This is the second half of my interview with Leon Niemoczynski, professor of philosophy at Moravian University and author of the blog After Nature. A number of conversational threads below are continuations from the first half, so if you missed that, you may want to read it first. In that post I introduced Niemoczynski, so I commend it to you for further details of his C.V. However, I want to reiterate my appreciation to him for putting so much effort, and for being willing to wear his heart on his sleeve, in these responses. I have done a bit of editing on them for the sake of keeping the flow going and avoiding a bit of repetition between questions, and I'm also grateful to him for trusting his words to me.
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Skholiast:A great deal of current speculative thought arose out of a sort of exasperation with critical theory and post-structuralism. I still remember the moment I read my first sentence of Badiou – I thought, at last. This response seems to be twofold at least: an exasperation with the posture of exhaustion which had overtaken philosophy in the 1990's (various narratives of “the end of…”), and the impression that philosophy was losing itself in a new scholasticism of secondary literature. The popularity, in the US and Britain, of Meillassoux’s book After Finitude clearly marked a crucial moment in this reaction gaining critical mass. His rallying cry that we had “lost the Great Outdoors” seemed really to resonate with people; and it became possible to see, for instance, the (alleged) “endless commentary on written texts” as simply the inevitable conclusion of the Kantian decision to forego any ambition to speak of the In-Itself. As a writer who has engaged a good deal with the movement of Speculative Realism which grew out of this moment, what was your own entry with these questions? Did you find Meillassoux to be as decisive as all that?
Leon Niemoczynski: Not for the reasons you mentioned, no. Jack Caputo has aptly pointed out that the reasons why Meillassoux's After Finitude is glorified are reasons involving tendencies of thought present even in Hegel or Husserl. Yet when someone like Steven Shaviro takes up a Meillassouxian position and claims that Husserl said "phenomena depend on the mind to exist," I wince.
You know, when I was writing an article on Speculative Realism for the journal Cosmos & History, the reviewers pointed out that I should acknowledge how there was after all quite a strong tradition of speculative metaphysics in Continental tradition during the 20th century. It just wasn't as fashionable as the context-based post-Kantian approaches that Meillassoux is critiquing. So I think the critique that we have lost the Great Outdoors is involves quite a bit of hyperbole, actually. I have always been a metaphysician, and the figures that were my "philosophical giants" were, essentially, unfashionable metaphysicians!
Certainly in the American tradition speculative philosophy was going strong throughout the 20th century (Whitehead, Weiss, Hartshorne come to mind as speculative metaphysicians who were doing realist transcendental philosophy at least fifty years before Speculative Realism). Andrew Reck details much of that, in his book Speculative Philosophy, which was written in the early '70s. Normally Lee Braver's book on Continental realism and anti-realism is referred to on the subject, but really I think Reck's book – dated though it is – should be one's first read on the subject. That's the sad thing when it comes to histories that are written today concerning speculative philosophy: they omit much and deliver very little.
(Incidentally, this is true even of the history of the last decade or so. Only four or so books with "Speculative Realism" in their title have been published since the first Speculative Realist conference in 2007, but in my opinion none adequately report work of a large number of authors -- folks who are publishing good papers, producing research, and moving the conversation forward, but who, for what seem to me clearly political reasons, just weren't included in those publications. I'll mention two in particular here: Pete Wolfendale, who has produced phenomenal work (especially his recent Object-Oriented Ontology: the noumenon’s new clothes; and see Ray Brassier's postscript in Pete's book for a recent skeptical appraisal of the very "existence" of Speculative Realism); there’s also of course all of the work produced by Jason Hills, who took his Ph.D. at SIUC, and has run the blog Immanent Transcendence. I should also mention Terrance Blake, a scholar in France who consistently writes excellent papers and runs the blog Agent Swarm. In fact, it has sometimes been joked that concerning Speculative Realism, there is now something of a Wolfendale-Brassier-Niemoczynski-Blake axis, at least in the general area of speculative naturalist thought. I've once seen a cropped and collaged photo representing those four visages, but hadn't kept it, not thinking much of it. Still I wonder if there is some merit to that tetrad combination.
Now to be fair, a large part of the Continental tradition did turn away from metaphysics to all things human-centered, or to context-dependent philosophy during the 20th century: so it’s not outrageous to refer to a turn away from the real in-itself to texts, to signs, to conscious appearances, to human embodiment, to subjectivity, to human experience – again, very generally speaking. This is what Meillassoux critiques, especially Kant as the progenitor of such a human-centered or context-dependent analysis – meaning the fact that the human being is doing the thinking.
