Interview with Jon Cogburn
© Jon Cogburn and Figure/Ground
Dr. Cogburn was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. July 25th, 2016.
Jon Cogburn received his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in 1999 and joined the philosophy faculty at Louisiana State University in the same year. He teaches primarily in the areas of philosophy of mind, language, and logic. His research interests include realism/anti-realism debates, modality, the computational theory of mind, semantics for vagueness, dialethism, tacit knowledge, and issues at the intersection of the sociology of science and cognitive science.
Why study Philosophy? How did it shape your view of the world?
In the closing section of The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell tries to defend the study of philosophy against the complaint that nothing ever gets resolved. Philosophers respond to problems that don’t have obvious empirical solutions by developing competing visions of how things might be, and then they knock each other’s visions down. And with all the knocking down, nobody really wins. But Russell held that if you do this kind of thing enough and in the right spirit you develop two virtues: (1) a heightened sense of the possible and (2) epistemic humility.
From my own experience, I don’t think it’s absolutely irrational to hope that Russell is correct. To the obvious rejoinder that academic philosophers (at least judging by our facebook posts) don’t seem to have particularly widened senses of the possible or to be particularly epistemically humble, I’d respond first that this perhaps just shows that academic philosophy isn’t coextensive with philosophy, and second with CS Lewis’ old retort about the moral salubriousness of Christianity. The question shouldn’t be whether Christianity/philosophy is inconsistent with being a terrible person, but rather it might make you slightly less terrible than you would otherwise be. I hope that philosophy has made me slightly less terrible. Maybe it has!
I also think there’s something basically right about the sort of Hegelian view that part of humanity’s remit is to participate in the universe becoming self-conscious. Fair-minded people who read both novels and philosophy agree that novelists do better job of the Hegelian task than philosophers, but I can’t help but think philosophy is a necessary part of the process. If I were a competent novelist perhaps I would think otherwise.
Finally, and perhaps with even less justification, I’m drawn to some adumbration of the Spinozist idea that the only version of immortality on offer is from experience of timeless things. It certainly feels that way. When I really begin to understand something that strikes me as important I forget about my own wretched self and feel connected with the universe. I’m sorry if that sounds flaky. I certainly don’t think that moments of intellectual grace are the only moments of grace. Truth should not be privileged over goodness or beauty, but again I do think that truth is a necessary part of the mix.
Who were some of your mentors in grad school? What did you learn from them?
In many ways, my undergraduate teachers made a more profound impact on me. I went to the University of Texas during that brief period in the late 1980s and early 1990s where, under the name “theory,” continental philosophy maintained a kind of hegemony throughout the humanities. At that time, a productive dialogue between analytic and continental philosophy seemed to be just around the corner. My favorite professors were able to do both. Johanna Seibt was developing a process metaphysics that incorporated Wilfred Sellars and the great Iowa metaphysicians (two of whom, Ed Allaire and Herbert Hochberg, were also among my favorite teachers at UT) as well as Alfred North Whitehead and Hegel. Robert Solomon did first-rate work on emotions in the analytic philosophy of mind, but it was work motivated by his very deep engagement with existentialists, on whom he also taught and published voluminously. Douglas Kellner’s indefatigable work on the Frankfurt School Marxists manifested all of the virtues one might associate with good analytic philosophy.
I actually hated Derrida at the time because deconstructionism struck me as both fundamentally unserious and hideously monotone. Having grown up in some very conservative churches, I don’t have enough patience for people hectoring me with the same thing over and over again. The marketplace deconstructionist’s sort of Hegelian bit about the peripheral really being central added to the (non-Hegelian) insinuation that people who disagree are politically rebarbative begins to grate the hundredth or so time you hear or read it. Is it really that plausible that every text ever produced by humans says this and only this? Yuck. If that’s the best humans can do, I’d rather be a houseplant. And I still don’t sufficiently appreciate Derrida’s texts of that period, such as Glas, Postcard, and The Truth in Painting. I get that he’s trying to do something extraordinarily worthwhile, explore the performative aspects of philosophical writing in a vaguely negative theological way. I’m just not convinced he succeeded. I don’t know that he was either.
And Derrida’s prose style (or at least that of what happens when you translate it into English) was a powerful stylistic virus. Many of these ticks still bother me slightly more than poison ivy: unnecessary chiasmus, pointless puns, that thing with the parentheses to produce ambiguity, the Nietzschean affectation of loftiness, etc. etc. etc.
Thank God for the masterful contemporary continental prose stylists. Just a few people (e.g. Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Douglas Kellner, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Manuel DeLanda, Tristan Garcia, Clancy Martin, Lee Braver. . .) have as far as I can tell somehow magically liberated the rest of us from this all too human madness of aping the style of the mighty dead. One can now enter into conversation with Heidegger, Hegel, and Derrida, without writing like them.
I should note that I hate being as judgmental as I’m revealing myself to be here. First, everyone’s doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. Second, I’ve had a chance to get food and/or booze with some of the people whose prose irritates me the most and actually learned from them. This makes it pretty likely that I’m still not getting something about the prose tropes. Third, really who am I (or anyone!) to make these kinds of sweeping judgments? Fourth, all style is viral. Nobody makes a list of stylistic features and designs an internal algorithm to maximize conformity. It doesn’t work that way. Nothing really works that way, but style (every form, not just literary) is I think paradigmatically different. Try reading nothing but Žižek for a month or two (it’s wonderful, everyone should do this) and then see what happens to your writing. I have a dynamite aesthetics piece written with Graham Bounds that we can’t get published in an analytic journal because I wrote too much of the first draft during a Žižek-heavy time (Bounds is doing major surgery as I write this). These things are not intentional. Philosophy is very hard and the overwhelming majority of what any of us do is going to be mediocre at best.
Finally, one must note that philosophical movements suffer monotonous caricature precisely to the extent that they are successful. There is nothing uniquely wretched about Baby Boomer era deconstructionism in this regard.
Unbeknownst to me, in my Derrida loathing I was picking up on the early bits of the culture wars that at least for a few decades largely killed the rapprochement between analytic and continental philosophy. If people who didn’t write like Derrida had then been just a smidgeon more charitable, we might not have blown the opportunity represented by 1980s theory. It would still be a going concern in language departments and philosophy would rightly be regarded as central to humanistic study. But we blew it. Anyone reading this should read your interview with Kellner to get an idea of what’s largely been lost (http://figureground.org/interview-with-douglas-kellner/) and hopefully coming back. (I should note that UT is still a wonderful program, but unless they add AW Moore to the list of brilliant Brits they’ve hired these past few years, they are not going to be a place of detente between the analytic and continental traditions any time soon).
Even though I loathed Derrida, I was fortunately inconsistent enough to love his UT apostle, Louis Mackey, as well as some of the graduate students in Mackey’s orbit, such as N. Mark Rauls, Pierre Lamarche, and Clancy Martin. I think these people, especially N. Mark Rauls, kept me from entirely joining team analytic during graduate school (where one of my favorite professors had an in class comedy routine where he’d read random bits of Being and Time to illustrate how silly continental philosophy is). And there are so many people doing wonderful things with Derrida now: my colleagues François Raffoul and Debbie Goldgaber, Lee Braver, Martin Hagglund, Samuel Wheeler, etc. etc. etc.
