viernes, 19 de noviembre de 2010

On Concepts and Objects: Can the Gem Destroy the Circle of Correlation?

On Concepts and Objects:

Can the Gem Destroy the Circle of Correlation?


 Ray Brassier’s Concepts and Objects, his contribution to the forthcoming anthology The Speculative Turn (edited by  Nick Srnicek, Levi Bryant, and Graham Harman), advances a programmatic overview of his forthcoming work. In addition to an acerbic assault on Latour and Object Oriented Philosophies which, in a surprising turn, he ends up accusing of being ‘correlationist’, the main thrust of the paper deals with the intricate juncture between metaphysics and epistemology. I will focus here on Brassier’s appropriation of Stove’s indictments against the idealist ‘gems’, which he extends against correlationism. Ray’s basic point of contention, against Meillassoux’s avowal of the strength of the correlationist circle, is that the latter suffers from an ambiguity which, once clarified, makes its purported inescapability seem all the less obvious. In order to show this, Brassier seeks to show how the disambiguation provides two possible claims about the relation between conditions for determination and objects determined by these conditions, one of them trivially true, and the other one speculatively dogmatic or at the very least questionable.

    Case in point, Brassier disambiguates between a) the tautological claim that one cannot posit something without positing it, from b) the less obvious claim which asserts that things cannot exist without being posited. The correlationist can  subscribe to the former without going beyond inanity, but fails to legitimately establish the latter. Now, Brassier stipulates that the correlationist may substitute ‘positing’ with another term, according to the specific brand of determination sought (language, perception, intentional consciousness, culture…). But the basic point is that the correlationist goes on to illegitimately extrapolate the ontological dependence of objects on concepts, of being on thought, from the trivial claim that objects are expressed or postulated through concepts, and that it is thought which gains traction on being.

      Brassier ultimately seeks to rehabilitate the distinction between concepts and objects, in order to reintroduce the epistemological filter on dogmatic metaphysical claims, Latour-inspired OOO included. In this occasion, I would just like to point out some points where I nevertheless think that Brassier’s attempt to extend Stove’s Gem to deflate the correlationist strength is complicated by some considerations about the precise distinction between correlationism and idealism, since it is against the latter which Stove’s reconstruction is ultimately designed to work. I have presented these observations to Ray recently, who seems to think that they are of some interest, and has said he will reply to me in detail at some point. In any case, I share these observations since I myself am a bit confused on the precise force of Stove’s gem. Anyway, on to the ‘things themselves’!

    The point of departure in Brassier’s paper concerns a presentation of Berkeley’s classical polemic against the possibility of pursuing a thought of things independently of their being thought. Let us follow the specifics in Ray’s presentation, in an schematic manner:

1)      After presenting the passage from Berkeley, paragraph (32) states the following:

“From the indubitable premise that ‘One cannot think or perceive something without thinking or perceiving it’, Berkeley goes on to draw the dubious conclusion that ‘Things cannot exist without being thought or perceived.’ Berkeley’s premise is a tautology, since the claim that one cannot think of something without thinking of it is one that no rational being would want to deny.”

     Moments later in the paper, however, Brassier asserts in paragraph (34) that the Berkeleyian Gem “does not assert that there is no mind-independent reality, it merely says it must remain inconceivable”. These two readings seem to be obviously in conflict, and I take it that it is the latter which is representative of Berkeley’s account. That is since he repeatedly emphasizes the absurdity of trying to conceive of a reality independent of us. But from this it certainly doesn’t follow, as Brassier rightly puts earlier, that mind independent reality cannot or does not exist, but simply that it is impossible to prove it does or doesn't, since what we know is relative to the possibilities and to the content given to and mediated by us.

2)           In paragraph (32) Brassier writes again against Berkeley that: “…the metaphysical claim that only minds and their ideata exist is supposed to be the consequence of Berkeley’s argument, not its presupposition”. We know, however, that for Berkeley, ideata are not just properly our concepts or propositional attitudes, but also our imaginings and perceptions. The entire point, I take it, following the basic Lockean/Cartesian problematic of our epistemic relation to quality, is that even pre-conceptual contact with the world is mediated through our faculties (of sense and thought), and so that conception is always anchored on appearances given in and as experience.

