Monthly Archives: February 2013

Rödl’s Key Ideas

Rödl’s Conceptual Tool-kit:

Form of Reference: A form of reference is a manner of thinking of an object, or how one grabs hold of something in thought. One may think of reference as denotation or designation; thus referring is a means of picking something out from a manifold of other things. The kind of thing to which one refers will be reflected in the way in which one predicates it, that is, determines its properties in thought. Rodl follows Gareth Evans in holding that forms of reference can be discerned by their corresponding forms of predication. “As aspects of thinking a predicative thought, referring to an object and predicating a concept of it bear a unity, which suggests that formal distinctions in one are linked to formal distinctions in the other.” (Rodl, Self-Consciousness, pg. vii) According to Rodl, the notion of reference would be empty unless it were deployed in tandem with the notion of something, an object, which was referred to, something which was real or actual. Thus, the forms of reference and their corresponding forms of predication are forms of knowledge or ways of knowing “how things stand with the object” (pg. vii). Another way to put this is to say that the kind of concept used to describe an object will reflect both the form of the object in question, and the way in which we know it. A form of reference tells us the nature of the relationship that obtains between a thinker of a thought and the object thought about. Examples of reference types and the epistemic relationships they code for include demonstratives (this, here, now, etc.,) which relate a thinker and an object perceptually; names (Kurt Godel, Kurt Cobain), and rigid designators (the present king of France, the author of ‘Leviathan’) which relate the thinker to its object via an order of analytic definition, identity-dependence or deductive inference.

Self-Consciousness: For Rodl, self-consciousness is not an object per se but a form of knowing objects, that is to say, self-consciousness is a form of reference. And because reference provides a window onto how things stand with that which is being referred to, self-consciousness is also a form of knowledge. If thoughts comprise forms of reference and predication as means of gaining knowledge concerning that which a thought is about and towards which a thought is directed, then thinking which refers to itself and is its own object will have a unique form of referring to itself in this way. Self-consciousness is just that form of reference. It is self-reference, the way a thinker of a thought thinks of herself, and thus acquires knowledge of herself insofar as she is a thinking thing. Thus, self-consciousness is a means, the only means, of obtaining self-knowledge. Only in self-consciousness are subject and object joined in unity. The first-person pronoun ‘I’ is the proper notation of self-conscious reference in English. When we examine any kind of thought, comprising any form of referential and predicative unity, we discover something strange and noteworthy: all thoughts are self-conscious thoughts and all thinking is done in the first person. How do we discover this? By examining the logical dependence of other forms of reference on the predicative unity of first-person thought. We can assess the logical dependence of one concept on another by showing that the one must be deployed whenever we use the other but that this dependence relation is not reciprocal. First-person thoughts, we will notice, can be employed intelligibly without recourse to demonstratives or designation by deductive inference. Rodl uses the example of Oedipus. When Oedipus says “I hereby banish the murderer of Laius” he knows that he is the person who is doing the banishing without needing to know at the same time that he is the one who is being banished. In order to refer to himself successfully, he is not required logically to perceive himself speaking nor to infer that ‘the man who is speaking’ is identical to ‘the man who is thinking “Laius must be banished”‘. These will be further judgments, whose validity, as the tale tells us, have no bearing on Oedipus’ ability to gain complete self-knowledge of himself even if he does not in this way have complete knowledge about himself. Self-conscious reference always hits its target. The relationship it describes between subject and object is one of identity, or being. This means that when I think a first-person thought, my knowledge is its own object, and there is no mediation between thinking and knowing. To understand how this form of reference works, it is necessary to analyze those concepts which figure prominently in self-conscious or first-personal thoughts, thoughts which cannot be formulated by demonstrative or inferential reference. Such concepts turn out to be action and belief concepts. This reveals self-consciousness to be not only a logically primary form of reference but also the nexus of theoretical and practical reasoning, that is, rational thought in general.

Action: Action predication brings a subject under a movement form in a tripolar unity of aspect. Action concepts, like their theoretical counterparts, beliefs, bring out the logical priority of first-person thoughts. An action cannot be directly perceived through sensory intuition but can only be known spontaneously in thought. This is because sense perception only applies to a bipolar predicative unity of a past and present state of a material substance. Actions, on the other hand, apply a tripolar predicative unity. Thus, the logical form activated by judgments regarding the senses is insufficient for judging actions. Following G.E.M. Anscombe, Rödl discovers an interesting fact about the causality of actions. Whenever one engages in practical reasoning – discerning what is best or most appropriate to do – a reasoner gives an identical answer to the one she would give if she were to explain what she would be doing if similar circumstances prevailed. When one reasons what one should do, one reasons what one would do. And the relationship can be reversed: if I look for a reason that explains to myself or to another what I am doing, I simultaneously look for a reason to explain what one should be doing. The cause of an action is the reason represented in one’s mind answering the question ‘what to do?’ In other words, an action is the conclusion to a practical syllogism. But the premise of a syllogism must be of the same logical form as the conclusion. The logical form of an action is the predicative unity of tripolar aspect applied to a substance concept which persists through time. Thus, the cause of the action must be of equal or greater logical scope. The premise and the conclusion must be of the same logical order and represented as such. Thus the cited cause, the reason for doing something, must itself be an action concept (“I am reading because I am studying”) or it must be a time-general concept that explains an action as conforming to a practical law or what Rödl calls a “practical life-form” (“I am reading because I, a student, study”.) A desire or habit can not satisfy the syllogism because they do not contain the adequate logical temporality to confer causality upon the action. “Because I feel like doing X” is never an answer to the question “why do X?” or “what to do?” because a feeling or a desire is a state and a state only predicates of a bipolar tense and thus is incapable of explaining an action whose predicative structure is tripolar. Instead, citing a desire as a reason for doing X is really just a cagey way of representing X as a manifestation of the general law ‘to do whatever one pleases in the moment’. The point to realize is that a practical reason is always traceable to a norm or law which is assented to whenever action occurs. And the only form of reference that can represent the requisite temporality is the first-person.

Belief: Like actions, beliefs are a form of judgment that are only available to the first-person. Whenever I assert something I represent it as true. How so? Because truth is not a property or a predicate that one adds to a proposition but rather in making a proposition I bring it under the proper order of reason and represent it as manifesting that order. When I ask myself what to believe I find myself ascertaining what it is that I believe. Thus, a belief like action is a normative concept. This is important because Rödl is offering a picture of belief that is grounded neither in sensation nor in coherence with other beliefs. The first alternative succumbs to the Myth of the Given while the second postpones the acquisition of knowledge indefinitely. If the justificatory belief ‘p because p’ cannot produce knowledge then ‘p because q because r because s’ will produce nothing else but more non-knowledge. Inference tells us how knowledge content can be connected to other knowledge content but it is silent on the production of knowledge itself. Foundational knowledge for Rödl is necessarily spontaneous knowledge or self-producing knowledge. Does such a spontaneous power exist? When we examine the possibility that such a power does not exist we run into a paradox: the assertion that such knowledge is impossible follows the logical form of spontaneous knowledge. Any assertion is presented as conforming to a normative order, as being true or false, correct or incorrect; but the assertion itself is not a two step process. I do not first form a belief and then present it to myself or others to be evaluated. The assertion and the evaluation are one united act. Thus, it is the case that thinking is inherently not only intentional but also normative.


