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.


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