Transcendental Realism via Pete Wolfendale

This is fucking great. Wolfendale picks the path through Kant that I would never have been allowed to (and that would have been utterly out of my grasp anyway) as an undergrad.

Forking Kant

“to provide an epistemological definition of metaphysics that is both broadly Kantian and yet provides an alternative to Kant’s transcendental idealism and the various strands of ‘correlationism’ and genuine metaphysical skepticism that are its intellectual descendants.”

“Transcendental realism is an attempt to defend this inclination against both liberals and deflationists by explaining the difference between thought about the real and thought about the unreal at the level of logical form. This means that I follow Kant in drawing a distinction between general logic and transcendental logic: there is the structure of generic predication that both types of statement have in common, but there is also the structure of real predication that only one possesses, insofar as it involves relation to real objects.”

Metaphysics and Science

“Putting this in more accessible terms, I think that we can precisely define ‘reality’ as that which is studied by the natural sciences, not metaphysically, by characterising the ‘real’ as ‘material’ and the ‘unreal’ as ‘immaterial’, but epistemologically, by describing the function of observation and experiment in securing the in principle revisability of our models of the world, and thereby articulating its independence from these models.”

“There is a distinct continuity between metaphysics and science, which becomes apparent once one recognises that scientists are often already doing metaphysics. Natural science always proceeds with some more or less implicit understanding of beings, properties, essence, causality, space, time, and so on. This implicit understanding is then subject to revision in the ongoing process of scientific inquiry, in more or less explicit ways.”

“Einsteinian relativity fundamentally challenged our implicit metaphysical understanding of space and time, and subsequent developments in physics have raised serious questions regarding how we should understand causality. The Darwinian revolution in biology has forced us to rethink the very way in which we understand the idea of types, and thus the notions of essence and property. Dynamic systems theory has provided us with alternative ways to conceive of possibility, necessity, and tendency, and its development and extension in the field of complexity theory is forcing us to reconsider our understanding of part/whole relations. This is all before we even begin to consider the conceptual puzzles generated by the counterintuitive logic of quantum mechanics. What all this reveals is that the integrated picture of the world produced by the natural sciences has an abstract conceptual core, which not only regulates the more concrete fringes of scientific inquiry, but is subject to revisionary pressures from these fringes. The transcendental logical structure of the search for objective truth might be a priori and universal, but the manner in which this logic is given over to objectivity demands an interpretation within the scientific enterprise that is a posteriori and revisable. This dividing line between the a priori and the a posteriori is nothing but the distinction between what I earlier called the critique of metaphysics and metaphysics itself.”

Withdrawal and Epistemic Excess

“By contrast, in aiming to understand metaphysics in epistemological terms, I have endeavoured to identify the domain of metaphysical inquiry (‘the real’) by means of an epistemic excess that is not itself metaphysically circumscribed (‘objectivity’). The crucial difference between our uses of the word ‘withdrawal’ is that for Harman epistemic excess is a function of something the object does, whereas for me it is a function of something we do. It’s a matter of perspective I suppose: do you think that the difficulty of knowledge consists in the way the world retreats from us, or do you think it lies in the way it demands we open ourselves to the world?”

The Difference Between Meaning and Truth

“What I call the ‘withdrawal of authority’ is the essential structure of all claims to truth. In order to allow the possibility that a claim is true, one must also allow the possibility that it is false, and this means that one has to abandon whatever right one has to stipulate that it is true or false. For those who are skeptical that we even have such authority in the first place, it’s worth considering the extent to which the meaning of a claim is independent of whether it is true or false.”

Sellars and Heidegger

“I think that Heidegger’s contrast between Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit, and the parallel distinction between existential and scientific forms of spatio-temporality, converges with Sellars’s distinction between the manifest and scientific images. Both thinkers are concerned to show that there are two distinct referential frameworks in terms of which we individuate and engage with entities: one grounded in our understanding of ourselves as agents engaged in various everyday activities and personal projects, and the cultural horizon that defines and contextualises them; and one founded on the attempt to systematically decontextualise and theoretically analyse the components of this everyday world, in order to uncover unexpected causal relationships that give us greater practical purchase upon them.”