Graduate school was a shock in so many ways. I went to the Ohio State University thinking I would do metaphysics with Alan Hausman, but he’d left OSU I think the very year I got there. Their only pure metaphysician during my first year was Robert Kraut. I adore Robert and his work, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly (actually, as far as I can tell, he doesn’t suffer them at all). I’m an extraordinarily anxious person, and when it’s bad I don’t come across intelligent or fast thinking. In this respect Kraut and I were comically mismatched. Kraut is one of the most wonderfully intense and manically animated philosophers I’ve had the pleasure to learn from (just surpassing Neil Sinhababu and my colleague Charles Pence, perhaps equaling Ed Allaire). But at that point in my life I just couldn’t manifest an ounce of wit in the face of someone standing just almost too close to me yelling about ontological commitment, the myth of the given, varieties of indeterminacy, non-cognitivism, Beavis and Butthead, jazz music, etc. This would probably still be an issue for me. I don’t know. I learned a hell of a lot from Robert Kraut though.
I hate to be ungrateful, but OSU was in many ways an unpleasant place to be while I was there. I don’t know if he actually said this but at this time some of the OSU professors would report that Brian Leiter, had opined that with recent hires OSU was “poised to move into the top ten.” Of course this kind of thing contributes to a generally poisonous atmosphere. Instead of an ethos of “you’re here, let’s rock out together” the ethos was very much “you’re here, prove yourself.” First year graduate students were forced to compete with one another to achieve a high enough rank each year so that they would be in the subset whose funding would continue. Every year certain faculty members would insinuate to the current students that the coming years’ entering class of students would finally match the level of excellence of the faculty. But we never managed to catch up to the levels of self-worth of these faculty members while I was there. The graduate student attrition rate was well over fifty percent during my entire time. And the classes were on a quarter system where each session was only ten weeks, which meant reading an enormous amount in a short amount of time and planning your final paper before you really knew what was going on in the class. In addition, my undergraduate mélange of Marxism, Iowa school metaphysics, and existentialism didn’t overlap with anything that was going on at OSU. I was radically unprepared. At the first end-of-the-year meeting when graduate students were ranked relative to one another I received category 1B, which meant that continued funding was contingent on how many students accepted their offers of funding the next year. It was a very depressing and stressful time. In addition to over half the students washing out, there were a lot of graduate student deaths from assorted self-destructive acts and health emergencies, I think at least one for every year I was in the program.
I was very lucky that Neil Tennant came back from sabbatical during my second year of graduate school. I would have failed out otherwise. Tennant’s work is I think the best advertisement for Michael Dummett’s claim that deep and widely ramifying metaphysical issues are at issue in the philosophy of logic. From Tennant I learned how to think in natural deduction as well as how work profitably on smaller parts of big issues. Tennant is a model in how good philosophers cherish interlocutors who disagree with them as well as a paradigm of how a teacher can midwife ideas out of his students. I did my dissertation with Tennant on realism and anti-realism issues and how these relate to the correctness of logic and models of grasp of word meaning. It was the most exciting event in my life up to that point.
Tennant, Kraut, and Stewart Shapiro formed a nucleus of research at OSU during my later period of graduate study and I can’t overstate how wonderful they were to learn from. From Kraut I learned about Quine and Rorty and got some of the first intimations of Pittsburgh Hegelianism. From Shapiro I learned a tremendous amount of metaphysics, even though my dissertation ended up taking more of a philosophy of language perspective. Like Tennant, Shapiro is a walking advertisement for the importance of logic in addressing fundamental metaphysical issues. My friends Roy Cook, Jon Curtis, David Merli, Mark Silcox, Joe Salerno and I all took and sat in similar classes with these three and had reading groups relating to the things we learned from them. Even though my first year of graduate school was one of most despairing periods of my life, I retain a lot of nostalgia for formative years spent with these teachers and friends, including Jack Arnold, Sondra Bacharach, John Chaplin, Emily Beck, Stephen Blatti, Ty Lightner, Bill Melanson, Larry Sanger, and Debbie Tollefson. Sondra, John Chaplin, Stephen, Bill and Debbie are academic philosophers now. Jon Curtis does fascinating stuff at the Artificial Intelligence company CyCorp. Jack’s a combat veteran and lawyer, Emily’s a novelist, Ty’s a computer programmer with a successful youtube channel, and Larry co-founded Wikipedia and currently has his fingers in all sorts of interesting pies. The philosophical blogosphere acts as if it’s this awful thing if you don’t get an academic job, and to be fair the whole process is terrifying and horrible in all sorts of ways. But my grad school friends who did other things besides going into academia are all rocking out.
Four other professors who influenced me a lot were Robert Batterman, Craige Roberts, William Taschek, and Mark Wilson. I learned linguistics from Roberts. Even though I’m not doing much with philosophy of language these days, it’s really, really helpful to have some idea of how linguistics actually operates (as opposed to the Chomskian mythology that most philosophers imbibe). Taschek was on my dissertation committee and was wonderful in pushing back at the Dummettian idea that philosophy of language could replace metaphysics. He was also great at teaching Donald Davidson as a systematic philosopher. Wilson’s critique of the model of meaning presupposed by many philosophers was eye opening as was the way he would use history of science to undermine the way analytic philosophers have posed key metaphysical issues in terms of their own misunderstanding of the relevant science. Robert Batterman’s work on reductionism was eye opening for similar reasons. I also loved the way Wilson mines philosophy from everywhere, including B movies and bluegrass music. I doubt I would maintain a sideline in writing about the philosophy of popular culture (books with Mark Silcox on video games and role playing games, and a few things at various stages of preparation on the television show Adventure Time, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and H.P. Lovecraft) were it not for taking classes with Wilson.
If you are minimally successful at academic philosophy you still might fail at finding out how to do your job while keeping alive a genuine passion for philosophy. Can you use the skills you developed writing and then mining your dissertation to work on the issues that originally got you into philosophy? After all the service work and blows to your ego required by publication do you even still care about philosophy? Do you have a vocation or is this just a paycheck? Everyone lucky enough to get tenure ends up discovering whether their commitment to philosophy is internally driven. Some of them don’t make it. Like a lot of musicians, they fight like mad for this thing for decades and then completely fall apart once they get it. In my experience, those who aren’t motivated by the subject matter end up losing themselves in some combination of booze, mental health treatment, television, and becoming an administrator. Yuck. I’m very lucky that my teachers and friends have given me a lifetime of things to think about.
Among your areas of specialization and research interest is speculative realism. What attracted you to this new branch of continental philosophy?
Jonathan Bennett claims that one of Kant’s most revolutionary developments was thinking of concepts in terms of their inferential role, as opposed to the Cartesian tradition of thinking of them representationally. Michael Dummett and Robert Brandom have both championed this view and developed fairly baroque, almost byzantine in Brandom’s case, philosophies of logic and language around it. For Dummett, metaphysical theses such as the idealist view that reality is mind dependent are really just pictures of sorts whose non-pictorial content is actually a function of issues such as whether you take meaning to be primarily cashed out in terms of inferences or representations. My earliest publications all relate in some manner to this program. This also led me to research anti-representationalist philosophy of mind.
Brandom presents Heidegger as an important step in the inferentialist understanding of content. Working through his system (something I’m still doing), having read N. Mark Rauls’ dissertation on Heidegger, as well as working through Alva Noë’s enactivist philosophy of mind led me to finally tackle Heidegger’s Being and Time. That was actually one of my presents to myself for getting tenure, taking a year or so to try to understand Heidegger. I’m very lucky to have two very patient colleagues, François Raffoul and Gregory Schufreider, who themselves do philosophically vital work involving Heidegger.
