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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, May 24, 2013

Justus Buchler (part 1: Human Judgment)

(Note: I initially composed these two posts at the suggestion of Leon Niemoczynski, author of the blog After Nature (where they are being cross-posted). We had discovered a mutual interest in the work of philosopher Justus Buchler (1914-1991) and lamented the neglect suffered by this profound, and profoundly under-rated, philosopher; especially given that many of his ideas seem deeply relevant to current debates in speculative realist circles. Niemoczynski not only contributed significant editorial guidance, but also re-fashioned or wholly contributed several of the (now) more lucid passages. So these two posts are in a strongly relevant sense co-authored. At the same time, I don’t wish readers to hold Niemoczynski responsible for the occasional editorial asides I allow myself, and for "any mistakes that remain...," etc, the mea culpas ought to be mine. I have therefore left the first-person pronoun alone.)

Justus Buchler was one of the most original, radical, and untimely American philosophers in the twentieth century. Buchler’s work does not belong to the general trend of analytic philosophy with its large bias for issues in the philosophy of language and mind; likewise, the laborious textual-explicative continental fashion is not Buchler’s, although there are clear parallels between Buchler’s work and Husserlian phenomenology which stands behind the continental approach. At a time when many philosophers were turning to language, science, or the history of their own discipline, he attempted again a philosophical system, combining the rigor and flexibility that are required to make thought commensurate with what we know, and able to rise to what we don't know yet.

Buchler’s early works concentrate on human experience; his later work widens focus to articulate a general ontology of “natural complexes,” a term indicating the infinite analyzability and infinite encompassability of any single existent in the universe (insert your favorite litany here). He also laid out a specific aesthetics of poetry in his late book The Main of Light, as well as striking a blow or two for freedom in standing up to Senator Joseph McCarthy and serving as an official for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Buchler’s project is philosophical in the classical sense, which is to say, his aspirations are universal. A philosophy of human experience should “encompass aspects of human life reflected by the sciences and arts, by moral and religious attitudes, and by what takes place psychologically, socially, technologically,” as he characterizes his project in Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment. At the same time, Buchler is concerned with “human experience” because he is a human being addressing his thought to human beings; he does not consider the human represented a privileged ontological nexus. In this, Buchler’s work offers one crucial bridge between the anti-anthropocentric standards of recent speculative philosophy, and the “humanistic” or “correlationist” tendencies of the thought against which speculative realism specifically has reacted.

These two posts aim to lay out a broad outline of Buchler’s thinking with an eye specifically to relating it to contemporary metaphysical concerns, to which I believe it to be deeply pertinent. Buchler articulated an uncompromisingly “flat” ontology, as the current catchword has it (Buchler’s phrase was “ontological parity,” meaning that no one existent is any more real than any other); but he did so with an overtly pragmatist method and methodology, eliding the (in my opinion) frequently overstated demarcation between ontology and epistemology. The first post concentrates mainly on Buchler’s first book, Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment; the second post, primarily on the book where he first set out his ontology, Metaphysics of Natural Complexes. Secondary literature on Buchler exists, but my unscientific impression is that it is nothing like that on, say, his near contemporaries Gilles Deleuze or Wilfrid Sellars; for guidance in which points are essential to present, and often for the presentation itself, I have relied on two excellent articles by Kathleen Wallace: the entry in the Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, and one in The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy. Interested readers are referred to these for starters, and will no doubt detect both my debts and any mistakes I have made.

Buchler sets out to build a philosophy that accounts for whatever is, in whatever way it is. He aims to construct nothing short of a full-fledged metaphysical system. This may sound highfalutin’ (and was increasingly unfashionable at the time), but for Buchler, a metaphysical system is simply a conceivable way of thinking about its given subject. Qua metaphysical system, it claims a kind of universality; but no system is a Nagelian “view from nowhere,” or a uniquely mandated foundation. It is “necessary” only in context, i.e., only to the extent that the axioms are required to formulate adequate categories for addressing the subject matter. Such categories might be Kant’s necessary a priori conditions for thinking, or Aristotle’s kinds of being, but Buchler obviously demurs from the epistemological modesty of Kant or the ontological surety of Aristotle. True to his pragmatist heritage (he was a Charles S. Peirce scholar and wrote his dissertation on Peirce, titled Charles Peirce’s Empiricism), Buchler acknowledges all such sets of categories as human constructions; they are made to interpret experience in the world, and they succeed or fail as such. Buchler does not strongly distinguish between reality as it appears to human beings and as it is in itself (though he does not dispute that human beings may be constitutively limited in what they can observe or indeed experience); in some manner, categories by definition are both about the world itself and about one's experience of it. This is, one might venture, simply common sense. All categories have some ground outside the human being, for the human being has such a ground.

