The (Vexed & Contentious) History of Autonomy

Here is the announcement for our first big EAP conference in September. I am hugely excited about it given the topic and the awesome list of speakers.

The Essex Autonomy Project is pleased to announce its first major international conference, ‘The (Vexed & Contentious) History of Autonomy,’ taking place at The Institute of Philosophy, London, 4-5th September 2010. This event is part of a series interrogating the ideal of self-determination in human affairs. The conference will investigate the turbulent history of the notion of autonomy, from the Greeks to modernity.

The line-up of speakers is as follows:

Katerina Deligiorgi (University of Sussex)

Axel Honneth (University of Frankfurt)

Terence Irwin (University of Oxford)

David McNeill (University of Essex)

Frederick Neuhouser (Columbia University)

Thomas Pink (King’s College London)

Robert Pippin (University of Chicago)

John Skorupski (University of St Andrews)

Further information and a full programme will be available shortly at http://www.essex.ac.uk/autonomy/events.htm

Attendance is free but places are strictly limited and advanced registration is required. To register, please send an e-mail to Helen Cook at autonomy@essex.ac.uk

The Essex Autonomy Project is based in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Essex. For more information on its work and for announcements of future events, see its webpages at http://www.essex.ac.uk/autonomy

The Unconsoled Pursuit of Goodness

Iris Murdoch claims that pursuing goodness is “pointless.” She means that the attempt to act rightly, in accordance with virtue, say, cannot be given any external justification. In other words, such actions have no goal beyond themselves, however helpful they may happen to be. This echoes the Aristotelian dictum that virtuous action is undertaken for its own sake. In this case, an internal justification, which appeals to other ethical notions, would be available. So, we might recommend acting courageously because that would be the wise thing to do. But both courage and wisdom are already normative concepts: they are already replete with ethical normative authority. In this way, no attempt is made to justify specific ethical claims through appeal to non-ethical foundations. Ethical justification is presented as a closed circle.

One response to this kind of circularity would be to charge the Murdochian agent with dogmatism. This naturally leads to another suspicion, namely the sceptical doubt that if the only justifications for acting ethically are themselves already ethicised, then perhaps no genuine ethical justification is to be had. But such responses would be misguided; they reflect an unwarranted demand for foundations, for an Archimedean point outside of the activities of justifying, reasoning and communicating with one another, from where we can issue guarantees for them. Whether we are realists or not (and both myself and Murdoch are), demanding such guarantees is not cautious but pathological; in some lights, it verges on the autistic.

One of the problems met in attempting to give an external justification for genuinely following norms (rather than merely helpful conventions) is that it invites us to answer ill-formed questions. There is something incoherent about questions like ‘what reason do I have to be rational?’ or ‘should I do what I ought to do?’ when they are directed at normativity in general rather than the justification of specific norms. For any answer to these questions to move us, we must already be trading in reasons, which threatens to make any answer seem either hopelessly circular or entirely redundant.

We find a deep affinity here between these awkward questions, asking about a norm for following norms, or a reason to be rational, and the so-called problem of the ‘Kantian paradox’. If we create or legislate normative standards for our actions, there is a difficulty in finding norms for this legislation itself which would prevent this legislation from being enirely sporadic and arbitrary. In other words, we would already need norms to guide the institution of norms. Similar problems loom here to those above, since if there were already authoritative norms to appeal to then self-legislation will be redundant, but if there are not then no non-arbitrary legislation can be undertaken. The upshot, I think, is that self-legislation is an incoherent way to think about the ultimate source of normativity.

The Kantian paradox is significant, but unlike Kantian constructivisits, I think that the attempt to provide a straight solution to it is misguided. Instead, it provides us with an important clue to a structural feature of normativity, best accounted for by Murdoch’s considerations about the pointlessness of pursuing goodness. The lesson it teaches us is that there cannot be any justificatory grounding to normative authority which is not itself equally normative and equally groundless: it is normativity ‘all the way down.’ The lack of non-holistic support for normativity does not undermine the importance of normativity; in fact, it is quite the contrary. Pihlström makes this point well in relation to morality:

Morality does not have any external goal or legitimation. Yet, this, instead of sacrificing the moral seriousness emphasized by the moral realist, is an affirmation of such seriousness. Morality is something serious—indeed, the most serious and most important thing in our life, ‘overriding,’ as one often says—precisely because it does not have any external, non-ethical goal or point.

Bearing this claim in mind, one pertinent criticism of constructivism is that it offers the wrong kinds of reason to be moral (to re-purpose Bernard Williams’ expression). For example, when Korsgaard tells us that we should be moral because otherwise we will lose something more valuable than our lives, namely our identities as agents, morality is being anchored to some external goal. But this is to instrumentalise morality, to make it into a hypothetical imperative: if you want to protect an identity precious to you, then follow these instructions. In so doing, we lose our appreciation of the inherent worth of moral action, which sits alongside its subsidiary benefits to our lives, but is not entirely parasicitic upon them. One need not have as rigoristic a conception of ethical life as Kant to think that right action can be inherently worthy. Indeed, this style of criticism has been echoed by Bradley and Prichard (neither of whom were Kantians), who also think there is something wrongheaded about giving reasons to be moral in general.

