LEVI BRYANT AND THE PERFORMATIVE CONTRADICTION (9): chimerical naturalism

There is a persistent and pernicious cliché repeated ad nauseam by those who would denigrate continental philosophy as being unscientific and even irrational. According to this stereotype continental philosophy is bogged down in commentary on texts, does not engage with the real world, and shows signs of immobilism rather than progress, whereas natural science (and science-influenced philosophy, it is insinuated) explains the world.

This vsion is based on a rather naïve and thoroughly refuted idea of science as giving pure objective explanations of the natural world uncontaminated by interpretative elements. The foundation for this deprecatory view of continental philosophy dissolves when we realise that there is a whole hermeneutic dimension to science, emphasised by such creators as Bohr and Einstein, that requires a familiarity with texts and with the sequence of past developments and excluded possibilities to give content to current theories and to allow us the possibility of going beyond them. Thus it would be wrong to cast the difference between analytic and continental philosophy as grounded in taking seriously both the method of science and its purported “naturalistic” worldview in the one case and of the ignorance or neglect of such naturalism in the other.

The problem is not the rejection (or not) of supernatural causation, but the use of such a rejection as a metaphysical principle that unifies all science (in fact, there is no unified worldview of “science”) and that is supposed to describe the historical practice of science (when we know that many scientists who made important contributions to its development had theological or hermetic world views) and so guide both future scientific practice and philosophy too. The chimera of “naturalism-the-worldview-of-science” combines all these errors into a still popular but erroneous vision of science and legitimates the totalitarian impulse that animates contemporary scientism.

Bryant’s vision of Continental philosophy’s anti-naturalism is quite clear: “The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution”.

Virtually all the philosophies cited in Bryant’s condemnation (phenomenology, Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, social constructivism) are naturalist. They refuse to posit any transcendent cause outside the world, they thus see human beings and cultural productions as natural phenomena that can be studied with the appropriate methods. They do think that all our concepts, including that of “Nature” are to be examined and possibly re-worked, but that doesn’t make them “anti-naturalist” – rather it is what makes them philosophies. They are also suspicious of the pretentions of science to possess the sole valid method for examining and explaining all things in the world. Please let us have no facile word-games: bracketing the “natural” attitude has nothing to do with anti-naturalism, but everything to do with being wary of dogmatic postulations of objectivity.

Levi Bryant would have us set aside a century’s worth of critical examination of science and scientism in the name of an affectively maintained definitory conflation of naturalism and a scientific worldview (which does not exist as a unified perspective nor even as a horizon of thought or as a regulative ideal). So Bryant’s position cannot be regarded as a brave blow in defence of a minority view, naturalism, unjustly contained and oppressed inside an intellectual ecology largely hostile to it. His chimerical naturalism is but a tardy and wrong-headed contribution to the travesties made famous during the Science Wars. Neither Continental Philosophy, nor science, nor a philosophically and scientifically informed naturalism are as he describes them, nor are they mutually incompatible.

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