Warwick Transcendental Realism Workshop

Apologies for it being so quiet around here recently: I’m in the process of finishing my thesis, starting my new job at the University of Essex, and getting ready to move house. I thought I’d post this announcement for a workshop that I’ll be speaking at next month alongside Pete Wolfendale (Deontologisitcs) Nick Srnicek (Speculative HeresyThe Accursed Share), Reid Kotlas (Planomenology) and James Trafford. Ray Brassier will be headlining, giving a longer paper to the Warwick Colloquium in European Philosophy. Hopefully, I’ll be able to develop some of the sketchy thoughts about realism and correlationism which I posted on here last year, especially in relation to Meillassoux. Drop Pete an e-mail if you’d like to come along.

Warwick Transcendental Realism Workshop

Time: Tuesday 11th of May, 12:00pm (registration) – 7:00pm

Location: University of Warwick, LIB2 and S0.11

Organised by Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, in conjunction with the Research Group in Post-Kantian European Philosophy

The purpose of the workshop is to examine the arguments underlying the increasing push towards realism in parts of modern continental philosophy, along with approaches that bridge the analytic/continental divide, and to assess the possibility of transcendental approaches to realism within this context. Particular themes that we be focused upon include:-

– The arguments of Quentin Meillassoux, and the possibility of transcendental responses to the problems he raises.

– The relation between epistemology and ontology.

– The relation between philosophy and the natural sciences.

The event will be split into two parts. The first part will take place in LIB2 (in the university library building) from 12:30pm to 5:00pm, which will consist in five papers presented by graduate students on matters relevant to the topic, along with discussion. The second part will be the headline talk, given by Ray Brassier, which will take place in S0.11 (in the social studies building) from 5:30pm to 7:30pm, under the auspices of the department’s regular Colloquium in European Philosophy.


Ray Brassier (Philosophy, American University of Beirut) – ‘Kant and Sellars: Nominalism, Realism, Naturalism’

James Trafford (Philosophy, Unaffiliated) – ‘Follow the Evidence: Realism, Epistemology, Semantics’

Reid Kotlas (Philosophy Grad Student, Dundee) – ‘From Transcendental to Abstract Realism: Epistemology after Marx’

Nick Srnicek (International Relations PhD Student, LSE) – ‘Extending Cognition: Bridging the Gap between Actor-Network Theory and Scientific Realism’

Tom O’Shea (Philosophy PhD Student, Sheffield) – ‘On the Very Idea of Correlationism’

Pete Wolfendale (Philosophy PhD Student, Warwick) – ‘Objectivity, Reality, and the In-Itself: From Deflationary to Transcendental Realism’

The workshop is free to attend, but please email pete.wolfendale ‘at’ gmail.com to register in advance, or to request any further information.


The Essex Autonomy Project

I have been offered a three-year post-doctoral position at the University of Essex as part of a new AHRC-funded project on autonomous judgement. Details of the project below:

Deciding for Oneself: Autonomous Judgment in History, Theory and Practice is a three-year interdisciplinary research initiative based in the Philosophy Department at the University of Essex. Our fundamental aim is to clarify the nature and value of judgemental autonomy, both for its own sake, and in order to provide orientation for those who must apply this notion — whether as parents, medical practitioners, legal professionals, or simply as citizens.

Our approach to these issues is in equal measures theoretical, practical, and historical. A crucial element of our methodology is to bring together philosophers working on the theory of autonomy and judgement with working professionals in the law, psychiatric medicine, and social policy. Philosophical theories can be tested and strengthened by application to real-world challenges, while practitioners can make use of philosophical approaches to find a way through some of the vexing challenges endemic to these issues. Our historical approach in turn holds out promise for illuminating both the theoretical and practical issues. A number of contemporary challenges regarding judgemental autonomy are best diagnosed and addressed with reference to the contested history that produced them. One important element in this will be to engage the critics who have objected to the very ideal of autonomous judgement.

Research will be conducted in large part through a series of interdisciplinary workshops, public lectures and international conferences, many of which will be open to the public. Among the research outputs for the project will be a website, ‘Green Paper’ technical reports, and a curriculum for a Knowledge Transfer ‘Master Class’ for the dissemination of results. In addition there will be a series of more conventional academic outputs, including a monograph, research articles and collections of essays. Above all, our aim is to cultivate an interdisciplinary network of researchers and practitioners with advanced expertise on the challenges intrinsic to the ideal of judgemental autonomy.

More details can be found here. Expect to hear more about this in due course!

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.


I’ve started using my Twitter account and will be posting regular philosophy links, as well as the occasional tidbit on music and literature. If you’re a regular reader here, I’d reckon there’s a fair chance you’ll stumble over something interesting there now and then. Either way, I’ll try to keep the noise-to-signal ratio as healthy as possible. My user name is bombthepast — alternatively, just follow this link.

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.

Class as ethnicity

Image from the Dave's Part blog

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Gordon Brown delivered a particularly resonant line, claiming that Tory inheritance tax policy had been “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.” This has produced a howl of disgust from sections of the commentariat — tellingly, the Grauniad and the BBC at the forefront. We’re told that this is some palaeolithic regression to ‘class war’ and the ‘politics of envy’. And besides, voters don’t like it, so why dredge it up, since “it makes us almost as uncomfortable as the secrets of our sex lives.” (Henry Porter in today’s Guardian) We wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, would we?

