Entering the Phenomenological Cul-de Sac

On June 9, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

My last post ended with a modest conclusion about the relationship between pragmatist accounts of agency and world-hood:

“For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, then, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to believe that they belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.

But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of?

Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?”

Clearly, one way we might parse this notion of co-worldliness involves a form of a metaphysical realism owing little to phenomenological approaches.

There are different ways of expressing this realist account. We might say that reality is what some uniquely complete and true theory represents, or perhaps that it is the totality of states of objects on which the accuracy or truth of such representations hinges.

However, in the face of Putnam-style objections to the effect that there can be no such unique theory, the metaphysical realist can opt for a more minimal formulation: claiming only that the non-mental parts of the world exist independently of minded creatures, and that its nature is likewise independent of how it is thought. This does not commit realists to there being “one true and complete description of the world” (Devitt 1984: 229). There seems nothing incoherent in supposing that the best theories of the real might be incomplete and partial.

Indeed, the world as a whole might not be representable at all because there can be no complete representation of it, or because there are aspects of reality which are not representable at all.

But at this point the commonality of the real seems to be receding. If reality can only be described discrepantly, or if it is not fully representable, then what content can we attach to the idea of a shared world in Davidson’s conditions of interpretation and communication? According to idealists this idea of reality is not even intelligible. So if the common world is the world according to metaphysical realism, this may threaten the intelligibility of pragmatism and thus the local correlationism regarding agency which falls out of it.

I think this is a problem for any account in which, as as Robert Brandom “meaning and understanding are co-ordinate concepts, in the sense that neither can be properly understood or explicated except as part of a story that includes the other” (). For such understanding must be exhibited practically in a social field in which estimates of what speakers say or think are updated given the circumstances in which they are said or acted upon. Different theorists may describe these interpretations using different or discrepant vocabularies, but the presupposition of commonality seems to be built into any theory for which content is manifested through practice.

If pragmatist accounts of thought and agency require a common world, then perhaps they need an idea of world that is not an abstract metaphysical posit, but somehow implicated in agency and thought itself. And this is where phenomenology stands to pick up the slack left by metaphysical realism.

Phenomenologists frequently describe this experience of world-hood in terms of experience of things occurring in contexts or “horizons”. When I see a hammer, I see it from a certain viewpoint, or hear it falling off a workbench as the cat passes by. I may think of it as a force amplifier or a birthday present; but each thought or experience implies the possibility of perspectives further down the line. The hammer cannot be reduced to any of these: it is not determinate but, rather, determinable. Its objectivity consists of being always in excess of its appearances (Mooney 1992). A horizon is that aspect of an experience that implies non-actual possibilities for experience.

Roughly, we share worlds if my horizons overlap with yours. For example, I might not immediately grasp the significance of basil in your cookery, but could, given the opportunity to share food with you. My relationship to basil as it figures your life is not a formal semantic relationship. My conception of basil may involve different stereotypes – desiccated leaves on supermarket shelves, say – whereas you are punctilious about picking it fresh from the herb garden. Still your relation to basil is a determinable for me, even if it bears no relation to the way in which I currently prepare salads and sauces.

So, to recapitulate: local correlationism for agency (Condition 3) or Davidson’s observability assumption is best understood as falling out of pragmatism with regard to psychological and semantic concepts. And pragmatism (I have suggested) needs a correlational account of a world – a world likewise determinable in practice, rather than the transcendent world of metaphysical realism.

Admittedly, this seems to commit the pragmatist to a transcendental account of the world that might sit uneasily with the modestly naturalistic accounts of practices and norms in which such accounts are generally expressed. It also commits the pragmatist to anti-realism since the the world is not a determinate existing thing; nor could there be one transcending determinability (or verification).

But the relationship between pragmatism, realism and naturalism is debatable for other reasons, so it is not clear that naturalistic scruple alone should debar the inference from a pragmatist account of agency and subjectivity to a phenomenological theory of the world.

In Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning, Jeff Malpas argues that interpretation must have this horizontal structure. All interpretation occurs in a context fixed by certain interests and projects. Any particular project can be frustrated or break down (Malpas 1992: 128). Any project must, moreover, open onto the constitution of a new project, just as each view of the hammer implies the possibility of other views. Thus pragmatism assumes that each project of understanding is “nested” within further possible projects.

