Anti-Realism


Over at Cogburn’s blog I noted that there’s a debate brewing over whether or not Kant advocates the thesis that we can know things-in-themselves. Of course, Kant’s thesis is that things-in-themselves exist, but that we can never have knowledge of them. Consequently, any knowledge we do have only applies to appearances or phenomena, or how things are given to us. Whether things exist in this way apart from us, the Kantian contends, is something we can never know. For example, things-in-themselves might be merely “thing-in-itself”, or a single unitary being without discrete entities. Sometimes it’s suggested that while Kant is a transcendental idealist, he is also an empirical realist. From the thesis that Kant is an empirical realist, it is then argued that Kant endorses the existence of the objects discovered by science as things-in-themselves. This severely misconstrues what Kant means by “empirical realism”. Let’s have a look:

I understand by the transcendental idealism of all appearances the doctrine that they are all together to be regarded as mere representations and not things in themselves, and accordingly that space and time are only sensible forms of our intuition, but not determinations given for themselves or conditions of objects as things in themselves. To this idealism is opposed transcendental realism, which regards space and time as something given in themselves (independent of our sensiblity). The transcendental realist therefore represents outer appearances (if their reality is conceded) as things in themselves, which would exist independently of us and our sensibility and thus would also be outside us according to pure concepts of the understanding. (CPR, A369)

Having carefully distinguished between transcendental idealism and transcendental realism, Kant then goes on to introduce the concept of empirical realism:

The transcendental idealist, on the contrary, can be an empirical realist, hence, as he is called, a dualist, i.e., he can concede the existence of matter without going beyond mere self-consciousness and assuming something more than the certainty of representations in me, hence the cogito ergo sum. For because he allows this matter and even its inner possibility to be valid only for appearance– which, separated from our sensibility, is nothing –matter for him is only a species of representations (intuition), which are call external, not as if they related to objects that are external in themselves but because they relate perceptions to space, where all things are external to one another, but that space itself is in us. (A370)

All “empirical realism” means for Kant is that objects (in the Kantian sense, i.e., as opposed to things) appear in space. However, here we must recall that for Kant, space is not something that belongs to things-in-themselves, but rather issues from mind as the form of intuition. Whether or not things-in-themselves are spatial is, for Kant, something we can never know. Clearly, then, Kant’s empirical realism is certainly know metaphysical realism about objects in space. Whether the world in-itself is anything like the world we know is, for Kant, something that we can never know. The claim that Kant was an empirical realist is not a rejoinder to the sorts of charges the speculative realists are leveling against correlationism.

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In comments Cogburn writes:

This is probably goofy, but I’ve been trying to situate you and Graham with respect to each other (I’m just now coming out of a philosophical hiatus of new baby inspired sleep deprivation, and really happy to be thinking about Speculative Realism).

Is this fair? A workable credo for a lot of Graham’s work is “The carpentry of perception is only a special case of the carpentry of things” (from Guerrilla Metaphysics), whereas your work might be “The carpentry of reference is only a special case of the carpentry of things.” Both of you are taking relations that are representational and at the intersection of mind and world, and showing in detail how these things to be instances of broader relations that are already there in the world. But you tend to do this more with respect to linguistic relations and Graham with perceptual ones.

This hadn’t occurred to me, though it certainly makes sense given our respective backgrounds (I’m heavily steeped in the linguistic turn and semiotics). I’d have to hear more about just what Cogburn has in mind when he talks about the carpentry of reference being a special case of the carpentry of things. In the linguistic turn as developed in Continental thought, discussions of reference are almost entirely absent. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that while Anglo-American thought, in many instances, revolved around questions of word to world, Continental thought– and I’m thinking primarily of the French) –was obsessed with the relation of word to word, i.e., diacritical relations where terms take on signifiance as a consequence their relation to other terms. Under this model talk of reference disappears almost entirely, being treated as a mere effect of these diacritical relations (viz., the referent itself becomes an effect of these differential relations between signifiers). I don’t think I’m suggesting anything like this about objects, but I’d have to think about it.

