Jerry the Anthropologist kindly responds to my recent post on Brassier and Correlationism:
Let me see if I can come back to two or three things.
First, I’m a good deal less convinced that string theory is a well formed scientific theory than apparently you are. Einstein’s work has been experiementally vindicated, so too has much of quantum mechanics. Huxley was able to make powerful arguments in favor of Darwin’s theories within 4 years (more or less) of the publication of On the Origin of Species, see his Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature published in 1863, on the basis of comparative anatomy alone; nor should we forget the fabulous intuitions (reimaginings) of Alfred Russel-Wallace. But as I understand matters, its been twenty years more or less for string theory and nada. So I do not have to accept the if-then nature of the argument; I really should leave aside the ethnographic fact that not all forms of human reason and human language allow if-then statements as grammatically well formed or linguistically fluent, but I can’t resist. So maybe you are right and I’ve over read an argument.
Nonetheless on this basis I do not have to accept the premises of what follows from Brassier’s invocation of string theory (perhaps better the string hypothesis). Nor do I am right about mathematics, do I have to accept the reading of moving beyond the image of the world.
I take mathematical objects to be extant in thought and not in the proportions of (especially) living things. Indeed mathematical objects seem to me an extremely good example of myth, understood in anthropological sense and not a colloquial one; I said as much in an earlier comment.
I simply do not agree with you about Copernicus or Darwin. We ask questions for reasons at particular times, but we ask them given oddities in what we perceive; this is not ethnographically insignificant as can be understood if we think about why mayans did not use wheels on carts or the classical Mediterrean folks did not use steam engines to power looms. This is why I think your dismissal of the question of the calculation of Easter is a bit premature. It is also why I think we need to come back to the movement of the planets. These motions has been known of for a very long time and by a variety of sciences not all of which are western. The point however for Copernicus is not just that the planets move forward against the apparent background of stars, they also move backwards, and in the case of Venus move from evening to morning and back to evening with periods of being unobservable between. If we do not attend to these sorts of movements, so be it, why should we. Hence the sense many have of the moving of the sun, moon and the so-called fixed stars, which if I understand you you equate with some sort of common sense (forgive me, but as you know any idea of common sense just gets anthropologists’ juices going–what is common about this or that sense?). But the backwards movements are still there in the heavens and in the image of the world (I suppose this is an example of what you mean by correlationism??). These movements are precisely the sort of detail which leads to a reimagining of the image of the world in the sense I’ve spoken of, and not the other way round as some sort of suspension. Indeed, if I’m right about mathematics (and yes in English of our era if-then statements are grammatically well formed) then then mathematics is not such a suspension but rather a way or means of reimagining the world.
What disturbs me about the cultural constructionists in anthropology (I won’t speak of other disciplines) is that they often seem to forget that there is a world out there being thought by someone, individually and collectively. What I find disturbing in the sort of materialism Brassier puts forth in those few pages is what I take to be a forgetting of the conditions of and for thought or maybe even a contempt for those who seek to explore these matters, of certain types of psychology and anthropology; he says of those forms of knowing that they are repugnant, and in that sense misunderstands how Darwin’s thought has entered into neurology, psychology and anthropology in ways that makes these three disciplines potentially unitary. What I’m also saying here is that he is ethnographically mistaken or put another way that his choice between Darwin and Husserl (or at least phenomenology as it has come to influence certain strands of psychology and anthropology) is a false choice. Its because I see this as a false choice (my notes refer to the top of his page 18 but without going back and rereading I can’t reconstruct this further) that I see Basskar as dreaming of a transparent language, shall we say mathematics??, without seeing this, apparently, as a reimagining of the image of the world.
I’ll grant that we can describe that we can describe human beings as “a carbon based information processing system” but that description also applies to marmosets, earthworms, my cats and the trees outside in that all of these living entities respond to events around them; this is what I mean, at least in part, when I speak about form the way that I do. The difference that makes a difference would be, I think, that we tell stories about the world as a part of thinking the world whereas my cats tell less complicated stories, if you will; I take mathematics to be a profound example of such a story, and in Husserl’s version as articulated in the quote, Nature is also a profound example.
