This paper addresses a central positive claim in Matti Eklund’s Choosing Normative Concepts: that a certain kind of metaphysically ambitious realist about normativity – the ardent realist – is committed to the metasemantic idea that the distinctive inferential role of normative concepts suffices to fix the extension of those concepts. I argue first that commitment to this sort of inferential role metasemantic view does nothing to secure ardentrealism. I then show how the ardent realist can (...) address Eklund’s leading challenge without appeal to distinctively metasemantic commitments. (shrink)
ABSTRACT This paper addresses a central positive claim in Matti Eklund’s Choosing Normative Concepts: that a certain kind of metaphysically ambitious realist about normativity – the ardent realist – is committed to the metasemantic idea that the distinctive inferential role of normative concepts suffices to fix the extension of those concepts. I argue first that commitment to this sort of inferential role metasemantic view does nothing to secure ardentrealism. I then show how the ardent realist (...) can address Eklund’s leading challenge without appeal to distinctively metasemantic commitments. (shrink)
In Choosing Normative Concepts, Eklund considers a “variance thesis” about our most fundamental (and seemingly most “authoritative”) normative concepts. This thesis raises the threat of an alarming symmetry between different sets of normative concepts. If this symmetry holds, it would be incompatible with “ardentrealism” about normativity. Eklund argues that the ardent realist should appeal to the idea of “referential normativity” in response to this challenge. I argue that, even if Eklund is right in his core arguments (...) on this front, many other important challenges for ardentrealism remain that also stem from the issues about possible variance in normative concepts that he considers. Following this, I introduce further issues about conceptual variance. These are issues that arise within the context of the framework that Eklund proposes the ardent realist use to confront the variance theses he considers. In particular, the issues concern what normative role as such is, as well as, relatedly, which roles associated with a concept (or predicate) get to count as part of its normative role. The upshot is that issues about conceptual variance in normative domains might be even more challenging for the ardent realist to deal with than Eklund argues. (shrink)
ABSTRACT In Choosing Normative Concepts, Eklund considers a “variance thesis” about our most fundamental normative concepts. This thesis raises the threat of an alarming symmetry between different sets of normative concepts. If this symmetry holds, it would be incompatible with “ardentrealism” about normativity. Eklund argues that the ardent realist should appeal to the idea of “referential normativity” in response to this challenge. I argue that, even if Eklund is right in his core arguments on this front, (...) many other important challenges for ardentrealism remain that also stem from the issues about possible variance in normative concepts that he considers. Following this, I introduce further issues about conceptual variance. These are issues that arise within the context of the framework that Eklund proposes the ardent realist use to confront the variance theses he considers. In particular, the issues concern what normative role as such is, as well as, relatedly, which roles associated with a concept get to count as part of its normative role. The upshot is that issues about conceptual variance in normative domains might be even more challenging for the ardent realist to deal with than Eklund argues. (shrink)
This book investigates the argument from queerness against moral realism, famously put forward by J. L. Mackie in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977). The book can be divided into two parts. The first part, roughly comprising chapters 1 and 2, gives a critical overview of Mackie’s metaethics. In chapter 1 it is suggested that the argument from queerness is the only argument that poses a serious threat to moral realism. A partial defense of this idea is offered (...) in chapter 2 via a discussion of Mackie’s argument from relativity, which is concluded to fail for reasons that generalize to other influential arguments against moral realism. Chapter 2 also explores Mackie’s moral semantics at length. The key notion of authoritative prescriptivity is analyzed, and a new interpretation of Mackie’s error theory is defended. In the second part, consisting roughly of chapters 3 and 4, the argument from queerness is taken apart and put back together, resulting in several different versions. Chapter 3 discusses three different supervenience-related arguments, all of which are found to be unpersuasive. Chapter 4 develops two different versions of the core argument from queerness, focusing on authoritative prescriptivity. A total of thirteen objections are discussed and rejected. It is concluded that the two arguments do indeed refute the targeted versions of moral realism. Finally, in chapter 5 the entire discussion is briefly summarized. (shrink)
This is a review of Eklund's book. It discusses his suggestion that "ardent realists" use the practical profiles of normative concepts to A) explain what it is for a concept to be normative, B) fix reference, and C) provide an extensional theory of normative properties. I argue that those sympathetic to ardentrealism will be happier to focus on the way in which normativity presents itself to cognition, particularly that presentation of inherent, authoritative guidance, and whether that (...) 1) explains what it is for a concept to be normative, 2) fixes reference, 3) aptly characterizes the nature of normativity in the world, and perhaps 4) explains why normative thoughts have the Eklund-style normative roles—the practical profiles of things like motivation, preference, and intention—that they have. (shrink)
ABSTRACT The literature surrounding Horgan and Timmons’s Moral Twin Earth scenarios has focused on whether such scenarios present a metasemantic problem for naturalist realists. But in Choosing Normative Concepts, Eklund uses a similar scenario to illuminate a novel, distinctly metaphysical problem for normative realists of both naturalist and non-naturalist stripes. The problem is that it is not clear what would suffice for the sort of ardent realist view that normative realists have in mind – the view that reality itself (...) favors certain ways of acting and valuing. Eklund then offers a metasemantic view that he thinks can provide the best solution to this problem. In this reply to Eklund, I argue that Eklund’s treatment of the problem and his solution re-entangle metaphysical and metasemantic issues that ought to be kept separate. I also argue that there is a purely metaphysical solution to the problem at hand, which Eklund’s own solution seems to implicitly rely upon. While these criticisms do not suggest that Eklund’s positive view is false, they do undermine some of the broader lessons that Eklund hopes to draw from the view. (shrink)
continent. 2.2 (2012): 66–75 ~*~ We’re Doomed. Pessimism is the night-side of thought, a melodrama of the futility of the brain, a poetry written in the graveyard of philosophy. Pessimism is a lyrical failure of philosophical thinking, each attempt at clear and coherent thought, sullen and submerged in the hidden joy of its own futility. The closest pessimism comes to philosophical argument is the droll and laconic “We’ll never make it,” or simply: “We’re doomed.” Every effort doomed to failure, every (...) project doomed to incompletion, every life doomed to be unlived, every thought doomed to be unthought. Pessimism is the lowest form of philosophy, frequently disparaged and dismissed, merely the symptom of a bad attitude. No one ever needs pessimism, in the way that one needs optimism to inspire one to great heights and to pick oneself up, in the way one needs constructive criticism, advice and feedback, inspirational books or a pat on the back. No one needs pessimism, though I like to imagine the idea of a pessimist activism. No one needs pessimism, and yet everyone—without exception—has, at some point in their lives, had to confront pessimism, if not as a philosophy then as a grievance—against one’s self or others, against one’s surroundings or one’s life, against the state of things or the world in general. There is little redemption for pessimism, and no consolation prize. Ultimately, pessimism is weary of everything and of itself. Pessimism is the philosophical form of disenchantment—disenchantment as chanting, a chant, a mantra, a solitary, monophonic voice rendered insignificant by the intimate immensity surrounding it. In pessimism, the first axiom is a long, low, funereal sigh. ~*~ We’re Still Doomed. No one has time for pessimism. After all, there are only so many hours in a day. Whatever our temperament, happy or sad, engaged or disengaged, we know pessimism when we hear it. The pessimist is usually understood as the complainer, forever pointing out what is wrong with the world without ever once offering a solution. But more often than not pessimists are the quietest of philosophers, submerging their own sighs within the lethargy of discontent. What little sound it makes is of interest to no one—“I’ve heard it all before,” “tell me something I don’t know,” sound and fury, signifying nothing. In raising problems without solutions, in posing questions without answers, in retreating to the hermetic, cavernous abode of complaint, pessimism is guilty of that most inexcusable of Occidental crimes—the crime of not pretending it’s for real. Pessimism fails to live up to the most basic tenet of philosophy—the “as if.” Think as if it will be helpful, act as if it will make a difference, speak as if there is something to say, live as if you are not, in fact, being lived by some murmuring non-entity both shadowy and muddied. Had it more self-assurance and better social skills, pessimism would turn its disenchantment into a religion, possibly calling itself The Great Refusal. But there is a negation in pessimism that refuses even such a Refusal, an awareness that, from the start, it has already failed, and that the culmination of all that is, is that all is for naught. Pessimism tries very hard to present itself in the low, sustained tones of a Requiem Mass, or the tectonic rumbling of Tibetan chant. But it frequently lets loose dissonant notes at once plaintive and pathetic. Often, its voice cracks, its weighty words abruptly reduced to mere shards of guttural sound. ~*~ Maybe It’s Not So Bad, After All. If we know pessimism when we hear it, this is because we’ve heard it all before—and we didn’t need to hear it in the first place. Life is hard enough. What you need is a change of attitude, a new outlook, a shift in perspective... a cup of coffee. If we have no ears for pessimism, this is because it is always reducible to something as reliably mutable as a voice. If pessimism is so frequently disparaged, it is because it brings everyone down, determined as it is to view each day as a bad day, if only by virtue of the fact that it is not yet a bad day. For pessimism the world is brimming with negative possibility, the collision of a bad mood with an impassive world. In fact, pessimism is the result of a confusion between the world and a statement about the world, a confusion that also prevents it from fully entering the hallowed halls of philosophy. If pessimism is so often dismissed, this is because it is often impossible to separate a “bad mood” from a philosophical proposition (and do not all philosophies stem from a bad mood?) The very term “pessimism” suggests a school of thought, a movement, even a community. But pessimism always has a membership of one—maybe two. Ideally, of course, it would have a membership of none, with only a scribbled, illegible note left behind by someone long forgotten. But this seems unrealistic, though one can always hope. ~*~ Anatomy of Pessimism. Though it may locate itself at the margins of philosophy, pessimism is as much subject to philosophical analysis as any other form of thought. Pessimism’s lyricism of failure gives it the structure of music. What time is to the music of sorrow, reason is to a philosophy of the worst. Pessimism’s two major keys are moral and metaphysical pessimism, its subjective and objective poles, an attitude towards the world and a claim about the world. For moral pessimism, it is better not to have been born at all; for metaphysical pessimism, this is the worst of all possible worlds. For moral pessimism the problem is the solipsism of human beings, the world made in our own image, a world-for-us. For metaphysical pessimism, the problem is the solipsism of the world, objected and projected as a world-in-itself. Both moral and metaphysical pessimism are compromised philosophically; moral pessimism by its failure to locate the human within a larger context, and metaphysical pessimism by its failure to recognize the complicity in the very claim of realism. This is how pessimism makes its music of the worst, a generalized misanthropy without the anthropos . Pessimism crystallizes around this futility—it is its amor fati , rendered as musical form. ~*~ Melancholy of Anatomy. There is a logic of pessimism that is fundamental to its suspicion of philosophical system. Pessimism involves a statement about a condition . In pessimism each statement boils down to an affirmation or a negation, just as any condition boils down to the best or the worst. With Schopenhauer, that arch-pessimist, the thinker for whom the philosopher and the curmudgeon perfectly overlap, we see a no-saying to the worst, a no-saying that secretly covets a yes-saying (through asceticism, mysticism, quietism), even if this hidden yes-saying is a horizon at the limits of comprehension. With Nietzsche comes the pronouncement of a Dionysian pessimism, a pessimism of strength or joy, a yes-saying to the worst, a yes-saying to this world as it is. And with Cioran yet another variation, futile yet lyrical, a no-saying to the worst, and a further no-saying to the possibility of any other world, in here or out there. With Cioran one approaches, but never reaches, an absolute no-saying, a studied abandonment of pessimism itself. The logic of pessimism moves through three refusals: a no-saying to the worst (refusal of the world-for-us, or Schopenhauer’s tears); a yes-saying to the worst (refusal of the world-in-itself, or Nietzsche’s laughter); and a no-saying to the for-us and the in-itself (a double refusal, or Cioran’s sleep). Crying, laughing, sleeping—what other responses are adequate to a life that is so indifferent? ~*~ Cosmic Pessimism. Both moral and metaphysical pessimism point to another kind, a pessimism that is neither subjective nor objective, neither for-us nor in-itself, and instead a pessimism of the world-without-us. We could call this a cosmic pessimism ... but this sounds too majestic, too full of wonder, too much the bitter aftertaste of the Great Beyond. Words falter. And so do ideas. And so we have a cosmic pessimism, a pessimism that is first and last a pessimism about cosmos , about the necessity and possibility of order. The contours of cosmic pessimism are a drastic scaling-up or scaling-down of the human point of view, the unhuman orientation of deep space and deep time, and all of this shadowed by an impasse, a primordial insignificance, the impossibility of