Science and Metaphysics – A Cross-blog Event

At least since “speculative realism” became a catchword in the philosophy blogosphere, the relation between science and metaphysics has become a renewed concern. Commitment to “realism” seems to oblige some form of deference to the objectivity of scientific discourse, while commitment to “speculation” requires a relative autonomy of philosophical claims. If we are to avoid the Scylla of engaging so liberally in speculation that our claims become unjustifiable, and the Charybdis of relinquishing the legitimate concerns of metaphysics entirely over to science, we must clearly and explicitly address the character of the relation between these fields. In this spirit, Pete Wolfendale, Nick Srnicek and myself have put together a cross-blog event inviting submissions that attempt to tackle this problem.

Here is the announcement:

We are caught at the nexus of two different historical trends. First, we accept that with regard to certain questions, empirical science is the arbiter of truth. This is not to say that science is a unitary body of knowledge, but that the only standpoint from which to challenge the authority of scientific theories is from within science itself. Secondly, we accept the bankruptcy of positivism. There is more truth than that over which empirical science has dominion. Metaphysics is something other than science. Nonetheless, we cannot admit that metaphysics is completely beyond science’s authority. We cannot do this without also denying that in some sense, they have the same object – reality as it is in itself. We must thus acknowledge that there is a relation between science and metaphysics, wherein the one must somehow constrain the other, even if this constraint is somehow mutual. The question is then what exactly is this relation, and what are these constraints?

We invite submissions of 1500-2500 words on this general topic. Issues that could be addressed are:

– The methodological constraints science places on metaphysics.

– The metaphysical implications of specific aspects of modern science.

– The positive contribution of metaphysics to scientific inquiry (both in general and in particular).

– The nature of naturalism (e.g., methodological vs. substantive naturalism).

– The nature of materialism (e.g., materialism vs. physicalism).

– The necessity of concepts such as nature and matter.

– The viability of mathematical ontology (e.g., Badiou, Meillassoux, etc.) and the relation between mathematical and empirical science.

– The role of the philosophy of science in general and its relation to both scientific practice and metaphysical inquiry.

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Normativity, Ideology, and Historicity in the Work of Karl Marx

I posted a comment on Levi Bryant’s recent post responding to some criticisms offered by Pete Wolfendale. You can read the exchange there if you’re interested, but I wanted to focus on something Levi said there, and on a comment he made in a parallel thread on Jon Cogburn’s Blog, as I think it offers a good opportunity to begin explicating the manner in which my understanding of Marx, and philosophy in general, has evolved in the last few months. I’m going to write in more detail about these changes in some upcoming posts, so this will serve as a kind of introduction.

While I think a lot of these changes have been strongly foreshadowed in what I was doing before, it’s been my recent exposure to the work of Robert Brandom and Pete’s interpretation of it that has served as the catalyst. I’m still working through the consequences, which have been very far reaching and hence have been a big part of my relative absence from blogging (that and my relocation back to the US), but this post should mark my return, and in some ways a reboot of this blog (thus the change of appearance).

I should also state from the outset that I don’t cite any of the textual evidence to which I implicitly refer in making these claims about Marx, mostly because this post has already grown very long and I want to keep it as concise as possible. Nonetheless, I think the evidence is ample, and I will be citing it explicitly in some upcoming posts in which I will flesh out these ideas in more detail.

1. Introduction: Marx and Normativity

The role of normativity in Marx’s philosophy is certainly a contentious and difficult issue to work through, but I think properly cashing it out will have enormous benefits for our understanding of the philosophical significance and the political implications that work might have. Continue reading

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Happy May Day

The US president singing along, as best he can, to America’s greatest communist anthem. Tell me that’s not a good sign.

Posted in current affairs, politics, the real world | 1 Comment

Middlesex Philosophy Department Downsized

Many of you will have now heard about the despicable conduct of Middlesex University, and specifically the Dean of Arts and Education Ed Esche, in having cut the entirety of their philosophy department. Information is abounding, so here are just a few sources to turn to:

Continental philosophy, to say nothing of philosophy more generally and of the humanities at large, is a field under siege, and the closure of Middlesex is a bad omen. Middlesex was one of the strongest and most vibrant departments in the English-speaking world, and if it can fall, there is no telling what other damage can be done. Something has to be done about this.

Expect a post here after the weekend on the philosophical implications.

