A Post-Sellarsian Encounter

Modern philosophical aesthetics has been concerned with the special field of art and artistic expression, but always with a view to its implications for our understanding of sensation, emotion and their relationship to the wider field of conceptual thinking and knowledge.  The wider and the special inquiries intertwine because art is thought to be an arena in which our cognitive and affective powers play in unusual and problematic ways. Just what is an emotion if I can feel pity for a fictional character, or fear the monster in the horror film? Is this self-understanding just an artifact of a naïve, folk concept of emotion, as Kendall Walton (1990) has argued?

Aesthetics also suggests new ways of understanding the field of the sensible itself and its relation to abstract or conceptual thought. As Jean-Francois Lyotard observes in The Inhuman, a musical phrase is ‘not determined’ as a Platonic essence ‘once and for all’ but is always a possibility of further variation (Lyotard 1993, 155). Since such repeatables are given to hearing, the phenomenology of musical repetition challenges positivist conceptions of the sensory as a plenum of discrete qualities and relations.

Kant’s definition of beauty as ‘what is represented as an object of universal delight apart from any concept’ already suggests two ways in which the presumed autonomy of aesthetic experience doubles back on the aesthetic understood in the wider sense, for, as Steven Shaviro notes, it implies an encounter with an object that attends to its singularity, its unique existence, rather than with its concept or instrumental value. If there are no rules or concepts determining the beautiful then:

A subject does not cognize the beauty of an object. Rather, the object lures the subject while remaining indifferent to it; and the subject feels the object, without knowing it or possessing it or even caring about it. The object touches me, but for my part I cannot grasp it or lay hold of it, or make it last. I cannot dispel its otherness, its alien splendor. If I could, I would no longer find it beautiful; I would, alas, merely find it useful (Shaviro 2012, 4)

Shaviro’s reading of Kant exemplifies a modernist conception of the aesthetic as a site of resistance to the hegemony of representational or instrumental thinking that I will refer to here as the “aesthetics of the encounter”.

The encounter happens “in” experience but while supposedly resisting subsumption under concepts. For Derrida, it involves the unrepresentable condition of representation – the iterable event or trace – that is elicited in the deconstruction of philosophical concepts. Despite being unrepresentable, it can be felt and read through art. For example, Derrida takes literature to be a site that exhibits the excess of the iterable mark over any semantic normativity, and over social norms which establish the identity and boundaries of art works (Derrida 1981; 1992). For Deleuze the encounter concerns the pre-individual, intensive conditions of the actual. In Bataille’s work on eroticism and transgression, this excess emerges from a monstrous, formless materiality that “threatens the seamless garment of the separate individuality” (Bataille 1962, 102-3).

The encounter thus unhinges the aesthetic in the widest sense, retroactively unsettling our conception of what we mean by terms like “sensation” and “experience”. It is felt. Something happens. But it is also a problem, for the encounter deprives the subject of the means of recognizing and placing it in the empirical world (Deleuze 1994, 140). Singing in this same key, Lyotard follows his analysis of the iterable, open phrase with “an observation of a different order”: namely, that each performance of a musical structure has a timbral ‘singularity’ which distinguishes it from other exemplifications of the iterable form. Of this he writes:

Even what is aptly called the ‘rehersal’  [repetition] of a work by a performer… cannot manage to   control the timbre or the nuance which will take place, singularly, on the night of the concert. With the nuance it seems that the ear is given over to something incomparable (and therefore unrepeatable) in what is called the performance, ie. to the here and now of the sound, in their singularity, in their one-offness, in the aspect by which they are, by virtue of their position, not subject to spatio-temporal transfer.” (Lyotard 1993, 155)

the-blob-1958

Specifying the encounter in these terms naturally invites accusations of paradox and incoherence. The proponents of the encounter claim insight, after all, into the conditions deemed unrepresentable, inconceivable. Or as Jon Cogburn puts it apropos Graham Harman’s work, characterizing some part of reality in terms of its resistance meaning or to concepts re-inserts it within the totality of the conceivable (Cogburn unpublished).[1] Lyotard’s claim that that timbres cannot be identified across distinct sonic events would not be intelligible unless his interlocutors could recognize different timbres. In a similar vein, when Derrida characterizes the event in terms of its absolute singularity and incomprehensibility his statement “only succeeds … to the extent that it fails” (23). If the transcendent must eludes concepts or recognition, any talk about the transcendent must really be about something else.

Cogburn argues that this predicament motivates the idea that an aesthetic relationship to the real is more apt to ground philosophical thought than conceptual thinking. For perhaps metaphysics provides “a pre-theoretical understanding of what reality is like” (28) by pointing or alluding to the transcendent rather than expressing it in conceptual terms – functioning much as an artwork does according to the aesthetics of the encounter.

