Real vs. ideal grounding

In response to the recent explosion of literature on the metaphysics of grounding, some authors (e.g. Daly 2012, Wilson 2014) have expressed skepticism about the coherence or usefulness of this concept. One question that does not seem to have been raised, however, is: how are grounding claims to be established? If one examines the literature, the answer seems to be: by pointing. A handful of stock examples (Socrates and his singleton, a disjunction and its disjuncts) are constantly repeated, but the reader is simply expected to concede the obviousness of the grounding claim. However “intuitive” these claims may seem, pointing to such examples is clearly not sufficient to establish the claim that there is a relation of metaphysical dependence between these entities. In particular, this ostensive method of establishing grounding claims fails to eliminate the possibility that the dependence in question is conceptual. It is clear that in order to grasp the concept <singleton of Socrates>, one must also grasp the concept <Socrates>, and hence that there is a relation of conceptual dependence between the two. But this does not imply that there is a relation of metaphysical dependence between the objects of these two concepts. To see this, consider the concepts <square root of two> and <two>. It is obvious that one must grasp the latter in order to grasp the former, but it is certainly not obvious that the latter grounds the former, i.e. that the number 2 is metaphysically dependent on the number 2. The number 2 is after all simply a real number, and has no intrinsic connection with the number 2; it can even be referred to without employing the concept <two>, for example, by the expression: “length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle whose remaining sides are each of length 1”.

Furthermore, metaphysical dependence cannot follow directly from conceptual dependence, as the direction of dependence may be reversed simply by referring to objects using different concepts: thus <square root of four> depends conceptually on <four>, which, if the inference from conceptual dependence to metaphysical dependence were valid, would imply the 2 depends on 4, but <square of two> depends on <two>, which would imply that 4 depends on two. If grounding is irreflexive, as most of its partisans hold, then at least one of these claims is false. In short, I am suggesting that what is “obvious” in the usual examples of grounding is a conceptual dependence, but this is being illegitimately used as evidence for a metaphysical dependence.

The German logical tradition , from which the term ‘ground’ derives, distinguished between ideal and real grounds (principia cognoscendi and principia essendi vel fiendi) as having to do either with “knowledge in the understanding” or “the thing itself outside thought” (e.g. in Ch. A. Crusius’ Entwurf der nothwendigen Vernunft-Wahrheiten, wiefern sie den zufälligen entgegen gesetzet werden [1745], §34 — see my draft translation here). It is essential that some such distinction be introduced in the contemporary grounding literature in order to avoid illicitly passing from conceptual to metaphysical dependence, or from ideal to real grounding claims. The question of how we are to pass from ideal to real grounding has not yet been addressed within the grounding literature, to my knowledge.

CFP: Unconditional Thinking – University of Ottawa Philosophy Graduate Student Conference


I’m lead organizer for the grad student conference this year. The topic is the contemporary relevance of German Idealism. Keynote speakers: George di Giovanni (McGill University) and Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel (University of Ottawa/Paris I).
Send an abstract to dephilosophia (at) gmail (dot) com if you’re interested. (Link to full CFP above.)

Schelling’s science of productivity

This is a section of a text I’m going to be presenting at a conference in a couple of weeks. I’d appreciate comments from anyone who may happen to read it.


Schelling’s initial conception of naturephilosophy can be expressed by the phrase: critique of grounds. More precisely, this means distinguishing between ideal and real grounds, the confusion of which is according to Schelling characteristic of mechanistic physics. This first stage of naturephilosophical inquiry fits perfectly into the Kantian conception of critical philosophy:

The task of a philosophical science of Nature largely consists in just this, to determine the admissibility as well as the limitations of such fictions in physics, which are absolutely necessary for the continued advance of investigation and observation, and only obstruct our scientific progress when we seek to use them outside their proper limits. (Schelling 1988 : 78)

Critical naturephilosophy is thus an extension of the Critique of Judgment’s examination of the limits of validity of teleological concepts to, for example, the concepts of quality (ibid. : 21) or of force (ibid. : 175). To what extent can the subjective necessity of using these concepts for the “continued advance of investigation and observation”  be regarded as an objective determination of Nature?

