Wolfendale has posted his second discussion of onticology here. Just a few brief points:

1. Translation. Pete writes:

He thinks that my claim is something like: we must in each particular case be able know what is being translated in order for the notion of translation to make sense. He then claims that this argument illegitimately places epistemological criteria on a metaphysical point, and that the whole point of translation is that we can’t know what something is like prior to translation.

I think Pete here mischaracterizes my point here. My point wasn’t about understanding translation or whether or not we can know something prior to translation. My point was that insofar as translation is a metaphysical process, the issue of whether anyone knows or understands translation is irrelevant to whether translation is taking place. This should have been clear from my example of how a plant translates sunlight transforming it into chlorophyll. A translation takes place here, but I suspect that the plant has no “understanding” or “knowledge” of sunlight.

Pete goes on to remark that,

This is not the claim I made though. My claim was that we must have a general understanding of what is being translated in order for the notion of translation to make sense. We must be able to make sense of the very idea of direct contact between entities in order to make sense of the very idea that they can only encounter one another indirectly. I take the last post to have shown why the ‘translation’ of perturbations into information, and of information into system states, doesn’t provide us with the resources to think such directness in general, and thus why all talk of indirect access is at best metaphorical. This has nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with the coherence of metaphysical concepts.

I don’t think I’m in disagreement here, but I also think this is a rather trivial point. I’m not sure how closely Pete has been following my posts, but he might recall that I have been making a lot of the distinction between first-order and second-order observation. It will be remembered that within the framework I’m drawing on, no indications are possible without there first being a distinction. Once a distinction is drawn, it now becomes possible to observe or indicate something within the marked space of that distinction. Among the interesting features of first-order observation is that the distinction that allows the indication or observation to take place becomes invisible while it is being used.

read on!

Second-order, by contrast, observes how another system or object observes. Where first-order observation observes something else in the world, second-order observation observes how another observer observes the world. Additionally we can reflect on the distinctions that we employ to observe the world. In observing how an observer observes the world, we’re observing the distinctions that observer employs to make observations. The relevance of the distinction between first and second-order observation is that the latter allows us to account for the thesis that entities translate the world. In other words, it allows us to observe how perturbations are transformed in the process of being observed and thus translated. This sort of observation is based on observing how the perturbation becomes something else when it enters into the system. In other words, it is premised on an idea or model of what direct contact would be.

2. Relations. Pete expresses some worries about how OOO talks about relations. Pete writes:

Before clarifying this further, I’ve got to address a terminological issue that’s been bugging me. I find that in many of the debates surrounding OOO, regarding the thesis that objects are independent of their relations to other objects, that the term ‘relation’ gets used in too narrow a fashion. Of course, it’s obvious that knowledge, perception, and causation can be understood in relational terms: ‘x knows y’ (or preferably, ‘x knows y about z’, or ‘x knows that P’), ‘x perceives y’ (which is distinct from ‘x perceives that p’), ‘x causes y’ (where x and y are events). Despite the differences between Levi and Graham, I think that OOO collapses these three different relations into one metaphysical category. Following phenomenology, knowledge gets understood primarily in terms of perceptual knowledge (i.e., perceiving that), and then perception and causation get collapsed into one another, insofar as all perception involves causation.

I really don’t see that this is the case. Rather, I think the issues Pete raises are questions for regional ontology. When we shift from general ontology to regional ontology the sorts of relations we’re talking about can be further specified and clarified. However, general ontology should speak of objects at the most general possible level, leaving room for these specifications to be made.

Pete goes on to remark:

Now, I have a problem with the priority given to perceptual knowledge here, insofar as it tends to ignore knowledge gained by non-perceptual means (such as testimony and inference), as it seems like there is nothing analogous to a causal interaction with the object of knowledge in these cases.

