June 2010


An interesting discussion surrounding flat ontology and flat ethics has been brewing amidst the Bennett reading group. Scu posts some questions here, Adrian follows up, and then Scu clarifies his position here. Unfortunately I have not been able to follow the Bennett reading group as closely as I would like because of writing The Democracy of Objects which I regret given that Bennett is so close to my own heart and project. Indeed, I think my time would have been better spent last week catching up with these discussions than getting embroiled in the normativity debates as I increasingly get the feeling that the theoretical references in the normativity debates are so wide of one another that it’s difficult to have any discussion at all. In connection to the normativity debates, I worry would have to acquaint myself deeply with a pretty vast literature on these matters and likewise for my interlocutors, for much of a discussion to take place, and I get the sense that such a foray into that literature would have diminishing returns on my end. My worry with those orientations focused on normativity in the deontological sense is that they risk never end up getting off the ground. For example, while normativity broadly construed (i.e., in the non-deontological sense) is everywhere at work in Marx’s thought, my feeling is that a focus on deontology as a preliminary to the sort of analysis Marx carries out in Capital would have the effect of preventing Capital from ever being written. That is, you never get to the hard analytic work of the world in these sorts of projects because you have a conception of the preliminary as a necessity for methodological rigor that holds such projects in a constant state of deferral.

But I digress. For me one of the most difficult questions arising from the post-humanism that arises from flat ontology is the question of how it requires us to rethink the nature of the ethical and political. When we reject the centrality of the human within being, treating the human and social as two system-references among others rather than the ground of all others, what consequences follow for how we think the ethical and political? There are a couple of options we can follow here. One would be to recognize that ethical claims are inherently object or system-specific. Here we get the sort of humanism that Scu worries about as following from flat ontology. The idea here would be something like the thesis that we have recognized the contingency of the human way of relating to the world (i.e., that other objects are organized in very different ways and therefore relate to the world in very different ways), but we are, at the end of the day, human and must therefore treat all other entities according to our own organization.

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As a long time admirer of his work, I’m exceedingly excited to see that Jeffrey Bell has taken up blogging. Go check out his blog Aberrant Monism!

I forgot to respond to some of Reid’s questions about system-references in my last post. I don’t know whether Reid has been following my posts for the last few months, but I argue that objects are essentially systems. Following Maturana and Varela (though my major points of reference are Bateson, von Foerster, and especially Luhmann), I distinguish between autopoietic systems and allopoietic systems. An autopoietic machine, Maturana and Varela argue,

is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produce the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in a space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. (Autopoiesis and Cognition, 78 – 79)

Translated into English, autopoietic systems are systems that produce their own components through their own components. These systems roughly compose the domain of the living and the social, though there might be other autopoietic systems as well. By contrast, allopoietic systems are systems that are produced by something else. These systems are roughly the domain of the inanimate.

The key feature of autopoietic systems is that they are operationally closed. Operational closure refers to two things: First, it refers to the manner in which the operations of an autopoietic system only ever refer to and relate to themselves. For example, communication only ever refers to other communications. Second, it refers to the way in which a system relates to an environment. Systems do not directly relate to their environment, they do not receive information from their environment, but rather they constitute their own openness to an environment. A system can be perturbed or irritated by its environment, but the information value that this perturbation takes on is not something that was already there in the environment, but is rather constituted by the organization of the system itself. Put crudely, what counts as information for a frog can count as nothing for me, and supposing that a frog and I are perturbed by the same something in the environment, we can nonetheless produce entirely different information out of that perturbation. As such, information is always system-specific. I differ markedly from Maturana and Varela and argue that this second sense of closure (selective relations to an environment), is not unique to autopoietic systems, but is true of all objects, whether autopoietic or allopoietic (though information functions in very different ways in each case). One of the most important points here is that information is not something transmitted or exchanged between systems (sometimes we think of communication as the transmission of information that remains the same for sender and receiver). Information is system-specific and does not exist independent of the system in which it occurs. Or as Lacan (and Luhmann) liked to say, all communication is miscommunication.

