Further Thoughts on Ontology

I have commented here before on what one might call my “methodological” objection to the Radical Orthodox ontology — namely, the fact that the Radox authors baldly assert their Neoplatonic ontology of hierarchical participation because of its supposedly benificent moral effects. I suggested that perhaps ontology, which at least etymologically is supposed to have some relation to how things “are,” should take science seriously. At the same time, I don’t think that ontology has to be the slave of science, which in practice would mean embracing the ontology of mechanical determinism.

I maintain that the trick the Radox authors attempt to pull would never have been able to succeed if the dominant strains of postwar philosophy had not fallen asleep at the ontological wheel. Analytic philosophy’s prohibition of ontological or metaphysical reflection system-building is well-known, and the dominance of Heidegger and his successors in continental philosophy (in its various institutional incarnations) led to a similar suspicion of metaphysical claims — most often quasi-moral objections to metaphysics as a “totalizing discourse” that is somehow directly oppressive (“Hegel caused the Holocaust,” etc.). Jean-Luc Nancy has undertaken to do a kind of post-Heideggerian ontology over the past couple decades, though I’m not sure he’s really “taking off” among Americans; there may also be someone in the analytic camp pursuing something along these lines, though I’ve not heard of it.

The shame here, though, is that during the prewar period, there was a real flowering of ontologies of the exact kind that I advocate — perhaps the biggest names there are Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and William James. In each case, there is a recognition that the mechanical determinism (largely unconsciously) assumed by scientists is not adequately accounting to experience, and so the attempt is made to develop a more inclusive and realistic ontology.

Then in the postwar period, the whole thing apparently just shuts down in America, in both the analytic and continental traditions — the latter of which also spread to many other disciplines in the humanities where ontological reflection may have found a place. Certain contemporary developments — the rediscovery of Deleuze as a “real philospher,” the surprising prominence of Badiou in certain American circles, the aforementioned work of Nancy, Zizek’s more recent work — point toward the potential for a renewed interest in a truly contemporary ontology. The shame, however, is that in so many ways we in America at least have to reinvent the wheel because the prewar developments wound up getting prematurely cut off in our context.

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56 Responses to “Further Thoughts on Ontology”

  1. Daniel Says:

    “At the same time, I don’t think that ontology has to be the slave of science, which in practice would mean embracing the ontology of mechanical determinism.”

    Is this fair? Suppose our ontology is a “slave” to sciences such as psychology, sociology, linguistics, economics etc instead of just a polished-up atomistic physics. Why would mechanism seem attractive? How would it even seem defensible that we could do justice to what the various sciences talk about with such a constricted web of concepts?

    There is an awful lot of metaphysics being done by analytic philosophers in the past several decades; even Quine was concerned with the question of what entities we needed to quantify over to account for the doings of science. Quine’s seminal “On What There Is” (1948) is concerned, not surprisingly, with the question of what there is. This is not a metaphysics along the lines of Whitehead or Bergson, but it is ontology. The suggestion that analytic philosophy prohibited “ontological or metaphysical reflection” strikes me as just flat wrong; the Vienna Circle tried to do this, but its members have all been dead for some decades by now.

    That said, I think you’re right that positivism/Heideggerianism allowed dogmatic metaphysics of the RadOx type have what attractions it has.

  2. Adam Says:

    I take for granted that mechanical determinism is not an attractive frame for the findings of the sciences you list.

    Following common usage, I used “science” to refer to the physical or “hard” sciences, and it seems clear to me that if those types of scientists were able to dictate the type of ontology someone would embrace, it would indeed be mechanical determinism. Isn’t that one of Dennett’s big points — if you think science is true, then you have to bite the bullet and be a determinist?

    What if I replaced “reflection” with something like “system-building?”

  3. Adam Says:

    That’s not just a rhetorical question — if making that replacement would keep this discussion from being about properly defining analytic philosophy, etc., then I would literally go in and make the change.

  4. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Umm… yes.

    I’m getting my PhD here which is the department where the Centre is located.

    Why do you ask?

  5. Daniel Says:

    The charge that analytic philosophy avoids “system-building” seems fair. The usual idea behind analytic metaphysics is that if a lot of people work on little problems, eventually they can combine forces and make progress on understanding metaphysical issues.

