AGAINST SEMANTIC ENTRAPMENT

Scott Bakker says in a very intereting blog post: “Everything is broken all the way down”, which sounds good to me. I formulate it as “pluralism in a world of becomings” but that’s just because I like Feyerabend and Deleuze, and I think that people could find some very interesting stuff in them. “Science is a mess” seems to follow and Bakker says it. But then he seems to become more conservative as he begins to talk apocalypse, so I am confused. Levi Bryant boors me to tears but Bakker did not bore me. I am all for the Great Conceptual Transition (GCT) if science becomes more massively naturalist in Bakker’s sense than it is today. I GCT myself every day and I heartily recommend it to everyone.

My little dispute with Bakker (my big dispute is that I think that the concept of science itself must be GCTed and that this GCTification must be retroactive) is over his declaration: ” It seems clear that as soon as people begin asserting that ‘social constructivism is a naturalism’ the concept has been stretched more than my sexy underwear”. I said this and I think that I have just as much a right to stretch whatever as anyone. I tried to give an example (as Levi talks very vaguely indeed) of social constructivism: the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge. I was thinking of David Bloor, who has the merit of being clearer than Bruno Latour, who hedges quite a bit. Bloor goes back to the later Wittgenstein, who actually claimed he was doing natural history of forms of life. The enemy was the transcendental philosophers, including his own prior self. Social constructivism refuses the publicity around science and treats it as a natural phenomenon. Maybe it is not yet transversal enough, but it does not detract from the power of science, it only shows up the messiness. Everything is messy all the way down.

I’m an Australian who has been living in France for 30 years and I’m bilingual, I guess, so that means that I don’t always know the correct term and have to bluff or at least surf through some conversations. So please don’t scold me over wrong “terminology” if that is the right word here. Anyhow, Bachelard said “nothing is given, everything is constructed” and so even first-person perception and conception is constructed. Constructed for me means structures, and so structuralism is one form of social constructivism. And their big thing is getting rid of intentional explanations and showing that intentionality itself is just as constructed, and meaning too. So meaning is not given, and asymbolia triumphs QED (I almost wrote GCT but you get the idea, anyhow). Post-structuralism is not a return to meaning and intentionality, it just emphasises the messy construction of the structures, including the structures of science

So Dennett should have listened to Rorty, but Rorty should have listened to Feyerabend who told him it was a waste of time talking to such uninteresting figures, or even referring to them. So I won’t even ask Bakker who he is thinking of when he says “Social constructivism traditionally understood intentionalizes the natural”, as those social constructivists, if they exist are the uninteresting ones. On that we agree. However, My idea of “semantic”, a term that Bakker uses a lot without really defining, is very vague and inclusive, but it does have its limits. I think Deleuze and Guattari’s emphasis on pragmatics is one way they relativise its hegemony, and their emphasis on “a-signifying particles” is another. One of their big themes is the critique of the signifier as a hegemonic construct (that word again!). . My post-structuralism is Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Michel Serres, and Bernard Stiegler, and so not “semantic” at all.

One knows the definition, still useful in my eyes, of SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement ie alienation. I think of philosphy in the same way. So if it is not alienating, in this sense, it’s not worth much. I had a look at the Sperber article that Scott cites, I know and like his work but always feel that he doesn’t go far enough. This article does not alienate me because it seems very old news indeed to claim that arguments do not serve truth but our own opinions.

Scott Bakker note that “Humans are theoretically incompetent” and then he goes on theorising. This does not disturb me at all. However he attributes incredible potency to something called “science” that I claim does not exist. Some parts of some sciences are incredibly potent in some ways some of the time. My advice to Scott Bakker is: if you really believe that everything is broken all the way down you must get an idea of the history of science. I am assuming that you have read Thomas Kuhn, so I advise you to stop everything and read Feyerabend’s AGAINST METHOD, the first version, the essay of 1972, which can be found here:
http://www.mcps.umn.edu/philosophy/completeVol4.html

Levi Bryant used to publish my comments on his blog, but never bothered replying to them or to my blog posts (except once) and then banned my comments without warning, thus giving me complete freedom of speech. With Scott Bakker’s blog I say what I think and it hasn’t gone too badly. Alienation can be some sort of conformist disindividuated groupspeak or it can be our perpetual becoming other, our process of individuation. I am an alien in France, but I already was one in Australia too. I prefer alienation to joining so people can alienate me as much as they want and I will do the same.

