Thursday, 21 August 2014

Philosophers: where are your instruments?; or, On the defensive deflation of philosophy

One of the principle tasks that were given to the 'specbook'-writing participants at the final AIME workshops in July was to, in one and the same motion, both defend and deflate the institutions and the values of the Moderns. That is, to identify in these basic and cherished contours of collective life the most indispensable and valuable distributions of agency and then, at the same time, to cut science, politics, religion, economics and so on 'down to size,' to divest them of their excessive, unsustainably explosive pretensions so as to condition the possibility of finding them their proper, diplomatic accommodation amidst other, non-Modern cosmoses.

This had to be a symmetrical and simultaneous deflation—deflate politics and not economics and you've got neoliberalism; deflate science and not religion and you've got theological dogmatism; deflate religion and not politics and you've got a cold and authoritarian secularism, and so on. This work sought not to diminish or denounce any of the involved and invoked terms but, rather, to alleviate the tendency for each form of existence to imperially define the entire world in its own format, thus stoking the flames of war. The objective was not diminution but, rather, coexistence.

Following through the internal logic of AIME, it seems no less necessary that we must also deflate philosophy. This task is suggested by the fact that philosophy is accorded a particular mode of existence, namely [pre].

The deflationary effect can be understood by contrasting philosophy with science [pre·ref]. According to Latour, the sciences achieve their specific form of objectivity through the incremental construction of circulating chains of instrumented references that transport information at the cost of deformations at every stage. To refer is to instrument, there is no other way.

So, philosophers: where are your instruments?

To take up one of Graham Harman's phrases, it should be now clear that philosophy qua [pre] cannot possibly be a "philosophy of access." Philosophy does not access, that is the job of reference. Philosophy can, at best, aid and abet this movement; it can act with, it cannot act for.

For millennia, philosophers have insisted that their art involved the construction of objective knowledge about the abstract conditions of existence, conditions inaccessible to the mere senses and discernible only by the privileged intellect. This, it seems to me, is unequivocally refuted by AIME; a philosophy of access is a contradiction in terms, a category error.

This brings me to a section from The Prince and the Wolf, a transcript of a public conversation between Latour and Harman at the LSE.
[…] there has to be a point where contact [between objects] happens. And what I worry about is that if we don’t specify that point metaphysically, then it becomes just a kind of ad hoc practical decision, which of course is fine when writing history. You could say: “all right, it seems like the case of Joliot connecting politics and neutrons is interesting but Joliot and the eardrum is not that important, so we can stop there.” And that’s fine for purposes of writing history but not fine for metaphysics.


Why? Because you haven’t explained how the contact occurred.

But metaphysics is not for explaining. It is the first principle of [Alfred North Whitehead's] Process and Reality. Philosophy is not in the business of explaining anything. Actual occasions explain what happened, not philosophy. If there is one thing which philosophy should not do, it is to try to explain anything. That’s where our disagreement is. Philosophy is not in the business of explaining. This is not at all the same thing. Philosophy is in the business of allowing the explanation to go far enough, to help the explainers to move in the explanatory trajectory but not to provide an explanation. (66-7)
This is the disagreement between Harman and Latour, and it's the difference that Harman does not get to grips with anywhere in his writings on Latour's work (to date). Philosophy, for Latour, no more accesses than it explains. As Latour put it in Reassembling the Social:
As anthropologists have tirelessly shown, actors incessantly engage in the most abstruse metaphysical constructions by redefining all of the elements of the world. Only a researcher trained in the conceptual calisthenics [emphasis added] offered by the philosophical tradition could be quick, strong, daring, and pliable enough to painstakingly register what they have to say. (51)
The value of philosophy here is the same as in AIME's [pre]: it is the lability, agility and sensitivity that it affords the actors who have been trained its art, not the overview it gives on reality or the quasi-scientific loose ends it explanatorily ties up.

