Tag Archives: Ontology

Quote of the day – John Heil Explains What’s Wrong With Non-reductive Physicalism

What I object to is the unthinking move from linguistic premises to ontological conclusions, from the assumption, for instance, that if you have an ‘ineliminable’ predicate that features in an explanation of some phenomenon of interest, the predicate must name a property shared by everything to which it applies. (A predicate is ineliminable if it cannot be analyzed, paraphrased, or translated into less vexed predicates.)

Philosophers speak of ‘the pain predicate’. When you look at creatures plausibly regarded as being in pain, you do not see a single physical property they all share (and in virtue of which it would be true to say that they are in pain). Instead of thinking that the predicate, ‘is in pain’, designates a family of similar properties, philosophers (including Putnam in one of his moods) conclude that the predicate must name a ‘higher-level’ property possessed by a creature by virtue of that creature’s ‘lower-level’ physical properties. You have many different kinds of physical property supporting a single nonphysical property. This is the kind of ‘non-reductive physicalism’ you have in functionalism.

Non-reductive physicalism has become a default view, a heavyweight champ that retains its status until decisively defeated. Non-reductive physicalism acquired the crown, however, not by merit, but by a kind of linguistic subterfuge. If you read early anti-reductionist tracts – for instance, Jerry Fodor’s ‘Special Sciences (Or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis)’ (Synthese, 1974) – you will see that the arguments concern predicates, categories, taxonomies. Fodor’s point, a correct one in my judgment, is that there is no prospect of replacing taxonomies in the special sciences with one drawn from physics. But from this no ontological conclusions follow – unless you assume that every ‘irreducible’ predicate names a property.

This language-driven way of thinking is not one that would have occurred to the ancients, the medievals, or the early moderns – or to my aforementioned philosophical models. It is an invention of the 20th century, one that has led to the emasculation of serious ontology.

~From an interview with Richard Marshall at 3am.

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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Nihilism

Value Nihilism holds a curious position in the philosophical landscape. It is simultaneously respected as a position to take seriously yet most contemporary philosophers consider it a “last resort” option at best, a bleak alternative if all other attempts at “saving” morality are unsuccessful (an incentive to never stop hoping moral theories will eventually converge into a consensus). Often it is held up as a philosophical boogey-man to be avoided at all costs. Some would even claim that if your moral theorizing ends up with nihilism you have a good reason to reject that view because it’s too at odds with our common sense ways of thinking.

But it’s an elementary point in other areas of inquiry that evidence of all humans believing in X is not in itself evidence for the existence of X. If almost everyone on the planet believes in fairies, that all by itself does not provide a good reason to the fairy-skeptic that fairies do in fact exist because it’s possible everybody else is mistaken (perhaps the fairy-skeptic could provide an evolutionary or psychological explanation for why fairy belief stabilized in the population thousands of years ago in our ancient superstitious past). Whether or not everyone else thinks the fairy-skeptic is too conceptually “revisionary” in their suggestion to overhaul belief in fairies is irrelevant to the truth of the matter.

Similarly, if it turns out that humans are psychologically incapable of giving up on the idea that some actions are “intrinsically good/evil” because it’s just too psychologically intuitive or too useful to think otherwise, that would provide no reason all by itself to think there really are such things as intrinsic values “out there” independently of contingent preferences. I think it’s strange that so many philosophers want at all costs to hold onto moral discourse including phrases like “Hitler was just downright evil“, “Torturing for fun is just intrinsically bad and you really ought not to do it” and have actually convinced themselves that this makes for a good “explanation” of why evil people do what they do. But this appeal to moral “facts” to explain the situation pales in explanatory power compared to the fully naturalistic explanation that falls out of the scientific worldview. Ontological seriousness is just not compatible with the view that there really are values independently of contingent desires.

