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Thursday, November 19, 2009

SR prehistory: Scheffer vs. Goodman

In the 80s, Israel Scheffer and Nelson Goodman engaged in a long polemic about Goodman’s anti-realist claims. Goodman was a robust relativist, Scheffer, a pluralist-realist. Scheffer asked how it was possible, in Goodman’s schema, to account for stars, for instance, which long preceded the existence of man. Did men make up stars? Goodman, in “Starmaking” replied:

“Let's begin by acknowledging that a right version and its world are different. A version saying that there is a star up there is not itself bright or far off, and the star is not made up of letters. On the other hand, saying that there is a star up there and saying that the statement "There is a star up there" is true amount, trivially, to much the same thing, even though the one seems to talk about a star and the other to talk about a statement. What is more important, we cannot find any world-feature independent of all versions. Whatever can be said truly of a world is dependent on the saying - not that whatever we say is true but that whatever we say truly (or otherwise present rightly) is nevertheless informed by and relative to the language or other symbol system we use. No firm line can be drawn between world-features that are discourse-dependent and those that are not. As I have said "In practice, of course, we draw the line wherever we like, and change it as often as suits our purposes."

And a few paragraphs later: “Scheffler contends that we cannot have made the stars. I ask him which features of the stars we did not make, and challenge him to state how these differ from features clearly dependent on discourse. Does he ask how we can have made anything older than we are? Plainly, by making a space and time that contains those stars. By means of science, that world (indeed many another) was made with great difficulty and is, like the several worlds of phenomena that also contain stars, a more or less right or real world. We can make the sun stand still, not in the manner of Joshua but in the manner of Bruno. We make a star as we make a constellation, by putting its parts together and marking off its boundaries.”

I’ve always loved Goodman’s insouciance. He is touching here on a hidden semiotic that, as a matter of fact, has much to do with the human limit: one of the crucial binaries in the life of the educated class in the West is that of making/discovering. Discovery, as I have mentioned before, oddly escaped the epistemic grid that Foucault uncovers in early modernism. Goodman is, of course, correct that science is made. But science is made to discover. The realism of the scientists is the realism of the Atlantic voyagers – it is the realism of discovery. Goodman’s notion that the star in the sky or the movie star on the screen is relative to the frame of reference is, I think, easy to mischaracterize. We are drawn by tradition into thinking that making comes entirely from the maker – but this is not Goodman’s idea. Indeed, the maker is continually resisted in the making, which is why we can talk of right versions, of rightness with regard to the frame of reference. A frame of reference will forever be both made and beyond the power of the maker. It doesn’t refer to any particular cogito – geometry is not Euclid’s secret autobiography.

Scheffer, in an essay entitled Plea for Plurarealism (2000) – so many kinds of realism! – returned to this controversy. Goodman, he claimed, was strongly motivated by the idea that there are many worlds. He was in revolt against the idea that all worlds could be reduced (theoretically) to the picture given by physics. Scheffer contends that this is not a feature that is intrinsic to realism (and confesses that he has been influenced, on this point, by Goodman). And he brings up the example of the arche-fossil:

“In a third anti-realistic argument, Goodman denies that there can be perception without conception, concluding as follows, "Although conception without perception is merely empty, perception without conception is blind (totally inoperative). Predicates, pictures, other labels, schemata, survive want of application, but content vanishes without form. We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols". Now the final sentence just quoted seems paradoxical as it stands. For it seems to imply that there was no world prior to human speech or symbolism.” And, taking this a step further:

“In defending the "no world without words" doctrine, Goodman argues that "talk of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given or a substratum without properties is self-defeating; for the talk imposes structure, conceptualizes, ascribes properties". But if we assert the existence of trees in the primordial past, we are affirming trees after all, not a bit of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given. Those ancient trees that we now describe by using the word "tree" surely did not require this word in order to have arisen and flourished. It is of course self-defeating to call something a wordless word or a non-descriptive description, but it is not self-defeating to describe something in words which neither contains nor is a product of words.”

It is interesting to see how this dispute – without, as far as I can tell, being specifically referred to – has been recoded in the continental idiom recently by the Speculative Realism school. There, the key binary (independence vs. dependence) is, again, an idiom that returns us to the trans-atlantic world in which one nation “made” itself through a declaration of independence. I’ll do another post about the role of 'independence' in the SR discourse.


N Pepperell said...

I'm too far away from Brandom at the moment to re-present his position at all accurately, but something similar comes up in his dispute with Habermas, who wants a much firmer ontological distinction between "natural" and "social" categories than Brandom's framework requires (or allows). Brandom's point is essentially that, of course we can allow objects of various sorts to adjudicate our disputes over what is, and what is not, "real" or "true" - as long as we understand that it is our own normative decisions that constitute what "counts" as an object, and that confer such adjudicating status on specific objects, that decide the criteria under which specific objects have this power, that decide the conditions under which this power has persuasive force, etc. (I haven't read Brandom on Marx yet, but there is a similarity here, which Brandom probably doesn't realise, between this line of argument and Marx's comments about the metaphysical and theological aspects of commodities - which really really do have special "spooky" properties, but only because we collectively interact with them in ways that enact those properties...)

So, to simplify Brandom grossly: objects may "objectively" decide the outcomes of any manner of disputes - if we are normatively disposed to confer on them this compelling normative power...

Not phrasing this very well - apologies - have just woken, and should probably wait to post when less groggy. But I'm about to rush off to a day of meetings, and thought I should toss something in, rather than not comment...

roger said...

I love the fact that this comment is written under the aegis of grogginess! I think most people aren't this sharp when they've poured five cups of coffee down their throats and then taken the booster meth shot!

Anyway, your comment about Brandom (which makes me want to look him up) reminds me ... of something I just read in Marx Wartofsky. Not that I should brag - I'm editing somebody who refers to Wartofsky, so this is why the name is on the tip of my frontal lobe. Wartofsky likes the idea that routines are petrified in artifacts - although he doesn't use my vocabulary of routines. Among the world of artifacts, he counts skills - playing the piano would be, for him, an artifact. The formal character of the artifact is that it is transmissible - its way of being used can be communicated to others.

Now this, I think, provides a crucial historical path that breaks up the notion of the cogito, which is a surprisingly ahistorical thing in SR. If it is androgenic, its the cogito! But this is for my next post.

Anonymous said...

It was rather interesting for me to read that post. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read more on that blog soon.

Anonymous said...



Duncan said...

You may be aware of this, Roger, in which case apologies, but Meillassoux discusses Goodman in a couple places I think - in relation to the principle of induction, if I remember right. Unfortunately my books are in a storage facility on the other side of the planet right now, so I can't check the content or references. But Goodman's stuff is definitely on the radar when Meillassoux's formulating his 'speculative materialist' chatter - though I don't recall a reference to the dispute with Scheffer (which I didn't know about). And of course this frame of reference seems largely to have dropped out in the translation to the broader specreally space. Not sure that's of any interest, but fwiw.


Duncan said...

[PS - your posts on Tolstoy and on Leskov are both exceptional.]

roger said...

Thanks, Duncan. I haven't read Apres finitude, and suppose and hope that it is suaver than the Meillassoux articles I have read. So good!

I'm doing this SR thing as a breather. I am finished with De Quincey for a while - his visions started to get into my dreams too much! So I want to do some stuff about Baudelaire next. I think. And Marx, and addiction, and killing, not giving, time.