    In practice, this means that everyone works on little problems and then spends forever and a day arguing that they have made some progress on their preferred little problem. (The Rorty/Soames debate from a few years back is apropos here; I know that’s been linked on The Valve more than once.)

    I’m aware that using “science” to mean “idealized atomic physics” is common; perhaps I was trying to be too clever. I meant to imply that making ontology a “slave to the sciences” doesn’t seem unreasonable if “the sciences” means all the sciences. And then there doesn’t seem to be a need to look to Bergson-James-Whitehead-style metaphysics to compensate for the “gap” between the ontology of the sciences and that of experience.

    Dennett on determinism is a subtle issue. Determinism is an idle wheel if you’re trying to predict how things will be when viewed from the intentional stance — there aren’t laws about how people will behave. And objects which can only come into view from the intentional stance (such as beliefs, minds, and persons) are as real as any. So it is not at all clear that it’s right to say that determinism is “true” of things like persons and minds. It’s not clear what that would even mean.

    Dennett does slip into more scientistic rhetoric at times, but I don’t think he is either correct or representative of analytic philosophy generally when he does so. Certainly there is a wealthy of Kuhn-influenced analytic philosophy of science that is subtler than that.

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    ‘I’m aware that using “science” to mean “idealized atomic physics” is common; perhaps I was trying to be too clever. I meant to imply that making ontology a “slave to the sciences” doesn’t seem unreasonable if “the sciences” means all the sciences. And then there doesn’t seem to be a need to look to Bergson-James-Whitehead-style metaphysics to compensate for the “gap” between the ontology of the sciences and that of experience.’

    How so?

  7. Adam Says:

    I was all but quoting a piece of Dennett’s scientistic rhetoric. I did not intend to posit him as an example of analytic philosophy.

    I’m saying that if the assumed ontology of the natural sciences (mechanical determinism) doesn’t fit experience, you need to throw out that ontology and replace it with something that does — I’m not trying to do another variation on answering the “hard question” of how to get from determinism to the experience of free will or whatever. No gap is being bridged — one of the things between which there is a gap is being disposed of.

  8. voyou Says:

    The odd thing about Dennett, and some of the other epigones of science that one finds in philosophy departments, is that they appear to know basically nothing about science, which is why they can put forward the kind of mechanistic ontologies you are criticizing. I don’t know whether contemporary scientists would subscribe to a mechanistic ontology if asked, but I’m pretty sure contemporary science isn’t mechanistic, and indeed hasn’t been since the end of the 19th century.

    Indeed, I would think that James, Bergson and Whitehead are not examples of throwing out the assumed ontology of the natural sciences, but of trying to find a new ontology that is adequate to science (psychology for James, evolution for Bergson, and new developments in physics for Whitehead).

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “Indeed, I would think that James, Bergson and Whitehead are not examples of throwing out the assumed ontology of the natural sciences, but of trying to find a new ontology that is adequate to science (psychology for James, evolution for Bergson, and new developments in physics for Whitehead).”

    Yes, this is their goal for sure. And while most scientists I know don’t buy mechanistic determinism, they also are unsure of how to get talk about science-y stuff outside of the methodological strictures imposed by science’s approach to reality. The problem isn’t when, and I’m going to use an example I know, an ecologist squares off a piece of land somewhat arbitrarily, but when this arbitrary spatialization of the ecosystem is taken to be the ontological account of said ecosystem. It seems this is precisely when philosophy and science have to come together to create a full account of the experience.

    Of course I pretty much buy Deleuze and Guattari’s approach in _What is Philosophy?_ for most of this.

  10. Adam Says:

    I understand voyou’s paragraph, which Anthony quoted, to be in agreement with my basic point in this post. My emphasis is perhaps overly negative, but it is of course the case that all three figures had to critique the reigning paradigms in the course of building their own.

  11. michaeloneillburns Says:

    Adam,
    out of curiosity, which American circles is Badiou prominent in these days? I’m pretty oblivious to his state-side popularity…

  12. Daniel Says:

    “I’m not trying to do another variation on answering the “hard question” of how to get from determinism to the experience of free will or whatever. No gap is being bridged — one of the things between which there is a gap is being disposed of.”