To somewhat egocentrically quote myself from a couple of posts ago:
It is here that the philosopher qua intervener enters the fray, not as an architect of the world, urban planner of the galaxy or master of the universe but as an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage—inheritor of long traditions of agility-focused self-development—whose skill involves not the freehand sketching of the beams and struts of the background of things but rather of the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in service of (or, better: in alliance with) those whose very subsistence is at stake.
This is precisely what I was trying to get at here: that philosophy is a calisthenic rather than explanatory disciplineMetaphysics is calisthenics or it's nothing. [The purpose of its art is conceptual creation in service of a situation, not fundamental explanation in service of the real. [ed. 22/08/14]]

After the example of AIME, if philosophers wish to refer to the objective existence of this or that then they should specify their empirically traceable referential chains. Anything else is Double Click [dc].

This rearticulation of philosophy is intrinsically social in the precise sense that there can no longer be such a thing as a philosopher-hermit—the philosopher is necessarily an associative, allied being; she has no other purpose than to work with others in the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in concrete, contested cases.

Deflated? Undoubtedly. But also defended[—if, by 'defence,' we mean not fortification but, rather, advocation [ed. 23/08/14]].

This rehousing and repurposing of philosophy—this empiricisation of philosophy in the most profound sense—is, in my humble and weightless opinion, perhaps Latour's most important philosophical contribution. This aspect of his thinking does not begin with his modes of existence project but can be found throughout his works, in varying stages of development (it is rooted in his long-standing commitment to a reformed ethnomethodology). And it is precisely this most crucial of insights that is erased when his work is turned into a series of dry pronouncements on the furniture of the universe—pronouncements that 'of course, might be wrong.'

This is why those who accuse Latour, and those who philosophise like him, of 'correlationism' and of insufficient 'realism' are missing the point. The philosopher, here, simply has no business 'explaining' the unchanging, overarching structure of the universe—if that is what 'realism' means then may it rest in peace.

This empiricised philosophical ethos is not, as I have argued, a matter of engendering 'humility' in philosophical practice; it is a far more pragmatic transformation than that. Humility is too self-denying a psycho-ethical disposition (too 'Christian' in the precise sense that Nietzsche excoriated so epoch-definingly). It is not a matter of limiting or constricting oneself as such—whole universes of beautiful speculation are still possible; it is a matter of undertaking a fundamental reconfiguration of philosophy and of the philosopher's role in the world.

To undertake this defensive deflation, and to thus desist from thinking Absolutely, is not to stop thinking—indeed, it may be to start.

Latour has by no means invented or initiated this progressive reassembly—nor has he undertaken it alone—but his works have massively contributed to the thorough pragmatisation and concomitant pluralisation of philosophy.

So, (Modern) philosophers: where are your instruments? Ovens, tables and balls of wax do not count.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

On speculation, commitment and humility in philosophy

In response to my last post Elmorus writes:
You nail on the head the central issue behind the compulsion towards generic, inhuman-striving, realism (to which I feel very close, to be honest). I would object, not to the core of your argument, which I would need to process further, but to the identification of epistemological humility with the philosophical position, or tendency, that you describe as realist : are not the idealist or the anti-realist just as susceptible to such a positioning ("we cannot be sure of the great outside, contingency is the core of our condition, etc.")? Lee Braver convincingly argued in this sense at the start of his article on Continental Realism, which would suggest to me that the gesture of humility that you describe is part of a wider, more general stance related to philosophical practice itself...
This raises a very fair and important point: what on earth do I mean by 'realism' here? It's true that I'm being vague and declining to name names -- i.e. to attach the label to a definite, actual proposition. I'm declining to do this not because I want to be coy or elusive but because naming names should impose a commitment to (at least attempt to) do interpretive justice to those arguments that are thus specified. That's a difficult thing to do. Refusing to name names grants a certain liberty inasmuch as one can gesture towards generalities (or perhaps virtualities) that cannot defend themselves (and don't have egos to be defended, anyway). This is a prerogative that most philosophers (or would-be philosophers) grant themselves. However, it can lead to vagueries -- in this case, 'realism.'