ever adequately accounting for one’s relationship to thought—all that remains of pessimism is the desiderata of affects—agonistic, impassive, defiant, reclusive, filled with sorrow and flailing at that architectonic chess match called philosophy, a flailing that pessimism tries to raise to the level of an art form (though what usually results is slapstick). ~*~ Song of Futility. An ethics of futility pervades pessimism. Futility, however, is different from fatality, and different again from simple failure (though failure is never simple). Failure is a breakage within the heart of relations, a fissure between cause and effect, a fissure hastily covered over by trying and trying again. With failure, there is always plenty of blame to go around; it’s not my fault, it’s a technical difficulty, it’s a miscommunication. For the pessimist, failure is a question of “when,” not “if”—failure as a metaphysical principle. Everything withers and passes into an obscurity blacker than night, everything from the melodramatic decline of a person’s life to the banal flickering moments that constitute each day. Everything that is done undone, everything said or known destined for a kind of stellar oblivion. When scaled up in this way, failure becomes fatality. Fatality is the hermeticism of cause and effect. In fatality, everything you do, whatever you do, always leads to a certain end, and ultimately to the end—though that end, or the means to that end, remain shrouded in obscurity. Nothing you do makes a difference because everything you do makes a difference. Hence the effects of your actions are hidden from you, even as you deceive yourself into thinking that, at last, this time you will outwit the order of things. By having a goal, planning ahead, and thinking things through carefully, we attempt, in a daily Prometheanism, to turn fatality to our advantage, to gain a glimpse of an order that seems buried deeper and deeper in the fabric of the universe. But even fatality has its comforts. The chain of cause and effect may be hidden from us, but that’s just because disorder is the order we don’t yet see; it’s just complex, distributed, and requires advanced mathematics. Fatality still clings to the sufficiency of everything that exists... When fatality relinquishes even this idea, it becomes futility. Futility arises out of the grim suspicion that, behind the shroud of causality we drape over the world, there is only the indifference of what exists or doesn’t exist; whatever you do ultimately leads to no end, an irrevocable chasm between thought and world. Futility transforms the act of thinking into a zero-sum game. ~*~ Song of the Worst. At the center of pessimism lies the term pessimus , “the worst,” a term as relative as it is absolute. The worst is about as bad as it gets, “the worst” as “the best” in disguise, shrouded by the passage of time or the twists and turns of fortune. For the pessimist, “the worst” is the propensity for suffering that gradually occludes each living moment, until it eclipses it entirely, overlapping perfectly in death... which, for the pessimist, is no longer “the worst.” Pessimism is marked by an unwillingness to move beyond “the worst,” something only partially attributable to a lack in motivation. In pessimism “the worst” is the ground that gives way beneath every existent—things could be worse, and , things could be better. “The worst” invariably implies a value judgment, one made based on scant evidence and little experience; in this way, pessimism’s greatest nemesis is its moral orientation. Pessimism’s propositions have all the gravitas of a bad joke. Perhaps this is why the true optimists are the most severe pessimists—they are optimists that have run out of options. They are almost ecstatically inundated by the worst. Such an optimism is the only possible outcome of a prolonged period of suffering, physical or metaphysical, intellectual or spiritual. But does this not also describe all the trials and tribulations of each day—in short, of “life?” It seems that sooner or later we are all doomed to become optimists of this sort (the most depressing of thoughts...) ~*~ Song of Doom. Rather than serving as a cause for despair, gloom and doom are the forms of consolation for any pessimist philosophy. Neither quite affects nor quite concepts, gloom and doom transform pessimism into a mortification of philosophy. Doom is not just the sense that all things will turn out badly, but that all things inevitably come to an end, irrespective of whether or not they really do come to an end. What emerges from doom is a sense of the unhuman as an attractor, a horizon towards which the human is fatally drawn. Doom is humanity given over to unhumanity in an act of crystalline self-abnegation. Gloom is not simply the anxiety that precedes doom. Gloom is literally atmospheric, climate as much as impression, and if people are also gloomy, this is simply the by-product of an anodyne atmosphere that only incidentally involves human beings. Gloom is more climatological than psychological, the stuff of dim, hazy, overcast skies, of ruins and overgrown tombs, of a misty, lethargic fog that moves with the same languorousness as our own crouched and sullen listening to a disinterested world. In a sense, gloom is the counterpoint to doom—what futility is to the former, fatality is to the latter. Doom is marked by temporality—all things precariously drawn to their end—whereas gloom is the austerity of stillness, all things sad, static, and suspended, a meandering smoke hovering over cold lichen stones and damp fir trees. If doom is the terror of temporality and death, then gloom is the horror of a hovering stasis that is life. At times I like to imagine that this realization alone is the thread that connects the charnel ground Aghori and the graveyard poets. ~*~ Song of Spite. There is an intolerance in pessimism that knows no bounds. In pessimism spite begins by fixing on a particular object of spite—someone one hardly knows, or someone one knows too well; a spite for this person or a spite for all of humanity; a spectacular or a banal spite; a spite for a noisy neighbor, a yapping dog, a battalion of strollers, the meandering idiot walking in front of you on their smart phone, large loud celebrations, traumatic injustices anywhere in the world regurgitated as media blitz, spite for the self-absorbed and overly performative people talking way too loud at the table next to you, technical difficulties and troubleshooting, the reduction of everything to branding, spite of the refusal to admit one’s own errors, of self-help books, of people who know absolutely everything and make sure to tell you, of all people, all living beings, all things, the world, the spiteful planet, the inanity of existence... Spite is the motor of pessimism because it is so egalitarian, so expansive, it runs amok, stumbling across intuitions that can only half-heartedly be called philosophical. Spite lacks the confidence and the clarity of hatred, but it also lacks the almost cordial judgment of dislike. For the pessimist, the smallest detail can be an indication of a metaphysical futility so vast and funereal that it eclipses pessimism itself—a spite that pessimism carefully places beyond the horizon of intelligibility, like the experience of dusk, or like the phrase, “it is raining jewels and daggers.” ~*~ Song of Sleep. A paraphrase of Schopenhauer: what death is for the organism, sleep is for the individual. Pessimists sleep not because they are depressed, but because for them sleep is a form of ascetic practice. Sleep is the askesis of pessimism. If, while sleeping, we have a bad dream, we abruptly wake up, and suddenly the horrors of the night vanish. There is no reason to think that the same does not happen with the bad dream we call “life.” ~*~ Song of Sorrow. Nietzsche, commenting on pessimism, once castigated Schopenhauer for taking things too lightly. He writes: ...Schopenhauer, though a pessimist, really —played the flute. Every day, after dinner: one should read his biography on that. And incidentally: a pessimist, one who denies God and the world but comes to a stop before morality—who affirms morality and plays the flute... what? Is that really—a pessimist? We know that Schopenhauer did possess a collection of instruments, and we also know that Nietzsche himself composed music. There is no reason to think that either of them would ever banish music from the Republic of philosophy. But Nietzsche’s jibes at Schopenhauer are as much about music as they are about pessimism. For the pessimist who says no to everything and yet finds comfort in music, the no-saying of pessimism can only be a weak way of saying yes—the weightiest statement undercut by the flightiest of replies. The least that Schopenhauer could’ve done is to play the bass. I’m not a big fan of the flute, or, for that matter, wind instruments generally. But what Nietzsche forgets is the role that the flute has historically played in Greek tragedy. In tragedy, the flute ( aulos ) is not an instrument of levity and joy, but of solitude and sorrow. The Greek aulos not only expresses the grief of tragic loss, but it does so in a way that renders weeping and singing inseparable from each other. The classicist Nicole Loraux calls this the mourning voice . Set apart from the more official civic rituals of funerary mourning, the mourning voice of Greek tragedy constantly threatens to dissolve song into wailing, music into moaning, and the voice into a primordial, disarticulate anti-music. The mourning voice delineates all the forms of suffering—tears, weeping, sobbing, wailing, moaning, and the convulsions of thought reduced to an elemental unintelligibility. In the collapsed space between the voice that speaks and the voice that sings, pessimism discovers its mourning voice. Pessimism: the failure of sound and sense, the disarticulation of phone and logos . Have we rescued Schopenhauer from Nietzsche? Probably not. Perhaps Schopenhauer played the flute to remind himself of the real function of the mourning voice—sorrow, sighs, and moaning rendered indistinguishable from music, the crumbling of the human into the unhuman. Failure par excellence of pessimism. ~*~ Song of Nothing. In Buddhist thought, the First Noble Truth of existence is encapsulated in the Pali term dukkha , conventionally translated as “suffering,” “sorrow,” or “misery.” The Buddhist teachings are clear, however, that this is an objective claim, and not simply one point of view among others. Existence is suffering and sorrow—and yet this is not, the teachings tell us, a pessimistic attitude. It is likely that Schopenhauer, reading the Buddhist texts available to him, recognized some filiation with the concept of dukkha . But dukkha is a multi-faceted term. There is, certainly, dukkha in the usual sense of the suffering, strife, and loss associated with living a life. But this is, in turn, dependent on the finitude and temporality of dukkha , existence as determined by impermanence and imperfection. And this ultimately points to the way in which both suffering and finitude are grounded by the paradoxical groundlessness of dukkha as a metaphysical principle—the insubstantiality and the emptiness of all that is. Beyond what is worse to me, beyond a world ordered for the worst, there is the emptiness of dukkha as an impersonal suffering... the tears of the cosmos. In this context, it is easy to see how Schopenhauer’s pessimism attempts to compress all the aspects of dukkha into a nothingness at the core of existence, a Willlessness coursing through the Will. Though one thing for certain is that with Schopenhauer we do not find the “ever-smiling” countenance of Buddhism—or do we? The texts of the Pali Canon also contain lists of the different types of happiness—including the happiness of renunciation and the strange happiness of detachment. But Buddhism considers even the different types of happiness as part of dukkha , in this final sense of nothingness or emptiness. Perhaps Schopenhauer understood Buddhism better than he is usually given credit for. Thus the experiment of Schopenhauer’s philosophy—the point at which a Western pessimus and an Eastern dukkha overlap or exchange glances. Empty sorrow, a lyricism of indifference. The result is a strange, and ultimately untenable, nocturnal form of Buddhism. ~*~ Cioran once called music a “physics of tears.” If this is true, then perhaps metaphysics is its commentary. Or its apology. ~*~ Pessimism would be more mystical were it not for its defeatism. Mysticism is much too proactive for the pessimist, and pessimism too impassive even for the mystic. At the same time, there is something enviable about mysticism—despite its sufferings. There is a sense in which pessimists are really failed mystics. ~*~ You, the Night, and the Music. In a suggestive passage, Schopenhauer once noted that, “music is the melody to which the world is the text." Given Schopenhauer’s view on life—that life is suffering, that human life is absurd, that the nothingness before my birth is equal to the nothingness after my death—given all this, one wonders what kind of music Schopenhauer had in mind when he described music as the melody to which the world is text—was it opera, a Requiem Mass, a madrigal, or perhaps a drinking song? Or something like Eine kleine Nachtmusik , a little night music for the twilight of thought, a sullen nocturne for the night-side of logic, an era of sad wings sung by a solitary banshee. Perhaps the music Schopenhauer had in mind is music eliminated to non-music. A whisper would suffice. Perhaps a sigh of fatigue or resignation, perhaps a moan of despair or sorrow. Perhaps a sound just articulate enough that it could be heard to dissipate. ~*~ Teach me to laugh through tears. ~*~ Pessimism always falls short of being philosophical. My back aches, my knees hurt, I couldn’t sleep last night, I’m stressed-out, and I think I’m finally coming down with something. Pessimism abjures all pretenses towards system—towards the purity of analysis and the dignity of critique. We didn’t really think we could figure it out, did we? It was just passing time, taking a piss, something to do, a bold gesture put forth in all its fragility, according to rules that we have agreed to forget that we made up in the first place. Every thought marked by a shadowy incomprehension that precedes it, and a futility that undermines it. That pessimism speaks, in whatever voice, is the singing testimony to this futility and this incomprehension—take a chance and step outside, lose some sleep and say you tried... ~*~ Is there a music of pessimism? And would such a music be audible? ~*~ The impact of music on a person compels them to put their experience into words. When this fails, the result is a faltering of thought and language that is itself a kind of music. Cioran writes: “Music is everything. God himself is nothing more than an acoustic hallucination.” ~*~ If a thinker like Schopenhauer has any redeeming qualities, it is that he identified the great lie of Western culture—the preference for existence over non-existence. As he notes: “If we knocked on the graves and asked the dead whether they would like to rise again, they would shake their heads.” In Western cultures it is commonly accepted that one celebrates birth and mourns death. But there must be a mistake here. Wouldn’t it make more sense to mourn birth and celebrate death? Strange though, because the mourning of birth would, presumably, last the entirety of that person’s life, so that mourning