When Speculative Realism appeared it quickly generated a firestorm of controversy. There was something about defending realism and critiquing correlationism that generated excitement in some and anger in others. To this day, I’m still not sure why these things generated so much heat and enthusiasm. It was as if the word “realism” violated some taboo, and like the violation of all taboos, some exalted in the violation while others seemed to feel that something sacred had been violated.
However, as I reflect, I wonder if the critique of correlationism might have a rather different message than that of realism? I wonder if the lesson of correlationism might not be the possibility of a renewed perspectivism. Sadly, at least in popular culture, perspectivism (let’s call it “vulgar perspectivism”) has become a worn concept that does more to support a certain reactionary ideology than to challenge it. Where perspectivism ought to be an encounter with otherness or difference, the lesson of perspectivism in popular culture seems to be something like the thesis that “everything has their own perspective and everyone is entitled to their own perspective, therefore I shouldn’t have to attend to the perspectives of others.” No, that’s quite not right. The vulgar perspectivist argues something like the following: “Because everything is a matter of perspective, I can only have my own perspectives on others. Therefore I can never really encounter others but am only ever really encountering myself. Therefore I shouldn’t even bother trying.”
The vulgar perspectivist is a sort of hyper-correlationist. Since everything, for them, is a matter of perspective and since each of us is forever trapped in our perspective, there shouldn’t even be an attempt to understand others. In this connection, the critique of correlationism would not so much bring about an encounter with a perspectiveless real, as open the possibility of an encounter with alterity. A lot of ink has been spilled talking about the anthropocentrism of correlationist thought. When the correlationist asserts the impossibility of ever thinking world and thought apart from one another, he isn’t simply talking about any thought, but rather the thought of a particular species: humans. Just consider, for example, phenomenology. Heidegger’s abbreviated analyses of animal umwelts aside, phenomenology subordinates all other beings to human thought. Nor is it just a species subordination that takes place, but a conception of normal human thinking that is being assumed (here Canguillhem as well as early Foucault are deeply relevant to the critique of correlationism; as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on animal worlds, the worlds of people with different psychiatric “disorders”, the worlds of different artists and sexes and…”).
Correlationism isn’t just the thesis that we can never think being and thought apart, but is also a species specific conception of the world that makes deep assumptions about what a normal human being is. Now generally when this is pointed out, one of two objections are made: Often one denounces the critic of correlationism as somehow hating human beings. This is a rather peculiar charge. Pointing out that a position is incomplete or overlooks something doesn’t amount to hating human beings. Such a criticism also assumes a unicity to the term “human” that there is good reason to doubt. On the other hand, one concedes the importance of trying to think such alterity, while also arguing that it is impossible to think alterity because it is always us thinking the different and thereby reducing it to the same. This is always the core argument of correlationism: even as you’re trying to think that which is other than thought, you are still the one thinking it and therefore you can only think thought and never that which is other than thought.
However, we really should question this argument. In interpersonal relations there is a profound difference between the solipsistic narcissist that only ever hears their own meanings in the words of others and a person that marginally begins to understand the world of another person. We readily seem to grant that it is possible to understand something of another person’s world, to grasp them in their difference, and that there is a difference between only ever hearing yourself in another and in hearing another. To be sure, we never fully grasp another person, but isn’t there a difference between the man who only ever interprets women in masculine terms, in terms of his own experience, and the man that has some glimmer of understanding of what it’s like to be a woman in this particular world, and vice versa? If we grant this, then why is it such a leap to suppose that we might be capable of understanding something– not everything –of the world of other beings? Isn’t there a difference between thinking of cats in terms of what would motivate us if we were a cat and attempting to think about what might motivate a cat qua cat?
One way of understanding the critique of correlationism then might be as a pluralization of correlation and as a radical perspectivism. What we would get here is something like a non-reductive realism of perspectives. This would entail a posthuman phenomenology that both challenges the unicity of the term “human”, recognizing a variety of different phenomenological structures for different human beings, but also an exploration of the worlds of other species. It would be a world without Model, but that recognized an infinite variety of models in the plural. More to come.