In a recent remark responding to one of my posts, Dan quotes me and goes on to propose some critical commentary on my claims:

“While the sun certainly enters into political compositions within being, the sun is what it is regardless of whether or not politics is. Presumably the sun was over 5 billion years ago when our solar system accreted. Humans have existed for only about 200,000 years.”

I like you am drowning in undergrad papers that have an ability to drain what little intelligence I have, but this quotation seems indicative of a modality I have tried to flag and discuss in the past, what I nominate “science valorization.” This kind of utterance seems to me fine if everyone subscribes to a certain pattern of speech, a set of rules about narrating the world but it does not seem to me to reflect the usual standard of thought found here in other contexts. There are many issues here but the basic one perhaps is the claim to continuous past entities through time for which little present evidence of identity persists. Let’s say since we are all fond of difference that that chain of events called man or that called the sun evolve (I pick this since you are pro-evolution) but that the changes cannot be shown to be continuous or governed by one variable. Then the identification across time becomes not a statement of fact but a rhetorical injunction or a juridical limit. We find ourselves back with all the problems of essence and a platonic ontic. And what did this win since it gave up the very real it seeks?

While I always appreciate Dan’s comments– even if he might think otherwise –I often have a very difficult time understanding them as they strike me as extremely dense and elliptical. When I first read this comment, I interpreted the charge of “valorizing science” as a charge of dogmatically accepting scientific claims. This reading seemed suggested by the fact that Dan goes on to discuss my remark about the sun in terms of rhetoric, talking about utterances, patterns of speech, and whether or not everyone agrees with those patterns of speech. Since Dan talks about consensus (whether everyone agrees), it seems clear to me that Dan is making rhetoric the measure of reality. If I am portraying his position correctly, the thesis would be that there are different language games, science is one language game among others, and therefore it is dogmatic to “valorize science” because such a valorization fails to self-reflexively recognize the manner in which it is a language game among others.

This interpretation seems warranted as Dan goes on to remark that,

Levi, The majority of what you say strikes me as political and rhetorical, and a clear analysis then would have to be within those disciplinary vocabularies if we “wished to participate in a dialog with others.”

Here, if I understand Dan correctly, “disciplinary vocabularies” are treated as the condition for science, such that a “critical” discourse first requires an analysis of the disciplinary vocabulary or language game we are playing so as to demonstrate the manner in which this disciplinary vocabulary or language game socially constructs its objects. If, then, a discourse that makes claims directly about the world without first engaging in this self-reflexive analysis of disciplinary vocabularies or language games is dogmatic, then this is because it fails to recognize, pace a rhetorical variant of Kant’s Copernican revolution, the manner in which its object is a product of these language games rather than an entity in its own right.

read on for the really good stuff!

I have called such a line of argument humanist (we could just as easily call it “human-centered” or anthropocentric), because it makes the human or some human phenomena the condition for all other entities. Take the examples of Derrida and Lacan or the Heidegger of the “Letter on Humanism”. I purposefully choose these examples because all of these thinkers have characterized their positions as anti-humanisms. However, while the Derridean, Lacanian, and Heideggerian critiques of the focus on consciousness are well taken, I fail to see how these positions can even come remotely close to ontologically being anti-humanisms as they still give the human or human phenomena pride of place within their ontology. In these instances, of course, the human phenomena in question is language. Simply demolishing the primacy of consciousness or the sovereign individual does not yet an ontological anti-humanism make, as human phenomena such as language, rhetoric, power, social forces, and so on are still granted an ontological privilege as the condition for all other entities. One does not formulate a genuinely anti-humanist ontology until humans and human phenomena are dethroned from their privileged place and treated as one set of entities among others. This does not entail that humans and human phenomena are unimportant or that we should not discuss them, as some have unfairly suggested of SR, only that the human should not be treated as the condition for the being of all other entities.

Setting all this aside for the moment, I cannot but be perplexed at Dan’s suggestion that I “valorize science”. This is a charge that Dan has often leveled at me in the past, once even suggesting that I endorse a Newtonian model of indivisible atomic particles as my conception of what constitutes objects. Given what I have written about objects and realism in general, I am not sure how Dan could possibly arrive at this conclusion. Yet, my references to science are rather occasional and certainly do not dominate the lion share of my posts here on this blog. Far more of my posts are devoted to signs, psychoanalysis, rhetoric, politics, etc. I thus wonder why Dan believes I somehow valorize science. Here I suspect the “unconscious” is at work. There is a tendency among those in the humanities to immediately leap from the signifier “realism” to science. In other words, the term “realism” seems to invite a sort of metonymical sliding from “realism” to “science”, such that realism is equated with the position that science, and science alone, tells us what is real.