and living would the be same thing. ~*~ To the musical idea of the harmony of the universe corresponds the philosophical principle of sufficient reason. Like the music of mourning, pessimism gives voice to the inevitable breakdown of word and song. In this way, music is the overtone of thought. ~*~ The Patron Saints of Pessimism. The patron saints of pessimism watch over suffering. Laconic and sullen, the patron saints of pessimism never seem to do a good job at protecting, interceding, or advocating for those who suffer. Perhaps they need us more than we need them. Lest we forget, there do exist patron saints of philosophy, but their stories are not happy ones. There is, for instance, the fourth century Saint Catherine of Alexandria, or Catherine of the Wheel, named after the torture device used on her. A precocious fourteen year old scholar, Catherine was subject to continual persecution. After all forms of torture failed—including the “breaking wheel”—the emperor finally settled for her decapitation, a violent yet appropriate reminder of the protector of philosophers. There are also patron saints of music and musicians, but theirs too are sad stories. In the second century, Saint Cecilia was also subject to persecution and torture. As she knelt to receive the blade that would separate her head from her body, she ardently sang a song to God. It took three attempts before she was fully decapitated, all the while she continued, perhaps miraculously, to sing. Does pessimism not deserve its own patron saints, even if they are unworthy of martyrdom? But in our search, even the most ardent nay-sayers frequently lapse into brief moments of enthusiasm—Pascal’s love of solitude, Leopardi’s love of poetry, Schopenhauer’s love of music, Nietzsche’s love of Schopenhauer, and so on. Should one then focus on individual works of pessimism? We could include Kierkegaard’s trilogy of horror— Sickness Unto Death , The Concept of Dread , and Fear and Trembling —but all these are undermined by their fabricated and unreliable authors. Besides, how can one separate the pessimist from the optimist in works like Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life , Shestov’s Postetas Clavium , or Edgar Saltus’ under-read The Philosophy of Disenchantment ? Even in cases where the entire corpus of an author is pessimistic, the project always seems incomplete—witness Cioran’s trajectory, from his first book, On the Heights of Despair , to the last unpublished notebooks of acrid and taut aphorisms. And this is to say nothing of literary pessimism, from Goethe’s sorrowful Werther, to Dostoevsky’s underground man, to Pessoa’s disquiet scribbler; Baudelaire’s spleen and ennui, the mystical Satanism of Huysmans and Strindberg, the hauntologies of Mário de Sá-Carniero, Izumi Kyoka, H.P. Lovecraft, grumpy old Beckett... even the great pessimist comedians. All that remains are singular, perhaps anomalous statements of pessimism, a litany of quotes and citations crammed into fortune cookies. Patron saints are traditionally named after a locale, either a place of birth or of a mystical experience. Perhaps the better approach is to focus on the places where pessimists were forced to live out their pessimism—Schopenhauer facing an empty Berlin lecture hall, Nietzsche mute and convalescent at the home of his sister, Wittgenstein the relinquished professor and solitary gardener, Cioran grappling with Alzheimer’s in his tiny writing alcove in the Latin Quarter. ~*~ There’s a ghost that grows inside of me, damaged in the making, and there’s a hunt sprung from necessity, elliptical and drowned. Where the moving quiet of our insomnia offers up each thought, there’s a luminous field of grey inertia, and obsidian dreams burnt all the way down. ~*~ If pessimism has any pedagogical value, it is that the failure of pessimism as a philosophy is inextricably tied to the failure of pessimism as voice. I read the following, from Shestov’s The Apotheosis of Groundlessness : When a person is young he writes because it seems to him he has discovered a new almighty truth which he must make haste to impart to forlorn humankind. Later, becoming more modest, he begins to doubt his truths: and then he tries to convince himself. A few more years go by, and he knows he was mistaken all round, so there is no need to convince himself. Nevertheless he continues to write, because he is not fit for any other work, and to be accounted a superfluous person is so horrible. (shrink)
continent. 1.2 (2011): 78-91. This article consists of three parts. First, I will review the major themes of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude . Since some of my readers will have read this book and others not, I will try to strike a balance between clear summary and fresh critique. Second, I discuss an unpublished book by Meillassoux unfamiliar to all readers of this article, except those scant few that may have gone digging in the microfilm archives of the École normale (...) supérieure. The book in question is Meillassoux’s revised doctoral dissertation L’Inexistence divine (or The Divine Inexistence ), with its seemingly bizarre vision of a God who does not yet exist but might exist in the future. Without literally accepting this view, I will claim that it is philosophically interesting in ways that even a hardened sceptic might be able to appreciate. Third and finally, I will speculate on the possible future of Meillassoux’s speculative materialism itself. And here I mean its future development not by Meillassoux, but by those readers who might be inspired by his book. Plato could never have predicted the emergence of Aristotle’s philosophy, despite the obvious debt of the latter to the former. Nor could Descartes have predicted Spinoza and Leibniz, nor Kant the German Idealists, and neither could Husserl in 1901 have foreseen the later emergence of Heidegger. How are the works of interesting philosophers transformed by later thinkers of comparable importance? While it may seem that there are countless ways to do this, I think there are only two basic ways in which this happens: you can radicalize your predecessors, or you can reverse them. I will close this article with a few words about these two methods, and try to imagine how Meillassoux might be radicalized or reversed by some future admirer. My view is that the more important thinkers are, the easier they are to radicalize or reverse. This helps explain why the great philosophers of the West have so often appeared in clusters, succeeding one another at relatively brief intervals during periods of especial ferment. 1. After Finitude After Finitude is unusually short for such an influential book of philosophy: running to just 178 pages in the original French, and an even more compact 128 pages in the English version, despite the introduction of roughly eight pages of new material for the English edition. Rather than summarizing Meillassoux’s book in the order he intended, I will focus on six points that strike me as the pillars of his debut book. Along the way, I will offer a few criticisms as well. The first pillar of the book is Meillassoux’s own term “correlationism.”1 Although he introduces this term as the name for an enemy, it is striking that Meillassoux remains impressed by correlationism much more than his fellow speculative realists are. This continued appreciation for his great enemy influences the shape of his own ontology. Is there a world outside our thinking of it, or does the world consist entirely in being thought? Traditionally, this dispute between realism and idealism has been dismissed in continental philosophy as a “pseudo-problem,” in a strategy pioneered by Husserl and extended by Heidegger. We cannot be realists, since following Kant we have no direct access to things-in-themselves. But neither are we idealists, since the human being is always already outside itself, aiming at objects in intentional experience, deeply engaged with practical implements, or stationed in some particular world-disclosing mood. The centuries-old dispute between realism and idealism is dissolved by saying that we cannot think either real or ideal in isolation from the other. There is neither human without world nor world without human, but only a primordial correlation or rapport between the two. This is what “correlationism” means: philosophy trapped in a permanent meditation on the human-world correlate, trying to find the best model of the correlate: is it language, intentionality, embodiment, or some other form of correlation between human and world? Among other problems, this generates some friction between philosophy and the literal meaning of science. When cosmologists say that the universe originated 13.5 billion years ago, they do not mean “13.5 billion years ago for us ,” but literally 13.5 billion years ago, well before conscious life existed, and thus at a time when there was no such thing as a correlate. Meillassoux also coins the term “ancestrality” (10) for the reality that predated the correlate, and later expands this term to “dia-chronicity,” (112) to refer to events occurring after the extinction of human beings no less than to those occurring before we existed. Up to this point, Meillassoux’s focus on ancestral entities existing prior to consciousness might seem like a straightforward realist who wants to unmask correlationism as just another form of idealism. Yet Meillassoux also admires the correlationist maneuver, which can obviously be traced back to Kant. Unlike a thinker such as Whitehead, Meillassoux feels no nostalgia for the pre-critical realism that came before Kant: “we cannot but be heirs of Kantianism,” he says (29). What impresses Meillassoux about correlationism is something both simple and familiar. If we attempt to think a tree outside thought, this is itself a thought . Any form of realism which thinks it can simply and directly address the world the way it is fails to escape the correlational circle, since the attempt to think something outside of thought is itself nothing other than a thought, and thereby collapses back into the very human-world correlate that it pretends to escape. For Meillassoux this step, suggested by Kant but first refined by the ensuing figures of German Idealism, marks decisive forward progress in the history of philosophy that must not be abolished. Any attempt to break free from the correlate must first acknowledge its mighty intellectual power. Realist though he may seem, Meillassoux’s works are filled with praise of such figures as Fichte and Hegel, not of so-called “naïve realists.” It is also the case that for Meillassoux, not all correlationisms are the same. The second pillar of his book is a distinction between various positions that I have termed “Meillassoux’s Spectrum,” though of course he is never so immodest as to name it after himself. He distinguishes between at least six different possible positions, and perhaps we could add even subtler variations if we wished. But in its simplest form, Meillassoux’s Spectrum allows for just four basic outlooks on the question of realism vs. anti-realism. Three of these are easy to understand, since we have already been discussing them. At one extreme is so-called “naïve realism,” which holds that a world exists outside the mind, and that we can know this world. Meillassoux rejects this naïve realism as having been overthrown by Kant’s critical philosophy. At the other extreme is subjective idealism, in which nothing exists outside the mind. For to think a dog outside thought immediately turns it into a thought, and therefore there cannot be anything outside; the very notion is meaningless. In between these two is what we have called correlationism. And here comes a crucial moment for Meillassoux, since he distinguishes between the two forms of “weak” and “strong” correlationism, and chooses the strong form as the launching pad for his own philosophy. Weak correlationism is easy to explain, since we all know it from the philosophy of Kant. The things-in-themselves can be thought but not known. They certainly must exist, since there cannot be appearances without something that appears. And we can think about them, which idealism holds to be impossible. They are simply unknowable due to the finitude of human thought. Strong correlationism is the new position introduced by Meillassoux (though he sees it at work in numerous twentieth century thinkers), midway between weak correlationism and subjective idealism. The major difference between the three positions is as follows. Weak correlationism says: “The things-in-themselves exist, but we cannot know them.” The subjective idealist says: “This is a contradiction in terms, since when we think the things-in-themselves, we already turn them into thoughts.” But the strong correlationist says: “Just because ‘things-in-themselves’ is a meaningless notion does not mean that they cannot exist. No one has ever traveled to the world-in-itself and come back to make a report on it. Thus, the fact that we cannot think things-in-themselves without contradiction does not prove that they do not exist anyway. There may be things-in-themselves, we simply are not capable of thinking them without contradiction form within the correlational circle.” This step is crucial for Meillassoux, since strong correlationism is the position he attempts to radicalize into his own new standpoint: speculative materialism. As I see it, this step of the argument fails. Strong correlationism cannot avoid collapsing into subjective idealism, since the statements of the strong correlationist are rendered meaningless from within. All three of the other positions in the Spectrum make perfectly good sense even for those who disagree with them. The naïve realist says that things-in-themselves exist and we can know them; the meaning of this statement is clear. The weak correlationist can say that things-in-themselves exist but lie forever beyond our grasp; this too makes perfect sense, even though the German Idealists try to show a contradiction at work here. We can also understand the claim of the subjective idealist that to think anything outside thought turns it into a thought, and that for this reason we cannot think the unthought. The strong correlationist, alone among the four, speaks nonsense . This person says “I cannot think the unthought without turning it into a thought, and yet the unthought might exist anyway.” But notice that the final phrase “the unthought might exist anyway” is fruitless for this purpose. For we have already heard that to think any unthought turns it into a thought. But now the strong correlationist wants to do two incompatible things simultaneously with this unthought. On the one hand, he neutralizes the unthought by showing that it instantly changes into just another thought. But on the other hand, he wants to appeal to the unthought as a haunting residue that might exist outside thought, thereby undercutting the absolute status of the human-world correlate found in idealism. But this is impossible. If you accept the argument that thinking the unthought turns it into a thought, you cannot also add “but maybe there is something outside that prevents this conversion from being absolutely true,” because this “something outside” is immediately converted into nothing but a thought for us. In short, Meillassoux here seems to be offering a kind of Zen koan: his “strong correlationism” is reminiscent of the gateless gate, or the sound of one hand clapping, or the command to punch Hegel in the jaw when meeting him on the