Monthly Archives: December 2010

philosophical degeneracy

Focused as I have been on issues in continental thought, I have not read as much in the analytic tradition as I should, and hence I am often late to books I probably should have read a long time ago. This is the case with John McDowell’s Mind and World. This is one of the best philosophy books I’ve read, period, regardless of the tradition one may want to place it in. From my perspective, this book belongs with Kripke’s Wittgenstein: On Rules and Private Language and Quine’s Word and Object as being exemplary of the best the analytic tradition has to offer (though with the stress McDowell places upon Aristotle it is perhaps not fair to label his book a work in analytic philosophy – McDowell himself addresses this very point towards the end of his book when he shows how he does not  follow Dummett’s description of analytic philosophy as approaching philosophical questions through an analysis of language). In a future post I’ll put up some thoughts about McDowell’s arguments concerning second nature, which are central to his efforts to avoid the dual difficulties of the myth of the given on the one hand and a coherentism that is a frictionless spinning in the void without purchase on any external restraints on the other; for the moment I’m drawn to McDowell’s claim concerning the reception of Gareth Evans’ book, The Varieties of Reference. Put briefly, McDowell finds in Evans’s work (despite some problems he has with his tendency to adhere to a mitigated form of the myth of the given) a successful effort to avoid a version of the dual difficulties I just mentioned – more preciesly, he’s able to avoid problems that attend a generalized theory of descriptions (as found in Searle and others) and he is able to avoid what McDowell calls ‘the incoherence of the pseudo-Kantian picture, in which thought has to break out of its own proper sphere in order to make contact with particulars otherwise than by specification.’ The fact that ‘it is common for philosophers to think they can dismiss Evans’s position’

just reveals the depressing extent to which his ground-breaking work has not been understood. That such work can be so little appreciated is a mark of degeneracy in our philosophical culture. Mind and World, 107.

As I understand this philosophical degeneracy it is, among other things, a consequence of the failure to appreciate the fact that what is primary, for philosophy, are not the chasms and bifurcations, the various and recurring forms of intellecutal mitosis as I discuss this in an earlier post; rather, such bifurcations are themselves evidence for underlying problems (the problematic or Ideas in Deleuze’s sense) that, when understood and appreciated, render the efforts to overcome the bifurcations – what McDowell refers to as the agenda of constructive philosophy – largely irrelevant. The fact that things are largely reversed, that the bifurcations and the efforts of constructive philosophy are deemed relevant whereas the efforts to render constructive philosophy irrelevant are themselves seen as irrelevant is precisely the ‘mark of degeneracy in our philosophical culture’ that leads many to fail to recognize, for McDowell, the significance of Evans’s work, and similarly, for me, it leads many to fail to recognize the significance of Deleuze’s work.

From Normative to Problematizing Semantics

In my previous posts on Brandom, I may have come across as unduly critical, or as dismissive. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is much that I find in Brandom’s work that is important, and that I will continue to draw from. In my previous posts I have been homing in on the differend as I see it between the positions I am working through and those developed by Brandom. Those differences have only been put forward in a rough and ready manner – this is, after all, just a working blog – and thus I’ve been thankful for comments from Pete of the deontologistics blog (his comments can be found here). They have forced me to clarify some of my points further. Before wrapping up on Brandom I want to list a few more thoughts that seem to be in need of further development. I’ll begin with where I most agree with Brandom.

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reculer pour mieux sauter

Whether knowingly drawing from Nietzsche’s claim or not, from Human All-too-Human, which asserts that ‘He who strays from tradition becomes a sacrifice to the extraordinary; he who remains in tradition is its slave. Destruction follows in any case’, David Lewis’s advice to his then graduate student, Robert Brandom, was that to carry the tradition forward one needed to go back to tradition, and more precisely to its first principles. To jump forward one needs to back up and get a running start (and somewhere Nietzsche says much the same thing though I can’t find the quote)–hence, ‘reculer pour mieux sauter.’ As Brandom summarizes Lewis’s advice, he claims that

The way to understand some region of pure philosophical terrain is for each investigator to state a set of principles as clearly as she could, and then rigorously to determine what follows from them, what they rule out, and how one might argue for or against them. (Tales of the Mighty Dead, 114-15).

