The Subject-Object Divide, Corey Anton, and on the Priority Debate between Being and Knowing (Part 2)

With the conceptual baggage drawn out more fully and clearly marked, it is clear that the heart of the matter is overcoming correlationism, whose tenet of the subject-object split is paramount.  A great deal of work has been performed in the attempt to resolve the issue of the subject-object divide, which originally arose in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  It’s important to understand the centrality of the critical project in this discussion, because Kant’s way of resolving the debate between the rationalists and empiricists synthesized the positions in such a way as to instantiate in remarkably lucid terms, and formulating in its present form, the subject-object divide.  Perhaps beginning with an exchange between Chad and Corey is the way to go, and then following it up with a very perceptive remark made in a video (“Ontological Creativity (response to professoranton)”) by Matthew Segall, a graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Corey: ‘In fact, their [philosopher taking epistemology as prior] epistemologies are depending upon an ontological ground of being, without which their ontologies would be pointless.

Chad: ‘That’s part of the problem with the a priori knowledge and the a posteriori…when I am explaining to my students, how can you explain to them the concept of knowledge before experience when you have to have a body to hear about that concept?

Matt’s (Heideggerian) response is spot on, and goes in the right direction; but I don’t feel it was taken and understood for all it’s worth.  His comment in reflection of Corey’s discussion was:

Matt: ‘…there is a groundless ground which outruns our attempt to know it.’

It’s Heideggerian, in the sense that Heidegger, in Being and Time, refers to things as ever shrinking back away from us, refusing to be known.  I think the “groundless ground,” while poetic, is how it has to be stated: it seems as though there is a being that extends beyond experience but which does not disclose itself; and it seems like this being buoys up whenever we come to realizations, whether in the sense of phenomenal awareness of something or more cerebrally.  What really captures that Matt has taken the right route is that he references Schelling’s “unprethinkable reality,” which is not far removed from Kant’s noumena.  Kant referes to the “unprethinkable reality” as the “unconditioneded” ding an sich (thing-in-itself).  Kant plays metaphysician, insofar as, like Corey, he posits that the things exist over and above the realm of the conditioned, i.e., the world of appearances to which objects conform to knowledge.  Chad’s point about the “a priori” distinction is understandable, but what one must ask is: the first time what we encountered ‘X’, thus knowing it in that moment, mustn’t we have had that knowledge before encountering it, even before that first time?  For if there was no mode by which recognition could occur, how does knowing come to pass?  (See footnote #2 in part 1.)  Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates illustrates that even a slave may be taught mathematics, suggests that learning is actually an act of memory (recognizing truth is recollection from before experience), i.e., remember from before the first experience; and thus, the knowledge was possessed even prior to the first experience, otherwise recognition of truths would not be possible, indicating that knowledge seems to be only of an a priori type.  The rationalist-empiricist debate tempers this thinking by arguing that there is something about the actual experiencing that is a prerequisite to knowledge, even if knowledge is, in part, a remembering or something like a remembering.  Kant’s solution is to make the mind an active participant in the experiencing, instituting a framework in which the mind imposes pure concepts upon sensuous intuitions —without which, the bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion ensues.  The Critique of Pure Reason is oriented toward providing the necessary conditions of experience to solve the rationalist-empiricist debate, among other things, but this solution necessitates a subject-object divide.  Kant says, beckoning the later words of Schelling:

‘For that which necessarily drives us to go beyond the boundaries of experience and all appearance is the unconditioned, which reason necessarily and with every right demands in things in themselves for everything that is conditioned, thereby demanding the series of conditions as something uncompleted.  Now if we find that on the assumption that our cognition from experience conforms to the objects as things in themselves, the unconditioned cannot be thought at all without contradiction…’[1]

The “unprethinkable reality,” or the “unconditioned,” is a ground that is presumed to be there, and, as Matt says, it is a groundless ground.  One cannot be sure that it is there, at all.  Unavoidably, my mind goes back to Thomas Kuhn who is rarely given the credit he deserves in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for being agnostic on exactly the metaphysical question we have broached.  In it, he says, ‘The very ease and rapidity with which astronomers saw new things when looking at old objects with old instruments may make us wish to say that, after Copernicus, astronomers lived in a different world’ (emphasis added).[2]  Kuhn has a collection of these, as Ian Hacking calls them, one-may-wish-to-say statements.  The agnosticism on the metaphysics comes by virtue of the fact that Kuhn is not willing to say whether the world is really different or whether the way in which phenomena conform to knowledge is the reason for difference.  Suspension of any proposition/assertion about what there is behind phenomena is to resist the temptation of making a foray into metaphysics.  Phenomena, in this sense, are the dual manifestation of being and knowledge, and these are inextricable in the case of subject-object divide.

