Three Pound Brain

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Month: March, 2013

Metaphilosophical Reflections IV: Skepticism and the Life Adoxastōs

by reichorn

“… if reasoning is such a deceiver that it all but snatches even what is apparent from under our very eyes, surely we should keep watch on it in unclear matters, to avoid being led into rashness by following it.”

– Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism


This is the fourth in a series of guest-blogger posts by me, Roger Eichorn.  The first three posts can be found here and here and here.

I’m also a would-be fantasy author.  Sections from my novel can be found here.


So what is philosophy?  What distinguishes it from other domains of inquiry?

This is not a question that can be answered by appealing to the dictionary, any more than one can answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” by looking up the word ‘life’ in the OED.  In an earlier post, I made it clear that I’m not after a strict definition, in the Socratic–Platonic sense of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to qualify as ‘philosophy.’  Instead, I’ve attempted to present a physiognomy of philosophy, a description and analysis of fundamental features suited for conceptualizing the place of philosophy within the sphere of human cognitive life as a whole.  I’ve identified presuppositionlessness as that defining feature.

The most obvious objection to this explanatory strategy is to point out that much—perhaps even all—inquiries that fall under the purview of philosophy do not proceed presuppositionlessly.  Indeed, it may be the case that presuppositionlessness is at best a regulative epistemic ideal, that it is unachievable in practice and so cannot be used to distinguish philosophical inquiries from other sorts of inquiry.  I think the premise is probably correct, but that the conclusion does not follow.

I’ve argued that presuppositionlessness is both (a) a defining ideal of much traditional philosophical practice, regardless of those practices’ (lack of) success, and, relatedly, (b) a global feature of philosophical inquiry as such, regardless of its (in)applicability to any particular philosophical inquiry or school-of-inquiry.  At least as pressing as the question of what distinguishes philosophy from other domains of inquiry is the question of what unifies the various domains of inquiry categorized as ‘philosophy.’  It may be that no unifying element exists; but it seems to me that we should concede as much only if we have exhausted our explanatory resources.  Presuppositionlessness, I want to argue, provides precisely the explanatory resource we need.

According to the metaphilosophical view I call presupposition contextualism, philosophy is distinguished from others domain of inquiry by the fact that it lacks any definitive presupposition-set.  As a result, what unifies the various philosophical domains-of-inquiry is their allowing for the questioning of any of their presuppositions (no matter how deeply embedded the presupposition or abstract the mode of questioning) without changing the subject.  Human reason, as Kant argued, naturally seeks the unconditioned: it continually asks ‘Why?’, over and over incessantly, and (unless stultified by some dogma or other) does not find satisfaction until and unless it reaches unconditioned, presuppositionless epistemic–cognitive ground.  Philosophy is the domain of inquiry that is home to this seemingly endless string of ‘Whys?’

In a way, then, human reason is like a precocious child.  Children, as we all know, are often unimpressed or dissatisfied by the rational grounds appealed to by dogmatic, authoritarian adults.  Inevitably, it seems, the ‘Whys?’ of children run up against the following response: ‘Because I said so’—that is to say, no response at all, just an admonishment, an unjustified (though perhaps justifiable) rejection of the question.  Philosophy, then, is the wide-open domain of inquiry we all (if we’re lucky) remember from our childhoods.  As an old professor of mine, David Hills, puts it, philosophy is “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.”  The problem—from the perspective of those who hope to make determinate, lasting progress in philosophy—is that in the fight between childish wonder and lawyerly rationalizations, the child in us always wins.


In what follows, I’m going to present two different, though compatible, models of presupposition contextualism.  I call the first ‘the containment model.’

Containment Model

The primary purpose of the containment model is to situate specialized domains of inquiry in relation to two more general domains, that of common life and that of pure philosophy.  Between the two is the area I associate with contextual questioning.  By ‘contextual questioning’ I mean the calling-into-question of some but not all context-constitutive presuppositions.  By ‘pure philosophy’ I mean the epistemic-ideal space of presuppositionlessness.  ‘Common life’ is a notion I’ve already introduced: it is the largely invisible background of inherited prejudices and assumptions against which we carry out our everyday sayings and doings.

Some specialized presupposition-contexts are situated entirely within the more general domain of common life.  The example I’ve provided here is history.  It seems to me that the definitive presuppositions of historical inquiry (e.g., that the past existed, that it is unchanging, etc.) are all also constitutive presuppositions of common life (at least, of our common life).  As a specialized domain, however, the history presupposition-set is smaller than that of common life.  For instance, certain socio-historical variants of common life might also include commitments to certain doctrinal histories that the history-domain does not constitutively presuppose.  In such cases, historical inquiry might end up calling into question those doctrinal everyday presuppositions; but doing so would not mean that the history-domain opens onto that of contextual questioning, for it is not constitutive of the historical-inquiry domain as such that it stand opposed to any particular doctrinal-historical presupposition, i.e., any presupposition of common life.

The same cannot be said, it seems to me, of physics.  From its earliest beginnings, physics has been in the business of getting above or behind what Wilfrid Sellars calls the ‘manifest image’ of the world in order to replace it with a ‘scientific image.’  The notion of the manifest image corresponds roughly to my notion of common life: it is “the pre-reflective orientation [to ourselves, the world, and others] which is our common heritage” (“Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in Science, Perception, and Reality, p. 3); it is “the framework in terms of which… man first encountered himself” (p. 6); it arises not merely from interactions with the (manifest) physical world, but also from “the mediation of the family and the community” (p. 16).  Thus, Sellars contrasts “man as he appears to the theoretical physician—a swirl of physical particles, forces, and fields” with “man as he appears to himself in sophisticated common sense” (p. 20); he contrasts “the common sense conception of physical objects” with “that of theoretical physics” (p. 19).

Sellars does not mean to imply that the manifest image is “uncritical” or “naïve,” for it is partly constituted by and adaptable to sophisticated deployments of rationality.  The key difference he notes between the sort of ‘scientific’ rationality exercised within common life and that which gives rise to the scientific image is that the rationality of common life “does not include… that [form of rational explanation] which involves the postulation of imperceptible entities, and principles pertaining to them, to explain the behaviour of perceptible things” (p. 7).  To the extent that physics rejects the manifest image as “an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate… likeness in the scientific image” (p. 20)—the sort of rejection that can be traced as far back as the ancient Greek atomists (p. 26)—then physics stands in opposition to certain fundamental (context-constitutive) presuppositions of common life.  For this reason, it seems to me that physics as such, unlike history, opens onto the domain of contextual questioning.

The third example I give of a specialized domain is that of ethics.  Here, we can see the relationships among (a) common life, (b) a specific philosophical domain-of-inquiry, and (c) philosophy-as-such, i.e., what I’m calling ‘pure philosophy.’  Ethics straddles common life, the domain of contextual questioning, and pure philosophy.  Thus, one might carry out an ethical inquiry without calling into question any presupposition constitutive of common life.  But one might also engage in an ethical inquiry that enters the domain of contextual questioning.  Likewise, since the domain of ethics as such opens onto pure philosophy, it has no determinate presupposition-contextual boundaries: this is what makes ethics as such philosophical.

The characteristic of ‘opening onto’ pure philosophy is illustrated even more vividly in the case of the relationship between physics and the philosophy of physics.  I’ve described physics as a domain that as such rejects certain presuppositions constitutive of common life.  Yet it itself is a presupposition-contextual domain of inquiry.  That this is the case is indirectly demonstrated by the mere fact that there exists—that it is possible for there to exist—a meta-domain called ‘the philosophy of physics.’  Philosophy of physics encompasses the presupposition-set of physics, but extends further in all directions: it can both question physics in the direction of common life, or it can question physics in the direction of pure philosophy.  The latter is what makes it philosophical.  If the philosophy of physics as such did not open onto pure philosophy, then the possibility would remain of a distinctive domain of inquiry that we could call the philosophy of the philosophy of physics.  There is, in fact, no such domain, and given presupposition-contextualism, it is clear why that is the case.

Again, none of this should be taken to imply that the philosophy of physics invariably proceeds presuppositionlessly.  In other words, I am not claiming that there is no possibility of calling into question the presuppositions of a philosophy-of-physics inquiry.  The containment model clearly illustrates that the majority of the domain of philosophy of physics is presupposition-contextual.  The point is simply that, in calling into question the presuppositions of a particular inquiry carried out in the philosophy of physics, one will still be doing philosophy.  Indeed, it is likely that one will still be doing philosophy of physics.


I call the second model of presupposition contextualism the ‘continuum model.’

Continuum Model

The continuum model complements the epistemic-ideal of presuppositionlessness with its opposite, which for the sake of symmetry I call ‘pure everydayness.’  Whereas pure philosophy is characterized by a sort of maximal degree of reflectiveness, pure everydayness is characterized by the total lack of reflection upon one’s situation in the world.  It may be that pure everydayness does not describe a properly ‘human’ way of being; but it is certainly a possible way of being simpliciter.

Moving from right to left along the continuum, we enter the domain of naïve common life.  Naïve common life is characterized by a mostly unreflective acquiescence in whatever situation one has been thrown into.  I take it that Hegel is describing naïve common life in the following passage: “The natural man has no consciousness of the presence of opposites; he lives quite unconsciously in his own particular way, in conformity with the morality of his town, without ever having reflected on the fact that he practices this morality” (Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2).  Here, Hegel is not saying that the ‘natural man’ does not stand in a reflective relation to (what we would think of as) the morality of his town.  He is sure, for instance, to recognize and censure deviations from the customary morality.  Rather, Hegel is saying that the ‘natural man’ does not have a reflective relation to his moral code qua moral code, i.e., qua one alternative among others.  It might be that even thinking of customary morality as a ‘morality’ (rather than as ‘what we do’ or ‘the way things are’) requires an awareness of it as mutable, as ‘questionable.’  In a similar vein, Bruno Snell has argued that Homeric-era Greeks “looked upon their gods as so natural and self-evident that they could not even conceive of other nations acknowledging a different faith or other gods” (The Discovery of the Mind).  It is only when we enter the domain of intra-contextual questioning that our reflective repertoire comes to include the mode of reflection I’ve been referring to as ‘calling-into-question.’

Intra-contextual questioning involves calling-into-question within the presupposition-context of common life.  This is the segment of the continuum that most of us occupy most of the time.  The next stage is what I call non-philosophical contextual questioning.  By ‘contextual questioning’ I mean the calling-into-question of context-constitutive presuppositions, specifically those of common life.  Recalling that common life is to a large extent associated with an authoritative tradition, there are two fundamentally different outcomes of contextual questioning: first, acquiescing in the inherent authority of tradition qua traditional, the upshot of which is to terminate the search for justifications (reasons); second, seeking for the tradition-independent rational ground of common life.  The first option entails remaining within the domain of non-philosophical contextual questioning; the second option entails going further, into the domain of philosophy.

To count as properly philosophical, then, it is not enough to have a reflective relation to one’s epistemic–doxastic context; one must have the proper sort of reflective relation to it, namely, one that sees the authority of reason as both distinct from and superseding that of tradition.  From a pure-philosophical perspective, it is insufficient to accept an everyday presupposition on the grounds that it is certified by tradition.  In my previous post, I described this move in terms of the transition from an acquiescence in the ‘everyday dogmatisms’ of common life to a commitment to autonomous reason.  The initial stages of philosophy remain presupposition-contextual, however.  Philosophers might suppose, for instance, that their discipline is partly defined by a commitment to the laws of logic.  But reason is such that it pushes ever outward, questioning everything (even the laws of logic), until it falls into the realm of pure philosophy.

As I argued in earlier posts, the problem with pure philosophy—that is, the problem with philosophy as such—is that it seems as though determinate discursive progress can only be made presupposition-contextually.  Far from making progress, the movement of reason has pushed us back and back, searching for immovable epistemic–cognitive ground.  But no such ground appears.  Philosophy ends in skepticism.  Being presuppositionless, this skepticism is entirely indiscriminate: it leaves nothing standing.  The epistemic ground falls away under our feet.

I noted in my previous post that the skeptical dialectic is animated by a commitment to truth and rationality, in particular a commitment to the view that truth is only arrived at (at least consciously or reflectively) by means of reasoning or rationality.  (For more on this point, see the note marked [*] at the bottom of this post.)  It was this commitment that pushed us beyond non-philosophical contextual questioning into the domain of philosophy.  This commitment is also responsible for the rejection any number of other putative sources of knowledge that would forestall or override the search for rational knowledge, e.g., mysticism, the direct revelation of a divine power, astrology, the reading of tea-leaves, and so on.  Such putative sources of knowledge may be authoritative in some instantiations of common life—but they can be called into question by skeptical challenges.  The important point, again, is that skepticism can only get an epistemic–doxastic foothold against traditional sources of knowledge such as astrology given a prior commitment to reason or rationality—and not just any sort of commitment.  Practices such as astrology have their own internal logic and rationality; they are not simply or globally irrational.  The sort of commitment to reason or rationality that is required for skepticism to get an epistemic–doxastic foothold involves a commitment to the demonstrability of a practice’s rational ground such that a failure to demonstrate that a practice is rationally grounded undermines (and, if carried far enough, destroys, at least temporarily) that practice’s epistemic authority.  Reason can be (and is) exercised within the limits of the presupposition-context of astrology; but to feel the sting of dissatisfaction with astrology on the basis of skeptical challenges to its epistemic merits requires a commitment to viewing astrology’s presupposition-context itself as demonstrably rational and hence as vulnerable to skeptical attack.

I call this higher-order commitment the philosophical epistemic–doxastic norm (PEN).  According to PEN, we are at least required as rational beings to give precedence to the conclusions of reasoning, with the result, inter alia, that we cannot simply ignore skeptical challenges to our beliefs.  A stronger version of PEN would enjoin us as rational beings to assent to (and thereby believe) only those propositions that rational reflection has determined to be true.  The latter entails a kind of preemptive strike against false beliefs: Descartes’s overturning of the apple-cart.  The former entails an openness to challenges as they arise.