Yet I sincerely believe that very few people actually understand what Meillassoux is getting at when we get down to brass tacks, especially when things like "new materialism" or "philosophical naturalism" are bandied about in turn with After Finitude in the same sentence. That's where knowing the history of speculative metaphysics is crucial – and how having read and carefully studied all of Fichte, Schelling, or Hegel, or even the twin giants of Plato and Aristotle – this is crucial for understanding Meillassoux’s call for a post-correlationist philosophy, with the understanding that the "co-relation" is severed and then reinstalled given the reality of Absolute.
So I am not discounting his project per se, I am just saying that his call to return to the Unconditioned or Absolute, or an indifferent reality that is not even "In-itself" but simply "itself" as "itself" devoid of all things human, in fact devoid of all subjectivity – an ultimate form of transcendental materialist realism – this call needs to be seen in context.
There was, after all, a long history of speculative, realist philosophy through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To give Meillassoux credit, this philosophy we are talking about was less in Continental Europe at the time than in America, e.g. Whitehead, Hartshorne, Weiss, Buchler, and so many more. So Meillassoux's claim isn't so much novel, as it is a renewed rallying cry for a turn (back) to the speculative approach of the German idealists, to the American process philosophers. This would be a call to reconsider the speculative approach found in American metaphysics during the last two centuries. Incidentally, it does seem to me that American process thought and new versions of pragmatism are becoming quite fashionable today—though, unfortunately, often with Peirce left aside.
I think John Caputo was right in arguing that what Meillassoux has to say about the divine inexistence is definitely much more interesting (and not as philosophically problematic or even as naïve as) as his critique of "correlationism," so-called. I mean, anyone can cry out that we ought to abandon the human-centered standpoint for a more ecologically minded metaphysically realist philosophy. You can run with fashion and desubjectify philosophy as much as possible, or perhaps get with the times and declare "the end of phenomenology," all in all eliminating the human and "experience" per se. (Even pop nihilism has become fashionable.) But of course, actually pulling that off with a logically consistent, sound, functioning systematic speculative enterprise is a completely different story. Iain Hamilton Grant and Ray Brassier come closest to establishing a "true" speculative, realist project - each for different reasons. Grant and Brassier are two philosophers that I respect immensely and truly believe that the future of speculative, realist philosophy lies with them or with philosophies inspired by them.
As to “Speculative Realism” itself – it is now being called a "tendency of thought" that was voiced at the original conference. Other than the critique of correlationism – the notion that the human and world only come as a pair, or that thought and being are necessarily and always already given as co-related – it’s hard to see what holds it together. Even the idea of that common critique, turning away from Kant and so forth – even that has come into question.
Among the four original participants there is extreme philosophical and personal differences. So, in other words, "Speculative Realism" may be best characterized as a tendency or group of philosophical characteristics (materialism, realism, etc.), rather than a concrete school.
S: One more related question on this, if I may. We collaborated on a brief exposition of Justus Buchler; your interest in and being influenced by Robert Corrington and Robert Neville is a matter of record; and more recently you were turning your consideration to Nicholas Rescher and to John William Miller. While Rescher is a figure of undeniable stature, it seems safe to say that he regrettably lacks the name-recognition of someone like Badiou, to whose accomplishments his work is arguably comparable. Buchler and Miller, meanwhile, are major figures of this American stream who are lamentably neglected. This is not a result of the “Analytic/Continental split,” for these figures do not sit easily in the Analytical tradition. Do you have any thoughts on the contributions of these figures? Are there other names you consider to be similarly marginalized? (E.g. Blanshard?) And why is the American scene so ungrateful to its major representatives?
L.N. I have, perhaps to some detriment in my own career, truly followed those philosophers whom "grip" me, as Karl Jaspers would put it. A lot of what I read is simply me following intuition. As I've said, I've always been a metaphysician, either to my benefit or to my detriment. But intuition is always key, that is, where I discover something new, say a key idea or concept or figure that I think is important, I'll follow wherever the path leads feeling my way along.
I find that I get better and better pursuing hunches and lines of insight into areas of research or certain figures that are well worth the effort. I am not so much concerned with fashion as career-wise I probably ought to be, but there have been plenty of times where I end up reading a text or figure that isn't well known – and because of that fact, sometimes what I write turns out being non-publishable – but the work is nevertheless profitable for my own system-building, personally.
On the bright side, the fact that I happened to end up working in a general area of nature and related environmental thinking has indeed benefited my career. That is what is in demand now. But I am always just going with what makes sense to me – that's what is most important; one ought to pay attention fashion only secondarily, if at all. It can be catch-22. Without following fashion your research profile suffers; but following fashion exclusively burns out your research profile in five years and fashions begin to change. Go with instinct, be "aware" of the current trends, address them in a timeless way if possible, and do not be afraid to go against the grain and be heretical if you think you've got something.
