I'm thinking (again) about beeping people during aesthetic experiences. The idea is this. Someone is reading a story, or watching a play, or listening to music. She has been told in advance that a beep will sound at some unexpected time, and when the beep sounds, she is to immediately stop attending to the book, play, or whatever, and note what was in her stream of experience at the last undisturbed moment before the beep, as best she can tell. (See Hurlburt 2011 for extensive discussion of such "experience sampling" methods.)
As an outsider I've been fascinated by watching continental philosophers shake off many of the neo-Kantian aspects of phenomenology in the same way that analytic philosophers earlier shook off many of the (sometimes identical!) neo-Kantian aspects of logical positivism.
What's fascinated me most these past few years is the way in which lessons, themes, and issues from the glory period of German Idealism have been so much better recovered in the continental metaphysics renaissance. That is, one can easily trace the canonical set of issues that move Maimon all the way through Schopenhauer and Hegel* (that were thought to have been dissolved by logical positivists and phenomenologists) as all rising up again in various ways by once renegade Deleuzians such as Protevi and Delanda** and the Speculative Realist writers of the same recent era: Meillassoux, Harman, Hamilton-Grant, and Brassier.***
The reason I think that 2014 is the Clash City Rockers gets released (or perhaps David Lewis visits Australia) moment for the revival of metaphysics in continental philosophy is that so much of this material a deepening of this very narrative of a dialectical recovery of what was covered over by twentieth century neo-Kantian philosophy. After the jump I'll list a few that are the most exciting to me.
This summer I learned to walk. More precisely, I learned to walk normally. My gait had gotten unsteady, and I was dragging my right foot. Work with an excellent physical therapist helped straighten me out. But balance problems, tremors, and hesitations continued.
At the beginning of August I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I want to describe the phenomenology of my version of it, and begin thinking through its implications for the philosophy of perception and action. But first the disease itself.
"Strauss' interpretation of Plato is wrong from beginning to end." M.F. Burnyeat.
Although we philosophers are thought of as a cerebral bunch, our loathings can be pretty intense. I need not mention the hundred-year, fraternal civil war, which around here we label a 'divide,' between analytic and continental philosophy; we are not known for our fondness for what passes as 'theory' among literature and cultural studies departments (and I have experienced plenty of uncivil behavior from folk in, say, science studies in return). But when professional philosophers are not just puzzled by the Straussians they encounter, we reserve a special kind of bile and invective against them, especially as Strauss's students found their ways into advising Goldwater and Reagan (and beyond); once I was halted in my invective against Wolfowitz by (The University of Chicago's) Ralph Lerner's, 'Paul once sat in that chair, and was no less passionate than you.' Undoubtedly a few of us were at least mildly irritated by reading Steven Smith's very respectful review of books on the legacy of Strauss in a recent New York Times Book Review--"doesn't he know that 'Strauss is not a Philosopher!'"?
In his famous essay, Burnyeat (a former teacher) overreached. Invoking "ordinary scholarship," Burnyeat treats Plato (surprisingly Popperian) as a "radical utopian," primarily relevant for opening up "a reasoned debate on the nature and practicality of a just society" (emphasis in Burnyeat). Given that Burnyeat was in no sense an ordinary scholar, who also searchingly pioneered the historiographical construction of the classics, these lines are painful read; Burnyeat reduces the significance of Plato's political philosophy to being a forerunner of Rawls. Those of us living in the shadow of the surveillance state may find Strauss' "anti-Utopian teaching" ("invented" or not) about Plato a useful touch-stone, sometimes. For in Republic and Laws surveillance are ever-present and its limits thematized. The cause of Burnyeat's overreach is that Plato's Laws has always been a blind-spot to him (and until recently ordinary analytic scholarship).
At some level, Burnyeat must have known he overreached, because he allowed the original and reprinted version of the piece to have a clear reference to a famous short story by Oscar Wilde, -- which may be read as an allegory on philosophical madness [Murchison is introduced as a truth-teller] ! -- that ends with that enigmatic "I wonder."
Our perception of time varies greatly
depending on our age, mood, stress level and psychological health and
stability. Psychological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease,
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia, can mess
with the brain's time keeping mechanism and warp our estimation of time.
