Sunday, 7 February 2010

Reply to Prof PTJ

Comment on: http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2010/02/two-philosophers-shoveling-snow.html

A very witty piece. I basically agree. However, I think something needs to be challenged: the notion of 'intersubjectivity' as the privileged site of knowledge (and thus 'reality') construction.

The primary disagreement between Roy and Will seems to be Roy's fury over Will's refusal to attribute the 'in-itself' (i.e. the snow in its 'intransigent' materiality) any 'agency' (loosely speaking) with regard to its own understanding. For Roy the snow has both transigent and intransigent qualities and while it can be understood differently by people with different sensory/cultural dispositions it nevertheless possesses a certain 'snowy-ness' that cannot be ignored; to ignore it, it is supposed, is to commit the 'epistemic fallacy', which assumes that mind arbitrarily 'makes' world (Alex Wendt's 'pigs don't fly just because you think they do' skit is a typical example of this reductio ad absurdum argument). In other words, as Will rightly points out, critical realists of this bent assume a dichotomy of possibilities where either mind is exterior to the 'real' world and imperfectly 'reflects' this reality or mind is coiled up in its own interiority 'creating' all fictive experience in the manner of an auteur. This, of course, assumes that mind can only ever be conceived of in the classical sense of an abstract ideational thing suspended in the ether, separate from 'reality' and (most likely) 'materiality' too. The likes of Will, on the other hand, take the mind to be far more extensive and always-already involved in and constituted by the 'real', which, instead of being the creative produce of a sovereign, rational, unproblematically legible mind, is produced intersubjectively (this is the key point).

So, this assumes that there exists a network of cultural-linguistic beings, all constituted by their shared reality. The 'epistemic fallacy' no longer works because the creation of reality no longer centres around the individual but rather is the product of the network of intersubjectivity, which precludes the narcissistic volitionalism of the subjective idealist that critical realists try to imagine all their opponents as. And yet the general thrust of the critical realist critique - that subjective idealism is narcissistic/solipsistic - is not, I think, rebutted - at least not entirely. I think this because the intersubjectivist theory remains resolutely anthropocentric. Why is it only subjects (i.e. humans) that get to play this game? For all our fancy tricks, what is so special about us flesh-bags?

We need another character; let's call him Alfred. Also a mind/world monist, Alfred agrees that knowledge is created intersubjectively but he wants to go further than this. He argues that 'experience' (his term) is a property common not just to subjects but to objects as well. He is, then, a panexperientialist - like a panpsychist (who thinks that all matter has the property of 'mind') but with a distinction made between experience and cognition. Knowledge and thus reality, for Alfred, are inter-objective productions (in the broadest sense that subjects are also objects - very distinct kinds of objects both existentially and ethically but objects nonetheless).

His theory is, like the intersubjectivist's, perspectival - what is 'real' depends entirely upon one's perspective, whether one is a subject or an object. In other words, there exist an infinite number of possible realities on one ontological plane. Humans are no longer the be-all-and-end-all that intersubjectivism would have them, yet every human individual's experience is distinct and each experience is a reality, just like intersubjectivism.

So, when Roy is raging about Will's refusal to take the snow's 'in-itself' as 'real' and Will, effectively, just shrugs it off, Alfred would be able to transcend both positions and come up with, I think, a far more satisfactory answer: the experience of shovelling snow is created inter-objectively with Will's culturally and linguistically imbued dispositions shaping the particular reality of the experience but the snow's 'actancy' (to borrow Alfred's grandson Bruno's term) also contributing in its own right. (The event of Will shovelling the snow is, then, in a manner of speaking, every bit as much a 'conversation' between two agentially empowered but relationally and processually constitued actants as the conversation between Will and Roy.)

Will maintains his monism and Roy's blood pressure can return to safer levels providing he can accept the loss of the 'in-itself' for the gain of the object as an 'actant', which, knowing Roy, he won't but that's his problem not Alfred's!

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