    The “gap” I had in mind was that between “science” and “ontology”. If science is freed from scientism, then the gap vanishes, or at least becomes much less pressing — it becomes plausible that what there is is just the things the various sciences talk about — atoms, planets, dogs, paramecia, quarks, black holes, phobias, voting blocs, cousins, regrets, cabbages, kings and all the other myriad things people find interesting to study.

    Note that I didn’t speak of “bridging” a gap, but of “compensating for” one. One way to do this would be to establish an ontology on “purely” metaphysical grounds, which is what I take James-Whitehead-Bergson to be concerned with; another would be to drop the problematic notion of “science” which gave rise to the problem.

    Put another way — I think following Dennett (and common, though not universal, usage) in using “science” to mean an idealized version of physics is a bad move. It makes it hard to see that there are versions of “scientific realism” which are free of much of the odious metaphysical baggage associated with so many of the positions which vie for that title — that there could be a “scientific realism” which did justice to experience.

    (I don’t think determinism and freedom of the will are tied to these ontological issues; I think they can swing free of it. I think one could hold that all things are deteministic (perhaps for Calvinist reasons) while being a scientific antirealist, and contrariwise one can hold that a person is just something as described by biology, psychology, sociology, etc yet having a free will. And of course one can hold that people are free and science does not tell us how things are, and one can hold that science tells us how things are and all events are deterministic. And of course one could object to these categorizations by arguing that determinism and freedom of the will are compatible, and again I think these arguments can be made independent of what one wants to say about ontology generally.)

    voyou is correct, both about Bergson’s-James’s-Whitehead’s aims and much of analytic philosophy. I think folk like Joseph Rouse do philosophy of science-work of a much higher quality than Dennett & pals, because I think they have a more accurate conception of what the sciences are. I think it is noteworthy that this does not generally lead them to wanting to rehabilitate the sort of metaphysics which Kotsko is nostalgic for in his post.

  13. Adam Says:

    I’m pretty sure that neither Bergson, James, nor Whitehead had a problematic view of “science.”

  14. Old Zippy Says:

    Analytic philosophy’s prohibition of ontological or metaphysical reflection system-building is well-known

    Man, you’re 60 years behind the times. (I guess Daniel said that, in effect, but it’s true.)

  15. Dominic Says:

    I don’t think I understand what is being meant by “experience” in the context of this discussion. Is it necessarily a problem if a scientific account of how things really are (whatever sort of account that might be; not necessarily “mechanical determinism”, which I doubt anyone very much really subscribes to) diverges from our everyday pragmatic account of how things are for us?

  16. augustinian Says:

    I’m afraid I’m totally naive when it comes to this discussion: reading Adorno and Goodchild recently has convinced me that it’s not as much nonsense as I had thought, having hitherto nurtured my thought on a combination of Wittgenstein and Foucault.
    I still have some problems that may be of historical value rather than philosophical though. For me, ontological debate is problematic at the outset because of an unjustified generalisation. Can we talk about “everything” in this way? What am I puzzled about when I ask about the way things are? Is it possible to be puzzled about something we do not have an alternative to?
    This problem lies at the basis of both ontology and the cosmological argument for God. But maybe Deleuze et al. have answered it sufficiently.

  17. Adam Says:

    Okay, seriously — I did not intend for this post to be “about” analytic philosophy. If anyone can point me to a mainstream analytic philosopher who is doing metaphysics in the style of Bergson or Whitehead, I will repent in dust and ashes.

    Dominic, You’re right that “experience” isn’t the best word here. My choice of that word was inspired by James’s “radical empiricism,” where he basically maintains that we have to account for all the data (including relationships between things rather than just the bare things themselves — something that science has obviously done more and more in the past century).

  18. Thomas Bridges Says:

    Adam,

    Thanks for this post, as well as the older post referred to (Ontology as Morality). The older post has been one of the more thought-provoking assertions (or whatever) I have dealt with lately. I have no analytic philosopher to point to, but wanted to mention re: “Nancy not really ‘taking off'” – he has captured my attention as of late like none other! I am not far enough in French to read the original, and just got Dis-Enclosure in the mail yesterday, so I am a little behind you on this, but from reading some of his other stuff as well as secondary literature, I think he has some promising ideas. I look forward to having more to say about this after doing some serious reading here in the near future, but wanted to give a “sounding” concerning Nancy. Thanks again for the post.

