I offer the following series of posts as a broad spectrum opportunity for debate and collaboration amongst the online theory community. To begin such an endeavor, I suggest five current problems which continue to resist sufficient articulation within speculative philosophy today. They are: 1) Metaphysics and Politics, 2) Eliminativism and Panpsychism (“E/P”), 3) Philosophy of Religion, 4) Life “in-itself,” and 5) Philosophy of Science. In one form or another, each of these five has both a history in speculative thought, as well as a contemporary, or emerging, debate.
Our aim herein, then, will be to further explore these five questions as they travel through, transform, and are transformed by, various ecologies of thought that, in their divergent ways, carry new lineages of speculative philosophy into the 21st century. I have chosen the more general term “speculative philosophy” to describe this overview since this allows us to consider the differences and similarities between several different modes of speculative thought, without the risk of unduly collapsing one school into the other. Such a speculative genealogy comes into contact with many recent advances in philosophical thinking that run under the various monikers of “speculative realism,” “speculative materialism,” “object-oriented ontology,” “process philosophy,” and “actor-network theory.”
Each of these species of speculation are, as I see it, encountering, and attempting to become adequate to, the five questions listed above. There will no doubt be variation (surely incommensurably so), between styles of speculative philosophy, and perhaps even within each individual school. These differences, in my mind, need to be further detailed and brought into deeper discussion.
I do not pretend to offer any complete renderings from within each of these schools. Rather, my aim is draw out these five questions and offer some preliminary commentaries on each to provoke debate, further discussion, and, hopefully, refinement. I begin by offering a brief sketch of (some) of the important contributions that have already been made to each of these questions, followed by a more detailed analysis of each.
1) The link between metaphysics and politics has been discussed at length by Bruno Latour, who’s many insights are perhaps more well known than other, more recent, debates in speculative philosophy. Central to the discussion of metaphysics and politics are several of Latour’s concepts such as “empirical metaphysics,” “the parliament of things,” and “cosmopolitics.” As we will see, Latour also retains a philosophical commitment to certain strands of pragmatism, which, for Latour, offer an essential guide to the practice of metaphysics. However, others, notably Graham Harman, have pushed Latour on this position, suggesting that pragmatism can only offer a “human centered” metaphysics. Thus, while the metaphysical and the political are theorized in Latour’s philosophy, they need to be pushed further and refined to adequately think the political in concert with the metaphysical.
2) Steven Shaviro and Ray Brassier have already laid significant groundwork in the E/P debates, positioning themselves in near diametrical opposition, with Shaviro stating: “panpsychism is a respectable philosophical position, and not something someone needs to worry about being “accused” of”; contra Brassier, who writes: “The ‘speculative realist movement’ exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy.”
It seems then that these two schools of speculative philosophy are destined for numerous clashes in the future. To my mind, there is a spectrum of “E/P” positions ranging from Shaviro’s embrace of the term, Graham Harman’s open reluctance to it (following perhaps the “quasi” panpsychism of phenomenologist Alphonso Lingis), and Brassier’s outright rejection of the notion. These ideas deserve further debate and articulation. Shaviro is no doubt going to give us much more to consider in this area during his talk at the upcoming OOOIII conference, this question is posed partly in anticipation of his talk.
3) Further, a new speculative philosophy of religion has emerged, primarily in the online community (e.g., an “object-oriented theology” or Leon Niemoczynski’s “Speculative Naturalism“). Despite being nascent, the religious dimension appears to be gaining a momentum that requires further participation from philosophers across the spectrum, particularly as divergent and incommensurable positions begin to emerge from within like-minded camps of philosophers. Assumed atheisms and theisms aside, this wing of the new speculative philosophies remains perhaps the most underdeveloped, but recent debates have proved it be a fiery and emotionally invested topic. In addition, one can’t help but mention the important role process theologians have played in keeping the speculative philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead alive and circulating through much of the 20th century academic scene in North America. Latour has provocative statements to make here as well, as we will see.
4) The concept of life “in-itself” has also come to the fore in recent conferences (e.g., “To Have Done With Life: Vitalism and Anti-Vitalism in Contemporary Philosophy), and in works such as Eugene Thacker’s After Life. The question of life “in-itself” also has important connections, historically, with Whitehead’s ”philosophy of organism,” and for cosmological theory in general. Again, the problems and questions of eliminative materialism and panpsychism emerge, but also related discourses surrounding concepts such as emergence, autopoiesis (particularly Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life), and in political debates surrounding such notions as the “culture of life.” Additionally, speculative philosophy has long been tied to notions of biology (again calling Whitehead to mind), and re-emerges with such notions as Jane Bennett’s “vibrant materialism,” a concept which does fascinating things in terms of our constructions of the cosmos vis-a-vis “distributed agency,” but, again, forces us to reconsider what life “in-itself” could possibly mean.
5) Finally, Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway both deserve mention for the multiple and extensive works they have put forth linking the role of speculative philosophy to practices of science. Haraway, a student of biology who studied under famed ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson, and has been heavily inspired by the speculative works of Whitehead, is perhaps so ubiquitous for her work on the links between speculative philosophy and the sciences that mentioning her name goes without saying. Concepts such as the “cyborg,” “companion species,” and “significant otherness,” all point to her importance in the realm of applying speculative philosophy to scientific practice, particularly as it relates to feminist studies. Likewise, Isabelle Stengers’ notion of an “ecology of practices” accompanied by her series of essays on “cosmopolitics” (where again we find as her accomplice the prodigious Bruno Latour) emerged as part of a tradition of speculative thinking that takes the practice of science of seriously. Where, then, can we take these important reflections on the reality of the sciences in terms of the newest movements in speculative philosophy? Indeed, much work lays ahead.
