Comments on Capitalist Realism (Part 1)

I recently finished reading Mark Fisher‘s Capitalist Realism. I’m very sorry it took me so long. Now I’m at the end of my thesis I’m starting to finally do things I’ve been putting off for a long time. Mark really must be praised for writing such an accessible and yet eminently perceptive and persuasive book. It touches on a number of issues I’ve been thinking about myself for a long time, and gives names to several phenomena that have been on the edge of my intellectual awareness for even longer. I don’t agree with all of it, and I can see numerous points where the discussion needs to be taken further, but these are merely signs of how thought provoking and well-written the book is.

As I’ve said, now I’m at the end of the thesis, I’m starting to pick up things I’ve put off, and start new projects again. Politics is what originally got me into philosophy. Specifically, I was motivated to take up theoretical philosophy by precisely what demotivated me to engage in practical political action: the problem of how it is possible to change anything in the current environment (an environment Mark so perspicuously circumscribes). I remember attending the big anti-war march just before the beginning of the Iraq war in London, the biggest peace protest in history at the time (I think), and seeing how easily it was assimilated and dissipated by the media-democratic complex. It struck me that a smaller number of people (with a smaller amount of public support behind them) brought down the Vietnam war, and yet this did precisely nothing. I was 17 at the time, and hoping to go into politics. That event disrupted my perspective and made me want to understand why it did nothing, and how it would be possible to do something. I’ve spent the last 7 years or so on a journey into high theory, acquiring a number of abstract theoretical tools along the way, and I think I’m finally ready to make my descent back toward concrete political issues. Capitalist Realism has only reinforced my resolve on this front.

To this end, I’m in the early stages of starting a new blog to discuss more concrete political issues. Deontologistics has always been very much a blog about abstract issues, and although I’ve touched on the odd bit of political and ethical theory here and there, that’s never been its purpose. The arrangements for the new blog are still coming together though (it doesn’t even have a name yet), so watch this space. The one thing I can tell you is that if there is one phrase that sums up its modus operandi, it’s this: political rationalism. Given all this, I feel that it’s a good idea for me to write up my thoughts on Capitalist Realism (or CR), as a preliminary to the work I’m hoping to undertake. This will be less of a summary of the book’s core ideas than an exploration of the terrain it covers from within my own theoretical perspective. This means adding some theoretical supplements and using these to sketch the ways in which I think some of Mark’s ideas can be developed. The other qualification to add here is that I’m not as well versed in political theory as I’d like, and so it’s quite possible that I’ll reinvent some theoretical wheels as I’m going here (especially with regard to Marx and Habermas). I’m very happy to have this pointed out to me.

As should be no surprise to regular readers, this will be a long post (this part is 16,000, which I believe is a new record). It started out life as an email to Mark and became somewhat excessive. It’s gotten so long that I’ve actually had to split it up into parts (the second has yet to be completed). Here is the first part, which involves more theoretical supplementation than political musing. The second part should get more concrete, or at least, as concrete as I am known to get.

Anyway, here we go…

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Hijacking Correlationism

Graham recently put up an interesting post about the various positions within Meillassoux’s philosophical ‘spectrum’, and where OOP stands in relation to them (here, linked by Gratton here). This is most interesting, because it goes some way to confirming the diagnosis of OOP I made in my TR essay (here). Since most people don’t have the time to read the whole thing, I’ll recreate the basic elements of the argument here (with a certain amount of tweaking).

First of all, the core point of the essay is that the ‘spectrum’ of positions provided by Meillassoux is incomplete, and that there are at least two further important positions (not including OOP) that need to be added to it, which I call deflationary realism and transcendental realism. The revised range of possible positions should be something like: classical realism (Aristotle, Locke, etc.), classical idealism (Berkeley, Hegel, etc.), weak correlationism (Kant), strong correlationism (Wittgenstein, Heidegger, etc.), speculative materialism (Meillassoux), OOP (Graham, and perhaps related OOO variants), deflationary realism (Quine, McDowell, Brandom, etc.), and transcendental realism (me and potentially a few others). I won’t line these up in a spectrum, because I think there’s too many dimensions at work here.

