Speculative Realism, or What’s On in Philosophy
From the transcript of the “Speculative Realism” workshop at Goldsmiths, in the latest issue of Collapse:
Iain Hamilton Grant: … So I think there can be no liberality at that level, and realism can’t be regionalized, as it were, nor said to be realism if it is dependent on the willed suppression of some external condition. An ethical realism is precisely not a realism, in the same way that a political realism is not a realism. In the same way, in fact — and I know this is contentious, but it seems to me a point that needs to be made — a critical materialism is not a materialism. Fundamentally, it’s a materialism oriented, driven, steered, designed, by critique. In other words, it’s a theory of matter held by people with some use for certain bits of it and none for others. How is it possible for critical materialism to think that there can be a difference between what matters and crude matter, you know, things like plants? So I think there can’t be any liberality at that level, that would be my answer. And the very fact that such positions are perpetuated is the reason why this needs to be done again.
Graham Harman: I can guess what you think of Marxist materialism.
IAH: Love it! No, it’s simply wrong. The idea that it’s possible to invoke a diminished realm, as it were, for matter and to condemn whatever does not fulfill the economic, teleological purposes of certain types of agents to a sphere of ‘merely crude matter,’ where it has absolutely no effects whatsoever, where it’s left to one side of the philosophical and the political problem, seems to me a recipe for disaster. If you’re trying to do politics, if you’re trying to work out, ‘we need to do x, how are we going to do x, we need a strategy,’ and so on. What’s the first thing you do? You take account of the environment, and so on. What’s the first thing critical materialism does? ‘I want a theory of matter, what am I going to do? I know, I’ll ignore half of it.’ That’s not good metaphysics, fundamentally. It’s not a good way of approaching reality, it seems to me.
Peter Hallward: But what about cases where you do will something to be true, though, or to be the case? I mean, just banally, holding a promise, making a commitment. There are cases in which something comes to be because you will it so, and politics would be completely disarmed if you lost that.
IHG: There’s the Spinozist response to that: what I think of as my freedom is my incapacity to explain the cause of the event that I’m trying to describe. I move my arm because I will it so, or do I just not know the causes of my arm moving? That’s the Spinozist answer…
PH: And like I said, that disarms, well, that is the disarming of politics.
IHG: Yeah, yeah it is. I think…fundamentally it seems to be a question about consistency of effects, at one level. It’s possible that a series of actions can be maintained despite having, let’s say, punctual conditions of production. So there seems to be a consistency of events, and they’re all tending in one direction. I want to raise my arm because I want the bus to stop. So I stick my arm out and the bus stops — a triumph for transcendentalism! I have achieved the stopping of the bus by means of my will alone. Let’s say that happens. It really does seem to be about a question of consistency, and the problem from the perspective I come from is how to explain the consistency, and I do acknowledge that’s a problem. But do we explain it any more by saying that it’s an act of will? I don’t think so. I think the reason we move our arms is because we have arms to move, first and foremost, and because there are certain contours of the world that make that a possible gesture and a significant gesture: naturalistically possible and socially practical. It has outcomes. But the question of whether we should hold ontology ransom to political expediency seems to precisely represent the problem of transcendentalism, in so far as the latter concerns ‘what are the spheres of my legitimate autonomy, over what I can legislate?’
Ali Alizadeh: Action and will do not only belong to the practical realm of philosophy. They go back to Descartes, in a sense, because will and action are the very necessary elements of thinking itself. Without willing to think there is no thought — so before it becomes the practical element, it’s epistemic.
IHG: Again, this is a solution, I think, that’s often tried. Let’s say we’ve accepted the point that in order to think I have to will it, yes? And let’s say I’m not thinking yet, but I will to think. I will to think, and then comes the thought. How can I will to think prior to the thought that I will to think being there? I can’t. So the idea that there is a will that thinks thought for me makes sense if and only if that will is outside me, is nothing to do with me. So it’s not my will that causes the thought to occur. If we call it ‘will’ that presumably serves some additional ontology, some additional metaphysics — let’s say the Fichtean one, which does subsume epistemology, the theoretical under the practical. Let’s say that’s the aim. Then it begins to make sense to do that, but only given those caveats. Fundamentally, however, I don’t think it’s true that my thinking is caused by my will. Would that it were! For God’s sake, then practical problems like writing papers late at night would disappear!