First, I get the sense that many in the humanities are deeply threatened by the sciences. Here I don’t blame my colleagues. There is, of course, the sort of discomfort many of us “literary types” suffered in our math and science classes that I think sometimes informs our attitudes towards the sciences. However, more importantly and as a matter of academic institutional politics, many of us in the humanities have suffered having scientific criteria hoisted on our own forms of intellectual engagement where they do not belong and have had to fight funding wars against administrations that increasingly take monies away from the humanities and funnel all sorts of funding into the various sciences and technical degrees. Additionally, I think the humanities have increasingly suffered a crisis of identity wondering where, precisely, their place lies in the academy. Philosophy, for example, was once foundational to all the other disciplines. Yet with the rise of modern science philosophy increasingly finds itself marginalized as a sort of “idle speculation”. What sort of knowledge, precisely, is it that philosophy contributes to the world or the academy? I believe many of us in the humanities are asking these sorts of questions and I get the sense that many of us often have a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the sciences, wishing to equate them with dogmatic discourse and reject them altogether. How else are we to account for the fact that within Continental philosophy and theory claims from the hard sciences are generally treated as inadmissible within the framework of philosophical discussion? Perhaps many of us are still smarting from the Sokal affair and this is why, with only a few exceptions, we tend to shy away from the sciences. But what the Sokal affair revealed was not the absurdity of people in the humanities evoking the sciences (were that the case Dennett and others would be in trouble), but the absurdity of social constructivism and rhetorical idealism gone woefully wrong. No, I get the sense that the inadmissability of the sciences in Continental discussions is more a defense formation than a rational position. To be sure, it dresses itself up in rational garb, but when you look at the actual arguments they turn out to not be very good (I’ll get to this in a moment).

Second, and more importantly, while all the speculative realists and the object-oriented ontologists have a healthy respect for the sciences and think that they reveal something real and genuine about the world, it has never been the position of us object-oriented ontologists that the objects investigated by the sciences exhaust the real. This is one reason I find myself so perplexed by Dan’s observations. For the object-oriented ontologists things like suns, quarks, DNA and so on are real. But signs, cities, groups, books, and so on are also real. The physical objects investigated by the sciences are for OOO a subset of the real, not exhaustive of the real. Dan seems to suppose that OOO treats that subset as being exhaustive of the real.

So let me outline what I take to be the problem with Dan’s argument from rhetoric, universes of discourse, disciplinary vocabularies, or language games. And again, if I am misrepresenting Dan’s position I hope he will show me how, though I think these points are still valuable as this line of argument seems to often arise. The problem as I see it with this line of argument (and its other variants) is that it jumps from the obvious and true premise that we must relate to things to know them, to the invalidly derived conclusion that this relation makes things what they are. In other words, Dan seems to be jumping from the premise that because we relate to objects through language these regimes of discourse make things what they are. This is akin to arguing that because I must look through a window to see a tree the window constitutes the tree as a tree. We can, of course, agree that the window limits our field of vision in all sorts of important ways, but we should not concede the point that the window makes the tree the tree.

For the sake of some clarity in these discussions let us distinguish four possible positions using the terms “realism”, “anti-realism”, “epistemology”, and “ontology”. Through a sort of combinatorial we can generate four possible positions through grouping these terms:

epist21. Realist Epistemology: A realist epistemology would be the position that we have direct access to the objects of the world, such that our representations of objects are exactly like these objects themselves. Here mind is treated as a passive recipient of the world that merely receives data from objects as they are from the world and then dutifully reports them.

