On Throwing Stones

For those of you unaware, there’s been another slight fracas recently over Graham Harman’s reference to a certain wing of contemporary continental philosophy as the “neurology death cult” (here).  Reid over at Planomenology took a certain amount of umbrage at this remark (here), and used it as an excuse to try and correct what he sees as a bunch of misunderstandings of Ray Brassier that have come out of Levi and Graham’s corner (to differing extents). Graham then indirectly responded to this (here), and Levi posted some comments in response to it, but has since deleted them (so I won’t address them directly). It seems to me that there a few important things to be said in relation to the points raised here, so I’ll try and do so without stepping on any toes (which is a difficult matter these days).

Reid identifies the ‘neurology death cult’ label as aimed squarely at Brassier and those who, like him, have developed an interest in the Churchlands and Metzinger (although it seems that it might also be pointed at Malabou, but I really know very little about her work and her possible influence here). I’m quite sympathetic to Reid, as it does seem that this pejorative reference is part of an ongoing series of jabs at the loosely ‘science loving’ wing of contemporary continental philosophy, be they  influenced by Brassier specifically, or simply share a certain concern with relationship between philosophical ontology and modern science (neuroscience included). Obviously, Levi and Graham are entitled to critique this loose grouping of positions, but what Reid was rightly pointing out was the somewhat thin nature of many of these criticisms, despite their rhetorical weight. Other pejorative terms like ‘scientism’, ‘reductionism’, and even ‘idealism’ have been thrown around, without enough explanation of why they are applicable to the positions in question (or even what the consequences of their application are). Basically, Reid’s reaction was just a demand for these positions to be taken more seriously, which means less short sharp pejorative jabs and more sustained analysis.

Now, there is a danger here of running Graham and Levi together. Although they refer to one another a lot on their blogs, they shouldn’t be taken necessarily to agree with everything the other says, or at the very least to be responsible for backing it up. Most of the accusations of reductionism have come from Levi’s corner, whereas Graham tends to focus on his more subtle characterisation of other positions as undermining and overmining objects. Although I did see the paper he gave in Bristol on this, I’m not really confident about addressing his way of looking at the matter. However, I do have something to say about Levi’s charge of reductionism, which he’s been repeating for quite a while now, and strikes me as overly crude.

First though, I’d like to address Graham’s response to Reid, as it struck me as slightly problematic. The response was really twofold: first, that the reference was meant with a certain amount of humor, and second, that it was a justified form of retaliation. Now, if Graham had stuck to the first response, I’d say fair enough. Sometimes we mean things in a slightly joking way, even if slightly barbed, and they aren’t taken up the way we intended. This is just a peril of communication as such, and one that is exacerbated by this particular medium. However, the second part of the response kind of undermines this, as if the reference was a matter of retaliation, then it was indeed some kind of attack. Now, I do think that Graham is right to some extent. If one’s position is attacked outright, then one has every right to strike back. My worry is that I’m not sure that Graham’s retaliative aim is all that good.

Both Graham and Levi have been taking a lot of flack recently, and it has certainly extended beyond criticisms of their philosophical positions. There’s an ongoing feud between Mikhail (and others) from Perverse Egalitarianism and Levi, which I’m not going to take any sides on, and then there’s the more recent accusations of orientalism, ponzi-scheming and so on that have been levelled at Graham (and by extension Levi) by Kvond from Frames /sing and BryanK from Velvet Howler. I have to admit that I think these go a bit too far (and said so as much in the discussion here). (I hope that these points don’t get confused with the points about the relation between Latourian philosophy and neo-liberalism put forward by Reid, and later myself, as those were explicitly philosophical criticisms.) However, as you might well note, this flack hasn’t primarily been coming from the side of the ‘neurology death cult’ or those within its rough halo. Kvond is all about Spinoza and Davidson, BryanK is into German Idealism, and Mikhail and the PE folks focus more on Kantianism. Unless there’s been some exchanges I’m unaware of, I don’t see any eliminativists (or whatever) throwing the first stone here. That being said, I understand that it must be easy to get confused when you’re under fire as to which criticisms are philosophical, which personal, and where they’re coming from. Nonetheless, its important to set the record straight on these matters. The best overall result is if we can stop throwing stones and start having proper constructive arguments.

