Brassier Paper

July 2, 2009

So here’s the paper I presented to Queen Mary University’s recent Immanence and Materialism conference. (A number of papers are also available on the University website.) At the event itself I also got the chance to speak about Brassier’s hypostatisation of Capital as Thought-Thing. But that stuff’s not written up, so below is just the philosophical critique.  Comments are of course welcome.

[NB:  I should also add that I wouldn’t have been able to write this paper without the resources and translations made available and produced by the folks at the Speculative Heresy site (notably Taylor Adkins’ translation of Laruelle’ Dictionary of Non-Philosophy) – Speculative Heresy is certainly the place to go online if you’re interested in speculative realist / non-philosophy stuff.]

 

Two Ontologies of Materialism: From Non-Philosophy to Non Philosophy

Ray Brassier is one of the more notable English-language figures associated with the contemporary philosophical movement often referred to under the apparently oxymoronic name ‘Speculative Realism’. His 2007 book Nihil Unbound, like his 2001 doctoral thesis, Alien Theory, attempts a startlingly counter-intuitive philosophical synthesis – combining some of the more extreme scientistic claims of modern analytic philosophy – specifically the neurophysiologically-oriented ‘elmininative materialism’ of Paul and Patricia Churchland – with some of the bolder metaphysical or post-metaphysical claims of modern continental theory. My argument in this paper is that the apparently paradoxical nature of this project is more than apparent – that there is indeed a fundamental incompatibility between the ‘speculative’ theorising that Brassier’s work appropriates and the empirical results or claims not just of scientific practice, but of numerous other empirically-oriented endeavours. This incompatibility is connected, I will argue, to a metaphysical incoherence at the heart of Brassier’s attempt to speculatively think a radically immanent materialism.

Nihil Unbound takes as its starting point a set of scientific facts – chief among which is the fact of final human extinction. Science is generating “an ever-increasing number of ‘descendent’ statements [as opposed to Meillassoux’s ‘ancestral’ statements], such as that the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda galaxy in 3 billion years; that the earth will be incinerated by the sun 4 billions years hence; that all the stars in the universe will stop shining in 100 trillion years; and that eventually, one trillion, trillion, trillion years from now, all matter in the cosmos will disintegrate into unbound elementary particles.” (Brassier, 2007: 49-50) Such truths, Brassier believes, violate “the basic conditions of conceptual intelligibility stipulated by post-Kantian philosophy.” (50)

In this characterisation of post-Kantian philosophy, Brassier is drawing on Quentin Meillassoux’s critique of ‘correlationism’. In After Finitude Meillassoux aims to contest what he sees as an all but invariant feature of post-Kantian thought – the position that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” (Meillassoux, 2008: 5) In contrast to this ‘correlationism’, Meillassoux aims to reassert the possibility of thought’s contact with the in-itself as absolute. “[W]hat is at stake [in Meillasoux’s project]… is the nature of thought’s relation to the absolute.” (1) But where Meillassoux, redeploying Badiou, believes that mathematics as ontology permits some form of relation to a non-conceptually constituted reality, Brassier argues that the intellectual intuition Meillassoux relies on for his ontological claims reinstates the correlationist paradigm at the heart of his would-be speculative materialism.

For Brassier, a more radical theoretical manoeuvre is required in order to escape the correlationist paradigm, and this manoeuvre is, he believes, to be found in the ‘non-philosophical’ thought of Francois Laruelle. There are, however, two crucial areas in which Brassier – at least in Nihil Unbound – is critical of Laruelle, and before discussing his appropriation of non-philosophy I want to briefly summarise these differences.

In the first place: Brassier criticises Laruelle’s attempt to homogenise all past and future philosophy into the single fundamental paradigm Laruelle calls philosophical Decision. Laruelle privileges the Kantian problematic as the structure that underlies all philosophical thought – in Brassier’s words: “every philosophical Decision recapitulates the formal structure of a transcendental deduction… [the transcendental method] represents a methodological invariant for philosophy both before and after Kant.” (2007: 123; 2001: 120) For Brassier this is a “gratuitous assumption”: “Laruelle can simple drop the exorbitant claim that his account of decision is a description of philosophy tout court” (2007: 134) – rather, it is an account of ‘correlationism’.

In the second place Brassier condemns Laruelle’s insistence on identifying the Real as One or Vision-in-One or One-in-One (in Laruelle’s terms) with the apparently newly discovered transcendental subject Laruelle calls ‘Man’. This identification, Brassier argues, not only reinstates anthropocentrism – it does so in a manner hard to distinguish from solipsism.

With these criticisms borne in mind, Brassier believes that Laruelle’s account of philosophy as Decision can be used to extend and fully realise Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism. The first step in this critique is the analysis of correlationism as Decision – i.e. as a philosophical structure characterised by the following three features:

1) In the first place a conditioned datum – for example experience – which is ‘given’ to philosophical subjectivity, apparently from outside it.

2) In the second place, this datum’s condition as a priori factum – for example, in the Kantian paradigm that Laruelle privileges, the categories as transcendental conditions of experience.

3) Finally, a synthetic unity wherein condition and conditioned are conjoined, which is in turn the condition of possibility of the contact between, and reciprocal relation of, datum and factum, transcendental and empirical. This is the transcendental binding of transcendental and empirical – the transcendental condition of transcendental thought, as radical immanence.

Now within this structure of transcendental deduction, the concept of immanence plays a double role. As Brassier puts it: “a philosophical Decision is a Dyad of immanence and transcendence, but one wherein immanence features twice, its internal structure subdivided between an empirical and a transcendental function.” (2001:115-116) Which is to say: the empirical object is immanent to the plane of the empirical subject, which plane is both transcended and constituted by the transcendental subject. Yet both transcendental subject as location of a priori factum and empirical object as givena posteriori datum must themselves be immanent to a more general synthetic activity or plane which enables the relation of datum and factum, of transcendental and empirical. It is this third moment or level – the larger immanence of immanence and transcendence – which forms the focus of non-philosophical enquiry.

Brassier’s non-philosophical critique of correlationism takes this immanent plane as its starting point. The correlationist error, Brassier believes, is in the identification of the production of the overarching plane of immanence with the constituting activity of the transcendental subject. Transcendental immanence – radical immanence – while necessarily posited by transcendental thought as one of its conditions of possibility, is, in this very positing, tied to the transcendental subject as one of the aspects of its empirical-world-constituting activity. Any philosophical attempt to think radical immanence thereby covertly renders immanence transcendent.

For Brassier, then, it is essential to think the overarching plane of immanence in a way that does not tie its existence to the act of thinking. This necessity is realised – or revealed as already-realised – in the non-philosophical move of unilateralisation. In Brassier’s words: 

“the ‘perspective’ of radical immanence (the vision-in-One) is already-given-without-givenness, prior to every auto-positional or auto-donational hybridisation of given and givenness, empirical and a priori, real and ideal.” (2001: 129) And: the “effectuation of immanence’s foreclosure to Decision in non-Decisional thought [i.e. non-philosophical thought], or Decision’s determination-in-the-last-instance through the non-Decisional effectuation of immanence in thought, is what Laruelle calls ‘cloning'” (130).

Given-without-givenness therefore guarantees the radically immanent Real’s non-constitution by the transcendental subject, while the non-philosophical operation of ‘cloning’ guarantees non-philosophical thought’s lack of complicity in philosophical Decision.

We have here, then, two apparent unilateral relations – non-philosophy’s unilateral separation of itself from philosophy mirrors the Real’s unilateral determination of thought. And this poses a question: what is the relation between the non-philosophical subject and the Real of radical immanence? And: how, for Brassier, can this relation be understood in a way that does not reinstall philosophical or correlationist reciprocity? For Laruelle, and for Brassier, even a relation philosophically understood as unilateral is always in danger of being reconstituted as reciprocal in the transcendental subject’s positing of unilaterality.

So: what is the relation between non-philosophical thought and the Real?

I want to suggest that there are three basic answers to this question in the non-philosophical corpus – in Laruelle and Brassier’s work – and that they are all very problematic.

In the first place one can simply posit the identity of the Real with non-philosophical thought. And this is what Laruelle does when he identifies the One or Vision-in-One or One-in-One as Real with Man. “Man is precisely the Real foreclosed to philosophy”. (Laruelle, 2009: 30) And of course Brassier rejects this as anthropocentric and solipsistic.

In the second place, and this is the move that Brassier apparently endorses in Alien Theory, one can posit a relation between non-philosophical thought and the real that is unmediated by the philosophical Dyad of immanence and transcendence. This cannot be a form of intellectual intuition – for the reasons articulated by Brassier in his critique of Meillassoux – and it also cannot be any form of empirical relation, since the empirical, within this transcendental schema, is understood as constituted by the transcendental subject. So, in Brassier’s words, an object encountered from the perspective of a non-philosophical subject “will only become manifest according to the strictures of a non-empirical, non-intuitive, or theoretically determined phenomenality, as opposed to those of consciousness, sensibility, or being-in-the world.” (2001: 167)

Now these are extremely stringent restrictions on our understanding of the relation between non-philosophical thought and the Real. Indeed these restrictions are so stringent that, in my opinion, it is hard to see how this relation could be understood as anything other than mystical. And, in fact, both Laruelle and Brassier will explicitly describe our knowledge of the Real in mystical terms – specifically in terms of gnosticism. Laruelle writes: “the gnosis of ‘matter‘, the otherwise-than-materialist gnosis of the dispersive real, must be sought beyond materialism and the hyle.” (2001: 39) Or, elsewhere: “it is not a question of a secularization – still rational and transcendent – of an extraordinary experience, but of the possibility of rendering the usage of an exceptional or superhuman experience in every ‘ordinary man’ which was supposed to be refused to him. Philosophy is this organon, this a priori form which, giving us the World, forecloses the mystical experience which intrinsically constitutes humans…“ (2009: 58) Finally Brassier: “Non-materialism reduces or suspends what Laruelle refers to as the ‘Greco-unitary’ epistemological paradigm and ascribes to it the status of an occasional material or empirical support for an an-archic or gnostic model of cognition.” (2001: 160) Attached to this remark is a footnote citing various works on historical gnosticism, including “Jonas’s classic study [Hans Jonas’ The Gnostic Religion] [which] underlines gnosticism’s profoundly anti-anthropocentric character as religion of an alien god.”

Now this gnostic “more secret knowing of matter” (Laruelle, 2001: 37; Brassier, 2001: 105, 138) is in my opinion not only intuitively inconsistent with the forms of epistemology associated with scientific practice – it is definitionally incompatible with the knowledge of the empirical phenomena that precipitated Brassier’s enquiry. A gnostic mode of cognition cannot be the mode of cognition that produces the naturalistic statements Brassier wishes to reconcile with post-Kantian philosophy. Furthermore, it is hard to see how gnosticism could possibly be compatible with the radically naturalistic – indeed eliminative materialist – standpoint that Brassier elsewhere endorses.

This may be why in Nihil Unbound Brassier does not posit the relation between non-philosophical thought and the Real as a form of gnosis. There, rather – and this is the third option – Brassier argues that the Real that is philosophy’s object is something with which we cannot have any form of relation whatsoever. For the Brassier of Nihil Unbound: “The real is less than nothing… The real is not the negation of being, since this would be to reconstitute it in opposition to something… Rather, it is immanently given as ‘being-nothing'” (2007: 137-138)

This being-nothing – which Brassier connects to Badiou’s ‘subtractive ontology’, in a way I cannot discuss here – underlies the ontological determination of both being and nothingness. And this is where Brassier’s appropriation of Laruelle connects to his discussion of the scientific fact of eventual human extinction. In the final chapter of Nihil Unbound Brassier cites “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” to make the following series of claims: “The organism cannot live the death that gives rise to the difference between life and death. The death-drive is the trace of this scission: a scission that will never be successfully bound (invested) because it remains the unbindable excess that makes binding possible.” (2007: 238) Or, in the words of Jean Laplanche, whom Brassier does not cite, but who I think puts a similar point very clearly: “The death drive is the constitutive principal, the very soul, of libidinal circulation.” (Laplanche, 1985: 124)

In other words: the non-existence of consciousness – or, more precisely, the active being-nothing that is the destruction of consciousness, whether individual consciousness or species-consciousness – is a transcendental condition of consciousness. And this being-nothing of thought must be understood as something with which we cannot have a relation – whether as an authentic or an inauthentic relation to our own death, for instance – but as something altogether foreclosed to thought. This foreclosure is necessary, for Brassier, if being-nothing as the Real it is not to be reappropriated by a philosophical transcendental consciousness as one of that consciousness’s constituting moments.