Moral or ethical normativity is a distinctive variety, insofar as it often connected to the notions of the categorical and the obligatory. However, I think we can extend the same points about there being no external goal or point to being responsive to the force of the better reason, generalising them to normativity as a whole. Naturally, there can be many subsidiary benefits for agents who follow norms, whether this be the fruits of theoretical or practical reason, such as working out what to what will satisfy us and how to get it, for example. But Murdoch is right to emphasise that the true pursuit of the good is “austere and unconsoled.” What distinguishes responsiveness to normativity proper, rather than following useful conventions, is this discerning disregard for any immediate further goal. Normativity does not, in Murdoch’s vocabulary, come with the consolations of purposiveness beyond itself.

Norms, Rationality and Communication

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Over at his new blog Deontologistics, Pete has an interesting post called ‘Normativity and Ontology’ which (amongst other things) picks up some of the issues concerning normativity arising from recent discussions of speculative realism. He addresses these ideas from a distinctive position which combines metaphysical themes from Deleuze and Heidegger alongside contemporary pragmatist approaches to language in the vein of Brandom and Habermas. I’ll be interested to see how this project pans out.

Since my reply is a little long for a blog comment, I am going to respond to some of Pete’s claims here. On the whole, I am sympathetic to many aspects of his approach, though occupying some shared ground also helps to emphasise our points of contrast more sharply too. In what follows, I’ll take each point — whether critical or appreciative — as they appear. Finally, I have avoided discussing some of the more metaphysical issues raised here, since these will, I hope, feature in an upcoming post on Latour.

(i) Firstly, one relatively minor misgiving concerns the terminology of ‘deontology.’ Pete talks about “the philosophy of normativity (or deontology),” and this suggests that they amount to the same thing. But I think we have good reason for keping these terms distinct. Deontology is often understood to address duties, which its etymology suggests, with ‘deont’ being the Greek for that which binds. Some approaches to normativity, such as the one underlying the Brandomian incompatibility semantics, take obligation and permission as its key normative concepts. (In fact, these concepts appear to be interdefinable: what is permitted is what is not obligated not to do, and what is obligated is what is not permitted not to do.) These are manifestly deontological notions: they concern what one rationally must do. But normativity is a richer vista than deontology alone, even for Kant, whose moral philosophy provides the classic analysis of deontological concepts. Normativity can extend to notions like recommendation, beauty, guidance, virtue and value, none of which are most fruitfully thought in terms of a sphere of rightful action understood in a distinctly deontological way. In other words, the vocabulary of obligation and permission is too restrictive to capture many features of the normative domain. So, I am wary of talking of normativity and deontology as if they amounted to the same thing, especially as people like Brandom tend to elide the distinction.

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(ii) I think there is something right about Pete’s idea that we cannot escape “fundamental norms of rationality” and that — in a great phrase — we must accept this as a “primary bind.” But there is scope for disagreement between us here, though I am not sure how deep it goes. I agree that there is something self-defeating about explicitly rejecting norms constitutive of discourse and argumentation whilst one is engaged in that very practice. The thought is that we meet a kind of self-contradiction here: I implicitly endorse these norms (by entering into discursive practice), but then I explicitly deny them (once engaged in discursive activity). If you have to accept the authority of rational and discursive norms to qualify as denying their authority, there is a problem. We hit a kind of transcendental wall: it is a necessary condition of the possibility of explicitly rejecting the authority of these norms that we first accept or presuppose that self-same authority. Someone who tries to do so — who says, “Rationality has no claim on me!” — would best be described as confused, and not really understanding the concepts they are using, rather than making a substantive mistake.

This all assumes that we must at least implicitly presuppose some norms in order to qualify as sapient communicators (which I agree is a plasuible claim). In other words, my communicative activity must be guided by assumptions about what counts as a legitimate speech act. It will also be a further matter describing what such norms are — whether the principle of non-contradiction, modus ponens, substantive decision procedures, and so on.

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(iii) I think these issues go somewhat deeper though. So, whilst I am partial to some versions of the kind of linguistified transcendental argument outlined above, my more fundamental commitments differ from many of its advocates. One way to frame this difference is in a question: Does our inability to coherently reject fundamental norms of rationality, insofar as we engage in discursive activity, suffice to secure their authority for us? In other words, is assessment of rational competence dependent on the idea that we do (or cannot but) acknowledge rational norms insofar as we are discursive beings?

Pete gestures in an anti-realist direction on these matters, but then says something a little more ambiguous, which could be read in two ways. So, he begins with a rather Davidsonian claim:

One could potentially abandon such norms [of rationality], but one could only do it by becoming entirely irrational, by becoming such that we could not legitimately ascribe contentful beliefs to you.

