Speculations IV: Adrian Johnston and the Axioms of Transcendental Materialism

“Any materialism worthy of the name must involve elements of both naturalism and empiricism.”

– Adrian Johnston, Points of Forced Freedom Eleven (More) Theses on Materialism

In a polemical tour de force Adrian Johnston condenses and codifies the elements of a philosophical materialism for the 21st Century. Adrian like others in the essays for Speculations IV returns to Kant, but for him this is not the exact correlationist litany we’ve seen in the others but more of an acknowledgement of Kant’s philosophical breadth and integrity in being the philosopher who put to rest the metaphysical claims of two thousand years of dialectical deadlocks: “The “Transcendental Dialectic” of the Critique of Pure Reason, revealing the precise contours of the dialectical deadlocks forever dooming in advance each and every classical metaphysics to futility, extracts its critical logics from the evidence furnished by two thousand years of philosophical history.”

I must say that I’m bias toward materialist perspectives and especially of late to both Johnston and Zizek with qualifications (more on that at another time), but will do my part to be – as in previous posts – the neutral observer (or as much as one can be) or close reader and commentator who offers hopefully an unbiased condensation of the original discourse. Being more of a poet and fictional writer and not a professional philosopher, I like many – perceive myself as just an average man thinking and trying to discover in current theory and practice some semblance of the problematique we are all facing in our world today. Trying to find a way forward out of the malaise of our current dysfunctional global (dis)civilization. Speculative Realism offers a multiplicity of perspectives in dealing with the domains of epistemic and ontological aspects of both our material and immaterial worlds, and while I may not agree with each and every perspective I agree that each will need to be confronted and rigorously answered if we are to find a way forward.

Johnston weaves a delicate balance between what he deems worthwhile in science and the unfounded notions of a scientistic discourse that has reduced thought to the zero point of hubris. Science and Philosophy seem always pitted against each other when in truth they both need each other and the balance that comes from a supreme respect for that fine line between empirical and non-empirical investigation. As Johnston remarks:

“Philosophy remains called beyond the present to the benefit of all disciplines concerned. The multiple relations between the empirical sciences to exercise its inalienable obligations to: critically posit and evaluate the more-than-empirical presuppositions behind the sciences; facilitate and partially structure discussions between the sciences; and, theoretically explore extrapolations from present states of interaction between philosophy and the non empirical are not to be predetermined, but, rather, to be left open to ongoing negotiations informed by appropriate dialectical-speculative sensibilities…”

We are forever barred from pre-modern critical thought, after Kant there is no going back Johnston tells us. In fact those who seek to resurrect or return to such philosophical worlds, especially those who try to revive certain ‘substance’ based theories, “succeed only at re-imprisoning philosophy in an enclosed arena of interminable, unproductive clashes between a limitlessly multiplying proliferation of foot-stamping, fist-banging”. What Johnston emphasizes here is not to revere Kant but that the only “viable path beyond Kant runs through him, that one cannot pass beyond Kant simply by trying to bypass him altogether”. Yet, one must also realize that in working through the Kantian legacy one has to not only acknowledge Hegel too, but must in fact work through his critique of that legacy. As Johnston puts it: “Not only must a realist, quasi-naturalist materialism be non-dogmatic qua post-, instead of pre-, critical, arrived at through immanently, rather than externally, criticizing transcendental idealism—it also has to reckon with the formidable legacy of the speculative dialectics of Hegelian “absolute idealism.””

Against all reactionary returns to romantic or spiritual vagaries Johnston would have us place this motto above our un-Romantic lintels: “Forget Heidegger!” As he put it “At a more theoretical than immediately practical level, this entails refusing to construe ontology along the lines of Heideggerian ontological difference. This insufficiently dialectical, too neat-and-clean distinction between the ontological and ontic leads straight to a fundamental(ist) obfuscation of actual material existences both natural/non-human and non-natural/human as well as obfuscating spiritualist pseudo-explanations of historical structures and dynamics on the basis of a divinely opaque Being”. Any materialism worth its salt will need to rise out of the legacy of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Freud, while at the same time reverse engineering a materialist ontology that is neither determinist, mechanical, reductive, nor eliminative but starts from a ‘theory of subjectivity’. The point of this return to a theory of subjectivity is to pull of the greatest heist in history, an “inside job” so to speak, one – that as Meillassoux his anti-realist correlationist critiques, as Johnston remarks affirms an “immanent critique of subjectively idealist transcendentalism is the lone road leading to a non-dogmatic, rationally justifiable materialist and realist meta-transcendentalism delineating the substantial possibility conditions for transcendental subjectivity itself”. What this produces is the dialectical interplay of the – as he terms it, a new “Spinozism of freedom” qua (quasi-)naturalist ontology of denaturalized autonomous subjects.

In such an account philosophy will privilege biology, and evolution and genetics, among other areas of biology, as integral components of such a more-than-empirical materialist philosophy. Yet, problems arise if we try to reduce such practices to other domains that conflate the domains microscopic or macroscopic realms of physics and biology. To do this would be a return of unjustified and absolutely non-empirical musings which would lead to “fruitless dogmatic fantasizing”. Instead Johnston admits we need a transcendental materialism as a return to the  “subject as substance”, which involves treating subjectivity and various phenomena tied up with it as “real abstractions”—a Marxian notion foreshadowed by Hegel and redeployed by the Lacan who famously rebuts a piece of popular May ’68 Parisian graffiti by insisting that, “Structures indeed do march in the streets,” that they “have legs” (perhaps connected to the feet of Marx’s marching history).

