Science envy

The hottest new trend in continental philosophy is scientism. Where all of us benighted continentalists worry over meta-commentary on previous readings of interpretations of old German texts, you see, scientists are really engaging directly with the real!

Well, let me tell you: I’ve actually been doing science this semester in the Shimer Natural Sciences 1 class I’ve been auditing. I’ve laboriously read through foundational texts of pre-modern and modern chemistry. I’ve taken part in modern adaptations of classical lab experiments, such as the experiment with the calcination of tin that allowed Lavoisier to definitively disprove the existence of phlogiston and cleared the way for the recognition of oxygen. I daresay that this experience, however rudimentary it undoubtedly is, represents a more concrete engagement with scientific practice than most of our current science fetishists have had since high school.

As a result of this engagement, I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions. First, the natural sciences are conceptual disciplines and mostly don’t want to admit it. Experimental results are not unmediated encounters with the real, but tests of concepts — often requiring extremely contrived set-ups that would never be even approximated in a thousand years of passive “empirical observation.” Any number of “wrong” systems can account for observed results (viz., the phlogiston theory, which was actually pretty robust, until someone thought of the question it couldn’t answer).

The scientific method is obviously extremely powerful, but its (often willful) blindness to the real nature of its practice and its totalitarian ambition to explain everything (i.e., reduce everything to “scientific” terms) also make it extremely dangerous. Hence one of the most important jobs of philosophers is to be critics of science, in the Kantian sense of the word. In other words, Husserl and Heidegger and Foucault were basically right.

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53 Responses to “Science envy”

  1. terenceblake Says:

    Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    Very interesting post by Adam Kotsko on the delusions of scientism.

  2. Dominic Says:

    Le réel n’est que l’impasse de la formalisation…

  3. Brad Says:

    The philosophers you cite were not, themselves, immune to the allure of explanations for everything.

  4. Dvaid Gloumbia Says:

    Very well said, & in line with the bizarre caricature of science & thinking about science found in Meillassoux, who would have us believe that many philosophers today deny the validity of our estimates of the age of the universe (a better and simpler version of “ancestrality,” but I cannot think of a single philosopher who would deny the plausibility of those estimates), and with the deeply engaged writings of Kant, who absolutely loved and admired empirical science, wrote about it frequently, and saw how it must always be mixing observation and conceptual practice.

  5. terenceblake Says:

    There is a whole hermeneutic dimension to science emphasised by such creators as Bohr and Einstein, that requires a familiarity with texts and the sequence of past developments and excluded possibilities to give content to current theories and to allow us the possibility of going beyond them.

  6. terenceblake Says:

    Le réel est l’abondance qui fait impasse à la formalisation unique, mais qui invite à des formalisations plurielles en devenir.

  7. Dan Weiskopf Says:

    I agree with the general moral here. However, I can think of literally nobody in the parts of philosophy that deal with the empirical sciences who believes in ‘scientism’, in the sense that you seem to have in mind–unmediated contact with ‘the real’, and all that. Care to name any culprits? I’m genuinely curious.

    Also: the ‘scientific method’ has a ‘totalitarian ambition to explain everything’? Really, that’s appallingly straw-mannish. I wasn’t aware that there *was* a scientific method, or that it was a form of totalizing reductionism. (Let’s also leave aside the casual slide from ‘explain’ to ‘reduce’. Not the same thing.) Maybe some scientists have made remarks to this effect. I don’t know why scientists’ comments on their own practices should be taken that seriously, though, particularly as an indictment of what they actually do.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Dan, I’m thinking of Speculative Realism/OOO types, not genuine “philosophers of science.”

  9. Schuyler Says:

    Are you familiar with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? You are coming to the same conclusions that Kuhn did regarding the conceptual and non-progressive science, and Kuhn was prompted to write it after reading for the first time the historical texts of scientific discoveries. And many scientists like to pretend The Structure doesn’t exist, though they will admit some of its conclusions if pressed hard enough.

  10. Anonymous coward Says:

    But Lacan is a scientist! And me and Obj the Father are scientists too!

