090504-swine-flu-picture_bigIt seems as if this cold is getting worse with every passing day. There are few things worse than scrambling to read final essays and complete grades while sniffling, sweating, and shivering. Hopefully I haven’t come down with the swine flu, though I hear that it is far less worse than first thought.

At any rate, this last week I had the pleasure of finally picking up John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy, David Couzens Hoy’s The Time of Our Lives: A Critical History of Temporality (which the Notre Dame Philosophy Review has mysteriously and with strange synchronicity given what we’ve been discussing here in the blogosphere asked me to review… Maybe Gary Gutting is slyly trying to convert me to correlationism), along with Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism, all three of which strike me as central to the debates over realism and anti-realism currently playing out here in the blogosphere. Although all three of these books are devoted to the careful textual analysis of various philosophers, they refreshingly take philosophical positions, reading these works not as exercises in textual commentary, but in view of their arguments for realist and anti-realist positions.

read on!

MartinTidalPoolI have not made it far into Mullarkey’s book yet, having only read the introduction, part of the chapter on Deleuze, and part of the chapter on Laruelle, but I am already very excited by the book. Mullarkey reads what he calls “Post-Continental Philosophy” in terms of the work of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Henry (will we ever get an inexpensive translation of The Essence of Manifestation?), Alain Badiou, and Francoise Laruelle. In all of these cases, he argues, there is a pre-occupation with the question of immanence at the heart of these philosophies. As Mullarkey puts it in his introduction,

Immanence is everywhere, but its meaning is completely open: that is our problem. ‘Existing or remaining within’; being ‘inherent’; being restricted entirely to some ‘inside’; existing and acting ‘within the physical world’: these lexical definitions of immanence play out in all four of our philosophies of immanence in both literal and figurative ways. Most often, though, the equivocity of immanence is linked to the question of ontological monism: if there is nothing ‘beyond’ the world, no ‘arrière-monde‘, then there can be no duality, no two-worlds view. There is only Life, Affect, or Number at the base of things, even though this reality will appear in places as non-life, unfeeling, and innumerate (in every sense of these terms). Dualism is the enemy. There is no necessary connection between immanence and monism, of course, for one could hypothesise a materialist (monist) philosophy and yet retain interior and exterior variables within it. Indeed, inside and outside might be constituted by, for example, representation or biological homeostasis (as in the work of Fred Dretske and Daniel Dennett). But this is thinking of monism and immanence non-ontologically. Ontologically speaking, for materialist systems, there is no fundamentally different kind of being (substance, process, or property) outside the system, and indeed both representation and biology here would be of the same ultimate stuff as matter. As philosophical naturalists, both Dretske and Dennett would have to agree that there is nothing outside of nature– no arrière-monde. They may posit different things in their philosophies– minds, contents of minds, mindless things –but there is ‘ultimately’ or ‘fundamentally’ only one stuff, matter. Hence, they are ontological monists, though the link between that and the consequences for thinking about immanence (that there is ultimately no ‘outside’) might be harder for them to see. But for Continental philosophies of immanence, monism is always ontological; it concerns kinds of things, even when what it says is that the only kind of thing there is is physical process, or affectivity, or sets, or the Real. (7)

hill-tidal_pool_stoneI think Mullarkey essentially gets it right here in his description of immanence and what immanence entails, though I do find reason to grumble over his description of matter as one kind of stuff. If contemporary science has taught us anything about the nature of matter, then it has taught us that matter is far more varied and interesting than the sort of matter conceived by Lucretius or the great physicists of the 17th century. Far from being the cold, inert, and dead particles possessing only position and velocity as described by the 17th and 18th century physicists, matter is a multiplicity that does not admit of a single determination, but which comes in a variety of kinds, is highly dynamic (being more a process or energy than “hard stuff”), and that allows for all sorts of emergent properties and forms of organization when entering into relations with itself. It is for precisely this reason that philosophies of immanence cannot operate with a concept of matter as such, for there is no “as such” where matter is concerned. Matter remains unknown or only ever partially known, which is why materialisms requires a form of thought that operates without a concept of matter.

tidalpoolBut the problematic status of matter (in the Kantian sense of “problematic concepts”), is not the problem at the heart of philosophies of immanence. Rather, as Mullarkey puts it,

It is not just that the equivocation over the meaning of immanence divides the Post-Continental movement and so conquers it before it has even really begun; the problem is much deeper than that. It is that these thinkers each encounter a limit of thought when they posit a philosophy of absolute immanence, for how can they commend any thought and reprove any other, if there is no outside for them? How is illusion, error, or misrepresentation possible if there is no representation at all? How is the illusion of transcendence, or the other’s virtuality even generated? How can one say there is no outside without also thinking within the element of transcendental certainty (the outside) again? In the end, Post-Continental philosophy gives rise to a problem of discourse, of the possibility of epistemic norms and even political values within a naturalistic thinking that must be travailed if we are not to repeat the same philosophemes that Derrida’s work highlighted so well. (9)

The concepts of truth, falsehood, error, and illusion– which all belong, in one way or another, to the logic of representation –seem to require the transcendence of an object with respect to a subject. For example, if I am able to say that something is an optical illusion, then this is only by reference to a difference between the object itself and how the object is represented by the mind. The transcendence of the object is a condition for the possibility of illusions, error, and falsehood. Or so it would seem.

One of the central challenges of thinking immanence lies in this knot, where, having abandoned any and all transcendence, we can no longer think of a content of mind as representing the world such that there is the Real and then what is “in here” that is somehow not the Real but rather a mere representation or thought of the Real. As a consequence, the contents of thought– superstition, ideology, illusion, error, falsehood, etc. –are no longer to be conceived as false representations, but must themselves be thought as objects or actors because, as Mullarkey puts it, there is only one kind of thing. Yet if that’s the case, all of philosophy seems to fall apart, as it loses its critical vocation and is no longer able, in principle, to distinguish between true reality and false reality. All “realities” are placed on equal footing. Yet this generates a self-referential paradox, for a philosophy of immanence claims to have arrived at the “true picture of reality”, holding its position above all of those others that falsely believe they can distinguish true reality from false reality. The question becomes one of how to navigate this paradox and maintain concepts such as superstition, ideology, error, and falsehood within an ontology of immanence without falling back into ontologies of transcendence.