Hopefully this is enough to give Reid a sense of what I’m talking about when I talk about “system-specificity” or “system-references”. The point is, that whenever we make claims we need to specify the system to which these claims pertain. We can’t generalize across systems because each system has its own internal organization and therefore relates to the world in its own specific way. As I suggested above following Luhmann, societies are themselves autopoietic systems. If this is true, we can’t make the sort of universalistic, a priori claims that a lot of transcendental philosophy would like to make. Rather, we have to analyze social structures on a case by case basis to determine 1) how they are organized and thus how they produce meaning events, 2) the specific way in which they’re open to the environment, and 3) how they evolved or developed the particular distinctions that regulate their own internal processes and relation to the environment. If this is true, certain forms of transcendental philosophy have to be excluded a priori because they illicitly generalize over very different cognitive and social systems, working on the premise that they all share the same internal structure or organization. I see this as thoroughly consistent with Marx’s understanding of values. Marx was always careful 1) to analyze the emergence of specific values in terms of particular forms of social organization, and 2) to emphasize the historical situatedness of particular values in particular social organizations. In this regard, values for Marx aren’t merely “instantiated” in particular material conditions as Reid seems to suggest, but rather are products or inventions of particular social forms not unlike evolution is the invention of new species and forms of life.

In order to discuss systems we have to engage in second-order observation, observing how other systems observe their environment, rather than working naively from the premise that we observe the world in the same way. In a number of respects, this is precisely the problem with more traditional transcendental approaches. Although they attempt to self-referentially take the organization of the observer into account by analyzing the transcendental structure of mind, they nonetheless don’t take the additional self-referential step of recognizing that they observe differently than other systems and therefore end up illicitly generalizing one transcendental structure to all subjects, rather than recognizing that the world is populated by an infinite plurality of transcendental structures not unlike Leibniz’s monads. The problem, then, is that while there might be an “a priori” (note the square quotes), this “a priori” is always system-specific and can’t be generalized across systems. And since autopoietic systems are evolving systems that each have a contingent history and a contingent organization, we can’t generalize a priori structures across cognitive systems or social systems, but have to look at systems in their specificity like good Lacanians who recognize that there’s no general structure of mind or good neurologists who recognize that each brain develops differently.

I’ve written about autopoiesis quite a bit lately, and have been writing about Luhmann for years. In my view, one of the major failings of contemporary social and political thought is that it fails to take into account the operational closure of systems and therefore doesn’t even raise the question of how to communicate with a social system to change it when that system is closed by virtue of being organized by its own distinctions. This question has been one of the oldest and longest running themes on this blog. Moreover, I’m surprised that more Lacanians haven’t raised similar questions given Lacan’s theory of interpretation and the challenges facing interpretation or the analytic act when dealing with an autopoietically closed analysand. At any rate, if Reid is interested he can read more about systems here, here, here, and here, or he can do a search for Luhmann on this blog.

Reid has written a lengthy post on the role that normativity plays in Marx’s thought, responding some claims I recently made over at Jon Cogburn’s blog. I’ve learned a lot from these discussions, so I think they’ve been particularly valuable. At the outset, before any discussion can proceed, I think it’s important to note that Reid has significantly mischaracterized my position or view of these matters. I am not attributing any malice to Reid here, but am drawing attention to the fact that the discussion over at Cogburn’s blog unfolded between very different understandings of normativity.

The remark that seems to have inspired Reid’s post was my claim that Marx says precious little about normativity. One of things that I learned from the discussion over at Cogburn’s blog is that I have been using the term normativity in a far narrower sense than that used by many who focus on issues of normativity. When this is taken into account, I can see why Reid would find my assertion jaw dropping. I’ll get to this in a moment, but I wanted to provide the context for my discussion with Reid. Over at Cogburn’s blog, I had written that,

No, I was not claiming that *Pete* was guilty of these things. I was making an honest observation about my reaction to discourses about norms. I find them suffocating and claustrophobic and feel that they contain a crypto-fascist dimension that I find highly suspect. Drawing on Deleuze’s account of Nietzsche, I wonder what the sense of these discourses is, or what sort of *desire* animates them. In my view, they are animated by a desire to police and control. Needless to say, I don’t think that philosophy is co-extensive with a discourse on norms, and I also feel that those philosophies that are dominated by discourses on norms barely deserve the title of philosophy. This, of course, is a matter of taste and pertains to what I believe good philosophies do. Good philosophies, in my view, create work for people *outside* of philosophy. This could be the genesis of research projects for *other* disciplines, or it could be influence in the various arts and political activism. Measured by this criteria, norm driven philosophies have had almost nil impact on the world.