  11. waltzingmonkey Says:

    Surprised at the claim that they ‘mostly don’t want to admit it.” Very few scientists would claim that Science is passive “empirical observation” and any philosophers who believe that is the case simply need to study science. What makes a scientific theory compelling is simply: a. how well it fits into our existing conceptual framework, b. how well it explains what we already can explain using existing concepts and theories, c. how well it can explain what we cannot explain using existing concepts and theories and d. how good it is at “surprising” us; what predictions it makes which surprise us (“look there, and you will see this.”)
    What helped Newton’s theory win acceptance was how it predicted the existence of an unknown planet, and its location, where we found Pluto. What made Quantum Physics so compelling is that it predicted so many things which we had not imagined we would see, it suggested good experiments. It did not merely explain what we had already seen. The Casimir effect is an example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casimir_effect Again, Quantum Entanglement and the Bell Theorem.
    Whether a new theory fits into our existing conceptual framework matters a lot (Science is done by people) but when the evidence is good, it can overcome conceptual inertia. Again, evidence. This is why Einstein’s General Theory could completely replace Newton’s 300 year old theory of gravity. As Max Planck put it “Science advances one death at a time”, as the old guard dies off..
    This is fairly old hat, and I’d be surprised if any Scientist contested any of this. No scientist imagines he has direct access to reality. Years before Foucault, Einstein said this: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=rSg4AAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA31&ots=G0_KWUB7pj&dq=%22Physical%20concepts%20are%20free%20creations%20of%20the%20human%20mind%2C%20and%20are%20not%2C%20however%20it%20may%20seem%2C%20uniquely%20determined%20by%20the%20external%20world%22&pg=PA31#v=onepage&q=%22Physical%20concepts%20are%20free%20creations%20of%20the%20human%20mind,%20and%20are%20not,%20however%20it%20may%20seem,%20uniquely%20determined%20by%20the%20external%20world%22&f=false

  12. Jordan Balint (@jb00m) Says:

    I think we could add Cassirer too (and of course others, but I have spent more time with him). His project is basically to carry out a Kantian critique of culture; of which science is a part…ahem, form.

  13. Michael Norton Says:

    It’s right at this point that the admiration many SR/OOO people have for Latour seems strange, because what you’ve said is more or less exactly Latour’s position.

  14. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Michael: the OOO reading of Latour seems to be, on many accounts, particularly bad given that Latour usually expresses the nature of his project in more or less Foucauldian terms–e.g. “an anthropology of modernity” (c.f., genealogy of modernity) or “analysis of the truth-conditions for a statement to be taken as scientific” (c.f., regimes of truth). It is true that Latour is more attuned to ritual and material practice than Foucault, but this doesn’t put their work at opposite poles as is frequently argued by the neo-Latourians. There’s a sixty-seven percent chance that if you took a page from each of Foucault and Latour at random, the average person would not be able to tell them apart–aside from the presence of those horrible lists that the OOOers love so much.

    More generally, I’m not sure how the obviously and trivially true proposition that there is no supernatural causation (e.g., God, Spirit, proletariat, etc) necessarily leads (although it clearly does on occasion) to either science envy or science fetishism, even when combined with an epistemology that says the real can be known and a methodology that makes the real amenable to more or less accurate observation. (Being a sociologist–i.e, a social scientist–I’m well-acquainted with the mindset.) I don’t see how this is tantamount to a totalitarian impulse and it is a bit to cheap to suggest that it is.

  15. terenceblake Says:

    The problem is not the proposition “there is no supernatural causation” itself, but its use as a metaphysical principle that unifies all science (there is no unified worldview of “science”) and is supposed to describe the historical practice of science (when we know that many scientists that made important contributions to its development had theological or hermetic worldviews) and so guide both future scientific practice and philosophy too. Levi Bryant’s original post combines all these errors and legitimates his totalitarian impulse behind the chimera of “naturalism-the-worldview-of-science”. (cf. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/fighting-words/
    Latour has recently presented himself as the inheritor of Deleuze and Derrida, and so I would say by implication Foucault ie of that whole generation of philosophers convergent on the incommensurability of the different régimes of énunciation (a Lyotardian theme as well) or of modes of existence.

  16. Dvaid Gloumbia Says:

    David Berry pointed out to me a great paper by Jay Foster that goes over the non-affinities between Latour & SR/OOO (Harman in particular) in very nice detail: “Ontologies without Metaphysics: Latour, Harman and the Philosophy of Things,” Analectica Hermeneutica 3 (2011). PDF: http://journals.library.mun.ca/ojs/index.php/analecta/article/download/332/204

  17. Wrooines Says:

    Levi’s recent declaration of naturalism notwithstanding, I thought “scientism” was a common insult OOO philosophers used.