However, this second order claim requires that we can make sense of such an aesthetics. So I want to consider whether the aesthetics of “encounter” is epistemically defensible or whether it is a regressive step, inviting us to adopt untenable forms of intuitionism.

To render the problem with greater precision, might the aesthetics of the encounter just a variant of what Sellars has called the given – a form of self-authenticating insight into the structure of reality?

In “Sellars Contra Deleuze on Intuitive Knowledge” Matija Jelača presents textual evidence that Deleuze is methodologically committed to the possibility of such intuitive or non-propositional form of knowledge, thus falling foul of Sellars’ critique of the very idea of self-authenticating insight. If the encounter gives non-inferential knowledge of the structure of reality, then it must do so without situating this categorical insight within the “space of reasons” secured by the inferential proprieties of language. But any insight into the real that is serviceable for philosophy will make use of concepts and each concept (for Sellars) is holistically defined by the affiliations with other concepts made possible by public inferential practices. Such knowledge will be placed in the “space of reasons” and the game of questions and answers it allows (Jelača 2014, 111). Thus (again) any second order reflection that attributes such knowledge to a non-conceptual encounter misconstrues its own status and (pace Deleuze) risks committing us to a static, perhaps stultifying, “image” of thought.

There are obvious epistemological problems with some strong metaphysical interpretations of the encounter. E.g. Martin Hägglund’s (2008) reading of the deconstruction of time infers metaphysical claims about time in-itself from certain lacunae in its phenomenology. As I remark:

[Philosophical naturalists] might feel queasy about extending the trace structure to the most basic levels of matter, as in Hägglund (2008). Derrida’s argumentation still hinges on a conception of time as passage; one derived, arguably, from our conscious experience of succession, even if applied in a topic-neutral way (Roden 2005). Perhaps, at some level, time will resolve into a series of discrete events, like the operations of a cellular automaton. If that were the case, both trace and virtuality would have to have emerged from a physical micro-dynamic in which they are not present. However, it is less clear whether either could be compatible with a physics of metaphysics that denies the reality of time (Roden 2014, 149).

Contrary to Jelača, I think we can make sense of an encounter structurally akin to the moments of excess described by Deleuze and others without exaggerating their epistemic license as Hägglund arguably does in his reading of Derrida.

If such encounters are possible, in other words, they need not provide the non-inferential warrant that raises the hackles of Sellarsians and other philosophical naturalists.

We can obviate the Sellarsian critique by treating all such encounters as potent instances of “epistemically dark phenomenology” (EDP). A facet of experience is ‘dark’ (or intuition-transcendent) if having it confers no understanding of its nature, or a very minimal one (See Roden 2013).[2] If there is a dark side it is immune to the descriptive strategies with which phenomenologists gloss the structure of experience.  Phenomenology is epistemically dark where having it provides no yardstick concerning its nature or proper description. Since EDP provides no yardstick for its understanding it cannot provide a foundation for any general metaphysics – e.g. a metaphysics of difference along either Derridean or Deleuzean lines.

However, it doesn’t follow that we do not encounter anything with EDP. If EDP is real, then the encounter involves a relationship to reality. If reality is not conceptually structured, the encounter must likewise be non-conceptual.

Of course, it might be objected that this nonconceptual dimension can be accommodated within the Sellarsian anti-foundationalist approach without warranting the aesthetics of encounter. The non-conceptual that we encounter is that which assures the pertinence of thought to an objective reality (Schellenberg 2006, 187). In Schellenberg’s reading of Kant via Sellars, intuitions (or singular perceptions of objects) instantiate concepts that are purely general outside the context of judgement (190).[3] Thus, the manifold of sensations is not given (i.e. comprehended preconceptually) but posited as a transcendental condition of the singular purchase of thought. Intuitions “pick out” singular objects while general concepts determine how they are understood (191):

Another way of expressing this idea is that intuitions provide us with invitations to judgments or that intuitions are “petitions for judgments” – to use Robert Brandom’s (2002) wording. On such a view, intuitions are conceptual representations that potentially find verbal expression in perceptual statements when subsumed under concepts. When looking at a white wall, we can abstract from unimportant details and can correctly judge the wall as white (Schellenberg 2006, 192).

On this account sensations furnish the matter of intuition while the concepts provide their form. The matter constrains judgement and thus the range of singular conceptual claims that can be non-inferentially elicited by an intuition (194).

