lunes, 9 de enero de 2012

Two Routes to Idealism? Sellars, Inferentialism and Mathematical Ontology

- Sellars, Inferentialism and Mathematical Ontology -


I have been exchanging ideas for quite some time with Peter Wolfendale, on a relatively regular basis, and it has been nothing but a pleasure. I find his command of the analytic tradition, and in particular post-Quinean ‘inferentialism’ to be of inestimable worth, in particular in sight of the project of rehabilitating representation within Continental thought begun by Ray Brassier recently. Perhaps I should say that it is not so much a rehabilitation of representation which is at stake, but rather a necessary re-consideration of the problems set forth by it. At its most general, the question concerns the putative displacement of epistemology in favor of ontology that has somewhat ubiquitously dominated post-Heideggerian Continental thought.  Of course, this displacement occurs in various ways, and part of Ray’s polemics with the Continental tradition examines this junction. But also with the analytic deflationary accounts inspired by behaviorism and which solidified in a formal semantics that castigated the valence of the notion of reference, flattening knowledge to semantics. From phenomenology, to vitalism, to deconstruction, to a certain pragmatism complicit with instrumentalism, to inferentialism, to mathematical ontology, Brassier’s work finds in the dissolution of representation understood as how conceptual thought relates to its non-conceptual exteriority a useful lever to motivate what is precisely the impediment for any realist or materialist philosophy in both analytic and continental circles, i.e. the elimination of epistemology inspired by the critique of metaphysics, and the elimination of ontology inspired by the post-Quinean inferentialist deflationary standards for existence, truth and reference. The former option takes representation to constitute one more iteration of the kind of ontotheological posits that require suspension (Husserl), destruktion (Heidegger), deconstruction (Derrida), destratificaiton (Deleuze), or dissolution (Lyotard). For these thinkers the result is either a post-critical restitution of the ontological problematic, or else a progressive de-legitimization of the propriety of the philosophical task tout court, which casts even ontology under questions. The critique of critique ends up in exacerbated forms targetting not just the Heideggerean ban against metaphysics of presence, but eventually all metaphysics, and with it philosophical ‘phallogocentrism’ (Derrida). For the vitalist post-Bergsonian inspired metaphysics, representation becomes the pivotal structure of thought which demands destitution, particularly in the work of Deleuze (inspired by Foucault) against the fourfold axis of conception: identity in the concept, contrariness in the predicate, resemblance in perception, and analogy in judgment. The 'return to Kant' which insists on the propriety of conceptual representation thus resists the displacement of the latter and of the primacy of conceptual knowing all being complicit in some form or other with a pre-Critical metaphysical reification, or an allegedly post-philosophical idealism or correlationism camouflaged under the banners of 'textuality', 'practice', 'thinking', or some other human-relative determinant.

On any account, the radicalization of the critique of metaphysics devolves into an ever aggravating critique of critique which restores metaphysical primacy or else tries to shut philosophy down for good. One of Brassier’s most relevant contentions is to insist, with Badiou, that even in their presumed ‘anti-philosophical’ radicality these thinkers finally display a philosophical complicity to idealism or correlationism. There where philosophy is said to stop, usually an anti-philosophy begins, which is philosophy after all.  However, Brassier thinks that what is necessary is not just a ‘forgetting of the forgetting of the forgetting’ of the restoration of the question on being is favor of a subtractive ontology, like Badiou claims against Heidegger. Rather, we also need a ‘critique of the critique of critique’ against the post-Kantian idealist conflation between thought and reality, the elimination of conceptual representation as relating mind and world, as well as the correlationist-idealist dissolution of the primacy of knowing. And of course this entails that we must ask again the Kantian question about possibility of preserving a relative autonomy between mind and world, without reifying this difference into a metaphysical dualism that falls short of the critical injunction to make their congruence contingent. But he must reconcile the realist requirement of plausible separation between thought and reality, while insisting in that this can be done without invoking metaphysics surreptitiously, obviating the need to explain not just what there is, but the critical question about how we know what there is. In this regard, he resists the Badiouan Parmenidean identification of being and thought, and allots the latter to the ubiquitous disavowal of representation of post-Kantian Continental thought. Representation turns out not to have only been illegitimately obviated, but that this obviation explains the correlationist and idealist incapacity to motivate a realist ontology, at a loss for an epistemological footing. For the question about the difference between concepts and objects, thought and reality, turns out to require the preservation of the scope of rational agency which ascribes normative valence to rational subjects. In this regard, the transcendental delimitation of thought retains methodological autonomy vis a vis the ontological, without inflating thought with a metaphysical status.  Having moved away from the ‘postural realism’ of Laruelle’s exacerbation of abstraction, Brassier’s current position motivates a Sellarsian revisionary naturalism. In it the necessary rationalist articulation of epistemology and metaphysics becomes necessary to dispel intuition (against all forms of self-legitimizing appeals to experience), but also to avoid the folding of being into thought in the inferentialist deflation of metaphysics, or thought into being  in the ontological ‘flattening’ of ideality which devolves from the dissolution of epistemology.             

