LEVI BRYANT AND THE PERFORMATIVE CONTRADICTION (1): Foundational Non-foundationalism

There is an interesting performative contradiction that to be found in Levi Bryant’s work: despite espousing non-foundationalism and conceptual experimentation Levi does have a foundational level and vocabulary, that of OOO, which his appeal to the “withdrawal” thesis illustrates. This is not a semantic contradiction, as Levi is careful to distinguish verbally epistemology and ontology. Bryant’s concepts, while rather unstable, are still foundational due to his having borrowed  the form of its metaphysical heuristics from obect oriented ontology, which poses an ontological foundation with its withdrawing objects. Bryant has now (for the time being!) distanced himself from OOO and the strong withdrawal thesis, preferring to talk in terms of units (instantiated recently by machines) and some form of weak withdrawal, a naturalisation of Harman’s strong metaphysical withdrawal (which has the disadvantage of subtracting objects from the play of material causality).

Despite his appeals to science Levi is still responsible before the question “How do you know”, not in the narrow sense of any particular knowledge claim but in the global sense of “How do you know your fundamental ontology is true? and is it revisable?” The question amounts to : is your machine-oriented ontology just a useful heuristic that can guide and explicate philosophical and scientific research, or is it a new foundation, unrevisable in its basic structure?

From a Latourian view everything is heuristic, but Bryant does not and cannot espouse this non-foundationalism with respect to science. What Bryant is doing is metaphysics than science, and bad metaphysics at that. He is proposing a metaphysical interpretative synthesis based on an extrapolation of the sciences as he imagines them, and thus he is shielding himself both from scientific testability, and from serious engagement with the philosophical views he wishes to refute or to sidestep. Bryant is speaking from his own personal no man’s land, neither inside science nor inside philosophy.

The question “How do you know?” addressed to Bryant does not ask about observable facts nor even about scientific generalisations, but about his ontological foundation. Bryant has occasionally cited Latour’s SCIENCE IN ACTION, but the answer that Bryant needs is not forthcoming in that book . The question crops up for any fundamental ontology and cannot be evacuated by semantic word-magic: how do you square your ontological foundation with your epistemological non-foundationalism?

Each time the question is posed Bryant displaces the general question “How do you know your foundational ontology is true” onto specific questions such as medication versus exorcism in the case of epilepsy. Further, all Latour’s work on different régimes of truth is thrown to the wind, condemned as “relativism” without being explored or even understood.

What remains, in Bryant’s case, is a scientistic re-doubling of his non-empirical ontology, as if the one could palliate the deficiencies of the other. The problem posed for Bryant’s defence of naturalism is that of the recourse to a non-empirical ontology. I think it is plain for all to see that Levi’s answer to the question “How do you know?” is “I don’t”, and the rest is misdirection.

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