  19. Adam Says:

    I just deleted a really hostile comment about how I shouldn’t be surprised when people “call me on my bullshit” w/r/t analytic philosophy and about how I hate the thought that anyone knows more than me, etc. We have a pretty strict comment-moderation policy here, so I didn’t let it through, but I’d like to know what exactly is going on in this thread.

    Daniel corrected me, and I went in and changed the post to be something I thought was uncontroversial — namely, analytic philosophers don’t go in for Whitehead-style metaphysical systems. I’ve gotten accusations of being “behind the times,” but no one has pointed me to a specific work of analytic philosophy that does a broad-stroke metaphysical system of the kind I am calling for. If I’m such an idiot for not knowing this, the least you could do is point me to said work in addition to insulting me.

    So I’m going to ask again: is there an analytic philosopher currently doing metaphysical system-building in the grand style? If not, then the edited statement above — which was all I intended to say anyway — is in fact correct and therefore does not prove me to be an idiot.

  20. Adam Says:

    Is it that the word “prohibition” implies that analytic philosophers have a superstitious or dogmatic aversion to system-building? I know analytic philosophers have reasons for not doing system-building. Of course. And some of Daniel’s comments have basically said that analytic philosophers are dealing adequately with the basic questions I raise without the need for any kind of system-building. So is it that I seem to imply that analytics are somehow wrong for not building systems? Is it that the word “prohibition” betokens an irreverant tone? Have I substantively wound up saying anything incorrect at all, after Daniel’s correction?

  21. Zippy Says:

    Sorry about that. I don’t think that you’re an idiot. There’s a sense of ‘system’ where systems are take-it-or-leave-it metaphysical structures, and either you’re a follower or you don’t get anything out of it except perhaps pleasure from inspecting its ingenuity. I think that kind of system building is deprecated in analytic philosophy. I meant that people in analytic philosophy write systematic treatises on topics in metaphysics. Among works lately reviewed in NDPR, we might count E.J. Lowe’sThe Four-Category Ontology, Graham Priest, Toward Non-Being, Hud Hudson, The Metaphysics of Hyperspace, and Alberto Voltolini, How Ficta Follow Fiction. Some of these are on special topics, which presumably excludes them from being systematic in your sense.

  22. Adam Says:

    Okay, I was pretty much aware that analytics do write “systematic treatises” in metaphysics, but I intended to say that analytics do not really go in for writing books in the same genre as Process and Reality. I understand there are reasons for that, and perhaps I’m woefully naive for calling for a revival of that genre.

  23. augustinian Says:

    Gosh – are you behind the times? I think I’ll keep to church history after all then…

    Davidson certainly builds systems, but I don’t know if you’d call them ontological in your sense. Similarly Cora Diamond.

    I guess the point is that after the war and after Wittgenstein, a lot of these people are mostly involved in describing the world rather than getting caught up in problems of being. As Wittgenstein puts it, the world is the totality of facts, not of things.

    As far as I can see it, your critique of radical orthodoxy is basically a critique of certain phenomenological trends in continental philosophy (which is a crap term, but I’m not one to go against the flow). Analytic philosophers listen to science, but aren’t its slaves: as soon as you get a coherent view of the world, all you can logically say is that the world allows itself to be described like this. But it’s fine to work within these parameters, as long as one does not renounce the possibility of thinking differently.

    Foucault works analytically in many ways. Immensely influenced by Heidegger, but basically refusing to use his language, he once said “I’m not an analytic philosopher. No-one’s perfect”!

  24. Zippy Says:

    Incidentally, on rereading your post I see a plea for metaphysics that takes science seriously. You might be interested in Penny Maddy’s Second Philosophy or Tim Maudlin’s The Metaphysics within Physics.

  25. Adam Says:

    Okay, as I think about this more, I feel the need to either “clarify” or “back down,” depending on your perspective. (And indeed, I believe I am one of the Internet’s foremost admitter of being wrong, despite my reputation for arrogance and intolerance.)

    My statement that most scientists would say you need to be a mechanical determinist is wrong, or at least exaggerated. Science itself is not very determinist nowadays and hasn’t been for a long time. A responsible philosophy of science would reflect this state of affairs, and though I am not familiar with the literature in depth, I assume that analytic philosophy of science is responsible in this regard.