  There is of course substantial overlap between Peter’s Brandomian vision and Brassier’s Sellarsian position, and so the connection between a (non-metaphysical) Hegel-inspired inferentialism, and a revisionary Kantian naturalism. While Peter agrees with the inferentialist extirpation of the metaphysical core from the deontological account of thought, he aligns himself with Sellars and Brassier in rejecting the wholesale disavowal of the metaphysical task, by insisting that a naturalistic ontology is both possible and necessary. Of course, it is Sellars who has emphasized this by insisting in the relative autonomy of the ontological and the normative, metaphysics and epistemology. A non-metaphysical deontology describing the transcendental structure of thought is methodologically propadeutic to a naturalist metaphysics, set to describe the univocal structure of being, including the ontological conditioning for the instantiation of thought. This last part is precisely what strict inferentialism proscribes.

     One of the interesting things is that Peter seems to accept this Sellarsian corrective to the Brandomian position, advocating a kind of Spinozist and Deleuzian-inspired metaphysics. There is much to be said about Peter’s startlingly brilliant readings of Spinoza and Deleuze, but that is best reserved for another occasion. I would just remark that although I remain skeptical about the plausibility of Deleuzian metaphysics as appropriate for naturalist metaphysics continuous with today’s science[1], I think that there is a more primary issue at stake, which follows from the methodological priority of epistemology, for both Sellars and Brandom.  Before we discern between the specific differences in the metaphysical alternatives themselves, or evaluate their internal conceptual coherency, we must explain the nature of objective knowledge in relation to deontological normative strictures which define the transcendental conditions for intelligibility, or thought as such. Much of Pete’s brilliant deontological project delineates a broadly Brandomian account of the use of conceptual norms, and his Essay on Transcendental Realism goes a long way in explaining how this works.

      For my part, the difficulty in coordinating the deflationary realism of strict Brandomian inferentialism with the Sellarsian alternative reveals interesting issues. To ask about whether inferentialism could support the rehabilitation of metaphysics cannot but provoke the further question about whether Sellars’ position could be described as endorsing a kind of inferentialism like Brandom thinks, and as McDowell, DeVries-Tripplet, among others, reject. Of course, one could say that inferentialism generally holds as a suitable account of thought, while insisting on the autonomy of metaphysics. And I think that this autonomy is surely of the capital features of Sellars’ philosophy. However, exactly how we should coordinate the separation between the metaphysics and the epistemology in Sellars’ case is quite controversial.

      In particular, much polemic has been generated concerning the precise evaluation of the role of perception. For example,  John McDowell (2005) seems to take issue with Brandom’s reading of Sellars, insisting that the deflation of experience to judgment is excessively one-sided, and eliminates a crucial empiricist component in Sellars’ naturalism. But even if we don’t agree with McDowell’s alternative reading, I think we can rescue some of his objections to Brandom’s reading of Sellars as advocating strict deflationary standards for perception. Now, I think that Pete and Ray are prepared to agree in that Sellars’ own account of perception and his account of picturing are not obviously reconcilable with the minimalist account that Brandom provides. A discussion of these two positions merits a full scoped investigation which I intend to carry out in coming work. My impression is that the restriction of perceptual experience to judgments, with no intermediary states of the sort McDowell’s polemical reading argues for to play any part, creates problems for any claims to realism. Specifically, the flattening of perceptual judgments to the general capacity to have the appropriate RDRDs deflates sensible experience in the way that vitiates the way perception serves to anchor us in a causally autonomous world. For one of Sellars’ most important insights is that while perception is conceptual, the ontological constitution of sensation, while remaining epistemically mute, permits us to rehabilitate a notion of correspondence and a theory of picturing in which concepts and so perceptual judgments are causally knit to  physical objects, thus exceeding a purely semantic account of truth. I quote Brassier in this regard:

     “It’s often assumed that Sellars’ critique of relational (or “matrimonial”) theories of meaning dispenses with the word/world relation altogether since conceptual role supplants reference.  But this is not so: he supplements his semantic account of truth as ideal conceptual coherence with a correspondence relation between utterances as “natural linguistic objects” and physical events: one must be appropriately connected to one’s environment in order to be entitled to issue certain utterances. It gets more complicated of course, but the key is that while correspondence is never transparent—it’s too opaque to be called “reference”--- it is still there, although not as a semantic relation.  This is the insight that Brandom expresses in his claim that sense dependence is not reference dependence: the conditions for the former ought not to be conflated with those for the latter. But unlike Brandom, Sellars has a positive alternative to reference as a semantic relation, which he calls “picturing”. 

