martes, 11 de septiembre de 2012

Lacan, Zizek, Badiou: Why Sellars Matters in These Debates?


Why Sellars Matters In These Debates?


As a response to my last post about Zizek's claims to realism, and my latest post on the theoretical cogency of psychoanalysis, I have been receiving some critical commentary, all roughly along the same lines. Characteristically, by my friends Levi Bryant, and Javier Urbina, all defend Lacan from my criticisms. As far as I can gauge, the main criticisms are that:

a) Lacan, and by extension Zizek, are not interested in a notion of the Real like that of philosophers. Therefore that the questions about realism raised by people like Meillassoux or Brassier, concerning our access to the in-itself, are not to be conflated with Lacan's own questions.

b) Badiou, similarly, has no analogous concept of the Real as impossible, but rather of Being as inconsistent, which is radically different, and should not be identified.

Levi wrote the following:

"You treated psychoanalytic practice in terms of knowledge, presupposing a set of transcendent criteria for evaluating it, missing the entire point that the psychoanaytic clinic is a site of evental truth and a truth-procedure for the analysand that undergoes it. The psychoanalytic clinic is not after *knowledge*, nor does the analyst *have knowledge*. The psychoanalytic clinic is after that which *escapes* knowledge and language. This is what the term "subject" means in psychoanalysis. Subject is precisely that which is in excess of any linguistic category and that through this excess generates a series of signifying effects as language strives to gentrify it."
In private, a friend wrote the following:

"Dear Daniel,

I just read your post on realism and your critique of Zizek which is very good and makes an excellent point about how Lacanians (and Zizek) in general are trying to enter into the debates started by the speculative realists/materialists/etc. I have a few questions though, I hope you don't my launching directly into criticism.

Perhaps the real -subject/object issues are not really the same between the Lacanians and, say, Brassier. This is one of those situations where the question already defines the answer. This is ultimately Zizek's error but I think you err precisely in taking him too seriously. To be specific, Lacan's Real occurs within an economy of the symbolic and imaginary: the barred subject faced with objet a does not correspond to those discussions of the real being addressed in realism, neither ontologically nor epistemologically. The legacy of structuralism is right here: the price we pay for the generation of semantic distribution is the alienation from the real.

Zizek's point precisely is that it is this precise exchange that is the real. I would disagree here with your paragraph that starts "put simply". If Zizek and other Lacanians want to argue that the rule is precisely a fracture within discourse itself (barred S <-> a) and that is what truth is: well obviously there is no real conversation to be had with Sellars, Brassier, etc. We are talking about different things.

Now we get to your brief comment about Badiou. I would say that the matheme does not touch the real in Badiou because there is no real. Being, yes. Truth, yes. Knowledge, yes. No real. What is more important is that despite all the differences between Badiou and the Lacanians, they share on this point that you are criticizing. That is: for Badiou the very possibility of ontology is rooted in the inaccesibility of the unity that underlies the Parmenidean condition in its original meaning: what is not one, is not. By arguing that the one is not, mathematics doesn't really "touch" the real. What it does is fully flesh out what is being "not one". This is a version, again, of Zizek's point, which locates being (if we want to call that "real") on its incapacity to be grasped "adequately" or "qua ens".

Having said this about Badiou, I want to empahsize again that I do not think there is a real in Badiou nor do I think that he can play any significant role in these discussions. The problem is that they talk past each other.

Let me know what you think of these brief reflections.

Hope you are well.

Despite the pertinence of these rejoinders, I think my original criticisms, if read carefully, anticipate these potential rebuttals, and show that nevertheless the indicated problems remain for these thinkers. But I thought I might use this as a way to clarify what I think is precisely at stake in the axis composed by Zizek, Lacan and Badiou, in spite of their differences.  Predictably, Hegel turns out to play a somewhat important role here.

I - Zizek and Lacan: Why it's not just a different question

As indicated above, the main problem both Levi and my friend indicated apropos my reading of Lacan and Zizek, is that I illegitimately import standards proper to the concept of the Real in contemporary realist debates, and which are enveloped by ontological and epistemological concerns, with Lacan's psychoanalytic concepts. Levi targets the residual concern with representation in my account; my other friend, in turn, simply indicated that the Real couldn't be thought of as pertaining to a mind-independent reality, and therefore couldn't be judged in accordance to standards set by philosophers in regards to that problematic. 

With regards to Lacan and Zizek, I think a few observations are in order. I certainly agree in that Lacan does not want to formulate his thinking about the Real in epistemological, or indeed ontological, terms. Nevertheless, I think it is important to distinguish between what an author says they are doing and what they effectively end up doing; or put differently, between what they want to say and what they commit themselves to saying. I recently wrote in more extensive length why I think that, in spite of Lacan's 'anti-philosophical' attempts to wrest the theory of desire that psychoanalysis produces away from classical ontologico-epistemological concerns, he ends up effectively cornered into a sort of methodological quandary, that results from the elision of representation. Finally, I think that this quandary demands, in spite of its protestations to the contrary, from us to read Lacan as moving within a philosophical register, which indeed implicitly relies on representation.

       With that said, I think that Lacan's account of the Real is certainly ambiguous: on the one hand, we have the structuralist adherence to the immanence of the signifier, and therefore of the articulation of desire between the imaginary and the symbolic. On the other hand, we have a conception of the Real as that which resists symbolization, and of the recalcitrance of Real desire to the order of the signifier. But how to attempt to give an account of this separation between the Real and the symbolic-imaginary, without thereby ontologizing desire, in its structural coupling between the barred subject and the Real object? My contention is that, beginning from Seminar XI onwards, Lacan begins to flirt with the idea that mathematization allows precisely for this kind of operation. On the one hand, as Russell had already noted, the matheme subtracts itself from the order of the symbolic, because it is not inherently meaningful. Thus, we cannot 'translate' mathematical formulas or their syntactical composition into ontological, or epistemological terms. Of course, for Lacan, this is precisely a crucial requirement in dislodging psychoanalysis from (ego)-psychology, which continues to reify the subject as an individual, and which must therefore tacitly remain encumbered in the imaginary-symbolic envelopment of the signifier, and of the symptom. 

What the matheme offers, in turn, is a non-translatable formal ideography recalcitrant to such operations. But the question then becomes about how we can distinguish between the Real of the mathematic inscription, and that of the Real phenomenon or 'Real desire' that psychoanalysis is in the process of providing a theory of. And my claim is that this forces Lacan, and consequently Zizek, into a methodological quandary. On the one hand, it is clear that he cannot avow for the separation between Real inscription and Real phenomenon without reactivating the distinction between representing and represented, signifier and signified, that marks epistemological discourse. On the other hand, it seems clear that if psychoanalysis is to be a theory of desire, rather than just another phantasy, circulating around its own proper impossible object, the formalizations it carries out and the claims it makes about desire cannot be identical to the Real desire that the analyst is set to deal with in practice. This is because if we conflate the generality of the statements/formulas with the analytic transference with the analysand, then the theoretical practice that psychoanalysis embodies, and the clinical practice, become conflated. But short of accounting for this separation, it renders suspect the theoretical status of psychoanalysis, purporting to have done away with representation.