    My comments on mechanical determinism stem from my perception that when people take up a polemical stance in favor of “science,” they nearly almost embrace a kind of vulgar materialism, which includes mechanical determinism. This kind of stance is known as “scientism,” and it is fairly frequently taken up — not only among certain philosophers, but also in certain nearby corners of the blogosphere. This kind of “scientism” seems to me to replay the same “science vs. religion” battle that we already went through in the Victorian era. Turn of the century figures such as those listed in my post seemed to be getting past this tired paradigm, in part because science itself was getting to be less “vulgar materialist” and less deterministic — and, since this is the reason I’m reading such figures right now, their “better” stance also allowed them to say actual interesting things about religion.

    In their better moments, I’m sure people who embrace “scientism” for polemical purposes recognize that it’s not so simple, etc.

  26. Dominic Says:

    Is there a non-mechanical determinism? And I suppose one should also ask, is there a mechanistic ontology that does not commit one to determinism?

    Which of mechanism and determinism is the more problematic?

    I would prefer an ontology to be non-holistic (the “whole” is a chimera) and non-vitalist (“life” is a configuration of forces amongst others, not a name for force in general or for the immanent differentiation of forces themselves or what have you), but otherwise I’m easy.

  27. Zippy Says:

    There certainly are vulgar materialist analytic philosophers of mind. Maybe you find that reassuring and maybe you don’t.

  28. Adam Says:

    Mechanical determinism is basically a pleonasm. I was using the idea of “mechanism” like I understand Bergson to be using it in the first chapter of Creative Evolution — the basic stance is that if you had the full set of all facts at a given moment, you would be able to accurately predict the future in every respect (even if in point of fact we will never reach this level of knowledge, it’s possible in principle). He’s saying that things happen that are in principe unknowable in advance, even though retrospectively we can see what their causes are. That sounds right to me.

  29. Dominic Says:

    I take something like Dennett’s Elbow Room to be saying, in effect, “even if reality were very much simpler than we already know it to be, you could still have ‘free will’ in some meaningful sense; furthermore, none of the ways in which we think reality might be more complex than the over-simplified version particularly alters or enhances the kinds of free will you can have (or might want)”.

    In the context of that argument, vulgar materialism has a heuristic function – you don’t have to gamble everything on subatomic physics or some hitherto unnoticed quality of matter, because a substantial part of the argument worth having can be had without making reference to such things.

  30. Dominic Says:

    I wouldn’t say that any moment is capable of containing a full set of facts (the absolutely determining instant is also a chimera). When we retrospectively assign causes to an event, they are always a subset of the ascertainable prior facts, and if it was an at all interesting event they usually include facts that weren’t known beforehand.

    There are systems where a full set of facts about the system (but not about the entire cosmos) is available at any given moment, and where the state of the system at time Tn is predictable from the state of the system at time Tn-1; perhaps a good name for such systems is “mechanisms”. I’m happy to agree with anyone, even vitalists, that the universe is not such a system.

  31. Grant Says:

    Michael – In response to your comment asking where Badiou is looming large stateside, the answer is in art practice. That was actually how I was introduced to his work, as well as Zizek’s – they did some lectures for Deitch Projects I attended. In fact, I think it’s fair to say the three living philosophers who have the greatest sway in aesthetic practices in the US would be Zizek, Badiou, and Ranciere.

  32. Brad Says:

    This is far afield from the topic, but I just have to know, what exactly is Zizek’s contribution to aesthetic practice in the US?

  33. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    ‘I would prefer an ontology to be non-holistic (the “whole” is a chimera) and non-vitalist (”life” is a configuration of forces amongst others, not a name for force in general or for the immanent differentiation of forces themselves or what have you), but otherwise I’m easy.’

    I don’t think that’s really vitalism, or at least the way vitalism has come to be practiced. And in terms of holism, well, of course the whole is chimera, but there is still a wholeness to things. I think you’re imposing some extra meaning on these terms where none need exist. For, example, I think one common mistake of rabid anti-vitalist is to confuse the living with what vitalists understand, or more accurately posit as a heuristic non-knowing, as life.

