It is not unusual for people to respond to claims I make such as the thesis that Continental thought has tended to systematically ignore naturalistic and materialist orientations with rebuttals to the effect that “thinker x is a naturalist and materialist and works in the Continental tradition!” In other words, the idea seems to be that a few counter-examples are sufficient to rebut claims about what is dominant in a population. This is a very curious thing for people to say coming from a philosophical tradition that’s been so significantly influenced by Foucault’s account of power and Althusser’s theory of ideology. Both of these thinkers, in their own ways, teach us that power and ideology function to systematically suppress other orientations of thought on behalf of dominate structures of power and ideology. It’s as if these theories are to be applied to every discipline and set of cultural practices except ones own favored terrain.
To even begin discussing these issues, I believe one has to start within an ecological framework that things in terms of populations. An ecological orientation focuses not in discrete, individual entities, but rather looks at the existence of these entities in a network of relations to other entities defined by interdependencies, feedback loops, and hierarchical relations between what is dominant and subordinate within that ecology. In other words, the fact that something exists is not, within an ecological framework, as important as how that thing is situated in a network of interdependencies to other entities and questions of how much influence that type of entity exercises.
In any ecology and population there will always be outliers and exceptions. In the world of biology, my favorite example is that of the black moth in Manchester prior to the industrial revolution. Black moths and grey moths belonged to the same species in this population, but the former were far less numerous prior to the industrial revolution due to the ecology of Manchester. Why? Because black moths stuck out like a sore thumb on trees, as well as the brick and cement walls of Manchester buildings. In this historical context, it is perfectly acceptable to say that grey moths were the dominant population in Manchester. Black moths were the exception, rather than the rule.
All of this changed with the advent of the industrial revolution. As a result of coal burning to power the steam engines that ran the factories, buildings and trees became covered in soot. Now black moths enjoyed an advantage as they blended in, while grey moths stuck out like sore thumbs. As a consequence, black moth populations increased as they tended to escape their predators long enough to reproduce, whereas grey moths were increasingly picked off. One lesson here is that no ecology is inevitable and no members of a population inevitably enjoy hierarchical privilege. Things can always change.
We can imagine a person triumphantly claiming that it is illegitimate to claim that gray moths were dominant in the population of moths in Manchester prior to the industrial revolution on the grounds that black moths also existed. This rebuttal, however, entirely misses the point that the question is not whether or not black moths exist or whether gray moths are the only type of moth that exists, but rather what is dominant in a population and what currently defines the vector along which that population is developing. Prior to the industrial revolution, that vector of development was found among the grey moths.
Like anything else, the intellectual world is an ecology. It is an ecology of ideas and texts. Within these ecology we have various species such as “Continental theorists” and “Anglo-American theorists”; and within these species we have various orientations or sub-species like black and gray moths. In the world of Continental theory, there are phenomenologists, deconstructivists, social constructivists, new materialist feminists, speculative realists, Marxists, etc., etc., etc. And within each of these sub-species there are sub-species of sub-species. For example, among the phenomenologists, you’ll have those who continue the work of Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Michel Henry, Gilson, and so on. Like any ecology, some of these species will be dominant, enjoying privilege within that ecology, while others will barely appear at all. For example, in the intellectual ecology of the United States, Anglo-American philosophy enjoys prominence, while Continental philosophy is only dimly present. It is there certainly, but it would be absurd and willfully blind to suggest that somehow it is dominant in American academia.
These hierarchical relations are maintained through a variety of mechanisms independent of the content of these various philosophical positions. They are maintained by how departments are structured, by how hiring is done, by what dissertations faculty agree to supervise, by the classes that are taught, by how conferences are organized, by how editorial boards select papers and books to be published, by the availability of various books and journals, by how dissertation directors demand their students organize and write their dissertations, etc. Nor is there some conspiracy here. To be sure, departments make conscious decisions as to what faculty they hire, what curriculum they offer, and what graduate students they admit into their programs, but the process of education itself is a form of subjectivization that aims to reproduce a particular intellectual ecology (i.e., researchers that continue to contribute to a particular research paradigm, i.e., “species”) and there are millions of tiny decisions that no one really thinks of that function to exclude other “species” and reinforce particular ecological relations. Nor is this necessarily a bad thing as those “species” that are reproduced generally have a strong track record of producing excellent research, and many alternative “species” (outsider orientations) are those of cranks.