road. We cannot at the same time both destroy the realist challenge of the things-in-themselves in order to undercut realism and reintroduce that very realist sense in order to undercut idealism. In a world where everything is instantly converted into thought, we cannot claim that there might be something extra-mental anyway, because this “might be something” is itself converted into a thought by the same rules that condemned dogs, trees, and houses to the idealist prison. This brings us to the third pillar of Meillassoux’s argument, which is the key to all the rest: the necessity of contingency. His strategy is to transform our supposed ignorance of things-in-themselves into an absolute knowledge that they exist without reason, and that the laws of nature can change at any time for no reason at all. In this way the cautious agnosticism of Kantian philosophies is avoided, but so is the collapse of reality into thought as found in German Idealism. Meillassoux does try to prove the existence of things-in-themselves existing outside thought; he simply holds that they must be proven after passing through the rigors of the correlationist challenge, not just arbitrarily decreed to exist in the manner of naïve realism. As he puts it, “Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws; and this not by virtue of some superior law whereby everything is destined to perish, but by virtue of the absence of any superior law capable of preserving anything, no matter what, from perishing” (53). If idealism thinks that the human-world correlate is absolute, for Meillassoux it is the facticity of the correlate that is absolute. He tries to show this with a nice brief dialogue between five separate characters (55-59) which is covered in detail in my forthcoming book,2 but which I will simplify here for reasons of time. In this simplified version, we first imagine a dogmatic realist arguing with a dogmatic idealist. The realist says that we can know the truth about the things-in-themselves; the idealist counters that we can only the truth about thought, since all statements about reality must be turned into statements concerning our thoughts about reality. Here the correlationist enters and proclaims that both of these positions are equally dogmatic. For although we have access to nothing but thoughts, we cannot be sure that these thoughts are all that exist; there could be a reality outside thought, there is simply no way to know for sure. And this latter position is the one that Meillassoux attempts to transform from an agnostic, skeptical point into an ontological claim about the contingency of everything. Consider it this way. How does the correlationist defeat the idealist? The idealist holds that the existence of anything outside thought is impossible. The correlationist, by contrast, holds that something might exist outside the human-world correlate. But this “something might” has to be an absolute possibility. It cannot mean that “something outside thought might exist for thought ,” because that is what the idealist already says. No, the correlationist must mean that something might exist outside thought quite independently of thought. In other words, the correlationist says that idealism might be wrong, and this means it is absolutely true that idealism might be wrong. Thus, correlationism is no longer just a skeptical position. It holds that all the possibilities of the world are absolute possibilities. We have absolute knowledge that any of the possibilities about the existence or non-existence of things-in-themselves might be true, and this means that correlationism flips into Meillassoux’s own position: speculative materialism. As Meillassoux sees it, there are only two options here. Option A is to absolutize the human-world correlate, which is what the idealist does: there absolutely cannot be anything outside thought. Option B, by contrast, is to absolutize the facticity of the correlate: its character of simply being given to us, without any inherent necessity. The correlationist cannot have it both ways by saying: “there absolutely might be something outside thought, yet maybe this is absolutely impossible.” In other words, once we escape dogmatism we can only be idealists or speculative materialists, not correlationists. The human-world correlate is merely a fact, not an absolute necessity. But this facticity itself cannot be merely factical: it must be absolute. Here Meillassoux coins the French neologism factualité , which has been suitably translated into the English neologism “factiality.” (7, 122-3) Factialty means that for everything that exists, it is absolutely possible that it might be otherwise, not just that we cannot know whether or not it might be otherwise. Just as Kant transformed philosophy into a meditation on the categories governing human finitude, Meillassoux wishes to turn philosophy into a meditation on the necessary conditions of factiality, which he calls “figures”—a new technical term for him. (80) One such figure is that the law of non-contradiction must be true, and for an unusual reason. Since everything is proven to be contingent, nothing that exists can be contradictory, for whatever is contradictory has no opposite into which it might be transformed, and thus contingency would be impossible.3 Another such figure is that there must be something rather than nothing: for since contingency exists, something must exist in order to be contingent. It is a daring high-wire act, one that sacrifices realism to the correlational circle in order to rebuild it from out of its own ashes. Some might conclude that the lack of reason in things is a byproduct of the ignorance of finite humans, Meillassoux is making precisely the opposite point. For in fact, the doctrine of finitude usually leads directly to belief in a hidden reason. The fact that it lies beyond human comprehension merely increases our belief in this arbitrarily chosen concealed ground. By defending anew the concept of absolute knowledge Meillassoux evacuates the world of everything hidden. The reason for things having no reason is not that the reason is hidden, but that no reason exists. Thus, even while insisting on the necessity of non-contradiction, he rejects the other Leibnizian principle: sufficient reason. Everything simply is what it is, in purely immanent form, without deeply hidden causes. Or as Meillassoux puts it: “There is nothing beneath or beyond the manifest gratuitousness of the given—nothing but the limitless and lawless power of its destruction, emergence, or persistence” (63).The world is a “hyper-chaos”(64). But this is not the same thing as flux. For the chaos of the world is such that stability might occur just as easily as constant, turbulent change. Let’s now digress a bit, and return to the question of ancestrality, which Meillassoux transforms later in the book into “dia-chronicity.” Correlationism holds that all talk of a world outside the correlate is immediately recuperated by the correlate. The phrase “13.5 billion years ago” becomes “13.5 billion years ago for us ,” and the phrase “the universe following the extinction of humans” becomes “the universe following the extinction of humans for humans .” But notice that whether we talk about the world before or after humans, in both cases it is time that is used to challenge the correlate. Meillassoux has no interest in challenges that might be posed by space. For example, what about a vase in a lonely country house that topples to the floor and smashes when no one is there to watch it? Isn’t this also a challenge to correlationism, no less than the Big Bang or the heat death of the universe long after humans have vanished? In an eight-page supplement to the English translation of After Finitude ,4 possibly in response to my own 2007 review of the French original,5 Meillassoux bluntly denies that space is of any relevance to the question. Spatial distance is a merely harmless challenge to the human-world correlate. After all, even though no one is there in the lonely country house to witness the shattering of the vase, we can say that had there been an observer , that observer would have witnessed the toppling and destruction of the vase. For this event still occurs in a world in which the human-world correlate already exists, whereas the diachronicity of events both before and after the existence of humans makes it impossible to say that had there been an observer they would have witnessed the Big Bang occurring in such and such a fashion. However, it seems to me that Meillassoux merely asserts that the temporal simultaneity of our existence with that of the vase in the lonely country house is enough to render it harmless. It is true that the house does not exist prior to the correlate, but nonetheless it exists outside the correlate, and that is enough to make the same challenge. It is difficult to see why the “had there been an observer” maneuver succeeds in the case of a vase in the countryside in April 2011 but fails in the case of the Big Bang. This is not just a matter of nitpicking Meillassoux’s argumentative style: the fact that he bases his argument on time has at least two important consequences for his position. For in the first place, even though Meillassoux insists that the laws of nature are absolutely contingent, this turns out to be true only in a temporal sense. That is to say, it is a paradoxical feature of Meillassoux’s philosophy that he does allow for the existence of laws of nature, and simply believes that they can change at any moment without reason. Within any given moment, laws of nature do exist. He never suggests that different parts of the universe can have different laws at the same time, nor does he have any interest in the laws of part/whole composition that take place within any given instant. Could it be the case that rather than being made of gold atoms, a small chunk of gold could be made of silver atoms, cotton, horses, or that this same small piece of gold could be made of gigantic vaults filled with even more gold? These are not topics that draw Meillassoux’s attention, since he is focused solely on how the laws of nature might change or endure from one moment to the next . Another implication for Meillassoux’s system is that his concept of things-in-themselves turns out to be to be inadequate. For when he proves that things-in-themselves can exist without humans, this turns out to be true only in a temporal sense as well. Namely, things-in-themselves existed ten billion years ago, and they will continue to exist after all humans have succeeded in exterminating themselves. However, being able to exist before our births and after our deaths is just one small part of what it means to be a thing-in-itself. The more important part is that even if a thing is sitting on a table right now, in front of me, even if I stroke it lovingly or press my face up against it directly, I am still dealing only with a phenomenal version of the thing; the thing-in-itself continues to withdraw from all access. Yet no such thing is acknowledged by Meillassoux. For him finitude is a disaster, and absolute knowledge is in fact possible. Meillassoux’s thing-in-itself exists in independence only of the human lifespan , not of human knowledge. The fifth pillar of Meillassoux’s argument is his use of Cantor’s transfinite mathematics to show that even if the laws of nature are contingent, they need not be unstable, and thus we cannot use the apparent stability of nature to disprove his metaphysics of absolute contingency. What Cantor showed is that there are different sizes of infinity, and that all these infinities cannot be totalized in a single infinite number of infinities. Meillassoux sees this as crucial, since it allows him to discredit any “probabilistic” argument against his theory. The probabilistic argument (as defended quite clearly by Jean-René Vernes)6 would say this: given that the laws of nature seem so stable, it it is extremely improbable that there is no hidden reason for their remaining so stable. As Meillassoux sees it, probability is of value only when we can index an accessible total of cases. These can even be infinite: for example, there are an infinite number of points where a rope can break when stretched tight, but this does not stop us from calculating probabilities for various sections of the rope to break. By contrast, there is no way to sum up the number of possible laws of nature. For here there is no way to totalize; we cannot stand outside of nature and calculate the possible number of laws so as to determine the probabilities that any one of them might change. Therefore, although we can speak of probability when dealing with intraworldly events such as elections, horse races, and coin-flips, we cannot use the words “probable” or “improbable” when describing alterations at the level of nature as a whole. Rather than commenting on the validity of this argument and its use of Cantor, let me simply note that it once again creates a dualistic ontology. We already saw that Meillassoux treats time differently from space. In analogous fashion, he now treats the level of world differently from that of intraworldly events. The emergence of worlds is purely contingent and virtual and governed by no probability at all, while events within the world necessarily follow laws (even if these laws can change at any moment without reason), and thus their probabilities can be calculated. It is a strategy deeply reminiscent of Badiou’s (2005) own dualism between the normal “state of the situation” and the rare and intermittent “event.” The sixth and final pillar of Meillassoux’s book can be dealt with briefly, since we have already touched on it elsewhere. It comes at the very beginning of the book, when Meillassoux says that we must revive the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and that the primary qualities are the ones that can be mathematized. He admits that he has not yet published a proof of this idea, though in fact it is already known as one of his primary doctrines. And here we encounter the familiar problem with Meillassoux’s inadequate conception of things-in-themselves. “Primary qualities” refers to those qualities that a thing has independently of its relations with us or anything else. But if the primary qualities can be mathematized, this means that they are not entirely independent of us, since our knowledge can get right to the bottom of them. The mathematized qualities of things are independent of us only in Meillassoux’s sense that they will still have those qualities even when all humans are dead. But to repeat, autonomy from the human lifespan is not the same as autonomy from human access. Here once more Meillassoux is concerned only with independence from the human-world correlate across time, not in any given instant. 