Going with gut instincts has its risks of course. One risk is getting pinballed around too much – from here to there to here and there and never reaching your destination – so one should stay focused. There is also the more obvious risk of following hunches and intuition down a blind alley. Yet I usually find the stronger my intuitions are the less that happens. One thing that keeps me focused is running reading groups with current and former students. Each semester we pick a text or figure and work through it. So for example, really for about a year – two semesters just like a class – we carefully read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. It was that year that I spent a lot of time researching and re-reading Hegel, re-incorporating what works from his system into my own. Hegel: Theologian of the Spirit by Hodgson; Hegel's Philosophy of Reality; Freedom and God by Wallace; and finally Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation by Sommers-Hall; all these books paved the way for that. The "early" Hegel or "young" Hegel – his theological writings in the Knox/Kroner book - was extremely influential for me that year.
With that said, the figures you mention certainly aren't well known, at all. But to me they are important - they've opened up some areas of research and insight that I just wouldn't have known about had I not invested the labor and effort. And also in many ways, unbeknownst to many, they anticipate some of the most contemporary philosophers – speculative philosophers. An example that you've pointed out is the obscure American philosopher Justus Buchler. Buchler was an American philosophical naturalist, taught at Columbia and SUNY Stony Brook, and was a completely original, speculative and systematic philosopher who just never achieved the fame he should have. Yet much of what he said prefigures what is extremely fashionable today. For example, his ontology puts forward the "principle of ontological parity," the idea that no one thing is any more real - nor any less real - than any other thing. Today contemporary philosophers would refer to that as the idea that reality is "ontologically flat." Buchler nuanced this in a way that is actually quite Deleuzian – he, from an American perspective – is discussing immanence in an incredibly sophisticated way, all the while taking on the problems of internal and external relations, species and genera, things that Deleuze had written about but with not much clarity. A lot of ideas Buchler wrote about are precisely what one finds in contemporary speculative, realist philosophy. Even the fact that he was creating his own metaphysical system during a century when by and large it was frowned upon to even be doing metaphysics is noteworthy. Not only was he doing metaphysics, he created a completely new system -- a system which certainly can account for varying degrees of ontological scope in depth and breadth. Nature for him is orders of complexities, which themselves contain orders, and so on in a non-reducible Russian Doll effect. This jewel-like ontology of what he calls "natural complexes" – that is, natural complexities, as there are in his system no metaphysical "simples – is something many today might profit from. It's a shame he is not read more, and I don't think he will be. I've seen a few people here and there show up on my blog to read Buchler, but not many. As with Peirce, his language leaves something to be desired, hence his obscurity. The book one ought to read by Buchler certainly is his Metaphysics of Natural Complexes. The language of course, develops as the book goes on.
Nicholas Rescher doesn't seem to fare as badly in terms of neglect. I'd place him on the level of Wilfred Sellars, who, thanks to Brassier, is making a comeback (I just read a paper by F. Gironi, an editor of the Speculations journal, on Sellars and Peirce). I would actually include Robert Brandom in this camp as well simply because he is unpopular among contemporary Continental philosophers, despite his being, like Rescher, well-liked and influential among analytical pragmatists. Rescher is a philosopher of immense scope and breadth; he draws plenty of influence from his predecessors in C.S. Peirce for example, and he is remarkably clear. His clarity is certainly his virtue and is the very reason I read him.
Now Rescher doesn't necessarily prefigure what is fashionable in Continental philosophy today, but his clarity really helps him in the realm of metaphysics. I am referring to his three-volume A System of Pragmatic Idealism. Rescher is a metaphysical realist, influenced by Peirce and Whitehead, as he appropriates science in a non-reductive way and finds a place for reason, logic, and the philosophy of mathematics within the domain of metaphysics. Therefore he presents a lot of material that is just useful to have mastered when discussing those same subjects in your research with figures who aren't necessarily known for their clarity and are writing about the same things (Badiou or Deleuze for example comes to mind here).
