Friday 7 June 2013

Lee Braver on Speculative Realism; The enduring allure of anti-realism (or subjective realism)

I've just been taking a look at the new issue of Speculations, particularly at Lee Braver's piece, which opens the issue.  As is typical of his prose the article is lyrical and beguiling but I do feel that he misses the point of many of the continental realisms and ends up hemming philosophy back into the traditional mind/world gap.
... [A]gainst the Speculative Realists, I still think that reality has to make some kind of contact with us for us to be able to talk about it. I don’t see how discussion of the ways that inanimate objects “experience” or “encounter” each other in the dark after we’ve all gone to bed could ever be more than mere speculation.
Instead he proposes a kind of "Transgressive Realism" which:
... emphasizes the way reality unsettles us. We can never settle down with a single way of understanding the world because it can always unexpectedly breach these. Such experiences do not get squeezed into our mental structures but instead violate them, cracking and reshaping our categories.
His Levinasian realism is interesting and well constructed, however he continues to locate the realist/anti-realist distinction in the gap between mind and world, reviving a mono-focal fixation on "mental structures," continuing to assume that we have a categorically more profound and privileged access to our own experiences such that we can describe these experiences without speculation; this in contrast to describing the experiences or beings of other things, which is a 'merely' speculative endeavour.  Braver is once again fixating on 'us' (whoever that is) -- 'we' are once again the benchmark of being.

What is so 'mere' about speculation?  It's only 'mere' if we contrast it to a kind of immanent certainty that could be spoken without any kind of risky inferential leap.  The accusation of 'mere speculation' suggests that our introspections aren't also speculative.  But when I describe my own experience, however transgressive or not, am I not also speculating somewhat?  Do I really know my own mind well enough to speak or act without speculating with regard to my own self (paging Dr Freud)?  If introspection is also intrinsically speculative then it makes no sense to take close hand experience as the benchmark of being in contrast to 'merely' speculating as to the experiences of other things, which we cannot possibly know.

Yes, it's true that "reality has to make some kind of contact with us for us to be able to talk about it".  No, we can't know the other in spite of or in abstraction from ourselves.  But nor can we know ourselves but imperfectly, speculatively.

Or, actually, to say that "reality has to make some kind of contact with us for us to be able to talk about it" is only partially true.  It's false insofar as it suggests that human beings are reality's passengers, passively awaiting perturbation.  On the contrary, it is through speculation we can bring hitherto untouched elements of reality into contact with ourselves!  Human beings aren't mute blocks of incomprehension randomly bumping around like un-piloted dodgem cars.  We're creative, manual, digital beings.  We can reach out and, yes, grasp things if only we speculate (and risk getting our fingers burnt).

What's more, what constitutes 'contact' differs by circumstance.  Things needn't be pressed hard against our noses in order for us to see them -- in fact distance aids focus.  Perhaps we can be 'in contact' with philosophical realities that broadly transcend us if only we rethink what we mean by contact.

Regardless, speculation isn't an epistemic or philosophical choice, it's a necessary condition of any persisting being.  Refusing to speculate as to the being of other beings apart from ourselves renders reality bifurcated: human mental structures -- mysteriously homogeneous -- and their attendant phenomenal apparitions on the one hand and every-bloody-thing-else 'out there' on the other.

Yes, discussing the being of other beings is speculative, abstract, imaginative even.  But so what?  So is everything else.  Of course, immanent self experiences are far richer, more immediate and more intensive than descriptions of the experiences of others can possibly be.  Perhaps we can thus say that describing the experience of an octopus is more speculative than describing my experience of an octopus.  But each is nevertheless speculative -- all translate.

Our real choice is not between speculation and something else.  We can either speculate on our own being as though it were somehow special, distinct and abstracted from the rest of existence or we can speculate more widely, ambitiously, inclusively and without the dead weight of the traditional bifurcations on our backs.  Such universal speculativeness makes true, foundational, untranslated, untranslatable, ahistorical knowledge impossible, sure.  But I know Braver doesn't mourn this loss with regard to knowledge of things so why does he seem to cling to it with regard to knowledge of selves?