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Within the framework of onticology I’ve had difficulty articulating just what I have in mind by the concept of a “flat ontology”. The term “flat ontology” is, of course, derived from the work of Manuel DeLanda. In Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy DeLanda describes flat ontology thus:

…while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. (47)

For DeLanda, then, flat ontology signifies an ontology in which there is only one ontological “type”: individuals. Thus for DeLanda the relationship between species and organism is not a relationship between the universal or essence that is eternal and unchanging and the particular or the organism as an instance of the species. Rather, both species and organisms are individuals that are situated in time and space. If species are not eternal essences or forms defining what is common to all particulars of that species, if they exist in space and time, then this is because species, as conceived by biology are not types but rather are really existing reproductive populations located in a particular geography at a particular point in time. For DeLanda, then, being is composed entirely of individuals.

While I find much that is commendable in DeLanda’s ontology, where the sorts of entities that populate being are concerned, I’m a bit more circumspect. At present I’m not ready to throw in with DeLanda and the thesis that there are only individuals. I am agnostic on the question of whether universals exist, and my intuitions strongly lean in the Platonic direction of treating numbers as real objects in their own right that have being independent of human minds. If this is the case, if numbers are real, then I have a difficult time seeing how they can be treated as individuals in the sense that DeLanda intends and, moreover, I do not think that the genetic concerns that preoccupy DeLanda are relevant to questions of number, i.e., a genetic account of how numbers come to be– if, in fact, they do come to be and are not eternal objects –does not get at what numbers are.

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My mind is more or less fried this evening from editing articles for The Speculative Turn, but I wanted to draw attention to this post by Jon Cogburn on Brandom, Hegel, and idealism. Because my background in Anglo-American thought is pretty rusty these days, I’ve had to reread Cogburn’s post a few times now to understand what he’s getting at with the distinction between sense and reference dependency. I don’t feel ready to address his questions about pantheism, but I do think the criticisms of anti-realism he draws from Brandom get to the heart of the matter.

In this connection, I think that while Meillassoux has done an important service in naming a pervasive phenomenon in Continental thought with his term “correlationism”, there’s an important sense in which his explanation of this term does more to obscure than illuminate what is at issue. Setting forth the concept of correlation he writes:

By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never either term considered apart from the other. (After Finitude, 5)

Meillassoux goes on to remark that,

Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object ‘in itself’, in isolation from its relation to the subject, but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object. (ibid.)

Whenever I read Meillassoux’s definitions of correlationism, both in After Finitude and his Collapse talks, I get the sense that he’s circling around the issue without quite putting his finger on it. When Meillassoux expresses the issue in terms of a subject relating to an object, he is constructing a concept– to employ Deleuze’s famous description –that is too baggy for what it tries to put its finger on. Additionally, as he’s formulated the issue it becomes clear that the realist can give nothing but an incoherent response to the correlationist; for if it is true that the problem is the mere relation of a subject to an object, then it is clear that the realist can give no coherent rejoinder to the correlationist because it is both clear and obvious that in any claim we make about objects, in any knowledge of objects, we must relate to objects to know them.

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A great quote from Andrew Collier’s Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy:

If there is a single philosophical idea which reflects more closely than any other this commercial (rather than technological) spirit, it is the epistemic fallacy, which reduces nature to our cognitive appropriation of it, just as this spirit reduces it to our economic appropriation of it. This epistemic fallacy has dominated philosophy for just the same period. In offering us the chance to break decisively with this fallacy, and the consequent anthropocentric world-view…, Bhaskar’s realism makes possible… a much greater respect for the integrity of things independent of us. (149)

This point is far broader than talk about cognition. The same point could be made with respect to linguistic appropriation of the world, semiotic appropriation of the world, social appropriation of the world, historically informed appropriation of the world, etc. There is a common structure among all of these strains of thought. Collier’s point holds every bit as much for object-oriented philosophy, where the realism of object-oriented philosophy opens the way towards a much greater respect for the integrity of things independent of us.

