AGAINST METAPHYSICAL NATURALISM: On Levi Bryant’s Naturalist Conversion

1) Bruno Latour against Levi Bryant’s synchronic materialism

In his new book ENQUÊTE SUR LES MODES D’EXISTENCE, Bruno Latour talks about the “institution” of matter, a horrible simplification of the diverse materials put into play in our practices. This leads him to say: “There is no matter at all”. That is to say that materialism is a metaphysical principle, a lowest common denominator, to unify and homogenise the heterogeneous materials deployed by different networks of knowledge and existence. There is no matter in this metaphysical sense because there is no unity of science, and I would emphasise no unity of common sense either. Latour summons us to just start measuring things around us and try to sketch out and colour a drawing of them. He claims that we will soon recognise that we do not live in a unified homogeneous Euclidian space filled with lumps of matter. Any materialism or naturalism would have to be totally empty of content amounting to just a meaningless ritual formula, or it would have to be judged on its consequences for our knowledge both present and future.
As to the historical question of the so-called idealism of continental philosophy, I think that Levi Bryant gives a very misleading picture. Althusser, Rancière, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault (despite the silly equivocation of Bryant on the notion of “power” as being somehow “anthropocentric”), Michel Serres, Bernard Stiegler are all materialists – though in order to avoid the aporia indicated above I have argued that their ontology is diachronic. Bryant however is proposing yet another synchronic ontology and is apparently incapable of doing justice to such diachronic materialism.

2) Metaphysical Naturalism is Reductionism

Levi Bryant has condemned the whole of Continental Philosophy “with few exceptions” for its anti-naturalist bent, criticising it for not “choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being”. Astonishingly, he makes clear that one of the exceptions is Jacques Lacan. Discussing how a naturalistic theory of memes can account for motivations beyond that of mere biological survival and reproduction, Bryant affirms: “I think Lacan’s theory of desire nicely outlines these sorts of motivation”. So Foucault is idealist in Bryant’s book, but Lacan is a naturalist!

Already Bryant has given up the critique of correlationism, preferring to critique anthropocentrism, which somehow gets to be a synonym for idealist. He then proceeds to give this new bogus concept such an all-encompassing extension that it can include almost all continental philosophy. The corollary is that he can declare anybody he chooses (including Lacan) to be non-anthropocentric and so naturalist. It’s very strange as I was just watching on French TV (Arte) Raphael Enthoven who was speaking with a high school student and quoting Sartre to demonstrate that the basic task of philosophy was to think the world prior to (logically prior to: “en amont de”) man. He (and the young woman he was talking to) seemed utterly unaware that Sartre is totally anthropocentric and idealist, as is virtually all Continental Philosophy. Bryant should come to France and set these people right on their own ideas and intellectual history.

3) Concept-Blindness and Affective Naturalism

Bryant’s “naturalism” is an empty abstraction that is conceptually dependent on his affective choices. Freud and Lacan are naturalists whereas Marx and Foucault are not. No analysis is given and confrontation with rival views is steadfastly avoided. Instead we have a Farenheit 451 fantasy of demarcation and exclusion. Naturalism expresses the synthesis of Darwin and Lacan (or of genes and memes, as if that were the same thing), and is thus declared to be “non-reductionist”. In a first post Bryant gives a metaphysically reductionist Darwinian diatribe and in a sequel he just arbitrarily grafts on something else he likes, a Lacanian memetics, and calls this incoherent hodgepodge an “open-ended project”, ie a pious wish for a future theory: “we need to account for how, within a naturalist framework, it is possible for people like Kant to live their lives as bachelors, devoting themselves to their philosophical work”. This naturalism “entails that we transform our understanding of nature” to account for culture, so Lacan is in. The coral reef example is just embarrasing in its incoherence. This is concept-blindness in a big way!

4) Against Levi Bryant’s « naturalist hypothesis »

Levi Bryant’s “naturalist hypothesis” is neither naturalist (it includes Lacan but not Marx), nor a hypothesis (it is asserted dogmatically as a condition of dialogue:”The truth of the matter, however– and I won’t even bother to make arguments here – is that naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today”). Nature is asserted by Bryant to be nothing less than “the ground of being” and all other orientations deserve to be “committed to flames”.

I have nothing against naturalism as such. What I do object to is a vast and empty “naturalist hypothesis” on the analogy with Badiou’s “communist hypothesis”, which can assemble and include in its framework whatever one may wish to approve of and with equal plausibility exclude whatever one wishes to reject. The inclusion into the metaphysical naturalist framework comes at the price of an evacuation of conceptual content and the principle of demarcation becomes one of affective adhesion. Freud abandoned naturalist explanation when he took over the concept of the unconscious.(NB: This is not the case with Nietzsche’s use of the unconscious, which remains naturalist). We witness incoherent amalgams such as “Lacanian memetics”, and a travesty not just of the history of philosophy (remember most recent Continental Philosophy is anti-naturalist for Bryant, except for Lacan), but also of the history of science and mathematics. Cantor is an excellent example. Even if one can give a naturalist account of transfinite arithmetic, and I am certainly in favour of such an account, Cantor’s motivations and inspiring force were theological. And this sort of theological motivation is no isolated case in the history of science.