This  interleaving of interpretative projects is correlatively an interleaving of things. Beliefs cannot be identified independently of the determinables that believers engage with. By the same token, the identification of salient collections of objects and events occurs against the background of the interpreter’s experience and interests. The nested structure of projects described by Malpas thus constitutes a plausible candidate for a non-reified “world” – a world not of things, but of potential “correlations” between intentional agents and determinable objects.

This interleaving is only intelligible if we assume each project to have a hermeneutic structure referred to as “fore-having” within the hermeneutic tradition. Each interpretation must potentially fan out onto future revisionary interpretations (Caputo 1984: 158). Without appeal to this tacit or virtual structure, there is little content that can be given to the idea of a single intersubjective world that Davidson and the other pragmatists must appeal to.

It is precisely at this point, according to Malpas, that static concepts of a determinate world seem wholly inadequate and the temporalized models of intentionality and understanding developed in the phenomenological/hermeneutic tradition assume importance.

However, I think it is very doubtful that any phenomenological method can even tell us what its putative subject matter (“phenomenology”) is. This, as I will argue, is disastrous for idea of a temporally structured horizon that otherwise seemed so serviceable for the pragmatist.

References

Caputo, J. D. 1984. “Husserl, Heidegger and the Question of a ‘Hermeneutic’ Phenomenology”. Husserl Studies 1(1): 157–78.

Devitt, Michael. 1991. “Aberrations of the Realism Debate”. Philosophical Studies 61(1): 43–63.

Malpas, J. E. 1992. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mooney, T. 1999. “Derrida’s Empirical Realism”. Philosophy & Social Criticism

25(5): 33–56.

Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

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

Roden, David (Forthcoming). “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism”. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.

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Just an attempt in progress to clarify an argument regarding the plausible dependence of pragmatist theories of intentionality on phenomenological worlds.

**************

Interpreters can differ in many ways that are irrelevant to their interpreterhood – differences in language, embodiment, gender, etc. However, if there are essential features common to all interpreters these might show up in the way subjects relate to the world and to other subjects. Phenomenology has traditionally been viewed as a powerful method for describing such relations. So if there are minimal conditions for being an interpreter, maybe phenomenology can help us spell them out.

Let’s put more bones on this. Condition 3 in the paradox of the Radical Alien corresponds to what Donald Davidson calls “the observability assumption”. This states that “an observer can under favorable circumstances tell what beliefs, desires, and intentions an agent has.” (Davidson 2001b, 99) In other words if x is an agent, x must be interpretable given ideal conditions.

This view finds it home a family of broadly pragmatist, post-Cartesian positions according to which the role of concepts such as meaning, belief, desire or intention is to render agency intelligible in the light of reasons. Having intentionality is, at some level, just the ability to conform to standards of rational agency. If so there is no secret to being an agent – beliefs and thoughts are not hidden states of the soul. At a bare minimum, an agent must be an intentional system; one that, as Dennett puts it, is “voluminously predictable”when assessed as a rational subject of belief or desire. A being that could not show up as exhibiting this skill would have failed to exhibit agential abilities.

This buys us local correlationism: an entity whose overt behaviour would be unintelligible the light of normative assessments wouldn’t qualify as an agent! However, for Robert Brandom, Dennett’s intentional stance approach gives us a very sparse and incomplete picture of what it is to be an agent because it is widely applicable to systems like Maze-running robots or fly-catching frogs, thermostats, or written texts, whose intentionality seems observer-relative rather than intrinsic to the observed system. Most obviously, it fails to account for the capacity that allows intentional systems to show up as such: namely the capacity to interpret. For Brandom, as for Davidson, intentionality and real agency require understanding as well as the ability to be understood; and this requires the capacity to interpret verbal behaviour and actions in the light of reasons.

For both philosophers, one of the conditions for such understanding is that both interpreter and interpretee have a structured language. Davidson presents a particularly terse argument for this connection:

Belief is an attitude of “holding” true some proposition: for example, that there is a cat behind that wall. Thus a true believer must have a grip on the concepts of truth and error. It follows that only those with a concept of belief can have beliefs. We cannot have a concept of belief without exercising it. Thus we cannot believe anything without the capacity to attribute to others true or false beliefs about common topics (Davidson 1984: 170; 2001b: 104).

This, in turn, requires a language. For beliefs and thoughts can only be interpreted by those who can compare their take on a topic with those held by the interpretee. Language affords this theatre of perspectives; expressing  facts about things and semantic facts about how things are referred to or represented. It makes explicit that “one can want to be the discoverer of a creature with a heart without wanting to be the discoverer of a creature with a kidney” (Davidson 1984: 163).

