VIEWS OF A GLIMPSE (2): Realist Reprise and Platonic Recall

Stephen Mumford’s GLIMPSE OF LIGHT bears the Cartesian subtitle New Meditations on First Philosophy. In a reprise of Descartes’ MEDITATIONS ON FIRST PHILOSOPHY the book is organised in seven chapters comprising six « Meditations » and a seventh chapter « Objections and Replies ». While not strictly self-contradictory there is some tension in the subtitle, as a reprise can be either a beginning again to do properly or a continuation and transformation. The meditations are new contributions to the old task of first philosophy.

There is also an influence from Husserl’s CARTESIAN MEDITATIONS in that Benedict seeks to withdraw into himself to resolve or banish his doubts:

anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must « once in his life » withdraw into himself and attempt, within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting (Husserl, CARTESIAN MEDITATIONS, page 2) .

The difference between the two is that Husserl’s meditations found his phenomenology, a philosophy oriented towards the subject, whereas Benedict’s meditations seek to found a realist vision oriented towards the world. Husserl’s Cartesian meditations are presented in a philosophical treatise and can proceed without interruption, while Benedict’s new meditations are presented in a novel where the real world constantly intrudes on his attention and other people interrupt his cogitations. The real, it is implied, often signals its presence by interruption.

In the first meditation Benedict considers the skeptical arguments against realism, which have begun to undrmine his previous realist certainties, the wellsprings of  his sense of the meaning of life and also the premises of his career (and income). In Benedict’s view Skepticism has a new incarnation in « social constructionism », just as its ancestry can be traced back to the Sophists’ arguments combatted by Plato. Benedict has come to Norway to isolate himself in search of a glimpse of Platonic light. Aristotle claimed that unlike the gods humans cannot dwell in this light, but can only gain glimpses of it by intermittence.

Benedict’s problem stems from the doubts he has begun to feel in the face of skeptical challenges to his realist conviction in a world that exists independently of us, of our beliefs, concepts and practices. He sets up these challenges in a disembodied way that conflates arguments for skepticism based on the omnipresence and the inextricability of mediations, on the necessary filtering (and perhaps constitution) of the real by means of experience, of theoretical presuppositions, or of social construction.

This scenography is unfortunately one-sided, despite the novelised format. On the one hand the novel gives us a good view of the person and the motivations of Benedict, and offers a thick description ofsome important aspects his embodied existence. On the other hand we get no such description of the skeptics, but a vague composite image where all the different types of skeptical argument are grouped together. So we suspect from the beginning that there is no real suspense in the intrigue, despite the protagonist’s sense of existential urgency.

This lack of suspense is no real objection to the book. We all know the real world exists in at least relative independence of us. I do not know of any representatives of a full-blown social constructionism that denies the existence or even the conceivability of a human-independent reality. The arguments of the idealist-sounding social constructionist that Benedict cites, who posited only the retroactive existence of electrons constructed post hoc, are not fleshed out. We get no embodied idea of why anyone would come to defend such a position. There is a certain resemblance with Bruno Latour’s ideas, but Latour has written many books trying to define how construction and realism are compatible.

In short, Mumford’s first chapter sets out the scenography of a quandary that following Quentin Meillassoux can be called the « correlationist » predicament: how can we affirm the mind-independent existence of a real world that we can only know by means of the mind and its products?

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