Category Archives: Speculative Realism

reactive philosophy

When all is said and done, on Matthew Stewart’s reading of the Spinoza-Leibniz encounter in The Courtier and the Heretic, Leibniz’s philosophy is a reactive philosophy – a philosophy founded on not being Spinoza’s philosophy rather than being a philosophy that is for something, that is an affirmative philosophy. This may be too strong a claim, but Stewart goes even further and argues that the dominant tendency of modern philosophy has been one of a series of ongoing reactions to Spinoza’s thought. Stewart is quite forthright:

And yet, although the world we live in is perhaps better and more originally described by Spinoza, the reactive form of modernity that began with Leibniz has in fact become the dominant form of modern philosophy. Anxious over the apparent purposelessness of the world revealed by modern science; bitter about the threatened demotion of humankind from its special place in nature; alienated from a society that seems to recognize no transcendent goals and unwilling to assume personal responsibility for happiness–a needy humankind has reinvented the Leibnizian philosophy with abandon over the past three centuries…Kant’s attempt to prove the existence of a “noumenal” world of pure selves and things in themselves on the basis of a critique of pure reason; the ninteteenth-century-spanning efforts to reconcile teleology with mechanism that began with Hegel; Bergson’s claim to have discovered a world of life forces immune to the analytical embrace of modern science; Heidegger’s call for the overthrow of western metaphysics in order to recover the truth about Being; and the whole “postmodern” project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought–all of these diverse trends in modern thought have one thing in common: they are at bottom forms of the reaction to modernity first instantiated by Leibniz.

To state Stewart’s claim in other terms, Spinoza is the last realist philosopher and since Leibniz we have been largely on an anti-realist path, a path Stewart presents as a failure of nerve, a failure to embrace the immanence of life as fully real and in no need of anything other, anything transcendent, to give it a meaning or purpose. As Stewart puts it, “Spinoza speaks for those who believe that happiness and virtue are possible with nothing more than what we have in our hands. Leibniz stands for those convinced that happiness and virtue depend on something that lies beyond.” It is perhaps not surprising then that Stewart himself, after getting his Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford (in just 3 years) abandoned the academy, claiming at his website that he discovered what he “took to be irrefutable philosophical objections to pursuing a career in academic philosophy.” He went, instead, and made a lot of money as a management consultant, proving the point Thales made after making a killing with his olive press that, as Aristotle presents it, ‘it is easy for a philosopher to be rich if they choose it.’ Much harder to attain is the happiness that requires ‘nothing more than what we have in our hands,’ for if it were easy, ‘and could be found without great effort,’ as Spinoza concludes his Ethics, then ‘how could everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.’

What is it like to be an object?

Early in his Treatise Hume proposes a simple challenge to anyone who would deal his system a fatal blow: come up with an idea that cannot be traced to a corresponding impression. Hume then offers a possible example, namely the case of the missing shade of blue. If we had experienced all shades of blue except for a single shade, and if all these shades were spread out before us except for the missing shade, would we be able to come up with an idea of this shade despite the fact that we had never had the corresponding impression of it? Hume claims we no doubt could and then quickly dismisses the case as exceptional and of little threat to his system. David Pears, Jonathan Bennett, and others believe Hume was mistaken to dismiss the missing shade as an insignificant exceptional case and argue that it does indeed pose a serious challenge to his system. There has been much ink put to paper to address this issue. Then towards the end of the Treatise, in the Appendix, Hume makes another claim concerning simple ideas that has also caused much consternation. After claiming that ‘simple ideas may have a similarity or resemblance to each other,’ he argues that ‘Blue and green are different simple ideas, but are more resembling than blue and scarlet’; moreover, these comparisons can be made without relying upon or ‘having any common circumstance the same.’ (T 637). As simple ideas, blue, green, and scarlet are qualities that are not composites and yet they may and do vary by degree. As Hume puts it, all the degrees in any quality – degrees of blue, intensity of color, etc., ‘are all resembling’ – they all resemble the simple idea blue – ‘and yet the quality, in any individual, is not distinct from the degree.’ (ibid.). In other words, if we think of the missing shade of blue as one of the qualitative degrees of intensity of the simple idea blue, then the missing shade is not distinct from the qualitative simple idea we do possess, and hence the inseparability of degree from quality enables one to come up with the idea of the missing shade, and it enables one to compare and contrast simple ideas. This is why the Laplander, to refer to another of Hume’s examples from the first Enquiry, is unable to come up with the idea of wine – they had not had a single impression of wine and hence no degrees of quality either.

