a rich post by Fabio

April 3, 2010

Like Fabio, I’m supposedly on vacation (which in practice just means that I’m working harder than when not on vacation). But a few quick responses to HIS LATEST POST.

He mentions his latest project, which

“aims at a highly ambitious (and speculative!) reworking of a Latourian relationism, rejecting his ’secular occasionalism’ via some borrowings from Buddhist metaphysics, while at the same time trying to: avoid correlationism and upholding the Meillassouxian refusal of the principle of sufficient reason. It’s a mouthful and it’s a highly problematic project on many levels, the most evident being the one related to this kind of cross-cultural philosophical synthesis, one which would lead me to single out the Judeo-Christian-Islamic philosophical subtext at work in Latour and in Meillassoux. As I said, it is probably too ambitious given that it is meant to be the theoretical structure of a thesis (and I mean the material-bundle-of-papers-which-leads-to-a-PhD kind of thesis) which is actually meant to be around the issues of ’science and religion’.”

All the best of luck with this. I’ll be curious to see the Buddhistic aspect.

“First, I think (and this is a general remark, not addressed to Harman in particular) that we should be much more aware of the profound differences between ’scientists’ (physicists, biologists, chemists and so on) and mathematicians. For one simple reason: the only thing they share is the manipulation of a symbolic system, i.e. mathematics,which is certainly a language for, say, physicists, in their usage of it as a formalism to express regularities in nature, but it is much more than a mere language for a mathematician (even as a language, mathematicians ‘handle’ mathematics it in a far more sophisticated way than most ’scientists’ do). They do not share a metaphysics just because they employ mathematics in their work. So when we bunch them up, we should be careful not to bunch them up as ‘those upholding some variety of scientific naturalism because they believe in the mathematization of nature’.”

The problem with this charge (he says it’s not directed at me specifically, and I believe him, but it was obviously prompted by my paper) is that the difference between the two approaches was already built into my argument. I wasn’t saying something as simplistic as “mathematicians and scientists both use numbers, and that makes them the same.”

In the first place, my paper wasn’t directed at natural scientists and mathematicians at all, but at various forms of present-day philosophy that take one or the other as their inspiration. On one side we have a growing scientistic wing in S.R. (which I targeted via Ladyman/Ross) and on the other side we have figures such as Badiou, Meillassoux, and many Lacanians, who favor mathematical formalization as the royal road to reality.

The argument of my paper (implicit in my Zagreb lecture, but drawn out in Dundee) is that these two apparently opposite forms of philosophy mutually implode. Both are sceptical that individual objects have any place in philosophy. One takes them to be too shallow (because often eliminable), and the other takes them to be too deep (because of the correlationist argument).

But the point is that scientism cannot remain in the depths because it is even more committed to realist epistemology than it is to realist metaphysics. Not all defenders of scientism turn towards mathematics, but Ladyman and Ross do. That’s the whole point of structural realism: that mathematical structure is preserved despite theory change in the sciences. To this extent Fabio is wrong to say that I made a sweeping claim about the natural sciences, and would even have been wrong if he had limited himself to saying that I made a sweeping claim about science-inspired philosophy.

Contrariwise, the philosophies sympathetic to the basic correlationist (or relationist) argument cannot remain on the surface, because that would turn them into Berkeleyan idealists, which none of them seem to want to be. And so they end up adding supplemental forms of the Real to prove that they are not idealists. You get this when Fichteans claims that the Anstoß is all the real we need, or when Zizek speaks of the real-traumatic kernel, Badiou of inconsistent multiplicity, or Meillassoux of the virtual. You also get it when Latour recently invokes the plasma after beginning to see the problem of how change could ever arise if everything were thoroughly relational from the start.

The two sides are the same, not because both use numbers (not all of them do), but because both sides end up with a position in which the world is nothing deep and hidden and is perfectly knowable in principle, but in which a sort of vague excess beyond accessibility has to be added as a guarantor that one is not not a full-blown Idealist. It’s essentially “idealism with a realist alibi,” and I think that phrase sums up most of the options in continental philosophy (and much analytic thought) in our time.

In so doing, both approaches evict individual objects from philosophy altogether. Hence my several pleas for the “mezzanine level” in Dundee. I used the name “materialism” for both brands of philosophy, not because I believe there’s no other way to look at materialism, but because both approaches (though Latour is a notable exception) like to call themselves materialist. The “Ground Floor” materialism of scientism has an obviously long tradition of materialism behind it that stretches all the way back to the pre-Socratics. As for the other type of philosophy, I have puzzled for years over why people like Meillassoux and Zizek even call themselves materialists, and realized while writing this paper that it’s in Marx’s sense that they are materialists, and that has a historical justification as well. So, I was just using the term that they apply to themselves.

(Latour is hostile to materialism because he sees it as an idealization that privileges one specific type of actor. But his ultimate position of relations on top, plasma on the bottom links him closely enough with the materialisms I described in Dundee.)

In any case, the argument was more sophisticated than Fabio’s post indicates. But he doesn’t have the paper in front of him, and it can sometimes be hard to remember everything we hear.