5) Levi Bryant’s Anxiety of Influence

skholiast has published a nuanced rejoinder to Levi Bryant’s post on naturalism I agree with his rhetorical analysis as far as it goes, and that Bryant sets up a double-bind which makes the discussion unwinnable for the non-naturalist who enters into its terms. This is the sort of “heads I win tails you lose” situation that Deleuze analysed as typical of intellectual discussion (in tne first part of DIALOGUES)and that he called the logic of the forced choice. But I think that there is a second double-bind and a second forced choice that I find more worrisome. That is the implication that if you are against anti-naturalism you must be in favour of naturalism as he, Levi Bryant, presents it. Now Bryant uses Heidegggerian, and implicitly Tillichian, language to define naturalism: the naturalist is defined as “choosing nature…as the ground of being”. This is theological language indeed, in the adulterated sense in which one uses theological as a shorthand for ontotheological. The only alternative he considers is the “obscurantist gesture” of those who recoil from this “naturalist revolution” (and I think that where he says “revolution” Bryant means conversion). The list of obscurantists he cites (Hegel, Marx, Merleau-Ponty, structuralism and post-structuralism, Foucault, Gadamer are all naturalists (or at least compatible with naturalism)! Even Hegel can be given a naturalistic interpretation. The difference with Bryant’s block naturalism is that they think that nature is itself a concept that needs to be analysed and not just waved around as a flag. Bryant’s coup de force is to trick the anti-anti-naturalists into swallowing as a block his naturalism and into seeing rival naturalists as anti-naturalists. This is the anxiety of influence with a vengeance.

6) In Sum

My problem with Levi Bryant’s post can be summarised as follows
1) it is virtually contentless: David Roden’s rendering here is giving him the benefit of the doubt by spelling out a contentful position that you attribute to him but in fact belongs to you
2) it is even so spelled out very much a promise rather than a present accomplishment and rests on a horizon of the unity of science (the unity of at least physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy – but he needs psychology and sociology as well – hence the empty call for a Lacanian memetics). This unity does not exist as there exist incommensurable paradigms between each of these disciplines and inside each one: even “physics” is not a unified corpus.
3) this unity even supposing that it is conceivable is typically thought to be achievable by some sort of reductionism (usually physicalist). Bryant has repeatedly denounced reductionism but propounds a reductionist metaphysical research programme.
4) it is just not true that recent post-structuralist philosophy is anti-naturalist. On my reading Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, Stiegler, Serres and even Derrida are favourable to naturalism. Merleau-Ponty’s anti-naturalism is in fact an anti-redductive scientism. According to Deleuze, Bergson is a naturalist to be grouped with Lucretius and Nietzsche. The critique of scientism is a critique of reductionism, not a recourse to entities and causes “outside the world”.
5) Bryant’s vision of the history of science is false. Theological motives have propelled researchers and still do. Even today a very secularised and immanentised religiosity concerning seeing the thoughts in the mind of God inspires physicists who are in any ordinary sense atheists (Einstein, Hawking). Bryant’s disinfected (ie: commensurabilised) naturalism has trouble accomodating such elements, thus his desperate bluff of appealing to a revamped Lacanian unconscious whenever he is in a tight spot (ie in danger of falling into physicalistic reductionism).
NB: a useful rule of thumb with Bryant is that whenever he refers to Freud or Lacan he is pulling a fast one, there is no intellectual content there any more and he knows it himself. His recent retraction demonstrates this: « My remark about narcissistic wounds was really a throw-away comment ». Now Deleuze and Guattari and Bergson are included in the « few exceptions » in Continental Philosophy who are not anti-naturalist, but Levi bravely draws the line at Hegel (though of course Lacan can be interpreted to be compatible with naturalism).

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6 commentaires pour AGAINST METAPHYSICAL NATURALISM: On Levi Bryant’s Naturalist Conversion

  1. great as usual. very thorough and well-supported. i don’t know why Levi keeps following up on these same failed efforts. but some people, at least, keep listening. sigh.

    on a very minor point, Kant’s bachelorhood, which Levi seems to take as some kind of philosophical asceticism or disembodied purity, I wonder if we today might give a different name. Consider, for example, this passage from De Quincey’s « Last Days of Immanuel Kant, » curiously passed over in silence by most writers on Kant:

    his parties presented as much variety as the world of Koenigsberg afforded, being drawn from all the modes of life, men in office, professors, physicians, clergymen, and enlightened merchants. His second rule was, to have a due balance of _young_ men, frequently of _very_ young men, selected from the students of the university, in order to impress a movement of gaiety and juvenile playfulness on the conversation; an additional motive for which, as I have reason to believe, was, that in this way he withdrew his mind from the sadness which sometimes overshadowed it, for the early deaths of some young friends whom he loved.


  2. johneffay dit :

    Too late – He’s changed his mind now. It turns out that you were guilty of taking his remarks at face value. Obviously when he said certain things should be committed to the flames, he wasn’t referencing Hume at all. I can’t believe you didn’t spot that…

    To be honest, I think his real problem is that he thinks that continental philosophy as practised in the USA is the dominant paradigm. Hence this grudging admission that not all continental philosophy might be like that, but all the stuff that matters is.


  3. terenceblake dit :

    Yes he plays out the ambiguity of whether he is talking about Continental Philosophy as it is produced on the Continent, or as practiced in the USA. As he has given up on the term « correlationism » h(a wise choice as it designates a bogus concept of minimum intension but maximum, and arbitrary, extension) he has trouble finding a new negatively valued critical term. He has toyed with « anthropocentric » but that is of dubious use, and not very philosophical. Now he has fallen back on « anti-naturalist », as if this term can inherit the aura and extension of the first term. But he will have problems demonstrating how, for example, « social constructivism » (I suppose one can think of the strong programme of the sociology of knowledge here) is anti-naturalist when its whole point is naturalist.


  4. Ping : Continental Naturalism and the Deconstruction of Scientism | AGENT SWARM



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