And that in essence is my sense of what Value Nihilism is all about. It’s the view that there are no objective values that hold independently of contingent desires. Value Nihilism is fully compatible with Value Subjectivism whereby we can form objective standards relative to the standards of evalulation of contingent, desiring beings like human animals. From an ontological point of view, all modern forms of expressivism, constructivism, or subjectivism are compatible with Value Nihilism. If we say that morality can be constructed out of the basic desires/preferences of Earthly creatures, the Nihilist wants to know: Why is it good to promote basic desires? Is the satisfaction of contingent desires inherently valuable? If so, where do these values come from? What gives it value? Is relative to a stance-independent standard? How does this standard exist independently of us? The scientific worldview has no room in it for wiggles in space-time to be “intrinsically valuable”, “worth pursuing”, or “intrinsically good/evil”, etc. Crudely put, all wiggles in space-time are ontologically on the same “level” as all other wiggles of space-time.

Nowhere in science will it ever make sense to say that there are some specially moral “facts” that provide binding normative reasons for acting or thinking in a certain way. Any binding normative force will only be loosely bound by the hypothetical nature of reason. If you are sincerely committed to playing a legitimate game of chess, then you really ought to follow the rules and do en passant properly and obey touch-rules, etc. But this is only if you have the desire to play a legal game. If you really need the tournament money to pay for your dying child’s medicine and you see that you can cheat and get away with it then you really ought to not follow the rules of chess. The rules of chess don’t “bind you”, because you are always free to say to these rules “Who cares? Nobody is forcing me to follow you.” Of course, it is still objectively true that you made a mistake from the perspective of the chess community.

My sense is that all norms have the same “binding” force as the rules of chess. That is, the binding is only hypothetical relative to contingent preferences. But there is no sense in which any wiggle of space-time is “necessarily obligated” to obey some prescription. Norms do not and cannot bind, authorize, guide, regulate, control, enforce, obligate, or compel any physical entity. They just do not have that power because they don’t exist except as stance-dependent properties. But as John Heil as argued, only substances can bear properties. And the most plausible candidates for substances are things like fundamental particles or space-time fields. Relative properties as such are thus quasi-properties that arise from configurations of more fundamental substances, whose “modes” include complex phenomena such as human societies and biospheres. Norms only have force if there is a preference that has an incentive to follow the norm. No incentive, no authority.

This is just a quicky and dirty rendition of some of the motivations underlying Moral Nihilism or Value Nihilism. My own views are leanings towards the view that if you are going to be a Moral Nihilist then you should also be a Global Normative Nihilist, because it seems to me that the arguments for why moral norms must be merely hypothetical are also good argument for while any other type of norm must also have a merely hypothetical nature. Some philosophers might think this is an unsurprising finding, and it’s exactly what they’d expect. But that’s because they’re philosophers! But I think that the implications of this way of looking at the world stands in stark contrast to the onto-theological worldview that has been prevalent for pretty much the entirety of human history. I don’t think an intellectual understanding of Normative Nihilism changes one’s underlying motivational structure, but I do think it enables a subtle shift in how we understand ourselves relative to the Cosmos at large. Conceptualizing ourselves from the perspectives of the universe at large is humbling when we consider that our values are just that: ours. And we should cherish them and promote them the best we know how. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking these values are imbued with a special intrinsic “goodness” that holds for all rational agents. That’s a philosophical pipedream.


Filed under Moral Philosophy, Philosophy

Some thoughts on materialism, ontology, and the philosophy of mind

In my estimation, materialist or physicalist philosophy of mind has always occupied a rather strange place in the hierarchy of ideas since its coming to force in the 20th century and peaking with the “hard nosed” scientific reductionism and mind-brain identity theories in the 1950s. The strangeness arises because so many well respected scientific types accept  materialism and scientific reductionism dogmatically, yet it has a more problematic reputation in the philosophy of mind. David Chalmers is but one example of the sustained philosophical attack on the philosophical coherency of materialistic philosophy of mind. Of course, Chalmers would certainly consider himself to be a scientific monist of some sort and no doubt accepts the edicts of neuroscience without hesitation. Yet when it comes right down to it, he thinks materialism will fail as an explanation of certain mental phenomena, namely, qualia. The essence of these qualities is simply irreducible to materialistic ontology, and that’s that. Moreover, the dialectic in philosophy of mind has branched into a thousand debates about type vs token materialism, supervenience, emergentism, reductionistic physicalism vs nonreductionistic physicalism, identity theory, functionalism, and, of course, qualia, subjectivity, consciousness, experience, thoughts, beliefs, personal identity, action, and so on.