The situation is the same in Continental thought. To be sure, there are exceptions to the thesis that Continental thought has been dominated by anti-materialist and anti-naturalist orientations. There are thinkers such as Serres, Monad, Thom, etc. There are thinkers such as Donna Haraway who very early on showed great sympathy for naturalism and materialism. However, this does not change the fact that the intellectual ecology of Continental thought has been dominated by phenomenology, deconstruction, and social constructivisms, and that these orientations have, at both the level of intellectual content and organized institutional structures, exercised power in such a way as to render it difficult for materialist and naturalist orientations to have much of a presence. At the level of intellectual content, for example, the phenomenological rejection of the natural attitude coupled with Heidegger’s critique of “enframing”, have made discussion of natural phenomena and science rather anathema (Merleau-Ponty is a notable exception here). Similarly, deconstruction and social constructivism have led us to focus more on text than the natural and the biological world. At the institutional level, graduate programs, curricula, journals, conferences, and publishers have tended to privilege anti-naturalist and anti-materialist orientations, rendering it difficult to discuss these things at all.
None of this, however, is inevitable. Ecologies always exercise an inertia that renders alternatives difficult to form, but things can change. With the rise of the new materialist feminisms, the Deleuze and Guattari renaissance we’re witnessing, growing interest in biology, complexity theory, and chaos theory such as we see from thinkers like Massumi, Protevi, and DeLanda, and the rise of speculative realism, I think we’re already seeing significant changes. Part of this, I think, has to do with changes in the problems we face today. It’s not surprise that with the rise in information technologies, so much interest in semiotics and language arose in the latter half of the last century. Today, we face problems such as climate change that have led to greater interest in materiality and the sciences. Just as the environment of moths changed in Manchester allowing black moths to come into prominence, the environment of thought has today changed calling for new theorizations and generating new questions.
Some people took my remark that we should commit x to flames if it rejects naturalism and materialism as me suggesting that we should simply ignore and forget the entire Continental tradition. I can see how someone might think this if they take that remark at face value and ignore all the other things I’ve written, but given how much ink I’ve spilled discussing Husserl, Heidegger, Hegel, Badiou, Zizek, Lacan, Derrida, Kant, and a host of others, this strikes me as a perverse interpretation of what I said. Just as evolution always builds on prior bodily structures, we never escape the history that preceded us. My claim is not that we should reject or forget this tradition– though I do think we should focus less on commentary and figures and more on problems and questions –but that we should rework what’s worth preserving in that tradition along naturalist and materialist lines. It is untenable to follow Husserl in his rejection of the natural attitude and claim with him that “nature cannot be a condition of the cogito, because the cogito is the condition of nature” (as he claims in Ideas). This doesn’t entail that Husserl and other phenomenologists haven’t somehow taught us a great deal about cognition, the body, and affectivity. Similarly, David Roden shows us how Derrida has a great deal to contribute to our understanding of neurology and mind. While I don’t think that one can credibly endorse Hegel’s project of absolute knowledge or system tout court, that doesn’t entail that Hegel somehow doesn’t teach us a great deal about the world, ourselves, and the social world.
Every shift in an intellectual ecology requires revisions of what came before, sublations of what came before, and also abandonment of certain features of what came before. Thus, for example, we can’t (or I can’t) accept Kant in his own terms because our biological being is completely off the radar in his thought, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t provide us with a valuable working model of mind that can’t be reworked in suitably biological and neurological terms. The question is one of how we relate to the tradition or thought that has come before. Do we stick our heads in the sand, continuing to draw on that tradition as if modern physics, chemistry, biology, neurology, mathematics, and contemporary social transformations wrought by technology haven’t occurred and make no demands on us to rethink the being or being, or do we relate to that tradition in terms of these transformations and seek to determine how we might creatively rethink that tradition in light of these transformations?