  18. cruth01 Says:

    I think it is fair to point out that Graham Harman entirely agrees with your statements about “scientism,” which he has critiqued many times on his blog, so people’s statements about “OOO” are not apt in his case at least (I think OOO is basically Harman, Bryant and Morton? I don’t really know what the other two have to say about this but I’ll check the link to Bryant’s blog above).

  19. robotsdancingalone Says:

    The post could have been written by Harman, Bryant or Morton. Seriously, Harman goes on endlessly (and convincingly) about your exact point. It’s at the centre of his whole philosophical system!

  20. Josh K-sky Says:

    This is a pleasant corrective to all those macros that say, “Religion, while you were stabbing an Afghani girl in the face for learning to read, I was jumping from space with a parachute, love Science.” People are generally right that scientists are not the quickest to turn totalitarian — it’s more of a reflexive gesture from scientistic spokespeople who want to score points against religionists, and sometimes those points need scoring but too often it’s more heat than light.

  21. January Says:

    “…nobody in the parts of philosophy that deal with the empirical sciences who believes in ‘scientism’”? Some are at work deliberately attempting to discredit the accusation of scientism. E.g., DEFENDING SCIENCE – WITHIN REASON: BETWEEN SCIENTISM AND CYNICISM. by Susan Haack

  22. MikeWC Says:

    I’m still not sure who the targets are here. A lot of Alien Theory, Nihil Unbound and “Concepts and Objects” were about how there is no ingress to the real except through the concept.

    And Meillassoux does not claim that “correlationists” do not believe the estimates of age.

  23. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It appears that I have opened a can of worms. I’ll try to respond later today.

  24. Dvaid Gloumbia Says:

    Yes, Meillassoux does say that: “all we have to do is ask the correlationist the following question: what is it that happened 4.56 billion years ago? Did the accretion of the earth happen, yes or no?” (After Finitude, 16); “In one sense, yes, the correlationist will reply, because the scientific statements pointing to such an event are objective, in other words, inter-subjectively verifiable. But in another sense, no, he will go on, because the referent of such statements cannot have existed in the way in which it is naively described, i.e. as non-correlated with a consciousness. But then we end up with a rather extraordinary claim: the ancestral statement is a true statement, in that it is objective, but one whose referent cannot possibly have actually existed in the way this truth describes it. It is a true statement, but what it describes as real is an impossible event” (16-17). Words are important: not “believe” (he says they do) but “deny the validity” (he says here and many other places that they do deny it). I do not know of *any* well-known philosophers of science, physics, space-time, etc., whose views conform to what Meillassoux writes here, and many whose views directly contradict it. Philosophers write about the big bang all the time; none of them write as if it did not happen because it is “non-correlated with a consciousness.” I am speaking of analytic philosophers here mostly, which was a bad gambit on Meillassoux’s part to include in AF (he’s backed away from it recently), but I don’t see much evidence to construe QM’s real post-structuralist targets as adhering to the correlationist doctrine either, and I see a lot to contradict it.

  25. Philip Says:

    The question of scientism is an interesting one and it’s not an easy question to resolve, despite the ‘with us or against us’ way that most people deal with it. There are two things I have to say about it:

    Firstly, I am a fully subscribed Latourian insofar as I see science as one kind of knowledge practice among others, albeit one that is tied into very peculiar and massively powerful networks and perhaps one that has its own modes of reference and so on. So, I don’t accept that on the one hand we have science and the other we have all other kinds of knowledge or that scientific knowledge is necessarily better in any given instance. Science is itself a plurality and while it is quite different to other practices (politics, religion, pseudo-science etc.) these are differences within a plurality, not a duality. So I’m rather anti-scientistic in how I specifically and explicitly cognise scientific practice — I’m anti-scientistic, intellectually speaking.

    But, then, secondly, am I not quite naively scientistic in my everyday practices? Do I believe in evolution, global warming, atoms? Of course I do. When I get sick do I follow medical science or voodoo? The former, of course. Do I accept the claims of geocentrism just because it’s just one cosmology among others? Of course not, I accept whatever I understand of the prevailing scientific consensus is, however complex and processual I understand such consensus to be. Insofar as science has a widely accepted answer for a question of fact I basically accept it (this probably isn’t absolutely true but it’s true enough).

    So, I actually feel slightly dishonest when I repeat the Latourian/Foucauldian, etc. slogans about science . I preach these lessons and I hold them to be true but don’t I practice a whole different kind of truth, generally?