Interpretation requires “a coherent pattern in the behaviour of an agent” –  between what agents do, believe or express and the conditions under which action and expression occurs (Davidson 1984,: 159). Were agents systematically duped or confused about the world, this pattern would be lacking; their behaviour would reveal nothing about what they wanted to say, what they believed or desired. Not only is this rapport a condition of interpretation, so is the presupposition that it obtains. To have a concept of belief that I can apply in the second person or the first, I must understand or see the other as engaging with things that I am or could be cognisant of.  The (in)famous principle of Charity just is the assumption of shared cognisance. This is not an ethical embrace of cultural otherness, then, but another way of expressing the pragmatist idea that mentality is the ability to engage with the world in a rationally evaluable way.

The assumption of charity is only possible,, then, if the interpretee is assumed to live among and think about commonly identifiable things. Understanding that you might have true or false beliefs about things I have beliefs about requires that I locate us a shared field of actual or possible topics. As Davidson puts it again:

Communication depends on each communicator having, and correctly thinking that the other has, the concept of a shared world, an intersubjective world. But the concept of an intersubjective world is the concept of an objective world, a world about which each communicator can have beliefs. (Davidson 2001, 105)

For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.

But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of? Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?

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

____1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.

____2001a. Essays on Actions and Events, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

____2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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More Radical Aliens

On April 14, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

red_alephIn Posthuman Life I define the posthuman in terms of the disconnection thesis (DT). One of the advantages of DT is that it allows us to understand human-posthuman differences without being committed to a “human essence” that posthumans will lack. Rather, we understand the human (or WH, the “wide human”) as an assemblage of biological and non-biological individuals, whose history stretches from the world of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers to the modern, interconnected world, and perhaps beyond. Thus it avoids the accusation that we can render the hypothesis of  that there could be posthumans (speculative posthumanism AKA SP) meaningless by denying, or deconstructing the claim that there is a human essence – a set of necessary conditions for being human.

However, DT is in tension with the thought of the radical alien discussed in the preceding post. The problem, again roughly, is that claims about the radical alien seem to imply that the alien is not just difficult to understand – the kind of understanding that could be achieved with time, sweat and ingenuity – but remains beyond human understanding in principle. But this implies that at least one necessary proposition is true of humans – namely that for any radical alien, they would be incapable of understanding it.

Thus there can be radical aliens only if there is (after all) a human essence.

DT does not require that there is no human essence. It is merely consistent with its denial. But I have independent reasons for thinking that there are no necessary cognitive constraints inherent in human understanding. Suppose that there is some kind of human essence and that part of this includes the inability to understand certain radical aliens. It follows that open sentence that the relation term “…. understands R” where R refers to some radical alien, is necessarily false of all humans.

However, this only constitutes a real constraint on humans if each human is necessarily human, that is if there is a necessary limit on the way the cognitive powers of agents could be altered. Maybe there are such limitations, but it seems that either they are knowable a posteriori or a priori. If a posteriori, we need evidence for them. It is not clear that there is such evidence around, or what form it might take. Thus there are reasons for being sceptical here.

Suppose such constraints are the a priori kind buttressed and formulated in transcendental philosophies – e.g. Husserlian phenomenology and some accounts of Kantian philosophy – e.g. the analytical Kantianism associated with thinkers such as Sellars and Brandom.

What these positions have in common is the claim that there are invariant conditions for thought and intelligibility. Here what is at issue is the intelligibility of agents. In the case of phenomenology, the condition is that an agent is embodied in a world shared by humans whose actions and experiences can be understood as directed towards that world. In the case of analytic Kantianism, the condition is similar: the agent’s activity must be interpretable in terms of a set of inferential or practical commitments.

These commitments are social statuses whose content is expressed in the sentences of an interpreting idiom or “metalanguage”. This also presupposes a shared world since this content can only be articulated where enough of the statuses are elicited or prompted by things or states of the world which can be identified by prospective interpreters. In the absence of such referents interpretative idioms would be (as Davidson argues) untestable and lack the non-inferential component required for any plausible inferentialist account of content.

A radical alien would not belong to the set of beings whose agency can – in Davidsons metaphor – be triangulated by reference to a common world. Its agency would be perpetually occult to humans. By the same token it could not belong to the common world of the phenomenological account. It would be a closed book. But here we seemed to be locked in a contradiction.

  1. The radical alien would not belong to the class of beings whose behaviour can be interpreted as actions.
  2. The radical alien would be an agent.
  3. An entity whose behaviours could not be construed as actions, even in principle, would be a non-agent.