Thus Brassier writes, in the last pages of Nihil Unbound: “Extinction is real yet not empirical, since it is not of the order of experience. It is transcendental yet not ideal… In this regard, it is precisely the extinction of meaning that clears the way for the intelligibility of extinction…” (238)

~~~

There is a decisive equivocation in this articulation. On the one hand we have the empirical fact of eventual human extinction. On the other hand we have being-nothing as transcendental condition of consciousness. Brassier suggests that in philosophical or non-philosophical thought the two are bound together, identical-in-the-last-instance, being-nothing as human extinction. Yet – and this is a simple but a crucial point – the empirical fact of eventual extinction cannot be identified with being-nothing. Neither can the real as fact of human extinction be foreclosed to thought. For the question that precipitated Brassier’s enquiry was precisely how to think a world without consciousness as something. In other words, the identification of the empirical fact of the end of consciousness with being-nothing is precisely the correlationist move that Brassier aims to contest.

Now earlier in Nihil Unbound Brassier writes: “The real qua being-nothing is not an object but that which manifests the inconsistent or unobjectifiable essence of the object = X. Thus ‘objectivity’ can be redefined to index the reality which subsists independently of conditions of objectification tethered to transcendental subjectivity….” (138)

I want to suggest in conclusion that there are two ways in which this ‘redefinition’ could be understood. On the one hand, the real as being-nothing can be transcendentally distinguished from the empirical, as a traumatically unappropriable death that constitutes both thought and being. On the other hand, the real could be understood as itself empirical. For if, with Brassier, we wish to assert an immanence that abolishes the transcendental structure of ‘Decision‘, this immanence must also abolish the hierarchisation of transcendental and empirical that non-philosophy takes as its operating premise. In this scenario, the abolition of the hierarchy of transcendental and empirical is also the abolition of the requirement that in order for the Real to determine thought in the last instance, given-without-givenness must be given as a transcendental structure. The unilateral relation in question here would not be between a foreclosed real and a new form of transcendental subject, but simply between the empirically observable real and an empirically existent subject or subjects.

In short, I suggest, the radical immanence that can resolve the tensions of Brassier’s project is nothing more or less than our empirical, material immanence to the empirical, material environment we all already inhabit. Of course, such an immanent materialism would be not non-philosophical, but non philosophical.

 

Works Cited

Brassier, Ray, 2001, Alien Theory: The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter, Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy, University of Warwick, Department of Philosophy, April 2001. http://www.cinestatic.com/trans-mat/Brassier/ALIENTHEORY.pdf [Accessed 28th June 2009]
Brassier, Ray, 2007, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jonas, 1991, The Gnostic Religion: The message of the alien god and the beginnings of Christianity, second edition, Boston: Beacon Press.
Laplanche, Jean, 1985 (1970), Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Laruelle, Francois, 2009 (1998), Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, trans. Taylor Adkins. http://nsrnicek.googlepages.com/DictionaryNonPhilosophy.pdf [Accessed 28th June 2009]
Laruelle, Francois, 2001 (1981), ‘The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter’, trans. Ray Brassier, in Pli, 12, pp. 33-40.
Mackay, Robin, ed. 2007, Collapse, Volume III, Falmouth: Athenaeum Press.
Meillassoux, Quentin, 2008 (2006), After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, London: Continuum.

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23 Responses to “Brassier Paper”

  1. Nick Srnicek Says:

    Hi Duncan,

    Really interesting stuff. I don’t know that I have the answer to your question about the relation between the real and the non-philosophical subject, but I think there’s another option. I wrote an essay recently on the non-phi subject, where I said:

    “The real foreclosure of the Real to Decision is cloned as a non-philosophical transcendental thought foreclosed to Decision. These two foreclosures are themselves Identical-in-the-last-instance, yet the Real itself is foreclosed to the clone (i.e. non-philosophical thought). We must be careful to distinguish then, between the Real foreclosure of radical immanence and the transcendental foreclosure of non-philosophical thought. This non-philosophical thinking, in the end, simply is the “unilateral duality” established between the Real qua determining force and Decision qua determinable material. It is the “force-(of)-thought” or the “organon” as the determining instance through which the philosophical material has its pretensions to absolute autonomy suspended by being taken as material determined-in-the-last instance by the Real. Or, to put it in other words, non-philosophical thought doubles the separation ‘between’ immanence and philosophy with a transcendental unilateral duality ‘between’ the force-(of)-thought and the specific philosophical material in question.”

    So the idea of the subject as the determining organon for philosophy seems to be a different option from the ones you cite. Whether that changes your thoughts on it, I’m not sure?

    But the more important issue, I think, is the tension you note between the empirical claims of extinction and the identification of the real with a being-nothing. I do know that Brassier is working on a book that attempts to resuscitate the concept of scientific representation, and that he intends on taking on the epistemological issues. So I think a better answer from him is forthcoming. But I think there’s also a distinction to be drawn between the always contestable empirical claims (maybe we’ll discover we have souls and will never really go extinct), and the philosophical claim that the real is being-nothing. The latter acts, as you say, as the transcendental conditions for thought. But the former is more akin to being a temporary and contestable phenomenal piece of evidence for what ‘being-nothing’ might mean for-us. I’d have to think about it more, but I think the logic here would be similar to Lacan, where an object covers over the very hole in being. But with his scientism, Brassier certainly wants to retain the progressive nature of science, so it’ll be really interesting to see how he manages that – i.e. how could we progressively approximate being-nothing?

    Cheers,
    -Nick

  2. duncan Says:

    Hey Nick, thanks. Is your article on the non-philosophical subject the one in the recent Pli? I wanted to read that, but I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy of the thing. You don’t happen to know if any London library has it, do you?

    Okay – this only addresses bits of your comment, much more to say, but I’ll have to come online again later for the rest.

    On the second bit of your comment, then, (the tension between empirical knowledge & transcendental ‘being-nothing’) a couple things.

    1) “I do know that Brassier is working on a book that attempts to resuscitate the concept of scientific representation, and that he intends on taking on the epistemological issues.” It’s possible that there’s something technical meant here? But on the face of it, and to my mind, the concept of scientific representation really doesn’t need resuscitation. It’s pretty prevalent – indeed dominant. It’s used a lot. There are various debates related to the philosophy (and sociology) of science about how exactly scientific knowledge works; but the idea that the concept of scientific representation per se requires resuscitation strikes me as sorta bizarre.

    I mean, I think what’s going on here is that Brassier is coming out of a philosophical space – a Heidegger-inflected phenomenological space [with seasoning of Delezue (and plenty of other folk)] – that has tended to have a somewhat eccentric take on the status of scientific truth claims. [In the paper above I pretty much go along with the ‘correlationism’ thing – although personally I’m not at all convinced that ‘correlationism’ (or ‘Decision’) is the best concept to pick out even the major figures in the tradition Brassier’s reacting against. (I thought Tom Grundlegung’s posts on the short argument and so on were really good in terms of clarifying the over-simplifying/reductionist nature of the characterisation / critique of ‘correlationism’).] From a certain phenomenological space the truth-value of science-claims is going to look problematic. But basically this is a problem with this theoretical tradition (or aspects of this theoretical tradition). It’s not a general problem that requires a radically new (non-)philosophical perspective to sort out. Plenty of philosophers – including but in no way restricted to whole damn legions of analytic philosophers – are more than capable of talking about science and empirical stuff in a perfectly sensible way. And that’s just the philosophers – outside this disciplinary space ‘correlationism’ is so massively not a problem that one would probably have a hard time convincing folk it’s even worth talking about.

    To my mind Brassier has theoretical commitments to a particular style of basically phenomenological argument – a particular style of transcendental argument; he’s correctly noted that this is incompatible with certain empirical truths and practices; and is taking this as a troubling paradox rather than a reason to drop the phenomenological/transcendental commitments [and indeed he’s taking those commitments as shared by almost the whole philosophical community since Kant, which they’re really not… obviously I don’t go into any of this in my paper]. The last few paragraphs of the paper were aiming to gesture towards the fact that (to my mind) even on Brassier’s own premises these commitments sort of fall apart in your hands: if you’re after radical immanence there’s simply no reason – indeed I take it to be inconsistent – to retain the hierarchisation of transcendental and empirical that’s the core of this sort of argument. I’ll say more about that after, possibly. But…

    2) “I think there’s also a distinction to be drawn between the always contestable empirical claims (maybe we’ll discover we have souls and will never really go extinct), and the philosophical claim that the real is being-nothing. The latter acts, as you say, as the transcendental conditions for thought. But the former is more akin to being a temporary and contestable phenomenal piece of evidence for what ‘being-nothing’ might mean for-us. I’d have to think about it more, but I think the logic here would be similar to Lacan, where an object covers over the very hole in being.”

    I agree that for Brassier it’s very important to draw this distinction between the transcendental and the empirical. And it’s surely valid to draw this distinction in a limited way – the contrast between constituting and constituted can be useful. My case, however, is that 1) this distinction is, in fact, philosophically speaking, at best unhelpful and at worst incoherent, if it’s used in anything like the way that Brassier uses it; and 2) this distinction (used in Brassier’s manner) is in fact the source of the ‘paradoxes’ produced by scientific statements. Brassier’s apparatus in fact only makes sense if the empirical really is constituted by a transcendental subject – if the empirical is, basically, transcendentally ideal in a strong sense. That’s his difficulty w/r/t scientific claims. And of course he’s going to have immense problems validating or resuscitating scientific or empirical results if this is his starting point.

    We’ve got (in our non-philosophical schema) empirical claims (eye-colour of loved one; heat death of sun) which can be empirically known via science, or just via ordinary perception, etc. And we have (if we wish) a ‘naturalised’ epistemology that can give us an account of how we attain this knowledge, or conviction. Then we’ve got ‘philosophical’ claims (or non-philosophical claims) – claims that are about not the empirical but the transcendental – claims that are transcendental. E.g. being-nothing as Real is a transcendental condition of consciousness.

    It’s an obvious and sort of crude question – but what is the status of these sorts of claims? In the first place (and perhaps less significantly) what is the ‘ontological’ status of the transcendental versus the empirical [and yeah, it’s hardly as if there’s a short bibliography on that topic; and I understand there are category issues w/r/t what counts as ontological] – but in the second place and probably more centrally – what is the epistemological status of these kinds of proposals? What’s the process via which such statements are produced or justified? How does one, say, get to know about these transcendental truths as transcendental?

    So Brassier says: The Real is being-nothing. How does he know? Gnosticism? Introspection? His arguments (as I hope I’ve shown) seem pretty problematic. So why should we take this claim seriously? Especially when we have a whole naturalistic world-view, which Brassier apparently wants to validate, that’s more than capable of giving a credible account of both empirically real stuff and the nature of our knowledge of empirically real stuff, without bringing in transcendental (and therefore [in Brassier’s framework] definitionally non-empirical) claims or entities. (or radical transcendental immanences, or whatever).

    I mean – so thought is determined by the Real? Sure it is – we experience real stuff, and we experience it in the manner of the real stuff that we are: physical creatures with certain biological and social characteristics productive of consciousness, forms of consciousness, norms of enquiry and all the rest. Why do we need a radically foreclosed transcendental Real (as Vision-in-One or anything else) to have an account of this?

    Should probably say more on that as well… possibly will later… and want to address more stuff in your comment. But have to go for now. Thanks…

  3. Nick Srnicek Says:

    Thanks for the reply – I’m going to need to go back and re-read parts of Nihil Unbound to remember exactly what’s said there. But I’m working on a number of these issues at the moment anyways, so I’m really happy to have this discussion.

    For your first comment – on whether representation needs recuscitation – you’re right about its dominance in analytic philosophy. I think (and I certainly don’t claim to speak for Brassier himself!) that he wants to rejuvenate (perhaps a better word than resuscitate, which suggests its death) representation from two alternative views. One, the non- or anti-representationalism of most continental work (Deleuze and Derrida and Nietzsche, among others). And two, the anti-eliminativist analytics. If some version of eliminativism is right, then representation is radically different from our intuitive notions of it, and thus the project of science and empirical claims needs to be re-thought.

    As for your other claims, I’ll have to think about it for a bit – but like I said, I’m working through the relations between non-phi and epistemology myself right now, so I’m interested in it all. Let me just comment on this though:

    “we have a whole naturalistic world-view, which Brassier apparently wants to validate, that’s more than capable of giving a credible account of both empirically real stuff and the nature of our knowledge of empirically real stuff, without bringing in transcendental (and therefore [in Brassier’s framework] definitionally non-empirical) claims or entities.”

    My own inclination here (i.e. not extracting this from Brassier), is that science is ultimately incapable of grounding itself in any sufficient way. I’ve tried to show elsewhere that neuroscience in particular runs into paradoxes when it tries to conceptualize its own possibility. It takes empiricism as the grounds for its claims, but its claims end up undermining any validity for empiricism (since normal spatio-temporal relations appears to be products of our brain rather than features of the world). So if there is internal paradoxes to science, we seem to be led to the idea that something else is required in order to sort out these inconsistencies – namely philosophy (or rather, non-phi). That’s a rather hasty argument, but I think you can get a sense of the logic that might lead to going beyond science.

    And yes, the quote was from my essay in Pli. I don’t know whether it’s in any London libraries, but email me at nsrnicek[at]hotmail[dot]com and I’ll gladly send you a copy!

