Nature and Normativity

Here are two excellent essays, each taking opposing stances on how to answer questions centring on nature and normativity, alongside the roles of sciences and humanities in understanding reality. Both are admirably lucid and make a good case for their competing methodologies: firstly, an unashamed defence of ‘scientism'; secondly, the demand to take the standpoint of practical reasoning seriously.

An excerpt from each, beginning with Alex Rosenberg’s ‘The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide To Reality’:

What science has discovered about reality can’t be packaged into whodunit narratives about motives and actions. The human mind is the product of a long process of selection for being able to scope out other people’s motives. The way nature solved the problem of endowing us with that ability is by making us conspiracy theorists—we see motives everywhere in nature, and our curiosity is only satisfied when we learn the “meaning” of things—whose purposes they serve. The fundamental laws of nature are mostly timeless mathematical truths that work just as well backwards as forward, and in which purposes have no role. That’s why most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around physics or chemistry. It’s why science writers are always advised to get the science across to people by telling a story, and why it never really works. Science’s laws and theories just don’t come in stories with surprising starts, exciting middles and satisfying dénouements. That makes them hard to remember and hard to understand. Our demand for plotted narratives is the greatest obstacle to getting a grip on reality. It’s also what greases the skids down the slippery slope to religion’s “greatest story ever told.” Scientism helps us see how mistaken the demand for stories instead of theories really is.

From Robert Pippin’s ‘Normative and Natural’:

Normative questions, I mean, are irreducibly “first-personal” questions, and these questions are practically unavoidable and necessarily linked to the social practice of giving and demanding reasons for what we do, especially when something someone does affects, changes or limits what another would otherwise have been able to do. By irreducibly first-personal, I mean that whenever anyone faces a normative question (which is the stance from which normative issues are issues)  – what ought to be believed or what ought to be done – no third-personal fact about “why one as a matter of fact has come to prefer this or that” can be relevant to what I must decide, unless (for good practical reasons) I count it as a relevant practical reason in the justification of what I decide. Knowing something about evolutionary psychology might contribute something to understanding the revenge culture in which Orestes finds himself in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and so why he feels pulled both to avenge his father’s murder by his mother Clytemnestra, and also feels horrified at the prospect of killing his mother in cold blood. But none of that can be, would be, at all helpful to Orestes or anyone in his position.  Knowing something about the evolutionary benefits of altruistic behavior might give us an interesting perspective on some particular altruistic act, but for the agent, first-personally, the question I must decide is whether I ought to act altruistically and if so why. I cannot simply stand by, as it were, and “wait” to see what my highly and complexly evolved neuro-biological system will do. “It” doesn’t decide anything; I do, and this for reasons I must find compelling, or at least ones that outweigh countervailing considerations. It is in this sense that the first-personal perspective is strictly unavoidable. I am not a passenger on a vessel pulled hither and yon by impulses and desires; I have to steer.

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.



Modernity is often associated with disenchantment. But what does this mean? Ancient thinkers had tended to ascribe teleological principles to the natural world: the stone strives for its home at the centre of the earth; the eclipse communicates divine displeasure. The monotheistic traditions which then gained ascendancy in Europe and the Near East retained something of this, finding God’s plan suffusing nature: God creates walnuts to resemble brains, signing to human reason that the former is good for the latter; gold and silver lie beneath the ground and the sun and stars shine in the heavens above, displaying a divinely ordained symmetry (both these latter examples are taken from Foucault’s The Order of Things). But with the rise of the mathematical sciences, natural teleology and divine order came to be treated with increasing derision. Aristotle was to be banished to the libraries of the Schoolmen, and if God was to have daubed nature with language, he would speak to us in mathematics and not dainty allegories. For philosophers such as Descartes, matter was extension, and must yield its secrets to a physics taking mathematisable form. This approach to the natural world was further buttressed in the minds of natural philosophers by the successes of the Newtonian revolution. In biology, by 1828 even the demand for a vital force — said to divide the organic from inorganic — proved empty, Wöhler having proved that the organic could be synthesised from inorganic components.

Everywhere, meaning fell under the sword of mechanism, and myth and mysticism with it. But suspicion hung over this evacuated nature, for was it not also our home — perhaps even the very substance of our being? If so, what remained of freedom, providence, value, beauty or morality in all this? The very meaning of life appeared to be under threat, since there seemed to be no room for God, rational harmony or true righteousness amongst the icy torrents of indifferent particles. The height of the Enlightenment saw the most avid articulation of these worries, with Jacobi coining the term ‘nihilism’ to describe what he saw as Godless and fatalistic Critical philosophies, which in his eyes provided little more than a fig-leaf covering their destruction of a transcendent source of value.

In all this, there are both progressive and regressive currents. The rise of modern science has been a near-unparalleled breakthrough, on a par with the development of agriculture, city dwelling or the institution of constitutional legal codes. In so doing, it has rightly banished God-talk from natural philosophy and much else besides. So too, it has helped deaden the appeal of any view of freedom wherein it consists in some contra-casual power to intervene in the world (quantum mechanical gymnastics aside). But there is a risk of the burning light of science blinding us to the proper significance (or even existence) of certain equally natural phenomena. My own interests here settle on normativity — what we are committed, entitled or prohibited from thinking and doing; how we are subject to the ‘force of the better reason'; why we not merely do but should follow certain rules and conventions — ethical, theoretical, aesthetic, affective — whilst rightly rejecting others. Often, attempts to understand normativity suffer from a scientism which extends far beyond a healthy respect for the natural sciences, and which commonly has its roots in a problematic conception of disenchanted nature.