After all, where else does our concept of agency get its content than its attribution to the things we could treat as agents in principle?

So 1), 2) and 3) are inconsistent. A paradox! However, we can defuse the paradox by denying 3. 3) implies that a kind of local correlationism for agency. The only kinds of things that could count as agents are those that are amenable to human practices of interpretative understanding, whatever these may amount to. 3) denies the possibility that there could be evidence-transcendent facts about agency such procedures might never uncover.

Have we good reason to drop 3 – other than to avoid the paradox. Yes, I think so – and have argued this at some length elsewhere.[1] We only have to deny that there is some a framework corresponding to the interpretable as such.

And this, of course, is in line with anti-essentialism with regard to the human. If there are no de re modal facts concerning what is possibly (or not-possibly) interpretable, there is no thing such that it is either possibly-interpretable or not possibly-interpretable for us or for creatures relevantly alike. Thus, whatever belongs to the class of agents it is not delineated by any practices of intersubjective interpretation. Another way of putting this is that the concept of agency cannot be totalised. There is no collection of all possible agents.

Thus our concept agent is – in a sense – empty or void. When we speak of agency in the abstract we are not using concepts with which we have an existing, if implicit, mastery. However, it follows that our concept of the radical alien is similarly void. We thought that it must transcend the field of the interpretable. But if, as I’ve suggested, there is no such field, there are no radical aliens if these are understood in the interpretation transcendent sense.

But then what of the intimations of the alien in Lovecraft, Wells and other thinkers? Does my use of idea of the radical alien involve a kind of misprision? In my next post I will argue it does not, but only if we re-interpret the otherness or difference of the alien in aesthetic terms rather than in terms of some metaphysics of agency.

  1. [1] See Posthuman Life, Ch 3-4 and here.

 

Metaphor at the Edge of the Human

On March 31, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

end_earth_sunBillions of years in the future, The Time Traveler stands before a black ocean, under a bloated sun. The shore is scaled with lichen and flecked with snow. The crab things and giant insects that menaced him on his visit millions of years in its past are gone. Apart from the lapping of dark waves, everything is utterly still.

He thinks he sees something shifting in the waves nearby but dismisses it as an illusion; assuming it to be a rock. Still a churning weakness and fear deters him from leaving the saddle of the time machine. Perhaps this anxiety is just prompted by the ultimate desolation of this world.

Studying the unknown constellations, he feels a chill wind. The old sun is being eclipsed by the moon, or some other massive body – for it is possible that the Earth has shifted into a new orbit around its star.

Twilight segues to black. The wind moans out of utter darkness and cold. A deep nausea hammers his belly. He is on the edge of nothing. Then the object passes and an an arc of blood opens the sky.

And by it he sees what moves in the water: “It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it. It seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.”.

He is terrified of passing out, with the thing waiting for him in the shallows. He recedes back into the past. The familiar contours of his laboratory swim into being around him.

During the Traveler’s brief acquaintance with it, the thing appears devoid of purpose. Its “flopping” motion might be due to the action of the waves. It might lack a nervous system, let alone a mental life replete with beliefs and desires. But his acquaintance with it is brief, after all, and he knows nothing of it or its world. If it can be said to have one.

It is tempting to suggest alternative scenarios in which the Traveler does not retreat from the thing in the water and remains to study it (and perhaps be studied in turn).

He might find that it is a traveler from some even deeper future, or the representative of an extra-terrestrial culture. Perhaps observation and autopsies would reveal it to be an offshoot of modern Cephalopoda, trawling the desultory shoreline for bite-sized crustaceans.

Again, a Lovecraft-Wells crossover might cast it as the baleful representative of ultimate cosmic evil. Perhaps it locks the Traveler out of his own body, storing his mind like a living fossil. Then it sits in the saddle and return to the present, where, sooner or later, it begins to eat our history.

These narrative possibilities are forestalled, however. Within Well’s fictional world the the nature of the creature remains, undetermined and thus indeterminable. Readers of the Time Machine can only imagine the Traveler’s presentiment on encountering it; wonder why he finds the thought of being near it so terrible. The creature remains hidden, its meaning held in a perpetual tomb.

Given time and effort, radical interpretation might unveil the the obscurities of merely unfamiliar languages or forms of life. But radical aliens would remain obdurately outside thought. In Western traditions, the idea is commonly expressed in apophatic mysticism that treats the divine as an ineffable and unthinkable other. In apophasis, this reality is expressed by what Eugene Thacker calls a “misanthropic subtraction” in which words are stripped of any positive signification so as to hint at a transcendence beyond words (Thacker 2015, p. 140).

