You are on page 1of 18

journal of critical realism, vol.

12, issue 3, 2013, 283300

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM


by

ALISON ASSITER1
University of the West of England alison.assiter@uwe.ac.uk

Abstract. This is a contribution to the debate on speculative realism deriving from the book The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (Melbourne: re.press, 2011). It is also in part a response to Fabio Gironis review article on the subject, Between naturalism and rationalism: a new realist landscape (Journal of Critical Realism 11(3) 2012: 36187). Key words: the absolute, Bhaskar, correlationism, critical realism, epistemic fallacy, first philosophy, Meillassoux, speculative realism

Realism
For many years, I have defended realism in philosophy: against Feyerabendian scepticism, against other forms of epistemological scepticism and against postmodernism. It therefore heartens me to note that there is a band of self-defined (for the most part) continental philosophers who are forcefully defending realism.2 In my recent work, inspired in part by one of the contributors to The Speculative Turn Iain Hamilton Grant I have become convinced by a deeper form of metaphysical realism than that which I would have espoused earlier. Of course, as the group and as this book recognizes, the word realism is open to many different interpretations. This group (if there is a group) claim to have in common something they label a speculative form of the position. Although there are many differences among them, what appears to unite them all is the view that there is a reality outside the domain of the thinking subject. What exactly this means, however, and whether it does briefly describe a position on which all of those given this
48 Woodfield Way, London N11 2NS. Alison Assiter is Professor of Feminist Theory, Philosophy, University of Western England, Bristol. 2 See esp. Bryant et al., eds, 2011.
1

W. S. Maney & Son Ltd 2013

doi 10.1179/1476743013Z.0000000002

284

ALISON ASSITER

label would agree, are matters for discussion. Graham Harman, for example, writes: What Grant and I obviously have in common is a tendency to read the inanimate world as a philosophical protagonist, but not in any form that would be remotely acceptable to mainstream natural science.3 I am happy, though, that there is this, albeit deeply contested, return to realism. Fabio Gironi, in his excellent overview piece for this journal,4 admirably notes the contested forms that the expression speculative realist has taken on. The book, as Gironi also points out, as well as containing many pieces that outline some version of speculative realism, also comprises pieces critical of the position and particularly of the version espoused by Quentin Meillassoux. Each of us who is trained in philosophy (although some contributors to the volume espouse something they label non-philosophy) begins from certain theoretical assumptions. Each of us begins philosophizing from the perspective of some thinker who has inspired us and who has encouraged us to think in certain ways. Each of us, in other words, is limited and shaped by the horizons of whichever tradition or individual shaped our thinking. The longer one survives in life and in the field, the more one realizes that, despite Slavoj izes mantra that one cannot write, after Hegel, as if Hegel had not existed any more, one might say, than a composer can really compose purely in the manner of Beethoven, after Boulez it is difficult to be truly original and to put forward a position that is completely new. I would confess myself to having huge lacunae in my knowledge.

Speculators and Critical Realists


With that qualification in mind, I would like to begin by noting a lacuna in The Speculative Turn. It is appropriate that I articulate this view in the context of a piece for Journal of Critical Realism. The viewpoint that has now come to be described as speculative realism has, like empiricism or rationalism much earlier, begun to acquire the status of a school of thought. As I noted above, there is a claim on which the speculators all purport to agree and that is that realism is a position that posits some sort of reality outside or anterior to thought. These words anterior to and outside may not be equivalent. The former suggests something that precedes thought in time whereas the second is a spatial expression. Indeed, when the claim may be that there is a reality that is (in the view of some) outside the domains of space and

3 4

Harman 2011, 25. Gironi 2012.

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM

285

time, it is difficult to come up with an appropriate metaphor or expression to describe it. Moreover, as Gironi has noted, this reality takes on a huge variety of forms; I discuss some of these below. Many of the contributors outline the position against which speculative realists set their faces. Harman, for example, refers to the epistemological deadlock of mainstream philosophy.5 Nick Srnicek talks of (continental) philosophy being stuck within the self-imposed limits of discourse, subjectivity and culture for far too long.6 There may be agreement among many of them with Harmans claim that the position they are challenging is an emphasis on a particular type of epistemology.7 Yet there is a gap in their historical knowledge. To my knowledge, the self-confessed speculative realists rarely mention the work of Roy Bhaskar or that of other critical realists. Only one of Bhaskars books is listed in the bibliography and I found only one reference to his work in The Speculative Turn, in the piece by Manuel DeLanda.8 Speculative realists rarely mention the work of this other group of thinkers who have been lumped together into a school of thought the group of critical realists who seek inspiration largely from Bhaskars work. Indeed one contributor to The Speculative Turn writes, in 2011: After years in which the end of metaphysics was proclaimed by pretty much everyone.9 They fail to recognize, in other words, that the critical realists constituted an exception to this proclamation of the end of metaphysics. The lacuna is particularly interesting, moreover, given that Bhaskars writing was deliberately metaphysical and realist at a time (A Realist Theory of Science came out in 1975) when many philosophers, as the speculative realists note, denounced metaphysics as meaningless nonsense. Moreover, Bhaskar clearly distinguished his view from an epistemic one. As
Harman 2011, 38. Srnicek 2011, 164. 7 Even this claim, though, may not characterize all their work Ray Brassier, for example, claims that the question what is real? stands at the crossroads of metaphysics and epistemology (Brassier 2011, 47). Indeed, Brassier focuses more on epistemic versions of realism for example, he notes as a realist ambition that of having a firm epistemic grasp on the mind-independent structure of nature. He claims, and I would like to return to this issue, that metaphysics, understood as the investigation into what there is intersects with epistemology understood as the inquiry into how we know what there is (Brassier 2011, 47). One difficulty with this view, at least if we ascribe it to some of the other thinkers, is that Grant, for one, for example, claims that his Schelling-inspired work precisely sets out in part to explain how thought is derivative from nature, which itself has some characteristics that are frequently only ascribed to rational beings. If thought arises from nature, then we (finite limited beings) cannot know exactly how this happens. We can only offer speculative reasons as to why it is plausible to suppose that thought came about this way. 8 DeLanda 2011. 9 Shaviro 2011, 279.
5 6

