Reza Negarestani: A Preliminary Investigation – Intelligence and Spirit

The History of spirit is its own deed; for spirit is only what it does, and its deed is to make itself – in this case as spirit – the object of its own consciousness, and to comprehend itself in its interpretation of itself to itself.

—G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right

Shall we say that Hegel is the Father of Pragmatism? That we should know a self as what it does, rather than by its essence: what it is? And is the self processual, a disturbance of material agitation: a making that is a making of itself by itself, through the power of interacting on itself by way of techniques of language and interpretation of this self-making agency in process? Reza Negarestani situates this statement as outlining a “community of rational agents as a social model of the mind,” a functionalist model that is “essentially a picture of a necessarily deprivatized mind predicated on sociality as a formal condition of possibility”.1

Instead of trying to review the complete book, I am more interested in this post to understand the political and social implications of Reza’s project. For underlying the conceptuality inherent within his project is a political and social agenda that one must understand before one can gain insight in the fabric of its methodological implications and conclusions. So with that in mind I want to quote in full the first paragraph of the work to which I will in this post unpack the wealth of thought implicated within its compressed and carefully thought out thesis:

This book argues, from a functionalist perspective, that mind is only what it does; and that what it does is first and foremost realized by the sociality of agents, which itself is primarily and ontologically constituted by the semantic space of public language. What mind does is to structure the universe to which it belongs, and structure is the very register of intelligibility as pertaining to the world and intelligence. Only in virtue of multilayered semantic structure of language does sociality become a normative space of recognitive-cognitive rational agents; and the supposedly ‘private’ experiences and thoughts of participating agents are only structured as experiences and thoughts in so far as they are bound up in this normative – at once intersubjective and objective – space. (1)

To unpack this paragraph I will delve into a short history and explication of certain terms and their uses along the way. We will start with the notion of functionalism itself within the philosophy of mind.

Functionalist Perspective

This notion of the ‘functionalist perspective’ has a unique place within the philosophy of mind. Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part. This doctrine is rooted in Aristotle’s conception of the soul, and has antecedents in Hobbes’s conception of the mind as a “calculating machine”, but it has become fully articulated (and popularly endorsed) only in the last third of the 20th century. Though the term ‘functionalism’ is used to designate a variety of positions in a variety of other disciplines, including psychology, sociology, economics, and architecture, this post focuses exclusively on functionalism as a philosophical thesis about the nature of mental states.2

According to Aristotle’s theory, a soul is a particular kind of nature, a principle that accounts for change and rest in the particular case of living bodies, i.e. plants, nonhuman animals and human beings. The relation between soul and body, on Aristotle’s view, is also an instance of the more general relation between form and matter: thus an ensouled, living body is a particular kind of in-formed matter. Slightly simplifying things by limiting ourselves to the sublunary world (cf. De Anima 2.2, 413a32; 2.3, 415a9), we can describe the theory as furnishing a unified explanatory framework within which all vital functions alike, from metabolism to reasoning, are treated as functions performed by natural organisms of suitable structure and complexity. The soul of an animate organism, in this framework, is nothing other than its system of active abilities to perform the vital functions that organisms of its kind naturally perform, so that when an organism engages in the relevant activities (e.g., nutrition, movement or thought) it does so in virtue of the system of abilities that is its soul.3

Aristotle’s almost computational perspective on the capabilities and capacities of the rational soul to order and structure experience, along with making intelligible the intelligibility of the universal order of things within what would become known as the “great chain of being” would provide many later thinker a functionalist perspective and framework within which to explicate intelligence, intelligibility, and the intelligible.4 In this sense functionalism affords us another view onto mind with the idea of multiple realizability, an idea put forward most prominently Hilary Putnam (1967, 1988) and Jerry Fodor (1975), put it forth as an argument against reductionist accounts of the relation between mental and physical kinds.5 Since, according to standard functionalist theories, mental states are the corresponding functional role, mental states can be sufficiently explained without taking into account the underlying physical medium (e.g. the brain, neurons, etc.) that realizes such states; one need only take into account the higher-level functions in the cognitive system. Since mental states are not limited to a particular medium, they can be realized in multiple ways, including, theoretically, within non-biological systems, such as computers. In other words, a silicon-based machine could, in principle, have the same sort of mental life that a human being has, provided that its cognitive system realized the proper functional roles. Thus, mental states are individuated much like a valve; a valve can be made of plastic or metal or whatever material, as long as it performs the proper function (say, controlling the flow of liquid through a tube by blocking and unblocking its pathway).