Reflecting on this twisted tangle of ideas is dizzying.  One feels as if in a labyrinth constructed entirely of neatly typed philosophy articles, all disagreeing with each other in very nuanced ways. The lack of consensus is overwhelming and, frankly, quite dispiriting. There are always revolutions within revolutions, counter-revolutions, and temporary intellectual victories, but, inevitably, the younger generations find “devastating flaws” in all preceding philosophical work. Every ten years you hear the great battle cry of “Start over!” and “Shake up the foundations!” It seems the mind sciences have always been this way.The radical shift between Jamesian psychology and Watsonian behaviorism is but one example to illustrate the “revolutionary” cliche that has crippled philosophy of mind. The once popular enterprise of exploring “deep generative grammar” is another example of rapid intellectual shifts that inevitably oversell themselves and overgeneralize their models at the expense of capturing genuine phenomena being discovered in rival labs (Chomsky’s hubris at trying to formally prove learning theories false is  embarrassing)

Everywhere we turn in the philosophy of mind we see various talk of “revolution”. I admit that I have, at times, given into the easy temptation to “turn the rugs over” and declare a sweeping intellectual coup, having at least grasped “what is truly the case”. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that a lot of “underbrush” needs to be swept away from our Cartesian and ontotheological heritage. We need to, for example, thoroughly expunge homuncular thinking, no easy task given that ontotheology is built into our linguistic forms of life. It is hard conceptual work to develop theoretical vocabularies that move away from that heritage, yet make enough sense as to be understood and accepted by the mind that is constructed by that heritage (since it is precisely  that mind which is faced with the task of consciously understanding the world around it).

Philosophy of mind then can be seen as a kind of exercise in conceptual experimentation or concept construction. Science investigates reality and philosophy generates the conceptual framework to talk about and understand that investigation. This is not an original statement. Thinkers before me (such as Deleuze) have accepted similar conceptions of what philosophy can and should do for science. When asked about his research in an interview, it is reported that Deleuze answered by saying “Bergson lamented that modern science lacked a metaphysics. I want to provide that metaphysics, and hence, I think of myself as a pure metaphysician.”

Metaphysics has a bad rap because of its historical associations with ontotheology and speculative pseudoscience. But I agree with Deleuze that we need to rehabilitate metaphysics. The classic essentialist ways of thinking simply cannot handle the complexity and dynamical properties being discovered in modern science, especially the life sciences. It seems that life has formed a brilliant habit of breaking all previous habits in the way it sustains itself through time. I contend, along with Deleuze and other developmentally oriented thinkers, that the problem of speciation and morphogenetic individuation is a paradigm model for thinking about the philosophy of mind. Deleuze helps us avoid problematic questions like, “What is the essence of the mind?”. Rather than talking about necessary and sufficient conditions, Deleuze wants to ask, “How did the mind evolve over time? What were the singularities and highest points of intensity that pushed/pulled humans into our contingent historical pathway?”

Some of my favorite points of highest intensity in human history include bipedalism, opposable thumbs, joint attention, tool construction, singing and music, symbolic thinking (systematicity in reference and compositionality), meta-awareness, introspection, theory of mind, philosophy, the scientific revolution, the information age, and, last but not least, the internet: the very tool that is allowing you, the reader, to hopefully receive these words as a stimulus for the development of interesting ideas in your brain many miles away. What do my readers think? What are the highest points of intensity for human evolution?


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

What Turn? Heidegger and the Question of Being

I often hear that later Heidegger abandoned the “human centered” project of Being and Time in search of “Being itself” i.e. Big B Being (henceforth “Being”). As the story goes, early Heidegger thought he could eventually get to Being through a phenomenological reduction of human being (Da-sein). But having seen that this move can never get us “out of” human subjectivity and towards the real philosophical matter, Heidegger sought to find another way to get to Being and subsequently “reversed” the “anthropomorphic” naivety of Being and Time in his famous “Turn”. Right?

I’m not so sure. In his letter to William Richardson, Heidegger says

The thinking of the reversal [from Being and Time to Time and Being] is a change in my thought. But this change is not a consequence of altering the standpoint, much less of abandoning the fundamental issue, of Being and Time. The thinking of the reversal results from the fact that I stayed with the matter that was to be thought in Being and Time, i.e., that I inquired into that perspective which already in Being and Time (pg. 39) was designated as “Time and Being”.