2. L’Inexistence divine In 1997, the same year in which he turned thirty years old, Meillassoux earned his doctorate at the École normale supériuere with a brazen dissertation entitled L’Inexistence divine ( The Divine Inexistence ). The work was substantially revised in 2003. But even then, with typical fastidiousness, Meillassoux decided that the work was not yet ready for press. It has now been scrapped in favor of some future, multi-volume work bearing the same title. While writing my book on Meillassoux for Edinburgh University Press, I was permitted to translate excerpts from this unpublished work for use as an appendix in my own book; in total, the appendix contains approximately twenty percent of Meillassoux’s 2003 manuscript, the first time any of it will be published in any language. Nonetheless, a portion of the argument was already tested in the article “Spectral Dilemma,” published in English in the journal Collapse (2008: 261-75). There the philosophical motives for the virtual God are already made clear. What troubles us most are early deaths, brutal deaths, deaths of especial injustice– the sorts of deaths in which the brutal twentieth century was so abundant. And here, neither the atheist nor the believer can help us. The atheist can offer nothing but a sad and cynical resignation when reflecting on the victims of these terrible crimes. The believer does little better, being unable to explain how God could have allowed such things to happen, due to the famous intractability of the problem of evil. The solution offered to this dilemma by Meillassoux is bold, and all the more so given that he emerges from such a deeply Leftist, materialist, and unreligious background. His solution is that God does not yet exist, and therefore is not blameworthy for these catastrophes. Given that everything is contingent in Meillassoux’s philosophy, this God and divine justice might never exist, but they can at least exist as an object of hope. Let’s begin by jumping to the end of L’Inexistence divine , where the alternatives are laid out so nicely. There are four basic attitudes that humans can have towards God, Meillassoux says. First, we can believe in God because he exists. This is the classical theist attitude, rejected for the simple reason that it would be amoral and blasphemous to believe in a God who allows children to be eaten by dogs, to use Dostoevsky’s example. Second, we can disbelieve in God because he does not exist: the classical atheist attitude. But this leads to sadness, cynicism, and a sneering contempt for the greatness of human capacity. The third option, rather more complex, is to disbelieve in God because he does exist: in other words, to exist in rebellion against God as the one who must be blamed for the evils of the earth. The examples here might range from Lucifer himself, to the more human figure of Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick , to Werner Herzog’s even more recent catchphrase, “Every man for himself, and God against all.” That leaves only the fourth option: believing in God because he does not exist. Meillassoux closes his book by saying that the fourth option has now been tried (namely, in the course of his own book), and that now that all four have been specified, we must choose. The first reaction to this theory of the inexistent God will be laughter. Few readers will ever be literally convinced by it, and probably none will immediately be convinced by it. But if we ask ourselves why we laugh, the answer is because it sounds so improbable that an inexistent God might suddenly emerge and resurrect the dead. It obviously sounds more like a gullible theology than a rigorous piece of philosophical work. Yet two things need to be kept in mind. First, Meillassoux’s theories are hardly more unlikely than those of great philosophers of the past such as Plato, Plotinus, Avicenna, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibniz, Nietzsche, or Whitehead. We read the great philosophers not because their systems are plausible in commonsense terms that can be measured by the laws of probability. Instead, we read them precisely because they shatter the existing framework of common sense and open up new window on the universe. Second, and even more importantly, Meillassoux has already rejected probability as a valid measuring stick in philosophy. Or rather, he accepts probability in the intra-worldly realm (where it is linked with potentiality), and rejects it at the level of the world itself (where potentiality is replaced with what he calls virtuality). The virtual God can appear at any moment for no reason at all, just as any other new configuration of laws of nature can appear: in a manner that the laws of probability cannot calculate. Responding to those who might ridicule the idea of a sudden emergence of God and a resurrection of the dead, Meillassoux cites Pascal, who asserts that the resurrection of the dead would be far less incredible than the fact that we were born in the first place. This shifts philosophy onto new ground. Rather than concerning ourselves with what is likely to happen in the world as we know it, we focus instead on the most important things that could happen. For this reason, the expected objection that a virtual God is no more likely to appear than a virtual unicorn or a virtual flying spaghetti monster misses the point. Unicorns and spaghetti monsters could also appear, just like any other non-contradictory thing. But these would just be novel bizarre entities among others, not the heralds of completely new worlds. For Meillassoux, the emergence of matter, life, and thought have been the three truly amazing advents of the world so far, each of them dependent on the advent(s) preceding them. As he sees it, there can be no greater intraworldly entity than the human beings who already exist, since nothing in the world is better than the absolute knowledge of which humans alone are capable. This means that the next great advent must be something that perfects human beings rather than superseding them. And this can only be the world of justice, in which the dead are resurrected and their horrible deaths partially cancelled (Meillassoux never considers the possibility of a God who would literally erase the pre-divine past so that it never happened at all). The only immortality worth having is an immortality of this life, not an existence in some ill-defined afterworld. Human existence, he holds, must always be governed by a “symbol” that gives us the “immanent and comprehensible inscription of values in a world.” And just as cosmic history made the three great contingent leaps of matter, life, and thought, with a leap to justice as the only one still to come, a similar structure occurs within human culture and its symbols, which consist so far of the cosmological, naturalistic, and historical symbols, with a “factial” symbol still to come. We can review each of these symbols briefly. The cosmological symbol refers to the ancient dualism between the terrestrial and celestial spheres. Here below everything is conflict, corruption, and decay; but in the heavens nothing is perishable, all movement is circular, and everything is arranged in mutual harmony. This symbol is ended by modern physics when Galileo discovers such blemishes as sunspots and craters on the moon, and when Newton integrates both celestial and terrestrial movement into a single gravitational law. Next comes the naturalistic or romantic symbol, in which perfection comes not from the sky but from nature itself. The world is filled with pretty flowers (Meillassoux claims that the ancients never discussed the beauty of flowers until Plotinus in the third century) and with living creatures naturally moved by pity, at least until society corrupts them. This symbol collapses in the face of reality as we know it, since pity is no more common than war, corruption, and violence. This brings us to the historical symbol, which only now is passing away. Bad things may happen, but history has an inner logic of its own, such that everything works out in the end. The ultimate form of the historical symbol is the economic symbol, whether in a Marxist or neo-liberal form. Just as the Marxist holds that the inner economic logic of the capitalists will inexorably lead them to self-destruction, the neo-liberal assumes that the sum total of individual selfish actions will lead, in the long run, to the greatest possible good. We worship the economy and let it guide history for us, just as the ancients worshipped celestial bodies and held them to be free from blemish. The final remaining symbol is the factial symbol, which Meillassoux hopes will now emerge. Factiality, we recall, is his term for the absolute contingency of everything that exists. Once we have grasped this absolute contingency, we are free to expect the dramatic advent of the coming fourth World: the world of justice, inaugurated by a virtual God and even mediated by a messianic human figure. There is the added feature, however, that this messiah must abandon all claims to special status once the messianic realm of justice is achieved. The messianic figure will then be no more special than any person on the street, since a reign of human equality will have arisen. Although this focus on human being might seem like a return to standard humanism, Meillassoux holds that human pre-eminence has never truly been maintained. Previously, humans have been treated as special only because they contemplate the Good, because they resemble their omnipotent creator, or because they happen to be the temporary victors in a cruel Darwinian death-match between millions of living species. For Meillassoux, by contrast, humans have value because they know the eternal. But it is not the eternal that is important, since this merely represents the blind, anonymous contingency of each thing. What is important is not knowledge of the eternal , but knowledge of the eternal. We should not admire Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods; Prometheus is simply as bad as all the gods, no matter how much he increased our power. Feuerbach and Marx were wrong to say that God is a projection of the human essence, since for Meillassoux the usual concept of God represents the degradation of the human essence. If the traditional God was allowed to inflict plagues and tsunamis on the human race, the Promethean human of the twentieth century simply assumes the right to inflict death camps and atomic fireballs instead. In this respect, we have simply begun to imitate the degradation of humanity that was formerly invested in an omnipotent and arbitrary God. In response to charges that absolute contingency might lead to political quietism, Meillassoux counters that the World of justice would mean nothing unless we had already hoped for it beforehand. A World of justice that came along at random would merely be an improved third World of thought: indeed, a perfect one. But it would have satisfied no craving, and would therefore have no redemptive power. For this reason, we must actively hope for the fourth World of justice for such a fourth World ever to arise. Not only justice, but beauty is dependent on such hope: for Meillassoux, who is here somewhat dependent on Kant, beauty means an accord between our human symbolization and the actual world, which could never be present in a World of the blessed any more than justice could. And just as a messianic figure is needed to incarnate our hope and then abandon power once the World of justice is realized, it is the figure of the child whose fragile contingency shows us a dignity and a demand for justice beyond all power. 3. Meillassoux Radicalized or Reversed Given the promising reception of Meillassoux’s first book, it would not be groundless to engage in early speculation about what it might take to earn him a place in the history of philosophy. Maybe this will never happen—who knows?—but quite possibly it will: his lucid argumentative methods and sheer philosophical imagination at least make him a good candidate to be read well into the future, especially following further elaboration in print of his mature system. Philosophy is often practiced as thought it were nothing more than the amassing of “knockdown arguments.” But this is no more insightful than saying that good architecture is the amassing of steal beams. It is true that poorly constructed building cannot stand for long, but sound construction is merely the first, indispensable step in building. In fact, I am inclined to say that what really makes a philosopher important is not being right, but being wrong . I mean this in a very specific sense. I once heard the interesting remark about twentieth century culture that “you have to remember that the sixties really happened in the seventies.” That is to say, it was in the 1970’s rather than the more honored 1960’s that civil rights, free love, long hair, and the rock and roll drug culture really took root. With respect to the history of philosophy, we might just as easily say: “you have to remember that Plato really happened in Aristotle,” that “Kant really happened in Hegel” or “Hume really happened in Kant,” or that “Husserl’s phenomenology first achieved its truth in Heidegger.” One becomes an important philosopher not by being right, but by attracting rebellious admirers who tell you that you are wrong , even as their own careers silently orbit around your own. To recruit faithful disciples may be comforting and flattering, but the greatest thinkers have generally had to experience refutation at the hands of their most talented heirs. For this reason, I would propose that we size up the magnitude of living thinkers not by deciding how many times they are right and wrong, but by asking instead: who would take the trouble to refute this author? For this reason I do not ask: “Is Meillassoux right?”, since I do not believe in the virtual God myself, nor am I convinced by any important aspect of Meillassoux’s philosophy. Instead, I ask if there are interesting ways to overturn him. Only by being overturned, by no longer remaining a contemporary, does one become a classic. Let’s begin with a simple model of refutation, which can be refined further at a later date once the basic point is established. One kind of refutation simply consists in saying: “This author is a complete idiot.” The refuter now walks away in celebration, and no link between the present and the future is built; all is reduced to rubble. But this sort of mediocre triumphalism is generally practiced by those who achieve little of their own, and is not especially interesting. Much more interesting is the sort of refutation that does not take its target to be a complete idiot. I would like to suggest that there are just two basic ways in which this can be done: radicalization and reversal . It has not escaped my notice that this is a fairly good match for the Deleuzian distinction between irony and humor. Whereas irony critiques and adopts the opposite principle of what it attacks, humor accepts what it confronts but pushes it into highly exaggerated form. The ironist is like the worker who sows chaos by rebeling and contradicting the boss, while the humorist is like the worker who follows orders to an absurdly literal degree, with equally chaotic results. Let’s start with a few examples. In Aristotle’s treatment of Plato, and Heidegger’s of Husserl, we find reversal. Plato’s eidei are transformed by Aristotle into mere secondary substances, and the individual worldly things despised by Plato become what is primary. For Husserl what is primary is whatever is present to consciousness, while for Heidegger this is precisely what is secondary, since the primary stuff of the world withdraws from any form of presence at all. As for radicalization, it is most easily found in the transformation of Kant by German Idealism: “Kant was right to wall off the things-in-themselves from human access, and simply should have realized that the thought of the Ding an sich is also a thought, and thereby the noumena are just special cases of the phenomena,” with much following from this discovery. It would also be easy to read Spinoza as a radicalizer of Descartes, and Berkeley and Hume as radicalized versions of Locke. Perhaps