It’s an injustice I realize to summarize in a paragraph what many see as a serious issue in Hume’s thought and then to resolve it all at the same time. I’ve dealt with this at greater length elsewhere, but to quickly turn the subject to Maïmon and address the realism issue I brought up in an earlier post [link], what I want to address is the fact a simple idea, even for Hume, appears to be a multiplicity, a synthesis of intensities that are inseparable from and ultimately indistinguishable from the simple ideas. It is no surprise then that Deleuze was interested in Hume. In an anti-Kantian move, Deleuze finds in Hume someone who does not presuppose the abstract but believes that ‘the abstract must itself be explained.’ It is also no surprise that Deleuze turns to Maïmon, for here too we find an effort to rethink the Kantian question quid juris by simultaneously generating abstractions in a way that, as Deleuze reads Maïmon, ‘overcomes the duality of concept and intuition.’ (DR 174). Deleuze will cite Maïmon at length, and it ties in directly with what was said above concerning Hume. Here’s the citation:

When I say, for example: red is different from green, the concept of the difference in so far as this is a pure concept of the understanding is not considered to be the relation between the sensible qualities (otherwise the Kantian question quid juris would still apply). Rather: either, in accordance with Kant’s theory, it is considered to be the relation between their spaces as a priori forms, or, in accordance with my own theory, it is considered to be the relation between their differentials which are a priori Ideas. … A particular object is the result of the particular rule of its production or the mode of its differential, and the relations between different objects result from the relations between their differentials.

I discussed the importance of differentials as they relate to consciousness in an earlier post, but now I want to look at what it means to be an object. What is the ‘particular rule of its production’ and how does this relate to the differentials? We get a hint of what this might mean from Hume. The differentials are the degrees of quality that are not to be confused with the simple idea of the quality nor are they distinct from this quality. Similarly for Maïmon the differentials allow for the integration that results in an object (or a consciousness), and although the differentials are not distinct from the object (or consciousness) they are not to be confused with them either. And finally for Deleuze, in addressing the difference between differences of degree and differences of kind, he argues that ‘there would no more be qualitative differences or differences of kind than there would be quantitative differences or differences of degree, if intensity were not capable of constituting the former in qualities and the latter in extensity, even at the risk of appearing to extinguish itself in both.’ (DR 299). Intensity is therefore neither to be confused with qualitative differences of kind – blue or green – nor with differences of degree, shades of blue, since such a difference presupposes ‘the extensity in which it [intensity] is explicated.’ (300). In all three cases, therefore, objective differences, whether of kind or degree, presuppose a process of synthesis and/or integration. But this is precisely where skepticism regarding objects enters the picture. The reason for this is that while the move from differentials to a consciousness of objects (passing the thresholds of consciousness) entails a process of integration, we cannot move in the inverse direction and ever arrive at an object. This is why, for Maïmon, the noumena must remain unknowable to us.

