October 2009

POLITICS, RELIGION, AND VIOLENCE: A Seminar with Simon Critchley
Tilburg Summer Philosophy School | July 15-24, 2010

Tilburg Summer Philosophy School | The Netherlands

A Seminar with Simon Critchley | July 15-24, 2010

The return to religion has become perhaps the dominant cliché of contemporary theory. Of course, theory often offers nothing more than an exaggerated echo of what is happening in reality, a political reality dominated by the fact of religious war. Somehow we seem to have passed from a secular age, which we were ceaselessly told was
post-metaphysical, to a new situation where political action seems to flow directly from metaphysical conflict. This situation can be triangulated around the often-fatal entanglement of politics and religion, where the third vertex of the triangle is violence. Politics, religion and violence appear to define the present through
which we are all too precipitously moving, where religiously justified violence is the means to a political end.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Must one either defend a version of secularism or quietly accept the slide into some form of theism? The First Tilburg Philosophy Summer School invites responses to this dilemma, which is arguably the defining political issue of our time. This is especially the case in The Netherlands, known for its particular tradition of tolerance, which currently finds itself in a situation of political and societal conflict defined along the axes of politics, religion and violence.

For further information and applications info please visit:

Why is it that all the interesting and fun things happen when I’m drowning in grading? In response to Nina’s recent post raising questions about the recent realist turn and focus on ontology in continental thought there have been a flurry of responses. Nick was quick to throw in his two cents with three posts on the relationship between politics and ontology over at Speculative Heresy (here, here, and here), arguing that ontology is completely independent of politics such that it is precisely for this reason that ontology forces us to do politics. Over at Planomenology, Reid chimes in, arguing against Nick’s thesis, attempting to show how politics and ontology cannot be separated. Over at Naught Thought, Ben analyzes the political uses and misuses of references to the natural and the unnatural. Meanwhile, on her facebook page, Nina writes with some amusement that,

…at just how many responses a cryptic, no-names-involved paragraph can generate. But now feels she has to respond to everyone. This could take some time.

To which I respond writing that,

I didn’t take it personally or see it as an attack. I do, however, wonder if you aren’t running together object-oriented versions of SR with Brassier’s eliminative materialist versions of SR. As far as my own positions go, I’m pretty much on board with some synthesis of Marx, Sartre, and Badiou where politics is concerned. My gripe with much … Read MoreContinental political theory is that it’s far too focused on the discursive and semiotic as the sole site of the political (Zizek’s critiques of ideology, for example), ignoring the economic, technological, and material. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in objects.

I have to get back to grading, but I wanted to make a couple of points about Nick’s line of argument, separating the political from the ontological. In his first post responding to Nina Nick writes:

I have to admit that I’m always surprised at how many people disagree with my claim that reality exists independently of politics. It seems like such an obvious statement to me. Which is not to say that they can’t be related in particular cases, but that the study of ontology can be done without a regard for politics, and vice versa. And so I want to respond to what I see as the main line of refutation that people have put to me. I put this forth honestly, and would be quite happy to have someone show me the flaws in my thinking.

As I posted on Twitter a while ago, for me the argument is extremely simple:

1. a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans
2. politics is a human-centered realm
3. therefore, a realist ontology needs to be separate from politics

Since (1) is true by definition, and (3) is the conclusion from the premises, the problem arises with premise (2). And, indeed, it is my contention in this post that those who deny politics and ontology are separate, deny it because of a ‘neutered’ definition of politics.

Here I find that my position is much closer to Reid’s over at Planomenology than to Nick’s. Where Reid argues that ontology can’t be evacuated of politics, Nick sees a sharp division between the political and the ontological. While I do not agree with Reid’s thesis, presented in comments over at Speculative Heresy, that everything is political, I also find it difficult to understand how politics can be outside of being. In other words, I think that Nick’s position is implausible on simple mereological grounds.

read on!

This seemed apropos given recent discussions surrounding ontology:

And because I can’t resist with Halloween on the way, one of the all time best, darkest, songs:

I’ll never forget the first time I heard it.

Seventy more essays to grade and a mind that has been reduced to mush as a result of reading student writing. At least I’m finally making some progress in the face of the pile of grading that’s been haunting me for the last couple of weeks.