Moreover, he says two paragraphs later that

Whoever is ready to see the simple fact that, in Being and Time, the starting point of subjectivity is deconstructed, that every anthropological inquiry is kept at a distance, and moreover that the sole decisive experience is that of Da-sein with a constant look ahead to the Being-question, will agree that the “Being” which Being and Time inquires into cannot remain something that the human subject posits. Rather, Being is something that matters to Da-sein as the presence determined by its timecharacter. Accordingly thought is also already called upon, in the initial steps of the Being-question of Being and Time, to undergo a change whose movement corresponds to the reversal. Yet the inquiry of Being and Time is not in any way given up thereby.

This needs unpacking.  First, what is the fundamental issue of Being and Time that Heidegger never abandoned? In order to understand the turn in his thought, we need to first understand what he “turned” from. Without understanding this, a reversal in his thought is impossible to comprehend. Moreover, by understanding how Big B Being was understood in Being and Time, we can perhaps understand in what ways Heidegger did not give up on the project of Being and Time while nevertheless reversing his emphasis.

“Being” in Being and Time

If Heidegger never abandoned the central issue in Being and Time, what then was the central issue? It goes without saying that early Heidegger was primarily concerned with the phenomenological explication of human being-in-the-world. Being-in-the-world is a catchall phrase to describe the human mode of existence within a world of significance. Moreover, when Heidegger said that he was going to utilize a phenomenological analytic of Da-sein in order to explicate the question of the meaning of Being, the “Being” referred to is entirely wrapped up with human Existenz. Accordingly, the standard reading of the Turn is problematic insofar as it claims that early Heidegger was trying to get to Big B Being through humanity. Instead, Big B Being is exactly synonymous with the significance of human worldhood! Accordingly, we can now make sense of why Being and Time was concerned with the meaning of Being rather than “Being itself”. Moreover, when Heidegger claims that he never abandoned the central issue of Being and Time, he is saying that he never abandoned the “human centered” analytic of Da-sein. With this in mind, we can now make sense of Heidegger’s definition of “Being” in Being and Time:

In the question which we are about to work out, what is asked about is Being – that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood, however we discuss them in detail. (SZ 6)

This passage is enormously enlightening given that it is one of the few places in Heidegger’s entire career where he explicitly states what he means by “Being”. However, we must be cautious of overlooking the crucial ambiguity within the definition. When he says Being is “that which determines entities as entities”, this can be interpreted in two ways. The first interpretation is based on traditional notions of ontology wherein Being is that which determines the essential nature of entities, whatever that may be. Under this interpretation, it is not surprising that Heidegger “failed” to reach Being through an analytic of humanity and subsequently “Turned” to new methodological strategies for understanding Being. This interpretation, while coherent, is nevertheless not what Heidegger meant and we would be wise to avoid it at all costs.

The second interpretation understands “entities as entities” in terms of the hermeneutic as-structure. Under this interpretation, Big B Being is synonymous with the referential structure of worldhood given through our discursive activities of coping with the ready-to-hand. The entire meaning of Heidegger’s project becomes transformed if we realize that Big B Being is wrapped up exclusively with humanity’s being-in-the-world. Accordingly, we can now make sense of Heidegger’s cryptic statements that Being is dependent on Da-sein but entities can still exist without Da-sein. By interpreting the Being of entities in terms of how we make sense of them, entities are “freed” or “cleared” to exist precisely in terms of their relevance to our concernful projects. The “Being” of the rock is different depending on whether I am looking for a projectile or a paper weight. Thus, Big B Being, the world, significance, the clearing, meaning, the as-structure,  etc. are all more or less synonymous. The Being of an entity is dependent on how I use it for instrumental action. Period.