But there is a further problem for those who would seek to move beyond Kant (namely, the speculative realists, among others). If objects depend upon a process of synthesis then the object itself becomes tied to, or correlated with, something that is radically transcendent to our capacity to know it – we only know the synthesized differences of kind and degree but not the differentials and intensities such differences explicate and actualize. We are in much the same situation Thomas Nagel discussed in his celebrated essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” In his challenge to reductionist theories of consciousness, Nagel argues that to be conscious entails a point of view such that “there is something that it is like to be that (conscious) organism.” Objectivity, by contrast, entails ‘reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation.’ In other words, there is a gap, as Nagel puts it, between the perspective of science that seeks a perspective upon the object as it is in-itself and independent of any particular perspective—the view from nowhere–and the singular subjective perspective that is a view from somewhere. No matter how comprehensive our objective knowledge of a bat, this knowledge fails to bridge the gap and answer the question, what is it like to be a bat? We cannot get to the view from somehwhere from the view from nowhere. But rather than reach a skeptical conclusion regarding the reality of the subjective domain, Nagel concludes that a realism regarding the ‘subjective domain…implies a belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts.’ Similarly for Hume-Maïmon-Deleuze identifiable, determinate objects, and especially the identifiable phenomenological relationship of a consciousness that is a consciousness of something, a view from somewhere, entails an integration and synthesis of differentials (or pre-individual singularities and intensities as Deleuze understands it); and then there is the move from the determinate and objective to the pre-individual, the view from nowhere. This is the move that is taken to be impossible. No matter how thorough our objective knowledge of differences of kind and degree, it cannot be reduced to the pre-individual differentials and intensities. It is like, as in the case of Hume, trying to arrive at the self from the bundle of impressions and ideas. It can’t be done. Are we thus left with a skepticism concerning the realm of intensities, or must we, like Nagel, embrace a ‘belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts’? If the answer is yes, then we would fall solidly into a correlationist perspective, or remain committed to the third dogma of empiricism as Davidson discusses it (see my earlier post on this subject). But the answer is no.

The problem with Nagel’s position, and with the implications of this position as it is read into the philosophies of Deleuze, etc., is that it assumes a ‘gap’ between the objective and actual and the subjective and virtual. Hume himself appears to equivocate on this subject, as has been widely discussed. On the one hand Hume sets forth skeptical arguments that undermine the legitimacy of any belief in a subsistent self, but at the same time Hume speaks of the self as a given, especially when Hume writes of the passions in Book II of the Treatise (in discussing pride, for instance, the self is a presupposed given). Hume himself was troubled by this (see Appendix, p. 636). The gap, however, is an example of what Whitehead calls misplaced concreteness and is to be understood instead as an abstraction. We are already always involved in objective relationships, and yet these relationships are always exceeded by a virtual that is real and yet not distinct from the objective relationships themselves. An example will help to make this point clear. In his book Ways of Hand, David Sudnow describes in minute detail the processes and challenges he encountered in learning improvisational jazz. After mastering the technical difficulties of moving effortlessly across the keyboard, a more fundamental problem confronted Sudnow as he sat down to play improvisational jazz – where to go? As Sudnow puts it, ‘when it came to sitting down at the piano, it was a rhythm of something, an intensity of something, an intonational structure of something, subtleties of something, and the something that first mattered was: these and those particular notes being played…but the prime question,’ Sudnow adds, in trying ‘to make up melodies with the right hand, was, Where?’ (Sudnow 1978, 15). In other words, in sitting down at the piano there were many more ways his hands could go than they actually would, and these other ways are indeed real and the problem precisely is to actualize melodies that are jazzy without being contrived. Sudnow asked his teacher, ‘tell me where to go,’ and though hesitant the teacher, when pushed, was able to give Sudnow a list of scalar devices (i.e., jazz sounding scales, runs, etc.) that Sudnow then incorporated into an expanding repertoire of skills, of predetermined paths in short.