Patients suffering from these disorders are unable to properly
coordinate events in time. Patients over- or underestimate time
intervals ranging from several seconds to minutes.
How does this
happen? How does the brain manage to keep track of time and what goes
wrong in psychological disorders? Our senses (sight, hearing, smell,
taste and touch) use specialized sensory systems with task-specific
neurons to process sensory input. Yet there is no specific sensory
system for time. So how does our sense of time come about?
Res Philosophicahas just announced a cfp "on the topic of transformative experiences for a special issue of the journal." The invited speaker line-up is fantastic. Papers are invited that explore "the
implications of the possibility that certain major life experiences are
phenomenologically transformative: that is, they are relevantly just
like Mary’s when she leaves her black and white room." (For a refresher on Mary see here.) One of the invited papers, "What Mary can’t expect when she’s expecting," by the eminent metaphysician, L.A. Paul, was first called to my attention after my post on the lack of available vocabulary for the emotional life of fatherhood. Paul argues that:
[H]aving one’s own child is an epistemically transformative experience. If it is impossible for me to know what it is like to have the transformative experience of seeing and touching my own child, to know what emotions, beliefs, desires, and dispositions will be caused by having a child, and by extension to know what is like to have the emotions, beliefs, desires, and dispositions caused by having my child, it is impossible for me to gauge the expected value, in phenomenal terms, of having a child. If I cannot gauge the expected value of having my child, I cannot compare this value to the value of remaining childless. And if I cannot compare it to the value of remaining childless, I cannot—even approximately—determine which act would result in the highest expected value. And thus, on the standard model, I cannot use our ordinary, phenomenal-based approach to rationally choose to have my child, nor can I rationally choose to remain childless.
Now the point of the paper is not to argue that becoming a parent is fundamentally an irrational act; Paul allows that there may be ways of thinking about rationality far removed from standard rational choice models that can capture the rationality of such a decision. Paul's paper also allows that models that merely capture the extrinsic features of having children (predator-prey models in ecology, Malthusian growth models in economics and ecology, etc.) do a good job explaining or predicting observed regularities. Paul's approach is even compatible with the possibility that we can experimentally induce utility curves for prospective parents to estimate their willingness to pay for a child.
In a rather unflattering review of Marvin Farber’s 1941
edited collection Philosophical Essays in
Memory of Edmund Husserl (Husserl died in 1938), Ernest Nagel takes a few
swipes at Husserl, or perhaps more precisely at Husserl’s commentators. Farber himself,
as discussed in an earlier post, had studied with Husserl in Germany while a
graduate student at Harvard. In 1940 he was the founding editor of the
journal Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research (which he edited until 1980). With the exception of Dorion Cairns,
Farber was probably the person best suited to compile a volume in honor of
Despite Farber’s credentials, Nagel finds little that is
compelling in the collection and his criticisms often mirror what will often be
heard in later decades regarding continental thought. For example, Nagel
expresses doubt about whether any of the papers “will be either intelligible or
persuasive to any one not previously instructed in Husserl’s ideas or convinced
of their importance” (301); and, more damningly, he argues that with few
exceptions Husserl’s views are not “expressed in recognizable English,” with
“such barbarisms as ‘presuppositionless,’ ‘insightful,’ ‘pre-givenness’ or ‘the
itself-giving’” (ibid.) being thrown around in a way that leaves novitiates at
a loss to understand their meaning.
Adding to the recent discussions of Eric (here), Catarina (here), and Mohan (here) regarding the use and significance (or lack thereof) of intuition in analytic
philosophy, one obvious place to turn to where intuition does appear to loom
large is the work of Husserl. Husserl’s work, however, was also an important
source of inspiration for Gödel’s understanding of the relationship between
philosophy and mathematics, and thus it bleeds significantly into a number of problems
within the analytic tradition.
The lore we are told inspired by, say, Putnam (not a disinterested spectator) and more recently Huw Price, who thinks we delude ourselves, is roughly this: after the founders of analytical philosophy had successfully ridden philosophy of its thirst for metaphysics, Quine, discerning a crack in Carnap's edifice, re-opened the door to our deposed Queen, μεταφυσική, in "On What There Is" (and "Two Dogmas"); with the door ajar and Alvin Goldman and Dan Dennett distracted by 'naturalizing' everything, Hillary Putnam developed a Quine-ean argument from the authority of science for the really real existence of numbers and, more significantly, David Lewis -- perhaps spurred on by some Antipodes -- drove a truck through the opening by embracing modal realism.