The other relevant point that I made is that both Meillassoux and Graham justify their respective positions by hijacking the arguments for correlationism, albeit in different ways. This is very explicit in Meillassoux’s work, though has been somewhat more understated in Graham’s (although his post makes this explicit to some extent). On the basis of this, my argument was that if we undermine the arguments for correlationism directly, then we undermine the most powerful arguments in favour of both speculative materialism and OOP. This was then done by showing that despite the fact that correlationism is meant to be an epistemological position (or at least that we are supposed to be able to formulate it in purely epistemological terms), it depends upon certain implicit ontological (and thus metaphysical) assumptions. In effect, what Meillassoux and Graham do in hijacking correlationism is just to try and make these assumptions explicit, and work out their consequences. The problem is simply that once one recognises this, one sees that these are not metaphysical positions that are necessitated by non-metaphysical (epistemological or phenomenological) facts, but are just different ways to develop some existing metaphysical assumptions. Arguing against those assumptions thus undermines correlationism, speculative materialism, and OOP all at once.

This is a very schematic presentation of these ideas, which doesn’t show how the two sides link up. As such, I’m going to try and flesh it out a bit.

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Transcendental Realism

Greetings to all. It’s a bit late for an update, but, as others have already noted (here and here), the Transcendental Realism Workshop that happened last week went very well. I was most pleased with the way the various papers fitted together. A number of important issues recurred throughout the whole day: the relation between metaphysics and science, the nature and importance of rationality, the structure of concept revision, the interface between the natural and the normative, the role of the social in the structure of knowledge, and the significance of Kant’s philosophy.

As Dave Allen has pointed out, one of the most heartening things about the day was the that the great divide between Continental and Analytic philosophy was notable only by its absence. There was no attempt to bring one to the other, but simply a willingness to work as if the boundaries were not there.

I won’t comment too much on individual papers, as I’ll let those of you who’re interesting hear (or read) them for yourselves. We have the audio for the first three papers (Tom‘s, Reid‘s, and mine), but not for any of the others. Reid and Tom should provide revised electronic copies of their papers at some point (I believe). James Trafford didn’t want to make his paper available, as it is going to form part of his book for zerO on revisionary naturalism. It was an interesting paper, so we’ve got lots to look forward to there. Nick’s paper is available below in electronic form.

Tom O’Shea – On the Very Idea of CorrelationismTom O’Shea Q&A

Reid Kotlas – Transcendental Realism, Historical Materialism, and the Problem of Freedom / Reid Kotlas Q&A

Pete Wolfendale – Objectivity, Reality, and the In-Itself: From Deflationary to Transcendental RealismPete Wolfendale Q&A / Handout

Nick Srnicek – Traversing the Gap: Actor-Network Theory and the Forward March of Science

Unfortunately, we forgot to set up the mike for Ray’s talk, which is a testimony to how extremely tight the schedule was, and how stimulating the inter-talk discussion was. Doubly unfortunately, his presentation was given from notes, and so I can’t even give you all an electronic copy. To give you a brief low-down, he gave a fascinating introduction to Sellars as the best kept secret of 20th Century philosophy. He presented him as something of the Captain Beefheart of philosophy – nobody reads him, but his influence is everywhere. He also presented him as trying to make good on the promise of Kant’s philosophy.

The importance of Kant’s work was something which hung over the whole workshop, and when I came to revise my paper to put it online it stuck with me. I was unhappy with the final argument of my paper, and so my initial intent was only to extend that particular section. However, this turned into over a weeks worth of work (which is part of the reason for the delay), extending the paper into something more like a small treatise on transcendental realism, and the possibility of radicalising Kant’s philosophy. Given that Graham has just posted about the datedness of Kant’s work (here), I think it fitting to post this extended essay as a systematic rebuttal of sorts.

