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(Speculative) Realism: Reality and the Sex of Angels

October 21, 2009

My last post was supposed to be a quick, almost throw-away, effort to think about what impact blogging (and something that I probably should have made more of in that post – branding) can have on the impact of an intellectual movement, using what I perceive as their role in the impact of the emergent Speculative Realism (SR) trend in philosophy.  Responding in the comments however, Giuseppe thinks I kind missed the point entirely. As he put it:

what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)?… I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientists when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels

Ok – I’ll take the bait! I’m not an SR scholar, just an interested, but uninvested, spectator, so I might not be the most effective spokesperson, but this will help me start to work out my own thoughts on a group of thinkers who I have been following for a while now.

I think there is a lot more to the success of SR than a reactionary response to the fact that ‘physical’ science is saying ever more concrete things about areas that were once the preserve of social scientists. Just anecdotally SR people (see for example Larval subjects here) seem to be intensely interested in hard science and thinking its consequences (though SR is concerned above all with metaphysics, not philosophy of science).  In fact I think it would be more productive to turn Giuseppe’s view on its head: isn’t it actually crude idealism that expresses the insecurity (in a very different, less modest form than Giuseppe meant) of social science?  Doesn’t idealism sometimes seem to shut scientific ‘reality’ away, seeing science somewhere between a naïve enterprise at one end of the spectrum (whereas we know that ‘truth’ is a function of consciousness, power, signs etc.), or just a separate field that is at best interesting, but not our concern as social scientists…?

His suspicions shadow his doubts about SR, which are grounded in the obvious criticism, and the specific one that SR unites around answering:

Sure there is, there must be, something beyond our perception, you say they say, but do the proponents of SR tell us, i wonder, how it could be possible for “us” to perceive that existence, that reality, without us being involved in its perception and therefore… well you know the argument

Quentin Meillassoux, a leading thinker in SR, calls this ‘correlationism’. Using his words to reformulate Giuseppe’s, “there are no objects, no events, no laws, no beings which are not always-already correlated with a point of view, with a subjective access. Anyone maintaining the contrary, i.e. that it is possible to attain something like a reality in itself, existing absolutely independently of his viewpoint, or his categories, or his epoch, or his culture, or his language, etc.- this person would be exemplarily naïve, or if you prefer: a realist” [p1].  

It’s a compelling case, simple to understand (‘of course we can’t imagine a reality without a human being to ‘think’ it – this process of imagining already posits what it seeks to exclude, i.e. a thinking human subject’) and hard to refute. In the view of SR however it represents a bottleneck in the history of philosophy that has led the continental tradition to become increasingly self-referential and irrelevant (Derrida often considered the exemplary case; some recent discussion sympathetic to Derrida here). 

Given Giuseppe’s suspicions of SR, and realism more generally, the irony is that correlationism is arguably the product of a far more dramatic insecurity than the one he identifies among social scientists.  Correlationism emerged with Kant’s attempt to reground any claim to knowledge after the seismic affects of the Copernican revolution (if we could be so wrong about the earth’s place in the universe, then how could we be certain of anything?), and the later attack on certainty by the philosophers we call the sceptics that was at least partly its indirect affect. In other words, correlationism was an attempt to come to terms with the ‘cosmological humiliation’ (to use Freud’s term) of the Copernican decentring of the planet earth, by in a sense relocating the centre of the universe within human subjectivity.  Our fragile claims to any sort of knowledge at all were re-established by narcissistically positing all that is knowable about the world as dependent on human access to it. Now that is real insecurity.

There are several reproaches to correlationism, but the most seminal has been that of  Meillassoux. In his view Giuseppe (and correlationsim) is best addressed with another question: if our understanding of reality is necessarily structured by our perception, and therefore we are unable to speak of what reality might be apart from how it is for us, what then does it mean to make statements about things that existed before there were any people? When I look up and see light from a star, I am seeing something which is millions of years old. Now if I cannot know this reality separated from my being, I have already reached a paradox…I am seeing something that precedes not only my own being, but humanity, by a pretty substantial time period. Therefore anything I wish to say I know about this kind of “ancestral” (to use Meillassoux’s term) phenomena is problematic.

For example, the statement “the world is 16 billion years old” becomes “the world, as it appears to a human subject (at the present moment, via the use of the scientific method etc.), is 16 billion years old”. However this actually obliterates the meaning of the statement. It’s exactly what the science isn’t saying…which is: the world is 16 billion years old, and would have been whether we had been here to measure it as such or not. Here, for Meillassoux, we either can know ‘being’ outside of the human or the statement cannot mean what it says it means.

Therefore, rather that the correlationist argument that Giuseppe raised being the definitive one it is often taken to be, it itself also leads us into trouble. But of course, rather than overcoming the correlattionism, what we have arrived at here is a deadlock. In the words of Meillassoux:

on one hand it seems impossible to think via correlationism the ability of natural sciences to produce ancestral statements; but on the other hand, it seems impossible to refute the correlationist position, because it seems impossible to maintain that we could be able to know what there is when we are not. How could we imagine the existence of colour without an eye to see it; the existence of a sound without an ear to hear it? How can we think the meaning of time or space without a subject being conscious of past, present and future, or being conscious of the difference between left and right? And first of all, how could we know this, since we are unable to see what the world looks like when there is nobody to perceive it? [TwB p5]

In a way this is the starting point of SR, the point from which various thinkers move off in various directions.  My point has been to show, using Meillassoux above all, that rather than SR’s discomfort with the correlationist criticism being borne out of a sense of their own (or social science more generally) insecurity, it is actually correlationism that is a product of an insecuirty of a slightly different, but no less important form.  More than that it gets us in into problems of infinite regress (Derrida), and is actually unable to come to terms with demands of thinking the complex world in which we live. Whats the point if we can’t ask  this of thought?

Just to finish, I would say that I think Giuseppe might find himself in agreement with SR more than his (understandable) prejudices would allow him to be instinctively; if human consciousness, rather than being separate from ‘nature’, is instead situated right slap bang in the middle of it (because the more we learn of the brain the more we can understand consciousness as just as much a natural process as anything else), then privileging the human by suggesting that we somehow stand outside of ‘reality’, constructing and perceiving it, rather than being in the midst of it all, is ridiculous no? I think this is where Giuseppe wishes to take the post he promises in his comment, so I await it impatiently!

One Comment leave one →
  1. giuseppecaruso permalink
    October 22, 2009 7:56 am

    ok now i can hardly bit around the bush anymore! This is what I deserve in return of my rather glib comment. Let me put together something that hopefully won’t be too unworthy of your post, but before I unplug for few days (while retiring in the creative cave) let me just say thank you for the inspiration that hopefully will get to move the mountain of procrastination 🙂

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