Slavoj Zizek: On The Fichtean Wager

Of course, Fichte passionately opts for idealism …

Both materialism and idealism lead to consequences that make practical activity meaningless or impossible. In order for me to be practically active, engaged in the world, I have to accept myself as a being ‘in the world,’ caught in a situation, interacting with real objects which resist me and which I try to transform. Furthermore, in order to act as a free moral subject, I have to accept the independent existence of other subjects like me, as well as the existence of a higher spiritual order in which I participate and which is independent of natural determinism. Accepting all this is not a matter of knowledge: it can only be a matter of faith. Fichte’s point is thus that the existence of external reality (of which I myself am a part) is not a matter of theoretical proofs, but a practical necessity, a necessary presupposition of me as an agent intervening into reality, interacting with it.

Fichte thus resumes the basic insight of the philosophy-of-reflection, which is usually formulated in a critical mode: the moment the subject experiences itself as redoubled in reflection, caught in oppositions, etc., it has to relate its own split/mediated condition to some presupposed Absolute inaccessible to it, set up as the standard the subject tries to rejoin. The same insight can also be made in more common-sense terms: when we humans are engaged in a turmoil of activity, it is a human propensity to imagine an external absolute point of reference which provides orientation and stability to our activity. What Fichte does here is that, in the best tradition of transcendental phenomenology, he reads this constellation in a purely immanent way: we should never forget that this Absolute, precisely insofar as it is experienced by the subject as the presupposition of its activity, is actually posited by it, i.e., can only exist for it.’ Two crucial consequences follow from such an immanent reading: first, the infinite Absolute is the presupposition of a finite subject, its specter can only arise within the horizon of a finite subject experiencing its finitude as such. Second consequence: this experience of the gap that separates the subject from the infinite Absolute is inherently practical, it is what pushes the subject to incessant activity. …in this practical vision, Fichte also opens up the space for a new radical despair: not only my personal despair that I cannot realize the Ideal, not only the despair that reality is too hard, but a suspicion that the Ideal is in itself invalidated, that it simply is not worth it.

However, from the practical standpoint, the finite Self posits the infinite Self in the guise of the ideal of a unity of Self and not-Self, and, with it, the non-self as an obstacle to be overcome. We thus find ourselves in a circle: the absolute Self posits non-self and then finitizes itself by its delimitation; however, the circle closes itself, the absolute presupposition itself (the pure self-positing) returns as presupposed, i.e., as the presupposition of the posited, and, in this sense, as depending on the posited. Far from being an inconsistency, this is the crucial, properly speculative, moment in Fichte: the presupposition itself is (retroactively) posited by the process it generates.

So, perhaps, before dismissing him as the climactic point of subjectivist madness, we should give Fichte a chance.

– Slavoj Zizek. Mythology, Madness and Laughter:
Subjectivity in German Idealism

What is and What is not: Parmenides, Negation, and the Limits of Thought

“…materialism … is the view that every real concrete phenomenon is physical in every respect … a little more needs to be said; for experiential phenomenon … are the only real, concrete phenomenon that we can know with certainty to exist, and as it stands this definition of materialism doesn’t even rule out idealism … from qualifying as a form of materialism!”

– Galen Strawson, Real Materialism and Other Essays

Like a magnet that has two poles, one positive, one negative, and as Shakespeare once said “Never twain shall meet,” we could see that Idealism and Materialism are those poles; yet, what does this tell us about these two strange perspectives on reality? Within both Idealism and Materialism we have further mystifications: there are the twin poles of subjective and objective idealism and materialism. In physicalist science this is played out by mundane world of common sense folk psychology of modern macro-physics of all that is extensive and phenomenal; as against the quantum physics of all those immaterial particles that can only be inferred through mathematics and specialized instruments that test the effects of sub-atomic particles on our visible universe (i.e., particle accelerators, wave-particle duality, etc.).

Have we always been fighting over the positive and negative poles of certain paradoxical and theoretical illusions, rather than looking at what these separate philosophical principles were a part of all along. I know that the analogy of the magnet is not justified, that it is a misuse of a certain type of fallacy, yet it is instructive of how we can never overcome our prejudices and see that there may be more to the eye than the simple dichotomies that our philosophical visions allow us to think.