If I am going to understand Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, or Deleuze; or the Federalist Papers, the pragmatists, and perhaps even analytic philosophy more generally; the key in each case is to determine the guiding, predetermining principles that can account for what is said. This is how Brandom seeks to balance the de dicto and de re readings of the philosophical tradition. The de dicto readings are to be limited in their interpretations only to what a particular author is committed to as is evidenced by what they have written, and more generally to what they have read and to the problems and concerns of their intellectual milieux. The de re readings base interpretations upon what are taken to be true principles and facts that may or may not be acknowledged by a de dicto reading of a given text. Once one has backed up and found the principle or set of principles that best accounts for much of what can be found within the works of a given philosopher or a certain ‘philosophical terrain’,  one then deduces the conclusions that follow from these principles, regardless of whether or not the actual, de dicto conclusions one actually finds in the texts are in line with these conclusions or not. Brandom’s historical essays in The Tales of the Mighty Dead are quite faithful to Lewis’s advice, and he applies this methodology to his readings of Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Frege, Heidegger, and Sellars, drawing along the way a number of interesting conclusions. Brandom’s leap into these texts thus involves quite a running start.

As much as I am attracted to Lewis’s advice for doing intellectual history, I find that it is only half the story. First, and most importantly, it seems to me that creative philosophical work does not begin with a set of first principles from which one then deduces their conclusions. Brandom would probably agree with this claim; after all, he refers to his reading of the tradition as an exercise in ‘reconstructive metaphysics’. But the implication nonetheless is that despite the perhaps wanton creative process associated with a philosophical endeavor, there is nonetheless a set of guiding principles that illuminates the true significance of the project, even if only after the fact (as if such principles were the unconscious directives of what is written). Such an approach is integral to identifying the critical moves in a philosophical argument, or in determining the essential relations between key components of one’s thought; however, such identifications only actualize the processes associated with the philosophical developments of a position, and the continuing and ongoing transformations of this/these position(s). What is overlooked, and this is the other half of the story, are the concepts that philosophers create. A philosophical concept cannot be reduced to a predetermining set of principles; moreover, a philosophical concept cannot even avoid giving rise to contradictions, or to intellectual mitosis as was discussed in an earlier post. I may be over-generous, but the Lewisean/Brandomian approach is indeed an important after the fact way to set forth a discursive account of the inferential premises and conclusions of a particular philosophical argument/position, but to become truly creative such an approach needs to encounter problems that resist such a reduction to principles; and for this reason, and others besides, philosophical concepts are not to be confused with first principles.

Spinoza, appetites, and inferentialism

Appetite, as Spinoza makes clear, is nothing but our striving to persevere in our being, and this striving, “as related to the mind and body together, it is called appetite” (3P9S). As related to our body, therefore, our appetite is the striving to persevere in a given proportion of motion and rest. Spinoza refers to this striving as the “actual essence of the thing” (3P7), as opposed to the formal essence of the thing which is “the essence of each thing insofar as it exists and produces an effect, having no regard to its duration” (4Preface). The formal essence, or our proportion of motion and rest, is independent of its duration in the face of external objects, objects which could, if they caused our body to lose this proportion, kill the body (Note Spinoza’s claim, in the Short Treatise (I/53): ‘…if other bodies act on ours with such force that the proportion of motion and rest cannot remain 1 to 3 [for example], that is death, and a destruction of the soul…’). The formal essence of the body is the idea of the body as comprehended under the attribute of extension, in contrast to the actual essence of the body that has durational existence. Understood in the context of other bodies, that is actually rather than formally, our striving to maintain the proportion of motion and rest is a striving in the face of external differences (that is, other objects). One of the functions or effects of our appetites, therefore, is to select against excessive differences, to filter and navigate relations in order to ‘maintain the proportion of motion and rest’. Such a selection process is simply part and parcel of the striving to persevere in one’s own being with its proportion of motion and rest. God, on the other hand, as absolutely indeterminate, self-caused substance is the infinite enjoyment of existing that is the affirmation of all differences, or as what Deleuze refers to in Spinoza’s Ethics as the ‘logic of purely affirmative difference and without negation.’ Since God is not absolutely indeterminate substance in potentia, but in actu, and because God does not have to select against difference (i.e., there is nothing lacking in God), God is the most perfect being. Finite and determinate beings, however, must select against difference if they are to persevere in their being. This is its appetite, its proper goal and end. At the same time, however, it is not clear what differences we must select against, or how much we can endure and still persevere in our being in the face of differences.  It is not known in advance what a body can do. Consequently, through processes of experimentation and learned association we can become more perfect; that is, the more difference we do not have to select against, the more perfect we become; and it is in this light that Spinoza argues, in 3P12, for the existence of ideas that “aid the body’s power of acting.” By arguing for the effectiveness of such ideas, Spinoza is not being inconsistent with his earlier claims that the “decisions of the mind are nothing but the appetites.” To the contrary, the decisions of the mind which aid the body’s acting by selecting against difference, or by reducing difference to a common, known form, is nothing but the appetite itself, or our striving to persevere in our being.