Much has been done to subvert the notion of the thing-in-itself and the subject-object divide.  The way that Schelling, in his Naturphilosophie, thought to do this was by allowing a little “I” to stand in the stead of subjectivity, and to introduce a big “I”.  For those not familiar with Schelling, this may seem a little peculiar, at first; but his approach is a monistic one, similar to Spinoza’s, a major influence of Schelling.  Three relevant passages from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Schelling should be considered, as they are conducive to furthered productivity, I think:

‘Schelling’s continuing importance today relates mainly to three aspects of his work.  …  The second is his anti-Cartesian account of subjectivity…in showing how the thinking subject cannot be fully transparent to itself.’

‘For the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787) nature is largely seen in the ‘formal’ sense: nature is that which is subject to necessary laws. These laws are accessible to us, Kant argues, because cognition depends on the subject bringing necessary forms of thought, the categories, to bear on what it perceives. The problem this leads to is how the subject could fit into a nature conceived of in deterministic terms, given that the subject’s ability to know is dependent upon its ‘spontaneous’ self-caused ability to judge in terms of the categories. Kant’s response to this dilemma is to split the ‘sensuous’ realm of nature as law-bound appearance from the ‘intelligible’ realm of the subject’s cognitive and ethical self-determination. However, if the subject is part of nature there would seem to be no way of explaining how a nature which we can only know as deterministic can give rise to a subject which seems to transcend determinism in its knowing and in its ethical doings. Kant himself sought to bridge the realms of necessity and spontaneity in the Critique of Judgement (1790), by suggesting that nature itself could be seen in more than formal terms: it also produces self-determining organisms and can give rise to disinterested aesthetic pleasure in the subject that contemplates its forms. The essential problems remained, however, that (1) Kant gave no account of the genesis of the subject that transcends its status as a piece of determined nature, and (2) such an account would have to be able to bridge the divide between nature and freedom.’

‘On the one hand, Kant’s arguments about the division between appearances and things in themselves, which gave rise to the problem of how something ‘in itself’ could give rise to appearances for the subject, might be overcome by rejecting the notion of the thing in itself altogether. If what we know of the object is the product of the spontaneity of the I, an Idealist could argue that the whole of the world’s intelligibility is therefore the result of the activity of the subject, and that a new account of subjectivity is required which would achieve what Kant had failed to achieve. On the other hand, the fact that nature gives rise to self-determining subjectivity would seem to suggest that a monist account of a nature which was more than a concatenation of laws, and was in some sense inherently ‘subjective’, would offer a different way of accounting for what Kant’s conception did not provide. Schelling seeks answers to the Kantian problems in terms that relate to both these conceptions. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the conceptions are in one sense potentially identical: if the essence of nature is that it produces the subjectivity which enables it to understand itself, nature itself could be construed as a kind of ‘super-subject’. The main thinkers whose work embodies these alternatives are J.G. Fichte, and Spinoza.’[3]

There are some within the speculative turn in philosophy who have embraced something like Schelling’s approach (see the work of Iain Hamilton Grant), while other seek to make radical moves by embracing the thing-in-itself via placing primary and secondary qualities on equal footing, i.e., the same ontological status.  This second strategy has been employed by Quentin Meillassoux, most notably in After Finitude.  Corey remarks: ‘I don’t think it [eliminating the subject-object divide] is a commitment to idealism, that’s where I think this all gets confounded.  Because I think as soon as I am committed to the knower and the known being separate, I’ll get accused of being an idealist.’  I have gone back and forth on this with considerable vigor in self-debate for a long while (years), and I am undecided, but wisdom suggests that it seems to be that it is idealism —what’s wrong with idealism, anyway!?—, considering that Schelling was an idealist and Graham Harman has a difficult time (as I do) in seeing how Meillassoux’s “speculative materialism” isn’t some kind of idealism (see Harman’s Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making).  I would very much enjoy hearing Corey’s rationale for why his position is not idealism.

Before closing out, I want to propose that there is an entirely reasonable response to Corey’s thinking that ontology is prior to epistemology from within a framework, where there is no subject-object divide.  Matt hit on this, to some small extent in his response video and another video (found at:[4], but the word “hylozoism” escaped him.  It is the idea that, in all matter, there is some fraction of life.  It is not inconceivable that one could interpose a notion of intelligence upon hylozoism, predicating to it the quality of having some amount of awareness of being.  The proportion does not have to be in accord with the amount of matter.  For instance, it may be contingent upon the kinds of arrangement of stuff as well as the amount, perhaps exponentially contingent upon the amount of stuff.  Therefore, one is justified in being circumspect with respect to Corey’s metaphysical commitments, namely, that ‘…there were no epistemologies in the inorganic realm’.