     Now, it might seem premature to claim inferentialism conflates mind and world, but the primary issue becomes more evident upon considering some of the consequences, using Brandom’s own examples against McDowell. The one that comes to mind is the characterization of the scientist who learns to reliably report the presence and movement of ‘mu mesons’ by progressive refinement in his conceptual ability following the observation of a cloud chamber. For Brandom, the capacity to reliably report the fact that mu mesons are there, even at a loss for knowledge about what criteria one is using in the reliable use of the capacity, counts as a case of ‘seeing mu mesons’ just in case one knows that one is reliable in doing so.  I quote Brandom in this regard:

                  “Thus a properly trained physicist, who can respond systematically differently to differently shaped tracks in a cloud chamber will, if she responds by non-inferentially reporting the presence of mu mesons, count as genuinely observing those subatomic particles. She may start out by reporting the presence of hooked vapor trails and inferring the presence of mu mesons, but if she then learns to eliminate the intermediate response and respond directly to the trails by reporting mesons, she will be observing them. “Standard conditions” for observing mu mesons will include the presence of the cloud chamber, just as standard conditions for observing the colors of things includes the presence of adequate light of the right kind. And the community for whom ‘mu meson’ is an observation predicate will be much smaller and more highly specialized than the community for whom ‘red’ is one. But these are differences of degree, rather than kind.”

       I find this account largely consonant with a strict Sellarsian position in most respects, and particularly in insisting on the possibility of non-inferential knowledge which is not for this reason unmediated or unlearned, since all knowing requires participation within a complexly articulated linguistic community. But the account of observation predicates raises questions which are precisely of the kind that lead McDowell to read Sellars as one step, yet perhaps a decisive one, short of endorsing a full-blown inferentialism ala Brandom.

       To see why, we must just apply the same strictures set in the example of the physicist to a different situation, of the sort proposed by McDowell: a man learns to reliably report that their neighbor is home when he sees that his car is parked in the driveway. For Brandom, assuming the man knows that he is reliable, this counts as observational knowledge and he sees that the neighbor is home. However, the difference between the direct knowledge that is involved in seeing that the neighbor is home by having the neighbor before his eyes, and the knowledge that would be obtained in seeing the same fact when seeing the car, is obscured thereby. Both instances would count as cases of direct observational knowledge, having the same underlying fact as their reported, propositional content, i.e. both report that 'the neighbor is home'. And since they are both non-inferential states, one cannot appeal to the fact that the man ‘arrives’ at such knowledge by a prior consideration of the knowledge that the car is there, since then one must explain how this latter fact motivates the former in situ, which starts sounding a whole lot like inference again. Even if both cases could be construed as examples of non-inferential knowledge, it seems as if what Brassier describes above attests to a complicity between perception and sensible experience, i.e. natural linguistic objects are connected to physical events by the externalist requirement to be properly caused in relation to environmental conditions. Picturing describes a non-semantic relation between perceptual states and the world which, while enveloped conceptually, retains autonomy. And I believe that Sellars’ more acute observation consists not just in severing experience at large, but more precisely in refusing to construe it as the gulf for unacquired knowledge; that is, as cases of independent knowledge. And although he certainly endorses the inferentialist demand for the conceptual envelopment of perceptual experience and the form of judgment, this does not entail that the experience is reducible to the conceptual judgments or to semantic relation. For this is precisely the role that sensation plays, which allows one to level the ontological priority of experience, while preserving the relative autonomy of the sapient, conceptual envelopment of knowledge. Thus while Sellars is perfectly comfortable in accepting that non-inferential knowledge is possible, he denies that independent knowledge is possible, and furthermore insists that sensibility remains crucial for metaphysical reasons, and which illuminate how we ‘picture’ the world rather than simply merely relate to it in accordance to pragmatic norms. Thus the also emphatic interest in Sellarsian naturalism, and in particular in the neurophysiological ontological account of thought advanced by Metzinger and the Churchlands, while refusing tacit pragmatism through the inflation of ‘super-empirical virtues’ that are gratuitously prescribed rather than explained. Rather, while we must deem experience as being conceptually specific in nature, this does not mean that the ontological nature of experience is conceptual nor that understanding concepts means understanding the use of words; one cannot restrict experience to simply signify the capacity to reliably report a fact without completely obviating the naturalist side of Sellarsian philosophy. This is what has made other philosophers insist in the valence of empiricism in Sellars, which one might think is ultimately difficult to reconcile with inferentialism. Thus, for instance, McDowell thinks that perceptual experiences constitute a kind of belief states that are acquired non-inferentially once the subject comes to endorse the content of a perceptual experience. Yet the content of the experience is not by itself judgment, although it has propositional content. It is solely a ‘candidate’ for endorsement.  This is still not sufficient to explain how one comes to acquire such content as mere ‘candidates’, propositionally specific and yet not simple behaviorally fixed dispositions or RDRDs, anchored causally in an environing world. But this is just to say that it is highly controversial whether McDowell does any greater justice to Sellars on this particular point than Brandom does. DeVries and Tripplet seem to side against Brandom, while O’Shea reiterates that the role perception plays in Sellars must be closely understood in relation to his naturalism. I reserve judgment in these matters.

