miércoles, 6 de julio de 2011

Correspondence With Ray Brassier: On Sellars, Sensation and Conception

                 - On Sellars, Sensation and Conception - 

Here I attach a series of correspondences between me and Ray Brassier in which he clarifies his move toward a Sellarsian account. I enclose also a summary of Sellar's account below, which can serve as a crude walkthrough to his recent presentation at Zagreb.

August 14th, 2010
- On Sellars, Realism and the Individuation of Sense
Dear Daniel
You raise a very interesting query below in response to my earlier  remarks about Sellars and intuition:

You write:

"I’m just not sure how to understand at this juncture the intuition of  ‘sensible particulars’ apart from conceptual subsumption. On what  basis is that distinction sketched, since it seems like it is only  judgment and thus in conceptual subsumption that we attain  intelligibility for empirical perception. How do we establish  ‘sensible particulars’ have any individuation prior to and  irrespective of conceptual subsumption, given perceptual experience is  discursively structured all throughout? Of course, we wouldn’t want to  merely reiterate the Kantian distinction of intuition/understanding,  to readily pave the way for the Hegelian idealist appropriation. You  say Sellars avoids relinquishing the independence of sensation; but  I’m wondering how exactly he does this so as to avoid a) the anonymous  and noumenal without unity, b) the idealist congruence of concept and  object.

My hunch, on the basis of what you express, is that he thinks a  resolutely non-idealist congruence of concept and object is possible, where sensation provides the material basis for conception, while the  latter nevertheless does provide intelligible grounds for the former’s independence. And in the end this material basis solicits that what can be claimed as independent should not be simply an anonymous material lump we then chop into bits and pieces through language/concepts, but something like the gradual and progressive infiltration of the noumenal to the phenomenal, which anticipates revision of scientific conception while retains realism about the concrete phenomena it describes (and not just of the infamous material mass). It seems the kind of problem Badiou tried to tackle by proposing the purely extensional determination of ontology as pure multiplicity, so reality can remain structured and yet subject to continual revision at the hand of subjective intervention. Your position, I take it, is to extend this basic insight to allow for truth to smear not only through subjective intervention, but also through natural occasion."

This is indeed precisely the objective and I've discovered in Sellars some valuable resources to help attain it. I've written something that I hope responds your query:

The status of intuition in Sellars’ reconstruction of Kantianism is far from clear and while it clearly leaves no room for “pure forms of intuition”, it is not obvious (at least to me) that Sellars simply eliminates intuition, understood as non-conceptual presentation, altogether—even if he thinks we must relinquish Kant’s idea that intuitions constitute one of the two basic species of representation. Here I think one must take into consideration the significance of Sellars’ account of sensation, and try to grasp why he consistently refuses to assimilate it to conception. As is usual with Sellars, this account is pretty tortuous and often obscure, but some basic features can be extracted from it. Unlike perception, sensation cannot play any justificatory epistemic role; yet all empirical perception involves sensation. Thus perception involves a non-conceptual or sensory component as well as a conceptual component. The distinction between the two can be clarified by examining a perceptual episode involving a sensory modality like seeing. There is a difference between seeing something as something or seeing that something is the case, and seeing something of something. All seeing as or seeing that can be accounted for in terms of conceptual content: there is in principle no limit to what we can see things as or what we can see to be the case. But there is in principle a limit to what we can see of things. This limit is fixed by the structure of our sensory modalities; that of sight, in this instance. For example: I can see that this pink cube is made of ice, just as I can see it as a pink ice cube, or see that this ice cube is pink. But I do not see the iciness  of the pink cube because iciness is not a visual property of this pink cube. Neither is it a tactile, auditory, olfactory, or gustatory property—ice has certain sensible properties—coldness, smoothness, transparency, etc—but iciness itself is not a sensible property: it is an abstract, dispositional property, and as such it is never fully present in any single perceptual taking. Thus what I can sense of something is limited to its occurrent properties. Sensible qualities are actual or occurrent properties, rather than potential or dispositional ones.