By upsetting the traditional notions of what determines an entity as an entity, Heidegger can now be read in terms of laying out the constitutive conditions for how humans make sense of the world. By understanding entities in terms of how we take them to be, “world projection” can now be interpreted in terms of the as-structure wherein we take entities as being one way or another. Moreover, we can read Heidegger’s critique of presence-at-hand ontology in terms of how the tradition overlooked the “freedom” of entities to be disclosed differently according to our worldly projects. For example, there is no “essence” of chairs for chairs can be used in more ways than one. If you tried to say that what determines the chair as a chair is its present-at-hand objective qualities, you would overlook the way in which we can take the chair as something it is not, namely, as something I use for-the-sake-of something else. Thus, when Heidegger discusses the semblance in terms an entity “showing itself” in terms counter to what it actually is, we can read this precisely in terms of the freedom of possibility opened up through concernful circumspection. The chair shows itself to me by means a reflection of its objective properties by ambient light, but I do not take it as an objective conglomeration of physical properties; I take it as something-to-use. This is why Heidegger insists that we primarily interpret entities in terms of the semblance and live primarily in the mode of semblance. This is also why Heidegger insists that humans primordially encounter entities through the mode of untruth. The “truth” of the chair (that it has objective present-at-hand properties) is only accessible by stopping our activities and staring at the chair or investigating it scientifically.

Thus, we can see that despite Heidegger’s insistence that Big B Being is wrapped up in human affairs, there is nevertheless an extent to which the Being of entities is not a purely subjective projection in the Kantian sense. For Kant, the spatiotemporal properties of the chair are merely projections of my subjective mind. For Heidegger, the spatiotemporal properties of the chair are independent of human subjectivity: I am not free to use the chair in order to fly to the moon for that is a physical impossibility. So the Being of entities is in a sense independent of humans while nevertheless wrapped up in human disclosure. The Being of entities not something I subjectivity “posit”  in the Kantian sense, but nevertheless, the Being of entities is dependent on how I use it. Heidegger is thus a realist and an idealist. The spatiotemporal properties of entities are not ontically dependent on Da-sein (as common sense indicates), but nevertheless entities “transcend” their present-at-hand structure in virtue of being “freed” in the clearing of instrumental sense-making.

It seems that I have overrun my space constraints and failed to discuss Heidegger’s turn of emphasis, but hopefully I have laid the groundwork for understanding how Heidegger never abandoned his interest in human centered phenomenology.


Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

An Essay On Badiou and Generic Subjectivity, pt I

For this series of posts, I thought I would post in several installations  a paper I wrote for a Badiou seminar I took this semester with John Protevi. Reading Being and Event was a real eye-opener for me. The depth and profundity of Badiou’s philosophy stunned me out of a dogmatic slumber. Prior to reading Being and Event, I had no appreciation for any ontology that wasn’t Heideggerian i.e. phenomenological in nature. The power of Badiou’s subtractive ontology is like a virus, infecting your mind.I think the exegetical style of the paper will be conducive for the blog format as I really didn’t attempt to do anything fancy with the text. I hope that people who are unfamiliar with Badiou’s work will give him a chance; I recommend starting with his Manifesto for Philosophy and then working your way up to Being and Event. Moreover, Peter Hallward’s book on Badiou was really helpful this semester; I highly recommend it. Anyway, I hope my readers will get something out of this, even if it is just an appreciation for an exotic style of thinking.


Operation of the Count

Badiou’s project in Being and Event starts with the fundamental decision that math is ontology. Moreover, math is thought in terms of the axiomatic set theory of Zermelo and Frankl. From within such a system, Badiou makes his central claim that the multiple is and the one is not. From this assertion, everything follows. Moreover, presentation – experience as such – is always the presentation of multiples, which are multiples of multiples, and so on ad infinitum. On the basis of this decision we can retroactively conclude that any “oneness” or unity in experience (such as seeing “a” coffee mug on the table) must always be the result of an operation. Badiou names this process the “count-as-one” operation. And because oneness is ruled to be a mere result in virtue of a metaontological decision, multiplicity is retroactively inferred to be that which is counted, the “stuff” structured in accordance with the counting operation. Moreover, what gets counted is inconsistent multiplicity and the result of the count upon this “material” of inconsistency is consistent multiplicity. A general motif for Badiou is order being counted out of the chaos and anonymity of the void. Accordingly, presentation is always structured in terms of this ordered consistency in virtue of the count. For Badiou, a structured presentation is a situation; presented multiplicity, by definition, is a situation.

