Systems of Thought and the Issue of Names

As some of you know by now, I’ve taken something of a pet interest in the Speculative realism Wikipedia page. This isn’t because I feel like I’m any sort of authority on the subject, but I’ve read a lot of the material and basically no one else was chomping at the bit about it. Actually, as both Nick and Graham mentioned (though it was Nick who brought it to my attention), the page was basically stillborn, with so little there that people were threatening to delete it.

So I fixed it up a bit and added subsections and publications and mentioned some of the presses that have shown an interest and I think it’s a pretty decent little page now. It certainly fits the criteria of something worthy of being on Wikipedia. So now we’re out of the woods, we’re not in danger if dying of exposure without a wikipage.

Of course, as with any collaborative project, new issues emerge. First, many people have been reporting problems to me about the page, almost all of them being very minor issues with how something is worded. Now I am happy to change them in some cases for instance Graham contacted me with a minor issue about his thought and I changed it since it is frowned upon to write about or edit writings on yourself), but more often than not, people are able to make these changes themselves. I don’t want this thing to be all me by any means and I’m not going to be authoritarian about it. For instance someone on the talk page questioned the designation of Meillassoux’ project as Humean. I said that I thought it was and provided textual support but invited them to respond (they haven’t yet, but I don’t know if they follow the talk page).

On the other hand, some people have gone in and made more significant changes without discussing them on the talk page. For those who don’t edit Wikipedia, minor edits are fine without discussion, as is adding to established sections or information (for example when I add publications to the list, no one needs to really discuss whether or not such and such an essay by Graham and Iain is worthy of being included), but significant alterations to an established page are always (or should be) discussed with the other frequent collaborators. Now, as far as I know, no one else from the blogosphere has really come out and said they are working on the page. It would be good to know who’s behind some of those ip addresses or user names.

The whole point of this was the fact that someone changed the name for Brassier’s philosophy. I originally labeled them as “Speculative Materialism,” “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” “Transcendental Materialism,” and “Eliminative Materialism” for Meillassoux, Harman, Grant, and Brassier respectively. I then added the names “Neo-Vitalism” to Iain’s work and the faction around him (due to the secret project I’m not talking about), and “Transcendental Nihilism” for Ray’s work. I’ve never been comfortable with Iain’s self-designation as doing “transcendental materialism” for two reasons. The first is because that is already what Zizek and his group all claim to be doing. I’m not sure if the Ljubljana Lacanians are all materialists (or if anyone is a materialist the way Zizek is) or if Adrian Johnston or Catherine Malabou are explicitly materialist (or just Hegelians who like Lacan) but it seems that this title is problematic. I understand that others are uncomfortable with “Neo-Vitalism” as a designation because everyone thinks of discredited scientific theories and Mesmerism and whatnot. Hopefully soon “vitalism” will be a legitimate tag for philosophers to wear. I have of course been trying to clean up the word for use not just by Bergson and Deleuze, but also for Schelling and Freud, as well as using it as perhaps a better designator for people like Nietzsche. My hope is that it will replace the old designations of “process philosophy” and “Lebensphilosophie” (and maybe even “Naturphilosophie”).

So that covers the naming problems with Iain’s work, but what about Ray’s? As I said, I added the name “Transcendental Nihilism” which, the more I think of it, is probably the best way to define his work, since his nihilism is not just the rejection of meaning (in his rejection of hermeneutics for example) but a real ontological claim. He maintains that the nihil is the condition of the possibility of all life, and all existents. I really can’t think of a better designation and I’m really glad I went with it now. But there was another name there, “Eliminative Materialism,” what do we do with that? Well, I don’t know how the name emerged for Ray’s work, whether he chose it himself or if it chose him, but I know that people have been using it online (including Graham) for as long as I’ve been aware of the book. But now someone’s gone and changed Ray’s thought to “Transcendental Nihilism / Methodological Naturalism.” What the hell is that? Hasn’t Ray come out explicitly against scientific naturalism? I understand that both he and Laruelle have criticized “materialism in the name of matter” but isn’t he still a Materialist, or maybe a Materialist* with the asterisk leading the reader unknowingly to Laruelle’s critique of Materialism? I don’t know, really, but I also don’t know what “Methodological Naturalism” means.

I know a lot of people do that narcissistic performance where they reject labels, claiming to reject all labels for everyone but secretly thinking that only their work is so singular that no label could apply. I’m with Graham on this one, I like labels. They get a lot across with very little. I mean, the wikipage for SR is a good example. Until a few years ago, there was no SR and none of these factions at all. Now, someone can learn about SR and all these groups in a very compact space, but (I think) with enough information that they get the general point. Maybe one day soon the use of the term “vitalism” won’t require a defense on my part, and it will just be a general system of thought that people basically know what it’s about (the way that there are many idealisms, but that Idealism has enough currency that people know what you mean even without specificity).

