Speculative Realism/Materialism Workshop UWE 2009

Ray Brassier/Iain Grant-Hamilton/Graham Harman/Alberto Toscano

Update: Some more impressions of the conference at Speculative Heresy and some photos here.

Ray Brassier began with a general overview of the scope of speculative philosophy — which I noticed that Badiou in his introduction to Meillassoux’s After Finitude simply nominates as ‘philosophy’. Speculative philosophy encompasses realism in relation to materialism and is more generally defined as an antipathy to the rampant correlationsim that exists in post-Kantian philosophy.

Brassier, in the absence of Meillassoux, outlined correlationism as making the claim that: you cannot conceive of the world independently of human beings or vice-versa. This effectively dissolves epistemology. Subject and object are then hypostasized as poles of the correlation, which is then treated as a substance or actually existing. The correlation absolutises the very subject/object dualism that it claims to overcome in metaphysical dogmatism. Meillassoux attacks correlationism from inside out, that is to say, he destroys the fortress of correlationism from within by working through the correlation itself and the philosophical resources it provides us with.

Brassier elaborated here on Stove’s Gem which identifies that idealism rests on the ‘worst argument in the world’. Stove attacks Bishop Berkley who in short claimed we cannot conceive of a mind-independent reality without a mind to conceive that mind-independent reality.

….[the mind] is deluded to think it can and does conceive of bodies existing unthought of, or without the mind, though at the same time they are apprehended by, or exist in, itself. [Berkley]

This is a subjective idealist position based on a tautology. Here David Stove shares a critique of idealism with Russell and Nietzsche. As an aside, Brassier was keen to point out that Stove was a minor philosophical gadfly, who wrote numerous racist and sexist texts (The Intellectual Capacity of Women, anyone?), yet the simplicity of his critique on Berkley’s idealism was nonetheless appealing.

In correlationism the conditions of conception re-inscribe the concept by the substitution of ‘X’ for any verb whether it stands for sensation, embodiment (Husserlian ‘flesh’) or language — as it is in the case of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. In some way then, mind-independence requires concept independence and oxymoronically smuggles its own conclusion into its premise.

Consequently, experience is exhaustively prescribed in perception creating an ‘unsurpassable horizon of contemporary philosophy’. This is the destination that Berkely reaches via Locke in tackling Descartes primary/secondary quality distinction, in order to overcome the problem of metaphysical dogmatism that correlationism addresses. Berkley maintains that ideas are created by sensations and sensations are all that people can know about the world. Which is the basis of subjective idealism, which enthrones thought over reality.

Cartesian metaphysical dogmatism would have it that there are no rational grounds for an experience independent of substantial objects. In turn, correlationism assaults metaphysical reason which is typified by Descartes doubt/skepticism with regard to divine or natural ends to explain phenomena, the fallibility of sense data and thinking and extended substance. Kant searches for thinking/being’s instantiation through experience and his principles of experience (experience’s transcendental condition). According to Kant: we can have objective knowledge of reality confined to the experiential realm of phenomena and bounded by the necessary structure of sensation. This represents the destitution of intuition as intuition is tethered to sensation. Which brings the discussion back to thinking/sensation in Aristotle who states: we have access to the essential nature of things because being is meaningful.

In response, Graham Harman says that it is necessary to rehabilitate a version of substantial form, positing reality as a mind-independent, which revives Aristotlean form’s essential nature and inessential accidents. However, Graham doesn’t define this in an Aristotlean manner. Is it possible to say what a substantial form is unless you have the resources to define it? How do you account for the inessential nature of individuated entities (objects under Harman’s thesis)? Under what conditions can we access this? The metaphysical dogmatist requires God. For the dogmatist, intelligibility is inscribed in reality through the invocation of god, which results in a transcendental delimiting of the knowable phenomenal domain. Unfortunately, pre-critical realism  cannot be rehabilitated. We can no longer maintain the link between essence and meaning in the face of scientific understanding. Being cannot be meaningful, because we aren’t equipped to ‘know’ this. In a post-Darwinian world these claims are untenable, because we can’t say that evolution — let alone God — has equipped us to track the essential nature of things (i.e. reality). There is an incongruence between the mind and the world.

Why should we be committed to a mind-indpendent reality that is divine or natural? Will speculation allow this?

