We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of the past and the cause of the future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
—Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities
The motto of the age of science might well be: natural philosophers have hitherto sought to understand ‘meanings’; the task is to change them.
What would a materialist theory of the subject look like beyond both mechanistic and eliminative materialisms? Well for one thing as Adrian Johnston states it in his new work Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism it “must be able to explain how subjectivity emerges out of materiality – and, correlative to this, how materiality must be configured in and of itself so that such an emergence is a real possibility” (27). Johnston harkens back to an early essay by Mao in which he espouses a view of conflict, contradiction, and movement coming at the internal core of things/objects rather than objects or things being passively moved or changed by external causes. For Mao this was not a rejection of external causation but rather an affirmation that “external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and that external causes become operative through internal causes” (28).
All of this leads toward a affiliation between psychoanalytical metapsychology and dialectical materialism within many of the strands of contemporary materialisms in constructing a new theory of subjectivity. Johnston tells us that any new materialism will need to understand how the materiality of the human subject is at its core the intersection of a “plethora of incompletely harmonized fragments”; and, second, explain how both internal and external causes interact within this materiality of the human being in such a dialectical fashion. (24)
It is at this point that Johnston sees an affinity between his own current project and the work of Catherine Malabou telling us that her work “brilliantly brings to the fore these very issues through a simultaneous engagement with both dialectical materialism and cognitive neuroscience”(24).
[I must admit that I have as of yet read little of Malabou’s work so cannot comment to much on it, but have had mixed reviews of her work from others in the blogging community so will for the moment just let Johnston have his say and will at some future time comment on the good, the bad, and the ugly of his narrow use of certain traditions and sciences. As I read his work I did not see the litany of neuroscientists pulled out of that specialized field with any depth of confrontation, which for one purporting to use neuroscience within his materialist philosophy seemed to be a strange oversight on his part. But be that was it may I’ll hold off all judgments till my final summation. I’m sure my commenters will have their own say…]
What Johnston sees in her work is an affinity for a conflict ontology based upon the Hegelian, Mao, Lacanian, etc. sense of dialectical materialism as being informed by internal contradictions that need an new materialist explanatory-framework that might accomplish what those masters could not do for themselves: invent the possibility of a new dialectical materialist ontology worthy of the tradition and surpassing its inability to transform its own heritage. As he points out Malabou’s first attack on traditional forms of materialism in the sciences is the notion of ‘genetic determinism’ which seems so widely prevalent in modern literature on the subject. According to Johnston Malabou’s attack centers in on just the opposite, it is not genetic determinism but genetic indetermination (i.e., genes determine human beings not to be entirely determined by genes) and the neural plasticity linked to this indetermination ensure the openness of vectors and logics not anticipated or dictated by the bump-and-grind efficient causality of physical particles alone (29). The point of this is that the neurosciences have of their own accord produced a new materialist conception that is neither is irreducible to either a mechanist/physicalist nor eliminativist materialism, but is instead a conception that poses that the “natural contradicts itself and that thought is the fruit of this contradiction” (32).
In a little chapter entitled ‘A Weak Nature, and Nothing More: The True Formula of a Fully Atheistic Materialism’ Johnston returns to Lacan’s work. Citing his use of the Real as neither Kantian or even aligned with any of that totalized noumenal notions, but is instead what the “sciences enable to be accessed lucidly and rigorously in its truth”(34). As Johnston states it Lacan’s Real allows for a new twist in materialism, it poses an assertion of the “primordial real” of natural matter not as synthesized, but as already always “broken” – with this brokenness, the “self-shattered status of a disharmonious nature devoid of any One-All, being a material condition of possibility for the immanent genesis of subjectivity out of the conflict ridden groundless ground of materiality”(37).
Sometimes when I read sentences such as these I wonder just what the philosopher means by “conflict ridden groundless ground of materiality”. So much is left unsaid here or presupposed as if this little drop out of German Idealist traditions on to Martin Heidegger, etc. This conception of an original finitude documented so well recently by Lee Braver in his new book Groundless Grounds: be philosophers list of books to read in 2014.
What Johnston is actually meaning by this is provided in his summation for any future atheistic materialism: “there is just a weak nature, and nothing more” (37). He continues, saying:
All that exists are heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension – and that is it. What appears to be more-than-material (especially subjectivity and everything associated with it) is, ultimately, an index or symptom of the weakness of nature, the Other-less, un-unified ground of being. The apparently more-than-material consist of phenomena flourishing in the nooks and crannies of strife-saturated, underdetermined matrices of materiality, in the cracks, gaps, and splits of these discrepant material strata. (37)
1. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)