  4. duncan Says:

    Thanks Nick. I’d be really interested to read your essay – you can contact me at praxisblog [at] gmail [dot] com – although you know the sort of perspective I’m coming from, so it’s more than likely there’ll be stuff I disagree with! The problem for now is that I’ve already got too much I want to say. I think I’ll throw out some things and maybe circle back round and expand or add when I have more time. Leaving the rest of your first comment hanging for the moment then…

    I’m not totally clear I’ve got a handle on how you’re using ‘representation’? I wouldn’t myself characterise Derrida as anti-representationalist, for instance? [I’d be more inclined to say that he has a fairly ‘orthodox’ theory of meaning at the heart of his discussion of signification (Husserl, I guess, with bits of Saussure & stuff) – but that he expands its scope (and changes its emphases) to such an extent that it produces highly counter-intuitive results?] This may be because I’m understanding the term differently, though. (And you may disagree re: Derrida.) In the analytic space – and it may be that the debates have moved on since I studied in it – discussion often seemed / seems to me to revolve around correspondence versus coherence theories? I’m not sure what concept(s) of representation Brassier would be contesting there? [as in, I’m just unsure – I don’t have a good enough sense of how he locates himself in that space, except w/r/t eliminativism.] [My sense is that he’s massively backpedalled from his Alien Theory position w/r/t Quine – I suspect the Brassier of Nihil Unbound wouldn’t be proposing a gnostic knowledge of an unindividuated non-rabbit – though it’s possible that that idea’s still lurking. [more on that eventually below.]]

    On this, though: “If some version of eliminativism is right, then representation is radically different from our intuitive notions of it, and thus the project of science and empirical claims needs to be re-thought.” My strong inclination is to say that some version of eliminativism isn’t right. Within the analytic space, I’m much more sympathetic to ‘extended mind’ theories. [Though I think the name’s dramatically ill-chosen. If this is how ‘mind’ should be understood, it isn’t really ‘extended’ – it’s just mind. :-P] There’s a weird sort of ‘dualism’ associated with a lot of the neurosciency philosophy – where mind is taken to be (more or less) an emergent property of physical or biological existence (a position I agree with) – but where there’s also an intense desire to limit what matter gets to count as contributing to the emergence of consciousness. Like – no one much (in this sort of space) doubts that consciousness is a product or aspect of human physical existence – but humans are creatures who only exist in their environment, who only evolve and change through interactions with it, with other creatures, with stuff to eat and love and hang out with – it strikes me that the things with which we interact can’t be separated from the things which we are, in our discussion of what makes thought and feeling – and that once you’ve included all this stuff in your reckoning, you’ve also included a lot of stuff that lies well outside the bounds of neuroscience.

    [If I remember right, Paul Churchland has actually retracted a number of the more extreme claims of his early eliminativism – saying that he’d taken insufficient account of the importance of social factors. That’s absolutely right, of course – but it’s unfortunate that Brassier has picked up on the more extreme aspects of eliminativism without discussing or (apparently) reckoning with the way in which at least some eliminativists have moderated their positions in response to other analytic philosophy of mind critiques. Anyhow]

    This – the ‘dualism’ of a lot of neurosciency-oriented philosophy, versus more ‘extended mind’-oriented theories – is I guess why I’m untroubled by the problems neuroscience runs into trying to ‘ground’ itself. [I’m not sure I’ve read your all of your stuff on this though? Is it all on the blog?] Neuroscience itself of course doesn’t try to ground itself – it’s just a scientific discipline like any other with a particular object. But plenty of neuroscientists & (especially) philosophers of neuroscience have a sense that because neuroscience is (apparently) the science of consciousness, and because consciousness is the tool or medium by means of which (or as which) we engage in neuroscientific analysis, neuroscience is ‘reflexive’ in a way that both makes it sort of special as a scientific discipline, and that should, in principle, allow it to account for its own conditions of possibility in a sort of ‘self-grounding’ circular movement. I think that’s wrong – I don’t think that neuroscience’s object is nearly extensive enough to provide those kind of resources. And I think that because the object of neuroscience isn’t extensive enough to do this work, philosophy of neuroscience tends to tie itself in knots when it tries to produce an unbroken circle of analysis, moving between neuroscientific analyses of mind on the one hand, and philosophical or meta-scientific accounts of the nature of those analyses on the other.

    One of those knots is the whole eliminativist folk-psychology thing, which I also (no surprise 🙂 ) regard as problematic. This is a whole other topic for another day, probably – like, I have various objections. But w/r/t Brassier: it seems to me that there’s a really strong affective drive towards another sort of ‘dualism’, a more ’classical’ dualism – not the brain matter as opposed to other matter deal, but rather a distaste for the flaws of physical existence that taps in very cleanly to a really large tradition working from the idea of the degradation of flesh.

    [Hmm. Okay. Somewhat schematically:]

    Like a lot of stuff in Brassier, the way in which this [the degradation of the flesh dualism] manifests changes dramatically between Alien Theory and Nihil Unbound, I think. So in Alien Theory you have on the one hand folk psychology – with its desiring, its willing, its believing. [its loving, longing, hating, needing, fearing.] Then on the other hand you have a properly ‘theoretical’ perspective – the perspective of the Alien Subject, the stranger subject, which is wholly inhuman, but which flawed human consciousness (flawed in its reliance on empirical experience, but also in its identity with fleshy physical matter, which identity limits human consciousness, making it finite and unreliable – why would evolution, in its contingency, give us knowledge of the absolute?) can tap into, via a mystical or gnostic form of consciousness ‘beyond consciousness‘. Gnostic consciousness unmediated by empirical human consciousness gives one access to a new inhuman subjectivity, whose mode of consciousness abolishes individuation.

    This is quite a classic theme – a theological theme – and Brassier’s aware of this – he knows what he’s doing (c.f. that footnote on historical gnosticism and Jonas and the (existentialism inflected) religion of an Alien God). The mode of cognition Brassier posits as possessed by the Alien Subject is a divine mode of cognition – a non-finite mode. And like in Plotinus or whatever, we can in principle attain some identity with this perspective, some limited merging with it, since this Alien / Divine subject is our origin: we are identical with it in the last instance, although we do not know this (without theoretical or theological or mystical explanation / revelation) because as individuated finite beings we are severed from its absolute existence while also being aspects of it,

    In Nihil Unbound all this is gone: no gnosticism, no Alien Subject, no God. Brassier’s lost his (Alien) God, but kept his (Laruellean) categories, as it were. And when you believe in God, and believe in the necessity of God (for meaning, for value); and stop believing in God, and keep believing in the necessity of God (for meaning, for value), what you get is: nihilism.

    So in Nihil Unbound you’ve still got the contrast between fleshy fallen folk-psychological consciousness (with its desires and beliefs, etc.) and another form of consciousness or existence that would not be subject to these pains and pleasures – except that the other form of consciousness is absent: the Real that was Alien-Subject-as-divine-intelligence is missing except as nothingness, as being-nothing: there is no God, there is only extinction. And this extinction still has to play the role of Alien God, still has to be the ultimate reality, the absolute, of which we are mere aspects, to which we will ultimately be reduced, from which our own thought derives. More real than the empirical real: the empirical as epiphenomenal. So we are all already dead – just as (in the original Laruellean schema) we are already Real: now extinction is “the mystical experience that constitutes the human.”

    Hmm. I’m straying a bit from any relation to your comment, here, now. 🙂 Guess I’ll call it a night and circle back round another day…

  5. Nick Srnicek Says:

    Hi Duncan,

    Let me try to more systematically approach your questions, now that I just finished re-reading the last chapter of NU. I admit the first time I read through it (about a year ago), it was a bit overwhelming, but it was a much easier read the second time.

    “I’m not totally clear I’ve got a handle on how you’re using ‘representation’? I wouldn’t myself characterise Derrida as anti-representationalist, for instance?”

    For Derrida I meant more or less the idea that what we might standardly call ‘a’ representation is itself an effect of a differential (differantial?) field. In this sense, it’s anti-representationalist in undermining any primacy of representation. Derrida certainly believes that meaning and representation and such exist, but they’re more or less derivative effects of something deeper. The same, I would say, goes for Deleuze. That being said, you can maybe get a better sense of what Brassier is aiming at from this page:

    http://www.mdx.ac.uk/www/CRMEP/STAFF/RayBrassier.HTM

    “My strong inclination is to say that some version of eliminativism isn’t right. Within the analytic space, I’m much more sympathetic to ‘extended mind’ theories.”

    I think this may just be a basic differend of your positions then (and I myself keep leaning more towards some form of eliminativism). Brassier does take it that eliminativism is basically right. But I’m really curious, because I’ve done some reading on critiques of eliminativism, but they tend to come across as really weak – some of them even appear to suggest that eliminativism is wrong simply because it’s such a terrible prospect for our self-conceptions! While that claim might have some affective sway, it’s certainly not a reason to reject the arguments of eliminativism. So I was wondering if maybe you knew of any good resources for critiques of eliminativism? Or maybe you have some of your own reasons for not believing in it?

    That all being said, I do find the extended mind hypothesis really interesting (from the little I know of it). It also doesn’t seem, a priori, incompatible with a verson of eliminativism – insofar as we could see, for example, our immediate surroundings as an informational network inseparable from our bodies and brains. We could still keep insights from Metzinger and the Churchlands, without having to say it’s only the brain that contributes to the appearance of phenomenal experience. In the same way – i.e. through informational environments – it seems to me that we can begin to take into account social factors too, so I’m not convinced that’s a major point against eliminativism. From what I’ve heard, Metzinger talks about this stuff in his latest book too (‘Ego Tunnel’).

    “This – the ‘dualism’ of a lot of neurosciency-oriented philosophy, versus more ‘extended mind’-oriented theories – is I guess why I’m untroubled by the problems neuroscience runs into trying to ‘ground’ itself. [I’m not sure I’ve read your all of your stuff on this though? Is it all on the blog?]”

    It sorts of hard to see links on here, so I’m not sure if you saw my link I posted earlier or not – but I’d written a very short piece on the problems Metzinger runs into when trying to simultaneously assert that he’s a realist and that neuroscience gives us real knowledge of the brain.

    http://speculativeheresy.wordpress.com/2008/11/26/the-semantic-apocalypse/ (it’s the second essay in the list)

    I think you already see what I’m getting at though, so you can easily skip that essay. But I’m not sure I follow why you are untroubled by the attempts to ground neuroscience (at least from that short sentence quoted above). But later on you say:

    “I don’t think that neuroscience’s object is nearly extensive enough to provide those kind of resources [to ground itself]. And I think that because the object of neuroscience isn’t extensive enough to do this work, philosophy of neuroscience tends to tie itself in knots when it tries to produce an unbroken circle of analysis”

    Which suggests that you do think it’s a problem, but you don’t think present neuroscience can answer it. So maybe you could clarify a bit? I ask, as well, because I’m interested in this problem too – it seems to (potentially) put drastic limits not only on neuroscience, but all scientific ventures.

    Really interesting comments about the dualism you see in Brassier. I think there’s something to be said for it – although to play Devil’s advocate, I don’t think he eliminates suffering as cleanly as you suggest. The Nietzsche part of the last chapter gets into the issue of suffering and never appears to suggest that it is eliminated or anything. If anything, as always already determined beings, suffering is that much worse for us being passive products of it. But I can also see that sort of dualism operating in cog-sci though, with its predilection for computational models over neuroscientific flesh.

    I really like the pointing out of how this ‘Alien-God’ gets shifted into the being-nothing of extinction. And the issue of gnosticism in Laruelle and non-phi is fascinating to me too. There’s an interview with Derrida where, at one point, Laruelle just bluntly states something like “You have to start from the Real, otherwise you’ll never get there.” Which suggests that one either acknowledges a faith in that knowledge of the Real or not. Which also reminds me of an interesting point Brassier makes early in NU – where he speaks of a speculative decision of whether the non-manifest aspects of phenomenal consciousness are ineffable transcendences, or whether they can be tackled from a third-person object-ive perspective. He chooses the latter, of course, but the same speculative decision – I think – can be made for admitting whether we are in the Real or not. If we are, then the consequences of non-phi follow through. If not, then we’re stuck in phenomenology. My sense is that in many ways, Brassier’s work is – at least partly – a philosophy for the future. Meaning that present neuroscience isn’t developed enough to fully overthrow our FP self-conceptions; but if trends continue, it’s more and more likely that we’re going to have to radically re-conceive ourselves in the future. Which means acknowledging a real but not empirical, and transcendental but not ideal outside that functions as the condition for thought.

    So returning to that question, when you say (in your original post):

    “For if, with Brassier, we wish to assert an immanence that abolishes the transcendental structure of ‘Decision‘, this immanence must also abolish the hierarchisation of transcendental and empirical that non-philosophy takes as its operating premise.”

    I wonder whether Brassier needs to remove the transcendental/empirical structure? In particular, I think the problem with Decision is more a matter of tying these two together into what he calls a ‘hybrid’ in AT. The structure itself is necessary if we’re not to take experience simply as fully present and given. But Decision problematically ties them together so that they reciprocally constitute each other – with each justifying the other. Which is why unilateralization becomes important since it’s a relation that’s indifferent or foreclosed to its empirical products.

    A related question, when you write:

    “we have a whole naturalistic world-view, which Brassier apparently wants to validate, that’s more than capable of giving a credible account of both empirically real stuff and the nature of our knowledge of empirically real stuff, without bringing in transcendental (and therefore [in Brassier’s framework] definitionally non-empirical) claims or entities.”