So the question becomes: what is the relation between these three crucial levels:

a) The Real of desire, in its structural coupling between the barred subject, and the object-cause.

b) The claims of psychoanalysis, that are still formulated by way of the signifier.
c) The formulas of psychoanalysis, that formalize the structures described by those claims.

And I think here is where Lacan must tacitly rely on both an ontologization of Real desire, on the one hand, and an epistemological account of the relation between the claims that psychoanalysis makes, the formulas it produces, and the Real phenomena that these claims describe. For the matheme would be truly 'meaningless', and couldn't count as a formalization of anything, unless psychoanalytic discourse and claims held a prerogative when describing the general structure of desire. But what sets this prerogative for psychoanalysis, considering that Lacan insists that there is no 'meta-language', and that, like structuralism demands, the signifier does never reach out onto things, but defers invariably to other signifiers, eliding any representationalism? And by the same token, how are we to understand the difference between the formal reality of desire and the subject, which 'slides through the signifying chains' tethered to the formal vacuity of the impossible object, and the formalization of psychoanalytic claims? My position is then that although Lacan wants to say that 'Real desire' preconditions its objectification in discourse, it is actually the objectification of desire in psychoanalytic discourse which conditions the reification of desire as Real, and the matheme as adequate to its formalization. These are the relevant passages from my paper, which begin by a statement from Lacan, and which the reader should obviate in case they have read the paper in the past, or if they so wish to forward to the conclusions:


"There is a fundamental ambiguity in the use we make of the word 'desire'. Sometimes we objectify it- and we have to do so, if only to talk about it. On the contrary sometimes we locate it as the primitive term, in relation to any objectification." (S2, pp. 225) This ambiguity is not trivial whatsoever. For if desire must be objectified in order to be spoken about, in what sense is it any different than any of the other terms that philosophers or scientists purportedly use to describe phenomena of all kinds, desire included? How are we to understand the claim that desire is simultaneously of the order of signifier and that which conditions any objectification whatsoever? How to address the Real of the libidinal subject and the Real of the object if, like Zizek insists, "There is no ontology of the Real: the very field of ontology, of the positive order of Being the Real are mutually exclusive: The Real is the immanent blockage or impediment of the order of being, what makes the order of Being inconsistent..." (LTN; Pg. 958). 

         This problem is particularly acute: Lacan insists that desire cannot be ontologised. But then what is it that psychoanalytic theory is doing when they 'objectify' desire "if only to speak of it"? How could such an act constitute anything but the making of an ontological valence? Despite his precautions, by flattening the symbolically enveloped epistemological relation between knowing individual and known object into the relation between the Real of the unconscious subject and the impossible object, Lacan seems to be effectively ontologizing the relation between the desire and its object-cause. The deflection of the transcendental relation between words and things at the level of the symbolic is coupled to a reification of the relation between the desiring subject and desired object, at the point where the Real of both becomes indiscernible. The Real of desire appears thereby as the ontologization of the relation between the Real subject and the Real object, as the distinction between them becomes a nullity. Desire as precondition for symbolic-ideal objectification is the reification of the transcendental correlation between subject and object, by reducing it to a formal difference allegedly intractable by conceptual means. For psychoanalysis to be a theory of desire, it's symbolically enveloped statements must conditioned by Real desire, rather than statements being the condition for mere 'talk' about the Real. For the latter would merely duplicate the philosophical 'myths' in question.

        Yet to claim that desire is not just one more signifier in the commerce of the symbolic, but rather the enabling condition for signification and objectivation, is once again to reactivate the relation between signifier and signified, only this time in terms of desire as Real precondition for objects understood as linguistically individuated posits.  In other words, although Lacan has done away with the transcendental relation of reference at the level of the symbolic, he still depends on such connection between the Real of desire, in its formal vacuity suspended in the subject-object polarity, as the condition of possibility for the symbolic individuation of the signifier. This is to covertly ontologise desire as an Aristotelian 'first mover', as the 'ground of being', as Ineffable Being stripped even of the honor of the name. And since symbolic objectification occurs on condition of the Real unobjectifiable cause, it follows that even the theory of desire, that psychoanalysis purports to advance, is conditioned on separation between the claims and formulas about desire, and desire itself.  In other words, if Lacan claims that the objectification of desire relates to a pre-objectified desire, then he has reactivated the referential relation between signifier and signified, sign and referent, in the dichotomy between objectual desire-for-us and unobjectifiable desire-in-itself. This surrenders Lacan to a bizarre, libidinal paradox of Kantianism. But to do that he must once again rehabilitate not just the ontological valence of desire as such, but the epistemological valence of the relation between desire's objectification in language and the depths of the desire that it bridges us to in the act of theorizing it, that is, in the making of claims and formulas that express it or which are about it. It is impossible to understand Lacan's claim that desire is a 'precondition' for its objectification unless one reenacts this philosophical cunning of the original psychoanalytic coup against philosophy and science. 


First, a possible answer is to leave it open that psychoanalysis may gain traction with respect to Real desire, via the objectification of the signifier. That is, the signifier might grant access to desire as an unknowable, unobjectifiable, but nevertheless thinkable condition of possibility for signification (a variety of 'weak correlationism'[1]). Under this light, Lacan's account of desire as Real precondition begins to startlingly resemble the minimal realism of Heidegger, for whom the opaqueness of the Earth qua unobjectifiable being stands as necessarily refractory to the variegated structure of Worldhood, with its populating entities and individuations at the ontic level. Real desire would be the proto-ontological motor conditioning, ironically, the merely ontic register of being and the symbolic investment of symptoms. The early Lacan seems to indicate this much when he claims in a rather cryptic passage: "Desire... is the desire for nothing namable... this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation. If being were only what it is there wouldn't be room to talk about it. Being comes into existence as an exact function of this lack." (SII, pp 223). This is the direction in which the later Lacan, through his idea of the Real as that which resists symbolization, seems to have succumbed, as we shall see below[2].

          Alternatively, in this first re-philosophizing scenario, the structure of desire remains epistemically accessible without residue, but confined to the signifying order, in which case Lacan is involved in a bizarre structuralist parody of textual idealism. Yet as we surmised above, this cannot be done, strictly speaking, without a qualitative distinction that vitiates the structural uniformity of the signifier. In other words, it requires a qualitative distinction within the order of the signifier, a typology that sets those signs which map the structure of desire from those which are merely within the libidinal commerce of phantasy, and so those which are theorized by the former in expressing their conditions of possibility. Both options in this scenario rehabilitate the philosophical spooks that Lacan took to have demoted, at the price of reactivating the possibility of a special kind of reference or relation between signifiers, apart from the articulation of the four discourses, and with it one must accept the neutral possibility of attaining the status of a 'meta-language' to save psychoanalytic theory from itself.

