global anti-representationalism and ‘the world’

Huw Price distinguishes between subject naturalism and object naturalism as follows. Object naturalism is the view that all that exists is the world as studied by science (i.e. the physical world), and that scientific knowledge is the only genuine knowledge. By accepting object naturalism we take on the challenge of accommodating within this framework the existence and knowledge of such things as moral facts, aesthetic facts, mathematical facts, modal facts, etc., which seem to have no place in the natural or physical world.

pricePrice calls his own view subject naturalism (amongst other names), and takes it to be prior to and independent of object naturalism. Subject naturalism is initially described simply as the view that we ought to start with ourselves qua objects of scientific investigation (when thinking about how to navigate the problem of accommodation just described).* Although object naturalists should take themselves to be subject naturalists, the reverse need not true, Price observes.

*(Notice that Price’s starting point is the primacy of science, i.e. of the scientific perspective under a particular interpretation. One question to ask here is how Price motivates this privileging of the framework or language game of science, given the global nature of the anti-representationalism he defends. Sure, science is privileged by its own lights, but why do these lights take precedence? How do we even give pragmatic explanations in the case of a global anti-representationalism, given that we cannot treat science as representational when it offers e.g., evolutionary explanations?)

The basic idea behind subject naturalism turns out to be this: when considering the various placement/accommodation problems (e.g. how to place moral/mathematical/etc. facts in the world), we ought to understand ourselves as starting with linguistic and psychological data, not with objects, properties, qualities etc. Roughly, we begin in the formal rather than the material mode, and according to Price that is where we should stay. This is Price’s anti-metaphysical or Carnapian streak, which I am sounding out in this post. As he sees it, the problem of how to naturalistically accommodate a plurality of linguistic usages or practices is not only prima facie more tractable than that of accommodating seemingly non-natural objects or parts of reality (such as modal facts), but it scratches the same itch, or close enough, that classical metaphysics scratches.

My interest in Price has to do with the nature of the pluralism he defends, as I am very much interested in the common association of naturalism with ontological univocity and monism, and how this plays out with regard to the question of the existence of the world (i.e. the totality, the domain of all domains, etc.), a question also posed recently by Markus Gabriel.

Somewhat like Gabriel, Price denies that the world, under a certain specific interpretation which I’ll now state, exists. Price contends that the common conception of the world runs together two distinct things: the world qua totality of facts, on the one hand, and the world qua natural environment or physical universe, on the other. To undo this problematic association, we must first learn to understand facts without reference to semantic notions like truth, reference, etc. This move is de-totalising insofar as it refocuses our attention on the plurality of possible, functionally distinct assertoric language games, a plurality that cannot be unified because it lacks a common measure (we are told).* Science and ethics are examples here. In connection with this point, it should be emphasised that Price’s pluralism is not ontological in the sense of involving multiple ontological realms. In other words, we’re not duplicating object domains construed in the material mode, as if there were a deep plurality in the ontological furniture of the world, but simply acknowledging the wide variety of different things we do with words.

*(I compare this plurality with Gabriel’s plurality of fields of sense.)

A related type of ontological pluralism is the view that there are multiple distinct existential quantifiers. Does Price accept pluralism of this sort? It appears he wants to have it both ways here. On the one hand, a key part of his position is the denial that all declarative utterances or assertions are descriptive or representational in nature. Like the quasi-realist, Price holds that at least some statements can be considered truth-apt (in a suitably deflated sense of ‘true’) even though they are not strictly speaking descriptive (since there are no object-naturalistically respectable properties, objects, qualities etc. for them to describe).

However, on the other hand, there are two ways in which Price’s view is at least prima facie more monistic than the quasi-realist.

rudolf_carnap_3First. In the capital ‘R’ sense of Representation, Price denies that any statements are strictly descriptive, which is why his anti-representationalism (i.e. his ‘expressivism’, though that is a misleading term), is global rather than local. (To clarify, what anti-representationalism means here is that we explain e.g. moral truth in broadly pragmatic terms, eschewing appeal to semantic notions like truth or reference at the explanatory level. This reflects the vaguely internal realist flavour of the project.) What this means is that the bifurcation between strictly and non-strictly descriptive statements falls by the wayside.

Second. Apparently moving in the other direction, although this bi-furcation is given up, another is put in its place, involving a distinction between internal and external representations. However, as with Kant’s internalisation of the mind-world relation, this is not heterogeneity on the same level as before. Rather, the functional plurality Price is at pains to emphasise is placed on a foundation different from that of local anti-representationalists such as Blackburn; a foundation that, at least from a certain viewpoint, seems to militate against the unbridledness of that plurality. Specifically, Price’s functional plurality is underwritten by a unified account of assertion à la Brandom (see e.g. EPR p. 31). This balancing of unity and plurality yields a vaguely Carnapian framework-relative understanding of univocity and ontological monism.

It seems to me that there is something problematic about this result, which I can only gesture vaguely at here.* To start with, Price interestingly wonders whether Brandom’s claim that assertion is the fundamental language game is at odds with the functional pluralism of local anti-representationalism (e.g. quasi-realism). In response to this query, Price assures us that whilst assertion may be fundamental, it nevertheless has multiple functionally distinct applications. He presents the unity here in as sparse terms as he can muster. But how sparse must it be to avoid commitment to monism? Hasn’t Price ceded the crucial point by allowing a single account of assertion to range over everything like this? Price himself leaves the matter open as a problem requiring further investigation.

*(Gabriel also tries to mimic univocity in a related manner, with similarly unsatisfying results in my opinion.)

At any rate, the general issue (or what I take to be the general issue) is apparent in Price’s discussion of Carnap and Quine on the question of ontology. We know that Quine objected against Carnap that, rather than thinking of metaphysics and ontological monism as requiring an impossible standing outside of all frameworks or language games, we can think of them as involving instead a single existential quantifier corresponding to a single framework or game that encompasses everything, such that ontological questions are both maximally general and yet nevertheless framework internal. This sets Price to the task of defending Carnap’s assumption that linguistic plurality is somehow de jure recalcitrant to this homogenising of the existential quantifier. And here again Price argues that pragmatic plurality, that is, the multiplicity of different things we do with language, either entirely or mostly escapes the reach of Quine’s objection. It is the same logical device, this way of thinking allows us to admit, but used in a variety of different ways. The variety is what is salient, Price wants us to think, not the sameness. But once again I am dubious that unity and plurality can be balanced in this way, short of just accepting monism. Isn’t Price just giving us monism with a tolerant face? To be fair, Price’s response to this does seem plausible against the specifically Quinean considerations in favour of monism that he has in mind (see his paper on Carnap and the ghost of metaphysics for more), but these aren’t the only considerations available. In particular, it seems to me that the problematic status of the negation of absolute generality, as reflected especially in indefinite extensibility arguments for generality relativism, represents a more difficult obstacle for the intrepid pluralist. More on this, perhaps, in a later post.

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