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

Prefatory remark: I will be breaking this blog into two parts, due to its length.

Corey Anton (of Grand Valley State University) recently published a series of videos (“Ontology”, “Epistemology Is a Subset of Ontology”, “A Lively Dialogue on Ontology, Epistemology, Emergence & Agency”, and “Understanding Agency (Information, Language, Literacy, Calendars)”), hosted by youtube, concerning the idea that epistemology is a subset of ontology.



He does a reasonably good job of getting half the story right, the reasoning why one may feel compelled to say that epistemology is a subset of ontology.  The issue is more complicated than this. The obverse of the issue was not adequately represented, the other side of the argument being that epistemology determines ontology.[1]  In the videos, part of the epistemology-as-prior side is represented, but only to the extent of the post-Cartesian formula of ontology being contingent upon epistemology, and as an epistemic manifestation.  What I want to do in this blog is fill in the details Corey’s omitted and to disambiguate concept and terms, and the conclusion shall be that it is by no means clear whether ontology precedes epistemology, or whether the converse is the case.  While my personal opinion sides with Corey’s, I feel it an exercise in intellectual honesty that I write this post, hopefully heightening awareness amongst members of the online intellectual community that this inquiry of priority is far from solved —and a much more complex than has been given credit.  There are some points of the discussion that must be more acutely delineated than has been up to now.  Additionally, I will pepper this post with general remarks concerning comments made in Corey’s and Chad Hansen’s (Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas, Dallas) videos.

Corey rightly points out that it doesn’t seem to make much sense in talking, qua the application of language, about objects, if there was no prior context[2] in which the objects were encountered; otherwise, no utterance could be afforded, on account of the object not having acquired, at least, a linguistic appellation.  There is an error in stopping at that, as to assume that episteme (ἐπιστήμη) is entirely entailed within the context of language, as if episteme were equivalent to epistemology.  The distinction is a necessary one, because what is being talked about is episteme proper, i.e., knowledge, which more obviously is not merely language, but includes a whole range of modes.  I think one of the issues, throughout the videos, is that there is a switching between words and meaning, sometimes using “epistemology” to mean “epistemology,” but sometimes using “epistemology” to mean knowledge.  Chad’s desire to draw out more clearly the distinctions between words in play is precisely what was needed for the discussion, though he didn’t have the conversational space to do so in the dialogue.  Therefore, the first point I should like to make is that Corey’s point is, not that he wants to claim that epistemology is a subset of ontology, but that knowledge (episteme) is a subset of being (ontos, or ὄντος) —essentially what Chad was trying to do by bring “onticity” into the discusion— and so I will speak in terms of “knowledge” and “being,” from here on out.  Before proceeding, I think it is clear, now, that the argument centered in language fails, because it is not being per se that precedes the context of referring to an object, but knowledge of the object that precedes referential linguistic utterances.  In this sense, being and knowledge, to this point, equally precede language.[3]

Corey’s discussion traverses a path that exhibits frustration with philosophers and intellectuals who will exclaim such things as “how do you know that you are feeling?!”  I think this demonstrates the above point, that terms and meanings are being conflated.  The exclamatory question that Corey is frustrated with is a meta-level question: while the answer may be “I am not sure,” typically only individuals with a skeptical bent will dismiss as untrue the quality of having feeling due to some lack of meta-level knowledge of how it is so.  Skeptics notwithstanding, most will take raw sensations as knowledge, regardless of the ontological status divvied to them.[4]  The knowledge of the tasting of coffee is not thwarted by not knowing how one is sure that they are tasting coffee.  Yet the having tasted is knowledge for a number of reasons, an example being that it can inform us when something else we taste is probably not coffee, even though we have never tasted this new substance.[5]  In the video entitled, “A Lively Dialogue on Ontology, Epistemology, Emergence & Agency,” Corey begins to say something that seems very, very important, but does not complete his thought.  More specifically, at just before twelve minutes in, he begins to say that ontological commitments are necessary to make any “logic” work.  This part of the back-and-forth is really opaque to me, but it certainly seems to be among the most important snippets of the videos, because he is beginning to assert the necessary conditions for…something, presumable experience.  I think Chad is using “logic” in the sense any mode of operation that affords understanding of being, any reasoning-level capacity that allows function within being.  I shall simply take him to mean knowledge (or the collection of knowledge and knowledge-manipulating instruments of mind), though knowledge in the truest sense is something contains a much broader meaning than the term “logic” traditionally encapsulates.  What I want to demonstrate is that the example given above entangles being and knowledge, and I am not sure what “ontological commitments” are made, being that they are so entangled.