Setting that aside then, I’d like to return to Levi’s charge of reductionism. He’s levelled this charge specifically against Brassier, but more broadly against anyone who takes up a broadly eliminativist position in relation to folk-psychological notions such as belief, desire, the subject, or even to certain common sense ways of understanding the social domain. Now, there are different ways of motivating an eliminativist position. Most start by articulating some kind of relation between philosophy (or ontology) and science, and then use this relationship to deny existence to entities or properties that are explanatorily redundant in relation to our best scientific theories. This isn’t the only way of going about it. Instead of trying to show the empirical inadequacy of certain notions, and then rejecting them on that basis, one can show that they are structurally incapable of empirical adequacy, in virtue of tracing their origins to something non-empirical (this is the tack I’ve taken here). It’s interesting to note that Levi’s charge of reductionism is entirely independent of the particular way one motivates eliminativism. As far as I can see, the argument that Levi makes is that the only way to hold an eliminativist position is to hold that those entities or properties that one is denying existence to are in fact epiphenomena that are in some way dependent upon an ultimate level of real phenomena (e.g., the neurological, or the quantum).

This is a very bold claim, and I think it’s too bold for its own good. It seems to start from the assumption that we are confronted with phenomena such as subjects, beliefs and desires, and that the only way to eliminate them is to subtract their reality by placing it within some substratum, preferably a fundamental substratum. Levi’s ontologically promiscuous counter-gesture is then to say ‘No! All of the phenomena are real!’. He thus denies that there is a fundamental substratum, or indeed anything like a difference between phenomena and epiphenomena, thus establishing his flat ontology. The problem with this is that we haven’t been provided with any good analysis of what it is we’re giving equal rights to here, i.e., what these phenomena are in the first place. Is phlogiston such a phenomena? What about aether winds? We can deny that these exist without taking them to be epiphenomena, dependent upon some real substratum. What is it about subjects, beliefs and desires that prevents us from denying their existence in the same way we deny the existence of phlogiston, what forces us to either embrace them whole-heartedly or reduce them to epiphenomena, rather than erasing them from existence as such? Until we have answers to these questions, the argument is sorely incomplete (I had a go at reconstructing the motivations for this position a while back, although I’d withdraw the claims made about Harman, as his position is more complicated).

It seems perfectly possible for eliminitavists to deny reductionism. One can be a bona fide emergentist, and take there to be various different levels of reality (e.g., the quantum, the chemical, the micro-biological, the macro-biological, the social, etc.), the entities populating which and the laws governing which emerge out of the levels below, and nonetheless hold that certain entities or properties posited by others are not to be found at any level. Indeed, this is the kind of picture I endorse (I’ve outlined my roughly Deleuzian picture of this in a bit more detail in sections 3 and 4 of this post, and I’ve also provided some further criticisms of Levi’s picture in relation to it).

To conclude briefly, it’s obvious that I don’t agree with Levi and Graham’s positions (to the extent that I understand them), but this doesn’t mean that I don’t find them interesting. I certainly gain a lot from criticising them, and being forced to outline where I differ from them. I think the best results for all of us are found when we openly and honestly engage with one another’s positions in the best faith possible (I hope that’s what I’ve done above).

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7 Responses to “On Throwing Stones”

  1. I like this post quite a bit. Nicely done all around.

  2. Fabio Cunctator Says:

    Pete, this is a very balanced post which does exactly the job of commenting on others’ positions without bile and shouts.
    As for your critique of the OOP critique of eliminativism, as far as my own position is sketched in my head, I tend to agree with Levi, having problems with a strict differentiation of phenomena and epiphenomena.

    However, I would like to make a general comment on this new ‘fracas’ and on controversies and attacks in this blogosphere: why can’t we get rid of this ‘my philosophical hero’ structure? You highlighted well the background of some critics, and the assiciation with ‘some philosophers’–as if with a banner.
    I do understand that most of us involved in the blogging affair are grad students or recent PhDs, that is, people who are institutionally forced to deal with a specific problem, which often means ‘with a specific philosopher’, in great depth, so that our minds are molded by his (or, more rarely, her) ways of thought and argumenting.
    However, I think that in a public and yet relatively ‘safe’ space like this we should just try to speculate more, to throw in the mix as many positions as possible, to experiment a little. At least it is how I like to live it: I hardly ever posted anything which has direct connection with my PhD work (of course this could just be a signal of my confusion about it…) and I try to deal with all my side interests online. I think that such a flexible approach would make us all less prone to be ‘offended’ by remarks and open to modifications of our initial position. There seems to be some sort of pride which intrinsicallly prevents everyone from saying: ‘you are right, I was wrong about that’. For example, I have learnt something from your comments to my SR/ethics post, and I am actually happy about it.