“However, the Sellarsian idea that the content of propositions/concepts is given by the functional role of the corresponding sentences/words in the general economy of language-entry transitions (perception), language-language transitions (inference), and language-exit transitions (action), can be usefully extended with Heidegger’s account of ‘skillful/mindless everyday coping.'”

Between the Scientific Image and the Manifest Image

“Even if we accept that there are no concepts without inferential roles, insofar as it is only through the mediation of inference that sensation and behaviour are transformed into perception and action, we must agree with Heidegger that most of what we do is not in fact guided by reasoning. The process of driving a car involves a systematic transformation of sensory inputs (e.g., the resistance of the pedals, the position of other cars, the colour of traffic lights, etc.) into behavioural outputs (e.g., changing gears, steering, signalling, etc.) that need at no point involve any linguistic processing (i.e., perception/inference/action). The important point is that this process can be fed through such processes if the need arises. If something goes wrong with my car, or in the surrounding context of roads, pedestrians, and traffic, I can begin to make perceptual judgments, draw out their consequences, and use them to infer optimal courses of action. Kant might say that the practical understanding involved in driving my car is conscious because there is the possibility of it becoming self-conscious in judgment and reason.”

“Our understanding of the concepts that compose the manifest image (e.g., ‘car’, ‘hammer’, ‘school’, etc.) is largely implicit in our understanding of norms for coping with the corresponding things (i.e., driving, construction, education, etc.), and need only be made explicit on the fly as it becomes relevant. This means that concepts in the manifest image tend to change as the corresponding practices change. By contrast, our understanding of concepts that compose the scientific image (e.g., ‘mass’, ‘lymphocyte’, ‘apex predator’, etc.) largely consists in grasp of implicit norms for using the relevant words in more formalised contexts of perception/inference/action, the learning and revision of which depends on their articulation as explicit rules (e.g., ‘mass = force x acceleration’). However, this contrast permits complex gradations and interstitial zones to be carved out between the two conceptual regimes. While Heidegger thinks that it is the capacity of assertion to decontextualise entities that enables us to encounter things as vorhanden — e.g., to see the hammer as possessing certain extant properties such as shape, material composition, and mass, whose meaning is independent of their practical significance — he claims that there are layers of such decontextualisation — e.g., as evidenced by assertions such as ‘the hammer is too heavy’, ‘this hammer is my most beloved tool’, and ‘building bookshelves is good for the soul’, whose meaning remains thoroughly enmeshed in norms of everyday practice. This fits nicely with Sellars’s insistence that the manifest image can and has been conceptually refined throughout history, as the arsenal of concepts used to articulate these norms has been systematised by successive generations of thinkers.”

“If I understand you correctly, you are less interested in the systematisation of everyday practice in the manifest image, than the way in which everyday practice feeds into the revision of the scientific image. Heidegger’s thoughts on this matter are often rather holistic. He prefers to discuss epochal shifts and periodic ruptures in the global horizon of possibility within which entities appear than to describe specific changes and unexpected anomalies in the local horizons of the natural sciences. Sellars often displays a similar holistic bias. If we recognise the patchwork character of science and the function of the manifest image in co-ordinating the overlapping models produced by the special sciences, we get a more nuanced picture of how theory and practice are imbricated within the scientific image. It is often the job of engineers and the applied sciences to stitch overlapping models together in ways that work in practice, and we should be as sensitive to the failures and frustrations that occur along these edges as we are to broken hammers. Technologists trying to make use of materials science and technicians trying to calibrate experimental apparatuses have their own peculiar ‘everyday’, and their own characteristic forms of practical significance. In these contexts it is not simply a matter of ‘useless tools’, but errors and anomalies that perturb our expectations without quite fitting into our existing referential frameworks. I cannot recommend the work of Mark Wilson highly enough on these points. He does an incredible job of demonstrating that the devil is in the practical details when it comes to tracing the history of conceptual changes within the sciences (cf. Wandering Significance).”



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