Wednesday 31 October 2012

Nature and Influence

To my last comment Levi replies:
"Given that naturalism and materialism have historically been the underdog positions, it’s difficult to see how they have been guilty of self-righteous entitlement. It’s hard to see how anything could be more self-righteous than Heidegger’s talk of enframing and the destining of being, or Derrida’s bombast about metaphysics. I also have a difficult time seeing naturalism and materialism as responsible for historical atrocities. Aren’t these more accurately laid at the feet of religion, fascisms, and totalitarianisms?"
I should have been more specific: within the Continental arena, yes, it's historically been an underdog.  But that's hardly true outside that specific arena, is it?  If we look at most other Western discursive traditions -- in science, technology, politics, even Anglophone philosophy -- naturalism and materialism have hardly been the sickly, downtrodden relatives, quite the contrary.  And which has had more ideological influence over the years, Continental philosophy or natural science?  Hegel or Darwin?  Heidegger or Spencer?  Zizek or Dawkins?  I'd bet on the latter each time, particularly in the first case!

The picture is complicated, of course, and idealism has its tendrils everywhere but you can hardly ignore the centrality of naturalism to the entire modernist mindset -- a mindset hardly troubled, in terms of its practical preponderance, by anything post- or anti-.  I definitely know far more hardcore naturalists than I do even mildly militant anti-naturalists (if I know any at all) and the vast majority of people who have no particular interest in one side or the other tend to accept 'grade school' naturalism as a given -- at least where I'm from.  Britain is rather more secular and science-friendly than other parts of the world, of course.  I was taught evolution and climate change as facts strictly separate from religious education and the difference was never an issue.  Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Anyway, the basic point is that while naturalism/materialism might be all shiny and new in Continental climes they have been the default setting elsewhere in the West.  The fact that it's new and exciting for Continental philosophers says more about that tradition than anything else.

With regard to the politics of it, weren't the colonial administrators who turned up to rationalise and administer the 'inferior races' doing so in the name of naturalism, materialism and science?  Okay, they were doing so in the name of 'Empire' too but not only that.  What gave them their 'white man's burden' in the first place?  The ideological basis of their venture was that, as Latour put it, they had access to 'Nature' while everyone else merely had culture.  Of course their 'Nature' is rather unlike yours but if you want the good of naturalism you have to at least acknowledge its baggage too -- and this it has in abundance.  Nothing that's been so powerful for so long can pretend to be innocent.  Making a bonfire from your enemies' beliefs makes for powerful polemic but you have to stop and consider that some people have put this into practice -- and it's not usually the fallacies and nonsense of the rich and powerful that get consigned to the flames.  Are you prepared to look someone who believes that the spirits of their ancestors watch over and protect them in the eye and tell them that their cherished beliefs are worthless and should be immolated?  That's what it takes -- and that's the been the political programme of naturalism over the years.

If you have the stomach for that kind of missionary work, fair enough.  Personally, I'd rather turn my scrutiny towards the phonies and cynics who mouth anti-naturalisms but don't really believe them at all -- the people who laugh off the naive realisms of scientists but still pop whatever pill their doctor tells them; those who decry all semantic closure as 'violence' but still believe that global warming is a fact that should be acted on; those who endlessly 'problematise' everything except their own problematique.  These are far more numerous in academic (and blog) circles than true believers, I'm quite sure.  A bonfire of their half-thought, myopic intellectual balsa wood would be a spectacle that I could enjoy, especially given the season!  (It's Guy Fawkes Night on Monday -- we're all about communal pyromania, us Brits.)