Reading Heidegger changed everything. First, I came to the regretful conclusion that Brandom has Heidegger importantly and perniciously wrong. The early Heidegger does not articulate his anti-representationalism in terms of linguistic inferences, but rather in terms of sensitivity to normative possibilities that we enact in our non-linguistic behavior. Heidegger’s departure from Kantian linguaform inferentialism here is as fundamental as Kant’s departure from Descartes, albeit Heidegger is going further in the direction that Kant started. Mark Okrent has a very nice paper, “On Layer Cakes,” that explains where Brandom goes wrong. Second, Dummett was mistaken that representationalism (plus the classical logic that it licenses) equals realism. As readers of Crowell and Malpas’ excellent Transcendental Heidegger realize (especially considering the essays by Christina Lafont and Herman Philipse), Heidegger’s own views were inconsistent on issues of realism and anti-realism. Most people read Heidegger as a kind of transcendental epistemologist who (like the logical positivists whom he ironically has an enormous amount in common with) attempted to undermine the very possibility of meaningful debates about realism. But this reading is problematic both as a reading of Heidegger’s oeuvre and as a philosophical position. And, to add insult to injury, people who see Heidegger as relevant to realism/anti-realism issues take wildly different tacks. Lee Braver’s monumental A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism presents Heidegger as a canonical non-realist. In 2006 I participated in a reading group of Braver’s book for the blog Perverse Egalitarianism. Perverse Egalitarianism for a while was one of the centers of discussion about speculative realism. It was during this period that I read Graham Harman’s Tool Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Harman admits that Heidegger himself is at best equivocal, and at worst inconsistent, about realism issues. But this is no bar to reading Heidegger as a realist, which Harman does.
My next book is going to be centrally concerned with Harman’s metaphysics, which I can unfortunately only present in caricature in this interview. From my engagement with Harman and Heidegger I developed three guiding intuitions: (1) contemporary philosophy is profoundly neo-Kantian, (2) versions of the German Idealist critiques of Kantianism work against lots of contemporary philosophers, and (3) pace the German Idealists, these critiques actually suggest a more thoroughgoing realism. I develop some of this in my forthcoming (2017, Edinburgh University Press) book, Garcian Meditations: The Dialectics of Persistence in Form and Object. A nice account of how they play out with respect to Harman can be found in my paper, “Aesthetics as First Philosophy: Sense Making after Speculative Realism,” which is at academia.edu at. It’s a good read! Joe Bob says check it out.
I should also note that one of the things really interesting to me as an analytic philosopher is that contemporary post-phenomenological trends in continental philosophy echo our own overthrow of logical positivism. But it’s not a mere echo. I hope that from Garcian Meditations and my next book it is clear that analytic philosophers have much to learn here.
To what extent can the speculative realist movement be regarded as a continuation -even a correction- of the (post)structural revolution of the XX century? And at what point do they part ways with the postmodern project?
I think that this is something that is being worked out now. Gert-Jan van der Heiden’s Ontology after Onto-theology: Plurality, Event, and Contingency in Contemporary Philosophy (Dusquene University Press, 2014) and the essays in Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian’s Genealogies of Speculation: Materialism and Subjectivity since Structuralism ( Bloomsbury, 2016) are key starting points. Paul Livingston’s The Politics of Logic: Badiou, Wittgenstein, and the Consequences of Formalism (Routledge, 2012) is also essential reading, though it doesn’t discuss the continental return to metaphysics. Much of my recent work can be understood as bringing Livingstonian strains into speculative realism.
To get clear about the question, we have to be clear about what we mean by “post-structuralism.” Deleuze’s early piece, “What is Structuralism?” is really interesting because Deleuze’s “structuralism” is already what most of us would consider post-structuralism! He presents Levi-Strauss as defending the view that structures constitutively presuppose reference to that which is excluded by the structures. The kind of inconsistency that results arguably is the key motivating factor for Deleuze, Derrida, and Badiou.
Graham Priest, Paul Livingston, and I characterize this inconsistency in terms of what Priest has formalized as inclosure paradoxes. Again, see “Aesthetics as First Philosophy” as well as Joshua Heller’s and my “The Bearable Inconsistency of Being: Badiou Beyond the Limits of Thought.” Note that this paper was rejected by Avanessian and Malik! It’s in that zone where there is not enough logic for a logic journal, but too much logic for anything but my academia dot edu site. Feh. We’re going to submit it to Badiou Studies and see how it goes. Despite the rejection, I still wrote a positive cover blurb for Avanessian and Malik’s book.
My meditations on inclosure paradoxes makes me push for speculative readings of Deleuze, Derrida, and Badiou. Deleuzians like Jeff Bell, Levi Bryant, Manuel DeLanda, John Protevi, and AW Moore are halfway there with Deleuze, since they already view him as a metaphysician. At some point I want to try to push them further along via a more radical reading of his The Logic of Sense. Hagglund and Malabou have begun to push us towards a metaphysical Derrida. My colleague Debbie Goldgaber has some dynamite stuff on a speculative Derrida that will get published in the next year or so that will push this much further along. I really, really, really want to write a book discussing Derrida and inclosure paradoxes. Priest interprets differance and Livingston interprets Derrida on law in terms of inclosure paradoxes. And I also read Derrida on the event as an inclosure paradox. Someone needs to connect the dots here. But I’m going to wait to Goldgaber’s reading comes out first (as well as François Raffoul’s book on the event) and build on what she’s doing.
Just as French structuralism was always already post, I think modernism was always after itself. I did a blog post about this a couple of months ago. My basic take is that modernism is the result of an incestuous relationship between criticism and art. When artists are responding to critics with their artworks, it radically increases the ability of those works to talk about other artworks, themselves, and the collection of all artworks. And this generates exactly the kind of paradoxes that we associate with post-modernism and post-structuralism.
This theme interacts with speculative realism/object-oriented philosophy in three ways. First, the Kantian denial of totality is one of the two planks of correlationism, and this very issue gives rise to inclosure paradoxes which I take to be characteristic of post-structuralism. In every case some totality ends up both containing and not containing itself. Part of the remit of speculative realism is the response to this (as well as the Berkeley/Fichte argument about conceivability [see answer #6 below]). Second, as I show in “Aesthetics as First Philosophy” and Garcian Meditations, object-oriented ontology admits of its own characteristic inclosure paradox. The main motivation of object-oriented philosophy is objects are those things which resist their reduction both to their components (as scientific reductionists might have it) and to those things which they are related to (as anthropocentric correlationists as well as some process metaphysicians would have it). But then in articulating a speculative metaphysics consistent with this insight, the object-oriented ontologist herself characterizes objects in terms of their constituents and relations. Is this a bug or a feature? I argue the latter. Third, Graham Harman’s system is particularly interesting because it so clearly possesses the resources to explain its own metaphysical and epistemic status, and hence suggests interesting responses to its own inclosure paradox. This is a big deal! It should be a success condition facing all systematic philosophies. In “Aesthetics as First Philosophy” I show how Harman restores consistency by understanding metaphysics itself as a species of aesthetic sense-making, as articulated by the relation of “allure” in his own system. It’s wonderfully meta. Harman’s system explains its own possibility in a way that Fichte showed Kant could not! As I suggest at the end of the paper, this relates to Harman’s current work on formalism in interesting ways. Garcia, on the other hand, follows Priest and Livingston in countenancing true contradictions.
