The Ptolemaic Restoration: Object Oriented Whatevery and Kant’s Copernican Revolution
“And now, after all methods, so it is believed, have been tried and found wanting, the prevailing mood is that of weariness and complete indifferentism” –Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason
So, continuing my whirlwind interrogation of the new Continental materialisms, I want to turn to Object-Oriented Whatevery via the lens of Levi Bryant’s, “The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object Oriented Ontology.” As always, I need to impress I’m a tourist and not a native of these philosophical climes, so I sincerely encourage anyone who comes across what seems to be an obvious misreading on my part to expose the offending claims in the comments. My goals, once again, are both critical and constructive: in the course of showing you why I think it’s obvious that Bryant cannot deliver the goods as advertised, I want to demonstrate the explanatory reach and power of BBT, not as any kind of theoretical panacea, but as a system of empirically tractable claims that, in the tradition of scientific theory more generally, are quite indifferent to what we want to be the case. Like I’ve said before, the conclusions suggested by BBT are so radical as to almost qualify as a reductio, were it not for the fact that a reductio is precisely the way it would appear were it true. And besides, as I hope some of you are at least beginning to see, there is something genuinely uncanny about its explanatory power.
Essentially I want to argue that BBT may actually deliver on what Bryant advertises–a way out of the philosophical impasses of the tradition, even a ‘flat ontology’ rationalized via difference!–though its consequences are nowhere near so kind. I’ve corresponded with Levi in the past, and he strikes me as a good egg. It’s his position I find baffling. With any luck he’ll do what Hagglund found incapable: acknowledge, expose, and contradict–inject some much-needed larva into Three Pound Brain!
Bryant begins, not by rehearsing the primary motive of critical philosophy–namely, how the failure of dogmatic philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge convinced philosophers to examine knowing–but rather the claim of critical philosophy, the notion “that prior to any claims about the nature of reality, prior to any speculation about objects or being, we must first secure a foundation for knowledge and our access to beings” (262). This allows him, quite without irony, to rehearse what he takes to be the primary motive of Object Oriented Ontology: the failure of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge. “Faced with such a bewildering philosophical situation,” he writes, “what if we were to imagine ourselves as proceeding naively and pre-critically as first philosophers, pretending that the last three hundred years of philosophy had not taken place or that the proper point of entry into philosophical speculation was not the question of access?” In other words, given the failure of three centuries of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge, perhaps the time has come to embrace, as best we can, the two millennia of dogmatic failure that preceded it.
Thus he motivates a turn away from the subject of knowledge to the object of knowledge, from the epistemological to the ontological–as we should, apparently, given that the object comes first. After all, as Heidegger made ‘clear,’ “questions of knowledge are already premised on a pre-ontological comprehension of being” (263). Unlike Heidegger, however, who saw in this pre-ontological comprehension an interpretative basis for theorizing a collapse of subject and object (which quickly came to resemble a conceptually retooled subject), Bryant sees a call to theorize, in tentative fashion, the ‘ultimate generalities’ that objectively organize the world. Premier among these tentative ultimate generalities, he asserts, is difference. This leads Bryant to pose what he calls the ‘Ontic Principle,’ the claim “that ‘to be’ is to make or produce a difference” (263).
Why should difference be our ‘fundamental principle’? Well, because all epistemology presupposes it. As he writes:
Paradoxically it therefore follows that epistemology cannot be first philosophy. Insofar as the question of knowledge presupposes a pre-epistemological comprehension of difference, the question of knowledge always comes second in relation to the metaphysical or ontological priority of difference. As such, there can be no question of securing the grounds of knowledge in advance or prior to an actual engagement with difference. 265
To which the reader might be tempted to ask, How do you know?
This is one of those junctures that makes me (if only momentarily) appreciate Derrida and his tireless attempts to show philosophers the inextricable co-implication of dokein and krinein. The easiest way to illustrate it here is to simply wonder aloud what is ‘presupposed’ by difference. If difference comes before epistemology because epistemology ‘presupposes’ difference as its ‘condition,’ and if the ultimate ‘first first,’ no matter how ‘tentative,’ is what we are after, then we should inquire into the presuppositions of our alleged presupposition. Since there can be no difference without the negation of some prior identity, for instance, perhaps we should choose identity–snub Heraclitus and do a few rails with Parmenides.
