After Yesterday: Review and Commentary of Catherine Malabou’s Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality
Experiments like the Wason Selection Task dramatically demonstrate the fractionate, heuristically specialized nature of human cognition. Dress the same logical confound in social garb and it suddenly becomes effortless. We are legion, both with reference to our environments and to ourselves. The great bulk of human cognition neglects the general nature of things, targeting cues instead, information correlated to subsequent events. We metacognize none of this.
Insofar as Catherine Malabou concedes the facts of neurobiology she concedes these facts.
In Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality, she attempts to rescue the transcendental via a conception of ‘transcendental epigenesis.’ The book orbits about section 27 (pp. 173-175 in my beaten Kemp-Smith translation) of the Transcendental Deduction in the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant considers the vexed question of the source of the agreement of the transcendental and the empirical, conceptuality and experience. Kant considers three possibilities: the agreement is empirically sourced, transcendentally sourced, or fundamentally (divinely) given. Since the first and the third contradict the necessity of the transcendental, he opts for the second, which he cryptically describes as “the epigenesis of pure reason” (174), a phrase which has perplexed Kant scholars ever since.
She examines a cluster of different theories on Kant’s meaning, each pressing Kant toward either empirical or theological contingency, and thus the very contradiction he attempts to avoid with his invocation of ‘epigenesis.’ Malabou undertakes a defense of Kantian transcendental epigenesis in the context of contemporary neurobiology, transforming Kant’s dilemma into a diagnosis of the dilemma she sees confronting Continental philosophy as a whole.
Via Foucault, she argues the historicity of transcendence as epigenesis understood as the invention of meaning (which she thinks is irreducible). “[N]o biologist,” she writes, “examines the relation between genetics and epigenetics in terms of meaning.” Via Heidegger (“who is no doubt the deepest of all of Kant’s readers”) she argues that the ecstatic temporality of transcendence reveals the derivative nature of empirical and theological appropriations, which both cover over primordial time (time before time). She ultimately parts with Heidegger on the issue of primordiality, but she takes away the phenomenological interpolation of past, present, and future, building toward the argument that epigenesis is never simply archaeological, but aimed as well—teleological.
Meillasoux seems to overthrow the primordial via reference to the ancestral, the time before the time before time, but he ultimately fails to deliver on the project of contingency. For all the initial praise Malabou expresses for his project, he ultimately provides her with a critical foil, an example of how not to reach beyond the Kantian tradition. (I especially enjoyed her Heideggerean critique of his time before the time before time as being, quite obviously (I think), the time after the time before time).
She ultimately alights on the Critique of Judgment, with a particular emphasis on section 81, which contains another notorious reference to epigenesis. The problem, once again, was that reading ‘the epigenesis of pure reason’ empirically—neurobiologically—obliterates the transcendental. Reading it formally, on the other hand, renders it static and inexplicable. What Malabou requires is some way of squaring the transcendental with the cognitive scientific revolution, lest Continental philosophy dwindle into a museum relic. She uses the mingling of causal and teleological efficacy Kant describes in the Third Critique as her ‘contact point’ between the transcendental and the empirical, since it is in the purposiveness of life that contingency and necessity are brought together.
Combining this with ecstatic temporality on the hand and neurobiological life on the other reveals an epigenesis that bridges the divide between life and thought in the course of explaining the adaptivity of reason without short-circuiting transcendence: “insofar as its movement is also the movement of the reason that thinks it, insofar as there is no rationality without epigenesis, without self-adjustment, without the modification of the old by the new, the natural and objective time of epigenesis may also be considered to be the subjective and pure time of the formation of horizon by and for thought.”
And so is the place of cognitive science made clear: “what neurobiology makes possible today through its increasingly refined description of brain mechanisms and its use of increasingly effective imaging techniques is the actual taking into account, by thought, of its own life.” The epigenetic ratchet now includes the cognitive sciences; philosophical meaning can now be generated on the basis of the biology of life. “What the neurobiological perspective lacks fundamentally,” she writes, “is the theoretical accounting for the new type of reflexivity that it enables and in which all of its philosophical interest lies.” Transcendental epigenesis, Malabou thinks, allows neurobiologically informed philosophy, one attuned to the “adventure of subjectivity,” to inform neurobiology.