Without a commitment to PEN, whether explicit or implicit, the skeptical dialectic could not get off the ground.  In the face of rational challenges to, say, the belief that the Bible is the word of God, a person uncommitted to PEN could both (a) persist in that belief without making any attempt to defend or justify it and (b) nonetheless continue to think that her belief is rational and justified.  (Alternatively, of course, she could simply give no credence to all that ‘fancy talk.’)  Such a person would remain outside of the domain of contextual questioning. It is clearly possible to do so.  Those who do not, however—or so I’m contending—are motivated by an implicit or explicit commitment to PEN.  It is a commitment to PEN that drives them off the cliff of presuppositions into the free-fall of pure philosophy.

My next question should be obvious by now: What, then, of PEN?  Is PEN itself justified?  We’ve already seen that the presuppositionless skepticism of pure philosophy is indiscriminate.  As such, it undermines even the rational standards that support its negative-epistemological conclusions and the normative commitments that bind us to those standards.  It seems, in short, that the most radical exercise of human reason—that mode of reflection in which, as Sellars puts it, “no intellectual holds are barred” (“Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” p. 1)—ends up overthrowing itself.  The question is: Where does this leave us?  Where are we left, or what are we left with, after having repudiated both common life and autonomous reason?


The short answer is that the dialectical spiral illustrated above—a spiral consisting of twin dialectical circles, one at the level of common life, the other at the level of autonomous reason—join together to form a larger-scale circular dialectic, one that moves from dogmatic common life, through dogmatic autonomous reason, back to common life transformed.  The progress of reason as I’ve described it involves a movement through ever-greater levels of abstraction until reason arrives at a state free of presuppositions.  The result, however, is not to free us of presuppositions, but to free us of dogmatism.  The common life to which the dialectical spiral returns us is what Sextus called ‘undogmatic common life’—bios adoxastōs.  This large-scale circular movement can be illustrated as follows:


We can also illustrate the circular character of the skeptical dialectic, and the new cognitive standpoint it opens up, by bending the continuum model of presupposition contextualism so that its end-points overlap.

Bent Continuum

 The life adoxastōs involves an acquiescence in common life that is overlain with a philosophical skepticism such that common life is no longer understood dogmatically, i.e., our relationship to common life—our commitment to it—is no longer dogmatic.  Common life has been transformed.  The skeptical dialectic, then, is dialectical in the Hegelian sense: it involves the reconciliation of (at least apparent) opposites, in this case ‘common life’ (tradition) and ‘autonomous reason’ (philosophy).  The dialectic differs from Hegel’s, though, in that the reconciliation takes the form not of a newly emergent term, but rather of a return to the first term such that the first term incorporates elements of (= is transformed as a result of its dialectical interaction with) the second term.  (For more on the notion of circular dialectic, see Ann Hartle, Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher.)  In the case of the dialectical reconciliation of common life and autonomous reason, the result is the incorporation into common life of the freedom from dogmatism that is a concomitant of presuppositionlessness.


In the remainder of this post, I’d like to start fleshing out the idea of the life adoxastōs.  Let me begin by addressing the question: What do I mean by dogmatism?

The ancient Greek dogmata is often translated simply as ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions.’  Although this translation is not outright wrong, it loses the connotations that distinguish dogmata from doxai (which is also usually translated as ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’).  In his article “The Beliefs of a Pyrrhonist,” Jonathan Barnes has shown that dogmata refer to “weighty, substantial beliefs—tenets, doctrines, principles.”  Philosophical dogmata, as Diego Machuca has put it, tend to be the sort of beliefs that result from “theoretical reflection which purports to grasp the structure of reality or the real nature of things” (“Argumentative Persuasiveness In Ancient Pyrrhonism”).  Paradigm examples include “the Epicurean’s belief in invisible atoms, or [the] Platonist’s belief in eternal unchanging forms” (Tad Brennan, “Criterion and Appearance in Sextus Empiricus”).  What Barnes has shown, then, is that dogmata carried from the beginning the primary meaning that ‘dogma’ has in modern English, namely, “An opinion, a belief” butspec. a tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down,” such as in the case of religious doctrine: “The body of opinion , esp. on religious matters, formulated or laid down authoritatively or assertively” (OED).  Only secondarily, as a result of the ‘authoritative’ nature of dogma, do we get the second, explicitly pejorative meaning, which the OED describes this way: “an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion.”

In Outlines of Pyrrhonism (PH), Sextus Empiricus initially characterizes dogmatists neutrally, simply as those who “think they have discovered the truth” as a result of a philosophical investigation (PH §1.1–3).  It is clear, though, that for him ‘dogmatist’ is a pejorative term: he characterizes them throughout his texts as ‘rash and conceited.’  (Montaigne will later refer to them as ‘presumptuous.’)  The goal of the Pyrrhonian skeptical therapy, Sextus tells us, is “to cure by argument, as far as they can, the conceit and rashness of the Dogmatists” (PH §3.280).  The Pyrrhonian skeptical arguments provide the bridge between the pejorative and the non-pejorative meaning of ‘dogmatist’: given the power and scope of the skeptical arguments—that is, given their success relative to the epistemic standards endorsed by dogmatists themselves (as a whole)—it can only be ‘rash and conceited’ to continue claiming that one has discovered the truth.  (The fact that dogmatic sects of all kinds are endlessly at odds with one another is significant in this connection.)

These considerations suggest that there are two primary features of dogmatism.  The first is epistemic, and concerns the place of dogmas in larger, more or less systematic bodies of beliefs.  The idea here is that positive epistemic status accrues to dogmas at least partly in virtue of their place within a system.  The second is doxastic, and concerns the second-order nature of dogmatism.  What transforms a mere belief into a dogma is that it is “laid down authoritatively or assertively.”  It is “an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion.”  If we internalize the OED’s focus on assertion or declaration, we can say that dogmatism is a metadoxastic state or attitude relative to an opinion or belief such that one considers that opinion or belief to be authoritative.  This point is sharpened by one of the OED’s definitions of ‘dogmatic’: “Of a person…: that asserts or imposes dogmas or opinions in an authoritative, imperious, or arrogant manner; inclined to lay down principles as undeniably true” (emphasis added).

Dogmatism, then, is not a matter of holding certain beliefs, but rather of the manner in which one holds them.  One can hold the same belief either dogmatically or undogmatically without the propositional content of the belief (the first-order belief) changing in any way whatsoever.  It is possible (indeed, I think common) to believe that p without believing that p is undeniably true.  Stated in general terms, what I’m suggesting is that, contrary to most if not all analyses, ‘belief’ is best understood as a two-tiered phenomenon such that ‘x believes that p’ is a fundamental (first-order) attitude that underdetermines its second-order accompaniment to such an extent that it is possible accurately to describe someone as both believing that p and not believing that p (perhaps even both believing that p and believing that not-p).

Before I say more about the two-tiered conception of belief, it needs to be pointed out that although Sextus is focused on philosophical dogmatists, he rightly does not hold the view that only philosophers can be dogmatists.  Indeed, he seems to be of the opinion that virtually everyone is a dogmatist.  I think Martha Nussbaum is right when she says, “Most people hold many of their beliefs about the world firmly and dogmatically, even without the guidance of the philosopher” (The Therapy of Desire, p. 284).  For Sextus, common life is shot through with more or less implicit dogmatisms.  As we’ve seen, the skeptical dialectic as I’ve characterized it is equally (indeed, more fundamentally) opposed to ‘everyday dogmatism’ as it is to ‘philosophical dogmatism.’

That everyday beliefs can be dogmatic is clear given the metadoxastic analysis I’ve just offered.  It is perhaps less clear that the epistemic feature, according to which dogmas fit into a systematic body of beliefs, applies to everyday beliefs.  I think, however, that a strong case can be made on this score.  Although common beliefs are undoubtedly not as highly or explicitly systematized as, say, a body of religious or philosophical doctrine, they do form a more rudimentary sort of system.  This is why I refer to common life as a presupposition context: it has a more or less definite shape, the same as do specialized domains of inquiry.  Granted, it is more diffuse, more fluid, and above all more ‘inconspicuous’ (to bring back a Heideggerian term) than specialized domains are, but it nonetheless has a systematic shape.

(To object that the ‘system’ of common life is bound to be inconsistent is beside the point, for the same can be said of many other systems.  An inconsistent system is still a system.)


What does it mean, then, to live ‘undogmatically’?

Given the two features of dogmas discussed above, it would mean both (a) not holding the view that positive epistemic status accrues to beliefs in virtue of their fitting into systematic bodies of beliefs, and (b) not holding a metadoxastic attitude toward one’s beliefs such that (i) one believes that one’s beliefs are invariably true and (ii) one is inclined to declare as much in an imperious or arrogant (‘presumptuous,’ ‘rash and conceited’) manner.

To live undogmatically (adoxastōs) does not entail living without beliefs.  Nor does it entail living without certain sorts of beliefs; rather, it is to have a certain attitude or relation toward one’s beliefs.


But what beliefs does the skeptical dialectic leave us with?  We’ve repudiated the beliefs of common life as well as philosophical beliefs.  Indeed, the dialectic led to the global undermining of all beliefs across the board.  It might seem—many people have claimed and continue to claim as much—that this would leave us adrift in the moral and epistemic vacuum of nihilism, in the all-is-permitted world of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.  It should be evident by now, however, how radically mistaken this conclusion is.

As we’ve seen, the skeptical dialectic undermines the epistemic standards that themselves undermined all beliefs, as well as the doxastic norm that would enjoin us thereby to reject the authority of all beliefs.  Nihilism, it turns out, is covertly committed to various unjustified rational norms and standards.  In other words, nihilism—at least as we’re thinking about it here, i.e., as a sort of philosophical nihilism—is an expression of despair at the futility of autonomous reason, at our inability to uncover the ultimate rational ground of our beliefs.  The nihilistic conclusion is that, therefore, our beliefs are groundless.  But that conclusion stands only if one fails to follow through on the logic of the skeptical dialectic.  To be a nihilist, one must hold on to the last shreds of rationalistic hubris, to maintain that beliefs not grounded in autonomous reason are thereby groundless and ought to be rejected.

Skeptical arguments are, as Sextus puts it, like purgative drugs that drain themselves away along with the humors they were administered to treat.  The result is that we return to where, in fact, we never left, namely, common life.  But in the process we have been cured of the dogmatism that previously infected our everyday being-in-the-world.  The mature skeptic will retain most or even all of the (first-order) beliefs she had before undergoing the skeptical therapy, but she’ll not mistake the degree of her doxastic commitment to a belief for that belief’s degree of objective justification.  She’ll see everyday beliefs as precisely that, everyday beliefs, justified and justifiable within the presupposition context of common life, but unjustified and (apparently) unjustifiable independently of that context.  When the mature skeptic encounters people whose everyday presupposition contexts differ radically from her own, she may be curious, may find their beliefs and their justificatory procedures baffling, even perverse; she may attempt to dissuade them of their beliefs, may attempt to demonstrate the superiority of her own presupposition-set.  What she will not do is denounce the other person as “a heretic and a fool” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §611).  She’ll see the situation for what it is: an encounter between two incompatible presupposition-sets, not the Truth facing off against Falsehood or Lies, not God facing off against the Devil.

The mature skeptic will hold to relativism in its uncontroversial descriptive guise.  She will even hold the crude relativist thesis—namely, not just that norms, standards, etc., are culturally relative, but that all norms, standards, etc. are thereby equally valid—but only philosophically.  That is, the mature skeptic will accept that there is (= appears to be) no rational, context-independent means of adjudicating between rival presupposition-sets.  But that does not mean that, as a human-being-in-the-world, she will think that all presupposition-sets are equally valid.  This can be understood in terms of the bent continuum model, above, in which philosophy and naïve common life overlap: when the mature skeptic thinks philosophically, she is a skeptic and a relativist; but as a mature skeptic, she believes—she makes judgments and commitments and decisions—within the common lifeworld in which she lives and moves and has her being.

Again, what distinguishes her from her fellows is not her beliefs but her attitude toward those beliefs.  As Montaigne puts it, “I consider myself one of the common sort, except in that I consider myself so” (“Of Presumption”; emphasis added).  Elsewhere, he characterizes what I’m calling ‘the life adoxastōs’ in the following ways: “It may be said with some plausibility that there is an abecedarian ignorance that comes before knowledge, and another, doctoral ignorance that comes after knowledge: an ignorance that knowledge creates and engenders, just as it undoes and destroys the first” (“Of vain subtleties”).  “Anyone who wants to be cured of ignorance must confess it…  Wonder is the foundation of philosophy, inquiry its progress, ignorance its end.  I’ll go further: There is a certain strong and generous ignorance that concedes nothing to knowledge in honor and courage, an ignorance that requires no less knowledge to conceive it than does knowledge” (“Of Cripples”).  It is this ‘doctoral ignorance’ that is the characteristic of the mature skeptic and that allows her to live life adoxastōs.


But why does the mature skeptic acquiesce in the beliefs of common life, specifically the common life into which she was born?  Isn’t it more plausible that the skeptical dialectic leaves us with an ‘all-is-permitted’ that simply goes deeper than that of nihilism, in the sense that it does not foreclose the possibility of genuine belief and commitment, but rather opens the door for us to believe anything?

The answer to this—which I can address only briefly—concerns the nature of the human being that is brought to light by skepticism.  Hume famously argued that radical skepticism is psychologically impossible to maintain, because “Nature is always too strong for principle” (Enquiry).  That is, our natural tendency to believe all sorts of things will overcome any skeptical scruples we may have.  Hume arrived at this anti-rationalistic conception of belief by way of his skepticism regarding human reason, and I think that his recognition of the connection between skepticism (i.e., the light it throws on the nature of human reason as such) and what Heidegger would later call ‘fundamental ontology’ (i.e., the ontology of human-being-in-the-world) was one of his most profound insights, despite the fact that it is frequently misunderstood as constituting an argument against skepticism.

The picture of the human that emerges from skeptical considerations is that of a creature embodied in nature and embedded in a particular society.  To a large extent, it seems, our beliefs are not our own.