However, it must be made clear that, strictly speaking, we cannot ontologically claim that what is counted (being itself) really is multiple because “being is neither one (because only presentation itself is pertinent to the count-as-one), nor multiple (because the multiple is solely the regime of the presentation)” (BE 24). It is only upon the logical realization that oneness is the result of an experiential operation that we are able to conclude multiplicity is prior to the count. Indeed, “The multiple is retroactively legible therein as anterior to the one, insofar as the count-as-one is always a result” (ibid.). Thus, we see that for Badiou, presentation (experience) is always structured; we never experience pure inconsistency except ontologically, that is, mathematically. Within the ontological discourse of being qua being, presentation itself is presented, and subsequently, counted-as-one. This count-of-the-count is the state of the situation, or metastructure. Accordingly, since ontology (presentation of presentation) is structured by the count, it itself is a situation. Nothing (literally) escapes the count-as-one operation.

Moreover, Badiou says that the connection between structured presentation (the resulting situation after the count) and the inconsistent multiplicity (“pure being”) is the void. “The void of a situation is the suture to its being [inconsistent multiplicity]” (BE 526). Consequently, the void is that which can be presented of the inconsistent multiplicity, which, it turns out, is literally nothing (since any “thingness” would be the result of the counting operation). The void is subtracted from the count in the sense that it is the “Non-one of any count-as-one” (ibid.). Although the void is not presented within the situation, it can nevertheless be presented (asserted) within ontological discourse as what avoids, or is subtracted from, the count, designated (marked) as “Ø”. Indeed, besides his declaration that the one is not, the Axiom of the Void is the only existential assertion Badiou infers from axiomatic set theory. From this null set, we can build everything. But because ontological discourse only applies to presented multiplicity, and presented multiplicity is always the result of a counting operation, we literally have nothing to say about that-which-is-presented (retroactively designated as pure multiplicity). Pure being (multiplicity) is thus based on nothing (the void) and our only recourse is to present this situation formally through ontological discourse i.e. formally present presentation itself.

Metaontologically speaking, it is important to see the extent to which presentation as experience plays a role in Badiou’s thinking. Indeed, he says “If the word ‘experience’ has any meaning, it is that of designating presentation as such” (BE 391). And because all presentation is presented multiplicity, and presented multiplicity is consistent (i.e. under the regime of the count), we can conclude that all experience as such falls under the counting operation. The pure infinite multiplicity of the world is always counted as multiplicity, that is, in terms of a structure or situation. Moreover, the count-as-one generates one-effects or “oneness” at all levels of human experience. Even within mathematical (ontological) discourse, where presentation itself is analyzed and broken down into its most abstract structure through set theoretic formulation, the structure of the count is continuously operative at multiple levels. Indeed, “given a situation whose structure delivers consistent one-multiples, there is always a metastructure – the state of the situation – which counts as one any composition of these consistent multiplicities” (BE 97). All situations are thus doubly structured according to the count. Moreover, as Badiou reminds us, it can be mathematically proven that the state of the situation is immeasurably larger than the situation. Technically speaking, the cardinality for the infinite set of the continuum of real numbers is immeasurably in excess of the first cardinality for the infinite set of integers (aleph-null). This idea of excess will be important when we introduce the second key term of Being and Event, for in the same way, the difference between being (in a situation) and the event is “errant and unassignable”.
That all situations are structured is especially important given our above discussion of the void. Because the void is the name of inconsistency in a situation and the count-as-one is always operative, we can never “get” at, or present, the void itself, only its mark Ø. That is, if we metaontologically examine the structure of presentation in its most abstract form in search of the foundational void, we will reach the structure itself, that is, the count-as-one operation, not the void. However, “In order for the void to be prohibited from presentation, it is necessary that structure be structured, that the ‘there is Oneness’ be valid for the count-as-one.” In other words, if we were to attempt a subtraction of the structure itself from the count in order to reach the void, by virtue of the count-as-one and the prohibition of the void’s presentation, the structure must in turn be counted-as-one. And if there is “Oneness” for the count-as-one, then we know that our access to the count is merely a result of an operation. Thus, the count itself escapes the count (BE 93). “The consistency of presentation thus requires that all structure be doubled by a metastructure which secures the former against any fixation of the void” (BE 94). Again, we can be assured that nothing escapes the count, otherwise, the void would contradict itself by being presented.

