I’m a little over a quarter of the way through Pete’s epic Essay on Transcendental Realism (warning pdf), but am finding it quite good so far. Often it’s the case that half the struggle in philosophy revolves around philosophers trying to understand one another. We come from different backgrounds, have different key references, use language in different ways and, as a consequence, often end up talking past one another. As I read Pete’s account of his own transcendental realism it sounds remarkably close to my own style of argumentation in defense of onticology that defended on the grounds of transcendental realism alone.

One of the sticking points seems to be a difference in how we articulate ourselves. I make the claim that ontology precedes epistemology. Pete wants to make the claim that epistemology precedes ontology and that if we are to arrive at a realist theory of being we need to do so through epistemology and prior to ontology (11). Here I think we’re talking past one another. Pete writes,

For [his] transcendental realism, the structure of the world is sense-dependent upon the structure of thought, but the dependence is not reciprocal. This looks strange, until one realises that understanding the structure of thought is a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding the structure of the world. In short, one must understand the structure of thought in order to understand what it would be to give a proper account of the real structure of the world. (11)

Pete defines sense dependency a bit earlier, writing that “[c]oncept P is sense dependent upon concept Q just in case one cannot count as having grasped P unless one counts as grasping Q” (9). For example, I cannot understand what a fork is without understanding eating. Pete’s point is that we must first understand the structure of thought in order to understand the structure of the world. However, if I understand him correctly, this relation isn’t reciprocal in that the world, nonetheless, is not dependent on the structure of thought.

The key point Pete seems to center on pertains to a structure of consciousness he draws from Hegel (here I wonder how far he’s willing to go with Hegel). Pete writes:

1) Consciousness relates itself to its object, or takes its object to be a certain way. What this means, is that it makes a claim about its objects.

2) Consciousness distinguishes between its relating (or its claim) and the object as it is in itself. In essence, consciousness allows for the possibility of error. (12)

In other words, the distinction between how we represent the object and what the object is in-itself is built into thought. Pete refers to this as “attitude independence”: “Something is in-itself if the way it is is independent of the way we take it to be” (13). Already we can sense that Pete is taking on– rightly, in my view –Meillassoux’s characterization of correlationism. Meillassoux sees the problem of correlation as residing in the fact that thought must relate to being to think it. The question for Meillassoux then becomes that of how we can escape the relation to thought to think the thing itself. I’ve always been dissatisfied with this formulation as it seems to render the problem of knowledge irresolvable. How can we know anything without relating to it? Certainly it isn’t the mere fact of relating to things to know them that Meillassoux is contesting in Kant.

Pete’s argument is remarkably close to Bhaskar’s argument for transcendental realism. Bhaskar begins from the premise that in our sciences we engage in experimental activity and that when we engage in experimental activity we create closed systems in which to observe things (he also has a similar argument about perception, but I’ll set that aside). Having observed this, Bhaskar asks why we engage in this curious activity. Bhaskar’s thesis is that this activity is only intelligible if generative mechanisms or objects behave differently in open and closed systems. In open systems, Bhaskar contends, objects or generative mechanisms can be operative without producing certain events due to the intervention of other objects or generative mechanisms. Likewise, in open systems, generative mechanisms can be present in open systems without being active at all.

This basic observation gives us the rationale behind experimental activity. We engage in experimental activity because we work on the premise that we must create closed conditions to trigger the events of which generative mechanisms or objects are capable. If our experimental activity is to be intelligible, certain things must be true of the world. It must be possible for objects to be active in open systems without producing the events of which they are capable (Hume-Kant are wrong to conceive causality as a constant conjunction of events), and the world must be structured and differentiated. Why must it be structured and differentiated? Because if it weren’t we couldn’t create closed systems in which to trigger events. Now while Pete’s argument and this argument initially appear very different, they both work with the same premise that Pete describes as “attitude independence” or the difference between how an object is given and what an object is in-itself (local manifestation and virtual proper being), and are contingent on the possibility of error.

Now why do I describe this argument as the thesis that ontology precedes epistemology rather than epistemology precedes ontology? After all, with Bhaskar I am beginning from the standpoint of knowledge and what is required for our knowledge. The reason behind this can be illuminated in terms of what Pete refers to as Brandom’s “deflationary realism” (which, incidentally, Pete rejects and which I don’t think can be characterized as a realism by any stretch of the imagination). Pete summarizes this deflationary realism through three points:

1) The world is all that is the case, or the totality of what is true. This is the same definition of the world with which Wittgenstein opens the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

2) Thought is just the rational process through which we update and revise what we take to be true.

3) The concept of the world is reciprocally sense dependent upon the concept of thought. This means that one cannot understand the structure of the world without understanding the structure of this rational process, or vice versa.

The problem arises with the very first thesis. Assuming that when Pete refers to the world as the totality of what is true he is referring to propositions about the world known to be true, we see how this thesis renders inquiry thoroughly unintelligible. Inquiry is premised on the existence of substances, objects, or generative mechanisms that we don’t yet know and which therefore we don’t yet have true propositions about. If the world were the totality of true propositions or, with Quine, we hold that reality or existence is nothing more than existential quantification, then we are undermining the reason we engage in inquiry in the first place. For the whole ground of inquiry resides in the premise or transcendental condition that objects or substances exist that have not yet been quantified over in any way. In other words, inquiry is premised on an ontological condition and this ontological condition is prior to any knowledge we have of any specific entities. I’ve never heard Pete address this argument or state where he stands with respect to it, even though I’ve repeated it endlessly. Then again, I’m not very good at keeping up with Pete’s blog.

As an aside, I think philosophers really need to relinquish situating epistemological questions in terms of things like thought, propositions, and perhaps even knowledge. This sort of terminology suggests far too passive a relation to knowledge and invites metaphors of specularity or mirroring. Instead, we should focus on knowledge practices or what people actually do in producing knowledge. The problem with thought is that it cuts all of those practices out of the story at the outset, as if they can safely be ignored and we can just talk about consciousness, thought, representations, and proposition. I think a number of problems in epistemology are just poorly posed because of this tendency. It might sound strange to say that we should relinquish talk of knowledge in epistemology. However, my point here is that we should instead talk about inquiry. Knowledge has connotations of factoids you look up in an encyclopedia. The concept of inquiry gets at the real work involved in producing knowledge. Philosophers, in their way of talking about knowledge, seem strangely disdainful of the practices that actual knowledge-producers use in producing knowledge. We seem to like the results of that inquiry while simultaneously treating the process of inquiry as philosophically insignificant.