It seems that by and large American philosophy, sadly, is usually just taken to be Peirce, James, and Dewey. But there are so many American philosophers past and present who have a lot of interesting things to say and who are fascinating to read, and who are useful in clarifying subjects that today are receiving a renewed attention. Justus Buchler, Wilfred Sellars, John William Miller, Nicholas Rescher, and so on. I think that these are just as important and noteworthy as the standard Peirce, James, Dewey list – let alone Hartshorne or Whitehead! While there does seem to be some rekindling of interest in Whitehead in speculative philosophical circles, by and large it is still small, all things compared. Perhaps it is just that the American tradition is simply dwarfed by the Continental tradition, and a lot of good work goes unnoticed. I do see some Continental theorists (mostly within sociology or anthropology) picking up on some of these good ideas in American philosophy; so for example, Bruno Latour, Philippe Descola, or Eduardo Viveiros de Castro come out and explicitly say, "Look, I am taking this directly from Peirce, or James, or Dewey," and that does give me some hope. Today the interest in Whitehead and process philosophy gives me hope. And as I've mentioned earlier, the current scene in France does seem to be picking up American philosophy again. Descola, Latour, de Castro and others had a Cerisy colloquium involving the subject. Mathias Girel works on James, Peirce, and pragmatism, has read some of Corrington's writing (on nature), and is very fluent in American philosophy in general. So that's where things seem to be going.
Finally I want to say that it's not that I simply want to repeat what others have said before in the history of philosophy so much as that I think there is still a lot we might learn from these figures, and that we certainly could apply within our theories today some good ideas that were still being developed in the twentieth century – that is, ideas that could have extremely good application in the twenty-first century. When it comes to the American pragmatists, for example, philosophical ecology, environmental aesthetics, theories of the body and sensation, theories concerning the environment, theories about habit and embodiment, are still undergoing transformation and change. A lot of what the American pragmatists (and process philosophers, and naturalists) were saying in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helps to clarify those burgeoning contemporary areas of research happening today. Why not read, modify, and use them to new ends? I mean, just reading Peirce and then flipping to a book written by Deleuze or Meillassoux is a matter of translating the language, but a lot of the ideas and outlook are the same. What Peirce and Meillassoux cover with virtuality and contingency is nearly identical. Metaphysics in the American tradition has always been realist, naturalist, friendly to the rational and natural sciences, is process-oriented, and thus is a great lens certainly to help get clear on the issues of debate today. I would encourage anyone to just dig into some of these figures – especially Whitehead – and see what you find.
S: To return to some aspects of your work which are explicitly theological. You attempt to suggest, for instance, a rapprochement between Meillassoux’s L’inexistence Divine and the anatheism of Richard Kearney, or John Caputo’s “theology of perhaps.” This project of yours is one I am most intrigued by, in part precisely because it seems so unlikely. “Unlikely”, not to say foolhardy, since these latter figures are usually taken to be writing out of the supposedly correlationist thematic that Meillassoux so explicitly critiques. Do you think you risk slipping back into a kind of fideism here, or does that not concern you?
L.N.: That doesn't concern me only because – and this is a criticism of Meillassoux's ontological eschatology that I hear rather frequently – there is a transcendental component to it. In other words, because of contingency being strung throughout the various progressions of Worlds (Matter, Life, Thought, and then the Fourth World of Justice) the birth of deity is nevertheless something possible (he says) and thus something that ought to be hoped for. And so the belief that a future World of Justice is, itself, possible rather than a guaranteed outcome, is a sort of fideistic move in that we expect it ought to happen for the previous progression of worlds to make sense; an ethical commitment to justice is transcendentally snuck in the back door, so to speak.
So yet again (and rightfully so, I have no problem with this) justice is discovered to be the "undeconstructible," that necessity or transcendental Ideal toward which we ought to aspire and achieve. Michael Norton (now at U of Arkansas) had leveled just this criticism some years back at a conference on the "Varieties of Continental Philosophy of Religion" in Toronto – incidentally featuring John Caputo as its keynote. There Norton suggested that Meillassoux, who advocates a dismissal of anything that appeals to transcendence, betrays his own immanence by placing the conditions of possible-divine-emergence within a transcendental condition of justice, enabled by the necessary ground of contingency. Norton does here seem to have a valid point, although Meillassoux's transcendentalism is not something which I find problematic. In fact, it is partially what makes him a process philosopher and on par with the likes of Schelling and Whitehead, in my opinion, and if you read Meillassoux's Divine Inexistence what gives his process philosophy a "neo-classical" flair – just in the way he speaks of the possibility of a World of Justice, it becomes very reminiscent of Plato in certain ways..