Anyway, maybe you guys have the answers. What is Ray doing? Is he doing a Transcendental Nihilism as I think he is? Is it Eliminative Materialism or Methodological Nihilism? What do those of you who have some allegiance to his work think?



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15 responses to “Systems of Thought and the Issue of Names

  1. ZSDP

    Don’t quote me on this, but the bit about Brassier reminds me of something I’ve seen Reid say (then again, I haven’t slept for 24 hours, so maybe he didn’t really say it). Anyways, “Reid”/my imagination was attempting to explain how Brassier’s eliminative materialism extends beyond the scope of the reductive philosophies of mind with which the term “eliminativism” is typically associated. I believe (supplementally) describing it as methodological naturalism is supposed to encapsulate that, for Brassier et al., require philosophical hypotheses be tested in some empirical manner. Thus, Brassier is eliminative in the sense that he rejects philosophical hypotheses that cannot stand up to naturalistic scrutiny (i.e. explanation by reference to natural causes, etc.).

    Hope that helped.

  2. ZSDP

    I also hope I’m not attributing to Reid something I made up on the spot.

  3. ZSDP

    In case it wasn’t clear from the above, I think it’s worth nothing that “naturalistic” explanation is not meant to restrict one to physicalist explanation (which is what, to my understanding, prevailing currents of eliminativism outside SR tend to do). Rather, nature, for the eliminativist, may describe something much broader, as it does in vitalism.

  4. Zach,

    I understand that Ray’s eliminativism does more than simply give him a philosophy of mind. It is his general methodology, as can be seen in his refutation of vitalism in Nihil Unbound. What I am more curious about is his relation to both materialism and naturalism. I know that by materialism, he means something different from naive or crude materialism that simply says “there’s this stuff called matter and it’s everywhere.” This is exactly my point, it seems that his materialism excludes naturalism as it is normally understood. What I fail to understand though is something that Graham brought up coming out of Bristol; basically, Ray reads like a scientist, but is also critical of scientific naturalism. He is critical, if I recall correctly, of the fact that science does not require matter at all, but functions on entirely different assumptions. This means that what he’s doing can’t rightly be called naturalistic without an asterisk, just as it can’t rightly be called materialist without an asterisk. What I am wondering is if either of these terms really do apply to his work at all, or if they simply complicate the matter.

  5. ZSDP

    Fair enough. I’ve only read some of his stuff on non-phi (which passed in one ear and out the other), so I don’t really know anything about what he’s doing on his own. As I said before, the above is what I’ve heard/imagined said about him before.

  6. James

    Why don’t you just write to Brassier and ask him if he’s happy with any of these names? If he’s not, perhaps he’ll be able to suggest something else?

  7. That’s a good idea. I think I will. Thanks, James.

  8. I second asking Ray about this.

    I can’t speak for him obviously, but as my own work is indebted to his, I’ll offer my understanding.

    I don’t think Brassier can be described by either EM or MN. Michael is right to note that naturalism comes under critique by Ray in both his major works, primarily for falsely offering a normative suture securing the ‘objective’ priority of its own discourse (these are my terms, not his). The problem is not that scientific claims are right or wrong, but that on their basis alone we have no reason to prefer any given purpose or project that would give meaning to these findings.

    So this excludes ‘eliminative materialism’, at least insofar as materialism here signifies crude naturalism. For Brassier (I think), the true significance of science/the enlightenment is not only the naturalization of mind characteristic of Churchland and less radical naturalist philosophers of mind, but the denaturalization of nature itself. Man as antiphusis is unveiled as nothing more than phusis only at the cost of unveiling phusis itself to be nothing more than antiphusis. (Unnatural nature here should be understood in similar terms as Meillassoux’s absolutely contingent universe, vs a supposedly natural or necessary unfolding; or even as Grant’s volcanic matter of nature itself, outside of its animal enclosures; I don’t believe he has yet come down on either the mathematical or ‘slimey’ sides of materialism, and he has shown skepticism toward both.)

    Now in a certain sense, his use of naturalism is ‘methodological’, a means to the end of the self-undermining of nature through the insistence on its radical immanence. But I don’t think this term really fits any more than EM. Brassier seems more concerned with the Eliminativism sanctioned by naturalism than he is with the sort of ‘naturalistic materialism’ common in analytic circles, going so far as to eliminate the concept of nature/materiality as such. He takes this elimination beyond its methodological confinement to the naturalist-materialist agenda, seeking to identify it with nihil/Extinction as transcendental condition – ultimately, all concepts (and as they are not different in kind, all agglomerations of matter/information) are identical to their own elimination/obsolescence/disappearance, or to ‘being-nothing’ (the central concept of Nihil Unbound).

    So in short, I think Brassier takes Eliminativism beyond its circumscription by naturalism, and hence beyond its methodological restriction. Moreover, I’m not even sure ‘methodological naturalism’ makes sense – naturalism is an end, with eliminativism as (the most radical) method or means of its promotion. Brassier seems to overturn naturalism by raising eliminativism to the only ‘end’ as extinction. Hence, I think Transcendental Nihilism, or what would be essentially equivalent, Transcendental Eliminativism, makes the most sense.

