You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Ontology’ category.

Back to the “rough ground” for a minute (although more properly speaking said ground is soggy, soggy and cold). There’s been a lot of enthusiasm recently for Quentin Meillasoux’s theory of the “ancestral”, the material aspects of the world which are epistemically inaccessible to us and thusly fall outside a Kantian “correlationist” view of the relation between the mental and the physical. Without speculating on Meillasoux’s theory before I’ve gotten around to carefully reviewing it (twenty dollars is a lot to spend on an afternoon’s reading), I’d like to generalize the thought as it is stated and apply it to other dimensions of time and to consider the relationship of Marx to his German forebears in that light.

For the sake of the argument, consider a thumbnail sketch of Platonism: Plato was the inventor, not only of the “truth as correctness” much bemoaned by the later Heidegger, but of the ideal: the Socratic dialogues are the first place in Western literature where the question of establishing what is really the case, what is really good, what is truly true gets raised. The Ionian ‘physicists’ do not ask these questions; the various religious prophets of the Near East, including the interpreters of Greek civic gods, had no time for them. The same cannot be said for Leibniz, Kant and Hegel. The reintroduction of Plato’s works into the Western intellectual milieu helped give form to Leibniz’ early attempts at “logistic”, and Kant’s self-professed crypto-Wolffianism surely takes the form of an attention to rationalistic surety about the purchase of concepts of totality on the realm of “appearances”.

Hegel maintains all of this Platonism, but within the more precisely established bonds of intersubjectivity, or Geist. For Hegel all ideals, including the ideals of religion, realize themselves in community standards and practices. We can cheer this as a ‘precursor’ of pragmatism (although why exactly equalibertarians were ever supposed to be enthusiastic about Metaphysical Club member and Peirce’s good bud Oliver Wendell Holmes is mysterious to me); that’s not, however, the only thing it is. Rather, Hegelian intersubjectivity is a form of actualist presentism about norms and the non-normative powers that underwrite them: he probably would not even go so far as to say “the truth is what is fated to be agreed upon by all”, holding that philosophy only “comprehended its time in thought” and failure to make peace with the signposts of the age was indicative of a lack of conceptual acuity.

Perhaps we could say that Marx had something like Meillasoux’s idea of epistemically inaccesible reality in mind when conceptualizing the proletariat, although in the direction of the non-espied future rather than an ancestral past. The proletariat is fated to rule the world, according to Marx, because they simply are the forces of the future at work today: the elements of practice and revolt we do not understand today, working an effect on contemporary society at a non-conceptual level, will determine the normative concepts of tomorrow — not an “originalist” fidelity to an ‘originary’ source of insight. So perhaps we should think of Marx’s favored name for his project, “historical materialism”, in some such robustly metaphysical way.

I don’t normally write “straight” analytic philosophy. My usual inspirations are the “logic of semblance” of critical social theory, which shows us how distortions inherent in the way contemporary society treats topics make eminently sensible choices look bad and fraudulent swindles look good, and the theoretical logic analytic philosophers claim to esteem without always reading much of it, or reading it carefully. But for a short time at the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005 I did write “squibs” which essentially gave my positive Doctrine of Being for a few choice issues.

The circumstances were not auspicious: rolling off a grueling one-month hospitalization, I was heavily medicated and lacking much in the way of means of support. However, reading over the pieces (which engendered lively Usenet conversations) I think I like them okay today: so, in the interest of reaching out to the analytic world I’ve collected them under the heading “Ontology” (“Metaphysics” is usually construed more narrowly than the topics addressed, although I was interested specifically in what literature, nececessity, mental states, etc. are). 

Highlight: “Practical Rationality: Going Sane” — practical rationality treated through treatment of a colorful and colorfully heteroglossic Pepys quotation.

Qualia (raw perceptual “feels”) are often supposed to be a problem for physicalism, the doctrine that everything that exists is physical; a problem because they do not occupy any physical location. It seems to me that these arguments are mistaken, for the reason that I suspect qualia can be shown to be thoroughly based in conditions obtaining in the brain. Now, Qualia are often taken to be epiphenomena of brain activity, caused by it without causing further physical effects. But to study the phenomenon of qualia in this light is to give in to a construal of mentality which evades our better knowledge of the mind in nature, by giving in to a picture of the brain’s representational ability which divorces it from occurrences in the world. The thought that leads to such a conclusion is this: the mind represents external states of the world.
 