An example from Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science helps to make clear the distinction between real and ideal grounds. Against the atomists, Kant argues that matter “fills a space, not through its mere existence, but through a particular moving force” (Kant 2002 : 210) that prevents other “movables” from entering that space; to which he makes the atomist object that we need not posit any such force because it is simply contradictory for two matters to occupy the same space. “But,” Kant replies,“the principle of noncontradiction does not repel a matter advancing to penetrate into a space where another is found” (ibid.). That two matters occupying the same space would be contradictory is a reason for us to hold that this is impossible (ideal ground), but this fact as such has no effect in reality; only a “particular moving force” (real ground) can prevent this state of affairs from coming about.

The first edition (1797) of Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature can be regarded as largely devoted to this critical naturephilosophy, but to the second edition in 1803 Schelling adds the subtitle “as Introduction to the Study of this Science” (Schelling 1988 : 3 n. 1), suggesting that critical naturephilosophy should be regarded simply as an introduction to the science of naturephilosophy itself. It is now necessary to separate ideal from real grounds not only because the former “obstruct our scientific progress when we seek to use them outside their proper limits”, but also in order to make possible a science of real ground as such, naturephilosophy proper. Since what distinguishes real from ideal grounds is that though the latter provide an explanation of what they ground, they do not themselves produce it, the essence of real ground is seen to be productivity. Naturephilosophy as science of real ground therefore means the science of productivity.

This science of productivity is developed systematically in the 1799 text “On the concept of speculative physics and the internal organization of a system of this science” (Schelling 2004; references by page number alone are to this text.). Speculative physics means a system of the concepts of natural science — not only physics in our modern sense but also chemistry and biology —  with productivity as its principle. The concept of productivity, as principle, must itself be made to produce all concepts of what is productive, i.e. all real grounds.

Speculative physics is distinguished from its empirical counterpart in that the latter can treat only of mechanical motion, that is, motion which itself “results only from motion” (195), whereas the former “occupies itself solely and entirely with the original causes of motion in Nature”; or more generally, empirical physics can derive the phenomena of Nature only from other already-existing things, whereas speculative physics “aims generally at the inner clockwork and what is nonobjective in Nature” (196), the unconditioned or “unthinged” (unbedingte) that is the condition of every thing (Ding): “the first inquiry of speculative physics is that which relates to the unconditioned in natural science” (202).

The true contrary to speculative physics, however, is not empirical physics as historically given but “pure empiricism” or “history”, which is merely a “collection of facts, of accounts of what has been observed, what has happened under natural and artificial circumstances” (201) and is therefore not science; whereas in empirical physics “empiricism and science run riot together, and for that reason they are neither one thing nor the other” (ibid.). Schelling here has in mind the employment of such fictions as the ‘gravific fluid’ that would be the cause of Newtonian attraction, the examination of which is the task of critical naturephilosophy. The speculative naturephilosophy therefore provides the foundation for the critical in separating “science and empiricism as soul and body, and by admitting nothing into science which is not susceptible of an a priori construction” (ibid.). It is only insofar as a concept of physics can be constructed in productivity that it can be regarded as having valid objective use and thus as constituting the real ground of a phenomenon of Nature.

For our construction of a phenomenon to be valid, it must be a repetition or re-construction of the “inner construction” by which it is produced in Nature; but the acts of Nature by which phenomena are produced “are never isolated, but performed under the concurrence of a host of causes which must first be excluded if we are to obtain a pure result. Nature must therefore be compelled to act under certain definite conditions, which either do not exist in it at all, or else exist only as modified by others” (196-197). Because of this interaction of natural forces, we can only know the grounds of a phenomenon through an “invasion of Nature” (196) that isolates the contribution each makes to the result, that is, an experiment. Experimentation is a “question put to Nature, to which it is compelled to reply”, a “production of phenomena” (197) in which we “put [Nature] into conflict with herself and set her own forces in motion against her” (Schelling 1988: 57).

“But,” as Schelling remarks, “every question contains an implicit a priori judgment; every experiment that is an experiment is a prophecy”, or is made on the basis of a hypothesis. The hypotheses implicit in an experimental design can be confirmed by other experiments, but these will necessarily imply further hypotheses, which must be confirmed by further experiments, and so on ad infinitum; experimentation by itself can therefore provide us only with knowledge conditional upon other experiments, rather than with knowledge of the unconditioned (197). “Since the final causes of natural phenomena are themselves not phenomenal, we must either give up all attempt ever to arrive at a knowledge of them, or else we must altogether put them into Nature, endow Nature with them” (ibid.).