As I reflect on a number of debates surrounding Speculative Realism and, in particular, its object-oriented variant, it seems to me that a few distinctions haunt all of these discussions, rendering them very difficult. A couple weeks ago, in the middle of me venting frustration at the tendency for any evocation of realism to be understood in terms of representational and epistemological realism, Melanie– who always sees what I need to see but am not yet ready to see –asked if this is a battle that I really want to fight again and again, a point that I endlessly want to reiterate with each new audience I encounter. She has a point. And as Graham suggested a while back– I can’t find the original post now –perhaps the term “realism” has outworn its usefulness. Given the historical resonances this term has, the question arises as to whether this term doesn’t obscure more than it illuminates. The problem is that I’m not really sure what to replace it with.

read on!

Over at Deontologistics Pete has written a massive post outlining his position on normative theory and deontological moral theory and responding to some of what he takes to be my position on these issues. Given the length of the post and the fact that I am currently drowning in grading, it is unlikely that I will be able to address it for some time. In our last discussion Pete criticized me for not addressing all of his posts. With posts this lengthy, however, it is difficult to respond completely in a reasonable fashion. Perhaps it would be better to divide such posts into series so specific points can be more readily responded to. This aside, I will make a couple of points.

First, in glancing over Pete’s posts and reflecting on other comments Pete’s made, I get these sense that we’re using the term “deontology” differently. Pete seems to use the term generically to refer to any discourse having to do with norms. I get the sense that this is what allows Pete to characterize my rejections of deontological norm based systems as a rejection of norms tout court. I, however, use the term “deontology” in a highly specific fashion. In my view– and hopefully I’ll be forgiven for putting it crudely as I’m currently on the fly –a deontological ethical system is any ethical system that 1) carefully distinguishes between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, 2) holds that norms must be a priori and universally binding for all times and places, and 3) holds that we must ignore any considerations pertaining to the pathological or being when engaging in normative deliberation. By the “pathological”, I am not referring to mental illness, but to the Greek sense of “pathos“, or anything pertaining to bodily passions, inclinations, preferences, or affects. For example, from a deontological perspective I take it that considerations of whether or not someone is your brother are irrelevant to questions of whether or not this person should be reported to the police for committing a crime. Any affection or family bonds (pathological considerations) I might have towards my brother are, from a deontological perspective, irrelevant to the course of action that ought to be taken in this situation. Nor am I necessarily in disagreement here. I only give this example to illustrate the idea of pathological motivations.

read on!

Over at the always interesting and entertaining Philosophy in a Time of Error (which reminds me, I owe him an email! the answer is “yes!” Peter) I came across this interesting link regarding politics and testosterone. As the article remarks,

As polls closed on election night, researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan had 183 men and women chew gum and spit into test tubes and analyzed their hormones.

A few hours later, as Barack Obama supporters began celebrating, they tested hormone levels again, and then later, at two more intervals.

Men who voted for Obama maintained stable testosterone levels, while men who voted for McCain saw those levels drop more than 25 percent.

I watched a documentary related to this last year or the year before. Truly fascinating stuff with disturbing implications. Similar tests were conducted with men engaged in competitive sports with one another. Over the course of the game testosterone continues to rise. When the game is over the testosterone of the losing team falls precipitously, while the testosterone of the winning team remains constant. Presumably all of this has to do with our biological history. Given that competitive activity is basically a form of inter-tribal warfare over who gets to mate it makes sense that testosterone would decline if you lose. Since testosterone is related to both sexual desire and aggressivity, the decline of testosterone after losing would function somewhat like a thermostat, allowing the members of the losing team to withdraw from battle so that they might live to spread their seed another day.

I wonder whether somewhere, deep in the bonobo monkey or reptile portion of the male brain there isn’t some tacit awareness (biological or thinly conscious) of these stakes, i.e., that losing means losing testosterone and therefore reproductive opportunity. When I think of some of the truly idiotic blog and email fights I’ve gotten in here I’m completely baffled as to why, in certain instances, I continue the debate despite the fact that it’s clear that it’s not going anywhere and, additionally, it’s over something completely trivial, unimportant, and of no significance. Perhaps my hooting and howling bonobo brain region is telling me that if I lose the argument then I lose my testosterone and then I lose reproductive opportunities. This is, of course, absurd as clearly being a philosopher ruins all your mating opportunities anyway! I wonder, however, how big a role these sorts of things play in stupid investment behaviors among stock brokers, gambling addiction, international affairs, military policy, road rage, etc., etc., etc..

