Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Thoughts on [at least] Two Truths & a Lie

There's a party game called Two Truths & a Lie; each person takes a turn & tells-- well, you can probably figure that part out-- and the others have to guess which is which. Perfect theme for this long post on dialethism and esotericism. (Long and somewhat disjointed; I'm posting it to keep track of a few intuitions which may or may not turn out to be well-founded.)

Amod's blog Love of All Wisdom is a blog after my own heart. Generous and rigorous, and catholic (small-'c' catholic) in interests. Recently Amod has been reading Graham Priest, whose thought also figured lately in a discussion over at Jon Cogburn's blog about skepticism and pantheism. Priest has made some interesting arguments for rehabilitating dialethism (the link is to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article by Priest), which as the name suggests is a "two-truth" theory, or the notion that there can be true contradictions. Amod's recent post makes a distinction between Priest's version, which is largely a dialethism of signs (propositions are the sorts of things that can contradict each other), and a dialethism like that of Hegel, who, he argues, sees contradictions as inhering in reality, in "the things themselves." Amod traces (or at least, relates) this to a difference between seeing the sentence, or the thing, as the primary truth-bearer. As an instance of the latter, he offers Augustine, according to MacIntyre:

for Augustine it is in terms of the relationships neither of statements nor of minds that truth is to be primarily characterized and understood. “Veritas,” a noun naming a substance, is a more fundamental expression than “verum,” an attribute of things, and the truth or falsity of statements is a tertiary matter. To speak truly is to speak of things as they really and truly are; and things really and truly are in virtue only of their relationship to veritas. So where Aristotle locates truth in the relationship of the mind to its objects, Augustine locates it in the source of the relationship of finite objects to that truth which is God. (Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, p. 110)

I have at least two responses to this citation. First is a desire to preemptively ward off an attack, which (I imagine) takes some such form as: "Truth as a noun, that's at least half the trouble." A comment from Alf is a fair example of what I have in mind here:

Yes, we are able to "show" that abstraction is possible--and yes, we do it by *using* abstractions.
Any time you use language at all, you make concepts out of a reality that isn't a concept at all (as Nietzsche enjoyed pointing out), but you easily *naturalize* this conception-making and mistake it for the real (a la Heidegger's "Age of the World Picture"). I see this approach as necessary to get along in the world (or indeed, to have any "world" as opposed to undifferentiated flux) at all! But it's a strategic fiction, a useful lie that we tell ourselves to give ourselves the comfort of predictability. We nominalize flows to think we grasp them. Our God is a noun--and I find that suspicious.

In the first half of this comment Alf is agreeing with me about the necessity of abstractions; in the second half, he's qualifying that agreement. Now Alf says "God," not "Truth;" but it's the suspicion of the noun that I want to analyze. Graham Harman blogged just yesterday:

much of contemporary philosophy is still too obsessed with the specter of the rock-hard, eternal substances of so-called “naive realism.” ....the intellectual establishment is now made up of millions of people who denounce essence and substance and praise difference and becoming.

(This in response to a fine post of Steve Shaviro's)

Now I am on record as being very sympathetic to a number of positions that are often yoked with emphasis on becoming and difference; the philosopher with whom I am most in resonance from the 20th century is Emmanuel Levinas, whose advocacy for difference could fairly be said to be hyperbolic. But Levinas is very different from Deleuze. In any case, I agree with Harman that an aversion to "naive realism" has a deleterious effect on thought. Nor is it just a matter of being in the in-crowd.

However (my second reaction), the sort of noun that MacIntyre means in characterizing Augustine's thought is not a noun like rock or fish, nor like crowd or explosion; nor even like substance or thought, though these are closer. Augustine's Veritas is that in which the true, i.e., real, thing, participates in. We might well demur from sharing this way of thinking, assuming we are confident of knowing what Augustine means. But I think we critique his meaning at our peril. As Alf writes, using the Wittgensteinian terms, we "show" that abstraction is possible by using abstractions. For Alf, I think (he'll correct me if I'm wrong) this is a necessity--one might almost say, a necessary evil. I see it as much more ontologically indicative. Wittgenstein suggests that it brings us close to a limit of what we can say, because language cannot model its own functioning from outside. I see this not as a mere epistemological limit, but an ontological feature of reality's self-disclosure. Priest also argues that there are limits to thought, but that there are ways of edging past them (e.g., "showing" not saying); and this seems to be where Amod goes as well.