These scalar devices, however, did not of themselves constitute improvisational jazz. As Sudnow watched his teacher play, for example, ‘he [the teacher] was flying over the keyboard, producing the jazz I wanted so much to be doing…he was not simply using the few scalar devices that I had been employing for each of the chord types. He was going many more places over the keyboard…(and yet he was) “orderly.”’ (ibid. 25). The problem for Sudnow, in short, was that he experienced the reality of the virtual—namely, the excessive multiplicity of ways to go—and he sought to actualize the virtual as a determinate and orderly sequence of notes rather than the indeterminate and indefinite number he was encountering. Occasionally, while playing improvisational jazz, Sudnow would stumble upon ‘good-sounding jazz that would come out in the midst of my improvisations,’ but when he tried to ‘latch on’ to the melody, take charge of it and direct it, ‘it would be undermined, as when one first gets the knack of a complex skill, like riding a bicycle or skiing, the attempt to sustain an easeful management undercuts it.’ (ibid. 83-4). Rather than encountering the multiplicity of melodic paths and actualizing it in a sustained path, Sudnow instead found himself lunging for a melodic path that was prefigured. What he was slowly finding himself doing as he become more adept at improvisational jazz was to affirm the multiplicity, to let it sing in a jazzy way. In improvisational jazz, Sudnow realized ‘there is no melody, there is melodying.’ (ibid. 146). There is no predetermined way to actualize an improvised melody, there is simply the process whereby the jazz phonemes become actualized, or there is melodying. As Sudnow began to play improvisational jazz with more success, he recognized that he no longer needed to lunge but could instead find the notes where his hands were rather than predetermining the path his hands should take. Sudnow is explicit on this point: ‘I began to see and then find use for further work in the observation that note choices could be made anywhere, that there was no need to lunge, that usable notes for any chord lay just at hand, that there was no need to find a path, image one up ahead to get ready in advance for a blurting out [i.e. a lunging].’ (ibid. 94). In other words, the reality of the virtual is indiscernible from the actual, as Deleuze argues, precisely because the virtual is only identifiable as actualized. Although Sudnow did indeed experience the reality of the virtual as an indeterminate, indefinable multiplicity, much as an infant, for James, can be said to have an indeterminate, indefinable ‘pure experience,’ this experience is the power of excess, the power of AND, inseparable from that which actualizes it. The reality of the virtual is thus not out of this world, it is not on the far side of the gap, but rather it is the life of this world that cannot be reduced to the identities of conceptual analysis, just as improvisational jazz cannot be reduced to a set of scalar devices.

Returning to Hume and the missing shade of blue, and similarly to Hume and his problems in accounting for the self, we can now see that we are involved in a double movement. We are already involved in objective relationships, an objective self in relationship other human and nonhuman objects; and we are forever moving beyond these relationships, to a virtual that cannot be reduced to these objective relationships. Our objective, simple idea of blue, for example, presupposes the movement of the virtual, of the intensities that exceed them, just as Sudnow’s improvisational jazz presupposed an excess of other ways to go, and it is this excess that enables the actualization of the missing shade. What is it like to be an object? It is both more than we can say and exactly what we say it is, what common sense, naïve realism says it is. The italicized and in the previous sentence does not constitute a paradox or a contradiction; to the contrary, it is the power of AND that Deleuze argues has always been the power and secret of empiricism, and the power that drives the philosophies of Hume, Maïmon, and Deleuze. And Latour, as a subsequent post tries to further clarify this theme.

Third Dogma and SR

In a recent online debate, Harman defended SR against the charge that it is nothing new, that you can search far and wide for a 20th century philosopher who didn’t believe that there are objects that exist autonomously of whatever conscious access we may have of them. In addition to listing Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty as each failing, in their own way, to be realist with regard to objects, he cites Whitehead as one who clearly is a realist. Agreed. But are there any other clear precursors, any speculative realists before the name? I would list Donald Davidson. In his “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” Davidson criticizes Quine and a host of others for continuing to adhere to the dualism of a conceptual scheme and a content that is then processed and forged by this scheme. Our access to objects for Quine, for example, is by way of sensory promptings, and thus it is a similarity of sensory promptings that is the basis for our agreeing whether we are looking at the same object or not. Davidson refers to this dualism as the third dogma of empiricism and he rejects it. What Davidson argues for instead is what he calls a ‘form of monism’ which accepts that there is nothing but objects and events, including human and nonhuman objects and events. Our understanding and knowledge of the world, therefore, is not founded upon a discourse or language, but rather language itself is founded upon interactions between humans themselves and between humans and objects. I discuss this a bit more over at the PE blog. Moreover, none of the relationships between humans and nonhumans is privileged or incommensurable to other objects and events. Understood in this way, Davidson sounds a lot like Latour, and hence a lot like a speculative realist.

