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Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Metaphysics vs transcendental philosophy

Ray Brassier, just after my talk here in Beirut on Monday (see below in the blog) expressed some discomfort towards my attempt to enlist Hume as the source of what I was calling a metaphysics of contingency. Rather than a source, I take Hume's criticisms of necessary connection to be (a possible) starting point for a concern with the nature of contingency. Ray thinks that Hume wouldn't be happy with any metaphysical endeavour - not even one that exorcises the appeal to any sort of necessity. My response was that one could read Hume's criticisms as leading both in a sceptical vein that will make all metaphysics hopeless (Kant's is a variation of this line) or as a leading towards an image of the world where there is no room for necessary connections (or maybe for modality in general). The second option is taken by those who attribute atomism or distinctness to Hume. In any case, the issue is really how a Humean sceptic would react to the idea of an endeavour such as the metaphysics of contingency.

The issue of the possibility of (all) metaphysics takes me to an idea I have for many years now. It is somehow unavoidable to choose between metaphysics and transcendental philosophy, tertium non datur. In order to reject all metaphysical projects, one needs to embrace an image of the (wanna-be) metaphysician. One needs, for example, to spouse and image of us as concept mongers, our limits and our capacities. Tristan Garcia, in the his three reasons to start out with a thought about thinhs and not about our access to things (Forme et Objet, 9-10) reminded me of this tertium non datur idea. It seems like our access to things is somehow a thing while arguably if things are understood in terms of our access to them, we are already doing some sort of metaphysics. To do transcendental philosophy is to do some sort of metaphysics of us - which would include theses concerning who composes the relevant us. So, the sceptic can come up with some sort of transcendental philosophy - simple ones include appeal to the phenomena as the only thing we can know (a claim about limits) and internalism stating that thinking doesn't require any knowledge (or maybe only knowledge of our own minds in the Cartesian theatre conception of mind).

So, the dialectics with the Humean would be as follows. If you're criticising necessary connections in a sound way, let me have a go in a metaphysics of contingency - or rather of non-absoluteness as Hume would reject both that it is necessary something is the case and that it is necessary that something is not the case. Now, if you're rather claiming that there is no metaphysics possible after your critique of necessary connections, then I suspect there are hidden metaphysical assumptions (likely dressed in transcendental garments) guiding your claim, In the end of the day, why is knowledge of the (wanna-be) metaphysician less vulnerable than knowledge of the (wanna-be) metaphysics?

The point was taken home in a perhaps oversimplified way in a discussion I had with Andrés Bobenrieth here in the Square of Oppositions conference this afternoon. He was advocating an antirealism concerning contradictions (in fact, inconsistencies). His position contrasts, he says, with that of Graham Priest in that he insists that to find a contradiction one needs to have a particular notion of negation in use. Now, surely, the choice of negations is bound to be ours, is bound to be conventional (in the spirit of Carnap). The plurality of negations (or logics) - as much as contingency or necessity in similar debates - cannot be ascribed to the world, so it has to be about us. His image makes logic some sort of (broadly speaking) transcendental philosophy. Interesting to see. I guess apart from the drive from sceptical doubts, the pull towards transcendental philosophy can be felt by having an oversimplified account of what the world could be. If relativity itself cannot be true (say, relativity of negations), what is left is to make truth relative and engage in a project that tells us more about ourselves and our process of failing to attain reality.

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