Concepts and Objects (First Draft)

The May 4th meeting will be canceled for a wedding.  This will be the reading for May 18.

The essay is found in the open access collection The Speculative Turn.  You can get a free copy of the book here.

I am heavily revising this.  What you see here is not what will be presented.

Epistemology is the study of what we know and how we know it.  In the four books we’ve looked at in the past year, this topic has only been given the most perfunctory of nods.  This is symptomatic of a very basic trend in continental philosophy: the collapse of epistemology into ontology.  Questions of how we know what we know are transformed into questions of meaning.  A substantial part of Ray Brassier’s project is the re-introduction of epistemology back into continental philosophy.

What is Real?  The Relation Between Epistemology and Ontology

The very question “what is real” is something of a provocation, given that the more common question for philosophers would be “what are the conditions of a real/unreal distinction,” or “how does the real appear”.  Brassier’s starting point is a little more naive.  The question of what is real “marks the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology with the seal of conceptual representation.” (ST, pdf 57)  The question has three elements: our knowledge of the thing, what the thing is, and the concept that links the two.

We do need a concept to link our knowledge of “tree” and our idea of what a tree actually “is” because of the critical injunction, his term for Kant’s critique of reason.  We can’t make a simple jump from the statement “I see that a tree is tall and green” to the statement “therefore, the tree actually is tall and green” without some conceptual work in between to justify the jump.  And it is a jump, because being is not inherently thinkable; there is no such thing as a pre-ontological understanding of the world.  In other words, in order to know the real, we have to actively think about it; there is no simple starting point.  And when we think about the world, we use concepts.  Philosophy’s fundamental problem is the reconciliation of two paradoxical claims: there is no cognitive relation to the real without concepts, but the real cannot be confused with those concepts.  We need to know the difference between the real and our concept of the real.

“Thus the metaphysical exploration of the structure of being can only be carried out in tandem with an epistemological investigation into the nature of conception. For we cannot understand what is real unless we understand what ‘what’ means, and we cannot understand what ‘what’ means without understanding what ‘means’ is, but we cannot hope to understand what ‘means’ is without understanding what ‘is’ means.” (ST, 57)

This appears similar to the introduction to Being and Time, but as already stated, Brassier wants to do away with anything like a pre-ontological understanding of the world; he considers the conflation of being with meaning to be an unacceptable equivocation.  To avoid this equivocation, we need an understanding of what it is for something to exist independently of our conceiving it, but “this will only be achieved once we possess a firm grip on the origins, scope, and limits of our ability to conceive, understand, and interpret what things are.” (ST, 58)  The goal is not to gain a clearer understanding of what being means for us, but rather to break out of the circle that Heidegger proposed we enter.

 “Meaning cannot be invoked either as originary constituent of reality (as it is for Aristotelian essentialism) or as originary condition of access to the world (as it is for Heidegger’s hermeneutic ontology): it must be recognized to be a conditioned phenomenon generated through meaningless yet tractable mechanisms operative at the sub-personal (neurocomputational) as well as supra-personal (sociocultural) level. This is a naturalistic imperative.” (ST, 58-59)

As noted in our last meeting, Brassier is careful to distinguish his naturalism from the hypostatization of nature as a pure ontological realm; for him, naturalism is an epistemological constraint which stipulates that “accounts of conception, representation, and meaning [must] refrain from invoking entities or processes which are in principle refractory to any possible explanation by current or future science.”  Meaning, that is, conceptual understanding, “may be drawn upon as an epistemological explanans only so long as the concomitant gain in explanatory purchase can be safely discharged at a more fundamental metaphysical level where the function and origin of linguistic representation can be accounted for without resorting to transcendental skyhooks (such as originary sense-bestowing acts of consciousness, being-in-the-world, or the Lebenswelt [life world]).” (ST, 59)

