Having responded to Pete’s critique of the concept of translation in my previous post, I now move to his other criticisms. Insofar as I’ve provisionally laid the groundwork for some of my major claims this post should, hopefully, move a bit more quickly. After ridiculing the idea of translation that has, on this blog, been written about in great detail, as a mere metaphor, Pete goes on to remark that:

This is not in accord with Kant’s account, because Kant has a complicated transcendental machinery that establishes what objective representation is and how it can be prone to error. Inference plays an important role within this story, insofar as concepts are inferentially articulated for Kant. Precisely what I was accusing Graham of here was that he doesn’t have anything resembling this transcendental machinery (and I suspect he can’t), and something like it is necessary in order to give an adequate account of the structure of thought and the possibility of error it involves. There’s a question as to whether Graham is capable of providing anything like this given the meagre (and ontologically loaded) resources he’s given himself, and there’s a further question about whether he’d even want to, given that this would make his panpsychism far stronger than he’d like it to be (at minimum he’d definitely not want to say that all objects are capable of making inferences).

I cannot speak for Graham’s object-oriented philosophy, but only for my own onticology, but already two points are worth noting in connection to Pete’s point: First, as I already mentioned in my last post, the critique of Kant is not that Kant is mistaken, but that he is limited. What Pete refers to as Kant’s “complicated transcendental machinery” is what onticology would refer to as a particular machinery of translation. In other words, if Kant’s account of mind is fairly accurate– I’ve said that I don’t think it is, but all the same… –then onticology and object-oriented philosophy can fully integrate Kant’s account of the mind’s mechanisms of translation as depicted by Kant. In this respect, Pete is barking up the wrong tree. OOO’s thesis is not that Kant is mistaken about the nature of mind, but rather that what Kant says of mind is more or less true of all substances. Put a bit differently, Kant’s analysis of mind is system-specific and therefore fails to reach general ontology. Kant is engaged in a transcendental anthropology pertaining to how minds of the human sort translate objects. OOO’s point is that every substance has its own endo-consistency that translates the world in its own particular way. Nothing, therefore, prevents OOO from observing how observers such as minds observe or translate the world.

read on!

Second, I note that Pete repeatedly refers to questions of knowledge in terms of representation. Clearly OOO cannot embrace a representational model of knowledge of the sort that Pete seems to advocate precisely because substances withdraw and are only encountered by other objects under conditions of closure with respect to substances. It is thus curious for Pete to repeatedly pitch these questions in terms of representation, for representation refers to an adequation or mirroring between a substance and another substance. However, here, I believe, Pete’s analysis of knowledge runs afoul of the sort of scholasticism that figures such as Bourdieu have critiqued in works like Pascalian Meditations. In other words, Pete, I take it, begins from the standpoint of accomplished knowledge such as we find in a textbook, and then proceeds to ask how the contents of this textbook mirror or reflect objects in the world. This is an attitude towards knowledge that arises among academics that traffic in books rather than the production of knowledge.

From the onticological standpoint (and here I don’t know if Graham’s object-oriented philosophy is in accord with my position… Maybe he’ll speak up), knowledge is not a representation of objects, but is rather a construction and an action. In this respect, knowledge is closer to a recipe in cooking than a reflection in a mirror. A recipe does not represent a meal. It doesn’t tell you what a meal is “like”, nor does it maintain a relation of adequation to the dish. Rather, a recipe is a series of operations involving various implements and ingredients for producing something. A recipe says do this and do this and do this and you will produce this. Knowledge is thus not a representation or mirroring of something, but is a list of actions for producing a particular local manifestation. It says that if you do this, then you will produce this local manifestation.