Can counterarguments be adduced against the ontological primacy of identity? Of course they can (and Bryant helps himself to a few), just as counterarguments can be adduced against those counterarguments, and so on and so on. In other words, if critical philosophy is motivated by the failure of dogmatic philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge, and if Bryant’s neo-dogmatic philosophy is motivated by the failure of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge, then perhaps we should skip the ‘and centuries passed’ part, assume the failure of neo-dogmatism to produce theoretical knowledge and, crossing our fingers, simply leap straight into neo-critical philosophy.
Far from ‘escaping’ or ‘solving’ anything, this strategy–quite obviously in my opinion–perpetrates the very process it sets out to redress. Let’s call this state of oscillating institutional emphasis on the subject and the object of knowledge, ‘correlativity.’ And let’s call ‘correlativism’ the idea according to which philosophy can only ever prioritize either subject or object and never any term other than these two.
Why has correlativism so dominated philosophy since its Modern inception? I actually think I can give a naturalistic answer to this question. The dichotomy of subject and object, of course, possesses a myriad of conceptual attenuations, binaries such as thought and being, mind and body, spirit and matter, ideal and real, epistemology and ontology, to name but a few of the oppositions that have constrained the possibilities of coherent, speculative thought for centuries now. There are other binaries, certainly, categorical conceptual oppositions (such as that between difference and identity) that a number of philosophers (like Heidegger) have recruited in various attempts to think beyond subjectivity and objectivity, only to find themselves, inexorably it seems, re-inscribed within the logic of ‘correlativism.’ In this sense, I will be following a very well-trodden path, though one quite different than the one proposed by Bryant above–or so I like to think.
The primary problem I see with Bryant’s approach is that it takes the failure of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge to obviate the need to answer the primary question that it sought to answer, which is, namely, the question of securing speculative truth despite the limitations of our nature. We are afflicted with numerous ‘cognitive scandals,’ basic questions it seems we should be able to answer but for whatever reason cannot. What is the good? Does the external world exist? What is beauty? Does the past exist? What is justice? Do other minds exist? What is consciousness? No matter how many answers we throw at these and other questions, the skeptic always seems to carry the day–and handily.
For whatever reason, we lack the capacity to decisively answer these questions. When it comes to the problems of critical philosophy, Bryant would have you focus on the ‘critical’ and to overlook the ‘philosophy.’ What precisely failed when it came to critical philosophy? Given the manner it seeks to redress the failure of dogmatic philosophy, the more obvious answer (by far one would think) is philosophy. And indeed, the more cognitive psychology learns about human reasoning, the more understandable the generational failure of philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge becomes. Human beings are theoretically incompetent, plain and simple. Doubtless we have the capacity to theorize, but it is a capacity that evolved long before our theories could exhibit any accuracy. Whatever fitness it rendered our ancestors had precious little to do with theoretical ‘discovery.’ Science would not represent the signature institutional achievement of our times were it otherwise.
In all likelihood, the critical impulse, the call for reason to critique reason, had no special part to play in critical philosophy’s failure to secure theoretical knowledge. So why then did it fail to improve the lot of philosophy? Well, who’s to say it hasn’t? Perhaps it improved the cognitive prospects of philosophy in a manner that philosophy has yet to discern. It’s worth recalling that for Kant, the project of critique was in an important sense continuous with the greater enterprise of Enlightenment. Noting the power of mathematics and natural science, he writes:
Their success should incline us, at least by way of experiment, to imitate their procedure, so far as the analogy which, as species of rational knowledge, they bear to metaphysics may commit. Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have ended in failure. We must therefore make trial of whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given. We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved around the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects. (Critique of Pure Reason, 22)
If it is the case that the sciences more or less monopolize theoretical cognition, then the most reasonable way for reason to critique reason is via the sciences. The problem confronting Kant, however, was nothing less than the problem confronting all inquiries into cognition until very recently: the technical and theoretical intractability of the brain. So Kant was forced to rely on theoretical reason absent the methodologies of natural science. In other words, he was forced to conceive critique as more philosophy, and this presumably, is why his project ultimately failed.
