The Plane of Immanence

Over at The Naked Void, Nikola recently put up a post about Deleuze’s proximity to idealism (here). Very loosely, his argument ran that any philosophy of presence is essentially idealism, and that Deleuze’s notion of the plane of immanence commits him to such a philosophy of presence. As might be expected, I strongly objected to this characterisation of Deleuze, and I posted quite a long (albeit dense) comment, which tried to undermine the Badiouian assumptions latent in Nikola’s argument. Nikola has since posted a reply to my objections (here), and I feel like it would be more productive to re-present some of my original points and then show what appear to me as the inadequacies of Nikola’s response in light of them.

Insofar as this means that I have to discuss the plane of immanence, this also gives me an opportunity to better formulate some of the issues I have with Levi’s claims about ‘flat ontology’ and immanence (which are linked to here). I do like hitting two birds with one stone, and so I’ll address these after I discuss Nikola’s points.

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The Question of Being

When I began my thesis, I started with the naive assumption that most people knew what was meant by Heidegger’s ‘question of the meaning of Being’. Indeed, I thought I knew. The first two years were a systematic exercise in uncovering just how much others, and myself, had taken for granted that we understand what this question is, and simply proceeded to talk about other things, be it the specifics of Heidegger’s own philosophy or the relative merits of other attempts to answer this question.

There is a horrible irony in this. Heidegger raised the question of the meaning of Being in response to the fact that although we think we know what we mean by ‘being’, when pressed we are unable to say what it is precisely that we mean. Moreover, he showed that the fact that we did not see this as itself problematic indicated a historical trend of the forgetting of Being, perpetrated largely by metaphysics. Many of the thinkers who come after Heidegger acknowledge Heidegger’s diagnosis, and they go on to talk about Being in a properly theoretical register, but I get the sense that if they are pressed they are equally unable to say what it is they mean. Being thus becomes an almost empty concept in much philosophical discussion, used in a haphazard way that hinders real attempts at understanding and obfuscates its philosophical import. If anything, this is a worse forgetting of the issue than that perpetrated by metaphysics itself, because we have moved from mistakenly thinking that we know what ‘being’ means in a pre-theoretical way to mistakenly thinking we know what it means in a properly theoretical way. The former is a matter of familiarity while the latter is a matter of hubris.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that all post-Heideggerian thinkers are prone to this misunderstanding. However, I do think that much Heidegger scholarship, and some post-Heideggerian philosophical projects are simply not rigorous enough in delineating what they mean when they talk about Being or the question of Being. In this post I want to try and undo some of the obfuscation this causes by laying out what I take the question of the meaning of Being (or simply the question of Being) to be. Hopefully, this should also illuminate some things I have said elsewhere about the nature of ontology and its relationship to metaphysics (especially here).

One final warning: this post is very abstract. Such is the peril of thinking about Being. If you don’t want to deal with such heavy abstraction, my advice is to think about beings. This post is also very long, pushing 7,000 words this time. I thank anyone who takes the time to read the whole thing in advance, although it need not be consumed in one sitting.

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Critique and Correlationism

Just a little interruption to clear up a point I made in a comment, which Levi has rightly called me on. The statement I made was as follows:-

“One of the problems I have with the general trend of speculative realism (and one of the reasons I don’t identify as a speculative realist) is precisely its reactionary tendency to reject the major figures of philosophy (primarily Kant and Heidegger) without trying to figure out what needs to be salvaged from their work. When it comes to Kant and Heidegger, there is a great deal of worth to salvage, and much of it would prevent speculative realists from repeating some of the mistakes that Kant/Heidegger were themselves reacting to.”

Levi has rightly called my on this by pointing out that there is some engagement with figures like Heidegger (particularly by Graham Harman) and Kant (I imagine Iain Grant is a touchstone here). What is more, Levi argues (as he has on his blog here, and here), for what he calls a re-construction of the history of philosophy, in which Object-Oriented philosophers (indeed, only one of the species of speculative realist) go back through the history of philosophy and read them as if they are object-oriented metaphysicians, to liberate hidden insights of their work. These points would seem to undermine the thesis I put forward above.

Now, I still think that thesis holds, but I am forced to make it more clear and specific (a good thing!). I do not object to the kind of creative exegesis that Levi is proposing through re-construction (hell I’m a Deleuzian, who am I to argue about creative appropriation?), but I think that there is a certain bit of a whole tradition of philosophy that SR won’t touch with a ten foot barge pole. I am thinking of the methodological insights of the critical tradition (and Heidegger).

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Metaphysics after Heidegger

I’ve mentioned Heidegger a twice already on this blog, once in relation to Deleuze and Spinoza, and once in relation to my own work on Being and normativity. Kvond recently posted a question on the former post, asking why I take Deleuze’s reworking of Spinoza’s metaphysics to be a specifically post-Heideggerian one. I think it was fairly clear in that post why I take it to be post-Heideggerian, but I feel that I could reiterate the basic point, and in the course of it examine what it is to do genuinely post-Heideggerian metaphysics.

The phrase ‘post-Heideggerian metaphysics’ is meant to have an important resonance, given that metaphysics is usually taken as the name of that philosophy which came before Heidegger, whose inadequacies he correctly diagnosed and overcame. We are often told that we can either accept Heidegger’s insights regarding Being and metaphysics and abandon metaphysical thinking, or revert to a pre-Heideggerian metaphysics, and that there is no middle ground. To do genuinely post-Heideggerian metaphysics would be to embrace certain of Heidegger’s insights but nevertheless reject his turn away from metaphysics, pursuing metaphysics in a way that is at least partially characterised by Heidegger’s portrayal of it. In short, it would be to pursue a metaphysical project through an explicit concern with Being (and thus, I would add, the question of the meaning of Being).

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Normativity and Ontology

I seem to have gotten quite a lot of traffic over the last few days, so thankyou to all of you taking time to visit. I must break my promises again, and write about something entirely different to what I have so far suggested. Someone pointed me in the direction of the Grundlegung blog (now linked in the sidebar), which I’m finding very interesting. It’s nice to see someone else interested in contemporary ontology and the philosophy of normativity at the same time. Specifically, I was very interested by his musings on how to reconcile a univocal account of Being and  the essentially normative character of rationality/subjectivity. This seems to be an ongoing discussion with Levi at LarvalSubjects (now also linked in the sidebar) to which I chipped in a little bit. I have promise to chip in more however, and so I’m going to try and explain the outlines of my own work on the relation between normativity and ontology. This also expands on a discussion I was having with Ray Brassier at the last speculative realism conference, about how to reconcile the normativity of thought with ontology.

Coming out of the discussion between Tom and Levi, there seem to be three major issues that need to be addressed:-

1) In what sense is the philosophy of normativity (or deontology) prior to, or foundational for, ontology?

2) If we understand subjects as uniquely normative, how can we reconcile this with a univocal ontology in which no kind of being has any ontological privilege?

3) If ontology is somehow grounded in the normative, how do we account for the ontological status of norms, and how do we avoid the same problems vis a vis univocity?

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