On this account, a mental representation is conceptually related to the external world, such that a series of questions as to its accuracy and mode of causation obtain and give rise to the epistemological treatment of mental states. Qualia are considered subsidiary phenomena to the mainstay of intentional states, such that the question of the “distance” between them and the world obtains as well. But to operate with “representational distance”, rather than considering the mental event as foremost a piece of the physical world, is already to grant our consideration of the phenomenology of mental states too much distance from physical reality. It is obvious, if we consider the matter metaphysically rather than epistemologically, that the mental state contains a more direct relation to physical reality than its content: the material which forms its basis. 

In other words, the psychological mechanisms by which humans successfully perceive external realities are mooted from the standpoint of considering what mental states consist of: relations of epistemological significance are dependent on relations of ontological constitution, and the former set of problems presupposes a solution for the latter. Mental states causally interact with the world before they representationally interact. On this model, qualia are a more central, not a derivative, form of mindedness: they get their phenomenological characteristics from the causal relations the brain instantiates, not the representational characteristics it simulates. There is no contradiction in “feeling the cause”: our experience is constituted by causal nexi in the nervous system, and the representational character of mental states is based upon the causal network constituting the character of experience. We perceive because a part of the physical world feels.

What is it for something to be necessary? There are many different kinds of necessity, but their common characteristic is hard to see. Perhaps it is located where we would not normally look for it: in experience. Experiences seem to be largely contingent: if anything could not be the case, it would be a certain set of perceptions associated with an event. However, a more careful examination of the concept of experience shows that necessity impinges upon it at nearly every step. To have an experience, a certain content must be perceived, and this content processed by the mind. For both perception and cognition of the experience to take place, the experience must possess unique features such as establish it as an experience of one particular event; and the only way for this to occur is through the operation of some kind of necessity. 

For example, in an experience of motion we perceive an object moving after being struck by another object. For the content of the thought to be that of an experience of motion, causal powers are required: and the only way of thinking of these causal powers is as necessitating the motion of the second object. If the motion were contingent, we would be unable to process the thought that the first object caused the second to move for the reason that the experience itself contains regularities strict enough to be covered by causal necessity, and becomes less than an experience if stripped of the concepts employing that necessity. The very content of experience requires that elements within experience are necessarily related to each other; necessity serves as the glue of experience, so to speak. 

It is true that this concept of experience has a wider bearing than that of sense-experience. In the case of logical necessity, what is necessary to an experience has to do with the binding of particulars using general concepts: the experience of truth requires that the content of a true inference be logically necessitated. But the common element between sense-experience and other realms is that the content of an experience has to do with objectivity, and necessity determines the character of objects being considered. For example, the statement from philosophy of language that Aristotle was necessarily Aristotle serves to delimit a field of objects, making possible an experience of language involving proper names. The expression “experience of” could be omitted, provided that it is recognized that we are speaking of object-language properties entering directly into thought via ground-floor conceptualization, the Kantian understanding. 

On such an understanding, talk of necessity is shorthand for the connections which make for the objectivity of objects: the conceptual steps taken by the subject in examining a particular object are determined by what the object makes available in terms of properties and relations to other objects, such that we are able to think of them as such-and-such an object only in connection with a form of necessity. The form of an object, however, is not laid down for all time by this. That form is dependent on the rational linkages we make between statements about kinds of necessity (as in psychophysical correlations, which relate two different kinds of necessity), which in turn constitute the theories of necessity (theories of objectivity) with which we contemplate the conceptually monitored status of said objects. In this sequence, the real element (the understanding) is dependent on the rational (reasoning about objects), and vice versa: we could not think of objects save by thinking *of* them, and in so doing we make use of a vocabulary exceeding necessity by which the events contained in a particular system of objects are subject to rational constraint, considered as the discursive openness of any particular body of concepts with which we think objectivity as necessity.

