Robert Brandom and Posthumanism

On August 23, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Here’s a first draft of my paper for the Philosophy After Nature Conference in Utrecht, Sept 3-5. All feedback gratefully received! (For users a pdf is available here)


David Roden, Open University

Introduction: Bounded Posthumanism

Posthumanism can be critical or speculative in orientation. Both kinds are critical of human-centered (anthropocentric) thinking. However, their rejection of anthropocentricism applies to different areas: Critical Posthumanism (CP) rejects the anthropocentrism of modern philosophy and intellectual life; Speculative Posthumanism (SP) opposes human-centric thinking about the long-run implications of modern technology.

Whereas critical posthumanists are interested in the posthuman as a cultural and political condition, speculative posthumanists are interested in a possibility of certain technologically created nonhuman agents. They claim that there could be posthumans - where posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans that have become nonhuman in virtue of some process of technical alteration (Roden 2012; 2014, Chapter 5).[1]

Despite differences in concern and methodology, however, CP and SP have convergent interests. CP requires that there are no transcendental conditions for agenthood derivable from parochial facts about human agency. If this is right, it must true of possible nonhuman agents as it is of actual nonhuman agents.

For this reason, I distinguish two claims regarding technological successors to current humans: an anthropologically bounded posthumanism (ABP); and an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism (AUP).

ABP holds:

  1. There are unique constraints C on cognition and agency which any being qualifying as a posthuman successor to humans must satisfy.
  2. Agents satisfying C can know that they are agents and can deduce a priori that they satisfy C (they are transcendental constraints)
  3. Humans typically satisfy C.

ABP’s import becomes clearer if we consider the collection of histories whereby posthuman wide descendants of humans could feasibly emerge. I refer to this set as Posthuman Possibility Space (PPS – See Roden 2014: 53).

Given that posthumans would be agents of some kind (See Chapter 6) and given ABP, members of PPS would have to satisfy the same transcendental conditions (C) on agency as humans.

Daryl Wennemann assumes something along these lines in his book Posthuman Personhood. He adopts the Kantian idea that agency consists in the capacity to justify one’s actions according to reasons and shared norms. For Wennemann, a person is a being able to “reflect on himself and his world from the perspective of a being sharing in a certain community.” (Punzo 1969, cited in Wennemann 2013: 47). This is a condition of posthuman agency as much as of human agency

This implies that, whatever the future throws up, posthuman agents will be social and, arguably linguistic beings, even if they are robots or computers, have strange bodies, or even stranger habits. If so, PPS cannot contain non-anthropomorphic entities whose agency is significantly nonhuman in nature.

ABP implies that there are a priori limits on posthuman weirdness.

AUP, by contrast, leaves the nature of posthuman agency to be settled empirically (or technologically). Posthumans might be social, discursive creatures; or they might be different from us in ways that we cannot envisage short of making some posthumans or becoming posthuman ourselves.

AUP thus extends the critical posthumanist rejection of anthropocentrism to the deep time of the technological future. In Posthuman Life I defended it via a critique of Donald Davidson’s work on intentionality; coupling this with a “naturalistic deconstruction” of transcendental phenomenology in its Husserlian and Heideggerian forms (See also Roden 2013).

Some of these arguments, I believe, carry over to the more overtly normativist philosophy of Robert Brandom – a philosopher whose work I did not address in detail there (for reasons of space and incompetence). The account of the relationship between normativity, social practice, intentionality that Brandom provides in Making It Explicit, and in other writings, is one of most impressively detailed, systematic and historically self-aware attempts to explain subjectivity, agency and intentionality in terms of social practices and statuses. It thus merits the appraisal of all philosophical posthumanists, whether they are of a critical or a speculative bent.

First and Second-Class Agents

I will begin with a thumbnail sketch of how Brandom derives a priori conditions of possibility for agency and meaning from a theory of social practices. Then I will consider whether its foundations are capable of supporting this transcendental superstructure.

Brandom is a philosophical pragmatist. Like other pragmatists, he is committed to the claim that our conceptual and intellectual powers are grounded in our practical abilities rather than in relations between mental entities and what they represent (Brandom 2006).[2]

His pragmatism implies a species of interpretationism with regard to intentional content. Interpretationists, like Daniel Dennett, claim that intentional notions such as “belief” do not track inner vehicles of content but help us assess patterns of rational activity on the part of other “intentional systems” (Wanderer 2008). Belief-desire talk is not a folk psychological “theory” about internal states, but a social “craft” for evaluating and predicting other rational agents.

For Dennett, an entity qualifies as an agent with reasons if predicting its behaviour requires interpreters to attribute it the beliefs and desires it ought to have given its nature and environment. A being whose behaviour is voluminously predictable under this “intentional stance” is called an “intentional system” (IS). In IS theory, there is no gap between predictability under the intentional stance and having real intentionality.[3]

Brandom endorses Dennett’s claim that intentional concepts are fundamentally about rendering agency intelligible in the light of reasons. However, he argues that IS theory furnishes an incomplete account or intentionality. Interpretation is an intentional act; thus interpretationists need to elucidate the relationship between attributed intentionality and attributing intentionality. If we do not understand what kind of being could count as a prospective interpreter, we cannot claim to have understood what it is to attribute intentionality in the first place (Brandom 1994: 59).

Brandom goes one further. The intentionality attributed to intrinsically meaningless events or linguistic inscriptions seems entirely derived from interpreters. Similarly with relatively simple IS’s. Maze-running robots or fly-catching frogs can properly be understood from the intentional stance – making them true-believers by Dennett’s lights. But their intentionality seems likewise observer-relative; derived from attitudes of interpreting IS’s (60). To hold otherwise, he argues, is to risk a disabling regress. For if intentionality is derivative all the way up, there can be no real intentional attributions and thus no derivative (non-observer relative) intentionality (60, 276).

Brandom claims that his theory can be read as an account of the conditions an organism must satisfy to qualify an interpreting intentional system; that is to warrant attributions of non-derived intentionality rather than the as-if intentionality we can attribute to simpler organisms or complex devices.

Whatever else the capacity for original or “first class” intentionality includes, it must involve the ability to evaluate the cognizance and rationality of similar beings and thus to be answerable to reasons (61).[4] Entities with first-class intentionality and thus the capacity to assess and answer to reasons in this way are referred to by Brandom as sapient. Entities with only derived intentionality may exhibit the sentient capacity to react in discriminating and optimizing ways to their environment, but the conceptual content of these responses is attributed and observer-relative.

The claim that intentionality or the capacity for objective thought implies the capacity to evaluate other thinkers obviously has a rich post-Kantian lineage. However, one of the clearest arguments for connecting intentionality and the capacity for other-evaluation is provided by Donald Davidson in his essay “Thought and Talk” (Davidson 1984: 155-170).

