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Tag Archives: Prescription

Spinoza’s Substance and the Objects of Objection

Reid has an interesting discussion of what he calls Anthrophobia, a term he admits rhetorically made steer in the wrong direction of his criticism. It is the fear that those that reject so called Flat-Ontologies have of losing what is “human”. The discussion follows Larval Subject in the comments section of Ontophobia (a blog I do not participate in). I want to re-post here some of my comments offer to Reid because they bring up for me one of the more valuable offerings of Spinoza’s ontology, the ability negotiate the tension and desires of Flat Ontologies, and their attempted deepening.

Reid, when you say…

I think that you and Graham, specifically Graham on this point, should draw the full dehumanizing conclusions of flat ontology, which is that humans do not have a naturally privileged status. Rather, this privilege is an artificial effect of economic stratification. Moreover, while it may be virtuous compared with poverty, I don’t think it is so in itself. So in part, the call for dehumanization is one for a new ethic of life that does not depend on abstract opposition to poverty, and rather seeks to fully embrace its ‘unclean’ and ‘contaminating’ character (culturally, not biologically), the better to transform rich and poor….

…I want a unified approach to politics and ontology that suspends the sufficiency of their prescriptive claims, in order to make equivocal use of their components.”

I have to say that you are right on it. I just wonder why Spinoza’s example (if you want to filter it through a Deleuze ontology that is okay too), doesn’t satisfy just this kind of need? The natural kinds of sedimentation possess only the “dignity” (what Spinoza calls “right”) that they can manage. In this sense the essential dignity is not pre-existing, except in the most eternal/essence sense, but processual, ever determined and restricted. (See Althusser on Spinoza perhaps, to take apart the possibilities of such an analysis.)

The embrace of the unclean or contaminated is the embrace of the fact that there is no “human” per se, nothing to be contaminated in the first place, the flesh as expression.

When Dr. M [Graham Harman] tries to say to you…

“The problem is that Badiou’s real is not much of a real (if we’re speaking of inconsistent multiplicity here. It’s inarticulate, not carved into parts. Its only role is to haunt any count with an excess or residue that escapes the count.”

1). I can’t see how this differs any more from the (OOP) “haunting” of the object that is always in retreat (talk about a haunting), which as you point out has no identifiable attachment to its expression (nothing that makes it THAT object).

2). Badiou’s Real in my view is really very much like Plotinus’s Hen (the One/Expressed), which is beyond the Being/Non-Being determination. It does seem to haunt a bit, but really this leads to point three…

3). For reasons 1 and 2, it seems that Spinoza’s expressive Substance is the way out between the Scylla and Charybdis. Because objects are merely determined, modal expressions of Substance, a Substance which does not belong to any one particular object, we avoid the Aristotelian problem, and because Substance by its very nature expresses itself in determined fashion we end up on the better side of the ontological/epistemological divide, which is to say, we can be (asymptotically) equivocal about our descriptions. Prescriptions certainly remain, but they are only performatively sufficient. They help constitute our capacities to form mutual bodies of affect and thought, which are no less material bodies; and this is a prescription/epistemic which itself becomes re-inscribed, or understood as pre-positedly ontological: expressions of our powers to act, feel and be.

It seems that following Reid if we really want to theoretically grant, and then therefore work for in analysis and reason, the full dignity of extant human beings (and other things non-human), the full variety of Substanced expression must be embraced (with their sedimented values), we require a pre/post/human ontology (what Adrian called Prehistoric) that only Spinoza provided, one in which “objects” are ever transpierced by powers, knowing that “essence” projected onto some retreating screen/void, (or “singularity” bubbled up from morass, and stretched out onto a mathematical grid), is not the pragma foundation of the dignity of others. Ultimately dignity is composed of mutualities, mutualities which are bodies to be affectively and objectively made.

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The Objective truth of Rorty

Richard Rorty, more than any other philosopher, perhaps due to his apostasy from strict Analytic Philosophy, has become the symbol of a seen-to-be corrosive Relativism, one that distains any notion of truth or objectivity, besides the pragmatic regulative of “sentences which work”.

This manifested itself in a more than decade long debate between himself and Donald Davidson, a philosopher whom he held in great esteem, and whom he worked to help popularize in his best selling books and essays. Rorty wanted to tell Davidson that he was merely a pragmatist, who had failed to drop the last vestige of metaphysical thought, the notion of “truth” in need of a theory. And Davidson wanted to tell Rorty that the skeptic needed to be answered, that a theory of “truth” was the very thing that (neo) pragmatism was missing. The two intelligent readers talked “passed” each other in a spirited way, with Rorty trying to appropriate Davidson’s position, without Davidson’s permission.

Finally this stalemate broke with Bjorn Ramberg’s essay: “Post-Ontological Philosophy: Rorty vs. Davidson”. In it he told Rorty that he had been misreading Davidson’s concept of truth all along, and that if Rorty indeed was devoted to a notion of a community of values, he must be also devoted to a distinction of truth. To my surprise (when reading the volume, Rorty and His Critics), Rorty agreed.

I can think of no such a reversal in the context of modern contemporary philosophy, where a near-career-long position is abandoned in favor of a better argument, with that argument being presented in a single, turning essay (even if for literary effect). Surely there were many other factors involved, but for an intellectual authority as willful and criticized as Rorty enjoyed himself to be, to admit that he had always misunderstood the philosopher he had read closely, is an event worth commemorating.

Below are some of the worthy quotes from his response to Ramberg’s essay, those which characterize his admission that a theory of truth rests on the recognition that the prescriptive preceeds the descriptive.

Rorty, at times quoting Ramberg, at times referencing Davidson, wrote:

I have turned a blind eye to the fact that the mind-body distinction is intertwined with the person-thing distinction. I have not tried to relate the two distinctions. Davidson by combining a theory of action with a theory of truth and meaning, has. Ramberg helps bring Davidson’s two lines of inquiry together when he says that an account of truth is automatically an account of agency, and conversely. He helps us see that Davidson, like Dewey, is trying to break down the distinction between knowing, theorizing, spectatorial mind and the responsible participant in social practices…

…Ramberg suggests that we see the ability to ascribe rights and responsibilities (along the lines of Brandom’s “social practice” reconstruction of the vocabularies of logic and semantics) as (usually) a prerequisite for the ability to predict and describe. The key to understanding the relation between minds and bodies is not an understanding of the irreducibility of the intentional to the physical but the understanding of the inescapability of the normative…

…As Ramberg says “Describing anything, if Davidson is right, is an ability we have only because it is possible for others to see us as in general conforming to the norms that the predicates of agency embody.” Agency-the ability to offer descriptions rather than just make noise-only appears if a normative vocabulary is already being used: “descriptions emerge as descriptions of any sort at all only against a taken for granted background of purposive-hence normatively describable behavior on the part of the communicators involved…

…‘The basis of knowledge, any form of knowledge, whether of self, others, or shared world, is not a community of minds, in the sense of mutual knowledge of neighboring belief-systems…Rather, it is a community of minds, that is, a plurality of creatures engaged in the project of describing their world and interpreting each other’s descriptions of it. (Ramberg, pp. 361-2)’

I can epitomize what Ramberg has done for my understanding of Davidson by saying that he has helped me understand the point of a sentence of Davidson’s which I had previously found utterly opaque. Ramberg quotes Davidson as saying:

‘We depend on our linguistic interpretations with others to yield agreement on the properties of numbers and the sort of structures in nature that allow us to represent those structures in numbers. We cannot in the same way agree on the structure of sentences or thoughts we use to chart the thoughts and meaning of others, for the attempt to reach such agreement simply sends us back to the very process of interpretation on which all agreement depends.’

I did not understand the second sentence in this passage until I read it in Ramberg’s way. Read in that way, it can be paraphrased as saying, ‘Whereas you can, in the course of triangulation, criticize any given claim about anything you want to talk about, you cannot ask for agreement that others shall take part in the process of triangulation, for the attempt to reach such an agreement would just be more triangulation.’ The inescapability of norms is the inescapability, for both describers and agents, of triangulating.”

“Response to Ramberg,” in Rorty and His Critics, (371-374).

It still amazes me to hear a philosopher say of a sentence that she/he had read and reread countless times, “I did not understand this sentence”.

For myself, I think that there is indeed an analytic wisdom buried in the “the prescriptive precedes the descriptive”, something that upturns the is/ought distinction and chasm. Because prescription precedes description, a normativity of communication pervades any of our notions of “is” and guides our capacity to act, in a sensus communis, in the world.

 

White and Black Lists: Evolution and Rule Following

 

A Prospective View Towards Thinking about the nature of Proscription

It is said that one of the primary weakness of the early concept of evolution as adaptation to an environment was the idea that the environment was prescribing changes in an organism or species, that is telling them how to be. What it seems has become clear is that the environment is not prescribing (that is dictating, or determining) the prescriptions of DNA and then phenotypes, but only proscribing, limiting. This means that the development of organisms follow their own prescriptions (rules) only to the extent that the environment proscribed those products. Hence the environment could not tell an organism how to be, but could only tell it how not to be (that DNA/phenotype combination is fatal before reproduction).Now if we extend this metaphor down into chess, taking cue from Wittgenstein example of language game and rule following, we come up with, initially, a very distinct prescriptive environment (the “white list” as one can call it). The game of chess is for the most part composed of move possibilities that are prescribed, i.e. these are the things you can legally do. I think it would be possible to say as well that these hard prescriptions (for instance, the rules of how a pawn moves), are also complemented with softer prescriptions (for instance, one should try to control the center of the board, or one should castle early, or should maintain pawn chain integrity, or even more basically, one should protect one’s King and attack your opponent’s). If we remain at the level of the strict rules though (which is simplest), what we do when we learn chess, is internalize these rules. The prescriptions of chess become our prescriptions for our movements in chess. Our knowledge of those prescriptions is shown in our behavior. But, and this is important, moment to moment we can not just assume that our knowledge or employment of those prescriptions is correct. This is where prescriptions become proscriptions. If one attempted a move, one might be told: “No, that’s not how the knight moves,” or “No, that puts your King in check,” or even, “No, its my move”. In this way, the prescriptions of chess rules, as the environmental domain of your behaviors, communicated by your partner or an official, become proscriptions, that is limitations. What one does with such negative feedback is correct one’s understanding of one’s prescriptive aim, perhaps selecting a different rule to apply, or applying a rule in a different way.

There is no absolute prescription/proscription distinction at the descriptive level, because the proscriptive rule “You must not move your King into a line of attack,” can be alternately prescriptively described as “You must always move your King, when moving it, to a square of safety .” The distinction I think lies in a another way. One internalizes prescriptions and makes them rules for action, yet because we are ever unsure if our prescriptive understanding is optimal, we are ever ready to revise our prescriptions for action before the occasion of a proscriptive limitation. The proscriptive “no” is an event, a moment when whatever line of reasoning or rule application meets up with a limitation which causes us to revise our direction. (It can be anything from an outright impossibility of an action, “No, you can’t make that move,” to an unexpected consequence of a rule-following action, “Damn, it was stupid to castle so early when my pawn center was under such attack”. But while the proscriptive occasion is an event, the prescription of rules (the “white list”) is global. It contains a universizing aspect within a game, capable of being applied in multiple circumstances. It is simply uneconomic to make a “black list” because the list could be infinite. Instead we have a complex system of prescriptions that are alternately selected and/or revised under occasions of limitation. Just as an species is a series of “adaptive” prescriptions before an infinite “black list” which simply signals certain prescriptions to recombine.