms of truth as adequation (or conformity) of representations to things-in-themselves, this option is supposed not to be open to the correlationist since for them we alledgedly cannot represent things-in-themselves. So, the correlationist needs a new way of thinking about objectivity, which does not breach the circle of representations. This they find in the idea of universalisability: if a representation can be universalised, and thereby could be possessed by everyone, it is objective. If the representation is not available to everyone in this way, it is merely subjective, and can only count as a representation of how thing seem to its possessor. Since scientific truth requires objectivity, then the correlationist is supposed to be committed to scientific truths being conditional upon representations being capable of being shared. Thus, scientific truths, within a correlationist framework, are anchored to conditions of shareability, and are unintelligible without them. From here, it is not far to the claim that correlationism cannot cope with putative truths about events anterior to life, where such conditions could not obtain.

This version of the argument is vulnerable on a number of counts. Most of the premises are controversial, especially if they are understood in the senses required for the argument to be successful. So too, even though it is intended as a reconstruction of a Kantian line of thought, it does not map onto Kant’s actual claims. But things are even worse for Meillassoux, since I think his presentation of the correlationist argument is even more flawed than this version here. We can start with what he explicitly says, and then work back to what I take to be the stronger version of the argument as presented here.

In presenting the argument, I have sought to mark the distinctions which I outlined earlier. But Meillassoux seems guilty of blurring them in a problematic fashion. For example, on behalf of the Kantian correlationist, he says:

The difference between an objective representation (such as ‘the sun heats the stone’) and a ‘merely subjective’ representation (such as ‘the room seems warm to me’) is therefore a function of the difference between two types of subjective representation: those that can be universalized, and are thus capable of being experienced by everyone, and hence ‘scientific’, and those that cannot be universalized, and hence cannot belong to scientific discourse. From this point on, intersubjectivity, the consensus of a community, supplants the adequation between the representations of a solitary subject and the thing itself as the veritable criterion of objectivity, and of scientific objectivity more particularly. (AF p.4)

But this conflates publicity and consensus. Without a conception of truth as adequation to draw upon, we might think that the capacity of representations to be shared ought to count as the criterion of objectivity. But there is no reason why this should lead to consensus of communities being invoked alongside it. That anyone can share a representation might be thought to bolster its status as a glimpse of the world — even if it must be the world ‘for us’ — since trans-subjective rational constraints will be operative upon people’s cognition: there will be some sort of common space which overspills each individual agent’s world-view. This would allow a convergence of people’s judgements, but such consensus will not be a condition or criterion of objectivity, since it can be present when there is no objectivity (people may just happen to agree) and it can be absent when there is objectivity (some people may just be wrong). Thus, consensus seems besides the point, and it distorts the line of thought Meillassoux attributes to the correlationist. So, in my presentation of the argument, only publicity (i.e. shareability) is invoked.

Secondly, Meillassoux risks running objectivity and truth together. For the correlationist, he says, “Scientific truth is no longer what conforms to an in-itself supposedly indifferent to the way in which it is given to the subject, but rather what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community.” (AF p.4-5) But this last clause is how he describes objectivity; and it seems plain wrong to say that scientific truth is ‘what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community’. The best sense I can make of this is to suppose that he means to say that the conditions for being given as shared are conditions for objectivity and objectivity is a condition for scientific truth. I try to reflect this in my presentation of the argument too.

Even with these revisions in place, it seems to me that Meillassoux mischaracterises the thrust of the Kantian strategy. Kant is not trying to redefine truth or objectivity in intersubjective terms, under the pressure of epistemological constraints introduced by transcendental idealism. Instead, he attempts to vindicate certain a priori concepts — such as the categories of the understanding — as being objectively valid. For example, these concepts include like causality, as a necessary connection between two events. These concepts figure in Kant’s attempt to provide a reformed and legitimate metaphysics, able to justify the concepts to which it appeals. In contrast with empirical concepts, such as bear or atom, we supposedly cannot give a full defence of them by simply looking to the world and seeing whether there is anything which corresponds to them (recall Hume’s scepticism about justifying causality). For Kant, these concepts have a special status: “since they speak of objects through predicates not of intuition and sensibility but of pure a priori thought, they relate to objects universally, that is, apart from all conditions of sensibility.” (B120) Not being based upon experience, they “arouse suspicion.”

