Concepts and Objects (Final Draft)

This is the version of the essay we will use on Saturday, May 18.

Rational thought is carried out with concepts.  When we describe a book, a stone or a fictional character, we use concepts to do it.  For example, we have a concept of stars as nuclear furnaces, but also as distant points of light.  Books, stones, Batman and stars are all objects.  An account of what rationality is requires an account of the relation between concepts and objects; what relation does the thinking in our heads (our concepts) have with the external world (objects)?  That relation is how the world makes sense to us; it is how meaning is generated. Ray Brassier, against much of contemporary philosophy, insists on a rigidly realist position: our concepts do give us access to the real world, based on the identity of the object.

Aristotle, Correlationism, Realism

Consider the tree outside your window and describe it – let’s say it is tall and green.  Is the tree really tall and green, or does it only appear as such?  How and why does it appear this way?  For the ancient philosopher Aristotle, a tree appears tall and green because it is in the nature of a tree to be such.  The way the world appears is built into the world, and the world really is that way.  Our concept of a tree as tall and green is correct because our concept of a tree corresponds to the nature of the tree.  Skip ahead to the 18th century, when philosophy began to insist that there is a hard line between the way things appear for us, and the way they really are in themselves.  Things appear the way they do because of our concepts; appearance is shaped by our concepts.  Finally, in the 20th century, the obvious question is asked: if our concept of a tree entirely shapes the tree’s appearance, why bother with a tree in itself at all?  The meaning of the world comes from the way human thought co-relates with the world to make it appear – or to put it more strongly, to exist is to be the correlation between a concept and an object. Brassier calls this correlationism.  To some degree, it is a contemporary idealism.

The two positions appear to be opposites: Aristotle says there is no difference in principle between concepts and objects because the world inherently makes sense, and correlationism says there is no difference between concepts and objects because there is nothing other than our concepts. What both positions share, however, is the belief that meaning is built into some part of the world, either our minds or the things themselves.

Brassier does not accept either position. He rejects the inherent meaningfulness of the world because nothing has “natural” properties.  The tree is tall and green not because its nature is to be tall and green, but because of a long evolutionary history. He rejects the correlationist position that the world’s meaning comes from humans because he is a realist.  He insists there is a world outside human thought. The tree does not conform to our concept of it.  Contra Aristotle and correlationism, there is a real difference between our concepts and their objects, and what is more, we can know that difference.

The Naturalistic Imperative

However, he does take something from each position.  Aristotle’s position is a realist one, because for Aristotle there is a world that is wholly independent of human thought. What Aristotle lacks is a critical account of the process of conceptualization.  The correlationist position provides just such an account, but it slides all too easily into idealism, the loss of any idea of a world apart from thought.  Brassier believes that a naturalist epistemology can bring these two sides together; he seeks an alliance between post-Kantian rationalism and the realism of post-Darwinian naturalism.

The fundamental problem of philosophy is knowing how to reconcile two claims.  First, contra Aristotle and common sense realism, there is no rational access to the real without concepts. Second, contra correlationism, we must be careful to not confuse the real with the concepts by which we know it.  We must be careful to not confuse trees with our concept of trees. In order to know what is real, we need to know what it means to be real, how we form our concept of the real in the first place, and the difference between the resulting concept and the real itself.  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)  Meaning “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)

Brassier is careful to distinguish his naturalism from the hypostatization of nature as a pure ontological realm.  Naturalism is less a statement about what exists than 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 “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 (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. 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.” (60)

The Gem

Correlationism tends to be more common today, so he focuses his attack on what he sees as correlationism’s main argument.  The argument, which he calls “the Gem”, is named for a passage from 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.  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 X unless Y, a necessary condition for Xing things, is met. Therefore, you cannot X things-in-themselves’.  Different philosophers use different terms; one might say that you cannot experience Saturn unless the conditions of experience are in place; another might say you cannot refer to Saturn unless the conditions of reference are in place.  Therefore, you cannot experience or refer to Saturn in itself, apart from our human concepts of it.

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.  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.

But again, there is a sleight of hand between two functions of the word “Saturn.”  In the premise, you cannot refer to Saturn unless the conditions of reference apply, “Saturn” is our symbol for the concept Saturn.  In the conclusion, therefore you cannot refer to Saturn in-itself, “Saturn” is the planet itself.  The premise talks about the concept, and the conclusion talks about the planet.  “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.

The Relation Between Concept and Object

The difference between concept and object exists because of the object’s non-conceptual identity, which is capable of negating the concept. We should see “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)

Figuring out the relationship between conceptual thought and non-conceptual reality is the problem of objective synthesis.  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)


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