  34. Dominic Says:

    So is the choice of the word “life” for this posited heuristic non-knowing an accident? It doesn’t really seem as if just any other word would do as well.

  35. bjk Says:

    This is an interesting discussion of the institutional reasons for the current split.

  36. Grant Says:

    I would say the way Zizek has ended up influencing art practice mostly has to do with the fact that his literature is strewn with illustrations from a variety of media. His major interests are also subjects that are typically of interest for most contemporary artists – the nature of perception/subjectivity, the intersection of politics and media, the way the market infiltrates everything. In a world of theory/criticism driven art, those who practice critique interestingly tend to be dragged into the field. I call this “the Baudrillard effect”. Write about mediation, media, pop culture enough, and eventually, some MFA candidate will like you. Zizek’s idea of art as symptom is also sort of in vague with certain filmmakers and conceptualists.

    Perhaps, though, and this is something of a guess based on my own experiences working in art, is that he managed to run into the right person at a particular cocktail party, and everything snowballed from there. He’s lectured for Jeffrey Deitch, spoken at the Pompidou, and, oddly, been blogged about by Artforum diary (http://artforum.com/diary/id=19665).

    Brian Calvin (shows at Anton Kern) has actually explicitly referenced Zizek in some recent work.

  37. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Of course it is deliberate. I don’t understand the question.

  38. Andrew W. Says:

    Off the top of my head, P.F. Strawson’s Individuals is an example of a mainstream analytic philosopher doing some systematic metaphysics. Although no one reads it anymore, it was all the rage 40 years ago!

    Or how about someone like Ian Hacking, as he has some very interesting ontological views, as well as an excellent book about philosophy of science called Representing and Intervening?

    However, he transcends the analytic/continental divide – despite the fact that he’s well respected in analytic circles, his work is hugely influenced by Foucault.

  39. The Conformist Says:

    “Is there a non-mechanical determinism? And I suppose one should also ask, is there a mechanistic ontology that does not commit one to determinism?”

    Not that he produces an ontology, but Chaitin offers a rigorous account of mechanism that is decisively non-determinist. On the face of it, it is this kind of rigor which far outstrips the kind of determinist non-mechanism of dynamic systems theory.

    All this begs the question – does science necessitate an ontology as such, since ontology (as traditionally posited at least), presupposes some form of logos or foundation even in the minimal syntactical structure of the virtual / actual of Deleuze.

  40. Sam C Says:

    Perhaps this is both beside the point and too late, but Vouyou asserted that ‘Dennett, and some of the other epigones of science that one finds in philosophy departments … appear to know basically nothing about science’. I find that a pretty startling claim. Consider, for instance, Consciousness Explained or Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Whatever else you think about them, they’re grounded in an impressive knowledge of the practice and results of particular sciences (cognitive science for the first, evolutionary biology for the second). What is the knowledge of science they’re missing?

  41. Alex Says:

    In which Anthony means that they are largely using a version of science that doesn’t keep up with the cutting edge of the theory, but rather subscribes to a Dawkins-ish view of evolutionary biology. Dawkin’s gene centred view of selection seems fairly much invalid, for example

  42. Dominic Says:

    Dawkin’s gene centred view of selection seems fairly much invalid, for example

    Really? Since when?

  43. Alex Says:

    I’ll look up the references when I can be bothered, but, yes, it seems invalid, as does his account of individual selection at the level of organism.

  44. Sam C Says:

    First, gene-centred evolutionary theory is still a significant part of actual biology as practiced. There are criticisms of it and arguments for group selection, sure, but if it’s been refuted, I missed the memo. Second, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is not about, or particularly dependent on, selfish genes. It’s actually quite close to the kind of grand metaphysics that Adam was lamenting the absence of in ‘analytic’ philosophy in another recent thread. Third, Dennett is heavily involved in inter-disciplinary work with actual scientists, so the suggestion that he’s lagging behind a ‘cutting edge’ which is better grasped by some postgraduate theologians is… well, startling, like I said.

  45. Alex Says:

    No one is arguing that genes don’t play a role, what people are arguing is that selection occurs on a number of levels and that gene-centered views are myopic. Perhaps I was a little strong on this one, but there is certainly controversy on this point, more than Dennett allows.