AA: But you don’t have any criteria for the intensity of the receptivity of sense data here — that is, whether or not I’m aware of the intensity of what I’m receiving, reinforcing that data, and that I’m not just receiving it in a kind of semi-unconscious state…
IHG: Yeah, put it in the form of a question: What is the impetus to thought? Where does thought come from? If you can answer that question, then we can say what the source of the thought is. And the necessary answer, I would contend, is that it comes from nature.
Cecile Malaspina: And where does nature come from?
IHG: What’s the ground of the ground? — absolutely. Why is there this nature rather than another, and so on? That’s the principle of sufficient reason, that’s the problem of ground. That’s why I think it’s an important question.
GH: … ‘Speculative Realism,’ first of all, is a very apt title, because realism, of course, is very out of fashion in philosophy. And I think one of the reasons it’s out of fashion is that it’s considered boring. Realism is the philosophy of the boring people who smack down the imaginative ones and force them to take account of the facts. G.E. Moore supposedly held up his hand and said: here it is, external objects exist. Yes, but that hardly exhausts the field of reality! And as yesterday’s Lovecraft conference indicated, realism is always in some sense weird. Realism is about the strangeness in reality that is not projected onto reality by us. It is already there by dint of being real. And so it’s a kind of realism without common sense. If you look at the work of all four of us, there’s not much common sense in any of it. The conclusions are very strange in all four cases. In Ray’s [Brassier] case you have a reductive eliminativism, and you end his book with the husks of burnt-out stars and the meaninglessness of everything. That’s not something you usually get in G.E. Moore and those sorts of realists! In Iain’s book you have a pre-individual dynamic flux that somehow meets with retardations and becomes encrusted into rivers and mountains. In my work you get objects infinitely withdrawing from each other into vacuums and only barely managing to communicate across some sort of qualitative bridge. And of course in Quentin’s [Meillassoux] philosophy you get no causal necessity whatsoever. Everything’s pure contingency. These are not the sorts of notions one usually associates with realism. Metaphysics is usually thought to be concerned with wild, speculative sorts of ideas, and speculation is usually not considered a form of realism. You hear ‘speculative idealism,’ not ‘speculative realism.’ Another obvious common link is a kind of anti-Copernicanism. Kant is still the dominant philosopher of our time. Kant’s shadow is over everyone, and many of the attempts to get beyond Kant don’t get beyond Kant at all. I think Heidegger is a good example of this. Heidegger’s a great example of the ‘correlationist,’ in Meillassoux’s sense. Obviously, we all think of Kant as a great philosopher. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a problem. It doesn’t mean that Kant is the right inspiration for us, and in fact, I hold that the Kantian alternatives are now more or less exhausted.
Quentin Meillassoux: … The realist always has to posit more concepts to prove he has accessed pre-conceptual reality. The situation seems desparate: how could you refute that whenever you think something, you think something? That’s why the realist, conscious that his reasoning is apparently in vain, has generally renounced any attempt to refute the correlationist and has adopted what I call a ‘logic of secession’ towards him. This secession is a blunt refusal addressed to the correlationist: an ‘I won’t discuss with you anymore, I will rather discuss about you.’ This is a logic of unbinding, of independence, but this independence is not the originary independence of the Real towards the correlation but that of the realist towards the discussion with the correlationist. The logic of secession, it seems to me, takes two principle forms in modernity.