I have no problems with this observation, though again, I believe this is an issue for regional ontology. In other words, I don’t think there’s anything about OOO that restricts us to treating knowledge in terms of perceptual knowledge or that requires us to ignore forms of knowledge pertaining to things like testimony and inference.

As Pete continues:

Leaving this issue aside though, what’s been bugging me is that there are relations that aren’t amenable to description in these kinds of terms. For instance, their are relations such as ‘x is to the left of y’, ‘x is taller than y’, and ‘x is the brother of y’ that don’t seem to involve anything like an interaction between the related objects. If this is the case, then it makes no sense to talk about the excess of one object over the other in terms of either knowledge or access. I’m not here denying that objects are independent of these relations – it seems relatively sensible to maintain that the fact that I’m to the left of my bookcase does not say anything important about me – just that the two halves of withdrawal (independence and excess) seem to pull apart here.

I think Graham’s rejoinder here, and I would agree with him on this, is that when we talk about objects in this way we’re still focusing on particular predicates (pertaining to height and location) while a host of other predicates fall into the background. To be sure, this isn’t a point about interactions among objects, but nonetheless revolves around phenomena of withdrawal.

3. Meaning. Pete expresses some perplexity over Luhmann’s theory of meaning. One thing I haven’t sufficiently emphasized in my early posts discussing Luhmann’s theory of meaning is that meaning is not something that something, say a proposition, has but is an event or happening that takes place. Meaning is an occurrence. Moreover, it is an occurrence that must be produced again and again. This has to do with Luhmann’s autopoietic theory of psychic systems and social systems. Within this framework, such systems only exist so long as there are ongoing events in the system. For example, Luhmann treats social systems as communications systems. These systems only exist so long as communication continues. Consequently, each social system faces the question of how to produce the next communication event. In this respect, agreement is not necessarily the most functional solution to the problem of how to stave off entropy and ensure that the system continues precisely because agreement tends to lead to a dissipation of communication. It’s always necessary to find something else to say. In many cases, disagreement, paradox, conflict, etc., are far more productive in enabling a social system to continue its existence.

Here we can see that Luhmann thinks of utterances in a very different way than Pete with respect to his focus on truth and correctness. Just as disagreement and paradox can be more functional in allowing ongoing communication to continue and therefore in perpetuating the autopoiesis of the social system, likewise incorrectness provides far more opportunity for ongoing autopoiesis than correctness. Please note, in making these observations, I’m doing just that: making observations. I am not making normative claims about what we ought to do, but claims about how social systems actually function. As it turns out, normative claims themselves, when self-reflexively articulated (rather than unconsciously used) turn out to be pretty effective in promoting the ongoing autopoiesis of social systems. Whenever someone attempts to articulate a normative principle with precision, all sorts of people speak up and contest that claim and new communication events are generated.

Now there’s a reason for this. With each meaning-event we get a splitting of the potential and the actual, such that the actual continues to refer to other excluded possibilities while nonetheless excluding them. These excluded possibilities can themselves be actualized in subsequent communicative acts, and indeed this is exactly what takes place. Someone, for example, attempts to engage in a second-order evocation of norms governing practice and others chime in defending the excluded possibilities.

A good example of this occurred this morning right here on this blog (and since I’m often making wild and crazy normative claims, it often happens here on this blog). Mikhail had asked me what I think dogmatic thought is. With my response, among other things, I had suggested that it is dogmatic to believe that we can deduce the existence of any particular entity. In response, Mikhail made the very nice observation that physicists often deduce the existence of particles. I had proposed a norm or criteria for dogmatism that excluded certain things, Mikhail re-actualized those excluded possibilities in evoking the example of particles deduced in physics. My evocation of the norm didn’t generate agreement, but rather generated additional communication events. Moreover, when I respond to Mikhail yet another communication event will have been generated.