    I am not a theologian, just for the record and neither is Anthony. I can’t comment on the dialogue he has with scientists (I don’t know if the scientists are any good), but I can comment on the appalling books on popular religion, which are thought of as laughable by actual social scientists looking into the question of religion. This is obviously unrelated, but I haven’t had any coffee yet.

  46. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Sam C,

    I was mostly kidding as it just seemed the next place to go. Dennett isn’t someone I care all that much about, I’ve never made it through a whole book so I am more than willing to admit I missed something, but one can’t read everything and there has to be some selection. What I did read seemed more akin to the destruction of systems rather than their construction, but it isn’t really a fight I’m interested in (and I doubt you really are either) so, sure, he’s a big metaphysical thinker if that is what you want.

    As to gene-centered selection, it is my understanding that there are bio-chemistry problems with the theory of selfish genes, etc. I’m not trying to pretend I’m a better scientist, or more specifically a better biologist, than Dawkins, but it is my understanding that in the internal debates his work isn’t used much anymore and has he really added to the field since taking up more “public intellectual” work? I find it strange that it is all that controversial to suggest that Dawkins isn’t a path-breaking biologist or the suggestion that his work has major problems philosophically.

  47. Adam Says:

    Sam C, If Dennett’s doing the kind of thing I think needs to be done, then great. It seems like someone could’ve mentioned his name a little earlier, back when people were casting vague aspersions on my education and character.

  48. Sam C Says:

    Anthony, you’re right, I don’t want to get into a fight about Dennett, still less about Dawkins (I’m not going to defend either of them on religion, that’s for sure). I didn’t mean to do more than raise an eyebrow at the claim that Dennett doesn’t know anything about science. Consider it raised (and Adam, I think your education and character are just fine).

  49. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I consider it so raised.

    One thing to consider, and I don’t have any strong or even coherent way of navigating this, is the variance of science. Of course we all know it has its own internal way of directing itself so very crazy things are unscientific, etc., but there still seems to be such a variety of opinion even on how to set those limits, or whatever they are, that you can pick from a lot of different scientific fields, individuals, etc., from which to interact with philosophy or any other humanities thing. How do we decide which science to go with? We can’t interact with them as scientists, but we can’t reject the science either.

  50. Alex Says:

    Having refreshed my memory of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea today, albeit very briefly. It seems to me to be using Darwinian theory as a “universal acid” in the face of various other traditionally non-biological discourses. I don’t think it is building a metaphysical system of the type Adam is talking about, though I have seen books that attempt to do as much hanging around the library.

  51. Alex Says:

    And as for Anthony’s point – I think this is particularly illuminating. Philosophers seem to latch on a science they like and group around it. So the Churchland’s around neuro-computational research, Dennett around this and evolutionary biology, the speculative realists around speculative cosmology and physics. Now can we construct a coherent account of why x science is philosophically ‘selected’?

  52. larvalsubjects Says:

    Nice post, Adam. To the tryptish of Bergson, Whitehead, and James, why not add Deleuze. I know you mention him in your post, yet certainly he seems to be one formulating an ontology that is non-deterministic. I also find myself wondering whether Dennett can be described as deterministic. I’m no expert where Dennett is concerned, but one of the central tenets (that he defends) of evolutionary biology is that of random variation. It seems to me that biology needs something like Bergsonian duree to get off the ground where random variation is concerned. I also find myself wondering whether contemporary science can be described as mechanically deterministic (evolutionary theory, complexity, chaos, quantum mechanics). All these fields seem to posit openness rather than determinism.

  53. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Levi,

    As I understand it much of scientific theory posits this “openness”, but the methodological strictures make it difficult to scientifically test for this sorts of thing. But scientific theory is very separated from what can be called industrial science (research and development style science) where you run across what are essentially very intelligent technicians. It is this sort of science that, it seems to me anyway, accounts for the ideology of science in the modern world (the old myths of progress and control via mastery of nature) and encourages a general doxa of determinism amongst your average person.

  54. larvalsubjects Says:

    I wouldn’t disagree with this. Have you read Simondon’s book on technology? The first half of it is available in translation now via The Accursed Share. There seems to be ripe ground here for a reading thinking the intersection of Simondon, Marx, and Deleuze and Guattari in terms of real subsumption and the “social factory”.


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