I would agree that on its face Husserl’s quote is nonsense, that is until we take Husserl (my variable or term for phenomenology as it enters psychology and anthropology where I assure you it has been helpful because knowledge, even false knowledge, has conditions as well) to be talking about the conditions of knowing and Nature as myth; I’ve not read alot of Husserl and I’m not a philosopher, so nothing in my argument depends upon extensive exegesis of Husserl as such or in the problems facing western (continental?)philosophy as such.
I’m not claiming that there isn’t more in heaven and earth than is encompassed in my philosophy (if I even engage in philosophy), but in my discipline and those related to it we have had to try to take the circumstances of the thinker (human or otherwise, individually and collective) rather more seriously that Bashkar appears to me to do. Indeed I seem to think (ah, Bali and the distinction between niskala and sekal which I mentioned in an earlier comment) that any time a thinker arises so will correlationsism as a phenom,enological event, if I understand you correctly.
As to the last point you make (1) all thinkers find themselves at the center in that they have points of view from which they look out even if they are not at some mystical center, but please unless one wants to enter into lengthy attempts to understand centuries of Asian capitalism spare me getting over this myth of subjective interiority as Brassier puts it as a way of getting over capitalism (2) any trauma depends, it seems to me, upon some notion of special creation (and yes you and I live at the buckle of the Bible Belt where such notions are prevalent) but this (special creation) is not a universally human form of common sense, so (3) any comment about a policing mechanism refers to a provincial event, meaning of a time and place and not of the human condition (whatever the fullness of that may be) or the structure of ordinary lived experience (whatever the fullness of that may be) more generally.
I don’t think the soundness of my argument depends on whether or not superstring theory is confirmed as the issue revolves around whether or not the objects science can talk about are constrained to the structure of experience. Consequently, if one likes, you can just substitute subatomic physics for superstring theory. In either case we’re talking about entities that are wildly different than the mid-range objects of phenomenological experience that, were we to treat this structure of our experience as the measure, would render these objects of subatomic physics completely incoherent.
I am not dismissing the sorts of issues Jerry cite as prompting questions among folks like Copernicus. This is what the distinction between the intransitive and the transitive is all about. Copernicus’ interest in the calendar belongs to the transitive dimension of science, which is composed of historically shifting theories, politics, social relations, issues, etc., that might prompt us to investigate a certain region of the universe. For example, similar extra-scientific concerns have prompted contemporary research into the dynamics of climate. My reason for setting this aside is not because it is unimportant or not worthy of study– it is –but because the issue I’m dealing with is rather different and unrelated to this particular issue.
I suspect that part of the miscommunication here stems from how Jerry and I are respectively using the term “perception”. It seems to me that Jerry is using the term “perception” as a sort of all-purpose word to denote “noticing something”. Hence Jerry speaks of Copernicus perceiving discrepancies in the movement of the planets in relation to his desire to accurately calculate Easter.
By contrast, I am using “perception” to denote a formal structure of how a lived body encounters the world, somewhat similar to the formal structures explored by the Gestalt theorists (the Gestalt theorists and phenomenologists being close on many points). I’ll give an analogy to illustrate what I’m getting at. Suppose you were to look through the bottom of a stemless wine glass while looking at the world. Because of the properties of the glass, when you look through it everything takes on a radial pattern of bending or distortion. Now, suppose we take this experiment one step further and hypothesize that we only see the world through such a wine glass and never see it in any other way. In this analogy, what appears through the bottom of the glass is the “given”, while the glass itself is “givenness” or the mechanism by which the given is given or bestowed.
At this point questions of ontology and epistemology merge. The correlationist or transcendental philosopher, recognizing that it is not the world itself that displays this radial pattern but our own cognition or perception of the world that contains contributes this radial curving pattern. The correlationist or transcendental philosopher will then make three claims:
First, the correlationist will argue that while we are limited by this formal structure of perception, we can nonetheless analyze this structure of our perception, e.g., we can precisely discuss the structure of the radial curvature, etc.