    Of course the Latourian pluralism with respect to scientific knowledge qua practice that I describe above isn’t actually *incompatible* with this kind of naive, ‘grade school’ scientism that I otherwise assume but nor are the two things really harmonious. They’re not irreconcilable but nor do they sit easily together. I do experience some cognitive dissonance between the two — why is this? I don’t know.

    Science is one kind of knowledge among others, yes. But am I prepared to give other kinds of knowledge an equal hearing on questions of fact? Hardly. Am I anti-scientism or pro-scientism? Both!

    Just a thought rather than an argument but hopefully people can see where I’m coming from. For the time being I think that scientism makes for a more interesting open question than it is a debating topic with sides pre-decided, as if anyone has all the answers. We should take its contradictions as indication that no one has adequate answers yet.

  26. Continental Naturalism and the Deconstruction of Scientism | AGENT SWARM Says:

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  27. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s clear to me that two major flaws in this post are emerging in this conversation: first, I didn’t specify who I was talking about; second, my statements about science’s “totalitarian ambitions” are overly hyperbolic to say the least. I repent in dust and ashes of the second — were I to be more precise, I’d say that the “scientistic” view tends toward this, not necessarily scientific practice as such (though there has been a spate of books published recently arguing that science makes philosophy obselete, etc., which are written by actual practicing scientists…) — and as for the first, I wrote this post after making my monthly scan over Levi Bryant’s blog and thinking, “Oh God, here we go again with this naturalism thing.” I didn’t want to name him because I have found our past conversations singularly unedifying and didn’t want to lure him over here. Hence “SR/OOO types” was basically code for “Levi’s recent series of posts and the kind of people who would sympathize with them.”

    An interesting thing about this post is how little middle ground there is — people seem to think I either totally nailed my targets or claim that they have no idea who I could possibly be talking about. That’s probably another sign of a serious flaw in the post. Philip seems to me to take it in a potentially more interesting or productive direction.

  28. MikeWC Says:

    David – But it’s the existence of the two levels of sense that is key. The literal statement is that the Earth formed X number of years ago, but a second level of sense is added with the codicil “for humans,” i.e. “this is how the event appears under our conditions of perception.”

    Of course no one denies these past events took place. But any position that is even vaguely Kantian has to reckon with the oddness of describing something that existed before the conditions of perception did.

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  30. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    “But any position that is even vaguely Kantian has to reckon with the oddness of describing something that existed before the conditions of perception did.”

    Why? Nobody thinks we *perceived* things that happened billions of years ago, or even that we thought about them until fairly recently. And Kant himself used examples of stars that are too far off for us to ever see them etc. when clarifying what his views were. The man who first formulated the nebular hypothesis for the origins of the solar system does not have a problem thinking about things that didn’t have observers present.

    Forms of intuition aren’t “spatio-temporal spectacles”.

  31. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Why is it any more problematic to assert the reality of the Big Bang than of any other event that one did not personally witness, or which the community didn’t witness? Isn’t it just as big a “contradiction” for a group of scholars born in the 20th century to assent to the claim that a man named Abraham Lincoln was once president?

  32. David Roden Says:

    No philosophical naturalist claims that science gives ‘unmediated contact’ with reality – what would be the use of that ? No naturalist denies that science is conceptual – what else could it be? The issue is whether current best science should be a constraint on ontological and epistemological theorizing. If well supported scientific theories can provide revealing indications of the structure of the real (assuming it has one) it would be remiss of philosophers not to consider this as a filter or constraint on their theories. For example, there is no evidence for non-physical causes affecting physical things. So substance dualism seems like a non-starter until we hear otherwise.

    It doesn’t follow that that we have to commit ourselves to dogmatic ‘scientism’ – the claim that science can explain everything. There may be semantic or phenomenological facts so ‘brute’ that we can only contemplate them in a state of passive wonder. The naturalist admits that but hopes in her heart that the universe doesn’t spew up such lurid miracles. There may be transcendental facts accessible only to people with ‘H’ in their surnames. But if science is a filter its a filter on such countervailing transcendental claims too.

  33. David Golumbia Says:

    Adam: you are 100% right; in later parts of After Finitude Meilassoux admits this: the arche-fossil is no more special than the tree falling in the forest with nobody there to see it. Odd, considering how much weight he places on its specifics in the early parts of the book.