So I would like to argue that post-structuralism leads to speculative realism. To fully make this case one would (in addition to the interpretations of Deleuze, Derrida, and Badiou that I’ve suggested) also need a careful consideration of Foucault’s anti-anthropocentrism, but this would (I think) in the end actually considerably strengthen the case. My rereadings of Deleuze, Derrida, and Badiou lead to the anti-Kantian strain of speculative realism. A good re-reading of Foucault and Deleuze would see them as leading to the anti-Berkeleyan strains.
Your forthcoming book is on Tristan Garcia. What attracted you to his thought and how does his own brand of object-oriented philosophy differ from Harman’s and Bryant’s?
I was first attracted to Garcia from reading about him on Harman’s blog. I was teaching a class on speculative realism at the time and my now friend Mark Ohm attended. We read Harman’s “Object-Oriented France: The Philosophy of Tristan Garcia” and were really interested. Here was this novelist/philosopher whose thoughts independently overlapped with Harman’s. Ohm was a then graduate student in French Studies and so we both got copies of Garcia’s Forme et Objet and then we were hooked. Part of it was Garcia’s lovely style.
A brief Schopenhauerian tangent about the role of bad prose in philosophy. Most bad writing works to fool you into thinking the ideas articulated are deep and plausible. But when you attempt to interpret the bad writing you only ever get deep and implausible paraphrases or shallow and plausible ones. Great philosophers are those whose writings produce mutually inconsistent paraphrases which are deep and plausible. It’s extraordinarily fun to talk about Garcia with my friend Christopher Ray Alexander, because Chris interprets Garcia through much more Heideggerian and Žižekian lenses. I hope at some point that Chris writes a criticism of my reading from this perspective. I think the greatness of Garcia’s accomplishment will only really be exposed when there are worked out dueling interpretations, both of which are plausible philosophically interesting things one might believe.
In any case, Ohm and I were already interested in object-oriented philosophy and fell in love with Garcia’s prose. We each put everything on hold and began to translate it, and Form and Object: A Treatise on Things came out with Edinburgh University Press in April of 2014.
Garcia’s main gambit is to consider objects to be mere differentiators between the things those objects contain and the things which contain those objects. In this manner he attempts to avoid undermining reduction of objects to their parts or the overmining reduction of objects to the systems of relationships in which they occur. But if this were the only story, he wouldn’t avoid overmining, for to characterize an object as a differentiator is to identify it in terms of things that are not it, the things from which it is differentiated. And, as Harman has noted, the threat of monism looms. British Idealism (along with vulgar deconstructionism, which is nothing more than a semantic recapitulation of British Idealism) was largely a set of arguments showing that relational individuation ends up entailing that the only truly individuated object is the whole set of relations. Garcia wants to avoid this. So he is led to posit another mode, that of things. Every entity can be considered qua object or qua thing. Things are like “bare particulars” in analytic philosophy, the ultimate bearer of an object’s properties. But Garcia’s view is importantly different. First, his things are also mere differentiators, differentiating between limit concepts of matter and world. Second, things are “solitary” for Garcia. One can never compare or even count two things. This is important because, like bare particulars, nothing differentiates things from one another. Each thing merely differentiates between matter and world. In Garcian Meditations I show how Garcia’s metaphysics is able to avoid monism, but at the same time faces, and embraces, limit contradictions at both sides, that of matter at the metaphysical bottom and world at the top.
In Book II of Form and Object Garcia adds the notion of intensity his core metaphysics to sketch an astonishing variety of regional ontologies, including: animals, humans, beauty, events, time, life, and value. His newest book, La Vie intense. Une obsession modern, updates and reworks some of this material. Christopher and Abigail RayAlexander and me are going to be translating this book for EUP later this summer. We’re tremendously excited about it.
If Garcia avoids overmining and undermining via a differential metaphysics, Harman does it via a picture of objects as intrinsically withdrawn from the properties that are manifest when they interact with one another. This is his guerilla reading of Heidegger, for whom objects are withdrawn from human perceivers. In addition to the distinction between real object and sensual properties, Harman reads Husserl to posit sensual objects and real properties. All of this together creates Harman’s fourfold ontology. But the immediate difference from Garcia is object as differentiator versus object as radically withdrawn. Harman’s withdrawn objects are an update on traditional substance, something Garcia rejects.
Unfortunately, at this level the differences are so abstract that it’s hard to compare the two. Since both are systematic philosophers I think the issue between picking one or the other (if one is the kind of person who has to choose in cases like this) really comes down to comparing what the respective systems do. For me, one of the big differences is the manner in which they face limit paradoxes. I like Garcia’s embrace of contradiction for two reasons: (1) independent arguments by Graham Priest and Paul Livingston support Garcia’s approach, and (2) Garcia’s embrace of contradiction fits very well with a tragic sense of life expressed in Book II of Form and Object. As I show in Garcian Meditations, Garcia is wonderfully post-Hegelian. If the German Idealists took tension/ contradiction to be the key motor of change, Garcia takes it to be a model of persistence. When applied to important regional ontologies this ends up showing why humans are constitutively frustrated in our pursuits of the true, the good, and the beautiful.
But, on the other hand, Harman’s vision of aesthetics as first philosophy also moves me. It allows one to reread the list of philosophers AW Moore, in his recent The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things, calls “creative,” a list including Nietzsche, Bergson, Carnap, and Deleuze. As I noted earlier, it also allows a new post-Kantian response to Fichte. For Harman, art allows us to allude to real objects that withdraw from the sensual properties manifest when we engage with them. This allure, this allusion, is the connection between two of the nodes in his fourfold. If metaphysics itself is a species of allure, then (unlike Kant) Harman’s own system has the capacity to explain itself. Third, Harman’s work lines up in interesting ways with worries about the scheme/content distinction in analytic philosophy articulated by Donald Davidson and John McDowell. Harman’s new work in formalism will end up being really important here. My next book, After Quietism, will focus centrally on this. I might at the end of it be more on Harman’s side than Garcia’s. I don’t know. I’m happy just to appreciate what is great about both thinkers.
I’ve read a good chunk of Bryant’s Deleuze book (Difference and Givenness) as well as his Democracy of Objects. He’s gone in different directions since then, and I’m behind on my reading. I interpret Democracy of Objects as accepting Harman’s neo-Heideggerian distinction between real objects and sensual properties, while rejecting both sensual objects and real properties. The price is that Bryant’s real objects are not quite as withdrawn as Harman’s are, since their virtual proper being can be thought of as capacities to manifest sensual properties. In “Actual Qualties of Imaginative Things: Towards an Object-Oriented Literary Theory,” Mark Ohm and I refer to this as a “capacity metaphysics” version of object-oriented ontology. Mark Silcox and I develop this a bit in our paper “Computability Theory and Ontological Emergence” (http://philpapers.org/rec/COGCTA). In Garcian Meditations I discuss a little bit the capacity type metaphysics of Stanford School philosophers of science Nancy Cartwright and John Dupré. They are highly relevant first because they are motivated by anti-reductionism in the same way that Harman and Bryant are, but they’ve worked out their critiques of reductionism and unificationism in much greater detail. Second, their systems are in various ways homologous to what Bryant attempted in Democracy of Objects. A few years ago I tried to get Bryant to do some work on them both as a way to bridge analytic and continental and as a way to further develop his view, but I think in moving on from the Democracy picture he’s moved on from the dialectical responsibility to do that.