To put final causes (or rather a final cause) into Nature means to subordinate the study of Nature to an “absolute hypothesis” (197) which can be expressed most concisely as: the existence of Nature itself. This hypothesis maintains that over and above the various natural things that make up the world, there is also Nature itself: we must assume “that the sum of phenomena is not merely a world, but of necessity a Nature (that is, that this whole is not merely a product, but at the same time productive) […]” (ibid.). That Nature itself is productive implies, first, that it cannot be separated into inert matter in which forces are implanted only secondarily (Schelling 1988 : 154-157): “[matter] and bodies, therefore, are themselves nothing but products of opposing forces, or rather, are themselves nothing else but these forces” (ibid. : 156); and second, that we can know Nature only by making our knowledge thereof productive: “our knowing is changed into a construction of Nature itself, that is, into a science of Nature a priori” (198).

If, however, the system of speculative physics is to be more than merely hypothetical knowledge, this hypothesis by which we “endow” Nature with its final causes must be “as necessary as Nature itself” (197). The necessity of this hypothesis must be demonstrated by putting it to an “empirical test”: “as long as there is in the whole system of Nature a single phenomenon which is not necessary according to that principle, or which contradicts it, the hypothesis is at once shown to be false” (197-198). The hypothesis is shown to be necessary by deriving all phenomena of Nature from it; or rather, since this is clearly an infinite task, the necessity of a hypothesis can only be provisionally accepted so long as it has not been falsified.

This extremely classical conception of the nature of science is not satisfactory by the standards of Schelling’s own philosophy. On Schelling’s account, natural science, though it is the science of productivity, itself exists only as product: only the complete deductive system in which all phenomena of Nature have their place is in fact a science. The process of producing this system however is left out of the account. What should the speculative physicist do upon discovering a phenomenon that contradicts her hypothesis? How should she correct her system? Schelling’s remark that the hypothesis must “bear its necessity in itself” (197) suggests that he regards the empirical test as something of a formality: it is in the conceptual demonstration of necessity that the real work of speculative physics lies, and once this has been carried out, there is little danger of falsification. This neglect of the process of correction is particularly strange given that Schelling’s own work is (in)famous for its mutability. Furthermore, it is hardly compatible with the “first maxim of all true natural science, to explain everything by the forces of Nature” even if this has as consequence that “what we call ‘reason’ is a mere play of higher and necessarily unknown natural forces” (195). A more satisfactory account of science will therefore have to study this play of forces, or productive science, rather than science as product, having productivity only in its object.

Realism, contingency, and the powers of nature

Quentin Meillassoux has set two requirements for realist philosophy: the rationalist requirement and the materialist requirement (Brassier, pp. 49-50). The former requires “that reality be perfectly amenable to conceptual comprehension”, while the latter requires “that being, though perfectly intelligible, remain irreducible to thought”. For a realist, conceptual thought cannot be essentially relative (to a transcendental subject, to a form of life, etc.); it must be possible for it to be absolute. But at the same time, thought must not be necessary to the being of the world; a world devoid of intelligent life, and therefore of thought, is perfectly comprehensible: thought is contingent. I will hereafter refer to these requirements as the absoluteness and contingency requirements, respectively, since the terms ‘rationalist’ and ‘materialist’ have a number of other meanings irrelevant to the subject.

Meillassoux offers the “principle of factuality”, or the necessity of contingency (Meillassoux p. 120) as a foundation for a form of realism that meets these two requirements. He starts from the principle of the contingency of thought (and everything else), then argues that this principle is itself absolute (Meillassoux pp. 90-98); he then hopes to derive from this absolute principle other propositions concerning the nature of the in-itself (pp. 100 ff.). There are several reasons to be dissatisfied with this strategy, but the most important is its sterility: Meillassoux is not able to derive the possibility of an absolute scientific thought (i.e. the discovery of “arche-fossils”, phenomena that pre-date the existence of thought) from the principle of factuality as he had set out to do, and can only offer the hope that someone will be able to do so (p. 187).

