Quick Comments on The Speculative Turn
The recent publication of the hyped The Speculative Turn is most probably well known to everyone in the blogosphere (and to many out of it), as evidenced by the impressive number of downloads of the book from the re.press website.
I think that the final product was well worth the wait, as it includes some really excellent chapters (it has been already observed that the volume suffers from gender bias — perhaps in the volume itself? Without diminishing the quality of the publication, let this be a reminder of how the discussion can still be enlarged and improved, or potentially overturned, by the addition of new voices).
There is a lot of material in it, including–from my personal perspective–a number of chapters that really stand out (probably because I am less interested in others). I would like just to signal three of them: Brassier’s, Johnston’s and Catren’s, and to make some very quick remarks about them.
Brassier’s chapter is extremely sharp, and you have to love how he never pulls any punches when it comes to attacking positions which he considers less than consistent. I also found excellent his arguments about how rejecting correlationism does not imply being oblivious to history and politics. His description of the ‘scientific stance’ and of the questions which ‘science friendly philosophers’ should ask are also exceptionally clear-minded (possibly dispelling the impression some seem to have that to concede epistemic authority to science means sacrificing everything on the altar of Science):
the scientific posture is one in which there is an immanent yet transcendental hiatus between the reality of the object and its being as conceptually circumscribed: the posture of scientific representation is one in which it is the former that determines the latter and forces its perpetual revision. Scientific representation operates on the basis of a stance in which something in the object itself determines the discrepancy between its material reality—the fact that it is, its existence—and its being, construed as quiddity, or what it is. The scientific stance is one in which the reality of the object determines the meaning of its conception, and allows the discrepancy between that reality and the way in which it is conceptually circumscribed to be measured (55).
For those of us who take scientific representation to be the most reliable form of cognitive access to reality, the problem is one of granting maximal (but not, please note, incorrigible) authority to the scientific representation of the world while acknowledging that science changes its mind about what it says there is. Accordingly, the key question becomes: How can we acknowledge that scientific conception tracks the in-itself without resorting to the problematic metaphysical assumption that to do so is to conceptually circumscribe the ‘essence’ (or formal reality) of the latter? (64).
Johnston’s chapter is quite simply the best critique of Meillassoux that you can find (followed by Hagglund’s). Johnston voices precisely the main concerns which I (even, and especially, considering my sympathy for Meillassoux’s project) have had for a while now: his less-than-informed and somewhat instrumental employment of ‘science’, his lack of a consistent philosophy of science and — mainly — his puzzling, disappointing (if not dangerous) lapses (wrong to call them so, of course, given that his doctoral thesis was already dealing with it) into ‘divinology’. These are the crucial issues that any exegesis of Meillassoux’s work must face. These two passages identify a crucial problem that whoever intends to build a philosophy of science consistent with necessary contingency (as I would) cannot avoid:
In terms of scientific practice, Meillassoux’s speculative materialism, centered on the omnipotent sovereign capriciousness of an absolute time of ultimate contingency, either makes no difference whatsoever (i.e., self-respecting scientists ignore it for a number of very good theoretical and practical reasons) or licenses past scientific mistakes and/or present bad science being sophistically conjured away by cheap-and-easy appeals to hyper-Chaos.
Insofar as Meillassoux’s claims allow for (to the extent that they don’t rule out) such highly dubious interpretive maneuvers, these maneuvers threaten speculative materialism with a reductio ad absurdum rebuttal. Moreover, they are an awkward embarrassment to a philosophy that proudly presents itself, especially by contrast with idealist correlationism (as both anti-materialist and antirealist) from Kant to Husserl and company, as rigorously in line with the actual, factual physical sciences.
When Johnston writes that
Meillassoux cherry-picks from the empirical realms of the experiential (seizing upon Hume’s problem of induction) and the experimental (extracting the arche-fossil from certain physical sciences and also dabbling in speculations superimposed upon biology). Debates presently emerging around After Finitude seem to indicate that Meillassouxians, if they can be said to exist, believe it legitimate, after the fact of this cherry-picking, to seal off speculative materialism as an incontestable rationalism of the metaphysical-pure-logical-ontological when confronted with reasonable reservations grounded in the physical-applied-empirical-ontic. But, this belief is mistaken and this move intellectually dishonest: Meillassoux’s arbitrary borrowings from and engagements with things empirical block such a path of all-too-convenient retreat. Advocates of a Meillassouxian rationalism want to pluck select bits from the experimental physical sciences without these same sciences’ reasonable empirical and experiential criteria and considerations clinging to the bits thus grabbed.
