Pete Wolfendale: The Deontologist as Transcendental Realist

“There have already been widespread reports about the novel hypotheses of this work, which declares that the earth moves whereas the sun is at rest in the center of the universe.”
Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus (On the Revolutions), 1543 C.E.

All thought must, directly or indirectly, by way of certain characters, relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us.”
– Immanuel Kant, 
Critique of Pure Reason (1781; 1787)

Pete Wolfendale in an essay on Transcendental Realism posted on his blog deontologistics describes his epistemological approach as providing “a non-ontological account of the structure of thought”, and then shows that there is a thick notion of reality “implicit within it”. He takes this to be the essence of a genuinely transcendental approach to realism. [1] He goes on to define transcendental realism as “any position that shows that the structure of thought itself implies that there is a real structure of the world in excess of the structure of thought” (ibid. p. 11). To do this “one must understand the structure of thought in order to understand what it would be to give a proper account of the real structure of the world. This is what Kant would call the critique of metaphysics, which is supposed to come before metaphysics itself” (11).

Ray Brassier told us that his conception of transcendental realism is “a ‘transcendental realism’ according to which science knows the real but the nature of this ‘real’ is not strictly speaking objectifiable. The basic idea is that we know the real through objects, but that the real itself is not an object.” [2] He goes on to say “he would characterize his new philosophical stance as “a new compact between metaphysics and epistemology: transcendental realism in the former and revisionary naturalism in the latter. There is a reality that transcends the bounds of possible human experience set out by Kant, but we are learning that it is populated by ‘things’ about which it is proving increasingly difficult to say ‘what’ they are using the resources of sense currently available to us. We will have to forge new vocabularies to be able to say what these things are. Admittedly, this still has a ‘speculative’ ring, but I would like to insist that metaphysical speculation be constrained by scientific knowledge” (ibid.).

This compact between metaphysics and epistemology is at the heart of Pete Wolfendale’s project, too. His epistemological account of thought centers on the fine distinction between representational vs. presentational modes of thought. He bases his epistemological turn on two differing ways we currently understand Kant’s thing-in-itself: 1) “mind independence”, an ontological move that says that something is in-itself is if it can exist independently of the existence of minds; and,  “attitude independence”, a epistemological move that says that something is in-itself if the way it is is independent of the way we take it to be.(13) He continues relaying that what is important in this account is the fact that this is a representational account of thought, rather than a presentational one, that makes this possible. This is because it enables us to conceive of the “relation between subject and object in terms of authority and responsibility. In essence, the withdrawal of authority is a matter of establishing a form of attitude independence” (13). He reformulates the intuition underlying correlationism (all postkantian philosophy that stems from Kant’s two-world theory of the correlation between mind and nature) as “the suppression of the concept prevents us from ever establishing the absolute attitude independence of the object of representation. This means that whether or not our claims about the object are true is never completely up to the object, but is always mediated by something that we, either as individuals or as a community, have authority over” (13).

He goes into detail about the truth-claims which represent our picture of the world as a “totality” by giving accounts of both objective and non-objective truth. I will not go into the details of his arguments concerning this and leave that to the reader to pursue. Instead we will move on to his account of the distinction between the world (“All that is the case. The totality of all that is true.”); and, the Real (“All that is really the case. The totality of what is objectively true.”) He goes on to say,

“We can then distinguish between the formal structure of the Real, which is just the structure of thought about objective matters of fact, and the real structure of the Real, which is the structure of the world as it is in-itself. The former is a transcendental (synthetic a priori) and thus non-objective matter, whereas the latter is properly objective (synthetic a posteriori). The former is the object of the critique of metaphysics, whereas the latter is the object of metaphysics itself” (23).

This subtle differentiation between the formal structure of the Real (“The structure of discourse about the Real. It is the structure of our picture of the Real as opposed to the structure of our picture of the world, or the formal structure of the ideal objective subset of what we take to be true, in distinction from the set of what we take to be true.”), and the Real structure of the Real (“This is the structure of the world as it is in-itself. This is the essential structure of the world as distinct from its contents, or what happens to be in the world.”) is at the heart of his definition of Transcendental Realism:

“We can then say that, because the ideal of objectivity is part of the structure of truth as such, we are compelled to move from the formal structure of the Real to the real structure of the Real. Rather than treating the question ‘What is the Real?’ (or ‘What is the world in itself?’) as a question about the structure of our attitudes, we must treat it as an objective question, the answer to which is independent of our attitudes. In short, this means that the structure of thought implies that there is a real structure of the world which is not only independent from, but also in excess of the structure of thought. This is the essence of transcendental realism” (23).

In part IV of his essay on Transcendental Realism he goes into a critique of Kant that entails “rejecting the critical turn that Kant instigated, the real aim of contemporary metaphysics should be to radicalise it. It is precisely only by properly performing the critique of metaphysics that we may properly attend to metaphysics itself, and we may only do this from a genuinely transcendental perspective’ (24).

1. Essay on Transcendental Realism by Pete Wolfendale
2. Interview With Ray Brassier – Against an Aesthetics of Noise nY # 2 (2009)

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