The question then is of course: what are they properties of? Sellars proposes a fable about human cognitive evolution according to which our ancestors moved from a (pre-pre-Socratic) stage in which sensations were taken to constitute the very stuff of reality (a stage prior not only to the development of Socratic thing-attribute metaphysics but prior even to the elemental monism of pre-Socratic metaphysics), to one in which they are understood as dispositional properties of physical objects. Then genius Jones comes along and proposes a new, improved theory according to which sensations are no longer conceived as dispositional properties of physical objects but as non-physical entities with occurrent properties analogous to the perceptible properties of physical objects. But according to the Jonesean theory of mind, although sensings are like thoughts in being immaterial internal episodes, they cannot plausibly be integrated into psychology as mere properties of psychological states, for while thoughts are modeled on overt speech, sensations are modeled on occurrent physical properties. There is a categorial difference between thoughts and sensations concomitant with the categorial difference between the entities that serve as their theoretical models. Nevertheless, Jones’ postulation of inner episodes of sensation is a corollary of his postulation of inner episodes of thinking, and one specifically designed to account for otherwise baffling anomalies in perception and reasoning. The postulate of sensation explains discrepancies in the order of thought: perceptual illusion, irrational motivations, and other specifically psychological anomalies. Moreover, sensations are states of the perceiver that cause the conceptual episodes called perceptions: so unlike the latter, they operate within the natural-causal as opposed to normative-rational order.

Note that this entails a distinction between presentational and representational content, which means we cannot simply dissolve the former into the latter. What I see of the ice cube is ‘present’ to me in a way that differs from the way in which I represent this as a pink ice cube. The presentation of sensible content is not exhausted by the representation of conceptual content in perception; what I sense is ‘present’ for me in a way that differs from its conceptual representation. What is required says Sellars is:"an analysis of the sense in which we see of the pink ice cube its very pinkness. Here I believe sheer phenomenology or conceptual analysis takes us part of the way but finally lets us down. How far does it take us? Only to the point of assuring us that Something, somehow a cube of pink in physical space is present in the perception other than as merely believed in."('Sensa or Sensings: Reflections on the Ontology of Perception’ in Philosophical Studies 41, 83-111. The quote is from §26: 89)To say that my sensing of a pink ice cube is present in perception other than as believed in is to say that perception qua mental episode also harbours a non-conceptual residue. To acknowledge this is not to relapse back into the phenomenological myth of conscious experience as absolute, self-legitimating presentation. Rather, it is to acknowledge the reality of appearance while refusing to allow its metaphysical investiture as guide to reality. One can acknowledge the reality of phenomenal experience while refusing phenomenology’s postulated equivalence between the reality of experience and the experience of reality. This is for me among Sellars’ most profound insights and the reason why his work does not fall onto either side of the divide between conceptual idealists, who insist that experience is wholly conceptual and proclaim the unboundedness of the conceptual order, and phenomenological realists, who claim that experience’s non-conceptual reality provides the privileged medium wherein reality discloses itself. Like Kant, the challenge and difficulty of Sellars’ work lies in the way it tries to attain a point of equilibrium between the insights of rationalist idealism and those of empirical realism while resisting the tendency of each to overextend the solution fitting for one problem domain into that of another: the solution to the problem of sapience is not also the solution to the problem of sentience; the solution to the problem of sentience is not also the solution to the problem of sapience. Thus Sellars suggests that while the inferential structure of conception is necessarily immune to scientific revision (since it is the condition of revisability), the non-particulate character or essential homogeneity of sensation, which is its constitutive characteristic within the manifest image (according to the so-called ‘grain argument’) is something not yet adequately accounted for within the terms of the manifest image. Bearing in mind the essential link between sensing and phenomenal appearing, it becomes clear that the manifest understanding of sensation is also the manifest understanding of appearance. But Sellars’ account of sensation suggests that this understanding is inadequate to the phenomenon at hand and needs to be supplemented by conceptual resources proper to understanding the in-apparent: in other words, there is more to appearance than can be grasped in and through appearances.

Note the irony: while all that is required for the philosophy of mind is to render explicit what is implicit in the manifest image of thought, i.e. to develop the inferential substructure of the Jonesean theory of mind to the point where it attains full, explicit self-awareness, the philosophy of sensation cannot be satisfactorily completed within the terms of the manifest image because the Jonesean theory of sensations as inner episodes with properties analogous to those of physical objects is inadequate and invites revision at the hands of a scientific theory that will re-categorize sensations as intrinsic qualities of absolute processes. Interestingly, once this re-categorization has been carried out, the actuality or sheer ‘occurrentness’ of sensations follows from their being aspects of absolute processes. For Sellars, this re-categorization involves no concessions to vitalism or panpsychism: absolute processes are in Sellars’ terminology physical1, i.e. part of the causal nexus of space-time, while both sentient and non-sentient entities are physical2, i.e. patterns of absolute processes. But sentient organisms include absolute processes that occur only in exceptionally complex patterns of physical2 objects. Sensations or ‘sensa’ are intrinsic characteristics of this sub-species of absolute process; yet our sensory awareness of these intrinsic qualities of absolute processes is not awareness of them as these intrinsic characteristics. In other words, it is not knowledge. Sensation remains epistemically inert. Only the full development of sapience can tell us what sentience truly is.