New strategies of justification are thus required, where Kant attempts to undertake transcendental deductions of a priori concepts. The most famous of these, in the first Critique, tries to justify categories of the understanding, and has two parts. The first tries to show that these categories are conditions of thought which are necessary (no cognition is possible without them) and universal (they are conditions upon all cognisers). The second part tries to show that these are not just subjective conditions upon cognition — perhaps peculiar to human biology and how we happen to have to think — but equally conditions upon objects, such that objects themselves must conform to them (e.g. objects must be in a causal order, be possible, actual or necessary, etc.).

So, the role in which Kantian appeals to universality (and publicity) appear are not as new criterions for objectivity or truth. Rather, universality features only as a first step in an attempt to justify a special set of a priori concepts, and even then it is nothing like sufficient to show that these concepts are objectively valid. Kant’s conception of truth remains a fairly standard one: “Truth and error [...] are only to be found in the judgment, i.e. only in the relation of the object to our understanding.” (A293=B350) His account of concepts as rules means that his understanding of truth is probably not best captured by the idea of ‘adequation’ (e.g. it does not rely upon a sort of picture theory of meaning). Nevertheless, it is important to stress that the label ‘intersubjective’ is even more misleading.

There are further issues here. For, we might think that Kant’s whole epistemological framework is subjectivist. It is all very well to say that truth is a relation between objects and our understanding, but if objects are mere representations, or constituted by subjects, or somesuch, then this talk is cheap. If we approach Kant in this spirit, then few of the above considerations will move us. Even amongst those who would never confuse transcendental idealism with the material or methodological idealisms of Berkeley and Descartes, this approach remains. It certainly seems to underlie Meillassoux’s concerns. But whilst I think that Kant does not quite present us with a sufficiently desubjectivised epistemological framework, his position is far removed from this picture, both in its aspirations and its salvagable achievements. But a defence of this conviction would be a massive undertaking itself. I have little to say about it here, except to point to the fruitfulness of recent scholarship in partnership with frontline non-historical work which it has informed. To point to just one issue, promising ways of understanding the phenomenal-noumenal distinction and the limits on knowledge signalled by the concept of the in-itself have been established, without sliding into scepticism or ontological dualisms. Despite their disagreements, the work of Sebastian Gardner, Fred Beiser, Graham Bird and Henry Allison (as well as post-Woodbridge McDowell), helps us see what this sort of Kant might look like.

Realism and Correlationism: Kant and the Short Argument

Meillassoux takes the correlationist to rely on the following argument:

thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the world as it is ‘for us’, and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone. Such an enterprise is effectively self-contradictory, for at the moment when we think of a property as belonging to the world in itself, it is precisely the latter that we are thinking, and consequently this property is revealed to be essentially tied to our thinking about the world. (AF: 4)

This argument is a form of what Karl Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, which often gets attributed to Kant. However, Kant does not make this short argument. Ameriks traces this form of argument to Reinhold, and he notes that it does sometimes appear in the post-Kantian tradition. So, we find Reinhold claiming the following:

What is represented, as object, can come to consciousness and become represented only as modified through the form of representation, and not in a form independent of representation, as it is in itself. (Versuch: 240; quoted in Ameriks FoA: 129)

Reinhold takes it that a need to represent objects for them to be given to consciousness ensures that we cannot come into an epistemic relationship to those objects which could be disentangled from our representations:

The concept of a representation in general contradicts the representation of an object in its distinctive form independent of the form of representation, or the so-called thing in itself; that is, no thing in itself is representable. [...]

[T]he object distinguished from the representation [...] can only be represented under the form of representation and so in no way as a thing in itself. (Versuch: 244, 246)

So, for Reinhold, because we cannot get outside of our representations, then objects cannot be represented as they are in themselves.