The essay contains the original paper (although somewhat extended), but also contains a large section working out the consequences of the argument for transcendental realism it provides. This recapitulates a lot of thoughts I’ve laid out on the blog over the last year, but in a more systematic and polished form. It’s far from a finished piece. It points in the direction of a larger project, but it provides a very good overview of this project, which reveals what I believe to be its philosophical depth and systematic scope. For anyone who finds the argument of the audio version wanting (as you should) and anyone who wants to know where I intend to take it (as I’d like to think you should) I strongly recommend giving this a read. It also contains a stripped down but fairly incisive critique of both Meillassoux and Graham, which I think many of you will find enlightening. However, it is rather long (24,000 words or so), thought it should be quite easy to read in parts.

Anyway, here it is: Essay on Transcendental Realism

Transcendental Realism Workshop (with Ray Brassier)

Finally, here is the official announcement for the Transcendental Realism workshop that’ll be taking place here at Warwick next month. I’ve left this tragically late, but hopefully not too late to discourage most people from coming. Once again, this event will have a number of familiar names from the blogosphere, including Nick Srnicek (Speculative Heresy / The Accursed Share), Reid Kotlas (Planomenology), and Tom O’Shea (Grundlegung), along with myself and James Trafford. We will also have Ray Brassier giving the headline talk, discussing his current interests in Sellars and Kant. All in all, this should be a really interesting event, so I recommend anyone who is interested to come on down to Warwick and join us.

Warwick Transcendental Realism Workshop

Time: Tuesday 11th of May, 12:00pm (registration) – 7:00pm

Location: University of Warwick, LIB2 and S0.11

Organised by Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, in conjunction with the Research Group in Post-Kantian European Philosophy

The purpose of the workshop is to examine the arguments underlying the increasing push towards realism in parts of modern continental philosophy, along with approaches that bridge the analytic/continental divide, and to assess the possibility of transcendental approaches to realism within this context. Particular themes that we be focused upon include:-

– The arguments of Quentin Meillassoux, and the possibility of transcendental responses to the problems he raises.

– The relation between epistemology and ontology.

– The relation between philosophy and the natural sciences.

The event will be split into two parts. The first part will take place in LIB2 (in the university library building) from 12:30pm to 5:00pm, which will consist in five papers presented by graduate students on matters relevant to the topic, along with discussion. The second part will be the headline talk, given by Ray Brassier, which will take place in S0.11 (in the social studies building) from 5:30pm to 7:30pm, under the auspices of the department’s regular Colloquium in European Philosophy.

Speakers

Ray Brassier (Philosophy, American University of Beirut) – ‘Kant and Sellars: Nominalism, Realism, Naturalism’

James Trafford (Philosophy, Unaffiliated) – ‘Follow the Evidence: Realism, Epistemology, Semantics’

Reid Kotlas (Philosophy Grad Student, Dundee) – ‘From Transcendental to Abstract Realism: Epistemology after Marx’

Nick Srnicek (International Relations PhD Student, LSE) – ‘Extending Cognition: Bridging the Gap between Actor-Network Theory and Scientific Realism’

Tom O’Shea (Philosophy PhD Student, Sheffield) – ‘On the Very Idea of Correlationism’

Pete Wolfendale (Philosophy PhD Student, Warwick) – ‘Objectivity, Reality, and the In-Itself: From Deflationary to Transcendental Realism’

The workshop is free to attend, but please email pete.wolfendale ‘at’ gmail.com to register in advance, or to request any further information.

Meillassoux on Signs and Contingency

Fabio over at Hypertiling has put up a translation of part of one Meillassoux’s papers (here), and it is most interesting. The aim of the section Fabio has translated is to sketch out a strategy for demonstrating that mathematical thought can grasp absolute contingency, which for Meillassoux is the Real itself. The way he goes about this is fascinating, but, I think, potentially flawed. I won’t go over the piece in too much detail, but explain just enough to show where I think it goes wrong.

