two new papers…

My first paper, ‘Why not Nothing? Meillassoux’s Second Figure of Factiality and Metaphysical Nihilism’ has been published in the journal Speculations; it can be found here.

My second paper ‘Markus Gabriel Against the World’ has also been published in the journal Sophia; it can be found here.

In my next paper, I will try to push further into the philosophical and (broadly speaking) logical motivations for thinking of being as finite and contingent.

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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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reading note

Pointing at the Moon: Buddhism, Logic, Analytic Philosophy is a nice little collection of papers on the cross-fertilization (and mutual illumination) of Buddhist thought and analytic philosophy. In recent years I’ve been interested in the concept of emptiness and in the proper (or at least most truth-apt) interpretation of seemingly paradoxical statements like ‘the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth’ and ‘all things have a nature, i.e. no nature’. Two papers in this book focus closely on this question: the first from Priest and Garfield, which interprets these statements in dialetheic terms, as true contradictions characteristic of the limits of thought; and the second, from Tillemans, which argues against this interpretation (at least insofar as it is supposed to apply to Nāgārjuna).

My goal has been to avoid dialetheic interpretations of the emptiness of emptiness, and if possible maintain a classical interpretation tout court. According to a simplified statement of the paradoxical reading, it is true that nothing has an intrinsic nature, and also true that everything has an intrinsic nature: namely that very lack. In other words, the intrinsic nature of everything is to lack an intrinsic nature. Contradiction.

Some support for thinking this might be a genuine ontological paradox comes from the following reasoning. It seems evident that, if an intrinsic property is just the same thing as an essential property, understood as one without which a given object cannot exist, then a contradiction arises. The contradiction is just to suppose that a thing can exist in a bare state, shorn of all its properties. This is contradictory given the following inference I accept: a thing without any properties would have the property of lacking any properties. Hence, either this contradiction is true, or it is false that there can be a thing lacking any properties. This in turn suggests that the having of properties, at least, is an essential property of everything; and, if that is enough for having intrinsic properties, then it looks like Priest and Garfield are right.

As I said, I am trying to avoid true contradictions. Moreover, I am trying to do so without giving up the just stated inference. Thus I am left looking for an alternative interpretation of what the thesis of emptiness is saying, which in practice means that I want a weaker reading of that thesis. To begin with, as Tillemans notes (88), the concept of an intrinsic nature is plausibly taken to involve more than simply having an essence: specifically, it ought to be taken as involving a nature that is “independent of other things”, “always fixed”, and “non-fabricated”. These together form the real substance of the concept of an intrinsic nature. But clearly they admit of many different readings, corresponding to overlapping but divergent tendencies within the history and development of Buddhist thought. What I want to say is that these tendencies aren’t exhausted by paraconsistent readings on the one hand and (for want of a better word) correlationist readings on the other. A naturalist tendency distinct from these is also discernible.

How, then, does a thick notion of intrinsicality help render consistent the claim that the ultimate nature of everything is to lack any ultimate nature? As the above reasoning may already suggest, I want to cut this Gordian knot, and deny that there is any reason to require that it must be an intrinsic property of anything that it lack intrinsic properties. Similarly, there is no reason to require that it be an ultimate truth that there are no ultimate truths. Or rather, to put things more delicately, that things lack intrinsic natures is not an epistemic thesis to the effect that our putative knowledge of them is somehow relative or subject to antinomies/problematic underdetermination, nor is it a semantic thesis to the effect that we somehow fall short of full expressive generality in characterising them thus. The distinction between ultimate and conventional truth is misleading in this respect: truths can be as objective and absolute as you please without being either conventional or ultimate qua independent of everything (not just mind-independent)/fixed/non-fabricated. Rather, we should understand an intrinsic nature as one corresponding to a self- or necessarily existent thing or truth (by necessary existent I mean a thing the nonexistence of which is impossible, and by necessary truth I mean a proposition the non-truth of which is impossible). My interest is in developing a relational ontology of this sort.

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meillassoux and the possibility of nothing

According to Meillassoux’s second “figure” of unreason, “it is absolutely necessary that the in-itself exists, and hence that the latter cannot dissolve into nothingness.” (2008: 71, cf. 2011: 165) Meillassoux asserts that although no determinate material reality is absolute, it is nevertheless true that

contingency is nothing outside of what is contingent – it is not a ‘free floating’ principle, but always a property of determinate beings. I thus establish that something must exist – and not pure nothingness – and that this something is not necessarily a thinking thing. This something that does not necessarily think is matter in general (2012: 13).