What is language? Since there are so many different languages and types of language, yet all manifesting marked similarities, the question may seem otiose. Yet language possesses a character which may permit us to search deeper for its meaning. The mark of language which reveals its unity is to be found in a psychological definition. Language is the public, objective face of the mind: any and all mental phenomena surpassing the bounds of subjectivity are linguistic, and linguistic phenomena are mental in a useful sense, being the product and reflection of individual minds in concert. If this be the case, the characterizing of language and the mind ought to demonstrate a sort of maturity relative to other psychological facts, reflecting that language is the province of mutual intelligibility: and indeed it does, in the form of truth.
 
Truth is often defined metaphysically, in terms of a correspondence between a linguistic entity and some item in the world. There is another definition, a psychological one, which seems to me to be more fruitful: truth is a property possessed by psychological states many-sided enough to be characterized linguistically, that is permitting of reflection. Of course, many states complex enough to be captured by a propositional attitude do not share in truth, but the substantive point is that truths are distinguished by the operations which can be performed upon them, the “laws of truth”. The reflective theory of truth is thusly not an empty platitude, but rather results in a typology of the properties which true statements have: cognizability, shareability, judgeability. 

For example, let us take the famous example “snow is white” and subject it to the proposed analysis. “Snow is white” is true if it can be reflectively ascertained that snow is white, that is if possession of the concepts “snow” and “white” permits of their combination in an exceptionless judgement that snow is white which permits the subject to entertain the thought that snow is white (to reflectively examine the judgment). Similarities between this theory of truth and the famous “semantic” definition of truth are not accidental: if language is taken for mind, then the psychological fleshing-out of semantics leads to an alteration in focus, where the mental activity associated with grasping a truth receives priority rather than the semantic status of the statement: true contents are then characterized by the sorts of combination they permit, their thinkability. 

However, what is not a candidate for the status of language cannot be a truth, on account of its inadequacy for the purpose of reflection: a “true image” can serve as constituent of a shareable thought, but the thought must enable a community of mind a la Frege, where each person grasps the same thought. Considered this way, the objectivity of truth is not a formality, but a substantive property of the element of truth, language subjected to the application of the concept of truth — it just so happens that the employment of truth as a property possessed by linguistic items marks out psychological states which permit of synchronization. Truth is therefore a name for a sort of structure, which permits thought to assume the form of language: without the structure, we should be bereft of the mental states associated with reflection and their public availability in discourse.

Causality seems to be one of the fundamental pieces of metaphysics. How can anything be reckoned to exist, if it does not stand in causal relations? But what are these causal relations we speak of, scientifically considered? And how do they relate to the rest of our conception of the world? I would like to suggest here that causality is fundamentally interrelated with the mind in a sense deeper than the fact that nobody spoke of it before humans were around to do so. Causality is an element of understanding, meaning that it composes the fundamental unit with which the understanding operates. Now, to understand something is to know it in a sense permitting of conceptual clarification, dialectical refinement, and other forms of belief revision (e.g., empirical test). But what is it that permits an understanding to exist? I would argue it is nothing other than the concept of cause. 

An understanding is always an understanding of causality: grasping that something is caused by something else requires cognitive machinery subtle enough to comprehend an object as possessing relevant attributes that permit it to combine with other objects in a regular fashion. Without the concept of cause, the objects of understanding would cease to have the clarity and distinctness appropriate to constituents of contentful thought. Problems such as mental causation should therefore be handled from the standpoint of whether or not the potential cause is an object of the understanding, systematically known with respect to its role in the experienced world. On this view epiphenomena (phenomena without causal effects) are not, properly speaking, understood; their role in experience is not fleshed-out enough to permit of judgements combining them with other objects, such that we must say that with epiphenomena experience takes its leave of thinking (the conceptual comprehension of the world). 