Returning to the theme of transcendental arguments once again, why is it that these arguments have taken the form of a transcendental idealism rather than a transcendental realism. Recall the basic form of transcendental arguments as nicely articulated in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Transcendental arguments…

…characteristically center on a claim that, for some extra-mental proposition P, the indisputable truth of some general proposition Q about our mental life requires that P.

Thus, for example, we indisputably make causal judgments (proposition Q). Judgments of necessity or causal judgments cannot be derived from sensation. Therefore, there must be a category of causation in our mind that functions as the condition for the possibility of making these judgments. I develop this line of argument in more detail here.

Now, the question I am asking is why mental life, consciousness, mind, language, society, or communication is being granted a special privilege in these arguments? I suspect that the answer lies in some thesis about the immanence of mind to itself. In other words, we locate these transcendental conditions in mind (or language, or communication, or perception, or the social) because we implicitly hold that we have direct access to these domains whereas we do not have direct access to objects transcendent to us.

However, if the last 300 years of philosophy have shown us anything, it has shown us that we do not have any direct or immanent or immediate access to our own minds. As Lacan liked to say, following Freud, the subject is split. This is true even in Kant, as can be seen in both the paralogisms and the the deduction where Kant distinguishes between the subject as phenomena to itself, the transcendental unity of apperception, and the subject in-itself. Similarly, phenomenology increasingly discovered just how elusive givenness is in intuition, or how there is no immediacy in consciousness.

Yet if we follow through the implications of these points, then it would seem that there’s no reason to privilege mind (or some variant thereof) in our transcendental arguments. In other words, all things being equal, why is it less plausible to argue for a transcendental realism? Rather than inferring a category of causality in the mind when noting the indisputable fact that we make causal judgments. Why not instead point to the indisputable fact that things change and therefore this change must have a cause? Inquiring minds want to know.

AAAADEskSs8AAAAAAE6XqwOver at the blog err…whateverz. snugglebus I has posted a couple of nice posts on Speculative Realism. Before getting to the actual content of the posts, I’d first like to note that I love it that here in the blogosphere making interesting and thoughtful remarks with names like “snugglebus”. Moving on to the content, snugglebug defends speculative realism against some criticisms by Giuseppe in his second post. As snugglebus writes:

Responding in the comments however, Giuseppe thinks I kind missed the point entirely. As he put it:

what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)?… I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientists when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels.

Ok – I’ll take the bait! I’m not an SR scholar, just an interested, but uninvested, spectator, so I might not be the most effective spokesperson, but this will help me start to work out my own thoughts on a group of thinkers who I have been following for a while now.

I think there is a lot more to the success of SR than a reactionary response to the fact that ‘physical’ science is saying ever more concrete things about areas that were once the preserve of social scientists. Just anecdotally SR people (see for example Larval subjects here) seem to be intensely interested in hard science and thinking its consequences (though SR is concerned above all with metaphysics, not philosophy of science). In fact I think it would be more productive to turn Giuseppe’s view on its head: isn’t it actually crude idealism that expresses the insecurity (in a very different, less modest form than Giuseppe meant) of social science? Doesn’t idealism sometimes seem to shut scientific ‘reality’ away, seeing science somewhere between a naïve enterprise at one end of the spectrum (whereas we know that ‘truth’ is a function of consciousness, power, signs etc.), or just a separate field that is at best interesting, but not our concern as social scientists…?

Obviously I cannot speak for all the speculative realists and, in fact, it is impossible to do so as our positions tend to be radically different. For example, beyond a rejection of the centrality of the human, my own thought shares almost nothing in common with that of Brassier’s. Brassier advocates a sort of eliminative materialism that leans heavily on the hard sciences, whereas I advocate a realism. While there is a robust place for the sciences in my ontology, I do not see the sciences as delivering us to “true reality” whereas all the other disciplines investigate things that are epiphenomenal or mere illusions. In this I follow Bruno Latour in his rejection of the nature/culture distinction, the division of the world into two distinct ontological domains– the domain of nature and the domain of the subject –and instead replace this division with collectives of human and non-human actors. This is quite a difference.

read on!

