Another Goddamn Anti-Transcendentalist Manifesto

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: If the eye is every bit as cracked as the mirror, then cracked reflects true, and true looks cracked.

Aphorism of the Day II: My larva hurts.

Definition of the Day – Phenomenology: A common, hysterical variant of Anton’s Syndrome; a form of philosophical anosognosia (secondary to reading Husserl and other forms of blunt-force trauma to the frontal cortex), involving blind subjects endlessly arguing things they cannot see they cannot see.


The Hard Problem. The Hard Problem breaks the back of Levi Bryant’s argument against continental transcendentalism. Otherwise I want to show you the lion that shares the litter box with his pussy cat.

Bryant’s brief challenge has spawned numerous critical responses across the web: Agent Swarm, An und fur sich, and one of my faves, Enemy Industry. People are unimpressed, and for good reason. Freud’s metaphor of the narcissistic wound is not a serious explanation of the kinds of generalizations Bryant makes, let alone one that would past the muster of his own criteria. Nevertheless I definitely like this particular story, or a social psychological variant of it, simply because it seems clear that we do the same groupish things we do, no matter how rarified the context. Everyone protects their interests by arguing what seems most obvious to them. It’s the frick’n program. How often do institutions collectively realize their futility?

Never. They huddle and pat asses. They waver and they rally. They grow old, wait for their apostate students to guide them with ink and condescension to the door.

You’re no different.

Let’s brush away a little straw in the interests of honesty and clarity. Embracing naturalism does not entail embracing reductionism. Science is a mess. Embracing naturalism need not entail embracing materialism, though many naturalists are materialists. Many are instrumentalists, inferentialists, or like Rorty, pragmatists more generally, just as inclined to load the horse and whip the cart as you. But it does entail embracing the mitigated skepticism that forces naturalism upon us in the first place. Humans are, as a rule, theoretically incompetent outside the institutional confines of the natural sciences. These very claims lay outside those institutional confines, suffer the same incompetencies. Naturalism isn’t about playing the same old bullshit game with a different vocabulary. Things are upside down when it comes to all the most difficult questions. In naturalism, you play the concept game, and you inevitably over-commit on something, and you catch yourself, and you’re all like, ‘Fuck, maan, I overcommitted again.’ Embracing naturalism means embracing epistemic humility, appreciating just how, given the levels of abstraction we roll and smoke, we’re doomed to confabulate more than cogitate. That’s the way it works in philosophy now: What was an implicit inability to resolve or arbitrate disputes short of fashion or exhaustion has become explicit.

It’s hard to imagine what things should look like. Very hard. This is the beginning the Great Conceptual Transition, the point where all our semantic intuitions are about to be stressed like never before, where everyone, no matter how deeply cemented in the academy, has heard the thundercrack through the stone. The smart money, I think, is that it’s all going to be swept away, that science, being science, is going to pick up the cup and empty us out–one final, errant libation.

We always forget. We always think our seeing is as big as the things we think we see, truth big, existence big, and so we confuse our own immobility for immovability. We forget the naturalist need only shove a knitting needle through our tear duct, rewrite us with a wiggle. We forget that our grand theories are smoke, and that science is the stack, the engine, and the screw propelling us toward the edge of the world–the void of the posthuman.

We always forget–and yet somehow we know. Imagine including all the ambient ambivalence you have regarding your work and profession in these packaged little proof-read pills you call ‘papers.’ Imagine including all the off-the-academic-record comments, the myriad petty condemnations, the she’s-strong-he’s-weak estimations, the between-sips-of-coffee conviction that it’s all bullshit, a game, another status rat race, only dressed in the world’s most voluminous robes. Imagine bottling that nagging sense of disproportion

Think of the way ideas get you high.

It’s heady stuff, the sheer power of the natural–of theoretical knowledge. Given our incompetencies, it is perhaps inevitable that many will want to lay claim to it. It seems clear that as soon as people begin asserting that ‘social constructivism is a naturalism’ the concept has been stretched more than my sexy underwear. In his curious, ‘gotcha’ followup, Bryant introduces the crucial criterion of naturalism: Everything is natural. But this is meaningless if ‘natural’ is a barrel-wide thong, so let’s stipulate another criterion: Naturalism entails openness to the possibility that intentionality is illusory. If you cannot bring yourself to believe that this is a real, empirical possibility, then you are a transcendentalist plain and simple, one of those kids who dresses cool, but slips away as soon as some jock cracks the Jack.

Because the empirical possibility that intentionality is a kind of cognitive mirage, that meaning is merely an ‘informatic blur,’ is very real. Naturalism has to be as open as science is open to be naturalism. There’s no reason to assume that evolution did not saddle us with a profoundly deceptive self-understanding. We are need-to-know, and given the steep metabolic requirements of the brain, not to mention the structural infelicities incumbent upon any self-tracking information system, it is certainly possible, perhaps even probable, that we are fundamentally deceived about our own nature, that the counterintuitive gymnastics of the quantum has us as a qualitative counterpart. In naturalism, meaning is an open question, one that scientific research, not theoretical confabulation, will answer.

You continental philosophers suffer the same myriad cognitive biases as the rest of us, and what’s more, you’ve been trained to take astute advantage of them. You see science overthrowing the self, troubling the subject, and you see confirmation, when what you should worry about is the trend. You never pause to consider in your celebrations of fragmentation the possibility that everything is broken all the way down, that with the subject goes meaning and morality and so on. You need to realize that your noocentrism could be of a piece with biocentrism and geocentrism, that in essence, you’re simply stamping your feet, demanding that science leave, at the very least, this one last cherished conceit intact…

Man as meaning maker.

The Hard Problem is your crack in the door–your Messianic moment, as Adorno would say, summing Nietzsche’s divine post-mortem. And my Messianic moment, too. The difference is that I think attacking it is the surest way to settle the matter. The world is filled with fucking apologists.

But in the end, it really doesn’t matter whether you rationalize some defence or not. Trends be trends, my friends. Call it the Big Fat Pessimistic Induction: Yours is a prescientific discourse, one whose domain is about to be overrun by the sciences. The black box of the brain has been cracked open, revealing more than enough to put your conceptual conceits on notice. Did you really think you would be the lone exception? That your discourse, out of all of them, would be the one to prevail, to hold back the empirical philistines that had conquered all corners of existence otherwise? It’s not quite that point yet, but the longer you continue your discourses independent of the sciences, the more magical you become–the less cognitive. And with legitimacy goes institutional credibility. Like it or not, you have begun the perhaps not so long drift toward Oprah spots with Eckhart Tolle.

So sure, Bryant was wrong. But he’s also right. Regardless of any argument, any wank pro and con, the bonfire of the humanities has begun.