Between Putnam and Fordor a more detailed account of the functionalist perspective described functionalism in the philosophy of mind as individuating mental states in terms of their causes and effects. Pain, for example, is caused by tissue damage or trauma to bodily regions, and in turn causes beliefs (e.g., that one is in pain), desires (e.g., that one relieves the pain), and behaviors like crying out, nursing the damaged area, and seeking out pain relieving drugs. Any internal state that mediates a similar pattern of causes and effects is pain—regardless of the specific physical mechanisms that mediate the pattern in any given case. Ned Block and Jerry Fodor (1972) note that the multiple realizability of mental on physical types shows that any physicalist type-identity hypothesis will fail to be sufficiently abstract. Functionalism, on the other hand, seems to be at the next level of abstraction up from explanation of behavior based on physical mechanisms. In addition, it seems sufficiently abstract to handle multiple realizability. Block and Fodor also note that multiple realizability at the level of physical description is a common characteristic of ordinary functional kinds, like mousetraps and valve lifters. Characterizing mental kinds as functional kinds thus appears to be at exactly the right level of abstraction to handle multiple realizability. (Bickle, ibid.)

The great follower of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, would contribute to this pragmatic heritage aligning the notion of “soul” as form following function, defining the soul as the form of living bodies. Aquinas’s substantial formalism takes it that the forms of material objects can be divided into two sorts, substantial forms and accidental forms. One way of distinguishing the two is by what they configure. A substantial form of a material thing configures prime matter. Prime matter is matter without any form at all, “materiality” (as it were) apart from configuration. When it is a component in a matter– form composite,  prime matter is the component of the configured composite which makes it the case that the configured thing is extended in three dimensions and occupies a particular place at a particular time.  By contrast, an accidental form configures something which is an actually existing complete thing, a matter– form composite.6

On Aquinas’s view, the substantial form of a whole confers causal powers on the whole. The operations and functions of a substance derive from the substantial form configuring the whole.  Furthermore, as we increase complexity in systems, even systems of inanimate things, properties arise that are properties of the whole system but not properties of the material parts of the system. This irreductionist perspective is at the heart of his enterprise, and as we will see it is part of the core view within the functionalist perspective of Negarestani as well.

Multiple Realizability and the Sociality of Mind

Reza’s notion that the mind is what it does, and that what it does is realized only within the public space of language by the ‘sociality of agents’ harkens back to Hegel’s philosophy. As Terry Pinkard reminds us modern philosophy, the institutional setting for absolute knowing, is not confined to the way the natural world happens to present itself to the community of working scientists (agents). Philosophy is the reflection on what the community as a whole has come to take as authoritative for its evaluation of those practices and its attempts at legitimations of those practices in terms of an appeal to standards of rationality that themselves historically have been developed within the history of that community’s accounts of itself. It can therefore legitimate that account only within those historically generated terms, within that “social space,” not by accommodating itself to any kind of object external to the historically developing set of practices of reason-giving and account-giving themselves. Absolute knowledge is absolute in that it has no “object” external to itself that mediates it in the way the natural world mediates the claims of natural science. Absolute knowledge is thus the way in which absolute spirit articulates itself in modern life ; it is the practice through which the modern community thinks about itself without attempting to posit any metaphysical “other” or set of “natural constraints” that would underwrite those practices.  Absolute knowledge is the internal reflection on the social practices of a modern community that takes its authoritative standards to come only from within the structure of the practices it uses to legitimate and authenticate itself.7

What are we talking about here? The sociality of mind is formed by its interaction with a specific technological environment or “social space,” one that is objective and external to the individual agent. As Merlin Donald, speaking of the evolution of the mind tells us, the recent changes in the organization of the human mind are just as fundamental as those that took place in earlier evolutionary transitions, yet they are mediated by new memory technology, rather than by genetically encoded changes in the brain. The effects of such technological changes are similar in kind to earlier biological changes, inasmuch as they can produce alterations to the architecture of human memory. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure containing vestiges of earlier stages of human emergence, as well as new symbolic devices that have radically altered its organization. The structural relationship between individual human minds and external memory technology continues to change, and with the advance of augmentation and other techniques which will provide an avenue to a new level of abstraction: the collective world of participatory consciousness that was once shared in animistic societies will now be part of the technological realm of rationality of a new collective and open society of mind.8

Whereas countless philosophers since Aristotle have attempted to define what is quintessentially human, Donald brings new knowledge of neuropsychology, ethology, and archaeology to propose a tripartite theory of the transition from ape to man. Using the fossil evidence of braincase size and tool-kit remains, Donald concludes that the australopithecines were limited to concrete/episodic minds: bipedal creatures able to benefit from pair-bonding, cooperative hunting, etc., but essentially of a seize-the-moment mentality. The first transition was to a `mimetic” culture: the era of Homo erectus in which mankind absorbed and refashioned events to create rituals, crafts, rhythms, dance, and other prelinguistic traditions. This was followed by the evolution to mythic cultures: the result of the acquisition of speech and the invention of symbols. The third transition carried oral speech to reading, writing, and an extended external memory- store seen today in computer technology.