In the face of the disenchantment of nature, we can easily succumb to that curious form of philosophical vertigo that Wittgenstein diagnoses so well. We then grasp about for a solid handhold. Confronting frigid nature, operating with lawful or law-like regularity, one response has been to cast aside concepts like freedom, obligation and representation as folk-psychological detritus which we can do without. For example, Stephen Stich has claimed:

intentional states and processes that are alluded to in our everyday descriptions and explanations of people’s mental lives and their actions are myths. Like the gods that Homer invoked to explain the outcome of battles, or the witches that inquisitors invoked to explain local catastrophes, they do not exist. [quoted in a recent article by Dwyer]

This is the eliminativist approach: the world is nothing like the fantasies of religion and art had led us to believe — it is the indurate ground of animal life but not our ‘home’. For the eliminativist, there is no need to sweeten the pill of the disenchantment brought on by the scientific mind-set. As Ray Brassier has recently written, “Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.”

Drawing back from eliminativism, another response has been to reconstruct those concepts suspected of anthropocentrism in a more respectable vocabulary for the naturalist. So, there is no need to ditch freedom, say, but let us just be clear what we mean by it, where this might legitimately be causation along certain biochemical pathways and not others, or action in light of knowledge of the conditions under which it was caused, or whatever natural-scientific form of description best approximates actual or ideal folk-psychological usage. The manifest image of humanity is not entirely wrongheaded, just naïve. Properly regimented, it captures something important about human patterns of understanding, behaviour and our place in the world. Let us call this view naturalistic revisionism.

Different again from eliminativism and revisionism is expressivism. The expressivist agrees that the world is a cold, dead place when contrasted with the animisms, platonisms and providentialisms of old. However, the human animal ‘stains’ and ‘gilds’ reality with its sentiments (to borrow Hume’s terms). For the expressivist, it is we who project value on the world, and this can give us the resources to explain ethics, freedom and aesthetics outside of the tight net of the scientific naturalist’s privileged nomenclature. There is nothing unnatural about our caring about (or disdaining) each other, our projects and our environments; but that need not force us to redescribe ourselves in natural-scientific terms alone — our passions have their own logic and significance that subsists upon but grows out of its natural base.

Yet another response to disenchantment has been to foreground not human emotion but reason and autonomy. For constructivists, the legacy of disenchantment has been to show us that we are alone in the world, with no divine firmament above or promontory below that would help us surveil a normative order. But unlike expressivists, we should look to our activity of trafficking with reasons stretching beyond our structures of passions. We forge obligations for ourselves through the exercise of autonomous legislative capacities, claiming ownership of our actions through drawing them into an unfolding plan which we grant authority over our desires, projects and identities as a whole. In doing so, we act with the dignity proper to creatures capable of self-determination, who are not merely buffeted around by events, beliefs or desires, but who manage to establish some sort of purchase and sovereignty over themselves and thereby lead their lives.


Now, you need not be a platonic boogeyman to be uneasy about this collection of options. My own thinking about these issues is heavily indebted to John McDowell. His suggestion that we need “a partial re-enchantment of nature,” as with many of McDowell’s trademark phrases, is a little unfortunate though. He stridently rejects the idea that ‘re-enchantmant’ has a “crazily nostalgic” character which gives any ground towards a “regress into a pre-scientific superstition” which would encourage us to interpret the fall of a sparrow like we would a text. But nevertheless the associations surrounding ‘enchantment’ remain — something spooky gets evoked. Talk of ‘re-enchantment’ is misleading, and a better McDowellian phrase would be resistance to the “interiorization of the space of reasons.”

Disenchantment makes it seem like reasons are illusory or are at best absorbed into the activity of subjects. What we get is meaning, and the rational relations it makes intelligible, restricted to meaning-conferring subjects. At most, so understood, we project reasons into a world of rationally inert objects. The car-crash is then only a reason to phone an ambulance in light of human ethical practices; the ionized radiation in the cloud chamber only justifies belief in the presence of an alpha particle in light of the construction and testing of electromagnetic and particle theories. Now, there is something right and something wrong about all this. We cannot intelligibly think from a perspective of cosmic exile and must accept the finitude of our cognitive capacities (contra SR and OOO). All of our truck with value, reasons, justification must proceed from local and situated circumstances and continue to lean upon human forms of knowing and valuing. But that does not mean we should rest content with the idea that these are ‘merely human’ standards whose shadows fall upon an apathetic world. Our finitude, properly understood, ought not impugn normative realism, and we should not be carried away by the characterless world presented by natural science.

Nature is not exhausted by natural scientific description, and so it is misguided to require human interests for any more juice to be squeezed out of it. The predominantly nomothetic explanations offered by natural science are pearls without price, but they have no claim to speak for the totality of nature. Human life is obviously in some sense ontologically decomposable into organic compounds, atoms, quarks and electrons, and so on. But the explanatory matrix which most often befits it is normative and not immediately natural scientific (whatever the prospects of reductionsism about normativity). Again, there is nothing unnatural about humans as they fall under normative descriptions, appraised in terms of their intentions, virtue, beauty or freedom. We come to employ these concepts in the course of our biological maturation, supplemented by a process of socialisation which is no less a part of the natural history of humanity.

The temptation towards the modernist division between meaning-conferring subjectivity and intrinsically meaningless nature arises when we think that we can only have meaning on human terms — the human forge of meaning being the correlate to the frozen world of mechanism. If the logical space of nature and the logical space of reasons are irreconcilable, then this would seem to follow (assuming naturalistic revisionisms are moribund, which I think is very plausible). But this is only so if nature is also exhausted by natural scientific description. And it is not: natural events can be legitimately characterised in normative terms without a regression to pre-scientific rationalism. This is the sort of re-enchantment McDowell seeks, and rightly too. The claim to be defended is thus: “the natural world is in the space of logos.” My optimism on this count is rarely shared though.

Norms, Rationality and Communication


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.


(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.


(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.


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 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.