      But if this is right then, at least in the passage in question, Berkeley does not seem to be claiming only ideata and minds exist, but solely that there are no epistemic grounds to surmise the existence of beings outside how they are given to us, since everything we know are ideata and these are relative to our faculties. This indicates that to conceive of things independently of givenness implies either knowledge that things exist outside mediation, or knowledge of how they exist independently of the conditions of givenness. But this is precisely what the correlationist  contends we have no warrant in claiming. Meillassoux highlights how the correlationist must deny that knowledge of particular beings obtains in order to assert knowledge of the unreason for things to exist as they appear (Pete Wolfendale highlights this point in his Essay on Transcendental Realism). Since for Berkeley primary/secondary properties are anchored on sense-data, and these prove to be fallible / subject to distortion (thus being specific to our apparatus for mediation), conception as derived from experience cannot be transposed to an independent reality, at a loss for reasons.  At the very least, however, against Brassier’s stipulation of the dogmatist kernel of this move, there is an argument for the claim that all we know are ideata, based on the errancy and deceptiveness of perception, which grounds conception, and thus finally existential affirmation.

    We know that for Sellars (whose naturalism has inspired Brassier’s more recent work) it is precisely the relation between perception and ideation which becomes complicated; but here is where the transcendental realist needs to come in with more than the accusation against the Gem, since the correlationist draws from the empiricist/rationalist attack against the epistemic reliability of perceptual data to substantiate the constriction of our access to the content of phenomena. Thus, when Brassier writes that it “by no means follows that we cannot conceive of things existing independently of concepts, since there is no logical transitivity from the mind-dependence of concepts to that of conceivable objects”, the correlationist claims that it is not the mind-dependence of concepts which logically entails the absurdity of concept/mind independent reality, but the mind-dependence of concepts and perception which empirically puts the hypothesis of mind-independent reality at a loss for justification. The problem is that on the basis of the quoted passage, it seems that Berkeley is to be read as a correlationist rather than an idealist, since in the way of claiming the ‘absurdity’ of the in-itself he appears committed to the unreason of our limited perceptual-conceptual apparatuses (thereby playing a similar role to the one facticity does for the correlationist).

         This is also why we should probably distinguish the Berkeleyian view from the Absolute Idealist, for whom ideation is thoroughly conceptual: the former does nevertheless admit the passive dependence of our phenomenal objective experience on intuition. Having said this, I’m not sure Stove’s attack on the Gem can safely target the weak correlationist agnosticism as well as it can the idealist assimilation of the in-itself. Since the former’s justification is unreason/facticity rather than the formal conflation of being/thought, it’s not clear to me that the circularity proceeds in both cases.

3) In paragraph (34) Brassier claims that proponents of the Gem confuse independence and inaccessibility. That is, they confuse the claim that we cannot access a mind-independent reality (since it must be given through conception) with the claim that there can be no mind-independent reality. But if the prior considerations are correct, it is not so much that the correlationist claims that mind-independence is logically inconceivable, but rather empirically vacuous. ‘Proof’ would then be impossible not because of a performative contradiction resulting from the Gem, but simply because the fallibility/perception-dependence of ideata constrain us to the phenomenal.

Again, it seems that under this reading the correlationist could perfectly admit that a mind-independent reality could exist, and that we can conceive of this possibility. This Meillassoux underlines as the peculiarity of correlationism’s avowal of facticity, against subjective / absolute idealisms. We trivially cannot conceive without an act of conceiving. But more crucially, since all the content of experience is also given within experience, and given that this content is of experience as mediated by our own cognitive-perceptual faculties, reflexivity cannot make this content/knowledge necessary for being outside such constrictions, lest we extend the constriction to things themselves (which Meillassoux does in his absolutizing of contingency).

