A Material Churl in A Material World

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The cup of ego always but always leaks on the doily of theory. Thus the philosophical tendency to embroider in black.



I’d like to thank Roger for introducing a little high-altitude class into TPB while I was undergoing intense tequila retoxification treatment in Mexico. I’ll be providing my own naturalistic gloss on his metaphilosophical observations at some point over the ensuing weeks. In the meantime, however, I need to do a little spring cleaning…

Since I plan on shortly rowing back into more Analytic waters I thought I would fire a couple of more broadsides across the Continental fleet as I bring my leaky rowboat about. The (at times heated) debate we had following “The Ptolemaic Restoration,” has left me more rather than less puzzled by the ongoing ‘materialistic turn’ in Continental circles. Object Oriented Ontology has left me particularly mystified, especially in the wake of Levi Bryant’s claim that ‘object orientation’ need not concern itself with the question of meaning, even though, historically speaking, this question has always posed the greatest challenge to materialist accounts. As Ray Brassier acknowledges in his 2012 After Nature interview:

[Nihil Unbound] contends that nature is not the repository or purpose and that consciousness is not the fulcrum of thought. The cogency of these claims presupposes an account of thought and meaning that is neither Aristotelian–everything has meaning because everything exists for a reason–nor phenomenological–conscious is the basis of thought and the ultimate source of meaning. The absence of any such account is the book’s principal weakness…

What is truth? What is meaning? What is subjectivity? In short, What is intentionality? These are absolutely pivotal philosophical questions for any philosophy that purports to be ‘materialist.’ Why? Because if we actually had some way of naturalizing these perplexities, then we could plausibly claim that everything is material. And yet Bryant, when pressed on this selfsame issue, responds:

I’m not working on issues of intentionality. Asking me to have a detailed picture of intentionality is a bit like asking a neurologist to have a detailed picture of quantum mechanics or black holes. It’s just not what neurologists are doing. I’ll leave it to the neurologists to give that account of intentionality” (Comments to “The Ptolemaic Restoration,” March 14, 2013 6:45pm)

I fear the analogy escapes me. Asking him to have some picture of intentionality, given his claim that ontology is flat, is asking him how he has managed to smooth out the wrinkles that have hitherto nixed every attempt to flatten ontology in the manner he attempts. It is ‘like’ asking a materialist to respond to the traditional challenge to their position, nothing more or less. His inability to do this would suggest a gaping hole in his position, and thus the need to either retract his claim that ontology is flat, or to explore remedial strategies to shore up his position. But his unwillingness to do this seems to suggest he’s not interested in developing anything approximating a serious philosophical view. Failing some accounting of this issue, his brand of object orientation simply will not be taken seriously, not in the long run. The questions are just too basic, too immediate, to indefinitely ignore. If ontology is ‘flat,’ if ‘objects’ exhaust ontology, the most obvious perplexity becomes, What is this very moment now? A concatenation of objects? Our living perspectives, we are told, are some kind of material process. So then, What the hell are they? What kind of objects or units could they be? If soul or mind or being-in-the-world or what have you is ‘really’ a material process, then why, as Descartes so notoriously pointed out, does it so clearly seem to be anything but?

Leibniz, of course, gives us the most historically resonant image of the problem faced by object-oriented attempts to explain this-very-moment-now with his windmill:

One is obliged to admit that perception and what depends upon it is inexplicable on mechanical principles, that is, by figures and motions. In imagining that there is a machine whose construction would enable it to think, to sense, and to have perception, one could conceive it enlarged while retaining the same proportions, so that one could enter into it, just like into a windmill. Supposing this, one should, when visiting within it, find only parts pushing one another, and never anything to explain a perception. Thus it is in the simple substance, and not in the composite or in the machine, that one must look for perception. Monadology, §17

It’s not that it merely seems difficult to imagine how any organization of material things, any mechanism (no matter how complicated), could possibly result in something like this-very-moment-now, it seems downright unfathomable. And this pertains as much to its intentional structure as to its phenomenal content. As Brentano famously writes:

Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We can, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, 68

In a more contemporary context, David Chalmers summarizes the problem with characteristic elegance and clarity:

First: Physical descriptions of the world characterize the world in terms of structure and dynamics. Second: From truths about structure and dynamics, one can deduce only further truths about structure and dynamics. And third: truths about consciousness are not truths about structure and dynamics. “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature

For whatever reason, soul, mind, being-in-the-world, whatever they are, seem dramatically incompatible with objects (whatever they are). Now the attraction of the so-called ‘materialist turn’ in Continental circles is obvious enough: it aligns speculation with the sciences, and thus (apparently) affords it a relevance and theoretical credibility that prior Continental philosophy so obviously lacked. The problem, of course, is that Continental materialisms are by no means content with those limits. Though they repudiate the discourses that preceded them, they refuse to relinquish the domains those discourses took as their natural habitat. Ethics. Politics. Not to mention the human condition more generally. These are the things Continental philosophy takes itself to be primarily about. So even though science–historically at least–has been shut out of the domain of the intentional, these materialisms continue to theorize these domains. But where Brassier or Roden, for instance, advert to an Anglo-American tradition that, because it never abandoned its scientific affiliations, managed to develop sophisticated responses to the question of meaning, others reference vague compatibilities or occult formulations or worse yet, simply stomp their feet.

This is why for me so much of the speculative materialist turn in Continental philosophy strikes me as an exercise in ignorance, wilful or accidental. Historically speaking, soul or mind or being-in-the-world have constituted the great bete noire of all materialist philosophies, and yet these object oriented newcomers, these ‘realists,’ think they can scrupulously theorize things like the materiality of language while completely ignoring the mystery of how that materiality comes to mean.

And this, I’m afraid to say, makes it difficult to see these positions as anything other than sophistry, ingroup language games where the difficult questions, the very questions upon which the bulk of philosophy are raised, are dismissed or wilfully ignored to better facilitate a kind of claim-making possessing no real cognitive constraints whatsoever. A kind of make-believe philosophy.

Some hard words, I know–but these are ideas, not relatives, we’re talking about. Meanings. I encourage anyone who takes umbrage, or just anyone merely sympathetic to Bryant’s (or Hagglund’s or Zizek’s) account, to show me the short-circuit in my thinking. As I’ve said before, I’m just a tourist. When I find issues that seem this glaring, this damning, I can’t shake the feeling that I have to be missing something. Lord knows it’s happened before. In fact, it’s the only reason I occupy the miserable position I hold now… Being wrong.