The best Kant could do was draw some kind of moral from the sciences, a ‘procedural analogy’ as he puts it. Taking Copernicus as his example, he thus proposes ‘to put the spectator into motion.’ Kant scholars have debated the appropriateness of this analogy for centuries. As Russell notoriously points out, Kant does not so much put the subject into motion about the object as he puts the object into motion about the subject and so “would have been more accurate if he had spoken of a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’ since he put Man back at the centre from which Copernicus had dethroned him” (Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1). Where the Descartes’ subject anchored the possibility of knowledge, the Kantian subject anchors the possibility of experience. As the invariant frame of every possible experience, transcendental subjectivity would seem to be ‘motionless’ if anything. So if one takes the ‘spectator’ in Kant’s analogy to be the subject, it becomes hard to understand what he means.
In a famous note to the Second Preface a few pages subsequent, however, Kant suggests he’s after an ‘analogous change in point of view,’ one allowing us to see truths that are otherwise “contradictory of the senses” (25). After all, for thousands of years the prevailing assumption was that the subject had no constitutive role to play, that objects could thus be known without consideration of the knower. And in this sense, his analogy functions quite well. Consider, for instance, the elaborate theoretical machinery once required to make sense of the retrograde motion of Mars across the night sky, and how simply putting the spectator-earth into motion allows us to resolve this otherwise perplexing experience. Our problematic experience of Mars is literally an illusion pertaining to our ignorance of earth. Kant is claiming the ‘retrograde motions’ of metaphysics are likewise an illusion pertaining to our ignorance of cognition.
The parallel, as he sees it, lies in the attribution of activity to the ‘spectator.’ In early 1772, Kant wrote to Marcus Herz regarding the question of “how a representation that refers to an object without being in any way affected by it can be possible,” a letter that clearly signals the decisive break in his thought leading to the so-called ‘silent decade’ separating his dogmatic Inaugural Dissertation from the Critique. “If such intellectual representations depend on our inner activity,” he asks, “whence comes the agreement that they are supposed to have with objects–objects that are nevertheless not possibly produced thereby?” All critical philosophy, you could say, is struck from the hip of this question–one that could just as easily be posed to Bryant and his fellow Speculative Realists today…
So where Copernicus resolved the manifest problems of astronomy by attributing planetary motion to the earth, Kant thinks he has resolved the manifest problems of metaphysics by attributing representational activity to the subject. Expressed thus, the analogy is quite clear. So then why does it also seem to constitute an egregious disanalogy as Russell and others insist? Call this Kant’s Copernican paradox: the way his attribution of activity to the subject, though analogous to Copernicus’ attribution of motion to the earth, somehow commits him to a Ptolemaic conception of subjectivity. As preposterous as it sounds, I think the resolution to this paradox could entail nothing less than the end of philosophy as we know it…
Like everything else, these strange fucking days.
First I want to point out a couple of strange features that no one, to my knowledge anyway, has called attention to before. The first regards the curious assumption of spectatorial immobility or inactivity. Why is it that both the astronomical and the metaphysical tradition initially assumed the immobility of the earth and the inactivity of the subject respectively? Why should, in other words, immobility or inactivity be the default, the intuition to be overcome?
The second regards Kant’s hubristic cognitive presumption, the fact that he quite literally believed he had solved all the problems of metaphysics. For all its notorious technicality, the Critique possesses a bombast that would make a laughingstock of any philosopher writing today, and yet, not only do we find Kant’s proclamations forgivable, we somehow find them–implicitly at least–understandable as well. Somehow we intuitively understand how Kant, given the unprecedented nature of his approach, could be duped into thinking his way was the only way. Why does ignorance of alternatives generate the illusion of univocality? Or conversely, why does the piling on of interpretations tend to undermine the plausibility of novel interpretations?