    I’m very far from being an expert on analytic philosophy, but I haven’t yet come across a particularly convincing explanation of naturalized epistemology – at least one that doesn’t beg fairly major philosophical questions. So like Brassier points out in NU, the Churchlands idea of naturalized epistemology relies on a strong metaphysical assumption about adaptation. And there’s a number of strong anti-realist arguments that say we only have access to empirical existence and our knowledge is basically pragmatic and not indicative of any absolute. Which, to me at least, ultimately leaves us no further than phenomenology – since we can’t escape our own finite perspectives, phenomenology must ultimately dscribe the grounds of experience, which science then attempts to systematically categorize without ever being able to undermine phenomenology’s ultimate priority. So what I guess I’m trying to get at is that it doesn’t seem to me that most naturalized epistemologies, or most scientific theories, are really capable of escaping even some of the basic Kantian limitations on knowledge (at least on their own). Hence the need for a philosophical theory to justify that scientific knowledge is actually indicating (in some type of relation) real existents.

    Anyways! That’s all I got for now. No need to reply quickly or anything of course; especially since we’re both busy.

    By the way, do you mind me asking what your background is? It seems as though you come from a fairly heavy analytic background, but it’s hard to explain how you would have found your way into Brassier and Laruelle from there! 🙂

  6. duncan Says:

    Thanks Nick. This is all really interesting. There’s an alarming amount I want to say in response (alarming to me, I mean – though maybe to others too :-P), and a lot of it’s sort of joined up. So I’ll probably (hopefully) put up several longish comments, and hopefully (possibly) the later ones will do something to clarify some stuff in the earlier ones. That’s the plan, anyhow. May take a while to happen…

    Might as well reply to your last question first, though: I don’t exactly come from a heavy analytic background – when I studied philosophy at university, philosophy more or less meant (for that department) analytic philosophy (plus a smattering of dead white men) – so I’ve got some familiarity with the terrain. Since then I’ve done a fair amount of reading – the bulk of it in the continental space (plus a smattering of dead white men :-P). I guess (like lots of people) I feel that the distinction between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy – while certainly not arbitrary (these are, I think, genuinely, albeit loosely, distinguishable traditions & sets of inclinations) is pretty unhelpful: I suspect there’s a lot more compatibility between the concerns of these institutional spaces than practitioners often acknowledge. (And it’ll be interesting to see whether folks like Brassier, on the continental side, or maybe McDowell (??) on the analytic side, are moves in the direction of some kind of rapprochement – or at least some exciting new form of mutual incomprehension…)

    Okay. Substantive stuff to follow eventually…

    [Oh and sorry your last comment got held in moderation. Hopefully that won’t happen again…]

  7. duncan Says:

    Right. I think I’ll try to do this more or less thematically? Starting with the eliminative materialism stuff, and hopefully working my way round, eventually, to non-philosophy.

    You wrote: “That all being said, I do find the extended mind hypothesis really interesting (from the little I know of it). It also doesn’t seem, a priori, incompatible with a verson of eliminativism…”

    Yes – I agree with this. There’s no particular reason why one couldn’t have an eliminative materialist extended mind position – there are probably lots of folks out there who do (though I’m not at all up on the literature) (& thanks for the suggestion of that Metzinger book). The way I contrasted eliminativism and extended mind stuff in the post above was pretty unclear, in that respect.

    I meant to distinguish between two different sets of issues with eliminativism. (Not that these are the only sets of issues 🙂 ) The one is the large emphasis on neurobiology (and this emphasis isn’t restricted to eliminativism, of course) – which often invloves a quite blinkered approach w/r/t the kinds of material ‘reductions’ that would be involved in an physicalist account of the emergence of meaning-phenomena. It sometimes feels like the physical stuff and processes that produce (or are identical with) meaning-phenomena are taken to end at the walls of the skull. That’s obviously not right: as Hilary Putnam says – meaning just ain’t in the head. (Ain’t altogether in the head, that is.) (And a more Wittgensteinian position would back this up, of course.)

    I’m not sure how many eliminativists would deny this, exactly (and like I say, this isn’t a problem specifically connected to eliminativism). But you can see the problems that arise from this kind of emphasis when philosophers of neuroscience start trying to justify knowledge-claims based on the resources made available my neuroscience alone. There’s a large neglect of cultural or social factors – of the fact that the norms that guide scientific enquiry (say) aren’t just naturally given (or evolved through natural selection) – but are quite historically and socially specific, have been culturally produced and reproduced, and are likely to continue to undergo some degree of transformation (not to say contestation). Of course eliminativists admit this when discussing the replacement of ‘folk psychology’ by an eliminativist scientific perspective – both are theories (it’s claimed) which can be judged on their merits. But then eliminativists tie themselves in knots trying to figure out how to characterise the nature of those merits, and judgements of merit, given that they’re basically stuck talking about the evolved features of the human brain. Brassier talks about this in Chapter One, if I remember right – at some point soon I’ll also reread that and try to provide a more detailed discussion of the issue. My point for now is just that the emphasis on neuroscience as being capable (in principle) of providing the grounds for the judgements that are used in the evaluation of truth claims is problematic not because it’s in principle problematic to provide a naturalistic or empircal account of the nature and justification of truth-judgements, but because neuroscience simply has too limited a field of investigation to provide such an account. Neuroscience isn’t exemplary of the problems ‘science’ runs into trying to ground itself – philosophy of neuroscience is exemplary of the way in which scientistic philosophers often restrict the form of naturalistic explanation they’re willing to coutnenance w/r/t some cultural or meaningful phenomenon, and then run into paradox precisely because of this restriction.

    Again, I hope I can come back to that and expand on it (though I realise I’ve been saying that a lot). But moving on for now…

    The second, only tangentially related set of issues w/r/t eliminativism is the whole folk-psychology business. Think I’ll move that into another comment… 🙂

  8. duncan Says:

    Right. So this is me running through the first bit of chapter one of Nihil Unbound – the stuff about Sellars & the manifest image and so on. This might be a bit harsh 😛 (I should emphasise that I’ve not gone and looked at the literature Brassier’s drawing on: I really should do that – but doing it sounds a bit like a fresh post, rather than a comment :-P. Anyway…)

    The contemporary philosopher is confronted by two competing ‘images’ of man in the world: on the one hand, the manifest image as he has conceived of himself up until now with the aid of philosophical reflection; on the other, the relatively recent but continually expanding scientific image of man as a ‘complex physical system’

    In the first place this ‘manifest’ versus ‘scientific’ image thing is nonsense: like there are two and only two conceptions of the human, throughout all known history – manifest image and modern science. That’s of course very silly (I’ll say more in just a sec). The claim’s purpose, though, in relation to the philosophical project of the book, is to conflate the (imagined) ‘ordinary’ ‘commonsensical’ self-understanding of people with the phenomenological tradition’s theorisation of consciousness: both phenomenology and ordinary folk, common people (who dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do) are on the side of the ‘manifest’ imagine. After this first chapter Brassier is going to move into an extended series of discussions of some extremely abstruse philosophical positions – and it’s basically just this conflation of all and sundry that isn’t modern science with ‘manifest image’ that allows Brassier to suggest a relevance, in his discussion of Heidegger or whoever as correlationist, to everyone else’s understanding of themselves and the world.

    The manifest image is not the domain of pre-theoretical immediacy. On the contrary, it is itself a subtle theoretical construct, a disciplined and critical ‘refinement or sophistication’ of the originary framework in terms of which man first encountered himself as a being capable of conceptual thought, in contradistinction to creatures who lack this capacity.

    On this: first up – and perhaps irrelevantly – I tend to bridle a bit when philosophers throw around strong claims about humans as uniquely capable of thought. Like – obviously there are dramatic differences between humans and other animal species (just as there are dramatic differences between other animal species) – but this kind of exceptionalisation of the human always strikes me as suspicious in philosophy, especially when (as so often) the argument moves from here to a uniquely human-accessible or (often) human-identical transcendental subject that cannot be reduced to biological or social existence. It seems to me empirically pretty obvious that lots of animals are conscious in some sense, and I’m always a bit puzzled about the insistence of strong human exceptionalisation w/r/t consciousness – especially since we know, if we accept Darwin, that there’s no really substantial qualitative difference of essence between humans and apes or whatever (not metaphysically speaking, at any rate). This kind of human-thought exceptionalism slips into soul-talk pretty easily, to my mind. [And in case I’m coming across, as I probably am, as overly hostile to religion, claims about souls etc. can be perfectly credible and rational – they’re just not generally taken to be compatible with the kind of naturalism Brassier’s apparently espousing.] [And to be clear of course one can believe in souls and in Darwinism – it’s just that Darwinism basically (to my mind) removes the human-exceptionalism that’s sometimes been taken as a good reason for souls, etc.]

    All that aside though…

    What stikes me here is this: “[1] a subtle theoretical construct, a disciplined and critical ‘refinement or sophistication’ of [2] the originary framework in terms of which man first encountered himself as a being capable of conceptual thought” Here’s the first problem with folk-psychology type stuff. (And this has certainly been commented on all over the place in the literature, Brassier responds to it himself, I’ll quote that in a second). On the one hand you have folk-psychology (e.g. the attribution of beliefs to oneself and others) as a false theory. But on the other hand, implicitly (often), you have a consciousness-framework within which theories can be formulated and contested and discarded – including the theory of folk psychology. I mean it’s an obvious point (and it needs to be formulated with more care than I’m probably going to in order to escape various rejoinders) but: if belief in belief is a false belief, what exactly is this belief that we’re using to believe in belief? We’ve still got something that looks a lot like belief, hanging around here, right?

    Here’s Brassier’s formulation of and response to the objection:

    [T]he eliminative materialist claims to deny the existence of ‘beliefs’ (and of ‘meaning’ more generally). But to do so he must believe what he claims (or ‘mean’ what he says). Thus his belief that there are no beliefs is itself an instance of belief, just as the intelligibility of his claim that there is no such thing as meaning itself relies on the reality of the meaning which it claims to deny. Consequently, the proponent of EM is guilty of a performative contradiction. It is important to see why this attempt to indict the eliminativist of self-contradiction is dubious from a purely logical point of view and otherwise suspect on broader philosophical grounds. From a purely formal point of view, the logic of the EM argument certainly appears to conform to the familiar structure of proof by reductio ad absurdum: it assumes Q (the framework of FP assumptions), then argues legitimately from Q and some supplementary empirical premises (which we shall describe below) to the conclusion that not-Q , and then concludes not-Q by the principle of reductio. There are no glaring or obvious anomalies here. Anyone wishing to denounce eliminativism as self-refuting using this stratagem should be wary lest they find themselves unwittingly indicting all arguments by reductio on the grounds that they too begin by assuming what they wish to deny.

    But although this isn’t totally nonsensical, it seems pretty clear to me that it doesn’t really strike home, at least in respect to the objection as I understand it. The problem, after all, isn’t that it’s inconsistent to run an internal critique on folk psychology – the problem is that Brassier (or Churchland, or whoever) is himself advancing an alternative theory – and presumably has (at least implicitly) a theory of meaning that is capable of giving an account of the status of this theory, and the status of folk-psychology, and what it means to hold one theory rather than the other – and it’s just profoundly unclear what it could mean to have eliminated the idea of belief, while still retaining such a theory. Like – the Brassier of Alien Theory is probably in a better position than Churchland, in this respect, because he’s got his Alien God. But obviously I don’t find the Alien God line all that convincing.

    Now the response to this is probably: yes, but different senses of ‘belief’ are in operation here. Post-eliminativist theories would be ‘believed’ by human subjects in a way so radically different from folk-psychological ‘belief’ that we’re not really dealing with the same phenomenon. I don’t find that terribly plausible either… but… well – new comment. 😛

  9. duncan Says:

    Okay. * sigh *. Sorry to take so long, and go on at such length. (Much more still to say, I’m afraid. 😦 ) Question: what, for Churchland, or Brassier, or Dennett, or whoever, is ‘folk psychology’. Different understandings for different people, no doubt. [Again, I’m afraid I haven’t gone back and (re)read much.] Here’s Brassier summarising. (I’m going to skip over all the ‘myth of Jones’ stuff (with apologies) because it just strikes me as too too bizarre. “Our Rylean ancestors”! Sellars isn’t even trying to pretend not to be projecting the recent history of analytic philosophy back onto a fantasised mythic prehistory. (Like, acknowledging that it’s a fable doesn’t stop it being a fable!) But anyhoo.)

    [Here’s Brassier formulating the problem:

    Thus, although they are the totems of two otherwise divergent philosophical traditions, the two ‘canonical’ twentieth-century philosophers, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, share the conviction that the manifest image enjoys a philosophical privilege vis-à-vis the scientific image, and that the sorts of entities and processes postulated by scientific theory are in some way founded upon, or derivative of, our more ‘originary’, pre-scientific understanding, whether this be construed in terms of our ‘being-in-the-world’, or our practical engagement in ‘language-games’. From there, one may or may not decide to take the short additional step which consists in denouncing the scientific image as a cancerous excrescence of the manifest image…

    To his considerable credit, Sellars adamantly refused this instrumentalization of the scientific image. For as he pointed out, the fact that the manifest image enjoys a methodological primacy as the originary framework from which the scientific image developed in no way legitimates attempts to ascribe a substantive primacy to it.

    Exactly: methodological primacy =/= substantive primacy. This is why ‘correlationism’ isn’t nearly as widespread as Brassier or Meillassoux seem to think. I think it’s really important, in the years going forward in continental philosophy, that we not slip into the idea that every time someone gives methodological primacy to epistemological questions, they’re being ‘correlationist’ – it’s perfectly possible to say “we only ever have access to some object through some kind of relation” without also saying “the object is thereby reduced to this relation; we only ever have access to the relation” – these are different claims; the latter doesn’t follow from the former; but although Brassier here acknowledges this, much of the rest of his work proceeds as if methodological primacy were almost always substantive primacy. Anyhoo.]