315px-Blackbox.svgAnti-Realist Epistemology: The anti-realist positions is far more complex. Here the knower is not a passive recipient, but makes active contributions to inputs, organizing them through concepts, practices, language, social categories, etc., that give these inputs a specific form or structure at the level of our experience. Here I think the model of the black box is perhaps the easiest way of thinking about the difference between anti-realist epistemologies and realist epistemologies. Where a realist epistemology portrays the mind as a passive receiver that does nothing to the received stimuli but record them, anti-realist epistemologies conceive stimuli from the world as inputs that are then processed by the structure of the black box (language, social categories, a priori concepts in the mind, etc) that then produce an output different from the input that went through the black box. The model of the black box, in my view, is common to all anti-realist positions. Where they differ, what they debate over, is the question of what processing mechanisms the our black boxes contain. An anti-realist epistemology is, of course, rightly going to be human-centered because the question of knowledge is a question of how we– you know, us humans –come to know the world.

3. Anti-Realist Ontologies: An ontology addresses not the question “how do we know?”, but rather “what, in the most general and abstract sense, is and what dynamics govern these beings?” An anti-realist ontology is thus an ontology that equates the being of beings, what beings are with the outputs of our little black boxes. To be, the thesis runs, is to be the output of a black box, a manifestation (as Derrida put it in Of Grammatology), or, as Kant put it, a phenomena. Note that for anti-realist ontologies being is generally said in two-senses. On the one hand, being is equated with outputs of blackboxes. However, since outputs cannot be produced by black boxes without inputs, and since these inputs must come from somewhere, there must be another type of being, we know not what, that provides the inputs for our black boxes (where the black box can be thought of as containing a priori categories of mind and intuition, the play of differance (Derrida), the bestowals of being to Dasein, etc.). In short, anti-realist ontologies are unable to give a univocal determination to being unless they take a Hegelian or Berkeleyian route.

[Aside: It is interesting to note that the very fact that there is a debate over what our black boxes contain is indicative that we don't have access to the mechanisms of our black boxes. In other words, the anti-realist is pushed into a position every bit as speculative about the "programming" belonging to black-boxes as that of the naive epistemological realist that believes he can directly talk about objects. In my view, this simple point significantly deflates the potency of anti-realist arguments from the primacy of access.]

4. Realist Ontology: Where the anti-realist ontologist holds that “to be is to be a phenomena (for-us)”, the realist holds that while there are beings that only are for-us (e.g., money), this is not exhaustive of being. There are also beings that are independent of humans in the sense that the tree was independent of the window, and we can say something significant, but very general about the characteristics of what it means to be.

Having outlined these two possibilities for epistemology and these two possibilities for ontology, it will be noticed that it now becomes possible to form combinations of these positions. There are three such positions:

1. It is possible to advocate a realist epistemology and a realist ontology. Indeed, someone who advocates a realist epistemology necessarily advocates a realist ontology.

2. It is possible to advocate an anti-realist epistemology and an anti-realist ontology. I would argue that this is the dominant position in Continental thought today.

Finally 3. It is possible to advocate an anti-realist epistemology and a realist ontology.

I would argue that it is the third position that the object-oriented ontologists advocate. Here Harman, hopefully, will correct me if I am attributing claims to him that he would not make, though I’ll stand by them with respect to my own version of object-oriented ontology. The anti-realist epistemologists are correct to reject realist epistemologies as both naive and dogmatic. There is no reason to suppose that the way we immediately perceive things or our disciplinary boundaries within the sciences map on to the world as it is. Moreover, in their epistemological investigations the anti-realist epistemologists are correct to note the active role played by black boxes in organizing phenomena, producing knowledge, and so on. We should have these debates about what our black boxes contribute to the production of outputs and should not abandon the important findings of the tradition of anti-realist epistemology.

However, where the anti-realist epistemologists and the realist ontologists part ways is with respect to the thesis that questions of our access to beings is sufficient to determine what beings are. For the object-oriented ontologist, over and above questions of how we know objects there remains an important and crucial question of what it means for a being to be. This question, following Roy Bhaskar, is not, for the realist ontologist, exhausted by how we know. Likewise, while the object-oriented ontologist readily acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge, the fact that we must engage in inquiry to know any particular type of object, and so on, the realist ontologist rejects the thesis that the differences discovered in and through inquiry belong to the domain of outputs alone. Rather, the realist ontologist begins from the premise that these differences cannot be restricted to outputs alone, but rather that there must be something about the inputs, about the world that produces these differences, that is mind-independent. I’ll stop here as I’ve run out of steam and gotta get cracking on dinner. Hopefully, however, this sorting will serve to generate a more refined discussion and to discount certain standard lines of criticism that emerge from the anti-realists.

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