Braver, for all his excellence, continues to judge philosophy according to the age old yard-sticks of certainty and human consciousness.  Just because we cannot know other things without speculating he judges that we should just stick to the disruptions of our own experiences.  But we cannot know these without speculation either!  The whole edifice falls in on itself no sooner than it has been lashed together.

Perhaps the problem is the 'speculative' element of speculative realism.  The likes of Brassier and Meillassoux aren't really speculative realists, they're realists.  Speculation has nothing to do with it (except for the fact that 'speculative philosophy' implies pre-Critical metaphysics, which is relevant for Meillassoux at least).  They really think that, via science and/or maths, they can discern the really real, the absolute, etc.  The only realists I'd describe as speculative in a substantial sense are those that follow Whitehead insofar as they recognise the inherent speculativeness of every entity, every actual occasion or object, in persisting in spite of unknowability.  If existence itself is speculative then there's nothing 'mere' about it.

Speculative philosophy is really just one variety of speculation.  The goal of describing the absolute or the being of other beings may well be so speculative as to be like reconstructing the Parthenon from a couple of shards of marble; but this wager is nevertheless necessary in order to avoid the many, assorted absurdities of a bifurcating philosophy fixated on only one side of an entirely false divide.  However comically it may teeter on the brink of impossibility the alternative is incomparably worse.

Transgressive Realism is just the same old anti-realism (aka subjective realism), differently nuanced.  It still puts humans and their bizarrely immanent, self-contained experiences at the centre of the universe; it still puts the anthropos at both the beginning and the end of philosophy.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

The emptiness of philosophy, a pragmatic rendering

Levi Bryant argues that philosophy is empty and has no distinct subject matter.
The funny thing is that no one ever listens.  Scientists, for example, do just fine defining the epistemological and methodological requirements of their work and their eyes grow glassy whenever they are lectured by the philosopher about knowledge.
It's true that scientists don't need philosophers to put their abstractions in order.  However, it's also true that when scientists attempt to 'do' philosophy they often do so very badly.  Just because they don't need philosophers doesn't mean that their own implicit (or explicit) philosophies aren't dreadful and misguided, only that they function well enough for their purposes.

Actually, when thinking about what philosophy is I find it useful to start with what Geertz said of anthropology's relation to philosophy, which was that the role of anthropology is not to provide answers to the 'big questions' but to provide a record of the answers that various peoples have given to such questions.  If it is also true that, as Whitehead put it, the philosopher is the 'critic of abstractions' then it seems that we can anthropologise and pragmatise the practice of philosophy.

Not only scientists but even the denizens of remote, non-modern villages (i.e. the stereotypical subjects of anthropology) are perfectly capable of developing complex and sophisticated systems of abstractions.  Anyone capable of submitting such abstractions to some form of critique could be said to be philosophising.  What we call Philosophy is, then, simply the institutionalisation, formalisation and professionalisation of this function.  Which isn't to say that it is 'universal' but nor is it necessarily all that particular.  Perhaps some people are without a socio-linguistic capacity we could call 'critical' in this sense but wherever there *are* people with this capacity we can say that there is philosophy as an anthropological phenomenon.

So, in this sense scientists are already philosophers of their own life worlds.  As Latour has said so often, scientists are constantly doing metaphysics, constantly re-imagining how reality is stitched together.  If they lacked this capacity then they couldn't do their jobs.

But, then, how do I reconcile this with my previous point about scientists often making very bad philosophers?  Well, we could say that philosophy as a formalised, institutionalised phenomenon -- capital P Philosophy, if you like -- represents a canon of thought against which present philosophers are judged and through which an ongoing assemblage of competing and overlapping systems of rules, preferences and traditions are impressed upon present philosophers.

Or, in short, maybe everyone does philosophy but only a few do Philosophy -- only a few raise that basic anthropological function to a level of formality and deliberation that can be recognised as a distinct epistemic institution.  Scientists, for their part, are expert philosophers -- they have to be -- but they don't always make very good Philosophers -- because that requires a whole other set of experiences and competencies.