        The second alternative, foreclosing the explanatory purchase on desire, and leaving the exteriority of Real desire unthinkable, shuns the status of psychoanalysis as a theory and surrenders it to a sophistic endeavor marking its internal contradiction (a variety of strong correlationism). This is the tragedy that we surmised above, when showing that psychoanalysis couldn't even surrender its rights to knowledge if it fully relinquishes its epistemic vocation, and the possibility of distinguishing between Real desire and its theorization. For in this scenario, the Lacanian edifice ends up undermining itself, rendering the conceptual endeavor it pursues into utter incoherence, the knowledge of desire undermining its theorization, and the theorization of desire undermining the possibility of knowledge of it[3].

         As we suggested above, however, Lacan seems to have progressively realized that he couldn't do without explaining how a theory of Real desire relies on such a conceptual envelopment, as evinced in a particularly telling passage: "[Our] conception of the concept implies that the concept is always established in an approach that is not unrelated to that which is imposed on us, as a form, by infinitesimal calculus. Indeed, if the concept is modeled on an approach to the reality that the concept has been created to apprehend, it is only by a leap a passage to the limit, that it manages to realize itself. We are then required to say in what respect- under what form of finite quantity, I would say- the conceptual elaboration known as the unconscious may be carried out." (SXI: pp. 19) The metaphor is that of an asymptotic approach to the Real via the matheme, forever removed from the concept's touch.

            Yet at this point, signaling both the beginning of a mathematical obsession and that of a poetic escape, Lacan begins to opt for the first horn of the dilemma and to surrender psychoanalysis to what appears under all lights to be a re-philosophizing of its fundamental task, along with the valence of knowing. A passion for the purity of formalization and the inscription, which begins sliding down to the notion that the matheme is closest to the Real. The matheme becomes the receptacle of a pure transmission, insofar as formalization subtracts writing from its conceptual envelopment, prizing it free from any semblance of meaning or intention. This is why, for Lacan, "The mathematical formalization of signifierness runs counter to meaning." (SXX, pp. 93) The matheme is said to be closest to the Real insofar as it formalizes while symbolizing nothing: it has a Real status insofar as it cannot be positivized in a representation. The Real subtracts itself from all positive content and all imaginary-symbolic envelopments; it is delivered only to the pure act of transmission, the transference of the analyst's intervention which opens the promise for the traversal of the phantasy. Just like the subject, there can be thus no theoretical knowledge of the Real: the latter cannot be totalized or unified by a predicate, or thought of consistently through definable properties. Therefore, it cannot be qualitatively determined so as to be tractable conceptually: "If there is a notion of the real, it is extremely complex and, because of this, incomprehensible, it cannot be comprehended in a way that would make an All out of it."[4] What formalization enables, Lacan wants to say, is not a representation of desire and so of a knowledge about the Real, but rather an experience or 'act' with respect the Real, a possibility for transference in analysis: "Truth cannot convince, knowledge becomes act.[5]" (Ibid; Pg. 104)

          And yet, as we saw, as much as the matheme itself remains recalcitrant to the symbolic, it is just as true that Lacan cannot dispense of the task of deploying the matheme to formalize psychoanalytic concepts and structures. Lacan himself says that the formalization is the formalization of the signifier: of whatever is articulated through the signifier, psychoanalytic claims included. But if mathematics can operate to formalize psychoanalysis, this is because formalization operates over the concepts and claims that psychoanalysis deploys. But in order for psychoanalytic claims and concepts to be any more apt for the formalization which 'touches the Real' of desire, then the claims of psychoanalysis must be in some respect peculiarly related to the Real of the unconscious, or else the formalization would appear arbitrarily dependant on a discursive register. Yet the on what methodological grounds could we assess whether psychoanalytic enjoy this priority, if not epistemological or semantic?

         At this juncture, the claim that the matheme resists translation is merely to refuse to explain how it is that it functions as a formalization adequate to the statements of psychoanalysis, and which concern the Real as much as the symbolic or the imaginary. The matheme is said not to obey the norms of knowledge or enter into the rule of the symbolic, but at the same time is coordinated with a series of theoretical interpretations, granting it rights before the Real. But what grounds this proximity between the matheme and the Real, as regulated by psychoanalytic concepts? Without explaining this connection, psychoanalysis fails to adequately account for the relation between the practice of formalization and the theoretical statements which provide the semantic interpretation for the mathematical formulas. For the psychoanalyst needs not only the matheme which is recalcitrant to meaning, but a series of theoretical claims explaining how the matheme formalizes certain structures. Without this connection, any mathematical inscription cannot count as the formalization of anything, is truly 'meaningless', and there would be nothing to distinguish pure mathematical forms from Real psychic structures[6]. This would render psychoanalysis complicit with a kind of Pythagorean upsurge. Just like unobjectifiable desire was 'objectified' in theory only to speak of it, the Real non-translatability of the matheme is translated by psychoanalytic theory since, without such a theorization, the matheme could not stand for the formalization of anything whatsoever. The interesting paradox is therefore that although in order for the matheme to be non-translatable to any discursive register that operates under the symbolic it must, paradoxically, be able to be translated into the conceptual register of psychoanalysis, for the latter provides the interpretation without which, the abstract terms would fail to account for anything.

         What this evinces is that psychoanalysis ultimately is forced to speak of the Real ambiguously: in one sense it said to pertain to formalization in its untranslatable dimension, and in another to desire as the unobjectifiable condition for any discourse. It is precisely at this juncture that the unobjectifiable Real of desire, touched only in the act of transference, is mediated by a tacit separation from the matheme that ordains it, evincing a division that psychoanalysis ultimately cannot resolve.  Much like for Heidegger Being qua the unobjectifiable opaqueness of the Earth cannot be apprehended conceptually but must be delivered to the poetic word of the thinker and the act of the artist, the Real qua unobjectifiable opaqueness of desire cannot be known but must be delivered to the epistemic opaqueness of the matheme and the transference occasioned by the analyst in act. As Lacan puts it: "Mathematization alone reaches a real - and it is in that respect that it is compatible with our discourse, with analytic discourse- a real that has nothing to do with what traditional knowledge has served as a basis for, which is not what the latter believes it to be- namely, reality, but rather phantasy... The Real, I will say, is the mystery of the speaking body, the mystery of the unconscious." (SXX; pp. 131)

          However, the call for the bodily act signals also the inevitable moment of loss for explanation, the moment in which, no longer capable of separating the thought of the Real from the Real itself, one must surrender all theoretical pretences and en-act the traversal itself, a clinical pilgrimage before the inflections of the symptom through the lessons of formalization. The discursive access to knowing-that becomes delivered to the oblique efficacy of  non-discursive know-how. This is how we should coordinate these two seemingly disparate statements from Lacan: "There is some rapport of being that cannot be known" (SXX, pp. 119, TM), and "If analysis rests on a presumption, it is that knowledge about [subjective] truth can be constituted on the basis of its experience" (Ibid, pp. 91). The impossibility of a knowledge of being is but the obverse of the possibility of knowing how to speak in bringing about the transference. Or as Badiou formulates it: "The paradoxical position of Lacan concerning truth is that there is no knowledge of truth, but finally there is a psychoanalytic knowledge concerning this absence of knowledge. This is the great paradox of the unconscious...a subject can have an experience of its proper Real only in the form of an act." (Badiou, 2010)