From Parmenides to Spinoza and Hegel and beyond the monism of the identification of Mind and Being, or Cognition and its Object has fought itself out in the struggles of philosophical speculation. Are the wars over? No. Can there ever be an end to these wars? Probably not. There are those that reduce Mind to Being, and others that reduce Being to Mind; and, still others that say to reduce things to either side of the equation is erroneous, that what must be done with such illusions once and for all is to make decisive division: that we must make a cut, divide the two from each other with only the neutral conceptual bridge to bind them, thereby separating thought from being forever. Yet, if they are be conquered and divided with only the concept to bridge the gap between them, then on which side of the divide will this belated neutrality trump: the ontological or epistemological, Mind or Being? Or, maybe we are asking the wrong questions about thinking and being.

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Brandom and Brassier: Hegel Redivivus

In my previous post on Whitehead Leon made an acute observation, saying:

Brandom is definitely overlooked.  His sort of Hegelianism is the “least offensive” to those who are all out materialists – but what interests me the most is the cross-over between that sort of Hegelian idealism/realism, and contemporary “speculative idealism.”  It is the latter that Brassier’s current thinking seems to be nearing: through Hegel, through Plato, through naturalism, through pragmatism, through Sellars, and so on (and I should emphasize that the Plato/naturalism re-connection is just brilliant).  If there is one figure in addition to Whitehead that speculative philosophers must “work through” today – or encounter, or engage and appropriate in some way – it is Hegel.  There is no doubt in my mind about that.

And, yes, Robert Brandom offers a glimpse onto certain unresolved issues. Brandom felt that Hegel resolved some of the issues of Kant concerning certain unresolved dualisms, such as that between ontology and deontology. To quote Brandom:

Kant… punted many hard questions about the nature and origins of normativity, of the blindingness of concepts, out of the familiar phenomenol realm of experience into the noumenal realm. Hegel brought these back to earth by understanding normative statuses as social statuses – by developing a view according to which … all transcendental constitution is social institution. The background against which the conceptual activity of making things explicit is intelligible is taken to be implicitly normative essentially social practice. (Brandom, 2000 Making it Explicit: 33-34)

It’s this dependence on the normative which aligns Brandom and Brassier in that both push the justification of normative practices into the social. For Brassier this would be the social practices of scientists as they endlessly debate and revise their knowledge and claims about the world. The whole point of this is to move conceptual practices from a conceptual idealism and into a “space of reasons” or conceptual reasoning. If it is a social practice that entails continuous negotiation of conceptual clarity through progressive elaboration or making explicit that which is implicit in conceptual content then we see how both Brandom and Brassier endorse such a community of normativity about such claims. Instead of relying on subjective appeal we enter into sociality of knowledge.

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Ray Brassier as Idealist?

“…I consider myself an idealist, opposed to a materialist, as I insist on the need to preserve the relative autonomy of thinking, and the cogency and the consistency of thinking, and of conceptual rationality, precisely in order to be able to adjudicate the relationship between thinking and reality, between theory and practice, and also it’s an enabling condition for practice. In other words, if you try to fuse thought into material reality indiscriminately, I think that leads to an impotent short-circuit. So I would insist on defending the representational structures that are simply attacked… it’s a caricature of representation that’s being attacked, it’s a straw man. Representation here, and theoretical representation in particular, is a straw man.

I want to defend the imperatives of conceptualization, and even a kind of dialectics, as although I agree with what Nick says about the way in which death is a marker for real identity of matter itself, the point is that you should never confuse the symbolic marker for the thing in itself. You need a much more careful and subtle articulation of those terms–actually, between zero, one, and two–to explain the autonomy of thought and rationality and of thinking. Not to put too fine a point on it, so that you can maintain and generate a locus of rational agency. In other words, keep a space of subjectivation open that provides a prism for practical incision, a point of insertion. And that has to be done, and I think this involves re-examining the legacy of Hegel, and of Hegelianism. In other words, to maintain a kind of conceptual rationality that necessitates transformation at the level of practical existence. It requires a lot of theoretical work to do this. I would insist on the need to preserve the autonomy of rationality as something that allows you to intervene, to cut, in the continuity.