We love linear stories [Carnap --> Quine --> Lewis], don't we, so even the descriptive metaphysics of Strawson's Individuals (1959) can't quite be squished into, shall we say, our conceptual scheme. Now consider the following paragraph written in 1930:
The pursuit of metaphysics as the study of generic characters of existence has been slowly regaining its professional adherents. Once its central theme, reaction to the unchecked flights of nineteenth century romantic speculation has well nigh banished metaphysics as a legitimate subject matter for philosophy. But the problems which professional philosophers refused to consider became acutely pressing in the special sciences. It was to be expected that ere long comprehensive treatises on the nature of existence would appear, fashioned by philosophers were where sensitive to the advances of recent science as well to the ancient tradition that philosophy is the systematic study of being. To the series of distinguishes essays on metaphysics which contemporary philosophers have contributed, these volumes [by Whitehead--ES] are a notable addition.--Ernest Nagel (1930 "Alfred North Whitehead," republished in Sovereign Reason, p. 154.)
Richard Rorty used to say that every decade or so someone would grandly announce a position or approach that goes beyond the distinction between realism and idealism. As was his wont, Rorty would excitedly digest the new book for a few weeks. But in the end it always slowly dawned on him that the exciting new position beyond realism and idealism was. . . (wait for it) idealism!
Something similar should be said about the history of pronouncements concerning overcoming or going beyond the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy. While such thoughts typically occur in the wake of genuinely important work that brings together aspects of both traditions (Rorty, Margolis, Dreyfus, Wheeler, Shusterman, etc.), it is slowly dawning on me that this promised exciting new paradigm beyond analytic and continental philosophy somehow always ends up being. . . (wait for it) analytic philosophy!
Just now on NPR, there was a discussion about toddlers and iPads that could have really used a Heideggerian intervention. The issue was, more or less, what is happening when you give a 2 year old an iPad and they get completely absorbed for 5 hours straight? Is this good for them or not? And does it help them to learn what they need to learn in order to mature into smart, productive kids and adults? NPR seems to love this stuff; there’s a shorter article on the same topic here.
A range of experts was consulted, most of whom said that we don’t have enough (empirical) research to answer these questions yet, but that we shouldn’t panic – we just need to make sure that kids get a balance of screen time and face-to-face interaction with other people. But the question that started the whole discussion was a father’s question about what is going on for his son when he “zones out” in front of the iPad. This question remained unaddressed, as far as I could tell from my own zoning in and out of the radio discussion. But isn’t this basically a matter of Benommenheit, or captivation, literally “being taken,” being absorbed in an object to the point where everything else fades away.
Quine's (1948) "On What There Is" is probably my favorite piece in the analytic tradition and not only because in response Carnap mistakenly thought "there appears now to be agreement between us: ("On What There Is," p. 38)." As we learn from Howard Stein's reminiscences, Carnap and his students thought there was no substantial disagreement between Carnap and Quine--little did they know! (It also tells us something about the limitations of contextual approaches to the history of philosophy.) So, if evenour Carnap could misread Quine's essay it should be clear that my reason for admiring the piece have, alas, nothing to do with quintessentially analytic virtues of clarity and perspicuity of argument. Moreover, as Jody Azzouni has taught us, Quine's particular criterion for recognizing what our language commits us to is defeasible; even so, there are two substantive commitments worth preserving (or reviving) from Quine's piece: (a) the embrace of multiplicity within scientific philosophy; (ii) the proper role of formal philosophy.
All sorts of things to talk about in this piece. My comments interspersed. Of course I realize this is just a filler piece -- or "content" as they say; the point is that there are big philosophical decisions embedded in everyday language, and this is a good spot to bring some out. Of course I'm just being persnickety, but it's important to see the lay of the land of the metaphysics of our cultural unconscious, if you'll let me put it that way.
a strange and unsettling new gun being developed by Japanese researchers shoots sound waves in an effort to disrupt and silence anyone who dares speak out of turn.
The gun operates based on the concept of delayed auditory feedback. An attached microphone picks up the sound being made by the target and plays it back 0.2 seconds later. The effect is incredibly confusing to the human brain, making it all but impossible to talk or hold a conversation. The device doesn't cause the person it's being used on any physical harm — it simply messes with their head.
"[W]e can see the philosopher at work here. He lets himself be led into various corners by the authors he is considering; he then finds his way out of these corners and into his own conceptual space. He arrives, perhaps, where he might not have arrived without this working through the other's thoughts. In this respect, what he says about the problem of intersubjectivity and language applies equally to the philosophical process. Philosophy is in some way a kind of language acquisition -- not in the simple sense of picking up a vocabulary, but in the sense of being guided along by the language that others have used, and then formulating an expression of something that goes beyond that. As Merleau-Ponty sometimes puts it, the child does not acquire language so much as language acquires the child. The same can be said of the philosopher and ideas."--Shaun Gallagher commenting on Merleau-Ponty.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post discussing Dorion Cairns’ critique of Sidney Hook’s “impression” of German philosophy, circa 1929. Cairns took particular aim at Hook’s “identification of phenomenology with psychology, a confusion indicated by Mr. Hook’s epithet, ‘logicized psychology.’” Hook, in other words, remained captive to the naïveté of the natural attitude, when it is the task of phenomenology to detail the constitutive acts of consciousness, regardless of the reality or unreality of the objects being constituted. The very notion of a Humean phenomenology may thus appear to be a blatant oxymoron. How could Humean empiricism, with its embrace of the natural attitude, be reconciled with the phenomenological bracketing of the natural attitude?
When one looks at the historical narrative Husserl offered to account for the rationale behind the development of phenomenology, we see that an important part of phenomenology’s impetus was its effort to grapple with a problem that Husserl claimed was discovered by Hume, and a problem that was central to Hume’s own project.
A few weeks ago Eric and I put up a series of posts discussing the history of analytic philosophy, especially the role Moritz Schlick, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, and others play in this history (see here, here, here, and here). Among the essays discussed was Sidney Hook’s 1930 JPhil essay, “A Personal Impression of Contemporary German Philosophy.” A few months after Hook’s essay was published, Dorion Cairns published a short reply in JPhil, “Mr Hook’s Impression of Phenomenology.” Before looking at Cairns’ impression of Hook’s impression, I think it’s important first to place Cairns into his intellectual context.
In Eric’s post of a few days ago (here), he continues with his argument that Moritz Schlick ought to be considered the “rightful father of analytic philosophy,” contrary to the more frequent claim that this honor belongs to Frege. This post led me to think yet again about the historical roots of the analytic-continental divide.
The usual story as I would tell it, simplified as it is, was that one could mark the bifurcation with Frege’s critique of Husserl’s habilitation dissertation, On the Concept of Number. In his critique, Frege rejected Husserl’s strong psychologistic tendencies. On this telling, we begin with shared concerns and problems in the foundations of mathematics but then divergence arises as Frege and Husserl set out addressing these problems and concerns, with Husserl taking up the issue along Brentano’s psychologistic lines, and Frege (and subsequently Russell) rejecting this approach and moving in a decidedly realist direction.
This story of the diverging approaches of Husserl and Frege supports the claims of those who read continental thought as being more anti-realist than analytic thought, though there are notable exceptions of course (Deleuze, among others, is more appropriately placed among the realists while the later writings of Putnam have a strong anti-realist flavor).
Thanks to Eric’s post, and to his recommendation of an excellent essay by Abraham Stone, “Heidegger and Carnap on the Overcoming of Metaphysics,” (this and other essays can be found here), I am beginning to rethink the history of the analytic-continental divide.
Justin Broackes is THE expert on the history of colour science—alright, John Mollon is up there too!—and something of a bibliophile. Cruising the Internet one day, he was delighted to chance upon this book by a famous 19th century Swedish physiologist. (The author, Frithiof Holmgren, advocated testing for colour vision, and campaigned to exclude the colour blind from signalling work on the railways.)
Some time after it had arrived from the Netherlands, Justin proudly displayed the book to dinner guests, who naturally enough remarked on the striking cover design. Justin is somewhat colour-blind (an anomalous trichromat) and he is apt to confuse certain reds and greens. He hadn’t noticed the nifty colour alternation above: the letters just looked brown. But in light of his guests’ compliments, he examined it carefully. Then—but only slowly, after a couple of minutes of looking closely at the book from different angles under a desk-lamp—he saw it. The alternating letters finally looked red and green.
But wait! Justin is colour-blind. How did he manage to see the colours?
UPDATE: I've changed the term used to describe the fourth category in the taxonomy below from 'conceptual analysis' to 'conceptual reflection'. I hope the new term is better able to cover the many approaches suggested by commenters which did not seem to fit the original description in a straighforward way.
In light of the very interesting methodological discussions we’ve been having here at New APPS on the relations between physics and metaphysics, I’d like to put forward a tentative taxonomy of different strands within philosophical methodology. I suspect it can also be useful for discussions on the analytic vs. continental divide and its overcoming, which is also a recurrent theme in this blog.
Indeed, looking at past and present work in philosophy (and trying to be as encompassing as possible), it would seem that we can identify four main strands of methods used for philosophical analysis:
Formal methods – these correspond to applications of mathematical and logical tools for the investigation of philosophical issues. As examples one could cite the development of possible world semantics for the analysis of the concepts of necessity and possibility, applications of the Bayesian framework to issues in epistemology (giving rise to so-called formal epistemology), Carnapian explication, and many others.
Historical methods – they rely on the assumption that, to attain a better understanding of a given philosophical concept/problem, it is useful (or even indispensable) to trace its historical origins in philosophical theorizing. Of course, the study of the history of philosophy has intrinsic value as such (emphasis on ‘history’) but at this point I’m interested in what Eric Schliesser has once described as ‘instrumental history of philosophy’ (emphasis on ‘philosophy’).
Empirical methods – these are the methodological approaches that systematically bring in elements from empirical sciences, such as the sciences of the mind (particularly relevant for philosophy of mind, epistemology, but to my mind also for philosophy of logic and mathematics), physics (possibly relevant for metaphysics), biology (arguably relevant for ethics, and everywhere else where evolutionary concepts come into play) etc. Sometimes this approach is described as ‘naturalistic’, but as we know there are (too?) many variations of the concept of naturalistic philosophy (many self-described naturalistic approaches are not sufficiently empirically-informed to my taste).
Conceptual reflection – arguably the most traditional philosophical method, consisting in unpacking concepts and drawing implications, introducing new and hopefully useful concepts, problems, conceptual frameworks etc.
So we seem to have a plurality of methods actually being used for philosophical theorizing. Are they all equally legitimate and adequate, both in general and in specific cases? I submit that the correct response to this plurality is methodological pluralism.
Alva Noë has a recent post on gender, commenting on some of the experimental results described in Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender (some readers may recall that John Protevi and I are huge fans of her work, and of this book in particular). (Btw, Noë’s post even got linked by Leiter – it’s great to see Leiter drawing attention to gender issues.) I quote from Noë’s post:
Conjure before your mind the image of a physics professor. Imagine what his life is like. Now pretend, for a few moments, that you are that person. Try to get a feel for what it is like to be him.
Now let's start anew. This time think of a cheerleader. Picture her; imagine what her life is like. Now pretend to be her. Imagine what it is like to be her.
I just finished the first draft of a paper on Daniel Dennett’s so-called heterophenomenology; actually against it. It bears the title “Phenomenological Skillful-Coping: Another Counter-Argument to Dennett’s Heterophenomenology” and I go on to explain the gist of Dennett’s heterophenomenology in order to criticize it from the point of view of European phenomenology. As everybody knows, with heterophenomenology Dennett attempts to provide a neutral method accounting for people’s utmost subjective experiences, what Dennett persistently calls their ‘own phenomenologies’. He has described heterophenomenology as “the neutral path leading from objetive physical science and its insistence on the third-person point of view, to a method of phenomenological description that can (in principle) do justice to the most private and ineffable subjetive experiences, while never abandoning the methodological principles of science” (Consciousness Explained).