The idea here is that the twin forces of biology and culture give rise to sub-doxastic processes, of which we are unaware and of which, at least initially, we have no control.  These sub-doxastic processes give rise to beliefs, both in their affective and their cognitive aspects.  To the extent that these beliefs are products of sub-doxastic processes of which we have no control, the beliefs themselves are out of our control as well: they simply happen to us.  As Nietzsche put it, “A thought comes with it wants, not when ‘I’ want.”

Given my two-tiered model of belief, there is another level, that of our metadoxastic attitude.  It might seem that much of what I’ve said implies that, at the metadoxastic level, we are free (or at least that we exert some control there).  This may be true.  I think it’s certainly the case that the metadoxastic level is the likeliest candidate for ‘free’ (not-causally-determined) cognition.  The possibility that metadoxastic attitudes can affect beliefs and even sub-doxastic processes is represented by the dotted arrows.  But it should be noted that my account of the transformation in metadoxastic attitude effected by the skeptical therapy does not depend on metadoxastic freedom: it depends merely on the possibility of the adoption of different metadoxastic attitudes.  Whether those attitudes were ‘freely’ arrived at is an open question about which mature skeptics, qua philosophers/theoreticians, will suspend judgment.

This model of the human doxastic system allows us to see another sense in which nihilism is covertly principled: for it seems to assume that what we believe is up to us, that human beings are free simply to abandon their ‘natural’ beliefs (both biological and cultural).   Once again, then, we can see the ironic sense in which nihilism depends on a commitment to an overly rationalistic conception of human beings.


*  This claim is easily misunderstood.  It might be thought, for instance, that bare perception provides access to truth, i.e., provides us with propositional knowledge.  But, on reflection, such a view would seem to lead to the conclusion that thermometers literally know what the temperature is.  Perception may be the causal ground of our knowledge, but it is not in itself sufficient for knowledge.  This point is often supported by claiming that knowledge is a normative matter and so cannot be reduced to its underlying causal mechanisms.  The contrary view has come to be known, following Sellars, as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ in epistemology, the view that an ‘ought’ can arise from an ‘is.’  I’m not sure that this ‘fallacy’ is not itself fallacious; but it does seem to me that whatever else it is, propositional knowledge (i.e., knowledge that something is so-and-so) is the exclusive possession of reflective (and self-reflective) beings and so cannot, strictly speaking, be attributed to creatures or machines that perceive but do not reflect upon their perceptions.

Metaphilosophical Reflections III: The Skeptical Dialectic

by reichorn

“Human reason is a two-edged and dangerous sword.”

– Montaigne, “Of Presumption”


This is the third in a series of guest-blogger posts by me, Roger Eichorn.  The first two posts can be found here and here.

I’m also a would-be fantasy author.  The first three chapters of my novel, The House of Yesteryear, can be found here.  I’ve also recently uploaded the first of what will be two ‘Bonus Scenes’ from later in the book.  You can find it here, if you’re into that sort of thing.


In my previous post, I argued that skepticism and philosophy are inextricably entwined.  Following Hegel, Michael Forster has made a similar argument, and I’ve benefited a great deal (and cribbed) from his discussion.  But whereas Forster stops with the claim that an engagement (direct or indirect) with skepticism is a defining feature of philosophy, I’ve gone farther and tried to develop a conceptual framework for understanding why this is the case.  My explanation turns on the notion of presuppositions.  The view, in short, is this:

  1. Intellectual inquiry can make determinate progress only against a background of unquestioned fundamental premises, propositions, or assumptions (what I call ‘presuppositions’).
  2. These fundamental presuppositions provide contexts for inquiry; they are like boundary-markers or the rules of a game, in that overstepping or questioning them entails ceasing to play the ‘discursive game’ they enclose or constitute.
  3. Calling into question context-constitutive presuppositions involves a kind of skepticism.
  4. Stepping outside of a presupposition context entails ‘going meta,’ i.e., it entails transitioning into a more abstract domain of inquiry.
  5. Given (3) and (4), it is skepticism that pushes us to ever-greater levels of discursive–epistemological abstraction.
  6. In ‘going meta,’ we end up—either immediately or after some intermediary steps—within the domain of philosophy.
  7. Given (5) and (6), it is skepticism that leads us to philosophy, i.e., philosophy begins in skepticism.
  8. There is no uncontroversial rationale that is both global and principled for forestalling the possibility of ‘going meta,’ i.e., of calling into question any presupposition.  (Principled rationales are always context-specific or ‘local.’  The claim I’m making here, then, is that there are no principled meta-contextual, i.e., global, rationales for forestalling the questioning of a presupposition or set of presuppositions.)
  9. Given (8), according to which any presupposition can be called into question, and (6), according to which philosophy is the domain of inquiry one occupies (sooner or later) in calling presuppositions into question, it follows that philosophy as such possesses no definitive presupposition-set of its own.
  10. Given (1) and (9), philosophy can make no determinate progress.
  11. Given (10), philosophy ends in skepticism.

This argument can, of course, be challenged on any number of fronts.  I have not, for instance, made a sufficient case for (1).  I touched on it in my previous post (where I mentioned Stalnaker and Wittgenstein), but I did not attempt to defend the view in any detail.  Nor, in the interests of space, am I going to do so here.  It should be enough for now to note (1)’s extreme plausibility.  If we visualize intellectual progress as involving forward movement, and the act of questioning presuppositions as involving backward movement, then it’s easy to see that we can make progress only if we’re not calling presuppositions into question: we have to stop moving backward before we can move forward.  Given (8)—which is itself a plausible view, though with its own complications—these presuppositions-of-inquiry must remain unquestioned, either in the sense of (a) never having been thematized or (b) being set aside, “apart from the route travelled by enquiry” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §88), whether (i) they are recognized as questionable though necessarily unquestioned (just as the rules of a game are questionable, but cannot be questioned from within the game itself) or (ii) they are (mis)taken as lying beyond all question (as in the form of indubitable first principles, the supposedly self-evident, etc.).

In this post, I want to elaborate—and with any luck buttress—my case for (3), (4), and (6).  I want, in other words, to get clearer on the dialectical relations among presuppositions, skepticism, and philosophy.


In earlier posts, I introduced the idea of ‘common life,’ which I’m conceptualizing here as the general, usually invisible presupposition context that frames our everyday sayings and doings.  Common life is our twofold inheritance as beings who are both embodied in nature and embedded in a society; it is our natural medium, the subcognitive water for us cognitive fishes.  When we are, as Hubert Dreyfus or Richard Rorty (influenced by Heidegger and pragmatism) would put it, smoothly and effortlessly ‘coping with the world,’ the fact of common life’s inherent questionability—its possible contingency—never presents itself.  At such times, common life is (to borrow some Heideggerian terminology) ‘inconspicuous’ (see: Being and Time, §§15–6).  Common life becomes ‘conspicuous’ only as a result of disruptions in the orderly flow of our everyday lives.  Such disruptions can be relatively minor (what Heidegger called the mode of ‘obtrusiveness’).  But they can also be more significant (what Heidegger called the mode of ‘obstinacy’).  The deeper the disruption, the more the presuppositional structure of common life comes into view.  The more the presuppositional structure of common life comes into view, the higher its ‘index of questionability’ climbs (cf., Luciano Floridi, Scepticism and the Foundation of Epistemology, Ch. 4).

Initially, then, we occupy the standpoint of common life as what I call ‘everyday dogmatists.’  This means that we acquiesce, usually unconsciously, in everyday dogmatisms: we (mis)take (again, usually only implicitly) the presuppositions of common life for known truths.


Michel de Montaigne wrote that “[p]resumption is our natural and original malady” (Apology for Raymond Sebond).  Everyday dogmatism is, in his terms, ‘everyday presumption.’  In her book on Montaigne, Ann Hartle characterizes everyday presumption as “the unreflective milieu of prephilosophical certitude, the sea of opinion in which we are immersed” (Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher, p. 106).  Human beings are, as I like to put it, natural-born dogmatists.

Common life provides us not only with first-order beliefs, but also with more or less established means of adjudicating many, even most, sorts of dispute.  For instance, authoritative scriptures belong to the presupposition-framework of the common life into which many people are born.  For such people, appeal to scripture is capable of settling certain kinds of dispute: in these cases, common life itself provides the resources that allow for the resolution of conflicts that arise within common life.

An initial challenge to an everyday dogmatism is issued.  Here we encounter the most rudimentary form of skepticism.  The skeptical challenge gives rise to a state of dissatisfaction: there is a felt need to resolve the conflict, to ‘refute’ the skeptic and restore our earlier confidence in the dogmatisms of common life.  In many cases of such skeptical challenges, the dissatisfaction in question can be resolved simply by drawing more water from the well of everyday dogmatisms.  In more extreme cases, the skeptical challenges can be resolved only by appealing to the context-constitutive presuppositions of common life.  Either way, what we have is a kind of circular dialectic of skepticism and dogmatism.


In time, though, the skeptical challenges grow more sophisticated.  They reach their apogee when they call into question not just intracontextual everyday dogmatisms, nor just one or another context-constitutive presupposition of common life, but rather common life as a whole.  When that happens, it becomes clear that no appeal to everyday dogmatisms can satisfactorily answer the skeptical challenge, for the skeptical challenge now calls into question the entire domain of everyday dogmatisms.

Consider a simple case of perceptual skepticism.  You see a tree.  You think you know it’s a tree, precisely because you can see it (and you know what trees are, what they look like, etc.).  This is an entirely acceptable everyday judgment, accompanied by an entirely acceptable everyday justification.  Then a skeptic comes along and asks you how you know that what you think you see is actually a tree.  At this point, no dissatisfaction arises, since you have to hand your everyday justification.  But the skeptic presses the point: “How do you know it’s not an extraordinarily lifelike papier-mâché tree?”  This might be enough to give rise to dissatisfaction; if not, then imagine that the skeptic has some further story to tell about how the city in which you both live has funded an art project that involves the creation of amazingly lifelike papier-mâché trees.  Now you’re prepared to call into question your belief that it’s a tree (along with the sufficiency of your everyday justification).  What do you do now?  Obviously, you walk up to the tree and inspect it.  The skeptic has hardly deprived you of all your everyday means of settling disputes.  You poke the tree, peel back its bark, pluck off a leaf, and conclude that, clearly, this is not a papier-mâché tree.  But what do you do when the skeptic smiles and asks, “Fair enough.  But how do you know you’re not dreaming?”

Now, most of us would, most of the time, simply dismiss this question as nonsense.  We’d say, “‘O, rubbish!’ to someone who wanted to make objections to the propositions that are beyond doubt.  That is, not reply to him but admonish him” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §495).  But the problem of justification remains.  Most of us are going to believe that we’re justified in claiming to know that we’re not dreaming (even more so that we’re not dreaming all the time) and that we therefore know all sorts of things about the world as a result of our present and past experiences.  Nothing is easier, in the course of our everyday lives, than to dismiss this sort of worry.  But if it nags at us—if it persists as a source of dissatisfaction—then we’re going to want to find an answer to the skeptic.  But, ex hypothesi, we’ve accepted the fact that we cannot answer the skeptical challenge by appealing to our experience (in the broader case: to common life or its presuppositions), since the skeptical challenge has called into question the veridicality of our experience in toto (in the broader case: the veridicality of common life and its presuppositions in toto).  What do we do?

Bearing in mind that this whole process is animated by a commitment to truth and rationality (by what Nietzsche called our ‘intellectual conscience’), without which our capacity for epistemico-existential crises would be severely limited, there seems only one path open to us: that is, to repudiate the inherent authority of common life in favor of what I call autonomous reason.


I borrow the phrase ‘autonomous reason’ from Donald Livingston’s book on Hume (Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life).  Livingston claims that, for Hume, philosophy is committed to autonomous reason, according to which “it is philosophically irrational to accept any standard, principle, custom, or tradition of common life unless it has withstood the fires of critical philosophical reflection” (23).  We can quibble about whether or not this applies to every philosopher or even every philosophical tradition; but that’s beside the point if the claim is correct in the main—and I think it is.  Moreover, I think it’s not just superficially correct (‘in the main’), but that it illuminates a deep and important feature of philosophy that goes back to its very earliest manifestations.

Philosophy is, at least initially, predicated on skepticism regarding common life.  Thus, it seeks autonomy.  The philosophy–common life distinction can be understood in terms of the familiar dichotomy between reason and tradition.  Reason’s autonomy from tradition is often taken to be a necessary feature of any properly critical enterprise.  As Kenneth Westphal has noted in referring to a “dichotomy, pervasive since the Enlightenment, that reason and tradition are distinct and independent resources”: “because tradition is a social phenomenon, reason must be an independent, individualistic phenomenon.  Otherwise it could not assess or critique tradition, because criticizing tradition requires an independent, ‘external’ standpoint and standards” (Hegel’s Epistemology, p. 77).  Westphal rejects this view, but it is common enough.  Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, gives voice to it when he writes, “Traditions are still a source of benightedness, chicanery, hostility, and oppression…  In this situation, examining our traditions remains for many of us a deep obligation, and for all of us together, a desperate need” (John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, p. 246).  Enlightened reason, in other words, must be able to rise above the soup of prejudices that is common life; otherwise, it will be unable to establish the distance needed to criticize those traditions.

These metatheoretical concerns are usually articulated without any reference to skepticism.  Even when it is separated from the Kantian project, however, critique is best understood as a response to skepticism, an attempt to forge a middle way between skepticism and dogmatism.  The repudiation of the inherent authority of common life and the subsequent commitment to autonomous reason is predicated on a kind of skepticism.  And this is not, as is commonly claimed or implied, unique (whether as a whole or just in character) to the modern period.  Rather, this kind of skepticism was a precondition of the emergence of philosophical thought itself, 2,500 years ago.  The motto for this transition is von Mythos zum Logos—from myth to reason.


