I know Levi Bryant has his die-hard detractors and his many fans. I've never belonged squarely in one camp or the other. Bryant has written a lot of posts and I don't read his blog regularly, but from time to time I look in, occasionally I venture to comment, and usually I've learned something. I have also read a good bit of The Democracy of Objects, an undertaking I embarked upon with no agenda at all except, at first, to get a better handle on how Bryant uses the term "translation." From what I read, I genuinely think Bryant's book is a perfectly respectable presentation of an interesting metaphysical (yes, metaphysical) position. I have no axe to grind with his general approach. I am far from being a knee-jerk opponent (or champion) of Object-Oriented philosophy (you know who you are), and am indeed on record not just as admiring Graham Harman, but as seeing him as one of the most interesting and significant contemporary re-interpreters of the phenomenological tradition. Harman's philosophy has obvious affinities with (to say nothing of having inspired) Bryant's work; a fact I mention in hope of dispelling any suspicions of what follows as coming from some kind of unspoken partisan motive.
These caveats really ought to be totally unnecessary. If I feel the need to add them nonetheless, it's because blood gets pretty hot out there sometimes, and Bryant's latest is clearly meant to push those temperatures higher. Credit where it's due: Bryant calls it "Fighting Words," so he clearly knows he's being provocative. Just a little.
The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution.... It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation on the part of the humanities. ...We do everything to evade the truth of our age, to preserve our privilege. The truth of the matter, however– and I won’t even bother to make arguments here –is that naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today. If you find yourself explaining being in terms of the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history, or lived experience, then your thought deserves to be committed to flame.....This does not entail that what you’ve said is entirely useless. Nothing entirely misses the truth, including your secularized theological conception of being. There’s even a bit of truth in Christ, Paul, and Buddha. All you need to do is abandon the notion that humans aren’t an animal, that somehow being is dependent on humans and culture, and that somehow we have ends like knowledge and transcendence. All you have to do is re-interpret the entirety of your claims about lived experience, the signifier, culture, power, etc., in naturalistic terms. Then you might make a real contribution.That "I won't even bother to make arguments here" is a nice touch, but I especially like the way he concedes generously that everyone -- even the Buddha, even Christ! -- has, you know, "a bit of truth." And so can you!, as Stephen Colbert might put it. Well, then, what must you do? Glad you asked! "All" you need to do is "re-interpret the entirety of your claims" in "naturalistic terms."
This is obviously polemic, and polemic hath its place. The question is, what place?
Myself, I always go back to Socrates. Socrates is no stranger to polemic, but it usually found him, not the other way around, and the Socratic motives for polemic are almost entirely negative, by which I mean, Socrates offers no position of his own. These days if you try that tack, you are liable to get scolded: "Dude, you're so negative! Do you have any actual proposal to put forward?" Well, pace those interpreters who insist that Socrates' professions of ignorance are all sarcastic, I believe he really does mean it when he claims not to know (though this is not all he means), and that this Socratic stance is far from having outlived its pertinence. To tell someone, in the name of honest inquiry, that you don't understand how their theory can work, is plainly different from telling them that your theory works, is, in fact the only realistic contender. Let alone that you also have a theory of why they are presenting such obfuscation and nonsense and daring to call it a theory.
By "It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation", one means -- difficult for whom? Because I don't find it difficult at all. Yes, it's an admissible hypothesis which, on a very, very prima facie basis, "saves the appearances," but there's about a dozen others that can do that too, and that do so without the high cost of pathologizing your interlocutor. Hmmm, say, maybe, you really don't buy the dismissal of "irreducible complexity" to the chance collision of molecules. Could you actually have reasons for this? Well, we'll never know, because you aren't even invited to the table. Or let's see, perhaps like Chalmers or Nagel you just think that the "hard problem" of consciousness is aptly named, that no account "from the outside" is likely to ever render a plausible transition to questions about "what it is like to be... [insert sentient being of choice]," and that this yields insuperable difficulties for naturalism. Or again, perhaps you have concluded that normativity points to a real and irreducible dimension of experience -- that, in short, Is cannot render us an Ought. All of these might be made the matter of interesting debates. But again, we don't really need to find out what those reasons are because we've already explained them in terms of your hurt feelings from being told you weren't the center of the universe anymore.
In short, those who are having difficulty "escap[ing] the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation" are those for whom "naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today." I have to say, this betokens a disappointing failure of imagination, to say nothing of being, well, tautological. You know what else are the only credible positions? I'll mention only a few:
Liberal democracy is the only viable political system, and free market capitalism is its economic counterpart.
Liberal democracy is the ever-thinner mask of a rapacious capitalism whose bankruptcy is apparent for all who have eyes to see.
The crisis of our day is a spiritual crisis that can only be met by re-tapping into the spiritual values of our heritage.
The crisis of our day arises from the mindless repetition of memes that were once functional and have outlived their use.
The gravest threat the West faces is radical Islam, which is waiting, waiting, waiting for us to show a moment of weakness.