I really don’t want to get into technicalities. Suffice it to say that there’s nothing easier than weeding out Dennett’s interpretation of phenomenology as introspection because —as Dan Zahavi has consistently pointed out— “all the major figures in the phenomenological tradition have openly and unequivocally denied that they are engaged in some kind of introspective psychology and that the method they employ is a method of introspection” (for example, Husserl, Heidegger, Gurwitsch and Merleau-Ponty in several passages). Moreover, introspection is actually antiphenomenological from the outset for the very point of departure of phenomenology in Husserl’s breakthrough work, Logische Untersuchungen (1900-1901), was precisely a call to abandon the dichotomy (Scheidung) between inner and outer perceptions, which Husserl associated with a naïve commonsensical metaphysics left behind with the concept of intentionality. And of course, introspection is parasitic of this Scheidung which endorses the idea that consciousness is somewhat inside the head and the world outside.
So when for example Thomas Metzinger, following Dennett, affirms (cf. Being No One, 2003) phenomenology is so absurd for it must clumsily settle conflicting statements such as the following: “This is the purest blue anyone can perceive!” versus “No, it isn’t, it has a faint but perceptible trace of green in it!” or, “This conscious experience of jealousy shows me how much I love my husband!” versus “No, this emotional state is not love at all, it is a neurotic, bourgeois fear of loss!”… well, then we laugh with scorn. By ‘we’ I mean, of course, the ones acquainted with the phenomenological tradition.
Greg Frost-Arnold has a nice post on the origins of the phrase ‘analytic philosophy’, in particular on when it began to be used roughly with its current meaning. He has a useful chart showing that already in the 1960s the phrase was being regularly used, whereas ‘continental philosophy’ only became more prominent as a phrase in the 1990s.
But besides the question of uses of the terminology, in comments to the post different people have been presenting insightful remarks on the origins of the very idea of ‘analytic philosophy’ as a particular way of doing philosophy. Greg himself (in comments) offers the following observation as a starting point:
Go back to Europe in 1932. We have the following 3 intellectual groups: the phenomenologists (esp. Husserl and Heidegger), the folks dedicated to (something like) Moorean analysis, and the Vienna Circle and their intellectual allies (perhaps we include here the Lvov-Warsaw school).
Professor Michael Wheeler (Professor of Philosophy, University of Stirling).
The aim of this event is to foster a dialogue between researchers in feminist philosophy working on debates around the body, and researchers in philosophy of cognitive science with interests in embodied cognition and the extended mind. Many theorists of embodiment now think of mind and cognition as being continuous with life, in some theoretically significant way. Thus, contributions from those working in relevant areas of philosophy of biology will also form a natural part of this dialogue.
We've all been to philosophy talks where the person asking a question at the end of the talk just goes on and on about something tangential, and it is not even clear what the question really is, and by the end of it you just think that person is showboating. O.K. If you were at the Taylor Carman talk about Heidegger and ontological difference last week at the APA, that was me. I was the irritating question guy.
GII-4. Society for Realist-Antirealist Discussion: Lee J. Braver, A Think of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism 5:30-7:30 p.m. Chair: Mark Okrent (Bates College) Critic: Samuel C. Wheeler III (University of Connecticut) Author: Lee J. Braver (Hiram College)
What were they thinking?!?! This not only neglects to mention two of the other critics (one of whom is me) but it also gets the title of the book wrong. Here's the correct version!
Graham Harman has the announcement of an Edinburgh University book series on Speculative Realism HERE. His book on Quentin Meillassoux will be the first in the series.
For a really first-rate anthology that ecapsulates a lot of the main issues, see The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, edited by Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman. The anthology includes essays and interviews by Badiou, Harman, Ian Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, Alberto Toscano, Adrian Johnson, Martin Hagglund, Peter Hallward, Nathan Brown, Nick Srnicek, Reza Negarastani, Quentin Meillassoux, Francois Laruelle, Levi Bryant, Steven Shaviro, Bruno Latour, Gabriel Catren, Isabelle Stengers, Manuel Delanda, our very own John Protevi, and the indomitable Slavoj Zizek. Next Spring Semester I'm going to teach this anthology along with some of Harman's own books.