Davidson begins with the assumption that belief is an attitude of “holding” true some proposition: for example, that there is a cat behind that wall. If belief is holding true it entails a grasp of truth and the possibility of being mistaken; and thus a concept of belief itself. Thus we cannot believe anything without the capacity to attribute true or false beliefs about the same topic to our fellow creatures (Davidson 1984: 170; 2001b: 104).

This capacity presupposes linguistic abilities, according to Davidson, because attributing contents to fellow creatures requires a common idiom of expression.[5] Absent this, the possession of a concept of belief and, thus, the very having of beliefs, is impossible.

Brandom agrees! We need language to have and attribute beliefs, and, by extension, practical attitudes corresponding to desires and intentions (231-2). However, his official account avoids talk of beliefs or intentions in order to steer clear of the picture of beliefs, etc. as inner vehicles of content (sentences in the head, say) rather than social statuses available to discursive creatures like ourselves.

For Brandom, the primary bearers of propositional content are public assertions. Thus he bases his elaborate theory of intentionality not on a theory of mental representations or sub-propositional concepts, but on a pragmatic account of the place of assertions within the social game of “giving and asking for reasons”.

Correlatively, Brandom’s semantics begins with an explanation of how assertions – and their syntactical proxies, sentences – acquire propositional content.[6] Like Wilfred Sellars’ brand of functional semantics, it is framed in terms of the normative role of utterances within social practices which determine how a speaker can move from one position in the language-game to another.

In the case of assertions, the language-transition rules correspond to materially correct inferences such as that x is colored from x is red. Language entry-rules include observation statements which allow us to make claims like “There is snow on the grass” on the basis of our reliable dispositions to differentially respond (RDRDs) to recurrent states of our environment. Finally, “language exit rules” correspond to practical commitments to forms of non-linguistic action.

Thus Brandom agrees with other post-Wittgensteinian pragmatists that linguistic practices are governed by public norms. However, he follows Davidson in rejecting the “I-we” conception of social structure. (39-40; Davidson 1986). If meanings are inferential roles (as Dummett and Sellars also claim), then the content attributable to expressions will dance in line with the doxastic commitments of individual speakers.

Suppose one observes a masked figure in a red costume clambering up a skyscraper. The language entry rules ambient within your community of English speakers may entitle you (by default) to claim that Spiderman is climbing the building. However, you are unaware that Spiderman is none other than Peter Parker. So you are not yet entitled to infer that Peter Parker is climbing the building – although the substitutional rules of English would commit you to that further inference if (say) some reliable authority informed you of this fact.

This simple example shows that the inferential roles – thus meanings – of expressions like “Spiderman” are not fixed communally but have to vary with the auxiliary assumptions, sensitivities and dispositions of individual speakers. Understanding or interpreting the utterances and beliefs of others is thus a matter of deontic scorekeeping – that is keeping track of the way social statuses alter as speakers update their inferential commitments (Brandom 1994: 142).[7]

Thus semantic and intentional content are co-extensive with the normative-functional roles of states and actions. It follows that what a belief or claim “represents” or is “about” is fixed by its status it can be ascribed from the perspective of various deontic scorekeepers (including the believer or claimant).

The second consequence – which I flagged earlier – is that a serious agent or thinker must, as Davidson held, be a language user. The inferential relations attributed by scorekeepers to pragmatically defined occurrences can only be expressed by a structured language with components such as predicates, singular terms and pronouns. Inferential roles are only learnable and projectable on this basis (Brandom 1994: Chapter 6). Thus Brandom’s account provides a pragmatic-semantic story with which to transcendentally partition PPS.

If posthumans are to be intentional agents in thrall to concepts, they will be subjects of discourse assessing one another according to public inferential proprieties.

The Norm-Grounding Problem

However, we only have reason to adopt this a priori portioning of PPS if normativism can contend with some difficult foundational issues. I will refer to the most pressing of these as “the norm-grounding problem”.

Brandom’s pragmatics implies that the rules which furnish deontic statuses are implicit in what we do, in our linguistic and non-linguistic performances, rather than in some explicit set of semantic rules.  But what does it mean for a norm to be implicit in a practice? (Brandom 1994: 29-30; Hattiangadi 2003: 420; Rosen 1997).

Are norms a special kind of fact, to which our practices conform or fail to conform? If there were normative facts that transcended our actions, this could at least explain how our inferences can be held to account by them.

Brandom rejects factualism regarding norms. They are not, he claims, “part of the intrinsic nature of things, which is entirely indifferent to them” (48: Rosen 1997: 163-4).

This seems wise. If there were Platonic norms, it is far from clear how animals like us, or our evolutionary forebears, could come to be aware of them (see next section).

Brandom thus adopts a nonfactualist or “phenomenalist” position regarding norms. Non-normative reality is “clothed” in a web of normative statuses when speakers treat public actions as correct or incorrect, permitted or entitled (Brandom 1994: 48).

However, before considering Brandom’s nonfactualist account of norms in greater detail, it is instructive to consider a superficially appealing position that he rejects: regularism. Regularism is the claim that norms are regularities. To act according to a norm (or follow a rule) is simply to behave in conformity with a regularity (27).

Regularism is consonant with pragmatism because one can obey a regularity without having explicit knowledge of it – thereby avoiding the vicious regress that ensues if we require that semantical rules need to be explicitly grasped by speakers (Brandom 1994: 24-5). Regularism is also appealing to philosophical naturalists since it explains how norms depend (or supervene) on facts about the physical state and structure of individual speakers.

However, Brandom rejects this attempt to ground normative claims in factual claims. Here he follows Kripke’s reading of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule-following: pointing out that any finite sequence of actions will conform to many or even an infinite number of regularities. Thus there is no such thing as the regularity that a finite performance conforms to. For any continuation of that performance “there is some regularity with respect to which it counts as ‘going on in the same way’” (MIE, 28). There are just too many ways of gerrymandering regularities for any given continuation of a performance and the simple regularity view provides no basis for selecting between them. So the simple regularity account fails to explain how a determinate norm can be implicit in practice.

The standard response to the failure of the simple regularity view is to shift attention from finite stretches of performance “to the sets of performances (for instance, applications of a concept) the individual is disposed to produce” (ibid: my emphasis).

The appeal of unpacking grasping a rule in terms of dispositions is that one can be disposed to do an infinite number of things which one does not actually do because of the absence of triggering input (Martin and Heil 1998: 284).[8]

Thus it might seem that we can avoid the gerrymandering objection by saying that different agents A and B grasp the same rules where they are disposed to perform identically given the same triggering inputs.

However dispositionalism seems unable to account for misapplications of a rule.

A might be disposed to behave in the same ways under the same triggering conditions as B but whereas A is correctly following a rule (say plus) B is incorrectly following a different rule (normative behaviour is compatible with recalcitrance [Brandom 1994: 31]). Thus even though A and B exactly coincide in both their actual and their counterfactual performances, they can be following different rules (Martin and Heil 1998: 284-5). Thus if we unpack dispositions counterfactually we will be unable to account for mistakes in application or reasoning. Thus this version of dispositionalism, at least, is unable to explain how norms repose in practices.