       The levels must be clearly demarcated: the analytic transference enjoins the traversal of the phantasy and is supported by the formalization of the symbolic by the matheme. But as we have seen, the operation of formalization which demarcates the positions and structures is in turn supported by the conceptual register of psychoanalytic theory itself. Lacan can thus claim that: "It is in the very act of speaking that makes this formalization, this ideal meta-language, ex-sist." (SXX, Ibid; pp 119) The two Reals glare forth in their unresolved difference: the pure form of the mathematic inscription, recalcitrant to incorporation within the symbolic order of language, and Real of desire in the passage to the pure act that deposes all representational knowledge, where the traversal of the phantasy takes place. As Badiou stresses: "This act is like a cut in language and also a cut in the ordinary representation of the world- a representation which is imaginary. So the act suddenly isolates the Real from its normal collection to the imaginary and symbolic orders." (Badiou, 2010).


    I encourage readers to take a look at the rest of the paper, since there I develop my reading and case in much more thorough fashion. 

With regards to Badiou, I think that he basically appropriates the structuralist move that Lacan makes apropos psychoanalysis into a philosophical register. Thus, the matheme is, for Badiou, adequate to the thinking of being qua being, because it resists translation into transcendental terms, thereby refusing envelopment by 'bourgeois epistemology'. The latter, as one does well to note, remains encumbered in the "third dogma of empiricism" that distinguishes between form and content, and which thereby conditions all forms of 'naturalist' epistemology and ontology, even still in the case of Quine. But Badiou goes further than this, because he avows explicitly the extensional core of set-theory to resist intensionality, which for him is what remains of Aristotelian essences in mathematized logic. Thus, the mathematization of being allows him to subtract the latter from the One, or render it 'inconsistent', insofar as it refuses any qualitative determination. This works to simultaneously deflate the (Kantian and post-Kantian) transcendental problematic of the distinction between thought and reality, or form and content, in favor of an immanent ontology of the pure multiple, and later a phenomenology with a 'subjectless object'. Yet the price to be paid for this liquidation of 'empirical content' is an ontological reification of form or ideality, which results in an endorsement of a form of the Parmenidean thesis according to which being and thinking are one and the same. And at this juncture, Lacan and Badiou meet again: in conversation, Badiou told me that precisely because one cannot distinguish between mathematic inscription and being-in-itself, the matheme is 'closest to the Real'. 

   But in my estimation, if epistemic indiscernibility ensues as a criterion for ontological identity, then short of rendering possible a materialism, Badiou has reified, like Plato and Hegel before him, the intelligible at the price of eviscerating sensibility and content. This is the invariable result that obtains when one folds the epistemic into the ontological, or logic and metaphysics, as Hegel shows. Nevertheless, if one cannot distinguish between our thought or inscriptions about being and being as such, then we yield a form of Platonist idealism, which becomes difficult to differentiate from Pythagoreanism. Indeed, in conversation with Luke Fraser and Ray Brassier, I have become increasingly convinced that, in spite of his extraordinary advances in Logics of Worlds, the fundamental problem in Badiou continues to be the articulation between mathematical and non-mathematical situations, so as to avoid reifying mathematics ontologically (like he claims from the start).

   Yet whereas in B&E the articulation between the ontological and non-ontological was tantamount to the distinction between the mathematical and non-mathematical, where the latter was theorized through the former by a process of analogy (like Lyotard, Deleuze, and others claimed), in LOW Badiou proceeds to give a mathematical formalization of the consistency of Worlds, or non-ontological situations, so that the crucial connection then becomes the articulation between set-theoretical ontology, and category-theoretical phenomenology. In spite of these advances, I believe that the fundamental question about the relation between the mathematical and the non-mathematical remains, and forced him into a quandary not unlike that of Lacan. That is, if Badiou wants to claim there is such a thing as non-mathematical reality, not of the order of being, but rather the 'unthinkable' or 'unknowable' by cognitive means, then he has committed himself to a form of correlationism. I am afraid this is the position that one would have to draw if the claim that Badiou is simply 'not concerned with the Real' in any sense analogous to that proper to transcendental philosophers holds. But if Badiou wants to eviscerate any notion of inscription-independent reality altogether, as Hegel does, then he has effectively endorsed a form of Pythagoreanism, where all situations, ontological and non-ontological, must be mathematized. It is the latter which, I think, ultimately must be Badiou's position, in spite of his ambiguous proviso that the claim that ontology is set-theory is a claim about discourse, and not about the world.

Now, the reason why I think Sellars is important for these discussions, and where I think some crucial cross-breeding can be done, is that he proposes to reconcile nominalism about semantics, with realism about ontology. He thus proposes to offer an account that, like structuralism, does not appeal to a relation between words-things to flesh out semantic proprieties, in turn offering a full blown inferentialist semantics, while at the same time advocating a process ontology of his own. I am currently working on a paper explaining how precisely this works, and what I think is most valuable about this strategy; but the basic idea I would like to extirpate from it is the following one:

We can agree with Badiou in that materialism, indeed philosophy, requires the rehabilitation of the Platonic axis between truth and doxa, in order to stave off the (neo)-sophistic conflation of the former into the latter. But I think it is also important to understand Badiou's work as operating on the second crucial Platonic axis distinguishing between reality and appearance, in terms of the intelligible and the sensible. I think that Badiou, like Plato and Hegel, proposes to identify reality or 'being' with intelligibility, and demote sensibility to appearance or doxa. In the three philosophers, what we obtain is a trivialization of sensibility as that which is not real, at the price of reifying ideality ontologically, in order to save rationalism from the phenomenological reification of being as an irrational Otherness, only tractable by poetic-practical means.

The Sellarsian alternative proposes, in turn, rather to insist on the reality of appearances, while rendering this reality fully intelligible, while refusing to reify ideality metaphysically. We can understand the ontological valence of appearances, as part of objective reality, without thereby forcing us into separating, in dualist spirits, between the ideal and the real.  Now, this is not to say all reality is sensible, which is the panpsychist hypothesis. Rather, it means that sensibility can be both a) ontologically investigated, and b) that it conditions our knowledge about the external world. Realism obtains precisely by refusing the ontological reification of the sensible or the intelligible, while recognizing the logical irreducibility of the intelligible, while its causal reducibility. The trick then consists in finding out a way of preserving a positive role for sensibility to anchor us to the mind-independent world, without thereby render it ubiquitous. And this requires, in turn, that we distinguish between the semantic-epistemic conditions under which we can talk and adjudicate claims about the real, and the positive metaphysical claims that result once we have cleared up our semantics. Finally, Sellars will propose to think of the connection between language and the world in terms of a non-semantic relation or 'picturing' which, developing on the work of Wittgenstein, seeks to establish how second-order isomorphy obtains between matter-of-factual claims qua 'natural linguistic objects' and real objects and events in the world. 