I’m pretty sure Feyerabend was advocating eliminativism before anyone else. He discusses it at least as early as 1958 in his essay “Attempt at a realistic interpretation of experience”, and kept coming back to it, e.g.in “Science without Experience” dating from 1969 and included as an appendix in AGAINST METHOD here: http://www.mcps.umn.edu/assets/pdf/4.2.3_Feyerabend.pdf (attention big pdf, but “Science without experience” is only 4 pages long)

His basic idea is to reject the principle of stability of meaning which would prohibit new scientific theories from changing the meaning of our older “mental” vocabulary. Feyerabend thought we could keep the old mentalistic terms, alongside whatever new terms we need, but give them a physicalist meaning. His enemies called his position the “disappearance” theory of mind. Contrary to what many object, I see no self-refuting circularity: just because the brain says about itself that its thoughts are reducible to neuronic firings just shows, on this theory, it is finally knowing the truth about itself. My body can say it is made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen etc without circularity, so my brain can say its material with no vicious circle. I myself am not so much “question-begging” as answer-begging and argument-begging, but that’s the philosopher in me.

I keep coming back to Feyerabend, because his naturalism developped in the 50s anticipated and refuted in advance any objection based on circularity, as basically presupposing stability of meaning and forbidding the incommensurable leap.
But Feyerabend explicitly acknowledges Wittgenstein, and I would argue that this ultimately goes back to the naturalism of the TRACTATUS: ” [5.542] It is clear, however, that `A believes that p’, `A thinks p’, `A says p’ are of the form “`p” says p’: and this does not involve a correlation of a fact with an object, but rather the correlation of facts by means of the correlation of their objects.
[5.5421] This shows too that the soul2–the subject, etc.–as it is conceived in the superficial psychology of the present day is a monstrosity. For a composite soul would no longer be a soul.”

I think Wittgenstein does not go far enough, the proper conclusion of his argument is that we are a multplicity of subpersonal instances and so the soul IS a monstrosity, but that this is no catastrophe. So aboutness is reduced to the causal theory of reference, one of the prongs of the naturalist programme. All talk of “access” goes back to even before the 20th Century, where all this talk of aboutness and “propositional attitudes” was considered in terms of reference (remember Wittgenstein reduces aboutness relations to the form “p” says p) which is in turn explained in terms of causality. Talk of “access” tries to have physical sounding theory and then propound horrible gaps coming from a mentalist framework.

I don’t know if I am an eliminativist or not, but I am definitely an incommensurabilist, and I get upset at limiting possible options by conservative employment of entrenched meanings. Vicious circles and reductio ad absurdum often have this caracter of semantic entrapment, and I reject that. This year I followed Bernard Stiegler’s seminar on line and he talked about Catherine Malabou’s book “What should we do with our brains?”, and her stuff on neuro-plasticity as a way of unifying and going beyond Deleuze and Derrida via the neuroscience connection. I really like this approach. However, Stiegler criticised Malabou at one point for identifying the psychical apparatus (in a Freudian paradigm) with the brain. Stiegler says he needs to keep the two separate. So while I am favorable to Malabou’s ideas, I suspend judgement on eliminativism or not. But if ever my answer is « not », it will have to be for a very good reason, and not out of semantic entrapment.
I think with Feyerabend that we should not be afraid of taking an incommensurable leap, in this case out of all mental talk, and of giving the rupturing theory its full force, and not try to find a consensual version. It is only in this way that we can become aware of and examine critically certain deep-rooted presuppositions and have a chance of forming a free opinion for or against.

I think that it is not useful to talk about epistemologies of « access”. As to “aboutness”, I think that the causal theory of reference undercuts such questions. This is the whole sense of the Wittgenstein reference, where he abandons aboutness by reducing it to the more direct affirmation that “p” says p. there has been a century long (at least!) reflection over the question of propositional attitudes, and Quine, among others, naturalised epistemology by treating it as dealing with questions of causal relations between “mental events”, to be reconstrued as behavioural and thus physical events, and other physical events. If one has a physiclaistic interpretation of “information” it is already in the causal domain, and it does not “inform” anyone, and certainly not a “subject”. If one thinks that information “informs” anyone, then it is no longer causal but semantic. So there is no foundation, that idea belongs to a non-naturalist epistemology, where legitimation plays an important role. if there is no originary intentionality, something that Derrida argues as well,then there is no originary foundation.

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12 commentaires pour AGAINST SEMANTIC ENTRAPMENT

  1. kubla dit :

     » (my big dispute is that I think that the concept of science itself must be GCTed and that this GCTification must be retroactive) »

    Yes, depending to some extent, of course, on just what reconceptualization you have in mind. But the ordinary concept of science (whatever that might be, which, of course, is what’s at issue) is not terribly useful any more. It needs to be replaced.

    J'aime

  2. rsbakker dit :

    So is it fair to say that your disagreement with me vis a vis science is primarily one of carelessness on my part, Terrence? That’s a bullet I have no problem biting. I trade in cartoons self-consciously, the hope being that something significant shines through.
    Regarding ‘eliminativism,’ the term is generally deployed in PoM circles with reference to Churchland’s arguments against ‘folk psychology’ – something that Stich did a great job dimantling, I think. I only say this because it would be a misnomer to call me an ‘eliminativist’ in this specific sense. In fact, *I’m* not an ‘eliminativist’ at all, to the extent that I genuinely refuse to *believe* BBT (or all of it anyway – I dunno), which is definitely an ‘eliminativist’ position in some radically original, vertiginous sense.
    This is why I refer to my position as a kind of ‘Akratism,’ a kind of pragmatism with a broken normative back.

    J'aime

    • terenceblake dit :

      I do not accuse you of carelessness but of ambiguity, and it is a « fault » that I share with you. I like your notion of the Great Conceptual Transition and I group it with Foucault’s notion of a change of episteme. Deleuze thought that the new configuration would involve the release of the forces contained up to now in the human form as one particular organisation of these forces dependent on a particular state of the sciences and of our technologies. He envisages a vast recombination of these forces due to molecular biology, brain science, and digital technologies such that we may not be « human » any longer (this is from the end of Deleuze’s book FOUCAULT). His POSTSCRIPT ON CONTROL SOCIETIES is a sketch of the issues involved in one aspect of this transition. Bernard Stiegler tries to carry on from this, and talks about the beginning epoch of « neuro-power ». He kindly let me translate his notes for the first five of his 2012 seminar. You can have a look here: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/translations-of-bernard-stieglers-seminar/.
      So neither I nor you are eliminativists, although we both find eliminativism a line worth pursuing, and thus defend it against a certain type of non-empirical objection. From Socratic to Akratic sounds like a good evolution to me for both individuals and society as a whole.

      J'aime

  3. Thank you, Terence, for posting those links to Feyerabend, as I had another person recommend him so there was some nice synchronicity there. Excellent. I will definitely check them out.

    J'aime

  4. terenceblake dit :

    Not sure what links you have seen, so I will group them here:
    Feyerabend’s last letter: http://www.kjf.ca/31-C2BOR.htm (published as preface to the 4th edition of AGAINST METHOD)
    Philosophy and Methodology of Military intelligence – Correspondence with Paul Feyerabend:

    Cliquer pour accéder à Wk%2012-B%20Terrorism%20Intel%20Ben%20Israel%20&%20Feyerabend.pdf


    How to defend society against science: http://www.galilean-library.org/manuscript.php?postid=43842
    AGAINST METHOD: http://www.mcps.umn.edu/philosophy/completeVol4.html

    J'aime

  5. antoine dit :

    Nice post!
    A tangent remark: I think Deleuze is both a naturalist and a constructivist: transcendantal empiricism is problably the key to unify both (see LS for the naturalist part, and QP for constructivism).

    And a little bit aside: You are interested in SF I supose no? I wonder if you have read Garcia Forme et objet, and would love to know what you think about it. Garcia is a rigourous and erudite thinker, and probably shouldn´t be confused with the pop/zizesque flavours of OOO (yes, I´m thinking of GH)

    All the best

    J'aime

  6. terenceblake dit :

    Thanks Bill for making all that work available.

    J'aime

  7. terenceblake dit :

    Hello Antoine, thanks for your comment. I agree with you about Deleuze. I found Garcia’s book both impressive and an impasse, but only time will tell there I suppose. What did you get out of it?

    J'aime

  8. David Roden dit :

    A fascinating, rich post that’s hitting all my spots, Terence. I’m in transit right now, physically and psychically, but I’ll try to respond some soon. 🙂

    J'aime

  9. antoine dit :

    Thank you for your answer. I haven´t read yet – I´m saving it for when I´ll have some available mental space – but I´ve take a look and it seems very impressive, for the systematization, for the wide range of themes, and for the actual empiricist analysis that goes way beyond the weird «theses» of «withdrawn» and «sensual» objects and the like. In the end, even if the general position is one that I couldn´t accept, there´s something important that seems to go on, I mean, a philosopher that has pertinent things to say about the world, the animals, humain beings and etc. Your comment will certainly help me to go for it very soon.

    J'aime

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