The encounter as it is understood in poststructuralism (the event, the erotic, base matter, the sublime) overwhelms conceptual thought, thus implies a different role for sensation than furnishing singular reference for abstract rules. “It” is encountered without the mediation of the concept.

However – and this is crucial – it does not follow that the encounter occasions unmediated categorical knowledge (furnishes an epistemic foundation). For if the phenomenology of the event is dark[4] then having it cannot entail an understanding of it. It is an event or singularity; not a re-identifiable object. To go further and give the event a fundamental ontological or transcendental status may be legitimate, but that move occurs in second order reflection on the encounter. It is not directly warranted by it, as would be the case with the given. This precaution applies to the Sellarsian or Kantian as to the Deleuzean. The transcendental conception of sensation discussed by Schellenberg hinges on the legitimacy of the functional semantics of concepts – an account that is frequently described as ontologically innocent (Jelača 2014, 121-22) but which can also be seen as ontologically opaque (See Roden forthcoming).

Thus, it is possible to allow for the event of encounter without committing oneself to a specific ontology or heterology. The encounter is not a self-authenticating preconceptual experience (not a given) but a disturbance that outruns or overwhelms understanding. As Deleuze memorably puts it in Chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition:

Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. What is encountered may be Socrates, a temple or a demon. It may be grasped in a range of affective tones: wonder, love, hatred, suffering. In whichever tone, its primary characteristic is that it can only be sensed. In this sense it is opposed to recognition (Deleuze 1994, 139)

The aesthetic, here, is not in harmony with the sensus communis or intersubjective integration of experience within the space of reasons (Levin 2016: 195). It is not functionally defined by its contribution to the conditions of a “joint labour” or intersubjectivity (Deleuze 1994:  140).

At the same time, if having the encounter does not entail an understanding of something encountered, neither does it entail its intellectual or philosophical aridity. For Deleuze, the event manifests the differential conditions of sensibility – fractures the various capacities associated with conceptual thought, imagination, memory and provides not a justification but a problem that forces us to rethink their preconditions.[5] Treating the encounter as a lacuna or problem does not requires us to parse it as a form of unmediated contact with the real. It is mediated insofar as its interpretation is open to question. In this sense the encounter is singular, nonconceptual and empirical. It leaves its scars in us without delineating them.

[1] Cogburn argues that these can be understood in terms of what Graham Priest calls “inclosure paradoxes” characterizing a range of recognised set-theoretic, epistemic and semantic paradoxes (See Priest 1995: 141-154). These occur when it is possible to apply a diagonalising function δ (one that maps any set x onto a set that does not contain x) to the totality Ω over which δ is defined.  This results in δ (Ω) – a value that no longer belongs to Ω but which must also belong to Ω because all applications of δ are members of the totality Ω by definition.

Priest uses the inclosure schema to analyze Derrida’s claim that infrastructural conditions of conceptual thought are unconceptualizable. Derrida claims that the deconstruction or displacement of concept is not expressible in that concept. But this applies to the binary presence/absence that structures all metaphysics and thus any conception of totality. Therefore, the deconstruction of the totality of the present δ(Ω) gives something both outside Ω (thus no longer expressible) but which is also expressed through the operation of deconstruction and thereby belongs to Ω (Priest 1994).

[2] For a musical example employing Xenakis’ seminal granular composition Concret PH see here.

[3] “On what I have called an empiricist understanding, intuitions are epistemically graspable prior to being embedded in propositional representations. By contrast, on a transcendental understanding, the content of intuitions is only graspable when brought under concepts in a judgment, even though intuitions are what in a judgment link us to the object that the judgment is about” (Schellenberg 2006, 190).

[4] It is arguable that this follows from its temporal nature.

[5] “Finally, [the Subject] is an I fractured by this form of time which finds itself constrained to think that which can only be thought; not the Same, but that transcendent ‘aleatory point’, always Other by nature in which all the essences are enveloped like so many differentials of thought, and which signifies the highest power of thought only by virtue of also designating the unthinkable or the inability to think at the empirical level” (Deleuze 1994, 144).

References:

Bataille, G., 1962. Erotism. City Lights Books.

Cogburn, J (unpublished). Aesthetics as First Philosophy: Sense Making After Speculative Realism, https://www.academia.edu/22686204/Aesthetics_as_First_Philosophy_Sense_Making_After_Speculative_Realism Accessed 4th August 2016

Deleuze, G. 1994. Difference and Repetition, P. Patton (trans.). London: Athlone Press.

Derrida, J. 1981. ‘The Double Session’, in Dissemination, Barbara Johnson (trans.), London: Athlone Press, pp. 173-286.