The arrest of narrative has a similar effect to the language of mysticism, since, in fiction, the undescribed must remain unknown outside the limits of our encounter with it. Most evocations of the radical alien exhibit a form of arrest: from the work of H P Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson to that of the “New Weird” authors like Thomas Ligotti or Jeff Vandermeer, to the far future science fiction of Hannu Rajaniemi and Charles Stross.

As Graham Harman observes, Lovecraft’ uses a range of literary devices to subtract the legibility of his cosmic deities, the Great Old Ones. This can occur via radical metaphor – for example, “The Dreams in the Witch House” Azathoth, is said to lie “at the centre of ultimate Chaos where the thin flutes pip mindlessly”. The content of this description undermines its metaphorical aptness since ultimate chaos would be the decentering of centres. The “thin flutes” should then be understood as “dark allusions to real properties of the throne of Chaos, rather than literal descriptions of what one would experience there in person” (Harman 2012: 36-7).

The adjective “mindless” does not imply here that this reality is simply non-mental, like the spontaneous production of particle/anti-particle pairs. Rather that conceptions like mindedness or agency are not being applied to the reality in which they carry their usual implications. Recall, the ungainly flopping of Wells’ creature. Is this a sign of its diminished sentience, mute heteronomy before the waves; or of something that is no less a power in the world than us but fundamentally unlike us?

When the sailor Johansen describes an encounter with Lovecraft’s amorphous tentacled god near the end of “The Call of Cthulhu” he must vitiate his own description:

“Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described–there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.”

Likewise, the dread and physical abjectness related by the Traveler are not attributable to anything he has described; their presence in his account hollows it out without giving us the missing outline. They are prompted by something unmentioned, something  perhaps unutterable, which can only be conveyed indirectly through its pernicious effect on the observer.

Wells and Lovecraft, then, both employ discrepant figures or elisions to “refer” to the unknowable and unsayable. Derrida has argued that philosophy is also in the grip of such undeterminable or undecidable tropes, where, for example, a term like “the sun” is used by Plato in Republic IV-VII to refer to the origin of intelligibility itself. Within the terms of Plato’s text there is no criterion of metaphorical aptness that tells us whether this is a “successful” metaphor for the ultimate Good, other than the account in which it already figures. Such radical metaphors constitute an ellipsis of meaning – a solar “eclipse” whose divorce from settled semantic domains free up metaphors to play elsewhere as metaphysical concepts (Derrida 1974: 53-4).

Philosophical concepts are conceptually articulated in ways that distinguish them from the literary use of catachresis in Lovecraft, or in a very different context, J G Ballard’s Crash or his novella “Myths of the Near Future”. There is a good deal be said about Plato’s form of the good; whereas Lovecraft provide no science or metaphysics to limn the ultimate reality of Azathoth; while Ballard’s ontology of the automobile collision is entirely exhausted by its place within Crash’s circuit of auto-destructive desire (Roden 2002). Still, this does not mean that allusion to unknowable entities in Wells, Lovecraft and others is without philosophical significance.

Firstly, both reject something that Platonic philosophy shares with apophatic theology – the jargon of transcendence. Lovecraft’s apophatic method discloses a dark, unknowable cosmos that is, however, devoid of transcendence. The Azathothic other is not beyond or “higher” than matter but intimately involved and active in a unitary, if ultimately chaotic and meaningless, universe.

Wells’ being on the shoreline is alive, even if its status as an agent is left entirely open. Both, then, imply something about what it is to live in a reality that is outside thought, autonomous with respect to it, even if not transcendent or spiritual.

This is connected, secondly, to the relationship between time and sensibility – in the aesthetics of an encounter that pre-empts any articulation of its nature (Sullivan 2010: 197). An encounter that need harbour no meaning, no “fore-having” waiting to be glossed by the phenomenologist, for example. The phenomenology of the encounter can be dark, as I have argued elsewhere. It can be had, without being further accessible through description or philosophical hermeneutics.

The radical alien can be encountered, then, but the encounter breaks the orderly procession of historical time and knowledge production. It leaves its mark in irreducible affects – terror, madness and physical desolation.

References

Derrida, J. and Moore, F.C.T., 1974. White mythology: Metaphor in the text of philosophy. New Literary History6(1), pp.5-74.

Harman, G., 2012. Weird realism: Lovecraft and philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.