    So – this is what I wanted to quote – Churchland’s take on the manifest image (‘folk psychology’). From the famous Eliminative Materialism essay. [pdf]

    The fact is that the average person is able to explain, and even predict, the behaviour of other persons with a facility and success that is remarkable. Such explanations and predictions standardly make reference to the desires, beliefs, fears, intentions, perceptions, and so forth, to which the agents are presumed subject. But explanations presuppose laws – rough and ready ones, at least – that connect the explanatory conditions with the behaviour explained. The same is true for the making of predictions, and for the justification of subjunctive and counterfactual conditional concerning behaviour… Each of us understands others, as well as we do, because we share a tacit command of an integrated body of lore concerning the law-like relations holding among external circumstances, internal states, and overt behavior.

    What’s going on here – and this is absolutely typical of analytic philosophy, it’s probably the sub-discipline’s most pervasive intellectual move – is: ordinary consciousness is being understood and described in terms only really appropriate to scientific endeavour. Or, in fact, to a particular philosophical vision of scientific endeavour. [With its ‘propositional attitudes’ and the rest of the post-Russellian apparatus.] The purpose of ‘folk psychology’ is to make predictions, basically – to look for a particular kind of law-like regularity. This is what “understanding others” means, for Churchland. It’s a profoundly cold, creepy understanding of what everyday human understanding consists in (and this is also very common in the analytic space; it’s like an institutional space oriented to a specific form of psychosis).

    “Folk psychology” (i.e. [concepts of] love, fear, pain, faith) is here being understood on the model of a scientific theory. And as such a theory it’s being rejected.

    What actually ought to be rejected, of course, is the understanding of love, fear, pain, faith, etc. as products of a faulty scientific theory, rather than as… well… love, fear, pain, etc. [And sure, there’s sort of an equivocation there, between the predictive theoretical concept ‘love’ and… actual love… but that’s an equivocation or conflation that’s there in Churchland – this is part of the problem.]

    Here’s Churchland again (quoted by Brassier):

    [A] spontaneous introspective judgement is just an instance of an acquired habit of conceptual response to one’s internal states, and the integrity of any particular response is always contingent on the integrity of the acquired conceptual framework (theory) in which the response is framed. Accordingly, one’s own introspective certainty that one’s mind is the seat of beliefs and desires [or ‘purposes’] may be as badly misplaced as was the classical man’s visual certainty that the star-flecked sphere of the heavens turns daily.

    Okay – quite apart from the issue that the idea that the mind is the seat of beliefs and desires is just really fucking culturally and historically specific – this ‘Cartesian’ mind/body thing being in fact a contingent cultural self-understanding, not a near-universal theory contested only by modern science… quite apart from that, I don’t think that this characterisation of ‘folk-psychology’ is even true for ‘folk-psychology’ now, here, today, in Churchland’s social milieu. Like… I find the idea that I have introspective certainty that my mind is the seat of desires to be… more than a little dubious. Without wanting to be crude, I can think of various organs not classically associated with the mind (or with ‘propositional attitudes’) that also seem to play a role in my desires… I’d imagine the same’s true for most people…

    Gah. More to say but this is getting unwieldy. Sorry – this is a bit of a ragged comment, but I guess I’ll post it anyway, and try to stop talking about the eliminative materialist side of thinks pretty soon.

    Cheers…

  10. duncan Says:

    Okay. Summing up the Eliminative Materialist stuff.

    1) There’s just a really weird idea of what folk psychology is – like the understanding of consciousness formulated by various 20th century analytic thinkers is taken to be everyone’s understanding of consciousness. (And I understand that Russell or whoever thinks he’s uncovering the basic principles organising all conscious thought – but he isn’t; he’s proposing a faulty theory of consciousness, and it seems to make more sense to say ‘Russell [or whoever] is wrong about consciousness’ than it does to say ‘Russell [or whoever] is right about consciousness, but consciousness itself, in all its prior manifestations, is wrong.’ (which is Churchland’s position.))

    2) Since a specific theory is being conflated with ordinary consciousness, there’s an idea that ordinary consciousness itself needs to be abolished – and it really is unclear to me how this doesn’t run into something a lot like contradiction. (Not that there is necessarily a universal form of ‘ordinary consciousness’ – just that Churchland’s claims become a lot less radical if you simply drop the critique of ‘belief’ per se.) We can just say – yeah, consciousness is (in large part) produced by / an aspect of brain states etc. without abolishing ordinary consciousness. Like – seriously – why would we want or need to? I don’t get it. Plus the whole ‘if you abolish belief, how the fuck do you actually hold a theory?’ deal, also.

    * sigh *. There’s still more I ought to say, but I’m worried I’m rambling, so I’m going to stop, regroup, and try to respond to some of the stuff you said later in your comment. Sorry to go on and on so much. Please don’t feel obliged to read all this…

  11. Nate Says:

    Wow!

    This is a really interesting and post and discussion, as attested to by the fact that it’s compelling reading despite my having read almost none of the texts referenced.

    “that the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda galaxy in 3 billion years; that the earth will be incinerated by the sun 4 billions years hence; that all the stars in the universe will stop shining in 100 trillion years; and that eventually, one trillion, trillion, trillion years from now, all matter in the cosmos will disintegrate into unbound elementary particles.”

    That’s annoying.

    Those are probabilistic statements, not statements of accomplished fact. And while I’m not an intellectual historian, surely a great many humans (and knowledgable socially acceptable ones in positions analogous to scientists of the sort involved in the above claims) must have made analogous claims in the past, such that “all shall end!” is not really a novel claim.

    I’m being grumpy but I also find “non-philosophy” an incredibly offputting term, a needless bit of terminological complexity which should be jettisoned simply on the basis of its susceptibility to communicative misfires. It’s like characterizing a type of speech as non-speech or a type of writing as non-writing – the terminological choice has clear downsides and no upsides I can see. (Of course, I’ve not read these folk, only read bloggers talking about them.)

    Nick quoted Duncan, “philosophy of neuroscience tends to tie itself in knots when it tries to produce an unbroken circle of analysis” then said quote suggests that [Duncan does] think it’s a problem, but [doesn’t] think present neuroscience can answer it.”

    Is that part of the stakes here, the possibility of a fully self-reflexive philosophical position (either in general or in accounts of mind)?

    Duncan, I really like your point about animal consciousness and human exceptionalism.

    Regarding one of your later comments, you quoted someone, “one’s own introspective certainty that one’s mind is the seat of beliefs and desires [or ‘purposes’] may be as badly misplaced as was the classical man’s visual certainty that the star-flecked sphere of the heavens turns daily.”

    I may be misunderstanding here, but there seems to be an assumption here that inaccuracy is sufficient grounds for theory change. “certainty that the star-flecked sphere of the heavens turns daily” is wrong, but it was a belief that helped people inhabit a predictable environment. That is, it wasn’t really a “badly misplaced” idea, despite being wrong. Again, maybe I misunderstand or am otherwise way off base here, but it seems to me that “this is inaccurate” is not alone enough reason to abandon a belief (depending on one’s other intuitions). It seems to me that inaccuracy plus an alternative framework gets closer to adequate reason for belief change – which means that the weight would be on opponents of ‘introspective certainty’ to provide a fully worked out perspective before reasonably expecting anyone to abandon their ‘badly misplaced’ beliefs. (This is only partly related, but Lewis Carroll has a great dialog called What The Tortoise Said To Achilles which is about syllogisms, implying that there’s more that happens in valied moves from premisses to conclusions than most of us learned in logic courses.)

    Sorry if I’m missing the boat here, all this is really far afield for me.

    cheers,
    Nate

  12. duncan Says:

    Hey Nate! Thanks for the comment – I really like everything you say here. (You’re certainly not missing the boat at all from my p.o.v. at least…) The point about the status of the scientific claims Brassier cites is a really good one, I think – I should probably focus on that more. And yeah, I totally agree that the concept of extinction is really a very ancient one, and not exactly stop-the-press news. (I don’t know if you’ve read it but chabert and traxus4420 were discussing Brassier at traxus’s site some time last year, and chabert makes exactly this point (among countless typically acerbic others). [Nick links to the discussion on ‘Speculative Heresy’ somewhere I think])

    On ‘non-philosophy’ – you totally shouldn’t read Laruelle, because he does this for everything :-P. Non-materialism, non-mysticism, non-psychoanalysis, non-Marxism… etc. (Non-Marxism being sort of Althusser with mysticism instead of the economy/materialism :-P) (I’m being flippant & superficial, but that isn’t totally unfair, I don’t think…)

    On the possibility of a fully self-reflexive philosophical position…. Hum. I don’t think the following addresses what you mean at all – but just to say it… I personally wouldn’t think that a fully self-reflexive philosophical position would be a possible or really desirable goal. Like – that’s sort of Hegelian stuff, yeah? (I mean Hegelian Hegelian, not Marxist Hegelian). I tend to think that any position that actually takes account of our implication and involvement in exigent, contingent, substantially arbitrary and opaque reality, is never going to be fully reflexive, just because it doesn’t have the range you know? Full philosophical reflexivity would only be achievable by God or the Geist, in that sense, and I don’t personally believe in either.

    But like I say – I don’t take that to be the meaning of your question? W/r/t a more limited and reasonable reflexivity – yes, for myself, I think this is definitely part of what’s at stake. Philosophers of mind want to give an account of mind – and mind is the aspect of self via which we think and produce our accounts of mind. So there’s sort of a demand for a certain level of reflexivity in there? My own feeling – this is why I gestured to ‘extended mind’ stuff above (though it isn’t totally the same issue) – is that the stuff that goes into producing consciousness is vastly more extensive than the stuff philosophy of mind generally considers. (Hopefully I’ll get into this in more detail in later responses to Nick’s comment, above…) So for instance our norms are massively shaped by social/cultural factors, which philosophy of mind has a really bad track record with taking on board. And I feel that this kind of social-theoretic space is sort of an obligatory inclusion for any attempt to be ‘philosophically’ reflexive even in the weaker sense.

    [I think one useful way to conceptualise Laruelle’s project is to see it as hinging around this issue of reflexivity in the strong Hegelian sense. Basically (as Brassier says in Nihil Unbound somewhere) Laruelle sees Hegel as the exemplary philosopher – the position towards which all philosophy tends. [I’m not sure Laruelle has an adequate characterisation of Hegel’s position, but that’s another issue.] Laruelle’s really preoccupied with philosophical reflexivity – he sees this kind of (strong) reflexivity as one of philosophy’s most essential characteristics – and he thinks (rightly, to my mind) that it always fails in its own terms. Laruelle’s response to this is to move to kind of the opposite position – a maximally non reflexive position, where there’s a complete unilaterality (foreclosure of the Real to thought, etc.). Where the premise of thought is axiomatic, completely ungrounded except in the ground-posited-as-already-transcendentally-given-without-giveness, etc. This winds up being a kind of gnostic faith in an only-mystically-accessible Real. (Which Laruelle seems to be comfortable with.) To my mind, this choice only presents itself in these terms if we’re already moving in a framework characterised by a transcendental search for the absolute, basically. I think a weaker (empirical, scientific, social-theoretic) ‘self-reflexivity’ is more than capable of doing much of the stuff Laruelle says he wants to – it just can’t give you mystical access to the Absolute. Of course that latter is what Laruelle wants above anything, probably, so it’s likely not going to satisfy that desires of that project – I just think it can resolve a lot of other philosophical tensions. But more to say on that later…]

    On the other hand – with regard to the blogosphere debates about ‘self-reflexivity’ that were taking place a while back in relation to NP’s work – which I think you might have partly in mind, though I could be wrong? – I definitely think what I’m trying to say here is compatible with the kind of self-reflexivity NP was talking about. (And of course what I’m saying here is partly influenced by conversations with NP, and by reading NP’s exceptional work.) (I hope I’m not totally off base in thinking that might be part of what you’re gesturing towards.) The connections there may or may not be clear already – but I hope I can cash out more of them later… (Sorry to keep postponing, but I do believe I’ll manage to get to this stuff.)

    I like what you say about accuracy and paradigm-change, also. And finally – I hadn’t read that Lewis Carroll thing. I just googled it, and it’s awesome :-P. (I love “and there was a touch of sadness in his tone”. Carroll’s just great, isn’t he? 🙂 ) It made me think of Wittgenstein on rule-following (almost everything does :-P). But also there’s a funny (and in some ways similar) bit in the introduction to Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations. (Nozick’s a complete shit, of course, but he has his moments :-P). He imagines a similar scenario, where a philosopher is attempting to persuade “an irrationalist” of the truth of some deduction. No matter what the philosopher says, the irrationalist refuses to follow the logic of the claims, and skips away merrily continuing to hold his own irrational beliefs. Nozick writes (something like): although a powerful philosophical argument is meant to force a person to accept it, its force is rather weak. People can, after all, just not accept it, and continue to think whatever they please. A philosophical argument would be perfect, it would seem, if anyone who didn’t accept its validity died on the spot. (And this is the fantasy of the philosopher 🙂 )

    Nozick’s writing this tongue in cheek, of course. But (to be a little bit unfair) I think Brassier is in a way trying to (philosophical) realise this fantasy. (I’m conflating the positions of different works here, admittedly…). The subject who accepts the philosophical argument is an inhuman subject, an Alien subject (achieved or attained via the acceptance of the argument). Whereas the human subject, the ordinary-consciousness subject, who fails to accept the truth of non-philosophy, is already dead.

    Anyway, I should probably get back to discussing this stuff more carefully. 🙂 I still have a whole load of stuff I want to say in response to Nick’s comment above. So I’ll try to leap back into that. As I say, this could be slow progress. Sorry about the endlessness of the response…

  13. duncan Says:

    Okay – the weekend is here :-). Picking up where I left off (wrote a fair bit of this yesterday, so apologies for the rushed tone)… Nick – you wrote:

    I’m very far from being an expert on analytic philosophy, but I haven’t yet come across a particularly convincing explanation of naturalized epistemology – at least one that doesn’t beg fairly major philosophical questions. So like Brassier points out in NU, the Churchlands idea of naturalized epistemology relies on a strong metaphysical assumption about adaptation. And there’s a number of strong anti-realist arguments that say we only have access to empirical existence and our knowledge is basically pragmatic and not indicative of any absolute. Which, to me at least, ultimately leaves us no further than phenomenology – since we can’t escape our own finite perspectives, phenomenology must ultimately dscribe the grounds of experience, which science then attempts to systematically categorize without ever being able to undermine phenomenology’s ultimate priority. So what I guess I’m trying to get at is that it doesn’t seem to me that most naturalized epistemologies, or most scientific theories, are really capable of escaping even some of the basic Kantian limitations on knowledge (at least on their own). Hence the need for a philosophical theory to justify that scientific knowledge is actually indicating (in some type of relation) real existents.

    Now… taking naturalised epistemology first: I totally agree that a lot of the versions of ‘naturalised epistemology’ that you find in the analytic space are really problematic. I wouldn’t suggest endorsing the phrase in Quine’s sense, for instance. It seems to me that there are broadly speaking two kinds of critiques. [This is all a bit off the cuff, so I’m happy to be told this categorisation is nonsense; and I guess I should really address myself to Brassier’s specific stuff w/r/t the Churchlands… [will try to in a bit…] but…]. Basically the standard criticisms are:

    1) You can’t get ‘ought’ from ‘is’.

    2) Naturalised epistemology is based on empirical givens; empirical givens can’t escape a phenomenological-ish perspective which is more ‘originary’ than its results; so scientific results end up tied to or based on something like phenomenology – a consciousness irreducible to the empirical entities and processes that are the objects of its knowledge. (Which is sort of related to what you’re saying in the bit of your last comment that I quoted, yes?)

    So… moving fairly rapidly over the first one, since I think your concerns more centre on the second?:

    1) Basically (although this criticism obviously comes in countless different forms) – if you (impersonal you :-P) think you can’t get ought from is, you’ve given up on a naturalistic worldview right out the gates. The idea that you can ‘get ought from is’ is a large part of what the naturalistic worldview means, to my mind (the idea that meaning & value are also part of our natural existence, rather than coming from some non-natural sphere – whether that sphere’s understood in metaphysical or in religious/supernatural terms). (And, to be honest, I tend to think that if one’s positing a non-natural sphere, metaphysically speaking [even negatively!] one’s operating in a theological space anyhow. (Which is fine 🙂 To be clear, again – I’m not beating up on theology per se. I wish there were a bit more openness (/awareness) about this, among theorists who make these kinds of moves.)

    Now the ‘can’t get ought from is’ thing often arises when particular kinds of accounts of how one might get ought from is are attempted. (Sorry to keep repeating the annoying ‘ought from is’ phrase, btw :-P). So for instance… well, here’s Brassier on the Churchlands and evolution…

    The most serious problem confronting Churchland’s version of EM resides in the latent tension between his commitment to scientific realism on one hand, and his adherence to a metaphysical naturalism on the other… On the one hand, Churchland explicitly or empirically posits the explanatory excellence of the PVA model on the grounds of what he calls its ‘superempirical virtues’: conceptual simplicity, explanatory unity, and theoretical cohesiveness (P.M. Churchland 1989: 139–51). On the other hand, that excellence is implicitly or metaphysically presupposed as guaranteed a priori by an adaptationist rationale for the congruence between representation and reality.

    [T]he problem for Churchland is that it remains deeply unclear in precisely what way the extent of an organism’s adaptational efficiency, as revealed by the degree to which its representation of the world exhibits the superempirical virtues of simplicity, unity, and coherence, could ever be ‘read off’ its brain’s neurocomputational microstructure. In what sense precisely are theoretical virtues such as simplicity, unity, and coherence necessarily concomitant at the neurological level with an organism’s reproductively advantageous behaviour?

    The answer to that last is of course they’re not at all, certainly not in anything like the sense that Churchland needs them to be for his argument to work. There are related things here, I think. First: natural selection doesn’t make judgements. It’s not a teleological or a normative process. Every organism that exists is equally ‘evolved’, and the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of any organism isn’t a normative success or failure – isn’t really success or failure at all, from, so to speak, the non-existent ‘point of view’ of natural selection – it’s just death, or survival, or reproduction, or non-reproduction So you can’t use evolutionary ‘fitness’ to distinguish normatively between different organisms, or different inclinations among organisms – natural selection is completely silent in this respect, obviously. Similarly (secondly) you can’t (or shouldn’t) project one’s own ethical or normative judgements back onto the process of natural selection, and claim that one’s judgements are validated by evolution. If you’ve got an organism that features characteristic X, and another organism that features characteristic not-X, natural selection of course isn’t going to be able to justify one’s preference for one over the other.

    This problem arises because Churchland apparently wants to take his normative judgements as naturally validated – validated by the blind processes of nature itself. And you can’t do that. This desire (to have nature validate norms) is not identical with the attempt to ‘naturalise’ normativity. The latter project can still be attempted and (to my mind) easily achieved without asking ‘nature itself’ (or some natural process such as natural selection) to be the validating guarantee of the worth of one’s judgements.

    There’s a difference, in other words, between the claim that normative judgements are produced by natural empirical events and processes (which is right) and the claim that nature as such grounds those judgements, legitimates them. The dividing line may not be totally solid – depending on what aspects of nature you’re talking about and how expansively you’re using the word ‘natural’ (if you’re counting everything as natural – including social stuff – then it can be legitimate to say this, on which more in a sec). But Churchland picks out a natural process that is obviously non-normative (though it contributes to the production of norms) and essentially (implicitly) assigns subjectivity to it. As in – I agree with you, and with Brassier, that Churchland’s position is incoherent. I just don’t think this poses a problem for naturalised epistemology. (It poses a problem for bad naturalised epistemology 🙂 ).

    Where do normative judgements come from? How are they produced? Well, we’re creatures who’ve evolved consciousness, sociality, who love and hate each other, who value and despise things, who suffer and rejoice and so on. But what those valuations and loves consist in will vary depending on a whole host of contingent factors (we are these contingent factors). We belong in communities – in multiple communities, each of us – and our identities, who we are and what we care about, are made out of our biological selves in our interactions with these communities, with other people who want and need things from us, who teach us things.

    So Churchland has a specific set of values, in relation to philosophical production. He likes simplicity, unity, coherence (and of course he has quite specific understandings of what these terms mean). Where does this preference, this normative judgement, come from? Not from natural selection! It comes from Churchland’s own habits, his personality, but also much more centrally from the research community he’s a part of, and the larger society that produces this research community. Churchland’s part of a social space that values these things, that gives certain reasons for valuing them, that propagates and reproduces these valuations. (Of course Churchland inflects this space’s values in a specific way – and aims to promote his particular version of this broader set of values within the space. But he’s massively part of a larger social project, here.) One of the ways this space can aim to promote its values is by claiming – falsely! – that nature itself loves these values! Natural selection backs up Churchland! But that’s wrong. These are social judgements, socially produced judgements, that Churchland’s making a (not very good) case for the broader acceptance of, in his specific way.

    An analysis of the origin and justification of these kinds of valuations, then, needs to be a social analysis. (Not that it’s entirely social – our biological natures obviously play a central role in what we care about!) And because ‘naturalised epistemology’ tends to come out of a strongly scientistic space, it tends to elide the social. In doing so, it elides any possibility of actually giving a naturalistic account of the emergence of norms.

    Now I realise there’s a whole series of debates about pragmatism and so on that blossoms out from the kind of thing I’ve just said – it’d be good to talk about that stuff? But for the moment I’m basically going to fiat the legitimacy of the kind of argument I just made, as it were, in order to move on to the next thing? I think the issues are connected, so maybe some of the stuff I’ll try to say now will have some bearing on possible objections to the above…

  14. duncan Says:

    Okay – this might actually be the last comment in this interminable thought-train. Nick, quoting the last bit of your comment again…

    And there’s a number of strong anti-realist arguments that say we only have access to empirical existence and our knowledge is basically pragmatic and not indicative of any absolute. Which, to me at least, ultimately leaves us no further than phenomenology – since we can’t escape our own finite perspectives, phenomenology must ultimately dscribe the grounds of experience, which science then attempts to systematically categorize without ever being able to undermine phenomenology’s ultimate priority. So what I guess I’m trying to get at is that it doesn’t seem to me that most naturalized epistemologies, or most scientific theories, are really capable of escaping even some of the basic Kantian limitations on knowledge (at least on their own). Hence the need for a philosophical theory to justify that scientific knowledge is actually indicating (in some type of relation) real existents.

    Brassier is after the absolute, yes? Like Meillassoux. What is at stake is “the nature of thought’s relation to the absolute”.

    Is there an absolute? In my opinion: no. This is a large part of what a secularist, naturalistic position means, imo. (A lot of) philosophy wants an absolute. But we don’t get to have one.

    This is probably going to be way way too schematic. But basically there’s a desire at work here, yeah? A desire for a knowledge that’s guaranteed, certain – a relation between thought and its object that’s unbreakable in principle, an maximally certain understanding that can’t be blindsided by anything unforeseen, can’t be severed from us, can’t be lost or revealed as false or fraudulent or fantasised. And this isn’t the kind of knowledge that science provides (science’s claims are necessarily hypothetical – even the strongest scientific claim is in some reasonably strong sense a hypothesis – and this isn’t a problem with scientific knowledge, it’s in fact one of sources of its authority – its lack of claim to absolute knowledge. (This connects I think to what Nate was saying above about the status of the scientific claims Brassier cites.)) More eveyday (non-scientific) kinds of knowledge or experience aren’t the same – aren’t guided by the same kind of normative or investigative framework – but they’re also (in diifferent senses) non-guaranteed, non-certain, non-absolute. (Although in everyday life the lack of certainty involved in experience or living is often less about knowledge per se or hypothesis or whatever, and more about fragility and the contingency of what we experience, what we love and hold dear or what hurts us, threatens us. There’s a continuity between the desire for absolute knowledge and a more basic, if you like, desire for security or protection of the self or the self’s loved ones against loss and pain.)

    I’m probably being wildly ahistorical in saying stuff like ‘philosophy in general wants some kind of absolute’, or in connecting it to desire in quite the way I am – like, I tend to see this kind of thing in almost all the philosophical texts I read, and that may be partly a feature of contemporary concerns. But still, I see this inclination as really strong in philosophy.

    From the Symposium:

    “Yes,” she added, “and you hear people say that lovers are seeking for their other half; but I say that they are seeking neither for the half of themselves, nor for the whole, unless the half or the whole be also a good. And they will cut off their own hands and feet and cast them away, if they are evil; for they love not what is their own, unless perchance there be some one who calls what belongs to him the good, and what belongs to another the evil. For there is nothing which men love but the good. Is there anything?” “Certainly, I should say, that there is nothing.” “Then,” she said, “the simple truth is, that men love the good.” “Yes,” I said. “To which must be added that they love the possession of the good? “Yes, that must be added.” “And not only the possession, but the everlasting possession of the good?” “That must be added too.” “Then love,” she said, “may be described generally as the love of the everlasting possession of the good?” “That is most true.”

    Everlasting possession of the good. (Hands and feet, bodily existence or ‘folk-psychology’ can be cut away, severed, but this severance is a guarantee of the impossibility of severance from the real good, from that which is desired most of all and to which all desire is ultimately referred.)

    TITUS ANDRONICUS

    O, here I lift this one hand up to heaven,
    And bow this feeble ruin to the earth:
    If any power pities wretched tears,
    To that I call!

    In your first comment you said:

    I think there’s also a distinction to be drawn between the always contestable empirical claims (maybe we’ll discover we have souls and will never really go extinct), and the philosophical claim that the real is being-nothing. The latter acts, as you say, as the transcendental conditions for thought. But the former is more akin to being a temporary and contestable phenomenal piece of evidence for what ‘being-nothing’ might mean for-us. I’d have to think about it more, but I think the logic here would be similar to Lacan, where an object covers over the very hole in being. But with his scientism, Brassier certainly wants to retain the progressive nature of science, so it’ll be really interesting to see how he manages that – i.e. how could we progressively approximate being-nothing?

    I think this is a good characterisation of the kind of way in which scientific endeavour is understood in a lot of philosophical spaces? (Analytic, not just continental). (I mean obviously the being-nothing thing is more specific to Brassier – but I mean the final bringing together of the philosophical and the empirical.) On the one hand you have flawed empirical knowledge – on the other hand you have a philosophical knowledge of the absolute, or of the possibility of knowledge of the absolute. Science works through experiment, through induction, through hypothesis and refutation, in fits and starts – but it has its final goal of absolute truth. So science progressively approximates the absolute – and philosophy speculatively leaps to the absolute – and intellectual progress brings these two things together. And this isn’t just a future postulated event, the bringing together. Because the possibility of this bringing together – the possible unification of contestable scientific hypothesis and metaphysically guaranteed absolute – is what legitimates or grounds the process or progress of science. It’s what lets us know that science is aiming at something (albeit, for Brassier, a something that is being-nothing): the object = X is the transcendental guarantee of the legitimacy of this empirical investigation of the properties of objects. (In slightly more phenomenological language, the absolute as real is the horizon as (metaphysically guaranteed) real regulative ideal.)

