IMAGINARY PLURALISM AND SECOND-HAND REALISM: Against the Empire of Fictitious Adversaries and Straw-Man Arguments

Philip of CIRCLING SQUARES published a very interesting post in reply to Levi Bryant’s call for an inter-blog dialogue over the compatibility of pluralism and realism. Philip remarks, quite correctly, that:

« Ontologically and metaphysically the idea of realist pluralism is no longer an issue ».

It is quite baffling to see Bryant suddenly pose as a new problem what some of the most important Continental philosophers (Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, Latour, Stengers, Stiegler – all realists and all pluralists) have dealt with at length over the last 40 years. Philip goes on to imply that this is not just an empty proclamation on his part, but in intention at least a testable claim:

« the basic idea that reality is itself pluralistic is well established ».

He gives as examples, testable examples mind you, the positions of Isabelle Stengers and of Bruno Latour, citing their concepts of diplomacy and cosmopolitics. Summarising these notions, he talks about the need « to grant others’ idols and deities an existence ». This point is both pluralist, in its recognition of multiple traditions of interpretation and ways of  understanding the world, and realist, in its assigning of ontological validity to the entities presupposed by these multiple understandings.

To « grant an existence » he is quick to point out does not mean to agree with the other on the nature of that existence nor on what that existence entails in terms of empirical consequences and ethical obligations. Diplomatically granting an existence is not the same as blind acceptance at face value or condescending tolerance of the supposed « phantasms » of the others. Philip contrasts this diplomatic attitude with the bellicose will to « deny existence » to the entities posited and experienced by the others. This bellicose denialism is precisely the attitude that Bryant defends. Philip espouses the goal of Latour and Stengers: to compose a common world through diplomacy. Levi Bryant seems to want to impose a scientific world through ontological denial and ideological war.

Philip’s remarks are both speculative, concerning philosophical concepts, and testable, in the sense that we may examine if Latour and Stengers really advocate such a position in their texts, whether this account of their position is adequate, and how they themselves defend their position against criticism. One could hope that Levi would examine Philip’s post in the light of the dialogue that he himself desired to open (his « cross-blog event »).

Instead we get delirious ravings about a potpourri of unanalysed cases produced as if by magic from nowhere: Zeus’ lightning, phlogiston in the 19th Century (Bryant seems to know nothing about the science he so ardently defends), climate change denialism (Bryant seems not to have read the numerous discussions of this topic by Latour, who very intelligently outflanks the deniers, and shows that they have no research to back up their claims, that they are not credible « others » whose point of view is to be respected), etc. We get no analyses of Latour’s and of Stenger’s actual positions just rantings about a pre-established list of refuting examples to throw at anyone who disagrees with him, whether they are relevant or not.

Philip’s brief remarks show that at least he knows what he is talking about when he cites these authors. Levi’s rants based on willful ignorance of the texts show that he can argue only against an imaginary pluralism identified with a generic « social constructionism », that in fact these pluralisms have already considered, analysed, argued against, and rejected. Further, for Bryant there is no need to analyse the concept of realism as it is presupposed in scientific practices. For him « realism » is just a catchall endorsement  of a fuzzy abstraction called « science » posited as encounter with the Real.

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