If the correlationist — whatever ‘originary correlation’ they are meant to argue for, and whatever it means to say that they cannot consider its terms independently — has to rely upon this argument as it stands, they are in trouble. This is because the conclusion it argues for is trivial given the way key terms in the argument are understood. Reinhold is trying to prove that we cannot know things in themselves, where he takes knowledge to require that objects are represented to us. But if he tacitly understands ‘things in themselves’ just to be what is not representable, then the conclusion follows all too easily. Thus, on its own, this argument ought to convince no-one.

Meillassoux’s presentation of the argument proceeds in a similar fashion. It seeks to establish an (underspecified) ‘essential tie’ between thought and things in themselves. Like Reinhold, this is meant to undermine the possibility of an epistemic relation to the world as it in itself independently of thought (one that the realist requires to distinguish primary and secondary qualities). The way that it does this is by simply noting that we cannot think of features of the world in itself without the world in itself being the object of that thought. Thus, we must always factor in a correlation between thought and the world in itself when attempting to reflect on the latter. Again, the shallowness of this argument ought to be transparent. Knowledge of the world in itself, as required by the realist, is denied to us because thinking is always present when thinking about the world in itself. However, this is only because here we are to understand knowledge of the world in itself as knowledge where thought is not present. The opposition is simply defined out of existence. Nothing is demonstrated by this argument, and it is no more contentful than Reinhold’s efforts.

* * *

Even with Meillassoux’s distinction between weak and strong correlationism, and the specification of different possible correlates than simply thought and world, I am not yet clear in my own mind what the status of the correlationist’s claim that thought and world must be thought together is meant to be. So, I am hesitant to assert or deny that particular philosophers are correlationists. Besides, I am not sure how useful a discussion along the lines of ‘is x really a correlationist?’ would be. Still, insofar as transcendental idealism can be thought of as introducing some significant relation between thought and world, whether we understand this idealism as metaphysical, formal, methodological or whatever, then it may bear considering in this context.

However we understand the relation between objects and cognition in Kant, I have claimed that we do not find a ‘short argument’. Yet, Kant does claim that objects conform to the conditions of cognition. So, we can ask, how does Kant’s position differ from the ‘short arguments’ dismissed above? This ought not to be of mere historical interest insofar as it can furnish us with alternative arguments for either correlationism or a more plausible relative of it. Speculative realists have an interest in attending to other such strategies insofar as their own positions can develop in dialogue with a wider range of opposition than the colourless proponent of the short argument.

Transcendental idealism famously effects a Copernican turn. Instead of assuming that all our knowledge must conform to objects, Kant ventures a hypothesis: objects must conform to our knowledge. This claim has proven difficult to understand. It is clear that Kant is not asserting an empirical idealism, which holds that objects have a metaphysical dependence upon our epistemic activity or our ‘representations’. Kant denies this when distinguishing his position from what he calls Berkeley’s dogmatic idealism. In the Prolegomena, he calls his position formal idealism, and any dependence of objects upon our knowledge is restricted to the forms of our knowledge. In the Analytic of the first Critique, regarding the categories of the understanding, Kant denies he is engaged in a traditional metaphysical investigation of being qua being (A247=B303). However, it can appear that the Aesthetic claims that our forms of sensibility, namely space and time, are ontological conditions of objects (although Kantians such as Henry Allison and Graeme Bird forcefully argue against such a reading). Whatever the right interpretative approach here, obviously some important connection between formal conditions of knowledge and objects is being asserted. But why? The answer provides some possible motivations for something like a correlationist position which are not simply versions of the short argument.

Kant makes his speculative Copernican hypothesis because he is dissatisfied with metaphysics. When compared with mathematics, say, which also seeks knowledge which is not directly empirical, it can hardly be said to be on the ‘sure path’ of science. For Kant, this was illustrated by the hollowness of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of the soul, God and world, reflected in the the interminable debates in rational psychology, rational theology and rational cosmology which are diagnosed in the Transcendental Dialectic. The problem, he thinks, is that metaphysics has employed theoretical reason in illicit ways, beyond its proper bounds. Traditional metaphysicians have failed to take into account the anthropocentric forms of human cognition, and so constantly come to grief by asking of reason what it cannot deliver. However, this is merely a sketch of some of the territory. There is no swift move from registering the forms of human cognition and towards sealing us off from a non-human world. From the bare fact that it is our cognition, it does not follow that it cannot deliver things in themselves. To attribute such a short argument to Kant on this basis is to ignore the details of Kant’s examination of cognition and his lengthy inquiry into metaphysics.