     The details here are complex, as ever with Sellars, but the major result is that in persisting on the Kantian methodological distinction between reasons and causes, while refusing their metaphysical separation, we can understand how while there is an ontological priority of the logical on the natural (without proper evolutionary conditions sapience wouldn't obtain), there is an epistemological priority of the natural on the logical (only sapient creatures who inhabit the logical space of reasons can adjudicate claims, and undertake normative statuses required for knowledge). In short, the Sellarsian alternative proposes to preserve the distinction between form and content, in the name of a revisionary naturalism, that avoids reifying intelligibility at the price of evacuating sensibility (idealism: Plato, Hegel, Badiou), or reifying sensibility at the price of demolition intellection (Bergson, Deleuze...).

      I think here some crucial work can be done in tandem with both psychoanalysis and Badiou. The former integrate a thinking of how libidinal structures are both causally and normatively constitutively binding the Real practices and transference, and the symbolic. The latter provides a formal account of change relative to structural conditions by modeling truth on generic sets, defusing the romantic exuberance tethered to creation 'ex nihilo', which including post-Kuhnean approaches reifying change and discontinuity in the way of instrumentalizing science. Incidentally, this is also a fertile ground to assimilate insight by people such as Ladyman and Ross, who further the case against instrumentalist approaches by insisting that discontinuity at the level of content in scientific theories is underwritten by continuity at the level of form. I think if can sort out the pragmatics with the semantics here we can integrate both approaches beyond the strict axiomatics of mathematical Platonist approaches, while opening the playing field for a discussion of not only traditional epistemic practices governed by standard proprieties of inference, but all sorts of intricate articulations. In a larger scheme, I am looking to amplify the Brandomian project of integrating pragmatics with semantics, with the Badiouean project of providing a synoptic ontology-phenomenology adequate to the articulation of different thought procedures. 

miércoles, 5 de septiembre de 2012

Response to Levi Bryant: On Methodology and Dispositions

On Methodology and Dispositions

   Levi has recently made some preliminary comments about my article-review, published recently in the new issue of the journal Speculations. I thought I would use his response as an opportunity to say a few things left pending after writing the review, as well as to respond to some of Levi’s salient worries about the first half of the paper.

I – Behind Doors
Before tackling the philosophical issues, and considering that Levi begins his post with some rather generous comments, I thought I should reiterate my general opinion on Bryant’s work, and his temperament as a philosopher. Levi’s work has been a perpetual source of inspiration for us, aspiring philosophers, for many reasons. I think his appetite for learning from new sources, his intoxicating passion for philosophy, and his willingness to reinvent his positions time and time again, are all examples of philosophical virtue. His blog has been a constant reference point, sometimes crystallizing better than most secondary literature on the subject, the views of some notoriously obscure figures from the Continental tradition. He has a virtue for demystifying the impenetrable nature of philosophy, making it approachable and fascinating. It is no wonder that his work has become a source of inspiration for many outside the academia, and his sometimes fastidious insistence in that philosophy should always listen to what occurs outside of its academic ivory walls, is invaluable advice.

    As someone who has been deeply influenced by Badiou, as Levi notes in his post, I find such an attitude in tune with what I take to be a necessary part of any truly contemporary disposition in philosophy: it can only recover its synoptic ambition by being attentive to the procedures that condition it, and which occur independently of it. For all of these reasons, Levi has been, and continues to be, a mandatory interlocutor and someone for whom I feel much warmth and admiration. So hopefully, we can continue having a philosophical conversation without vitiating our mutual respect and affection. With that said, I want to address some of the philosophical issues raised by Levi, in response to my review-piece.

II -  On  Philosophical Methodology

    It is no secret by now that Levi expresses much hostility to philosophical schools which emphasize the need and importance of epistemology, at least as the latter has been understood by the post-Kantian analytic tradition, and more recently, by some of those who try to integrate concerns proper to this tradition with questions and ideas proper to the Continental tradition. In his book, Levi targets what he labels ‘epistemological realisms’, which emphasizes the idea that realism ought to begin by an examination of the conditions under which we can say that thought gains traction on being, rather than by an examination of being itself.

     But Levi also targets all forms of anti-realism that result from an exacerbation of critique, such as has been emblematic of many Continental figures during the 20th Century, some of which are among Levi’s own intellectual heroes.

    This brings me to my first point: I think that Levi often construes epistemology as complicit with forms of anti-realism, or at the very least, that it collides with the prospect of giving a realist philosophy by way of ontological premises. But it should be always remembered that the anti-realisms that are in the process of being examined also include the positions of philosophers who thought they were restituting the priority of ontology in some form or other.

    Of course, Levi himself is well aware that the term ontology acquires a somewhat different meaning in the work of someone like Heidegger, where it becomes more a radicalization of the question of access rather than a positive metaphysical program. And I think that while Levi subscribes himself to the critiques advanced by such Continental figures against epistemology proper, he thinks that the preponderance of the question of access remains complicit with anti-realist thought. Nevertheless, epistemological realism remains the main point of contrast to his own ontological realism

   Levi expresses that he is somewhat amenable to my points about realist epistemology, and even that these might end up nurturing his thought in unforeseen ways. For this I am humbled, and grateful. Nevertheless, I should say that my concern in the review was not so much to defend a version of epistemological realism, but simply to say that epistemology as a whole is not susceptible to some of the objections that Levi proposes. In the book, Levi criticizes the priority of epistemology mainly by referencing the work of Roy Bhaskar, and against classical empiricist accounts which relativize knowledge to the givenness of perceptual or sensory data. My rejoinders to this part of Levi’s strategy were simply to indicate both that Bhaskar’s arguments for ontological realism are questionable when motivating realism, and that there exist a multiplicity of epistemological accounts that do not seem sensitive to the criticisms Levi levels against classical empiricist epistemology.

   Levi expresses himself somewhat strongly with respect to what he takes to be accusations of irrationalism that function more like a Stalinist bullying, and emphasizes that we just have different questions in mind, and different concerns. He ends his piece in a somewhat effusive declaration, which I quote:

Daniel takes this claim as the claim I think everything is up to individual, subjective, human whim. Indeed, the claim that everything is up to individual whim is a claim that Daniel often attributes to me. I’m surprised by this and wonder if Daniel has read Koyre, Lakatos, and Kuhn. All I’m pointing out when I say such a thing is that certain research projects are incommensurable with one another. I’m surprised that Daniel, who has read and been influenced by Badiou so deeply, has difficulty seeing this point. Daniel seems to miss the point that the Galilean who has resolved to try to see if nature can be mathematized, cannot respond to questions within the Aristotlean-Ptolemaic context.”