A brief sketch of Rödl’s project in ‘Self-Consciousness’

Rödl’s inquiry into self-consciousness proceeds as follows:

a) He asks ‘what is the logico-grammatical role of the term ‘I’ in thought and speech?

b) ‘I’ is not an individual concept nor a definite description since there are many things (people) that can be referred to using this first-person pronoun. In other words, ‘I’ is not a name, it is not a person you could locate on a map or by GPS satellite.

c) ‘I’ is not a rigid designator since I can designate myself rigidly as, for example, Oedipus did without knowing that I am the one to whom I am so referring.

d) ‘I’ is a form of reference that is not demonstrative because it is not perceptual since I can perceive myself, for example in a mirror, without knowing that it is I whom I so perceive.

e) Like demonstratives, however, first-person reference is identification-independent: my reasoning about ‘I’ like my reasoning about any ‘this/here/now’ puts me in a relation to the object that is referred to in this way that affords me a certain amount and variety of pure knowledge about how things stand with this object in virtue only of its being referred to in this way.

f) First-person reference allows me to know an object without having to pass through demonstrative reference to it. E.g. I can know that I am he who is writing this sentence without having to check whether or not ‘I’ is identical to ‘these hands which are typing’; identifying myself via demonstrative perception and connecting such a perception to self-conscious thoughts is a further step. ‘I-thoughts’ are more fundamental than demonstrative thoughts since the latter cannot bypass the former.

g) the closest relationship I can have to an object is identity. Being the object is the closest way of knowing it. An object I know only demonstratively is not identity because it is mediated by sensation. Thus, to perceive X is to know X as Other or as Not-Self, even if the object which I perceive in this way turns out to be me or my body. However, with ‘I-thoughts’ I know the object not by perceiving it but by being it. This is a logical category and so far the definition is strictly analytic. It remains to be seen whether or not there are such thoughts that satisfy this definition which can also be understood as thoughts which are self-constituting, or ways of knowing an object such that my knowledge of the object, my positing of its existence and determination constitutes its being as such.

h) Cases in which being = knowing will be peculiar: their truth will be indubitable since posing such thoughts guarantees their truth. The only concepts that seem to satisfy this definition (the indubitability or ‘a priori’ constraint in relation to the use of the first-person pronoun) are thoughts containing action concepts and belief concepts. Thus, there are two kinds of first-person thoughts: practical thoughts and theoretical thoughts. Such first-person thoughts Rodl will connect to two powers of Reason: the Will in relation to practical knowledge and the Intellect in relation to theoretical knowledge. If empiricism takes sensation as the fundamental source of knowledge, then showing that sensory knowledge is logically grounded in first-person knowledge will show that empiricism is unable to give an adequate account of epistemology.


The Primacy of Time

Brandom, by connecting thought to reliably differential responsiveness dispositions to sensory stimuli instead of the forms of intuition, effectively licenses the empirical skeptic, like Metzinger or Bakker, to claim that the logico-mathematical laws of inference have no direct relation to the material world. This is the case because a metaphysical theory which equates the laws of deductive inference with the form of thought in general gives us no way to derive actual necessity from a merely conceptual necessity. However, the laws of logic and mathematics are such as to pertain to any domain of objects whatsoever. This is Frege’s lovely insight. Unfortunately,  this leaves open the question which asks what rules guide and constrain our decisions to apply certain concepts to certain objects. This also obfuscates the distinction between concept and object since it seems anything can be formulated as either a predicate or a subject. Fregean logic is promiscuous as to what kind of thing it lets into its system as long as the judicable object is brought inside according to the inferential relations described by the system itself. Quine’s pragmatist just-so story attempts to use the naturalistic theory of evolutionary adaptive success to underwrite the ‘satisficing’ adequacy of the Fregean predicative structure of judgment towards physical events in the world. Quine cannot refute the skeptic (“the Humean problem is the human problem”) but he tries to turn down the volume on the skeptic’s megaphone,  insisting that science seems to be good enough to ensure human survival even if it cannot provide us with any real knowledge. Brandom however, insists on the a priority of deductive logic by arguing as follows: we can judge a proposition to be true or false even if it has never been uttered before because its subsentential parts each bring with them inferential roles that operate as functions determining the truth value of the entire sentence. Thus, because our thought is so structured (subsententially) and such a structure allows us to know whether or not one sentence follows logically from another then we have access to a priori knowledge when we impose an inferential order on our propositions by decomposing them into the elements of the firstorder predicate calculus devised by Frege. However, Rödl points out Brandom’s failure. Just because our thought, if we are to make sense of it reflexively, must be interpreted as being subsententially structured, it does not follow that such a system is able to think itself isomorphic to the material world nor can such a system hope to show that an order which contains a predicative necessity inside of it is itself a necessary order. Brandom demonstrates only that thought must bear a predicative unity for us to deduce inferentially its a priori deductive inferential nature but according to Brandom himself, it is not of the essence of thought in general to be structred predicatively. However, if we can show that thought is necessarily formed into a predicative unity in order for thought to be thought, then we fulfill Brandom’s promise of deriving the a priori necessity of the forms of the finite intellect. By tying thought to intuition Kant connects us to the noumenon even when our judgments about it can be spurious. This keeps Kantian metaphysics within an ontological monism while allowing for a “methodological dualism”, in Brassier’s words. On this view, the predicative unity of judgment brings an element under the substance category as that which undergoes changes and a state category which pertains to the ways in which the substance judged changes from one state to the next. It is because the intellect can think substances that anything like the Fregean predicate calculus can even be intelligible. For existential quantification does not allow existence to be used as a predicate. That existence is not a predicate can clue us in to what it is: the formal apprehension of an object in intuition. In other words, the existential quantifier is a sign that the Categories are at work:
The category determines the object insofar as it can be determined in the form of the category under which it is thought. Rodl’s idea is this: if the category employed in a judgment determines the inferences we can make about a particular object, we need to give an account of how an object can be subsumed under a category in a non-circular way. Frege’s Basic Law V attempted to “take care of itself” (in Wittgenstein’s words) by defining an object by the concept extensions whose inferential value mapped the former to The True. However, Russel showed that such a system of definition cast itself in a vicious circle since there were some objects whose extensions mapped them to the True if and only if those objects’ extensions mapped the latter extensions to the True as well. Since the objects that we experience through sense perception are not produced by the intellect, and yet we determine their properties in judgment, deductive logic on its own, produces no knowledge. Kantian intuitive logic is, on the other hand, properly transcendental because it reveals how the formal contours of our thoughts trace the formal contours of anything existing in space and time. Thus, Kant’s anchoring of thought to intuition is, in Rodl’s opinion, the only way the mind can claim knowledge of the world. We can rehearse how this works very quickly: the intellect provides the categories from itself, these categories determine the object in accordance to their form only insofar as the object exists in space and time which are also the forms of intuition of the very same finite intellect. Thus, the intellect can think the categories and the forms of intuition purely; all it needs, because its faculty of intuition is receptive, is for the object to be given to it in sensation. That the object is given through the senses does not sully the pure form of its determinations. Consider for example, the intellect’s ability to determine its own objects (via what Spinoza called scientia intuitiva ) in pure geometrical space and arithmetic calculation without relying on sensibility to present it with an empirical object to judge. If we dispute the premise that the intellect provides the categories purely – perhaps we instead ponder them as by-products of evolutionary satisficing – then the picture of the world they present to us would not bear the blue regalia of the a priori but only the half-healed scars of adaptive fitness. This is Quine’s position.
Quine’s thesis can be summarized as follows: neither the propositional nor the predicative structure of thought should be thought of as a priori as if they sprung fully-formed from the head of the human intellect. Instead, we should think of the predicative unity of thoughts and the inferential order that connects them to each other as natural hypotheses or formal bricolages the mind stirs up as it tries to make sense of the sensory inputs that bombard it from birth. The formal construction of thought into object and concept, noun, adjective, verb, and so on, is just the mind’s way of organizing sense-data in a way that is manageable and conducive to practical survival. The a priori are simply those concepts which we are the least likely to give up since they occupy the largest portion of real-estate in the coherentist web of beliefs. But every such law is a coil that can be shuffled off if the need arises. Apriority is a priority; it is not an absolute.
Metzinger can be used to bolster Quine’s position: it is only our phenomenological PMIR that gives us the illusion of judging an object when in actual fact our acts in the world are purely receptively responsive. However, Rodl’s rejoinder can be made all the same: the PMIR may be precisely the mechanism necessary to get us into the position of judging something to be true or false. This is because judging objects in a unified stream of consciousness (with Husserlian pretension for example) allows us to think their temporality in relation to what is true and what is false. Without these phenomenological frameworks, our intellect could not come to the fore. But this does not mean that the judgments so accessed are logically vapid. To propose that there is no such thing as judgment is to propose that language does not exist, that Plato and all his footnoters have been doing nothing but squawking and scratching, that the human mind and all its contents are nothing but neuronal perspiration. Seeking the logical form of thought in the way the object relates to intuition is to reject the Myth of the Given used so much by rational empiricsts like Ayer and Russel (which opened up a space for incessant empirical skepticism), and at the same time, to reject the kind of Normative Functionalism favoured by Brandom, which relates logical inference to intuition only by invoking the essentially behaviourist notion of reliable differential responsive dispositions. Even Meillassoux’s ‘After Finitude’ thinks the pure form of temporal intuition. This can be seen when we consider his insistence upon the a priority of the principle of non-contradiction, a principle only thinkable in relation to an object judicable in time, i.e., a substance. Deductive logic freezes time so as to allow us to calculate the inferential relations between thoughts. But such abstraction because it is abstraction, can not precede but must follow upon thoughts with logical content. Exhuming the categories of the temporal from Kant’s Analogies of Experience (though they can also be exhumed in Hegel’s ‘Consciousness’ section of the Phenomenology of Spirit) allows us to read them back into other accounts of empirical perceptual judgments, such as the kind presented by eliminative materialists like Metzinger and Bakker and relied upon implicitly in the inferentialist judgments of Brandom and Sellars who have thus far failed to make explicit the temporal logic relied upon by deductive inference. Humean skepticism cannot even get off the ground if its rules out the possibility of judging something to be undergoing changes in states since to conceive of such a process is to predicate tensed states of a permanent substance persisting through time. Because time cannot be represented in thought by Frege’s concept-script by using a term name such as t, the phenomenological structure that allows us to apprehend the categories of the temporal can be shown to be transcendental, not accidental as Metzinger or Bakker would have us believe. Husserl and Heidegger in this sense, build their philosophies on a correct reading of Kant’s Analogies. It should be of no surprise that Rodl traces Kant’s dexterity on the logical structure of perception to his absorption of Aristotle who was, as we know, one of Heidegger’s core influences.General logic cannot take care of itself. It relies on Transcendental logic. ‘S was/is F’ can be abstracted into the predicate calculus – one simply freezes an otherwise tensed predication – by representing it as Fa. However, beginning with the concept-script, we can not abstract, contract or protract a judgment of the form Fa into one which represents itself as ‘S is/was F’. Attempting to do so brings one face to face with the insufficiency of such an atemporal system and should lead an attentive thinker to see the temporality inherent in the form of judgment in general; to think such a process is to demonstrate the necessity of the forms of intuition in relation to the categories of the Understanding, and completing such a demonstration is to think the Hegelian dialectic.


