Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ray Brassier interview with After Nature blog


[UPDATE: The below is the original 2012 Brassier-After Nature interview. During the summer of 2016 Ray was kind enough to answer a few additional questions and hence the interview was substantially lengthened and then printed in 2017 in Speculative Realism: An Epitome, available for purchase HERE. Please see Speculative Realism: An Epitome for the full, complete interview]

Ray Brassier is so far best known for his popular work, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; 2010). After Nature blog had the pleasure of asking Ray a few questions about his book, as well as about some of his recent talks and upcoming projects.  

Ray Brassier (PHOTO: Arika12)


L. Niemoczynski: How did you first become interested in philosophy, and what led to you to decide that you’d like to pursue a career in philosophy (whether teaching or research)?  How did you end up in your current position at the American University of Beirut? 

 Ray Brassier: I became interested in philosophy when I was relatively young (13), but it took a long time for me to decide I wanted to pursue it academically. I did not enjoy school and had no desire to go to university, which was not an option anyway since I was a terrible student and did not have the requisite qualifications. I was 27 when I eventually managed to enroll for a philosophy degree at university. I decided to pursue it as far as I could simply because it was more important to me than anything else. But I had no career plan and am astonished I managed to get any sort of academic employment. I view my academic career as a wholly unexpected but very welcome piece of good fortune. I ended up in Beirut entirely by chance. I wanted to get out of London and was lucky enough to be offered a position at AUB. 

LN: In a recent talk in Berlin, you mention Bergson, Deleuze, and Whitehead and how those philosophers have been recently appropriated within contemporary scholarship (I believe at one point you make reference to Iain Hamilton Grant, whose philosophy I also take a great interest in). How do you appropriate Bergson or other like-philosophers (you also mentioned Bergson in Zagreb), and how does his thought play out within your work? Is there a philosophy of life or anti-life, vitalism or anti-vitalism, a beyond or "after" vitalism, working within your perspective? 

RB: I’m very critical of Bergson and of vitalism more generally. Nevertheless, I think Bergson is an important philosopher who often asks the right questions, even if I think his answers are wrong.  I’m not interested in proposing a philosophy of life or anti-life, but in querying the inflation of “life” into a master-category in contemporary philosophy, not just by overt vitalists, but also by phenomenologists, critical theorists, and enactivists. I’m a great admirer of Iain and think our projects overlap in very interesting ways. I’m particularly interested in his work on “the physics of the Idea”. This ties in to the question of Plato’s relation to naturalism, which is of enormous importance for me. The philosopher in whom this connection is developed in the most ingenious and unexpected fashion is Wilfrid Sellars, which is why he has become such an indispensable resource for my work. Sellars is a Kantian philosopher who also adumbrated a process metaphysics, which is why his thought is so uniquely challenging, both for Kantian anti-metaphysicians and anti-Kantian metaphysicians. He takes up themes from Bergson’s metaphysics of duration but subjects it to a Kantian transformation that renders it compatible with empirical science.

LN: In your Berlin talk as well, there is a lot of ground covered with Plato.  It’s also known that you have an interest in philosophical naturalism.  How does Plato fit into your philosophical naturalism – if at all – and what might we learn from Plato according to your project?  (This seemed to be a major point of your talk.)

 RB: Plato is a key touchstone for me. I think his separation of truth from doxa, and of the idea from the sensible, is the inaugural and indispensable gesture of all philosophizing. He’s also the founder of philosophy as dialectics, which I’m interested in re-affirming, having overcome my long aversion to its caricatured forms. Basically, I’m interested in reconciling Platonism with naturalism by reconciling the dialectics of the idea with the dynamism of the sensible. This is also a way of reconciling idealism with materialism, which I think is necessary. Again, Sellars is the key inspiration here.  

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89)

LN:  Given your recent success with the much acclaimed Nihil Unbound, what are your reflections on that book now, especially as that book may relate to your research that will be appearing in the future?  You’ve mentioned that you are working on a number of things right now, what areas of research (or theses) should we expect to see?  Another book perhaps?  What should we expect from you in the future – in terms of articles, another book, or upcoming talks?  Please feel free to share any last words and end as you'd like.