In Harman's post above he characterizes some of the prehistory of the term "Speculative Realism." The first plank is a revolt against the reigning pretense that phenomenology somehow got us past various idealism/realism controversies. Lee Braver's masterful A Thing of this World: A History of Continental Anti-realism went far to verify Richard Rorty's contention about the pose of being beyond realism/idealism disputes. Rorty stated that what always ended up laying beyond the very dispute was in fact idealism. Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude critiqued the pervasiveness of various unacknowledged permutations of Berkeley's Hylas/Philonous master argument. Permutations of the same idealist argument is almost constitutively made by everyone who claims to deconstruct or somehow undermine the very distinction between realism and idealism. So the first step in speculative realism a rejection of the pretense that phenomenology provided some point where realism/anti-realism issues could be avoided, and to understand that very pretense as just being anti-realism. Graham Harman, Ian Hamilton Grant, and Ray Brassier all share this view.
The second plank is the realism. The involves rejecting the idea that being is in any way necessarily correlated with human existence. But the rejection can take a variety of forms. One rejection is via some variety of panpsychism. This is to accept Berkeleyan arguments as sound, concluding that reality has properties we associate with minds, but to hold that this has nothing in particular to do with human minds. Or one can reject the validity of the Berkeleyan reasoning altogether, which may or may not lead to a form of nihilism (see Brassier's Nihil Unbound). I think Harman's own work is somewhere in the middle of this continuum. In his fantastic book Tool Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects he radically externalizes relations that orthodox Heideggerians take to be constitutive of people/object interactions. For Harman, the Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit play always takes place whenever any two objects interact. Critics and defenders have seen this as a subtle form of panpsychism. Harman argues that it is not, but notes that pan-psychism is closer to his view than many fashionable forms of naturalism, which he rejects.
The third plank is the "speculative" part. This is the most difficult to cash out. As Harman notes, the one thing in common to the early speculative realists is an appreciation for Lovecraft. This tempermant shows up in philosophy in a variety of ways: (1) A rejection of strong ties between conceivability and possibility. Reality first and foremost is what is capable of suprising us and problematizing whatever theory we apply to it. Human beings have no very good priveleged access about what is in fact conceivable, because reality always surprises us and overturns previous conceptions. This is why Lovecraft is a patron saint, because much of his fiction describes the indescribable as indescribable (Neal Hebert and I argue as much in a paper for me and Silcox's forthcoming anthology on philosophy and Dungeons and Dragons). Lee Braver actually has a really manuscript outlining a guerilla history of continental philosophy in terms of this very trope (I think he is developing it into a book project). Braver traces its first articulation to Kierkegaard. On its own in the history of continental philosophy it tends to lead to neo-Kantian "realism of the remainder" type realisms. The Object Oriented Ontology of Graham Harman and Levi Bryant has as its founding moment the rejection of realism of the remainder, the view that the real is some inarticulate and inarticulable mush (see Harman's Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things and Bryant's forthcoming Democracy of Objects). [The way in which this rejection is made actually ties their work to Graham Priest's main argument in Beyond the Limits of Thought in interesting ways]. But Harman and Bryant do accept the trope that part of what constitutes the real is the ability for novel things to happen, they just show what happens when you marry this view to a metaphysical commitment to objects that exist independently of humans. In terms of telling a new history of continental realism,there are open and interesting questions concerning the extent to which the "continental materialist" tradition tracing from Marx and Nietzsche through to Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari provides something beyond realism of the remainder realism. The extent that it is fair to characterize Protevi and Delanda as Object Oriented Philosophers is the extent to which their development of these thinkers gets us beyond realism of the remainder. (2) Commitment to strong views of emergence. In the Object Oriented vein, when objects interact in novel ways, novel properties come to the fore. Again, Harman is able to articulate this beautifully in terms of a radical externalization of the way Heidegger presents the scheme/content distinction. My own work with Mark Silcox on emergent properties (we have papers in American Philosophical Quarterly and the British Journal of Aesthetics, and a chapter in our video games book) is part of what brought me into the fold. (3) A rejection of naturalism. Again, this is not necessarily to affirm anti-realism about science. It's just the view that there is more to reality than our scientific theories capture. C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga (who cites Lewis), Robert Brandom, and John McDowell all make arguments similar to some made by speculative realists. In the book proposal I am going to make to this series, one of the things I will try to do is to motivate Harmanian themes in part by critiquing the quietism of Brandom and McDowell, while accepting their anti-naturalism. The resulting view is a recognizable variety of speculative realism.
Anyhow, given my analytic background of writing about Dummett, and recent interests in Pittsburgh Hegelianism, I find Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology to be among the most exciting things going on in contemporary metaphysics. Hopefully the book will be able to substantiate this claim from an analytic perspective. Being fair to McDowell is probably going to add a year of writing time though.