To my remarks about the influence that norm driven philosophies have had in the history of philosophy, Reid responded by remarking that,

I’m curious because to my knowledge, the tradition of philosophical concern with normativity, at least since Rousseau and Kant, has been very explicitly concerned with how to maintain a substantive notion of freedom, what is or is not a legitimate basis of authority, how to conduct elevate the political from the realm of force to that of reason, and how to base politics on genuinely egalitarian principles. In short, it has been explicitly concerned with themes that are about as anti-fascistic as you can get. The passion for control is only a passion for self-control, for a freedom to determine oneself free from the control of others.

I also would like to hear why you don’t think philosophies of normativity deserve the title, especially since philosophy has historically distinguished itself as a discipline through its concern with truth, reason, the good, the right, the just, etc, all of which are normative concepts. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that philosophy is an essentially normative enterprise.

Saying that “norm driven philosophies have had almost nil impact on the world”, measured by your criteria of the contributions they make to extra-philosophical disciplines and activities, is simply incorrect. Political practice, for example, is as much a normative affair as a strategic one. Without concerns as to what we should collectively strive to accomplish, how to recognize others as political agents, what responsibilities come along with political inclusion, etc, politics would be reduced to a purely logistical matter of administration and management. And indeed, political philosophy has had a tremendous influence on the various shapes collective determination has taken over the centuries. This is not to say it is the decisive element, as it is only one ingredient in the public processes of organizing genuinely collective, and hence political, projects; but to claim it has had no influence is to hyperbolically understate its role. The same could be said of philosophies of law, of science (moreso in the 17th through 19th centuries than today, but nevertheless), of mathematics, of art, etc. Philosophy has in each case, at varying point in history, had a very influential role in the decision of what it is to engage in these endeavors, what a legitimate or valuable contribution to these fields is, etc, and these are definitely normative questions.

In reviewing this exchange, the question to ask is in what context do our respective claims about normativity make sense? My claim makes sense if we work on the premise that discourses of normativity refer to something highly specific: Kant’s deontological moral theory, and those deeply influenced by Kant’s deontological moral theory such as Habermas and Brandom. If normativity is understood as a synonym for this style of thought, I think my claim is perfectly valid. I just don’t see that thinkers such as this have had much impact on the arts, science, activist political movement (Habermas has had a lot of influence among administrators), etc. It’s difficult, for example, to imagine a Habermasian or Brandomian architecture, while other figures such as Deleuze have had tremendous influence on a variety of arts, and even in both the physical and social sciences.

By contrast, Reid’s rejoinder to my claim makes sense if Reid is not using the term “normativity” to refer specifically to value theories coming out of Kant, but to any discussions of value whatsoever. If this is what “normativity” means, then Reid is quite right to be shocked when I say that Marx does not have much to say about normativity precisely because Marx talks about values all over the the place. Over at Cogburn’s blog I explicitly stated (a couple of times) that I had been taking normativity to be synonymous with Kant style deontological ethics, so I’m somewhat surprised that Reid is attempting to demonstrate to me that Marx has an important place for values within his thought. But perhaps I’m misconstruing what Reid is arguing, as he also seems to be claiming that Marx advocates a deontological moral theory in his thought.

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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.

It appears that I’m having trouble falling asleep this evening, which isn’t good as I have to be up early. In response to my last post, Tom of Grundledung was kind enough to remind me of a post I wrote nearly a year ago on the issue of normativity. On the one hand, I’m pleased by this post as it seems that my thoughts have been fairly consistent on these issues since they last flared up. On the other hand, as I review Tom and Pete’s comments, I find myself even more perplexed and wonder if we aren’t just talking about entirely distinct issues (i.e., talking past one another).