In his fascinating book The Discovery of the Mind—a study of conceptions of the self in archaic and ancient Greece—Bruno Snell refers to the emergence of a “social scepticism” that opened up a space within which individuals could call into question the epistemic and practical authority of the traditions into which they’d been born.  Given this sort of social skepticism, according to Snell, “[r]eality is no longer something that is simply given.  The meaningful no longer impresses itself as an incontrovertible fact, and appearances have ceased to reveal their significance directly to man.  All this really means that myth has come to an end” (p. 24).  The repudiation of myth was, on my picture, a repudiation by philosophers of common life, of the world of their fathers.  Malcolm Schofield has written that “[t]he transition from myths to philosophy… entails, and is the product of, a change that is political, social and religious rather than sheerly intellectual, away from the closed traditional society… and toward an open society in which the values of the past become relatively unimportant and radically fresh opinions can be formed both of the community itself and of its expanding environment…  It is this kind of change that took place in Greece between the ninth and sixth centuries B.C.” (The Presocratic Philosophers, pp. 73–4).

Going beyond the Eurocentrism of Snell and Schofield, Karl Jaspers developed the idea of what he calls ‘the Axial Age,’ a period of sudden social, political, and philosophical enlightenment that, he claimed, occurred nearly simultaneously and yet independently in Greece (with the Presocratics), India (with the Buddha), and China (with Confucianism and Daoism).  In this period, Jaspers writes, “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated.  Everything was swept into the vortex.  In so far as the traditional substance still possessed vitality and reality, its manifestations were clarified and thereby transmuted” (The Origin and Goal of History, p. 2).  As though to confirm Jaspers’s theory—though he was writing decades earlier—S. Radhakrishnan tells us that

[t]he age of the Buddha represents the great springtide of philosophical spirit in India.  The progress of philosophy is generally due to a powerful attack on a historical tradition when men feel themselves compelled to go back on their steps and raise once more the fundamental questions which their fathers had disposed of by the older schemes.  The revolt of Buddhism and Jainism… finally exploded the method of dogmatism and helped to bring about a critical point of view…  Buddhism served as a cathartic in clearing the mind of the cramping effects of ancient obstructions.  Scepticism, when it is honest, helps to reorganise belief.  (Indian Philosophy, Vol. 2, p. 18)

The notion of a clear-cut transition ‘from myth to reason’ is deeply entrenched in our cultural narrative, yet it is clearly problematic if understood in an overly simplistic way.  Just as Aristotle was not the first person to use logic, so the presocratic philosophers were not the first Greeks to use reason or to think reasonably.  Still, I think it is clear that something important occurred during the Axial Age.  It may not have been unprecedented, as some commentators want to claim, but its effects were, for (it seems to me) we are still feeling those effects today.  The fundamental transition, I want to argue, is best understood not as being from myth to reason, but as being from common life to autonomous reason.

The ability of reasoning to call into question—to radically disrupt—common life was recognized very early.  Plato worries about it in the Republic

We all have strongly held beliefs, I take it, going back to our childhood [i.e., our pretheoretical certainties], about things which are just and things which are fine and beautiful…  When someone… encounters the question ‘What is the beautiful?’, and gives the answer he used to hear from the lawgiver [i.e., from tradition], and argument shows it to be incorrect, what happens to him?  He may have many of his answers refuted, in many different ways, and be reduced to thinking that the beautiful is no more beautiful or fine than it is ugly or shameful.  The same with ‘just’, ‘good’, and the things he used to have more respect for.  At the end of this, what do you think his attitude to these strongly held beliefs will be, when it comes to respect for them and obedience to their authority?…  I imagine he’ll be thought to have changed from a law-abiding citizen into a criminal. (538c–539a)

We find the same recognition of the cultural–existential (as opposed to merely epistemological) threat of skepticism in Hegel.

The need to understand logic in a deeper sense than that of the science of mere formal thinking is prompted by the interest we take in religion, the state, the law and ethical life.  In earlier times, people had no misgivings about thought…  But while engaging in thinking… it turned out that the highest relationships of life are thereby compromised.  Through thinking, the positive state of affairs was deprived of its power…  Thus, for example, the Greek philosophers opposed the old religion and destroyed representations of it…  In this way, thinking made its mark on actuality and had the most awe-inspiring effect.  People thus became aware of the power of thinking and started to examine more closely its pretensions.  They professed to finding out that it claimed too much and could not achieve what it undertook.  Instead of coming to understand the essence of God, nature and spirit and in general the truth, thinking had overthrown the state and religion.  (Encyclopedia Logic, §19)

The transition to autonomous reason, then, is in many respects a desperate gamble, an attempt to salvage by way of reason what reason itself has taken away from us, namely, the certainty and stability of common life.


Thus, the move to autonomous reason gives rise to a new kind of dogmatism, not the simple, inchoate or prereflective dogmatisms of common life, but sophisticated philosophical dogmatisms.  The hope of most developers of philosophical dogmatisms is to refute the skeptical challenges that led to the repudiation of common life, to restore common life on a more solid foundation.  Unfortunately for philosophical dogmatists, skepticism does not obediently remain at the level of common life, waiting to be overthrown; rather, it follows them up to the level of autonomous reason, continuing to attack them where they live.


As at the level of common life, the initial response to skeptical challenges to philosophical dogmas will involve a circular return to those same philosophical dogmas, hoping to marshal more resources with which to overthrow the skeptic.  But, again as at the level of common life, eventually the skeptical challenges will becomes sophisticated enough to call into question the entire epistemological project.  The result is metaepistemological skepticism.  Its most conceptually powerful, and historically influential, expression is found in the Agrippan Trilemma, which I briefly discussed in the previous post.  The fundamental challenge of the Trilemma at the epistemological level is this: How do you justify that which makes justification possible?  Just as the skeptical challenges at the level of common life ended up calling into question the presupposition context of common life as a whole, likewise skeptical challenges at the level of autonomous reason end up calling into question the presupposition context of autonomous reason as a whole.  The question, of course, is where this leaves us.


I’ll take up that question, among others, in my next post.

Metaphilosophical Reflections II: The Entwinement of Skepticism and Philosophy

by reichorn

“… skepticism itself is in its inmost heart at one with every true philosophy.”

– Hegel, On the Relationship of Skepticism to Philosophy

“Whoever is believed in his presuppositions, he is our master and our God; he will plant his foundations so broad and easy that by them he will be able to raise us, if he wants, up to the clouds.”

–  Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond


This is the second in a series of guest-blogger posts by me, Roger Eichorn.  The first post can be found here.

I’m also a would-be fantasy author.  The first three chapters of my novel, The House of Yesteryear, can be found here.  I’ve also recently uploaded the first of what will be two ‘Bonus Scenes’ from later in the book.  You can find that here.  Now on to business…


What is philosophy?

In asking this question, it is misguided—and probably hopeless—to insist upon a strict definition (i.e., a definition that specifies necessary and sufficient conditions for something to qualify as ‘philosophy’).  Chances are good that no such definition is possible.  Rather, it is likely that philosophy is what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’ concept, that is, a concept that picks out a number of importantly distinct things that are more or less loosely bound together by a resemblance-relation.  Wittgenstein’s most famous example is the concept game: it seems impossible to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for something to qualify as a game, yet it also seems that all the various things we refer to as ‘games’ bear some sort of resemblance to one another.

What I’m after, then, is not a strict definition, but a sort of physiognomy of philosophy.  What is/are the most salient or common feature(s) of the family resemblance?  The explanatory desideratum is to understand what makes philosophy distinct from other intellectual domains.  What distinguishes philosophy from, say, theology or the sciences?  In most cases, it does seem that, as with porn, we ‘know it when we see it.’  But I think that, in addressing the question “What is philosophy?”, we can do better than simply pointing to examples.  Indeed, I believe that there is a single feature of philosophy that both (a) stands out more prominently than any other and (b) provides the groundwork for a systematic explanation both of philosophy’s relation to other intellectual domains and of the apparent interminability of philosophical inquiries.  That feature is skepticism.

Philosophy and skepticism are, I want to argue, inextricably entwined.


Now, what exactly I mean by ‘the entwinement of skepticism and philosophy’ will be the topic of this and the two posts that will follow.  Thus, my claim should not be prejudged.  In particular, it should not be dismissed out of hand.  Given what I’ve said so far, there are numerous ways of understanding the claim as meaning things I do not intend.

I began by asking “What is philosophy?”  Now, it seems, I’m forced to address first another nebulous question, namely, “What is skepticism?”  In fact, my answers to both questions will unfold together, over the course of this and subsequent posts.  The questions will be approached by way of a discussion of presuppositions, specifically the idea of freedom from presuppositions, or ‘presuppositionlessness.’

What do I mean by ‘presuppositions’?  It is important that we not over-intellectualize the concept, for doing so would obscure the sort of presupposition I’m most interested in.  I imagine that when many people think of presuppositions, they think first of something like (i) consciously developed and articulated hypotheses, such as those posited by scientists.  But there is also a deeper sense of presupposition, according to which presuppositions are (ii) the unreflective (or prereflective) commitments that frame or underlay our sayings and doings, our ‘situation’ as human-beings-in-the-world.  Presuppositions of this sort lie so far in the background—or, alternatively, saturate so completely—our cognitive lives as to be effectively invisible.  Such presuppositions can, at least in principle, be made visible; but such a process of explication involves thematizing commitments that were already there, rather than (as in the case of scientific hypotheses) developing new commitments.  A third sort of presupposition lies somewhere between the two: (iii) they are not hypotheses, but neither are they entirely unreflective.  In most cases, this third kind of presupposition will be taken, by those who hold them, as obviously true, perhaps as ‘self-evident.’  Thus, they will not be seen as presuppositions by those who hold them, but as something like fundamental, immovable, or indubitable beliefs/truths.

I shall refer in what follows to presupposition contexts.  A presupposition context is a ‘situation,’ with regard to our sayings and doings, that is framed and defined by either the second or the third sort of presupposition introduced in the previous paragraph.  Presupposition(ii) contexts define what I call ‘common life,’ i.e., the context into which we’re ‘thrown’ (as Heidegger would say), both as natural beings and as products of a particular culture.  Such contexts are the ‘background’ of our ‘everydayness’; their constitutive presuppositions determine to a large extent how the world shows up for us, in the sense of how things strike us, how they appear to us to be.  These presuppositions are expressed affectively as well as—indeed, perhaps more fundamentally than they are expressed—cognitively.

For instance, I happen to think that incest is wrong.  The proposition is one I find that I cannot fail to assent to.  Why do I believe that incest is wrong?  I could, of course, marshal any number of reasons to support the belief, but (a) the belief, in its cognitive guise, is capable of withstanding devastating counterarguments, and (b) even if I were brought around, intellectually, to rejecting the belief (which happens when I stop and really think about it), the belief qua affective-disposition remains.  In other words, even if I ‘officially’ reject the proposition that incest is wrong, I continue to find incest repulsive.  (Regarding this example: see the study referenced and discussed by Jesse Prinz in The Emotional Construction of Morals, p. 30.)  This repulsion is, on my view, an expression of the sort of deep underlying commitment that constitutes the context of common life.  Common life is, as Wittgenstein put it, an inherited background:  “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness.  No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false” (On Certainty, §94).  Presupposition(ii) contexts, then, are similar to what Wittgenstein refers to as ‘world-pictures’: “The propositions describing this world-picture [= in my terms, context-constitutive presuppositions] might be part of a kind of mythology.  And their role is like that of rules of a game; and the game can be learned purely practically, without learning any explicit rules” (On Certainty, §95).

Presupposition(iii) contexts are specialized domains of inquiry.  Their constitutive presuppositions are more or less reflective on a case-by-case basis.  Often, their constitutive presuppositions are going to match, and arise from, presuppositions framing the more general context of common life, with which specialized domains of inquiry are (at least) going to overlap.  So, for instance, historians presuppose that the past existed (i.e., that the world didn’t pop into existence five minutes ago), that the past is unchanging, that certain kinds of presently existing artifacts are capable of informing us about what happened in the past, etc.  It may be that a given historian has never actually formulated the belief that the past existed, in which case it looks more like an unreflective Type-2 presupposition.  The important point, however, is that the claim that the world has existed for x number of years is constitutive of the very practice of historical inquiry.  The historical-inquiry domain is specialized for precisely this reason: it has more or less definite boundaries, the crossing of which constitutes something like a foul.  If a nosy ‘subversive epistemologist’ (to borrow a helpful phrase from Michael Forster)—or perhaps a moon-eyed metaphysician—butts into an historical debate to ask, “But how do you know the world didn’t pop into existence five minutes ago?”, the historians have to hand a principled rationale for rejecting the question, for it lies outside the limits of the game they’re playing.  The historical-inquiry game can only proceed on the basis of such presuppositions.  Calling these context-constitutive presuppositions into question would entail the cessation of historical inquiry.  One would begin, instead, to philosophize.

As I suggested above, it can be misleading to refer to Type-2 and Types-3 presuppositions as presuppositions.  Type-2 presuppositions can seem to run ‘deeper’ than any mere presupposition.  As for Type-3 presuppositions, they are taken to be true (and so not merely presupposed) by those who hold them.  In the first case, ‘presupposition’ can seem too intellectual a notion; in the second case, it can seem inappropriate insofar as ‘presupposing’ seems to imply a degree of doubt or tentativeness.  All of that is true enough.  The rationale for nevertheless referring to ‘presuppositions’ in these cases is that that is how they appear from a philosophical standpoint.

As I’ll argue in more detail in my next post, the practice of philosophy is both historically and conceptually predicated on an initial skepticism regarding the inherent epistemic and practical authority of common life.  It strives to provide, now on a purely rational basis, the explanations and justifications that it itself took away from common life.  Crucial to stripping common life of epistemic and practical authority involves thematizing, and subsequently calling into question, its presuppositions.  (This does not mean that philosophers are necessarily hostile to everyday presuppositions.  On the contrary, I find that they are generally apologists.  But qua philosophers, they seek—usually without outright admitting as much—simply to transplant everyday presuppositions into richer, more solid, and, above all, more rational ground.  We can engage in combat in order to strengthen as well as to overthrow.)  Philosophy adopts the same sort of attitude toward the more reflective presuppositions of specialized contexts: what the historian takes to be self-evident or indubitable, the philosopher reduces to the status of a mere presupposition.


It’s hardly surprising, then, that philosophy has traditionally striven to free itself from presuppositions.  We simply accept, without reasons, all sorts of things in common life as well as in other, less ‘radical’ domains of inquiry.  Moreover, as context-constitutive, such presuppositions form the ground of our presupposition-contextual epistemic–doxastic practices.  Given this picture, it can seem that, barring the establishment of presuppositionless knowledge, we’re doomed to irrationality—to playing mere games in the upper stories of the citadel of reason while failing, or even refusing, to investigate its foundations, to see whether the building is sound, whether it rests upon the ground of truth.

In the Republic, Plato argues that genuine knowledge must be presuppositionless: it must descend from the top of the Divided Line down.  If we try to make progress bottom-up, we’re “compelled to work from assumptions, proceeding to an end-point, rather than back to an origin or first principle” (510b).  He considers the example of geometry and arithmetic: “[T]here are some things they take for granted in their respective disciplines.  Odd and even, figures and the three types of angle.  That sort of thing.  Taking these as known, they make them into assumptions.  They see no need to justify them either to themselves or to anyone else.  They regard them as plain to anyone.  Starting from these, they then go through the rest of the argument, and finally reach, by agreed steps, that which they set out to investigate” (510c–d).  Plato associates this sort of inquiry with what he simply calls “thinking” (534a).  ‘Thinking’ deals with objects of knowledge, but cannot arrive at genuine knowledge itself, precisely because it cannot dispose of its presuppositions.  “As for the subjects which we said did grasp some part of what really is [i.e., geometry and arithmetic]… we can now see that as long as they leave the assumptions they use untouched, without being able to give any justification for them, they are only dreaming about what is.  They cannot possibly have any waking awareness of it.  After all, if the first principles of a subject are something you don’t know, and the endpoint and intermediate steps are interwoven out of what you don’t know, what possible mechanism can there ever be for turning a coherence between elements of this kind into knowledge?” (533b–c).  Knowledge, on the other hand, is acquired only when one achieves freedom from presuppositions: the soul “goes from an assumption to an origin or first principle which is free from assumptions” (510b).  Reason “uses assumptions not as first principles, but as true ‘bases’—points to take off from, entry-points—until it gets to what is free from assumptions, and arrives at the origin or first principle of everything.  This it seizes hold of, then turns round and follows the things which follow from this first principle, and so makes its way down to an end-point” (511b–c).  The method of achieving presuppositionlessness Plato calls ‘dialectic’:  “The dialectical method is the only one which in its determination to make itself secure proceeds by this route—doing away with its assumptions until it reaches the first principle itself” (537d).

The same commitment to presuppositionlessness can be found in Kant.  As in Plato, this commitment pushes Kant to reject experience as capable of providing rational satisfaction.  “[E]xperience never fully satisfies reason; it [i.e., reason] directs us ever further back in answering questions and leaves us unsatisfied as regards their full elucidation” (Prolegomena).  “[R]eason does not find its satisfaction in experience, it asks about the ‘why,’ and can find a ‘because’ for a while, but not always.  Therefore it ventures a step out of the field of experience and comes to ideas.”  Unfortunately, the move to ‘ideas’ doesn’t help; even here, “one cannot satisfy reason,” for the ‘whys?’ never let up (Metaphysik Mrongovius).  As he puts it in the first introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, “Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own.  It begins from principles whose use is unavoidable in the course of experience and at the same time sufficiently warranted by it.  With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions.  But since it becomes aware in this way that its business must always remain incomplete because the questions never cease, reason sees itself necessitated to take refuge in principles that overstep all possible use in experience, and yet seem so unsuspicious that even ordinary common sense agrees with them.  But it thereby falls into obscurity and contradictions” (Avii–viii).  In other words, the common understanding makes use of principles that, although they are taken to be unproblematic in the course of everyday life, reason (i.e., philosophy) unmasks as objectively unjustified presuppositions (cf., Critique of Pure Reason, A473/B501).  Reason, which is not held in check by experience or by the contingencies of common life, strives after, and is satisfied by nothing less than, presuppositionlessness or, in Kant’s terms, the unconditioned.  “[R]eason in its logical use seeks the universal condition of its judgment…  [T]he proper principle of reason in general (in its logical use) is to find the unconditioned for conditioned cognitions of the understanding” (Critique of Pure Reason, A307/B364).  “[R]eason demands to know the unconditioned, and therewith the totality of all conditions, for otherwise it does not cease to question, just as if nothing had yet been answered” (“What Real Progress Has Metaphysics Made…?”).

Unlike Plato, however, Kant rejects the possibility at arriving at any sort of transcendent ground of truth.  Instead, he argues that we can only have knowledge within the sphere of experience.  Still, experience is structured in such a way, he argues, that we can have certain knowledge of what must be the case for experience to be possible at all.  (Kant calls this approach transcendental, which refers to conditions of possibility, not to ‘transcendence.’)  For Kant, the quest for presuppositionless knowledge ends not in transcendence, but in the uncovering of the determinate limits of knowledge.  As he puts it, reason will only be satisfied with “complete certainty”—which entails presuppositionlessness, since any lingering presuppositions could be doubted—“whether it be one of the cognition of the objects themselves or of the boundaries within which all of our cognitions of objects is enclosed” (Critique of Pure Reason, A761/B789).

There is a quite different tradition in Western philosophy, going back at least to Aristotle, that can be seen as furnishing a counterexample to my claim that philosophy strives for presuppositionlessness.  It is often thought that Aristotle was not concerned with skeptical problems, that he did not consider them worthy or requiring of response or refutation.  He is often taken to preempt skeptical philosophers by claiming that some of what they call ‘presuppositions’ are known to be true even though their truth cannot be demonstrated.  There’s clearly something right about the latter claim at least: as Aristotle says in the Posterior Analytics, “We contend that not all knowledge is demonstrative: knowledge of the immediate premises is indemonstrable” (72b).  The ‘immediate premises’ are what Aristotle calls ‘first principles.’  His argument, then, is that the truth of first principles cannot be demonstrated, yet nevertheless we can know them.

First off, I think it is clear that Aristotle’s philosophy is indeed entwined with skepticism, broadly construed (i.e., ‘subversive epistemologies’).  As we’ve just seen, he presents in the Posterior Analytics an anti-skeptical argument.  A similar anti-skeptical intent can be found elsewhere in the Aristotelian corpus, such as in the defense of logical laws in Metaphysics Book Gamma.  And while he has far more regard than Plato does for common, prephilosophical opinion (endoxa)—often using them as starting-points for the development of his own positions—he is ultimately skeptical of endoxa, for he displays both a willingness to reject it (when it happens to be wrong) and a desire to provide it with a more rational foundation (when it happens to be right).  If this is right, and if I’m right to conceptualize the entwinement of skepticism and philosophy as I’ve been doing so far, then we should find in Aristotle a commitment to the epistemic ideal of presuppositionlessness.  But just as it has seemed to many that Aristotle is unconcerned with skepticism, so it may seem that he lacks a commitment to the epistemic ideal of presuppositionlessness.  Addressing this issue in anything approaching a thorough way is impossible here.  All I’m going to do is focus on the anti-skeptical position we’ve looked at from the Posterior Analytics, according to which first principles are known immediately and indemonstrably.  Does this mean that Aristotle contents himself with presuppositional knowledge?

Aristotle’s argument in the Posterior Analytics anticipates—and may well have been the source of—the most powerful of all skeptical arguments, namely, the Agrippan Trilemma, according to which any attempt to justify a claim will end either in vicious circularity, infinite regress, or brute hypothesis.  Aristotle rejects outright the possibility of an infinite chain of justifications.  He also rejects circularity, for on his view, demonstrative knowledge relies on premises that are both prior to and better known than the conclusions derived from them.  In the case of circular justifications, though, the same propositions would have to be alternatively prior and subsequent to each other, alternatively better and worse known than each other.  Finally, he denies that immediately known first principles are mere hypotheses; if they were, then the most that could be concluded from them is that “if the primary things [the first principles] obtain, then so too do the things derived from them.”  His way of avoiding the Trilemma is to reject the assumption that all knowledge must be demonstrable: there is a type of indemonstrable knowledge, namely, knowledge of first principles.  But how do we know first principles?  On this, Aristotle’s remarks are cryptic, to say the least.  Such knowledge is not innate, but is said to “come to rest in the soul” as a result of “induction” from various instances of “perception” (100a–b).  Are these first principles merely presupposed, or are they known?  The skeptic—as well as many a dogmatist, such as Plato—will claim that they’re merely presupposed.  Aristotle, however, is going to deny this.  As we’ve seen, he holds that the first principles can be known, not merely hypothesized.  In fact, he holds that all demonstrative knowledge rests on prior knowledge: “All teaching and all learning of an intellectual kind proceed from pre-existent knowledge” (71a).  Aristotle, then, is not content with presuppositional knowledge.  We can disagree over the effectiveness of his strategy, but that his strategy evinces a commitment to presuppositionlessness should be clear.

Aristotle’s brand of anti-skeptical foundationalism can be found not only in later Aristotelians, but also, I would argue, in such philosophically distant groups as the so-called commonsense philosophers.  Like Aristotle, commonsense philosophy, from Thomas Reid to G.E. Moore to Jim Pryor, maintain that some things (indeed, a great many things) are simply and irrefutably known and so cannot be genuinely called into question.  These privileged bits of knowledge are indubitable, immovable, self-evident.

The problem—as Ambroise Beirce underlines in the entry on “Self-Evident” in The Devil’s Dictionary—is that, when scrutinized, self-evident seems to mean merely that which is “[e]vident to one’s self and to nobody else.”


More recently, many philosophers have questioned the viability or necessity of attaining freedom from presuppositions.  It has been argued, for instance by Robert Stalnaker, that ‘pragmatic presuppositions’ are a necessary condition for discourse (see his Content and Context, p. 49).  In On Certainty, Wittgenstein seems to make a similar argument: “[T]he questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn” (§341).  But, Wittgenstein adds, “[I]t isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption.  If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put” (§343).  “It may be that all enquiry on our part is set so as to exempt certain propositions from doubt, if they are ever formulated.  They lie apart from the route travelled by enquiry” (§88).

I’ll return to some of these ideas in subsequent posts.  For now, I want merely to point out that, on the picture I’m presenting, all domains of inquiry are presupposition-contextual from a philosophical standpoint.  It may be that determinate intellectual or dialogic progress can only be made against a fixed background of unquestioned commitments.  If this is so, and if I’m right that philosophy is traditionally committed to the ideal of presuppositionlessness, then we would have the beginnings of an explanation of the apparent interminability of philosophical inquiries.  Philosophy, even when explicitly committed to presuppositionlessness, often proceeds presupposition-contextually, such as when it mistakes its presuppositions for self-evident first principles.  If progress cannot be made presuppositionlessly, then the only way for philosophy to make progress would be somehow to forestall the possibility of calling into question the presuppositions structuring a given philosophical discourse.  The problem with this is that philosophy does not appear to have any determinate boundaries, such as those that structure historical inquiries.  Philosophy, in short, lacks a principled means of calling “Foul!”  Philosophers are free, qua philosophers, to call into question any presupposition whatsoever.  It seems, in fact, that the task of securing a determinate set of presuppositions for philosophy—a presupposition-set that would allow philosophy to make determinate progress—is actually incoherent, for it seems that the only rational way to forestall the possibility of calling into question context-constitutive presuppositions is to ground or justify those presuppositions; yet doing so is tantamount to stripping those presuppositions of their status as presuppositions.

In the Apology for Raymond Sebond, Michel de Montaigne wrote that “[i]t is very easy, upon accepted foundations, to build what you please…  Whoever is believed in his presuppositions, he is our master and our God; he will plant his foundations so broad and easy that by them he will be able to raise us, if he wants, up to the clouds…  If you happen to crash this barrier in which lies the principal error, immediately [philosophical dogmatists] have this maxim in their mouth, that there is no arguing against people who deny first principles.”  In Montaigne’s view, “there cannot be first principals for men,” given the limits of our reason.  “To those who fight by presupposition, we must presuppose the opposite of the same axiom we are disputing about.  For every human presupposition and every enunciation has as much authority as another, unless reason shows the difference between them.  Thus they must all be put in the scales, and first of all the general ones, and those which tyrannize over us.”  For as Kant wrote, “[R]eason has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express, without holding back, his objections and even his veto” (Critique of Pure Reason, A738–9/B766–7).

Metaphilosophical Reflections I: Preliminaries

by reichorn

“Men have, as it were, a calling to use their reason socially…  From this it follows naturally that everyone who has the principium of conceit, that the judgments of others are for him utterly dispensable in the use of his own reason and for the cognition of truth, thinks in a very bad and blameworthy way.”

–  Immanuel Kant, Blomberg Logic


Hello all!  This is Roger Eichorn.  I’ll be guest-blogging here for the remainder of the month, while Scott and his family are on vacation.

Like Scott, I’m here to peddle two sorts of product: philosophy and fantasy fiction (though, also like Scott, I find myself increasingly unable to tell them apart!).  On the philosophy side of things, I intend to present a series of posts that will introduce my metaphilosophy, that is, my philosophy of philosophy.  My metaphilosophical speculations bridge the systematic and the historical sides of my philosophical interests.  Thus, I’ll have occasion both to discuss the history of philosophy and to indulge in a bit of first-order philosophizing of my own.

As for my fantasy fiction, I hope that my front-page posts will drum up some renewed interest in the chapters that are already posted here.  If time and inspiration strikes, I may devote a front-page post or two to my fantasy work.  I’m not sure what form such posts would take.  I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on what they’d be most interested in reading.  Three options have occurred to me as likely possibilities: (i) I could post selections from later parts of the book, that is, later than the three chapters already posted here; (ii) I could try to write short, standalone-ish companion pieces, like Scott’s Atrocity Tales; or (iii) I could write ‘historical’ or ‘metaphysical’ posts about the world in which the story takes place, like the sort of material one might find in an Appendix.

Obviously, (i) would be the easiest.  In a perfect world, I would love to do (ii)—but it would require the greatest expenditure of time and energy.  Moreover, I’ve never been good at short fiction.  My ‘short story’ ideas are invariably novel-sized ideas—and my ‘book’ ideas are invariably ‘series-of-books’ ideas!  It would certainly be an interesting experiment, but I would run a serious risk of falling on my compositional face.  As for (iii), it would fall somewhere between (i) and (ii) on the ‘difficulty’ / ‘risk-of-creative-failure’ axis.


Now, in the remainder of this post, I’d like to raise and discuss some of the questions that motivate my metaphilosophical reflections.  Most generally, there are fundamental questions such as “What is philosophy?” and “How is philosophy related to other domains of intellectual inquiry?”  In conversation, I often get at these issues by asking, “Just what exactly do philosophers think they’re doing when they philosophize?”  If I’m allowed to go on, I often elaborate thusly:  “I mean, what do philosophers hope to achieve?  And why do they suppose that their methods—whatever those happen to be—are apt for achieving those ends?  Why those methods and not others?”

It’s interesting that there seems to be no uncontroversial answers to questions of this sort.  The same cannot be said of most, if not all, other established domains of intellectual inquiry.  I mean, sure, historians or sociologists or physicists might give different answers to these sorts of questions, but there is likely to be a more or less easily achieved equilibrium between their differing answers.  Not so in philosophy.  As for methodology, there might be (and undoubtedly is) real disagreement among, say, historians about how best to pursue historical investigations; but on closer inspection, those methodological disagreements are likely to be based on a broad foundation of agreement such that their disagreements are relatively superficial.  Not so in philosophy.

This should not be taken to mean that there is no metaphilosophical harmony among philosophers.  There is.  But it is local—across both time and space—to a degree that far exceeds that of other domains of intellectual inquiry.  Moreover, what harmony does exist seems accidental (as opposed to ‘essential’), in the sense that it doesn’t appear to arise from any intrinsic feature of philosophy itself.  In most cases, it doesn’t even arise from a shared explicit commitment to some sort of metaphilosophical ‘self-understanding.’  In most cases, it seems rather to be a function of where and with whom one first studied philosophy, or to be the residue of a ‘politics of exclusion’ perpetuated by philosophers either by (a) reading (or assigning) only certain sorts of texts, or (b) actively looking down upon certain other sorts of texts (and those who read or assign them).

In short, compared to other intellectual disciplines, philosophy-as-such seems untethered, curiously free of any definitive theoretical or conceptual commitments.  (I say ‘philosophy-as-such’ to emphasize my unwillingness to play the inclusion/exclusion game.  That is, at the level of abstraction from which I’m beginning, there is no basis for claiming that person x, who calls herself a philosopher, really is a philosopher, whereas person y, who also calls herself a philosopher, isn’t really a philosopher.  One finds such accusations being made, for instance, across the notorious—and notoriously unhelpful, from an explanatory standpoint—Analytic–Continental divide.)

Another question that motivates my metaphilosophical reflections concerns the apparent interminability of philosophical disputes.  It is often claimed, especially by those unsympathetic to philosophy, that philosophy hasn’t made any progress in 2,500 years.  This is frequently contrasted with the startling successes of mathematics and the hard sciences in the modern era.  Often, pointing to this contrast is considered sufficient to prove philosophy’s intellectual bankruptcy.  As will become apparent over the course of this series of posts—and as longtime TPB’ers already know—I’m an unlikely candidate for Champion of Philosophy, given that I’m a card-carrying Skeptic.  Even so, I think that the common picture of ‘futile philosophy’ alongside ‘all-conquering science’ is deeply naive.

To begin with, there’s the historical fact that all the sciences—indeed, virtually every branch of intellectual inquiry—was once part of philosophy proper.  Far from having made no progress in 2,500 years, philosophy has in fact succeeded in spawning every branch of the modern academic tree.  (It’s telling that all Ph.D’s are doctors of philosophy.)  Furthermore, as I’m going to argue in subsequent posts, at the level of abstraction at which philosophical disputes are interminable, all disputes are interminable, regardless whether the disputes’ subject matter is thought of as belonging to ‘philosophy.’  In other words, the interminability of philosophical disputes points up a general fact about human cognition, not a fact peculiar to some specialized domain of inquiry called ‘philosophy.’  Indeed, as I’ve suggested above, there is a sense in which no such domain of inquiry exists.  There are no clear boundaries, no clear definitions, of ‘philosophy.’  Ultimately, I want to argue that ‘philosophical reflection’ is distinguished from other forms of intellectual inquiry neither by its subject matter nor by its methodology, but rather by its radicality (which should be understood literally, as pertaining to roots, an etymological link that gives us the word ‘radish’).  In subsequent posts, I’ll connect the ‘radicality’ of philosophy to the idea of presuppositionlessness, which I take to be the concept by means of which philosophy can be distinguished from, and related to, other domains of intellectual inquiry.

The metaphilosophical problem of interminability connects up with another question I’m interested in, one that seems especially pertinent given the dust-up in the discussion thread of Scott’s latest post on the Blind Brain Theory: namely, the philosophical significance of disagreement, specifically disagreement among epistemic peers.  I may or may not take up this issue to the extent it deserves, as it’s secondary to the main points I want to make.  That’s why I want to flag it here as an issue that should be kept in mind as we proceed.

There’s a sense in which the interminability of philosophical inquiries seems to be a function of—or at least to be correlated to—the interminability of philosophical disagreements.  On the other hand, unless we subscribe to a consensus theory of truth (which should be kept separate from a consensus criterion of truth) it seems that, in and of itself, disagreement is epistemically unproblematic.  After all, if person x is right about p and person y is wrong about p, then the fact that persons x and y continue to disagree about p has no bearing on the truth or falsity of p.  Yet even if this is right (which—again, barring a consensus theory of truth—it seems to be), it strikes me as wrongheaded in the extreme to deny that persistent, irresolvable disagreement among epistemic peers is epistemically problematic (in some sense, at least).  In my view, while disagreement may be unproblematic with respect to theories of truth (i.e., with regard to truth as such), it is deeply problematic with respect to criteria of truth.  In other words, even if disagreement does not stand in the way of us being right, it does (at least among epistemic peers) stand in the way of us knowing we’re right.

Kant saw this clearly.  “[R]eason,” he wrote, “has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express, without holding back, his objections and even his veto” (Critique of Pure Reason, A738–9/B766–7).  He refers to “the comparison of our judgments with those of others” as a “touchstone of truth,” while “[t]he incompatibility of the judgments of others with our own is… an external mark of error” (Jäsche Logic).  And in the Blomberg Logic, he claims that “[a]s long as there is controversy concerning a thing… as long as disputes are exchanged by this side or the other, the thing is not yet settled at all.”  Underlying these claims is a commitment to the view that human beings share in one and the same common humanity.  There is no principled way, at the least at the outset of a dispute, to privilege one person’s opinion over that of another, for we are all human.  If we genuinely know that we know that p—that is, if we have genuine reflective knowledge that p and not simply an unverified (though possibly true) belief that p—then we should, it seems, be able to demonstrate to others that we know p such that they will come to recognize the truth of p and come to believe—and know—p as well.

In many domains of inquiry—including that vast, amorphous domain I call ‘common life,’ which simply refers to our everyday world, in which many things are routinely inquired into, etc.—there are more or less established means of arriving at the sort of rational consensus Kant has in mind.  (A prime generator of consensus in today’s world is Google, as when someone interrupts a dispute by saying, “Just Google it!”)  An example can be found in Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates teaches (‘demonstrates’ the truth of) geometric axioms to a slave-boy.  Now, looked at more closely, available mechanisms for generating rational consensus are all questionable with respect to whether or not they are productive of genuine knowledge.  (Google certainly is.)  But even so, it is peculiar that philosophy is a domain of inquiry that, as a whole, has no generally agreed upon methods for generating consensus.  Again, as I suggested above, I think this points up not a shortcoming of philosophy as such, but rather a shortcoming of human cognition as such.  Hence, no matter how well-established a given ‘regime of truth’ may be, intellectual history suggests that none is immune to revision, reconceptualization, and rejection.  Even those geometric proofs that Plato taught the slave-boy can be called into question by non-Euclidian geometries.

So what is going on when a number of people, all possessing at least the minimum intellectual capabilities necessary to grasp the matter in hand, cannot agree?  My answer, in short, is that these people are working on the basis of differing sets of underlying presuppositions, meaning that their disagreement is rooted in a deeper disagreement about which they are not actively arguing.  Hence, they are unable to make progress toward consensus, for the roots of their disagreement go deeper than their debate does.

Depending on how much conceptual baggage one loads onto this initial characterization, the view will likely seem either obviously (and so uninterestingly) true or else overly (and hence uninterestingly) simplistic.  There is a sense in which I agree with the ‘obviously-true’ charge—though I think that the consequences of the view, once thought out, are far from obvious.  As for the ‘overly-simplistic’ charge: while I agree that the view is literally neat, I think it will become clear, once it’s looked at more closely, that the apparent simplicity of the view’s initial statement masks all sorts of hidden complexities.

One thing my view does not do is provide a means of escaping dialogic impasses, if ‘escape’ means generating consensus.  The most I hope for is to point toward the possibility of reorientation, the possibility of coming to view the epistemic–doxastic state both of ourselves and of others—and hence the nature of our disagreements—differently such that we don’t give in to the tempting move Wittgenstein noted when he wrote, “Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and a heretic” (On Certainty, §611).

With respect to the charge of foolishness, we would do better to recognize that we are all fools.  As Michel de Montaigne wrote, in the voice of the Delphic Oracle, “There is not a single thing as empty and needy as you [i.e., Man], who embrace the universe: you are the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and all in all, the fool of the farce” (Of Vanity).

With respect to the charge of heresy, we would do better to question our own judgment at least as strongly as we question that of the person with whom we disagree.  Again quoting Montaigne:  “… it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them” (Of Experience).

I look forward to working through some of these ideas with all of you over the next couple weeks.  I’ll do my best to keep up with the comments.  Thanks for reading!

The Ptolemaic Restoration: Object Oriented Whatevery and Kant’s Copernican Revolution

by rsbakker

“And now, after all methods, so it is believed, have been tried and found wanting, the prevailing mood is that of weariness and complete indifferentism” –Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason


So, continuing my whirlwind interrogation of the new Continental materialisms, I want to turn to Object-Oriented Whatevery via the lens of Levi Bryant’s, “The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object Oriented Ontology.” As always, I need to impress I’m a tourist and not a native of these philosophical climes, so I sincerely encourage anyone who comes across what seems to be an obvious misreading on my part to expose the offending claims in the comments. My goals, once again, are both critical and constructive: in the course of showing you why I think it’s obvious that Bryant cannot deliver the goods as advertised, I want to demonstrate the explanatory reach and power of BBT, not as any kind of theoretical panacea, but as a system of empirically tractable claims that, in the tradition of scientific theory more generally, are quite indifferent to what we want to be the case. Like I’ve said before, the conclusions suggested by BBT are so radical as to almost qualify as a reductio, were it not for the fact that a reductio is precisely the way it would appear were it true. And besides, as I hope some of you are at least beginning to see, there is something genuinely uncanny about its explanatory power.

Essentially I want to argue that BBT may actually deliver on what Bryant advertises–a way out of the philosophical impasses of the tradition, even a ‘flat ontology’ rationalized via difference!–though its consequences are nowhere near so kind. I’ve corresponded with Levi in the past, and he strikes me as a good egg. It’s his position I find baffling. With any luck he’ll do what Hagglund found incapable: acknowledge, expose, and contradict–inject some much-needed larva into Three Pound Brain!

Bryant begins, not by rehearsing the primary motive of critical philosophy–namely, how the failure of dogmatic philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge convinced philosophers to examine knowing–but rather the claim of critical philosophy, the notion “that prior to any claims about the nature of reality, prior to any speculation about objects or being, we must first secure a foundation for knowledge and our access to beings” (262). This allows him, quite without irony, to rehearse what he takes to be the primary motive of Object Oriented Ontology: the failure of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge. “Faced with such a bewildering philosophical situation,” he writes, “what if we were to imagine ourselves as proceeding naively and pre-critically as first philosophers, pretending that the last three hundred years of philosophy had not taken place or that the proper point of entry into philosophical speculation was not the question of access?” In other words, given the failure of three centuries of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge, perhaps the time has come to embrace, as best we can, the two millennia of dogmatic failure that preceded it.

Thus he motivates a turn away from the subject of knowledge to the object of knowledge, from the epistemological to the ontological–as we should, apparently, given that the object comes first. After all, as Heidegger made ‘clear,’ “questions of knowledge are already premised on a pre-ontological comprehension of being” (263). Unlike Heidegger, however, who saw in this pre-ontological comprehension an interpretative basis for theorizing a collapse of subject and object (which quickly came to resemble a conceptually retooled subject), Bryant sees a call to theorize, in tentative fashion, the ‘ultimate generalities’ that objectively organize the world. Premier among these tentative ultimate generalities, he asserts, is difference. This leads Bryant to pose what he calls the ‘Ontic Principle,’ the claim “that ‘to be’ is to make or produce a difference” (263).

Why should difference be our ‘fundamental principle’? Well, because all epistemology presupposes it. As he writes:

Paradoxically it therefore follows that epistemology cannot be first philosophy. Insofar as the question of knowledge presupposes a pre-epistemological comprehension of difference, the question of knowledge always comes second in relation to the metaphysical or ontological priority of difference. As such, there can be no question of securing the grounds of knowledge in advance or prior to an actual engagement with difference. 265

To which the reader might be tempted to ask, How do you know?