– Ray Brassier, Accelerationism Backdoor Broadcasting

John McDowell: Neo-Hegelianism, Nature, and Idealism

“Many who attack the idea of the given seem to have thought that the central mistake embedded in this idea is exactly the idea that there are inner episodes, whether thoughts or so-called “immediate experiences,” to which each of us has privileged access. I shall argue that this is just not so, and that the Myth of the Given can be dispelled without resorting to the crude verificationisms or operationalisms characteristic of the more dogmatic forms of recent empiricism. Then there are those who, while they do not reject the idea of inner episodes, find the Myth of the Given to consist in the idea that knowledge of these episodes furnishes premises on which empirical knowledge rests as on a foundation. But while this idea has, indeed, been the most widespread form of the Myth, it is far from constituting its essence. Everything hinges on why these philosophers reject it.”

– Wilfred Sellers, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind

As materialists it behooves us to engage those strains of thought within Idealism against which we forge our own links to theoretical praxis. We can start with a discussion of the observational language/theoretical language distinction.  Many empiricists or scientistic naturalists have been wedded to the Myth of the given, assuming that there is a privileged observation vocabulary, one that can be adequate to the task of describing reality.  The meanings of observation terms were determined by their relation to what is given and were thus unrevisable or incorrigible.  This vocabulary grounds the meaning of all empirical language.1 John McDowel in Mind and World (1994) was influenced by Sellars’s famous diagnosis of the “myth of the given” in traditional empiricism, in which Sellars argued that the blankly causal impingement of the external world on judgement failed to supply justification, as only something with a belief-like conceptual structure could engage with rational justification. McDowell tries to explain how one can accept that we are passive in our perceptual experience of the world while active in how we conceptualise it. McDowell develops an account of that which Kant called the “spontaneity” of our judgement in perceptual experience, while trying to avoid the suggestion that the resulting account has any connection with idealism.2

Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Sean Watson in their Idealism The History of a Philosophy align McDowell not only with Idealism but with a neo-Hegelian variant of it.3 They argue that McDowell in Mind and World is faced with two idealist problems. One is to argue for the incommensurability between mind and world as well as our experience of reality without at the same time making that reality experience-dependent; and, second,  how to criticize scientistic naturalism without becoming in turn anti-naturalistic. (I, 259). His main focus is in presenting a case for a new form of Conceptuality, one that does not favor one side or the other of the divide between mind or world, but focuses instead on the bridge between them, the conceptual matrix that ties the the two together within the concept itself. The key is this: that scientific naturalism seeks to portray a world devoid of our interferring thoughts, while an absolute idealism argues for a completely mind-dependent reality. What McDowell seeks is to avoid the dilemnas of either scientistic naturalism or absolute idealism, and instead instigates a “second nature”, one that bridges the gap between mind and world without collapsing them into each other; instead, entangling them within the conceptual matrix itself.

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Gilles Deleuze: Transcendental Empiricism as Idealism?

“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for ever apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight… The reason is that this, most of all the sense, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”

– Aristotle, Metaphysics

“The west’s eye-intense pagan line begins in Egypt as does the hard persona of art and politics. Egypt created the distance between eye and object which is a hallmark of western philosophy and aesthetics. The distance is a charged force field, a dangerous temenos.”

– Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

“As long as we stick to things and words we can believe that we are speaking of what we see, that we see what we are speaking of, and that the two are linked.”

– Gilles Deleuze, Foucault

The problems of representationalism are with us still. Deleuze’s philosophy might well be caught up in this fatal flaw, enmeshed within a tributary Idealism, an Idealism that investigates the central problem-idea that has plagued philosophy since Plato: how to overcome this linkage between things and words, mind and world, subject and object. This link or gap between, the dualism or duel between things and their generative forces, powers, and intensities.