She concludes, interestingly, with a defense of her analogical methodology, something I’ve criticized her for previously (and actually asked her about at a public lecture she gave in 2015). I agree that we’re all compelled to resort to cartoons when discussing these matters, true, but the problem is that we have no way of arbitrating whether our analogies render some dynamic tractable, or merely express some coincidental formal homology, short their abductive power, their ability to render domains scrutable. It is the power of a metaphor to clarify more than it merely matches that is the yardstick of theoretical analogical adequacy.
In some ways, I genuinely loved this book, especially for the way it reads like a metaphysical whodunnit, constantly tying varied interpretations to the same source material, continually interrogating different suspects, dismissing them with a handful of crucial clues in hand. This is the kind of book I once adored: an extended meditation on a decisive philosophical issue anchored by close readings of genuinely perplexing texts.
Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure Malabou’s approach completely misconstrues the nature of the problem the cognitive sciences pose to Continental philosophy. As a result, I fear she obscures the disaster about to befall, not simply her tradition, but arguably the whole of humanity.
When viewed from a merely neurobiological perspective, cognitive systems and environments form cognitive ecologies—their ‘epigenetic’ interdependence comes baked in. Insofar as Malabou agrees with this, she agrees that the real question has nothing to do with ‘correlation,’ the intentional agreement of concept and object, but rather with the question of how experience and cognition as they appear to philosophical reflection can be reconciled with the facts of our cognitive ecologies as scientifically reported. The problem, in other words, is the biology of metacognition. To put it into Kantian terms, the cognitive sciences amount to a metacritique of reason, a multibillion dollar colonization of Kant’s traditional domain. Like so much life, metacognition turns out to be a fractionate, radically heuristic affair, ancestrally geared to practical problem-solving. Not only does this imperil Kant’s account of cognition, it signals the disenchantment of the human soul. The fate of the transcendental is a secondary concern at best, one that illustrates rather than isolates the problem. The sciences have overthrown the traditional discourses of every single domain they have colonized. The burning question is why should the Continental philosophical discourse on the human soul prove an exception?
The only ‘argument’ that Malabou makes in this regard, the claim upon which all of her arguments hang, also comes from Kant:
“In the Critique of Pure Reason, when discussing the schema of the triangle, Kant asserts that there are realities that “can never exist anywhere except in thought.” If we share this view, as I do, then the validity of the transcendental is upheld. Yes, there are realities that exist nowhere but in thought.”
So long as we believe in ‘realities of thought,’ Continental philosophy is assured its domain. But are these ‘realities’ what they seem? Remember Hume: “It is remarkable concerning the operations of the mind that, though most intimately present to us, yet, whenever they become the object of reflection, they seem involved in obscurity; nor can the eye readily find those lines and boundaries, which discriminate and distinguish them” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 7). The information available to traditional speculative reflection is less than ideal. Given this evidential insecurity, how will the tradition cope with the increasing amounts of cognitive scientific information flooding society?
The problem, in other words, is both epistemic and social. Epistemically, the reality of thought need not satisfy our traditional conceptions, which suggests, all things being equal, that it will very likely contradict them. And socially, no matter how one sets about ontologically out-fundamentalizing the sciences, the fact remains that ‘ontologically out-fundamentalizing’ is the very discursive game that is being marginalized—disenchanted.
Regarding the epistemic problem. For all the attention Malabou pays to section 81 of the Third Critique, she overlooks the way Kant begins by remarking on the limits of cognition. The fact is, he’s dumbfounded: “It is beyond our reason’s grasp how this reconciliation of two wholly different kinds of causality is possible: the causality of nature in its universal lawfulness, with [the causality of] an idea that confines nature to a particular form for which nature itself contains no basis whatsoever.” Our cognition of efficacy is divided between what can be sourced in nature and what cannot be sourced, between causes and purposes, and somehow, someway, they conspire to render living systems intelligible. The evidence of this basic fractionation lies plain in experience, but the nature of its origin and activity remain occluded: it belongs to “the being in itself of which we know merely the appearance.”
