PROLEGOMENA TO THE PROLEGOMENA (4): a generic thought experiment

Clarification: In this series of posts I am trying to distinguish Adrian Johnston’s form of speculative materialism from a rival form, that of scientistic materialism (for example, R. S. Bakker’s form of cognitive materialism, BBT, based on an uncontrolled extrapolation from the cognitive sciences). I am in no way criticising Johnston for turning towards the sciences and making use of their results. I am saying that while doing so he is being speculative, and that this mixture of empiricity and speculation is not only a valid procedure, but is also unavoidable. I am arguing that a scientistic materialist who criticises Johnston for indulging in such speculation doesn’t realise that he himself is being speculative too.

I have chosen to abstract from the particularistic origin of this series of posts, to be seen here, where R.S.Bakker, speaking of Adrian Johnston’s new book and of his ontological preemptions of science, asks me “What grounds the cognitive legitimacy of this strategy? Why should anyone entertain, let alone commit to, such interpretations in an age when human cognition is itself on the autopsy table?” Here Bakker is asking me in effect: “Why should I, author without knowing it of the ontological approach implicit in my Blind Brain Theory, take preemptive ontological approaches like Johnston’s seriously?”. Rather than propose a polemical answer for this particular case,  I have preferred to perform a thought experiment and respond to the more generic question: “Why should anyone, and scientistic materialists in particular, take speculative ontological approaches seriously?”

I can give both a personal and a more general answer to this generic question. In my case, I became explicitly interested in ontological approaches about 40 years ago, when I was confronted by bad epistemology (relativism, Althusserian dogmatism) and bad ontology (Althusserian ontology, Derridean linguistic constructionism). My two ontological guides were Feyerabend and Deleuze. Today, 40 years later, there are are still the same old enemies (relativism, social constructionism, linguistic constructionism), except that Althusser in the bad ontologies has been replaced by Badiou, and Harman’s OOO.

So initially, ontology is needed as self-defence against an exterior adversary. Secondly, this leads to an awareness that every approach presupposes an ontology (at least one, and sometimes more) and that I myself may be presupposing one, or in need of one, without noticing. This is the internal need for an ontology, to prevent one from falling into the traps of constructionism, and into other traps such as the illegitimate extrapolation of a regional ontology into a generality, or holding self-refuting ideas. So ontological critique is necessary on both external and internal accounts. Thirdly, some traits of our own position or that of others can only be discovered by comparison, so we need an open plurality of ontological approaches, each keeping the others awake and alive and healthy. It is through looking at Johnston’s ontology of a non-unified heterogeneous Nature, a non-one non-All, that I see more clearly that scientistic materialism is based on a unified homogeneous view not only of Nature, but also of the regional ontology of its primary science, and this analysis includes Bakker’s BBT, which gives primacy to cognitive science.

On a more specific note, now that I have sketched out an answer for the generic question, unless a scientistic materialism can reply to the twelve theses that I listed in my previous post it will not be taken seriously by anyone with even a smattering of philosophy. Science is not scientism, but partisans of science, including scientists themselves when they stop doing science and start to do commentary, often do not respect that elementary difference. Impressing those already acquired by the ideology of science can keep you going forever, and being cheered on and encouraged to boot. But that is just preaching to the converted. To become more robust a scientistic materialism has to consider the for and against of other similar views.

Such a consideration of relative advantages and disadvantages of competing views should avoid global rejection, of the style “I cognize that cognition is dead”, or “I am doing science so why should I take non-scientific metaphysical ontologies seriously”. That reaction is the preemptive attitude par excellence, striking out at rival views like Johnston’s with a global preemptive objection, instead of coming to grips with them emptively. “Pre-emptive” here denotes an a priori buying up (“emere”) of all the terrain, refusing to negotiate. I say the time has come to dialogue and negotiate, and I am willing to participate in that sort of encounter.

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