I most emphatically agree with him. But, unlike Johnston, I do believe that there can be a way to correct Meillassoux’s bad habits without relinquishing the validity of his general point regarding the necessity of contingency. How? I am still thinking about it, but I would start by recognizing that if indeed one cannot too freely jump from the ontological level of pure mathematics to the ontic level of physical reality — and that indeed even to preserve this distinction is a ‘Heideggerian hangover’ — one way to fix the issue is to more thoroughly ‘go Pythagorean’ while keeping mathematics as the language of contingency. Only by grounding contingency into mathematics (and thinking mathematics as all that there is) one can avoid reading absolute contingency as ‘the God undergraduates invoke against Leibniz’s divinity metaphysically constrained by his perfect moral and rational nature’ (109). Since — and once again I agree with Johnston — ‘while not a pre-Kantian metaphysical God, Meillassoux’s speculative hyper-Chaos, with its Dieu à venir, nonetheless is disturbingly similar to this God of (post-)modern non/not-yet-philosophers’ (109). That said, I believe one can salvage hyperchaos (or a form of it) from Meillassoux’s theological slippages.
[And about his 'divinology'. Considering that the 'future God' was already present in Meillassoux's doctoral thesis, one could legitimately ask: why is it that there is no overt trace of 'divinology' in After Finitude? Why not even a footnote on the future God? The only mention of his thesis is in note 29: 'We can only allude here to the predominant role played by fideism in the constitution of modern thought. This issue will be treated in greater depth in a forthcoming work in which we hope to develop the theoretical positions that we are merely sketching here, as well as their ethical consequences: L'inexistence divine, Essai sur le dieux virtuel [Divine Inexistence: An Essay on the Virtual God].’ After Finitude insists on a Hyperchaos ‘capable of destroying every determinate entity, even a god, even God’ but never mentions it as being able to give rise to a God to come.
Of course the arguments for the future God are based upon those in After Finitude (so you could say that the argument is already there, in potentia), but still, isn’t this silence somewhat puzzling? Maybe he knew that such arguments might raise some eyebrows? Maybe he knew that it would give his philosophy something of a ‘messianic’ overtone, something which he wanted to avoid for his first publication?]
Catren’s chapter deserves another kind of reflection (general remarks rather than specific comments, as I’ve still got to finish the chapter). After reading both his essay in Collapse V and this chapter, I can claim that (small disagreements-to-be-worked-out notwithstanding) he’s definitely a philosopher of my own heart, apart from — more objectively — being someone which is to be praised for his ease in writing papers dealing with both subtleties of philosophy of particle physics and German idealism. So I can’t help but wonder: why is it that, apart from one old blogpost from the (now deceased?) Stellar Cartographies, discussing his critique of Meillassoux in Collapse, Catren is almost never mentioned in speculative circles? I would go as far as claiming that, had he published a brief but powerful book like Meillassoux did (as opposed to a number of papers) he would have probably somewhat eclipsed Meillassoux own ascent (thanks to the visibility given by a book). Why? Sorry if I beat the usual drum, but simply because Catren knows his physics and his philosophy of physics, unlike Meillassoux’s somewhat haphazard employment of them (actually, unlike Meillassoux complete avoidance of dealing with the literature in the philosophy of science in general and regarding the ontological status of laws of nature in particular). But, paradoxically, it seems to me that this is actually one of the reasons which explains his marginality. My suspicion is that the “science is not everything” contingent instinctively dislikes Catren’s speculative (at times, very speculative) but nonetheless informed employment of quantum mechanics in his discussion of realism. If the game is speculative-realism, Catren is one hell of a player.
Personally, I will consider myself a ‘well-equipped realist’ only when I have (if ever!) reached something of Catren’s level of familiarity with both theoretical physics and the history of philosophy. Incidentally, last month I applied for a place at the first Spring School for the Philosophy of Particle Physics, which will take place in Germany in March. There are lots of very good speakers/teachers there, and I’d love to go, but I’m afraid that my odds are pretty low, given my lack of any formal training in physics on the one hand and my overwhelmingly ‘continental’ background on the other. We’ll see.