This notion of the externalization of the mind through sociality and interaction with techniques and technology in a co-evolutionary process of mutual development and transformation is at the core of orginary technicity, or what Bernard Stiegler meant when he said that the ‘human has always been technological’. N. Katherine Hayles in Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious relates that technical cognitions are designed specifically to keep human consciousness from being overwhelmed by massive informational streams so large, complex, and multifaceted that they could never be processed by human brains. These parallels are not accidental. Their emergence represents the exteriorization of cognitive abilities, once resident only in biological organisms, into the world, where they are rapidly transforming the ways in which human cultures interact with broader planetary ecologies. Indeed, biological and technical cognitions are now so deeply entwined that it is more accurate to say they interpenetrate one another.9

This process of exteriorization of memory produced varied and quite complex ecologies of mind. For Reza this external space is the  ‘semantic space of public language’, which might be bettered served as the technical space of representational machines within which humanity has invented itself. If any system that is capable of remembering and processing information, of regulating its own behavior and adapting to its environment deserves the name of ‘technology’, the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard argues in the wake of the information revolution, then even infusoria – the tiny algae synthesized by light at the edge of tidepools millions of years ago that we mentioned in the opening paragraph – are already ‘technical devices’. In Lyotard’s words, ‘the living cell, and the organism with its origins, are already tekhnai – “life”, as they say, is already technique’.10

This notion of the living and non-living being unified as technology and technique is not new. Even the so called postmoderns would offer a technological turn in their philosophies. Jacques Derrida; Jacques Lacan; Michel Foucault; Jean-François Lyotard; Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; and Giorgio Agamben (for all the real and often irreconcilable differences between the work of such canonical thinkers) are increasingly recognized as important and influential philosophers of technology whose work is informed by, and engages in, the new scientific revolutions of the post-war era. To offer a brief overview, Jacques Lacan is one of the first philosophical thinkers to grapple with the implications of the new cybernetic revolution after the Second World War: the psychoanalyst famously deploys the cybernetic circuit as a conceptual model for what he sees as the symbolic structure of subjectivity.6 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s idea of a ‘machinic phylum’ at the heart of morphogenesis also draws on both molecular biology and post-cybernetic theory to explain the self-organising material flux of the universe as it emerges from chaos into order.  By the same token, the later work of Jean François Lyotard appeals to catastrophe theory in order to articulate his theory of an inhuman remainder at the core of all humanisms (The Inhuman, pp. 1-7). Perhaps even the later Foucault and, differently, Giorgio Agamben’s theory of bio-power – where governmental technologies are exerted upon the bare fact of life itself – can be seen as a critique of the political exploitation of the becoming-technical of the living in the aftermath of the new sciences. Such a technological turn has, if anything, gathered momentum in recent years with the appearance of important works by such figures as Friedrich Kittler, Bernard Stiegler and Jean-Luc Nancy, amongst many others. Derrida’s in his deconstruction of  western metaphysics of presence offered a perspective on originary technicity that inhabits the interiority of life itself: ‘life is a process of self-replacement’, Derrida asserts, ‘the handing-down of life is a mechanike, a form of technics’ (‘Nietzsche and the Machine’, p. 248).

World Building and the Structuring Mind

To consider man, then, as primarily a tool-using animal, is to overlook the main chapters of human history. Opposed to this petrified notion man is pre-eminently a mind-making, self-mastering, and self-designing animal; and the primary locus of all his activities lies first in his own organism, and in the social organization through which it finds fuller expression.

—Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine Technics and Human Development

Reza tells us that “what mind does is to structure the universe to which it belongs, and structure is the very register of intelligibility as pertaining to the world and intelligence”. In this he follows Kant and other post-Kantian philosophers of mind whose belief that we can never have any direct access to reality, but rather that our minds have always already processed and filtered reality and hand us only that version of it that it has structured for us. In After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux defined correlationism as “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. (p. 5)” Ray Brassier in an essay would state that “reality is ultimately endowed with conceptual structure”. Going on he’d tell us

The challenge for materialism is to acknowledge the reality of abstraction without conceding to idealism that reality possesses irreducible conceptual form. Thus materialism must be able to explain what constitutes the reality of conceptually formed abstraction without hypostatising that form. The key to the de-reification of abstraction is an account of conceptual form as generated by social practices.11