What Corey’s discussion comes down to is, not whether epistemology is a subset of ontology or ontology is prior to epistemology, but whether there is some way out of the correlationist circle, which allows being to be prior to knowledge.  The catch is getting outside of thought that remains the difficulty.  If not this, then finding some other completely alternative way of going about things, not yet seen.  However, even at achieving the prescribed, there are still metaphysical commitments one can make that will still override the priority of being over knowledge, such as the variation of hylozoism, suggested above.  The issue of priority has import that extends well beyond the context of Corey’s discussion, and the issue is far from decided, and it is an uphill battle for those on the side of being’s priority.

[1] Kant, Immauel. “Kritik der reinen Vernunft.” In Critique of Pure Reason (Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), Edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2000. p.112

[2] Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. p. 117

[3] Bowie, Andrew. “Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[4] The second video, not discussed here, is more a response to the scientististic metaphysical commitment, which can be explicated in the following way, as Corey puts it: ‘Is there any agency in the inorganic realm?  I am going to say no.  There is just geometric tumbling according to physical process [and laws].’  This rules out the possibility that there is a global (universe-wide) intentional self-realization (i.e., self-knowing and self-forming), or something like that, going on.  It also presumes that laws of nature are fixed.  Many philosophers are now disputing this claim (see Nancy Cartwright’s The Dappled World and Steve Clarke’s The Disunity of Scientific Knowledge) as well as some scientists (see Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn).


Filed under Epistemology, Kantian Philosophy, Philosophy, Pure Philosophy, Speculative Realism, Uncategorized

13 responses to “The Subject-Object Divide, Corey Anton, and on the Priority Debate between Being and Knowing (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: The Subject-Object Divide, Corey Anton, and on the Priority Debate between Being and Knowing (Part 1) | milliern

  2. Thanks for the interesting commentary and reflections.
    I wanted to offer a few clarifications of my own position. I don’t normally think of myself as a “Heideggerian,” though I suppose most people who take the time to really read Heidegger are irrevocably transformed in some way. I’m one of those who has spent considerable time with his texts and ideas. While he has changed the way I think, I’ve nonetheless come to differ with him (as I understand him) in important ways. I’m not at all convinced that ‘human’ being, or Dasein, is the only significant mode of being. Nature, too, is significant. In fact, like Schelling, I would say the significance of human being could only be derived from that of Nature’s original being. Nature is a priori, not mind. Nature generated mind; mind is but a higher potency of Nature’s subjectivity. So I’m more Schellingian than Hedeggerian. If Heidegger spoke of a “groundless ground,” it’s because he was a close reader of Schelling, who more than a century earlier had recorded his encounter with das unvordenkliche (“the unprethinkable”). I don’t think this “groundless ground” should be identified with the Kantian transcendental ego or ding an sich. The groundless ground, the abyss or abgrund (a term Schelling borrowed from the esotericist Böhme), is the mother of both phenomena and noumena. Das Unvordenkliche is not born of the phenomenal-instrumental nature known to physicists and biologist. Nor is it born of the Ego, as in the Fichtean interpretation of Kant. Rather, like Spinoza before him, and Whitehead after him, Schelling distinguished between Natura naturans and Natura naturata. The former is Nature ‘naturing,’ the latter Nature ‘natured.’ The former is process, the latter is product. The former is alive, the latter is dead. Living nature can only be known organically. To know the world, you must not march off to explain and control its body,–as modern scientific materialism has–, you must humbly seek to understand and communicate with its soul. Unlike Kant’s mechanized Newtonian universe, Schelling perceived the earth and her creatures, the sun, planets, and other stars–yes as mathematically ordered–, but also as animate gods, as living beings creative of beautiful worlds. Where scientific materialism sees only dead nature (that is, nature natured), organic realism (what I refer to Schelling and Whitehead’s philosophies of nature as) perceives nature naturing. What is unprethinkable about ourselves and about the world is this ongoing creative process–call it “cosmogenesis,” call it “Creativity,” call it “the One and All,” or God, if you want. Whatever “It” is, it’s before subject and object. It is before mind and matter. Schelling is usually lumped in with the idealists, but it was Heidegger himself (in his lectures on Schelling’s 1809 book on human freedom) who first suggested that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie in fact subverted the entire German Idealist project from the inside out. I’d argue he has more in common with the radical empiricist James than with any idealist, and especially with James’ philosophical inheritor at Harvard, the mathematical adept turned cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead.

    Speaking of which, I noticed you are interested in Einstein, ether, space-time, etc…. I wonder if you’ve run across Whitehead’s alternative ether theory (the “ether of events” or “extensive continuum”)? I’ve written about it here: I’d be curious to know your take on his organic cosmological scheme.