You’ve recently made the claim that Garcia is actually a step beyond Meillassoux and Harman in his rejection of the two basic tenets of correlationism: 1) that the human-world relation stands at the center of philosophy, and 2) that all knowledge is finite. Would you elaborate on this?
Harman insists that contemporary neo-Kantianism (“correlationism”) has a twofold source: (1) Berkeleyan/Fichtean arguments for generalized immanence (because anything genuinely transcendent would by definition transcend our ability to know, or even talk meaningfully, about it), and (2) the Kantian finitistic response to the fact that genuine totalities generate contradictions. With respect to this category, Quentin Meillassoux’s speculative realism is Berkeleyan and anti-Kantian, Harman’s is Kantian and anti-Berkeleyan, and Tristan Garcia (according to my interpretation in the book) is anti-Kantian and anti-Berkeleyan.
In “Meillassoux’s Dilemma: Paradoxes of Totality After the Speculative Turn” Joshua Heller and I show that Meillassoux’s position is actually unstable. After Finitude makes two key arguments. The first undermines Kantian correlationism from within in the manner of Fichte, showing that the very act of stating correlationism requires talking about the totality of correlates as a thing itself. But then Meillassoux’s argument from the final part of the book, the argument for absolute contingency, proceeds by attempting to show that we cannot talk meaningfully about the totality of possible worlds. For Meillassoux, causal necessity requires in effect making probability judgements about what is likely or not to occur over the set of all possible worlds. But if we can’t make those judgements, then we can’t claim that there is genuine causal necessity. It’s a very interesting argument, and Heller and I are able to strongly suggest that in the criticism of a totality of possible worlds Badiou and Meillassoux actually independently discovered what analytic philosophers know as Kaplan’s paradox. But the broader problem is that the same premises that allow Meillassoux to undermine Kant on the totality of correlates would, if valid, secure meaningful talk about the totality of possible worlds. So Meillassoux has to give up one of his arguments, he either must be a consistent Kantian and talk about neither the totality of possible worlds nor the totality of correlates. Or he must, with Tristan Garcia, go all the way and inconsistently talk about the totality of both.
This being said, as far as I can tell there is nothing inconsistent with being an anti-Kantian Berkeleyan. The Meillassoux of the first bit of After Finitude does that just fine. But, if he wants to remain anti-Kantian about correlationism, he certainly needs some new arguments to secure his claim of absolute metaphysical contingency. I think one can get out of this by just reading his positive writings about the metaphysics of contingency as a kind of speculative, post-phenomenological, Sartreanism, but Meillassoux might reject this as a species of what he calls “subjectualism.”
In any case, one of my projects has been to examine the two strands of correlationism. Building on the work with Heller (and Paul Livingston’s work before that), in Garcian Meditations I argue that the anti-Kantian should be committed to the existence of inconsistent totalities. In a certain sense, the argument from Kant’s Dialectic is not only valid, but sound! In “Moore’s Paradox as an Argument Against Anti-Realism,” (The Realism-Antirealism Debate in the Age of Alternative Logics , ed. Shahid Rahman, Giuseppe Primiero, and Mathieu Marion, Springer (2011)) I argue that the Berkeley/Fichte argument about the inconceivability of transcendence displays an interesting invalidity. If one were to put together a position from my publications on these things, I would thus be with Garcia rejecting both strands of correlationism.
Speculative realism isn’t just rejecting one or both strands of correlationism. It also typically involves the speculative moment, perhaps first embodied when Schelling writes “I am nature.” As Fichte realized, Kantianism always fails in part because to succeed there would have to be a firewall between the empirical and the transcendental. But in articulating a Kantian philosophy, one must describe transcendental things in empirical terms. So one can successfully articulate a Kantian philosophy only to the extent that Kantian philosophy is false. But we should not thereby follow (at least the standard cartoon version of) Fichte into the prison of the self. That is, we should not should not react to the breakdown of the transcendental/empirical distinction with the view that, in effect, everything is merely phenomenal. This is where Schelling’s affirmation comes in. If I myself am a thing in the world, then any epistemic relation I have with myself is a relation with a thing in the world. It is at this point that phenomenology becomes guerilla metaphysics (as Harman calls it in his eponymous book).
Here’s an endnote from the paper to which I linked above:
While Harman is the most explicit philosopher about being speculative in this manner, externalizing key theses from Heidegger and Husserl, one can read Meillassoux as externalizing Sartre’s phenomenology of radical freedom, with the world itself being radically contingent. Tristan Garcia can be read as externalizing Sartre’s antagonistic model of humans resisting objectification by one another. For Garcia what makes an object an object is the manner in which it resists comprehension by other objects. And one can go back and time and reread canonical philosophers as speculative realists. For example, if Derrida is read anti-anthropocentrically, he can be understood as externalizing the radically holistic conception of Heideggerian ‘world’. Further back, the Schopenhaurian metaphysics of will can likewise be understood solving the Humean problem about causal necessity by taking something one finds in oneself as a fundamental aspect of reality.
Thus, against all the haters (and being a speculative realist uniquely grants you a fair share in both analytic and continental philosophy), I must insist that speculative realism is a real thing with a rich philosophical history significantly predating 2007. We just came up with a name for it in 2007.
Harman’s OOF has been criticized for its emphasis on a metaphysical withdrawal that maintains intact the principle of identity while relying on a micro-emanative model to regulate the relationship between a real object cut off from all relations, hidden within a vacuum-sealed domain, and its countless emanations on the sensual sphere. This poses a series of problems, of course, some of which have been addressed by Peter Wolfendale. However, besides his conception of the real object as a kind of in-itself, at times the early Harman also refers to it as an active force or “executant reality” withholding an excess of energies in reserve, which has a completely different connotation in my view. What do you make of this tension?
I agree that there is a strong tension here. To the extent that two real objects are understood as the causes of the sensual properties that emerge when they interact, then the real objects seem not after all to be radically withdrawn. We do have knowledge of them as causes. I think that this kind of thing is one of the motivating concerns of Bryant’s early work.
The key to working through this is to understand that the tension exists in Kant too! To know that one can’t know anything about the thing in itself is to have some knowledge of it after all. We want the noumenal to be some radically different, but can’t help treating it as phenomenal when we describe it. Once you understand Harman correctly, as deanthropocentrizing Kant’s noumena/phenomena distinction, this becomes very clear.
One can respond to this according to the cartoon version of German Idealism, where we guess the noumenal is phenomenal after all, so there is no noumena. Harman suggests a different response which is easiest to explain if we start by considering object interactions when one of the objects is a knowing human. With the German Idealists we then agree that to talk about or know a noumenal/real object is to transform that noumenal/real object into a phenomenal/sensual object. But that new phenomenal/sensual object also carries with it the three other parts of the fourfold, including a distinct new noumenal object and real and sensual properties. This does create a massive regress of objects, but there is no quick contradiction of the sort that we took to undermine Kant.
The most misunderstood part of Harman is when he talks about what he calls “vicarious causation.” I think that what I’m saying here in reaction to the criticism about the dual role of the real object in Harman can be understood as an exegesis of some of what he says about vicarious causation, but I haven’t worked this into a paper or book yet (I will!). If I’m right, Harman has offered a genuinely new solution to what scholars of German Idealism and Kant refer to as the “affection problem.” And, as I’ve noted, he also generalizes the problem as occurring between any two objects, not just a human or animal perceiver and the world. It’s pretty exciting stuff.