By the natural light of darkness: Descartes and Metzinger

Cartesian skepticism abstracts away from all sensation but smuggles in the logic of intuition. Thus even as Descartes calls into question all claims to knowledge, even the claim that such a calling into question is itself possible, he discovers that there is only so far the skeptical moment can go before it collapses in a profound insight of pure knowledge.  The Evil Genius thought-experiment is designed to topple not only any and all possible propositions but even the form of proposition itself.  That is, Descartes begins from the zero-point of absolute skepticism, that is, from the perspective of what we might call the ‘perfect nihilist’. The perfect nihilist is committed to no beliefs except that it exists (not that it is alive). The only judgment the perfect nihilist is responsible for is its assertion or disposition that judgment is possible, which is premise we may call ‘the actuality of judgment’. If the nihilist is unable to make judgments, then it does  not exist.  It is important to recognize that the skeptical position Descartes is having us consider is effective only for beings for whom there is a distinction between seeming and being, that is, for beings who can conceive of negation. An animal, who is unable to think the difference between appearance and reality in this way is related to negation only in death.  Thus, rationality is a prerequisite for both skepticism and nihilism. When someone declares “I do not exist” (as do many schizophrenics) we therefore can be certain that what they are trying to articulate is an experience lacking in properties that are otherwise inferentially nested within the concept of ‘existing’ or ‘being’ when the latter are used as predicates, for example, the feelings of ‘me-here-now’-ness and embodiment described by Patricia Churchland, or even Kundera’s unbearable lightness of being, or the nausea of existence described by Sartre. It doesn’t matter ‘what it feels like to exist’ or ‘what it’s like to be an I’ as long as its like something enough to give the I something to work with,  something to notice and to judge. Some intuition. This I take to be one of Hegel’s main reasons for emphasizing the vital importance of the feeling of “fear” or “dread” trembling in “the very fibres of [one’s] being” in one’s coming to self-consciousness.  Even in the case where one loses his faith in his epistemic connection towards the world, or his ability to exert his will upon it, his self-doubt can only go so far down.  That is, doubt cannot pass beyond the depths of first-person awareness, which is nothing other than the presentation to the ‘I think’ of a judicable object. This object can be an ‘intelligible nothing’ so long as it yields to the form of an object in space and time. Finding the noumenon allows the rational subject to think the form of thought apart from any of its particular, passing contents. In fact, the schizophrenic’s utterance proves the plausibility of Cartesian hyper-skepticism and thus, its rightful place as the fons et origo of philosophy. There is a minimal phenomenological structure that must be in place in order for thought (not reducible to experience) of any kind to get off the ground.

What is commonly known as the Cartesian circle refers to Descartes’ deriving God by clear and distinct argument but then justifying his clear and distinct ideas by presupposing God’s existence. Thus, his conclusion justifies his starting premise and leads into a vicious circle. The notion of clear and distinct ideas refers to those ideas whose contradiction cannot be thought, that is, those whose truth requires no external justification. Logico-mathematical truths and the cogito are of course typical examples. If one understands arithmetic, its truths are indubitable. Ditto geometry. As for the cogito, Descartes points out that it is not via inference that one assents to the “je pense, donc je suis” but by realizing that insofar as there is thinking going on, I am the one doing it. This is because thinking is something that constitutes the I; it is not merely a property of a substance. In other words, thinking is teleological; it is goal directed and proceeds necessarily according to rules of inferential warrant which change the premises of each further thought as thought proceeds. Yet to do this, it must think in categories of temporal intuition. Postulating the dream allows Descartes to purify his thoughts down to their formal constitution. Revisiting Descartes is by no means a waste of time if we are interested in studying the limits of empiricism. Interestingly, what Descartes appeals to when he appeals to God’s goodness to underwrite his beliefs is functionally speaking not much different than what pragmatists like Rorty and Brandom appeal to when they appeal to the reliability of the intersubjective space of reasons to underwrite their own judicial commitments. With Descartes, Kant grounds our reason in our idea of God: “everything that thinks has a god” while the pragmatists might as well say the same though substituting “god” with “linguistic community”.

Eliminative Materialist theses which seek to reduce the cogito to an illusion of introspective transparency (or etiological anosognosia brought on by neuronal informatic neglect) are the newest avatars of Descartes’s Evil Genius thought experiment. Thus, examining books such as ‘Being-No-One’ by Thomas Metzinger and ‘Neuropath’ by R. Scott Bakker can help us think anew the scope and limits of skepticism. Our thesis will be that, reversing a phrase made by Metzinger himself, “there can be no neuroscience only neurophilosophy.”

Descartes’ skepticism is Humean and Quinean. Descartes’ asks ‘how could I know that what are clear and distinct ( a priori) ideas to me are necessarily faithful to the way the world is independent of my attempt to think it?’. In other words, Descartes’ asks how one could know that the form of thought is formally isomorphic to the structure of being. Inherent in this question (which is the nascent form of Heidegger’s question of the meaning of Being) is the notion of knowledge as thought that hits its target. Thus, implicit in the concept of knowledge is the concept of intentionality, which is the world-directedness of our thoughts occurring inside the mind to objects or states of affairs taking place outside of it. Thus, in order to draw the distinction between thinking and being, we must be able to avail ourselves of the concept of the world-in-itself and be able to apply that concept against that of the world-for-us. It is important not to overestimate what the concept of the in-itself is being used to represent. In order for us to make intelligible the possibility that the way we have determined the world in our thought (i.e., the set of predicates we’ve ascribed to it) is wrong, we need to represent the world which our thoughts are about as itself conforming to the structure of predication, albeit one harbouring different content. This will be the only way for us to acquire the ability to think the negative. Only a predicate can negate another predicate. If there is a way the world really is then there are predicates that can be fixed to it truthfully. That is, if it is possible to represent a thought as false then there must be something which it is false of. A world that can be represented incorrectly is also a world that can be represented correctly.
We may have trouble understanding why this is the case. We may believe instead that the world-in-itself might be of such a nature that it is beyond all predication, that there is no way at all to represent the in-itself with even the barest fidelity. To claim this would be to claim that the in-itself has a structure that is beyond reasoned conception. In other words, that the actual is not rational. This is the view that defines the in-itself as unthinkable as opposed to merely unknowable. This kind of hyperbolized skepticism calls into doubt not only the content of our judgments about the world (e.g., that this object is red and not green) but also the form of our judgments about the world (e.g., that there are objects with properties) in general. The in-itself is not merely an inverted world, it is not even a world. Hyperbolic skepticism asks us to consider the possibility that thinking is itself an illusion. That this is indeed what the skeptic is proposing follows from the premise, noted above, that the in-itself is here represented as bearing no relationship to the unity of judgment (or the judicable) which is a formal requirement for any predication to take place whatsoever. A world that does not bear a predicable unity therefore abides by none of the logico-mathematical laws that dictate the movements of thought which only determine the determinable. On this view, thought is its own Matrix and the mind itself is its own demon. To think that you are or ever have been thinking anything is to fool yourself. Thinking, which represents its object as existing independently of the mind, is inherently in error, not because it misrepresents its object, but because according to the first premise of such radical skepticism, there is no object and there is no representation, these both being entirely empty concepts, empty because all conception is empty. That such a position is born already contradicting itself does not faze the skeptic, for she is convinced that she has already won the argument by forcing us to entertain the necessary possibility of a world entirely alien to thought. She is not doubting the a priority of the laws according to which rational thought proceeds. These laws, she is willing to grant, may be internally consistent without at all having the power to hook onto the world-in-itself. Her point is that Truth, which is the order of thought, bears no relation to Reality, which is the order of Being. Thus, the skeptic holds onto the concept of negation in order to think the negation of all conceptuality. Thus, by interrogating the negative, we can discover the hidden premise on which the skeptic builds her argument. We will argue that thinking negation requires the ability to think time. Representing certain thoughts as true and others as false requires the ability to keep track of rules of material inference, that is, the rules of exclusive predication of one object changing in time. Failing to represent time in thought precludes the representation of negation.


