Tom Sparrow: From Anti-Realism to Speculative Realism



Finally able to begin a back log of reading material that I’ve put off for several months. Several works in the past year or so have come out dealing with Speculative Realism (SR). Four in particular I’m in process of reading are

  1. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects by Peter Gratton
  2. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism by Steven Shaviro
  3. The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism by Tom Sparrow
  4. Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes by Peter Wolfendale

For personal reasons I started with Tom Sparrow’s work which outlines a case against the anti-realist tradition of phenomenology which he argues lacks both a method and a hard core kernel of realist philosophy. He takes Merleau Ponty to task in his appraisal of phenomenology as a style of philosophy, when Ponty states that in his opinion: “the responsible philosopher must be that phenomenology can be practised and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at complete awareness of itself as a philosophy.”1 For Sparrow phenomenology began as a method, a way of combating the naturalist stance of the sciences. As he tells us the phenomenological method, which began with Husserl was first and foremost a way to limit and humble the aspirations of the sciences by “calling radically into question the presuppositions of objectivist sciences and philosophy” (ibid., KL 349) As Sparrow states it:

The corrupting force, according to Husserl, is what he calls the “exteriorization” of reason in the naturalistic objectivism that dominates the science of his day. Naturalism attempts to subject every domain of existence to the rigor of mathematical science, and ideally limit the sayable to the language of mathematics. (ibid. KL 345)

In his preface he will ask What is Phenomenology? He’ll suggest the question as phrased has no answer because the idea of phenomenology “lacks a coherent center”. This is because phenomenology has yet to adequately clarify its “method, scope, and metaphysical commitments”. Ultimately, he tells us that such “clarification is critical to determining what phenomenology can do and assessing whether or not its practitioners are doing it well” (Sparrow, KL 176). The point being that without such clarification there can be no sound judgment, nor any real program for phenomenology.

In some ways Sparrow sees phenomenology within what might be termed a tradition of “discursive idealism” which accentuates the correlational loop of thought and being within the human for-us context that flows out of Kant’s transcendental idealism, which began with the premise that we never have access to Things-in-themselves (noumenal) but only have access to the sense-data objects of our senses as re-presented in the epistemological registers of our human consciousness.  As Sparrow himself will say:

Phenomenology does not get us to the noumenal, it instead keeps us chained to the phenomenal, where we have been all along. Despite appearances, only speculative realism can actually get us out of Kant’s shadow. (ibid. KL 246)

It was Heidegger, the student of Husserl who would stipulate the method of phenomenology as an abductive method rather than deductive “in the sense that it is committed to adducing the matters themselves through concrete experience. The matters themselves are the source of the method, as it were.” (ibid. KL 368) As Sparrow will note, this method of abductive reasoning will lead back to the heart of intentionality:

…by focusing on the “concrete” things themselves we are led back into the ground of experience, we lay open the foundation of experience, and are ultimately referred to the dimension of intentionality. Intentionality forms the subject matter of phenomenological research or, in Heidegger’s words, “Phenomenology is the analytic description of intentionality in its apriori.” (ibid., KL 371-374)

Many scientific naturalists see in this phenomenological approach, and specifically its concern with ‘intentionality’ as in itself the cornerstone of an error, an erroneous belief in mental states and states of affairs that do not exist in themselves. To go into this would lead me too far afield.

In this work Sparrow deals mainly with the phenomenological tradition extending from Husserl to Levinas and beyond, as well as those speculative realists who fly under that banner or against it. Those such as Graham Harman and his co-horts Levi R. Bryant, Ian Bogost, Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett.

In his pursuit of capturing the kernel of a realism in the phenomenological tradition he tells us that it will be discovered in its “rhetoric of concreteness,” within the nonphenomenological core of their work rather than in its phenomenological method per se. It was Bertrand Russell who once suggested that “the adoption of scientific method in philosophy … compels us to abandon the hope of solving many of the more ambitious and humanly interesting problems of traditional philosophy. Some of these it relegates, though with little expectation of a successful solution, to special sciences, others it shows to be such as our capacities are essentially incapable of solving”.2 This antinomic quality of philosophy is both it’s failure and its glory. Some have tried to resolve the antinomic quandaries by bringing thought and being together (idealism), while others have emphasized the inhuman core of things as independent of our thought altogether (realists). While others deal with that intermediary zone between the two realms of thought and being, what Zizek terms the gap, and others like Ray Brassier term the conceptual. This battle between idealism and realism has shifted in our time beyond the phenomenological world for-us and is shaping and re-invigorating philosophy from what Kant and his progeny assumed it to be in its limitation to finitude and what Harman terms the “philosophy of access”. Yet, their are divergent voices in this new tradition, and much renewed argument about just what has taken place in philosophy in its turn toward the Real. It is to this that Sparrow devotes one aspect of his book as it touches base with the kernel of the phenomenological method and its use for a new speculative philosophy.