In astronomy the presence of a planet outside our solar system or a black hole is determined not by direct observation, but rather by discrepancies in the movements of other bodies in the neighborhood or vicinity of the planet or black hold. Thus, for example, we do not infer the existence of a black hold by directly observing it– how could we given that its gravitational pull is so great no light can escape from it –but through the acceleration of stars in the course of their orbit. This acceleration indicates the presence of a powerful gravitational force, thereby allowing us to both infer the existence of a black hole at the center of our galaxy and how massive it is. Similarly, in the case of inferring the existence of exo-planets or planets outside of our solar system, we track the wobbles in the orbits of other stars, allowing us to infer the presence of a planet– usually gas giants like Saturn though recently we’ve discovered earthy or rocky planets –and the size of the planet. In short, we here arrive at the presence of an absence through inference from a presence.

In discussions surrounding object-oriented ontology, I sometimes get the sense that the term “realism” is equated with materialism. Thus, over at the excellent but difficult to navigate blog Nothing to Be Done, I today read the following:

I’m still not convinced that the phrase ‘object-oriented realist’ works. It’s the conflation of realism and objects which causes difficulties, Because I do not believe that realism can be extended into these areas. But still I’m looking forward to watching the argument develop.

When faced with a comment such as this, a comment that simply expresses a worry without providing any sort of “why” or reasoning behind that worry, I’m led to wonder why, precisely one has difficulty seeing how an object ontology can be consistent with a realism. Reflecting on this criticism, along with some criticisms that are sometimes leveled at speculative realism in general, the only conclusion I can come to is that realism is being equated with materialism. And here the materialism being equated with realism is not just any realism, but, I suspect (others can correct me if I’m mistaken), are rather contentious, tendentious, and suspect reading of quantum mechanics. The only conclusion I can come to is that if one somehow sees objects and realism as contradictory, then this is because they have drawn certain conclusions from quantum mechanics based on things such as Bell’s Theorem or quantum entanglement that are interpreted as suggesting that there are no objects.

read on!

I’m feeling pretty demoralized this evening, so the only thing to do is try and distract myself so I don’t have to think about things.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about transcendental arguments and their status. I have written this post a few times already in the past, but like a person working through a trauma who must repeat it endlessly in the form of nightmares or neurotic symptoms, I believe I must go over this ground once again. And if I must repeat, then this is because I am myself a reformed transcendental idealist who must therefore marshal arguments convincing to myself. In many respects, the transcendental argument is Kant’s central contribution to thought, his ultimate secret ninja judo move. Outside of philosophy I get the sense that there’s a lot of confusion as to what a transcendental argument is. I often hear it confused with an appeal to the transcendent. However, in many respects, the transcendent and the transcendental are opposites. When we appeal to, for example, Platonic forms to account for justice or to God to account for moral laws we are making an appeal to the transcendent or that which is beyond and independent of both the world and the subject or mind. Take the standard Platonic argument for the existence of the forms (and here I’m presenting a vulgar, cereal box version of Plato).

The argument runs something like this: When faced with all the the things to which justice pertains, we note that they are very different and share no resemblance to one another. For example, in what way do serving one’s function within the polis and getting a coke out of a coke machine when you put a dollar in the machine resemble one another. Both of these events are instances of justice, yet when we examine the properties or qualities of these events, we find no quality shared by the two. Similarly, when we enter into debates and discussions about justice, we seem to all approach justice in different ways. However, apart from the crassest Protagorean relativist, we all nonetheless agree that while we might not know what it is, there is a truth of the matter or fact of the matter concerning justice. In short, justice is not simply a subjective sentiment or opinion, but something real that exists in its own right. But what is this real thing that exists in its own right? Plato’s proposal is that the just is a form, a universal, that exists in its own right, independent of all instances of the just and all opinions about the just. The form of the just is ideal, but its ideality is not a subjective ideality. Indeed, as Derrida likes to point out, the ideal is the most objective of all. It is neither an object in the world (a material object), nor an idea in the mind (a subjective entity), but an ideal entity that is entirely real, eternal, universal, and so on. For Plato, even if all humans ceased to exist, even if there were no individual objects in the world, the form of the just would continue to exist for all eternity. The forms are thus transcendent to subjects and objects. They are the most real things of all.

read on because having arguments for abstruse and abstract issues is concretely important!

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