At this stage in our investigation, it would be natural to think that Badiou’s notion of the counting operation presupposes some sort of cognitive scaffolding wherein we understand presentation (experience) in terms of an organization of empirically given sense-data into a structured unity. After all, as we have seen above, Badiou does conceive of presentation in terms of an operation in which pure inconsistent multiplicity is organized, or “counted”, in terms of consistent multiplicity such that a structured situation results. Conceiving the counting operation in terms of classic sense-data theories would bring Badiou in line with a long history of philosophical reasoning wherein the subjectivity of experience is conceptualized in terms of an organization of raw sensory givens into a meaningful structure viewable by the mind’s eye in a theater of consciousness. This idea follows naturally from the Kantian notion of a transcendental function that synthesizes raw empirical input into a phenomenal realm constitutive of subjective experience.

However, if we were to conclude that Badiou falls into this traditional conception of subjectivity, and is subsequently open to the well known weaknesses of such theorization, we would be sorely mistaken. Indeed, Badiou is quite clear that his conception of subject “is not, in any manner, the organization of a sense of experience. It is not a transcendental function” (BE 391). The task of the next section then will be to explore the extent to which we can make sense of the count-as-one as an operation, which, nevertheless does not presuppose a cognitive scaffold of sensory organization or transcendental synthesis. The guiding question will be: how can we conceive of the subject without recourse to traditional conceptions of subjectivity? That is, how can we make sense of Badiou’s notion of subjectivity in terms that do not presuppose an interiority of consciousness wherein the external world is given to a subjective mind?

To be continued…

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A question for speculative realism

Mike Johnduff of Working Notes says that speculative realism

…is, in my view, a way of being a better Heideggerian than some Heideggerians. Why? It ends up enriching the Heideggerian analytic where Heideggerians might call the particular investigations in this new field “onticology,” a turn away from ontology or from our prereflective understanding of being being and towards beings. Speculative realism, however, in no way involves this turn back to the ontic, to beings (and, I might add, only a foolish reading of Heidegger would see every turn to the ontic as a step back, and not because Heidegger was tolerant of this, but because the ontological is not more proper in that way: it’s not unlike claiming, appealing to Darwin, that you are more evolved than your dog, when of course all species are the most evolved they are going to be at this moment).

Speculative realism involves, instead, taking the Heideggerian analysis, and then asking, ontologically, the impossible thing: what are these beings in their being, when we don’t take being as anything that originates from our stance upon beings. It means, to put it another way, deconstructing (or at least being clearer about) all that Heidegger did (intentionally and, especially, not) to link Dasein to the human, and being to a history that man has privileged insight into. The result is a knowledge of objects with the prereflective understanding of man subtracted: the prereflection is among beings, purely, if I can put it that way.

My question is simple: is not a human-subtracted knowledge of objects simply naturalistic science as we currently understand it? Does not a naturalistic description suffice for knowing how things are when we are not looking? I don’t understand how a human-subtracted knowledge of objects – an investigation into the “being of beings” – could be anything but an investigation into ontic properties. If we are “trying to talk about what the bridge is when you walk away from it” – would not a physical-engineering model be the best mode of discourse for doing so? If you want to subtract humanity, you need to lose metaphor and work with what physicists – the ultimate onticologists – have been using for years: mathematical equations. Vernacular language is simply too infused with human-centered metaphor to ever be useful in talking about how bridges are when no one is looking. So while I agree that onticology is not a priori a materialistic ontology, nevertheless, mathematical-physical discourse is arguably more useful than philosophical language when it comes to discussing bridges. Afterall, to paraphrase Dretske, engineering discourse will actually allow you to construct a bridge whereas object-oriented “philosophy” will not. Which one then is more truly object-centered?


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Thoughts on Kant, Heidegger, and Existence – part I


Right now I am working my way through Heidegger’s 1927 lecture course published in English as “Basic Problems of Phenomenology” (BP). I am drawn to the text because it seems to be written in a more pedagogical and less scholastic tone than Being and Time. Moreover, the text is exciting for me to read because the lecture course was given right around the time that Being and Time was published and the course provides a nice window into the mind of Heidegger around that very important phase of his career. In this post, I want to begin to sketch (and only sketch) some of my thoughts in relation to one of the grand theses of Heideggerian thought: [B]eing is not itself a being i.e. being is not itself an entity.