Ray Brassier (PHOTO: Arika12)

RB: I regard the book as a botched job. It contends that nature is not the repository of purpose and that consciousness is not the fulcrum of thought. The cogency of these claims presupposes an account of thought and meaning that is neither Aristotelian—everything has meaning because everything exists for a reason—nor phenomenological—consciousness is the basis of thought and the ultimate source of meaning. The absence of any such account is the book’s principal weakness (it has many others, but this is perhaps the most serious). It wasn’t until after its completion that I realized Sellars’ account of thought and meaning offered precisely what I needed. To think is to connect and disconnect concepts according to proprieties of inference. Meanings are rule-governed functions supervening on the pattern-conforming behaviour of language-using animals. This distinction between semantic rules and physical regularities is dialectical, not metaphysical. To evoke it is to commit oneself to a qualified version of anthropocentrism, which I’m quite prepared to defend. It’s of a piece with the distinction between sapience and sentience, which is fundamental for Sellars.  I’ve been working my way through his writings since completing Nihil Unbound and my understanding of his thought has progressed considerably since my brief (and woefully inadequate) treatment of it there. His influence will feature prominently in the book I’m currently working on, tentatively entitled That Which Is Not. It will be about the reality of appearance, a topic which was not properly addressed in Nihil Unbound. The challenge of rationalism is to insist on the distinction between appearance and reality, or the sensible and the intelligible, while accounting for the reality of appearances, or the intelligibility of the sensible. This is a problem that goes back to Plato. It’s a question of understanding how every appearance has a kind of reality, but only insofar as it is split from within by what it does not reveal. This ties in to the issues of the intelligibility of becoming and the structure of time. These are themes that were touched upon but not properly worked through in Nihil Unbound. My other long-term project is a book about historical materialism and revisionary naturalism. But it’s premature to talk about it right now since it’s still at a very early stage. 

LN: Thanks so much for taking time to do this interview, Ray.  It's been a pleasure and I am even more curious now where your future work may be headed. If you would ever like to inform philosophical readers online of what you're up to (especially talks - I missed your talk at Cornell because I just didn't hear about it online until it actually appeared on Cornell's website) then please feel free to email me and I can make an announcement informally on my website. In any case, hopefully we'll have the pleasure of meeting one day in person.  Best of luck to you and thanks again.

RB: Very good. Thanks for your kind offer, I'll certainly bear it in mind.


Interview courtesy of After Nature blog 2012 (c). 



Saturday, August 25, 2012

biophilosophers and the physics of the Idea

This is the video that I referenced yesterday, pretty incredible stuff and definitely worth watching. I've run into some of these ideas some months back (see my post HERE), but also see these links: Lynn Margulis, Marjorie Grene, and Grace De Laguna.



Highlights from another blog are HERE and are quoted below:
The key idea Lynn Margulis is known for is symbiogenesis. Symbiogenesis obviously takes the word symbiosis as its root. Symbiosis is simply defined as two organisms living together that are different from each other. Margulis writes “Different types of organisms stick together to make a third kind of organism. This fusion is not random."

Zizek writes about Varela and Margulis in The Parallax View. Zizek taking a cue from Schelling when he states that nature is horrifying and antagonistic. Nature should never be looked at as some kind of whole in perfect balance. There is no balance in nature, nature is an imbalance, novelty exists because of the contradiction between expansion and contraction.

Zizek writes that Lynn Margulis’s ideas and the “evolutionary cognitivist” is the standard metaphysical “enigma of the relationship between chaos and order, between the multiple and the One, between parts and whole”. Of course a materialist must contend that there is a fissure in being itself that will lead to subjectivity.

Zizek isn’t done with Margulis’s ideas. He of course uses these ideas to explain his ideas of subjectivity or the hard kernel of subjectivity. Zizek states that a consistent self is only virtual; and that “it’s an inside that only appears from the outside”.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

the role of transcendence in speculative philosophy: James Bradley on Whitehead


Bradley, James.  "Transcendentalism and Speculative Realism in Whitehead."  Process Studies 23, nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1994): 155-91.  Link HERE.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

God's transcendence and immanence: a reply

One of the greatest moments in my career and certainly a highlight for me was having the honor of sitting between "the two Roberts" (Neville and Corrington) last year during a lunch break at a conference the three of us were attending.