So contrary to a prevalent impression, the critique of the Given does not license the peremptory dismissal of presentation per se (I’m not suggesting you are among those propagating this impression—it’s I who have been guilty of this in the past). It does however rule out any appeal to the supposed epistemic authority of presentation even as it grants its metaphysical status. Nor does Sellars reduce the phenomenological domain of appearance to a mere phantom of representation; his account of the phenomenon of appearance—which is necessary to account for perceptual illusion or error more generally—comprises his account of the logic of ‘looks talk’ as withdrawing endorsements of perceptual assertion in tandem with his theory of the metaphysical status of sensation. Ultimately, Sellars is concerned with developing a metaphysical vision in which not only are secondary qualities integrated and their relationship to primary qualities explained, but the articulation between the sensation of the former and the conception of the latter is also accounted for. Here I think the scope of his achievement can be gauged by comparing his account with Meillassoux’s (commendable) attempt to rehabilitate the significance of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities in After Finitude. Sellars not only deals directly these and other issues largely occluded by the post-Heideggerian continental tradition, he proposes astonishingly sophisticated solutions to them.


July 4th, 2011 - Reply to Brassier

Dear Ray,
This is all excellent; thank you for your attention and help. 

 I have been revising EPM and listening carefully to your recent presentation at Zagreb, and I was initially struck by what seemed to me to be in blatant contradiction to the idea of sensation as being "epistemically inert"; namely proposition that "x senses red content x entails x non-inferentially knows that s is red'. The key to deciphering sensing qua cognitive capacity, I take it, lies in distinguishing two explanatory levels: natural-causal and normative-inferential. The tricky thing is to understand how the distinction between the real and the logical is intra-dialectical and an acquired process, which is resolutely non-metaphysically all the same. This is basically the Sellarsian endorsement of A and C from the 'inconsistent triad', as I see it. Now, to abuse your courtesy, allow me to attempt to briefly and schematically restate the fundamentals:

1) Sensation is a cognitive faculty.
2) However, sensation is not immediately picturing the real by some pre-given or miraculous relation of adequation or congruence, i.e. it is non-inferential, thoroughly particular, and for this reason unrepeatable, but it is nevertheless acquired (proposition C of the inconsistent triad). [See appendix] 
3) Sense qua cognitive faculty nevertheless produces non-inferential knowledge which is explained in terms of natural-causal neurophysiological instantiations of the organism indexing environmental stimuli.
4) Given (2), these mechanisms are not transparently available to introspection, or accessible through an armchair a priorispeculation, but rather modeled after the sub-conscious process of sentient acquisition described in (3), which gives rise to thesapient capacity for conceptual discrimination proper to homo sapiens. 
5) The distinction between sapience and sentience, cognition and sensibility, is however a methodological one, genetically explained in terms of the univocal field of physical processes indexed by natural-causal sentience.
6) So, while methodologically the non-conceptual character of sentient conditioning remains intractable by the explanatory means of conceptual sapience (i.e. the conceptual-real distinction is a conceptual distinction), the genetic conditions for sapience are subordinated to conditions for sentient indexing.
7) The question this opens up is that of the process of modelling, which leads from a) the acculturation/conditioning of the organism's non-conceptual sensing, to the Jonesian theoretical positing of sensa as distinct from concepts.

Although this process must lead to the eventual complication of sense in accordance to the scientific image which digs beneath perceptual qualities accessible,  the process must begin by the explicit modelling of sense on perceptual qualities of the manifest register. Only latter is the process untethered from the categories of actual appearance and tethered to inapparent processes. And the modelling process, as far as I can discern, runs roughly as follows:

a) Standard conditions of conditioning allow the organism to discriminate between perceptible properties of physical objects in the manifest image which presuppose conceptual judgment.
b) The first step toward a theory of sensation is to model, by analogy, the structure of sense to that of manifest physical objects and their actual properties.
c) This modeling, however, also grounds the conceptual separation between the physical and sensation, i.e. it gauges the conceptual asymmetry between the two without thereby postulating a qualitative, ontological gap between them. This is accomplished insofar as sapience distinguishes conceptually between the particulate content of sensa and the dispositional content of natural processes, placing limits to their analogical resemblance: sensa are non-spatially extended particular occasional properties, while physical properties qua determinate universals are abstract processes which track absolute dispositional properties in objects. While the former is limited by the sensory faculties, the latter is in principle unlimited, open to the infinity of what we can postulate. [Incidentally, this entails a rehabilitation of the representationalist process of analogy in judgment castigated by Bergson, Foucault and Deleuze; but none the worse for that.]
d) However, this does not entail that physical processes are mere heuristic conceptual postulates, with no connection to the real. Rather, they are postulates analog to the third-person, inter-subjective sphere of things and persons in the manifest image, which are acquired and yet necessary for discrimination. 
e) This entails that concepts are both: i) necessary - insofar as predicates are not in perception unless judgment is there also, which requires conceptual deployment, ii) acquired - insofar as they do not exhaust the character of experience, but can actually serve to discern between the conceptual (normative domain) and the infra-conceptual (content of sensa), iii) leveling - since this discernment is one of degree and not kind, methodological rather than metaphysical. 