As Heidegger is not shy to admit, this great thought comes almost directly from Kant, who – attempting to clarify and discredit the ontological argument for God’s existence – famously said that being is not a real predicate, and as such, can not be “added” to the essence of any thing, including God, which invalidates the ontological argument. What is a real predicate? Heidegger says that for Kant this realm of the “real” corresponds to Sachheit, thingness, or whatness.  For example, the real predicates or whatness of a coffee mug corresponds with the physical properties and relations necessary to keep coffee from spilling out of the top of the mug. This is the “essence” of the coffee mug. But as Kant points out, utilizing the example of the 100 thalers, the mere thought or potential of a coffee mug is the same as an actual coffee mug in terms of its “whatness”. What “makes” a coffee mug a coffee mug is not the fact that it exists or doesn’t exist – “a hundred thalers do not differ in their what-contents whether they be a hundred possible or a hundred actual thalers. Actuality does not affect the what, the reality, but the how of the [entity], whether possible or actual” (BP 43).

Okay, so this is the heart of Kant’s claim that being is not a real predicate. To get at the “essence” of the coffee mug, we need not discuss whether it is actually physically extant in the world. We do not need to “add” existence to the mug in order to get “coffee mug”. Following from this line of thought, of all the “real predicates” of “things” and “objects”, “being” is not itself one of those predicates. We can say “the coffee mug is black” and we are then adding a predicate to the mug, but when we say “the coffee mug exists” we are saying something different. “Being” itself must then be different from the actual extant-structure of the coffee mug, thus Heidegger’s mantra: being is not itself an entity.

So what is going on when we say “the coffee mug exists”? If we are not adding a real predicate, what then are we “adding” to the essence of the coffee mug if we say “it exists”? Heidegger points out that Kant said “being [in general] equals position, existence equals absolute position.” Heidegger then asks, what is this position? What does absolute position mean? Heidegger quotes Kant’s rather vague answer to this question: “The perception, however, which supplies the material to the concept is the sole character of actuality.” “[Actuality, possibility, necessity] add to the concept of a thing (of something real)…the faculty of knowledge.” As Heidegger succinctly puts it,  “the predicate of actuality adds perception to the concept of a thing. Kant thus says in short: actuality, existence, equals absolute position equals perception.”

As I am not a Kant scholar, I can not say whether Heidegger’s reading of Kant is fair or accurate, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes here given that such questions concerning existence are only a vantage point from which to start (Ways not works). How does Heidegger clarify Kant’s statement regarding actuality and perception? What is the relationship between “perceiving, perceived, and perceivedness”? It should be first clear that, as Heidegger points out, “Perception as perceiving cannot be equated with existence. Perception is not existence; it is what perceives the existent, the extant, and relates itself to what is perceived.” With that said, how then can we make sense of Kant’s formula concerning perception and actuality?

Existence cannot be equated with the perceived existent, but it can quite well, perhaps, be equated with the being-perceived of the perceived, its perceivedness. It is not the existent, extant, window that is existence, extantness, but perhaps the window’s being-extant is expressed in the factor of being-perceived, in consequence of which the thing is encountered by us as perceived, as uncovered, and so is accessible to us as extant by way of the perceiving. Perception in Kant’s language would then mean the same thing as perceivedness, uncoveredness in perception.

We are beginning to see here in Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant a phenomenological starting place for ontic realism, the idea that “occurrent entities exist independently of the conditions constitutive of our interpretation of them as occurrent” (Taylor, 2003). Such a realism helps answer the question which follows naturally from Kant’s formula: is the coffee mug’s existence constituted by my perception of it? Here, Heidegger answers sharply:

The window, however, surely does not receive existence from my perceiving it, but just the reverse: I can perceive it only if it exists and because it exists. (BP 49)

In Being and Time, we can see a similarly realist response to such questions: “Entities are, quite independently of the experience by which they are disclosed, the acquaintance in which they are discovered, and the grasping in which their nature is ascertained” (BT 228)

I will further elaborate on this idea of ontic structure being defined in terms of “that which can be perceived” in another post. I will further elucidate this concept by taking a close look at section 9, part B of Basic Problems: “The ontological constitution of perception. Intentionality and transcendence”.


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