Derrida, J. 1992. ‘Before the Law’, Avital Ronell and Christine Roulson (trans.), in Derek Attridge (ed.), Acts of Literature. London: Routledge, pp. 181-220.

Guyer, Paul (2006). Kant. Routledge.

Hägglund, M. 2008. Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford, CA:nStanford University Press.

Harman, Graham (2007). Aesthetics as First Philosophy: Levinas and the Non-Human. Naked Punch (9):21-30.

Jelača, M., 2014. “Sellars Contra Deleuze on Intuitive Knowledge”. Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism, pp.92-125.

Levin, Kaspar. 2016. Aesthetic movements of embodied minds: between Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze. Continental Philosophy Review 49:181–202.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1993), The Inhuman, Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (trans.). Cambridge: Polity.

Priest, Graham. 1994. Derrida and self-reference. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 72 (1):103 – 111.

Priest, Graham (1995). Beyond the Limits of Thought. Cambridge University Press.

Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, D (forthcoming) ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines: Brandom and Bounded Posthumanism’. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn

Sachs, C.B., 2014. Discursive and Somatic Intentionality: Merleau-Ponty Contra ‘McDowell or Sellars’. International Journal of Philosophical Studies22(2), pp.199-227.

Shaviro, S., 2012. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. MIT press.

Schellenberg, Susanna, 2006. ‘Sellarsian perspectives on perception and non-conceptual content’. In Mark Lance & Michael P. Wolf (eds.), Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities. Rodopi 173-196.

Walton, K.L. 1990. ‘Fearing fictions’ and ‘Fearing fictionally’ in Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts,Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, pp. 195–204, 241–9

[1] Cogburn argues that these can be understood in terms of what Graham Priest calls “inclosure paradoxes” characterizing a range of recognised set-theoretic, epistemic and semantic paradoxes (See Priest 1995: 141-154). These occur when it is possible to apply a diagonalising function δ (one that maps any set x onto a set that does not contain x) to the totality Ω over which δ is defined.  This results in δ (Ω) – a value that no longer belongs to Ω but which must also belong to Ω because all applications of δ are members of the totality Ω by definition.

Priest uses the inclosure schema to analyze Derrida’s claim that infrastructural conditions of conceptual thought are unconceptualizable. Derrida claims that the deconstruction or displacement of concept is not expressible in that concept. But this applies to the binary presence/absence that structures all metaphysics and thus any conception of totality. Therefore, the deconstruction of the totality of the present δ(Ω) gives something both outside Ω (thus no longer expressible) but which is also expressed through the operation of deconstruction and thereby belongs to Ω (Priest 1994).

[2] “On what I have called an empiricist understanding, intuitions are epistemically graspable prior to being embedded in propositional representations. By contrast, on a transcendental understanding, the content of intuitions is only graspable when brought under concepts in a judgment, even though intuitions are what in a judgment link us to the object that the judgment is about” (190).

[3] It is arguable that this follows from its temporal nature.

[4] “Finally, it is an I fractured by this form of time which finds itself constrained to think that which can only be thought; not the Same, but that transcendent ‘aleatory point’, always Other by nature in which all the essences are enveloped like so many differentials of thought, and which signifies the highest power of thought only by virtue of also designating the unthinkable or the inability to think at the empirical level” (Deleuze 1994, 144).

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8 thoughts on “A Post-Sellarsian Encounter

  1. Oh my God this is a helpful post! Both for my work and the work of my colleague Debbie Goldgaber. We’ve actually been talking in the LSU philosophy reading group about different ways to hook up and compare your dark phenomenology and Harman’s work, and I think we have some really cool new directions now.

    My first intuition is to agree with you that Harman is committed to a version of the myth of the given, but to understand (far) left Sellarsians as taking the moral of the myth to be that we have to be honest about our mythology. The problem with sense data isn’t that there’s something wrong with traversing the normative and descriptive, but rather that defenders of sense data had no idea that they were doing this. I think that McDowell’s interpretation of Sellars (not Brandom’s!) minus the Wittgensteinian quietism ends up being something like this, and it’s a view I would probably like to defend.

    But I need to reread this and think more deeply about it over the next few days. I’ll do a post over at philpercs this week.

    • thanks for following up with this JC and looking forward to yer coming post, will see if Pete Wolfendale and Brandom might join in on the discussion.

  2. Thanks for the generous comment Jon – at least I know that I’m not raving now 😉 I think this is the point where I need to engage with Graham’s work more closely, for the worry is that even in the absence of intrinsic meaning or significance there needs to be some kind of halo or nuance distinguishing different kind of “encounter”. So this is all very preliminary. And, as you imply, a lot hinges on how one traverses the normative and the descriptive, not to mention the second order picture in which this traversal is theorised. Really looking forward to reading your further thoughts.