The below is a link to an engagement between the two Roberts, who are both good friends and have been for many years.

I thought to post this as much of the conversation found in the document reflects my own orientation concerning speculative philosophy and theistic naturalism.

http://www.users.drew.edu/rcorring/downloads/RSC%20AJTP%20RSC%20on%20Neville%20with%20Neville%20Response.pdf

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

speculative realism's relationship to phenomenology

My preference is for an ordinal approach to phenomenology - one that attempts to move past the sort of Kantian finitude Husserl maintained by relegating the real to first-person conscious appearances.  The ordinal phenomenological approach, by contrast, involves the twin notions of ordinality and ontological parity.  I've already discussed how Peirce, Buchler, Hartshorne, and Whitehead offer radically different phenomenologies than the sort  of (Kantian) transcendental phenomenology that one finds in Husserl.

The most pressing question is this however.  Is the reduction made by human consciousness as an act intended for human consciousness essential to the phenomenological method?  Perhaps the question ceases to be interesting or even relevant because phenomenology rarely goes beyond trying to decide what  phenomenology is exactly as a method (something Husserl could never move past it appears).  But it would be insular to suppose that phenomenology means Husserl or perhaps even means reduction.

A better question might be: for phenomenology do method and "objective" correlate (*what* so to speak is the content of analysis) follow each other all of the way down?  Or is it possible that whatever content to be described exceeds the consciousness attempting to describe it? If phenomenology is properly made speculative (mathematized or turned logically modal or categorical, as in Peirce, Buchler, Hartshorne, et al), then speculative realism's ontological demonstrations are capable of becoming epistemological descriptions.  (If speculation is a demonstration of "what can be" rather than of "what is" - pace Q. Meillassoux - then the demonstration of what can be, a modal categorical (phenomenological) determination, would reduce to epistemological description in its value for any possible observer yet retain realist metaphysical element - but such is not *presupposed* in the phenomenological method). 

Moreover, if the qualitative, or "present to" first-person or subjective conscious experience component is supplanted by modal-categorical revelation so as to maintain an adequate level of objective demonstration and metaphysical realism, we need then only ask how does such an approach regard the conditions for consciousness which enact method.  In other words, how are the categories of cosmos isomorphic to the consciousness that happens to be rendering them.  Note that this isn't the other way around (moving from categories of conscious experience to cosmos, which was the Kantian-Husserlian transcendental mistake).

In the sense that, given  a speculative phenomenology is possible but only by re-conceiving its method in modal-categorial terms,  perhaps the "experiential" component of phenomenological analysis - a natural self-disclosure of sorts - could be preserved in its extrahuman (inhuman) elements despite the elimination of its qualitative or first-person "present to consciousness" viewpoint.  Phenomenology, methodologically, wouldn't be the knowing-what of experience but the exhibition of the becoming-how of the real, a demonstration and then description of reality's possible becoming.

In any case, those are just a few thoughts on how phenomenology might in the future be able to be of some use for those interested in speculative realist philosophy.


Monday, August 13, 2012

"The Weakness of Meillassoux's God" and "Meillassoux's God and Process Theism"

Every once in awhile you come upon someone who hits upon an idea at the same time that you do. I copy the below to draw out some of the similarities between the two papers.


"The Weakness of Meillassoux's God" 

Michael O'Rourke

Accordingly, the “true” infinity of “God” in deconstruction is not found in the classical metaphysics of infinite being but in the open-ended infinitival promise set off by the paradigmatic name of God, the God to-come, the coming God, the unforeseeable effects of the trace of “God”, whose meaning is its iterability, its future, its to come—John D.Caputo, “The Return of Anti-Religion: From Radical Atheism to Radical Theology”

Only the fourth link, the philosophical link and immanent form of hope—believing in God because he does not exist —has never been systematically defended. It has now been done. The four possible links of humans with God are henceforth known. Onemust choose—Quentin Meillassoux, The Divine Inexistence