This latter, of course, turns on the invisibility of ignorance–or as the Blind Brain Theory terms it, sufficiency. Our brains are mechanistic systems, astronomically complex symphonies of stochastically interrelated activities. Sufficiency simply follows from our mechanistic nature: central nervous systems operate according to information activated. This is the basic reason why insufficiency is parasitic upon sufficiency (and ultimately why falsehood is parasitic upon truth). The cognition of insufficient information as insufficient always requires more information. And so Kant, lacking information regarding the insufficiency of his interpretations, information that only became available as the array of viable alternatives became ever more florid, assumed sufficiency, that is, the apodictic status of his ‘transcendental deductions.’
The former also turns on sufficiency, albeit in a different respect. Cognizing the mobility of the earth requires information to that effect. In the absence of such information, we quite simply lack the ability to differentiate the position of the earth one moment to the next. Thus the manifest experience of the heavens moving about a motionless earth. The same goes for the subject: cognizing the activity of the subject requires information regarding differences made. In the absence of that information quite simply no difference is made. Thus the dogmatic metaphysical stance, where the philosopher, possessing only information regarding the objects of knowledge, attributes all activity (differentiation) to those objects and assumes cognition is a passive register.
So what does any of this have to do with the Copernican paradox described above? As we noted, the analogy works insofar as it attributes what is manifest to the activity of the subject. The analogy fails, on the other hand, because of the way it seems to render the subject the motionless centre about which objects now revolve. The solution to this paradox, not surprisingly, turns on the question of where the information runs out. Kant himself refers, on occasion, to finding the ‘data sufficient to determine the transcendental,’ assuming (given sufficiency, once again) that the information he had available was all that he required. But, as the subsequent profusion of variant transcendental interpretations have made plain, the information at his disposal does not even come close to possessing apodictic sufficiency. Given the pervasive and not to mention persuasive nature of sufficiency, it is worth rehearsing how the accumulation of scientific information has transformed our traditional metacognitive understanding of memory. Our traditional metacognitive assumption was that memory was a kind of storehouse, like the aviary Plato immortalized in the Theaetetus. With Ebbinghaus in the 19th century memory at last became an object of scientific inquiry. The story then becomes one of accumulating distinctions between different kinds of memory, as well as a drastic reappraisal of its veridical and systematic role. The picture that has emerged is so complicated, in fact, so different from our initial metacognitive assumptions, that some researchers now advocate dispensing with the traditional notion of memory altogether.
Our metacognitive sense of memory, what makes Plato’s analogy so convincing, is quite simply an artifact of informatic neglect, our inability not only to cognize the complexities of our capacity to remember, but to cognize that inability to cognize. BBT maintains that metacognitive blindness or neglect is a wholesale affair. Thus the ‘introspection illusion.’ Thus the troubling nature of dissociations such as that found in ‘pain asymbolia.’ Thus the ‘peculiar fate’ of reason, how, as Kant notes at the beginning of his first Preface to the original Critique, “it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer” (7). Thus, in other words, the blindness of reason to itself.
And, most importantly here, thus the transcendental. The idea is this: the problems besetting dogmatic philosophy provided Kant the information required to attribute activity to various aspects of subjective cognition and nothing more. The reason Kant’s Copernican analogy takes the peculiar, Ptolemaic form it does has to do with the way metacognitive neglect combined with the illusion of sufficiency forces him to locate the activities he attributes beyond the circuit of nature–to characterize them as ‘transcendental.’ Thus, lacking the information required to differentially situate these activities, they seem to reside nowhere. The conceptual activity of the subject finds itself nested within the empirically occluded and therefore apparently ‘motionless’ frame of transcendental subjectivity. And this is how Kant, in the act of prosecuting his Copernican revolution, simultaneously achieves a Ptolemaic restoration. Where in dogmatic philosophy the known invariably moves the knowing, in critical philosophy the knowing becomes the unmoved mover of everything that can be possibly known.
