PROLEGOMENA TO THE PROLEGOMENA (1): Adrian Johnston and the “New” Crusade against Constructionism

Context: R.Scott Bakker, the noted science fiction writer and independent philosopher, asked me my views on the interest and validity of a speculative project such as Johnston’s speculative materialism. On very general grounds I am favorable to such projects, and I include Bakker’s own Blind Brain Theory (a form of what I dub “cognitive materialism”) under the rubric of philosophical speculation. This does not mean that I endorse the details of one or the other speculative project, only that I think such projects are both necessary and valuable. Bakker gave me the inspiration for a series of posts on this theme. So below is the beginning both of my answer to Bakker and of my response to Johnston’s book.

A specter is haunting Continental Philosophy, the specter of “Constructionism”. Whether in the form of linguistic constructionism (derived from a partial and partisan reading of the works of Wittgenstein or of Derrida) or of social constructionism (derived from a hasty misreading of post-Popperian epistemology or of early Science Studies), recent Continental Philosophy is ready to concentrate its considerable intellectual resources to overcoming its menace.

Quentin Meillassoux, in a desperate attempt to combat this new enemy, baptised it with a new name: “correlationism”. Graham Harman tried out a similar coinage, “philosophies of access”, applying what is said to be a principle of good style: whenever possible prefer the Saxon word to its Latin equivalent. “Access” should have won out over “correlation”, but in Continental Philosophy the rules of style have been inverted, and Meillassoux’s “new” concept is the one that has prevailed.

Newness of terminology is an important consideration here. Louis Althusser was already struggling against constructionism (or, in his terms, idealism) over 50 years ago. He found a very fitting generic description of such positions in what he called the “problematic of the subject”, arguing that ideology constituted our lived relation to the world, and that both subject and object were constructed out of a set of such ideological imaginary relations. But “imaginary relation” lasted only for a while. It had the disadvantage of bearing its relation to Lacan explicitly in its name. What was needed was a new name (correlation) that would signal a new discovery (as if linguistic idealism and relativism had never existed and been combatted before). The renaming erased the Lacanian imprint from the description, so that the relation to Lacan could be “discovered” afterwards as an interesting independent confirmation giving yet more weight to the analysis, strength by convergence.

Bruno Latour has untiringly led the battle against social constructionism ever since he was accused of practicing within such a framework. In an act of intellectual daring equaled by few he went so far as to change the title of his first book from “Laboratory Life : The Social Construction of Scientific Facts” to Laboratory Life : The Construction of Scientific Facts. But the laws of lexical engagement require more attention-getting tactics. A discrete absence (the erasure of the word “social” in the title) tells us much about the subtlety of Bruno Latour’s spirit, yet the greater public needs a visible presence, a totally new addition to our philosophical vocabulary, and it is Meillassoux who managed to name the specter and thus to “own” it.

In his combat against social constructionism, Bruno Latour makes much of the need to overcome the modern bifurcation between subject and object, in order to  come to a more accurate and more satisfying understanding of our practices and values. We may note that Latour in effect talks about the problematic of the subject without refering to Althusser and Deleuze, preferring to employ the terminology of Whitehead, no doubt for similar reasons of lexical subtlety to those that governed his daring modification of the title to his first book.

I do not think, however, that this means that we should avoid all talk in terms of subject and object. Certainly, the subject/object grid of interpretation is not foundational, but it can be of heuristic use. As Deleuze and Guattari remark at the beginning of A THOUSAND PLATEAUS (page 3), “it’s nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it’s only a manner of speaking. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I”.

The same can be said of “cognitive materialism”, another attempt to free us from the menace of constructionism, which tries to explain our practices and accomplishments in terms of a synthesis of evolutionary theory, the study of brain functioning, and cognitive science. Taken to the extreme it must regard modern scientific studies of the brain and of its performances as foundational, and as legitimating a sort of neural determinism, where someone else would come to similar deterministic conclusions from psychoanalysis or Nietzschean philosophy.

In the debate between on the one hand a speculative materialism that finds a place for human subjectivity and for freedom, and on the other a deterministic scientism, I have argued that OOO has no place. Harman’s OOO is an anachronism, unable to fight effectively against constructionism as it reduces all known objects (common sense, scientific, humanistic) to unreality, positing as real only the shadowy constructions of its own problematic. I have given my reasons why OOO’s ancestor theory, the Althusser-Bhaskar-Kripke hybrid, was already anachronistic 40 years ago.

A recent book by Adrian Johnston, PROLEGOMENA TO ANY FUTURE MATERIALISM, allows us to raise the question of the validity or even the usefulness of such a speculative project as is presented therein. One of the key concepts that Johnston elaborates is that of “weak nature”, which seems to provide the answer to all requirements and objections that accompany speculative materialism. Another central idea is that any thoroughgoing materialism must be uncompromisingly atheist, avoiding not just the hypothesis of God but any homology with theistic discourse, being careful not to replace the word God with a secular equivalent (such as Humanity, Ultimate Reality, or any similar Big Other) that plays the same foundational role. I have already indicated that there may well be a conflict between these two requirements (“weak” naturalism and strong atheism):

“I find it amusing that Johnston is an uncompromising atheist and refuses new religious fusions with Continental Philosophy yet he talks of his key concept of “weak nature” in very similar terms to Caputo’s weak God”

For me it is a decisive objection: soft scientism is still scientism, and so still religious. But then, cognitive materialism is scientism too.

I do not believe in the death of human cognition in the name of science, it is very much alive and kicking. It is however thrashing around in a little corner wearing a dunce’s cap, because much cognition is consensual stupidity, which is worse than just getting things wrong. I say cognitive materialism is scientistic, but that is true only once it exists and becomes or purports to be cognition itself.

But first one had to think of cognitive materialism, and that thinking is not itself cognition. It is only poorly described as a meta-cognitive leap. It is not cognition but speculation. The cognitive materialist speculates, he pops his head a little distance out of Plato’s cognitive cavern and turns around and looks at it from outside, then falls back inside. Now the cognitive materialists claim to out-cognize the cognizers, painting graffiti like “this is just another cavern” on the walls of the cavern of cognition.

My tentative conclusion is that a weak materialism, such as Johnston’s, has much to recommend it as against the strong materialism that we can find emanating from the cognitive sciences, as is the case with R.Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory. Yet a weak indeterminist Nature and a strong determinist Nature seem to be equally dubious insofar as they are both naturalisations of ontotheological options (weak God vs strong God).

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2 Responses to PROLEGOMENA TO THE PROLEGOMENA (1): Adrian Johnston and the “New” Crusade against Constructionism

  1. noir-realism says:

    Interesting series, Terrence! I’m glad someone is actually confronting Scott and actually giving a voice to what most academics fear to tread. I think your case is worthy of a wider audience and hope to see it spread. I’m still in process of reading through each of your subsequent articles. But, again, fine work… even as I question my own assumptions your work gives me things to ponder and think through.


  2. Pingback: HONEY-POT DISCUSSION: a reply to David Roden | AGENT SWARM

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