In one swoop, Kant metacognizes the complexity of cognition (two wholly different forms), the limits of metacognizing that complexity (inscrutable to reflection), and the efficacy of that complexity (enabling cognition of animate things). Thanks to the expansion of the cognitive scientific domain, all three of these insights now possess empirical analogues. As far as complexity is concerned, we know that humans possess a myriad of specialized cognitive systems. Kant’s ‘two kinds of causality’ correlates with two families of cognitive systems observed in infants, the one geared to the inanimate world, mechanical troubleshooting, the other to the animate world, biological troubleshooting. The cognitive pathologies belonging Williams Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder demonstrate profound cleavages between physical and psychological cognition. The existence of metacognitive limits is also a matter of established empirical fact, operative in any number of phenomena explored by the ecological rationality and cognitive heuristics and biases research programs. In fact, the mere existence of cognitive science, which is invested in discovering those aspects of experience and cognition we are utterly insensitive to, demonstrates the profundity of human medial neglect, our utter blindness to the enabling machinery of cognition as such.
And recent research is also revealing the degree to which humans are hardwired to posit opportunistic efficacies. Given the enormity and complexity of endogenous and exogenous environments, organisms have no hope of sourcing the information constituting its cognitive ecologies. No surprise, neural networks (like the machine learning systems they inspired) are exquisitely adapted to the isolation of systematic correlations—patterns. Neglecting the nature of the systems involved, they focus on correlations between availabilities, isolating those observable precursors allowing the prediction of subsequent, reproductively significant observables such as behaviour. Confusing correlation with causation may be the bane of scientists, but for the rest of us, the reliance of ‘proxies’ often pays real cognitive dividends.
Humans are hardwired to both neglect their own cognitive complexity and to fetishize their environments, to impute efficacies serving local, practical cognitive determinations. Stranded in the most complicated system ever encountered, human metacognition cannot but comprise a congeries of source-insensitive systems geared to the adventitious solution of practical problems—like holding one’s tongue, or having second thoughts, or dwelling on the past, and so on. In everyday contexts, it never occurs to question the sources of these activities. Given neglect of the actual sources, we intuit spontaneity whenever we retask our metacognitive motley with reporting the source of these or any other cognitive activities.
We have very good empirical reasons to believe that the above is true. So, what do we do with transcendental speculation a la Kant? Do we ignore what cognitive science has learned about the fractionation, limits, and default propensities of human metacognition? Do we assume he was onto something distinct, a second, physically inexplicable order enabling cognition of the empirical in addition to the physically explicable (because empirical) order that we know (thanks to strokes, etc.) enables cognition of the empirical? Or do we assume that Kant was onto something dimly, which, given his ignorance of cognitive science, he construed dogmatically as distinct? Do we recognize the a priori as a fetishization of medial neglect, as way to make sense of the fractionate, heuristic nature of cognition absent any knowledge of that nature?
The problem with defending the first, transcendental thesis is that the evidence supporting the second empirical hypothesis will simply continue to accumulate. This is where the social problem rears its head, why the kind of domain overlap demonstrated above almost certainly signals the doom of Malabou’s discursive tradition. Continental philosophers need to understand how disenchantment works, how the mere juxtaposition of traditional and scientific claims socially delegitimizes the former. The more cognitive science learns about experience and cognition, the less relevant and less credible traditional philosophical discourses on the nature of experience and cognition will become.
The cognitive scientific metacritique of reason, you could say, reveals the transcendental as an artifact of our immaturity, of an age when we hearkened to the a priori as our speculative authority. Malabou not only believes in this speculative authority, she believes that science itself must answer to it. Rather than understanding the discursive tools of science epigenetically, refined and organized via scientific practice, she understands them presuppositionally, as beholden to this or that (perpetually underdetermined) traditional philosophical interpretation of conditions, hidden implicatures that must be unpacked to assure cognitive legitimacy—implicatures that clearly seem to stand outside ecology, thus requiring more philosophical interpretation to provide cognitive legitimacy. The great irony, of course, is that scientists eschew her brand of presuppositional ‘legitimacy’ to conserve their own legitimacy. Stomping around in semantic puddles is generally a counterproductive way to achieve operational clarity—a priori exercises in conceptual definition are notoriously futile. Science turns on finding answerable questions in questions answered. If gerrymandering definitions geared to local experimental contexts does the trick, then so be it. The philosophical groping and fumbling involved is valuable only so far as it serves this end. Is this problematic? Certainly. Is this a problem speculative ontological interpretation can solve? Not at all.
Something new is needed. Something radical, not in the sense of discursive novelty, but in a way that existentially threatens the tradition—and offends accordingly.