the distinction is now sufficiently clear. Admiring refutations are not those that say “Professor X is an idiot,” which is merely the flip side of the eager disciple’s fruitless “Professor X got everything right.” Instead, it will be some variant of one of the following two options: “Professor X is important, but got it backwards,” or “Professor X is important, but didn’t push things far enough.” In the history of philosophy these two latter cases have often been painful in purely human terms: Aristotle expresses sadness at refuting Plato, Kant is openly annoyed at Fichte, and Husserl feels betrayed and used by Heidegger. Rude handling from later figures almost seems to be the sine qua non of being a great philosopher. Now, it has already been claimed that Meillassoux is an emerging philosopher of the first importance, and by no less a figure than Alain Badiou: “It would be no exaggeration to say that Quentin Meillassoux has opened up a new path in the history of philosophy…” (Preface, vii). But rather than taking Badiou’s word for it, or rejecting his word, we might experiment by asking how Meillassoux could be radicalized or reversed. Are there interesting ways of doing this that might launch whole new schools of philosophy, unexpected or even condemned by Meillassoux himself? While no one can see the future, the present is poor when it is not riddled with virtual futures. The relation between philosophers and their predecessors and successors is always somewhat complicated, of course. But generally there is one central divergence at stake, which might be taken as the key to all the others. On this basis we could say that new thinkers primarily radicalize or primarily reverse the main ideas of their chief philosophical forerunner. There may be specific historical conditions and perhaps even personality traits connected with these two types, but this question can be left aside for now. More important for us is that radicalizers will generally be followed by reversers, and vice versa. Consider the textbook example of a reversal in the history of philosophy: Kant’s Copernican Revolution, which inverts the so-called dogmatic tradition that addresses the world itself, and makes the world revolve instead around the conditions by which it is known. While it is not completely impossible that Kant’s successors might have re-reversed this principle back into a new and stronger dogmatic realism, conditions were premature for such a move. Anyone doing this too early would likely have been an angry anti-Kantian reactionary rather than an original thinker in command of a genuinely new realist principle. The far more likely outcome is the one that actually happened: Kant’s reversal of his predecessors was viewed as incomplete, or as retaining lamentable bits of the traditional view, which despite his admirable breakthrough he was unable to shake off. This was the view of German Idealism, anyway. In similar fashion, Spinoza could also be viewed as a radicalizer of Descartes, who is equally accused of preserving various Scholastic dogmas in an otherwise radical project of philosophical reversal. The point is this: reversals in the history of thought tend to be followed soon thereafter by radicalizations of those reversals. The same may hold true in reverse: radicalizations might generally be followed by reversals, given that it is not always possible to be more radical than the radicals have already been. Consider the case of Husserl, who radicalizes Brentano’s early vagueness about what lies beyond immanent objectivity, and Twardowski’s assertion that there must be an external object lying outside the intentional content, by collapsing everything into the intentional sphere: there is no difference between the Berlin in my consciousness and the actual Berlin that is home to millions of people. It is difficult to see how one could be even more radical than Husserl’s idealist turn here. And thus the road is paved to Heidegger’s reversal of classical phenomenology, in which the key point is what lies deeper than any presence to consciousness: the Sein whose power and obscurity cannot be made exhaustively present, but only sends itself in historical epochs. In similar fashion we might also read Leibniz as a reverser of Spinoza’s radicalization, retrieving a strong sense of individual substance and a certain validity of what the Scholastics had said. Returning to Meillassoux, we might ask which kind of philosopher he is: a radicalizer or a reverser? At present, Meillassoux looks to me like a radicalizer (though for now his future remains shrouded in mist). He takes the correlationist tradition, which allows us to speak only of the relation between human and world, and tries to raise it into an even more extreme claim about the absolute contingency of everything. But whereas German Idealism did this by trying to collapse the distinction between thought and world entirely into the “thought” side, Meillassoux does it by trying to shift the non-absolute contingency of the thought-world correlate from epistemology to ontology. It is no longer a question of the inability of human knowledge to know what lies outside the correlate, but the inability of reality itself to be rooted in any definite laws. Furthermore, if we look at the various features of Meillassoux’s philosophy identified earlier tonight, all but one are already so radical that there is no obvious way to push them further. The one exception would be his claim that the world as a whole can change for no reason at any moment, coupled with the inconsistent claim that within a given world there are laws of nature that everything must follow. If gravitational attraction between all masses is a current law in our world, then for Meillassoux there can be no exceptions to this law for as long as it remains in force. A toppled vase will fall to the floor every time for sure,unless there is a cosmic change by which the laws of nature as a whole have altered. (This is reminiscent of the late medieval distinction between the absolute and ordained power of God, according to which God has the power to set or change the laws of nature, but not to contravene those laws locally once they are set.) On this point, to radicalize Meillassoux would simply be to say: there are no laws of nature even in the local sense. Everything that happens, even in the world here and now, is purely contingent and not governed by even a trace of law. And while this would be a more consistent development of Meillassoux’s thoughts on contingency, it is difficult to see how it could lead to a new philosophy. Instead, the admiring successors of Meillassoux are more likely to reverse one of his already sufficiently radical points. At least four candidates come to mind: *First, we have seen that Meillassoux thinks correlationism is challenged by a time before or after consciousness, but not by a space lying outside it. Perhaps this could be reversed into saying that spatial exteriority is the really crucial point. The arguments on this point are perhaps the least convincing in After Finitude (and do not even occur in the original French edition), and therefore it might be a candidate for the “blind spot” of which no philosopher is ever free. *Second, Meillassoux uses Cantor to claim that the contingency of laws of nature would not entail that they are unstable. A successor of Meillassoux might claim that it does make them unstable, and celebrate this fact. This person would then have to explain why common sense seems to encounter a relatively stable world despite its truly rampant instability. Whereas Meillassoux’s problem is to show how stability might exist despite contingency, this successor’s problem would be slightly different: to show why actual, full-blown instability might have the appearance of stability. *Third, Meillassoux claims that the primary qualities of things are those that can be mathematized. He might be reversed by a successor who says the opposite: the mathematizable qualities are the secondary ones, and the primary ones are those that elude symbolic formulation. While this is a perfectly valid possible objection to Meillassoux, it is one that is made in advance by some of his predecessors and is still made by some of his peers, making it less interesting for futurology than some of his other points. *Fourth and finally, whereas Meillassoux claims that God does not exist but might exist in the future, a successor might argue even more bizarrely that God has always existed but might vanish in the future. Let’s arbitrarily select the first of these possibilities, and imagine briefly where it might lead, if pursued in the future by admiring detractors. Meillassoux comes from the circle of Badiou, and some of Badiou’s most ardent admirers are found in Latin America. So, let’s imagine that towards mid-century some ingenious reversers of Meillassoux emerge in that portion of the Spanish-speaking world. Just for fun, let’s call them Castro and Chávez. And in order to avoid any confusion with the present-day politicians of those names, we will stipulate that Meillassoux’s great successors are both women. The philosopher Castro (we will suppose she comes from Peru) reverses Meillassoux’s argument that the ancestral or diachronic are what most threaten the human-world correlate. Instead, she claims that the diachronic does not threaten the correlate at all, and that we must instead look at space as what ruins the correlate and demands a strange new realism. What would such a philosophy look like? In order to determine this, we might ask what price Meillassoux pays for doing it the opposite way. As I see it, he pays in two separate ways. One is that laws of nature for him are contingent over time . The laws of nature apply to the universe as a whole at any given moment, and would be changed globally if they are ever changed at all. The second price he pays is that Meillassoux has no mereology , or theory of parts and wholes. Everything for him is on the level of the given, or immanent in experience, with the sole proviso that the laws governing this immanence might change without notice at any given moment. In reversing Meillassoux, Castro makes the following claims in the preface to her stunning debut book of 2045, The Cosmos and its Neighborhoods , rapidly translated from Spanish into all the languages of the world: Despite his brilliant analysis of the contingency of laws of nature over time, Meillassoux gets two important assumptions wrong. First, he allows for only one set of contingent laws to govern nature as a whole. Second, he allows laws to govern only the world that is immanent in experience, and thereby fails to explore the contingency among part-whole relations. In this book I will argue, first, that the laws of nature vary in any given instant between one region of the universe and the next; and second, that the world is made up of layers of parts and wholes that are also contingent with respect to one another. Those are the words of Castro. This may sound like a hopeless free-for-all of chaos, yet the book somehow succeeds in drawing some compelling deductions about how laws must vary from one place or level in the world to the next. Trapped in the limited horizon of 2011, and not yet inspired by the heavily balkanized political and technological situation of 2050 that somehow lends additional credence to Castro’s vision, we can only vaguely grasp what such a philosophy might look like. After this reversal of Meillassoux by Castro, the usual pattern leads us to expect a radicalization by Chávez, a young Argentine student of Castro. How could the already strange theories of Castro be radicalized? Perhaps as follows, in a disturbing new book entitled The Implosion of the Neighborhoods , which argues as follows: Castro was right to shift the Meillassouxian framework of contingency from time to space. However, in this respect she retained a surprisingly traditional opposition between the two. In this book I will show that time and space collapse into one another. This may sound too much like the discredited four-dimensional block universe of twentieth century physics and philosophy. However, the four-dimensional universe is a model biased in favor of space, merely adding an extra dimension to the commonsense spatial continuum while stipulating that the serial passage of time is an illusion. In this book I will argue instead for a one-dimensional space-time modeled after our experience of time, in which there is no simultaneous co-existence at all between different parts of the universe, or ‘neighborhoods’ as my esteemed teacher Castro has called them. Instead, the various portions of the universe link to one another by succession rather than by coexistence. Buenos Aires, New York, and Amsterdam do not exist simultaneously in the same landscape, but one after the other in the mind of some observer, and this observer can only be an observer much larger than any human. Against Meillassoux’s notion of a virtual God that does not exist now but might exist in the future, I will argue for an actual God that surveys the universe in sequence, thereby generating the illusion of spatial diversity and even the illusion of individual minds located within that diversity. Once this divine observer dies, the universe as a whole must perish. Again, these ideas are so bizarre that we of 2011 can barely comprehend them, just as Aristotle would have had a difficult time grasping the theories of Descartes. We could then perhaps imagine a further reversal of this theory, emanating from the intellectually resurgent Philippines of the twenty-second century. The Filipino School might argue that the universe is already dead, given the collapse of its spatial richness into the serial observations of a flimsy and mortal God. The virtual universe does not yet exist, but might exist in fully spatial form in the future, and this would require the death of God and the resulting liberation of God’s succession of images as independent, spatially situated realities. With a bit of sharpening, we might be able to make all of these imaginary thinkers more intuitively clear. Along with the history of philosophy, there might arise a new discipline generating imaginary futures for philosophy. The richness of Meillassoux’s system comes not from the fact that he is plausibly right about so many things, but because his philosophy offers such a treasury of bold statements ripe for being radicalized or reversed. He is a rich target for many still-unborn intellectual heirs, and this is what gives him the chance to be an important figure. NOTES 1. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude . Trans. R Brassier. (London: Continuum, 2008.) Page 5. The word “correlationism” does not appear in his doctoral thesis. As Meillassoux informed me in an email of February 8, 2011, he first coined this term in 2003 or 2004, while editing for publication a lecture he had given at the École normale supérieure on a day devoted to the theme of “Philosophy and Mathematics,” an event including Alain Badiou as one of the participants. 2. Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making . (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2011). 3. In an email of December 6, 2010, Meillassoux clarifies that in After Finitude he only deduces the impossibility of a “universal contradiction,” not of a determinate contradiction. In the same email he suggests that he can also prove the latter, though the proof is somewhat lengthier than the one found in After Finitude . 4. After Finitude (18-26), in the passage falling between the two sets of triple asterisks. These pages were sent by Meillassoux to translator Ray Brassier (in French) during the translation process, and do not appear in the original French version of the book. 5. Graham Harman, “Quentin Meillassoux: A New French Philosopher.” Philosophy Today 51.1 (2007): Pages 104-117. The passage where I raise the question of space can be found in the first column of page 107. 6. Vernes is first cited on p. 95 of After Finitude . See Jean-René Vernes, Critique de la raison aléatoire, ou Descartes contra Kant . (Paris: Aubier, 1982).  . (shrink)