    Now I think this is an understanding of the nature of science that actually has a fair bit of ‘popular’ potency. Like at the end of A Brief History of Time, say, where Hawking writes that, if the endeavour he’s contributing to succeeds, we will finally know the mind of God. And this may be sort of metaphoric? But it taps into a really potent imaginary, that Brassier also taps into, more technically or abstrusely or obscurely but also more centrally, I think. Brassier and Meillassoux aren’t being metaphoric when they talk about the absolute. This is the goal – and ordinary life, ordinary consciousness as we understand it can – indeed must (from the eliminativist standpoint) – be sacrificed for its fulfilment.

    To my mind – from my perspective – this is flawed. Not that science isn’t aiming at truth. But truth needn’t be understood along these lines – truth needn’t be understood as having to be underwritten by absolute truth. In fact – from my perspective – the concept of absolute truth is fantasised, a sort of wish-fulfillment?

    Now… sorry to keep doing these silly schematic divisions – but I’d say there are at least two ways unbroken unbreakable absolute knowledge could be understood or reached for. On the one hand you have absolute certainty of the objective independent existence of some object or objectivity. You have a form of thought or relation to the object that in its very nature guarantees the certainty of the validity of this relation. That’s what the ontological argument aims to do, for instance – show that the very concept of God guarantees the objective existence of the referent God. Or what Meillassoux’s replication of the formal structure of the ontological argument does, in his discussion of absolute contingency and all the rest. The trouble here, of course, is that it’s hard to see how any such guaranteed relation to a thought independent objectivity could be guaranteed. Surely the very concept of thought-independence (the very concept of objectivity) implies the possibility of thought’s severance from this objectivity? The severance of this relation. This is why, to my mind, folk like Brassier and Meillassoux are right to point out the way in which a lot of philosophers have, historically, ended up implicitly assimilating objective being and thought – because some kind of assimilation is surely going to have to take place if this relation is going to be utterly guaranteed. I may be going a bit strong here, but there seems to be sort of a contradiction in the very idea of metaphysically guaranteed knowledge of a consciousness-independent entity? [Brassier interprets this as a contradiction in the philosophical concept of objectivity per se, because he can’t conceive of an objectivity of which absolute knowledge is impossible. My point is that dropping the exorbitant demand for a metaphysically guaranteed certainty resolves the problems that Brassier thinks he needs Laruelle to tackle.]

    Now – what tends to happen, philosophically, if this difficulty is acknowledged, is a move to subjectivity? You get (some forms of) phenomenology; you get qualia; you get Quine’s ontological relativity; you get Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World (= not much knowledge :-P). If there can be no unbreakable link between consciousness and its objects, and if an unbreakable link is demanded as a condition of knowledge, this unbreakable link, this total certainty, has to be internalised, made ‘subjective’. (This seems to be a particularly modern move? Like I say, I’m not historicising this stuff barely at all, and one really ought to, I suspect: it’d be a bit surprising if the exact same project, the exact same concept of the absolute, were running around in all philosophical endeavours! I just don’t have the scholarship to even try to approach this stuff more historically, so I’m being pretty loose. But it does seem, intuitively, that something shifts, with modernity, in relation to the conception of subjectivity – the critique of ‘correlationism’ is surely picking out something, even if it’s unbelievably crude and homogenising.) (So even though Descartes still has his God and his ontological argument [and I tend to think the historical importance of the ontological argument gets a bit downplayed in philosophical discussion, today] there’s a focus on subjectivity, clear and distinct ideas, etc. that seems newish. Sorry, you know all this, I’m rambling.)

    My point (and I do have one…) is: when one talks about the ultimate priority of phenomenology, for instance [a priority, to connect up to what I was saying a few comments ago, that isn’t just methodological, but is taken to be substantial in some way] I think this is what’s going on. There’s a strong conviction that things have to be grounded in the absolute – absolute certainty, absolute ‘presence’ (to use the Derridean vocab). So if we can’t have an ‘objective’ absolute, we have to have a ‘subjective’ absolute – and then we seem to be trapped within consciousness, correlationists through all our living days.

    I think this is an area in which Derrida’s really outstanding, actually – Speech and Phenomena is just top notch stuff as an ‘internal’ critique of phenomenology, which opens various doors that lead in rather different directions from Brassier’s desire to one-up phenomenology by finding a meta-transcendental. Derrida’s point, I take it (and lots of other people have said this too, I know), is that there is no ‘pure’ subjective experience – no absolute presence of the self to itself that could provide irreducible subjective ground for the construction of a phenomenologically-based account of the empirical world. When Derrida writes “there has never been any experience” this is his point: no absolute subjectivity; subjectivity already divided against itself, etc.

    Now obviously I don’t agree with a lot of the directions Derrida takes his critique from there. But the basic impulse is absolutely right, I think: that it’s the desire for ‘presence’ that’s the problem. To my mind, if one understands this as, essentially, a fantasy [and of course Derrida doesn’t, exactly – that’s one of the problems; Derrida’s more keen on the double movement and the inescapability of the aporetic metaphysics he critiques] one can simply say: okay, where’s this desire coming from? Where’s this understanding of consciousness or of knowledge coming from? And one can ground that in the empirical world that philosophy believes it needs to ground. Yeah?

    In other words – I think there’s a misunderstanding about what’s required for there to be ‘real existents’. I think there’s a sense (in (a lot of) philosophy) that the Real has to have various characteristics in order to be real; it’s discovered that the empirical real doesn’t have those characteristics; and so there’s a move to mysticism, or subjectivism, or what have you. But the problem lies in this conceptualisation of the characteristics of ‘the Real’ – not in the apparent impossibility of our ever having contact with the Real. Like I said way upthread: we’re here, we’re in the real, we’re part of the real, it’s just fundamentally not an issue.

    ~~

    * Long sigh *. Okay. I think I’ve now said more all less all the big things I wanted to in reply to your comment. I’m so sorry it’s taken me however many thousand words – I really didn’t realise I was dragging you into such a chore of reading with this conversation. I’m sure I could have said all that briefer – I’m just not sure how. There are still lots of other littler things I’d sort of like to say – and I still haven’t replied to all of your initial comment. But I really suspect that’s enough from me for now.

    Thank you for giving me the chance to say so much. I hope it’s not too anti-social or whatever the word is to have bent your ear so long.

    Cheers…

  15. duncan Says:

    [Shorter version: Yeah, science in the narrow sense (physical science) can’t ground itself, and transcendental philosophy tends either to run into paradox/aporias or turn into theology. But the answer to that isn’t a new meta-transcendental philosophy (which also runs into paradox/aporias / turns into theology) – it’s science + social science + a social scientific account of the production of science & social science + abandoment of the desire for a fantasised absolute. (+ maybe whatever non-metaphysical ‘philosophical’ resources are involved in the articulation of those things.) (+ everyday material life.)

    I could probably have said that upfront, couldn’t I?…]

  16. Nate Says:

    hi Duncan,
    Just got home from a long day and desperately need some sleep. Quickly, re: self-reflexive philosophy, I think we’re on the same page. I asked because of your phrase, that some people neuroscience attempt “to produce an unbroken circle of analysis”, in which they not only do what neuroscientists do but account for their ability to do so. I took the phrase to imply that the aim (of those folk, not of you) was not merely to not contradict themselves (which is a fair goal) but rather to provide a positive account of or to really explain their own ability to do neuroscience. That’s what I meant by ‘fully self-reflexive’, (for what little it’s worth, this is something I don’t feel a need to have [my ability to explain some things works okay despite my inability to explain my general ability to explain, my marxism suits my purposes despite my lack of an understanding of how it is produced, etc], though I’m not opposed to attempts to achieve it; I feel merely a need for enough self-reflexivity to avoid self-contradiction). The ‘unbroken circle of analysis’ bit and hte stuff on neuroscience made me wonder if this was part of what is going on in Brassier and the other texts involved here. It seems to me you’ve now said “yes, that’s part of what’s going,” thanks for that! 🙂
    And yes, NP’s work (which I agree is wicked brilliant) was in the back of my mind on this, since htat’s what put a lot of these ideas in my head. I like your distinction between a stronger version of self-reflexivity (tied in some way to theological/religious/mystical appraoches) and a weaker and more empirical version – I feel silly saying so but part of the disconnect I had in reading NP on that stuff was precisely that I didn’t recognize that there are differing degrees of self-reflexivity; I had in mind, without recognizing it, only a very strong version of self-reflexivity of a type I think is probably impossible (one amounting almost to a theory or complete account of everything) [I might say I held in a distressingly unself-reflexive manner to a simplistic idea of self-reflexivity; I hope my self-referentiality here absolves me of this prior error. ;)]

    Anyhow I hope that I made my question make more sense now.

    I’ll have to read that bit of Nozick, that sounds great. We might say that what Nozick describes is philosopher’s fantasy of having a Tortoise-proof argument. I got a vague sense from your description that Brassier wanted something like that – I think it makes sense in a way then that part of what you also object to is a religious/mystical sentiment in his work. At least some versions of a religious sensibility are precisely the wish for Tortoise-proof syllogisms: god’s real and revealed word delivered from the big guys himself, if it actually existed, would be such that its readers/hearers would only assent, refusal along the lines Nozick describes and Carroll demonstrates would impossible in that scenario. (An impossible scenario.)

    Glad you liked the Carroll, he’s great, he’s a lot of why I ended up studying philosophy, and I think that particular dialog deals in a very smart way with some very interesting issues.

    I hope this makes sense, I’m really tired. thanks for a good covnersation and sorry to barge in from left field w/ no real references to the works in question!

    take care,
    Nate

  17. duncan Says:

    Thanks Nate, yeah, I think we’re on the same page too. (Sorry if I faffed around in my response… I think you managed to extract the point :-P) I like (and totally agree with) what you say about this kind of apparatus not being necessary to know stuff, do stuff, etc. I mean the truth is we’re all obviously roaming around doing our thing without being able to give a full account (or even, often, much of a partial account) of the conditions of possibility of doing it or whatever. Like – we get hungry without necessarily having a detailed biological account of the physical processes that produce hunger 😛 – we can be appalled by some action without having to have a historical account of the production of the social norms that guide our rage… etc. etc. It can be valuable to have these things – or they can be a distraction from more pressing issues. Or a bit of both I guess. Anyway – I like and agree with what you said…

    Hope you’re well…

  18. Nick Srnicek Says:

    Phew, Ok, lots of stuff to respond to! Thanks as well, Duncan, for your thoughtful responses. There’s a selection bias here, since I’m only going to respond to the stuff I have something interesting to say about – but it was all a really fascinating read. And welcome to the party, Nate!

    My point for now is just that the emphasis on neuroscience as being capable (in principle) of providing the grounds for the judgements that are used in the evaluation of truth claims is problematic not because it’s in principle problematic to provide a naturalistic or empircal account of the nature and justification of truth-judgements, but because neuroscience simply has too limited a field of investigation to provide such an account.

    Ok, I can agree with this, and I think it’s a pretty good defence of the extended mind hypothesis against reductive neuroscience. It also, I would argue, points towards the need for a non-empirical instance (i.e. philosophical) to legitimate scientific findings. Or, perhaps more importantly, to figure out what goes wrong when Kuhn’s ‘normal science’ collapses under the weight of too many events that are unvrecoverable in the current paradigm. Clearly, modern science is a collection of many incompatible theories, and I think philosophy has an important role in illuminating the grounding of these theories and discovering where they are illegitimate, or where they reach unsurpassable limits.

    Exactly: methodological primacy =/= substantive primacy. This is why ‘correlationism’ isn’t nearly as widespread as Brassier or Meillassoux seem to think. I think it’s really important, in the years going forward in continental philosophy, that we not slip into the idea that every time someone gives methodological primacy to epistemological questions, they’re being ‘correlationist’ – it’s perfectly possible to say “we only ever have access to some object through some kind of relation” without also saying “the object is thereby reduced to this relation; we only ever have access to the relation” – these are different claims; the latter doesn’t follow from the former; but although Brassier here acknowledges this, much of the rest of his work proceeds as if methodological primacy were almost always substantive primacy. Anyhoo.]

    This is a good point too, and a good reminder. A focus on epistemological questions alone doesn’t make one a correlationist – in fact I still think epistemological questions are hugely important for philosophy myself. The problem is, I would argue, the tendency for what QM calls weak correlationism (basically Kant’s admission of unknowable noumena) to collapse into strong correlationism (Fichte and Hegel’s critique of the noumena as being inconsistent with the critical project). So while we may resist that collapsing of ontology into epistemology, it seems like that’s a very pervasive trend (albeit, not a necessary one, I would hope!)

    What’s going on here – and this is absolutely typical of analytic philosophy, it’s probably the sub-discipline’s most pervasive intellectual move – is: ordinary consciousness is being understood and described in terms only really appropriate to scientific endeavour. Or, in fact, to a particular philosophical vision of scientific endeavour. [With its ‘propositional attitudes’ and the rest of the post-Russellian apparatus.] The purpose of ‘folk psychology’ is to make predictions, basically – to look for a particular kind of law-like regularity. This is what “understanding others” means, for Churchland. It’s a profoundly cold, creepy understanding of what everyday human understanding consists in (and this is also very common in the analytic space; it’s like an institutional space oriented to a specific form of psychosis).

