Speculations IV: Daniel Sacilotto on Representationalism

Daniel Sacilotto whose blog Being’s Poem always brings intelligent clarity to philosophical issues offers us a return to Wilfred Sellars in his essay for Speculation IV Realism and Representation: On the Ontological Turn (here: pdf). Like many of the other essays he gives us a litany of the history of SR and its Ontological Turn. Right off the bat he centers us in on the battle between two meanings of this ‘Ontological Turn’: 1) the radicalization of critique; and, 2) the overcoming of critique altogether. Ever since Kant moved us into epistemic territory, developing a transcendental logic that ultimately led us toward Idealism and Anti-Realism, philosophers have been trying to find there way back to what Meillassoux called the ‘Great Outdoors’. For Daniel the term Speculative Realism is almost a misnomer, a sort of loosely coupled conceptual framework or heuristic device to align a group of disparate philosophers who “share nothing more than an antipathy to post-Kantian anti-realism,” and are more like a dysfunctional family who use SR as a term that “coins nothing but an exceedingly vague family resemblance, rather than a concept announcing the advent of a new philosophical epoch, or a reformation of Continental thought.”

What binds these otherwise disparate formations or vectors of the Ontological Turn he tells us is their “rejection of transcendental philosophy understood as critical epistemology, and indeed a sustained attack on the concept of representation”. After outlining a short history of representationalism through its various proponents and opponents he teases out the two senses of its trajectory: 1) the break with the pre-modern vision and a turn from a resemblance theoretic to one based on isomorphy (“The possibility of thinking a correspondence between thought and the Real would then be amplified to be understood in terms of the isomorphy between a perspicuous formal ideography and the structural dynamics of spatio-temporal systems in the real order.”); and, 2) this form of representation deals with the long history of representationalism, of its concepts and its relations between the various domains of knowledge and world, etc. (“The distinctions between appearance and reality, mind and world, concepts and objects, statements and facts, would all partake thus of this more general concept.”).

The use of the notion of ‘distinction’ by Kant between such domains as phenomenal/noumenal followed from his epistemological marking things as knowable by being apperceived under judgment through concepts, and the represented things-in-themselves that lie beyond all cognition. Daniel following Robert Brandom clarifies the issue relating Hegel’s estimation of Kant’s dilemma as harboring within it the seeds of its own destruction, because as “long as one distinguishes ontologically between what is immanently given or internal to the mind on the one hand, and reality as beyond the mental on the other, the skeptic can refute any ambition to know of the in-itself through the aid of appearances.” Ultimately Hegel as Daniel remarks would bring a unification of logic and metaphysics that renders the transcendence of the in-itself immanent to thought. But this move would bring the old Parmendian consensus with it of being and thought as one, which for Hegel offered an Absolute idealism as the “only alternative to the correlationist dispossession of the Real.”

Without going into the full details of Daniels excellent contribution I would point out he offers what he terms two ‘discursive imperatives’ against representationlism: 1) Anti-Skepticism – Overcoming the foreclosure of the in-itself for thought demands that we identify the conditions of the in-itself with the conditions of thought; and, 2) Ontological Priority – The enquiry into the possibility of a knowledge of being can only be made tacitly on ontological grounds; representation assumes too much. Both of these imperatives he remarks offer us a way into the Ontological Turn. Yet, he warns us as well that if “speculative realism does indeed present a challenge to epistemological anti-realisms, more is needed than the disposition towards ontology” as outlined.

After carefully appraising the various SR paths thus far taken from the mathematical purity of Meillassoux and Badiou, to the substance base approach of Harman, or the productivity and processual approach of Grant Daniel offers what he terms a ‘third way’:

I would like to suggest that indeed there is a third way, and that undertaking it requires that we reassess the assault on representation that has led to the “ontological turn.” Following the work of Wilfrid Sellars, this third way or solution evinces a possibility to resolve both the skeptical quandaries concerning dualism on epistemological grounds,
as well as opening for the possibility of a naturalist metaphysics. In pursuing this task, it becomes necessary to reactivate the methodological primacy of epistemology with respect to ontology.

So for Daniel Sacilotto it is the Epistemic turn that we should move to center stage rather than its first cousin ontology, because the only way forward is to think the conditions of thought that give us access to those things that are not thought. But to do this we need to overcome the skeptic’s trap of immediate knowledge and Sellar’s Daniel remarks offer just such a strategy which tries to reconcile “methodological dualism with ontological univocity”. The key here is to keep the distinction between thought and world without falling back into metaphysics. As Daniel remarks following Kant “Sellars seeks to preserve the distinction between the order of reasons and the order of causes, logic and metaphysics, whose conflation we have seen characterizes the idealist metaphysical (re)turn.” This distinction is not to be taken as purely “metaphysical difference” because as Daniel remarks thoughts have no metaphysical status: thoughts are not things. In face, he continues:

Thoughts are to be understood as a kind of doing: specifically, the kind of doings exhibited by sapient animals, and whose peculiarity consists in the integration of non-inferential responses to environmental inputs (perception), inferential moves within language (inference), and transitions from inside language to out of it (action). The structural binding of these three levels of processing constitutes the intersubjective space of reasons within which we
understand ourselves as knowing creatures.

This three-fold layering or mapping of the processes of thought offers purchase on understanding the way’s the mind works, and its “explanatory plurivocity is compatible with ontological univocity; methodological dualism is compatible with metaphysical monism.”  As he emphasizes:

The crucial result I wish to extract from this should be evident: it is possible to reject both (anti-skepticism) and (ontological priority) without relapsing into correlationism, since it neither follows that to distinguish between thoughts and being requires us to embrace metaphysical dualism, nor that a theory of knowledge in an account of representation must tacitly run on metaphysical grounds, like Heidegger feared..

So Sellars sides with Kant in keeping at bay thought from Being thereby offering through a materialist practice a way out of the Idealists dilemma of reducing the one to the other. Doing this overcomes the representationalism that reduced thought to its own separate domain from things-in-themselves, offering instead the notion of a “functional, rule-governed behavior, proper to those “clever beasts” that did not so much invent knowing as they came to develop it in the course of evolutionary history, within nature”. Daniel from here provides a set of defenses against different arguments that might have a quarrel with Sellar’s approach, but I’ll leave that to the reader to pursue. What’s interesting in Daniel Sacilotto’s approach is its return to Kant not as an enemy but as the critical taskmaster whose path we still can learn from, for in the end it is neither obsolete nor as unfashionable as some would think. As he states it: “However fastidious its demands, and however necessary the purging of its incipient excesses might still be, it is critique itself that announces reason’s cunning against the anthropocentric prison, and lays the path for a realism that dares to face the blinding stasis of the distant sun.”

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