I think what distances Meillassoux from Caputo's and Kearney's ontological commitments to a divine inexistence (not necessary, not-yet actual, however nevertheless insisting in its to-come, to-be, becoming, and possibility understood as power and virtuality) is the sort of immanent faith or hope that is tied to the emergence of this future deity. The fact that things can be otherwise than what they are can invoke an animal faith not so far away from the sort of faith that Santayana said motivates our actions. Interestingly, too, Hume placed this animal faith in the counter-factual contingency of the future: it is perhaps even essential to our survival. So there is nothing "supernatural" about this deity, nor even anything mystical or supernatural about the sort of faith we human beings ought to have in its emergence. If things can be better than what they now then simply in terms of survival it would only make sense to hope that there be a World of Justice eventually. And because of the absolute and necessary nature of contingency in Meillassoux's ontology it is not even insane to have faith in the future appearance of this deity. Given nature's unpredictability and the very nature of the hyperchaos, it makes sense to place your faith in that sort of future emergence.
To tie all of this up, then, let me end with one of my favorite Meillassoux quotes: "The authentic tradition of immanence resides in the Platonic divine, and in the gods of Spinoza and Hegel, not in the 'philosophical atheism' of Heidegger."
S: On your blog and in interviews you have made occasional passing reference to your own struggle with chronic pain. Could you remark a bit upon how this accident of biography has impacted your thinking?
L.N.: Wow, this is a question that – and I've seen this in print here as something to answer for several weeks now – I just let sit there until the time was right to at least try, to the best of my ability, to answer it. It's difficult. Very difficult. Let me try to address the sharpest point present there, which is how chronic pain has impacted my thinking. I think this will balance out the personal narrative, I hope.
I think living with chronic pain has definitely allowed my thinking to encounter the "bleak" or darkest corners of existential – and even deeper than that, ontological – explanation about suffering itself. Well, there is no "explanation," just indifferent fact that in its own tones of address to humans, or to the living, is dark, within the realm of despair, suffering, agony, melancholy, depression, and bleakness. Just "depths" of agony and the lack of a universe answering back to an explanation for why, or how, suffering is the self-reinforcing motor for life.
I think it has taught me a few things about that Nietzschean abyss of pain – that Schopenhauerian base point – that Schellingian "darkness" at the center of a spiritual-dynamical processive nature that in its creative activity creates suffering as its secondary propelling effect.
I remember Hartshorne in an interview stating that unlike Schopenahauer he believed that "life in general is basically happy….[S]uffering is secondary and satisfaction primary in the lives of creatures." I disagree with this. This sort of talk, and I've heard this recently, says "Pain is good. It helps us remember we are alive." That's true but only partially true, and if you think that, then you haven't suffered severe pain. I think that this sort of thinking, what Hartshorne said, loses track of what is deeply tragic in the world. For me it directly links to the problem of evil. Pain and evil, suffering, are related.
Schelling writes in his Freedom essay for example:
[D]oes evil end, and how? Has creation a final purpose at all, and if so why is it not attained immediately, why does not perfection not exist from the very beginning. There is no answer to this except the one already given: because God is a life, not a mere being. All life has a destiny and is subject to suffering….God freely submitted himself to this too." So he then writes, "Pain is something universal and necessary in all life, the unavoidable transition point to freedom….Suffering is universal, not only with respect to humanity, but also with respect to the creator. It is the path to glory.You know, living in pain, every day, really has changed my perspective theologically. It has. Really each day challenges me to think about the creator, about the world as "good" as it is – and how transcendence from a naturalistic standpoint means accepting the world, good as it is, even in suffering. The situation goes past acceptance, it's past receiving the pain as a "sentence," and in many ways it is past me having the freedom to "do" something about it – to eliminate it, to be free from something that is with you every day. I am talking the surgeries, the physical therapy, the pain management. This now has gone to, truly, an existential and deeper ontological level. I have been wrought with thought over how this is happening, not necessarily why, but, yes, "Why"…in that, given my philosophical standpoint concerning the divine, its life, the question is, "Can you survive?" Is life worth living?
Still, there is a process. We are tormented, each day, all creatures, by some form of universal suffering. Each creature suffers, as does the Creator suffer (this is from Schelling too). The question is whether "to be" or "not be" – as to live in this universe is either a curse or a blessing, and yet it seems that consciousness arises only to be tormented into further realizations that it ought not be. For Schelling, "the beginning really only lies in negation." It is a divine pathos. And yet this self-negation can never be dispensed with, it is the ultimate ground of life itself. The self is only a self in the process of becoming that seeks to conquer of overcome not-being. Yet in the end, "not-being," absolute diremption or death, which itself is a fulfillment, wins out. Even God itself, according to Schelling, "proceeds" toward this fulfillment, but is tormented further by not being able to accomplish it, which is, paradoxically, the Creator's highest achievement. It is, as David Farrell Krell put it, a "Tragic Absolute," a languishing God.