This new materialism is neither contemplative, nor positivistic. The contemplators are unable to answer the simplest of questions concerning the why or how of what they are contemplating (the world) ever gave rise to contemplation to begin with, and the scientistic positivists would trap us in the void of a reductionary visibly present matter-in-motion world as the only Real while leaving certain gaps, lacks, and negativities unanswered in their scheme of things. Yet, even if this new materialism affirms negativity it does so in opposition to obscurantist or mystic accounts of matter as seen in such authors as the Christian Pico della Mirandola in the Renaissance and Agamben in our time. Opposed to this mystic path the new materialist must follow a “a hybrid Darwinian, Marxian, and Freudian-Lacanian framework, transcendental materialism’s non-mystical theory of “things” negative rests on a principle of “more is less” (to invert a cliché)”. This latest of materialisms relies on a transcendentalism of subjectivity and a meta-transcendentalism of substantiality. Against all totalizing theories of the One we enjoy the fractured world of “fragmentary and inconsistent, shot through with irreducible negativities thwarting any totalizing synthesis of the field of innumerable material beings”. Without the ‘weakness’ of the world (Nature) Johnston remarks that “human subjectivity in all its distinctiveness could not have arisen in the first place”. But such notions are not confined to singular animals such as humans, socio-culture plays into this as well:

In an inversion of Althusserian interpellation, in which a strong system as irresistibly determining heteronomously subjects its addressees, the possibility of a subjectification achieving autonomy from both nature and nurture arises from events of simultaneous encounters with two overlapping voids: the negativity of a barred Real plus that of a barred Symbolic.

One of the keys to such autonomy or breaks in the fabric of being is the notion of ’emergentism’. Johnston tells us that two variables come into play within this new materialism: “one, the epigenetics and plasticity of the human central nervous system as inextricably entangled with and suffused by extended exogenous matrices of mediation both natural and non-natural (what certain Analytic
philosophers have taken to calling the “extended brain/mind”); and, two, processes through which this entanglement of human minded bodies with external networks both natural and non-natural, rather than remaining matters of heteronomous (over)determination by externalities, give rise to recursive structures and dynamics through which loci of ideational/representational reflexive self-relatedness (as the skeletal scaffoldings of subjectivity proper) establish themselves as autonomous vis-à-vis nature, nurture, or any combination thereof (this having to do with responses catalyzed by inverse interpellations coming from both the Real and the Symbolic as each barred)”.

Johnston pays tribute to Alain Badiou whose influence on his own form of materialism is apparent. He even mentions that the firs ten axioms of his essay could be attributed to Badiou’s philosophical tenants. As Johnston remarks, commenting on Badiou’s early influence by Sartre: “Badiou absorbs key lessons from existentialism without succumbing to its irrationalist tendencies to denounce classical system-building”. For Johnston it was in Badiou’s Being and Event that the first viable materialism emerged, and it was here that he discovered that “only a systematic ontology of freedom (as non-contemplative and implacably hostile to reductivism and epiphenomenalism) can be truly self-grounding through including within itself an account of the groundless ground of the autonomy making possible any and every philosophy’s (including even those philosophies denying such autonomy) obligatory beginnings with a philosopher-subject freely decided upon axioms, intuitions, and theses”.

In the Badiouian conception of philosophy, the philosopher is “forced freely to decide, however consciously or unconsciously, on what and what not to be conditioned by in terms of what is transpiring around him/her in the more-than-philosophical realms of art, love, politics, and science”. Although there are slight differences between what Johnston terms transcendental materialism and Badiou’s own materialist ontology, mainly in their choosing of on the one had biology (TM) for Johnstone, and Cantorian set-theory mathematics (Badiou), the “two approaches share a belief in the necessity of risking philosophical engagement with and reliance upon extra-philosophical sciences (and other disciplines and practices too)”. That this is in the tradition of Pascal, a wager, is without doubt, but that the alternative of doing nothing, of proposing an agnostic security vis-à-vis the sciences refusing to place any bets whatsoever on these more-than-philosophical disciplines is the “abandonment of a vital aspect of philosophy’s vocation as well as renunciation of any legitimate claim to being materialist”.

Read Adrian Johnston’s essay in Speculations IV: here (warning: pdf).

3 thoughts on “Speculations IV: Adrian Johnston and the Axioms of Transcendental Materialism

  1. Haven’t read Johnston’s essay yet, but I notice he does cite Schelling in several places, both positively and critically. I immediately wondered if Schelling worked his way into the essay when you mentioned a “Spinozism of Freedom.” I’m not sure Johnston’s criticism of Schelling’s nature-philosophical emphasis on the World-Soul as too holistic/totalizing is fair, since his “World-Soul” is not a simple unity or finished product but a creative process. The World-Soul, according to Schelling, is the name the ancients gave to the antithetical forces of nature that are continually falling into and out of equilibrium with one another, leading to the productive emergence of a series of seemingly stable products (including the human organism). Stability in nature is only ever at the species level (that is, stability is a temporary appearance to be overcome as soon as the antithetical forces fall out of equilibrium again). What is real is the creative process (natura naturans), not the finished products. Schelling’s cosmology is more orgasmic than organic, in this sense.

    I admit I could be unduly conflating Whitehead’s more modest organic tendencies with Schelling’s pre-quantum Naturphilosophie. “[Creativity] prevents us from considering the temporal world as a definite actual creature. For the temporal world is an essential incompleteness.” -Whitehead


    • I would think since Johnston, unlike Badiou, brings the nuances of the biological sciences (although not a vitalist) within his purview, and as you mentioned, he does mention Schelling, but not critically, at least in this essay, that he would only be critical of the Romantic and / or deterministic elements within that system. I think in some of his previous work on Zizek and Badiou he’s mentioned the work of Schelling favorably, as well as criticizing aspects of his system. Can’t think of any specific passages at the moment, thought.


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