The cognition of difference requires information. Absent that information, identity is the default, be it the ‘positional’ self-identity of a motionless earth or a transcendental subject. It’s worth noting that this diagnosis applies whether one opts for an ontological or formal interpretation of Kant. Interpret Kant’s concepts any way you will, if they are to be active in any meaningful sense they have to be natural, which is to say, situated. The Blind Brain Theory maintains that the information integrated into consciousness and made available for conscious deliberation does not magically cut our ‘inner world’ at the joints. It is a brute fact that astronomical information asymmetries characterize the actual operations of our brain and our metacognitive sense of ‘mind.’ BBT provides a way of interpreting the metacognitive conundrums of intentionality and consciousness as artifacts of this asymmetry, the result of various forms of ‘information blindness,’ anosognosias that in some cases generate profound illusions. Consciousness is remarkably low-dimensional, not in the information-conserving sense of compression, but in the ‘lossy’ sense of depletions, distortions, and occlusions. Given that the information available to consciousness is the only information available for conscious cognition, we should not be surprised that this empirical fact possesses profound consequences across the whole range of human cognition. The Copernican paradox is one of these consequences, a striking example of the way information privation generates what might be called the ‘out-of-play’ illusion, the sense that the earth is the motionless centre of the universe on the one hand, and the sense that transcendental activity stands outside the circuit of nature, on the other. When combined with sufficiency, or what might be called the ‘only-game-in-town’ illusion, it becomes easy to understand why both geocentrism and transcendental idealism commanded the heights of cognition as long as they did.
(It’s worth noting in passing that both of these illusions are amenable to empirical verification. Any number of experiments can be imagined. Once again, unlike the speculative positions critiqued here, the Blind Brain Theory is continuous with the natural sciences.)
So to return to our question above: Why did ‘critical philosophy’ fail to provide the kind of theoretical knowledge that dogmatic philosophy could not? Because, simply enough, Kant and his successors not only lacked the information they required to naturalize the activity of the subject, they lacked the information required to realize they suffered this lack in the first place! Identifying activity, which is to say, identifying the difference the subject makes, will go down in history as Kant’s signature achievement, his gift to human civilization. But his insight was premature: only now, given the theoretical and technical resources belonging to the sciences of the brain, are we in a position to situate this activity within the greater arena of the natural world.
And this is what makes Bryant’s critique of critical philosophy so retrograde–even atavistic. Here the sciences of brain of the brain are actually making good on the goal of critical philosophy, laying bare the mechanistic activities that underwrite experience and knowledge, and Bryant is calling for a wholesale repudiation, not simply of critical philosophy, but of this very goal. So for instance, we already have a pretty good empirical understanding of why dogmatic philosophy was doomed to failure: humans are theoretically incompetent absent the institutional, conceptual, and procedural prosthetics of the sciences. We also have a good empirical understanding of the heuristic nature, not simply of human cognition, but of all animal cognition. The same way memory research has progressively complicated our traditional monolithic, metacognitive sense of memory, the sciences of the brain are doing the same with regard to cognition more generally. The more we learn, the more clear it’s becoming that cognition is fractionate, a concatenation of specialized tools, heuristics that conserve computational resources via the systematic neglect of information.
On the Blind Brain Theory, the subject-object paradigm is another one of these heuristics, which is to say, a way to effectively comport our organism to its environments absent certain kinds of information. Recapitulating distal (environmental) information exhausts the resources of the mechanisms involved. Recapitulating proximal (neural) information thus requires supplementary mechanisms, which, given the sheer complexity of the neural mechanisms required to recapitulate distal information, either need to be far more powerful than those mechanisms, or to settle for far less fidelity. More brain, in other words, is required for the brain to track itself the way it tracks its environments. Given the exorbitant metabolic expense (not to mention the absence of direct evolutionary pressures) of such secondary tracking systems, it should come as no surprise that the brain suffers medial neglect, a wholesale inability to track its own functions. This is why the neurofunctional context of any information integrated into conscious cognition (the way it is actually utilized) escapes conscious cognition–why, in other words, experience is ‘transparent.’ This is why we perceive objects while remaining almost utterly blind to the machinery of perception. And this is why our sense of subjectivity is so granular, ineffable, and mysterious. The usurious expense of proximal cognition imposes drastic constraints on our metacognitive capacities, constraints that themselves utterly escape metacognition.