Is Deleuze a Speculative Realist?

At first it might seem he is. If Bruno Latour is on the right track with respect to speculative realism, as Graham Harman and others would argue, then it might seem that Deleuze is on the right track as well for there are a number of areas where their philosophies converge in significant ways – especially concerning events, multiplicity, and their embrace of an ontological monism. I cover much of this in Deleuze’s Hume. It would also seem that Deleuze would not be a “hyper-incommensurable” postmodern philosopher as Latour discusses this in We Have Never Been Modern. Not only does Lyotard, for example, continue to embrace the incommensurability between humans and nonhumans, but will go even further and claim that ‘there is nothing human about scientific expansion,’ thus radicalizing the incommensurability (hence the ‘hyper-‘). Deleuze, by contrast, moves with ease in discussing human and nonhuman assemblages. The frequently used example of an assemblage – man-horse-stirrup – is a case and point of Deleuze (and Deleuze and Guattari’s) readiness to at the very least blur if not eliminate the incommensurability between humans and nonhumans.

Then there is Quentin Meillassoux’s critique of the correlationists. One of the central planks of the SR platform is the critique of correlationism. Kant is frequently singled out as the subtle grandmaster of correlationism (the final chapter of After Finitude sets out to undermine [and correctly so I might add] Kant’s Copernican revolution). But Meillassoux doesn’t simply have his sights set on Kantians; rather, he sees much if not all of the post-Kantian philosophical tradition as beholden to certain correlationist assumptions, or to what Harman calls a ‘philosophy of access.’ Most notably, the correlationist philosopher thinks that our only access to objects is through thought. Thus, we cannot think the thing in itself but only as given to thought, as a correlate of thought. As Meillassoux points out, however, a correlationist is not necessarily tied to a subject-object metaphysics, to a hypostasized subject and object in the manner of Descartes; rather, what is central to correlationism, at least since Kant, is ‘not a metaphysics,’ but rather ‘it invokes correlation to curb every hypostatization, every substantialization of an object of knowledge which would turn the latter into a being existing in and of itself.’ (After Finitude, p. 11). Correlationists, in short, cannot think an object as it is in itself and correlationism assures the impossibility of ever thinking an object in itself.

With Deleuze, for Meillassoux, we have a classic example of an attempt to ‘curb every hypostatization,’ and moreover we have in Deleuze and Nietzsche ‘the vitalist hypostatization of the correlation’ as an integral aspect of their critique of metaphysics (ibid. p. 37). Without addressing the fact that Deleuze never saw himself as part of the ‘critique of metaphysics’ tradition, the question remains: is Deleuze hypostatizing the correlation with his notion of life and his emphasis upon process and becoming? In other words, if there are for Deleuze no objects, if objects are merely abstractions of a flux, much like Bergson’s snapshot photographs were abstractions of duration (duree), then objects would indeed simply be correlates and abstractions of becoming. Deleuze would thus be a strong correlationist, as Meillassoux argues, or a hyper-correlationist as Latour might argue. As for Kant it is impossible to think the object in itself but only as a phenomenal correlate of thought, is Deleuze a strong correlationist who, as Meillassoux argues, that ‘it is unthinkable that the unthinkable is impossible’? (ibid. 41). If there remains something that is unthinkable, namely becoming, and if it is indeed unthinkable that this unthinkable is impossible, then Deleuze would most definitely not be a speculative realist since a central task of SR is to think objects in themselves.