Certainly, the tendencies that I am remarking on are not unique to 'realists' (whoever they are). 'Realism' as something singular doesn't exist. Some objective idealisms may well fit 'realism' as I'm describing it.

Let's define 'realism' here not with reference to any group, sect or movement but simply relate it to the issue, namely: what commits us to think and what pathways do these commitments set us on?

A realist here is someone who claims to take their obligation to thought from the need to represent (or: explain, describe, articulate -- whichever) the real (how things are, reality) 'as it is,' 'whether you like it or not,' 'regardless of political commitments,' and so on.

The real demands representation (etc.) because it is the real. Such a demand is automatically validated by the very essence of that which concerns it. And, more importantly, only the real can demand representation because anything that deserves thoughtful consideration is always already subsumed within the real, by definition. (This is why realists are so bad at taking criticism: they've always already brought anything worth thinking about within their purview; anything left out is, by definition, unthinkably worthless.)

The alternative to realism in this precise and limited sense is neither anti-realism nor idealism (I am refusing these 'opposing camps' -- I don't want to articulate the opposite of anything); the alternative could well be called 'realism' too but in order to adopt that term its meaning must be transformed.

The argument with regard to a philosophy being able to think itself as an event in its own world (and thus refusing to countenance the possibility of its truth claims transcending its own occurrence) is bound up with this contrast that I'm stumblingly trying to articulate. This refusal of self-transcendence with regard to truth is part and parcel of an approach to philosophy that refuses to take 'reality' in any singular or totalised sense as its referent (not even 'speculatively'). It is not, I think, a matter of humility.

The contrast I'm trying to get at here is not to do with modesty or humility in terms of the scope or scale of thought, it's to do with what motivates and obligates it. And if thought is not obligated by the need to represent the real then it must be obligated by the need to deal with concrete problems. 'The real' must therefore be replaced with 'the situation.'

If the situation demands immodesty in some sense then immodest we must be. But demand is the important word here -- the addition of this word excludes the possibility of the automatic validation of a research project by virtue of the essence of the thing researched; it establishes the necessity of a trial of validation in each and every case (something that this vulgar 'realism' can never comprehend, much less undertake).

How and why are demands, requirements, specifications placed upon thought? -- that is the question. The realist can say, for example, that 'galaxies are real; as a realist I'm obliged to think the real, therefore I must think galaxies.' The real is its own justification. This is what I am trying to criticise.

The 'realist' approach, as I have described it, is always tending towards the über-thesis, the systematic account of everything. That's the regulative ideal that is enabled by that old get-out-of-jail-free card 'of course, I might be wrong.' In this sense realism shares a deep kinship with the old 'universal historians' like Arnold Toynbee; it shares an in-built will to totality, to ever greater and more encompassing synthesis. Indeed, such directedness towards the absolute (however unachievable the project may be 'in practice') is what makes the project worthwhile, according to this mindset.

An interventionist approach, by contrast, is perfectly willing to think on any scale of space or time as the situation demands. But such an act of thought is always related to a concrete and limited demand, not to a will to think everything because everything is real and only the real in its totality can obligate thought. The thinking of things like galaxies isn't auto-validated by the mere fact that they're there. We must have some further, additional impetus in order to approach such entities (and perhaps we have this impetus, but it isn't guaranteed a priori).

So, in short, it's not at all a question of humility but of commitment. The 'realist' feels committed to think the real in general not so much because they are lacking humility but because, for them, 'the real' is the only thing that can obligate thought, or the only thing that can issue demands worth responding to. The interventionist, by contrast, refuses to heed demands made in the name of 'the real' or any equivalent term not so much because of humility or les bonnes manières but because that whole approach is entirely incompatible with thinking the situation, the case, the issue, the problématique.

Philosophy always flirts with hubris -- and rightly so. It is not a matter of 'hubris versus humility' but a question of 'hubris, to what end'?