Posted in political economics, the real world, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Politics of Survival

Anthony Paul Smith has written a post on a debate that has cropped up within his forthcoming edited volume, After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion. The debate, therein represented by Michael Burns and Alex Andrews, is over whether political primacy should be afforded (respectively) to the ideal of justice or the insurance of survival. I haven’t read either paper yet, but I have had many conversations with Michael about it. The debate is apparently a consequence of the challenge introduced into political philosophy by Martin Hägglund. To oversimplify a bit, Hägglund’s work claims not that survival should be an ideal that takes precedence over all others, but that it is the latent end of all actual human activity, whatever the stated aim or ideal might be. Survival is simply what it sounds like: the desire to continue living, to persist in some form after death. This desire is primary, and results from life’s definitive ongoing struggle with its mortal finitude, such that every goal life sets for itself is intended to cope with this condition, to struggle against disappearance.

According to Hägglund (who derives his position from Derrida), notions of God, immortality, glory, and even more secular ideals like national pride, justice, etc, are ultimately disguises for the desire to live on, to persist. This is obvious in the case of God, but in the secular case it would involve the desire that one’s memory and one’s loved ones persist, ultimately culminating in a utopian ideal of indefinite perpetuation of a prosperous society. Hägglund claims that all such ideas, be they secular or theistic, become entangled in contradiction because they involve a desire to finally overcome finitude, to insulate oneself against mortality, and thus to destroy the very condition that made them possible in the first place. The argument is too complex to repeat here, but his basic claim is that we must no longer undermine the de facto struggle for survival by misperceiving it in terms of ideals that deny its primary status, ideals that strive for something beyond finitude even though finitude is the necessary condition for all human activity.

The problem with this argument, at least superficially, is that it neglects the necessarily qualified character of life, and the sense in which the political status of life is always a matter of the kinds of life worth living. The question of in what the political body consists is not simply a matter of life, but of whom determines the worthiness of qualified forms of life. Now in traditional liberalism, it is taken for granted that oneself alone can legitimately determine the worthiness of one’s way of living, so long as this form of life does not impede upon the same liberty of others. This has logically culminated in a politics in which no form of life is specifically championed, where the object of political concern is not the form of life but of life itself, abstracted from the form it has taken: biopolitics. (It is strange that, while Agamben’s work is often derided for its oversimplifying distinction between bios and zoe, his point is precisely that this blunt distinction is a problem in reality, not an analytic tool to be adopted. The Greek distinction is only an imprecise precursor or prefiguration of the biopolitical subtraction of a pure, formal condition for living. The goal of his research is precisely to think a way out of this distinction.)

While the ostensible intent of this shift is commendable, seeking to protect individual liberty from heteronomous determination as far as possible, the protection of the formal condition for individual liberty dissimulates an equal, if not more fundamental, political concern: equality. While all may enjoy the formal equality of individual liberty to determine their own forms of life, they by no means share a materially equal means of doing so. Some are more equal than others, more capable of leading a life the deem worthy than others. Freedom is, for the majority, only an abstract freedom, a freedom to determine what they value in thought, but not necessarily to obtain what they value in actuality.

Beyond mere survival as condition for individual liberty, the concern would be for a just distribution of the means of living. Yet this brings us to the same series of problems Anthony identifies: doesn’t this account restrict itself to human life alone, neglecting not only other animal and vegetal forms of life, but also the ecological, extra-human conditions of human life in the first place? Isn’t the critique of a politics of mere survival guilty of restricting itself to human survival at the expense of ecosystemic survival?

Yet I think we still need a certain form of humanism here. (My reasoning is, as far as I can tell, very close to Pete’s Brandomian account of the ethical status of animals.) To an extent, it would be absurd to bemoan non-human creatures being deprived of an equal share in the means of living, not because animal life is somehow intrinsically unequal to human life, but because we have no way of knowing whether, and if so, how animals evaluate the worthiness of possible forms of living. This is not to exclude the likelihood that animals do prefer certain ways of life to others. (Indeed, its seems equally certain that living things struggle to survive, and that they strive for certain forms of survival over others.) Yet such an inward determination is not a political concern. One’s commitment to a certain evaluation only becomes a political concern when it can be articulated to others, and hence when one becomes committed not only to this evaluation, but to others insofar as a bond of trust has been established. What is at stake is no longer the evaluation itself, but the social bond that makes the collective recognition of this evaluation possible.