286

ALISON ASSITER

he puts it in his founding work: The metaphysical mistake [my argument pinpoints] may be called the epistemic fallacy. This consists in the view that statements about being can be reduced to or analysed in terms of statements about knowledge; i.e. that ontological questions can always be transposed into epistemological terms.10 Bhaskar went on to write: The idea that being can always be analysed in terms of our knowledge of being, that it is sufficient for philosophy to treat only of the network and not what the network describes results in the systematic dissolution of the idea of a world (which I shall here metaphysically characterize as an ontological realm) independent of but investigated by science.11 I myself, at the time Bhaskar wrote this, shaped and influenced as I was by epistemological concerns, was deeply sceptical about this aspect of Bhaskars work, although I saw myself as a realist. I constantly wanted to ask the question: But how do we know this? I now recognize, though (many years later!), that it is precisely Bhaskars point, however; and in this respect his work is in tune with that of Iain Grant, that if we are transcendental realists if we are looking to show the conditions that must obtain for scientific investigation to be possible then we cannot at the same time limit these conditions to what can be known by limited and finite beings. Whether the ultimate constituents of reality are within or outside the domain of the natural world, they must be outside the scope of the thought of limited beings like us, in order for them to be able to give rise to the possibility of that knowledge. Meillassouxs work, as well, poses the question of how to account philosophically for the great outdoors entities or processes that are real and that existed prior to humans. Moreover, like Grant and Meillassoux, Bhaskar argued that the main perpetrator of the epistemic fallacy is Kant, who limited the categories to the world of possible experience and did not allow them anything but empirical employment.12 For Bhaskar, the intelligibility of experimental activity entails that the objects of scientific understanding are intransitive and structured. The main culprit for the error identified by Meillassoux as correlationism the view that reality is limited to what can be thought by finite beings is also Kant. Bhaskars view also chimes with the philosophy of Schelling who argues in his Freiheitschrift for an active, process ontology that, significantly, precedes our thinking of it. Schelling writes, The entire new European philosophy since its beginning (with Descartes) has this common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground.13 In other words, there is

12 13
10 11

Bhaskar 1975, 36. Bhaskar 1975, 3637. Bhaskar 1975, 37. Schelling [1809] 2006, 26 (OA 427430).

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM

287

Being before thought. Each activity, for Schelling, can be depicted in terms of ground and consequent and this distinction, in turn, underpins Schellings system. Every organic being is dependent upon another with respect to its genesis. As Iain Hamilton Grant has put it, nature itself must furnish the only possible basis for a philosophy of freedom.14 Philosophy can offer a natural history of our mind. There is therefore a strong commonality, in this respect, between at least some speculative realists and the work of Bhaskar.

Meillassoux and Hume


Many of the contributors to the volume are inspired by (as well as critical of) the work of Quentin Meillassoux, one of the original gang of four speculative realists (the others were Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman). The thesis for which Meillassouxs brilliant work After Finitude is known is the view that we can gain knowledge, Kant notwithstanding, of ultimate reality; we can think the nature of things in themselves and that, indeed, the modality of this ultimate reality is absolutely contingent. As Peter Hallward puts it, in his critical piece on Meillassoux in The Speculative Turn, for the latter [n]othing is necessary, apart from the necessity that nothing be necessary.15 I would now like, briefly, to engage with the role of Hume in the thought of both speculative and critical realists. I also want to take issue, following Hallward and others, with one aspect of Meillassouxs work. For Meillassoux, an inspiration is Hume. Ironically, by contrast, it is Hume who is one of the principal philosophical culprits for Bhaskar. Meillassoux argues, using Hume, not only that we can gain determinate knowledge of ultimate reality, but that we can also demonstrate that this nature is radically contingent. As he writes in After Finitude, if the necessity of the causal connection cannot be demonstrated, then this is simply because the causal connection is devoid of necessity.16 There is no reason for it to be one way rather than another. As Alain Badiou puts it, in his introduction to After Finitude, Meillassouxs proof for it is indeed a proof demonstrates only one thing that is absolutely necessary: that the laws of nature are contingent.17 There have been two main kinds of critical response to Meillassoux and they are both expressed in The Speculative Turn. One is the point that Meillassoux confuses metaphysical and natural necessity.18 Hallward argues that
16 17 18
14 15

Grant 2006, 5. Hallward 2011, 130. Meillassoux [2006] 2008, 91. Badiou 2008, vii. See Hallward 2011, 138.