 Indeed, one of the lessons I have learned from Badiou is that philosophy should be sensitive to paradigm shifts (to use Kuhn’s phrase), that it should develop a dialectics of change, and that it must include a theory of novelty and creation. But I do not believe that the reasons for why I insist on epistemology are explained because I am still operating within an Aristotelian framework, while Levi in a post-Galilean one. To understand this, I should perhaps say a few words about my own philosophical history, which might resonate with some of the affective declarations Levi makes.

      I started my studies in a Continental-oriented department in Peru, where philosophy was mostly aligned with the social sciences rather than with the ‘scientific’ vision proper to analytic schools, and where figures like Heidegger, the late Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Habermas were most influential. I remember at one point my good friend and excellent philosopher Erich Luna (who runs the blog Vacio) came to me with an article on Plato by Gail Fine, from Cornell. Fine was my first explicit encounter with contemporary analytic philosophy, and at the time I couldn’t but feel that I had been indoctrinated all along. As Levi emphasizes, one of the deficiencies of the Continental tradition is that it breeds generation after generation of historians of philosophy more than philosophers as such. They tend to nod patronizingly towards any form of critical engagement with the canonical figures, and prefer a more reverential approach geared towards hermeneutic precision rather than to argumentative polemics. But Fine was doing something else: she was actively discussing the cogency of the philosophical theses in Plato, and doing so in an extraordinarily rigorous manner, while preserving stylistic clarity, freeing itself of some of the bombast in the Continental rhetoric.

  Little did I know, I would end up transferring to Cornell, and studying under Fine as my advisor. During my years there, I became quickly astonished and intimidated by the methodological scrutiny of the analytic tradition, and Cornell’s heavily analytic-oriented department. I found myself out of my depth in most conversations, and I strived to learn from this tradition its formal tools for the making and defusing of arguments. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel that something was off. I couldn’t see why this linguistified philosophy wasn’t subject to the kind of criticisms that Heidegger leveled, and which detected unsaid ontological assumptions underneath every attempt at an epistemology. After reading Rorty, I became somewhat convinced that although the rigor and clarity of the school was of invaluable support when entering the trenches, the tradition was fundamentally misguided, and that it continued, somewhat obliviously, to dwell in the shadow of Kant, whereas Continental philosophy had moved far beyond it, and waltzed merrily into post-Modernity. The result? I ended up writing a thesis on Husserl and Heidegger, at Cornell.

   I returned to Peru fairly confident in my Heideggerean proclivities, which I found were fundamentally correct even in the wake of figures that were critical of Heidegger: Derrida, Foucault, Gadamer, Habermas, Lyotard, etc. It was not until I read Zizek and encountered Lacan that my confidence in the Heideggerean project was first shaken. And it was not until I read Badiou’s Being and Event that my thinking underwent a full blown ‘paradigm shift’. What was most striking in Badiou is that he began his treatise by making a significant concession to the analytic tradition, understandably in avowing the valence of formal thinking. But Badiou did something else too; he summoned from the dead specters that Continental philosophers had purportedly buried for good: words like ‘truth’, and ‘universality’, and the methodological valence of argument and proof, without the obscurity of style that characterized the tradition. The most important lesson I learned from Badiou was that philosophy could and ought to reinvent its central concepts in accordance with the procedures of its time, that no word was a ‘bad’ word in philosophy, that no view was forbidden in principle, and that one couldn’t bury corpses for good without the possibility of their return. Like Putnam emphasized apropos science, history brings us to retake theses that we had thought to have discarded in the course of progress: the idea that the universe had a beginning being a prime example.

   Having laid this out, the work of Meillassoux and Brassier further radicalized this sentiment. Both at an stylistic and philosophical level,  Brassier insisted on demolishing the sociological barrier that separated concerns proper to analytics and to Continentals, by demystifying the caricatures that each projected about the other. Just like Heidegger and Gadamer offered a ridiculous shadow of the analytic tradition as preoccupied with logic and language games only, Carnap and Searle did nothing but reinforce the suspicions of Continentals that analytics didn’t know how to read. From the beginning of his doctoral thesis, Brassier called into question the very patronizing of knowledge in the name of ontology that had been emblematic in 20th Century philosophy, both in phenomenology and in vitalism, characteristically. 

 In the end, my diagnosis is that the affective antipathy that Bryant senses apropos epistemologists can be balanced out by reminding ourselves of some of the attitudes in Continental philosophers. Philosophical mediocrity begins when one thinks to be beyond learning, and one's opinions to be beyond revision. Just like the Continentals thought that to be concerned with issues of formal logic and proofs was myopic, analytics were seduced by the idea of progress and often patronized history and tradition. 

    But I believe in progress, and I think that just like Badiou and Sellars were perspicuous enough to realize there was much to be learned from the opposite tradition, we are now in an even better position to realize how this is so. I think that Bryant’s amenities to art, psychoanalysis, and media theory are resonant with concerns classically characteristic of the Continental tradition. But I think that the analytic tradition has done much work in the formal and natural sciences, to which it always remained close, and that we must learn from both. Recently, I criticized both Badiou for eliding epistemology and Brandom for eliding ontology. And I don’t think we have to choose between the two.

    More recently, Brassier’s work on Sellars persuaded me to revisit the work of analytic epistemology, under a more mature, fresh light. And the result was expected. The idea I had formed myself of the analytic tradition was indeed a caricature, and soon I realized that the interests that drove philosophers like Badiou were not incompatible with those of someone like Sellars, but congruent and indeed although in disagreement, potentially reinforcing. It showed me that, far from precluding the possibility of ontology in the name of epistemology, the analytic tradition, less encumbered by anti-realism, had actively pursued manifold metaphysical programs. 

    This brings me to my second crucial point: Levi writes as if I was interested in the question of truth, and of knowledge, at the expense of ontology. I think this is a brutally unfair caracterization, and one that forces one to choose between two things which in my mind are complementary.  The relevant quote is the following one:

Daniel is obsessed with the question of how a human being knows what he says (it’s always a “he”) about the world is true. I find this question to be rather uninteresting as I think it contributes little to any real practice; scientific, artistic, personal, political, or otherwise. I see it as the question of a hall monitor. By contrast, I’m interested in making some small contribution to shifting the issues we discuss. I’d like to see theorization of how mercury from rain fall affects fish populations and enters human populations. I’d like to see discussion of why people aren’t buying hybrid or electric cars, and what this has to do with availability and semiotics. I want to talk about how sanitation technologies affect the economic and cultural development of a people. I’m interested in how mantis shrimps or bees experience the world. If I make claims about how they do, I’m fine with providing reasons for why I think this is true and how we might come to know this about bees, but I take umbrage at the suggestion that I’m just basing these claims on wild speculation and haven’t engaged in any research or inquiry that might justify these conclusions. I think knowing a bit about bees might go a bit further in addressing real issues such as their disappearance in the States than abstract epistemological questions about how we know in general. I’m not interested in legislating what “true reality” is, but in shifting discussion from an obsessive focus on how we know, on how our minds relate to the world, to a discussion of how things, including humans, interact with one another. Assertions made within this framework are not a mere “subjective whim”, as Daniel suggests. He’s welcome to question claims and ask for reasons. It could turn out that various accounts are mistaken. Be specific. Critique the account. That’s how accounts become better. Don’t, however, throw sand in the engine of inquiry. Daniel, I’m sure you miss this, but the basic point is that we’re tired of discussing your issue. We want to ask other questions and attend to other issues. That doesn’t mean we’re unwilling to provide reasons.”