Meillassoux’s basic idea is that the condition under which anything like mathematical thought functions is the ability to grasp and deploy empty signs (such as the letters (P, Q, R, etc.) traditionally used to denote propositions in propositional calculus, or the letters (a, b, c, etc.)  traditionally used to denote sets in set theory), and that our grasp of such empty signs consists in nothing but our grasp of them qua sign, as opposed to our grasp of ordinary signs, in which our grasp of what the sign stands for obscures this pure signifying character. Now, he thinks that he can show that mathematical thought grasps absolute contingency insofar as this grasp of a sign qua sign upon which it is founded itself consists in a grasp of pure contingency. This is an interesting argument, and I can certainly see where he is going.

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Meillassoux and Contradiction [Updated]

I’ve been a away from blogging for the past week, as I’ve been trying to get back to some of the more boring bits of my thesis and get them done. This has only been partially successful, and as such is ongoing (sorry again to those who want me to write more on Deleuze). However, I’ve also been reading After Finitude (finally). I have a number of things I could say about it, and a few issues with the argumentation (some of which Tom over at Grundlegung has tackled). I won’t go into these in detail, in part because I haven’t yet finished the book, but I will point out what appeared to be somewhat of a non-sequitur in one of Meillassoux’s arguments. I might be misinterpreting him, so feel free to put me right, but it seems somewhat blatant to me.

A preliminary point I would make is that Meillassoux identifies metaphysics with onto-theology. A lot of people do this, and I think its a false adequation (as I’ve tried to show here and here). He takes the mainstay of metaphysics to be the positing of a necessary entity. Through a bunch of very interesting argumentation he produces the principle of unreason, which consists in the necessity of contingency, and this disqualifies all such necessary entities (and thus all ‘metaphysics’). The problem I have is his attempt to deduce the principle of non-contradiction from the principle of unreason.

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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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Deleuze: The Song of Sufficient Reason – (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my discussion on Deleuze and sufficient reason. In this post, I’ll be explaining the some more of the details of my interpretation of Deleuze’s metaphysics. This won’t yet explain how Deleuze manages to reconcile sufficient reason with the principle of univocity, but it will start developing the necessary theoretical resources to to so.

3. Virtuality Contra Possibility

As I said in the last post, we are forced to choose between onto-theology and sufficient reason on the one hand, and negative theology and the rejection of sufficient reason on the other, only insofar as we think in terms of the possible and actual. Thus, in order to demonstrate how Deleuze escapes from this trap it is necessary to elucidate in brief his alternative to thinking in these terms, namely, his account of the virtual and it actualisation. Now, I don’t claim to understand the virtual in full. Grasping the proper nature of the virtual is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy, and I’m not sure anyone has done so entirely. However, I can explain it in part.

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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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Deleuze: The Song of Sufficient Reason

After another post on the structure of normativity I owe people some metaphysics, so I’m going to return to my continuing elaboration of Deleuze. In my earlier posts I have indicated how what I have called the strong version of the principle of univocity is at the heart of Deleuze’s metaphysics, in that many of the other decisions he makes in his metaphysics follows from it. I have also said that Deleuze’s system can be understood as a reinvention of Spinoza’s system to incorporate this principle (and thus also the ontological difference). In this post I want to talk about the other principle at the heart of Deleuze’s metaphysics, one which he shares with Spinoza: the principle of sufficient reason. In talking about this I hope to elaborate how other aspects of his metaphysics function, most importantly his monism.

I’ve been working on this post for a little while, and it’s ballooned to nearly 6000 words and climbing, so I’m going to break it up into parts. The first two parts I’m posting now will set the stage, and the following one’s will do some more in depth metaphysical work.

1. Sufficient Reason and Onto-theology

People have a tendency to ignore the fact that Deleuze accepts some form of the principle of sufficient reason, despite the fact that he says at one point that D&R is a book about sufficient reason. The fact that Deleuze accepts this is of a great deal of relevance in contemporary debates, given how fashionable it has become to reject it (see Badiou and Meillassoux, who I’ll will talk about a little below). However, the other important thing about Deleuze’s acceptance of the principle is that it at once both underscores his similarities with the key rationalist thinkers – Spinoza and Leibniz – but in doing so highlights the relevant ways he moves beyond them.

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