Fabio then goes on to give a truly interesting list of all the different types of relationships that might be held to exist between the sciences and philosophy. In response to my view that philosophy need not be prematurely unified with the sciences and vice versa, he says this:

“If I think that it is a respectable position, my skepticism towards it arises from the fact that I suspect it to be a position that doesn’t deal with the reality of the mindset of the majority of the scientific community, or one that is at least too utopian. To make skeptical claims against the necessity and the imminence of the ‘unification of knowledge’ is already a conflictual statement: even if it is not motivated by dismissal of science on Harman’s side, it is destined to be dismissed by the other interested party, the natural scientists.”

My response to the final half sentence is that this is, at best, a tactical problem. I don’t really care that much if I’m included in Alan Sokal’s next polemic. Many practicing natural scientists would be just as sceptical of the positions of Heidegger, Whitehead, Hegel, Kant, Leibniz, Spinoza, Avicenna, Plotinus, Aristotle, and Plato as they would be of me or Latour. But the entire first part of that list are recognized classics in philosophy, and I don’t see anyone rushing to purge the canon just because the majority of practicing scientists in 2010 might not get much out of Plato. Perhaps the reality of the “two cultures” is unpleasant, but I don’t see the point of ending it by turning philosophy into the handmaid of the latest results from CERN. There is all kinds of a priori work available, and the means by which developments in science affect philosophy (or vice versa) are much subtler than one providing foundations for the other.

What surprised me most about the Collapse interview with Ladyman was the stunning mildness of its conclusion. Ladyman just ends up saying: philosophers ought to read about science, historians should read some economics, etc. But I think that’s already being done.

There was indeed a long period of time where continental philosophers weren’t paying attention to the sciences at all. But if there was any “fear and resentment” to this, then I believe it was a byproduct rather than a motive. Continental philosophy was stuck with a correlationist credo, and if you have that, then there isn’t much of a way to bring nature into the picture.

But I’m not just interested in nature, I’m interested in objects of every sort, including artificial and fictitious ones. And I think Twardowski and Meinong are right that metaphysics must deal with all objects, whereas the sciences and mathematics deal only with specific domains of objects. That doesn’t mean philosophy “founds” the other disciplines, any more than the globe “founds” street maps. They are simply different distances from which to contemplate the world.

Let’s also not forget that (despite the odd claim by Ladyman/Ross that David Hull’s suggestion that biological species should count as individuals is “one of the few” cases where a philosopher has influenced scientific praxis) that the two greatest scientists of the past century were deeply inspired by philosophers. Bohr’s model of the atom took much inspiration from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and Einstein was immersed in Kant and Mach (and the Leibnizian side of general relativity seems obvious, though the influence may have been indirect).

If this influence from philosophy in the direction of science has now ceased, it’s hard to say whose fault it is. Paul Feyerabend thinks it’s because the new wave of physicists (Feynman, Schwinger, etc.) are cultural barbarians who know nothing about philosophy. But it could just as easily be that philosophers have been trapped in the human-world correlate and that this is simply bound to be less helpful for science, which deals after all with the world.

And that’s why I dislike Fabio’s warning:

“I suspect that even if OOOntologists do not perceive their philosophy as being in any way dismissive of science the first contact with the scientific community (which, however, is all but inevitable given the relatively air-tight disciplinary boundaries of our academic discussions) will surely stir up recent memories of reprehensible philosophical incursions into scientific turf.”

This seems to translate to: “you’d better be careful about talking about the inhuman world in non-scientific terms, because Sokal might come to get you.” Who’s to say if vicarious causation between withdrawn objects might not turn out to be useful to science in 20 or 30 years, even assuming it’s useless right now? I’m not going to govern my research agenda on the basis of not wanting to dismissed by this or that group of people. Instead, let’s show some courage, and go where our studies take us.

What makes OOO fairly radical by comparison with other forms of S.R. is precisely that we’re venturing into the nonhuman world without simply borrowing off-the-shelf results from the natural sciences. There is, in fact, a way to speak metaphysically about the non-human world.

“it won’t be easy to introduce to the scientific community a philosophy presenting itself as an ‘alternative’ or ‘parallel’ and self-sufficient inquiry on the status of reality which openly traces its conceptual debts to Bruno Latour – the philosopher prince of networks to us, the constructionist prince of anti-science relativism to most scientist.”

Nor do I care what they say about Bruno Latour on the basis of their prejudices and misunderstandings. It is my view that the road to the coming philosophy passes directly through Latour, and I’m more than willing to take a bit of heat for that view. What philosophy has most been missing is adequate attention to individual objects, and Latour has revived this possibility for us. (My disagreements with his own way of bringing this about are well known, and need not be repeated here.)

“I could set up a new series of interviews, but with some selected natural scientists and mathematicians, about their opinions about the new kinds of realism that continental philosophy is developing. I have some names in mind already, and I guess it all depends on how busy and how willing they are to dedicate some time to answer ’speculative’ questions. I’ll think about it and keep you posted.”

Sounds great. I’d certainly like to read this.

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