     The discussion around perception becomes a useful key to understanding how conceptual structures that fix our knowing of being are objective with regards to a world, while subject to rational norms for revision. The non-reviseable logic of rational obligation articulates the necessary rationalist rejoinder to all instrumentalist prescriptions of scientism, as necessary to explain how we acquire knowledge, given the primitive methodological priority of the normative space of reasons. And Sellars’ supplementary account of picturing is not clearly reflected in Brandom, particularly since it is not clear that he would allow for the ontological role sensation plays within our understanding of perception. And it is certainly not clear to me that McDowell’s own alternative fares any better. For even if McDowell is right in that reducing perception to judgment to deflate experience into a semantic relation once again conflates empirical content with conceptual form, one might insist that to introduce intermediary states between judgments and candidates for endorsement falls to the trap of thinking that what occasions judgment is a ‘act of will’ which supplements categorical synthesis. And this is precisely what Brandom finds unpersuasive about McDowell’s alleged commitment to empiricism.

    My own position on this matter is that Brandom’s strict inferentialism seems to reproduce the pragmatic conflation of thinking and being which already plagued Quine, and which ends up undermining materialism, not unlike Badiou, in lacking the sufficient resources to disambiguate between form and content. Content dissolves into propositional content, and what Pete calls a ‘thick’ sense of reality falls out the window. I think with Pete that a thick notion of reality is necessary, and that such a notion needs to be advanced without reintroducing the metaphysical dualism of thought and matter. Thus the key moment for Brassier remains the Kantian juncture between the non-metaphysical normative space of reasons and the ontological-natural-causal domain of natural scientific research, while for Pete’s more Brandomian, and by extension Hegelian, position (although I agree with Zizek in that Pittsburg Hegelianism is a misreading of Hegel) the primary task is to eviscerate the myth of phenomenological content in favor of the primacy of logical relation in a deflationary account of thought.

       I would suggest that inferentialism can be seen as a precedent of the problem that plagues structuralist-inspired contemporary French materialisms, like Badiou’s and Meillassoux’s, departing from Althusser and Lacan. And by this I would also mention thinkers like Gabriel Catren, or even the post-Landian neo-Deleuzians, like Reza Negarestani.  While the last two have taken over the Continental liquidation of epistemological primacy and followed the formalist tendency in tethering ontology to mathematics, the inferentialist camp meanwhile insists on the autonomy of the normative while tethering the latter to logic and semantic analysis. Indeed, while the former have folded into deciding the appropriate mathematical paradigm for metaphysics and resolving the relation between the branches of mathematics (differential calculus, set theory, category theory, logic, topos theory…) as part of ontology itself, the latter have insisted on reducing representational content to propositional content, understood as the inferential structure of thought. For them this reduces semantic content to the pragmatic examination of the relations into which normatively charged propositional attitudes enter with respect to each other within a community of rational agents.  It fulfills the promise of a transcendental philosophy that describes the structure of thought without relapsing into the metaphysical dualism of mind and world.

      What I find most striking is that both extreme poles, mathematical ontology and inferentialist epistemology, render their respective counterparts impossible, vitiating the possibility of distinguishing mind and world that realism requires, and that Sellars pursues. For Badiou, it becomes impossible to distinguish ontological from non-ontological situations without the surreptitious mediation of philosophical discourse, while for strict inferentialism of the Brandomian type, metaphysics falls out the window completely. The latter option basically eviscerates the metaphysical core of Hegelianism, while the former similarly extirpates the epistemological core of rational agency which annuls the possibility of thinking of a non-immediate congruence between thought and reality, having no choice but to endorse the Parmenidean identification of thinking and being. In both cases we get something like a cunning of reason against realism-materialism: the epistemological confine to the rational community which instrumentalizes the natural (like Habermas, but also possibly Brandom) into the social space of a rationalist pragmatics (which I take Badiou has sufficiently shown to be in complicit with a kind of idealism), and the ontological confine to a formal ideography with no account of the relation it holds to its denied exteriority. The critique of intuitional or experiential givenness is exacerbated to a deflation of all non semantic, empiricist notion of ‘content’ or reference, which has no option but to conflate being and thought.  In this regard, the violent anti-phenomenological vocation that drives both mathematical ontology and inferentialism, in annulling  experience, end up preemptively throwing the metaphysical baby with the epistemological bathwater (inferentialist dismissal of the necessity of metaphysics), or else throwing the epistemological baby with the metaphysical bathwater (post-Heideggerean strawmans against epistemology).