Let's misuse Wittgenstein's famous line: 'The world is everything that is the case.' A realist feels committed to take as their world that which is the established case -- that is, to think the world as a totality of, in a quasi-juridical sense, closed cases. The interventionist, by contrast, understands the world as a thronging mass of open cases -- and the obligation to think this demands a very different approach, it demands a philosophy that recognises a fundamental indeterminacy with regard to the broader contours of the world precisely because the world is not a collection of closed cases but rather open ones. There can be no question of thinking the totality in this instance, nor can there be any pretence of timeless truths, whether they are given the caveat of 'I might be wrong' or not.

To put it another way, being 'right' or 'wrong' is not of particular concern to the interventionist because their objective never consists of sketching (however skilfully) the outlines of the totality of closed cases. Instead, success and failure for the interventionist are always relative to particular open cases, all of which are replete with reality in themselves but none of which license the attempt to sketch the real in its totality -- not even the attempt.

This is the contrast: the realist might freely admit the impossibility of sketching totality 'in practice'; the interventionist (or realist-deserving-of-the-name) must reject not only the possibility of this 'in practice' but also 'in principle' -- and, still further, the very attempt to do so.

Open cases cannot be sketched, no matter how preliminarily or speculatively. Their shape is indeterminable prior to an inventive, interventive encounter -- and this requires a great degree of time and attention; it defies the metaphysicist's generalism.

Humility doesn't come into it, in my view. Our risky speculations have no intrinsic boundaries. They are certainly not hemmed in by good manners or modesty. We should reject the absolutism of 'realism' for far more pragmatic reasons than our own sense of shame. It is not for the modesty of our own egos that we refuse to sketch the absolute, it is because of the nefarious consequences of that only apparently innocent project.

It is a clash of objectivities. For the realist, objectivity connotes 'objects' qua closed cases. For the interventionist objectivity connotes 'objectives' -- the objective being different in every situation as it is always addressing a different open case (the totality never becomes an issue and is therefore never a legitimate horizon for thought).

These entirely distinct philosophies can be articulated with similar vocabularies but they should never be confused. Their similarities will only ever be entirely superficial.

I don't know how much sense I am making to others but it makes some sense to me.

To throw one final spanner in the works: yes, this is about pluralism, again. The 'realist' pluralism and what I have called here the 'interventionist' pluralism might seem superficially similar but they have little in common 'under the hood,' as it were.

If I am to make any of this stick I'll have to name names eventually but that's a commitment that I'm not yet prepared to accept!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The epistemological caveat: 'Of course, I might be wrong...'; The false modesty that subtends 'realism'

Even the most self-importantly 'realist' philosophies generally contain a caveat that goes (whether explicitly or implicitly) something like this: 'Of course, I might be wrong...'.

This epistemological disclaimer is of paramount importance; it cannot be understood as a mere article of etiquette (nor as a statement of the obvious); rather, it subtends the entire operation—it underpins the whole claim on 'realism.'

By uttering such a phrase the author demonstrates that she is neither a fool nor a dogmatist; she shows that she understands very well the near-impossibility, 'in practice,' of describing or explaining the absolute (and she opens herself to her peers in anticipation—or perhaps preemption—of their inevitable disagreements). Nevertheless, in precisely the same gesture she maintains this possibility 'in principle' and thus monumentalises the True as a 'regulative ideal.'

She thus self-identifies as a selfless, hard-nosed, gravel-handed voyager in dogged pursuit of a far-flung ideal: what a noble and romantic tragedy!... It is as though she were saying to her others—the shadowy, infantile anti-realists, idealists and correlationists: 'at least I'm giving it a go!'. The others are stay-at-home losers, unwilling to even attempt to transcend human finitude; she herself strides out—bold, fearless.

Embracing the near-inevitability of failure 'in fact' permits the self-congratulatory subscription to the (supposedly) noblest of noble goals 'in principle' and thus absorbs some fraction of the reflected glory of the absolute (as if the phrase 'it's the taking part that counts' applied to more than just amateur sports).