Who is ‘S’ and what is ‘p’?: Knowledge in the Sellars Market

Sebastian Rödl is, before anything else, a decidedly Kantian philosopher. And like his Konigsberg captain, Rödl is intrigued by philosophy’s ability to discover truths about the world by examining the structure of pure thought. Rödl is, like Kant before him, concerned that an analyst of the world were he to proceed without first having completed an analysis of the thought through whose forms he conducted the world’s analysis, would not be able to distinguish the object of study from the instrument used to study it. If such an analysis were to have already begun by the time the analyst had recognized his methodological mistake, one would, by necessity, have to start all over again if he was still committed to his initial pursuit of truth. Refusing to begin again from the beginning is not a mandatory activity, however, for those unconcerned to untangle the forms of thought from the forms of that which is thought, but anything less than an entire overhaul such as the one Kant recommended and carried out in the first Critique would no longer be worthy of the name of ‘analysis.’
Hence, Rodl writes “[a]nalytic philosophy…for the most part abstains from logical analysis of the statements that represent the object of investigation. (This is a shame, considering Analytic philosophy’s proud name” (CT, Rodl, pg. 11) here, highlighting the irony inherent in naming a practice ‘analytic’ when it is unable (and perhaps unwilling) to properly analyze the object of its study, which is, in this case, the form of thought. This is of course, as much due to confusion as it is to disavowal – most analytic philosophers do not realize that they have not been doing analytic philosophy – but one gets the sense, reading Rodl, that he believes there to be a great deal of disingenuousness implicit in the work of a number of more than a view ‘big names’. Rodl makes his point in this way:

Epistemology defines its subject matter by the formula S knows that p, where “p” stands for a sentence and “S” for the name of a particular subject. This presupposes that we can think about what it means how it is possible to know something without investigating the logical categories under which the object and the subject of knowledge fall. In consequence, analytic epistemology is largely, and largely without being aware of it, skeptical.” (CT, Rodl pg. 11)

That is, epistemology takes it for granted that we know what the subject and object of knowledge are and proceeds to interrogate only the ‘that’ portion of the general proposition S knows that P. Rodl believes that it is this confusion which continues to stultify theories of knowledge which, taking a page out of the natural sciences, think of knowledge as a process of simple induction, or evidence accrual, a process appropriate to fields of study in which the form of their object has already been well defined and well understood. The problem is not induction per se but the fact that epistemology is “grasping clouds of error”, to borrow Hegel’s line, since it has not properly deduced what it is in fact it is trying to induce in statements represented in the form S knows that p (or its variants, S believes that p, S desires that p, etc). For until the form of knowledge is properly analyzed, instantiations of knowledge, i.e. particular judgments or propositions, have no clear content. Lacking clarity and inspired by empiricist methodologies, epistemology takes knowledge to be given, and sets to work not on explaining the possibility of judgment, but on the evidential warrant separating good judgments from poor ones, which is the subtopic known as justification. In this way, failing to give an account of the general form of judgment itself, epistemology dooms itself to the “careless talk of inductive justification, which Hume demolished so effectively,” (CT, Rodl, ph. 12) preventing any talk of knowledge as knowledge, instead limiting itself to the cataloging and refereeing of inferential regularities and constant conjunctions. What empiricism calls general knowledge (or what Quine called the ‘observation categorical’), represented for example in the statement ‘mooses molt in spring’, is supposed to be that which is backed up by a sufficient number of corroborating particular judgments, e.g. Quinean observation statements. But compiling a multi-volume encyclopedia of particular judgments and emboldening certain entries which are corroborated by a satisfactory number of others will never tell us what a judgment is and whether or not such an act is possible. Without a formal account of what judgment is we will never be able to know if, why and how one judgment is closer to truth than another nor what the criterion of justification should be (why, for example, regularity should increase rather than decrease a proposition’s warrant).  For Rodl, pragmatism always leads to empiricism, which in turn, results in skepticism. Therefore, Rodl insists that empiricism and pragmatism (which, on this view is just the ‘Casual Friday’ version of the former) must be abandoned as foundations for epistemology.