Abstract Popper's philosophy of science represents a radical departure from almost all other views about knowledge. This helps account for serious misunderstandings of it among admirers no less than among adversaries. The view that knowledge has and needs no foundations is counterintuitive and apparently relativistic. But Popper's fallibilism is in fact a far cry from anti?realism. Similarly, Popper's social and political philosophy, although seemingly conservative in practice, can be quite radical in theory. And while Popper was an ardent (...) democrat, his reasons for supporting democracy were so unusual that they may escape the problem posed for democratic theory by the political ignorance of the demos. (shrink)
SummaryThe main argument for scientific realism is that our present theories in science are so successful empirically that they can't have got that way by chance ‐ instead they must somehow have latched onto the blueprint of the universe. The main argument against scientific realism is that there have been enormously successful theories which were once accepted but are now regarded as false. The central question addressed in this paper is whether there is some reasonable way to have (...) the best of both worlds: to give the argument from scientific revolutions its full weight and yet still adopt some sort of realist attitude towards presently accepted theories in physics and elsewhere. I argue that there is such a way ‐ through structural realism, a position adopted by Poincare, and here elaborated and defended. (shrink)
Moral Realism is a systematic defence of the idea that there are objective moral standards. Russ Shafer-Landau argues that there are moral principles that are true independently of what anyone, anywhere, happens to think of them. His central thesis, as well as the many novel supporting arguments used to defend it, will spark much controversy among those concerned with the foundations of ethics.
Scientific Realism is the optimistic view that modern science is on the right track: that the world really is the way our best scientific theories describe it to be. In his book, Stathis Psillos gives us a detailed and comprehensive study, which restores the intuitive plausibility of scientific realism. We see that throughout the twentieth century, scientific realism has been challenged by philosophical positions from all angles: from reductive empiricism, to instrumentalism and modern skeptical empiricism. Scientific (...) class='Hi'>Realism explains that the history of science does not undermine the notion of scientific realism, and instead makes it reasonable to accept scientific as the best philosophical account of science, its empirical success, its progress and its practice. Anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the state of modern science and why scientific realism is plausible, should read this book. (shrink)
Mathematicians tend to think of themselves as scientists investigating the features of real mathematical things, and the wildly successful application of mathematics in the physical sciences reinforces this picture of mathematics as an objective study. For philosophers, however, this realism about mathematics raises serious questions: What are mathematical things? Where are they? How do we know about them? Offering a scrupulously fair treatment of both mathematical and philosophical concerns, Penelope Maddy here delineates and defends a novel version of mathematical (...)realism. She answers the traditional questions and poses a challenging new one, refocusing philosophical attention on the pressing foundational issues of contemporary mathematics. (shrink)
The no-miracles argument for realism and the pessimistic meta-induction for anti-realism pull in opposite directions. Structural Realism---the position that the mathematical structure of mature science reflects reality---relieves this tension.
This paper provides a critical overview of the realist current in contemporary political philosophy. We define political realism on the basis of its attempt to give varying degrees of autonomy to politics as a sphere of human activity, in large part through its exploration of the sources of normativity appropriate for the political and so distinguish sharply between political realism and non-ideal theory. We then identify and discuss four key arguments advanced by political realists: from ideology, from the (...) relationship of ethics to politics, from the priority of legitimacy over justice and from the nature of political judgement. Next, we ask to what extent realism is a methodological approach as opposed to a substantive political position and so discuss the relationship between realism and a few such positions. We close by pointing out the links between contemporary realism and the realist strand that runs through much of the history of Western political thought. (shrink)
This is the third volume of Hilary Putnam's philosophical papers, published in paperback for the first time. The volume contains his major essays from 1975 to 1982, which reveal a large shift in emphasis in the 'realist'_position developed in his earlier work. While not renouncing those views, Professor Putnam has continued to explore their epistemological consequences and conceptual history. He now, crucially, sees theories of truth and of meaning that derive from a firm notion of reference as inadequate.
Following on from Roy Bhaskar’s first two books, A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism, Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, establishes the conception of social science as explanatory—and thence emancipatory—critique. _Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation_ starts from an assessment of the impasse of contemporary accounts of science as stemming from an incomplete critique of positivism. It then proceeds to a systematic exposition of scientific realism in the form of transcendental realism, highlighting a conception (...) of science as explanatory of a structured, differentiated and changing world. Turning to the social domain, the book argues for a view of the social order as conditioned by, and emergent from, nature. Advocating a critical naturalism, the author shows how the transformational model of social activity together with the conception of social science as explanatory critique which it entails, resolves the divisions and dualisms besetting orthodox social and normative theory: between society and the individual, structure and agency, meaning and behavior, mind and body, reason and cause, fact and value, and theory and practice. The book then goes on to discuss the emancipatory implications of social science and sketches the nature of the depth investigation characteristically entailed. In the highly innovative third part of the book Roy Bhaskar completes his critique of positivism by developing a theory of philosophical discourse and ideology, on the basis of the transcendental realism and critical naturalism already developed, showing how positivism functions as a restrictive ideology of and for science and other social practices. (shrink)
Publisher's description: The realistic spirit, a nonmetaphysical approach to philosophical thought concerned with the character of philosophy itself, informs all of the discussions in these essays by philosopher Cora Diamond. Diamond explains Wittgenstein's notoriously elusive later writings, explores the background to his thought in the work of Frege, and discusses ethics in a way that reflects his influence. Diamond's new reading of Wittgenstein challenges currently accepted interpretations and shows what it means to look without mythology at the coherence, commitments, and (...) connections that are distinctive of the mind. (shrink)
In this major new work, Matthew Kramer seeks to establish two main conclusions. On the one hand, moral requirements are strongly objective. On the other hand, the objectivity of ethics is itself an ethical matter that rests primarily on ethical considerations. Moral realism - the doctrine that morality is indeed objective - is a moral doctrine. Major new volume in our new series _New Directions in Ethics_ Takes on the big picture - defending the objectivity of ethics whilst rejecting (...) the grounds of much of the existing debate between realists and anti-realists Cuts across both ethical theory and metaethics Distinguished by the quality of the scholarship and its ambitious range. (shrink)
A century after the discovery of quantum mechanics, the meaning of quantum mechanics still remains elusive. This is largely due to the puzzling nature of the wave function, the central object in quantum mechanics. If we are realists about quantum mechanics, how should we understand the wave function? What does it represent? What is its physical meaning? Answering these questions would improve our understanding of what it means to be a realist about quantum mechanics. In this survey article, I review (...) and compare several realist interpretations of the wave function. They fall into three categories: ontological interpretations, nomological interpretations, and the sui generis interpretation. For simplicity, I will focus on non-relativistic quantum mechanics. (shrink)
Anti-realism is a doctrine about logic, language, and meaning that is based on the work of Wittgenstein and Frege. In this book, Professor Tennant clarifies and develops Dummett's arguments for anti-realism and ultimately advocates a radical reform of our logical practices.
This book is a systematic and constructive treatment of a number of traditional issues at the foundation of ethics, the possibility and nature of moral knowledge, the relationship between the moral point of view and a scientific or naturalistic world view, the nature of moral value and obligation, and the role of morality in a person's rational life plan. In striking contrast to many traditional authors and to other recent writers in the field, David Brink offers an integrated defense of (...) the objectivity of ethics. (shrink)
We report the results of a study that investigated the views of researchers working in seven scientific disciplines and in history and philosophy of science in regard to four hypothesized dimensions of scientific realism. Among other things, we found that natural scientists tended to express more strongly realist views than social scientists, that history and philosophy of science scholars tended to express more antirealist views than natural scientists, that van Fraassen’s characterization of scientific realism failed to cluster with (...) more standard characterizations, and that those who endorsed the pessimistic induction were no more or less likely to endorse antirealism. (shrink)
This paper outlines an account of political realism as a form of ideology critique. Our focus is a defence of the normative edge of this critical-theoretic project against the common charge that there is a problematic trade-off between a theory’s groundedness in facts about the political status quo and its ability to consistently envisage radical departures from the status quo. To overcome that problem we combine insights from three distant corners of the philosophical landscape: theories of legitimacy by Bernard (...) Williams and other realists, Frankfurt School-inspired Critical Theory, and recent analytic epistemological and metaphysical theories of cognitive bias, ideology, and social construction. The upshot is a novel account of realism as empirically-informed diagnosis- critique of social and political phenomena. This view rejects a sharp divide between descriptive and normative theory, and so is an alternative to the anti- empiricism of some approaches to Critical Theory as well as to the complacency towards existing power structures found within liberal realism, let alone mainstream normative political philosophy, liberal or otherwise. (shrink)
This book expounds the transcendental realist theory of science and critical naturalist social philosophy that have been developed by Bhaskar and are used by many contemporary social scientists. It defends Bhaskar's view that the possibility and necessity of experiment show that reality is structured and stratified, his use of this idea to develop a non-reductive explanatory account of human sciences, and his notion that to explain social structures can sometimes be to criticize them. After a discussion of the uses of (...) critical realism in controversial areas of social science, Bhaskar's optimism about the prospects of human sciences is criticized. (shrink)
Since the publication of Roy Bhaskar's A Realist Theory of Science in 1975, critical realism has emerged as one of the most powerful new directions in the philosophy of science and social science, offering a real alternative to both positivism and postmodernism. This reader makes accessible in one volume key readings to stimulate debate about and within critical realism, including: the transcendental realist philosophy of science elaborated in A Realist Theory of Science ; Bhaskar's critical naturalist philosophy of (...) social science; the theory of explanatory critique, which is central to critical realism; and the theme of dialectic, which is central to Bhaskar's most recent writings. The volume includes extracts from Bhaskar's most important books, as well as selections from all of the other most important contributors to the critical realist program. It also includes both a general introduction and original introductions to each section. (shrink)
Early twentieth-century philosophers of perception presented their naïve realist views of perceptual experience in anti-Kantian terms. For they took naïve realism about perceptual experience to be incompatible with Kant’s claims about the way the understanding is necessarily involved in perceptual consciousness. This essay seeks to situate a naïve realist account of visual experience within a recognisably Kantian framework by arguing that a naïve realist account of visual experience is compatible with the claim that the understanding is necessarily involved in (...) the perceptual experience of those rational beings with discursive intellects. The resultant view is middle way between recent conceptualist and non-conceptualist interpretations of Kant, holding that the understanding is necessarily involved in the kind of perceptual consciousness that we, as rational beings, enjoy whilst allowing that the relations of apprehension which constitute perceptual consciousness are independent of acts of the understanding. (shrink)
Structural realism is considered by many realists and antirealists alike as the most defensible form of scientific realism. There are now many forms of structural realism and an extensive literature about them. There are interesting connections with debates in metaphysics, philosophy of physics and philosophy of mathematics. This entry is intended to be a comprehensive survey of the field.