If Brassier is right, the enlightened or rational realization is that the universe, nature (or, for a panentheist such as myself, the divine life) is stretching itself thinner and thinner throughout the cosmos as its lights die out, and matter begins to be pushed further and further apart, faster and faster toward a final frozen state of universal death, of a completed negation where Nihil – the heart of the Absolute – actually achieves its own self-overcoming and dies. Now, the question becomes: it may want to die, but can it?
I believe this is, strangely, perhaps the way freedom works. That is, the process we are feeling, universally now, of freedom, is tied to this sort of painful universal self-negation. And yet we must know that living, life, is simultaneously precisely life because of the force of suffering propels it toward its natural end.
So does the question of whether the deity wants to die or not, is able to die or not, begs the question of whether "it" is a person, like us, who suffers and understands. Does "it" have a personality, or is it a blind intelligence creating as a living-function that too, suffers, and proceeds toward a final universal death, the ultimate state of the dead universe where there is "truly nothing" as cosmology predicts. Even Peirce said that if contingency is the ultimate factor in the universe, negation in the counterfactual sense of "could be" or "otherness-than-thisness"– which is a propelling creative force or ground, and pushes further and further out into encompassing complexity and multiplicity within a black unity – then Absolute Mind in its achievement of generality would flatline into nothingness, not even the random chaos that birthed it. There simply would be no "more" to encompass, just as there was "no-thing" before the creation of the universe. Which leaves us with the problem: how did creation begin? just as much as it leaves us with the problem of wondering, how will it end?
For me, pain reminds me that finality, that overcoming, is only achieved by "undergoing." Nietzsche or Schopenhauer comes to mind here; or Holderlin: "Where there is danger…grows also the saving power." The universe is a tragic place, the cosmos the drama of possibility. Yet existentially we know that with contingency, freedom, possibility comes both the power for good, but also for evil. Tragically I've seen too much evil in my life to accept, at least for now, that all that happens is morally good.
Moral goodness seems to arrive later on the scene. For me, there is a distinction between logical-negative annihilation and hyperchaotic creative-positive addition, with the fact that creative addition just is, and the moral valuation of the created fact comes later. Following Peirce, ethical or moral value is only second to this. The first moment of creative activity is aesthetic, either harmonizing or disrupturing ("dirempting" as Hegel would put it). But this is neither morally "good" nor "evil" in itself.
That’s what I have trouble with. The value, the axiology itself and then how that translates into an ethics involving the problem of evil, how moral good seems to happen at a second order level, yet leaves unexplained how the fracturing, the dismembering and agony of experience ruptures into the lives of living creatures as suffering, as something felt, and how life must endure it to be life, on the first level. And that suffering is without ethical content. It just is. And for what if no final end or purpose other than total death? So I am very much in the middle of this: in dialogue with anti-natalists and nihilists, but as well with metaphysical-theology and cosmology. What is the Agathonic "Good" if it is other than a non-moral evolutionary-cosmological completion in an ontological flatline of death?
We all suffer, and have the capacity to understand and empathize with the suffering of others. Their suffering is your suffering. Their suffering is my suffering, and mine yours' and theirs'. Perhaps empathy is the answer. Suffering is the sovereign common denominator which bonds all creatures together, even together with the Creator.
S: Can you tell us about some of your most recent books and research?
L.N.: My first book, Charles Sanders Peirce and a Religious Metaphysics of Nature usually is described as a dissertation-to-book project, although what a lot of people don't know is that the book was actually about two thirds new material different than what appeared in my dissertation Even back at that time, in terms of a research profile, I was working with my personal brand of "nature philosophy," I still was embarking on doing a lot of work which was speculative, systematic, and realist, and a large framework of the book was the development of what I have been calling "speculative naturalism" – which is an outgrowth of the sort of metaphysics – realist and materialist, naturalist metaphysics – that is shared by many of the figures that I had been reading and then publishing about. This is important because my dissertation was made freely available online, and when I first began publishing and establishing a research trajectory, reading my dissertation online was a cheaper option than purchasing the book I published through Lexington, which was over the fifty dollar mark. Still, the book sold incredibly well for a hardcover and I think that it is either now sold out or there are very few copies left.
The Peirce book was a success within radical theology circles, the process community, and those interested in Schelling or Heidegger vis-à-vis nature and religion. On the other hand, many of the folks doing contemporary metaphysics had and have an extreme antipathy toward the religious, and so just felt no motive to include the book within their literature surveys. Even to this day a lot of folks in those circles tend to cut off a priori religious philosophy, or speculative philosophy with theological elements. A case in point is the reception of Meillassoux’s work; his philosophy of religion has gotten short shrift despite his After Finitude taking a lot of people by surprise and being as influential as it has. But to me his philosophy of religion is more exciting, and the metaphysics behind it, or making it possible, more entertaining and concrete.