288

ALISON ASSITER

Meillassoux infers from the critique of metaphysical necessity that there is no necessity for anything at all. There is no cause or reason for anything to be the way it is rather than some other way. However, as Hallward puts it: His [Meillassouxs] insistence that anything might happen can only amount to an insistence on the bare possibility of radical change.19 But the abstract logical possibility of change has little to do with real alternations in nature. Meillassoux deploys Cantorian set theory which claims that there is an open series of ever-larger infinite numbers to argue against Humes solution to his problem of induction. He (Meillassoux) avers that Humes solution, which depends on the observation that like causes have preceded like events in a large number of cases in the past and so it is likely that this will continue in the future, itself rests upon the assumption of a closed probabilistic universe that is undermined by Cantor. However, as Hallward argues, it is not clear why these assumptions should apply to the time and space of our existing universe.20 One can argue, with Adrian Johnston,21 that there is a question arising about Meillassouxs transposition of an epistemological problem the problem of whether the future will be like the past and our inability to know this into an ontological claim that our ontology is characterized by absolute chaos or contingency. In the collection, Meillassoux responds to his critics. He quotes an analytical philosopher, Nelson Goodman, who, he argues, dissolves what is effectively an ontological problem the question of whether the future is like the past into an epistemic one. The latter problem is the question of the set of rules we deploy when we are presented with inductive inferences. Meillassoux reformulates the original ontological problem: Can a conclusive argument be made for the necessity or the absence of necessity of observable constants? Or once again: is there any way to justify either the claim that the future must resemble the past or the claim that the future might not resemble the past?22 He argues that Humes discovery is that an entirely rational world would be also entirely chaotic, because reason cannot prohibit a priori that which goes against the purely logical necessity of non-contradiction.23 Meillassoux writes that the Humean assumption, that the laws of nature have not actually changed in the past and that therefore custom and habit allow us to assume that they will not do so in the future, depends on a form of

21 22 23
19 20

Hallward 2011, 139. Hallward 2011, 139. Johnston 2011. Meillassoux 2011, 225, original emphasis. Meillassoux 2011, 226.

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM

289

probabilistic reasoning that Cantorian set theory has ruled out. Meillassoux then goes on to argue that disallowing his hypothesis involves effectively restricting the world of Being of ontology in a Humean way. He writes:
in supposing the ontological legitimacy of the Cantorian conception of the infinite, we distinguish the infinite from the All, since the infinite of the possible cannot be equated with its exhaustion (every infinite set has a determinate cardinality, which another infinite set is capable of exceeding). From this decision results the possibility of clearly distinguishing between the notions of contingency and chance.24

Meillassoux also argues that the thesis of anthropism the emergence of life forms is actually, given the above, likely to be extremely rare. There is not the space to respond effectively to these claims in the space of a short article. However, I would suggest the following: perhaps it is indeed the case that reason cannot explain a perfectly rational world. Maybe, in relation to the first point, the phenomenon, however, that really needs explaining (see Thomas Nagels25 recent work for discussion of this) is how reason emerged from a natural world that apparently did not contain it. The fact that reason cannot explain itself does not mean that the presence of reason in the world cannot be explained. Also, and secondly, just because it is possible that the laws of nature might change an infinite number of times does not entail that the actual universe is chaotic. Thirdly, on the anthropism point, maybe it is true that in the universe of all logical possibilities, the emergence of life is rare, but this surely does not detract from the fact that the explanation of the emergence (if it is indeed emergence at all rather than always having been there in some form) is an extremely hard problem in a universe in which there are life forms and one that may suggest that, in this universe, life forms go all the way down to the smallest particles of matter and the most apparently inorganic thing. Moreover, it is possible to respond to Meillassoux, also, as follows. Leibniz believed he could formulate a picture of the universe that is mathematically derived. Meillassoux is (like his teacher Badiou) reviving this tradition, but using an ontology derived from Cantorian set theory combined with an ontological version of Humes problem of induction. I personally am entirely happy with this return to a pre-Kantian frame. However, it seems to me to be vital that claims about metaphysics, or first philosophy in Aristotles words, remain hypotheses about being or beings. A universe that fits with contemporary, as opposed to Leibnizian, mathematical principles, is one founded on that set of axioms. There might, however, be
24 25

Meillassoux 2011, 231. Nagel 2012.