Ultimately it comes down to the Intentional method itself, what Husserl termed epoché, or the phenomenal reduction (quoting John Sallis Sparrow states):

Husserl’s epoché is nothing other than the installment of the phenomenologist within the correlation of consciousness and being, otherwise known by phenomenology as intentionality or immanence.  The epoché enacts a reduction of transcendent being to immanent presence, and converts real objects into “irreal” or “intentional” objects by neutralizing their existence. As Sallis puts it, the έποχή [epoché] takes the form of neutrality-modification, neutralizing whatever real existence the object might otherwise be taken to possess, especially that unanalyzed objective existence that things in the world are naturally taken to have. By undergoing the reduction brought by the έποχή, objects come to be taken as being precisely insofar as they present themselves in an intentional experience – that is, as being precisely insofar as they are intentionally present. (ibid., KL 528-536)

The point for Sparrow is that phenomenology cannot have it both ways. It cannot continue to speak of overcoming metaphysics, while at the same time trying to be a realism. As Sparrow informs us phenomenology is forced into a choice: either it can prepare the groundwork for the end of metaphysics or it can make itself compatible with metaphysical realism. It cannot be both things at once. If it chooses to bring metaphysics to an end, then it forecloses the possibility of a realist phenomenology. If it allows a return of metaphysics in order to accommodate certain theological or other aspirations, then it can no longer be the harbinger of metaphysics’ demise. How it conceives itself methodologically will inevitably betray its preference for one side of this dilemma or the other.(ibid. 563-567)

One of the points that Sparrow makes is not that phenomenology should be abandoned, but that it should abandon the pursuit of realism itself and stick with the basic truths of its original vision: the human-centric worlds that it knows best, and the pursuit of epistemological constraints that guide and shape our modes of perception. What he seeks to demonstrate is that, while phenomenologists are often keen to present themselves as thinkers committed to the reality, if not materiality (Henry), of the world they describe, phenomenology is a poor conduit for delivering metaphysical realism:

On the contrary, phenomenology is a brilliant vehicle for antirealism in the Kantian vein, and if phenomenology is going to thrive in the contemporary philosophical milieu, it might do well to enthusiastically embrace its antirealist potential rather than disavowing it. This is a prospect that will inevitably appear unattractive to the adherents of the theological turn, but it is, I think, the best live option. So, when this book proclaims the end of phenomenology, it means that phenomenology as a method for realists has worn itself out. Phenomenology, if it means anything, is simply not a method that can commit itself to the human-independent reality of bodies, objects, qualities, properties, material, or events. (ibid., KL 462-468)

I wish that Sparrow might have dealt with the other two main philosophers of our age: Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. But, since this was a book limited to the specific area of Speculative Realism rather than the other more materialist traditions I can see why he chose to limit his work to specific philosophers.

I’ll have more to say about speculation and speculative realism in future posts. I’ll leave you with one last statement by Tom for whom speculative realism is not so much a school of thought, nor a philosophy that has a method; nor is it a unified movement, nor a radical philosophical approach to the praxis of philosophy itself. No. Instead it “is, on the contrary, a loose confederation of thinkers each of whom is committed to a kind of speculation that refuses to draw the limits of the real within the immanence of human consciousness”.(ibid., 607) What it proposes above all is to clear the ground upon which the Kantian edifice of anti-realism has closed philosophy off in a circle of human-centric stasis for far too long. It hopes to open us toward – as Quentin Meillassoux once stated it – to the “Great Outdoors” of Being itself. I would only add that it look at the cracks in Being, too.

One can find Tom on twitter, as well as his university site and his wordpress site: Plastic Bodies. Tom is the author of several works dealing with philosophy: Itinerant Philosophy: On Alphonso Lingis, A History of Habit: From Aristotle to Bourdieu, Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology, and Levinas Unhinged. All excellent reads and worth your time.

1. Sparrow, Tom (2014-06-30). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP) (Kindle Locations 301-303). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
2.  On Scientific Method In Philosophy (see Books Online)

10 thoughts on “Tom Sparrow: From Anti-Realism to Speculative Realism

  1. Thats is nice; i think i agree: what is real should stick to talking about what is real . Phenomenon should be considered a real category and stick to its limitations. Wow. It took all that just to come to this conclusion. Seems a huge waste of paper and energy. But i guess not for those who think reality is a problem to b solved. Thats good.


    • If you think about it: it’s not about reality per se, it’s about the humanistic player for whom naturalism was the first to try to decenter from its great throne of Selfhood. It’s more about a turn away from human dilemmas per se, and a reconnection to the inhuman world around us without us. It’s not a rejection of the anti-realist stance so much as redefining its actual scope and methods to be deployed in respect to those limitations. I think this is the issue that Tom is addressing as one aspect of his clearing a path for speculative philosophy, and its disjunctive nonphenomenological approach away from the human-turn.


    • I guess a cant blame phenomenal identities for making claims as to real identities. I wonder though: is philosophy just a language game anymore, asserted by transcendental phenomenal agents that argue over who has assembled the best philosophical discursive structures? Does anyone talk about anything larger than the style of coat this season or how they are getting their haircut? How Joe is cute and i really dont like bettys dress? Just kidding.

      Liked by 1 person

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