This is one place where I think I part company with most of the SR and OOO theorists, but I would love to know for sure. The Speculative Realists' punching-bag "correlationism" is supposed to be the idea that you can't think what is outside thought. Sounds like a tautology, almost. Meillassoux in particular opposes it because it licenses all sorts of nonsense-- in fact, he implies, any nonsense at all; it precisely "makes room for faith," as Kant said. Interestingly, this is just what many opponents of dialethism say: approve contradictions, and anything at all can follow. Amod's first post on the subject does a good job of outlining why Priest thinks this particular spectre is, well, spectral. My question, then, is can the defense of the sort of dialethism Amod suggests Hegel held to-- contradictions inhering in reality, not just in sentences (which as MacIntyre notes, were tertiary for Augustine)-- be used to defend the "limits of thought" argument from Meillassoux's objections? Recently Paul Ennis at anotherheideggerblog answered a query of mine (in the aforementioned discussion on Jon Cognburn's blog) with a sketch of defense of Hegel from the charge of correlationism. In certain moods I'm beginning to wonder whether we always even need a defense.

One last point about dialethism: when the teachings of Averroes were condemned in 1277 one of the accusations against the professors at the Univeristy of Paris who were the targets was that they taught that there were two truths, a philosophical truth and a theological or religious truth. This dialethism was of course different from either Priest's or Hegel's... or was it? It's seriously debated as to just what is meant by the condemnation's reference to "two truths", but even allowing for the archbishop's missing the finer points of Siger of Brabant's thinking, it's quite clear that Averroism plays a significant role in the esotericism that runs through Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, via Spinoza and Lessing, all the way to the Nietzsche.

In this connection I want to point to another blog discussion that I read on Traxus' American Stranger blog, this one from two years ago. The comments eventually degenerate into one of the most depressing flame-wars I've ever seen, so I link to it with reservations, but the bad stuff doesn't hit until about halfway or more through the 159 comments, and the debate between the Balzacian "Le Colonel Chabert" and "Martin" is quite interesting for a while, in particular Chabert's hunches about Meillassoux's esoteric intentions: "He seem purposefully to provoke certain responses from his heideggerian colleagues while all the while posing as sort of gleaming eyed and quite convinced he will be able to overcome them with his “demonstration” of their “error”."

and again: "the effort to sideline ideology is dramatised; he says, you can’t confront this product as ideology, you have to take it as the product of disinterested rationality and judge it as such and refute it according to accepted scientific procedures. So, he does. He refutes it. The refutation is irresistible! But, everyone nonetheless resists it. The procedures and criteria of proof it turns out are not accepted here in this environment. This, then, the irrational, post-refutation, obstinate clinging to the refuted product of disinterested rationality, to the product that is shown (according to criteria borrowed from another discipline) to be in error…can this too be dealt with without consideration of ideology? This is where Meillassoux takes us; that’s the situation he has created at the moment."

And last: "I think his actual intention is to accomplish what critical theory attempted, but dramatically and theatrically. . ...the result is not to dismiss kant and everything after as silly or to reduce the stature of that work – rather the stature is raised or at least bolstered against its tendency to decline. The result is the construction of an inescapable wedding of two kinds of levels of posture, and an exercise in inhabiting them simultaneously –.....Meillassoux’ non-polemic, his theatrical, shows that these are not in fact the antagonists of importance – the battle is between Reason and Authority, between Science and The Inquisition.

This reads like Chabert thinks Meillassoux is staging a kind of intervention meant to show something that he isn't saying. I don't know what I think of this, but it just goes to show that the notion of the esoteric in philosophy is not only the prerogative of Straussians.

(O.K., the post turned out to be even more disjointed than I expected).


