Friday, May 25, 2012

Creation and Destruction of Worlds: Americanists and Materialists

Matt of Footnotes to Plato and Levi of Larval Subjects are going at it again.

I have copied my comment on Matt's post below.  In general, I insist that Levi's arguments are beside the point, and given that this has been discussed for at least nine months, I can only conclude that Levi is committing fallacious reasoning or a misinterpretation leading to that. Particularly, he continues to read classical Aristotelian views into myself, Matt, and Whitehead that are not there, and rebukes all patient efforts to correct him on that point. I give some detailed explanation below.


In responding to you, Levi writes "The concept of formal causality only makes sense and is required if one advocates the view that there’s unformed passive matter awaiting form to give it structure." I disagree and would like to know if your thinking aligns with mine on the issue.  As I have been explicating for some time, another reason to argue for "form" other than for the Aristotelian reasons to which Levi alludes, is to argue for scholastic realism.  This is to argue against nominalism, the idea that only particular things exsist, and therefore no general or universal statements can be made about anything that exists. If one adopts nominalism, many implications follow. So, when I advocate "form," I am merely saying that there is some real structures and qualities (predicates) to a thing that have true generality and are not singular to that thing. I am not, contra Levi, arguing for "unformed matter," which is a strictly Aristotelian view that you and I have been rejecting. Matt, you've posted a lot on Whitehead's view, which is different from my more Peircean view, but I believe this can be said of both of us, no? Perhaps both of us would agree that a given "form" or structure is not absolute, but I'm not 100% certain that can be said of Whitehead, though it can be certainly said of Peirce as its an implication of his theory of synechism (continuity) relating to tychism (chance).

If one accepts materialism, implying the existence that only the material exists, then true unviersality or generality is impossible, and one almost certainly embraces nominalism. For us robust realists, that is a reduction, and that is also a point that Deacon is making. That is, we are disagreeing with Levi's claim that "While signifying systems can’t exist without electro-neural-chemical systems, we would learn next to nothing about a particular signifying system by studying neurology." Signification can exist without these systems, though it may not be the kind of "signification" that one is familiar with from Frege's logic; it is Peirce's logic.

Is not this ongoing issue beside the point? Or am I missing something? What is on point? I ask these question out of hermeneutic charity.

A thought.  Is Levi arguing for emergence without purposiveness? E.g., creativity without emergent teleology?


  1. Hello Jason, I'm the guy over at Matt's blog you responded to. I traced you to here with my amateur detective's eye. It, of course, wasn't hard. I was pleasantly surprised to read that you are a "robust realist" i.e. anti-nominalist. So am I. One point of difference though is that I do believe in (a sort of) "unformed matter". I believe in bare particulars. I see no other way to individuate. How do you accomplish that trick in your pragmatic phenomenalistic realism? Please excuse my ignorance about that part of American philosophy. I follow the person I think is the best American philosopher of the twentieth century - Gustav Bergmann. OK, he's Austro-American. Granted, he's not the most literary, but he is superbly difficult. Do you know him? I really am very interested in these questions.

  2. Cheeky,

    Existence is always particular, so we might not disagree. If you check out my posts, I discuss this at great length. Here's one of the more accessible ones that Matt found helpful.

    The issue is not whether individuals exist, but whether any description of an individual has any applicability beyond that individual. So, if we say that a leaf is "green," how can we use the word "green" without equivocating, since every case of "green" should be an original and new particular case of it. Unless we explain how individuals can have something in common, we cannot describe them in any way, because description and meaning implies generality.

    My argument against Levi for awhile has been that I see no explanation of generality, and he does not seem to think that generality is real, so we just disagree on this point. That is part of what the ongoing discussion between Matt and Levi is about, as well as other things.

    None of what I have said is special to American or pragmatic philosophy, which are traditions native to the Americas as opposed to Anglo-American, Continental, Asian traditions, etc.

  3. Believe me it is rather pleasant for a 68 year old man to be called Cheeky ... if only. Anyway, I went to the site you mentioned and you are talking about just those difficult question I so enjoy. If I understand you, universals "exist" in two modes - potentially in the object and actually in the experiencing mind. And then there is the nexus of emerging (when the conditions are right). "Exist" isn't the right word there, but I think you get my point, maybe subsist. My question is this: If, per impossible, all the potential forms of an object were to be actualized would there there still be something left over that had or supported those potential forms, something left unexperienced? What is actual in the unexperienced object? Comment boxes are strange places to try to carry on a philosophical discussion. My email is .

  4. Cheeky,

    It’s my humor.

    Yes, I get your point. If I appear pedantic, I explain so that we may understand each other.

    I will respond to the blog, and you can intertwine emails if you wish to

    Universals do “exist” in the two modes that you mention, though let me note that universals are real and make the real vs. existent distinction. Something is “real” if it has “real effects,” which is to say that existence conforms to something that does not exist as such. Hence, there is no existent Law of Gravity that keeps things in line and properly falling, since existence is always particular rather than general like the law. It is however real; there are patterns in nature that we say adhere to the law of gravity. By abduction (inference to the best explanation), we say that there must be some reality to the law that is more than particular instances of falling. The inference is fallible, of course. Levi Bryant uses a variant of this when he invokes Bhaskar’s “transcendental” argumentation.

    Hence, universals are possibly in the object. I do not write “potentially” because the two words do not share a definition and are not synonymous. To say “potentially,” is to say “real possibility,” i.e., that the local existential conditions are such that the possibility may be actualized. When Matt is doing “Whitehead God stuff,” he is explaining the ultimate structures of metaphysical possibility, etc., which are prior to the actual structures of existence. The former is about what might be simpliciter, while the latter is about what might be given what is now.

    I am not sure what you mean by your question, as I can interpret it a number of ways. Suppose that it were possible to instantiate all possibilities, which is already a supposition that we could never support as you note. Would there be anything left over? I don’t think the question is coherent, since it creativity is real, and our arguments ultimately rest on abduction, then we cannot say that we know nature in its totality such to make those statements. The problem is that Matt and I hold that time is real and equi-primordial; if I were to attempt to answer your question, it is possible that a new possibility could be created. I would have to argue deductively to foreclose that possibility, but that is an argument that possibly not even a God could make.

    There is no such thing as an “unexperienced object” depending on what you mean by “experience.” Pragmatism and Whitehead have unusual theories of experience. Regardless, it is not obvious how that is releveant. Or what “object” means.

    Hmmm… I normally don’t have the time to respond in such length. It’s been an odd day.

  5. Oh, on the title "Creation and Destruction of Worlds," I am being elliptical about how many Americanist philosophies take creativity to be fundamental, whereas Levi "destructs" purposive phenomena by reducing them to powers. But then, "power" without be thought against (neo) Aristotelian "potentiality" would be almost impotent, especially per explanation.