Now, in a Derridean sense, we can allow that no living thing is excluded a priori from the possibility of committing oneself to others through a statement; but if such commitments are not articulated, then the status of possible evaluations on the part of non-human life is wholly derivative of the community of rational (mutually committed) agents. We can only imagine, hypothesize, or speculate about what forms of life an animal might value, and while these hypotheses might be appropriate in broad strokes, they can only go so far. Because of this limitation, non-human life-forms are in fact excluded from being political agents, insofar as they cannot be said to determine what forms of life they find worthy without this claim being made by human beings. This does not mean they should not be of concern, but only that they are incapable of voicing their own concerns, and hence of being counted as a political agent in the strict sense.

So while there may be a broader sense of justice tied to a kind of ecosystemic survival, it wouldn’t be of the same kind as the political sense of justice. Again, this is not to lessen the importance of former, which very well may be a necessary condition of the latter (I tend to think so, and I believe Anthony does as well). But political justice is not reducible to the intra-political status of survival (biopolitics), nor to the meta-political status of survival (ecology).

Posted in political theology, politics, Uncategorized, utopian science | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Appeal for Travel Funds – One more time…

First of all, I want to thank everyone who donated money for the last Warwick event, as we couldn’t have made it happen without you. Continental philosophy is obviously not the most lucrative field, so your support was crucial. Thank you very much for helping make such a great event possible.

As you may have seen, Warwick will soon be hosting another exciting event, the Transcendental Realism Workshop. And yet again, funding is very light, especially on my end – I’ll have to cover my travel expenses completely out of pocket, though I don’t really have to money to do so, and the trip down from Scotland is very expensive. So if you can spare anything, even a dollar or pound or two, please consider donating it below, as every little bit helps. After the event is over, I’ll be making recordings of the papers publicly available, but I can’t do so if I can’t make it down! Thanks for whatever support you can provide.

Posted in the real world | 2 Comments

Warwick Transcendental Realism Workshop, Laruelle Presentations

You may have already seen it elsewhere, but I’m glad to announce that I’ll be presenting at the Warwick Transcendental Realism Workshop alongside Pete Wolfendale (Deontologistics), Nick Srnicek (The Accursed Share), Tom O’Shea (Grundlegung), James Trafford, and Ray Brassier. I’ll be presenting on the implications of Marxist ideology critique for post-Critical philosophy. Details are below.

Also, the paper I presented at the Laruelle workshop in March is now available at Speculative Heresy, along with the excellent presentations given by Nick and Anthony Paul Smith (An und für sich). Lastly, you can find the audio from the Laruelle event at the University of Nottingham here.

Warwick Transcendental Realism Workshop

Time: Tuesday 11th of May, 12:00pm (registration) – 7:00pm

Location: University of Warwick, LIB2 and S0.11

Organised by Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, in conjunction with the Research Group in Post-Kantian European Philosophy

The purpose of the workshop is to examine the arguments underlying the increasing push towards realism in parts of modern continental philosophy, along with approaches that bridge the analytic/continental divide, and to assess the possibility of transcendental approaches to realism within this context. Particular themes that we be focused upon include:-

– The arguments of Quentin Meillassoux, and the possibility of transcendental responses to the problems he raises.

– The relation between epistemology and ontology.

– The relation between philosophy and the natural sciences.

The event will be split into two parts. The first part will take place in LIB2 (in the university library building) from 12:30pm to 5:00pm, which will consist in five papers presented by graduate students on matters relevant to the topic, along with discussion. The second part will be the headline talk, given by Ray Brassier, which will take place in S0.11 (in the social studies building) from 5:30pm to 7:30pm, under the auspices of the department’s regular Colloquium in European Philosophy.


Ray Brassier (Philosophy, American University of Beirut) – ‘Kant and Sellars: Nominalism, Realism, Naturalism’

James Trafford (Philosophy, Unaffiliated) – ‘Follow the Evidence: Realism, Epistemology, Semantics’

Reid Kotlas (Philosophy Grad Student, Dundee) – ‘From Transcendental to Abstract Realism: Epistemology after Marx’

Nick Srnicek (International Relations PhD Student, LSE) – ‘Extending Cognition: Bridging the Gap between Actor-Network Theory and Scientific Realism’

Tom O’Shea (Philosophy PhD Student, Sheffield) – ‘On the Very Idea of Correlationism’

Pete Wolfendale (Philosophy PhD Student, Warwick) – ‘Objectivity, Reality, and the In-Itself: From Deflationary to Transcendental Realism’

The workshop is free to attend, but please email pete.wolfendale ‘at’ to register in advance, or to request any further information.

Posted in non-phi, speculative realism, the real world | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment