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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The propositional turn

Since 2009 I have been toying with the idea, that titled a paper I gave with Manuel in a Metaphysics of Science conference in Nottingham, of making a linguistic turn of 360 degrees. If the linguistic turn amounted to move from things to words, to the structure of the world to the structure of language (and from the believer to the speaker), a linguistic turn of 360 degrees would move through words, language and speakers only to get back to things, world and believers only in a more informed way. In other words, to adapt an image put forward by Tim Williamson, language can be a telescope for metaphysical inquiry.

I´ve been reading King, Soames and Speaks interesting book on propositions (New Thinking about Propositions, Oxford Scholarship, 2014). More than the arguments themselves against sententialism and a Davidson-like theory of meaning, the idea of the book enticed me to have another look at propositions. In fact, much philosophical enlightenment lies in the very possibility of propositions - and not merely sentences - as bearers of truth. A metaphysics of ´the proposition would investigate what is the role of predication in the world - how the copula between subject and predicate in fact take place. Once propositions are at least prima facie accepted in an ontology, the issue of its nature seems fascinating and open (given that Russellian, Fregean and possible worlds-based accounts fail, as chapter 3 of the book persuasively argues).

Such a metaphysics of the proposition could benefit from a linguistic turn of 360 degrees - it could be informed by philosophy of language. Hence, for instance, it is a propositional issue what takes place in the process of reference fixing. So, if fixing a reference is something different from giving a description of what is being refered, it is maybe constituting maybe pinpointing a proposition. ´Cats´ are about cats even if cats are not animal - to use Putnam´s famous example - because ´cats´ carves the world in a way such that some propositions arise (say, "cats are animals", "cats are robots"). The act of fixing a reference is the act of giving rise to propositions - or access a realm of them. Reference-fixing is perhaps not an issue in language, between terms and parts of the world, but rather an issue in intentionality where an expression picks a particular way to track, or to individuate, bits of the world.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Against property (and sumak kawsay)

A beautiful theme that emerges from Noys book on accelerationism (Malign Velocities, Winchester: Zero Press, 2013) is the appeal to innovative, even glamourous ideas to counter the seemingly daring gestures of accelerationism (and one-track left reasoning in general). Noys stresses the importance of rethinking work. (See my post on Noys'book.) To reconceive work in order to make it less precarious and also less dull requires rethinking property. The left is nowadays very vague or very modest in its critique of property in general, as a political and ontological outrage. It is vague because Marxists insist on the various processes of proletarisation (of dispossessed peasants, of illegal migrants, of those rendered redundant by technological advances) and make clear that a work force has to own nothing but their labour, in contrast to those who own means of production. But it rarely proposes policies and strategies to weaken property. It is modest because people like the Pirate Party are clearly against intellectual property but rarely make clear that the problem is more general and lies in property in general. I think the left ought to make clear that property is something that would better go.

Property of non-humans by humans has to be replaced by different sorts of stewardships. A proletarian society means: no one has property of the means of production. I mean, not even the state; not even the commons. To abolish property means to undo the concept altogether so that care for the non-human could take other shapes. It is to exorcise the potestas idea that one has all rights over something - no one does. The idea that there are taxes over property is a step in the direction of understanding that there are things that are more important than ownership (good use, meaning also general well being in the sense that squatting corrects the absurd of having unoccupied states in a city etc). In a sense, to abolish property is an accelerationist measure for property is the ultimate territory of capitalism, and the flow of capital is such that it has to go around property - to brake for it - and not to make it flow. But it is also something that can be thought against the drive for production - it is not about producing more, it is rather about common sumak kawsay, that is good actualization of potentialities within a community. I take sumak kawsay to mean something like openness for ideas to take space, as opposed for them to wait for capital to help or property rights to allow. This is why so much can be done when intellectual rights are more flexible and also why so much can be rendered possible by devices like crowd funding. There is much to be explored in a critique of property, but I believe to replace it by stewardships of all sorts is what can make the left vibrant and enthusiastic again. There is much to imagine in a world without ownership.

Phil Jones tells me the right believes it has evidence in favor of private property, evidence linking private property to some general good, a sort of a conditional imperative argument. They say people take better care of what they own. It seems like no more than a disguised form of the old form of appeal to human nature, but there is something more to the point. Even though they know that gas and water corporate ownership in Bolivia was a disaster, they seem to believe that land reform is a bad idea because productivity goes down. Well, it is hard to establish this is the case in the long run. But if they are right on this, there is an interesting point: folks that defend the opposite of economic growth as a way out of capitalism would be right in that productivity cannot be the only measure of a good (access) policy. Private property of the means of production has generated capitalist wealth but also loads of misery through proletarization. Things only got better when a different model was a real possibility (as Piketty's results suggest) and collective (meaning state) property was on the political agenda (and not only as a token of the reactionary left). Again, a better take would be to consider something like sumak kawsay. What does a regime of stewardship has to offer to the general (human and non-human) well-being of a collective?

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Whitehead and Quine's ontological criterion

Quine famously pontificated that "No entity without identity". He understood identity in terms of qualities - properties of an object, or rather predicates that could be applied to the term that is quantified and deserves ontological commitment. On that account, Whitehead's actual entities would not qualify for they have no independent quality-based identity. Their identity is no more than a product of they being subject of a perception. There is no identity that is independent of other entities, as I wrote in my recent post about Whitehead's realism. Quine, who had been supervised by Whitehead, was perhaps not aware of his speculative thoughts on actual entities. But to be sure, his slogan can be understood in a Whiteheadian mode: if nothing identifies an actual entity in its perceptions, there is no entity. No entity without (perceptual) identification.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Whitehead on acquaintance

Evans (Varieties of Reference, Oxford: Clarendon, 78) defines the photograph model as follows: "the causal antecedents of the information involved in a mental state [...] are claimed to be sufficient to determine which object the state concerns". The causal antecedent contrasts with what is cognitively transparent in the mental state. The photograph model allows a mental state to be about something it cannot discriminate - for it can be about something it is not cognitively engaged with. The photograph model doesn't entail that we have some sort of faded cognitive contact with the content of our mental states. We don't have to know anything at all about what we think, believe or perceive. (Applied to knowledge, the model entails that we don't need to know anything at all about what we know.). If I contemplate a photograph of Neville Chamberlain where he looks like Winston Churchill, it doesn't matter any of my beliefs about the photograph showing a man that looks like Churchill - it is a photograph of Chamberlain no matter what. Now, it seems to me that to remark that while Russell was not committed to the photograph model (but to something far worse than it), Whitehead was thinking very much along the lines of the photograph model in his account of perception.

Whitehead had a conception of perception that included all sort of affection - including causal affection. So causality is understood in terms of perception, and not the other way round. Thus, when he buys into a roughly Lockean model of indirect perception, he emphasizing that the res vera perceived is indifferent to what we make of it - of our ideas concerning it. What is ultimately perceived is an actual entity, the cause of the perception. The photograph model: what is perceived is what causes the act of perception, the object perceived is the res vera that is the antecedent of the information in the act. Here, however, there is no acquaintance, no faded cognitive contact with the actual entity - there is perceptual contact without cognitive contact, as I put in previous posts. In other words, Whitehead buys into no notion of acquaintance like the one that moves Russell to diagnose a non-descritive element in mental states. In Russell, there are cognitive contact without concepts - this is why he is vulnerable to the attacks on the myth of the given. In Whitehead, there are perceptual contact without concepts - but that involves no cognition, no acquaintance and no given.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Noys' critique of accelerationism and the perils of a reactionary left

Very inspiring book by Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities (Winchester: Zero Press, 2013). The accelerationismustreit, which is vertiginous polymorphous, can be introduced by a quote of Jameson Noys makes on page 83: either capitalism is going too fast in its destruction of everything that matters and ought to be stopped by pulling the emergency brake or capitalism is pressing hard in the right direction and will be surpassed by the very velocities it brings about. The first alternative recommends strategies of making capitalist flow stop or loose speed (state taxation, resistance to the commodification of things, defense of the traditional institutions from the attacks of capital). It rings a reactionary tone: the left should resist the outrages being done by capital. The expression, "emergency brake", comes from Walter Benjamin's writings where he summons one to halt when a given direction where things are going is inappropriate. The second alternative, on the other hand, can be understood either as a recommendation to leave capitalism to its own devices (waiting in the anteroom of an homogeneous time, in another fortunate expression by Walter Benjamin - see Noys, p. 91) or engage in making acceleration too fast for capitalism to stand (promoting some kind of hyperflow, in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, that would be faster than capital and deterritorialize it). The first horn of this second branching points towards a strategy, maybe akin to what Williams and Snircek, in their #Accelerate manifesto, call rightwing accelerationism and that could be found in some writings of Nick Land. The second horn points towards engineering a way to make economic information (that is, information about production) to go faster than capital - for instance, by circumventing property rights through GPL licenses or through crowd-funding of projects. Both alternatives, according to Noys, buy into a masochistic sense of jouissance that Lyotard celebrated in his Libidinal Economy: we find a way to like what is not painless but we can do nothing but accept. Accelerationism accepts all the capitalist maladies, Noys argues, and therefore falls hostage to a lack of radical criticism and, perhaps as a consequence, to a lack of radical imagination.

If the Jameson seesaw can be seen as the pendular movement the left easily falls prey of, Noys would be suggesting we undo the predicament by dissolving its premises. Confronted with the glamour of an accelerationist left (either working together with neo-liberal (or libertarian) agendas or trying to overdo deterritorialization by showing how capital can be an obstacle to production (and distribution), one feels uneasy with the seemingly reactionary paths of simply defending hard-earned rights. Confronted with the pains of jouissance and the difficulties of either bringing a hyperflow about or accepting capitalist-friendly measures as going in the right direction, one recoils to a resort to emergency brakes and attempts to slow down the path of deterritorialization. Noys suggests that both routes are in fact reactionary: they move in the single track where we can do little more than change speeds. Instead of glamour and recoil, Noys offers the image of work - labor is still mostly slow, dull, pointless and disconnected from our lives no matter how accelerated things got. And it's getting worse: more precarious, more overwhelming in our lives, less constrained by rights. We are not yet in the future where work will disappear replaced by machines - no matter whether this is a plausible capitalist future - nor can we go back to what seems now to be a Fordist paradise of security where jobs where stable and didn't make advances in the rest of our lives. Noys deconstructs the seesaw of accelerationism by insisting that both alternatives lack in criticism and imagination about work and its possible alternatives. This is partly because accelerationism is committed to a production ontology: it buys into an image of the world where production is seen as the ultimate parameter and a sovereign one. The blind-spot of production is, of course, work; for someone has to provide the producing. Automated production seems to be at best a blinding utopia for those who are confronted with the miseries of work. What is missing in the debate between accelerate and brake is some kind of allagmatic point of view - the point of view of those who carry the burden of work (see my post on allagmatic accelerationism months back). From that point of view, the left is stack in reactionary mud: either pressing the production talk - work faster, work harder, work in more places - or insisting in the precarious gains through law and social policies. Reactionary and also parasitic and paralyzing mud. This is a beautiful undertone of Noys' book: a plea for more imagination, for taking back the future, for imagining a different track where work can be finally thoroughly rethought. This, after all, is supposedly the left intellectual task.

Now, to be sure, Marx was an accelerationist in believing that one could learn revolutionary gestures by looking at the history of capital. This trait of Marx's thought could be appreciated even if one doubts the "tendency" (the tendency of capitalism to become inviable and generate a final crisis giving rise to something else). Even if capitalism is not self-destructive, either because there is no end to its corrosion (living labor will always be worth exploiting no matter how many machines are introduced) or because the Earth will end before the final crisis, we can learn lessons of deterritorialization with capital, if we are to fight it. Such lessons are part of looking back into history and not simply considering time as homogeneous (as in Benjamin's waiting anteroom). Revolution will have to be multitrack - but to learn with capitalism doesn't mean to learn its own terms. It therefore doesn't mean either to acquire its sensibility and find a way to like it or to be hostage of its conception of the future. It means to learn something about its drive to deterritorialize.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

"Someone": Whitehead's thou

I was wondering about the subject-superject structure where an actual entity in Whitehead prehends another. Prehension is the key to existence in a metaphysics of perception. The subject-superject structure is a I-thou structure: what is prehended first is an actual entity, and not its qualities or even its substratum. What is prehended is a thou. That is, another actual entity capable of prehending. This is why Whitehead buys into, in the opening pages of P&R, a Leibnizian conception of substance as mentality. Relation is therefore always negotiation – être est entente. This is Whitehead’s animism: finding another mentality in a very different body capable to perceive. An actual entity is, above all, a drop of existence because it has interiority – it is a prehender. This is the big Cartesian discovery – better used by Locke (even though not completely well) and by Leibniz (who extended mentality everywhere). In this sense, the big precursor of Whitehead is Tarde talking about beliefs and desires as a common to every monad. To prehend something is to prehend some one; a one with which one is directly connected through perception, even if something very different is actually cognized. (Whitehead’s externalism would have that perceptual contact could come with cognitive error.)

Reality and perception: the realist and the immaterialist options

Whitehead insists that actual entities are res verae, the ultimate real thing. That makes him a priority pluralist – and not, as arguably Latour, a priority nihilist. Of course, with Latour, there is not much sense in asking what, or how many, are the actual entities. But still, they are prior. Also, genetics precedes morphology – the prehension of an actual entity precedes its composition and its occupation of a place in space. What counts as an actual entity? A good answer is maybe: whatever is perceived as one by anything. An actual entity doesn’t need to be perceived by everything, but needs to be perceived by something – there is no vacuous actuality. The question then arises: what does the perceiving?

Berkeley here would appeal to God. Bodies are perceived by minds, human and divine. Whitehead appeals to the world – there is a solidarity in existence. A mutual co-creation where to exist is to co-exist; bodies exist in multitudes. Never mind what does the perceiving, but something has to do it. The perceiver, to be sure, has to be perceived by somebody else – this is why God and the world depend on each other. Devrim, the baby, doesn’t perceive the peach as a peach – further, she doesn’t see an individuated actual entity there. I do. Other perceivers would spot very different individuals, so crowds of perceived actual entities populate the world. Spatial considerations? Those relate to qualities, and not perception. This comes in morphology, when extension takes place. At the genetic level, one has an embedded monadology of infinite actual entities present in a single peach – not one inside the other, but many associated to a perceiver. That’s why there is no sense in asking how many actual entities there are – well, there is an answer to that, but counting would involve all actual entities that are engaged in perceiving (which includes being affected causally by other actual entities). It is a hard count, but that doesn’t make actual entities less prior.