  1. Im afraid I lost the train of thought following its journey to the condemnation of Averroes, however your comment that we cant think of what is outside thought, sparked the recognition that even to think of something outside of thought "as being outside of thought" is to make your object of reference an object of thought. This is important to take note of, I feel, because 1. Whether we think of Veritas as Noun, or flux the idea of both object and flux is "inside thought and 2. definitions are so easily taken hold of when we want to reference the Truth in our mind in order to contemplate or who knows, perceive it, we have to be aware when and if they are getting in the way. To say it is outside of thought is already to be in contradiction. Which is why I would have liked to have seen some examples of how, -contradictions are true. The basis of any gnosis for me is to realize our habitual ways of seeing and thinking about the true state of things, is already in error. This from where we are now, I feel must be the basis, However this realization, though crucial to maintain an openness, does not, i believe (and feel free to post how it can) of itself lead to a perception that is indeed valid. Just to acknowledge that I see and think of things incorrectly, so far hasn't led me to see them without distortion.

  2. Mark,

    The critique of correlationism put forward by Meillassoux is quite subtle and I could not possibly summarize it in a blog comment, but the argument in brief is that the claim "to say "Something Outside Thought" is already to think, so you've contradicted yourself" is a piece of sophistry. Harman is considerably more forceful. One blog post I read of his says something along the lines of: Correlationism doesn't just look at the finger instead of the moon being pointed to, it actually thinks the moon is made of fingers.

    I don't think it's sophistry, but I do think it shows up a real difficulty.

    Obviously, there is a very ancient history of thinking the chiasm between thought and object-of-thought (Parmenides: "Thinking and Being are the same").

    My own position, such as I have at present, is that Meillassoux has a very strong point when he says that to argue that you can only think the object-of-thought qua object-of-thought is to come very close to imprisoning oneself in a prison of thoughts. It also (and here he sort of tries to back the correlationist into a corner) means that one cannot understand science as science understands itself, since science expressly understands itself as investigating mind-independent reality.

    Of all the critiques of correlationism, I like Meillassoux's the best because he actually takes it seriously.(Harman, I gather, just thinks its a series of rather bewildering or stupid misunderstandings-- what the logical positivists called 'pseudo-problems'.) I don't concur with Meillassoux's final verdict, because I don't agree with his analysis of human finitude (I think there are "limits to thought", if one wants to put it that way; and I also hold that there are experiences that are of "going beyond" those limits--again, if you want to put it that way; but "putting it that way" is inevitably contradictory, since, yes, you have formed a thought in these words. I do think that Wittgenstein came pretty close to an elegant solution to this puzzle with the Tractatus, but I wouldn't sign on to the whole apparatus of Logical Atomism.

    I'd offer this as a very rough example of a "true contradiction;" Graham Priest's work or, for that matter, Hegel's, gives others.

  3. Thanks for the kind words on my blog. This is a rather wide-ranging post, and I'm not entirely sure to go with it. I'm pretty new to the whole Speculative Realism schtick. I've linked to some of them on my blogroll (which I really should update soon), but that mainly came from their posting on relatively broad philosophical issues; it was only recently that I realized there was this whole school around them. Some of your links have helped me get a sense of what's going on there, but I'm still a little bewildered. So I doubt that my comments on the latter part of your post, on correlationism and the like, will be helpful - yet, anyway.

    Meanwhile, I'm also trying to figure out Wittgenstein, a thinker I don't have much sympathy for (I suspect that he is the point at which philosophy really started to go wrong) - but that fact makes it that much more important for me to engage with him. I wonder in particular: if reality is as inaccessible to language as he claims, then how is it accessible? I would expect some account of practice as in Zen tradition, which also claims to be clearing up linguistic befuddlement. Wittgenstein seems to leave us with nothing but the language he himself claims is inadequate - not even an ethics, a way of being in the world, let alone a soteriology, a release from illusion.

  4. Amod,

    You are not alone in being suspicious of Wittgenstein; even more than Heidegger's, it's Witgenstein's thinking that drives what Speculative Realism, and especially Meillassoux, opposes.

    I don't think he would say that reality is inaccessible to language, or at least that reality is inaccessible per se, though there are those who try to read him this way. I read L.W. as saying that there are limits to our practices, and these limits are the world.

    My take on L.W. is idiosyncratic, though I think I'm not alone. As you know, the usual way of reading him is to divide him into 'early' and 'late' with a volte-face in between. I see a great deal more continuity than difference, and I believe this way of reading him is catching on. What unifies the early LW of the Tractatus and the later LW of the Investigations, On Certainty, & such, is this notion that our thinking runs into limits. In essence, LW is opposed to idolatry, to the idea that we could make any representation that somehow says the truth, whole truth and nothing but.