In the course of his remarks about meaning, Pete makes an important observation:

despite indicating that this broad notion of meaning can be used to provide an account of how systems communicate with one another (even if such communication is fundamentally always miscommunication), he doesn’t provide a solid account of how this works (e.g., how something like linguistic meaning can be derived from experiential meaning). In short, we’re not given an account of what would distinguish something like a communicative meaning event from a non-communicative one. He does talk about Luhmann’s problem of ‘double contingency’ in relation to this, which he explains is a matter of how individuals can develop expectations about each other’s expectations. However, I find this discussion strange because it doesn’t say anything about how anything like a shared apparatus of meaning plays a role in structuring communication (such as the role das Man plays in Heidegger’s norm based account). This apparatus is what is supposed to provide the possibility that the same event could have the same meaning but different information on the basis of structuring the individual’s grasp of their possibilities for action, but he doesn’t relate this to the ‘double contingency’ problem at all. Then again, we haven’t been told what this apparatus is, and thus how it could play such a role.

First, I beg Pete to be charitable in his interpretations of what can and cannot be accounted for in this framework as he needs to recall that I am giving a very brief summary of a very complicated theory of meaning. Luhmann’s discussions of meaning are extremely elaborate and detailed. I can’t go into all the details here, just as Pete can’t give all the details of Brandom’s massive Making Things Explicit. The best I can do is give some indicators of what that theory of meaning is, pardon the pun, about. Consequently, I hope that Pete isn’t taking cheap shots by saying “such and such doesn’t account for x” simply because it doesn’t discuss such issues in the context of a two thousand word blog post.

Setting this aside, I think we really get to an important difference between our respective theories of meaning when Pete speaks of the necessity of a shared apparatus of meaning such as Heidegger’s das Man. Pete’s emphasis seems to lie on the existence of meaning that is already available. This comes through in his emphasis on understanding as well. There are a few of points worth making here. First, social and psychic systems are systems characterized by redundancy and memory. These dimensions are deeply intertwined with one another. Memory, for example, allows something like das Man to be built up within a social system. Moreover, we shouldn’t think of memory as something only existing in the form of human memory. For example, the invention of writing and various forms of recording, significantly changes the “das Man” of a society and its potentials for being irritated or perturbed by an environment. Oral cultures, for example, find that they just aren’t able to notice certain changes in their environment because they have no baseline for what that environment was once like. In this connection, we might wonder what the people of Easter Island could have possibly been thinking when they cut down the last palm tree on their island. What we forget here is that the clearing of palm trees on Easter Island took many decades, perhaps centuries, and that the people of Easter Island, as far as we know, only had oral histories. What you get in this situation is what Jared Diamond calls “the slow creep of normalcy, not unlike a frog boiling to death when the water is heated to boiling very slowly. The point is that this culture, by virtue of being an oral culture, did not have the shared “das Man” or memory that would allow these environmental changes to resonate for them as significant or informative.

The second point I want to make is that what Pete refers to as a shared apparatus is, at best, a historical a priori, not an a priori as such. It is a perpetually moving target and something that is built by the people that use it. This underlines, I think, a major difference between how Pete and I approach questions of meaning. Pete seems to treat meaning as an already shared space. I treat shared meaning as something that has to be achieved again and again. Shared meaning is not something there at the outset, but is something that is produced along the way. It is emergent rather than anterior. Pete and I, for example, are engaging in such a process at this very moment in our communicative interactions. There aren’t really any shared norms between us at the outset, rather these are something that we produce along the way as we specify terms, legitimate forms of argument, etc., etc., etc. I think discourses that evoke the priority of norms put the cart before the horse in this regard.

A third point is methodological. I worry that Pete’s intellectual influences and his own tendency to focus on issues of correctness and incorrectness, truth and falsity, rationality and irrationality, etc., proceed in a way that I think is methodologically misguided. Here I suspect that if we really wish to understand things like meaning we should focus not on normal cases, but rather pathological cases. It’s been a long time since I looked at Making it Explicit, but I wonder, is there an extended discussion of Finnegan’s Wake in there? What about the speech of schizophrenics? What’s interesting in these cases is that they thoroughly violate norms of correctness but still produce all sorts of effects of meaning. How they produce effects of meaning and the variety of effects they produce give us, I think, important insight into the nature of meaning. The point isn’t that we should start imitating James Joyce, but that these sorts of texts give us insight into how meaning works and what it “is”.