But what does it mean to think an object in itself, or as Meillassoux puts the problem, an object that is anterior to givenness itself? Put simply, it is to think the absolute, to think that which is not limited by being given to a consciousness, to a historical situation, discourse, etc., but to think the absolute in itself. This absolute, however, is not to be an absolute becoming, life, or will to power, for then we would be back in correlationism. Rather, the absolute, for Meillassoux, is contingency itself, or, as he puts it: ‘The absolute is the absolute impossibility of a necessary being.’ (Ibid. 60). It might seem that Deleuze would agree on this point, but it is precisely here where Deleuze would stumble, for in absolutizing becoming he ultimately calls upon a necessary being, a contradictory, paradoxical being. Meillassoux is quite clear on this point (as he is with most of the points he makes): ‘the utterly Immutable instance against which even the omnipotence of contingency would come to grief, would be a contradictory entity. And this for the precise reason that such an entity could never become other than it is because there would be no alterity for it in which to become.’ (ibid. 69). It would already include its contradictory other and thus such an entity would be a necessary being and hence undermine contingency itself. It is for this reason that to think the absolute one must not think it as becoming, if for becoming ‘things must be this, then other than this; they are, then they are not.’ (ibid. 70). ‘The only possibility of introducing difference into being, and thereby a conceivable becoming, would be by no longer allowing oneself the right to make contradictory statements about an entity.’ (ibid. 71). In the end, it is only through mathematics that one can think the absolute as the contingent without contradiction, and philosophers of becoming such as Deleuze, Bergson, and Nietzsche continue to affirm the right to utter contradictions, much as did their intellectual progenitor Heraclitus.

Deleuze’s philosophy, however, is not to be confused with Bergson’s and Nietzsche’s, despite the influence of the latter two on Deleuze’s own thought, and for Deleuze to think difference in-itself, as he claims is the central task of his philosophy in the early pages of Difference and Repetition, is not to think or to affirm a contradictory entity. As alluded to in my earlier post on Badiou and Spinoza, Deleuze rejects the idea that there is an identifiable difference, much less an identifiable contradiction, between two entities that it is the task of philosophy to think. This is not what it means to think difference in itself according to Deleuze. At the same time, identity for Deleuze is not merely a correlate of difference. Deleuze, however, does speak of the impossibility of thought, of an unconscious that is understood to be ‘something that cannot be thought in finite thought.’ (Fold, p. 89), or he will write in Cinema 2, in reference to Artaud and Blanchot, that “what forces us to think is ‘the inpower [impouvoir] of thought’, the figure of nothingness, the inexistence of a whole which could be thought.” (C2, 162). This impossibility and unconscious that thought itself cannot think but forces thought is not a necessary being (e.g., duration, becoming, will to power, a life etc.) relative to which what can be thought would merely be correlates of this necessary being. To the contrary, and much in line with Meillassoux, that which ‘cannot be thought in finite thought’ is ‘the absolute impossibility of a necessary being’, to quote Meillassoux again. It is ‘the inexistence of a whole which could be thought,’ or as Meillassoux understands it, adopting Cantor’s definition of transfinite numbers, ‘the (quantifiable) totality of the thinkable is unthinkable.’ (AF, 104). And the unthinkable nature of the totality is key to avoiding correlationism, for it is mathematics, especially Cantorian set theory, that is able to theorize the non-totalizable, the ‘non-All’ – hence Meillassoux’s conclusion that ‘what is mathematizable cannot be reduced to a correlate of thought.’ (ibid. 117). To the extent that Deleuze too theorizes the ‘inexistence of the whole,’ what Deleuze and Guattari will also refer to as the ‘nondenumerable,’ then it would seem that we would be too hasty to exclude Deleuze from the speculative realist camp. Moreover, as was argued in the Spinoza post, the non-denumerable, the ‘inexistence of a whole’ (i.e., or the attributes as discussed there) is not separable and distinct from the denumerable (the modes) and that which is thought. There is nothing but objects and events, both human and nonhuman, and there is no incommensurability between them nor are they totalizable in a way that would return us to claiming that objects and events are correlates of a necessary being. Deleuze is not a correlationist. But is he a realist? That will have to wait for another post.