Ultimately, the collapse of epistemology into ontology (i.e., the dismissal of the thing-in-itself) liquidates our ability to distinguish the reality of the concept from the reality of the object.  This “marks correlationism’s slide from epistemological sobriety into ontological incontinence.”  (ST, 59) In other words, Brassier wishes to revive the norm of truth, against the post-Nietzschean consensus that that truth is an ideological category, and even against Badiou’s ontologization of truth as the sustaining elements of a historical situation.  In order to carry this out, we need a new alliance between post-Kantian rationalism and post-Darwinian naturalism.  The residues of Cartesian dogmatism that linger in current discussions of epistemology must be purged, because they are “liable to be seized upon by irrationalists eager to denounce the superstition of ‘pure’ reason. Where the prejudices of metaphysical rationalism hinder reason in its struggle against the Cerberus of a resurgent irrationalism—phenomenological, vitalist, panpsychist—[an] account of the normative strictures of conceptual rationality licenses the scientific realism that necessitates rather than obviates the critical revision of the folk-metaphysical categories which irrationalism would consecrate.” (ST, 60)

The Relation Between Concept and Object

We need to know what things are in order to measure the gap between the way we conceptualize them (i.e., their secondary qualities or phenomenal aspects) and the way they exist in themselves (i.e. their primary qualities or noumenal aspect).  Knowing, in the strongest sense of the word, must be tied to conceptualization, without accidentally conflating the object with its concept.  We need to acknowledge a difference between what our concept of the object is and what the object is in itself.  He notes two versions of this difference, from Adorno and Deleuze.  Both of them say the difference lies in the concept itself: for Adorno, the concept fails to coincide with what it aims at. The difference is a negation.  For Deleuze, the difference exists because the difference is a non-representational concept of the thing itself; the difference is something positive, because being is difference-in-itself.

Rather than a lack in the concept, the difference could be because of the object’s non-conceptual identity, which is capable of negating the concept.  Rather than difference being the idea of the thing itself, we should affirm “the identity of the object as ultimately determining the adequacy of its own conceptual representation.”

The key point here is that this difference “can be presupposed as already-given in the act of knowing or conception.  But it is presupposed without being posited.” (ST, 65) This is what governs the scientific stance towards the object:

“What is real in the scientific representation of the object does not coincide with the object’s quiddity as conceptually circumscribed—the latter is what the concept means and what the object is; its metaphysical quiddity or essence—but the scientific posture is one which there is an immanent yet transcendental hiatus between the reality of the object and its being as conceptually circumscribed: the posture of scientific representation is one in which it is the former that determines the latter and forces its perpetual revision. Scientific representation operates on the basis of a stance in which something in the object itself determines the discrepancy between its material reality—the fact that it is, its existence—and its being, construed as quiddity, or what it is. The scientific stance is one in which the reality of the object determines the meaning of its conception, and allows the discrepancy between that reality and the way in which it is conceptually circumscribed to be measured. This should be understood in contrast to the classic correlationist model according to which it is conceptual meaning that determines the ‘reality’ of the object, understood as the relation between representing and represented.” (ST, 65)

The Gem

The two alternative models of difference – in which difference is a difference within the concept – is what Brassier sees as the key argument idealists use against realism.  The argument, which he calls “the Gem”, is named for a passage in Berkeley.  Berkeley first proves the rather obvious point that one cannot think about or perceive a thing without thinking about it or perceiving it, and then goes on to “prove” that a thing cannot exist without being thought or perceived.  However, there is a formal logical fallacy here: that one cannot think of a thing without thinking of it is a tautological premise, and the conclusion that a thing cannot exist without being thought is non-tautological: it is fallacious to draw a non-tautological conclusion from a tautology.

And yet Berkeley’s arguments maintain a veneer of plausibility; how?  He equivocates between two senses of the word “thing”.  In the premise, “thing” refers to the thing as conceived, while in the conclusion, “thing” refers to thing as physical object.  Of course this is the distinction he seeks to undermine, but his argument begins by presupposing it.  Still, there is a version of this argument that must be overcome if we are to move from seeing the difference as a lack in the concept to seeing it as the object’s own determination of the concept.  When the difference is conceived as a lack in the concept, the difference is mind dependent; in order to show how the object can determine in its concept, we need to show how we can conceive of objects as mind independent.