    I don't think his solution can be wholly ours, but the way he inquired is right.
    This is, incidentally, where I get at loggerheads with a good deal of SR, and with Badiou as well: they are committed to the notion that there are no essential limits to thought. But I am not sure how to articulate this humility of thinking in a way that also gives the SRist critique its (well-deserved) due. This is something I am hard at work on.

    I take Wittgenstein to be a thinker of praxis, but not a theorist of praxis, if you take my meaning. Though he seems to have liked William James-- he mentions Varieties of Religious Experience in his letters-- he did not want to be taken for a pragmatist, (as earlier when he was taken, no less wrongly, for a positivist). Wittgenstein really meant what he said when he claimed that one could show but not say, and that 'the mystical' could not be put into words but was nonetheless real. I think this conviction of his held all through his life, early, middle, and late. You are right, there is a kind of affinity with Zen, I think, but LW did not really articulate it.

    On the unlikely chance that you don't know it, the best book on Wittgenstein, hands down, is Ray Monk's biography, Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius. I've also been quite influenced by Bernard Harrison, whose book (with Patricia Hanna), Word and World is excellent, albeit more on practice and language than anything on ethics, much less soteriology.

  5. I'm still reading the various background material on this interesting topic. My growing suspicion is that in the end I will need to create a defense for "naive realism" as it is my inclination to think when all the showing and suggesting is done, we will be left with a mindless void.

  6. "they are committed to the notion that there are no essential limits to thought"

    I get the feeling that what they are reacting to is the assertion that there *is* a limit to thought. That is a very different thing than the assertion that there *isn't", which is not what I'm taking them to do. I take part of the purpose of this anti-Kantian critique to be the desire to re-draw the boundary between religion and reason. The assertion that mind/reason has limits which it cannot cross is an unprovable intuition, ie a religious thought. It violates the scientific method, which of course can only disprove things and let stand what cannot be dispelled. I suspect that this intuition is *correct* at some level, but don't want to be told, a priori, at what level it is so. I think the project at hand is to make a "critique of pure religion" which reduces the religious sentiment (and other psychological states) to a material foundation, one that can be *managed*. Kant created a space for religion safe from the ravages of an uncontrolled reason, now we need to create a space for modernity safe from radical religion.

  7. A note to all those who haven't followed the above discussion on "American Stranger"

    Chabert is spooky smart and worth reading.

  8. One final note on that thread at the Amerian Stranger. Has anybody else read the entire thing? Tell me, was it all a play put on by a couple drag queens? What a remarkable example of the compellingly strange world of the internet.

  9. dy0genes,

    yr. substantive points deserve a fuller response than can be accommodated by the comments; I will try to shape my thoughts into a post. But thank you for the pertinent way you distinguish:

    > reacting to the assertion that there *is*
    > a limit to thought


    > the assertion that there *isn't* [such a
    > limit]

    This is very helpful to me. I think your instincts are right on-- this is another episode in the tension between faith and reason. (Isn't it always?)

    On the American Stranger thread-- if you made it all the way through that sheaf of comments, you've a stronger stomach than I. I really couldn't take all the snide 'if you had bothered to read the book you are obviously pretending to know' b.s. But yes, Chabert's are really quite incisive. I don't know that I agree with everything said, but I found the stance very refreshing-- without ignoring Meillassoux's arguments, the questions are tweaked to include "why are these arguments being made this way?" In clumsier hands this can turn into pseudo-psychoanalysis but I felt Chabert does very interesting things with it.

    "Martin" made real points too, though I found myself chaffing at his ill-humor, and then later when "he' started crowing (& being cheered) like some 3rd-rate Sokal hoaxer, I rolled my eyes. Should also mention that the host, Traxus, is also a very fine writer, and while the politics on the blog are not always mine, I always have to think hard. Chabert used to blog too but alas the whole site has been deleted. I wish I knew if there was a new one.

  10. Interesting thoughts on Wittgenstein. I have the Investigations out from the library now, and am hoping to get through them in the next couple months. The question of limits to thought is an interesting one. In a way it seems self-evident given human finitude; and yet it so often seems to get us into paradoxes: how can you know that you can't know?