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Speculative realism

Speculative realism is a movement in contemporary

philosophy which defines itself loosely in its stance of metaphysical realism against the dominant forms of post- Kantian philosophy (or what it terms correlationism [1] ). Speculative realism takes its name from a conference held at Goldsmiths College, University of London in April 2007. [2] The conference was moderated by Alberto Toscano of Goldsmiths College, and featured presenta- tions by Ray Brassier of American University of Beirut (then at Middlesex University), Iain Hamilton Grant of

of the American University in Cairo, and Quentin Meil- lassoux of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Credit for the name “speculative realism” is generally ascribed to Brassier, [3] though Meillassoux had already used the term “speculative materialism” to describe his own position. [4]

A second conference, entitled “Speculative Real-

ism/Speculative Materialism”, took place at the UWE

Bristol on Friday 24 April 2009, two years after the original event at Goldsmiths. [5] The line-up consisted of Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman,

and (in place of Meillassoux who was unable to attend)

1 Critique of correlationism

While often in disagreement over basic philosophical is- sues, the speculative realist thinkers have a shared resis- tance to philosophies of human finitude inspired by the tradition of Immanuel Kant.

What unites the four core members of the movement is

an attempt to overcome both "correlationism" [7] as well as "philosophies of access". In After Finitude, Meillassoux defines correlationism as “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between think-

ing and being, and never to either term considered apart

from the other.” [8] Philosophies of access are any of those

philosophies which privilege the human being over other entities. Both ideas represent forms of anthropocentrism.

All four of the core thinkers within Speculative Realism

work to overturn these forms of philosophy which privi- lege the human being, favouring distinct forms of realism against the dominant forms of idealism in much of con- temporary philosophy.

2 Variations

While sharing in the goal of overturning the dominant strands of post-Kantian thought in both Continental and Analytic schools of philosophy, there are important dif- ferences separating the core members of the Speculative Realist movement and their followers.

2.1 Speculative materialism

In his critique of correlationism, Quentin Meillassoux finds two principles as the locus of Kant’s philosophy. The first of these is the Principle of Correlation itself, which claims essentially that we can only know the cor- relate of Thought and Being, that is to say, that what lies outside that correlate is unknowable. The second is termed by Meillassoux the Principle of Factiality, which states that things could be otherwise than what they are. This principle is upheld by Kant in his defence of the thing-in-itself as unknowable but imaginable. We can imagine reality as being fundamentally different even if we never know such a reality. According to Meillassoux, the defence of both principles leads to “weak” correla- tionism (such as those of Kant and Husserl), while the rejection of the thing-in-itself leads to the “strong” cor- relationism of thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Heideg- ger. For such “strong” correlationists, it makes no sense to suppose that there is anything outside of the correlate of Thought and Being, and so the Principle of Factial- ity is eliminated in favour of a strengthened Principle of Correlation.

Meillassoux follows the opposite tactic in rejecting the Principle of Correlation for the sake of a bolstered Prin- ciple of Factiality in his post-Kantian return to Hume. By arguing in favour of such a principle, Meillassoux is led to reject the necessity not only of all physical laws of nature, but all logical laws with the exception of the Principle of Non-Contradiction (since eliminating the Principle of Non-Contradiction would undermine the Principle of Factiality which claims that things can al- ways be otherwise than what they are). By rejecting the Principle of Sufficient Reason, there can be no justifica- tion for the necessity of physical laws, meaning that while the universe may be ordered in such and such a way, there is no reason it could not be otherwise. Meillassoux re- jects the Kantian a priori in favour of a Humean a priori, claiming that the lesson to be learned from Hume on the subject of causality is that "the same cause may actually bring about 'a hundred different events’ (and even many




more).” [9]

the essence of that cotton which is inexhaustible by any relation, but that the interaction is mediated by a carica- ture of the cotton which causes it to burn.

2.2 Object-oriented philosophy

The central tenet of object-oriented ontology (OOO) is that objects have been given short shrift for too long in philosophy in favour of more “radical approaches”. Gra- ham Harman has classified these forms of “radical phi- losophy” as those that either try to “undermine” objects by saying that objects are simply superficial crusts to a deeper underlying reality, either in the form of monism or a perpetual flux, or those that try to “overmine” ob- jects by saying that the idea of a whole object is a form of folk ontology, that there is no underlying “object” be- neath either the qualities (e.g. there is no “apple”, only “red”, “hard”, etc.) or the relations (as in both Latour and Whitehead, the former claiming that an object is only what it “modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates” [10] ). OOO is notable for not only its critique of forms of anti- realism, but other forms of realism as well. Harman has even claimed that the term “realism” will soon no longer be a relevant distinction within philosophy as the factions within Speculative Realism grow in number. As such, he has already written pieces differentiating his own OOO from other forms of realism which he claims are not re- alist enough as they reject objects as “useless fictions”.