In a passage I quote in the post from last year, Pete writes:

I think the best point that can be made here is that there is more to normativity than ethical normativity. There is at least also rational normativity, which is prior to, and a necessary condition of, anything like ethical normativity. I would claim that it is indeed impossible to coherently deny the force of rational normativity. Regardless of the specific content of the fundamental norms of rationality (though we could suggest, for instance, the obligation to divest oneself of incompatible commitments), one must acknowledge that if one is engaged in an argument, then one is bound by norms which determine how the argument should take place, and that they are the same norms that one’s interlocutor is bound by. To put it another way, one may at time make claims like ‘well, I just use the word ‘justice” differently from you, but one cannot claim ‘I just argue differently than you do’.

This fact testifies to the binding character of certain fundamental norms that we implicitly acknowledge insofar as we engage in discourse at all. Some, myself included, think that this provides the possibility of a foundational approach in philosophy, in which deontology is indeed prior to ontology, grounded in that which none of us can deny insofar as we want to say anything at all. Whether or not such fundamental deontology can be extended beyond the theoretical into the realm of the practical and thus the ethical (as discourse ethicists like Habermas and Apel have attempted) is another matter.

I find myself grumbling a bit at Pete’s these that argument is necessarily grounded in certain norms. While I share with Pete a commitment to the principle of non-contradiction and identity, I also believe that we should look to rhetoric and how real life arguments function when raising this sort of question. The rhetoricians, I think, would have a very different perspective on this issue. With that said, I’m willing to follow him here.

For me the problems emerge when Pete asserts that deontology (and again, is this a specific Kantian reference or is “deontology” being used in a broader sense with which I’m not familiar) is indeed prior to ontology. What exactly is being claimed or asserted here? Is Pete making the claim that certain normative commitments are prior to inquiry, or is Pete making the claim that normativity is prior to being. These two claims are very different and have very different implications. If the former, then I don’t think the speculative realist, of whatever stripe, really has much of a dispute with Pete. Such a thesis doesn’t, I would think, commit one to correlationism or undermine realism. The realist here, I think, can simply shrug his or her shoulders and say “sure, there are norms that govern inquiry.”

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Over at Jon Coburn’s blog, we have been having an interesting and productive discussion about normativity that has, I believe, clarified (at least for me) a number of issues and helped to define some basic differences. Apart from some brief moments of ugliness that led to an unexpected and very welcome burying of the hatchet between Mikhail and I, the comments accompanying this post are, I think, a good read. I had been working under the impression that normativity was synymous with deontological ethics (no doubt because it’s only ever people deeply influenced by Kant that I hear raising issues about normativity as a cornerstone to theory), but I’ve been disabused of this notion and assured that it refers to something far broader. I outline some of my own problems with Kantian deontological approaches to ethical questions, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Pete Wolfendale has promised to write a post about this, which I very much look forward to as I’ve found myself perplexed for years as to just what all the ruckus is about and why it’s considered so important to those coming primarily out of the Frankfurt School (here it’s important to qualify that Pete tackles these issues not so much from the Frankfurt School perspective, but from the Brandomian perspective).

Over the course of discussion, one of the claims that was made by “anonymous” is that discussions of normativity are primarily about the metaphysics of meaning. As anonymous puts it,

The problem, so far as I see it, is that this very discussion — the one you want to have about normativity — can’t even get off the ground until we all realize that normative ethics isn’t a metaethics, that a metaethics is not coextensive with normativity, and normativity is largely an issue concerning the METAPHYSICS OF MEANING, the basic nature of rationality, and a structuring feature of our shared world. It is, as Jon pointed out precisely Humes problem concerning the medium of imperceptible necessary connections.

Pete very quickly followed this up, qualifying anonymous’ suggestion, emphasizing that it is about “the metaphysics of meaning or lack thereof” and that normativity pertain to discussions about correctness and incorrectness.

Now, it seems to me, coming at these issues from my Luhmannian perspective, that the concept of meaning is necessarily more basic and primordial than either notions of correctness and incorrectness, or issues of rationality. From an object-oriented standpoint, one of the reasons I’m attracted to Luhmann’s systems theory is that it emphasizes the autonomy and independence of systems, along with their closure. While systems do enter into relations with other systems, these relations are external and systems are independent entities.

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