Roden, D., 2003. Cyborgian subjects and the auto-destruction of metaphor.Crash cultures: modernity, mediation and the material, pp.91-102.

O’Sullivan, S., 2010. From aesthetics to the abstract machine: Deleuze, Guattari and contemporary art practice. Deleuze and contemporary art, pp.189-207.

Thacker, E., 2015. Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.

 

Dark Posthumanism II – Dublin Abstract

On March 2, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

A provisional abstract for my presentation at the Questioning Aesthetics Symposium in Dublin, 12-13 May,

In_the_dust_bag

Dark Posthumanism

Speculative Posthumanism (SP) claims that there could be posthumans: that is, powerful nonhuman agents arising through some technological process. In Posthuman Life, I buttress SP with a series of philosophical negations whose effect is to leave us in the dark about these historical successors (Roden 2014). In consequence, SP confounds us in moral and epistemic darkness. We lack rules specifying the nature of the posthuman or how to recognise it. We do not know what we are becoming; and lack any assurance that our moral conceptions can travel into the future(s) we are complicit in producing.

I argue that the void delineated by speculative posthumanism implies that aesthetics is the first philosophy of the value domain, for it forces us to judge itineraries in posthuman possibility space without criteria. Art practices that engage with technological change thus supply a political model for pursuing and organizing trajectories into the future: one distancing us from any current conception of the good or any normative appeal to universality. This estrangement or abstraction, I will claim, does not express a postmodern ethics of transgression or “transvaluation” but falls out of the ontological structure of planetary technical networks.

 

References:

 

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

Roden, David (2013), “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

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

Roden (forthcoming), ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism’. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.

 

 

Bakker on Malabou on Life

On December 2, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1
Scott Bakker has written a fascinating and extremely timely interrogation of a recent article by Catherine Malabou on the implications of recent biology for biopolitics in Critical Enquiry “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance” Malabou’s piece castigates biopolitical theorists such as Foucault and Agamben for infusing their accounts of embodiment and life with symbolic and vitalistic conceptions whose relationship to biology is inadequately theorised. In response she argues that recent biological work on epigenetics and stem cell therapies supports a decentered, textualist account of biological systems. Or as Malabou puts it: “The living being does not simply perform a program. If the structure of the living being is an intersection between a given and a construction, it becomes difficult to establish a strict border between natural necessity and self-invention.”
Otherwise put, biological mechanisms don’t have determinate functions, but are functionally indeterminate, like Derrida’s iterable marks. This, for Malabou, seems to offer hope for an insurgent biopolitics that will provide a new way of questioning the unity of the political subject:

 

And how might the return of these possibilities offer a power of resistance? The resistance of biology to biopolitics? It would take the development of a new materialism to answer these questions, a new materialism asserting the coincidence of the symbolic and the biological. There is but one life, one life only.

Biological potentials reveal unprecedented modes of transformation: reprograming genomes without modifying the genetic program; replacing all or part of the body without a transplant or prosthesis; a conception of the self as a source of reproduction. These operations achieve a veritable deconstruction of program, family, and identity that threatens to fracture the presumed unity of the political subject, to reveal the impregnable nature of its “biological life” due to its plurality. The articulation of political discourse on bodies is always partial, for it cannot absorb everything that the structure of the living being is able to burst open by showing the possibilities of a reversal in the order of generations, a complexification in the notion of heritage, a calling into question of filiation, a new relation to death and the irreversibility of time, through which emerges a new experience of finitude.

As Scott argues, it is not clear where Malabou is going with the closing oracle: “There is but one life, one life only.” The call for a new materialism here does suggest a dialectically uneasy cocktail of anti-reductionism and its contrary. It’s as if the question of life and embodiment is being framed only to be pre-emptively closed by deferring to a future theory that no one has a clue about. That said, there seems to be a useful point of exposure to the outer dark of posthuman possibility space here.
 
Even if one can make a case for a kind of Derridean textual ontology of life, that doesn’t buy us continuity. It buys us something like a condition of possibility claim – i.e. living things have the structure of the iterable mark in virtue of the functional indeterminacy of their component mechanisms. But even if some functional indeterminacy is a condition for contentfulness (As Dennett argues in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) it isn’t the same. And it doesn’t tell us whether or not amping up functional indeterminacy won’t lead us to the lip of the semantic apocalypse, which is why the transcendental model is misleading and why Malabou’s closing remarks are so in need of their own deconstruction.

