A question for speculative realism

Mike Johnduff of Working Notes says that speculative realism

…is, in my view, a way of being a better Heideggerian than some Heideggerians. Why? It ends up enriching the Heideggerian analytic where Heideggerians might call the particular investigations in this new field “onticology,” a turn away from ontology or from our prereflective understanding of being being and towards beings. Speculative realism, however, in no way involves this turn back to the ontic, to beings (and, I might add, only a foolish reading of Heidegger would see every turn to the ontic as a step back, and not because Heidegger was tolerant of this, but because the ontological is not more proper in that way: it’s not unlike claiming, appealing to Darwin, that you are more evolved than your dog, when of course all species are the most evolved they are going to be at this moment).

Speculative realism involves, instead, taking the Heideggerian analysis, and then asking, ontologically, the impossible thing: what are these beings in their being, when we don’t take being as anything that originates from our stance upon beings. It means, to put it another way, deconstructing (or at least being clearer about) all that Heidegger did (intentionally and, especially, not) to link Dasein to the human, and being to a history that man has privileged insight into. The result is a knowledge of objects with the prereflective understanding of man subtracted: the prereflection is among beings, purely, if I can put it that way.

My question is simple: is not a human-subtracted knowledge of objects simply naturalistic science as we currently understand it? Does not a naturalistic description suffice for knowing how things are when we are not looking? I don’t understand how a human-subtracted knowledge of objects – an investigation into the “being of beings” – could be anything but an investigation into ontic properties. If we are “trying to talk about what the bridge is when you walk away from it” – would not a physical-engineering model be the best mode of discourse for doing so? If you want to subtract humanity, you need to lose metaphor and work with what physicists – the ultimate onticologists – have been using for years: mathematical equations. Vernacular language is simply too infused with human-centered metaphor to ever be useful in talking about how bridges are when no one is looking. So while I agree that onticology is not a priori a materialistic ontology, nevertheless, mathematical-physical discourse is arguably more useful than philosophical language when it comes to discussing bridges. Afterall, to paraphrase Dretske, engineering discourse will actually allow you to construct a bridge whereas object-oriented “philosophy” will not. Which one then is more truly object-centered?


Filed under Philosophy, Random

2 responses to “A question for speculative realism

  1. Hi Gary,

    I tend to agree with you a lot on this, actually. I feel like the object-oriented task has to be seen first within the history of philosophy itself–in a lot of ways this is philosophy trying to undo a lot of its own past, rediscover other traditions than the Heideggerian one, say. At the same time, it also means rethinking this value of “use” that you attribute to the mathematical-physical discourse, which in a way means reinstalling the old science-philosophy division that philosophy has always been about (since Locke, at least, who of course affirmed the morality over the natural sciences in fitness for understanding). Except that in this re-installation, if you want to call it that, the task is not perhaps repeat it with a difference: the issue I see behind object-oriented phil. is trying to bring philosophy closer to the science-oriented view of the world (full of meaningless particles, huge galaxies, etc.) but without 1) thinking that just because something is more useful it is adequate for our use, and 2) indeed trying to find new ways to contest the science-philosophy dichotomy of old. That’s one way to put it. I agree, I’m suspicious of the attempt to get away from the human, but insofar as the getting closer to science is concerned, this seems exciting, because at bottom, it means thinking new values for “use,” when we say that “mathematical-physical discourse is arguably more useful than philosophical language.”

    When you say “Vernacular language is simply too infused with human-centered metaphor to ever be useful in talking about how bridges are when no one is looking.” I think a speculative realist or OOP person would say that this proves their point exactly: we need to change vernacular language to bring it away from its use-function, or that which actually ties it to a scientific language that is based on use, and rethink the science language and vernacular language on the basis of objects. That’s the really deep import of all this stuff, I think, and is a bit exciting. On another level, this can devolve into just a critique of the human-centered-ness of recent philosophy, and that’s a bit more disappointing–especially because certain aspects of the speculative realist mission gets aligned with a move “beyond critique,” so this moment of real critique on their part (critiquing the history of philosophy) isn’t articulated as well as it could be, if it realized what it really was…

  2. Gary Williams

    Thanks for the insightful comment Mike. You mentioned that we should be cautious about reinstalling the standard distinction between philosophy and science. I think this is a very important question. After years of thinking about this issue, I think I have finally come down in favor of this division and I’ll tell you why: self-recursion. If you look at what Russell tried to do and look at what Goedel did in response, you will start to see a picture of the mind which fundamentally resists being completely formalized ontically. Within any powerful system of thought, there is the capacity to turn that thought upon itself as proved by Goedel’s completeness theorem. Following Badiou, and even Hofstadter, this capacity of self-reflection, in turn, opens up a distinction between what we can know completely and what is in excess to that knowledge. In other words, such thought establishes the distinction between ontic knowledge and complete philosophical Truth. Even if we cannot fully know that Truth, we can name it as such and this naming constitutes the distinction itself.

    Thus, the distinction between philosophy, which is meta-reflective and constituted by self-referential structure, and ontic science, which is unreflective and objective, is very “real”. But I think the onticologists are right though in saying that the ontological “reality” of this philosophical world of self-recursive structure is on the same level as that of material objects. But to deny the ontological difference established by self-reflective thought is to deny the human capacity to utilize reflexive metaphors of self and I-hood. To do so would be to overlook a key phenomenological structure of humanity.

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