This is one of those junctures that makes me (if only momentarily) appreciate Derrida and his tireless attempts to show philosophers the inextricable co-implication of dokein and krinein. The easiest way to illustrate it here is to simply wonder aloud what is ‘presupposed’ by difference. If difference comes before epistemology because epistemology ‘presupposes’ difference as its ‘condition,’ and if the ultimate ‘first first,’ no matter how ‘tentative,’ is what we are after, then we should inquire into the presuppositions of our alleged presupposition. Since there can be no difference without the negation of some prior identity, for instance, perhaps we should choose identity–snub Heraclitus and do a few rails with Parmenides.

Can counterarguments be adduced against the ontological primacy of identity? Of course they can (and Bryant helps himself to a few), just as counterarguments can be adduced against those counterarguments, and so on and so on. In other words, if critical philosophy is motivated by the failure of dogmatic philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge, and if Bryant’s neo-dogmatic philosophy is motivated by the failure of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge, then perhaps we should skip the ‘and centuries passed’ part, assume the failure of neo-dogmatism to produce theoretical knowledge and, crossing our fingers, simply leap straight into neo-critical philosophy.

Far from ‘escaping’ or ‘solving’ anything, this strategy–quite obviously in my opinion–perpetrates the very process it sets out to redress. Let’s call this state of oscillating institutional emphasis on the subject and the object of knowledge, ‘correlativity.’ And let’s call ‘correlativism’ the idea according to which philosophy can only ever prioritize either subject or object and never any term other than these two.

Why has correlativism so dominated philosophy since its Modern inception? I actually think I can give a naturalistic answer to this question. The dichotomy of subject and object, of course, possesses a myriad of conceptual attenuations, binaries such as thought and being, mind and body, spirit and matter, ideal and real, epistemology and ontology, to name but a few of the oppositions that have constrained the possibilities of coherent, speculative thought for centuries now. There are other binaries, certainly, categorical conceptual oppositions (such as that between difference and identity) that a number of philosophers (like Heidegger) have recruited in various attempts to think beyond subjectivity and objectivity, only to find themselves, inexorably it seems, re-inscribed within the logic of ‘correlativism.’ In this sense, I will be following a very well-trodden path, though one quite different than the one proposed by Bryant above–or so I like to think.

The primary problem I see with Bryant’s approach is that it takes the failure of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge to obviate the need to answer the primary question that it sought to answer, which is, namely, the question of securing speculative truth despite the limitations of our nature. We are afflicted with numerous ‘cognitive scandals,’ basic questions it seems we should be able to answer but for whatever reason cannot. What is the good? Does the external world exist? What is beauty? Does the past exist? What is justice? Do other minds exist? What is consciousness? No matter how many answers we throw at these and other questions, the skeptic always seems to carry the day–and handily.

For whatever reason, we lack the capacity to decisively answer these questions. When it comes to the problems of critical philosophy, Bryant would have you focus on the ‘critical’ and to overlook the ‘philosophy.’ What precisely failed when it came to critical philosophy? Given the manner it seeks to redress the failure of dogmatic philosophy, the more obvious answer (by far one would think) is philosophy. And indeed, the more cognitive psychology learns about human reasoning, the more understandable the generational failure of philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge becomes. Human beings are theoretically incompetent, plain and simple. Doubtless we have the capacity to theorize, but it is a capacity that evolved long before our theories could exhibit any accuracy. Whatever fitness it rendered our ancestors had precious little to do with theoretical ‘discovery.’ Science would not represent the signature institutional achievement of our times were it otherwise.

In all likelihood, the critical impulse, the call for reason to critique reason, had no special part to play in critical philosophy’s failure to secure theoretical knowledge. So why then did it fail to improve the lot of philosophy? Well, who’s to say it hasn’t? Perhaps it improved the cognitive prospects of philosophy in a manner that philosophy has yet to discern. It’s worth recalling that for Kant, the project of critique was in an important sense continuous with the greater enterprise of Enlightenment. Noting the power of mathematics and natural science, he writes:

Their success should incline us, at least by way of experiment, to imitate their procedure, so far as the analogy which, as species of rational knowledge, they bear to metaphysics may commit. Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have ended in failure. We must therefore make trial of whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given. We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved around the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects. (Critique of Pure Reason, 22)

If it is the case that the sciences more or less monopolize theoretical cognition, then the most reasonable way for reason to critique reason is via the sciences. The problem confronting Kant, however, was nothing less than the problem confronting all inquiries into cognition until very recently: the technical and theoretical intractability of the brain. So Kant was forced to rely on theoretical reason absent the methodologies of natural science. In other words, he was forced to conceive critique as more philosophy, and this presumably, is why his project ultimately failed.

The best Kant could do was draw some kind of moral from the sciences, a ‘procedural analogy’ as he puts it. Taking Copernicus as his example, he thus proposes ‘to put the spectator into motion.’ Kant scholars have debated the appropriateness of this analogy for centuries. As Russell notoriously points out, Kant does not so much put the subject into motion about the object as he puts the object into motion about the subject and so “would have been more accurate if he had spoken of a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’ since he put Man back at the centre from which Copernicus had dethroned him” (Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1). Where the Descartes’ subject anchored the possibility of knowledge, the Kantian subject anchors the possibility of experience. As the invariant frame of every possible experience, transcendental subjectivity would seem to be ‘motionless’ if anything. So if one takes the ‘spectator’ in Kant’s analogy to be the subject, it becomes hard to understand what he means.

In a famous note to the Second Preface a few pages subsequent, however, Kant suggests he’s after an ‘analogous change in point of view,’ one allowing us to see truths that are otherwise “contradictory of the senses” (25). After all, for thousands of years the prevailing assumption was that the subject had no constitutive role to play, that objects could thus be known without consideration of the knower. And in this sense, his analogy functions quite well. Consider, for instance, the elaborate theoretical machinery once required to make sense of the retrograde motion of Mars across the night sky, and how simply putting the spectator-earth into motion allows us to resolve this otherwise perplexing experience. Our problematic experience of Mars is literally an illusion pertaining to our ignorance of earth. Kant is claiming the ‘retrograde motions’ of metaphysics are likewise an illusion pertaining to our ignorance of cognition.

The parallel, as he sees it, lies in the attribution of activity to the ‘spectator.’ In early 1772, Kant wrote to Marcus Herz regarding the question of “how a representation that refers to an object without being in any way affected by it can be possible,” a letter that clearly signals the decisive break in his thought leading to the so-called ‘silent decade’ separating his dogmatic Inaugural Dissertation from the Critique. “If such intellectual representations depend on our inner activity,” he asks, “whence comes the agreement that they are supposed to have with objects–objects that are nevertheless not possibly produced thereby?” All critical philosophy, you could say, is struck from the hip of this question–one that could just as easily be posed to Bryant and his fellow Speculative Realists today…

So where Copernicus resolved the manifest problems of astronomy by attributing planetary motion to the earth, Kant thinks he has resolved the manifest problems of metaphysics by attributing representational activity to the subject. Expressed thus, the analogy is quite clear. So then why does it also seem to constitute an egregious disanalogy as Russell and others insist? Call this Kant’s Copernican paradox: the way his attribution of activity to the subject, though analogous to Copernicus’ attribution of motion to the earth, somehow commits him to a Ptolemaic conception of subjectivity. As preposterous as it sounds, I think the resolution to this paradox could entail nothing less than the end of philosophy as we know it…

Like everything else, these strange fucking days.


First I want to point out a couple of strange features that no one, to my knowledge anyway, has called attention to before. The first regards the curious assumption of spectatorial immobility or inactivity. Why is it that both the astronomical and the metaphysical tradition initially assumed the immobility of the earth and the inactivity of the subject respectively? Why should, in other words, immobility or inactivity be the default, the intuition to be overcome?

The second regards Kant’s hubristic cognitive presumption, the fact that he quite literally believed he had solved all the problems of metaphysics. For all its notorious technicality, the Critique possesses a bombast that would make a laughingstock of any philosopher writing today, and yet, not only do we find Kant’s proclamations forgivable, we somehow find them–implicitly at least–understandable as well. Somehow we intuitively understand how Kant, given the unprecedented nature of his approach, could be duped into thinking his way was the only way. Why does ignorance of alternatives generate the illusion of univocality? Or conversely, why does the piling on of interpretations tend to undermine the plausibility of novel interpretations?

This latter, of course, turns on the invisibility of ignorance–or as the Blind Brain Theory terms it, sufficiency. Our brains are mechanistic systems, astronomically complex symphonies of stochastically interrelated activities. Sufficiency simply follows from our mechanistic nature: central nervous systems operate according to information activated. This is the basic reason why insufficiency is parasitic upon sufficiency (and ultimately why falsehood is parasitic upon truth). The cognition of insufficient information as insufficient always requires more information. And so Kant, lacking information regarding the insufficiency of his interpretations, information that only became available as the array of viable alternatives became ever more florid, assumed sufficiency, that is, the apodictic status of his ‘transcendental deductions.’

The former also turns on sufficiency, albeit in a different respect. Cognizing the mobility of the earth requires information to that effect. In the absence of such information, we quite simply lack the ability to differentiate the position of the earth one moment to the next. Thus the manifest experience of the heavens moving about a motionless earth. The same goes for the subject: cognizing the activity of the subject requires information regarding differences made. In the absence of that information quite simply no difference is made. Thus the dogmatic metaphysical stance, where the philosopher, possessing only information regarding the objects of knowledge, attributes all activity (differentiation) to those objects and assumes cognition is a passive register.

So what does any of this have to do with the Copernican paradox described above? As we noted, the analogy works insofar as it attributes what is manifest to the activity of the subject. The analogy fails, on the other hand, because of the way it seems to render the subject the motionless centre about which objects now revolve. The solution to this paradox, not surprisingly, turns on the question of where the information runs out. Kant himself refers, on occasion, to finding the ‘data sufficient to determine the transcendental,’ assuming (given sufficiency, once again) that the information he had available was all that he required. But, as the subsequent profusion of variant transcendental interpretations have made plain, the information at his disposal does not even come close to possessing apodictic sufficiency. Given the pervasive and not to mention persuasive nature of sufficiency, it is worth rehearsing how the accumulation of scientific information has transformed our traditional metacognitive understanding of memory. Our traditional metacognitive assumption was that memory was a kind of storehouse, like the aviary Plato immortalized in the Theaetetus. With Ebbinghaus in the 19th century memory at last became an object of scientific inquiry. The story then becomes one of accumulating distinctions between different kinds of memory, as well as a drastic reappraisal of its veridical and systematic role. The picture that has emerged is so complicated, in fact, so different from our initial metacognitive assumptions, that some researchers now advocate dispensing with the traditional notion of memory altogether.

Our metacognitive sense of memory, what makes Plato’s analogy so convincing, is quite simply an artifact of informatic neglect, our inability not only to cognize the complexities of our capacity to remember, but to cognize that inability to cognize. BBT maintains that metacognitive blindness or neglect is a wholesale affair. Thus the ‘introspection illusion.’ Thus the troubling nature of dissociations such as that found in ‘pain asymbolia.’ Thus the ‘peculiar fate’ of reason, how, as Kant notes at the beginning of his first Preface to the original Critique, “it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer” (7). Thus, in other words, the blindness of reason to itself.

And, most importantly here, thus the transcendental. The idea is this: the problems besetting dogmatic philosophy provided Kant the information required to attribute activity to various aspects of subjective cognition and nothing more. The reason Kant’s Copernican analogy takes the peculiar, Ptolemaic form it does has to do with the way metacognitive neglect combined with the illusion of sufficiency forces him to locate the activities he attributes beyond the circuit of nature–to characterize them as ‘transcendental.’ Thus, lacking the information required to differentially situate these activities, they seem to reside nowhere. The conceptual activity of the subject finds itself nested within the empirically occluded and therefore apparently ‘motionless’ frame of transcendental subjectivity. And this is how Kant, in the act of prosecuting his Copernican revolution, simultaneously achieves a Ptolemaic restoration. Where in dogmatic philosophy the known invariably moves the knowing, in critical philosophy the knowing becomes the unmoved mover of everything that can be possibly known.

The cognition of difference requires information. Absent that information, identity is the default, be it the ‘positional’ self-identity of a motionless earth or a transcendental subject. It’s worth noting that this diagnosis applies whether one opts for an ontological or formal interpretation of Kant. Interpret Kant’s concepts any way you will, if they are to be active in any meaningful sense they have to be natural, which is to say, situated. The Blind Brain Theory maintains that the information integrated into consciousness and made available for conscious deliberation does not magically cut our ‘inner world’ at the joints. It is a brute fact that astronomical information asymmetries characterize the actual operations of our brain and our metacognitive sense of ‘mind.’ BBT provides a way of interpreting the metacognitive conundrums of intentionality and consciousness as artifacts of this asymmetry, the result of various forms of ‘information blindness,’ anosognosias that in some cases generate profound illusions. Consciousness is remarkably low-dimensional, not in the information-conserving sense of compression, but in the ‘lossy’ sense of depletions, distortions, and occlusions. Given that the information available to consciousness is the only information available for conscious cognition, we should not be surprised that this empirical fact possesses profound consequences across the whole range of human cognition. The Copernican paradox is one of these consequences, a striking example of the way information privation generates what might be called the ‘out-of-play’ illusion, the sense that the earth is the motionless centre of the universe on the one hand, and the sense that transcendental activity stands outside the circuit of nature, on the other. When combined with sufficiency, or what might be called the ‘only-game-in-town’ illusion, it becomes easy to understand why both geocentrism and transcendental idealism commanded the heights of cognition as long as they did.

(It’s worth noting in passing that both of these illusions are amenable to empirical verification. Any number of experiments can be imagined. Once again, unlike the speculative positions critiqued here, the Blind Brain Theory is continuous with the natural sciences.)