       What is also intriguing is that both alternatives remain surprisingly cogent with each other in that their respective formalisms entail a noocentric enclosure, which keeps philosophy from taking the empirical sciences sufficiently seriously, despite their protestations to the contrary. Thus neither Brandom nor Badiou seem to have much to say about what those sciences which describe human-independent phenomena are doing; where does physics fall for Badiou? Is it regional ontology, like Catren seems to be implying in his (brilliant) topology of the tasks for thought, the great ‘Outland Empire’? Perhaps it is no surprise that people like Rorty can simultaneously find appealing both anti-metaphysical inferentialism, and anti-epistemological ontology. To sum up, we can say that the strong anti-empiricism of rationalist ontology of the mathematical ends up resembling inferentialism in their mutual Hegelian trivialization of experiential content, which becomes ultimately complicit with the idealist indistinction of thought and being.

      Badiou in fact motivates this conflation from the start in castigating the unquestioned ‘third dogma’ of empiricism, in the dualism between empirical content and form, which has motivated the idea that formal axiomatic systems model reality. The restriction of ontological discursivity to the dialectics between mathematical forms and for which domains of interpretation model axiomatic systems, however, is given a crude quasi-Althusserian analysis of the intrication of philosophy, science and ideology, in the tripartite negotiation of concepts, functions, and notions. And the meta-ontological gloss of the later Badiou cannot but appear as yet another surreptitious normative injunction in favor of a subtractive ontology of the multiple, ultimately motivated by the need to introduce subjectivity in a gratuitous supplementation of the ontological by the evental, of the objective by the subjective, of the stasis of knowledge by truth, etc. But if this is not, like Zizek claims apropos the Pittsburg Hegelians, an ideological validation of liberalist capitalism, it is certainly an equally ideological political suture by Badiou’s own standards, assigning the subject the peculiar role to be the agent of all structural dynamism, of all change and for all truths. This is idealism with a vengeance, hybridizing the decisionistic fetishism of subjective freedom, while dislodging the requirement to argue for the distinction between ontology and non-ontology, the discursive intelligibility of being and the world, through the philosophical umbrella of ‘presentation’ mediating between the two. The emphasis on subjective creation, and of truth as production, also makes the dimension of discovery proper to science in particular difficult to understand.  Other options, like Catren and Negarestani, seem to run into similar problems to Nick Land. Having destratified the empirical transcendental-distinction, and having underdetermined representation by the unconscious thanatropism of intensive matter, it is not clear that anything like a subject remains. So it is not clear that a plausible account can be given to discern how conceptual structure relates to this primary material process. This seems to fold once again on a surreptitious prescription for a given metaphysics, which is itself strictly incompatible with the strictures under which subjective agency, decision, or ‘theorization’ could take place. It’s not clear one could even ‘accelerate’ under this scheme, since in refusing to re-anthropomorphize philosophy with a supplementary ethics of ‘subjective intervention’ along the immanent ubiquity of ontologically primary matter, post-Landians cannot discern between the world and discourse about the world, i.e. they cannot distinguish concepts and objects in their metaphysics as such. Calling it non-metaphysical practicism is simply to obviate the issue that now is resolutely another version of the idealist serpent of absolute knowledge, swallowing itself; only this time cashed out in terms of primary production and a logic of ‘expression’. Shorn of its vitalist residue, this materialism ends up making it extremely difficult to understand the peculiar ‘stratification’ that is theory in relation to the primary process it allegedly it has ceased to described, since no longer experience mediates in it.

     The inferentialist option on its part seems to reproduce the instrumentalization which follows from the extirpation of reference from verificationist standards. Here either metaphysics is in principle proscribed, or else ontology becomes a quite foreign matter, subjected to ideological prescriptions and legitimated extraneously through ad hoc appeals to super-empirical virtues of varied assortments. These finally end up, like Ladyman and Ross, but also Quine, being incapable of reconciling the deflation of reality to existential quantification with a robust realism or physicalism. And here the Sellarsian option stands as a necessary interruption, I think, of this line, through a more intricate idea of how perception mediates the knowing of the real. It insists on the importance of perceptual judgment in epistemology and of giving an account of sensibility within ontology, insofar as we must understand the composite intrication of the conceptual and the objectual. And I agree with Brassier in that ultimately the moniker realism becomes suspect at this stage, since at no point concepts ‘reach out’ onto things. But their difference and relation must be one that is possibly clarified without being metaphysically reified, and this is what I am not convinced strict inferentialism is prepared to accomplish. I think Pete would probably agree at bottom, and thus accept that a necessary corrective to Brandom would require recuperating a thick notion of reality, albeit I don’t think that this has been satisfactorily reconciled with a preservation of inferentialism which deflates perception.