According to Harman, everything is an object, whether it be a mailbox, electromagnetic radiation, curved spacetime, the Commonwealth of Nations, or a propositional attitude; all things, whether physical or fic- tional, are equally objects. Expressing strong sympathy

2.3 Transcendental materialism / neo- vitalism

Iain Hamilton Grant argues against what he terms “so- matism”, the philosophy and physics of bodies. In his Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, Grant tells a new history of philosophy from Plato onward based on the definition of matter. Aristotle distinguished between Form and Matter in such a way that Matter was invisi- ble to philosophy, whereas Grant argues for a return to the Platonic Matter as not only the basic building blocks of reality, but the forces and powers that govern our re- ality. He traces this same argument to the post-Kantian German Idealists Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, claiming that the distinction between Matter as substantive versus useful fiction per- sists to this day and that we should end our attempts to overturn Plato and instead attempt to overturn Kant and return to “speculative physics” in the Platonic tradition, that is, not a physics of bodies, but a “physics of the All”.

Eugene Thacker has examined how the concept of “life itself” is both determined within regional philosophy and also how “life itself” comes to acquire metaphysical prop- erties. Thacker’s book After Life shows how the ontol- ogy of life operates by way of a split between “Life” and “the living,” making possible a “metaphysical displace-

for panpsychism, Harman proposes a new philosophical ment” in which life is thought via another metaphysi-

discipline called “speculative psychology” dedicated to investigating the “cosmic layers of psyche” and “ferreting out the specific psychic reality of earthworms, dust, armies, chalk, and stone”. [11]

Harman defends a version of the Aristotelian notion of substance. Unlike Leibniz, for whom there were both substances and aggregates, Harman maintains that when objects combine, they create new objects. In this way, he defends an a priori metaphysics that claims that reality is made up only of objects and that there is no “bottom” to the series of objects. In contrast to many other ver- sions of substance, Harman also maintains that it need not be considered eternal, but as Aristotle maintained, substances can both come to be and pass away. For Har- man, an object is in itself an infinite recess, unknowable and inaccessible by any other thing. This leads to his ac- count of what he terms “vicarious causality”. Inspired by the occasionalists of Medieval Islamic Philosophy, Har- man maintains that no two objects can ever interact save through the mediation of a “sensual vicar”. [12] There are two types of objects, then, for Harman: real objects and the sensual objects that allow for interaction. The former are the things of everyday life, while the latter are the car- icatures that mediate interaction. For example, when fire burns cotton, Harman argues that the fire does not touch

something-other-than-life is most often a

ogy of life thinks of life in terms of something-other-

cal term, such as time, form, or spirit: “Every ontol-

than-life that

metaphysical concept, such as time and temporality, form and causality, or spirit and immanence” [13] Thacker traces this theme from Aristotle, to Scholasticism and mysti- cism/negative theology, to Spinoza and Kant, showing how this three-fold displacement is also alive in phi- losophy today (life as time in process philosophy and Deleuzianism, life as form in biopolitical thought, life as spirit in post-secular philosophies of religion). Thacker examines the relation of speculative realism to the ontol- ogy of life, arguing for a “vitalist correlation": “Let us say that a vitalist correlation is one that fails to conserve the correlationist dual necessity of the separation and insepa- rability of thought and object, self and world, and which does so based on some ontologized notion of 'life'. [14] Ul- timately Thacker argues for a skepticism regarding “life":

“Life is not only a problem of philosophy, but a problem for philosophy. [13]

Other thinkers have emerged within this group, united in their allegiance to what has been known as “process philosophy”, rallying around such thinkers as Schelling, Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others. A re- cent example is found in Steven Shaviro's book With-


out Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, which argues for a process-based approach that entails panpsychism as much as it does vitalism or animism. For Shaviro, it is Whitehead’s philosophy of prehensions and nexus that offers the best combination of continental and analytical philosophy. Another recent example is found in Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter, [15] which argues for a shift from human relations to things, to a “vibrant matter” that cuts across the living and non-living, human bodies and non-human bodies. Leon Niemoczynski, in his book 'Charles Sanders Peirce and a Religious Meta- physics of Nature,' invokes what he calls “speculative nat- uralism” so as to argue that nature can afford lines of in- sight into its own infinitely productive “vibrant” ground, which he identifies as natura naturans.

2.4 Transcendental nihilism / methodolog- ical naturalism

In Nihil Unbound: Extinction and Enlightenment, Ray Brassier maintains that philosophy has avoided the trau- matic idea of extinction, instead attempting to find mean- ing in a world conditioned by the very idea of its own an- nihilation. Thus Brassier critiques both the phenomeno- logical and hermeneutic strands of continental philosophy as well as the vitality of thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, who work to ingrain meaning in the world and stave off the “threat” of nihilism. Instead, drawing on thinkers such as Alain Badiou, François Laruelle, Paul Churchland, and Thomas Metzinger, Brassier defends a view of the world as inherently devoid of meaning. That is, rather than avoiding nihilism, Brassier embraces it as the truth of re- ality. Brassier concludes from his readings of Badiou and Laruelle that the universe is founded on the nothing, [16] but also that philosophy is the “organon of extinction,” that it is only because life is conditioned by its own ex- tinction that there is thought at all. [17] Brassier then de- fends a radically anti-correlationist philosophy proposing that Thought is conjoined not with Being, but with Non- Being.

