1. The question ‘What is real?’ stands at the crossroads of metaphysics and epistemology. More exactly, it marks the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology with the seal of conceptual representation.
Ray Brassier’s essay in The Speculative Turn consists of a sequence of numbered paragraphs. I’ve found Brassier’s longer works to be pretty tough sledding, which I attribute as much to the scantiness of my own philosophical background as to the density of the author’s prose. Right from the top, though, I can tell I’m going to agree with much of what Brassier has to say about the real in this essay. Take ¶1. In discussions elsewhere I and others have asked “But how do you know that the real is such-and-such? To ask this question, I’ve been informed, is to confuse ontology with epistemology. I agree that how one knows about things is different from what one knows about them, which in turn is different from what is. Of course the universe exists independently of what I know about it and how I know it. But if I claim to know something about the universe, then I have to talk about the knowing bit too, don’t I? Or, like Brassier says in ¶2:
2. Metaphysics understood as the investigation into what there is intersects with epistemology understood as the enquiry into how we know what there is. This intersection of knowing and being is articulated through a theory of conception that explains how thought gains traction on being.
So I’ll just read along, paragraph by paragraph, jotting down and commenting briefly on some of Brassier’s ideas that I think are right.
3. …Thought is not guaranteed access to being; being is not inherently thinkable. There is no cognitive ingress to the real save through the concept. Yet the real itself is not to be confused with the concepts through which we know it. The fundamental problem of philosophy is to understand how to reconcile these two claims.
Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science has been invoked as justification for the premise that the universe must be a certain way in order for it to be intelligible to sapient beings like humans. But I don’t know why that should be the case. I remember reading theoretical physicist David Bohm’s contention that scientists don’t truly understand quantum mechanics and other aspects of the subatomic world. Scientists take the empirical observations and calculate the formulae and invent metaphors for explaining their the results but, Bohm insists, that isn’t really understanding. Suppose there are absolute limits to human understanding, even when enhanced by technologies that haven’t yet been invented. Does this absolute epistemological frontier necessarily chart the edge of what the universe could possibly be like? That seems awfully presumptuous to me. Here again I’m with Brassier.
9. …The claim that ‘everything is real’ is egregiously uninformative…
Is a photograph of a crow as real as the crow depicted in the photograph? Sure, in a way: photo and crow both exist in the world. But isn’t there a relationship between crow photo and photographed crow that needs to be acknowledged and described? Isn’t the crow somehow more real than the photo of it? I think so.
15. Unless reason itself carries out the de-mystification of rationality, irrationalism triumphs by adopting the mantle of a scepticism that allows it to denounce reason as a kind of faith. The result is the post-modern scenario, in which the rationalist imperative to explain phenomena by penetrating to the reality beyond appearances is diagnosed as the symptom of an implicitly theological metaphysical reductionism. The metaphysical injunction to know the noumenal is relinquished by a post-modern ‘irreductionism’ which abjures the epistemological distinction between appearance and reality the better to salvage the reality of every appearance, from sunsets to Santa Claus. It is not enough to evoke a metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality, in the manner for instance of ‘object-oriented philosophies’, since the absence of any reliable cognitive criteria by which to measure and specify the precise extent of the gap between seeming and being or discriminate between the extrinsic and intrinsic properties of objects licenses entirely arbitrary claims about the in-itself.
Just as a crow is more real than the photo of the crow, so is a crow more real than my perception of the crow — or at least it seems that way to me.
18. However, in the absence of any understanding of the relationship between ‘meanings’ and things meant… the claim that nothing is metaphorical is ultimately indistinguishable from the claim that everything is metaphorical. The metaphysical difference between words and things, concepts and objects, vanishes along with the distinction between representation and reality…
Just as a crow is more real than my perception of the crow, so is a crow more real than my saying “That is a crow” — or so it seems to me.
28. …The gap between conceptual identity and non-conceptual difference—between what our concept of the object is and what the object is in itself—is not an ineffable hiatus or mark of irrecuperable alterity; it can be conceptually converted into an identity that is not of the concept even though the concept is of it…
Though the crow is more real than my idea of a crow, my idea of a crow is still related to and contingent on the crow. All ideas about crows are real, in the sense that they exist in people’s heads, and heads are part of the world. But the idea “crows are black birds” isn’t merely different from the idea “crows are fungi that live at the bottom of the sea”: it’s better, truer, more accurate in its description of the thing that the idea is about.
29. …The scientific stance is one in which the reality of the object determines the meaning of its conception, and allows the discrepancy between that reality and the way in which it is conceptually circumscribed to be measured. This should be understood in contrast to the classic correlationist model according to which it is conceptual meaning that determines the ‘reality’ of the object, understood as the relation between representing and represented.
Sure. Most scientific research concerns itself with incrementally closing the measured discrepancy between the object under investigation and the scientific conception of that object.
33. …It is undoubtedly true that we cannot conceive of concept-independent things without conceiving of them; but it by no means follows from this that we cannot conceive of things existing independently of concepts, since there is no logical transitivity from the mind-dependence of concepts to that of conceivable objects. Only someone who is confusing mind-independence with concept-independence would invoke the conceivability of the difference between concept and object in order to assert the mind-dependence of objects.
I’m thinking of crows that fly and nest in trees. Now I’m thinking of crows that live at the bottom of the sea. Both are real ideas. I could imagine the second kind of crow, but that doesn’t mean I’ll find any down there on the ocean floor. But crows flying, crows in trees — they really are there even when I’m not thinking about them. Are there real philosophers who don’t believe this, or they imaginary philosophers?
34. …To claim that Cygnus X-3 exists independently of our minds is not to claim that Cygnus X-3 exists beyond the reach of our minds. Independence is not inaccessibility. The claim that something exists mind-independently does not commit one to the claim that it is conceptually inaccessible.
Also this: The claim that something is conceptually accessible does not commit one to the claim that it is not the real essence of that thing.
36. …Argumentative stringency has never been the litmus test for the success of any philosopheme…
42. …the first humans who pointed to Saturn did not need to know and were doubtless mistaken about what it is: but they did not need to know in order to point to it…
It seems pretty far-fetched that the first humans would have thought about a Saturn before perceiving it: first comes the thing that is, then the knowing that it is. You’ve probably heard the apocryphal story that the American Indians couldn’t see Columbus’s ship because they had no concept for it. That’s always struck me as crap — beginning in infancy, a person’s attention is drawn to the unusual, the unexpected, the unknown thing. Knowledge-about a thing can be wrong of course, but what if I discover that the thing I perceive, or the thing I’ve heard about, is an illusion or a fantasy — that the thing isn’t? Then I learn that knowing-that can also be false.