The gravest threat the West faces is its own arrogant sense of manifest destiny which renders it incapable of even hearing the grievances of other cultures.
My point is not that these, too, are widely shared tunnel-vision versions of the inescapable horizon of thought in our day, and that Bryant's account leaves them out of consideration. It is that the very notion of an inescapable horizon of thought just leads to this sort of back-and-forth. If there is an inescapable horizon of thought, guess what? You don't need to worry, 'cause it's inescapable.
If we read Bryant's piece of polemic as a kind of manifesto, then I can acknowledge that it does a good job of not pulling punches and of laying out his position in an uncompromising way. He's told us who has a right to be heard and who has a warm and crackly destiny awaiting them in the auto-da-fé; who is going to be listened to and who is not. You stand advised.
There is, as I say, a place for this, and not every blog post needs to (or can) be argued in every detail. In his follow-up post, Bryant does provide some spelling-out of what he does and does not mean by the "naturalism" he endorses. But I'm not concerned with what he wants to defend. I am concerned with the jaw-dropping smugness with which he declares by fiat that his bottom line is the bottom line.
As mentioned, I do not speak here as an opponent of Object-Oriented philosophy -- a camp by whose vehemence I am occasionally taken aback. I also have no need to defend speaking in terms of "the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history," though of course all of these are relevant for certain purposes. I am ready to defend talking about "lived experience," another category Bryant says ought to be "consigned to the flames," but even this one I wouldn't say trumps everything. There is a discourse in which first-person, lived experience talk is inescapable, and it is folly (to say nothing of self-contradictory) to suggest we could do without it, but there are also discourses in which the role of the first person is vestigal and idealized away. What is interesting are the borders between these arenas. I've talked a bit about this here.
But if I call Bryant's post -- let's say, questionable -- it isn't because he's trashed my special discursive toy. I am not an academic and have no vested interest in any discipline's standard operating procedures. What I object to, and what anyone who is a philosopher ought to object to, is his two-easy-steps-procedure by which he stipulates which accounts of the universe will and will not be deemed "credible," and then explains away any dissenters with some hand-waving about trauma -- hand waving which, by the rules he's set up, cannot be disputed without confirming his conclusions. All anyone has to do, once they've bought in to this sort of double-bind, is to nod knowingly and exchange meaningful looks when someone looks flabbergasted at this dismissal, or tries to present an argument against it. In this game, a smug Mmm-hmm counts as a knock-down argument.
This is a very pragmatist, almost Rortyan, stance on Bryant's part (and the one observation I will make about OOO in this context is that it is often more pragmatist than it lets on. Please remember that in my estimation this is not a slur). Rorty was quite clear that argument served other purposes, political, social, and so on, and made no apologies for including among his rhetorical moves mockery, derision, and (feigned, as I see it) incomprehension. He was perfectly happy to say things like "no one can argue this way any more," simply defining those who we were "inclined to listen to" as those who had recourse to certain premises and arguments and not others. As a description, this seems to me to be incontestable -- there are in fact always certain moves that are excluded by the norms of any community. But to stipulate in advance what norms pertain to "today" -- to try to legislate these by fiat -- this is the kind of overreaching it is just hard to imagine Socrates attempting.
Stanley Rosen once remarked, about Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, that it was a polemic work and invited a polemic response -- an invitation, Rosen said, one would do well to resist, lest one find oneself playing on its terms. Obviously, in this case, I haven't done so. (Jon Cogburn makes a more measured -- and shorter! response in the comments to the post in question.) Perhaps I couldn't help it. I leave it to you to diagnose the underlying neurosis.
But I'll add one more thing on a non-polemic note. As complex and multilateral philosophical positions, naturalism and materialism obviously must be wrestled with, even (or rather, especially) by someone like myself who finds (some forms of) them so unsatisfactory. A thinker like Brassier, who obviously is as materialist as the universe is cold, knows enough to not take such views for granted but to establish them with a tremendous armature of justification. Brassier indicates the dimensions (and proportions) of this justificatory work in the interview I cited a while ago. But once one has done this justification (and it will likely always leave some of us -- me for instance, if I know me -- unsatisfied), one can also follow through with building upon these premises in interesting and novel ways. I actually do like a good deal of what Bryant does with naturalism in his own work, and even if I do not buy into his entire project, I find many of his illustrations thought-provoking, and doubtless I will keep reading and occasionally commenting on his blog. But the good news is, he doesn't have to reinterpret the entirety of what he says in non-naturalistic and non-materialist terms in order to salvage the bit of truth. He should just keep doing what he's doing. I just think he's not thinking very clearly when he's throwing fighting words around.
(UPDATE: Fairness compels me to note that in a comment) on his post, Bryant characterizes his psychoanalyzing stance about "narcissistic wounds" as a throwaway remark. This makes a big difference and my reaction is considerably softened by it. I can't retract everything because I simply disagree that what Bryant (I think) means by saying naturalism and materialism are in fact the only admissible positions today (or ever!), but I am glad to see him back off from what I could only see as an unfair tactic.)