    • I imagined that you wouldn’t consider yourself a Heideggerian, and figured that Heidegger left impressions on us in similar ways. The comment was just a remark in flavoring. Having studied Kant under one of Heidegger’s intellectual grandchildren (Dennis Sweet, who studied under Moltke Gram whose doktorvater was Heidegger), I am always surprised, upon reflection, how Heideggerian in flavor my commentary of Kant’s work can be, especially considering I have only somewhat recently read Being and Time. I am sure you and I are on the same page, having felt Heidegger’s impression, while coming to different conclusions.

      That’s fascinating to hear Heidegger didn’t take Schelling’s Naturphilosophie to be idealistic. I will have to read his lectures on Schelling. In the near future, perhaps before summer, I was looking to read what Heidegger says of Driesch in his lectures, partially because I feel Heidegger wasn’t sure what to do with life. I can’t remember how he words it, but he say objects are closed off or something like that. I imagine the topic rears its head in the lectures on Schelling. Anyways, I flew threw a couple of Schelling’s works during a week in a seminar I took this past semester (on teleomechanism), and it wasn’t abundantly clear to me what differed fundamentally between Spinoza and Schelling, at least with respect to his system of transcendental idealism, which distinguished the former as material and the latter as idealism. Kant is clear on what substance is, in relation to a system like Spinoza’s and Schelling’s, but the difference between the latter two’s thinking is not clear, and I say that particularly with Schelling’s bizarre interpretation of the Metaphysical Foundation in mind. (L. Pearce Williams has provided some commentary on this point.) That makes Heidegger’s opinion all the more interesting, because I would have sooner lumped Spinoza in with the idealists for not having thoroughly disambiguated his notion of substance from the Berkeleyan immaterialism. This issue is interesting, and it’s the reason I pointed out in Corey’s videos, where he commented on denying the subject-object divide. A philosopher I have done some work on, Meillassoux, has a similar issue, as I pointed out. He’s also deeply influenced by Spinoza, which just adds interest to this entanglement of concepts, heightening my interest in developing some clarity and acute delineation among the positions of these philosophies. I’ll be glad if Heidegger has some additional insight on this.

      I am not too familiar with Whitehead, other than the Principia and his method of extensive abstraction. A friend and grad student at the University of Guelph, Pat McHugh, has implored me to read Process and Reality, which I am only now getting to. Bruno Latour is interesting to me, so I figured I have to get around to Whitehead before long. I would be glad to send my thoughts (on Whitehead’s ether) your way, once I have read it and your book. Your book was on my radar, anyways, and it’s just a matter of getting around to it; my area of specialization is philosophy of physics, so all of the above is much more for fun than the focus of my primary time expenditure.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and it’s nice to meet you.

    • I almost forgot, if you are free to share the draft, I would love to have access to “Emerson’s Intellectual Intuition: German Idealism Comes to America” for summer reading. Feel free to email me, if it is possible.

      Take Care

    • Great. I am looking forward. Thanks!

      • I can’t really compete with your joint erudition but poetically speaking and to quote another American, I was reminded when reading the above of T.S. Eliot’s lines:
        “We shall not cease from exploration
        And the end of all our exploring
        Will be to arrive where we started
        And know the place for the first time.” (Little Gidding, Section V.)

        It seems to me that this “knowing” is in some way reciprocal in that it involves a recognition yes but the recognition involves a changed perception due in part to the experience of the journey towards it: is not simply a pairing up of two things and further the change is reciprocal in that the thing “known” also changes because we have changed our experience of it. In this respect I think of the Cosmos as dynamically in a process of change.
        Does that make any sense….its just how I feel about things I suppose.

        While arriving where we started implies remembering I actually wonder if we can arrive where we started from at all; can you return again to the same place physically or intellectually I doubt it. It makes me think of those “circular tours” on buses for tourists in big cities. I think David S has some experience of them!

        I would also like to wish both Davids a very Happy New Year.

      • Tony, I think you have said some good things. One item I’d like to address is your concern about whether we truly end up back where we began, apropos Eliot’s poem. That’s the crux of the issue. If epistemology is a subset of ontology, then, yes, we do; if it is not, then, no, we don’t. The gestalt aspect of learning and what it endows perspective is very important.

        Thanks for the comment.

  3. Pingback: “Nature is a priori” -Schelling | Footnotes 2 Plato

  4. Pingback: Determinism and Indeterminism | Tracing Knowledge ... Στα ίχνη της Γνώσης

  5. David I will give that some thought …grin…sorry I said both “Davids” btw I meant David yourself and of course our mutual friend Matt, maybe he could help me with your response …philosophical terms can be infuriatingly tricky for the amateur: gestalt I am more familiar with.

  6. Pingback: “Nature is a priori” -Schelling – We ARE Nature

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