Levi R. Bryant has attempted to overcome the issue of a withdrawn real object by resorting to a Deleuzian-inspired “onticology” which replaces the real-sensual dynamic for a virtual-actual one. Can Deleuze be reconciled at all with the various strands of OOO?
As noted above, I should say that I’m sympathetic to Bryant’s concerns. This being said, I would motivate Bryant’s departures from Harman in a different place though, since I think the Harmanian regress is a feature, not a bug.
My biggest concern is that I’m not convinced that the distinction between real and sensual properties has been drawn adequately by Harman. One way to draw it is in terms of real properties being dispositional capacities and sensual properties being the non-dispositional, occurrent, properties. I think that Bryant’s Democracy of Objects in effect pursues this strategy, but does not separate out the real properties from the object itself, and does not posit sensual objects.
A problem with this strategy it’s not clear to me that there are in fact any non-dispositional properties. Maybe one can retreat a bit and just say that the actual/sensual properties are those which arise in interaction and the virtual/real properties are those which are there independent of any interaction, and which are causally responsible for how interactions work. I suspect that Bryant has something like this in mind. As I noted above, I don’t think the case will really be made until someone sympathetic to continental metaphysics writes a book rigorously tying it to the work of analytic philosophers such as Nancy Cartwright and John Dupré who combine capacity metaphysics with radical anti-reductionism.
I should note that a very similar tension as that I discussed in response to your previous question exists with Gilbert Simondon and, possibly, for Deleuze. For Simondon individuated entities are created by a process out of a pre-individual realm. But in articulating this very process, Simondon’s main metaphor is that of crystallization, where a crystal forms rapidly out of a fluid. But, and Simondon recognizes this, such processes require a seed, which is already individuated. So, to the extent that this is supposed to be a story of how individuation emerges out of a prior pre-individuated realm, the story fails. Similar worries occur about how most people sketch the Deleuzian dualism of virtual and actual. Harman’s piece on DeLanda in Towards Speculative Realism is quite elegant on this. If you’re at all moved by the problems of Cartesian dualism of mind and body, you must be moved by the exact same problems facing the Deleuzian dualism of virtual and actual. I should note that DeLanda is aware of this criticism and that it’s occasioned a really interesting dialogue between him and Harman. I’ve just started DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory and it looks like dynamite.
My hope is to take The Logic of Sense more seriously than most Deleuzians do and push for a more Garcian Deleuze. Harman gets out of this kind of contradiction with a regress. Perhaps Deleuze, like Garcia, can be read as embracing the contradiction in an interesting way. I’m sort of waiting on working on this until I read more of Mary Beth Mader’s work on Deleuze and intensity. It ends up being a really important issue for considering how to connect Deleuze and object-oriented philosophy.
(Another Schopenhaurian aside about style, here Deleuze’s in particular. One of the major threats of dealing with philosophers with technical vocabularies is that it is very easy to just use that vocabulary to restate banalities, not realizing that that is what you are in fact doing. I did a pretty good blog post about this that irritated a lot of people: . Nobody I’ve mentioned above does this! But it’s a severe danger with Deleuze).
Anyhow, back to real versus sensual properties. Harman himself draws the distinction in terms of the real properties being essential properties of objects and sensual properties being accidental properties. But I think this doesn’t quite work because the real properties are also supposed to be withdrawn, and it seems to me that accidental properties might also be withdrawn. Also, at least with respect to sapient creatures, withdrawal seems to be relative. Dogs can smell things I can’t, bats can perceive sound in a way that I can’t, and different creatures visually glom onto different parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Our standard story of this would be that science describes the real properties different creatures perceive and that the bearers of those properties interact with sapient creatures to give rise to sensual properties. But, for the vast majority of objects, the properties underlying the seen color properties (and, due to the push-pull effect and metameric pairing, this is enormously more complicated than the story you learn in high school about dominant spectral reflection) are not essential properties of objects. But then the real/withdrawn properties of objects are not their essences. There are a number of things one could say at this point. But analytic philosophers tried for decades to make sense of “theoretical” versus “observational” predicates in scientific theory, and I’m not sure we ever succeeded. I worry that the same set of problems beset the distinction between real and sensual properties. Maybe Bryant has an advantage over Harman here? I don’t know. I wish I had something remotely sensible to contribute here.
I will say this. I don’t think you can just chuck Harman’s sensual objects and real properties without carefully attending to his guerilla reading of Husserl in Guerilla Metaphysics. And I don’t think any of Harman’s critics have considered this aspect of Harman’s thinking sufficiently. Husserl presented a phenomenological critique of the bundle theory. Husserl shows that it’s just not the case that we perceive bundles of properties, but rather perceive an object’s individuality. Harman’s sensual objects are in a sense the tropes that correspond to an object’s individuality. And Harman’s appeal to real properties also come out of his criticisms of the bundle theory.
One of the main problems with the bundle theory (and not just the bundle theory) is that it leads us to see reality as a mirror of language. The way we semantically sort entailment relations among predicates and proper names gets mirrored into the world with objects themselves being bundles of properties picked out by the predicates. When Harman says that reality is not a language, he means to criticize this picture. So, for him, sensory properties are those that mirror our linguistic and conceptual resources. The talk about real, withdrawn properties is part of his attempt to allow us to nonetheless come into epistemic contact with the real laying behind the shadow play.
One can’t just claim that one is not ontologically committed to all of the nodes of Harman’s fourfold. One also has to show how one’s own metaphysics accommodates the phenomena that Harman discerns. I don’t mean to be specifically picking on Bryant here. These are very difficult issues and nobody has a great story. The problem is, we’re trying to tell a story about reality to explain why it’s so difficult to tell a story about it. This is our postmodern predicament and the sense in which object-oriented ontology is postmodern metaphysics.
All this being said, there is one way which I do clearly prefer Harman to Bryant: the issue of naturalism. Both positivists and phenomenologists are hypermodern in the wretched sense of demeaning normativity by putting it on the human side of the invidious human/world divide. I think that one of the lessons of German Idealism is that this isn’t going to work. Schelling, Nietzsche, C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and John McDowell all in their different ways make this case against the modern consensus. In part due to his excellent work on Bruno Latour and Alphonso Lingis Harman is sensitive to these kinds of concerns in a way that Bryant just isn’t. Not that Bryant doesn’t say interesting and relevant things about ethics, aesthetics, and politics, it’s just that, in common with all naturalists, his metaphysics don’t seem to me to buy him the right to say these things! And if you can’t say these things, I don’t think you can in the end justify any metaphysical system, since justification is itself a normative notion.
Just to be clear, Harman and I (and Schelling, Nietzsche, Lewis, Plantinga, and McDowell) are the ones working against the dominant trend in contemporary analytic and continental philosophy. When not trying to help scientists or save the world, much of philosophy today consists in keeping philosophy in an ever diminishing prison of the culture side of the culture/nature division. We do ethics and politics while the scientists describe how things are. Barring that, we pour enormous efforts into trying to make the prison of culture smaller by trying to solve some variant of Descartes mind/body problem in favor of the body. This work is I think an important part of the dialectic’s progress, and lots of good people are putting their shoulder to the wheel. But I don’t think the dialectic ends there. Most of the even great (e.g. Dennett and Rorty) philosophers who think they are dissolving the mind/body or culture/nature problem are really just solving it in favor of bodies/nature. Again, all of this stuff needs to be worked out by people with basic sympathy for the endeavors. And we should all learn from them, but ultimately I’d much rather examine new theories of the body, and I don’t just mean sapient bodies, but also rocks, water, electrons, shopping bags, books, desk lamps that once belonged to dead friends, stars, that one arresting shade of purple, theorems, political parties, gazes, pain, sublimity, beauty, poems that intimate ones place in a greater whole, Pez dispensers, karma, smiles, Atari 2600 games, etc. etc. etc.