290

ALISON ASSITER

other axioms, and the assumption that it is necessary that the laws of nature are contingent is true only on the Cantorian assumptions Meillassoux makes, that themselves might not be the case. It therefore seems to me to be imperative that hypotheses about Being or beings are treated exactly that way, as hypotheses. Moreover, there might be very good reasons for thinking in a radically different metaphysical frame from this one of mathematical possibilities. There might instead be good reasons for formulating, with Levi Bryant (and others) a universe of difference and of capacities and powers. Rather than supposing what must be the case from mathematical possibilities, perhaps we ought to be thinking metaphysically about the kind of world that would best allow us to explain the hard problems in our world for example the fact of the existence of life forms and consciousness in our world. What metaphysical frame actually allows us to explain this? It is very important, it seems to me, to reiterate that we do not return to one aspect of pre-Kantian metaphysics, and that is to suggest, in quasiLeibnizian vein, that we know the way the universe must be. In Meillassouxs case, the claim about the way we know the world to be is very different from that of Leibniz it is that the laws of nature not only are but must be radically contingent. However, the similarity between Meillassoux and Leibniz is that both claim to know the way the world must be. It is claims about the way the universe or nature must be, however, despite my own and others reservations about some aspects of Kants philosophy, that we cannot make, after Kant. Indeed, perhaps we need to extend Bhaskars use of transcendental arguments against Kants metaphysics. We might extend them in favour of metaphysical realism but realism of a form that allows us to explain the very possibility of being able to conceptualize the universe at all.

A Response to Gironi
There is one point, therefore, pertaining to the above, where I would like to take issue with Gironis admirable piece on speculative realism. Gironi argues that one thing speculative realists, ironically, have in common with the Kant of the first Critique is, in Henry Allisons reading, a rejection of a theocentric paradigm of a purely intuitive, God warranted cognition commonly accepted by all pre-Kantians.26 Kants challenge, Gironi argues, was to the idea of a theocentric model of a pure God-given intuition of a real world. The transcendental realist claimed to know things in themselves only on the basis of
26

Allison [1983] 2004, cited in Gironi 2012, 376.

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM

291

a prior commitment to the perfect knowledge of God. In Gironis view, the speculative realist shares Kants doubts about this theocentric guarantee of a reality exceeding our present epistemic grasp. The speculative realist, according to Gironi, however, is not led back to this rationalism of intellectual intuition but rather towards a naturalized transcendental realism.27 Gironi also claims that the speculative realist is not a monist. Now, while I agree with him that the realist is conjoined with an ontological commitment to immanence and that no reality transcends the world,28 I do not accept the former claim. I do not accept either that speculative realists are necessarily (or even contingently) not theocentric nor do I accept that they are not monists. As noted above, the intellectual precursor of Schelling, who inspires Grants work, is Spinozas monism. For Spinoza, God and Nature are one. According to Spinoza, consciousness is to be understood as a mode of being. For Spinoza, by contrast to Descartes, there is only one substance. Body and mind are modal expressions of the attributes of substance. The latter are thought and extension. In his Ethics, Spinoza argues that there cannot be two things with every property in common. There cannot, in other words, be two absolutely identical things. He argues that there must also be a substance with all possible attributes an infinite substance. God must exist because God is a substance and existence is part of the notion of substance.29 If there are several substances, they will be distinguished from one another either by a difference in attribute or by a difference in their modifications. An attribute is what constitutes the essence of a substance, and a modification is that which exists in something other than itself.30 But the attribute of being more than one will be a difference between substances. Therefore there can be only one substance. This kind of argument is mathematically or logically derived, like those of Meillassoux, although it is obviously derived from pre-Cantorian set theoretic assumptions. It is an argument for the equivalence of God (as the Absolute) and Nature. It was precisely Kants point against the rationalists, however, that we cannot prove the existence of anything in the world Absolute or not from mathematical assumptions alone. Famously, he argued that existence is not a predicate or a property of a thing; we cannot infer any ontological claim from purely formal, logical or mathematical truths.
See Gironi 2012, 37677. Gironi 2012, 378. 29 This argument was famously critiqued by Kant, who argued in the Critique of Pure Reason that existence is not a predicate or a determinate of a thing. Existence is not an attribute of a thing in the sense in which redness or its smell are properties of the thing. Rather the things existence must be presupposed in order to attribute anything of it. 30 Spinoza [1677] 1951, Part 1, Definitions 4 and 5.
27 28

