THE MOTH WARS: Naturalism is not Scientism

Levi Bryant has now seen fit to give a lesson in logic to those who would critique his recent posts on naturalism. Emboldened by this fidelity to argumentation, I would like to recall his original pronouncements and then compare it with his later declarations.

Bryant’s vision of Continental philosophy’s anti-naturalism is seemingly quite clear:

« The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution: subject or lived experience as the ground of being (phenomenology), spirit as ground of being (Hegel), economics as ground of being (Marx), signifier as ground of being (structuralism and post-structuralism), power as a ground of being (Foucault), history as a ground of being (Gadamer), text as a ground of being, ect. We even get romantic visions of nature evoking the will to power and élan vital ».

However in later comments Bryant manages to find a few naturalist thinkers: Lacan (of course!), Michel Serres, Deleuze and Guattari, even Bergson are included, but he steadfastly excludes the bulk of the Continental tradition: « the intellectual ecology of Continental thought has been dominated by phenomenology, deconstruction, and social constructivisms ». This may be true, although Bryant gives no evidence. However, all these philosophies are mostly naturalist. They refuse to posit any transcendent cause outside the world, they thus see human beings and cultural productions as natural phenomena that can be studied with the appropriate methods. They do think that all our concepts, including that of « Nature » are to be examined and possibly re-worked, but that doesn’t make them « anti-naturalist » – it’s what makes them philosophies. They are also suspicious of the pretentions of science to possess the sole valid method for examining and explaining all things in the world. Please let us have no facile word-games: bracketing the « natural » attitude has nothing to do with anti-naturalism, but everything to do with being wary of dogmatic postulations of objectivity.

Levi Bryant would have us set aside a century’s worth of critical examination of science and scientism in the name of a definitory conflation of naturalism and a scientific worldview (which I have argued does not exist as a unified perspective). So I think Bryant’s post is not a brave blow in favour of naturalism in an ecology hostile to it, but a tardy and wrong-headed contribution to the Science Wars.

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