Before we get onto examining Rodl’s positive thesis which is intended to tell us both what knowledge is and how it is possible, we might do ourselves well by turning the pages back a few chapters and seeing what others have done in their own way to steer the Titantic of theory from the iceberg of incoherence. As mentioned above, there are theorists who would rather deny that there is a problem here in the first place than to seek a means to solve it. Being told that you’ve been more or less building a ship in a bottle when it was meant to sail the sea can be devastating news, especially when your ship has been touted as unsinkable by the very best engineers. Nevertheless, it is important to note that according to the charge being volleyed here, the state of epistemology is actually as bad as this mixed metaphor makes it out to be: it’s not merely a case of comparing the sea-worthiness of one ship to the next, nor is epistemology simply the process by which an already sailing ship stays afloat by patching up its leaky bits faster than it sinks. To be sure, learning (or Bildung if you prefer) will certainly involve reformative discourse in these ways. Having the ability to route out rotten concepts and incorporate new and supple replacements certainly contributes to the buoyancy of any theory of knowledge. But unless philosophy can give an account of what it means to have a concept in the first place and for that concept to contribute to the production of knowing and not just the conduction of knowledge, epistemologists will still be arguing about who can carve the best canoe while the scientist passes over the problem completely, so to speak, by passing underneath it, watching the whole affair by periscope perhaps. Science can do this because its business is, strictly speaking, neither knowledge nor truth but prediction and manipulation. Even mathematics brackets out the question of knowledge and studies formal entailment, which does not concern itself with the human’s ability to think such entailment. Similarly, to paraphrase Ray Brassier, cognitive-neuroscience and psychology investigate the ‘what’ of the mind and the ‘how’ of its relation to the brain without first interrogating what ‘what’ means, what the meaning of ‘means’ is and what ‘is’ means, nor ‘how’ we know these things (Brassier, “Concepts and Objects,”, Speculative Turn, pg. 57).
We have neither the time nor the inclination to rehearse the entire history of western metaphysics and epistemology so I will here limit us to a peek at what I take to be some of the reigning theories of knowledge at present. This puts us on a plane to Pittsburgh, where we can hopefully pencil in a spot with Sellars, Brandom and McDowell, the so-called “Neo-Hegelians”.
Now, what makes all three of the above thinkers “Hegelian” is their rejection of ‘the Given’ which is seen by many to be a gesture analogous to Hegel’s rejection of what Kant called the-thing-in-itself, the world apart from the way it is accessed via concepts provided by the human mind, i.e., the world beyond thought. Famously, Hegel declared that the rational is the actual, and the actual, rational, leaving no space for an absolute beyond of thought, a non-conceptual ‘Given,’ insisting instead that we must conceive of thinking not only as something that subjects do in the world, but also as something that the world does to itself (or in-itself) thereby giving us the equation of substance and subject, matter and mind, thinking and being. One good reason for adhering to this theory – which we might understandably taken to be arguing for a complete demolition of the wall erected between the world and our ideas about the world, (with epistemology then becoming a branch of ontology) – is its affinity with the picture of reality given to us by the natural sciences that teach of humanity’s birth and evolution out of the womb of nature. Before Darwin persuaded the world of this origin story empirically, Spinoza persuaded the philosophical world by sheer logical aplomb of man’s necessary and essential dependence upon the cosmos of which man and by extension his actions, are mere accidents (in both senses of the term). If God or Nature is genuinely the first and only prime-mover, then man’s actions, including his thinking, will be, regardless of how they appear to us, determinations of Nature herself who is self-determining. On this Spinozistic view, thinking, along with the flowing of rivers, the accretion of matter, and the expansion of space-time, becomes just another way that Nature natures itself.
The difference between Hegel and Spinoza is found however, in the former’s attempt to place man on the crest of the cosmic wave of being rather than simply inside of it. For since only in man is Nature self-conscious, God only knows Himself as Himself in man’s mind, and not just any mind, but the philosopher’s mind, who has translated the religious, artistic and historical premonitions of this fact into the pure and formally truth conferring system of logical certainty. Demonstrating how Hegel goes about doing this involves, as might be expected, a great deal of scholarship and careful analysis of his dialectical method but suffice it to say that, despite centuries of being mistaken for the Emperor of Idealism , Hegel does not think that epistemology and ontology are identical nor that mind and world can simply be collapsed into one another.
Notoriously, Schopenhauer accused Hegel of being a sophist and a charlatan and insisted that German Idealism was a “spider’s philosophy” that succeeded not in grasping truth but only in catching and liquefying generations of bright minds by assigning them the fool’s task of deciphering an encrypted system whose original message would turn out to be sheer nonsense, footnotes to footnotes to footnotes, more or less. Schopenhauer, followed later by Russel and Moore, soon smelled the spider coming down the line and quickly unspun themselves from the Hegelian web of (in)coherentism. Schopenhauer, good Kantian that he was, thought that it was impossible to find a foundation for knowledge given that the law of logical entailment, the principle of sufficient reason itself simply could not be applied to the thing-in-itself, since logic was a necessary element of conceptual thinking only, and could not be known to reflect the nature of the world beyond human thought. That something is conceptually necessary does not mean that it is actually necessary. Thus, Hegel’s edifice was built upon quicksand. But where to turn? Examining the possibility that the laws of the mind might serendipitously just happen to reflect the laws of the in-itself, Schopenhauer rejected this Romantic fideism for what he thought was the much more rigorously evidenced and argued position coming out of the natural sciences and the ancient Eastern wisdom of the Upanishads. Both, in their own ways, portrayed man, from head to toe, as a soulless beast whose most noble faculties, namely his good will and his rationality, were simply higher levels of base functions shared by all animals, designed to impel the individual to survive and procreate on behalf of the species, to keep the Wheel of Ixion spinning, so to speak. On this cynical view, even man’s selfishness was not his own, working more or less as a means through which the mindless drive of the Will – Schopenhauer’s name for Nature’s formless vital energy – discharges itself. Diving from Hegel’s web, Schopenhauer did not even look for solid ground on which to fall; his stoical philosophy is not concerned to explain to man his fall from grace, but only to teach him how to fall gracefully. Indeed, Schopenhauer’s pessimistic denial of meaning as purposiveness inspired Nietzsche to later reject meaning as truth itself. This was a rejection that simultaneously cut the ties with an entire tradition of thought beginning before Socrates which was predicated on the presupposition of Truth as both real and knowable and cut the ribbon for a full century of philosophy that would be performed without the pretensions of Absolute Truth and oriented no longer by the latter’s guiding compass of logic and mathematical a priority but led instead by the careful observation of power relations and phenomenological unconcealment.
Meanwhile, Russel and Moore, sought solid ground upon the tried and true rocks of logic and mathematics and were largely successful in their endeavours, along with Frege and the Vienna Circle, but only for a time. In order to build a sturdy foundation that would be able to ground all knowledge philosophy simply had to figure out a way to derive the truths of mathematics from the rules of logic, thereby securing the certainty of both, and then show how our concepts can be derived or constructed from a base of physical, mathematical and logical simples. Metaphysics may just be a matter of mixing primaries. The picture we would paint would be a neat, tidy and complete correspondence theory of truth without an inconvenient remainder. A grand system, no doubt, that would be both in-and-for-itself like Hegel’s, but this time around built on solid foundations grounded in elegant physico-mathematical principles instead of the strange logic of negation and the mysterious, movement of the ‘Concept’ [Begriffe]. Unfortunately, Godel, Wittgenstein and Quine came around and gave very convincing arguments that called into serious doubt the completeness and consistency of mathematics, the “word-world” correspondence theory of meaning, and the ability to ground our logical concepts in anything but hypotheses whose terms are set to accommodate practical but never actual or natural necessities. On the continent, Derridian deconstruction was using internal inconsistencies and contradictions within systems of semiotic signification or ‘texts’ to overturn structures of knowledge and meaning in similarly devastating ways. Theories hawking an absolute grounding for any kind of mind-independent reality were everywhere losing ground. Clearly the mind and the world were correlated in some fundamental way but how and to what extent? It seemed to many, both in and outside the philosophical circles, that philosophy had come to the end of the road having failed to present a theory of knowledge that was adequate to the theoretical rigor of the sciences and true to the lived reality of human experience. As Foucault observed, by fleeing Hegel, philosophers on both continents found themselves running right into his arms in a way that was eerily exemplative of the dialectical process they had originally rejected. Was fear of error really fear of truth? We will see shortly that, in a very important way, the truth was the fear itself. Self-doubt is the first wrung on the ladder of reason. Understanding this will require us to familiarize ourselves with the Pittsburgh Neo-Hegelians, Wilfrid Sellars and his successors, Robert Brandom and John McDowell. Though the philosophies presented by these three thinkers are by no means identical, they do share enough of a family resemblance to justify the group moniker. They are all certainly committed wholeheartedly to rejections of those epistemologies which are based on seeking foundations for knowledge in non-conceptual Givens. Of the three, McDowell is the black sheep in the family since he does present a theory of knowledge that can be called Foundationalist, though one that does not plant its roots in any acrid and barren non-conceptual ground. His contemporary, Brandom, on the other hand, follows Sellars in his proposal of a broadly inferentialist epistemic program which we will now briefly examine.

It’s a Sellars Market:

We recall that we began our current discussion by entertaining the idea, proposed by Sebastian Rodl, that philosophy has been unable to explain how knowledge is possible because it has not yet clarified the nature of the object of which a knower, or rational subject, is supposed to have knowledge. Let us call this the What Gives Problem (or WGP for short). Philosophers prior and posterior to Sellars who refuse to entertain this possibility or who believe that the WGP has been solved tend to take the object of knowledge to be a discrete physical entity (or combination thereof) existing in the external world independently of the mind which knows it and whose essential properties belong to the object in question irrespective of whatever properties the mind of the knower may attribute to it in the form of the concept under which it is judged. On this view, the direction of fit goes from the Given object to the concept with the properties of the former determining the content of the latter, so that the concept is under constraint as to what kinds of objects it can be properly applied to. This is a representationalist view wherein the concept is said to represent not only the object’s existence but also its essence. Any discrepancy between the object and the concept will be due either to the rational subject’s misapplication of the latter or else it will be due to the inadequacy of the concept’s capacity to accurately and completely represent its object’s essential nature. Interestingly, on this view, where the direction of fit stretches from the world to the word (or from the object to the concept), every concept necessarily succeeds in representing the existence of its object, notwithstanding the fact that it may fail to represent with any degree of fidelity the way in which that object exists, i.e., its determinant properties. On this view, every act of conceptualization captures with perfect adequacy, the existence of the object that is Given. The mind catches everything that is Given to it, though it may not ‘grasp’ everything it catches. Thus, even if the object is brought under the concept of a fictional entity, say a faerie, then one can have absolute knowledge that the object so conceptualized exists but whose form of existence, qualities, properties, essence, etc., are not knowable with the same certainty. This thing I conceive as a faerie, exists absolutely, though it’s faerie-ness may be simply part of the added content of my concept. Perhaps a more accurate conceptualization of the object would be to conceive of it as a dragon fly, a hologram beamed into the garden by my neighbors, or, if I am especially lacking in confidence, perhaps I will conceive of it simply as a batch of particularly effervescent neurons firing faerie-wise. The key point to recognize about this representationalist view of the Given is that every single judgment or conceptualization will, by formal requirement, presuppose the existence of the object so adjudicated. Existence predication (i.e. existential quantification) is the invisible first premise in any judgment, be it syllogism or enthymeme. In order to ascribe a predicate to any object the object itself must first be predicated as predicable. This formal requirement obviates any recourse a rational defendant may take in shoring up his judgment by citing the non-conceptual content that precipitated it. Since the same non-conceptual, purely existential content is used to ground all judgments, it will be the very same content grounding any particular judgment. Since non-conceptual existential quantification is the ground of judgment in general, no judgment citing the ground as a premise will be able to get off the ground long enough to assert its conclusion. In the realm of judgment, existence of the object is always already posited as Given. Even when I negate the object I say “there is no such object” but I am only negating the conceptual content compressed inside the ‘such’; the ‘there is’ remains untouched.
Wilfrid Sellars in his paper ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ diagnosed the above-mentioned What Gives Problem by claiming that it was a symptom of a larger illness plaguing epistemology in general, an illness which he famously classified as the ‘Myth of the Given’. The pejorative use of the word ‘myth’ here is designed to draw our attention to the possibility that idea of ‘the Given’ – that non-conceptual content, whether physical or non-physical, can be used as a premise in a judgment somehow justifying subsequent premises or conclusions which of course are themselves wholly conceptual – is an idea which fundamentally misunderstands what the act of judgment is. The representationalist view conceives of judgment (and knowledge) under the model of description whereby an already (though non-conceptually) determined object is examined and analyzed, squeezed for information and then copied in the form of a concept. Sellars saw the difficulties inherent in such a view, difficulties, such as those we rehearsed earlier, regarding the seeming inability to make heads or tails of how a non-conceptual medium interacts with a conceptual one or how to explain in a non-question-begging way our criteria for justification. Sellars thus offered a theory of knowledge that presented the act of judgment as the exercise of a prescriptive power rather than a merely descriptive and receptive one. When I say of object X that it is red, I am not taking in its property of redness like a camera takes in light (regardless of whether or not this is an accurate picture of what my eyes are doing), but rather ascribing to the object certain inferential entailments and constraints that are logically and materially determined by all the other properties I can now infer about this object in virtue of its being classified as red. I commit myself to treating the object in a way that I treat other objects that I take to be red and I entitle myself to infer properties about this object that I can infer about other red objects, for example that they are not green, are surfaced, reflect light and so on. Thus the relationship described in the formula ‘S’ knows that ‘p’ is not one between the world of concepts and the world of objects, but is rather a relationship between concept users and the concepts used, both of which together make up the Space of Reasons which, though perhaps supervenient on the space of physical causality, is nevertheless functionally independent of it. Though Sellars makes no use of the following analogy, we might find it helpful to think of the Space of Reasons as an economy of logical entailment, whose currency is the Reason (as opposed to the Dollar or the Yuan, for example) whose ‘purchasing power’ can be thought of in terms of the use value of inferential warrant. When we say of someone that she is right, or that she has reason (elle a raison) what we are saying is that the reasons she has given entitle her to the inferences she has claimed (or ‘bought) for herself in her judgment. Thus, giving and asking for reasons is, by analogy, similar to the activity of bartering. When we inquire as to the price of a commodity we inquire as to its value relative to the cost of other commodities for sale in the marketplace. We do not, at least not anymore, look for the value inside of the object apart from its relationship to other objects in a similar basket of goods. To anchor the economic analogy in play here, we can nickname the Space of Reasons ‘the Sellars Market’.
Just as every purchase I make in the economic market expresses what the price of the good purchased is at a given time, it also expresses my assent, approval or endorsement as to what the cost of that good ought to be. By spending n-dollars on object X, I fix its price at that moment and simultaneously reinforce its current pricing. If the transaction is successful, I will have contributed to the valuation of the good (and thoses like it) from that moment on thereby determining the price others will have to pay for it in the future. Similarly, in the Sellars Market, when I make an assertion, or a judgment, I cannot separate my act of description of the object from my act of prescription as to what concepts I think this object should fall under. To designate something as true is to appraise it as true.
Notice that in this inferentialist view, there is no need to talk any longer about the object apart from how it is jointly conceptualized by a given community of rational agents. We will see that this will turn out to be a major point of contention that McDowell will raise regarding this kind of Sellarso-Brandomian inferentialist model but for now, all we need to take notice of is the notion that the Normative Functionalism exemplified in the Space of Reasons can function consistently as a theory of knowledge without referring to its grounding in any non-conceptual foundation.
Interestingly, in the Sellars Market, there is no functional difference between subjects and propositions. A subject and a proposition are different only in degree but not in kind as to their role in the Space of Reasons. To be fair, this is view that, to my knowledge, neither Sellars nor Brandom articulated in their work, but it is an idea I’d like to explore a little bit here since we will see that it helps bring out the nature of the problem that Rodl’s transcendental logic is meant to remedy. In inferentialist epistemologies such as Sellars’ and Brandom’s, we bracket out the notion that there is a physical object represented or referred to behind our knowledge claims or statements of belief. The essence of any judicable object in the Space of Reasons just is whatever inferential commitments its assertion entails and whatever inferential entitlements its assertion licenses. The judicable object can be another rational agent, a deep-space satellite or a bag of cement. It doesn’t matter functionally, that is, according to the internal logic of the system, whether “‘S’ knows that ‘p'” is a statement asserted about a philosopher being able to reliably make inferences about the ontological argument or whether it refers to a thermometre’s ability to reliably track the temperature outside. Brandom parries this Behaviorist characterization of the theory by adding the further stipulation that a judicable object can only be said to ‘know that p’ if it is able, should it be challenged, to recognize and reproduce reasons as to why and how it is able to reliably infer ‘that p’ obtains only when it does. Raising the bar in this way perhaps keeps parrots and pocket watches from possessing knowledge. But it is not clear whether or not this solves the problem. After all, there are many human and non-human ‘S’s’ both animal and mechanical that can reliably reproduce reasonable inferences without necessarily being able to recognize what makes them reasonable (consider young children, chicken-sexers, Turing machines or Searle’s Chinese Room). But the power to recognize what makes a reason a reason is precisely what we are trying to explain without relying on the notion of “reliable differential responsive dispositions” as part of the answer. This would also mean that an inferentialist would have to say more about what makes ‘S’ a rational subject besides simply highlighting its ability to cite a rule or a norm. (Perhaps we should devise a new class of entity and call its members ‘rational objects’?).
We see however that considering once again the Sellars Market helps us think about the Space of Reasons. In basic economic terms the consumer-producer of any commodity is herself a commodity entirely reducible to a dollar value, within the internal logic of the system. Her human rights only enter the economic space as restrictions on the kinds of transactions she is licensed to be engaged in and the minimum price she can be purchased or sold for at any given time. In the knowledge economy, to say ‘S’ knows that ‘p’ is thus to say that S can inferentially ‘afford’ to assert ‘that p’ and afford further to infer her own capacity to make such an inference. Authority to assert ‘that p’ includes a self-reflexive ability to recognize that authority as itself authoritative. In the Sellars Market, notions of knowledge that include first-person experience, non-discursive mood states or phenomenological intentionality have no traction on whether or not something will count as being a rational subject. A man who believed ‘that p’ but could not give a reason why he believed ‘that p’ as opposed to ‘not p’ cannot be said to know ‘that p’ while a Turing machine that could provide both the assertion and the rule would be said to have knowledge in this instance. Sellars writes:

[I]n characterizing an episode or state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says. (EPM §36)

Sellars could not be any clearer. This theory of knowledge limits itself to a logical analysis of justificatory relations between propositions. The value of a proposition is its inferential role. It is therefore a deductive logic and an inferential logic that explicates (with admittedly remarkable explanatory power) nothing besides the logical relationship thoughts have to other thoughts. The beliefs you take yourself to be entitled to reveal your reliability as a conductor of good inferences. Ladyman and Ross are just as deflationary about beliefs as Sellars is on this point. The knowledge economy and its rules described here by the Sellars Market is not able to give an account of how reasoners come to know things in general just as the field of economics is unable to explain how consumers and producers come to value commodities in the first place. They do not deny that these preliminary steps must take place, but they do take it for granted that they have already taken place. This does not detract from the ingenuity and utility of such inferentialist theories and their capacity to illuminate the dynamic but logically-trackable patterns of variables in a vector space, be that the Space of Reasons, geometric space, or the global marketplace. By de-psychologizing logic, Sellars and Brandom show how the finite human intellect has access to principles that can be applied with acuity to material realities that are beyond human sensibility. The Sellarso-Brandomian program, if there is such a thing, can certainly be used to succour theories of transcendental philosophy such as Kant’s and Fichte’s, against eliminativist and empiricist denials of the a priori whether in its synthetic or analytic forms. That rational subjects can think such logical systems is an impressive fact about rational subjects. However, Sellars and Brandom do not show whether or how such rational subjects exist. This incapacity is troubling only for philosophers and human beings interested in obtaining self-knowledge. Because it is often thought to be self-evident that we exist and are rational, many philosophers and perhaps most people do not consider this sort of self-examination to be of paramount importance, a luxury of those with the privilege of free-time, perhaps. However, being unequipped with a theory that can distinguish a rational subject from a rational object has led many people to deny that the former exists, or to conclude, for example, that a corporation, which is certainly able to reliably cite reasons and norms, should enjoy the same legal rights as a human individual. This will have grave consequences for how we think of ethics and politics.
Now, finding it alarming that we would be happy with such a theory of knowledge that could not distinguish a subject from a proposition or a rational subject from a rational object, McDowell rejects inferentialist coherence epistemologies out of hand. In their place he reverts to a foundationalist theory of knowledge that does not rely on the Given as its grounding. McDowell’s solution to the problem of knowledge is to get rid of the notion of non-conceptual content almost entirely while retaining the foundationalist’s sourcing of knowledge in perceptual and sensory experience. The price is steep, for McDowell no longer is able to easily distinguish between rational human thought, and say, the thoughts of animals who cannot reason explicitly nor is he able to neatly distinguish the mind from the world since both on his view contain conceptual content, or rather, conceptual content contains both mind and world.
The meat and potatoes of McDowell’s epistemology seems to be his view that perception puts us in a position to see that world is a certain way and to know that it is that way simply by seeing that it is that way.