    Here recent questions about aesthetics raised by Peter and Brassier become peculiarly interesting, since I think they can allow us to see how perception continues to play a role in the story in a way that illuminates the peculiarity of Sellars’ position. As I take it, Brassier endorses the modern severance of the beautiful from the sensible, thereby advocating the former’s allotment to the conceptual. Here I agree with Pete in that the intrication between the Beautiful, the Good, and Value brings Plato to the context of a rationalist epistemology with an inferentialist bent. The basic idea is that we can distinguish Beauty as a species of Value, with varying scales of Universality. Thus Pete distinguishes a broad sense of Beauty akin to that of Value-in-itself, or its pure form, which is independent of all rational interests, and a narrower sense in which different aesthetic values are pitted against each other within the conceptual norms of the sensus communis and which make possible the negotiation of aesthetic judgments.

      Here the account of artistic beauty in particular becomes interesting, insofar as it is related to production and intentionality. The idea is that in art, as opposed to nature, we seek to produce affect, and while presupposing communication, art must also resist being communicable, lacking determinate semantic content. This is relevant because this lack of semantic determinacy is meant to capture the Sellarsian rejection of the epistemic valence of sensible transparency as a variant of the Myth of the Given, but can also become a way to address the kernel of truth in the abused cliché about how art is in a way not about ‘mere communication or reproduction’, but about disruption and creation. The point is how to account for this experimental and creative dimension in art without falling into a mindless celebration of the affirmative will, which Brandom castigates rightfully, or a reification of sublimity by interrupting the rational order of causes through a pure experience, or some ‘aura’ which ordains aesthetics to the mystical quality in the work (from Benjamin to Heidegger, to Laruelle perhaps). Here the absorption of the beautiful to the conceptual can allow us to be continuous to the ideal of non-communication in both senses, rejecting givenness while accepting art’s disruptive character, thus embracing a dialectical historicity of artistic production intricate in the conceptual. And this would be the role of the ‘narrow’ sense of beauty of ‘lower order’ universality, in which the production of art would be dialectically imbued within the conceptual seal in aesthetic judgment. This unites one of Badiou’s salient virtues with a proper Sellarsian embedding of productivity within the normative: the semantic indeterminacy of art is to be understood in the sense in which artistic production makes possible new judgments and relations which are strictly irreducible to previous ones, by causing semantic interference with the state of the situation as it is.

    One might think that such a ‘conceptualization’ of the aesthetic deprives it of its link to experience; but here is where I think a Sellarsian rejoinder is necessary. We can salvage the link between the conceptual and the perceptual, accepting that the latter is anchored in the sensible, while insisting that beauty concerns only the conceptual. This is a striking reversal of common sense, since now it is the natural which remains refractory from the conceptual, and which concerns the sensible proper. Ihis reversal can be done by amplifying the account of ‘looks talk’ in Sellars, in a way in which I Pete has again made some headway; although I don’t know how it would fit with Brandom. The basic idea is to disambiguate a sense of looks-talk which is not merely emphasizing the epistemic withdrawal of endorsement before a proposition about the world, i.e. in which the function of ‘x looks y to S’ is not reducible to ‘x withdraws endorsement from x is y’. This can be exemplified by using predicates such as ‘looking fuzzy’, where it is clear that the role of ‘looking’ therein is to make a report about a fact concerning the functioning of our perceptual mechanisms, and not the epistemic withdrawal of endorsement. This means that we can accept that there is a role to be played for experientially specific judgments about perception which provide the anchoring on sensibilia without rehabilitating the valence of sense datum transparency, and which would thus be continuous with the conceptual envelopment of the aesthetic. The idea would then be that the semantic indeterminacy introduced in artistic creation would be the (dialectical) interplay in the production of new perceptual judgments and relations, and which include (albeit not exclusively) statements about how things produce affect as states relative to the functioning of our sensory organs, i.e. perceiver-relative facts.  These would constitute the specifiable content which relativizes aesthetic judgment to perceptual judgments, though not wholly, without losing grip on participation in the generation and negotiation of value. The trick here is to coordinate properly aesthetic judgments in art with perceptual judgments (whose content is determinate) to explain how the indeterminacy of artistic works themselves is to be understood relative to the articulation of conceptual norms within the sensus communis. The obvious question is whether this requires that we make aesthetic judgments in nature subject to the same sort of dialectics, and how the intentional stance ultimately weighs in. Again, this is a subject matter for a different occasion.

