Levi Bryant and Naturalism

Over at Larval Subjects Levi has posted a ringing endorsement of naturalism and “materialism” designed to provoke a few readers within the Continental Philosophy/Theory community. The upshot of the post, as I read it, is that we live in a causally closed material world described by natural sciences. Interactions between entities described at different scales by physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy are the only sources of order and agency. Nothing happens in the world other than as the effect of an antecedent physical state. Secondly, Levi claims, that the anti-naturalism expressed in the humanities via transcendental phenomenology, transcendental pragmatics, poststructuralist textualism, etc. are all attempts to repress the traumatic wound that belief in materialism and causal closure delivers to human exceptionalism. I quote:

In Freudian terms, these are so many responses to the narcisstic wound of nature and materiality. It is not the subject, lived experience, history, intentionality, the signifier, text, or power that explains nature, . . ., it is nature and materiality that explains all of these things. If these things aren’t treated as natural phenomena, then they deserve to be committed to flames. The point is not that these other orientations have failed to make contributions to our understanding of the natural world, but that they have mistakenly treated these things as grounds of the natural world, rather than the reverse.

Some might demur from the psychoanalytic framing (does psychoanalysis have the empirical support that a naturalist expects from a source of ontological insight? Should one care?) but the sentiments are sound and philosophically energizing. If we admit materialism and causal closure then we need a decent theory of how the topics of the humanities fit into this world. If materialism is false or ill-defined, this needs to be demonstrated. The problem with a lot of recent continental philosophy is not that it is anti-naturalistic (Some of my best friends are anti-naturalists and we’re still talking) but that anti-naturalism has been a default attitude rather than a worked through position. This hauteur was perfectly exemplified by Simon Critchely at a conference some years back where he remarked that he didn’t care how consciousness was made by the brain since such an explanation could be of no relevance to phenomenology.

Maybe Critchely was right and still is; but it’s not obvious that you can insulate phenomenological description from its ontological basis in this way. There’s a problem to be tackled here, whether one is a student of Dennett or of Derrida.  Such metaphysical indolence should be unacceptable within any school of contemporary philosophy.


7 thoughts on “Levi Bryant and Naturalism

  1. Hello David, I think my problem with Levi Bryant’s post can be summarised as follows
    1) it is virtually contentless: your rendering above is giving him the benefit of the doubt by spelling out a contentful position that you attribute to him but in fact belongs to you
    2) it is even so spelled out very much a promise rather than a present accomplishment and rests on a horizon of the unity of science (the unity of at least physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy – but he needs psychology and sociology as well – hence the empty call for a Lacanian memetics). This unity does not exist as there exist incommensurable paradigms between each of these disciplines and inside each one: even “physics” is not a unified corpus.
    3) this unity even supposing that it is conceivable is typically thought to be achievable by some sort of reductionism (usually physicalist). Bryant has repeatedly denounced reductionism but propounds a reductionist metaphysical research programme.
    4) it is just not true that recent post-structuralist philosophy is anti-naturalist. On my reading Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, Stiegler, Serres and even Derrida are favourable to naturalism. Merleau-Ponty’s anti-naturalism is in fact an anti-redductive scientism. According to Deleuze, Bergson is a naturalist to be grouped with Lucretius and Nietzsche. The critique of scientism is a critique of reductionism, not a recourse to entities and causes “outside the world”.
    5) Bryant’s vision of the history of science is false. Theological motives have propelled researchers and still do. Even today a very secularised and immanentised religiosity concerning seeing the thoughts in the mind of God inspires physicists who are in any ordinary sense atheists (Einstein, Hawking). Bryant’s disinfected (ie: commensurabilised) naturalism has trouble accomodating such elements, thus his desperate bluff of appealing to a revamped Lacanian unconscious whenever he is in a tight spot (ie in danger of falling into physicalistic reductionism).
    NB: a useful rule of thumb with Bryant is that whenever he refers to Lacan he is pulling a fast one, there is no intellectual content there any more and he knows it himself.

    1. Hi Terence,

      I agree with a lot of this. Certainly, it’s true that some of Derrida and lots of Deleuze is compatible with naturalism – I’ve argued as much and I think writers like Haggeland and Cilliers would agree – and your point about the unity of science assumption is key. I’d always taken Merleau-Ponty to be a transcendental anti-naturalist philosophy who makes very good conceptual use of science, but I’m willing to be swayed there.

      David Papineau usefully points out that talk of “causes” may be inapplicable in time-symmetric microphysical theories, so even causation might be “emergent” in some hand-wavy fashion. Ladyman and Ross want to junk causation and materialism on naturalistic grounds! So I agree we should be sophisticated about this. I’ll try to respond further over the next few days – got to rush off and teach stuff 🙂 🙂

  2. All this is music to my ears – of course, of course. Freud’s ‘three great narcissistic wounds’ is a favourite trope of mine discussing these issues, but I definitely agree that Levi’s description of the Continental tendency to prioritize the manifest over the scientific as a ‘reaction formation’ is more than a little puzzling.

    He also simply bulldozes over the Hard Problem, and simply assumes that any number of very savvy theorists and researchers simply have no argument, when such is not the case. The Hard Problem (despite people like me, who think they’ve dissolved it) remains very, very, very hard, and as such as open an issue as any can be in philosophy. So long as that issue is open, semantic autonomy and/or semantic priority positions remain entirely viable, even if restricted to a shrinking portion of the discursive dance floor.

    And he’s also mistaken in his conflation of naturalism with materialism. I’m a naturalist, and I think the mere fact that materialism finds itself half of a dichotomy including idealism suggests that something hinky is going on. In my view, naturalism (that is, science) *outruns* materialism, as it should, since the latter is the artifact of heuristic cognition. Information, nonsemantically defined, is the theoretical idiom that allows us to slip all these ancient dichotomies, and see that this tug of war between the material and the semantic is in fact a battle between two very different cognitive heuristics (or families of heuristics) which, thanks to informatic neglect, confuse themselves for universal problem-solvers, and remain blind to the way they stamp problems they never evolved to consider, let alone solve, in their own image.

    Either way, the best way to show semantic priority thinkers the error of their ways is to show them not only why it is they their positions are so intuitive, but how the specifics of their ‘inferential’ schemes arise out of empirical facts of human cognition. This is the route I’m taking, anyway.

    On the by and by, I had a chance to plug your forthcoming posthuman book this weekend, David, whilst taking another swipe at transhumanism: http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/less-human-than-human-the-cyborg-fantasy-versus-the-neuroscientific-real/

  3. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the brilliant plug and, above all, for treating the problem of the posthuman with consistent philosophical seriousness. I completely take your point about the uneasy slippage between naturalism and materialism – I accept that materialism and physicalism are difficult to pin down – beyond a commitment to the claim that there are no ‘brute’ mental, intentional or semantic facts.

    Your quasi-eliminativist posthumanist scenario is consistent with my analysis of the posthuman too. If meaning and value are illusions generated by the idiosyncrasies of the person-level mode of representation, then their evaporation would require the evaporation of the personal and the emergence of some post-personal mode of being. That seems like a basis for disconnection to me. 🙂

  4. Or even conceptual chasm! Here’s my two cents Bryant’s posts: http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/another-goddamn-anti-transcendentalist-manifesto/

    I’ll keep chipping away at your incipient representationalism! Have you had a chance to check out Carruther’s review of Plato’s Camera? http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/32035-plato-s-camera-how-the-physical-brain-captures-a-landscape-of-abstract-universals/

    I’ve noticed you’ve been mentioning Papineau lately. Any place I should begin?

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