Friday, January 09, 2009

How claustrophobic one feels within the available analytic/continental models

Graham Harman, on January 8th, 2009 at 4:06 am Said:
Kant was always one of my heroes, so it’s not a question of forgetting or “bashing” Kant. Nor is my critique of him original– Whitehead has effectively already done the job, followed by Latour, and it doesn’t take hundreds or even dozens of pages to do it, just a quick shift of attitude.
The central point: *all relations are on the same footing.* The human/world interplay is not special, it’s simply the one we care about the most. Any relation between one thing and another is a translation, distortion, caricature, whatever you want to call it. This is true whether we are talking about human perception of cotton, a fire’s encounter with cotton, an insect’s encounter with it, or any other case.
What I love about Meillassoux’s term “correlationism” is that it exposes the usual dodge. “There is no gap between human and world, but only a primordial interplay between them.” Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, etc. But the problem with Kant was never the *gap* between us and things-in-themselves. The problem was that the human-world relation becomes the sole locus of philosophy, while the cotton-fire gap is abandoned to the natural sciences.
This is why Whitehead/Latour were so important in blowing apart the Heideggerian framework for me and turning me into a real metaphysician (I was doing the “tool” reading of Heidegger since 1991/92 but had remained agnostic about the realism/anti-realism question).
But there’s a problem with Whitehead/Latour… they define entities in terms of their *relations*. They turn their backs on any hidden residue in the things that is unexpressed in any relation. I think Heidegger’s tool-analysis makes this attitude impossible, though I won’t repeat here an argument I’ve made dozens of times elsewhere.
One last point… though I love Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism, what distinguishes him from me, Brassier, and Grant is that Meillassoux thinks correlationism is a powerful argument. He basically thinks it’s true that there is no way to think fire-in-itself without thinking it, and thereby turning it into a correlate of thought. That’s why Meillassoux is the only speculative realist who tries to end correlationism from within, through an “inside job”, radicalizing it through mathematization to make it absolute.
I think this concedes too much to correlationism, and I do not agree with Meillassoux that it’s a powerful argument (I admit its historical importance, of course). He makes his best case for this in his Fichte/Laruelle article in Collapse III. I won’t fight with it here, but it’s ultimately unconvincing.

Incidentally, I think Meillassoux also needs to distinguish between two elements in correlationism: (1) the primal human-world rapport, (2) the total exhaustion of world by human. Meillassoux seems to think that these two points automatically go together, but they don’t….

For instance, it’s obviously true that Heidegger is a correlationist in the sense of the human-world rapport. No Sein without Dasein and vice versa. But it *does not follow* that “Heidegger thinks there is nothing more to being than whatever is historically manifest to Dasein” (as Lee Braver wrongly says in his excellent book on continental anti-realism). That point needs further argument, because it’s a different point than the first one, and ultimately it fails as a reading of Heidegger. The fact that Sein only appears in company with Dasein DOES NOT MEAN that Sein is nothing over and above its manifestation to Dasein… If a pair of lovers is always seen together without exception, that does mean that they are nothing more than their relationship.

I should also point out that the argument “we can’t think the noumena without THINKING them, and thereby turning them into phenomena” is sometimes known as “Stove’s Gem,” which the analytic philosopher David Stove called the worst philosophical argument ever made. (Ray Brassier will soon be writing something about this.) But realism has never been a genuine option in continental philosophy (unlike in analytic thought) and everyone basically assumes that Fichte’s point is correct.
One healthy effect of dropping Kant’s privileging of he human world-relation is that philosophy is able to escape its human-centered ghetto. The natural sciences no longer hold a monopoly on object-object interactions outside the human sphere.
The lesson: it’s really not that hard to escape the Kantian framework once you see the problem with privileging one kind of relation. It’s retained mostly through habit and lack of imagination and the assumption that it must obviously be true. You don’t need a 380-page treatise with lots of footnotes and citations from Kant. That’s never how anything important happens in philosophy anyway. If you find yourself having to make a long, complicated, scholarly argument, then you may be on the verge of an important contribution to scholarship, but the chances are nil that you’re getting to the bottom of an ontological problem. Those moments have always been swift and clean and needing only a few paragraphs to pull off, even in Kant’s own writings.

Graham Harman, on January 8th, 2009 at 3:09 pm Said:
Kant gives serious reasons for the choice, and he certainly feels compelled to make it, but there are other alternatives. Sometimes, simply being reminded that there are other options can have an explosive effect on one’s imagination; that’s a large part of what philosophy does, I’d say. Philosophy is in large part the art of noticing the obvious. (This isn’t as boring as it sounds. Much of the obvious is weird, and Kant’s philosophy is one of the weirdest ever devised, to his lasting credit.)
As for the natural sciences, of course Kant includes them. But post-Kant it is natural science that has all the fun with inanimate things, whereas for Leibniz it was still possible to have a general theory of monads that held good for all natural substances, not just humans. Whether or not philosophy “includes” the sciences, it is not the philosopher in us who discusses fire or avalanches anymore, but always the scientist in us. I find this regrettable.
As for Hegel’s critique of Kant, it may be a big one, but it’s of fairly minimal importance for the issue now under discussion. Whether one accepts an unbridgeable gap between noumena and phenomena, or dissolves this very distinction, it’s still always the same damn two ingredients, and humans are always somewhere in the picture. That’s what needs to be gotten rid of via a general metaphysics of relations.

“In any case, it doesn’t take much to reject philosophical positions, as is clear from this thread, indeed one can usually easily get away with a quick change of attitude or a simple ‘So-and-so is wrong’ and move on.”

If only it were that easy. We are probably trapped in hundreds of assumptions about how philosophy must be done, and this is why the history of philosophy isn’t over yet, and why philosophy isn’t just a matter of commenting on books already written. A handful of authors will still appear from nowhere and shock the hell out of us. I can think of a few living authors who have performed that service for me already, and there will be others, or the profession will die.
You seem to be implying that a 700-page point-by-point refutation of Kant is the only way to go. I disagree. It is possible to adopt a different option rather quickly, if with a great deal of preparation time, and at the end of the day one gets judged primarily by how well the alternative works. Whitehead put it best: “past systems of philosophy are not refuted, they are abandoned.”
It probably boils down to a question of how claustrophobic one feels within the available analytic/continental models. When I open my eyes and look at the landscape, I see a basically dismal series of permutations concerning the human/world gap, the overcoming of this gap, or the denial of this gap. But always, it’s the same stupid human/world pair– the same Dual Monarchy. The fact that Kant gives profound reasons in favor of this model does not mean that the human race is obliged to follow him for the next 30,000 years.

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