Yes, says Brassier. We should be committed to a reality with a determinate and cognizable structure. But it isn’t possible to reinscribe epistemology in metaphysics or dissolve it in ontology without degenerating into strong correlationism (things cannot exist without being perceived). Interestingly, Kant does not use the Stove’s Gem ‘worst argument’. For him objective reality is circumscribed within phenomenal bounds and consequently, he universalises reality through the structure of the correlate. The idealist heirs of Kant lop this off, absolutising the correlate and creating the illusory dichotomy between thought and being that we encounter in Nietzsche and Heidegger. Toscano later usefully reminded us that solutus ab means to sever or set apart from. The correlate can then not be grounded due to this absolutisation, arriving at the bounded finitude of reason. Knowing then supervenes on a set of conditions that cannot be exhaustively known [i.e. Dasein]. The ultimate consequence of the contingency of the correlation (facticity in Heidegger) is that we cannot ground the necessary conditions of the correlation, in turn producing a plurality of correlations. The undermining of dogmatism lets in fideism and superstition via the proliferation of post-Kantian absolutes.

This creates an association with materiality that is not useful, such as embodiment in phenomenology. It is a kind of materialism without matter that has no definition beyond the metaphysical definition of matter which gives a primacy to praxis. Material becomes an index of human practice. Materials are then an alibi for for this idealism manifested as social practice.

Correlationism was based around a legitimate qualm about the sensible and the intelligiblity of matter and form. But it creates an uncircumventable philosophical problem when it does away with subject/object dualism in order to overcome; it does away with epistemology itself. Second-order discourse then centres on human practice with its attendent ideological policeman. Brassier maintains that this is just not a good solution and in fact it represents a point of intellectual exhaustion. He says that this must be overcome and refused without regressing into further dogmatism or the correlationist circle.

In this respect, Laruelle is very useful. We could assume the difference between the conceptual and the extraconceptual as Hegel does. What is this extraconceptual residue? Concepts are always contingent. We cannot fix the the structure of ideation. We can know what things are without exhausting the essential nature of what things are, in the same manner that science is contingent. Laruelle says that every positing of the conceptual has a presupposition(?) that can’t be conceptually determined; a gap between the real and ideal that can’t be reinscribed within the correlationist circle. He offers a transcendental haitus here.

Iain Grant-Hamilton treated us to a highly amusing and quick-witted excoriation of Fichte’s completion of Kant, dealing with the problem of ground as treated by Gunnar Hindrichs. Sadly, though my notes aren’t really up to a decent description of his paper, particularly as I haven’t read Iain’s book which is now out in paperback.

Graham Harman gave a similarly entertaining examination of substance and whether speculative realism gives an adequate description. He proposed that most treatments of objects in philosophy were ‘not weird enough’; either being overmined or undermined. He then explored Giordano Bruno’s conception of substance, who he felt Spinoza had certainly drawn on. I enjoyed his colourful use of examples of objects which included chairs, tables and centaurs. Sadly, there were no hobbits this time.

Alberto Toscano offered a ‘critique of the critique of the critique’ entitled ‘Against Speculation’ in which he examined the only apparent moment of ethico-political import in After Finitude, raising the question as to whether materialism and speculation are compatible. Toscano drew on Lucio Colletti’s Marxism and Hegel and Marxism and the Dialectic contrasting it with Meillassoux’s thesis to ask:

1. Is non-metaphysical speculation possible?
2. What is the difference between materialism and realism?

His argument ran along the lines that dialectical materialism is an irrationalism for Colletti who sought to excise Hegelian idealism from Marxism. By setting entities against processes Colletti makes plea for pro-scientific materialism by asserting the extralogical nature of reality:

The fundamental principle of materialism and science…is the principle of non-contradiction. Reality cannot contain dialectical contradictions but only real oppositions, conflicts between forces, relations of contrariety. The latter are ohne Widerspruch, i.e. non-contradictory oppositions, and not dialectical contradictions. These assertions must be sustained, because they constitute the principle of science itself. now science is the only means of apprehending reality, the only means of gaining knowledge of the world. There cannot be two (qualitatively different) forms of knowledge. A philosophy which claims itself the status of superior to that of science, is an edifying philosophy — that is, a scarcely disguised religion. [Lucio Colletti, Marxism and the Dialectic, 28-9]

Toscano argued that the when Meillassoux attacks idealism, he could in turn be be cast as idealistic. Meillassoux states that fanaticism is the effect of rationality, a pernicious by-product of ‘dogmatic intellect’. For Melliassoux it is the errors of the intellect that create fanaticism, not errors in material reality. This seems a very credible query as that particular passage in After Finitude had given me pause.

About andrewosborne

Andrew Osborne has recently completed his MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith's.
This entry was posted in Heidegger, Kant, Karl Marx, Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Speculative Realism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Speculative Realism/Materialism Workshop UWE 2009

  1. Pingback: ANTHEM » Blog Archive » Speculative commentaries

  2. Pingback: Speculative Realism 2.0 « Speculative Heresy

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