    Daniel’s response to MikeWC is 100% correct. There is more to say about epistemology vs metaphysics, and thinking about vs knowing, and having revisable/scientific “knowledge” vs the kind of absolute “knowledge” Meillassoux claims we can have, in philosophical practice and in Kant, but I will leave these for another day. Suffice to say: Kant writes about this stuff SO much, and respects science so much (without ever being “scientistic,” a flaw I am very much against as well) and Meillassoux does such injustice to & ignores so much his treatment of the matter that it’s not even funny.

  34. larvalsubjects Says:

    I’m hesitant to respond here as Adam has already said he didn’t want to lure me over and that he’s found discussion with me unedifying, but I feel compelled to say something as I have difficulty recognizing myself in what is described in this post. Nowhere do I make the claim that science explains everything, that we have an unmediated access to the real, that everything should be reduced to elementary particles, genes, or neurons, or that we should ignore our knowledge producing practices. In fact, the ontology and epistemology I propose, the opposite is entailed. I argue that nothing has direct access to anything else. This would include scientific researchers in their relationship to the world. My central argument for the independence of objects– drawn from philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar –revolves around the experimental setting and how knowing requires us to carefully construct closed systems in which we perturb objects in a variety of ways to determine how they respond under these conditions. Here I would disagree somewhat with Adam. Science is not just conceptual. It involves instruments and practices as well and these contribute as much to our knowledge of beings as concepts. Indeed, often the way in which entities respond to our instruments and actions upon them ends up undermining concepts.

    The philosophy of science and epistemology I’ve defended is based on the work of sociologists of science such as Pickering and Latour. As others have noted in this thread, these philosophies of knowledge are perfectly in accord with what Adam argues here. They are sensitive to the political and social contexts in which knowledge is produced, they emphasize the way in which knowledge is constructed, and they are attentive to how the history of ideas inform how we see the world. Their difference from hardcore social constructivists such as Luckmann and Berger in The Social Construction of Reality is that they refuse to treat construction as issuing from power, concepts, narratives, and discourse alone. The entities investigated, the materials used, the instruments used, etc., play a role that cannot, in their view, be reduced to the conceptual, social, and semiotic. Latour and Pickering’s constructivism is closer to what takes place in building a house and spinning out being from ideas and signs. Part of building a house will involve conceptual elements such as ideas found in engineering and architecture, part will involve social and political elements such as laws and cultural traditions in architecture, part will be real materials used such as the tools, the wood, nails, etc., and part the techniques or practices that construction workers have learned. Their point is that we need to avoid social constructivism that sees only ideas, power, signs, concepts, etc., as constructing being and also take into account the role that nonhuman entities play. I suspect many here– including Adam, I hope –would see this as a perfectly sensible proposal.

    Nor do I advocate reductionism. In my published work and numerous blog posts I have again and again defended the irreducibility of entities. Societies can’t be reduced to human individuals, nor to neurons and genes. Trees cannot be reduced to cells, nor atoms or particles or strings. Mind cannot be reduced to neurons. Biological development can’t be reduced to the unfolding of genes as they contribute to the assembly of proteins. None of these things are possible without these other things, but at each level of scale we have the appearance of powers or capacities and qualities that we don’t find at the lower-levels. H2O, for example, is able to do things that neither oxygen nor hydrogen are capable of doing. There are dynamics of society that aren’t found at the level of human individuals.

    In defending naturalism and materialism, all I’ve claimed is that whatever else being might be, it is natural and material. Even culture, for me, is a natural and material phenomena. That doesn’t somehow entail that history and culture disappear, that we can ignore what Bhaskar calls the “transitive” dimension of knowledge (the succession of theories throughout history, as well as how knowledge-producers are subjectivized), the role that power and politics plays in knowledge-production, etc. Nor does it entail that science is appropriate for explaining everything. It’s difficult, for example, to see what science has to tell us about novels and works of art.