     I cannot agree with Levi on these points, I’m afraid. First, my argument was not to claim that Levi did not provide reasons for his claims. The entirety of the first part of my review goes over Bryant’s arguments against epistemological realism, and for ontological realism. What I aimed to show was that his arguments do not do justice to the real work done by epistemologists today, and that the solutions he proposes to the critical problem about the connection between thought and reality remain pending and unresolved. It is no mystery that Levi wants to propose a concept of knowledge that amplifies the traditional scope on representational accuracy in favor of an account that takes practice and production as pivotal. But what my review intended to show is that the idea that concern with representation elided concern with practice was misguided. Indeed, one just has to read the work of someone like Tyler Burge to realize how proximate his questions go in hand with the practicing activity of perceptual psychologsts, for instance. My fundamental argument is that in spite of his arguments for ontological realism, the problem of representation remains, that the account he offers does not resolve it, and that furthermore his own account must tacitly accept representation, even if it doesn't explain it.

Levi questions the utility of these investigations, but such concerns can be answered without problems on a case by case basis: in asking about how our perceptual  faculties work and those of animals, for instance, taking Burge's project as an example, we explore the extent to which we share facultative capacities with other living beings, assisting us in understanding better the relation between primitive functional capacities and higher cognitive functions. These relations are fundamental in understanding both how we act and react to our environments, as well as how other animals do so in relation to their environments. We learn which kinds of operations we carry out according to which kinds of process, and we develop formal resources to comprehend the intricacies involved, allowing us to understand ourselves and the natural world better.

    Burge, Fodor and Carey, for instance, construe a concept of representation that includes conditions for veridicality and objective representing that precedes strict linguistic representation, and which expands our traditionally anthropocentric conceptions of how we access the structure and features of reality. These are not questions fundamentally about sentences or propositions; they are questions about the kind of things natural scientists are concerned with on a daily basis. Use of propositional logic is no more instrumental in this regard than the use of sentences to express our views about things: just because we write sentences to express a given claim, one couldn't make the suggestion that we are bound to remain in talk about talk, or become enclosed in an anthropocentric prison. And the same goes for using propositions to express the formal structure of thoughts, sentences, states of affairs, and whatever else.

    But Levi oscillates between saying that he has resolved the methodological questions indicated above by way of Bhaskar, and saying that he is not interested in these questions altogether. It is the latter which I find objectionable as philosophical practice: just like a person cannot call themselves an ontic structural realist and claim at the same time to be disinterested with the queston about the distinction between mathematical form and content (like Harman notes), the question about how our thoughts about things are distinct from the things we think of is a necessary critical filter to all forms of dogmatic metaphysics, and cannot be obviated by any claims to realism in ontology.

Put differently: there is a distinction between the question about WHAT are our ontological theses, and the question about WHY we should advocate an ontology with such theses. The latter is not itself an ontological question, but is set to explain the grounds under which we ought to endorse an ontological program over another. Without understanding the semantic proprieties of words such as 'being', or 'real', our discussions are bound to be too fuzzy to be of any use, or too lax to be appropriately answered. And such a propadeutic, methodological investigation, is the condition so that our metaphysics won’t be arbitrary or dogmatic. 

But if before we say what out metaphysics is we must say on what grounds metaphysical theses are adjudicated, dissuaded or encouraged, then we must accept that metaphysics is not first philosophy. This part of the critical legacy remains, I think, and leads one to ask: what status does such a propadeutic discourse have, if not epistemological? If one has no such account, then one’s metaphysics become precisely dogmatic. I think that Levi attempts to have such an account, but also wants to say he is ultimately not willing to engross himself in this issue.

    Levi formulates his propadeutic methodological enquiry by appears to Bhaskar, and the  first part of the review expresses why in my estimation: a) his argument does not succeed in motivating realism, b) it does not succeed in motivating an ontology of objects, c) it does not succeed in establishing the priority of ontology over epistemology. As a result, my contention was not that Levi was being irrational because he gave no reasons, but that a) the reasons he provided were not satisfactory, and that b) he seemed to relapse into pragmatic considerations when claiming that he could dismiss further argument, and let the epistemology police bitterly scold him from a distance.  But if the latter criteria for dismissal are what drives his obviation of epistemology, then Levi has surrendered his ontological program to a kind of subjective whim, to pragmatic considerations of the sort caracteristic proper to instrumentalist approaches, nevermind the talk about bees and Jupiter.

    The important point is that Levi’s motivations for his onticological program were problematic, and that without such resolution the program’s feasibility was suspect. When Levi emphasizes that he is just ‘not interested’ in the same kind of questions that I am interested in, I think he touches precisely on the point of concern.

It is not that I believe all philosophers should do the same thing, or that everyone should ask the same questions. But from this it is another thing to say that there are no questions that philosophers ought to answer, or be accountable for. Certain things must be done in order for us to be doing philosophy rather than something else. The question of whether we can sidestep the critical quandary about the connection between thought and reality by way of ontology, or whether epistemology can be motivated before ontology, are open questions. Indeed, towards the end of the first part, I acknowledge Levi’s virtuous considerations about this knot, and offer some arguments in the way which I won't repeat.

In any case, the problem about the connection between thought and reality is at the heart of any philosophy that claims allegiance to post-critical realism, and against dogmatic metaphysics. My idea, developed elsewhere, is that the epistemological corollary to ontology is necessary in order to proscribe the authority of subjective attitudes as admissible in philosophical argumentation. One can be as disinterested in epistemology as anyone else, but this this not mean that the cogency of one’s project remains without an answer to these questions. To say these questions are quixotic concerns of a pre-Galilean spirit seems to me a convenient scapegoat.

   Again, this is not to say that Levi does not offer arguments for his claims. It is to say that if the arguments he offers are inadequate in establishing what he intends them to establish, then not being interested in addressing these shortcomings surrenders one’s account to volitive grounds. It is not that I am not interested in ontology, or that I think epistemology is the telos of philosophical activity. It is simply that to acknowledge the separation and connection between thought and reality remains a necessity, and my arguments insisted in that these are not problems that Levi can sidestep. 