So dispositions (if counterfactually conceived) do not help us solve the norm-grounding problem.[9]

Deontic Statuses and Deontic Attitudes

As advertised, Brandom’s favoured account of norms is nonfactualist. We “clothe” a nonnormative world in deontic statuses by taking certain actions or utterances to be correct or incorrect (Brandom 1994: 161).

So normative statuses arise only insofar as there are creatures who can treat one another as committed or entitled to do this or that. In Brandom’s terminology: deontic statuses as assigned when creatures adopt deontic attitudes towards one another[10].

But what are deontic attitudes?

If they are necessarily intentional – like propositional attitudes – Brandom is stuck in a regress. The philosophical attraction of normative functionalism is that it promises to reduce intention-talk to norm-talk. If deontic attitudes are necessarily intentional, however, he has made little progress in explaining interpreting intentionality via social practices.

Moreover, his account would fail to accord with a minimal Darwinian naturalism. Norm instituting powers cannot have appeared fully formed but must have emerged gradually from the scum of sentience (Rosen 1997). Thus Brandom’s account must be consistent with the claim that merely sentient creatures capable only of reliable discriminatory dispositions to differentially respond to their environments (RDRD’s) – could non-magically acquire a sapient responsiveness to reasons.

Brandom is sensitive to these requirements. He argues that deontic attitudes can occur in “prelinguistic communities” which lack full noetic and agential powers (161). The simplest model of deontic attribution that he provides is one in which performances are assessed as something the performer is authorized by the withholding of sanctions – where sanctioning behaviour, here, is a manifestation of differentially responsive dispositions and not florid interpretative powers.

For example, the deontic status of being entitled to pass through a door might be instituted by a ticketing system in which “the ticket-taker is the attributer of authority, the one who recognizes or acknowledges it and who by taking the ticket as authorizing, makes it authorizing, so instituting the entitlement” (161) This account can be complicated if we introduce deontic attitudes that institute responsibilities on the part of agents.

For example, taking the Queen’s shilling makes one liable to court martial if certain military duties are not undertaken (163). According to Brandom these cases illustrate how social actors can partition “the space of possible performances into those that have been authorized and those that have not, by being disposed to respond differently in the two cases” (161-2: emphasis added).

Does this model show that Brandom’s account can satisfy the minimal naturalist constraints that he recognizes? A number of commentators – including Daniel Dennett and Anandi Hattiangadi – have pointed out that that it succumbs to the gerrymandering objections that Brandom cites against regularism (Dennett 2010; Hattiangadi 2003). Any performative regularities (actual or counterfactual) exhibited by actors and sanctioners in this simple model will be consistent with multiple normative readings of either behaviours – including interpretations which render the “deontic attitudes” mistaken. If the gerrymandering argument refutes regularist theories of rule-following, it refutes dispositionalist accounts of deontic attitudes.

As Hattiangadi points out, beefing up the noetic powers of instituters will avail little. If we furnish sanctioners with the power to make contentful judgements (about whether an agent is entitled to pass through the door, for example) we are already in the realm of the intentional (Hattiangadi 2003: 428).

It follows that a naturalistically constrained normativism does not appear able to explain how social beings can institute norms, thus normative statuses, thus determinate inferential semantic contents, without a vitiating appeal to florid intentional powers.

The Interpretationist Defense

Can Brandom’s account be repaired in a way that meets his minimal naturalist commitment?

Well, one defense that seems consistent with Brandom’s avowals elsewhere is to follow Davidson and Dennett by claiming that the certain kinds of social behaviour are norm-governed if a) members of our speech community would properly interpret them as normative or b) if an ideally rational interpreter privy to all the relevant behavioral facts would read them as normative. This response has something to recommend it. When interpreting alien social practices we are liable to appeal to our own background assumptions about what performances belong to the sortal “social practice”. Moreover, appealing to notion of an ideal interpreter can be of value when trying to understand the theoretical and empirical constraints on attributions of semantic or normative content.

However, as Hattiangadi remarks, this response misses the point of the dispositional analysis of deontic attitudes. This was to explain how a non-sapient community could bootstrap itself into sapience by setting up a basic deontic scorekeeping system. Appealing to actual or ideal interpreters simply replicates the problem with Dennett’s intentional stance approach since it tells us nothing about the conditions under which a being qualifies as a potential interpreter and thus little about the conditions for meaning, understanding or agency.

Similar problem afflicts Joseph Heath’s (2001) proposal that Brandomian norms emerge from reciprocal expectations supported by sanctions. The idea is that a first person acts in a certain way while expecting a sanctioning response from a second person. The second person, meanwhile, is disposed to respond to certain performances with sanctioning behaviour while the first person recognizes this. Where this minimal intersubjective couple converges towards a single pattern of behaviour over time, Heath argues, we are entitled to treat their activity as implying a norm.

Heath’s proposal may be fine if we assume that certain intentional powers are already in place – e.g. that each individual both expects and sanctions the activity of the other. However, as Hattiangadi’s appeal to the gerrymandering argument shows, this structure presupposes beings capable of intentional states such as expecting and sanctioning. This is presumably what distinguishes it from simpler cases of dynamical coupling where two physical systems converge towards a single pattern of behaviour. But if the normativist is serious about explaining the intentional in normative terms, they are not entitled to these assumptions.

Unbounded Posthumanism

If Brandom is right about the defects of Dennett-style or Davidson-style interpretationism, the tendency for his own account to regress to those positions is telling. It suggests that interpretationist accounts cannot explain the semantic or the intentional without regressing to assumptions about ideal interpreters or background practices whose scope they are incapable of delimiting.

The point is not that interpretationism is false but that it is ultimately unilluminating. It is empirically unproblematic that we interpret other speakers, texts, cultural artifacts, etc. However, if in-principle interpretation according to the intentional stance fixes the content of intentional discourse, but nature of such interpretation is ill-defined we have merely satisfied our curiosity about the nature of mindedness by appealing to our local mind-reading techniques. We do not yet know what the invariants (if any) of intentional interpretation are. Another way of putting this is that our practices of interpretation and deontic assessment are phenomenologically “dark”. The fact that we have them and have a little empirical knowledge of them leaves us ignorant both of their underlying nature and (by extension) of the space of interpretative and psychological possibility. Normativist ABP and its interpretationist variants thus provide no future-proof constraints on the space of possible minds or possible agents (See also Bakker 2014).

If so, then they provide no warrant for the claim that any serious agent must be a “subject of discourse” able to measure its own performances against public standards. Presumably, humans are agents of this kind, but the phenomenological darkness surrounding normativity implies that we should not presume that we understand what normativity must involve.