Similarly, whether more than one type of cause is permitted is a question which devolves upon distinctions between ways of understanding (Erklaerung vs. Verstehen): there should be no more entities postulated than are necessary to preserve the discursive clarity of conceptual thought, and this is actually a well-enough-defined task from the standpoint of ordinary experience. With respect to scientific research, the questions become more complicated, but if the fundamental integrity of cause as related to the operations of the mind is respected all the commonly accepted forms of causation can be reconciled as integral to the clear conception of the object. Furthermore, such a “discursive” standard for the grasp of causality should be easily compatible with systems that order bodies of knowledge in such a way that the order preserves cross-object relations: to understand causality is to have an unconflicted object or objects.

It seems an important point to me that the structure of knowledge is discrete: the inferential status of knowledge is determined, not only by the inferential relations a piece of knowledge stands in, but by epistemic warrants awarded to individual pieces of knowledge on the basis of their relation to the world. Much as it is possible to know something without knowing all its consequences, it is possible to know something without knowing all its prerequisites. The limits on the level of consequences drawn from knowledge indicate that useful knowledge is clearly not individuated by its object, in which case knowledge would have to be as faithful to the completely given object as possible, in order to qualify as correctly related to it. Given this, what must a knower be? 

Firstly, knowledge requires a knower to have such a structure as to unobtrusively register epistemic facts: if the subject was such as to psychologically constitute all its information about the world, no piece of that information could constitute a piece of knowledge for the reason that all which was contained was information about a subject continuous in all respects relevant to epistemic assessment (serving not only as in a certain way the object of the information but also as its epistemically undifferentiated matter). In other words, sense cannot constitute knowledge for the reason that there is no individuation of known contents in such a way as to make their epistemic assessment possible: a piece of knowledge requires not only an object, but criteria indicating what piece of knowledge it is, and these cannot be supplied by the subject. 

So empirical idealism is a nonstarter for the reason that it is unclear what we are talking about when we attribute knowledge of perception to the idealist subject. What would count as knowledge on this score? Pieces of information differentiated, not by the object or subject, but by their inferential relations internal to a body of knowledge: a piece of knowledge has not only an origin but its epistemic standing as part of a more-or-less-systematic body of interconnected propositions. And as such, it is clear that what a knower must do is not only to accurately capture the contours of the object (this much can be done by sense) but to maintain knowledge’s interrelations: that is, to let knowledge be knowledge as an independent realm of thought relating itself to itself. 

Knowledge’s objectivity derives from this, that it is formally checked only by other pieces of knowledge, forming an independent unity separate from psychological states: and any entity worthy of the name “knower” needs to duplicate, not psychological states, but the independence of the epistemic qua information: a body of knowledge composed of neither objectively nor subjectively determined information could exist separate from the consciousness of the individual subject. What it could not exist without is the recognition of knowledge as inferential discreteness: that is to say, there can be no theory of knowledge suitable to the task which is not, in the end, atomistic.

Concepts are general features of thought permitting of employment to capture the structure of a given state of affairs. Can a concept be a material thing? It seems to me that this is, from a materialist standpoint, the wrong question to ask: a better question is “what features of the material world do concepts correspond to?” These are clearly not particulars, but rather the properties and relations obtaining between particulars; such that one could say the material face of the concept was in making available for thought features of reality not permitting of proper instantiation. That is, a concept has as its material counterpart every physical phenomenon the instances of which are not individuated by the individual thinker, the “overhead” of thinking physically about the world. A concept does not correspond to the thing it enables thought about, but serves to make possible simple general thought about the object: it is no disadvantage that Frege’s theory of concepts does not individuate them more finely than their contributions to structured thought. Put this way, a concept is no more problematic a piece of linguistic structure than a particle. 

The consequence of the “non-referential” account of the constitution of concepts is that problems with a materialist account of thought are solved by specifying that concepts are not made out of a special “mind-stuff”, but rather are mere elements of thought whose representative capacity derives from various objective linkages between thought and reality, not an intrinsic power to represent possessed by the concept. A materialist theory of thought can therefore include conceptual thinking as not involving added particulars without compromising its materialism: the brain and physical states of conceptuality are simply various, in accordance with the lack of referential structure implicit in concepts. Whether or not there are further consequences for the understanding of concept-related particulars depends on how intricate the non-conceptual reckoning with particulars is made out to be. This “conceptual holism” has no other theoretical committments for the materialist with an eye to incorporate concepts into the material view of the world.