I refuse to accept that epistemology is ‘my issue’ simply because someone is tired to discuss it. I don’t believe philosophical legitimacy can be subjected to one’s interests, precisely because I believe philosophy must be synoptic. It is those who think they can afford to ask one set of questions at the expense of methodological clarity that end up making careers out of how many grains of sand make a heap, or whether Gadamer’s reading of Heidegger is good. One of the lessons I take from Heidegger, is that the beginnings are the most difficult, and that methodology is required. Finally, this does not mean that Levi’s ontological theses are false simply because they lack a proper methodological footing. Nor does it mean that they won’t help certain people do certain things, perhaps admirable ones. That’s all fine.

       But it does mean that without proper grounding, these theses are still not obviously yielding the kind of realism that he considers as a goal. Levi’s Spinozism seeks to inspire creative practices, and assist our negotiation with a material world in multiple forms. Yet it is important to remember that the desire to serve the interests of our kind, however noble, will only motivate philosophical positions at the expense of other considerations if one ascribes to philosophy primarily an instrumental status. Needless to say, as an aspiring realist and materialist, I think Levi should contend this possibility. The question is whether he is in a position to.

As Badiou mentions in his latest presentation from the EGS, I think we cannot begin from anthropologically configured considerations about practice, politics, creation, and whatnot. We need a new logic, in the primitive sense in which the latter entails the articulation of the conditions for what is thinkable. In this respect, I find that the projects of people like Badiou (thinking of a generic form of novelty) and Brandom (thinking of the articulation between semantics and pragmatics) can mutually reinforce each other, and therefore that ontology and epistemology can be reconciled in making a truly contemporary philosophy, beyond classical sociological dividing lines, and without stale strawmans thrown in each other’s way.

      To close up, I think that Levi has been negatively impressed by epistemologists to the point where his skepticism against the discipline is total. My only rejoinder to his remarks on affect would be to say that in patronizingly dismissing the work that drives many without having a solid grip on the field’s present state, it is he that seems to emulate Stalinist tactics: maligning thinkers for their thwarted temperaments, accusing them of endorsing positions they effectively don’t, and misconstruing their claims so as to effectively dismiss anything that might appear, even coarsely, as a challenge to one’s position. I know Levi is far better than this, so I don’t think we need to reduce the best of us to the worst representatives of each tradition. Lest, that is, if we want to return idiocy with idiocy, like the analytic lab rat who thinks Continental con artists do nothing but eloquent sophistry, or the pious Continental that thinks looking to the past suffices to skeptically dismiss or warn against novelties in the present. The real obscurantism comes in facile dismissals, in unwarranted disavowals, and in overconfidence in one’s assumptions about the other.

With that said, I think that Levi’s project is one that is just beginning, and that in the company of great thinkers, it will only continue to grow and nurture itself. Finally, we are all in this together, and if Levi can learn a single thing from my sincere attempts to find out what works and doesn’t in his incipient project, then I may have returned a fraction of the wealth he’s given me.


Appendix - Added Friday, September 7th

Levi made a further response, to which I thought I would attach the following:

I think the claim that epistemological concerns are anthropocentric because they ask about relations between humans and the world is a bit like saying that questions about bees are beecentric because they ask about bees. In other words, it tautologically follows that in asking the question about the relation between humans and the world we are, well, asking a question or set of questions about humans. But epistemology is a bit broader that this. And I think anthropocentrism should entail something a bit stronger: namely, not only that a set of questions take place which are about humans or the relations between humans to other things. Rather, anthropocentrism entails that in asking these questions, these thinkers preclude or de-prioritize other considerations.

   I think that here it is important to distinguish methodological priority and general priority: to say that certain questions must be resolved before others does not mean that the former questions are more important than the ones which can only be answered on condition that the former have been. Epistemological priority, if it obtains, should be understood in the logical sense in which it conditions how we understand and adjudicate metaphysical theses, not in the sense that it favors or precludes metaphysical theses.

I think Levi is right in that much epistemology has been anthropocentric in that it construed its concept of representation on the basis of typical human faculties, and often using the linguistic capacity of humans as determining all forms of knowledge. But epistemology need not follow this route. Epistemology need not restrain itself to asking about language, or it need not suppose that only humans know. A good example is Burge's critique of what he calls 'individual representationalism', which he accuses of over-intellectualizing objective representing, in a way that precludes us from understanding how we share representational cognitive functions with other, non-sapient animals. Similarly, epistemology need not preclude connections between practice and discourse, like Sellars and Brandom propose in articulating semantics with pragmatics.

In this regard, I think epistemology is not so different than other scientific fields of investigation. From cosmology to biology and physics, our first theses are encumbered by assumptions, overdeterminations, etc. Epistemology has also had such faults, and one of the virtues of contemporary epistemology is its proximity to advances in cognitive science, in perceptual psychology, in neurophysiology, in ethology, etc. Epistemology today in fact is not constrained to asking questions about how we represent the world, even if the question about our relation to the world conditions this understanding, as the paradigmatic examples of Fodor or Burge show. In any case, epistemology does not in general preclude ontology, but conditions it, while allows us to distinguish between levels of priority by distinguishing ontological from logical priority.

This is a point that I think Sellars does well to emphasize: even though there is an ontological dependency of the logical on the causal (sentient and sapient creatures couldn't exist without the proper evolutionary conditions obtaining), there is an epistemological dependency of the causal on the logical (without the capacity to have beliefs, make claims and so on, we don't have theories). Burge and others suggest that, although knowledge in this strict sense depends on sapience, there are pre-linguistic forms of objective representation which we share with non-sapient creatures, and which they set out to investigate. In other words, human knowledge does not exhaust the question of knowledge, indeed of representation.

Finally, I would just say that in no way an exploration of the conditions under which we, as knowers, represent or know the world forecloses metaphysical investigation of the sort Levi wants to do. Just like asking about bees might become necessary at a certain stage of our argument without making our entire philosophy beecentric, we can acknowledge the question of our access to the world has a necessity and methodological priority with respect to other questions, without for this reason accepting that there aren't other questions, perhaps ultimately more interesting to us, to be answered.

In short, I don't think epistemology either: a) constrains us to ask questions about human knowledge, even if this is constitutive of its investigation, b) that it doesn't foreclose other kinds of investigation, including ontological investigation.  My concerns are that by eliding the epistemological component in philosophical thinking, we run into methodological quarrels of the sort I have been exploring, and that ultimately render suspect the status of our ontological claims.

   Now, ontological propositions can get off the ground without such footing, but at the price of rendering our metaphysics dogmatic, in the sense that it does not answer as to why we ought to endorse a given metaphysics, or it relies on instrumental considerations as the ultimate court. I think that these two ways are much more deserving of the label 'anthropocentrism', because they subordinate ontological theses to pragmatic concerns about our activities, our creative elan, our search for political emancipation, etc. But I think we can, and should, be concerned with exploring the world in ways that exceed considerations of the human. While scientists can carry an exploration suspending all kinds of questions, and have instrumental efficacity work on the background of no fixed ontological position, the distinctiveness of philosophy is that it, to use Badiou's phrase, begins with the beginning.