A stronger version of the Gem assumes the following form: “You cannot conceive of a mind-independent reality without conceiving of it. Therefore, you cannot conceive of a mind independent reality.” (ST, 68)  The claim here is not that there is no mind-independent reality, just that we cannot conceive of it.  But this is predicated on a confusion between mind-independence and concept-independence.  To claim that Saturn exists independently of our minds is not to claim that Saturn exists beyond the reach of our minds.  Independence is not inaccessibility.

The form of the Gem: ‘You cannot X unless Y, a necessary condition for Xing things, is met. Therefore, you cannot X things-in-themselves’.  One gets a Gem by substituting for X and Y:  “You cannot experience/perceive/conceive/represent/refer to things unless the necessary conditions of experience/perception/conception/ representation/reference obtain. Therefore, you cannot experience/perceive/conceive/represent/refer to things-in-themselves.” (ST, 69)

This is not quite an argument for full blown conceptual idealism, but rather correlationism – though Brassier thinks it does tend towards idealism.  When Xed things are distinguished from things in themselves, and un-Xed things are relegated to the inconceivable, the thing-it-itself begins to disappear entirely.  In a diagnoses of the contemporary intellectual scene, he says that the Gem is responsible for a wide range of non-idealist anti-realisms, from pragmatism to deconstruction, from Rorty to Foucault.  The triumph of the Gem seems complete, despite its equivocation between mind-independence and concept-independence.

Fichte gives us the strongest version of the Gem.  In Fichte, the correlation becomes a self-grounding and self-positing act; the act of positing is tracked “back to its source in the unobjectifiable activity of the absolute ego.” (ST, 70)  Even so, this is a version of the Gem, because it says: “One cannot posit Saturn unless the conditions of positing (the free and unobjectifiable activity of the absolute ego) obtain. Therefore, one cannot posit Saturn as non-posited (existing independently of the free and unobjectifiable activity of the absolute ego)’.” (ST, 71)

But again, there is a sleight of hand between two functions of the word “Saturn.”  From here, we will use “Saturn” in two ways: Saturn when mentioning the word, and Saturn when mentioning the concept for which the word stands.  Another extended quote:

 “In order for the premise to be safely tautological (rather than an outrageously metaphysical begging of the question), the word ‘Saturn’ must be understood to mean sense (or ‘mode of presentation’) of the concept Saturn. But in order for the conclusion to be interesting (as opposed to blandly tautological), the word ‘Saturn’ must be understood to mean the referent of the concept Saturn. Once this is understood, it becomes clear that the considerations that make it true to say that Saturn cannot be posited independently of the conditions of its positing (i.e. the conditions for the proper use of the concept), do not make it true to say that Saturn cannot be posited as non-posited (i.e. that Saturn cannot exist unless there are conditions for the proper use of Saturn).

When I say that Saturn does not need to be posited in order to exist, I am not saying that the meaning of the concept Saturn does not need to be posited by us in order to exist—quite obviously, the concept Saturn means what it does because of us, and in this sense it is perfectly acceptable to say that it has been ‘posited’ through human activity. But when I say that Saturn exists un-posited, I am not making a claim about a word or a concept; my claim is rather that the planet which is the referent of the word ‘Saturn’ existed before we named it and will probably still exist after the beings who named it have ceased to exist, since it is something quite distinct both from the word ‘Saturn’ and the concept Saturn for which the word stands. Thus the ‘Saturn’ that is synonymous with ‘correlate of the act of positing’ (i.e. Saturn as the sense of the word ‘Saturn’) is not synonymous with the Saturn probed by Cassini-Huygens. To say that Saturn exists un-posited is simply to say that Cassini-Huygens did not probe the sense of a word and is not in orbit around a concept. (ST, 71-72)

It could be objected that we need Saturn to say what Saturn is, but this is false; before the rise of astronomy, humans could point to Saturn and come up with ideas about what it was. To say that the gas giant Saturn is the same as our concept of it, Saturn, is full blown conceptual idealism.  Even if the conditions of sense are dependent on the conditions of reference, the existence of the referent does not dependent on the existence of the conditions of reference.  No argument which does not beg the question can ultimately equate Saturn qua concept with Saturn qua gas giant.