The first one consists in fleeing voluntarily from the discussion in order to discover the richness of the concrete world. Schopenhauer said that solipsism was a fortress impossible to penetrate, but also pointless to attack, since it is empty. Solipsism is a philosophy that nobody can refute, but also one that nobody can believe. So let’s leave the fortress as it is, and let’s explore the world in all its vastness! The first strategy of the realist, similarly, concerns the fortress of correlation: ‘If you want to stick your plaster on me, please do, but then leave me alone; I have so many interesting realities to investigate!’ This is what I call: ‘The Rhetoric of the Rich Elsewhere.’ The realist disqualifies the correlationist argument as uninteresting, producing arid idealities, boring academics, and pathological intellectuals. ‘Let’s stop discussing, and let’s open the windows: let’s inhale things and feel the breeze.’ This is an attractive and sometimes powerful rhetoric — not a pejorative but in a Nietzschean sense. A rhetoric of the fruitful concreteness of things, the revenge of descriptions and style on repetitive quibbles. Latour, sometimes, severs all links with correlationism in such a way, and does so with much talent and humor. It must be added, of course, that he also uses other elaborate instruments to fight the circle. But in the case of the ‘Rich Elsewhere’ rhetoric, it is clear that it is not an argument, but a disqualification of he who argues: the sickly and boring correlationist.
The other method of disqualification used by modern realism is a more fundamental one: it brings out the implicit logic of the ‘Rich Elsewhere,’ which consists in replacing the discussion with the correlationist with an exposition of his motivations. We no longer examine what he says, we examine why he says what he says. It is the well-known logic of suspicion that we find in Marx, with the notion of ideology, or in Freud, with precisely the notion of resistance. The realist fights every form of idealism by discovering the hidden reasons behind these discourses — reasons that do not concern the content of philosophies, but the shameful motivations of their supporters: class-interest, libido, etc. In this way, the realist explains in advance why his theories must be refused by those who are unable to see the truth for such and such objective reasons. Hence he will neutralise any refutation as an already-described symptom of social or psychological resistance, unconscious resistance which is, according to the realist, often unavoidable. But what is interesting, from my own point of view, is that this well-known strategy of suspicion can be understood as the necessary result of an inability to rationally refute the insipid and implacable argument of the correlationist. And we could say the same about the Nietzschean suspicion of the sickly Kantians of the University.
I refuse suspicion because realism, in my view, must remain a rationalism. The circle argument is an argument and must be treated as such. You don’t refuse a mathematical demonstration because the mathematicians are supposed to be sickly or full of frustrated libido, you refuse what you refute! I clearly understood the calamitous consequences of the notion of resistance when I heard an astrologer, answering placidly to a skeptic, that the latter’s incredulity was predictable since he was a Scorpio!
What is at stake, consequently, is to build up a realism released from the strategy of suspicion: a realism which doesn’t need to disqualify the correlationist because it has clearly refuted him. I want that easy and implacable refutation to be transferred to the other side, from correlationism to realism; and, conversely, the argument of resistance to become the last possible defense of correlationism itself. But I don’t want to refute only to refute and win the discussion. As we shall see, I’m looking for a creative refutation. That is, a refutation which discovers a truth, an absolute truth, inside the circle itself. That’s why I propose an access to the Real not grounded on an axiom, but on a demonstrated principle — the principle of factuality that I’m now going to set out.
I call ‘facticity’ the lack of reason of any reality; that is, the impossibility of giving an ultimate ground to the existence of any being. We can reach conditional necessity, but never absolute necessity. If definite consequences and physical laws are posited, we can claim that a determined effect must follow. But we shall never find a ground to these laws and causes, except eventually other ungrounded causes and laws: there is no ultimate cause, nor ultimate law, that is a cause or a law including the ground of its own existence. But this facticity, this ultimate ungrounding of things, is also proper to thought. The Cartesian cogito clearly shows this point: what is necessary in the cogito is a conditional necessity: if I think, then I must be. But it is not an absolute necessity: it is not necessary that I should think. From the inside of the correlation, I have access to my own facticity, and so to the facticity of the world correlated to my subjective access to it. And this because of the lack of an ultimate reason, of a causa sui, able to ground my existence.
Facticity so defined is, in my view, the fundamental answer to any absolutisation of the correlation, for if correlation is factual, we can no longer say — as the idealist does — that it is a necessary component of any reality.
(see also quotes pertaining to realism in fiction here).