With this brisk overview in mind, I now approach each question with a finer brush, though still leaving much else that needs to be said. In part 1 of this post, I will engage questions 1 and 2 (metaphysics/politics and eliminativism/panpsychism), while the following three (religion, life, and science) will be covered in subsequent sections, soon forthcoming.
Metaphysics and Politics. To this question we owe much to sociologist Bruno Latour who, in multiple contexts, has forwarded the necessity of a link between the metaphysical and the political. Many of his positions are succinctly offered in the recently published The Prince and the Wolf (cited as “PW” below), which most readers will already know is the transcript of a debate between Latour and Graham Harman. I make heavy use of the text here since it offers such a precise rendering of Latour’s positions. Despite this clarity, the link between metaphysics and politics, for Latour, is not as straightforward as it might seem.
It is true that the he has argued for an ontological description of his notion of the “actant” using such phrases as a “parliament of things” (a notion that is, presumably, echoed by Levi Bryant’s forthcoming The Democracy of Objects). However, that the universe can be described as a kind of “society” does not give us sufficient reason to necessitate the practice of a human democracy, says Latour, who notes that the link between a democracy of actors and practice of politics is perhaps the weakest point of his work The Politics of Nature (PW, p. 97). This is an essential point to understand what is ultimately Latour’s “cosmopolitical” position.
What is a cosmopolititcal position? Well, for Latour, it has do with re-defining our notion of metaphysics such that it accommodates itself to the task at hand (e.g., to follow the actors…). In other words, Latour’s cosmopolitics is a kind of pragmatism: “Because if metaphysics is interesting it is as a method: as travel, as a way of getting at new insights…It is a trajectory, a way of doing things. So, a lot of things I call philosophical are actually about how to go places” (PW, p. 59). On this point, there is certainly room for debate. Graham Harman, in response to Latour, notes that pragmatism, when applied to metaphysics, becomes a kind of “human centered metaphysics” (PW, p. 61) since, one could say, what is “pragmatic” is always a pragmatic-for and never pragmatic-as-such.
In other words, the pragmatic approach to metaphysics can never describe the entities of the universe outside of the way those entities are for some being, and never in-themselves. Nevertheless, the cosmopolitical position remains appealing insofar as it provides a strong injunction against ontotheology, and leaves ontology open to political (re)composition by humans and nonhumans alike. As I read it then, cosmopolitics is both a kind of “pragmatic” or “empirical” metaphysics, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a condition within which metaphysics is thought. That condition is the democratic condition of open-ended negotiation where the final words on “society,” “nature,” “science,” or “religion” are not determined in advanced, but are rather composed anew with each arising present.
Further, for Latour, even the notion of a democracy of entities must itself be openly negotiated, not a priori determined. That the universe forms a society is itself up for discussion from a cosmopolitical position. Cosmopolitics applies even to itself; the cosmopolitical must always be negotiated democratically in a self-reflexive way, not preemptively determined. Thus, for Latour it is the political rather than the philosophical that may offer a model by which we can generate an empirical metaphysics that leaves the composition of the cosmos open-ended on an ontological scale. Latour writes: “So, I wouldn’t say the big questions are cosmological questions but rather cosmopolitical questions” (PW, p. 50).
Eliminativism and Panpsychism. This is a question I raise in anticipation of Steven Shaviro’s upcoming talk at the OOOIII conference, scheduled for September 14th, at the New School in New York. Shaviro has already argued for his panpsychist position on his blog (most notably HERE and HERE), where he makes important distinctions between three philosophies of mind: eliminative, emergent, and panpsychist. I defer to his descriptions by offering the following definitions of each (the quotes are taken from his post “Panpsychism,” found in the second link above):
- Eliminative: “Eliminativism is a reductionist thesis; it argues that qualia, consciousness, intentionality, and phenomenal experience are merely illusions, or linguistic misunderstandings, which disappear once we understand how neurological mechanisms operate on the physical level (one can find different versions of this position in Daniel Dennett, in Thomas Metzinger, and in the Churchlands).”
- Emergent: “Emergentism argues that mentality is the epiphenomenal result of interacting physical processes that have attained a certain level of complexity, as is the case with the massive aggregations of neurons in our brains.”
- Panpyschist: “Panpsychist thinkers propose, against the eliminativists, that mentality is real. Against the emergentists, they propose that mentality doesn’t just come into being out of nothing; it is always already there, no matter where you look. Mind, in some form or other, exists all the way down. Panpsychists argue that mentality, or experience, is itself a basic attribute of matter (of subatomic particles, of quanta of mass-energy, of actual occasions, of minimal differences, etc.).”
I leave the question of panpsychism and eliminativism open, since I do not wish to pre-empt too much of what Shaviro will say on the 14th. Though I think its a fair bet that the above three categories will be in play, as well as debates among the rest of the OOO crowd, all of which I am looking forward to.
For my own tastes the question of panpsychism rests on the following quotation from Alphonso Lingis. In The Imperative he writes: “The tree falling in the depths of the rain-forest night is heard by innumerable animal ears of which our own are an ephemeral variation. The deep-sea coral reefs and the Antarctic icescapes are not visions our own eyes create; they are reliefs on levels of visibility in general” (p. 37) . If you read this passage to be indicative of a panpsychist position, then count me in. If you would classify it otherwise, than I would be interested to hear how you do. (UPDATED: the question about Lingis has been addressed in the comments section, due to my misreading) The answer to this question, I think, will also serve to draw out further how the relationship between OOO and panpsychism currently stands. As I read it, OOO is agnostic-leaning-towards-welcoming when it comes to the panpsychism question.
I’ll be posting on the the remaining three questions in the coming days, feel free to jump ahead and dive into those if you feel such a pull.