    This is great, and something I hadn’t really thought about before. While I completely agree with what you’re saying here, it seems like it’s a potentially resolvable problem. Specifically, this is what the turn to phenomenology can do – is provide a more intuitive, natural, pre-theoretical analysis/description of what consciousness is like. And in that light, I think someone like Metzinger’s project is hugely important – namely, a neurophenomenology that takes seriously how the world appears to us, yet explains in in eliminativist terms. Metzinger’s project isn’t so much to eliminate folk psychology as commonly construed, but rather to eliminate the very phenomenological base of these theories of consciousness. I might be explaining that all a bit schematically, but I think the point comes across. I think this also responds to your problem w/r/t to the contradictions involved in eliminating ordinary consciousness…

    Nate, you write:

    I’m being grumpy but I also find “non-philosophy” an incredibly offputting term, a needless bit of terminological complexity which should be jettisoned simply on the basis of its susceptibility to communicative misfires. It’s like characterizing a type of speech as non-speech or a type of writing as non-writing – the terminological choice has clear downsides and no upsides I can see.

    I think you’re totally right here – non-philosophy is more obscuring than clarifying as a term. And like Duncan mentions later, Laruelle does this for everything, to the point of almost a purely formal repetition. What it should really be called is something like non-decisionalphilosophy or non-correlationist philosophy – both of which Laruelle and Brassier see at the heart of a lot of philosophy. Non-philosophy is itself a philosophy, but one that truly tries to open up a space irreducible to philosophy. So, if it helps at all, reading non-philosophy as non-decisional philosophy may make more sense!

    The trouble here, of course, is that it’s hard to see how any such guaranteed relation to a thought independent objectivity could be guaranteed. Surely the very concept of thought-independence (the very concept of objectivity) implies the possibility of thought’s severance from this objectivity? The severance of this relation.

    I’m open to discussion on this issue here, but I think perhaps this idea of severing the relationship between thought and being (which is prevalent in Meillassoux and much of SR) perhaps needs to be qualified a bit more. Specifically, what needs to be severed is not their relation, but rather their reciprocal relation – whereby being determines thought and thought determines being. It is the latter aspect that Laruelle and Brassier are responding against, and is ultimately what forms the basis for his non-dialectical negativity and unilateralization. So instead of a reciprocal relation, you get discussions in NU of the object producing its own thought.

    I liked a lot of stuff in your long comment on Derrida, Symposium and Titus Andronicus (among many other topics!), but I want to let it roll around in my head for a bit. I think you touch on some important issues that I’d only obscurely articulated to myself, and I want to sort of think about where they lead…

    And one final thing, I think it’d be intersesting to read NP’s work on self-relfexivity in light on Laruelle and non-phi. I’m hoping to at some point do a little more substantial work on this incipient idea, and if so I’ll make sure to pass it along.

    Cheers,
    -Nick


  19. […] the conference themes are also underway at Daily Humiliation here and here, and at Duncan’s blog. Benjamin has written a particularly generous analysis of my paper at No Useless Leniency – one […]

  20. duncan Says:

    Hey Nick, thanks. I’m pretty tired today unfortunately, so this is probably going to be completely inadeqate, but…

    Ok, I can agree with this, and I think it’s a pretty good defence of the extended mind hypothesis against reductive neuroscience.

    Cool!

    It also, I would argue, points towards the need for a non-empirical instance (i.e. philosophical) to legitimate scientific findings. Or, perhaps more importantly, to figure out what goes wrong when Kuhn’s ‘normal science’ collapses under the weight of too many events that are unvrecoverable in the current paradigm.

    Now here I think I’d disagree. 🙂 Though it depends on what we mean by ‘empirical’. … I mean – obviously scientific results aren’t just ‘given’ – they’re arrived at using criteria for judgment, etc. that aren’t themselves innate in the data or experience the results are connected to / (partly) derived from. In a sense those criteria or whatever therefore aren’t going to be ’empirical’, they’re going to ‘transcend’ the empirical (or this empirical) in some way. Now if you’re Kant or whoever (or possibly a bastardisation of Kant… like, the Kantian apparatus doesn’t map directly onto philosophy of science…) these ‘transcendent’ forms via which we reach our judgements on empirical reality are, in some more or less strong sense, transcendental: irreducible to the empirical or to anything connected to the empirical.

    I disagree with this ‘Kantian’ picture (as you know (and of course as do you too) – sorry, will try not to repeat myself too much). Our ‘transcendental’ criteria of judgement are themselves ’empirically’ produced, imo – that is to say, produced by empirically observable objects, events, proccesses, etc. They’re produced biologically (this is how our brains work) but also socially (these are the norms of our society, or of one aspect of our society). So I think you can (in principle) say both – yeah, our judgements as to what exists empirically are formed by rules or norms or criteria that aren’t derived from experience (say) [and therefore aren’t ’empirical’ in one sense] [or are (with social stuff) derived from experience that can be quite radically distant from the experience they’re applied to] – while also saying: these rules or norms or criteria are produced by the same world we empirically observe, in its empirical existence – and we can give an account of this production. That is: we don’t have to maintain the strong distinction between the transcendental and the empirical – or between the constituting and the constituted – or between metaphysics and the objects of experience. It’s in this sense all empirical, at the end of the day. (Which isn’t to say that there can’t be lots of stuff that we don’t know – or indeed that we couldn’t know… but this would again be empirically inaccessible stuff, rather than metaphysically withdrawn or something.)

    I mean – I may be stating the obvious. Basically this is what a naturalistic world-view does, right?

    So in one sense philosophy can be called on here? Our debates about what norms of enquiry to accept (for instance) are going to be partly philosophical debates? But this isn’t a philosophy that stands over and above the empirical? It’s a philosophy produced by empirical stuff. (Sometimes, of course, philosophical positions present themselves as standing over and above the empirical. But I tend to find those kinds of claims both implausible, and (probably more relevantly) unnecessary in order to give the kind of ‘grounding’ account that such positions tend to suggest only philosophy as metaphysics can provide.)

    That was dramatically infelicitous – by I think it’s clear what I’m getting at?

    W/r/t Kuhn – again, I don’t see anything in Kuhn’s account of paradigm shifts etc. that would require a metaphysical apparatus any stronger than the one Kuhn provides? (i.e. basically not much in the way of one…) [As an aside – and not responding to you here – I’m always sort of puzzled by the way Kuhn is taken as causing real problems for scientific epistemology. As far as i can tell he basically just provides a good account of one of the ways in which science operates – like surely paradigm shifts just happen, sometimes, and I don’t see why they’d call into question science’s ability to respond adequately to the facts, etc. (& I liked what Nate said above about people generally not abandoning a position until there’s some preferable alternative available, relatedly). But all this is by the by, sorry.]

    On Meillassoux & strong correlationism… yeah. I might pass on that for the minute, just because I’m really tired. (I wrote something about Meillassoux on this blog a while back…) In very very very brief: essentially I don’t see strong correlationism as being too pervasive a problem? (There aren’t a load of Fichteans running around at the moment, for instance.) But I also think Meillassoux’s own argument is – ironically – very close to a strong correlationism? It seems to me that his real enemy is metaphysical realism, understood as the necessary possibility that we just don’t know the deep structure of reality – that we can’t have contact with the Absolute. In arguing that the formal structure of thought in itself guarantees knowledge of the Absolute, Meillassoux seems to me to move into pretty strong correlationist space. But I think I said this better when I wrote on him at greater length.

    Ok – basically I’m fading here and I ought to sleep. 😛 The above is probably very ill-phrased. But I’ll get back to you and say more in a day or two. Cheers…

  21. duncan Says:

    Hey Nick, sorry about delay. Not sure how much more I’ve got to say, but just trying to run through your comment…

    On Metzinger: I was just looking at the Precis of Being No One that he did for Monash a while back – but otherwise I don’t know Metzinger’s work. On this: “this is what the turn to phenomenology can do – is provide a more intuitive, natural, pre-theoretical analysis/description of what consciousness is like” – I’d dispute giving this status to phenomenology. Obviously phenomenology as a set of philosophical claims isn’t in any sense ‘pre-theoretical’ – but I’d also argue that the characteristics phenomenology generally attributes to consciousness aren’t ‘pre-theoretical’ either: in that – I don’t think phenomenology accurately describes a ‘pre-theoretical’ consciousness (or that it accurately describes the necessary features of consciousness, for instance, either.) I probably shouldn’t comment on Metzinger given how very little of him I’ve read – but based on that very little I’d be inclined towards the feeling that: 1) He seems a lot more theoretically sophisticated than the Churchlands; 2) Part of that theoretical sophistication looks to be an actual engagement with phenomenology; 3) His various ‘constraints’ look to be underdetermined by neurophysiological evidence. Obviously I’ve only glanced at his stuff – but I’d be quite surprised if he’s got scientific backing for these constraints, rather than philosophical / introspective backing – which could then be disputed philosophically or introspectively. So, again – and stressing that this is based on minimal knowledge of the guy’s work – my Derridean alarm bells obviously start ringing when I read stuff like: “A second core-aspect of phenomenal consciousness is what could be described as the generation of an island of presence in the continuous flow of physical time.” This seems familiar terrain, with a fairly substantial set of critiques pretty much primed and ready to go. My assumption is that he’s contesting the validity of ‘phenomenological’ consciousness, so he’s not attempting to ground stuff in presence, here. But there’s still the question of whether ‘presence’ is an adequate concept even to describe a putative pre-theoretical consciousness. (And I’m also, predictably, sceptical about the human-exceptionalism that seems to be driving a lot of his analysis.)

    However, like I say, this is all back-of-the-envelope stuff based on minimal knowledge; perhaps if I actually read the guy some time I could revise or expand…

    Now on this:

    Me: The trouble here, of course, is that it’s hard to see how any such guaranteed relation to a thought independent objectivity could be guaranteed. Surely the very concept of thought-independence (the very concept of objectivity) implies the possibility of thought’s severance from this objectivity? The severance of this relation.

    You: I’m open to discussion on this issue here, but I think perhaps this idea of severing the relationship between thought and being (which is prevalent in Meillassoux and much of SR) perhaps needs to be qualified a bit more. Specifically, what needs to be severed is not their relation, but rather their reciprocal relation – whereby being determines thought and thought determines being. It is the latter aspect that Laruelle and Brassier are responding against, and is ultimately what forms the basis for his non-dialectical negativity and unilateralization. So instead of a reciprocal relation, you get discussions in NU of the object producing its own thought.

    Ok. Now I could be off base here – but to me my point wasn’t really about the definite severance of any relation – it was more that part of the concept of ‘objectivity’ (at least for most objects) is the possibility of the object existing without being thunk. I’m wary about moving into too ‘metaphysical’ a register here (which may seem rather hypocritical given the paper 😉 ) – but if you wanted to frame this point in transcendental language, it would be something like: thinking an object as unthought-of is a necessary condition of thinking it as an object. Brassier would see this, I think, as paradoxical – as a necessary paradox, I guess – with being-nothing as the impossible thought of the absence of thought. I think that there’s no paradox here, basically. Or that it’s a fine paradox – an unproblematic one. This is part of what thought is and does, and we just can (and do) think of objects without that thought implying the sublation of the object or of objectivity within thought. (i.e.: too bad, Hegel.)

    So w/r/t severing the relation between an object and thought – I think I’m making here a more nuanced claim than I think you’re taking me to be. (Could me misreading you.) I’m not talking (necessarily) about the rejection of a relation between thought and its object. I’m talking about a rejection of the metaphysical guarantee of that relation. It’s a meta point, if you like – or a point about what philosophy often understands to be the necessary condition of any relation – which I dispute.

    So yes – I agree that we don’t want (and don’t have) a reciprocal relation, here – where the object of thought given to consciousness is taken to only exist as object in and through consciousness. Most objects exist just fine whether we’re thinking of them or not :-). [Sometimes I sneak up on them unawares, just to check…] My point is that the (widely held) naturalistic world-view already gives us this. Scientists don’t think that the planet Saturn, or whatever, only exists because we’re thinking about it! Only philosophers think this, mostly – and only a fairly limited bunch of philosophers at that.

    I understand that this isn’t the same as the kind of (non-)relation Laruelle’s talking about with unilaterisation, the foreclosure of the Real, etc. But to my mind, if we’re drawing on these (non-)philosophical resources because we want to make thinkable the thought-independence of objects – we don’t have to! We can already think about objects as thought independent. We already do. If we’re talking about unilaterisation, foreclosure of the Real, the mystical constitution of the human, etc, it must be because we want something else. I think Laruelle’s fairly frank about what that something else is – it’s a somewhat baroque and elaborate form of gnostic mysticism. (I think Brassier’s much more conflicted – he wants some of the theoretical resources that only religious or mystical thought can give him, essentially, but he doesn’t really want to endorse mysticism. (In Nihil Unbound, I mean; in Alien Theory he seems basically fine with the gnostic stuff.)) I believe Anthony Paul Smith’s working on a translation of The Future Christ at the minute, and I’d be really interested to read that when in comes out. My take is that Laruelle’s work is really quite explicitly mystical / religious (albeit ‘heretical’ in the religious sense – this is his own religious movement or doctrine that he’s disseminating, and quite a peculiar one). And I think that this religious orientation is really the only way to make sense of a lot of the theoretical moves Laruelle makes. I certainly don’t think these moves are necessary to make objects’ thought-independence thinkable, etc.

    But I suspect I’m mostly just rephrasing stuff I’ve already said now – so enough from me again. Hope that isn’t irrelevant to what you were hitting at above. And hope you’re well…


  22. […] 11, 2009 There’s been some discussion, on some of the blogs I read, recently, and on this blog too, about science, philosophy, mysticism, totality. There is a philosophical longing for, in […]


  23. […] Materialism and Realism. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (eds.) (re.press 2011) 4. Brassier Paper (duncanlaw […]


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