There is no excessive intellectualism in a conception of a capacity in whose exercise a subject acquires knowledge that is grounded, and known by her to be grounded, in the perceptual presence to her of objective states of affairs. An ordinary adult human being might not put it in those terms, but that is what she would mean if she said something like “I can tell a green thing when I see one”. It does not require much sophistication to be able to claim such capacities. (McDowell, ‘Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge,’ pg. 32-3)

The virtues of this theory of perceptually produced knowledge are first, that the power (here vision) which produces the intuited object for evaluation is also the power which produces its own justificatory authority as a reliable source of knowledge and second, that this ends the regress that plagued other foundationalist theories whose proponents failed to give an account of how a belief could be grounded in a non-conceptual intuition without recourse to another belief and so on ad infinitum. The vices of the theory should be easy to pick out however: how do we explain this power of perceptual knowledge in non-dogmatic terms? That is, how do we know that perception is authoritative? And of course, closely related to this question is the all-too-familiar fact that the way the world seems to us is often different from the way it really is and in non-trivial ways. McDowell’s response may be disappointing to some for its Wittgensteinian quietistic flavour. Essentially, McDowell concedes the skeptic’s point here but urges her to reacquaint herself with the blessings of sound common sense. When perception goes wrong, it is either because the power is being activated in circumstances which render it unwieldy (e.g., when behind the wheel while drunk); otherwise it is because the power itself has been perverted in some way that should, nevertheless, not be taken as evidence that the entire apparatus is faulty. Hallucinations for example, get the world that is given to them more or less right; in such cases there simply is a discrepancy between the part of the world perceived by the hallucinator and the part of the world perceived, say by his psychiatrist, yet both she and her patient have genuine perceptual knowledge. The price paid by endorsing such a theory seems to be that we deflate almost all of the air out of the general concept of the world as a shared space and instead take seriously the possibility that there are as many worlds as their are minds. Despite this being an intriguing thought, McDowell does not want to go that far, and neither do we. Gorilla-gluing the definite article to the concept of the world keeps the otherwise rickety scaffolding of philosophy from collapsing completely, at least long enough for us to re-set its foundations. Demonstrating that the world we inhabit is a shared one will take some work. It will involve establishing the universality of the forms of intuition as well as the universality of the forms of judgment. This means that we must show that despite there being differences in the way an object appears to me from the way it appears to you, we can know that it is the very same, numerically identical object that you and I encounter in our perception. This means we will have to give an account of how pure and synthetic knowledge is possible, pure in the sense of incorruptible and synthetic in the sense of comprising conceptual as well as phenomenological necessity.


Ray Brassier’s Sellarsian Inspiration

If you allow me to be playful, I would like to introduce Ray Brassier as continental philosophy’s equivalent to J.D. Salinger’s immortal literary hero Holden Caulfield. Brassier can be thought of as a metaphysical “catcher in the rye”, working at the boundary line between the human world of meaning and the scientific world of truth, assigning himself the task of making sure these worlds do not overlap, whether or not it turns out to be the case that they may share a border. In his opinion, too many naive thinkers are failing to play within the limits of human reason and are thus falling over the edge which divides the realm of genuine science from the hypocritical realm of phony philosophizing and empty rhetoric. He is committed to the view that concepts and objects are fundamentally distinct entities and that while a concept may be about a specific object (reference dependent) it is never the case that an object’s existence or its properties are in any way dependent upon its concept’s being able to successfully describe the object’s being. Holding this distinction commits Brassier to a view that prohibits the collapse of epistemology into ontology, that is to say, thinking and being are not one. In other words, Ray Brassier is a realist. He believes there is a mind-independent reality whose structure is not isomorphic to the structure of thought. In this respect, it is acceptable to consider Brassier a disciple of Immanuel Kant whose Critique of Pure Reason was specifically written to once and for all distinguish the structure of the external world from the structures through which the human mind is able to understand and interact with that world. The skeleton key to Brassier’s philosophy is his staunch and adamant defense of the Kantian thing-in-itself, which is just the independent reality of the world apart from whatever it is we think about that world or could think about that world. He rejects, therefore, the German Idealist move, for example made by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, that would turn the thing-in-itself (or the noumenon) into a product of the mind so as to turn an epistemic limit (‘we cannot know the world as it is independent of the mind’) into an ontological truth about reality itself (‘there is no mind-independent reality’). This fealty to Kant allows Brassier to advance the thesis that although it is the case that we can know that the world exists apart from our ability to think it, we can have no knowledge about the nature of the world as it is in-itself. Even the mathematical sciences can only tell us hypothetical facts about the world according to the axioms of the man-made theories we use to describe it. Thus, although Brassier is a proponent of the transcendental a priori set out by Kant to clarify the necessary rules of rational thought, Brassier is unwilling to, even in the face of the “unreasonable success” of those laws’ ability to predict the movements of nature, assert the consonance of the laws of the mind with the laws (or lack thereof) governing the structure of the world in itself.
Brassier poses his question thus: how is it possible for science to posit and to track the in-itself without us conflating the tracking methods and models for that which science seeks? And secondly, how is it possible for us to know that it is science as opposed to say, religion that has the power to track the in-itself if science and religion both take their concepts from the same tool-box, namely, the finite human mind?
For answers to these very important questions, Brassier relies on the work of the late American philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars, whose main contribution to philosophy, in Brassier’s opinion, was his (very Kantian) argument that the laws governing rational discourse are entirely independent of the causal laws determining the physical universe. This idea is captured by a couple of memorable slogans: Sentience does not equal Sapience. And, the Space of Reasons is independent from the space of causes. The first slogan is meant to distinguish conscious experience from rational discourse, or sensual phenomenology from the capacity to reason. The second slogan delineates the realm of material consequence (space of physics) from the realm of conceptual consequence (space of reasons). Though all reasoning beings are also physical beings, reasons are not physical (spatio-temporal) entities as are material objects and their causes are and thus insofar as reasoning beings are able to be moved by reasons, they are able to determine their actions in a way that that makes them responsible for their actions insofar as they are able to give and ask for reasons explaining what they are doing in terms of why they are doing it. On Sellars’ view, it is not because you feel in control of your movements that you are a free agent, but because you are able to give reasons in terms of which you make sense of your movements. The phenomenological feeling of free agency is therefore perhaps necessary but it is not sufficient for an entity to be designated a free being. A merely sentient creature, say a dog, will be moved to behave in a certain manner by its receptivity to sensations occurring in its immediate spatio-temporal vicinity. An unfamiliar sound at the door coupled with a familiar feline scent does not signal a scenario the dog is able to first consider in his mind and then subsequently decide to act upon in a response amenable to those circumstances. A curious dog is always also a dog in pursuit. A sentient creature is unable to compare scenarios in its head; for a dog there are only conclusions, never premises. In the case of the sapient reasoner however, a knock at the door will be underdeterminative of the experience of the thinker. He has to complete that which is happening to him by considering first the scenarios that are not possible, then he must sift out the possible scenarios (or concepts) which fit the immediate stimuli, next he must imagine the probable scenarios and, finally decide on which scenario he will commit himself to. Thus, the cause of his action – say to go up to the door and look through the peep hole – though breaking none of the laws of physics, will in large part be determined by a reason he has given himself. It is of course true that the number and character of the scenarios that will occur to him is largely determined by powers beyond his control (e.g. his background knowledge, education, habits, genes, etc.,) but what makes him responsible for his action is his ability to exercise reason to his level best, which means nothing other than acting in accordance with commitments he has previously or simultaneously brought upon himself. The important point to recognize here is that our sapient thinker will not be able to cite a sensory stimulus as a reason for his action since the stimulus is compatible with a myriad number of possible inferential scenarios all of which include as an element the sound we are now discussing under the concept of ‘knock at the door’. In a very real sense then, a physical cause is not a reason. Physical causes are always only material causes, they are never formal or final causes. This point brings out another key idea of Sellars’ which is the view that it is not possible to use a nonconceptual sensation as a premise in a deductive syllogism since the latter are constructed by laws of logical and conceptual entailment and nothing else. I cannot by having an auditory sensation of an accordion playing a chord simply by having that sensation then form the belief that I what I am hearing is an accordion. This argument is known famously as the Myth of the Given, which is intended to show that there can be no such thing as nonconceptual knowledge. The challenge for Sellars (one which he was never able to dispatch to satisfaction) was how to give an account of how sapience emerged out of sentience and yet answer this question in such as way as to retain the coherence of his distinction between sentience and sapience and reasons and causes. We should recognize that Sellars, followed by Brassier, though disinclined to dissolve normative rationality into sensory receptivity, is not indisposed to countenance, at the very least, attempts to describe the emergence of the former out of latter. The reason for this is of paramount importance for both science and philosophy since we must be clear about the essential differences between sapience and sentience in order for us to be able to explain why reason is not plagued by the same limitations that prevent sense-perception from producing knowledge yet why reason must be a power that can be possessed by finite, spatio-temporal beings.