    As for Brassier however, I have a stronger opinion on the matter. I have made my way through the book some months ago, admittedly with some difficulties where his work requires a background knowledge of other philosophers which I did not have (surely Laurelle, and in smaller measure Deleuze, whose work, quite unfashionably in these years, I am not too familiar with), but I have found it a powerful and fertile philosophical work, one which resonates at a deep level with some of my own committments. What I find surreal however is this: where do Brassier on one side and Kant, Heidegger, Spinoza, Deleuze etc on the other differ? Brassier is alive and well. So why these interminable, tiresome, sour disquisitions on what exactly Brassier meant in a passage of his work, with annexed accusations of being a poor reader (or worse), when one could just, you know, formulate a problem and email him? Or write a review of his work somewhere and ask for a reply? To discuss, (and agree or disagree with) his work is fine, but to create usleless conflicts over the interpretation of his scriptures is just plain silly.

  3. deontologistics Says:

    Kvond: Thankyou kindly.

    Fabio: Just to restate the point I was making against Levi’s reductionist charge above in different terms, it’s not clear that an eliminativist program needs to posit any epiphenomena at all. In essence, we need to be shown why the debate needs to be framed in terms of the phenomena/epiphenomena distinction before being shown that there are problems strictly differentiating the two.

    On your hero point I’m pretty much in agreement. It’s good to get on with some proper philosophical experimentation, and I know that this blog has let me do that for one. However, I would point out that although Reid’s response was a direct defence of Brassier, the loose grouping of people this was aimed at are not just die hard Brassierians, or even grouped on the basis of adherence to some set of particular philosophers. A lot of people associate with Brassier insofar as they find his call to make philosophy commensurate with contemporary science (and neuroscience in particular) compelling. I myself have some quite serious disagreements with large parts of Nihil Unbound (I think the reading of Deleuze is forced, insofar as I understand Laruelle, I agree with Meillassoux that the Real cannot simply be posited, axiomatically or no, and I think Ray’s ontologisation of extinction suffers from an equivocation over precisely what extinction is), but I nonetheless find the general trajectory of Brassier’s thought promising.

    So, it’s not that we want to slavishly defend Brassier out of an intense loyalty to his doctrine, but rather that we think a whole general trajectory of philosophical thinking, which Brassier just happens to be the best exemplar of in this particular community, is not being fairly represented.

    As for arguments about the interpretation of Brassier’s work, I don’t really share your concerns about them. I know that a few of us are in contact with him occasionally, and this is all good, but he himself doesn’t have a blogging presence here, and I think he’s quite happy with that. Arguments about how to interpret his work do pop up, and when they do, we can’t always just ask him to step in and solve them. That being said, I don’t seem why we shouldn’t aim for the same standard of exegetical debate about his works (or anyone else’s for that matter) that we aim for with Kant, Spinoza and Heidegger.

  4. There’s no real feud, I think, just seasonal flaring up of thumos. I have to say that all this talk of “attacks” and “retaliations” is making me a bit uncomfortable mainly because it is so unapologetically childish, you know? Who even uses words like “retaliation” when it comes to philosophical positions? How do you “retaliate” against an idea or a position? I mean the latest exchange between Reid and Levi was very strange: “This is what Brassier writes” – “No, he doesn’t” – “Yes, he does, just read it” – “I read it, and I think it means something else” – “No, it doesn’t” and so on…

    In any case, I think your assessment is very grounded and certainly balanced. I wish I had more of this reasonableness I detect in your presentation.

  5. A great post…
    Well, maybe that’s just the eliminativist in me speaking… 🙂

  6. […] Taking the first point, we can’t say that what is being reduced is Graham’s radically discrete and totally withdrawn objects, because this would basically amount to defining any position which disagrees with Graham as overmining/undermining objects (and I’m certainly not claiming that Graham thinks this). We thus need a weaker sense of object to describe what is being undermined by Grant, overmined by Meillassoux, and which Graham takes himself to be genuinely elucidating or explaining with his full blooded conception of objects. I suspect Graham would appeal to some stripped down, phenomenological notion of the object here. This would then link us back to the ongoing debate over the viability of phenomenology as a method for ontology (see here and here). The concern I have here parallels the problems I have with Levi’s argument that eliminativism turns certain entities into epiphenomena (here). […]

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