If transcendental idealism does ultimately count as a form of correlationism, this will be on the basis of the determinate limits on knowledge explored in Kant’s inquiries. These include sensible conditions, intellectual conditions, cognitive conditions governing the relation of the sensible and intelligible (e.g. the discursivity thesis), and rational conditions pertaining to the proper use of practical and theoretical reason. Each is supported by argument and analysis, which vary in success. For example, the intellectual conditions on empirical knowledge include conformity to the categories of the understanding. These conditions on thought are backed by an examination of the forms of judgement, which many people have found problematic and dogmatic. This set of conditions will probably not be the most troubling for the speculative realist though (Kant allows that we can think the thing itself — though whether that is just as a limiting concept is debatable). Rather, it will be the sensible conditions which will be most problematic. These sensible conditions enable objects to be given. Thus, they provide the main receptive framework for cognition, where the understanding provides the main spontaneous framework. Objects are given to sensibility according to its forms, namely space and time. This can seem an unassuming empiricist move: we know about things through spatio-temporal experience. But it goes beyond this insofar as Kant’s Copernican turn makes an a priori pure form of intuition logically prior to objects. Objects are given according to this pure intuition, such that they have formal properties in conformity with this pure form. This can be understood in more or less metaphysical terms. It is where realists will doubtless demur though, since it can seem to impugn the independence of objects from our cognitive apparatus.

Why does Kant embrace something like correlationism here? Some reasons are arguably idiosyncratic. For example, Kant thinks that we require pure forms of intuition to help apply the categories of the understanding (such as existence or plurality) to sensible objects — they bind the a priori and the empirical together ‘schematically’. Also, given his understanding of geometry and arithmetic, pure forms are meant to explain the synthetic a priori status of mathematical knowledge.

What may have a wider resonance though is the role of forms of intuition in grounding Kant’s revised metaphysics. Kant thinks that reason can be shown to fail when, like the rationalists, it strays from the path of possible experience. This was what led metaphysics into darkness. But if objects have to conform to the forms of intuition, then their formal properties can be grasped a priori. So, for any object which is given to us, we can justify limited metaphysical knowledge of it with reference to the pure forms, since nothing can be given that does not conform to these forms. Kant sums it up like this: “reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own.” Now, by my lights, Kant’s specific appeal to pure forms of intuition is not ultimately successful. But it does give a substantive argument for a correlationist-like understanding of the relation between objects and cognition. Furthermore, it outlines a strategy which I think can be made to work, albeit in a heavily revised form, with respect to the normative bases of cognition (and which, in time, I hope to outline).

* * *

A final thought on the question of metaphysics. The metaphysics which Kant seeks to cut down to size is an unbridled rationalism. But speculative realism has typically championed a kind of empirical metaphysics. It seeks to be porous with respect to scientific discovery: it is science which is to be the leading-edge of ontology. I have some limited sympathy with this approach with respect to certain theoretical endeavours, and agree that on the whole there is no need for a metaphysical grounding for science, provided by philosophy. However, I wonder quite how speculative realism will come to understand the status of its own metaphysical claims.

Alexei has raised the problem of normativity in this area: does a radical materialism have the resources to account for its own justification? We are all naturalists now — after a fashion, at least. But speculative realists have adopted a particularly strident form, which does not seem to be friendly to normativity. Just witness Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. Can it understand, or sufficiently redescribe, the context in which it puts forward its own theory, such that it can allow that such a theory is meaningful, justifiable and truth-apt, whilst cleaving to a sparse materialist metaphysics which admits values, if it all, only in an anti-realist fashion? I will have more to say about this at a later date.

Realism and Correlationism: Some preliminaries

Over at Larval Subjects, Now-Times and Perverse Egalitarianism there has been a fractious debate regarding realism which has gone on for some time. This is in the wake of ‘speculative realism’ coming to increased prominence, under the influence of Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman. This realism has been contrasted with a correlationist position, which is taken to infect much contemporary philosophy.