This paper takes up three thinkers (John Caputo, Martin Hägglund and Quentin Meillassoux), three broad themes (God and religion; temporality and futurity; and justice), and will proceed in three stages. In the first part of the paper I wish to painstakingly reconstruct the recent set of arguments and counter-arguments between John Caputo and Martin Hägglund regarding their respective understandings of the religion sans religion of Jacques Derrida. For Caputo, Derrida’s deconstruction is structured like a religion, moved by a desire and a passion for the impossible and the infinitival promise of the à venir (which is to say that God, justice, hospitality, the gift and so on do not exist but may come to exist in the future).

This leads him to propose a radical theology, an ultra-realism, which depends on a weak God with God being another name for the event or advent. Hägglund has a quite different understanding of Derrida and tries to immunize his own thinking against God and religion in favour of what he calls the autoimmunitary logic of radical atheism. Caputo’s religion is therefore open to the future to-come because God is an effect of différance and this gestures toward a religious materialism. Hägglund’s radical atheist materialism, his radical evil, is turned precisely against the future, closes it off, despite his claims to the contrary. 

The middle part of this paper addresses itself to a related set of critiques which Hägglund has aimed against Meillassoux. In a number of places Hägglund has been desperate to distance himself from Meillassoux’s After Finitude because, for him, there can be no agreement between his radical atheist position and Meillassoux’s “divinology” as they both commit themselves to the renegotiation of questions concerning contingency and necessity, time and space, life and death. Even though Meillassoux appears to direct his criticism of fideism and the tout autre at Derrida (albeit without explicitly saying so) it is clear that Hägglund’s antipathy for Caputo and Meillassoux’s respective positions allows us to push the other pair closer together to mount a critique of Hägglund’s misreadings of Derrida around the three problematics of religion, futurity and justice.

The last part of the paper stages a speculative reading of Caputo’s weak theology as it is developed in The Weakness of God alongside Meillassoux’s The Divine Inexistence. Even though Caputo himself dismisses Meillassoux’s virtual God as nonsensical, ridiculous and fanciful (and I will carefully parse the obvious differences between their stances) I want to argue that the couple are actually rather close when it comes to a number of issues: the advent, messianism, hospitality, super-contingency and hyper-chaos, hyper-realism, ethics, justice, spectrality, immanence and the virtual, the child/infans, sovereignty, the good, mourning, hope, desire, trace, the peut-être and the God to-come. Ultimately, what I wish to wager is that both Caputo’s weak theology and Meillassoux’s speculative non-metaphysical theology (albeit his is a religion without religion and he quite rightly passes for an atheist) are optative, jussive, archi- prayers which rethink, reimagine and reinvent God, a coming God, a God to-come.


"Meillassoux’s God and Process Theism”

Leon Niemoczynski

Meillassoux’s divine inexistence recently has been compared to “the God-who-is-yet-to-come,” posed by Continental philosophers of religion such as John Caputo. Additionally, the divine inexistence, in all of its radical non-existence has, to a lesser extent, been compared to the God who neither is nor is not, but “may be” – as posed by the Continental philosopher of religion, Richard Kearney. While Meillassoux’s God does not "exist" strictly speaking, if God does not exist now but someday may, then we require explanation for the Meillassouxian belief in that non-existence – the “virtual God” and the “immanent form of hope” related to it. If we turn toward a non-existent deity – a “divine inexistence,” a non-existent God other than the old God of onto-theology (and correspondingly of dusty Scholasticism then), is it fair to ask whether the “post-metaphysical God” has fared any better? Here we may possibly condemn the likes of Caputo and Kearney, for they have dodged speculative query in favor of the human-situated and human-centered while neglecting crucial ontological (i.e. metaphysical) questions regarding a God who may be. Yet, there seems to be more at stake than this. Concepts such as virtuality, power, contingency, weakness, and justice require adumbration indeed – but these notions are picked up by Caputo and Kearney in both their ethical and metaphysical dimensions, but with subtlety. It seems that one requires a comparative key, then, to unlock the bridge between discussions about virtuality and possibility as those notions relate to an ethics of hope as found in Caputo and Kearney, and in Meillassoux.  From what philosophical resources might we draw in order to deal with this non-existent or virtual coming-to-be God, especially in its ethical dimensions? How can Meillassoux’s God make better ethical sense, and likewise, how can Caputo’s and Kearney’s God make better ontological sense? On my view, by drawing on the process philosophical tradition we may be able to answer these questions – and as well - in this way we find that Caputo, Kearney, and Meillassoux all might be considered process theists, each in their own unique way.