It is not unusual, in discussions about Kant, to hear supporters of Kant emphasize that he is an empirical realist and a transcendental idealist. It is important to understand what Kant has in mind by empirical realism and why it is radically different than realist ontologies. At this late hour I will not do this issue the justice it deserves, but hopefully indicate some pointers that will help to clarify the issue. No one is forgetting that Kant claims to be an empirical realist in these discussions, above all those that advocate realist ontologies. Nor are realist criticisms of Kant based on the idea that somehow he is subjectivist or a subjective idealist. Empirical realism is something radically different than a genuine realist ontology. When Kant describes his position as an empirical realism, he is not asserting a realist ontology, but is making a claim about intersubjectivity. What Kant is saying is that the items that populate experience are “objective” in the sense that what we experience is intersubjectively communicable and universal by virtue of the transcendental structure of subjectivity or mind as outlined by Kant. In other words, for Kant we are entitled to say that when the sun warms the rock (here I’m drawing on his famous distinction between perception and experience in the Prolegomena), we’re entitled to claim that this causal relation is an objective truth, i.e., intersubjectively universal.

Nonetheless, while Kant is an empirical realist and this is a commendable thing (was it ever in dispute that he wanted to establish the objectivity of science and mathematics?), he remains a transcendental idealist. In short, Kant’s empirical realism only extends as far as the subject and humans. He nonetheless remains committed to the thesis that what objects might be independent of humans, and whether objects exist as our empirical claims portray them, is something that we can never know and which must be carefully excluded from philosophical discussion. For Kant, even in his empirical realism, there’s always an “asterisks” containing the qualification “for us and apart from us we can never know”.

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Mikhail sent me the following post in email, giving me permission to post it if I so desire. I think it gets at a number of important differences and assumptions, so it might be of general interest to others. Following Mikhail’s post you will find my reply. I hope others interested in the realism/anti-realism debate and OOO take the time to read through the post as I think some key points are made here, as well as some arguments potentially central the epistemological grounds of OOO and why the “speculation” of OOO is not simply “making things up”. Basically I rehearse Roy Bhaskar’s argument for transcendental realism, trying to show why I think that epistemological questions can’t properly be resolved without robust realist ontological claims. However, there’s an important caveat here. While I’m strongly inclined to endorse the form of Bhaskar’s transcendental argument for ontological realism, I am more circumspect about the ontological claims he is making. In other words, it is possible to endorse much of the reasoning that leads Bhaskar to the conclusion that we can know something of mind-independent objects that exist regardless of whether anyone knows them, while rejecting the specifics of this ontology on the grounds that it is inadequate.

I think this particular exchange is not about SR/OOO/OOP or anything that has been discussed so far, it’s an old philosophical issue and this is why I think it is important to address as it seems to underlie
many of the disagreements. I’d like to begin with some very basic issues before going any further. You write:

“In my view this position undermines the possibility of any fallibilism so we’re left without the means of determining why we should choose one theory over another.”

This is important. Now just because a position undermines a certain possibility does not mean that it is wrong, just that it is inconvenient. I hope we agree on that. Therefore, say, if skepticism has a good argument, we cannot simply say that if we accept that argument we will be deprived of certain possibilities. I take your observation to mean more than just an expression of preference – if we cannot have an access to the world, we cannot have a true theory of it, because it’s neither true not false and cannot be shown to be
either true or false. I agree.

Now let’s slow down here a bit and see what’s going on. As you say, this is not a real point of disagreement, it’s just a statement and it has consequences. This is going to be very primitive not because I’m being condescending, but because I found of late that most of the disagreements seem to be about very small things we overlook because we think of ourselves (I mean myself primarily) as having long overcome these problems. It seems to me that you are affirming a kind of duality: there’s a level of the world and there’s a level of the mind (the theory of that world) – am I correct in reading you this way? An immanent “inside” and a transcendent “outside” – of course, as we both know from Descartes/Kant, we need a
“third” level, a point from which one can compare the two – the world and its theoretical description – and declare it to be adequate. Let’s reject Descartes’ solution and forget about God or anything that’s
truly “outside” and stick with Kantian types of solution that places that “third” on some transcendental level.

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