Speculative Realism: A False "Revolution"?

Graham Harman recently linked to a “conversion post” by Crispin Sartwell that gushes over the “new realist” or “speculative realist” movement, a supposedly “revolutionary development”. Sartwell is apparently excited by speculative realism because “all of these people in some form or another seem actually to believe that there is a world of objects etc out there outside of human consciousness, and that we didn’t make this all up in a narrative, or construct it socially, or impose on it space and times as forms of perception etc: they are finally turning away from the kantian nightmare.”

This narrative of “finally” moving beyond the “Kantian nightmare” is tired and overplayed. Just once I wish people who  are bowled over by the “revolutionary character” of SR would point to a major 20th century philosopher who actually denies that the Earth, moon, and stars exists independently of human perception. They certainly can’t point to Heidegger as a culprit of “strong correlationism. As I have been at pains to argue, early and late Heidegger would both agree that the “earth is real and exists independently of human access with a determinate spatiotemporal existence”. Accordingly, we see a sharp break with Kantian thought as early as the 1920s with Being and Time. Earlier still, William James and American pragmatism had long since broken with the “Kantian nightmare”. So had Husserl. So had Merleau-Ponty, James Gibson, and the whole tradition of ecological philosophy that started in the 70s and transformed into the current anti-Kantian and anti-representationalist tradition of 4EA philosophy.

Indeed, the whole attempt to make Heidegger a scapegoat for “strong correlationism” in order to tell an intellectual narrative about the “revolutionary” character of speculative realism is based on one-sided readings of Heideggerian phenomenology and simple ignorance concerning ecological philosophy as an intellectual movement stemming from phenomenology and pragmatism. Saying that the “world is real” is nothing new. In fact, it’s just common sense. That SRists attempt to launch a “philosophical revolution” in terms of “anti-correlationism” without ever decisively showing who these “strong correlationists” are bespeaks of hastiness and immaturity as a philosophical movement. Revolutions aren’t started by attacking strawmen. Point me to some “strong correlationist” passages in Heidegger and I will accept the “revolution” of speculative realism. Until then, I will be content to watch SR develop a false sense of accomplishment as it proclaims itself as the “new realism”.

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16 Comments

Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

16 responses to “Speculative Realism: A False "Revolution"?

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  3. crispin

    to me it has to do with access to the external world. (though if you want one case i would point you toward rorty’s ‘world well lost.’) so phenomenalism a la the positivists – the idea that we have access to the external world only via a series of mental images, sense impressions etc: that misplaces the world. or the role of language: the idea that we only have access to the world through our own words etc: that’s irrealist enough for me.

    • Gary Williams

      phenomenalism a la the positivists – the idea that we have access to the external world only via a series of mental images, sense impressions etc: that misplaces the world.

      Crispin, I couldn’t agree more. Many contemporary philosophers bury their metaphysics in phenomenalism and then deny they are taking a Cartesian stance when they separate our access to the world by means of internal mental representations. Personally, I am a nonnaive direct realist, what I like to call “ecological realism” or what Taylor Carman calls “pragmatic externalism”. I pretty much think J.J. Gibson’s realism is the best around; you could say I am only trying to improve on his work.

    • regirock

      If the mind does not access reality through the senses then how?

  4. crispin

    well we do access reality through the senses. only the senses are not a screen etc: they are a penetration of organism by environment. in vision light actually enters your body and works its way through in a process.

    • regirock

      well we do access reality through the senses. only the senses are not a screen etc: they are a penetration of organism by environment. in vision light actually enters your body and works its way through in a process.

      I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’m not as well read in phenomenology as I should be but I don’t see how having “access to the external world only via a series of mental images, sense impressions” is at odds with your reply. I don’t see how it’s at odds with realism.

      I just don’t see where your objection lies.

  5. Rex

    Maybe you can clear something up for me:

    We have our orderly conscious experiences and we want to explain them. To do this, we need some context to place these experiences in. So we postulate the existence of an orderly external universe that “causes” our experiences. But then we have to explain what caused this orderly external universe, and why it has the particular initial conditions and causal laws that result in what we observe instead of some other initial conditions and/or causal laws.

    If “The Physical World Hypothesis” is intended to explain the order and consistency of our experiences, then what explains the physical world’s order and consistency? If nothing explains it, then why is that hypothesis that an orderly physical world exists fundamentally and uncaused *more* appealing than just accepting that our orderly conscious experiences exist fundamental and uncaused?