Scientific realism is the position that the aim of science is to advance on truth and increase knowledge about observable and unobservable aspects of the mind-independent world which we inhabit. This book articulates and defends that position. In presenting a clear formulation and addressing the major arguments for scientific realism Sankey appeals to philosophers beyond the community of, typically Anglo-American, analytic philosophers of science to appreciate and understand the doctrine. The book emphasizes the epistemological aspects of scientific (...) class='Hi'>realism and contains an original solution to the problem of induction that rests on an appeal to the principle of uniformity of nature. (shrink)
Non-naturalist realists are committed to the belief, famously voiced by Parfit, that if there are no non-natural facts then nothing matters. But it is morally objectionable to conditionalise all our moral commitments on the question of whether there are non-natural facts. Non-natural facts are causally inefficacious, and so make no difference to the world of our experience. And to be a realist about such facts is to hold that they are mind-independent. It is compatible with our experiences that there are (...) no non-natural facts, or that they are very different from what we think. As Nagel says, realism makes scepticism intelligible. So the non-naturalist must hold that you might be wrong that your partner matters, even if you are correct about every natural, causal fact about your history and relationship. But to hold that conditional attitude to your partner would be a moral betrayal. So believing non-naturalist realism involves doing something immoral. (shrink)
One of the more debated topics in the recent realist literature concerns the compatibility of realism and utopianism. Perhaps the greatest challenge to utopian political thought comes from Bernard Williams' realism, which argues, among other things, that political values should be subject to what he calls the ‘realism constraint’, which rules out utopian arguments based on values which cannot be offered by the state as unrealistic and therefore inadmissible. This article challenges that conclusion in two ways. First, (...) it argues that the rationale for accepting Williams' original argument for the ‘realism constraint’ fails. Secondly, it argues that there is at least one genuinely political value of liberty available which is both compatible with realism and something that cannot be offered by the state, namely that of the political anarchist. This opens the way for far more ambitious and utopian forms of realist political thought and implies that the arguments of what we call political anarchists must be met by political argumentation, not simply ruled out by methodological stipulation. (shrink)
The aim of this paper is to revisit the phlogiston theory to see what can be learned from it about the relationship between scientific realism, approximate truth and successful reference. It is argued that phlogiston theory did to some extent correctly describe the causal or nomological structure of the world, and that some of its central terms can be regarded as referring. However, it is concluded that the issue of whether or not theoretical terms successfully refer is not the (...) key to formulating the appropriate form of scientific realism in response to arguments from theory change, and that the case of phlogiston theory is shown to be readily accommodated by ontic structural realism. (shrink)
In a recent paper, Berger and Nanay consider, and reject, three ways of addressing the phenomenon of unconscious perception within a naïve realist framework. Since these three approaches seem to exhaust the options open to naïve realists, and since there is said to be excellent evidence that perception of the same fundamental kind can occur, both consciously and unconsciously, this is seen to present a problem for the view. We take this opportunity to show that all three approaches considered remain (...) perfectly plausible ways of addressing unconscious perception within a naïve realist framework. So far from undermining the credibility of naïve realism, Berger and Nanay simply draw our attention to an important question to be considered by naïve realists in future work. Namely, which of the approaches considered is most likely to provide an accurate account of unconscious perception in each of its purported incarnations? (shrink)
Debates about scientific realism are closely connected to almost everything else in the philosophy of science, for they concern the very nature of scientific knowledge. Scientific realism is a positive epistemic attitude toward the content of our best theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences. This epistemic attitude has important metaphysical and semantic dimensions, and these various commitments are contested by a number of rival epistemologies of science, (...) known collectively as forms of scientific antirealism. This article explains what scientific realism is, outlines its main variants, considers the most common arguments for and against the position, and contrasts it with its most important antirealist counterparts. (shrink)
Realism and surrealism claim, respectively, that a scientific theory is successful because it is true, and because the world operates as if it is true. Lyons :891–901, 2003) criticizes realism and argues that surrealism is superior to realism. I reply that Lyons’s criticisms against realism fail. I also attempt to establish the following two claims: Realism and surrealism lead to a useful prescription and a useless prescription, respectively, on how to make an unsuccessful theory successful. (...)Realism and surrealism give the credit for the success of a theory to an appropriate factor and to an inappropriate factor, respectively. Finally, I point out that surrealism is vulnerable to my pessimistic induction :3–21, 2014a) against antirealism. (shrink)
In recent decades, a ‘realist’ alternative to ideal theories of politics has slowly taken shape. Bringing together philosophers, political theorists, and political scientists, this countermovement seeks to reframe inquiry into politics and political norms. Among the hallmarks of this endeavor are a moral psychology that includes the passions and emotions; a robust conception of political possibility and rejection of utopian thinking; the belief that political conflict — of values as well as interests — is both fundamental and ineradicable; a focus (...) on institutions as the arenas within which conflict is mediated and contained; and a conception of politics as a sphere of activity that is distinct, autonomous, and subject to norms that cannot be derived from individual morality. For political realists, a ‘well-ordered society’ is rarely attainable; a modus vivendi without agreement on first principles is often the only practical possibility. Not only will ‘full compliance’ never be achieved, but also it is an assumption that yields misleading accounts of political norms. While realists offer a number of compelling criticisms of ideal theory, there are some lacunae in their stance. It is not yet clear whether realism constitutes a coherent affirmative alternative to idealism. Nor have realists clarified the extent of conflict that is consistent with political order as such. And because both sides accept ‘ought implies can’ as a constraint on the validity of political norms, much of the debate between realists and idealists revolves around deep empirical disagreements that are yet to be clarified. (shrink)
A realistic and dialectical conception of the epistemology of science is advanced according to which the acquisition of instrumental knowledge is parasitic upon the acquisition, by successive approximation, of theoretical knowledge. This conception is extended to provide an epistemological characterization of reference and of natural kinds, and it is integrated into recent naturalistic treatments of knowledge. Implications for several current issues in the philosophy of science are explored.
Many people accept, at least implicitly, what I call the asymmetry claim: the view that moral realism is more defensible than aesthetic realism. This article challenges the asymmetry claim. I argue that it is surprisingly hard to find points of contrast between the two domains that could justify their very different treatment with respect to realism. I consider five potentially promising ways to do this, and I argue that all of them fail. If I am right, those (...) who accept the asymmetry claim have a significant burden of proof. (shrink)
Broadly speaking, the contemporary scientific realist is concerned to justify belief in what we might call theoretical truth, which includes truth based on ampliative inference and truth about unobservables. Many, if not most, contemporary realists say scientific realism should be treated as ‘an overarching scientific hypothesis’ (Putnam 1978, p. 18). In its most basic form, the realist hypothesis states that theories enjoying general predictive success are true. This hypothesis becomes a hypothesis to be tested. To justify our belief in (...) the realist hypothesis, realists commonly put forward an argument known as the ‘no-miracles argument’. With respect to the basic hypothesis this argument can be stated as follows: it would be a miracle were our theories as successful as they are, were they not true; the only possible explanation for the general predictive success of our scientific theories is that they are true. (shrink)
Political realism is characterised by fidelity to the facts of politics and a refusal to derive political judgments from pre- political moral commitments. Even when they are not taken to make normative theorising impossible or futile, those characteristics are often thought to engender a conservative slant, or at least a tendency to prefer incremental reformism to radicalism. I resist those claims by distinguishing between three variants of realism—ordorealism, contextual realism, and radical realism—and contrasting them with both (...) non-ideal theory and utopianism. I then develop a version of radical realism as a form of debunking and vindicatory genealogy. Even though this new approach eschews both feasibility constraints (unlike non-ideal theory) and prescriptions about the ideal society (unlike utopianism), I show how it has more radical potential than morality-driven (and hence often ideological) political theory, and how it supports both open-ended, radical social critique and concrete forms of prefigurative political action. (shrink)
Among the most serious challenges to scientific realism are arguments for the underdetermination of theory by evidence. This paper defends a version of scientific realism against what is perhaps the most influential recent argument of this sort, viz. Kyle Stanford’s New Induction over the History of Science. An essential part of the defense consists in a probabilistic analysis of the slogan “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. On this basis it is argued that the likelihood of (...) a theory being underdetermined depends crucially on social and historical factors, such as the structure of scientific communities and the time that has passed since the theory first became accepted. This is then shown to serve as the epistemological foundation for a version of scientific realism which avoids Stanford’s New Induction in a principled and non-question-begging way. (shrink)
This article endeavors to identify the strongest versions of the two primary arguments against epistemic scientific realism: the historical argument—generally dubbed “the pessimistic meta-induction”—and the argument from underdetermination. It is shown that, contrary to the literature, both can be understood as historically informed but logically validmodus tollensarguments. After specifying the question relevant to underdetermination and showing why empirical equivalence is unnecessary, two types of competitors to contemporary scientific theories are identified, both of which are informed by science itself. With (...) the content and structure of the two nonrealist arguments clarified, novel relations between them are uncovered, revealing the severity of their collective threat against epistemic realism and its “no-miracles” argument. The final section proposes, however, that the realist’s axiological tenet “science seeks truth” is not blocked. An attempt is made to indicate the promise for a nonepistemic, purely axiological scientific realism—here dubbed “Socratic scientific realism.”. (shrink)
A popular and plausible response against Laudan's “pessimistic induction” has been what I call “preservative realism,” which argues that there have actually been enough elements of scientific knowledge preserved through major theory‐change processes, and that those elements can be accepted realistically. This paper argues against preservative realism, in particular through a critical review of Psillos's argument concerning the case of the caloric theory of heat. Contrary to his argument, the historical record of the caloric theory reveals that beliefs (...) about the properties of material caloric, rejected by subsequent theories, were indeed central to the successes of the caloric theory. Therefore caloric remains a favorable case for Laudan. Further, I argue that even confirmed cases of preservation do not warrant an inference to truth. (shrink)