The subject-object paradigm is a heuristic solution according to BBT, a way for the brain to maximize cognitive effectiveness while minimizing metabolic costs. So long as the medial mechanisms involved in the recapitulation of environmental information do not impact the environment tracked, then medial neglect possesses no immediate liabilities and leverages tremendous gains in efficiency. Our brains can track various causal systems in its environment without having to account for any interference generated by the systems doing the tracking. But as soon as those tracking systems do impact their targets–as soon as observation finds itself functionally entangled with its targets–cognition quickly becomes difficult if not impossible. In such instances it must track effects that it cannot, given the occlusion of its own causal activities (medial neglect), situate within the causal nexus of any natural environment. As a heuristic, the subject-object paradigm is not a universal problem solver, though the only-game-in-town illusion (sufficiency) means metacognition is bound to intuit it as such. This explains, not only why we continue to find experience mysterious even as our environmental cognition presses to the asymptotic limits of particle physics and cosmology, but also why those perplexities take the shape they do.
Subject-object cognition, thanks to medial neglect, is utterly incapable of producing genuine theoretical metacognition. Given the subject-object paradigm, the brain remains a necessary blind-spot, something that it can only cognize otherwise. Thus the invisibility of activity, and the epochal nature of Kant’s critical insight. Thus the default nature of dogmatic philosophy, why millennia of errant groping were required before realizing that we were not, as far as cognition was concerned, out of play.
It’s hard to overstate the eerie elegance of this account–damn hard. Whatever the case, BBT is an exhaustive interpreter. Not only does it seem to resolve a number of notorious, hitherto unresolvable conundrums pertaining to consciousness using one basic insight, it claims to offer understanding, in impressionistic outline at least, of why philosophical inquiry has followed the trajectory it has.
In the present context, however, the thing to remember is simply this: To speak of subjects and/or objects as metaphysically fundamental is to immediately commit oneself to the universality of a certain kind of low-dimensional cartoon, which is to say, a heuristic that organizes information in a manner that enables or impedes cognition depending on the particular ecology it finds itself deployed in. The cartoonishness of this cartoon, the way it betrays as opposed to facilitates cognition, is something numerous critics in numerous contexts have called attention to (perhaps illuminating portions of BBT from less comprehensive perspectives). For proponents of so-called embodied cognition, for instance, the subject-object paradigm constitutively neglects what might be called the brain-environment, the greater mechanism that explains the profound continuity of our organism with its environments. For Heidegger, on the other hand, it’s a paradigmatic expression of the ‘metaphysics of presence,’ the wilderness through which the tribes of thought wander awaiting the promise of ‘being.’ For other thinkers in the phenomenological and post-structural traditions, it distorts and conceals essential relations, generating structurally inescapable impasses, social alienation, as well as facilitating myriad abuses of authority and capital.
And for ‘speculative realists’ such as Bryant, Harman, and Meillasoux, it confounds the possibility of genuine theoretical knowledge. Thus the curious canard of ‘correlation,’ and the even more curious conceit that simply naming the subject-object paradigm as a problem provides theoretical egress, rather than, as even the most rabid enthusiast must recognize as a storm-cloud on the horizon, simply more of the same. Gone are the early days of novelty, and with it the only-game-in-town illusion of genuine philosophical progress. Speculative realism is now mired in the same ‘bewildering philosophical situation’ it takes as its motive, making claims to theoretical knowledge on inferential grounds every bit as interpretative as those it seeks to supplant, pinning skyhook to skyhook, in the effort to conceal the fact that everything is left hanging…
No different than before.
So many ironies and problems bedevil this approach I simply don’t know where to begin. I’ve already mentioned the unfortunate timing involved in denying activity to cognition just as the bona fide sciences of those activities are in bloom. If theoretical knowledge is what Bryant is after, as he claims, then he need only embrace these sciences, embrace naturalism and foreswear his metaphysical fundamentalism. It’s a good rule-of-thumb, I think most will be inclined to agree, to be incredulous of any systematic set of claims that argues against incredulity. But this is precisely what Bryant does in arguing that, even though all his claims are in fact conditioned by his cognitive capacities, personal history, social context, and so on, one should pretend all these potential confounds are out of play. There is no question more honest than, “How do you know?” yet he would have us relegate it on the basis of speculation that, coincidentally enough, has no way of answering this very question.