Monday, August 6, 2012

more on phenomenology: ontology and epistemology

Traditional realism typically holds that there is a division between the inner mental life of a subject and the reality outside of mental representation had by that subject.  Epistemologically there are concepts and then the objects which those concepts are about.  Inside and outside, subject and object, concept and object to which a concept refers.

Phenomenology effaces the division between inside and outside, internal and external, concept and object, by saying that objects and concepts are equally as real in any given conscious appearance, indeed in appearance objects are as they appear. Appearance is the "givenness" of phenomena external to the mind within human experience; that is, within human consciousness. Phenomenology focuses on describing how or in what way phenomena appear.  The division between inside and outside is collapsed, although collapsed "in" upon the side of the subject. That is, nature is how nature appears. The side of the subject is said to be *both* an experiential layer of human consciousness and simultaneously, at once, any and all appearing "external" objects of nature. And so "the real" is a fully experiential continuum of appearing conscious experience, a phenomenological "horizon" that is nature or Being itself.

The trouble seems to be that, ontologically, in order to be a thoroughgoing realist, one should say that these objects do not depend upon human experience or the "consciousness of" things in order to have the character that they do (and by this I mean "to have a character" means to be presented in some way. Thus a subject seems required to bring about the qualities that are described as they are described).  A realist would like to say that reality is quite independent of and autonomous of human experience and its manner of apprehension, as passive as that manner may be (and so the phenomenological realist would defer to the reality of how things appear having bracketed theoretical presuppositions about that appearance).  The trouble occurs in that phenomenology claims it is not a problem to state that things are simply as they are given to human consciousness as there is a certain trust in the manner of the appearance.

Husserlian phenomenology emphasizes the transcendental and "lived" qualitative immediacy of the appearance.  His transcendental version of phenomenology requires that these appearances be divested to a reflective consciousness always already within a "life-world." Thus there is always a certain "being conditioned-ness" that the human observer always brings to the table which challenges the overall "autonomy" of reality component present in the independence of its presentation.  In other words, the independence of what things are in their own autonomous nature appears to be challenged by the requirement of phenomenal presentation needed for phenomenology's "realist" descriptions.

Other phenomenologies do not emphasize these same Husserlian moments however, and so the same challenge to the autonomy of the real is not present. Instead, these phenomenologists shift attention to the becoming of the real itself - its activity rendered phenomenologically not strictly in qualitative terms presented to human consciousness, but in terms of categories or modes of Being or nature which establish the very basis of what experiential description can be in its own sensible appearance.

The key is that these categories or modes are not a priori merely of conscious experience in some idealistic Kantian manner, but rather are broad enough - i.e" universal" - so as to establish in their transcendental nature the very possibility of conscious experience as such in qualitative terms but also specific or individuated terms. Meaning, in terms of what appears, not just how that what itself appears.  So taken at once as categorial-modal Being, most broadly nature itself, here in a more Hegelian realist manner, sensible-articulation is categorically experience. The point is that experience, reality, nature, Being is originally independent of or articulating before any actualization "to" consciousness despite not being strictly external to it; that is, its appearing is concomitant to consciousness as much as it is its transcendental condition.  Therefore, sensibility-articulating-itself is the active categorial-modal transcendental condition of consciousness and is also, at once, nature.

This, in a nutshell, is a genetic-organic phenomenology - something that Husserl turned toward and dimly cast toward the end of his career, however never quite concretely outlined in his own genetic approach. Husserl was concerned with the "passive syntheses" of consciousness knit with genetic activity. But he never understood genetic activity, as much as it is concomitant with consciousness, as a transcendental categorial mode. Had Husserl fully explored this underside, what might it look like as a phenomenological approach? Here I would suggest several philosophers who had worked in this area of a genetic-organic phenomenological approach, including, Merleau-Ponty (whom I shall skip for now as that, too, was toward the end of his career and thus a complex case), the obscure American philosopher Justus Buchler, the great American metaphysician and logicist Charles Hartshorne, and finally, Alfred North Whitehead.