     As a provisory note, I would remark that the notion that value is ‘independent’ becomes quite difficult to cash out. On the one hand, I think that the distinction between the projection of value (which is our prerogative), and its construction (which we don’t make) is opaque for the moment. It also doesn’t seem clear to me what natural value consists in, beyond the trivial assertion that nature is not made by or for us. If by projection we simply mean that we need to deploy concepts to make aesthetic judgments, then it is not clear how these judgments are proper to art because of its intentional inflection. Clearly, some sort of projection in that sense would be necessary for natural judgment. This is ultimately a tangential matter.

       The main point is that the insurrectional component in art resists the fetishizing of formless sublimity, and imbues the perceptual within a dialectical understanding, in the narrow sense, wherein experience becomes configured and modified productively in relation to the subjective universality of the sensus communis. For art, there needs to be some non-reproductive element to realize the production of affect, by necessity, and it must not be in the trivial sense in which minimal difference at the level of perceptual content entails the production of wholly autonomous aesthetic value. The task lies in pinpointing the singularity of artistic works without relapsing into the theological frame of revelation still wed to givenness. It is not that the disruptive function of art is semantically indeterminate by being non-conceptual, but rather that it must be understood in relation to how it positions itself with respect to the community of rational agents. Art in this regard is what exorcises the Holy: it relativizes its local value to the rational negotiation of norms, underwritten only by the formal imperative of remaining true to value in-itself as its limit case and higher-order universality, and of rational purposefulness. Either one introduces beauty into the normative frame of reasons, or one pragmatically blocks the historical specificity and epistemic valence of art. We can't simply rejoice in claiming art is all about breaking the rules, and using the primacy of ‘pure’ intuition as the obverse of the affirmative will, against rationality. The conceptual negotiation of the manifest image in which aesthetic judgments are made exemplifies the possibility to think of a logic of change, local and structural, which can explain experimental novelty and semantic interference, without surrendering to irrationalism. The idea is how to coordinate a notion of perception as conceptual and epistemically apt, without deflating the sensible-ontological core of experience. But this is all very rudimentary, since it is not clear how to coordinate the predicates that describe the working of our sensory organs ('fuzzy') with a Sellarsian account of picturing, or something of the sort. But anyhow once perception has been understood as a mediated process the dialectics of historicity proper to it replace the quasi-mystical purchase of 'givenness' in experience championed by phenomenological and vitalist alternatives.

   In any case, here we can be Badioueans without the revolutionary rhetorical excess. Although the idea that truth diagonally subtracts itself from the situation in the construction of a generic subset does well to formalize a dialectics of change, rather than making it ex nihilo, we must insist with Sellars in that this cannot work within a realist register if one annihilates the autonomy of rational agency which guarantees the normative Universality as limit of value-in-itself. If one does, one inevitably ends up tacitly overruling the neutrality of subtractive ontology by regulating it with a higher order, undeclared, ad hoc normative meta-ontological discourse to explain the articulation between being and thought as that of revolutionary disruption in the creation of truth.  Of course, the latter is what Badiou really is after: to motivate the political revolutionary agenda which rejoices in the ‘great chaos under the sky’. As a result, set theoretical frameworks that operate without the axiom of foundation and admit of self-belonging are conveniently obviated rather than rationally discarded, in order to preserve the dialectics of illegality and of the event. Thus while Badiou moves a long way towards eviscerating the phenomenological myths of presencing, he grants too much to the structuralist deflation of the empirical, and the psychoanalytic allotment of the rational individual to the 'imaginary', along with its ontology fantasy.  If anything, I think it is necessary to show that this patronizingly dismissed 'imaginary' is not some secondary spook neatly absorbed as a linguistifying or logicist confusion, but a fundamental condition for any rationalism of the sort Badiou or Brandom pursue.

       On any account, this line of thought goes to show that, contra the predominant Continental doxa, representation need not be aligned to metaphysical skyhooks. All the variants of the critique of metaphysics in the 20th Century simplify fatally in their dismissal of knowledge and representation, in the castigation of the understanding, and the apportioning of philosophy to ontology. Sellars’ putative force, beyond inferentialism and formalism, is to think the nature of experience without the slothful betrayal toward immediacy and first-person familiarity, all too conveniently aligned to armchair reflection. Of course this is why Deleuze in particular keeps obsessing Brassier, since in a way he has been the more articulate critic of the logic of representation, and in favor of the metaphysical priority.