So to return to our question above: Why did ‘critical philosophy’ fail to provide the kind of theoretical knowledge that dogmatic philosophy could not? Because, simply enough, Kant and his successors not only lacked the information they required to naturalize the activity of the subject, they lacked the information required to realize they suffered this lack in the first place! Identifying activity, which is to say, identifying the difference the subject makes, will go down in history as Kant’s signature achievement, his gift to human civilization. But his insight was premature: only now, given the theoretical and technical resources belonging to the sciences of the brain, are we in a position to situate this activity within the greater arena of the natural world.

And this is what makes Bryant’s critique of critical philosophy so retrograde–even atavistic. Here the sciences of brain of the brain are actually making good on the goal of critical philosophy, laying bare the mechanistic activities that underwrite experience and knowledge, and Bryant is calling for a wholesale repudiation, not simply of critical philosophy, but of this very goal. So for instance, we already have a pretty good empirical understanding of why dogmatic philosophy was doomed to failure: humans are theoretically incompetent absent the institutional, conceptual, and procedural prosthetics of the sciences. We also have a good empirical understanding of the heuristic nature, not simply of human cognition, but of all animal cognition. The same way memory research has progressively complicated our traditional monolithic, metacognitive sense of memory, the sciences of the brain are doing the same with regard to cognition more generally. The more we learn, the more clear it’s becoming that cognition is fractionate, a concatenation of specialized tools, heuristics that conserve computational resources via the systematic neglect of information.

On the Blind Brain Theory, the subject-object paradigm is another one of these heuristics, which is to say, a way to effectively comport our organism to its environments absent certain kinds of information. Recapitulating distal (environmental) information exhausts the resources of the mechanisms involved. Recapitulating proximal (neural) information thus requires supplementary mechanisms, which, given the sheer complexity of the neural mechanisms required to recapitulate distal information, either need to be far more powerful than those mechanisms, or to settle for far less fidelity. More brain, in other words, is required for the brain to track itself the way it tracks its environments. Given the exorbitant metabolic expense (not to mention the absence of direct evolutionary pressures) of such secondary tracking systems, it should come as no surprise that the brain suffers medial neglect, a wholesale inability to track its own functions. This is why the neurofunctional context of any information integrated into conscious cognition (the way it is actually utilized) escapes conscious cognition–why, in other words, experience is ‘transparent.’ This is why we perceive objects while remaining almost utterly blind to the machinery of perception. And this is why our sense of subjectivity is so granular, ineffable, and mysterious. The usurious expense of proximal cognition imposes drastic constraints on our metacognitive capacities, constraints that themselves utterly escape metacognition.

The subject-object paradigm is a heuristic solution according to BBT, a way for the brain to maximize cognitive effectiveness while minimizing metabolic costs. So long as the medial mechanisms involved in the recapitulation of environmental information do not impact the environment tracked, then medial neglect possesses no immediate liabilities and leverages tremendous gains in efficiency. Our brains can track various causal systems in its environment without having to account for any interference generated by the systems doing the tracking. But as soon as those tracking systems do impact their targets–as soon as observation finds itself functionally entangled with its targets–cognition quickly becomes difficult if not impossible. In such instances it must track effects that it cannot, given the occlusion of its own causal activities (medial neglect), situate within the causal nexus of any natural environment. As a heuristic, the subject-object paradigm is not a universal problem solver, though the only-game-in-town illusion (sufficiency) means metacognition is bound to intuit it as such. This explains, not only why we continue to find experience mysterious even as our environmental cognition presses to the asymptotic limits of particle physics and cosmology, but also why those perplexities take the shape they do.

Subject-object cognition, thanks to medial neglect, is utterly incapable of producing genuine theoretical metacognition. Given the subject-object paradigm, the brain remains a necessary blind-spot, something that it can only cognize otherwise. Thus the invisibility of activity, and the epochal nature of Kant’s critical insight. Thus the default nature of dogmatic philosophy, why millennia of errant groping were required before realizing that we were not, as far as cognition was concerned, out of play.

It’s hard to overstate the eerie elegance of this account–damn hard. Whatever the case, BBT is an exhaustive interpreter. Not only does it seem to resolve a number of notorious, hitherto unresolvable conundrums pertaining to consciousness using one basic insight, it claims to offer understanding, in impressionistic outline at least, of why philosophical inquiry has followed the trajectory it has.

In the present context, however, the thing to remember is simply this: To speak of subjects and/or objects as metaphysically fundamental is to immediately commit oneself to the universality of a certain kind of low-dimensional cartoon, which is to say, a heuristic that organizes information in a manner that enables or impedes cognition depending on the particular ecology it finds itself deployed in. The cartoonishness of this cartoon, the way it betrays as opposed to facilitates cognition, is something numerous critics in numerous contexts have called attention to (perhaps illuminating portions of BBT from less comprehensive perspectives). For proponents of so-called embodied cognition, for instance, the subject-object paradigm constitutively neglects what might be called the brain-environment, the greater mechanism that explains the profound continuity of our organism with its environments. For Heidegger, on the other hand, it’s a paradigmatic expression of the ‘metaphysics of presence,’ the wilderness through which the tribes of thought wander awaiting the promise of ‘being.’ For other thinkers in the phenomenological and post-structural traditions, it distorts and conceals essential relations, generating structurally inescapable impasses, social alienation, as well as facilitating myriad abuses of authority and capital.

And for ‘speculative realists’ such as Bryant, Harman, and Meillasoux, it confounds the possibility of genuine theoretical knowledge. Thus the curious canard of ‘correlation,’ and the even more curious conceit that simply naming the subject-object paradigm as a problem provides theoretical egress, rather than, as even the most rabid enthusiast must recognize as a storm-cloud on the horizon, simply more of the same. Gone are the early days of novelty, and with it the only-game-in-town illusion of genuine philosophical progress. Speculative realism is now mired in the same ‘bewildering philosophical situation’ it takes as its motive, making claims to theoretical knowledge on inferential grounds every bit as interpretative as those it seeks to supplant, pinning skyhook to skyhook, in the effort to conceal the fact that everything is left hanging

No different than before.

So many ironies and problems bedevil this approach I simply don’t know where to begin. I’ve already mentioned the unfortunate timing involved in denying activity to cognition just as the bona fide sciences of those activities are in bloom. If theoretical knowledge is what Bryant is after, as he claims, then he need only embrace these sciences, embrace naturalism and foreswear his metaphysical fundamentalism. It’s a good rule-of-thumb, I think most will be inclined to agree, to be incredulous of any systematic set of claims that argues against incredulity. But this is precisely what Bryant does in arguing that, even though all his claims are in fact conditioned by his cognitive capacities, personal history, social context, and so on, one should pretend all these potential confounds are out of play. There is no question more honest than, “How do you know?” yet he would have us relegate it on the basis of speculation that, coincidentally enough, has no way of answering this very question.

And it is for this reason, more than any other, that so much Speculative Realism strikes me as desperate philosophy, as the work of weary, thoroughly captive souls that nonetheless refuse to remain indifferent. “There must be some way out!” This has been the cry, naming a need that for many has become so urgent they are willing to suspend disbelief to attain the appearance or approximation of ‘escape.’ This wilful credulity, this opportunistic refusal to critique, is what raises the irony of Byrant’s approach to its most debilitating pitch. After all, questions are what make ignorance visible, what reveals the insufficiencies of our thought–the information missing. Questions, in other words, bring to light differences not made. Thus Bryant, by eschewing Kant’s critical question regarding the differences cognition makes, is in effect occluding the very differences he claims are fundamental. He is not, in fact, interested in ‘doing justice to the plural swarm of differences’ so much as he is interested in differences of the right sort–namely, those that conserve the identity of his Object Oriented Ontology.

The final irony is that BBT, like Bryant’s approach, is decisively concerned with differences–only understood as information, systematic differences making systematic differences. But unlike, Object Oriented Ontology, my approach takes information as an unexplained explainer that is warranted by the theoretical work it enables, and not as a metaphysical primitive that warrants all that follows. Theorizing the kinds of informatic constraints (the crucial differences not made) faced by human cognition, BBT provides a powerful diagnosis of the subject-object paradigm, one that not only explains myriad traditional philosophical difficulties, but also allows, on an empirical basis, a means to think beyond the perennial, oscillating tyranny of subject and object, thought and being, and here’s the important thing, when required. It begins with theoretical knowledge, the sciences of the brain, offering speculative claims that will find decisive, empirical arbitration in the due course of time. Object Oriented Ontology, however, is yet another metaphysical fundamentalism–and an anachronistic one at that. It wades into the swamp of metaphysical argumentation claiming to discover firm ground. Unable to conceive a way beyond the subject-object paradigm, it seizes upon the unfashionable partner, the object, buys it a new dress and dancing shoes, then takes it to the philosophical ball proclaiming discovery. And so, with difference upon its lips, it gets down to the business of perpetuating the same, magically offering rationales for what its practitioners cherish, and critiques of what they despise.

The situation is quite the reverse with BBT. In promising to overthrow noocentrism in a manner consistent with the overthrow of geocentrism and biocentrism centuries previous, it offers far more heartbreak than otherwise…

An escape from all that matters.

This is where the trail of clear inferences comes to an end. I’ve been mulling over ways to characterize a ‘big picture’ that might follow from this crazy attempt to explore post-intentional philosophy. Does it argue a kind of Wittgensteinian quietism, an admission that it lies beyond the ken of our motley tools, or does it suggest some species of informatic pluralism, where you acknowledge the shortcomings of the kinds of understanding you can come to in terms of a universe parsed into possibilities of informatic interaction? Arguing what it is not seems far easier. It is neither a materialism nor an idealism. It is not rationalist or contextualist or instrumentalist or interpretationist. It is, for whatever it’s worth, an extension of the explanatory paradigm of the life and other sciences into the traditional domain of the intentional. Since the intentional domain has no claim it recognizes as cognitive, no traditional philosophical characterization applies. It refuses projection across any one heuristic plane because it recognizes that all such planes are just that, heuristic. There is no subject or object on BBT, no ‘correlativity,’ no fundamental ‘inside/outside,’ only a series of heuristic lenses (to opt for a visual heuristic) allowing various kinds of grasp (to opt for a kinesthetic heuristic). Given that the prostheses of science do allow for counter-to-heuristic knowledge (as with particle physics, most famously) it accords precedence to scientific discovery and the operationalizations that make them possible. To the question of whether we are a global workspace or a brain or a brain-environment (where the latter is understood in any one of many senses (social, historical, biological, cosmological, and so on)) it seems to answer, Yes.

And there is I suppose a certain kind of peace to be found in such a picture.

I keep looking.


Wake-up Call

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: If I have smelled farther than others, it is because I have shoved my head up the asses of giants.


Take it for what it’s worth. I’ve been camped on the outskirts of Golgotterath for awhile now, and it gets hard, sometimes, keeping things distinct, sorting the theoretical moods from the narrative, deciding what’s besieging what, and who’s storming whom. Besides, I find it plum exhausting not pissing people off.

So apparently someone posted a link to my previous post on Hagglund’s Facebook page, where it lingered a bit before mysteriously disappearing. I certainly understand the impulse, but for whatever reason explicit acts of hypocrisy rot my soul. I just finished reading an entire book by the guy extolling exposure, so I gotta call it. Just what kind of exposure was he extolling? The flattering kind? The self-promotional kind? Or (what amounts to the same) just the kind that keeps the ugly, dishevelled, and uncredentialed at the door?

I know the fears, I suppose. Academic politics, as ‘Sayre’s Law’ has it, are so vicious because the stakes are so low. Rumour and reputation are the coin of the realm when you profess for a living–aside, that is (ahem), from a steady paycheck, summers off, and the obedience of gullible undergrads. The circles are small enough that you always need consider whom might be listening–especially if you’re fool enough to entertain ambition. Everyone is careful to be careful, urgent to be urbane. Ask yourself, is anything more insane than the ‘academic tone’? You pour your thoughts into a sieve, and you shake and shake and shake, not to gather the kernels of genuine individuality, but the chaff, the maximally processed flour, whatever your ingroup peers can use to bake their maximally tasteless bread. Panning for dirt, the way it has to be when you make any bureaucratized institution your yardstick of value and success. Extolling originality only when it’s dead.

Everything alive is safer that way. Dead.

And agreement is so much more agreeable. A degree. A library. An attitude. A skin. A religion. Want to know how much you really ‘appreciate difference’? Just look at the vocabularies of your friends.

I ain’t no different.

But it’s worth marvelling all the same. The hypocrisy, enough to make a fundamentalist Christian blush. Who would have imagined that the academic humanities, in the course of ceaselessly generating more graduates than jobs, would succeed in casting a para-academic shadow more substantial than themselves? Because this, my friends, seems to be precisely what’s happening. I know there’s people out there who feel this way. Plenty. More importantly, I know there’s people out there with organizational skills who feel this way. A strategic handful. I ain’t that person. I’m just a fucking windbag, but I will assist you if I can. They may have the paychecks, but we have the pots and pans…

Okay, I’m not sure what that means, exactly, except that we now have the capacity to be loud in ways they no longer dare. Too much training. Too much droning before audiences both living and legal. And certainly too much striving, toiling, labouring to secure what our disenfranchised numbers have transformed into a rare earth metal. Too much market share to risk risk. You shrink once you attain what you covet. Worse yet, you set out to make good on all that you have sacrificed. All those norms you had to imbibe, they replace you sip by odourless sip, until you begin sweating colour, inhaling white oblivion–until meticulous grooming becomes second nature. You walk across your campus faerie-land, and you walk and you walk until the day comes when you feel more entitled than astounded. You pull your edges into defensive circles. And you talk and you talk, until your voice feels like an ancient and indestructible boot. Your erudition fades into a pastime. Your relevance escapes you. You fuck anything that lets you. Your faculty photo becomes another orthopedic insert. Laziness becomes indistinguishable from insight, so you begin to promise relief, like any other over-the-counter medication. You peer at your eyebrows in the mirror, thinking, Hmmmm

Of course we’re more ‘real.’ Our failure (your success) keeps us hungry. Our hunger (your fat) keeps us distinct, mindful of what once mattered.

Eager for overthrow… or at the very least some bell to signal morning.

Because the frontdesk has forgotten.