Second, the correlationist will claim that any object we perceive will be structured in and through this radial curvature. For example, when I look through the bottom of my glass the door to my living room closet is bowed along the outside, with a bit of a blind circular spot in the middle. The mode or mechanisms of givenness systematically structures what appears as given.
Finally, third (and most importantly), the correlationist will claim that we can know nothing of objects as they are independent of these mechanisms of givenness because we have no access to objects beyond this field of presentation.
This formal structure is what I have in mind when I talk about perception. It is this third claim that divides the correlationist and the [hopefully not naive!] realist. The correlationist elides the distinction between the ontological and the epistemological, claiming that we only ever know the being of objects as they are for us or within the formal constraints of either cognition or perception. Consequently, Alexei (a correlationist), in response to one of my posts, writes:
I suppose I’m not terribly clear on the difference between ‘epistemic’ and ‘epistemological’ either, Levi. But I seem to recall that Mikhail once pointed out that these two terms seem to have the same kind of relationship as ‘ontic’ and ‘ontological’ do.
Should that be the case, any knowledge claim would be an epistemic claim, and any claim about the framework in which that knowledge claim is coherent would be an epistemological claim. Given that distinction, Kant avoids the epistemic fallacy, since he’s committed to saying only that any judgment (an epistemic claim) is possible on the grounds of the pure forms of intuition, the categories, the schematism, and the transcendental unity of apperception (a series of epistemological claims). And that says nothing about the thing in-itself or the speculative use of reason — nor does it say that there is no such thing as a thing in-itself, etc. it’s a rather deflationary claim, really. So when you say,
this would be summed up in the Kantian aphorism that the conditions for the possibility of experience are identical to the conditions for the possibility of the objects of experience.
(which strikes me as a tautology actually — what else do we experience besides the objects of experience?)
is an epistemological claim that makes certain kinds of epistemic claims coherent. But it doesn’t say anything about ontology — we’re still talking of objects-of-experience, and not objects as such.
Viz. science, just because I’m feeling nit-picky: regardless of how unintuitible the object itself might be, science always revolves around intuition in the form of indirect observation (hence Hacking’s ontological principle: if you can spray it, it’s real). So I don’t think anyone is really licensed to talk about objects independent of experience. The real issue — so it seems to me — is the priority given to experience.
In fact, within a Kantian correlationist framework this is not what is said at all. In fact, were Alexei correct, then it would spell the ruin of the entire second half of the first Critique. Here Alexei is trading on an ambiguity in the term “experience”. Within a Kantian framework, experience has a very precise meaning. Kant’s claim is that experience consists of the synthesis of concepts and intuitions organized by reason. Paraphrasing Kant’s famous declaration: “concepts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without thought blind.” According to Kant, those philosophies that work entirely at the conceptual level without a corresponding dimension of intuition are, according to Kant, dogmatic speculation. This would apply mutatis mutandis to entities discussed by the sciences that are beyond the scope of any human intuition.
Here, then, we get what I’m referring to when I evoke the “epistemic fallacy” or the reduction of the ontological to the requirements of the epistemological. The consistent correlationist can only claim that these entities are dogmatic fictions that have no existence apart from our relationship to the world vis a vis the structure of our cognition and perception. Alexei declares “No! We register these differences and it is through this that we come to know these objects!” But no, this is not the case at all. The differences we register are effects of these objects. They are differences we register on a piece of graph paper printed out on a machine, detected by instruments, etc. From here we infer the structure of these objects. Yet this structure that we infer is, in many instances, in no way analogous to anything that could, under any conditions, be intuited by a human being. As such, the real logical outcome of the correlationist position is to smugly claim that these objects don’t exist at all or that if they do we certainly can’t know anything about them. Husserl makes this point most honestly when he claims that the natural world can’t be a condition of consciousness because consciousness is the condition of these objects. This thesis is implicit in every and all forms of correlationism regardless of whether or not the correlationism in question is Husserlian.