This is one of the reasons that so much philosophical epistemology is beginning from the wrong place from the outset. Because philosophers are sedentary book readers that are dominated by the passive gaze upon objects, they think the question of knowledge is that of how a representation mirrors a state of affairs out there in the world. They then wonder how Newton’s Principia, for example, can mirror the world when the equations and laws of the Principia are so different from what we experience in the world. This is also why most philosophical epistemologies also implicitly reflect social class structures and particular ways in which society is functionally differentiated (i.e., this model of knowledge requires one to enjoy a fairly sedentary, non-productive relationship to the world, and that requires a particular class and social structure that provides people with the leisure to reflect in this particular way). However, whether we’re talking about the know-how of craftsmen such as artisans or engineers or the investigations of experimental scientists, knowledge just never takes this form. For the actual knowledge producers (rather than knowledge reporters), knowledge takes the form of a set of procedures for producing local manifestations or actualizations, a set of techniques for producing particular outcomes, a set of translations for producing certain results, rather than a set of representations.

It is for this reason that in addition to being akin to a recipe that prescribes a set of operations for producing a particular local manifestation or actualization, knowledge is a construction. Here “construction” should be taken in the most literal possible sense. “Construction” does not denote “making up whatever you like”, but rather refers to working with actual substances to produce particular local manifestations. Just as the cook is powerless to cook without kitchen equipment such as stoves, ovens, grills, various utensils, a lemon squeezer, and his ingredients, the would-be knower (supposing that he were distinct from a cook) requires his implements, his tools, his substances, and so on. The scientist is nothing without telescopes, beakers, centerfuges, ingredients, etc., etc., etc. Thus as Haraway already has observed, knowledge is always local knowledge. Knowledge is the set of procedures or operations for producing particular local manifestations under highly specified contexts. Substances could manifest themselves differently were they perturbed in different contexts by other substances and other implements. There is nothing representational here. As for the objectivity of these doings, it suffices to simply repeat the operations to determine whether they produce the same local manifestations.

This also provides the means of responding to Pete’s questions about determining the difference between translations that don’t work and those that do. Insofar as knowledge is a construction, insofar as it’s something that needs to be built, there is little difference between knowledge and a recipe that doesn’t turn out well. Poorly constructed knowledge is unable to stand or produce particular local manifestations. I’m not sure what the mystery is here. The substances fail to hold together in the production of a local manifestation. That’s all there is to it. If I don’t give a general answer then this is because the answer pertaining to norms is system or substance-specific and there are a variety of different substances. There isn’t, as I argued in my last post, one answer to this question.

In his rejoinder to my thesis that ontology precedes epistemology, Pete offers the following argument:

I just about understand your claim that metaphysics (or ontology) comes before epistemology and ground it. However, I think that this claim is false, again, as I’ve argued in the post. In short, the argument is this:-

i) If we are to be able to have a proper argument about which metaphysical position is correct, then we must be able to make explicit what we’re arguing about, i.e., we must be able to make explicit precisely what metaphysics is. Otherwise we are either talking past one another, or open to the objection that metaphysics is hopelessly confused and should therefore be abandoned.

ii) The questions regarding what metaphysics is are epistemological questions.

iii) We can’t define metaphysics in metaphysical terms without begging the question.

iv) Therefore (i, ii & iii), there must be at least some part of epistemology, sufficient to define metaphysics, that is independent of metaphysics.

v) This means that we must at least be able to legitimately discuss knowledge in non-metaphysical terms, and and any position which denies this thereby denies the possibility of adequately circumscribing metaphysics, and thus the possibility of genuine explicit metaphysical debate.

It seems to me that in this argument, Pete fundamentally fails to understand what the thesis that ontology precedes metaphysics means in this argument. The thesis that ontology precedes epistemology is the thesis that epistemology is necessarily premised on certain ontological premises of a transcendental sort if knowledge is to both be possible and experiment is to be intelligible. Put a bit differently, the point is that the world (ontology) must be a particular way for knowledge (epistemology) to be possible.

In this connection I’ve found nothing to object to in Roy Bhaskar’s early transcendental realism (it’s very odd that Wolfendale continues to refer to his position as transcendental realism in, apparently, complete ignorance and opposition (!) to Bhaskar who coined the term). If the activity of experiment is to be intelligible then certain things must be ontologically true of the world. To wit, 1) the world must be structured and differentiated, 2) it must be possible for substances to be out of phase with events they’re capable of producing, and 3) generative mechanisms or substances must be capable of operating in open systems outside the closed systems of the experimental setting without producing the events or qualities they produce in the closed systems of the experimental setting.

