Mulling over the wizard L Magee’s systemization of N.Pepperell’s theoretical work over at Rough Theory, I’ve been particularly taking by a brief and enigmatic reference to counter-factuals. I should emphasize at the outset that I do not have an answer to this question, but I do think L Magee’s formulation is a striking articulation of a very basic common theoretical problem in its own right, that makes the question in and of itself valuable. As Deleuze argues in Difference and Repetition, questions and problems are always accompanied by solutions, such that the aim is not to find the solution, but to formulate the question in the right way so that the solution might emerge of its own accord.

Consequently, I would like to free associate a bit with regard to L Magee’s formulations and see where it might lead in subsequent discussions. In what follows I purposefully simplify the issue so as to present the question in the starkest and most obvious terms possible so that it might be seen at all. Again, I am not trying to provide a solution here, nor asking for a solution, but am only trying to clearly formulate the question. L Magee writes:

6.2. Critical theory (Adorno) posits that this critical capacity is suggestive of the existence of counter-factualism within the context that engenders it. Popper’s view of science is largely commensurable with critical theoretic formulations, which view critique as negation. However it fails to explain how negation is derived from the very context that allows itself to be criticised – it is therefore not articulated as determinate negation. (Popper himself cares little about whether his critical standards are commensurable within a historicising tradition like Marxist-engendered critical theory).

6.3. To explain critique as determinate negation, deductive reasoning – still the standard of critical reasoning for Popper – is insufficient. Dialectical reasoning is required. Nevertheless, for Adorno, even dialectics fails to quite account for the objectivity – within social contexts – of critical capacity. What is it about social contexts which determines the tension between the is – the factual existens – and the ought – the counter-factual that is equally determined by context? [I find this paragraph particularly hard or unclear; on the one hand, it sounds like a radicalisation of a perfectively normal, and long-observed feature of societies – that they produce conditions for their own change; on the other it suggests that dialectics is required but still insufficient. Surely this is simply aporetic – neither positivist nor dialectical reasoning is sufficient – so what then can be said of the grounds for Adorno’s own normative standpoint? It seems a grandiose incoherence, as expressed here… If so, it is not clear why you would care to use Adorno as a useful launching pad for theoretical speculation.]

I think these two pithy comments get at the heart of a debate that has been raging in diverse circles for a while now: How is change possible? Deleuze took this as his central philosophical question. For Badiou the central question is “what are the conditions for the possibility of the new?” Late Althusser took this as a central issue with his aleatory materialism. Zizek makes this question central with his thematization of the act. Examples could be multiplied from a wide variety of diverse and often unconnected theoretical positions.

What, then, does any of this have to do with counter-factuals? How might a discussion of counter-factuals give this question some clarity? A counterfactual is a conditional proposition that says what would be the case were another event to have happened. “If I would have gone to the coffee shop, I would have seen my friend.” A counterfactual conditional articulates something that would have happened, but which did not, in fact, happen. Or put a bit differently, counterfactuals deal with the logic of possibility.

It is in regard to the thematization of possibility that counterfactuals are relevant to the question of change. A critical theory is not simply a theory that reveals the mystifications at work within a particular social setting, but is rather a theory that liberates potentials for transforming that situation. The question is how do such possibilities become available? The critic is himself part of the situation he sets out to investigate. As such, the critic is subject to the same historical and social forces that characterize the situation he is investigating. The question is thus how do counterfactuals become available for a people that do not make up the current “furniture” of the situation within which those people dwell? By possibilities we should here be thinking of new ways of feeling, new forms of social arrangement, new types of investigations and objects of investigations, etc., etc., etc., that are unprecedented in the situation.

I will distinguish between two forms of counterfactuals to help clarify what is at issue: On the one hand, there are the perfectly ordinary sort of counterfactuals that are predelineated by the space of possibilities inhabiting the situation. Every situation can be understood as being undergirded by a sort of discourse that outlines what is, how things work, what is possible, how people live, and so on. In the past I have referred to this as the “encyclopedia”. This is what Foucault refers to as an episteme. Defining his concept of the episteme in Knowledge/Power, Foucault writes,

I would define the episteme retrospectively as the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific. (197)

An episteme is the historical a priori of the sciences at a given point in time through which statements are evaluated as true or false. We can generalize this notion to social practices more broadly, arguing that all social practices have their historical a priori by which what is possible and what is not possible are evaluated. Perhaps we could call counterfactuals formulated within this space “state counterfactuals”. These are possibilities envisioned well within the mapping or the historical a priori of the current social order. For instance, for many of us it is unthinkable of us to imagine a form of social arrangement here like the Na, where kinship relations are matrilineal, where there is no marriage at all, where women do not have permanent relations with men, and where childrearing is a communal affair that is immediately and obviously thought of as the function of the entire tribe rather than the private family. We simply don’t see this as a real possibility in our own social setting so it isn’t even discussed as a possibility because it doesn’t even occur to one to think about it in discussions of childcare, male/female relations, etc. It is invisible or non-existence within the space of social cognition.

In contrast to state counterfactuals, there are, perhaps, revolutionary counterfactuals. These would be counterfactuals that envision unprecedented possibilities that are nowhere to be found in the pre-existent public discourse. Take the example of Thales from philosophy. Thales exists within a social field where the world is explained through myth. Want to know why it thunders? Tell a story about Zeus. Want to know why there are olive trees? Tell a story about Daphne. The social field is saturated by this form of explanation and this form of explanation is experienced as being obviously correct. So how does a man like Thales occur? What is it that led Thales to turn away from mythology and transcendence– however imperfectly –and suddenly have the idea that perhaps the world can be explained immanently? For, make no mistake, this is exactly what Thales sets out to do when he says “all is water”. Now suddenly there is no need to make reference to personal gods that regulate nature, but rather nature is auto-regulative, containing its own principles that we can investigate to understand the multiplicity of phenomena about us. It’s a poor beginning, but a beginning nonetheless. Here it would seem that an unprecedented possibility has appeared in Thales’ socio-historical setting. How did Thales develop the vision to even begin to see something such as this as a possibility? In Heideggarian terms, this constitutes a split in the being-in-the-world of Thales’ time. It will be recalled that for Heidegger the worldhood of the world is characterized as a system of relations defining a field of possibilities of the pragmatic sort. We draw from this field of possibilities as the background upon which all our practical engagements with the world unfold. How, then, does a new possibility such as this suddenly manifest itself in the world. How is it possible to see the world otherwise?

The deadlock or paradox is patent. On the one hand, a commitment to immanence entails that we’re all embedded in socio-material-historical contexts that prevent any appeal to transcendence in the form of a subject that is somehow able to step out of its embedded context whether through the sheer power of reason or some grasping of universal and eternal Platonic forms. On the other hand, these breaks do occur. Suddenly it becomes possible to conceive a possibility that was before entirely absent from the situation. It is this issue that theorists such as Deleuze, Lacan, Badiou, and Zizek, among others, have sought to theorize. For instance, the question for Lacan is the question of how a break with the organizing fantasy might become possible, how it might become possible to see otherwise than through the fractal-like interpretive grid of the fundamental fantasy that pulls everything into its orbit like a mathematical function monotonously producing the same structural output for a series of intergers (2x… 2, 4, 6, 8…). If, then, change is to be theorized– and we know ruptures take place, so it must be theorized –then this theorization must unfold from within immanence in such a way as to forbid any treatment of the critic as transcendent to the constraints of the situation (self-reflexivity).