It follows that  Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism is not seriously challenged by the argument that mind and meaning are constituted by social practices. AUP implies that we can infer no claims about the denizens of Posthuman Possibility Space a priori, by reflecting on the pragmatic transcendental conditions for semantic content. We thus have no reason to suppose that posthuman agents would have to be subjects of discourse of members of communities.

Nor (given our lack of any transcendental grasp of agency) are we entitled to reflect on the ethical status of very strange posthumans. We have no future-proof grasp of how strange posthumans might be, so we lack any basis for adjudicating the moral status of such beings. We may buy into a parochial humanism which accords humans subjects a level of moral consideration that is greater than the nonhuman creatures we know about. But this does not entail that there are not morally considerable states of being in PPS of which we are currently unaware which have little in common with the modes of being accessible to current humans. If posthuman politics is anthropologically unbounded, in this way, then any ethical assessment of the posthuman must follow on its historical emergence. If we want to do serious posthuman ethics, we need to make posthumans or become posthuman.



Bakker, Scott. 2014. The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labor of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.

Brandom, R.  2001. Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. 2002. Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brandom, R. 2006. “Kantian Lessons about Mind, Meaning, and Rationality.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 44: 49–71.

Brandom, R. 2007. “Inferentialism and Some of Its Challenges.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (3): 651–676.

Brassier, R. 2011. “The View from Nowhere.” Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (17): 7–23.

Davidson, D.  1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.” In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed), 433-46. Oxford: Blackwell.

Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1989). The intentional stance. MIT press.

Dennett, D. C. (2010). The evolution of “why?”: An essay on Robert Brandom’s Making it explicit.

Hattiangadi, A. (2003). Making it implicit: Brandom on rule following. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research66(2), 419-431.

Heath, J. (2001). Brandom et les sources de la normativité. Philosophiques28(1), 27-46.

Heil, John & Martin, C. B. (1998). Rules and powers. Philosophical Perspectives 12 (S12):283-312.

Hohwy, J. (2006). Internalized meaning factualism. Philosophia34(3), 325-336.

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Lewis, Kevin. 2013. ”Carnap, Quine and Sellars on Abstract Entities”, (Accessed 12-7-14)

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Wennemann, D. J. 2013. Posthuman Personhood. New York: University Press of America





[1]This formulation allows that posthumans could be descended from technological assemblages which are existentially dependent on servicing “narrow” human goals. Becoming nonhuman in this sense is not a matter of losing a human essence but of ceasing to belong to a human-oriented socio-technical system: the Wide Human (Roden 2012; 2014). I refer to the claim that becoming posthuman consists in becoming independent of the Wide Human as “the Disconnection Thesis”.

[2]Brandom also follows Kant in trying to understand semantic notions like reference and truth in terms of their roles in articulating judgement rather than as semantic or representational primitives.

[3]Intentional systems are unlikely to contain sawdust or stuffing, but IS theory is agnostic regarding their internal machinery or phenomenology. Thus IS theory undercuts both eliminativist and reductionist accounts of intentionality while providing a workable methodology investigations into the mechanisms that actuate intentional systems.

[4]“The key to the account is that an interpretation of this sort must interpret community members as taking or treating each other in practice as adopting intentionally contentful commitments and other normative statuses” (Brandom 1994: 61)

[5] I can express the belief that there is a cat behind that wall with a sentence in some natural language but I am also able to use the same sentence to attribute this belief to others.

[6] His subsequent, very detailed, analysis of subsentential expressions is necessarily decompositional rather than compositional – analyzing down rather than building up from simpler semantic components.

[7]The point of attributions of belief or desire, for example, is to determine what an agent is committed entitled “to say or do”. Likewise, the point of affixing truth values to beliefs or statements is to assess or endorse their propriety within the game of giving and asking for reasons. Is the claimant entitled to assert that p? Are the inferential consequences of p that they acknowledge the actual consequences?  (17, 542).

[8]So for a rule with infinite application, it is not necessary for the rule user to have all the triggering instances “before his mind” to have grasped how to perform in any of these instances

[9]Martin and Heil 1998 and Hohwy present a good case for holding that dispositions can avoid Kripkensteinean skeptical conclusions if construed realistically rather than in terms of statements about counterfactual behaviour.

[10] “Looking at the practices a little more closely involves cashing out the talk of deontic statuses by translating it into talk of deontic attitudes. Practitioners take or treat themselves and others as having various commitments and entitlements. They keep score on deontic statuses by attributing those statuses to others and undertaking them themselves. The significance of a performance is the difference it makes in the deontic score-that is, the way in which it changes what commitments and entitlements the practitioners, including the performer, attribute to each other and acquire, acknowledge, or undertake themselves.” (Brandom 1994: 166).



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Kevin has provided a typically engaging gloss on the difference between posthumanism and transhumanism over at the IEET site. I don’t fundamentally disagree with his account of transhumanism (though I think he needs to emphasize its fundamentally normative character) but the account of posthumanism he gives here has some shortcomings:

Two significant differences between transhumanism and the posthuman is the posthuman’s focus on information and systems theories (cybernetics), and the posthuman’s consequent, primary relationship to digital technology; and also the posthuman’s emphasis on systems (such as humans) as distributed entities—that is, as systems comprised of, and entangled with, other systems.  Transhumanism does not emphasize either of these things. 

Posthumanism derives from the posthuman because the latter represents the death of the humanist subject: the qualities that make up that subject depend on a privileged position as a special, stand-alone entity that possesses unique characteristics that make it exceptional in the universe—characteristics such as unique and superior intellect to all other creatures, or a natural right to freedoms that do not accrue similarly to other animals.  If the focus is on information as the essence of all intelligent systems, and materials and bodies are merely substrates that carry the all-important information of life, then there is no meaningful difference between humans and intelligent machines—or any other kind of intelligent system, such as animals. 

Now, I realize we can spin definitions to different ends; but even allowing for our different research aims, this won’t do. Posthumanists may, but need not, claim that humans are becoming more intertwined with technology. They may, but need not, claim that functions, relations or systems are more ontologically basic than intrinsic properties. Many arch-humanists are functionalists, holists or relationists (I Kant, R Brandom, D Davidson, G Hegel . . .) and one can agree that human subjectivity is constitutively technological (A Clark) without denying its distinctive moral or epistemological status. Reducing stuff to relations can be a way of emphasizing the transcendentally constitutive status of the human subject, taking anthropocentrism to the max (see below). Emphasizing the externality or contingency of relations can be a way of arguing that things are fundamentally independent of that constitutive activity (as in Harman’s OOO or DeLanda’s assemblage ontology).

So I raise Kevin’s thumbnails with a few of my own.

  • A philosopher is a humanist if she believes that humans are importantly distinct from non-humans and supports this distinctiveness claim with a philosophical anthropology: an account of the central features of human existence and their relations to similarly general aspects of nonhuman existence.
  • A humanist philosophy is anthropocentric if it accords humans a superlative status that all or most nonhumans lack
  • Transhumanists claims that technological enhancement of human capacities is a desirable aim (all other things being equal). So the normative content of transhumanism is largely humanist. Transhumanists just hope to add some new ways of cultivating human values to the old unreliables of education and politics.
  • Posthumanists reject anthropocentrism. So philosophical realists, deconstructionists, new materialists, Cthulhu cultists and naturalists are posthumanists even if they are unlikely to crop up on one another’s Christmas lists.