There is another possible strategy that Meillassoux mentions, but drops after only a cursory examination (pp. 93-94). He identifies an “intimate seam in the correlational circle”: the fact that only one of the two constitutive principles of the circle can be “de-absolutized” at a time. If we oppose absolute idealism by insisting on the facticity of the shared structure of thought and the world, we thereby rely on the absoluteness of the principle of facticity; this is Meillassoux’s strategy. Conversely, if we oppose Meillassoux’s speculative materialism by denying the absoluteness of the principle of factuality, we thereby rely on the absoluteness of the correlate. Meillassoux dismisses this second option on the grounds that it makes a certain being or type of being (eg. “Spirit, Will, Life”) necessary. Absolute idealism cannot coherently think, for example, the mortality of the subject, because it makes the subject necessary to the existence of the world. (Indeed, Fichte argues that the impossibility for the I of abstracting from itself demonstrates its immortality.) But Meillassoux does not consider the possibility that his strategy, described in the previous paragraph, can be reversed by absolute idealism: to start from a principle of the absoluteness of thought, and derive its contingency from its absoluteness.

The details of this derivation are not entirely clear to me yet but it will involve three currents of thought in analytical philosophy:

  1. scientific realism, including its development into Ladyman and Ross’s ontic structural realism, and the Churchlands’ eliminative materialism. I feel that the combination of these two developments results in something like Andy Clark’s active externalism;
  2. scientific essentialism, and in particular the metaphysics of powers developed primarily by Mumford and Molnar;
  3. analytical idealism, or the appropriation of German Idealism by analytical philosophers like McDowell and Brandom.

As in absolute idealism, rather than starting from the subject and asking how it can acquire knowledge of the object, we start from knowledge, and derive an understanding of the subject and object. A very rough outline of the strategy:

  1. If we can know the world in-itelf, then it must be composed of pure modal structure (power);
  2. if we can know knowledge in-itself (and not just the appearance of knowledge, knowledge-for-us, ie. normativity), then knowledge must also be a modal structure (a power);
  3. yet if there is nothing but powers, then there must either be an ungrounded power or an infinite regress of grounds which is itself ungrounded — in either case, “reasons come to an end”.
  4. so if knowledge is a power (2) and powers are essentially contingent (3) then knowledge is contingent.

I’m quite aware of how unsatisfactory the argument is in this form and I hope to flesh out each of the stages in a way using the three traditions in analytical philosophy mentioned above.

I also hope that this project will shed some light on Deleuze. Peter Wolfendale has pointed out the importance of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) to Deleuze’s thought (here and here) and I think this shows how we can understand Deleuze better by opposing him to Meillassoux. The promised third part of Wolfendale’s study has never appear though, so the difficult reconciliation of Deleuze’s affirmation of chance and chaos on the one hand, with his acceptance of the PSR, on the other, is left unfinished. I think it will be possible to interpret Deleuze as pursuing the strategy I described above of deriving the contingency of thought from its absoluteness.


Brassier, Ray “The enigma of realism”, Collapse III

Meillassoux, Quentin Après la finitude (my translations)


Cognitive economy and the production of stupidity

Peter Wolfendale has posted a “short” piece on his new blog Dialectical Insurgency (his short pieces are longer than most bloggers’ long ones) on cognitive economics and stress. The tumblr format unfortunately doesn’t allow comments so I thought I’d make a couple here.

1. I think the concept of ‘cognitive economy’ can help to explain Deleuze and Guattari’s remarks in Anti-Oedipus about capitalism producing “flows of stupidity”. It doesn’t just mean that capitalism produces stupid products or products that appeal to people’s stupidity, it means that it produces “cognitive noise” that makes it harder to make intelligent decisions.