292

ALISON ASSITER

Now, while I do not accept, Kant notwithstanding, that it is wrong to make claims about the Absolute or about Being, it is, however, precisely for Kants reasons that we must be speculative about the nature of this reality. We cannot prove (in epistemic terms) anything about the Absolute that it is radically contingent or necessary or perfect or anything else precisely because it lies outside the domain of possible evidence. Therefore, contrary to Gironis claim, there is no way of separating the naturalized or mathematically derived claims of speculative realists from theocentric claims. God and Nature may, with Spinoza or even, for radically different reasons, with Schelling, be the same thing, but this is precisely an assumption, akin to a mathematical a priori. Good reasons can be given for it, but it cannot be proven in the way in which, for example, Hume wanted proof of the laws of nature. There can be good reasons for believing in a nature of some kind that lies outside thought and that may be capable indeed of grounding thought. However, these reasons cannot constitute knowledge in the strict sense claimed by some speculators. It is a petitio principii to claim, for example, that because we require nature to ground thought then there must be such a nature. That is like claiming that because we need water the existence of water must be necessary. Instead, it is perfectly possible that thought is not grounded at all. We cannot, in other words, eliminate the hard problem in philosophy of mind that of the relation between mind and body or mind and nature just by offering a theory of how one arises from the other. It is interesting to note how Bhaskar, in A Realist Theory of Science, used Hume, but in a very different way from Meillassoux. Bhaskar argued that Humes ontology, which he interpreted as being patterns of events, is true only of the actual and not of the real world. This is because, he suggested, it is only under conditions that are experimentally produced that a closure, and therefore a constant conjunction of events, is possible. If laws are sequences of events, and humans (he wrote men), being causal agents, can bring about and prevent such sequences, then there can be no rationale for according one rather than another the status of law. A sequence of events can only function as a criterion for a law if the latter is ontologically irreducible to the former. So, he argued, the intelligibility of experimental activity presupposes the ontological distinctiveness of causal laws from patterns of events.31 Bhaskar uses Kantian transcendental arguments to lead to realist conclusions. Unless causal laws operated outside the context of their closure, science could not be used in the explanation, prediction and construction of the phenomena of ordinary life. He argues therefore that the things and
31

Bhaskar 1975, 65.

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM

293

mechanisms of nature, that constitute the intransitive objects of scientific theory, both exist and act independently of the conditions, normally produced by humans that allow humans access to them.32 One might argue, as I did about Meillassoux, but now using a kind of Meillassoux-inspired claim, that all of this might not be the case, and one would be right. Yet Bhaskars is, surely, a useful hypothesis to make, if we are to make sense of experimental activity in the sciences.

Conclusion
Recently I have been writing about Kierkegaard and reading him as a speculative naturalist. Kierkegaard, it seems to me, recognized the hypothetical character of claims about the ultimate nature of the universe. But he also presented his account, in The Concept of Anxiety, of the origin of the ability to think, or the origin of freedom in humans, as a story a story that can be justified; argued for, contradicted, but nonetheless, a story or a hypothesis.33 This story presupposes a nature that exists outside the thought of finite beings and that can ground this thought. When speculative realists move from the domain of rationally justified speculation to claims about what we can know to be the case, it seems to me that they move into pre-Kantian dogmatism, which Kant could easily refute. On the other hand, Kants own philosophy limited him. For him, nature could not function as a causal ground of freedom for two reasons. First, phenomenal nature is set up in opposition to freedom. By contrast, for Kierkegaard, nature contains powers and capacities of its own that are capable of causally grounding human freedom. Second, for Kant, nature is coextensive with the phenomenal experience of rational and finite beings. But, for Kierkegaard, nature can function as the causal ground of freedom, for natural beings of some kind might both pre-exist, in a temporal sense, and exist, in a spatial sense outside the domain of limited and finite natural and rational beings. If nature exists outside the experience of limited and finite beings, then this nature, containing Adam (in Kierkegaards reading of the story of Adam and Eve), but Adam prior to the experience of eating the fruit in other words, Adam without freedom might have existed. Freedom, if you like, evolved from other vulnerable and natural beings. Kierkegaard, then, offers an account of the possible origin of a very strong Kantian notion of freedom. On the other hand, he further offers, like

32 33

Bhaskar 1975, 66. See Assiter 2013, forthcoming.

294

ALISON ASSITER

Spinoza, an implicit ontology of the self as a natural and vulnerable being shaped by forces around it, which is strongly at variance with the Kantian Enlightenment model. Unlike some readings of the view of Spinoza, though, the model of causation Kierkegaard proposes, derived from Schelling, who influenced his work, is not a mechanical one. Matter is not inert, as it is for Descartes. This account, to reiterate, is a story an hypothesis. It is one that can be argued for, but it is, nonetheless, a hypothesis. Those speculative realists who argue not only that there is a reality outside thought but also that we can know the nature of this reality are, I have argued, stepping back into preKantian dogmatic assumptions. On the other hand, I have suggested here that there are good reasons for accepting realist claims so long as these are seen as justified speculative hypotheses. I have also noted, in this piece, some deep similarities between the work of Roy Bhaskar, who published his first work in 1975, and the recent work of the speculative realists. While there are no doubt differences between the two positions if indeed there is any commonality among protagonists within each of the two fields there are significant similarities between the core claims of some speculative realists and those of critical realists. There may be scope, now, for protagonists of the two positions to engage with each other. Journal of Critical Realism has now engaged with speculative realism. Perhaps it is time at the very least for speculative realists to stop writing as though there was no realist work in contemporary philosophy before their own.

Fabio Gironi34 comments:


I am very grateful to Alison Assiter for her praise of and critical comments on the synoptic presentation of speculative realism I offered in JCR last year.35 I am glad that my encouragement for a more systematic engagement between speculative realism and critical realism did not fall on deaf ears, and indeed to see Assiter concluding her piece echoing my call for further engagement between realist currents with vigour. Hopefully our exchange will prompt others to join such a project.