For more, see my forthcoming book Posthuman Life and my post Humanism, Transhumanism and Posthumanism.


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Wilfred Sellars (1974) argues that we should not construe claims about meanings as expressing a semantic relation between a verbal entity (a word, sentence, etc.) and a language-independent entity (abstract or concrete) but as claims about the functional roles of linguistic tokens. Thus we should construe

“chat” (in French) means cat


*chat*’s (in French) are  •cat•’s

“La neige est blanche” (in French) means Snow is white


*La neige est blanche*’s (in French) are  •Snow is white•’s

Where the expression “*chat*’s” is a metalinguistic distributive term that refers to all non-semantically individuated tokens with a certain shape or sound and the dot quotation expression “•cat•’s” uses the English token “cat” to exemplify its functional role in English. This expression says, in effect, that characters and letters of a certain shape in French have the same functional role as “cat” in English.

This device allows Sellars to construct a conception of meaning which is not committed to extra-linguistic abstract entities such as propositions. The meaning of s is not constituted by its relation to some abstract entity p but by its functional role in a given linguistic community (its role within its economy of language-entry, transition and exit rules). This is obviously an attractive notional device for nominalists who wish to rein in metaphysical commitments to non-linguistic abstracta. It reframes metaphysical issues about the existence of propositions or attributes as questions about the status of functional roles. Of course, functional roles are not metaphysically innocent or unproblematic. We can ask of the Sellarsian whether normative facts supervene on non-normative ones and what the consequences of this relationship are. If we can do no better than supervenience to describe their relationship, this will be a problematic outcome for many naturalists. A second question – not unrelated to the first – is that of how functional-inferential roles are individuated. Presumably, they cannot be individuated semantically if Sellars’ account of meaning is to be non-question-begging.

In this post I want to consider a puzzle that is related to the second problem. I have discussed an analogous issue with regard to Davidson’s interpretation-based semantics in “Radical Quotation and Real Repetition” (Roden 2004). I’m not confident about the metaphysical solution I proposed in that paper, but if something like it can begin to address the issue for Sellars account of functional classification this might help us think through the ontological underpinnings of interpretation.

The problem anatomized in “Radical Quotation” arose with regard to Davidsonian truth theories.

As Olaf Gjelsvik (1994) points out, the formal model used by Davidson presupposes that we can pick out bits of the language we want to interpret syntactically. Davidson’s account requires that radical interpreters have a stock of primitive terms referring to constituent expressions of the object language and that these can be assembled into ‘structural descriptions’ reflecting the syntactic composition of its sentences (Davidson 1984, p. 133). For example, an axiom in a truth theory for a language might say of a certain concatenation of three symbols that it is satisfied by a sequence of objects if the first member of the sequence is larger than the second member (i.e. giving it the extension of the predicate “….larger than….”.)

Why might this be a problem for Davidson? Well, it is a problem if we recall that Davidson’s use of model theory is designed to explicate an informal semantic notion: meaning. He proposes to do this by way of a notion he takes to be better understood: truth. Sellars’ approach (as I understand it) is procedural rather than model-theoretic. But it one might expect that it needs to meet analogous constraints (even if not the same ones).

So here’s where Gjelsvik thinks that Davidson’s account hits a bump.

If languages are individuated by the syntactic types composing their expressions – roughly, by the physical shape and structure of grammatical strings – the semantic properties of their sentences must be non-essential. It is thus possible for a sentence to have different semantic properties in different speech communities. But then a truth theory for one community can be made false if another uses tokens of these types differently. For example, on Twin Earth a language, Twinglish, might be spoken in which English-shaped predicates have contrary ‘meanings’.

The existence of Twinglish would be enough to falsify the T sentence:

‘Snow is white’ is True(E) if and only if Snow is white

Since it is the syntactic string referred to by ‘Snow in white’ which relativises a truth predicate, not the abbreviations “E” and “Tw”, there is nothing to distinguish it from a statement about a sentence of Twinglish:

‘Snow if white’ is True(Tw) if and only if Snow is white

If ‘. . . is white’ in Twinglish were a contrary of its English counterpart (meaning is green, say) the ‘only if’ would make it false.

According to Gjelsvik, the only alternative is to specify English sentences semantically. A formal theory of the Tarksian kind achieves this by defining a predicate that holds of all and only the true sentences of a language. But its theorems flow by stipulation and logical necessity. Davidsonian theories are supposed to express contingent, empirical claims about semantically uncharacterised sentences. Thus, Gjelsvik argues, a competent radical interpreter must assume that the world’s distribution of semantic properties is not of the Twinglish/English sort (Gjelsvik 1994, p. 34). The problem, here, is that this assumption utilizes pretheoretic concepts of subsentential meaning (using semantic concepts like “satisfaction” in the formalism of semantic theories is OK, according to Davidson, because they are part of the logical machinery of the theories. They are not explicatory as such)

It seems that a similar problem afflicts the metalinguistic statements that occur in Sellarsian functional role ascriptions.

*chat*’s (in French) are  •cat•’s

Would be false if Twin French speakers used *chat*’s differently to •cat•’s . Indeed it would be false if anyone, anywhere used *chat*’s in a way that ended up giving it a contrary functional role . Thus there must be other assumptions built into the ascription of metalinguistic types that are not evident in this formalism.

Well, it might seem that the Sellarsian is in a more favorable position than the Davidsonian here. For Gjelsvik, Davidson cannot constrain the scope of truth based theories without introducing meaning by the back door. But the Sellarsian only has to to claim that the distribution of functional roles is not of the silly type that would have *chat*’s acquiring contrary functional roles all over the place.

The problem with this fix is that there is absolutely nothing silly about contrary functional roles. As Robert Brandom’s inferentialist account implies, a term can acquire different functional roles where people have contrary beliefs. We would expect dancing inferential roles to be par for the course within any speech community. In any event, Sellars cannot preclude rampant homonymy without making their functional roles essential to interpretants in metalinguistic sortal sentences. But this would also render them trivial.

In consequence  many metalinguistic sortal claims are falsified by inferential nuances within and between language communities, while it would be perfectly conceivable that there are no true ML sortals at all (allowing for sufficient homonymic variability across speech communities).

It is not clear to me where this would leave Sellars’ metaphysics of meaning. For example, can we build in a tacit reference to a given speech community which can be expected to exhibit the uniformities described by metalinguistic sortal claims? Maybe, but as well as being questionable for the Davidsonian/Brandomian reasons mentioned above, it also seems to require an explicit notion of reference. If we cannot plausibly restrict the scope of ML sortals in such a way, however, it would seem to follow that most or many ML sortal claims are false (thus there are no ML functional types, or very few) Thus the claim that the meaning of a term is its functional role would have to be judged false as well.

My solution to the problem that Davidson faces is to treat metalinguistic statements in a constructionist spirit. Syntactical types – accordingly – are not contingent owners of functional roles. They are individuated by functional role. So English “white” and Twinglish “white” are distinct characters and not the same character used in different ways. The problem, then, is to account for the empirical, contingent character of claims like

*chat*’s are  •cat•’s

For on this account *chat* is not part of a “language” (like French) in a conventional sense but of a local idiom constructed purely for purposes of interpretation. For reasons similar to those discussed by Davidson in “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” we are no longer supposing that the notion of a language is the basic one here. The issue, then, is what is the function of an interpretant such as *chat* in this sortal statement?

My solution circa 2004 was to say that its function is to repeat the utterances or parts of utterances used by native speakers of languages under interpretation (we return to the primal scene of radical interpretation, as it were).  *La neige est blanche* is designed to quote expressions in one idiom in another idiom (that of the interpreting discourse). So

*La neige est blanche*’s (in French) are  •Snow is white•’s

refers to a set of historically instantiated utterance events by repeating them. Thus there must be a historical-causal relation of some kind between the interpreter and users of the interpreted idiom which can explain its purchase on these (rather, say, than on users of an orthographically identical language on Twin Earth).

The ontological basis of this quotation is not exemplification of a common semantic type. It is an ontologically primitive relation of repetition or “iteration” (to use Derrideanese) which operates transversely between languages and language communities (non-language-relative repetition). Some events, it must be assumed, just repeat other events without having to fall under a common description. The worry, now, is that the interpreted terms in ML sortings are being used as instances of the items they repeat rather being merely structural descriptions or examples of sign-designs. They are being used, so to speak, to refer to themselves. But if this is right, then the very act of interpreting them constitutes a variation in functional role. It is also a function that cannot obviously be expressed in inferential terms.

Finally, if the interpretants are essentially repeatabilia, then it is part of their job description (so to speak) that that can always accrue functional roles that differ from the ones they have had (otherwise interpretation would have no text). But then it cannot be inappropriate to use them in these “deviant” ways. Thus there no longer seems to be room for the normative facts which (supposedly) undergird the functionalist account.


Davidson, Donald (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

____1986. ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, in Ernest LePore (ed.) Truth and
Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford: Blackwell).

Derrida, Jaqcues. 1988. Limited Inc. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (trans.) (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press).

Gjelsvik, Olav. 1994. ‘Davidson’s Use of Truth in Accounting for Meaning’, in Language, Mind and Epistemology: on Donald Davidson’s Philosophy, Gerhard Preyer, Frank Siebelt and Alexander Ul?g (eds.) (Dordrecht: Kluwer), pp. 21–43.

Lewis, Kevin. 2013. ”Carnap, Quine and Sellars on Abstract Entities”, (Accessed 12-7-14)

Sellars, W. (1974). Meaning as Functional Classification (A Perspective on the Relation of Syntax to Semantics). Synthese, (3/4). 417.


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Evan Thompson on Dark Phenomena

On July 15, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


In a Notre Dame review of Phenomenology and Naturalism: Examining the Relationship between Human Experience and Nature, edited by Havi Carel and Darian Meacham, Evan Thomson criticizes my claim that the existence of dark phenomenology implies that phenomenology must be a naturalistic discipline without transcendental warrant. He is correct about my aims and provides a neat summary of my account of dark phenomenology:

David Roden argues that phenomenology should be retained only as a descriptive, empirical method for providing data about experience. This method must be recognized as limited, because it cannot penetrate “dark phenomena” that are not available to introspection or reflective intuition, such as very fine-grained perceptual discriminations of shades of color that cannot be held in memory, or the deep structure of temporal experience. Roden’s discussion of these dark phenomena is illuminating, but his conclusion about the status of phenomenology does not follow. Although he is right that phenomenology cannot be a completely autonomous investigation, but rather must be informed by experimental investigations, it hardly follows that all that phenomenology can do is provide data about what is available to introspection. On the contrary, as the articles by Zahavi, Ratcliffe, Wheeler, and Morris demonstrate, phenomenology can provide new concepts and models for enriching our understanding of nature.

However, I don’t think Thomson’s objection will do as it stands. The position developed in “Nature’s Dark Domain” is consistent with phenomenology being conceptually productive and revealing about nature. If phenomenology is not completely “dark”, it could not be otherwise. I only argue that phenomenological reflection cannot provide future proof (a priori) grounds for claims about invariants of experience or being because – alone and unaided – it cannot tell us what our phenomenology is.

For this reason, my position differs from Mike Wheeler’s “Science Friction: Phenomenology, Naturalism and Cognitive Science” from the same volume. There Wheeler argues that transcendental phenomenology can unpack the “constitutive” conditions of cognition and agency – which tell us what it is, in general, to be an agent or a cognizer – while cognitive science reveals the causal “enabling” conditions for cognition and agency. For example, he claims that Heidegger’s phenomenology of coping is illuminated by experiments in situated robotics using action-oriented representations – which represent an agent’s world in terms of the way it interacts with its body.

So the transcendental/constitutive conditions for agency may require that contextual relevance and an understanding of affordances is necessary for agency, while action-oriented representations reveal one way in which contextual relevance is enabled in representational mechanisms (Wheeler 2013: 143, 152; 2005 197).

According to Wheeler, this model furnishes a minimal naturalism which “domesticates” the transcendental: constitutive conditions are subject to empirically-motivated revision.

However, the kind of revision that Wheeler envisages in his essay seems modest. For example, Heidegger’s account of temporality as thrownness implies that the human agent always encounters the world “embedded within a pre-structured field of intelligibility into which she has been enculturated.” (Wheeler 2013: 158) Wheeler allows that both the mechanisms and the cultural forms of this field can be revealed scientifically (e.g. via cognitive science or ethology):

A consequence of this temporality-driven cultural conditioning of the transcendental is that although there will be specific factors that are transcendentally presupposed by any particular act of sense-making there is no expectation that those factors will be permanently fixed for all human psychological phenomena across space and time (160)

Earlier in his essay, Wheeler provides a succinct account of the epistemological commitments of naturalism: namely that for the naturalist, science and philosophy are continuous. If so, there is no point in this continuum that can be immune from revision in principle – even transcendental claims about the structure of temporality in human agents. It follows that all constitutive claims are empirically defeasible. There is no interesting epistemological boundary to be called between the transcendentally constitutive structure and the various “fillers” for that structure revealed by science Now, this is just what we would expect if – as I argue – the deep structures posited by phenomenology give only limited insight to bare reflection or phenomenological interpretation.

Thus if the deep structure of lived time is not given to us we have a limited first-person grasp of its nature and scope. A deconstructive reading of Heideggerian temporality, for example, implies that the differential or “ecstatic” model of temporality generalizes well beyond transcendental subjects to structures of “generalized writing” found at all levels of biological and technological existence (Stiegler 1998; Hägglund 2008, 2011). The point being not that deconstruction provides a wider-ranging transcendental warrant but that it reveals an indeterminacy in the more narrowly phenomenological ones. If we do not know what temporality is or what must “have it”, we cannot claim to know that all serious agents must have a culturally pre-structured field, for we have produced only a loose, holistic  model of a process whose underlying nature is not reflectively available to us, and which may not even be holistic in the phenomenological sense. If the depth-structure of temporality is dark, the constitutive features of all the phenomena where it is supposedly involved as are also occluded. Thus claims about constitutive conditions of cognition and agency are fodder for empirical defeat even where they yield passing insight into nature.


Hägglund, M. 2008. Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

____2011. “The Trace of Time and the Death of Life: Bergson, Heidegger, Derrida”, (accessed November 2011).

Roden, D. 2013. Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 169-188.

Stiegler, B. 1998. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Vol. 1. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wheeler, M. 2005. Reconstructing the Cognitive World: The Next Step. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

____ 2013. Science Friction: Phenomenology, Naturalism and Cognitive Science. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 135-167.



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The call of the weird

On July 12, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

There’s an interesting essay about the allure of the weird and abominable in the fiction of Lovecraft by Ann M. Pillsworth here at the Tor website. Since my partner’s preparing a Greek squid and potato dish, I’m currently well in the grip of tenticular ravishment.

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In a 1993 article “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to survive in the posthuman era”  Vernor Vinge argued that the invention of a technology for creating entities with superhuman intelligence could lead to the end of human dominion over the planet and the beginning of a “post-human” era dominated by intelligences vastly greater than ours. According to Vinge, this point could be reached via recursive improvements in the technology. If humans or  human-equivalent intelligences could use the technology to create superhuman intelligences the resultant entities could make even more intelligent entities, and so on. . . . A technology for intelligence creation or intelligence amplification would thus constitute a singular point or “singularity” beyond which the level of mentation on this planet might accelerate beyond the cognitive horizons of flat-brained humanz.

The “posthuman” minds that would result from this “intelligence explosion” could be so vast, according to Vinge, that our predictive models could have no application to a post-singularity world. Yet some film and television makers have dared look beyond the singularity to imagine the consequences of radical cognitive enhancement. But which ones? The aim of this post is to establish a definitive list of post-singularity TV and Film and I need you to help me complete it. Are there tramp episodes of your favourite SF serial or anthology series, or some visionary movie that I’ve missed? Do tell.

You can see from the list that I’m construing “post-singularity entity” pretty liberally: brains in vats, cyborgs, rogue computers – any speculative technology which produces a synthetic minded being qualifies.

This is pursuant to my article on this topic for the forthcoming  Palgrave Macmillan, Handbook Posthumanism in Film and Television (Eds. Michael Hauskeller, Thomas D. Philbeck, Curtis Carbonell). Usable additions will receive uploaded immortality on my Acer drive and a nod in Acknowledgements!


Metropolis (1927, Dir. Fritz Lang)

Donovan’s Brain (1953, Dir Felix E. Feist)

La Jetée (1962, Dir. Chris Marker)

The Forbin Project (1970, Dir Joseph Sargent)

Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965, Dir Jean-Luc Godard)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Dir Stanely Kubick)

Demon Seed (1977, Dir Donald Cammel)

Blade Runner (1982, Dir Ridely Scott)

Alien (1979, Dir Ridely Scott)

The Terminator, (1984, Dir James Cameron)

Robocop, (1987, Paul Verhoeven)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron)

The Matrix (1999, Andy and Lana Wachowski)



Dr Who, “Tenth Planet” (1966, Kit Pedler, Gerry Davis)

Doomwatch, “In the Dark” (1971, Gerry Davies, John Gould)

Dr Who, “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975, “Terry Nation”)

World on a Wire [Welt am Draht] (1973, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Twilight Zone?

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Q Who?” (1989 Maurice Hurley); 1, “The Best of Both Worlds parts I and II”,  (1990, Michael Piller)

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Elementary, Dear Data” (1993, Brian Allan Lane)

Battlestar Galactica (2004, Ronald D. MooreDavid Eick)

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008, Josh Friedman)

Caprica (2010,  Remi AubuchonDavid EickRonald D. Moore)







On June 25, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

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Conferences in September

On June 21, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

I’ll be attending conferences at either end of our continent in September:

Philosophy After Nature, University of Utrecht, 3-5 September

Posthuman Politics, 25th until the 28th of September 2014, University of the Aegean, Department of Cultural Technology and Communication, Geography Building – University Campus.

I’m presenting the same paper at both. Here’s the abstract, though the details of the argument remain to be filled in!

On Reason and Spectral Machines: an anti-normativist response to Bounded Posthumanism

David Roden, The Open University UK

In Posthuman Life I distinguish two speculative claims regarding technological successors to current humans: an anthropologically bounded posthumanism (ABP) and an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism. ABP holds:

1) There are transcendental constrains on cognition and agency that any entity qualifying as a posthuman successor under the Disconnection Thesis (Roden 2012, 2014) would have to obey.

2) These constraints are realized in the structure of human subjectivity and rationality.

One version of ABP is implied by normativist theories of intentionality for which original or “first class” intentionality is only possible for beings that can hold one another publicly to account by ascribing and adopting normative statuses (Brandom 1994). If Normativist ABP is correct, then posthumans – were they to exist – would not be so different from us for they would have to belong to discursive communities and subscribe to inter-subjective norms (See Wennemann 2013).

Normativist ABP thus imposes severe constraints on posthuman “weirdness” and limits the political implications of speculative claims about posthuman possibility such as those in my book. In this paper, I will argue that we should reject Normativist ABP because we should reject normativist theories of intentionality. For normativism to work, it must be shown that the objectivity and “bindingness” of social norms is independent of individual beliefs or endorsements. I will argue that the only way in which this can be achieved is by denying the dependence of normative statuses upon the particular dispositions, states and attitudes of individuals; thus violating plausible naturalistic constraints on normativism.

In response, I will argue for an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism for which all constraints on posthuman possibility must be discovered empirically by making posthumans or becoming posthuman. This implies a similarly unbounded posthuman politics for which there is no universal reason or transhistorical subjectivity.


Bakker, Scott. 2014. The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labor of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.

Brandom, R.  2001. Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. 2002. Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brandom, R. 2006. “Kantian Lessons about Mind, Meaning, and Rationality.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 44: 49–71.

Brandom, R. 2007. “Inferentialism and Some of Its Challenges.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (3): 651–676.

Brassier, R. 2011. “The View from Nowhere.” Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (17): 7–23.

Davidson, D.  1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.” In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed), 433-46. Oxford: Blackwell.

Negarestani, Reza. 2014. The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: Human | e-flux. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Negarestani, Reza. 2014. ‘The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman’ | e-flux. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Roden, D. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281-298. London: Springer.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Routledge.

Turner, S. P. 2010. Explaining the normative. Polity.

Wennemann, D. J. 2013. Posthuman Personhood. New York: University Press of America.


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Epistemic indeterminacy concerns our representations of things rather than things. Thus the location of a mobile phone with a nokia ring tone may be represented as indeterminate between your pocket and your neighbor’s handbag. This epistemic indeterminacy is resolvable through the acquisition of new information: here, by examining the two containers. By contrast metaphysical indeterminacy – if such there be – is brute. It cannot be cleared up by further investigations.

We can thus distinguish between being indeterminately represented and being indeterminately ?  in situations where it is possible to progressively reduce and eliminate the former indeterminacy (Roden 2010: 153).

Facts are metaphysically indeterminate if they involve indeterminate natures. The nature of a thing is indeterminate if it is impossible to determine it via some truth-generating procedure that will eliminate competing descriptions of it. Clearly, some will cavil with my use of “fact” and “nature” either because they see “facts” as ineluctably propositional or because they have nominalist quibbles about attributing any kind of nature or facticity to the non-conceptual sphere. However, like Marcus Arvan, I don’t see any conceptual affiliation as ineluctable. If the world is structured in ways that cannot be captured without remainder in propositions, it is not inappropriate to use the term “fact” to describe these structures – or so I will proceed to do here.

My favorite case of putative metaphysical indeterminacy are the two versions of the Located Events Theory of sound. LET1 (Bullot et al 2004; Casati and Dokic 2005) states that sounds are resonance events in objects; LET2 says that sounds are disturbances in a medium caused by vibrating objects (O’Callaghan 2009). According to LET1 there are sounds in vacuums so long as there are objects located in them. According to LET2 there are not. So the theories have different implications. There is also nothing to obviously favour the one over the other in the light of ordinary observations and inferences regarding sound.

As I put in in “Sonic Events” most people would probably judge that there is no sound produced when a turning fork resonates in an evacuated jar – “Yet were the air in a jar containing a vibrating tuning fork to be regularly evacuated and replenished we might perceive this as an alteration in the conditions of audition of a continuous sound, rather than the alternating presence and absence of successive sounds” ( Roden 2010: 156). You pays yer money, but it’s hard to believe that the world cares how we describe this state of affairs, or that persuasive grounds will settle the matter one bright day.

Anti-realists might say that this indeterminacy is practical rather than factive. It reflects discrepant uses of the same lexical item (“sound”) only. So (as in the case of metaphysical indeterminacy) there is no information gathering procedure that would settle the issue. But that is not because the nature of sound is indeterminate in this respect. Rather, there is no deeper (determinate or indeterminate) fact here at all.

However, this ignores the fact that LET1 and LET2 are responsive to an auditory reality that they both describe, albeit in incompatible ways. Sounds existed before there were ontologies of sound and thus have an independent reality to which LET1 and LET2 attest. If so there must be a deeper fact which accounts for the indeterminacy.

Now, either this fact is indeterminate or it is not.

If it is not, then there is some uniquely ideal account of sound: ITS. The ideal theory cannot be improved via the acquisition of further information because it already contains all the relevant information there is to be had and has no empirically equivalent competitors (there is no ITS2, etc.). ITS might or might not be an event theory – e.g. it could be a “medial theory” which represents sounds as the transmission of acoustic energy (Bullot et al. 2004). So ITS ought to replace both LET1 and LET2. We may not be aware of it, but we know that it exists somewhere in Philosophers Heaven (or the Space of Reasons).

If the fact in question is indeterminate, there is no ideal account which captures the nature of sound. Or rather, the best way to capture it is in the alternation between different accounts.

Given indeterminacy, then, there is an auditory reality which permits of description, but which cannot be completely described.

There is an interesting comparison to be made here between the indeterminacy of auditory metaphysics and the claims regarding the indeterminacy of semantic interpretation described in Davidson and others. Again, one can take indeterminacy in a deflationary anti-realist spirit – there are no semantic facts, just competing interpretations and explications recursively subject to competing interpretations ad infinitum (One popular way of glossing Derridean différance!).

Or there are semantic facts. In which case, these may be determinate or indeterminate. If there are determinate semantic facts, then the indeterminacy of radical interpretation is an artefact of our ignorance regarding semantic facts. If semantic facts are indeterminate, however, there is – again – a reality that is partially captured in competing interpretations that is never fully mirrored or reflected in them.

At this point it is interesting to consider why we might opt for factive or metaphysical indeterminacy rather than anti-realist indeterminacy. If we have reasons for believing in indeterminate facts – the ones for which there are irreducibly discrepant descriptions – this is presumably because we think there is some mind-independent reality outside our descriptions whose nature is indeterminate in some respects. If this thought is justified it is presumably not justified by any single description of the relevant domain. Nor by the underdetermination of descriptions (since this is equally consistent with anti-realism). So if we are justified in believing that there are indeterminate metaphysical facts, we must be justified by sources of non-propositional knowledge. For example, perhaps our perceptual experience of sound supports the claim that sounds occur in ways that can be captured by LET1 or LET2 without providing decisive grounds for one or the other.

This train of thought might suggest that some metaphysics bottoms out in “phenomenology” – which seems to commit the metaphysical indeterminist to the “mental eye” theory of pre-discursive concepts disparaged by Sellars and others. However, what is at issue, here, is non-propositional access to the world. One way of saying this is that such access “non-conceptual” – though this seems to presuppose that concepts (whatever they are) are components of or parasitic on propositions, and this may not be the case.

However, there is a further problem. If Scott Bakker and I are right, our grip on phenomenology is extremely tenuous (Roden 2013). So if metaphysical indeterminism is warranted, there are non-discursive reasons for believing there are metaphysically indeterminate facts. But the nature of these facts is obscure so long as our phenomenology is occluded. Now, there is no reason in principle why a subject can believe p on the basis of some evidence without being in a position to explain how the evidence supports p. This weakens their public warrant but does not vitiate it. So we may have weak grounds for metaphysical indeterminism but these are better than no grounds at all.


Bullot, Nicolas, Roberto Casati, Jérôme Dokic, and Maurizio Giri. 2004. Sounding objects. In Proceedings of Les journées du design sonore, p. 4. Paris. October 13–15.

Casati, Robert, and Dokic, Jérôme. 2005. la philosophie du son, Accessed 3 June 2005, Chapter 3, p. 41.

O’Callaghan, Casey. 2009. Sounds and events. In Matthew Nudds & Casey O’Callaghan (eds.), Sounds and Perception: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press. 26–49.

Roden, David. 2010. ‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, Objects and Sound Perception, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1(1): 141-156.

Roden, David. 2013, ‘Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalized Phenomenology’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 72 (1): 169-88


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