    I don’t think however, that we can or should simply ignore the natural sciences. We are living in the midst of the greatest period of scientific discovery in human history. Neurology, biology, physics, chemistry, cognitive science, astronomy, and contemporary mathematics, etc., have revealed things about ourselves and the world that were unimaginable a hundred years ago. We should be bringing our intellectual tools and talents to bear to think about the implications of these things and what they tell us about ourselves and the nature of being. Like Plato with the new mathematics, Aristotle with biology, Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant with the new physics, etc., we should be asking ourselves how these things call for us to transform our philosophical understanding of ourselves, our place in the universe, and the nature of being. We should also, as is always the case in the Continental tradition, bring our tools of critique to bear, calling out ideologies in common understandings of knowledge-production, and revealing the blind spots in knowledge production (especially in how neurology, mental health, and genetics are often deployed in the political sphere). The problem as I see it, is that too much of Continental thought behaves as if these things don’t even exist and as if they’re not worthy of thought (Badiou, Deleuze, Stengers, Latour, Serres, and Haraway among others excepted). I think this is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst the result of science envy and insecurity, borne out of the fear that there might be nothing left for the humanities (fears that I think are completely unfounded).

  35. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Ouch. Touching OOO makes things explode, doesn’t it? Bryant’s “naturalism” is nonsensical posturing. The fact that, for him, Marx barely qualifies as a “naturalist” and a “materialist” should give you pause. Of course, whatever the chosen current position of OOO might be, no one is more dedicated to that position than OOO – it’s a kind of “Mitt Romney”-ism of philosophy that combines both the most grotesque flip-flop-ing and the almost fanatical dedication to whatever it is that their current position is.

    Remember when “correlationism” was the root of all evil? Good old days of a few months ago…

  36. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Follow up question: what the hell is the difference between “naturalism” and “materialism”?

  37. Brava Says:

    To deflate Mikhail’s cynicism for a moment: Naturalism is colorless, whereas materialism is in fact a reductive position. More specifically, where ‘naturalism’ basically means that there’s nothing spooky about the world (i.e. no transcendent entities or explanatory notions like god, the soul, or platonic ideas) and that explanation ultimately has to refer to the world’s concrete features, human practice, etc (whatever these might be) in order to count as an explanation or imply a further theoretical commitment, materialism holds that everything is ultimately a function/consequence of some fundamentally ‘material unit.’ Bryant’s claim to be a materialist and a naturalist thus commits him to a some kind of reductionism, his protestations notwithstanding. He could, of course, just be a naturalist, although i don’t know how you get to withdrawing objects, etc, and as others have pointed out already Kant was probably a better naturalist than bryant…..

  38. David Roden Says:

    Hi Mikhail, The term ‘naturalism’ is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘physicalism’ – the claim that only the entities referred to in physical theories or their compounds are real. However, it is also used to describe a methodological position: viz that that theoretical commitments of science should be a filter or constraint on ontology and epistemology (even ethics). Thus James Ladyman and Don Ross in Every Thing Must Go embrace naturalism and the priority of physics, but reject an ontology of physical or material objectcs (hence the title) for an ontology of structure or pattern.

  39. Correlationism Redux – Instantiate this | Transcissions Says:

    [...] drawing me back is also the assessment of Meillassoux’s arguments adumbrated in comments here: Despite having what I think is a decent grasp of the nuances of Kant’s position, I find [...]

  40. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s no clear, predefined difference between materialism and naturalism — their usage depends on the way the philosopher in question uses them. Thus, even if some philosophers use them differently, it seems like nothing about the terms themselves would constrain you from saying, for instance, “Levi Bryant uses ‘naturalism’ as essentially synonymous with ‘materialism'” (not to say he necessarily does).

    I feel like I owe Levi more of a response since he went to the trouble of writing so much, but I was reluctant because of a repeated pattern: whenever I criticize his position, it turns out that he agrees with me 100% or else holds what everyone would agree is a much more reasonable position than my hurtful caricature — but then if I push back on any particular claim (i.e., “but how does what you’re saying here match up with this post, etc.”), he’ll suddenly take a more hard-line stance. Then if I object to the hard-line stance, he’ll reply, “But look at all the reasonable stuff I wrote earlier!” I know it’ll piss him off, but the Mitt Romney comparison does match with my experience — and I’m gradually settling into an “Obama in the first debate”-style response to it.

  41. Leon Says:

    If it is helpful, I’d like to point out what is perhaps obvious for some readers but not obvious for others: there seems to be just *one* rather anemic and reductive story being presented here. Naturalism in the American tradition alone – thus even setting aside the Continental thought in question for the moment – looks *absolutely nothing* like what Levi has been presenting. What he is doing is “stone age” naturalism, really. There is so much more to the story than the old game he is trying to bring to town. For more robust naturalism which have a well-argued rich history to them, which are nonreductive to boot, I’d suggest the work of two contemporary American naturalists who offer an alternative viewpoint to the atoms, void, and swerve story + hand waiving to Darwin and Freud: Robert Cummings Neville and Robert S. Corrington. To end, and to put thisi as politely as I can, my dealings with Levi have followed the same pattern that Adam and others have mentioned, which is why I choose to ignore him. One further thought, given that there happens to be such a variety of naturalisms, it may simply vague and unhelpful to brand oneself with the term without at least qualifyung it (even though I am wary of labels).