And it is for this reason, more than any other, that so much Speculative Realism strikes me as desperate philosophy, as the work of weary, thoroughly captive souls that nonetheless refuse to remain indifferent. “There must be some way out!” This has been the cry, naming a need that for many has become so urgent they are willing to suspend disbelief to attain the appearance or approximation of ‘escape.’ This wilful credulity, this opportunistic refusal to critique, is what raises the irony of Byrant’s approach to its most debilitating pitch. After all, questions are what make ignorance visible, what reveals the insufficiencies of our thought–the information missing. Questions, in other words, bring to light differences not made. Thus Bryant, by eschewing Kant’s critical question regarding the differences cognition makes, is in effect occluding the very differences he claims are fundamental. He is not, in fact, interested in ‘doing justice to the plural swarm of differences’ so much as he is interested in differences of the right sort–namely, those that conserve the identity of his Object Oriented Ontology.
The final irony is that BBT, like Bryant’s approach, is decisively concerned with differences–only understood as information, systematic differences making systematic differences. But unlike, Object Oriented Ontology, my approach takes information as an unexplained explainer that is warranted by the theoretical work it enables, and not as a metaphysical primitive that warrants all that follows. Theorizing the kinds of informatic constraints (the crucial differences not made) faced by human cognition, BBT provides a powerful diagnosis of the subject-object paradigm, one that not only explains myriad traditional philosophical difficulties, but also allows, on an empirical basis, a means to think beyond the perennial, oscillating tyranny of subject and object, thought and being, and here’s the important thing, when required. It begins with theoretical knowledge, the sciences of the brain, offering speculative claims that will find decisive, empirical arbitration in the due course of time. Object Oriented Ontology, however, is yet another metaphysical fundamentalism–and an anachronistic one at that. It wades into the swamp of metaphysical argumentation claiming to discover firm ground. Unable to conceive a way beyond the subject-object paradigm, it seizes upon the unfashionable partner, the object, buys it a new dress and dancing shoes, then takes it to the philosophical ball proclaiming discovery. And so, with difference upon its lips, it gets down to the business of perpetuating the same, magically offering rationales for what its practitioners cherish, and critiques of what they despise.
The situation is quite the reverse with BBT. In promising to overthrow noocentrism in a manner consistent with the overthrow of geocentrism and biocentrism centuries previous, it offers far more heartbreak than otherwise…
An escape from all that matters.
This is where the trail of clear inferences comes to an end. I’ve been mulling over ways to characterize a ‘big picture’ that might follow from this crazy attempt to explore post-intentional philosophy. Does it argue a kind of Wittgensteinian quietism, an admission that it lies beyond the ken of our motley tools, or does it suggest some species of informatic pluralism, where you acknowledge the shortcomings of the kinds of understanding you can come to in terms of a universe parsed into possibilities of informatic interaction? Arguing what it is not seems far easier. It is neither a materialism nor an idealism. It is not rationalist or contextualist or instrumentalist or interpretationist. It is, for whatever it’s worth, an extension of the explanatory paradigm of the life and other sciences into the traditional domain of the intentional. Since the intentional domain has no claim it recognizes as cognitive, no traditional philosophical characterization applies. It refuses projection across any one heuristic plane because it recognizes that all such planes are just that, heuristic. There is no subject or object on BBT, no ‘correlativity,’ no fundamental ‘inside/outside,’ only a series of heuristic lenses (to opt for a visual heuristic) allowing various kinds of grasp (to opt for a kinesthetic heuristic). Given that the prostheses of science do allow for counter-to-heuristic knowledge (as with particle physics, most famously) it accords precedence to scientific discovery and the operationalizations that make them possible. To the question of whether we are a global workspace or a brain or a brain-environment (where the latter is understood in any one of many senses (social, historical, biological, cosmological, and so on)) it seems to answer, Yes.
And there is I suppose a certain kind of peace to be found in such a picture.
I keep looking.