For a while then I began developing my own systematic and speculative philosophy while publishing largely in the field of speculative metaphysics and nature, emphasizing my "nature" brand as an "ecological metaphysics." Again, seemingly because of the theological elements in my system, many of the figures with whom I was dialoguing didn't respond as I had hoped – or at the very least my work wasn't appearing in literature reviews. And then when I moved strictly into creating secondary literature devoid of theological references, I became utterly perplexed when my work was still missing from literature reviews. It then became apparent at just how political the publishing world was, a fact that I was just naïve to before that. That was when the specific small field I was publishing in ("Speculative Realism") literally consisted of less than say twenty people. My relationship with Speculative Realism, so-called, remains strained. To this day I've published a large number of articles and book chapters that aren't included in the books on "Speculative Realism" that are out there. I've done two interviews: one with Iain Grant and the other with Ray Brassier. The one interview with Grant I did go on to formally publish in Cosmos and History, as well as an article that I wrote about Speculative Realism providing it with an objective characterization of what it is about.
Since those days – it's been about seven years – I've gone on to do numerous interviews and podcasts where I'm asked about Speculative Realism, being included in its history as a commentator or even one whose own personal metaphysics is an outgrowth from reading it. I'm a believer that hard work pays off, and the things that I have published are getting a larger audience. (One piece I wrote was even through a recommendation by Ray Brassier); and I've corresponded some with Meillassoux and others who do recognize my work in the field. What's missing so far is a book-length statement of my own position rather than short commentary pieces on speculative realist philosophy.
I then co-edited two books stepping away from speculative philosophy and moving more so within the realm of "nature" more broadly understood, first again through the theological element of a philosophy of nature or "sacred naturalism," and then by looking at animal emotions within the natural world. For years (as I mentioned before) I was reading the work of Robert S. Corrington, picking up on his interpretations of Peirce and Schelling, and so wanted to introduce Corrington's own version of religious naturalism – what he calls "ecstatic naturalism" – to a wider audience. Nam Nguyen and I published a number of very good essays in a book called A Philosophy of Sacred Nature that put forward theses in religious or sacred naturalism. My own essay was actually a response to object-oriented ontology in an essay called "Ecology Re-naturalized." And then the animal emotions book was called Animal Experience: Consciousness and Emotions in the Natural World. For that book Stephanie Theodorou and I landed an interview on The Philosopher's Zone, an ABC National Radio program out of Australia. The interview was nominated for a Voiceless Media Prize, an award which recognizes the most influential reports and research advocating animal ethics.
My future research will likely be in the area of the philosophy of nature, developing what I am calling "speculative naturalism" as an ecological metaphysics. I have actually written and re-written large parts of the book several times over the years as my own perspective matures and develops. It seems to be a project, much like Peirce's house in Milford, that undergoes continual revision and change. With each addition and amendment to my perspective the ongoing shape of the whole changes some. Not drastically, but it seems to shift ever so slightly. This is something that I would take pride in, though. Because basically I'd rather go slow and careful and have only the most thought-through axioms of my system make it into the book rather than transient pieces. I am, however, most certainly not going to focus on any figure or figures specifically and instead really try to develop philosophical theses that are my own and that are logically argued and sound. A true systematic approach that is speculative yet empirically verified or illustrated in experience. If it takes another year or two to accomplish so be it, as this will be a formal statement of my system and it has to be tight. But it truly is reflecting years of my thinking and represents an organic process of my that development, much of which I touched upon earlier in this interview.
Article-wise and class-creation-wise I am doing a lot with animal ethics and animal emotions, especially looking at the role of sympathy between creatures. I really believe that sympathy is a common bond among creatures who suffer and I would like to develop a speculative phenomenology of other-creaturely consciousness and emotion. This perhaps could form the basis of a new form of animal ethics, one that is profoundly imaginative and other-directed, being based in sympathy and fellow-feeling, the capacity to feel; as well as based in a common "livingness" or "right-to-livingness" and be free from suffering and pain.
I have also been working a lot with philosophical ecology, running two reading groups last summer and this summer on the "philosophy of organism." The first year we read Whitehead, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty, and the second year we read Plato and Schelling. I think that Ancient philosophy has a lot of import for environmental philosophy, perhaps in strange ways, but it is there. How relations or relationships among the parts help construct a whole is an immensely important idea for philosophical ecology. And that idea is there in Plato which Schelling picks up. I am thinking specifically about Plato's Timaeus and Schelling's essay on the Timaeus. So that is something that I plan to look into more deeply.