As you know, speculative realism has recently come under fire by phenomenologist Dan Zahavi. In a brief but popular piece entitled, “The End of What? Phenomenology vs. Speculative Realism,” Zahavi reacted to Tom Sparrow’s book, The End of Phenomenology, claiming that Sparrow’s critique of phenomenology is fundamentally flawed, and that the positive contributions of speculative realism at large suffer from a number of inconsistencies, ultimately failing to deliver on the promises it made concerning a rehabilitation of the real. What do you make of Zahavi’s article?
I found Zahavi’s piece to itself be “superficial, simplistic, and lacking in novelty.” I think that any fair-minded reader of what I’ve said above about speculative realism and object-oriented ontology will agree.
I really enjoyed Sparrow’s own response to Zahavi in your interview with him (http://figureground.org/interview-with-tom-sparrow/ ). I’m still thinking through it and don’t have much to say other than that what he says makes sense to me. Harman has shared a few preliminary thoughts on Zahavi’s piece on his blog. He really is the most generous interlocutor I know. The most disappointing (and frankly astounding) thing vis a vis Harman’s work is how Zahavi simply skipped over Harman’s central claim with respect to Husserl! He would have done much better to just review Sparrow’s book and not try to turn the thing into a polemic.
There are a lot of things I could pick at in the piece, but I want to try to communicate my respect for the tradition Zahavi works in as well as his contributions to that tradition. I’ve published a few pieces in the philosophy of mind and John Protevi and I ran a philosophy of mind reading group for a number of years at LSU. The intersection of phenomenology and philosophy of mind is important. People like Shaun Gallagher, Evan Thompson, Michael Wheeler, Francisco Varela, and Zahavi are at the forefront of saving us from some very destructive ways of thinking about ourselves. What more do the rest of us want?
Nonetheless we need to be very careful about what’s meant by “phenomenology” in addressing “the speculative realist critique of phenomenology.” Different writers mean radically different things by the term. Some of this slippage results in equivocation when Zahavi is criticizing Sparrow. And, independent of Zahavi’s polemic, to get at what is really at stake we cannot pretend that “phenomenology” is what analytic philosophers used to call a “natural kind term,” something that deictically picks out an essence that carves nature at the joints. It’s not!
Dermot Moran’s fantastic Introduction to Phenomenology and the wonderful co-edited (with Timothy Mooney) Phenomenology Reader treat “phenomenology” as a tradition nearly co-extensive with what English speakers mean by “continental philosophy.” Many dedicated Husserlians and Merleau-Ponty scholars treat it much more narrowly, as something that is centrally of service to philosophy of mind and empirical psychology. People like Steven Crowell tends to treat it as transcendental epistemology. But if you follow Moran’s story and love Heidegger, you can get yourself in a place where both transcendental epistemology and naturalized phenomenology seem like horrible bastardizations of real phenomenology. Some of the French phenomenologists I know are extraordinarily passionate about this. Read Janicaud and try and fail to connect his account of what phenomenologists should be doing with what those of us who publish in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science are doing. Then, finally, American Levinasians tend to push an almost negative theological view about the nature of phenomenology. We can’t say what phenomenology is because phenomenology is about questioning all presuppositions and being radically open to the kinds of big e Events that shatter our reigning conceptions.
It’s not the case that there are as many “phenomenologies” as there are phenomenologists, but it sometimes feels that way.
My own thinking about the relationship between speculative realism and phenomenology has really come from listening to Steven Crowell as he participates in conferences. He and David Chalmers both have this weird property where you’ll later realize that the most philosophy you learned during the conference was from their questions. And the questions aren’t the kind of bloviations to which most of us subject speakers. They’re always charitable and on point. Whoever did their Jedi training was very, very good.
Anyhow, I think there are two main issues here. First, can philosophy aspire to be anything other than transcendental epistemology? The question here isn’t whether or not phenomenology is true, but whether phenomenology (understood as transcendental epistemology) is all there is. And the only thing in common to all speculative realists is the conviction that transcendental epistemology is not all there is in philosophy. This is not a new realization. It finds its genesis in early critics of Kant, and the critique was picked up by Schelling and Hegel (everyone should read Frederic Beiser’s work on this). What speculative realists have done is once again march with Hegel’s radical critique of critique, albeit in a different direction.
Second, assuming that phenomenology does not prohibit metaphysics, what is the relationship between the two? This is something that speculative realists disagree about. One side, let’s call them right wing speculative realists (in the sense of right wing Sellarsians), pushes the German Idealist deconstruction of phenomenology as total philosophy much further into a critique of the epistemic pretensions of phenomenology. These philosophers tend to be scientistic. The other side, let’s call them left wing speculative realists, agree with the Viennese view that phenomenology is an essential precursor to metaphysics. This can get articulated in all sorts of ways, perhaps the most radical of which is Harman’s Schellingian move of developing a metaphysics by taking key theses made about human beings in the phenomenological tradition as not merely concerning human beings.
I’m clearly a left wing speculative realist and I think that Harman has inaugurated the era of guerrilla phenomenology. We’ll see.
In his interview with Figure/Ground, Günter Figal stated that “Philosophers are always in danger to lose their philosophical credibility as soon as they subordinate philosophical insight to practical intentions of whatsoever kind,” adding that “its effects are most authentic and powerful if they are involuntary, just a consequence of insight, which, only because of its independency from practical intentions, can be, what it is supposed to be.” Do you think philosophy can contribute to the resolution of concrete wordly problems?
I think that what Figal is saying here is important and correct. Philosophical insight must be disinterested in something like the way Kant thought aesthetic judgments to be. This doesn’t mean one can’t have insight into things of practical import. But you have to guard yourself.
It’s an abuse of philosophy to decide ahead of time what the answers are going to be and then reason your way to those answers. Weirdly, philosophers do this both when the outcomes are very important to them and when they aren’t important at all. On the former side, the temptation is worst at least with American philosophers with respect to religious issues (full disclosure – I’m Presbyterian). If your religion or lack thereof is a priori (and, to be clear, it should not be), don’t pretend to philosophize about it. On the latter side, I know people who care so little about what they are writing about that they just kind of pick a view they are going to defend and then go with that. This is actually the opposite danger facing religious people who wall their religion off from philosophy. If the important stuff is the theology you are not going to question, then you don’t really care whether the disquotational theory of truth is a good one. Might as well make a major research project defending it and become known as inhabitant of that part of dialectical space.
The same temptations hold with respect to moral and political issues. If there’s no possibility at all that you are going to stop, or start, being a vegetarian anything you have to say philosophically about vegetarianism is sophistry. And similarly if you are completely indifferent to whether or not you are a vegetarian. I’m not saying that one should seriously countenance horrific acts, but neither should one seriously philosophize about the permissibility of horrific acts.