By making Truth a point in space that can be located and appropriated 'in principle,' the author is able to claim that she is 'getting closer' even though she has 'not yet' reached the promised land. (The rather Socratic paradox of 'getting closer' to a location that one has not yet been able to identify is remarkable; however, it is the practices of philosophers who claim to bathe in the warm, reflected light of Truth that concerns us here, not their aporia per se.)

The reflected glory of graduated approximations is what gives blunt and vulgar 'realisms' their seemingly effervescent aura. For some this hazy glow makes 'realism' a semantically closed shop—a gate to be kept, all alternatives shunted into opposing (i.e. binarily opposite) camps.

However, there are other ways of being realistic in matters philosophical and metaphysical—ways less absurd.

By saying 'of course, I could be wrong' the author avoids the obligation to construct her text in such a way that it could think itself as an event in its own universe. Instead of being a novel event that differently joins up the various threads of existence and thus differently realises and articulates all kinds of things that 'were there all along' (although this 'there' is only sensible or meaningful after the event) it instead speculates on 'how things were all along,' regardless of itself.

The 'realist' philosophy really just does this: it describes a universe in which its own occurrence is circumstantial; where it itself needn't have occurred in order for the truth claims it makes to be sensible. That self-incidentalism is its entire conceit; and it is the leaky logic of that conceit that is bailed out by the phrase 'of course, I could be wrong.'

The alternative to this tumbledown half-thought is to fully reckon with an event-based ontology that always embraces within itself its own novelty, partiality and contingency—that recognises these things not at an 'auto-meta' level, saying 'I might be wrong,' but internally and intrinsically to itself, saying 'I am an event that differently articulates existence thus...'.

'Partiality' and 'contingency' have long since become clichés and articles of faith for academic philosophers and theorists. What matters much more than the well-mannered re-statement of these principles is where they issue from and how they are achieved. If they are articulated on the back of 'I might be wrong' then this is a completely different statement to the case where they are understood through an event that understands itself as an event.

The former is the product of position-based thesis-thinking—that is, where the objective of thought is to set out a comprehensive statement of 'how things are' and to defend this 'position' from those of others; the latter is the product of problem-based intervention-thinking where the objective of thought is to intervene or interject into already ongoing processes on the basis of continually evolving problématiques.

These oppositions—caveat/event, position/problem, thesis/intervention—are not absolute but they are strong. If 'realism' has value as a signifier then it has to reckon rather differently with these contrasts than it has to date. However, more than realism, speculation is the word that really must be saved from 'I might be...'.

Speculation is not what philosophers do, uniquely, when they boldly undertake to articulate how things are and have always been, securing themselves above this abyss with the coarse rope of 'I might be wrong.' Speculation must instead be understood as what happens when existence demands of any entity an action that cannot be performed solely on the basis of already-occurred (or readily articulable) existents; in other words, whenever there is a demand for novelty in a state of profound existential risk.

Speculation, in this sense, is pragmatic, issue-oriented, local and widely practiced. It only makes sense in direct relation to a problem that is demanding the risky becoming of some unknown and—until the occurrence—unknowable event.

It is here that the philosopher qua intervener enters the fray, not as an architect of the world, urban planner of the galaxy or master of the universe but as an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage—inheritor of long traditions of agility-focused self-development—whose skill involves not the freehand sketching of the beams and struts of the background of things but rather of the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in service of (or, better: in alliance with) those whose very subsistence is at stake.

'Being wrong' is the least of this thinker's worries and 'being right' would be the least of her rewards. Her destination of choice is no less mysterious or puzzling than that of the paradise-pursuer but her relation to it is never one of progressive approximation; it is always that of gradual, hesitant, tentative fabrication, assembly, achievement. Such a destination is never 'just over the horizon' but always at the centre of the milieu, in the midst of the melee, at the heart of the matter at hand.

To give the matter at hand a heart that beats—that is the utopia that this philosopher pursues: bold, fearless...