The blog post is here. The gist of it (but do read it, it's very elegantly done!) is that our two physicist colleagues are re-inventing the wheel Vienna Circle:
Like Carnap then, and like Hume before him, Hawking and Mlodinow seem to think that the world of common sense is a kind of theoretical construct that is developed in each of us, in the brain, or in the mind, on the basis of the data in the sensory stimulation that bombards us.
They are in good company, to be sure. But to judge from the text, Hawking and Mlodinow don't seem to have any sense of the history, the pre-history, or indeed the lively present of the ideas they are tossing around. Model-dependent realism is not an up-to-date physics solution to a problem once relegated to philosophy; it's a rehash of philosophical ideas whose real interest seems to elude the authors.
I'm often reminded of Keynes's famous quip in such matters: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."
I just read a recent piece on The Guardian bearing the title “20 predictions for the next 25 years”. Amongst the usual predictions as to whether the US will hand over its super power seat to another nation or whether medicine will finally find a cure for cancer or AIDS, what struck me the most was David Eagleman’s overestimation of neuroscience: “We’ll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex”. Of course, predictions are based on conjectures and speculations of all sorts but the vertiginous advance of science in the 20th century must have certainly surprised even the most skeptical minds. After all, no prediction can be refuted in advance, or not really, for the future can prove one very wrong, and this specially in terms of scientific discovery. No doubt, this beautiful piece of technological machinery which I’m using to write this piece, my beloved Macbook Pro, was simply unimaginable just a few decades ago, when the only real computer available was the massive and clumsy ENIAC.
Nonetheless I too, like Antonio Tabucchi, confess lacking any particular talent for prediction, because—in the words of the Pessoa expert—“when you have three or four elements in hand, you don’t have to be a genius to reach certain conclusions.” But the question is whether we actually have those three or four elements in hand, so that we can spread ourselves out and make such a bold prediction, like Eagleman, himself a neuroscientist, dared to make.
Although Eagleman’s statements are lightly softened by ‘maybes’ and ‘probablys’, extravagant prophecies, unfortunately, are not at all unknown in the fields dealing with the sciences of the mind.
In a 1958 famous paper, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell gave a futuristic assessment of that which, at their time, was called heuristics—thought to be comparable to human intelligence simulated in a digital machine:
1. That within ten years a digital computer will be the world’s chess champion, unless the rules bar it from competition.
2. That within ten years a digital computer will discover and prove an important new mathematical theorem.
3. That within ten years a digital computer will write music that will be accepted by critics as possessing considerable aesthetic value.
4. That within ten years most theories in psychology will take the form of computer programs, or of qualitative statements about the characteristics of computer programs.
Nobody has to remind us today of the fact that until now computers do not think—unless one entertained a petty and quite reductive understanding of human thinking. But still today the orthodoxy in cognitive science has it that general assumptions about the mind and intelligent thought and behavior are to be held, such as the following: the mind is an information processing system, a representational device and in some sense a computer (cf. the preface to the Blackwell Companion to Cognitive Science, edited by Bechtel and Graham). This is why it is not surprising to hear one high profile researcher and founder of these ideas and bizarre sci-fi dreams, Marvin Minsky, declaring that AI’s brain-dead while at the same time hoping for intelligent robotic waitresses to serve him martinis.
The problem is that maybe some of those assumptions are plain wrong and that basic human coping is not to be measured on the basis of philosophical suppositions pretty much surpassed. Some positive signs are to be found recently. Out of Our Heads. Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness by Alva Noë is a good example that you can be both scientifically well-informed and be critically aware of the philosophical limitations of AI and cognitive science.
So I’m ready to make a few predictions myself. Cognitive science will be fundamentally reformed by situated cognition, embedded and embodied approaches and phenomenology, or else it’ll keep stumbling upon failure after failure. This will contribute to the definitive collapse of the distinction between analytical and continental philosophy and that anodyne gap will be saluted as a theoretical provincialism of the past. And believe me, some distinguished researchers around the world and some young PhD students like myself are already working on it.
But, you know, one has to be cautious with predictions and that’s why, on the matter, I tend to agree with Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future”.