Obviously, there is something hypocritical about the rallying to these class-laden terms. For example, Blair went to Fettes, the ‘Eton of the North’, and Harriet Harman was a pupil at the exclusive St. Paul’s Girl’s (not to mention her being the niece of the Earl of Longford). In other words, Labour MPs are hardly all organic representatives of council estates and back-to-backs across the land. So, even if the composition of the shadow cabinet takes things to an extreme, you might think the backgrounds of many in the Labour party makes any masses-against-the-classes rhetoric look somewhat awkward. True as this might be, this response alone fails to engage with any of the most important dimensions of discussions of class.

The most powerful and all-too-common temptation today is to think of class as a quasi-ethnic category, inherited from one’s relatives and indelibly imprinted by the circumstances of one’s childhood. Absurd as ideas like good ‘breeding’ sound — which revealingly distill the notions of biological and social formation — these categories persist in different forms at both ends of the social strata. I think John Prescott’s conception of class presents a version of this. For him, the experience of being a cruise-ship waiter confronted him with the sneering, unthinking arrogance of an aristocracy with an epic sense of entitlement. This was a glimpse of another world, where economic injustice was gilded with a particular aesthetic — accented and dressed, with time only for their own Oxbridge or titled elite. This, rightly, sparked resentment in him. But for a nominal socialist this seems curiously depoliticised, despite his calls for educational reform. Undoubtedly, education still matters in the reproduction of class distinctions, from the persistence of the old-boys-style networks of contacts and connections, to the creation of that distinctive public school confidence (on this see the discussions sparked off by Nina at Infinite Thought). But for Prescott, it feels like the passions fuelling his political invocation of class are the feelings of inadequacy which his failing the 11-plus brought on, alongside his disgust at the attitudes and sensibility of the upper-classes. These ought not to be brushed aside, but nor do they have seemed to have brought the structural analysis of class into constant focus. That is, his dysphoria was not properly put to work. Rather, class remained a matter of ‘roots’, and fundamentally a fidelity to the manners and milieu you found yourself growing up around. Economics seems only a peripheral aspect of all this — one more factor in making up your social life-world.

When class is discussed at all today, this kind of ethnological understanding is never far from the surface. Most people identify with the class they take their parents to have been, regardless of their current circumstances (something borne out by social attitudes studies, if I recall correctly). Here, we have seemed to have regressed beyond even the crude distinctions between the working class as manual or menial labourers and the middle classes as merchant, manager or professional. Instead, it’s your ‘breeding’ that counts: whether you grew up in a detached house, whether your parents went to the theatre or the dogs, how ‘regional’ your pronunciation. If class is this sort of inherited aesthetic-cultural mélange, hardened by a schooling to match, it is not necessarily an entirely worthless category. The issues around confidence and connections remain, for instance. However, something much more important is occluded, as can be seen when we adopt other class-based categories.

The classical Marxist understanding of class is not primarily cultural but economic. The proletariat are those who must sell their labour power, in virtue of lacking ownership of means of production. Conversely, the bourgeoisie own the means of production, and are able to hire workers, purchasing their labour-power, and appropriating the surplus value produced. These categories allow a structural analysis of society, whereby it becomes apparent that class struggle is a motor force of historical change.

This sense of class is obviously not orthogonal to the quasi-ethnic one to which most people seem to cling. Toffs tend to be stinking rich; and those filthy oiks tend to be poor. But what is harder to discern is the nature of the relationship between those facts. Conservatives often think that the cream has risen, that the industrious and thereby deserving can and do make it to the top. But the relationship between social structure and the abilities and character of individuals is far more complex than this, since it has a dialectical nature, insofar as people are not ready-formed but partly produced by the very social structures that they then find themselves confronted with. Insisting on the politico-economic conception of class, instead of the pseudo-ethnicised one, provides the analytic basis for opening up these questions. In doing so, it makes sense of an inherently political dimension to class, as part of its demonstrating that economics must always give way to political economy.

This classical Marxist approach to class is important, but it can be enriched by introducing further categories. Michael Albert makes a distinction between workers and the ‘co-ordinator class.’ Both are subordinate to capital, but members of the co-ordinator class, such as lawyers, doctors, academics and managers, have a significantly larger degree of control over their labour in the workplace than other workers. Albert claims those in this class “accrue information, skills, confidence, energy and influence on daily outcomes sufficient to largely control their own tasks and those of workers below.”

This is a significant addition to the distinction between proletarian and bourgeoisie, and allows us to articulate further class issues. Within the co-ordinator class, stratification is taking place: professional judgement is being replaced by an increasing managerialism, pursued through a subjection to endless assessment criteria — an idiotic culture of distorting targets and self-justification. But just as unionised French workers cannot simply cling to Fordism, the co-ordinator class cannot simply repel attacks on their status. Again, Albert puts this well in his attempts to rearticulate socialism:

“Out with the old boss, in with the new boss” is not a strategy that ends bosses. To retain the distinction between the coordinator class and the working class would ensure coordinator class rule. Our movements and projects must eliminate the monopoly of capitalists on productive property but also the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work. Indeed, this is what reimagining socialism is primarily about.

Mark Fisher — aka k-punk — has recently underlined this need for an anti-managerialist front in his Capitalist Realism as part of a project of ensuring worker autonomy (see also his blog posts about class). So, again, we should not shy away from a class-based politics, so long as we’re employing the right sorts of class categories.

Update:  Guardian Daily episode: The return of class war — including some level-headed analysis by Madeline Bunting, insisting on the continued relevance of class in politics.

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.