Putnam and Speculative Realism

Stephen Shakespeare has an interesting post over at An und für sich discussing Hilary Putnam’s argument against Metaphysical Realism and the positions of contemporary speculative realists like Meillassoux and Harman. Putnam (circa Reason Truth and History) treats Metaphysical Realism (MR) a package deal with three components: Independence (there is a fixed totality of mind-independent objects); Correspondence (there are word-world relations between bits of theories and the things to which they refer); Uniqueness (there is one true theory that correctly describes the state of these objects).

He then uses his model-theoretic argument to undermine Uniqueness. Given an epistemologically ideal theory and an interpretation function which maps that theory onto one of some totality of possible worlds, you can always come up with another mapping and hence another theory that is equally true of that world, elegant, simple, well-confirmed, etc. Unless, there is some other property that picks out a single theory as God’s Own other than its epistemic and semantic virtues, Uniqueness fails and with it MR.

Shakespeare argues that speculative realists reject the form of the independence thesis, denying that there is a fixed totality of mind-independent objects:

[Contemporary Realism] need not entail a conviction that objects in the world are a ‘fixed totality’. Objects can change or join to form new, irreducibly real objects. The lists of objects which are part of the rhetorical style of OOO encompass radically diverse things, including physical assemblages, social groups and fictional works. Each of these ‘objects’ consists of other irreducible objects and so on. There is not simply one stratum of object.

For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.

I demur partly from this analysis of where SR diverges from MR – though I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise. By “fixed” Putnam just means determinate. If there are fictional objects or sensa, then these must be part of God’s Own Theory (given MR). If there are assemblages with emergent properties, they too might click into God’s Own Ontology. Moreover, the Harmiverse has to consist of discrete, encodable objects, so it’s quite susceptible to a model-theoretic analysis of the kind that Putnam offers (See my Harman on Patterns and Harms).

Shakespeare may be right about Meillassoux’s ontology. One could argue that hyperchaos is not a thing and thus cannot be part of a model.

If we read Hyperchaos as the absolute contingency of any thinkable possibility then representing hyperchaos might seem pretty easy. Meillassoux is just saying that any non-contradictory event could occur (I will not consider whether he is justified in saying this).

So perhaps his ontology just comes down to the claim that any arbitrary, non-contradictory sentence is true in at least one possible world.

I suspect (but cannot show) that the real problem with reconciling Meillassoux’s SR with MR is in how one interprets this  modality. Saying that any arbitrary, non-contradictory sentence is true in at least possible world, is not what Meillassoux has in mind since this resembles a standard definition of de dicto contingency in possible world semantics. Moreover, Meillassoux (2010) denies we have warrant to believe that the thinkable can be totalized a priori on the grounds that set theory shows that there are always more things than can be contained in any totality. If this is right, then it is precipitate to assume a totality of all objects or a totality of all models under which God’s Own Theory could be interpreted. MR cannot even get started.

However, there are other ways in which contemporary realists (and not just speculative realists) could diverge from MR. For example, Devitt denies that realism is really committed to Uniqueness – the view that there is exactly “one true and complete description of the world” (Devitt 1984: 229). We might also demur from the assumption that the world consists of objects or only objects that enter into semantic relationships with bits of language or mind. Structural realists, for example, argue that reality is structure and that this is precisely what approximately similar theories capture – regardless of their official ontological divergences (Ladyman and Ross 2007: 94-5). Some speculative ontologies deny the Correspondence assumption, holding that the world contains entities that cannot be fully represented in any theory: e.g. powers, Deleuzean intensities.

Perhaps the Correspondence assumption just replicates the Kantian view that entities must conform to our modes of representation – in which case a robust realist should reject it in any case. This, interestingly, is where the issue of realism segues into the issues addressed in my forthcoming book Posthuman Life. For, analogously to Meillassoux’s claim about totalizing the thinkable, one can also reject the claim that we have any advance, future-proof knowledge of the forms in which reality must be “thought” If we have no access to the space of possible minds, then we can have no a priori conception of what a world must be as such.

Devitt, M. 1984. Realism and Truth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Meillassoux, Q. 2010. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, R. Brassier (trans). London: Continuum.

Putnam, H 1981. Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Ladyman James, Ross Don, (2007), Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


7 thoughts on “Putnam and Speculative Realism

  1. My worry is that MR just fixes the commitments of the Metaphysician in a way that forces the generation of more metaphysics, the thought that, ‘If we can defeat MR, we’re off to the races!’ Since it binds them to certain tropes of the What, it’s easy to circumvent via imaginative recontextualizations. The real problem has to do with the How, I think. For one, the generation of more metaphysics at this level of critique backs the Metaphysician into religion very quickly: What, short of divine revelation, recommends your claims to anyone but yourself? The findings of cognitive psychology and neuroscience annihilate any dogmatic claims to theoretical competence in these domains. The Kantian path has been dead since Fichte, I would argue, when it became apparent that ‘transcendental deductions’ of ‘conditions of possibility’ entirely depend on prior, entirely underdetermined interpretations of the conditioned. And here, unless you’re rubbing elbows with structural realists, using the actual science to constrain your interpretation of the conditioned, it’s hard to understand why anyone not looking for fantasy worlds should be remotely interested.

    As you know, I’ve been wandering the Agora for several days now, calling out, asking for explanations. I’m beginning to understand why Diogenes resorted to acts of public masturbation!

    What do you think is the best case SR could make, David? And where the hell is Peter? He should be all over this!

  2. I think MR is a useful simplification. For one thing, if the SR’ist is going to deviate from it somehow, they need to spell out why their brand of realism does not meet one of the three conditions.

    I don’t understand why Harman isn’t a metaphysical realist with a profligate ontology. I reject Meillassoux’s account because it is premised on correlationism and I reject correlationism for reasons spelled out in my Naturalising Deconstruction and Dark Phenomenology papers. I’m not sure I understand where Brassier is coming from. I certainly haven’t the leastest clue what Negarestani is on about. I’ve still to read Iain Grant’s book on Schelling, to my shame, but he’s sympathetic with powers ontology and powers seem like the kind of entity/property that could be mind independent while violating the correspondence principle. If you can show that attributions of powers or dispositions is irreducible to claims about counterfactual behaviour, you’re some of the way there, I think.

    I’ve made pretty extensive use of DeLanda’s ontology in the book – it’s a way of thinking about identity and difference that seems responsive the way the world operates at the macro and meso levels, at least., and he’s a power ontologist. So on balance, the idea that reality contains dispositions irreducible to their manifestations does it for me.

    I fully accept that this is a dogmatic rant rather than an argument and should persuade no one.

  3. I’m not familiar with DeLanda at all, but if you recommend him, I’ll give him a looksee. Brassier’s Brandomian approach is the only one I that strikes me as credible, but that could be because inferentialism was the last Intentionalist position I held before I was introduced to the Dark Side of the Force. As you point out, once we recognize that we cannot delimit the space of possible ‘minds,’ then everything becomes empirical – or at the very least, wait and see.

    I understand why this freaks people out, but at the same time, it means the blackboard has to be filled anew. I find myself reading books like Johnston’s and thinking, ‘We know there’s gold in the river the valley yonder, and he wants us to spend another thousand years panning for mud?’

    • A New Philosophy of Society and Philosophy and Simulation are both good. I should admit to having War in the Age of Intelligent Machines on my shelf of shame. 🙂

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