S: At the end of this interview I want to return to what I mentioned at the beginning: the two poles of your work – nature and philosophy. Having treated philosophy at length, let me ask something about your consideration of nature. In an essay you recently published at Homebrewed Christianity, you consider the way hiking is productive of metaphysics. As you well know, of course, there is a long tradition of not just retreat of the thinker from too-close social intercourse with fellow human beings into the world beyond the city (notwithstanding Socrates’ express preference for the agora), but also of the thinker as peripatetic – from the school of Aristotle, to Kant’s neighbors setting their clocks by his passing by, to Nietzsche hiking up next to Sils Maria, to Heidegger’s Wegmarken or Wittgenstein’s explanation of himself as a guide in acity pointing out main streets and byways and alleys; or the actual hikes of Arne Naess and David Abram. In fact, Geoffrey Klempner once said that if one wants to practice philosophy, one must be prepared to take long walks. Most recently, Frederic Gros published A Philosophy of Walking. My question to you is: why does this way of moving ones body about in space – and in particular, in a space that is relatively free of the marks of civilization – facilitate thinking? And does the thinking which is so occasioned differ from that which arises in ones study with a book?
L.N.: I suppose this question is fitting to the interview, because in many ways it does touch on some of the ideas we began to explore in the first question. You know, it is actually quite difficult to put into words how exactly metaphysical thinking is engendered by the very act of being alone in the outdoors, although, to me at least, it happens quite frequently.
There have been numerous studies about how meditative thinking fits quite well with activities that are habitual – running for example – or I imagine with just taking walks. I think it traverses that strange boundary between being absolutely immersed within the sort of environment that can provoke philosophical thought, and thus one is conscious of it, and then again of not being immediately conscious of your surroundings and being led by the process of thought itself (hence your allusion to Heidegger). I suppose for me the beginning point, as you mentioned, was simply being far from others, of being removed from that current all-encompassing nexus of "social media," where in fact while hiking, "social media" is really the semiotic exchanges of the living world itself minus human beings.
In the article that you refer to ("How Taking a Hike Can Lead to Metaphysics"), I mention how hiking in remote environments or locations is a form of deanthropocentrism in the sense that the emphasis is not so much on other people or other selves but on the surroundings, on the environment and the transformative relationships available within it. I think just being away from others removes that obsessive humanism that can actually stifle creative motions of thought. For starters, just being away from the sounds of traffic or noise of others, being away from artificial light, those sorts of things allows the mind to relax and be present to itself. And then being in natural environments – forests, among the mountains, streams – even just trees and the fresh air, it allows a composure that is conducive to philosophical thinking. Without the immediate demands of responding to social media, whether tweeting or facebook or email, one responds (as cliché' as it might sound) to the demands of a process of thought that is slow and careful, rather than shallow and rushed. Immersing one's self along the trail into this process of thought seems more organic than being tied to one place, say behind a computer screen, as you a are freely moving, like I said, almost unconsciously. You can respond to your body and to a process of thought simply by moving, engendering a process or facilitating a process that is as natural as walking itself is.
This may be my negative side talking but my own philosophical undertakings are always best undergone away from other people. It allows me to focus on what I take the world to be, undisturbed, thinking about animals, rocks, trees, or plants and not about other human beings. There is a solitary and peaceful sanctity to being alone, undisturbed. Nature becomes one's conversation partner, the wind, the sound of a nearby stream, animals or birds in the distance. I think it was Jaspers who said something to the effect of that metaphysical philosophy was a religious experience in the sense that you are listening to the formation of truths spoken to you from Being, from the world, rather than the other way around. You are communing with nature where, really, it’s an intense form of experience, nearly sacred I think, in that we gain glimpses and insights into the world's most essential truths – we connect with the world's creative nature simply being there in its most creative element (the woods, forests, mountains, and so forth). It's a connection between the world and the process of thought that the world has created.
Jaspers called these natural cues "ciphers," semiotic density points that are symbolic of a much deeper profound reality. They "draw you in" and invite lines of reflective insight. Robert Corrington has called these "sacred folds," numinous centerpoints of fecund natural experience. In the end, I believe this is truly the heart of an ecological metaphysics – a sort of deanthropocentric phenomenological stance that allows the world to be what it is, processurally, on its own terms, without the imposition of specific human categories or desires, although those categories or desires may after all be conducive to, or part and parcel of the real. This is – so far – the most thorough-going ecological naturalism that I can conceive.