Speculative Realism
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Speculative Realism

An Introduction

Graham Harman

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eBook - ePub

Speculative Realism

An Introduction

Graham Harman

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About This Book

On April 27, 2007, the first Speculative Realism (SR) workshop was held at Goldsmiths, University of London, featuring four young philosophers whose ideas were loosely allied. Over the ensuing decade, the ideas of SR spread from philosophy to the arts, architecture, and numerous disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. SR has been arguably the most influential new current in continental philosophy since the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari found their second wind in the 1990s.

But what is SR? This book is the first general overview by one of its original members, focusing on the aesthetic, ethical, ontological, and political themes of greatest importance to the movement. Graham Harman provides a balanced but critical assessment of his original SR colleagues – Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux – along with a clear summary of his own Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). A number of central philosophical questions tie the four chapters together: What exactly is "correlationism, " the chief enemy of SR? What are the stakes of philosophical realism, and is such realism better served by mathematics and the natural sciences, or by a broader model of cognitive activity that includes aesthetics?

This book covers both the historical and conceptual development of the movement, providing a first-rate introduction for students, aided by helpful end-of-chapter study questions chosen by Harman himself. SR, Harman shows, is a vital and fast-developing field in contemporary philosophy.

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Ray Brassier (b. 1965) is of mixed French and Scottish parentage. He completed his PhD at Warwick University, as did Grant. At the time of the Goldsmiths workshop he was employed at Middlesex University in London, which is where I first met him in April 2005. Since 2008 he has worked at the beautiful seaside campus of the American University of Beirut. He has an unusually loyal following, primarily among younger males captivated by his vision of a cold and pitiless cosmos to be probed remorselessly with the instruments of radical scientific enlightenment and radical horror fiction. The chief example of the latter is the American fright lord Thomas Ligotti (b. 1953), for one of whose books Brassier has even written a foreword.1
Here as in the other three chapters, I will begin in section A with a brief look at Brassier’s presentation at the April 2007 Goldsmiths workshop. After that, we will turn in section B to his difficult but often refreshing book Nihil Unbound. Since Brassier’s second book has yet to appear, we will attempt in section C to discern his future path by looking at two of his key recent articles.

A Brassier at Goldsmiths

Brassier’s presentation at Goldsmiths opened the conference. It runs from pages 308 to 321 in the transcript, followed by an additional twelve pages of audience questions. Though in later years he has denied any important connection between the four participants at the workshop, in 2007 Brassier was more optimistic about the group he had assembled: “The fundamental thing we seem to share is obviously a willingness to re-interrogate or to open up a whole set of philosophical problems that were taken to have been definitively settled by Kant, certainly, at least, by those working in the continental tradition.”2 As for continental philosophy and its difference from the analytic variety, a difference whose very existence he will later deny, the Brassier of 2007 still sees it in terms of two distinct sets of virtues:
some kind of communication is needed between the speculative audacity which is a characteristic of so-called ‘continental philosophy’ and the really admirable level of engagement with the empirical sciences which is a feature of the most interesting work being done specifically in the kind of Anglo-American philosophy of mind that engages directly with, or that sees its project as continuous with, cognitive science. (320–1)
Although Brassier places great importance on the natural sciences in general, he is especially enamored of cognitive science, which he views as the key to eliminating the modern thought–world dualism. As he put it at Goldsmiths: “I think that arguably the most significant philosophical development of the twentieth century is the emergence of a science of cognition: that is, the idea that the process of cognition can be re-integrated into the realm of objective phenomena studied by the empirical sciences” (320). In the years leading up to Goldsmiths, Brassier seemed to place great hope in the philosophy of Alain Badiou (b. 1937) and had even translated a number of the latter’s writings into English. Later he began to refer towards Badiou less often. My sense at the time was that this growing coolness to Badiouian philosophy had something to do with disappointment over that author’s low regard for any “science of cognition,” as revealed in Brassier and Robin Mackay’s interview of the French philosopher in the first volume of the journal Collapse.3
We return to the topic at hand. Brassier’s presentation at Goldsmiths consists of a sympathetic summary of the other three Speculative Realist positions that also includes some helpful objections to all of our work. In my opinion, his brief overview of Grant is of especial philosophical interest. In the opening pages of the transcript, Brassier goes straight to the core of Grant’s thinking: “nature is self-organizing. And the ideal structure of nature produces the structure of thinking. But if cognition is a result, a product – if it’s every bit as conditioned as any other natural phenomenon – the question then becomes whether there’s any reason to suppose that thought can limn or grasp the ultimate structure of reality at any given moment, any specific historical juncture” (310). The account of Grant here is accurate; we will see that, in his Schelling book and elsewhere, Grant treats thought as just another product of nature rather than as a privileged entity able to transcend reality as a whole. This puts him at odds with Meillassoux in particular, given the high importance granted by the latter to the human subject’s mathematical grasp of the primary qualities of things. On this point at least, Brassier sides with Grant: “the structure of material reality generates the structure of thinking. But this means that one must discount any appeal to intellectual intuition, which is to say the idea that thinking can simply transcend its own material, neurobiological conditions of organization and effectuation and grasp the noumenal structure of reality as it is in itself” (310–11). Brassier’s primary objection to Meillassoux hinges precisely on the latter’s appeal to “intellectual intuition” as a way of gaining direct access to reality. As concerns Grant, Brassier notes the risk that, if we turn thought into a product of nature, we might easily be seduced by the presently fashionable theory that the structure of human thought is simply the result of our evolutionary history: “this is a claim that fuels much of naturalized epistemology, but one that I think is metaphysically problematic, because there is no reason to suppose that evolutionary adaptation would favor exhaustively accurate beliefs about the world” (311). That is to say, “there’s no reason to suppose that evolution would infallibly provide human organisms with a cognitive apparatus that can accurately track the salient features or the deep structure of reality” (311). As Brassier notes, Grant’s more novel solution is to claim that human thought arises from thought that is already present in nature itself: “the force of Iain’s book is to try to propose what he calls a ‘transcendental naturalism’ – which claims that you can explain the emergence of the structure of ideation from the ideal structure of physical reality,” and as a result, “ideation would be capable of tracking the ideal dynamisms, the transcendental dynamisms, that underlie merely empirical or merely somatic reality” (311). And speaking of “merely somatic reality,” Brassier seems to endorse Grant’s condemnation of the “parochial Aristotelian model of physical reality” (314), whereas Aristotle ranks as one of the great philosophical heroes for OOO.
Brassier’s discussion of Grant closes with two more important objections, both of them bearing on Grant’s abandonment of the supposedly joint Aristotle–Kant “somatic” model, in which individual bodies are held to be the primary stuff of the universe. What Grant offers instead is a dynamic model in which force is primary, with individual entities being merely a derivative configuration of that force. In Brassier’s words: “what is the status of dynamism in speculative physics? Is it truly adequate to physical infrastructure? Or might it not be contaminated by certain folk-psychological prejudices?” (314). And further, given that Galileo’s mathematization of nature was so critical in replacing the Aristotelean “somatic” view of the universe that Grant disdains, “what is the relationship between the dynamic structure of the idea and the mathematical register deployed for its formalization?” (314). In his response during the question period, Grant does not address this question directly but focuses instead on challenging Brassier’s wish to eliminate as many fictitious or folk-psychological beings from the world as possible.
Brassier’s final objection to Grant matches one of OOO’s own. It touches on whether his unapologetically dynamic model of the universe leaves room for those aspects of the world that seem to be especially non-dynamic. As Brassier puts it: “this is a general point related to process philosophy: If you privilege productivity, if these ideal generative dynamisms that structure and constitute materiality can be characterized in terms of the primacy of production over product, then the question is, how do we account for the interruptions of the process? How do we account for discontinuity in the continuum of production?” (314–15). Or even more eloquently: “it seems that you always have to introduce or posit some sort of conceptual contrary, some principle of deceleration, interruption, disintensification or whatever, in order to account for the upsurges of stability and continuity and consistency within this otherwise untrammeled flux of becoming and pure process” (315). We will see that Grant tries to account for such interruptions of process in his Schelling book under the general term “retardation,” though his degree of success in doing so remains an open question.
The Brassier of 2007 reacts more warmly to OOO’s opposite approach: “Graham turns the question around by showing how the problem consists in showing how discontinuous, autonomous objects can ever enter into relation with one another …” (316). But he also poses two objections to my work. The first concerns OOO’s distinction between real and sensual properties. Brassier’s question on this score runs as follows: “what is the criterion for distinguishing sensible from non-sensible properties for any given object? Is it possible to provide such a criterion without giving it some sort of epistemological slant or formulation?” (316). His second, related question has to do with the implications of allowing existence (as OOO does) to all sorts of real and imaginary things. He worries about the inflationary results of such a flat ontology: “what would be the distinction between a hobbit and a quark here? This is a very serious metaphysical question!” (317). He proceeds to ask how we can distinguish between the real and the sensual, “given that we know that imaginary objects or fictitious entities such as the Virgin Mary or Yahweh or phlogiston seem perfectly capable of producing real effects – it’s perfectly possible for these things to generate real effects … in so far as people believe in them and do things in the world on the basis of their belief in them” (317).
The root of these objections can be found in the totally different conceptions held by Brassier and OOO as to the purpose of philosophy, and of intellectual life more generally. When Brassier asks for the “criterion” that allows us to distinguish between sensible and non-sensible properties, what he seems to mean is that we encounter a great many properties in our experience of things, some of which turn out to be true and others untrue. Therefore, we need some sort of intellectual tool that allows us to sift our accurate scientific perceptions of, say, a tree from our inaccurate or folk-psychological ones. But this is not what OOO’s distinction of real from sensual is about. OOO speaks of real and sensual not in order to distinguish accurate images of the world from impostors: it is an ontological distinction, not an epistemological one. For OOO, any perception of or relation to something consists ipso facto of sensual qualities. There is no such thing as an “accurate” perception of a thing’s real qualities, because by their very nature real qualities are not translatable into something to which we can have access. It is not a question of saying: “I see a horse, and it corresponds to a real horse outside my mind, but I also see a unicorn, which is a mere hallucination because it corresponds to nothing outside my mind.” Instead, even my perception of the horse, not just of the hallucinated unicorn, consists solely of sensual qualities. Nor are the real qualities to be obtained by the intellect rather than the senses, as Husserl thinks. The intellect has no more direct access to the real than do the senses – as Brassier would presumably be the first to agree, given his wary attitude towards Meillassoux’s intellectual intuition. Nor can we accept Brassier’s claim that objects must “know” something about each other in order to interact, at least not if “knowledge” means some sort of direct access to the things. OOO speaks instead of an indirect contact with reality, for the same reason that Socrates declares his inability to attain knowledge of anything. As for Brassier’s second question, we wonder how he can be so sure in placing Yahweh and the Virgin Mary on the same level as phlogiston. While fully in keeping with the rationalist disdain for religion, this indicates a degree of contempt for religious experience that will always be well received in the circles where Brassier travels, but which cannot do justice to the biographies of such figures as St Teresa of Avila, the Buddha, or Jalaluddin Rumi. While it is always possible that these figures are concerned with merely fictitious entities that “nonetheless” have real effects on their lives, the fragile certainty built into much religious life is a positive ontological phenomenon that Brassier simply ignores on the basis of his own atheist certitude.
We turn in closing to Brassier’s interesting remarks on Meillassoux, beginning with his concerns about intellectual intuition as a means of grasping the essence of the world directly. For Brassier, whose major intellectual commitment is to the natural sciences rather than to mathematics, knowledge always remains fallible because of its lack of “resemblance” to reality. Though at Goldsmiths Meillassoux tries to downplay the necessary role of the mathematical in understanding the world, in After Finitude he explicitly tells us that the primary qualities of things are those that can be mathematized. And furthermore, as Brassier notes: “[Quentin] explicitly wants to rehabilitate the Cartesian project, where mathematical ideation accurately describes the objective structure of reality as it is in itself, against the Kantian one, which would limit the scope of scientific cognition to the phenomenal realm” (319). This leads Brassier to puzzle over how to square the purported ability of mathematics to grasp the absolute with the fact that thought arises through processes of nature. But to understand this perplexity in more detail, we must turn to the development of Brassier’s arguments in Nihil Unbound.

Study Questions for Section A

  1. What is the philosophical importance for Brassier of a science of cognition?
  2. In his Goldsmiths talk, Brassier speaks against the notion of “intellectual intuition.” What does he see as philosophically dangerous in the claim that such intuition exists?
  3. Why is Brassier wary of the recent trend of saying that the structure of human thought is the end product of our evolutionary history?
  4. What are the reasons Brassier gives for caution against Grant’s heavily dynamic conception of nature?
  5. Why does Brassier ask OOO for “criteria” to distinguish between the real and the sensual? What might OOO say in response?

B Brassier’s Nihilism

Brassier is well aware that nihilism sounds l...

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