    Zakk –

    While I think its correct to say Brassier (and myself) would reject philosophical theories that ‘don’t stand up to naturalistic scrutiny’, I don’t think this amounts to ’empirical testing’ of said theories in the same way as scientific theories undergo testing. Philosophical theories primarily concern the problems of normativity, prescription, action and so on (and these include the problem of prescribing the ‘superempirical virtues’ of scientific naturalism), whereas science strictly speaking refrains from prescribing anything – it simply lays out evidence from which we are expected to draw the same conclusions as all rational intelligences.

    I think the kind of testing philosophy obliges is different from that of science, although it is related. Their partial identity ultimately resides, for me, in the total submission of concepts to the results of their employment, rather than allowing super-natural ascriptions of value. Yet their is a marked difference between the rigorous testing of hypotheses by science, and the enforced precariousness of concepts qua modes of existence.

  9. ZSDP

    Reid –

    I’m glad I didn’t totally fabricate everything I wrote, but I’m sorry for the exegetical mistakes. Anyways . . .

    Of course philosophical theories aren’t tested in the same way are scientific theories—which is why I didn’t say anything about science (something distinct from naturalism in my book). I think the test of “employment”, as you say, is empirical, if empiricism is simply the doctrine that knowledge is gained through experience (which might include participatory experience—apart from physical sensation—like one might have of Plato’s Ideas).

    But I’m half asleep, and I apparently didn’t really know what was said in the first place. ;p

    (Cocky Idealism my ass, Michael.)

  10. As I’ve mentioned on the talk page of the article, the first sentence, describing the term’s origin, is useless. Wikipedia articles–or at least their opening paragraphs–need to be accessible; thus, the first sentence should tell me what speculative realism is. At the moment (“…takes its name from from a conference held at Goldsmiths College, University of London in April, 2007”) it does not.

  11. I’ve been meaning to respond here with 2 points to make. First, as ‘factions’, the issue shouldn’t be too focused on what a particular thinker feels is a legitimate label. The original 4 SR thinkers are a good basis for the factions, but already the people inspired by them are doing quite different things. So I don’t think it’s a major problem if Ray would agree to ‘transcendental nihilism’ and/or ‘methodological naturalism’. They’re both good terms for the work being done in their vicinity.

    That being said, my second point is that in his piece for The Speculative Turn, Ray explicitly adheres to a ‘methodological naturalism’. The relevant sentences:

    “But it is important to distinguish naturalism as a metaphysical doctrine engaging in an ontological hypostasis of entities and processes postulated by current science, from naturalism as an epistemological constraint stipulating that accounts of conception, representation, and meaning refrain from invoking entities or processes which are in principle refractory to any possible explanation by current or future science. It is the latter that should be embraced. Methodological naturalism simply stipulates that meaning (i.e. conceptual understanding) may be drawn upon as an epistemological explanans only so long as the concomitant gain in explanatory purchase can be safely discharged at a more fundamental metaphysical level where the function and origin of linguistic representation can be accounted for without resorting to transcendental skyhooks (such as originary sense-bestowing acts of consciousness, being-in-the-world, or the Lebenswelt). The Critical acknowledgement that reality is neither innately meaningful nor inherently intelligible entails that the capacities for linguistic signification and conceptual understanding be accounted for as processes within the world—processes through which sapient creatures gain access to the structure of a reality whose order does not depend upon the conceptual resources through which they come to know it.”

  12. Nick,

    Your point that the thinker is not the faction is well taken. I realize now that I don’t know as much about the work being done in that corner of SR as what’s being done in OOP or Neo-Vitalism, since the latter is really where my interests lie and the former seem to be the most vocal! So you’re right, the names should really apply to the groups and not the individuals, and I’m glad that you’re okay with the designations since (as far as I know) both you and Reid are influenced by Ray’s work, no?

    Incidentally, I just heard back from Ray about all of this. I wanted his approval here since I’m planning on referencing his chapter on Freud for my thesis and have been thinking about writing a piece for a while now on what his work means for hermeneutics. I wanted to refer to his work as “transcendental nihilism” since it so easily rolls off the tongue and into your heart. He told me that for Nihil Unbound is it perfectly apt but that his more recent work is shifting in direction (as you point out in your reference to his piece in The Speculative Turn), so I suppose it may not be a suitable designator for him for long, but it might stick around in the works of others.

  13. Fabio Cunctator

    Michael, have you considered adding Ian’s aggregator to the links section of the SR wikipedia page? Of course, I can do it myself, but I wanted to discuss the question first with the unofficial curator of the page.

  14. I think it would be great if you added Ian’s SR aggregator to the wikipage. Great idea.

  15. Fabio Cunctator


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