Although, as mentioned, Buchler did not spell out his ontology in book form until mid-career, his equal-opportunity metaphysics is evident from the outset. Experience, he cautions, is to be thought of as neither subordinate to knowledge, nor as an incipient form thereof. Knowledge is a form of experience, but not a privileged form, and should not be conceived solely on the model of “assertive judgments,” as Buchler calls what Russell or Wittgenstein would have called “propositions.” Moreover, experiences that do not register to thought, to which cognition or even consciousness may in fact be irrelevant (or vice-versa), still remain experiences. (This highlights the way in which Buchler rejects mind/body dualism: for him, the body is not to be accounted for with physical processes, while consciousness remains as the special realm of the human per se.)

When a primitive hunter scans the bush for tracks, when a potter works clay on a wheel, when a rescue worker performs CPR, each deploys knowledge (albeit non-propositional knowledge), just as does a string theorist or a cryptanalyst. This knowledge is not to be reduced to a mental states or process; indeed, Buchler is unconcerned with the specifics of the human psychology (or neuropsychology) that undergirds, say, the muscle memory of the rescue worker or the highly attuned senses of the hunter; rather, he is interested articulating philosophical categories adequate to human experience of whatever psycho-physiological undergirding.

Buchler follows Peirce in regarding not only various human artifacts, but also states of affairs, or facts, as signs. This leads him to question the very distinction between sign and world, albeit from a quite different perspective—and with quite different effect—than in standard-issue post-structuralism. To say that the world is sign does not mean that the world, as idealism would have it, is itself “mental” (Buchler is in some ways closer to the pan-experientialist account of Whitehead). For Buchler, it is rather that meaning is generated in proception, a term for a more broad notion of experience and its activity:
The interplay of the human individual’s activites and dimensions, their unitary directions, constitutes a process which I shall call proception. The term is designed to suggest a moving union of seeking and receiving, of forward propulsion and patient absorption. Proception is the composite, directed activity of the individual. (Toward a General Theory, 2nd ed., p 4)
Any complex that modifies or reinforces an individual’s proceptive domain is a procept. But, n.b., this does not imply consciousness. “To be a procept is not necessarily to be noticed, felt, or attended to in awareness.” (ibid p 7)
A judgment is about a procept, but also about the individual who judges. It occurs at and from a given perspective; but perspective involves the whole situation in which judgment occurs, of which the judge is one factor. Perspectives, for Buchler, can be both repeated and shared, and this makes judgment inherently social, practical, and corrigible.

Buchler enumerates three sorts of judgment: active, exhibitive, and assertive. As Wallace points out, these roughly correspond to the Aristotelian gradation of reason into the practical, the productive, and the theoretical; however, Buchler would reject Aristotelian prizing of the theoretical as best. A mode may be contextually preferable, but that is all. Sometimes one starts with a theoretical or assertive mode and works towards another: e.g., when a music student begins, much “knowledge” is memorized and intellectual, but in a virtuoso’s performance, the conscious principles have all been sublimated into the exhibitive or practical.

An active judgment is evaluated formally on a scale of right and wrong; an exhibitive judgment, on a scale of good and bad (in terms of excellence, not of morality); an assertive judgment, on a scale of truth and falsity. Such appraisals may overlap; a proof in geometry both asserts a claim and exhibits a form, and so may be evaluated both as either true or false, and as beautiful or awkward; and such a proof in the midst of a lecture is also appraisable as, say, helpful or not, for listeners.

While writing this essay, I usually have music playing in the background. This music—its genre, its volume, its lyrical content, its instrumentation—is encountered and assimilated not just according to my biology, but proceptively—it is fitted into my memories conscious and unconscious, into my plans and intentions and my contemporary state. Buchler would say that I am situated in a number of “orders,” or “spheres of relatedness,” for instance the order of my writing; of acoustics; of the room I am in; of the social production and consumption of music. I shift distractedly, lose my train of thought, pause; then I get up, cross the room and turn down the volume knob on the stereo. This act constitutes what Buchler calls an active judgment, regarding a number of things: the loudness of the music, my ability to concentrate, my essay, the way my concerns and intentions are currently arrayed. As I write, I may strike out a line and revise it, seeking a more felicitous rhythm or formula. This too is a judgment, an exhibitive judgment: I discriminate the felicitous form of the act (in this case, writing) and attempt to carry it off. If instead I had said, “that’s too loud,” or “that sentence isn’t quite right—there, that says it better,” I would be making what Buchler calls assertive judgments; but Buchler insists that the exhibitive or active modes are equally judgments, without being reducible to the assertive.

These are the broad outlines of Buchler’s account of experience and judgment (note the Husserlian resonance), insofar as a necessarily brief summary can present it. Part two will expand upon these ideas and describe Buchler’s general metaphysics of natural complexes.


  1. Thanks for this Bryan. Buchler, if memory serves, was quite an influence on Victorino Tejera, whose books on ancient philosophy I've enjoyed. I always intended to look at Buchler, but never got around to it.
    I look forward to your second post.

  2. Yes, there's a lot on Buchler in Tejera's American Modern: the road not taken. His starting point on the road, of course, is Peirce.

  3. Never heard of Buchler which is not surprising given that his metaphysics or any sort of metaphysics was out of fashion when he flourished. Very interesting though.