34 School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University, Humanities Building, Colum Drive, Cardiff, Wales CF10 3EU, UK. Email: GironiF@cardiff.ac.uk. Fabio Gironi received his BA in philosophy from La Sapienza University in Rome, and his MA in the study of religions from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is currently in the final stages of his PhD in philosophy at Cardiff University. He is a founding editor of Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism, http://www.speculations-journal.org. 35 Gironi 2012.

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM

295

Before addressing some of Assiters doubts in relation to my presentation of speculative realist commitments, a caveat lector is in order. The main wager of my essay (and arguably its main weakness) was that it is possible to collect within a unitary frame the heterogeneous pieces of the speculative realist puzzle in order to present it to interested newcomers. Even when enumerating distinct but related thematic lines, such a modus operandi, to remain faithful to the metaphor, often meant forcing together jigsaw pieces which were not quite meant to fit together. Thus, I specified that my speculative realist was a fictional character. However, now, in attempting to answer Assiters doubts I should perhaps drop the mask and, more honestly, start taking responsibility for my claims. This will compel me, as Assiter herself admirably does, to confess where lacunae in my knowledge, or simple lack of clarity vis vis my own commitments, hinders my attempt at offering a fully consistent stance. Assiter claims sympathy for the attempt to return to a pre-Kantian frame (324), but warns the speculative realist not to get carried away by ontological fervour, since what we cannot and should not reactivate is the dogmatism that Kant helped to dispel: the unbridled philosophical (rationalist) optimism that led metaphysical speculators to claim that certain knowledge of the way the universe must be is attainable. This would amount, not to a philosophical rehabilitation of realist ambitions, but rather to a downright regressive grasping at dogmatic straws. Against Spinoza and in agreement with Assiter, I believe that one claim that we (at least, we naturalists) cannot endorse is the one that insists that the universe must be intelligible. Assiter then focuses on my Kantian detour (guided, I should stress once again, by Henry Allisons insightful interpretation) and challenges my claim that the speculative realist (or should I now start saying my speculative realist?) shares Kants concern with de-legitimizing the theocentric epistemological paradigm. To reiterate my point, the speculative realist shares Kants enemies to the extent that both of them reject the ideal of a cognition grounded epistemologically on the availability of immediate, nonconceptual intellectual intuitions, and, ontologically, on the existence of a divinely established order of things (the latter being the condition for the former). Kants response, of course, opposed the dogmatic rationalism buttressing these stances with his transcendental idealism. All that we cognize, we cognize through the discursive interplay of our faculties. There is no transcendent guarantee that what we obtain is perfect knowledge of an object. My speculative realist joins Kant in rejecting intellectual intuition-like perfect rational knowledge of a universe tailor-made for our cognitive abilities (hence is metaphysically modest) while at the same time avoiding Kantian

296

ALISON ASSITER

anthropocentric strictures (hence is epistemically ambitious).36 Both the Kantian and the rationalist are rebutted due to the fact that they presuppose (in different forms) a necessary fit between cognition and reality (or thought and being): bottom-up for Kant, top-down for the rationalist. While Kant famously had to deny (theocentrically justified) knowledge in order to make room for faith, my speculative realist denies theocentrically justified knowledge in order to make room for a thoroughly naturalized account of knowledge acquisition. At this point, before introducing Assiters main objection, I should really start speaking in the first person, since what I think is the main problem in our exchange is the confusion produced by my reference to a Frankensteinlike speculative realist assembled using theories which, on closer scrutiny, are uneasy bedfellows. Stated simply, I believe the problem is this: Assiter takes the Meillassouxian stance that makes a claim for mathematically mediated knowledge of the Absolute as the paradigmatic speculative realist one, while I implicitly reject (and I should have made this clearer in my essay) many of Meillassouxs positions, above all hisinevitable, as Assiter correctly notes appeals to intellectual intuition, which I take to be precisely the kind of dubious epistemic avenue which I intended to disqualify through my Kantian argument. Now, as I mentioned above, Assiters main point (very much in the spirit of Bhaskars transcendental realism) is that in order to avoid an untenable dogmatism we should always take ontological speculation about the nature of the universe as having a hypothetical character (a useful hypothesis, but a hypothesis nonetheless) since we cannot prove (in epistemic terms) anything about the Absolute and particularly not from mathematical assumptions alone (326, 327). I agree with her, and thus disagree with Meillassouxs more markedly Hegelian-Badiouian proclivities. But I would qualify this agreement, since I remain of the idea, contra Assiter, that it is possible to separate the naturalized or mathematically derived claims of [some] speculative realists from theocentric claims (292). There is a difference between knowing with certainty some (perhaps partial) aspect of the structure of reality, and knowing that such structure must be as it is. While I believe that a naturalist reliance on mathematized physics37 is the royal road for those
36 Note that Allison indeed invites an interpretation of the Kantian revolution as a paradigm shift from a theocentric to an anthropocentric model ([1983] 2004: xvi). To reiterate, my argument is that the speculative realist avoids falling into either of these models of cognition, not that she has to fully accept the Kantian account. 37 This is not the same as a mathematically inspired axiomatic methodology la Spinoza, an approach that, as Assiter rightly asserts, can be said to fall into the theocentric paradigm. Note that even though for Spinoza, unlike Leibnizs pre-established harmony

