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Friday, 7 December 2012

Correlations, response-dependence and the metaphysics of subjectivity

The idea of response-dependence was introduced (by Philip Pettit and Mark Johnston back in the 1990s) as an account of secondary qualities. It is a McDowellian idea: we, and our circumstances, have to be apt and ready in order for something to be grasped by us. One way of presenting the idea of response-dependent secondary qualities is to say that those qualities are in such a way that they are fashioned for some beings and for some conditions. They are somehow tuned in some frequency and cannot be captured otherwise. I need to be prepared to grasp smoothness, my environment has to help me so that I meet what it takes to get the signal. It is an issue of transmission - how good the signal is broadcasted and how it is received. A quality - or a bunch of qualities with or without substrata - is a transmission, a message that is sent towards the appropriate antennas. We can think of a correlation between the signal - the object - and its receiver so that it is a matter of fact that both are coupled. The signal is sent, whoever captures it exploits it. It helps to think of the Gibson's vocabulary of affordances. Objects put forward several different affordances and some devices are, as a matter of fact, tuned to exploit them. Secondary qualities abound like attributes of a Spinozan substance but we cannot acknowledge more than a handful of them. Primary qualities, on the other hand, are more universally captured - and it is, perhaps, a matter of degree how spread is the reception of a quality.

Response-dependence accounts are tailored to answer to skeptical challenges such as Aenesidemus' modes. First mode: the appearances of things differ according to the animal that perceives them - well, fix a thing (an affordance) for each animal or somehow establish that some animals are good at capturing some things and others not. Second mode: the appearances of things differ depending on which human subject receives them - well, either say that different people perceive different things or establish that only some humans can perceive some things (the conceptually apt ones, the virtuous ones etc). Third: different sense perceive different things - well, redness is best perceived by the eyes etc. Four: different circumstances convey different appearances - well, some circumstances can be established to be better than others. Etc. For each skeptical variation we add either a respective plurality or rather a condition of transmission associated to each thing. We end up either with an abundant ontology - a rain forest one - or with an ontology of transmitters where to be is to be a frequency broadcasted. To be is to afford. The modes of the Pirrhonist give the impression that such an ontology is made fit to answer skeptical challenges. (Whether it can answer the spirit of these challenges is something else.)

To what extent such an account is under the spell of the correlation - and to what extent it is a variety of metaphysics of subjectivity in Meillassoux's terms? It does accept that what we perceive depends on us - that what we can manage to know is relative to our correlation to what there is, to affordances. It also takes seriously the idea that it is factual that we perceive somethings and not others. The effect of the correlation is contingent - nothing prefigures which receivers will be tuned to which messages (to each affordances). Signals (or affordances) are absoutes and some of them we can grasp. (To be sure, we can do that with the aid of some favors form the world, we grasp them by epistemic luck - but here again we can sweep this skeptical tome aside.) Maybe it is a form of realism that takes correlation seriously (in the two features that Meillassoux insits: that correlation are primary and that they are factual). On the other hand, however, affordances are such that they make correlations necessary - even if they leave it up for grabs which subject would match each object.

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