Figuring out the relationship between conceptual thought and non-conceptual reality is the problem of objective synthesis.  The key point in all this is to remember that just because we have a concept of the difference between Saturn and Saturn does not mean the difference is a difference within the concept; “concept of difference ≠ conceptual difference. The acknowledgement of this non-equivalence is the basic premise of transcendental realism, which cannot be subverted simply by equivocating, in the manner of strong…correlationism, between the conditions of positing and the being of the posited.  Even that equivocation maintains a realism about its own self-positing, so realism “is uncircumventable, even for the most stubborn anti-realist. The problem is to identify the salient epistemological considerations so that the question of what to be a realist about may be rationally adjudicated. In this regard, the sorts of phenomenological intuition about conscious activity resorted to by Fichteans and other idealists remain a dubious source of authority.” (ST, 74)

Given the inconceivability of the in-itself from the correlationist point of view, the problem of understanding the difference between concept and object is dissolved rather than solved by them.  On the other hand,

 “Acknowledging the autonomy of the in-itself, transcendental realism faces the problem of determining what is real. This cannot be addressed independently of scientific representation. For those of us who take scientific representation to be the most reliable form of cognitive access to reality, the problem is one of granting maximal (but not, please note, incorrigible) authority to the scientific representation of the world while acknowledging that science changes its mind about what it says there is. Accordingly, the key question becomes: How can we acknowledge that scientific conception tracks the in-itself without resorting to the problematic metaphysical assumption that to do so is to conceptually circumscribe the ‘essence’ (or formal reality) of the latter? For we want to be able to claim that science knows reality without resorting to the Aristotelian equation of reality with substantial form.” (ST, 74)

Brassier’s conclusion is that in order to defend the concept of the in-itself, we need to maintain some of the old dualisms, that is, differences between things like meaning and being, and knowing and feeling.  These dualisms are not relics of outmoded metaphysics, but rather “they are makeshift but indispensable instruments through which reason begins to be apprized both of its continuity and its discontinuity with regard to what it is still expedient to call ‘nature’.” (ST, 75)


3 thoughts on “Concepts and Objects (First Draft)

  1. What’s interesting is that for Brassier scientific truth utilizes dualism as an instrumentalist method or toolset rather than as a ontological statement of fact about the synchronic and diachronic aspects what he terms ‘nature’.

    And, that last sentence is in itself a slap in the face to the OOO gang. It was Graham Harman in Tool-being who stated that “Heidegger pushes philosophy to the point where it has no choice but to offer a renewed theory of substantial forms.” Between Brassier and Harman we see the great divide in current philosophical thinking.

  2. Yeah, I was a bit taken aback when I saw that defense of dualism – it took me a whiile to cotton on to the fact that those dualisms are epistemic tools.

    Since reading the first chapter of Nihil Unbound, I’ve been thinking of Brassier as completely taking Churchland-style EM over Wilfred Sellars’ synoptic theory, but now it looks more and more like he’s deeply sympathetic to Sellars.

    Brassier’s swipes at Harman are fun to read, but I’m at a loss as to why Harman has become the wicked witch of the west in the blogosphere. I don’t have any interest in OOO, but people seem to be treating it with a surprising and unwarranted level of contempt.

  3. I think there was a personal falling out between the two over Harman’s misuse of his blog to lambast certain people along the way that had criticized his work. I am not sure of the full details since it is more of a personal thing between the two philosophers.

    Otherwise I have seen a lot of the processual community at odds with the OOO world and critical of it. I do wish people could be more congenial in their blogging, but it is what it is… Sad but true.

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