I agree entirely when Malabou writes:
“Clearly, it is of the utmost necessity today to rethink relations between the biological and the transcendental, even if it is to the detriment of the latter. But who’s doing so? And why do continental philosophers reject the neurobiological approach to the problem from the outset?”
This was the revelation I had in 1999, attempting to reconcile fundamental ontology and neuroscience for the final chapter of my dissertation. I felt the selfsame exhaustion, the nagging sense that it was all just a venal game, a discursive ingroup ruse. I turned my back on philosophy, began writing fiction, not realizing I was far from alone in my defection. When I returned, ‘correlation’ had replaced ‘presence’ as the new ‘ontologically problematic presupposition.’ At long last, I thought, Continental philosophy had recognized that intentionality—meaning—was the problem. But rather than turn to cognitive science to “search for the origin of thinking outside of consciousness and will,” the Speculative Realists I encountered (with the exception of thinkers like David Roden) embraced traditional vocabularies. Their break with traditional Kantian philosophy, I realized, did not amount to a break with traditional intentional philosophy. Far from calling attention to the problem, ‘correlation’ merely focused intellectual animus toward an effigy, an institutional emblem, stranding the 21st century Speculative Realists in the very interpretative mire they used to impugn 20th century Continental philosophy. Correlation was a hopeful, but ultimately misleading diagnosis. The problem isn’t that cognitive systems and environments are interdependent, the problem is that this interdependence is conceived intentionally. Think about it. Why do we find the intentional interdependence of cognition and experience so vexing when the ecological interdependence of cognitive systems and environments is simply given in biology? What is it about intentionality?
Be it dogmatically or critically conceived, what we call ‘intentionality’ is a metacognitive artifact of the way source-insensitive modes of cognition, like intentional cognition, systematically defer the question of sources. A transcendental source is a sourceless source—an ‘originary repetition’ admitting an epigenetic gloss—because intentional cognition, whether applied to thought or the world, is source-insensitive cognition. To apply intentional cognition to the question of the nature of intentional cognition, as the tradition does compulsively, is to trip into metacognitive crash space, a point where intuitions, like those Malabou so elegantly tracks in Before Tomorrow, can only confound the question they purport to solve.
Derrida understood, at least as far as his (or perhaps any) intentional vocabulary could take him. He understood that cognition as cognized is a ‘cut-out,’ an amnesiac intermediary, appearing sourceless, fully present, something outside ecology, and as such doomed to be overthrown by ecology. He, more-so than Kant, hesitates upon the metacognitive limit, full-well understanding the futility of transgressing it. But since he presumed the default application of intentional cognition to the problem of cognition necessary, he presumed the inevitability of tripping into crash space as well, believing that reflection could not but transgress its limits and succumb to the metaphysics of presence. Thus his ‘quasi-transcendentals,’ his own sideways concession to the Kantian quagmire. And thus deconstruction, the crashing of super-ecological claims by adducing what must be neglected—ecology—to maintain the illusion of presence.
And so, you could say the most surprising absence in Malabou’s text is her teacher, who whispers merely from various turns in her discourse.
“No one,” she writes, “has yet thought to ask what continental philosophy might become after this “break.” Not true. I’ve spent years now prospecting the desert of the real, the post-intentional landscape that, if I’m right, humanity is doomed to wander into and evaporate. I too was a Derridean once, so I know a path exists between her understanding and mine. I urge her to set aside the institutional defense mechanisms as I once did: charges of scientism or performative contradiction simply beg the question against the worst-case scenario. I invite her to come see what philosophy and the future look like after the death of transcendence, if only to understand the monstrosity of her discursive other. I challenge her to think post-human thoughts—to understand cognition materially, rather than what traditional authority has made of it. I implore her to see how the combination of science and capital is driving our native cognitive ecologies to extinction on an exponential curve.
And I encourage everyone to ask why, when it comes to the topic of meaning, we insist on believing in happy endings? We evolved to neglect our fundamental ecological nature, to strategically hallucinate spontaneities to better ignore the astronomical complexities beneath. Subreption has always been our mandatory baseline. As the cognitive ecologies underwriting those subreptive functions undergo ever more profound transformations, the more dysfunctional our ancestral baseline will become. With the dawning of AI and enhancement, the abstract problem of meaning has become a civilizational crisis.
Best we prepare for the worst and leave what was human to hope.