  3. Great piece. And I love the new look of the blog, by the way. I would say ‘Welcome to WordPress!’ but I’m afraid it would waken the devil…

    We make prediction errors in all domains all the time, and sometimes we recognize them, and sometimes we don’t. Art, if anything, involves surfing waves of rarified uncertainty. Think of the transitional moment in a bi-stable image, the instants of equipoise between competing visual priors. This is the way I see my own ‘art,’ as cuing varieties of interpretative stalemate, showing the noise, the multi-stabilities, between our automatic certitudes.

    I guess my only criticism would be that we can get what we need without the ontological baggage. Why not talk noise and prediction error and recurrent neural networks, use the terminology that will keep us in contact with the advancing research front?

    After all, machines are now making art!: http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/cope/experiments.htm

  4. Thanks Scott! Well, the move to wordpress proper was mainly financial – just didn’t see the point of paying a host company for doing what I could do for free. But the interactivity here is better anyway even if just means our affective labour is being leeched all the more by our corporate overlords.

    Yeah, I accept that there’s a problem with ontological commitment here. One of the reasons I wanted to multiply examples of ontologies or heterologies here was to get at a more abstract position, something more tentative. So while this could be construed as a defence of Deleuze against Jelača’s Sellarsian critique, it’s not a Deleuzean one.

    I suppose this problem can be addressed using the predictive processing model. In this case, though, we would need to distinguish the uncertainty generated in (say) binocular rivalry where (as PP models have it) we get an alternation of generative models because of unexplained prediction error. I suppose the limit case would be one in which almost no prediction models work cos we’re in the realm of Lord Arioch of Chaos, or something – we get driving signals but nothing that predicts them with consistency. But this isn’t like that because aesthetic uncertainty is of a limited – and, as you put it – “rarified” nature. We need to account for this rarefaction (non-semantically) while keeping in mind that what is happening is not “really” prediction but the capacity of hierarchically organised systems to generate matches for local input. Maybe that can be done, but I’m pretty sure I can’t.

    Also who’s saying that the PP model isn’t an ontology?

    • It’s most definitely an ontology, but one that we can suppose will be knapped in light of the research. And you’re right that the ‘between of bi-stability’ is a special case, but it provides a striking example of the way free energy could provide aesthetics with what it needs: 1) a way to account for its (apparently) obvious noncognitive character; and 2) a way to understand potential cognitive functions of that noncognitive character. There’s simply no reason to see the cognitive function of the breakdown of cognition as inconsistent on a predictive processing account, since it so clearly does have that function (as in Friston’s notion of ‘active inference’).

      The devil is in the details as you say, of course, but certainly no more than in the nonconceptual experience debate–with the added advantage of knowing what we need to look for in our behaviour and biology.

    • my own approach to related matters has been closer to what Scott calls for but
      over at his blog JC shared this reply:
      Jon Cogburn said in reply to dmf…
      Great to hear you mention Rorty in this context. I think that his analysis of the myth of the given in terms of reification of the normative and in terms of committing the naturalistic fallacy is really important here. With Rorty it’s usually in terms of reifying meanings in the way Bertrand Russell does in The Problems of Philosophy. Conversation only works if we agree that we mean the same thing, therefore there must be these things called meanings such that we agree in meaning if we both have the right relation to the same meaning. But what if the reality just concerns our shared normative commitment to keep talking? I think the deepest thing Rorty ever said is that a disagreement in meaning is nothing more than an agreement not to converse any more.

      Perhaps inconsistently, I find this train of thinking utterly unconvincing when applied to the non-linguistic, practical norms that govern our lives. Rorty’s sometimes facile later relativism in fact can be seen as a species of doing the very thing that he critiqued, trying to provide some factual basis (culture) for the normative soup in which we swim.

      Part of that normative soup involves taking objects to themselves exert normative pressure on us. A pen should be used certain ways, an ecosystem should not be used in certain ways. McDowell wants to honor these norms without getting into the game of metaphysical hypostatization that early Rorty critiques, and this leads McDowell into Wittgensteinian quietism at the end of the day, a quietism that I think blows up for Priestian and Meillassouxian reasons, leading us to something very much like Hegel. I read Harman and Garcia (not sure about Zizek yet!) as inside this dialectical space.

      Dark phenomenology and Derrida are central here. My intuition would be to try to apply the Priest/Meillassoux type arguments to explode them (in the same manner as I want to do to McDowell) into full bore speculative realism, but I’m sure that Roden, Goldgaber, and you would have interesting things to say to contradict this.

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