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Parrots and Concepts

In one of his favorite examples, Robert Brandom points out that while a parrot may very well respond differentially to colors, and even say “red” when presented with a red swatch, the parrot is nonetheless responding much as a thermometer does when it detects temperature changes and responds appropriately by turning on the heater. What is missing in both cases, according to Brandom, is the ‘practical mastery of the inferential articulation in which grasp of conceptual content consists.’ (Articulating Reasons 162). In other words, although the parrot can identify the swatch as red she cannot then go on and use this as a reason for inferring that it is colored, that it is not green, a squirrel, etc. A parrot cannot participate in the game of giving and asking for reasons, and thus they lack the use of concepts.

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Intellectual Mitosis

One does not have to do more than a cursory review of intellectual history to find intellectual bifurcations everywhere. There’s nominalism vs. realism, rationalism vs. empiricism, analytic vs. continental, and so on. Earlier this month at the Claremont Conference Steven Shaviro nicely articulated the bifurcation between his position and Graham Harman’s. Whereas the problem for Harman is how objects can enter into contact and communication with one another, a problem he solves with his notions of vicarious causation and allure, the problem for Shaviro is one of how to break free from the incessant web of contacts and relations, how to get some elbow room as Shaviro put it (citing Whitehead). In Priest’s book in contradiction, which I discussed here in yesterday’s post, he highlights the early modern bifurcation between the continuous and the discrete (a bifurcation that of course predates early modern thought and is not exclusive to the western tradition). Priest signals Leibniz and Hume as emblematic of this bifurcation. In a response Leibniz wrote to a letter of Malebranche, Malebranche arguing for his occasionalist position (that is, coming down in favor of the discrete), Leibniz puts forth what Priest calls the “Leibniz Continuity Condition.” Citing Leibniz:

When the difference between two instances in a given series or that which is presupposed can be diminished until it becomes smaller than any given quantity whatever, the corresponding difference in what is sought or in their results must of necessity also be diminished or become less than any given quantity whatever. Or to put it more commonly, when two instances or data approach each other continuously, so that one at last passes over into the other, it is necessary for their consequences or results (or the unknown) to do so also).

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Having just finished Graham Priest’s book, in contradiction, a book central to the logical tradition Priest calls dialetheism, I’ve decided to post some thoughts to the blog. Logic is not my area of specialization, nor do I have much to say at the moment about how Priest puts dialetheism to use in reformulating classical logic and semantic theory, but there are some lines of convergence between dialetheism and the metaphysical project I’m engaged in at the moment. Stated baldly, dialetheism accepts that some contradictions are true, or some statements such as the liar’s paradox have two truth values, true and false (hence the term dialetheism); and this position is one I have echoed in various places in my published writings by referring to both/ands, paradoxa, and double articulation. There is a crucial difference, however: whereas I begin my understanding of both/and, paradoxa, and double articulation through a reading of Deleuze, Priest begins with Hegel, and in particular with Hegel’s account of motion. Priest cites Hegel:

[M]otion itself is contradiction’s immediate existence. Something moves not because at one moment of time it is here and at another there, but because at one and the same moment it is here and not here.

A true account of motion, therefore, implies that something both is and is not, or it implies a contradiction. Deleuze, by contrast, rejects Hegelian contradiction because it places difference in subservience to identity, to the identities that constitute the contradictory pair: “α not-α.” A both/and is thus not a difference subservient to both α and not-α but rather it is the forward-slash, “/”, the “and” between identities that involves a difference deeper than any contradiction – it is the transcendental condition for such contradictions. This is the project Deleuze calls transcendental empiricism and which I detail in my book Deleuze’s Hume.

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