     The ‘absurdity’ for Berkeley or the correlationist under this reading would thus be to think that what we know provides warrant for proof of the in-itself. Therefore, the conceptual inaccessibility of the in-itself would follow from its vacuity given the facticity of thought/perception. This is just to reassert the ‘correlationist agnosticism’ Meillassoux diagnoses, rather than the alleged logical fallacy of the idealist Gems attacked by Stove.

     In the end, we must not forget the import of the argument against the reliability of perception for knowledge in prefiguring the correlationist agnosticism about the in-itself. It is not just that perception is often deceptive, but that it is quite impossible to think what a reality outside the mediation given by perception and our concepts would be; let alone grounds to prove that such a reality   exists, or even more, that it does in a way that already corresponds to the content targeted by our concepts. This is the point of contention for the realist, who claims that our perceptual/cognitive mechanisms do provide resources to think robustly of the in-itself. More specifically, it is the contention of the scientific realist that science provides the best resources for thought to gain traction on being, while preserving their relative independence.

3)      In paragraphs (40)-(42) Brassier disambiguate between word, concept and referent. He writes:

“It might be objected that we need Saturn to say what Saturn is; that we cannot refer to Saturn or assert that it is without Saturn. But this is false: the first humans who pointed to Saturn did not need to know and were doubtless mistaken about what it is: but they did not need to know in order to point to it. To deny this is to imply that Saturn’s existence—that it is—is a function of what it is—that Saturn is indissociable from Saturn (or whatever else people have believed Saturn to be). But this is already to be a conceptual idealist. Even were the latter to demonstrate that the conditions of sense determine the conditions of reference, this would still not be enough to show that the existence of the referent depends upon the conditions of reference. To do that, one would have to show that ‘to be’ means ‘to be referred to’; an equation tantamount to Berkeley’s equation of ‘to be’ with ‘to be perceived’; yet it would require more than another Gem to dissolve such a fundamentally normative distinction in meaning.”

     Here there is an odd shift in the reading of Berkeley, which is now said to conflate being with being-perceived (whereas earlier it was stated he conflated being with being-conceived). But if the possibility of the in-itself is preserved outside conception or thought in B’s account, then neither reading really suffices, at least on the basis of the quoted paragraph.

        More importantly, however, is the suggestion that ostentation does not require conception. I’m left wondering if this really helps the case against correlationism, since it appears they’d be hostile to the assumption that they have already ‘smuggled in’ the equation between sense and reference. This is because the correlationist claims that even if Saturn is dissociable from Saturn insofar as what we intuit can be conceptualized in a variety of ways, the latter is not dissociable from perception, insofar as any conception is finally anchored on intuition (or the imagination’s reproduction of the same, to use Kant’s language). Since conceptual indices (even primary properties, which are conceptually specified) follow from perception, ostentation does little to move us beyond the domain of mediation. This complicates the following diagnosis of correlationism at large, provided in paragraph (44), characterizing the Gem as a…:

     “…Form of argumentation that slides from the true claim that we need a concept of mind-independent reality in order to make claims about the latter to the false claim that the very concept of mind-independent reality suffices to convert the latter into a concept, which is by definition mind-dependent”

The problem is that for the correlationist it is perception, not just conception, which is also relative to conditions of givenness. And whatever determines perception is said to exhaust the content of our concepts, since conception is anchored on sensing, or in imagining. Thus, for the skeptic/agnostic/idealist/weak correlationist/OOO Saturn would seem to be a function of our sensing, which in turn fails to guarantee knowledge or to provide indices for mind-independent realities, since it is fallible and relative to our very peculiar perceptual mechanisms. Strictly speaking, the correlationist could argue that when humans point at what we call Saturn, they are really pointing at mere sense-data which constitutes the content of the being relative to us. But it no more follows from this that a ‘real Saturn’ exists or doesn’t exist outside our minds than  an unspecified plurality of ‘Saturn-stages’ does, since individuation remains relative to conception, and the latter to sensing. In support of the last claim the correlationist just has to rehearse the usual diatribes about the seemingly endless plurality of meanings and arbitrary ‘partitions’ on the intuited solicited by conception, and thus to some form of primitive ontological indeterminacy. He can thus merrily revert into the agnostic quietism about the existence of the in-itself, since in any case knowledge remains restricted to the straightjacket of mediation. For the realist then, being-in-itself need not just be refractory from conception, but from perception.