Dark Posthumanism I: summer’s ice

On July 21, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

lying-catI’m ending an all too brief sojourn in Western Crete, just as Greece seems set to become Europe’s new experiment in post-democratic capitalism – its very own Interzone. Many, if not most, economists claim that the conditions cannot be met and that attempting to do so will shred Greece’s economic, social, educational and cultural life as much as the initial round of austerity.

Nonetheless, a bubble of ease is maintained here for those with euros. We who bask in the light and heat of the Aegean summer can condemn the deprivations heaped upon the Greek state and its citizens without having to experience them.

However factitious, this moment has allowed me to pause and think about some generous philosophical discussion of Posthuman Life on a number of excellent websites. These have forced me to think harder about the basic assumptions in of the book. So here begins a series of reflective responses to my commentators under the rubric of “Dark Posthumanism” – though, as shall become clear, my use of the d-word is seriously tendentious.

I should begin by citing Debbie Goldgaber’s excellent post on Speculative Posthumanism and dark phenomenology. This catalyzed an exchange between deflationary naturalists like Scott Bakker and those like Jon Cogburn or Goldgaber, who favour a deconstructive or “weird realist” construal of dark phenomena. This debate resurfaced during a lively discussion at the New Centre for Research and Practice‘s Posthuman Life 1 seminar, in which Debbie also participated. Its trenchancy was a surprise, although a welcome and productive one, which I’ll try to address in this post.

Meanwhile, the Philosophical Percolations Summer Reading group on PHL rolls on to Chapter 2 and 3 and the Ultima Thule of Unbounded Posthumanism! I should also bow to John Danaher’s fine clarificatory effort over at Philosophical Disquisitions. He has not yet addressed the role of dark phenomenology, but it will be interesting to see what  he makes of it.

Scott’s interview with me over at Figure/Bound communications recapitulates similar tensions while holding me to account for the ethical commitments of the book. I think there’s a connection between the epistemological issues arising from the dark phenomenology hypothesis and the ethics and politics of becoming posthuman. These are taken up in B P Morton’s terrific piece on trans/posthumanism and transgender (also at philpercs) which I to return to in the sequel to this post.

So what’s the deal with Dark Phenomena?

On a first (and extremely shaky) approximation, there is a tension between a thin epistemological interpretation of Dark Phenomena – experiences that furnish no tacit yardstick for their description – and a weird reading that I hesitate to term “ontological”, since its presuppositions seem more difficult to articulate than the naturalist side.

On the epistemological reading, the dark side is a placeholder for structures of experience that phenomenology cannot elucidate without the help of science – in particular, psychology, neuroscience or cognitivScreen Shot 2015-02-16 at 10.28.42e science. Dark phenomena reveal the point at which the putative domain of phenomenology eludes the scrutiny of philosophical method. It does not imply any obscurity in principle, since what may elude phenomenology may be explicated in other terms.

On the weird (horror?) reading, the dark side must be understood via its disintegration or truncation of the subject: experiences of horror, alienation, humour or compulsion such as the spectral thing that, for Levinas, depersonalises the consciousness of the insomniac. As Cogburn points out, these incursions and eruptions in experience can be related to the late Idealist view that our experience of embodiment provides privileged insight into a pre-subjective Nature (Schelling) or a noumenal body that eludes representation. I think Eugene Thacker’s discussion of Schopenhauer in his book Starry Speculative Corpse captures the latter idea particularly well:

The Will is, in Schopenhauer’s hands, that which is common to subject and object, but not reducible to either. This will is never present in itself, either as subjective experience or as objective knowledge; it necessarily remains a negative manifestation. Indeed, Schopenhauer will press this further, suggesting that “the whole body is nothing but objectified will, i.e. will that has become representation” (122-3)

So darkness on the naturalist reading is a local problem for phenomenological method, whereas on the weird reading it is an obscure disclosure (“negative manifestation”) of something (some thing) that resists any form of representation or theory. It must also be contentless if it is to do the work of undercutting the claims of transcendental conceptions of the subject, whether phenomenological, existential or pragmatist.

So far this seems as if it might be almost consonant with Bakker’s take on dark phenomenology. As he writes in his commentary on Goldgaber, phenomenology qua method:

assumes we have a reflectively accessible experiential plenum to begin with, that we actually possess a ‘phenomenology’ worth the name. The problem, in other words, is that we have no way of knowing just how impoverished our ‘phenomenology’ is in the first place.

