Continental Naturalism and the Deconstruction of Scientism

Interesting discussion going on at AUFS blog on scientism and critiques of continental philosophy.

Contrary to the stereotype that continental philosophy is bogged down in commentary on texts whereas natural science (and science-influenced philosophy, it is insinuated) explains the world, there is a whole hermeneutic dimension to science emphasised by such creators as Bohr and Einstein, that requires a familiarity with texts and the sequence of past developments and excluded possibilities to give content to current theories and to allow us the possibility of going beyond them.

The problem is not the proposition “there is no supernatural causation” itself, but its use as a metaphysical principle that unifies all science (there is no unified worldview of “science”) and is supposed to describe the historical practice of science (when we know that many scientists that made important contributions to its development had theological or hermetic worldviews) and so guide both future scientific practice and philosophy too. Levi Bryant’s original post combines all these errors and legitimates his totalitarian impulse behind the chimera of “naturalism-the-worldview-of-science”. (cf. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/fighting-words/

Even a cursory familiarity with Bruno Latour should be enough to dissolve this false image of science and the bogus opposition with continental philosphy. Latour has recently presented himself as the inheritor of Deleuze and Derrida, and so I would say by implication of Foucault and of Bourdieu ie of that whole generation of philosophers convergent on the incommensurability of the different régimes of énunciation (a Lyotardian theme as well) or of the different modes of existence.

I think that Levi Bryant is indulging in word magic, or is being dramatically misled by words (his title “Fighting Words” then takes on a more comic, though also more appropriate meaning, like fighting windmills. My thesis for a while now has been that OOO is concept-blind and in place of concepts and arguments fetishises some words and ritual phrases, and prefers to fight other words rather than fighting concepts). In the case of phenomenology, just because it makes use of what it calls bracketing the “natural” attitude does not mean it is anti-naturalist, au contraire! However it does mean that we are not naive objectivists and want to subject the environing mixture of common-sensism and scientism to critical scrutiny.

Once again we have a furtive shifting between an extended concept of naturalism as the suspending of transcendence: naturalism as immanence (the thesis that “there is nothing outside the world”), and a more restricted notion of naturalism as the extrapolated unifying framework of the sciences. On the extended sense of naturalism, nothing can be ruled out a priori except transcendence and transcendent causation. In this sense a naturalist could accept teleological causes, whether we need to resort to them or not as explanatory hypotheses would be a matter of research, not arbitrary a priori decree. Similarly, Husserl is a philosopher of immanence and the bracketing of the natural attitude brackets out concepts and assumptions that are transcendent to this field, thus widening the domain of investigation and experimentation.

Bryant has given up on the term “correlationism”. This is a wise choice as it designates a bogus concept of minimum intension but maximum, and arbitrary, extension. It also sounds too continental. So now 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, and the intuitive facility of the second. 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.

So I think Bryant falls foul of the Laruellian critique that he posits naturalism twice: the extended but weak sense of immanence, and then some hodgepodge that he can never decide on, containing whatever specific hypotheses he needs at the moment of proclamation to specify his naturalism. The strong, but always changinng and ever oscillating between mechanism, materialism and physicalism, is somehow meant to be reinforced by the weaker more philosophical naturalism, which is itself reinforced by the “scientific” content. Having two forms of immanence he can exclude a maximum of potential rivals. With weak philosophical immanence he thinks he can exclude teleology in the sciences (but he can’t!) and with strong scientific immanence he thinks he can exclude Husserl and Foucault and whoever. But research (and here I include both philosophy and science) is not so much about demarcation and exclusion as critical investigation and experimentation.

As to Latour’s phrase “There is no matter”, I think it could easily be regarded as a Derridean slogan. I was very inspired by the interview POLITICS AND FRIENDSHIP where Derrida talks about his misgivings over Althusserianism and over the naive and uncritical use of notions such as object and objectivity in relation to science and about how Husserl helped him to see more complexity there. So I don’t see any incompatibility between Derrida and naturalism, as long as one is willing to examine the ambiguities in such concepts as nature and science.

Bryant 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. In both cases he is wrong. Some form of naturalism and/or materialism is the default position in French philosophy and has been for a long time. Existentialism is a naturalist philosophy. I live in France and last Sunday I had a look at a philosophy programme on TV. Raphael Enthoven, a philosopher who hosts a a weekly programme where he interviews other philosophers had this time invited a French high school student. In response to her evoking Cartesian doubt he quoted Sartre about the world before human beings and said that to talk about this prehuman world was the main task of philosophy. She accepted this without demur.It’s a philosophical banality in France, a country whose “intellectual ecology” Bryant knows next to nothing about.

If on the other hand Bryant is talking about continental philosophy in the Anglophone world, it is rife with people trying to prove that Lacan, phenomenology, structuralism etc are compatible with analytic philosophy. Bryant is just one more late comer to that party, his continental naturalism is post festum.

Bryant has given up on the term “correlationism”. This is a wise choice as it designates a bogus concept of minimum intension but maximum, and arbitrary, extension. It also sounds too continental. So now 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, and the intuitive facility of the second. 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.

For me the most convincing argument against Bryant’s proclamations on naturalism is heuristic and historical: much of what is important in science was created by scientists who did not situate themselves in a naturalist paradigm, as Matthew Segall argues here: http://footnotes2plato.com/2012/08/13/hermeticism-and-the-politics-of-magic/. We can add Newton, whose inspiration was theological and alchemical, and even Wolfgang Pauli who tried to create a wider paradigm based on combining physics with the jungian unconscious.

Another important objection is captured in Segall’s title “The Varieties of Naturalistic Philosophy” with its Jamesian resonance: one can be a pluralist (which Bryant is not) and a defender of naturalism. The pluralism will nuance the naturalism in making it less metaphysical: naturalism is an open research programme and not a fait accompli; other paradigms can give content too, enrich, and complexify the naturalist paradigm; each scientific style of research will have its own naturalism: a Newtonian naturalism , if we could amputate the theological substrate from Newton’s research paradigm, will be different to, and I would argue less satisfying and fecund than, a Machian naturalism etc
A further question is the role of the unconscious or of what Hillman calls the “imaginal”. Bryant gives it a very reduced role, limiting it to a sort of regional ontology inside a literalist naturalist paradigm. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the productive unconscious in parallel with James Hillman’s idea of the anima mundi suggest a very different perspective, where the role of the unconscious is much greater and more pervasive.

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5 commentaires pour Continental Naturalism and the Deconstruction of Scientism

  1. Ping : Another Goddamn Anti-Transcendentalist Manifesto « Three Pound Brain

  2. dmfant dit :

    if you haven’t already you may want to check out Stengers’ book with Chertok on psychoanalytic reason.
    http://www.jcrt.org/archives/01.3/caputo.shtml

    J'aime

  3. antoine dit :

    Nice post! I find utterly remarkable your critique of OOO and the like. You seem to simply point out the evident weakness of their ridiculous positions, but in doing so you break the outrageous consensus that emerged in the last years around that «philosophy»

    J'aime

  4. terenceblake dit :

    When even critics play Tweedledum to Tweedledee then we are witness to a true consensual wonderland. Thanks for your encouragement, I need it.

    J'aime

  5. Bill Benzon dit :

    Bryant’s « Fighting Words » post was an embarrassment.

    J'aime

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