This is why I take it Brassier finds special importance in not just a postural realism anchored in real but ultimately unobjectifiable ‘anonymous’ being. Rather, what is needed is the possibility of discrimination between statements which gain traction on being from those which don’t, given a robust conception of reality. This is, I assume, why Sellars’ attempt to draw the grounds for naturalism and realism at the crossroads of conception-perception is particularly significant.

          In any case, it seems that even if Berkeley did endorse a classical Gem, which incurs in the ambiguity in question, other alternative correlationist positions can resist the indictment of having denied the in-itself in the process of conflating the act of thinking with the physical object of thought. They can claim this by saying that although the physical constitution of the being is indeed relative to the act of thought, this doesn’t rule out the impossibility of the in-itself, but merely makes any such content inaccessible and so unknowable. The correlationist can preserve the in-itself in different forms this way, while insisting in that quiddity remains relative to conditions of disclosure. For example, in Heidegger’s account, the Vorhandenheit realm of concrete particulars targeted by scientific rationality remains relative to Dasein’s practical/cognitive comportments. Yet this doesn’t rule out the withdrawal of beings in concealment which is in excess to our comportments, albeit this way the in-itself becomes an increasingly anonymous and unthinkable Otherness, whose presumed givenness is quasi-religious and dubious for reasons Sellars has rightly pointed out.

       However predictable this correlationist strategy may have become, they can always go ahead and associate whatness to the disclosure of beings in ekstatic transcendence for temporal Dasein, eidetic constitution in intentional consciousness, conditions of perception in representation, etc. This finally constricts being-for-us within the factical ‘unreason’ of thought/perception. Considering that the content of thought remains constrained by mediation of sensing-thought, the thesis of the in-itself remains shrouded in darkness or veiled in religious mystery, but never in principle ruled out. This is why I take Meillassoux’s avowal of the force of the circle of correlation resists its wholesale deflation, as attempted by pointing at the fallaciousness of the Gem. Rather, for Meillassoux the way out of this circle is to force the correlationist to accept that the contingency of the being must already be a feature of things in themselves to avoid the idealist appropriation, i.e. in order to say things could be different than they are contingency cannot be merely relative to us, lest we reinstate the idealist coup. But this still means that the knowledge of particular beings gained within the circle of correlation is contingent and uncertain, i.e. what we know is the absolute necessity of the contingency of beings as such.

         The question is finally the obvious one: if we want to say that any conceptual determination does gain traction on the in-itself, and that conception/perception can furthermore already imply the stratification of being itself, then it falls to the realist to show how this is so. And this must be done without invoking a miraculous continuity between conception/description and being, such as in the descriptive metaphysics of OOO which simply solicit all kinds of claims about the in-itself, even incompatible ones. I take it this is also the limitation of a postural realism such as Laruelle’s as advanced by determination-in-the-last-instance; since it ultimately lacks the robustness to subtract from Decision or science anything but the real cause, utterly indifferently to the descriptive register in objectification:

     ”How can we acknowledge that scientific conception tracks the in-itself without resorting to the problematic metaphysical assumption that do so is to conceptually circumscribe the ‘essence’ (or formal reality) of the latter?”

     The stratification of being in relation to the phenomena described by natural science I take to be the decisive import of Sellar’s approach, while the normative criteria for rational deliberation and the withdrawal of authority required for objective truth is expounded in Brandom’s account (and, of course, in the prospective project initiated by Pete Wolfendale).

2 comentarios:

Ronaldo dijo...

Estimado Daniel,

Puede traducir algunos de sus temas (relacionados con el trabajo del Brassier - disponible en el blog) para el idioma español?
Mi Inglés no ha alcanzado aún un nivel de excelencia y profundidad.



Daniel Sacilotto dijo...

Indiqueme cuales pasajes le gustaría que le traduzca y con gusto lo haré.