Meillassoux introduced the term ‘correlationism’ to describe a non-realist position which claims that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” (AF: 5) As Meillassoux also puts it, the correlationist denies that it is possible to ‘consider’ the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Of course, this could mean any number of things. Whether correlationism proves to be a useful philosophical category depends upon how this claim is spelled out.

Kant is supposed to be the paradigm correlationist. This is because Kant was meant to disallow us knowledge of any object subsisting ‘in itself’. Instead, knowledge was to be restricted to objects as they are ‘for us’. Thus, Kant is said to have eroded the pre-critical distinction between primary and secondary qualities, since even central candidates for the status of primary qualities (such as its mathematisable ones) must be “conceived as dependent upon the subject’s relation to the given — as a form of representation.” (AF: 4)

Does Kant’s position get fairly characterised by the new realists? A lot of acrimony has resulted from the attempt to answer this question in discussions between Levi, Alexei and Mikhail. Both sides are now pretty entrenched, and that is when they are on speaking terms. I don’t want to reignite these ‘Kant wars’ but I will offer some comments on this issue in the next few posts.

Firstly, Levi has expressed some dismay that this question has become a focal point at all. It is, he thinks, another sign of a kind of hermeneuticism endemic in continental philosophy, which drives philosophers into endless debates over the meaning of texts at the expense of assessing their truth. Of course, detailed textual work is often extremely valuable, but — the concern is — many philosophers have stopped reading the work of Kant, Heidegger or Deleuze as tools in a larger quest to understand the world, but have taken this activity to be an end-in-itself. It is true that this is a problem, and I am equally frustrated when scholars turn into scholastics. But I do not think the charge applies in this instance.

Levi claims that Kant is the ‘inventor’ of correlationism and is a central example of a correlationist (though by no means a unique one). Moreover, there is repeated reference to his position — and perhaps more importantly, his vocabulary — in contrasting correlationism and the new realism. If there is a dispute over Kant’s position, where there is a risk of it being unclear, it is important to at least articulate this. Otherwise, the exposition of correlationism risks being unclear — where it has been to me, for one, until getting a handle on what reading of Kant is in play here (for example, regarding how ‘in itself/for us’ is being understood). More importantly though, Kant gives us a detailed and nuanced treatment of the ways in which being might be taken to be related to thought. If that account was buried under a problematic reading of him, then the substantive debate risks being all the poorer as a result. These two considerations should have some weight even amongst those for whom understanding Kant’s own thought is a secondary consideration.

Secondly then, moving to the issue proper, I want to flag some of my concerns over the use made of Kant. In these matters, I am predominantly in agreement with Alexei, who I think has done a sterling job in this respect. I suspect this is because we are familiar with much of the same recent literature on Kant which brings out just how complex and well-crafted a project transcendental idealism is. Here, I am thinking of Kant scholars such as Henry Allison, Karl Ameriks, Graeme Bird, Fred Beiser, Allen Wood, Onora O’Neill and Paul Guyer. Though by no means united, the sophistication of their approaches to Kant is commendable, and their sustained attention to detail has shown how Kant was aware of many of the standard charges against him (subjectivism, a priorism, emptiness, etc.) and either responded to them or developed the resources to do so. The point is not to be an apologist for Kant but to do justice to the power of his thought insofar as it promises to help us understand the world. I think that it still can, even if I am not (just as Alexei and Mikhail are not) a paid-up Kantian.

In the posts that follow, I will concentrate on three cases, with an eye towards why the readings of Kant matter. (I won’t address the recent hot topic concerning time and ancestrality, since I can’t devote the energy to it, especially as tempers are flaring once again.). Again, the aim will be to show why a focus on Kant is not a morbid fixation but a useful piece of the puzzle. I want to show how the cases I’ll look at bear upon substantive issues in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, even when abstracted from the historical issue of what Kant thought. Also, I shall try to counter the second-guessing of the motivations of critics of speculative realism, providing some symptomatological musings of my own. However, I also want to issue a plea for a bit of old-fashioned bourgeois civility, which would not go amiss on all sides. I’ve no interest in questioning other people’s intelligence or integrity. This said, the next post will be about what Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, and which Meillassoux and Levi attribute to correlationists.