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM

297

who want to offer empirical grounding to their ontological commitments, I do not think that this should at all imply a priori (empirically unjustifiable) assumptions. We can have a mathematized, ontology-constraining physics without mathesis universalis. The reliance on a mathematically describable structure of reality does not entail Spinozistic monism nor a crypto-idealism blurring the divide between our accurate knowledge of structure and the structure itself.38 In other words, when Assiter claims that there is no way to separate Meillassouxs mathematically derived claims from his theocentric ones (as per Allisons definition), and that therefore both fall prey to discreditable rationalist hubris, I cannot but agree.39 It is not the realists aim to have reality by the throat. The naturalism that guides the speculative realists inquiry, as I construe it, makes no pronouncement regarding the internal organization of reality. Guided by a commitment to immanence (that Assiter too claims to support), all that it pronounces is this is all there is, leaving open both the ontological task of figuring out what there is is and the epistemological one regarding how we can get to know it (in both cases assigning primary but not incorrigible epistemic authority to the natural sciences, from physics to the neurosciences).
scenario, the world is not pre-attuned with human purposeful attempts to understand it (for the simple reason that there isnt such a subjectobject bifurcation to begin with) and he considers it an anthropocentric illusion to see the development of the universe as proceeding in accord with final causes, this does not mean that Spinoza eludes the theocentric paradigm. Spinozas monistic universe/God is not arranged for us to understand, but it is by necessity (and not by purpose) self-explicating intelligibility itself. The theocentric paradigm that I claimed the speculative realist (with Kant) rejects is not just heralding the intelligibility of the universe; it implicates a commitment to the metaphysical necessity of rational intelligibility. 38 Also, a brief remark about mathematical assumptions: it is true that Spinoza had assumptions regarding the nature of the infinite which are at odds with the post-Cantorian framework of transfinite mathematics in which Meillassoux operates. It is also true that Cantor himself saw his enterprise as attempting to prove the absolute infinity of God. But it seems to be an excessively pessimistic and unwarranted induction to go from an acknowledgment of Spinozas outdated mathematics to the conclusion that our current mathematics is going to prove itself wrong. Granted that we cannot offer mathematical proofs about the Absolute (whatever this problematic statement might mean outside rationalist circles), we shouldnt, nonetheless, treat hard-won mathematical accomplishments as mere transient presuppositions doomed to be replaced. If there is one field of human intellectual inquiry in which cumulative progress can be clearly discerned (leaving the details of the internal logic of this progress and the ontological nature of its discoveries to ones favourite philosophy of mathematics), it is certainly mathematics. 39 And indeed the all too theological undertone of Meillassouxs speculative philosophy has been noticed by many commentators, with particular incisiveness by Adrian Johnston (2011).

298

ALISON ASSITER

I noted above that there is no necessity to the universes intelligibility, yet this doesnt entail that the universe happens to be thoroughly unintelligible, completely foreclosed to finite humans. The realist cannot fully put intelligibility in question (even though there is a debate to be had regarding the extent to which parts of reality exceed our grasp, without forcing the discussion in Kantian phenomenal/noumenal terms),40 but they can reject the necessity of this intelligibility. While I see it as a grave mistake to fix as ones theoretical objective to go, whatever the price, after finitude (since the price Meillassoux paid for this surpassing is that of taking a step backwards to a hyper-rationalism grounded on intellectual intuition), it is paramount for the realist to reject unexaminable finitude (of Kantian or Heideggerian variety) and replace it with careful epistemological exploration of our biologically imposed cognitive limits a reflection in line with, and in fact dependent on, scientifically attained (approximate) truths about the universe. One of the most common mistakes in characterizing thinkers related to speculative realism is to generalize Meillassouxs denunciation of transcendental idealism as a source of correlationist evils to a broadly anti-Kantian stance shared by all the members of the movement. This is inaccurate. As Assiter indeed briefly notes, Ray Brassiers position, for example, is profoundly at odds with this characterization. Brassier has denounced Meillassouxs reliance on intellectual intuition (as undermining his own denunciation of correlationism) and defends a Sellars-inspired revisionary Kantian realism, wherein our ontological inquiry into reality is accompanied by a methodologically primary attention to the ways in which we cognize it by integrating sensory inputs into our inferentially regulated nexus of conceptual thinkingthese rational capacities being developments of bio-physical functions. Against the rationalist dogma, then, this naturalized or post-Darwinian
In this regard, one could mention Lee Bravers formulation of transgressive realism, a middle way between (pre-Kantian) realism and (transcendental) anti-realism, traced back to Kierkegaards response to the post-Kantian Hegelian project, and maturing throughout the continental tradition in (certain themes of) Heideggers and, more fully, Levinass philosophy. Reality in itself, the transgressive realist argues, cannot be exiled to an epistemically inaccessible noumenal realm nor can human reason be considered as immanently deploying an intrinsically rational real. A compromise position between transcendental and absolute idealism amounts to an acknowledgement of ontological modesty, holding that reality cannot be fully grasped by the raw power of reason since it exceeds conceptual capture, together with the epistemically more positive belief that it is precisely by way of this transgression that reality forces a re-arrangement of our concepts, capable of approaching truth if only asymptotically. Reality is knowable as transgressing knowledge; it is grasped insofar as it offers obstacles, resisting our conceptually-driven epistemic enquiries. See Braver 2012 and forthcoming.
40