That sensation later can be construed as non-conceptual episodes which produce non-inferential knowledge means that while we need concepts to first model sensa on physical objects, the modelling does not produce a metaphysical dualism, but a thesis of ontological univocity grounded on a conceptual dualism, i.e. methodological dualism grounds ontological univocity. At this juncture one may ask how exactly the modelling of sensa 'amends' the original picture of perceptual physical properties in things, i.e. how is the original modelling on perceptual properties qua determinate universals to determinate particulars constituting an 'amendment'? And I think the answer, following what's laid above, is that:

f) It constitutes an amendment insofar as it refuses to conflate the particularity of sentient non-inferential natural-causal registering with conceptuality or normative deliberation in the logical space of reasons, i.e. sense amends the theory of perception by distinguishing a non-conceptual residue which, being cognitive and yet non-inferential, is subject to the domain of natural causality as opposed to that of normative rationality. So Sellars methodologically separates the epistemological framework of conceptual understanding which preconditions sapience with the sentient domain of the natural sciences, while acknowledging that the former ontologically presupposes the latter, and is in fact only derived from it after a process of complex evolution and local conditioning.

This means: thoughts are real just like objects, and arise amidst them, but are qua thoughts justified within a different explanatory framework: sensa are modelled on the actual properties of physical objects, while concepts are modelled on overt speech. The former track natural-causal dispositional processes of physical objects on the basis of determinable perceptual episodes, while the latter track the conceptual, linguistic uses within normative contexts, and constitute the logical space of reasons. This gap obtains from the different conceptual modelling between things and thoughts: the former model determinate universal physical laws which remain repeatable, within the determinate particularity of sensa.  The latter model words with other sets of words within linguistic use.

Strangely enough, this seems to pair physical-perceptual properties with 'abstract', conceptual postulates wrested from the categories of the manifest image. The real composes both thoughts and things, while they differ in their explanatory models; a distinction that ontologically only pertains to degrees and not kind. This is where, however, the Jonesian modelling process, being still tethered to the perceptual concepts of the manifest image must be expanded; sentience can be amplified to incorporate the processes of sensa by tracking the latter's non-inferential status not in analogy to the apparent processes of perceptible physical objects, but in unapparent complex processes of the latter..

The obvious question, at this juncture, becomes then how we exactly arrive after Jones' theory of sense as non-physical particulars, to model the sub-perceptual domain of physical processes which underlie the perceptible properties of the manifest image.

This is where Jones and Sellars part way, insofar as the latter thinks we must supplement the manifest analysis of appearance to account for the non-apparent processes which are left implicit in the manifest order of sense: that is, the theory of sensation is to be modified to model not perceptible properties of the manifest register, but sub-representational mechanisms which, while made available to us through sense, are in no way reducible to the phenomenal order of the manifest image. This requires sapience to unveil the physical sub-representational mechanisms through which sentience makes itself possible the genesis of sapience. This implies a negotiation with the categories of the manifest image which is not straightforwardly reductive or eliminative, and at least non-subordinate to it anymore. So while the modeling of sensa of the manifest image is a first step, the breach between the conceptual and the causal, sapience and sentience, also allow us to use the resources of the former to allow the latter to explain itself. And all this, on condition that the normative provides the conditions for scientific revision of concepts, a framework that is itself non-revisable since it provides the conditions of reviseability. 

In any case, I think that might be closer to the spirit of Sellars' argument. Thank you for your time Ray.

All the best,


 The Inconsistent Triad
A. x senses red sense content s entails x non-inferentially knows
that s is red.
B. The ability to sense sense contents is unacquired.
C. The ability to know facts of the form x is ø is acquired.
A and B together entail not-C; B and C entail not-A; A and C
entail not-B.

Sellars will accept A and C but reject B.


I want to thank Ray Brassier for his willingness to respond to my questions and observations.

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