Here, I agree. Our actual behaviour can come loose from fundamental norms of rationality, and when it does so substantially or consistently it becomes more and more difficult to frame it as the actions of an agent with a view upon the world. He continues:

The crucial idea that follows from this is a Brandomian/Kantian one: that what it is to be a subject is to be rational, i.e., to be bound by the fundamental norms of rationality. The subject is (just as the Kantian transcendental subject) just the unity of its responsibility in relation to such norms (which are analogous to Kant’s categories, as the fundamental rules governing cognition).

I find this a little more problematic — there is more to subjectivity than processing incompatible normative commitments, at least I hope so, for all our sakes! But this is a minor point insofar as I agree that this is an integral part of the picture. Next comes the more contentious idea:

The additional Kantian point is that the subject is only insofar as it binds itself to these norms, insofar as it makes itself responsible for its actions in accordance with them.

This, with its language of ‘binding oneself’ to norms, has an anti-realist tenor to it. In the background appears to be a nominally Kantian conception of the self-legislative activity of the subject, who institutes norms through its use of concepts in forming judgements and practical maxims. Normative authority, so understood, becomes attitude-dependent: we become responsible because (and only because) we make ourselves responsible. This is an approach to normativity which I think veers into incoherence.

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Problems with the self-legislative conception of normativity, where agents bind themselves to norms, arise when we ask whether the legislative process is itself subject to the authority of norms. It seems that there both must be and cannot be such norms. If there were no such norms, then the legislative process will be arbitrary: legislating in one way rather than another will be no more than caprice (and this would not seem to be enough to really put ourselves under obligations). But if there are norms for legislating one way rather than another, we will want to know their status. If they are self-legislated, we simply push the problem back because the question then becomes, on what basis were they legislated? If they are not self-legislated then we do not have self-legislation ‘all the way down.’ But in this case, if we end up embracing some form of realism about these norms, then it is natural to ask, why not be realists about other sorts of reasons? The advocate of self-legislation is not without reply here (indeed, they might appeal to something like the linguistified transcendental argument above to set basic criteria for legislation) but I think this dialectic ultimately forces them down the path to ruin.

Is this Pete’s approach though? Perhaps not, since he goes on to say:

However, one can only be responsible, i.e., one can only bind oneself to other norms, insofar as one is bound to the fundamental norms of rationality. This is to say that the structure of normativity in general is grounded in the norms of rationality.

If these fundamental norms of rationality are vindicated, then some sort of self-binding model might be rescued. But this, I think, would only at the price of redundancy, since it would not be us but the fundamental norms which determined how we ought to legislate which would be doing all the heavy-lifting. I think it is better to drop talk of self-binding or self-legislation and zero in on whatever underlies it. Obviously, there is more that can be said about this, but I’ll stop here for now.

On the Principle of Translation

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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.

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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.

Kantian Gloom-Watch: ‘A Favourite But Senseless Project’ Edition

Here’s a satisfying little allegory from the ‘Doctrine of Method’. Kant tells us that we must give up our ambitious designs for human knowledge, turning away from rationalism and its metaphysics which wanted to build a “tower reaching to the heavens”. Instead, we must remain content with something altogether more modest, merely a “dwelling house” which is “just roomy enough for our tasks on the plain of experience”.

If we look upon the sum of all knowledge of pure speculative reason as a building for which we have at least the idea within ourselves, it can be said that in the ‘Transcendental Doctrine of Elements’ we have made an estimate of the materials, and have determined for what sort, height and strength of building they will suffice. Indeed, it turned out that although we had in mind a tower that would reach the heavens, yet the stock of materials was only enough for a dwelling house — just roomy enough for our tasks on the plain of experience and just high enough for us to look across the plain. The bold undertaking had come to nothing through a lack of materials, quite apart from the babel of tongues that unavoidably set workers against one another about the plan and scattered them across the earth, each to build separately following his own design. Our problem is not just to do with materials, but even more to do with the plan. Since we have been warned not to risk everything on a favourite but senseless project, which could perhaps exceed our whole means, yet cannot well refrain from building a secure home, we have to plan our building with the supplies that have been given and also to suit our needs.

CPR A707/B735 trans. O’Neill

Kantian Gloom-Watch: Approaching Melancholy Edition

This is from one of Kant’s pre-Critical works, published in 1764, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime:

A profound feeling for the beauty and dignity of human nature and a firmness and determination of the mind to refer all one’s actions to this as to a universal ground is earnest, and does not at all join with a changeable gaiety nor with the inconstancy of a frivolous person. It even approaches melancholy, a gentle and noble feeling so far as it is grounded upon the awe that a hard-pressed soul feels when, full of some great purpose, he sees the danger he will have to overcome, and has before his eyes the difficult but great victory of self-conquest. Thus genuine virtue based upon principles has something about it which seems to harmonize most with the melancholy frame of mind in the moderated understanding.

Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen (trans. Goldthwait) p. 62-3.