Beginning with the "ordinal" phenomenology of American philosopher Justus Buchler, Buchler states that reality is whatever is in whatever way it is (the ontological claim of phenomenology) yet it does not rely on privileging the mere appearance of whatever appears.  The natural complexity of reality is focus rather than that complexity's so-called conscious apprehension. Each complexity of nature is both a general and particular. What remains is a "jewel-like" ontology with an infinite pluralistic continuum of modes and orders. Charles Hartshorne's (and Whitehead's) process phenomenology emphasizes the powers of what phenomenology attempts to explicate, however not in terms of qualitative descriptive reportage but in terms of aesthetic feeling through "prehension," better rendered in art, literature, or poetry than in any "description of essences." Prehension, for Hartshorne, has a logical-mathematical mode as well that is transcendental in another aspect despite its qualitative appearance. This he took from the American philosopher C.S. Peirce, who saw phenomenology as a mathematical exercise.

Peirce's phenomenology seems to shift focus back to the categorical exhibitive display of the real, attending first and foremost not to a mere human description at all but to the a priori categorical and metaphysical disclosure of a pre-objective indivision, sensible-articulating nature as a "first nature" (erst Natur) which is essentially cosmological as much as it is phenomenological, for it is the "ground" of any conscious presentation whatsoever.  For Peirce, "Firstness" is "first Nature."  The un-prethinkable. Sensibility-articulating-itself therefore seems to be both thinkable (because it a dim way it appears to thought) yet also "not" or "un" thought (as it is "before" thought, birthing thought). Peirce especially had this in mind with his concept of "Firstness," Schelling - whom we haven't mentioned in this discussion had his in mind with his "first Nature," and Merleau-Ponty had this in mind with his pre-objective "indivision" of Nature.

non-correlationist phenomenology: is it a possibility?

It's often been supposed that phenomenology is at odds with those speculative realisms which oppose themselves to correlationism, simply for the fact that phenomenology is mistakenly understood to be a strictly Husserlian affair.  In other words, phenomenology, it is said, couldn't be realist enough because it is an activity which involves descriptive reportage of (mere) mental experiences/appearances that always and necessarily reference a specifically human observer.

In response I've challenged that it may be premature to claim that a.) there is an "end" to phenomenology if we go by attacking just Husserl's version of it only, and that b.) phenomenology is implicitly correlationist.  So I've identified several non-correlationist phenomenologies (not an impossibility, methodologically speaking) which attend to the "exhibitive display of the real" whether in modal, mathematical, or pre-objective terms (e.g. Peirce, Hartshorne, the later Merleau-Ponty, or in limited respects Schelling).  The strongest example, however, comes from literature (see my post HERE), and following Ernst Juenger, I call such a non-correlationist phenomenology "magical realism" or "steroscopy."  Regarding art and literature, specifically painting, I believe there is a forthcoming chapter in The Barbarian Principle which points in a like direction in a discussion of Merleau-Ponty's thoughts about painting with respect to a phenomenological (speculative) magical realism.  But back to Juenger...

This new volume by Ernst Juenger, due out through TELOS press, seems to make the case well.

The 1938 version of Ernst Jünger's The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios must be considered a key text in the famous German writer's sprawling oeuvre. In this volume...Jünger assembles sixty-three short, often surrealistic prose pieces—accounts of dreams, nature observations, biographical vignettes, and critical reflections on culture and society—providing, as he puts it, "small models of another way of seeing things." Here Jünger experiments with a new method of observation and thinking, uniting lucid and precise observation....He calls this method stereoscopy, a form of perception by which our commonplace understanding is extended to include a simultaneous awareness of additional dimensions of sense or value in the object observed. But equally important to Jünger is an intuitive receptivity that comprehends matter directly at the midpoint of matter...