The first point to note is that this is a transcendental argument. However, it is not a transcendental argument about what the mind must be like to make certain judgments, but about what the world must be like for our experimental activity, nay our perception and disagreements, to be possible or intelligible. The second point to note is that this transcendental argument is about the ontology of the world, not our access to the world. It is an argument about what the world must be like, not what our minds must be like. Finally, the third point to note is that this argument does not tells us what the substances are that are capable of producing these events, but only that the world must be structured in a particular way and that it must contain substances. If Pete would like to understand this argument better and why epistemology cannot precede ontology, then he can do me the courtesy of actually reading what I’ve written on these matters rather than making scurrilous claims to the effect that I haven’t repeatedly addressed these issues. He can start here and here. At the risk of breaching blog etiquette, Pete was recently asked if he wouldn’t care to carry out this debate in a formal setting. He responded by claiming that he holds his published writing to a higher standard than his blog writing and that we just don’t have enough in common to have a debate. This raises the question of why Pete has obsessively and endlessly written lengthy posts on OOO, striving to undermine our positions, while withdrawing from any sort of serious debate with us. Perhaps Pete should take the time to determine what our arguments are, rather than treating us as fodder or matter to run through the machine of his Brandomian-Habermasian mill from afar.

Finally, earlier in his post, Pete writes:

Assuming you can provide an enlightening account of translation, you still have to explain how exactly translation can ‘fail’, as this is far from obvious. What is it that provides the normative standard for translations? Is it the withdrawn object and its unknowable real properties? If so, how do these actually constitute a standard if they are inaccessible? An inapplicable standard is no standard at all. Moreover, if the withdrawn object sets the standard, the standard cannot be to correctly represent it, as it is by definition unrepresentable, and we can’t be bound to do something we can’t achieve (ought implies can), unless this obligation is constituted out of some finite achievable obligations.

This question is not surprising coming from someone who calls his blog “Deontologist”. For Pete the issue always comes back to the issue of normativity. Personally I’ve never quite been able to understand how a philosopher can get all excited about the question of why we prefer truth to falsehood. I confess that I fail philosophically in being unable to understand this question. Worry over this question strikes me as trying to justify a commonplace, i.e., it refers us to the tautological. Additionally I confess that perhaps I’ve read too much Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan, and Marx, but I’m always suspicious whenever someone comes to me talking about norms in either the ethical sense or the more epistemological sense that Pete endorses following thinkers like Brandom. My experience is that these thinkers always seem animated by a will to power, a desire to control and master, a desire to police where they desire everyone else to follow a particular set of rules that work to their advantage. In the case of Pete this analysis isn’t so far off base, for as I noted in my last post, Pete seems to continually change the goalposts, such that if one argument doesn’t do the job, he immediately evokes another. He’d like to control what we talk about, and in his case he’d like us to talk about norms and humans. He desires a world where we all repeat his philosophy. Yet OOO, in endorsing an alien phenomenology, is more than happy to concede a number of Pete’s points but wishes to move on from these questions. Yet this isn’t merely a preference. This is a point about the nature of substances themselves. In his hegemonic desires (I imagine he’d be fun to play Risk with), Pete wishes to treat these questions as the only questions. Yet as I’ve argued within the framework of my onticology, references are always substance-specific. If Pete isn’t getting a single answer to his questions about norms then this is because there is not a single answer. Rather, we always have to ask “for which system?” and “at what point in history?”. Pete is asking for a sort of universalism that is advocated by OOO at the substance-specific level but which doesn’t arise at the cross-system level. Moreover, in Pete’s discourse I continually detect a tendency to argue from what he believes ought to be the case, rather than from what is the case. In other words, he reverses the naturalistic fallacy and attempts to derive and is from an ought. Yet I see no reason to legislate ontology by what Pete believes is required by knowledge and norms.