Matter in general – which sounds a lot like a reification – necessarily exists; because (a) contingency is necessary; and (b) necessarily in rebus. It follows from this that there couldn’t have been nothing. Meillassoux writes:

[A]lthough I can think the contingency of this existing thing, I cannot think the contingency of existence as such (or of the fact that something exists in general). Thus I am perfectly incapable of thinking the abolition of existence, and so becoming-inexistent is only conceivable as the becoming of a determinate existent, not as the becoming of existence in general (2008: 75-6).

If existence as such is contingent, Meillassoux argues, then facticity is just a fact, i.e. there is a facticity of facticity – and since we’ve already ruled this out by accepting the weak interpretation of the non-facticity of facticity, we must conclude that the latter entails Meillassoux’s preferred strong interpretation, according to which existence (i.e. matter in general) is necessary.

Compare this with Gabriel’s alternative (2011: 130): according to him, for contingency to truly have the last word there can’t be any guarantee that even it is necessary. Rather, unprethinkable being – now figured ambiguously as the facticity of reason – becomes the contingency of all necessity, and hence the contingency of the necessity of contingency (2011: 134). But what can this mean if not that contingency could have failed to be? For Schelling it seems to involve – or at least tempt us towards – an eschatological regression into incomprehensible necessity.

Now, dialectically it may prove difficult to dislodge Schelling from his ambivalent perch, but it seems to me that Meillassoux’s position is a little more exposed. The question I want to pose is whether Meillassoux’s argument against the possibility of nothing subtly begs the question against an ontologisation of strong correlationism, i.e. against the sort of view Martin Hägglund finds in Derrida. In the quote above Meillassoux relies heavily upon the claimed unthinkability of the abolition of existence, which we can grant arguendo. Recall that he wants to say that the strong correlationist is wrong to believe that, by thinking the possibility of the unthinkable via the unreason of the real, she is thereby able to deny the absoluteness of facticity. This is supposed to legitimise the inference from unthinkability to impossibility. My question is: what if the strong correlationist wants to assert the absoluteness of facticity by applying it to itself? This is to make facticity more, and not less, absolute than Meillassoux contends.

To keep his position coherent, Meillassoux must not treat contingency as a substrate or as a (metaphysical) subject of predication, since it would then be determinately necessary – even if it does not determine contingent beings in any way. (Necessary existence is a determination of the absolute insofar as contingent existence is possible.) This potential difficulty can be avoided by holding that contingency is neither relative to the necessity of correlation nor itself the necessity that something-or-other exist, but instead relative to the possibility of nothingness that confirms it whilst excluding all necessary existence.* As a slogan: contingency is necessary because it is contingent.

The picture that emerges from this is that of an ontology/metaphysica generalis of contingent being – of the contingency common to all beings – corresponding to an atheology/metaphysica specialis of divine inexistence qua possibility of nothing.


*Cf. Thacker’s description of Schopenhauer (2011: 18-19): “Instead of asserting an Absolute Life (grounded by its own principle of sufficiency, and driven by an ontology of overpresence), Schopenhauer will drop the bottom out of the ontology of generosity. What remains is, quite simply, nothing. No overflowing life force, no pantheistic becoming, no immanent principle of life running throughout all of Creation. Just nothing.” Of course, Thacker immediately goes on to say that this nothing is a “paradoxical and enigmatic something.” Nevertheless, he does acknowledge that attempting to think the in-itself as some sort of life requires a “minimal equivocity” with regard to phenomenal life (ibid).