Is sight the disease of all Idealisms?  In their new work Dunham, Grant, and Watson tell us that if “we put together our view that idealism is realist in respect to Ideas with the argument that the philosophy of nature forms a crucial component of it, we arrive at a conception not of the two-worlds idealism beloved of interpretations of Plato, but of a one-world inflationary idealism.”1  Between the abstract universal and the concrete universal, between Plato and Hegel, the rift that is history of Idealism plays itself out:

“The concrete universal, or the whole determined by the particulars it generates and that differentiate it in turn, is the Idea exactly as Platonism conceived it: as the cause of the approximations of becomings to particular forms, and as the ‘setting into order of the universe’ (Ti, 53a) from disorder (ataxia), as organization. When idealism is presented as realism concerning the Idea, this means: first, that the Idea is causal in terms of organization; second, that this is an organization that is not formal or abstract in the separable sense, but rather concretely relates part to whole as the whole; and third, therefore that such an idealism is a one-world idealism that must, accordingly, take nature seriously” (8).

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F.H. Bradley: Overturning Kant’s Copernican Revolution

“In whatever way the self is taken, it will prove to be appearance. It cannot, if finite, maintain itself against external relations. For these will enter into its essence and so ruin its independence…”
– F.H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality

Against all those philosophies of finitude based on Kant’s Copernican Revolution F. H. Bradley maintained that the self is never independent of its object, no gap is given; that, in fact, it is itself a part of experience and as such the facts that it pretends are given are in themselves mere appearance, “appearance and error” (103). 1 What this implies is not that the grounds for experience are eliminated, rather it affirms against Kant that the finitude of the self as the necessary condition of experience is no longer adequate.

As one of the foremost British Idealist’s Bradley maintained that the Absolute must be free of contradictions. For him what is real is harmonious, only appearance is full of contradictions. Bradley maintained a form of pansychism that affirms that the Absolute is sentinent. His basic argument is a task in which one must try to eliminate all perception and feeling from the object of experience then try to describe what is left. He tells us after such an experiment is conducted that what we are left with is “unmeaning” (Ibid. : 127-128).

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Schelling’s Naturephilosophy for Contemporaries

                “…it is an argument of this book, as it was of Schelling’s, that metaphysics cannot be pursued in isolation from physics.”     – Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling

I’m enjoying my late night readings of Schelling’s original works on naturephilosophy, which was instigated recently by the enlightening, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, by Iain Hamilton Grant, which with its lucid, engaged, and… shall I say it – engrossing style continues to amaze me by the simplicity and power of its argument regarding the need for a contemporary revival of Schelling’s naturephilosophy as both a goad and a project. These are just a few notations from my careful perusal of Grant’s work. It’s more of a notebook of his ideas rather than a commentary on them, and will hopefully consolidate certain motifs within my current understanding of his unique philosophical  reconstruction of Schelling’s naturephilosophy in the light of postkantian philosophies.

Grant abrogates the whole post-Cartesian philosophical heritage that has not only eliminated the concept of ‘nature’ from its horizon, but from its veritable ‘existence’, too. [1] He tells us that at the heart of our contemporary philosophical debate between speculative realism and anti-realism (or correlationism) “are two models of metaphysics: a one-world physics capable of the Idea, and an eliminativist practicism. The contrast could be neither more overt nor more pressing: ethicism is purchased at the cost of the elimination of nature” (ix).

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Iain Hamilton Grant: Movements of the World

“No deduction of grounds can achieve what reason demands, but reason cannot cease demanding it.”

              – Iain Hamilton Grant: Movements of the World: The Sources of Transcendental Philosophy

In No 3 (2011) Transcendence and Immanence of the Analecta Hermeneutica Iain Hamilton Grant tells us that the “transcendental is the in itself formless form of all forms that is always posterior to the unconditioned that generates it and is its ground, and that augments being in turn.” Grant separates out all empirically conditioned aspects of being from the unconditioned which gives rise to it, thereby revealing a transcendental logic that “divides the unconditioned from the conditioned, into what can and what cannot be synthesized into spatiotemporal objects”. The unconditioned is closed off to experience which “means in particular that the role of the unconditioned ground of all determination cannot be schematized as prior or posterior to the series of conditions within which alone time has purchase”.

Because of this what has come to be known as the transcendental turn “in philosophy has been considered a subjectivist supplanting of the ‘dogmatic’ concept of ground, a metaphysics capable of abandoning the temporal and causal depth from which objects emerge”. Instead of the need to look beyond the horizon point of spatiotemporal existence this transcendental philosophy toward a “systematic inquiry into causes that leads, ultimately, from metaphysics back to physics”.

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