What is Idealism Anyway?
I’m in the middle of writing a somewhat huge post about normativity in response to some of Levi’s recent (fairly scathing) writings on the matter, and this (along with producing work for my supervisor) has meant I’ve not responded to some of the other (from my perspective) problematic claims he’s been making (e.g., vis a vis transcendental philosophy), but I can’t resist questioning his recent claim (here), which Graham Harman perhaps (?) agrees with (here), that materialism is just a disguised form of idealism. Given the way it’s formulated, it leaves me wondering what exactly Levi thinks idealism is anyway.
There is a certain danger in broadening a term so much, in order to undermine positions you oppose, that it ceases to be useful for that or any other purpose, except insofar as it still invokes some resonance with or connotations from its original and more limited meaning. I’ve often felt that this is a serious danger with the term ‘correlationism’ (which I believe is a genuinely important and interesting concept), but it seems that ‘idealism’ has perhaps gotten there first (and subsumed a whole chunk of correlationism while its at it).
Before making any substantive points, it’s first important to acknowledge the main point Levi makes in that post, namely, that realism and materialism are not the same. I’m perfectly happy with this. Of course, I think materialism is the preferable form of realism, but this is another debate entirely (I’ve ventured some initial points on my worries about Levi’s anti-materialism here).
Now, on to the actual disagreement. Here is the quote that I’m concerned with in full:-
In this connection, I think Harman provides the proper argument against materialist realisms. Harman’s argument is basically that philosophical materialisms (I won’t impugn the good scientists that frequent my blog) are idealisms. If they are idealisms then this is because they begin with an idea of the real, of what being is, and then set about translating all beings into this model. In this regard, Harman accords well with the theses of Laruelle in Non-Philosophy II, whom I detest, but whose points are nonetheless well taken. To begin with an idea of what is real is to begin within the framework of an idealism that allows the concept to dictate being. By contrast, object-oriented ontologies, paradoxically, do not begin with a thesis of what is real, they do not allow an idea to dictate being, but rather hold that we do not know what the real is, only that the real is.
My real problem with this argument is that it seems to conflate the content of a position with the manner in which it is justified or elaborated. Are there any materialists that actually hold that the real is beholden to any ideas? Is this an implication of their position that they simply aren’t owning up to? Or are we talking about something like performative idealism? (The content of what you say is not idealist, ah, but the way you say it!)
I’m not going to deny that there are plenty of what we might call naive materialists, who take it to be obvious that what is real is what is material, and that nothing that is immaterial can be real. But is naive materialism synonymous with materialism anymore than realism is synonymous with materialism? No. There are many of us materialists who actually try to argue for the position that the real is the material, and who accept that the claim is precisely not obvious. We accept that we should, by inquiring into the nature of the real, uncover what the real is. We simply think that by doing this we discover that the real is material.
Now there is a vaguely Laruellian position that could be found around here, which Levi points to, namely, that all ways of determining the real, by making claims about what the real is, are in some way fundamentally inadequate, and that we must therefore content ourselves with the radical independence of the real (the brute fact ‘that the real is’) from any way of determining it. However, this can’t be Levi’s own position, because he does want to say something about what the real is (in terms of his account of objects as self-differing and translating one another’s differences, etc.), he just disagrees with the materialist picture, insofar as he takes it not to be pluralistic enough. This kind of ontological pluralism does not sit well with non-philosophy (even if non-philosophy is pluralistic in its own, quite radically different way).
Levi and Graham previously put forward a simple characterisation of what they think constitutes idealism: if a philosophy cannot say anything about the way non-human objects interact in a way independent of humans then it is idealist. I have my own problems with this characterisation, insofar as I think it is at best necessary but not sufficient (it strikes me that Hegel could pass muster here), but on this account materialism is a perfectly acceptable realism. Materialism can talk all day about non-human objects interacting in themselves, and at no point would it make recourse to an idea of materiality within its explanations. Yes, its explanations can deploy the idea of materiality, but that’s a different matter altogether. Using a concept and mentioning it are different things.
In short, if this is the best argument OOO has against materialism it should be worried, and materialists should not. It seems that really this is meant to be a criticism of the methodology of some materialists, and there may as of yet be something interesting in this, but it has been overplayed.
Now, if we want a more restrictive but thereby more useful characterisation of what Idealism consists in, I think we can make do with the following: any position is idealist if it holds that, in some sense, the fundamental structure of reality is the structure of thought.
This captures both objective and subjective idealisms (Hegel and Berkeley), although it doesn’t capture Kantian transcendental idealism, which we can classify (a la Meillassoux) as weak correlationism. It does raise some questions about strong correlationists such as Heidegger, insofar as for them thought is involved in the fundamental structure of reality, even it is not identical with it, but I think these are precisely very interesting questions. This is obviously a tentative definition, but I think it does the trick for now.