  42. Jason Hills Says:

    Adam,

    Having corresponded at great length with Levi in the past, and read much of his material, I can corroborate that pattern. Mitt Romney indeed. I would also add that he strongly tends not to directly address criticisms, so I ask you Adam, did he directly address your post? I’ve always had trouble dragging him to the details, so I gave up that fight awhile ago. He seems to be arguing in order to construct and repair a closely-held narrative, but philosophy is not just a narrative genre.

  43. terenceblake Says:

    Levi Bryant’s “reply” has of course nothing to do with his post. On this and on many other points he is an unreliable narrator: http://agentswarm.tumblr.com/post/34749713518/on-unreliable-narrators-in-philosophy-bhaskar-you

  44. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The relationship between what I wrote and how he responded is unclear to me.

  45. Dvaid Gloumbia Says:

    having read him for a long time, I believe the strategy is: if you occupy every philosophical position (and many mushy non-philosophical positions), you will necessarily have occupied the right one. even a stopped clock, etc.

  46. Brava Says:

    In reply to Adam at 7:01am: I appreciate the levelheadedness of your remarks here. There’s definitely a great deal of play in the concepts of natrualism and materialism. A look at the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy entry for ‘naturalism’ confirms that. However, whatever play there may be (in ‘naturalism’ and ‘materialism’), there’s no sense in saying that a thinker may be using them synonymously, when they in fact use them conjointly. On pain of pleonasm, it’s simply unhelpful to say things like, “I’m a naturalist and a materialist” unless (1) the two things are not synonymous and (2) the contrast between them is informative (say by narrowing the scope or range of application for ‘naturalism.’

    Furthermore, pretty much every use of ‘materialism’ I’ve ever come across is reductionist in the way I’ve mentioned (whereas naturalism need not be). To see this play out in a contemporary context, see the recent NDPR review of Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. To be sure, it’s possible for there to be a non-reductive form of materialism but that would be a theory to work out, rather than a mantle one can don…

    Anyway, I think it would be worthwhile to have a discussion about the costs and benefits of naturalism. One of them, as I understand the project, is that there’s no first philosophy. And that’s a consequence I find quite interesting.

  47. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    At a risk of sounding naive, but isn’t any conceptualization (thinking in general abstract terms) a kind of reduction? I mean what is so scary about reductionism? Without reducing particular things to general notions we’d be stuck with pointing (and even that would be a rather questionable technique if one is to take Hegel’s point from ‘sense-perception’ chapter of Phenomenology seriously). Someone mentioned “stone age naturalism” – without reduction of some kind we’d have us a “stone age philosophy” of grunts, nods, and winks. Let us not be afraid of reductionism, I say. Well, maybe only of the stupid kind – “everything is a relation” or “everything is an object”…

  48. Brava Says:

    There’s a difference between conceptual simplification and reduction (and then there are different senses of reduction too), Mikhail. The main worry when it comes to materialist reduction is that it seems to render some things that are dear to us epiphenomenal (e.g. the qualitative character of experience, the realness of normative statuses or the independence of abstract objects). Some people are willing to bite that bullet, but biting the bullet = recognizing a theoretical cost associated the theory. Most forms of naturalism don’t need to take such a hard line and admit abstract entities, non-material things, like the number 2, etc. on the basis of their indispensability for successful practices.

  49. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You’re right, Mikhail — if you define “reductionism” arbitrarily without regard to this particular context, it can seem less bad!

  50. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Wait, so there is good reductionism and bad reductionism? I better go read a book or something…

  51. Josh W Says:

    In my book, the heart of reductionism is the “epiphenomena”:
    “Describe something in certain terms, claim that those form a complete causal circuit, demonstrate it within a certain domain, denigrate all phenomena not included in your variable space as irrelevant.”

    A pendulum can be described with two variables, position and momentum. This does not mean gravity does not exist, it is just that in certain domains, abstractions can hold their own as dynamically complete.


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