If phenomenology is dark then phenomenological method is at best incomplete and at worst benighted. For example, experienced temporality is as transcendent and inaccessible to us as the structure of matter. Phenomenology can never be more than a descriptive science of nature according to this account and should not aspire to a priori status since there is no good reason to think that its descriptions are authoritative. There are good empirical reasons for thinking that we take our judgements about the contents of our minds or experiences to be based on an unmediated givenness only because we are not mindful of the heavy lifting required to produce them. If phenomenology is dark we are, as Bakker implies, in the dark about the dark.

The weird reading might now seem a little shady. Even the metaphor of darkness is misleading if it implies a phenomenology of the “gaps in presence”. This would be feasible only if we already knew the structure of the plenum and (or so the argument goes) there is no good reason to think that we do.

This seems to warrant a cautious analogy between the thesis that there is a dark side to phenomenology and Derridean deconstruction, which, though drawing on the language of phenomenology, cuts it free of any secure domain by generalizing subjective temporality well beyond anything conceivable as a subject, to the iterable mark, to generalized writing etc. (PHL: 94).

Goldgaber imputes to me the claim that this structure, at least, is generalizable beyond the human:

were it possible to show that there are dark elements in our own phenomenology, experienceable but not amenable to description or interpretation, we would have grounds, Roden thinks, for understanding human subjectivity in terms of both its unity and radical difference or rupture from world–as dependent on structures that are shared by nonhumans.

I’m not sure that I go this far. I suspect a purer Derridean like Martin Haggelund might. But, like Bakker, I don’t see any reason to see why such claims are on securer ground. Their virtue is salutary rather than informative; exposing the indeterminacy of claims about structure of worldly agency and time.

On the other hand, once we take dark phenomenology (or Bakker’s blind brain theory) as serious epistemological proposals we seem confronted with a darkness without negation, not one contrary to the light side (which, by hypothesis, is already striated with it). And here one is almost tempted to say that harder-than-hard naturalism bites the tail of mysticism. In Speculative Corpse, Thacker distinguishes a metaphysical correlation (between thought and object) presupposed by philosophy from a mystical correlation that can only verify itself by breaking against an impersonal “divine” darkness (84-5) that can never be recuperated by thought. A similar failure of correlation seems to obtain here. Even the tools (concepts like plenum) with which we are attempting to think the absence of a proper topic for phenomenology have to fail us. A thought that reiterates its failure in this way obeys the logic of the mystical as Thacker describes it.

So while we may not have any knowledge of what we could share with unboundedly weird posthumans, or nonhumans of other stripes, we led into a defile that is boundless on either reading. Perhaps the deflationary reading is as weird as it gets. Perhaps as Bakker puts in Neuropath, we are all already “vast and terrible with complexity” . As the tagline to the novel states: you do not know what you are. You do not know what it is that does not know this. We do not know where the darkness ends, how far it extends. And perhaps it is this pervasive boundlessness that can provide a tentative opening beyond the human, freeing us, as Morton might say, to explore the near inhuman, the trans of  alterable bodies and desires.

Or maybe this is too quick! It’s easy to make imaginary progress in a frictionless milieu. I’ll return to Morton in Dark Posthumanism II.

Scott on the End Times

On November 25, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

There’s a lively debate around Scott Bakker’s recent lecture: “The End of the World As We Know It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse” given at The University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism here at Speculative Heresy.  The text includes responses from Nick Srnicek and Ali McMillan.

 

 

Off to Utrecht

On September 3, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Flying off to Utrecht to the Philosophy After Nature conference 

(see previous post for paper)

Tagged with:
 

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 academia.edu users a pdf is available here)

BRANDOM AND POSTHUMAN AGENCY: AN ANTI-NORMATIVIST RESPONSE TO BOUNDED POSTHUMANISM

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.

 

References

Bakker, Scott. 2014. The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labor of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-blind-mechanic-ii-reza-negarestani-and-the-labour-of-ghosts

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.

Kraut, Robert (2010). Universals, metaphysical explanations, and pragmatism. Journal of Philosophy 107 (11):590-609.

Lewis, Kevin. 2013. ”Carnap, Quine and Sellars on Abstract Entities”,  https://www.academia.edu/2364977/Carnap_Quine_and_Sellars_on_Abstract_Entities (Accessed 12-7-14)

Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scienti?c and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.

Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenom- enology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

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

Rosen, Gideon. 1997. “Who Makes the Rules Around Here?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 163-171

Wanderer, Jeremy (2008). Robert Brandom. Acumen/McGill-Queens University Press.

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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