I started this interview by noting how, judging by our facebook walls, academic philosophers are not very epistemically humble. I think this really is a problem. We shouldn’t be ritualistically denouncing neo-liberalism without, for example, getting a subscription to The Economist and Foreign Affairs and charitably reading neoliberalism’s defenders. People talk about acts of police violence as if you could have a functioning modern society without a police department with its own monopoly on violence (Harman makes this point somewhere). People respond to our unconscionable high levels of incarceration without doing the minimal research on the crime wave that it was in reaction to. I’m picking on the left here, because while I am temperamentally conservative I also think that temperamental conservatives should support left policies, at least in the United States. So I’m picking at my own side here.
It would be one thing if you just had a bunch of goofily unrealistic people that only listen to each other’s facebook posts. But it goes beyond that. We should be very humble about philosophy itself. Would the world have been better or worse if Marx and Rousseau (Pol Pot) had never existed? We can’t know, but should accept the possibility that it would be. If I.F. Stone is even half correct, then Socrates was a disaster for the people of Athens. But then why think that philosophy gives us any special ability to improve the world? The arrogance is mind boggling and dangerous. Our social institutions are the result of thousands of years of tradeoffs where different on the fly reactions to intractably tragic problems get selected for. You can’t understand this unless you have a tragic sense of life and a little bit of humility about the necessity of tradeoffs.
There’s another kind of arrogance at work as well. Philosophers end up making everything a mirror of philosophy. When we do philosophy of religion we tend to reduce religious practice to whether people assent to philosophically interesting theological propositions. This is clearly ludicrous, but not in kind different from the way we individuate systems of government in terms of the way those systems can be presented as embodying philosophically interesting theses about how society should be organized. We also have goofy philosophical views of what it is to be a human being and then understand social organizations analogously (Foucault showed that it works in the opposite direction too). All of this leads us to vastly overestimate the importance of propositional knowledge to social organization. An overestimation which itself ramifies out in terrible ways into the ways that society is organized. Every academic who has wasted God knows how many hours crafting “assessment reports” knows that what I’m saying is true.
And, moreover, what makes many pressing issues so difficult is not that it’s at all unclear how things could be done better. As if reality sucks because the correct side hasn’t yet won the philosophical debate. Wrong! For many issues it’s utterly clear to informed people of good will what should be done. But nonetheless that doesn’t get done. Take the European Union’s austerity response to the recent financial crises. Everyone knows these responses were disastrous, perhaps even suicidal to the Union. Future historians may very well correctly blame World War III on austerity politics. And everyone who thinks about these things for more than a minute knows how stupid it is to have a monetary union without a true fiscal union, and that you should have neither without a true political union. Translations of Paul Krugman’s books are bestsellers in Germany! Everybody, even the deniers and haters in their hearts of hearts, knows that Krugman is correct about this. But nothing gets done!
Oh, so maybe we just need a better theory of politics that explains why knowledge is causally inefficacious. But that would just be more causally inefficacious knowledge. Do we need a theory of why our theory of causally inefficacious knowledge is causally inefficacious? Is that going to deliver utopia?
So the flip, and complementary, side of Figal’s criticism is the realization that reality is not an algorithm or philosophical problem. If too much politics leads to ridiculous (or worse) philosophy, it is also true that too much philosophy leads to ridiculous (or worse) politics.
In many ways it would be nice if reality came with an instruction book that philosophers could update so that the rest of us could, by following their directions, spend our brief time here in the best possible ways. But reality is not like that, and trying to make it so leads to genocide.
Leonard Cohen has it right. The point of living is to be in a state of grace. But desiring to be in a state of grace prevents you from being in a state of grace, because then it becomes just one more thing you are trying to manipulate. I’m sick of thinking about politics, how the world would be fine if everyone just followed my directions. That’s a very sick way to interact with the world, one encouraged by a certain conception of philosophy (and everything else for that matter) as slave to human liberation. But that conception is part of our slavery.
Cohen became a Buddhist. If you are grasping after enlightenment, you won’t get there! Grasping precludes enlightenment. Better to meditate, write songs, enjoy meals, cups of tea, going for a walk with someone with whom you like to talk. . . who knows what’ll happen?
What are you currently working on?
Over the next few months I’ll be helping Abigail and Christopher Ray Alexander translate Garcia’s La Vie Intense. Then I’ll get back to working on my next book, titled After Quietism. I’ve long thought that the two most important living analytic philosophers are Graham Priest and John McDowell. In Garcian Meditations I’m able to connect Priest to contemporary continental metaphysics; in After Quietism I will accomplish the same thing with respect to McDowell. I started writing that book a few years ago, before Ohm and I translated Forme et Objet. It’s going to be quite a bit different now, which is going to require a frightening amount of new teaching, including classes on Sellars, Kant, McDowell, and Harman’s recent thoughts about formalism.
Longer term I want to get into the metaphysics of modality. I have some sort of half-baked ideas coming out of my work on inferentialism and my reading of Schopenhauer as a speculative realist that I think can be developed in an analytic idiom. I also want to write a history of the way some of the mighty dead in continental philosophy are precursors to speculative realism, understood in terms of the critique of correlationism and Harmanian guerilla phenomenology. Lee Braver might be writing a companion book to A Thing of This World, based on his interesting account of a kind of continental realism. If so, I’d prefer to wait until he’s done before doing my own thing.
I also want to translate Frédéric Nef’s Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique? I hope my French is good enough over the next five years to be the lead translator on this. We’ll see. It’s a very important book, as important as Braver’s I think for the purpose of making possible work that utilizes both analytic and continental philosophy. I also think it’s a key part of speculative realism’s backstory.
At some point I want to turn sociology of science on its head and show how problems with the computational theory of mind ramify out into criticisms of ways we organize society. The standard schtick in science studies used to be that we select scientific theories for sociological reasons and that this undermines science’s pretenses to objectivity. I think it’s true that society non-rationally affects theory choice. But I also believe there is enough objectivity in science and philosophy so that rational reasons can be given so that informed, reasonable, people of good will find themselves rejecting those theories. And if you show a theory to be bad for rational reasons, these reasons also can show what is bad with the society that selected that theory. Science studies on its head is, I think, a powerful and new method of critique. I can make this case in an interesting way with respect to computationalism and the book is tentatively titled The Computational Society.
I also want to do something on T.S. Eliot’s poetry. I have an odd interpretation of The Waste Land as centrally concerned with the way poetry allows us to transcend the prison of correlationism. This ends up making surprisingly clear sense of the various voices in the poem, how the poem fits with Eliot’s other efforts, and Eliot’s own engagement with FH Bradley, on whom he wrote a philosophy dissertation. I can’t wait to read Evan Gottlieb’s forthcoming Romantic Realities about romantic poetry and speculative realism.
I’m sure I’ll do some more stuff on popular culture. I’m itching to teach a class and write a book on Adventure Time. It’s great! Joe Bob says check it out.
You have to be humble about this stuff though. At job interviews we typically ask people how they see their research developing over the next five years. The answers are almost always lies, as they should be. You can only honestly answer that question to the extent that you aren’t really open to the muse, who will take you to the strangest and most wonderful places. You just have to be open, overcome fear of humiliation. . . set your queer shoulder to the wheel.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cogburn
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Ralon, L. (2016). “Interview with Jon Cogburn,” Figure/Ground. July 25th.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-jon-cogburn/ >
Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at firstname.lastname@example.org