This notion that conceptual form or the structuring of the world is generated by sociality and the pragmatic interactions in that public space of language, the ‘give and take of reasons’ (Brandom) – the normative praxis and techniques that invent the possibility of mind in the first instance. Yet, the very process of technicity that has exposed humanity as technology, as symbiont – neither fully machinic nor fully organic has opened onto  a door of futurity. As Nick Land once suggested “the high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir, into ‘dehumanized landscapes … emptied spaces’! where human culture will be dissolved(293).”12 Reza in a later section of his work would iterate his on inhumanist gesture, saying,

To migrate from the Hobbesian jungle of competing individual experiences it is not sufficient to build consensus between different individuals and groups – a necessary undertaking which is not wholly conceivable in this environment. It is necessary  to posit the possibility of an otherworldly experience, one that, while devoid of all mystical, supernatural, religious, and paranormal qualities, is in contiguity with reality yet distant from this present world of experience. To posit such an otherworldly experience is in fact to postulate the possibility of worlds that are in every sense outside of the horizon of the inhabitable world in which we currently live. (p. 499)

For Reza this movement requires nothing less than the participation in a collective enterprise that strips us of our individualistic and fragmented consciousness, providing instead an “engine of collective productive imagination, which is simply collective understanding in a different guise: concepts and categories of the otherworld integrate synthetic unities of particular experiences, but at the same time individual experiences fall under the pure concepts of a world modally detached from ours.” (p. 499) This bootstrapping of a new world or conceptual leap and bridge to the possibility of a world where I is We – a participatory externalization of objective Geist/Spirit, both incomplete and open leads to what Reza will term after Plato and Sellars a cosmopolitics or cosmological politics, a new “paradigm for the politics of the Left, one in which the positive deindividualization or the labour of collectivization is not just about intersubjectivity – the craft of we that constitutes I – but also about the renewed link between the subject and an impersonal objective reality.” (p. 301)

If you’ve been following me so far then this process of externalizing the mind’s capacities into technical systems is not new but a very old idea in which humans have delved ever since the first automatons in Greece were assembled. Our fascination with copies of ourselves in machinic systems that mimic our behavior and our thoughts has been a part of the whole gamut of engineering feats from the early Greeks onwards. Why this fascination to build a perfect image of ourselves in a technical artifact? What has drawn us to invent such a world in which such technical beings may in coming times surpass us and become the higher forms of planet earth? Were we already in our core machinic beings? Is this slow externalization of the organic functions into inorganic forms a teleological process? Are we just fulfilling some already well thought out pre-existing plan, strategy? This notion obviously goes against the grain of all materialist thought in which such designs and designers are mere shadows of Platonic other worlds to be left in the dust bin of strange ideas that were in error. But were they? Why have we continued to seek out and invent external forms of our minds and bodies in technical systems through collectivization processes? What drives us to do this? What are we seeking? Maybe in the end Reza is right:

Intelligence only springs forth from a race of slaves who have recognized themselves as such, and in this recognition have crafted the most intricate plot – the exploration of time through their history – to abolish any given, which will inevitably become the very condition of exploitation and inequality. Intelligence matures by unlearning its slavery. Intelligence is the race of Cain. (p. 504)

This alignment with the dark world of intelligence as criminal almost reminds us of Nick Land’s perusal of philosophers and philosophy: “Philosophers are vivisectors, surgeons who have evaded the Hippocratic moderation. They have the precise and reptilian intelligence shared by all those who experiment with living things. Perhaps there is nothing quite as deeply frozen as the sentiment of a true philosopher, for it is necessary to be quite dispassionate if one is to find things theoretically intriguing.”13

Whether you agree or disagree there is a lot to ponder and work through in Reza’s multifaceted project, of which I have only tried to unpack the first paragraph with extempore commentary.

  1. Negarestani, Reza. Intelligence and Spirit. Urbanomic/Sequence Press (November 27, 2018)
  2. Levin, Janet, “Functionalism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  3. Lorenz, Hendrik, “Ancient Theories of Soul“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  4. Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: The Study of an Idea. (Harvard University Press, 1936)
  5. Bickle, John, “Multiple Realizability“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  6. Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotleianism. Routledge; 1 edition (March 24, 2017)
  7. Pinkard, Terry. Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason. Cambridge University Press (April 26, 1996) (p. 262).
  8. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)
  9. Hayles, N. Katherine. Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (p. 11). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
  10. Bradley, A. Originary Technicity: The Theory of Technology from Marx to Derrida. Palgrave Macmillan; 2011 edition (May 27, 2011)
  11. Brassier, Ray. Wandering Abstraction. (Mute, 13 February 2014)
  12. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007. Urbanomic/Sequence Press (July 1, 2013)
  13. Land, Nick. The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism. Routledge; 1 edition (January 2, 1991)