    I don’t accept *or* reject as fact the claim that there is a noumenal world that underlies our phenomenal experiences. But I think that Descarte’s “dream argument” and his “Method of Doubt” (as well as the related Bostrom-brain-simulation and brain-in-vat scenarios) show that our perceptions are not necessarily a reliable guide to the “world as it really is”. Maybe the world is exactly as it appears, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe there is nothing to reality except our experiences. I don’t see any way that we can ever get outside our subjective experience to determine which is the case.

    I don’t outright deny that it is impossible to gain knowledge of how things really are. Who knows what future discoveries await us? BUT, as of now, I haven’t see any convincing evidence that it’s possible.

    What am I missing? Why do you claim that it *IS* possible to gain knowledge of how things really are?

    • We have our orderly conscious experiences and we want to explain them. To do this, we need some context to place these experiences in. So we postulate the existence of an orderly external universe that “causes” our experiences.

      Rex, I like the way you framed the problem of consciousness but I think there is an alternative way to frame the causality of biological experience that doesn’t lead to a disconnect between materialism and phenomenality. Instead of supposing that there is a linear causal chain of the universe affecting the organism and the organism passively generating experience, we should instead understand the organism to be actively and continuously involved in a nonlinear causal coupling with the environment, including homeostatic regulation, sense perception, and internal self-monitoring a (body-body interaction). Varela calls this a “transactional” view of how nature “causes” experience. Turns out, nature doesn’t “cause” experience in a linear fashion, but rather, experience is the emergent phenomenon of an organism “enacting” across time in an environment so as to achieve a homeostatic balance between various drives. Moreover, organisms often engage in what’s called “niche construction” wherein their development over evolutionary time coevolved along with patterns of change in the physical environment, shaping the environment and being shaped likewise. This is especially true of human development and the question of nature vs nurture and social constructionism. We as philosophers need to thus deconstruct the dualist presuppositions that go into the way we inquire about nature “causing” experience in a linear fashion, and instead look at the conditions for the possibility of corporeal living bodies embedded into physical and sometimes social worlds.

      • regirock

        Turns out, nature doesn’t “cause” experience in a linear fashion

        [Citation Needed]

      • Gary Williams

        <[Citation Needed]

        Check out some of Francisco Varela's work on enaction.

      • outstanding posts Gary. I only today found your blog and just wanted to let you know that many of your positions resonate with me. Keep up the uber-lucid and important work…

        m-

      • Rex

        I agree that the problem *can* be framed in other ways, but my question is why should we choose one of those alternatives over the other?

        So the first thing that stands out is your delineation between the organism and it’s environment. But both the organism and its environment are composed of the same fundamental entities obeying the same fundamental laws, so any boundary drawn between them would seem to be essentially arbitrary. It *seems* to you that a boundary exists, but using different (also arbitrary) criteria, a boundary could be drawn elsewhere (e.g., “The Extended Mind”, by Chalmers and Clark), or not drawn at all.

        Further, you draw a distinction between linear and nonlinear causality…but this doesn’t seem like a particular important distinction. The determinisitic vs. probabilistic or the linear vs. nonlinear nature of the governing fundamental causal laws of physics seems to me to be irrelevant. The key thing is whether all events transpire according to some (maybe probabilistic) rule.

        For example, let’s assume that our best scientific theories tell us something true about the way the world *really* is, in an ontological sense. And further, for simplicity, let’s assume a deterministic interpretation of those theories.

        In this view, the universe as we know it began ~13.7 billion years ago. We’ll set aside any questions about what, if anything, preceded the first instant and just draw a line there and call that our “initial state”.

        Given the specifics of that initial state, plus the particular causal laws of physics that we have, the universe can only evolve along one path. The state of the universe at this moment is entirely determined by two, and only two, things: its initial state and its casual laws.

        But this means that the development of our scientific theories *about* the universe was also entirely determined by the initial state of the universe and it’s causal laws. Our discovery of the true nature of the universe has to have been “baked into” the structure of the universe in its first instant.

        By comparison, how many sets of *possible* initial states plus causal laws are there that would give rise to conscious entities who develop *false* scientific theories about their universe? It seems to me that this set of “deceptive” universes is very likely to be much larger than the set of “honest” universes.

        Right? Or wrong?

  6. regirock

    My attempts at coaxing clarification out of anyone has not been met with success. So how about an idiot’s guide to Speculative Realism. I don’t mean an introductory paragraph or wikipedia entry. I mean a run down of arguments minus jargon and obscurantism. It would save us all some time.

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