2. I think it’s also relevant to the future of science. Scientists are increasingly being evaluated based on citation indices and patents produced by their research rather than on anything like the scientific value of their work. Science in the 20th century was on the whole characterized by a high degree of cognitive freedom which allowed scientists to pursue a variety of lines of research — just think of Barbara McClintock working in her cornfields for 40 years — but this freedom may be disappearing. Scientists will be under the same stress to produce “results” as other knowledge workers and will increasingly favour research that will produce publishable data, no matter how trivial or boring, over riskier fields that may provide new understanding but may also be dead ends. As Isabelle Stengers points out somewhere, already today, in fields like biotechnology it’s more important to have “promising” research that attracts investors than to actually create knowledge. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, spend a large portion of their “research” budgets on producing variations on existing drugs that will be covered by new patents (“line extensions”) or on new conditions that old drugs can be prescribed for (“drug repositioning”), rather than on developing new drugs that solve new medical problems. (See the National Institute of Health Care Management report here; apparently 65% of the drug applications reviewed by the FDA between 1989 and 2000 were for drugs containing the same active ingredient as drugs already on the market.) Scott Bakker has presented a distopian future in which neuroscience has run amok, with powerful corporations and secret government agencies controlling our brains. This is an important possibility to bear in mind, but I think a more likely future under capitalism is simply that science as we knew it in the 20th century will go extinct. There will still be research but it will simply be a form of marketing. The prospect of extinction is why I feel that science must be one of the primary sites of the “major form of resistance” that Wolfendale recommends: “the pursuit of cognitive liberation through progressive collectivisation”.

“The absolute melting-away of everything stable” Pt. I

Readers of the “Lordship and bondage” chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit have generally focussed on the concept of mutual recognition (eg. Kojève, Brandom [pdf]), but there is another important concept that hasn’t been discussed as much: the fear of death as “the absolute Lord”, which reveals the essence of consciousness as “absolute negativity” (§ 194). Here is the whole passage:

 For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord.  In that expererience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being,  and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations. But this pure universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-self, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness.

In the preface (§ 32) Hegel identifies the activity of dissolution with “analysis” as a “power and work of the Understanding”, and explains it as the ability to take an “accident as such”, ie. “what is bound and is actual only in its context with others” and give it “an existence of its own and a separate freedom”. The action of separating a previously dependent aspect of a thing or unbinding what is bound is in fact the same action as that of giving it independence. When we “bring fixed thoughts into a fluid state”, they “become Notions, and are only now what they are in truth, self-movements, circles, spiritual essences, which is what their substance is” (§ 33). So the entire movement involves: 1) a fixed thought ; 2) its dissolution or unbinding into moments ; and 3) the unification of the fixed thought and its dissolved moments into a circling that encompasses them both. (Cf. §§ 18, 53, 55.)

The “melting-away” described in the “Lordship and Bondage” chapter is therefore a preliminary, as always with Hegel. He wants to make thoughts fluid only in order to make them circulate. A circle is a movement that  “presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning” (§18) or appearance as “the movement of the life of truth”, “the arising and passing away of what does not itself arise and pass away, but is ‘in itself’ (§ 47). The circular life of the Spirit, or “the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative” is at the same time a life of “untroubled equality and unity with itself, for which otherness and alienation, and the overcoming of alienation, are not serious matters” (§ 19). A straightforward criticism of these passages would be to say that the movement of the for-itself, returning to the in-itself as it was at the beginning, is simply pointless and illusory, but since we’re dealing with Hegel, our criticism will have to be a bit more devious. For Hegel, the opposition between the for-itself as “mere appearance” and the in-itself as the real is itself cancelled/overcome in the circular movement; the “actual whole” of a philosophy is not just the result, “but rather the result and the process through which it came about” (§ 3).

This more devious criticism takes us back to the passage from “Lordship and Bondage” (§ 194). Hegel tells us that death (or the fear of death?) is “the absolute Lord”, and that by facing it, the servant is able to free himself from natural existence (at least implicitly). But this experience of the fear of death is hardly an “absolute negativity”: it retains the fearful subject as something positive and to be preserved. The servant is afraid for himself and acts to preserve himself by turning away from death. The life of the Spirit, insofar as servitude is one of its moments, is in fact, despite Hegel’s protests, a “life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation” rather than a life that “endures it and maintains itself in it” (§ 32).

(In Part II, I will explain why this is not simply a momentary lapse by Hegel, but why the life of the Spirit must keep itself untouched by devastation: essentially, because it is a life. I will try to use an experience of “absolute horror” taken from Lovecraft and Ligotti to separate Hegel’s spirals into a “circle of life” and a “vector of truth” that are necessarily hostile to one another, as a first step in answering, Yes there is.)