The relation between mind and body takes up a great deal of philosophers’ time, but the solitary problems of the former garner rather less attention. In this note, I address what it is to be in a mental state independently of psychophysiological correspondences, and thusly prepare the way for a discussion of which such correspondences are truly relevant to the topic. A mental state is a state caused by inference. Inference is generally reckoned to “cause” only one thing: a judgment as conclusion of the inference; and while the act of entertaining a judgment is one such mental state, I mean the comment more generally than this. Mental states are way-stations of inference; they involve all the gradations employed in inferential reasoning. As such, many phenomena not to be found in complete judgments make their way into mental states. But these phenomena are not absent from inference generally. To give an example, “ideas” make their way into a mental state by way of forming predicational elements of an inference: that is to say, concepts permitting of recombination in inference form the material of all mentality and as such only in the form of concealed inference. 

The problem of qualia is one part of this; that a box is green is a judgment not only permitting of use in inference, but already involving reasoning about inference with respect to perceptual mechanisms: “When I look in a certain direction, I can see something. A green box is something to see. I can see a green box.” That I do in fact see a green box is the consequence of many chains of inference similar to this one, covering all the various elements of “what it’s like” to see a green box. The object itself is composed cross-wise out of various such chains of inference, and so it is with every conscious mental state: there are none which do not have a prior train of inferences enabling their conceptual form. Thusly, we can be wrong in perceptual reports only because a prior set of inferences went wrong: when the object does not, cannot, have the characteristics we are attributing to it. 

Finally, mental states are individuated by inference: since a logical validity obtains only when every interpretation makes the statement come out true, a mental state is the mental state it is based on what inferences it is comprised of, and there is only one mental state correlating to a certain content so individuated. The logical form of mental states extends to match the logical form of such contents, including the distinctions necessary to motivate all inferentially derived phenomena of mindedness, and thusly the physiological mechanism sought as substrate of thought is the one enabling this larger movement of thought, rather than “mental representations” containing no intrinsic connection to other items in the mind.

The function of literature, the basis of its cultivation by humanity, is clearly not solely a matter of enjoyment. Although it is possible to read a work of literature with profound pleasure, from whence the pleasure derives and its ultimate effect upon the formation of an aesthetic deserve a thorough examination. But the fundamental question of literature is perhaps that of poetic form: what is it for a work to have poetic form? What differentiates a piece of writing with notable poetic form from ordinary discourse, and why do we prefer one to the other? The answers to such questions clearly derive from the character of literature as a whole, the reasons we turn to it for edification and relief; so perhaps a brief examination of literature’s formal status can shed light upon the question of poetic form in particular. 

Literature is coextensive with the real. It is not so much that we ought to like it, as that we should like some parts of it given our worldly dealings: if a particular genre suits our fancy, it is hardly impossible that we maintain some practical connection to the subject-matter, if only from a comfortable distance. Broadly speaking, we like literature because we find language to be the omnipresent mediator and divider of our affairs it obviously is, and literature counts as something like “sympathetic magic” with respect to the felicity of our utterances and our place within the whole of speech, a safeguard against the inability of a form of words to have their appropriate purchase upon us. It is true that language and literature are not so easily divided: separating a classical work from the commonplace analogies made to it is hard going, and this is the point. 

So it would not be beside the point to specify poetic form as an attempt to imbue a going form of words with a certain character, a stipulation of a discourse’s purchase within the social totality: this is exactly what the aim of all language is, and literature in this estimation turns out to be the conscious cultivation of the arts of language, a notable attempt to impress upon the reading public a certain sensibility in practical dealings. The edification experienced by the reader of literature is coextensive with the practical education of life in general, and to cultivate a taste for the existent is by no means a foolish endeavor but rather a specifically literary activity. With this in mind, it seems that the formal analysis of literature is in fact an extremely pragmatic discipline permitting of many applications to everyday cares: but perhaps we can say that here we have a motive for plot, and leave it at that.