SPECULATIVE AND CRITICAL REALISM

299

rationalism41 discerns no a priori reason why our thought about reality must match reality itself42 but any such match is a hard-won cognitive achievement negotiated through millions of years of natural selection. It is arguably the case that the responsibility for Assiters ill-advised conflation of the various trends composing the speculative realist project under a Meillassouxian umbrella lies at the door of a weakness of my own essay. Its shortcomings are clearly evident in Assiters questioning of my assignment of anti-monist commitments to the speculative realist. There are clearly inconsistencies in my presentation of the issue: I first claim that the speculative realist rejects a monist worldview, then more cautiouslybut contentiously observe that the immanentism defended by the speculative realist does not necessarily entail monism. The problem perhaps lies in the confusion between monism as one-substantialism and a more loose (perhaps downright mistaken) understanding of monism as naturalist causal closure. I thank Assiter for calling me out on this, a detail of my position in need of revision, a too vague claim made in the attempt to group together irremediably heterogeneous metaphysical choices. Perhaps it is, after all, impossible to tell a coherent story about speculative realism,43 and the best one can aim to do (and arguably what Ive occasionally and inexplicitly done hiding under the anonymity of a fictional speculative realist) is to take a precise stance on this crucial fork between aat times wildlyspeculative return to ontology and a more careful, but no less realist, programme of epistemological justification for ones claims. Like Assiter, my preference undoubtedly goes to the latter programme, but I like to interpret it as offering more than reasonable hypotheses (but still no absolutist certainties), and indeed as allowing us to make revisable yet approximately true assertions about reality. Regardless, it seems to me that the lack of a unitary and well-defined movement of speculative realism shouldnt deter other philosophers from engaging with the works and authors commonly identified with it, and an exchange between different realist projects remains a desirable objective.

41 In my essay I use the somewhat unwieldy formulation anti-anthropocentric de-theologized rationalism (Gironi 2012: 371). 42 Or, put differently, there is no a priori reason why reality should come to us in pre-formed, intelligible chunks. This is what Sellars named the myth of the (categorial) given, i.e. the idea that the categorial structure of the worldif it has a categorial structureimposes itself on the mind as a seal imposes an image on melted wax (Sellars 1981: 12). 43 Or perhaps it is. A forthcoming special issue of the journal Speculations (volume IV) will be dedicated precisely to this problematic question.

300 Bibliography

ALISON ASSITER

Allison, H. [1983] 2004. Kants Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Assiter, A. 2013. forthcoming. Kant and Kierkegaard on freedom and evil. Journal of Philosophy 21(2): 40912. Badiou, A. 2008. Preface to After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, by Q. Meillassoux, trans. R. Brassier, vivii. London: Continuum. Bhaskar, R. 1975. A Realist Theory of Science. Leeds: Leeds Books. Brassier, R. 2011. Concepts and objects. In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman, 4765. Melbourne: re.press. Braver, L. 2012. A brief history of continental realism. Continental Philosophy Review 45(2): 26189. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11007-012-9220-2 Braver, L. 2013, forthcoming. On not settling the issue of realism. Speculations IV. Bryant, L., N. Srnicek and G. Harman, eds, 2011. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: re.press. DeLanda, M. 2011. Emergence, causality and realism. In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman, 38192. Melbourne: re.press. Gironi, F. 2012. Between naturalism and rationalism: a new realist landscape. Journal of Critical Realism 11(3): 36187. http://dx.doi.org/10.1558/jcr.v11i3.361 Grant, I. 2006. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. London: Continuum. Hallward, P. 2011. Anything is possible: a reading of Quentin Meillassouxs After Finitude. In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman, 13041. Melbourne: re.press. Harman, G. 2011. On the undermining of objects: Grant, Bruno, and radical philosophy. In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman, 2140. Melbourne: re.press. Johnston, A. 2011. Humes revenge: Dieu, Meillassoux? In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman, 92113. Melbourne: re.press. Meillassoux, Q. [2006] 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. R.Brassier. London: Continuum. Meillassoux, Q. 2011. Potentiality and virtuality. In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism , eds L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman, 22436. Melbourne: re.press. Nagel, T. 2012. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acpr of:oso/9780199919758.001.0001 Schelling, F. W. J. [1809] 2006. Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (the Freiheitshrift), trans. J. Love and J. Schmidt. New York: SUNY Press. Sellars, W. 1981. The lever of Archimedes. The Monist 64(1): 390. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.5840/monist19816412 Shaviro, S. 2011. The actual volcano: Whitehead, Harman, and the problem of relations. In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman, 27990. Melbourne: re. press. Spinoza, B. [1677] 1951. Ethics. In The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, vol. II, ed. R. H. M. Elwes. New York: Dover. Srnicek, N. 2011. Capitalism and the non-philosophical subject. In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman, 4765. Melbourne: re.press.