A Brief Introduction to Roedl’s ‘Categories of the Temporal’

Rodl’s mission in Categories of the Temporal can be summarized as the attempt to show the following: deductive or inferential logic is possible only by its being supervenient, or structurally dependent, on temporal or transcendental logic. This is so because although it is the case that deductive logic aims at Truth which is timeless it is also the case that inference and deduction (i.e. judgments) occur in time. Thus, in order to grasp, assert, and comprehend Truth, philosophy must be able to give an account of how temporal thought is able to access the eternal. This can be formulated as the question: ‘how is it possible for the finite intellect to know the infinite?’

Before we can join Rodl on his journey, it is first necessary to make some preliminary conceptual preparations.  We first must understand why Truth is timeless and what it means for thought that it is temporal.  Analyzing the expression ‘Truth is timeless’ we discover by definition that a true thought will be one whose truth value does not change as time passes since ‘timeless’ and ‘changeable’ cannot be predicated of the same concept as their meanings are mutually exclusive, contradictory, or otherwise conceptually incompatible.  There is no x such that it is both timeless and changing.  Rodl describes it this way: a true thought is one of which it is not possible to assert that it was true before but is now no longer, or that it was not but now is true.  Mathematical statements seem to satisfy this condition. For it is not possible to say that ‘7 + 5 = 12’ was true in the past but is not true now, nor that such truth perishes as the present moment passes into the future. That is to say, there is no point anywhere in time at which ‘7 + 5 = 12’ is not true. One cannot take back a truth once it has been established nor can one fix his gaze upon a falsehood and hope to, by eye or by camera, catch a glimpse of its sudden or gradual metamorphosis into a species of verity.

Now, in examining mathematical laws as candidates for membership in the fraternity of the timeless and the true, we might notice that we have been implicitly relying on logical principles to use as rules by which are able to carry out our examination. Finding ourselves unable to think the truths of mathematics as merely temporal, we discover that those principles of logic which mediate our presentation of mathematical necessity must themselves be true and timelessly so. That is, we presuppose only on pain of pragmatic failure that mathematics and logic guide us on our journey to think what is true. We presuppose on strictly pragmatic grounds that the rules of general logic and mathematics are the right criteria on which to base our assessment of the meaning of the proposition ‘Truth is timeless”. But by pragmatic here we do not simply refer to the ease-of-use of these principles over and above others – as if we are choosing between a pair of power tools – but rather by pragmatic we mean necessitated by the very act of thinking in general. That is, we assume that Truth is thinkable and thinkable by us. It is possible to deny that the rules of mathematics and general logic (e.g. modus ponens, the principle of sufficient reason, the law of non-contradiction, the identity of indiscernibles, etc.) are the proper rubric by which to assess the nature of Truth, but in doing so, one forecloses on the possibility of remaining intelligible and thus critically evaluable.  In other words, we begin with the purely axiomatic presupposition that thought is possible and that my writing this and your reading this are both manifestations of thinking taking place and thoughts occurring in time.  One is invited to leave the principles of logic and arithmetic by the wayside and engage in whatever activity he so pleases; but whatever he is doing thereafter, he will not be thinking. It is entirely consistent of course, to believe that thought occurs in tandem with any number of different processes that are themselves not instances of thinking, neurons firing, for example, electrons spinning, or space-time expanding.  However, to claim that these processes are or could be preclusive of the possibility that thought takes place beside, beneath, between or because of them is to claim something literally beyond belief.  Since it is the business of both science and philosophy to adjudicate precisely what is within the purview of the believable and what is outside of it, we take it on faith that both science and philosophy have devised for themselves a real subject matter. Accepting this, we discover that logical principles as well as mathematical principles participate equally in the category of the timeless. If one asserts that ‘A = A’ was true on Monday but now, on Friday, Friday which is so far away, ‘A = A’ has broken off its relationship to Truth, we must dogmatically commit ourselves to the view that it is no longer possible for us to enter into dialogue with whosoever believes that in stating this proposition he has stated something which is able to rouse the scientist or philosopher out of bed, i.e., something meaningful.  Being eternal, it is of the essence of Truth to be dogmatic.  And a temporary Truth would be no truth at all. Thus, in order to seek Truth we must first presuppose that it exists.

We have hereby designated the nature of those with whom we are in dialogue. They are the philosopher and the scientist, for these two are the figures whom refuse to cede ground to any who would reject the timelessness of truth, and the truthfulness of logic and mathematics. An interlocutor who is unable or unwilling to accept these assertions as axiomatic is therefore, regardless of what he takes himself to be, neither a scientist nor a philosopher. We, the finite and temporal, who have chosen to spend our days in pursuit of the timeless, do not have time to spare in consideration of the ravings of the truth-denier once we have shown that his position can only be pronounced but never actually proposed. Thus, making a wager on Truth’s timelessness and its logico-mathematical character, we ask ourselves what the nature of reality must be in order for us to be able to think truth in this way.

At this point we might decide to examine the nature of the temporal, or those things that are not timeless. Something that exists in time must be able to change as time passes even if the form of its changing is only its persistence through time or its remaining in a particular state.  A mountain, a galaxy, a population of pine trees or a person may persist in time and remain in a particular state while all the while it still being true of them that they are subject to change, that is that they are changeable.  Thus we notice an interesting fact about temporal beings: in describing them, I find that I give an incomplete description of their being if I only use the present tense as a logical copula, that is, as a verb joining them to a predicate.  This, we recall, was not the case when I tried to ascribe truth to something timeless, such as the statements ‘7 + 5 = 12’ and ‘A = A’.  There, the present tense was sufficient. But when I assert of something temporal, say a moose, that it is molting, I soon discover that though it is now, on Friday, true of the moose that it is molting, it may not have been the case that it was molting on Monday. That is, the truth value of my statement depends on my being able to differentiate what is happening at a time from the time at which it is happening. That is, when judging a temporal object, I know that what is predicated of it in the present may or may not pertain to it in the past or in the future.  This is troubling, because our starting assumption was that truth was timeless; how then can the truth value of my statement change depending on whether or not it is said on Monday or Friday?  If it is true now that ‘the moose is molting’, how is it the case that this statement if uttered on Monday would have been false?  If I am not yet willing to give up my conviction that truth is timeless I must look for a way to salvage the timelessness of the truth represented in the statement ‘the moose is molting’ without falling into the absurd position of having to insist that it is always true of the moose that it is molting.  I realize that had it been Monday when I made a judgment about this moose, I could have accessed the same truth represented by the proposition ‘the moose is molting’ when uttered on Friday by my having said on the prior Monday that ‘the moose will be molting.’  It is also possible for me to access the same timeless truth tomorrow, on Saturday, by saying of the very same moose that it was molting yesterday.  Rodl puts it like this: “We think situational thoughts by means of the time at which we think them…[and] the thoughts we thus think are [thereby still] timelessly true.” [Categories of the Temporal, pg. 65]