At this point, I am going to talk about theory-ladenness and why I think Corey’s characterization of the epistemology-first nature of the stance taken by many philosophers is not quite apt.  While I think the characterization is certainly correct, so far as it goes, but it could be made more accurate; and this, I hope, will emerge from what I am about to say.  Theory-ladenness is a philosophy developed by Wittgenstein’s student, Norwood Russell Hanson.[6]  Most simply stated, theory-ladenness asserts that we can only see an object as.[7]  That is, we can only know something as a something.  Without the concept-applying apparatus and its concepts, consciousness qua an experiencing cannot stand in relation to anything properly ontological: it is, to borrow William James’ point in The Varieties of Religious Experience, nothing more than a “bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion.”  This relation has no object oriented-ness to it that exists between ego(?), for lack of a better term, and the empty place that would occupy the object to which consciousness is directed.  Anyone who has closely followed Corey’s videos will have jump to the fore the thought that the subject-object divide is precisely what is at issue.  Corey comes to this, but does not get into grappling with it.  The point must be confronted —and shall be, in a moment.  What must be acknowledged is that the experiencing-something-as is what makes the subject-object chasm so important, and it is what makes this discussion of priority a correlationist/anti-correlationist debate —a debate between the post-Kantian position and anti-correlationism, largely, though not entirely, represented by the speculative turn in philosophy.  The circularity of priority between being and knowledge is precisely what must be fully appreciated before any judgment can be made, or at least before further inquiry may be pursued.  This is what makes it so surprising that, to the best of my recollection, Corey never mentions metaphysics.[8]  If being and knowledge are mutually scaffolded, such that one holds up the other and vice versa, claiming priority of being over knowledge is to adopt a metaphysics.  More, claiming that knowledge is prior to being is as much a metaphysical commitment (not an ontological commitment) as claiming that being is prior to knowledge.  I think an example would best serve us, here.

The question, assertion, and answer set forth by both Corey and (by agreement) Chad is, to paraphrase, “does the non-organic have an epistemology?  If not, then ontology is prior to epistemology,” to which they (Corey implicitly, Chad by agreement) answer rhetorically, ‘I think we are going to grant there were no epistemologies in the inorganic realm, right?’  Within the context of knowledge, one acknowledges that there is something referred to as the “inorganic,” but does this “inorganic” exist out there, in the world?  Certainly, if there is a subject-object divide, there seems to be no way to know.  The commitment to the notion that the inorganic exists external to thought (and knowledge) is simply metaphysics, unless the subject-object chasm is eliminated, subject and object fused.  Corey has already made the point well enough, but I will reiterate it in the context of the present discussion: the commitment to the notion that the inorganic doesn’t exist external to knowledge (and thought) is simply metaphysics —a metaphysical commitment, not an ontological one.[9]  I threw in “thought,” there, for a reason.  The resolution that the anti-correlationist must overcome the subject-object divide by answering the question: “How does thought get outside itself.”[10]  By this, I mean that thought is something that, in the post-Cartesian intellectual tradition, defines the subject as a subject.  For example, one would have to give some sort of exposition, probably rather lengthy, on what it means for thought instigate the subject-object divide.

To be continued…

Click HERE to continue reading.

[1] One might contend that another way to state this is that epistemology is prior to ontology, but the way I will look at it is from a much more neutral lens, that they are entangled.  A much more provocative epistemology-first argument might be rhetoricized from what I will say.

[2] I feel it far too complicated to properly fit into this blog, but the issue of which preceded, context or knowledge, has been beautifully discussed by Adrian Johnston.  (see: Johnston, Adrian. “The Genesis of the Transcendent: Kant, Schelling, and the Ground of Experience.” Idealistic Studies 33, no. 1 (2003): 57-81.)  Johnston explains that the difficulty of grounding experience, which resides is, essentially, the crux of the rationalist-empiricist debate, is what motivates Kant’s invocation of the transcendental.  I will refer the reader, as Adrian does, to Kant’s anthropological works and the Schellingian responses to Kant.

[3] Of course, we are temporarily dismissing Fodor’s work.

[4] Corey touches upon this, noting that, aside from varying ontological statuses of dream pains and waking pains, both of these are nonetheless real.

[5] While I am not going to go into this, in this post, there is some potential to Chad’s suggestion that aesthetics possesses some priority simpliciter; but I think the cognitive approach to aesthetics that Chad takes undermines this, because it places raw feels as seemingly consequent epiphenomena.

[6] In particular, see Hanson’s Patterns of Discover or, for a shorter exposition, there are numerous articles in anthologies and journals on “observation.”  For an in-practice picture of theory-ladenness, take a look at The Concept of the Positron.

[7] Hanson’s philosophical development augments the dictum of Wittgenstein, ‘What I see has not changed, yet I see it differently’ (see Philosophical Investigations).

[8] Numerous philosophers have been responsible for literature seeking to subvert the subject-object chasm, a.k.a. correlationism, a.k.a. the Copernican counterrevolution.  Of this body of literature, I will note Bruno Latour’s.

[9] The best way to think about what it is that constitutes a metaphysics (and, by extension, a metaphysical commitment), rather than an ontology (and, by extension, an ontological commitment), is to think of it as Jan Faye does, in his article in the volume The Disunity of Science, edited by Faye and Agazzi: metaphysics is the realm of wholly the wholly underdetermined.  The lack of standards to establish the priority of being over knowledge, and vice versa, relegates commitments, one way or the other, to the realm of metaphysics.

[10] I thank my long-time mentor, Steven Gans, for posing this question to me, as formulated, bringing such clarity to what must be done and what is at stake via a single sentence.

1 Comment

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

One response to “The Subject-Object Divide, Corey Anton, and on the Priority Debate between Being and Knowing (Part 1)

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

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