4. Representation. Pete raises a number of interesting points about representation in his post, some of which are well worth taking to heart. For example, I think he makes a good point when he emphasizes that experimental findings are not to be restricted to the context of the experimental setting, but are to be findings that extend beyond that setting. I’ll have to clarify my views on this on another occasion, though I’m broadly in agreement with Pete here and did overgeneralize. As for Pete’s remarks about intentionality, I’m not particularly worried not because I don’t agree with him, but because I believe these are matters of regional ontology specific to entities capable of relating to the world in terms of intentionality. In this regard, nothing prevents me from holding that different types of objects have system-specific capacities.

These points of agreement aside, I don’t think Pete quite gets what I’m objecting to with respect to the term “representation”. Pete couches his discussions of knowledge in terms of representation. Like anything else, this is a distinction and as a distinction it is a distinction that has an unmarked side or blind-spot. Our choice of words matters and influences how we think and what we see in a variety of ways. I think this is the case with the term “representation”.

Pete talks a lot about propositions and propositional content in his discussions of knowledge. I think this way of talking structures epistemological questions in particular ways that are highly detrimental. I pick up a book laying beside me, Bruce Fink’s Clinical Introduction to Psychoanalysis and open it at random. I read “Foreclosure involves the radical rejection of a particular element from the symbolic order (that is, from language), and not just any element: it involves the element that in some sense grounds or anchors the symbolic order as a whole” (79). Presumably this is a proposition. I now wonder, is this true or isn’t it? Additionally, I wonder how I can know whether or not it is true or what sorts of reasons I can provide for its truth. Presumably I would articulate other propositions to answer this question.

So what are my problems with this. First, in its focus on textual reports of knowledge, I think such ways of thinking about epistemology tend to push practice out of the picture. I now walk into my study and grab my copy of Making it Explicit off the bookcase. I glance at the table of contents. I notice that Brandom has all sorts of things to say about propositions, norms, discursivity, semantics, inference, representation, and so on. Chapter 1.3 talks about norms implicit in practice and chapter 3 talks about linguistic practices. But where is the detailed discussion of practices or actual engagement with the world? Would we get a detailed discussion of what takes place in the Lacanian clinic in talking about whether Fink’s proposition meets the criteria of knowledge? Were we talking about the knowledge of cooks, would we get a detailed discussions of the instruments, ingredients, and procedures he uses?

I don’t think so. So this is my first problem with the term “representation”. At the level of meaning, representation immediately tends to evoke the idea of thoughts in a person’s head and contemplation. These connotations of the term “representation” tend to channel questions of epistemology in a direction where 1) it is propositions or mental contents that are treated as most important where questions of knowledge are concerned, and 2) where practice disappears from the picture or is treated as a mere set of engineering procedures and problems that we can dispense with once we get the finished product. I think this leads to all sorts of bad epistemology.

Second, I think talk of propositions and representations tends to push questions of epistemology in an individualistic direction where questions of knowledge are questions of how a mind maps on to the world. My hunch is that this poses the question of knowledge at the wrong level from the outset, because knowledge isn’t an individual thing but is a collective affair where knowers have to be constructed through special training, where they inherit knowledge from prior generations, and where they work together in producing knowledge. A good deal of this and its significance seems occluded in many epistemological discussions.

When I think about questions of epistemology, my primary focus isn’t on questions of correctness or incorrectness or truth and falsehood– though these are important as well –but on questions of how knowledge is produced. In other words, I think there needs to be far more focus on knowledge production or learning than on propositions. I just don’t see this in Pete’s discussions of knowledge.