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).