References

  • Markus Gabriel, Transcendental Ontology: Essays in German Idealism, (Bloomsbury: 2011).
  • Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, (Edinburgh University Press: 2011)
  • Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum: 2008).
  • Quentin Meillassoux, “Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition: A Speculative Analysis of the Meaningless Sign”, trans. Robin Mackay, (2012).
  • Eugene Thacker, ‘Dark Life: Negation, Nothingness and the Will-To-Life in Schopenhauer’, Parrhesia, 12 (2011), pp. 12-27.
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meillassoux versus schelling

Schelling_1848I recently took the time to read Schelling’s Grounding of the Positive Philosophy, and got to thinking about how it compares with Meillassoux’s project. As Markus Gabriel observes, there is definitely an onto-theological tendency in Schelling as in Fichte and Hegel, but it is also possible, he says, to read each of these thinkers as neither succumbing to this regressive tendency nor as developing entirely sanitised proto-analytic philosophies in the vein of Brandom or McDowell. The proposed middle path is named transcendental ontology by Gabriel, and I am interested in the question of whether it is a genuinely viable tertium datur. Obviously this question can’t be adequately addressed here, so instead – at the risk of exchanging the overly wide for the overly narrow – I’ll just focus on one specific question I have. Namely, in what sense is “unprethinkable being” being? I’ll be interacting primarily with Gabriel’s book Transcendental Ontology, which is a worthwhile read.

Unprethinkable being is a paradoxical concept, and we should expect to find a variety of descriptions of it that do not straightforwardly square with one another. Thus on the one hand, it is not even nothing, since it is not identical to itself. It comes before the concept and hence before predication, which means it is indeterminate as well as that this indeterminacy is itself subject to indeterminacy. In other words, being has sense only as the senseless, it is included as the excluded.*  The other half of these paradoxical formulae is the discovery of a superior contingency, which for me seems spurious. Gabriel reads Schelling as saying not only that God isn’t necessarily the necessary being, but that the being referred to as the necessary being – i.e. unprethinkable being – isn’t necessarily the necessary being either. Modalities are predications, which are judgements, and consequently always contingent (we are told). As such, we can only predicate necessary existence contingently. Of course, by the same reasoning, it is also true that contingency can only be predicated contingently. And yet, although unprethinkable being isn’t intrinsically contingent or necessary, Gabriel nevertheless intimates that the extrinsic nature of modality itself depends upon a deeper contingency, which moreover is not merely epistemic – precisely because it indicates the point of indistinction between epistemic and metaphysical modality. However, I’m not sure I understand where this latter indistinction is supposed to come from.

*We might as well add: there is an emptiness of emptiness. All of this seems to rest on a questionable inference from ‘lacking predicates’ to ‘lacking properties’, but I ignore this for now.

In any case, it should be clear that the concept of an unprethinkable being – which is of course not being, or even Being itself in any straightforward sense – and which carries within it an irreducible contingency that grounds a philosophy of hope directed towards a god-yet-to-come, bares striking resemblances to Meillassoux’s project. Specifically, unprethinkable being can be glossed as a close sibling of Hyperchaos. The differences however are important: Meillassoux posits a possible future god, but not the possibility of necessary existence. That is, both Meillassoux and Schelling posit an auto-normalization of Chaos, but only for Meillassoux does this exclude the possibility of a necessary being. Meillassoux could even reconfigure Schelling’s own words and say: what is not now necessary cannot become so. Anyway, the manner in which Meillassoux understands the auto-normalization of Chaos illustrates in general how he purges from the absolute the paradoxes that Schelling sees in it (according to Gabriel). To be clear, I’m not convinced that Schelling really does intend to say that unprethinkable being is not intrinsically the necessary existent: he does say, after all, that to doubt something presupposes the possibility of its being otherwise, whereas necessary existence is indubitable for just this reason. But then, if judgement also always takes place against the backdrop of this presupposition (as Gabriel contends), then it would seem that necessary existence is prior to judgement, which (at least) suggests that we have as good a reason to think of unprethinkable being as necessary as we do to think of it as contingent. I’m not an expert on Schelling, however, so will leave off at this point.

References

  • Markus Gabriel, Transcendental Ontology: Essays in German Idealism, (Bloomsbury: 2011).
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quote of the day

Nothing contains all things. It is more precious than gold, without beginning and end, more joyous than the perception of bountiful light, more noble than the blood of kings, comparable to the heavens, higher than the stars, more powerful than a stroke of lightening, perfect and blessed in every way. Nothing always inspires. Where Nothing is, there ceases the jurisdiction of all kings. Nothing is without any mischief. According to Job the earth is suspended over Nothing. Nothing is outside the world. Nothing is everywhere.

Otto von Guericke, Experimenta nova (ut vocantur) Magdeburgica de vacuo spatio, 1672; quoted in Heil (2013: 167).

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new meillassoux book

An expanded version of Meillassoux’s 2012 Berlin lecture appears to be forthcoming in book form.

 

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