       Two great limitations of continental thought are concentrated here: one, to think that thought ‘as such’ is rationally inaccessible because one must deflate transcendental metaphysical frames, and second that there is no suitably restricted notion of an object because the latter remains invariably secondary with respect to some linguistic/subjective/cultural constitution. So the object invariably gets destroyed, deconstructed, or destratified for being a testament to metaphysics of presence, of pure Vorhandenheit, derived extensity, secondary process, etc. And thought itself gets shafted for being the stillborn cunning of the same metaphysical reification of substance which lingers in the form of transcendental agency.

        By the same token, the inferentialist thinks that metaphysics as such is impossible since it must hypostasize ‘reference’ in a way that betrays post-Quinean deflationary standards for truth and existence, while insisting in that there is no suitably adequate vindication of experience beyond the pragmatic constriction to RDRDs. Thought on its part gets shrunk to its inferentialist core, while objectivity becomes a function of knowing.  But the point is that the object is not a function of thought, and that thought is itself objectifiable. Objectivity is precisely what allows us to understand the ontological priority of what is not thought, while the latter remains the condition for ascribing the rational responsibility to understand reality, to revise our beliefs in ways which are not merely prescriptive, or super-empirical whims by ideological-institutional agents, but rationally validated.

        The idea is finally to defend a sense of objectivity as part of metaphysics, without for this reason endorsing a neo-Scholastic metaphysics of objects, and a suitable notion of objective knowledge and so an epistemology, without for this reason endorsing a metaphysical divide between transcendence and transcendent.  And all of this while describing the nature of experience as involving a conceptually circumscribed role for perception as that which anchors our relation to the external world.

     Here the question of representation and hylomorphism that Deleuze criticizes apropos representation, which is supposed to hold since Aristotle, becomes an important challenge and focal point. The alternative realist account which rehabilitates perceptual judgment must do two difficult things on this terrain. First, it must resist the idea of a hylomorphic stapling of universal form on singular matter, since it must insist in that the specificity of objective matter is not external to itself, and certainly not a projection of our thought. Form is intrinsic to matter, while not being a function of conception, even if the latter remains necessary to know of it and yet external to itself. At the same time, we must accept that the conceptual traction on being must always ‘leave something out’, or that that, as Deleuze puts it, concepts are too baggy (since concepts are not things, and can never ‘touch’ reality), while rejecting that this constitutes an insufficiency before which we can supplant epistemology and the valence of the normative with a metaphysical account of individuating difference, and through a logic of expressive being, like in Spinozist-Deleuzian alternatives.

     Finally, in distinguishing between concepts and objects, thought and world, one must specificity the latter’ within a natural-causal order of explanation, in order to render it resolutely non-conceptual. This marks the ontological ubiquity of the scientific image, and its proper methodological autonomy. The way in which natural-causal description relates to its exteriority as developed in the account of picturing, however, remains obscure to me at present.

[1] We could broadly understand the contemporeneity of science along Catren’s broad lines, by defining that philosophy would need to be simultaneously Galilean, Heisenbergean, Einsteinean, Newtonian, Freudian and Darwinean: “First, modern science is essentially Galilean, which means, in Husserl’s terminology, that mathematics is a formal ontology, i.e. a theory of the generic categories of being qua being, like for instance the categories of multiplicity (set theory), relation (category theory), quantity (number theory), localization (geometry), operativeness (algebra), symmetry (group theory), predication (logic), stability (dynamical systems theory), and so on6. In other words, modern science is essentially determined by the physical entanglement of mathematical logos and natural existence, an entanglement which implies both the Galilean mathematization of nature and the Husserlian (and Badiousian) ontologization of mathematics. Second, modern science is essentially Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian, which means that the narcissistically wounded subject of science can no longer be considered a (self)-centred fundamental first or last instance. Third, modern science is essentially Newtonian, which means that nature is one, i.e. that the pre-modern (transcendental) bifurcation between the (unmoving) earth and the (noumenal) sky has been definitively removed. Fourth, modern science is essentially Einsteinian, which means that nature suspends itself in its (cor)relational immanence by absorbing (or physicalizing) any sort of transcendental or metaphysical (back)ground. And finally, modern science is essentially Heisenbergian, which means that the phenomenological objective consistency of nature depends upon a certain number of quantum categories, which define the general conditions of logical predicability, (in)deterministic predictability, physical individuation, temporal reidentification, experimental observability, and intersubjective objectivity.” 

5 comentarios:

Michael- dijo...

fantastic essay! I learned so much from this and Pete's reply. Thank you.

You write, “My impression is that the restriction of perceptual experience to judgments, with no intermediary states of the sort McDowell’s polemical reading argues for to play any part, creates problems for any claims to realism.”

Outstanding point (and the one that interests me the most). You should pursue this line of analysis in all ways possible.

I wonder sometimes why rationalists don’t get more out of Merleau-Ponty? Or do they read him at all?

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