3 Controversy regarding the ex- istence of a speculative realist “movement”

In an interview with Kronos magazine published in March 2011, Ray Brassier denied that there is any such thing as a “speculative realist movement” and firmly distanced himself from those who continue to attach themselves to the brand name: [18]

The “speculative realist movement” exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sym- pathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced

with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don't believe the inter- net is an appropriate medium for serious philo-

sophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement on- line by using blogs to exploit the misguided en- thusiasm of impressionable graduate students.

I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately

the most basic task of philosophy is to impede

stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in

a “movement” whose most signal achievement

thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.

4 Publications

Speculative Realism has close ties to the journal Collapse, which published the proceedings of the inaugural con- ference at Goldsmiths and has featured numerous other articles by 'speculative realist' thinkers; as has the aca- demic journal Pli, which is edited and produced by members of the Graduate School of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. The jour- nal Speculations, founded in 2010 published by Punctum books, regularly features articles related to Speculative Realism. Edinburgh University Press publishes a book series called Speculative Realism.

The following is a list of publications associated with Speculative Realism:

Brassier, Ray, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Har- man, and Quentin Meillassoux. 2007. “Speculative Realism” in Collapse III: Unknown Deleuze. Lon- don: Urbanomic.

Brassier, Ray. 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brassier, Ray. 2007. “The Enigma of Realism” in Collapse II: Speculative Realism. London: Urba- nomic.

Brassier, Ray. 2001. “Behold the Non-Rabbit:

Kant, Quine, Laruelle” in Pli 12: Materialism.

Braver, Lee. 2007. A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. Evanston, IL:

Northwestern University Press.

Bryant, Levi. 2014. Onto-Cartography: An Ontol- ogy of Machines and Media. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bryant, Levi, Graham Harman, and Nick Srnicek (eds.). 2011. The Speculative Turn: Continental Ma- terialism and Realism. Melbourne: Re-Press.

Ennis, Paul J. 2011. Continental Realism. Winch- ester, UK: Zero Books.



Ennis, Paul J. 2010. Post-Continental Voice: Selected Interviews. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Grant, Iain Hamilton. 2008. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. London: Continuum.

Grant, Iain Hamilton. 2008. “Being and Slime:

The Mathematics of Protoplasm in Lorenz Oken’s 'Physio-Philosophy'" in Collapse IV: Concept- Horror. London: Urbanomic.

Grant, Iain Hamilton. 2005. “The 'Eternal and Nec- essary Bond Between Philosophy and Physics’" in Angelaki 10.1.

Grant, Iain Hamilton. 2000. “The Chemistry of Darkness” in Pli 9: Science.

Harman, Graham. 2011, 2015. Quentin Meillas- soux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh: Edin- burgh University Press.

Harman, Graham. 2011. The Quadruple Object. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Harman, Graham. 2010. Circus Philosophicus. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Harman, Graham. 2010. Towards Speculative Re- alism: Essays and Lectures. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Harman, Graham. 2009. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne: Re.Press.

Harman, Graham. 2008. “On the Horror of Phe- nomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl” in Collapse IV:

Concept-Horror. London: Urbanomic.

Harman, Graham. 2007. “On Vicarious Causation” in Collapse II: Speculative Realism. London: Urba- nomic.

Harman, Graham. 2005. Guerilla Metaphysics:

Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Chicago: Open Court.

Harman, Graham. 2002. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court

Meillassoux, Quentin. 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum.

Meillassoux, Quentin. 2008. “Spectral Dilemma” in Collapse IV: Concept-Horror. London: Urba- nomic.

Meillassoux, Quentin. 2007. “Subtraction and Contraction: Deleuze, Immanence and Matter and Memory” in Collapse III: Unknown Deleuze. Lon- don: Urbanomic.

Meillassoux, Quentin. 2007. “Potentiality and Vir- tuality” in Collapse II: Speculative Realism. London:


5 Internet presence

Speculative Realism is notable for its fast expansion via the Internet in the form of blogs. [19] Web sites have formed as resources for essays, lectures, and planned fu- ture books by those within the Speculative Realist move- ment. Many other blogs have emerged with original ma- terial on Speculative realism or expanding on its themes and ideas, and podcasts featuring various speculative re- alists have also appeared online.

6 See also

7 References

[1] Mackay, Robin (March 2007). “Editorial Introduction”. Collapse. 2 (1): 3–13.


[4] Graham Harman, “brief SR/OOO tutorial.”

[6] Mark Fisher, “Speculative Realism,” Frieze.

[7] Mackay, Robin (March 2007). “Editorial Introduction”. Collapse. 2 (1): 3–13.

[8] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, 5.

[9] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, 90.

[10] Graham Harman, Prince of Networks, 95.

[11] Graham Harman, Prince of Networks, 213.

[12] Graham Harman, “On Vicarious Causality,” 201.

[13] Thacker, After Life, p. x.

[14] Thacker, After Life, p. 254.

[15] Bennett, Jane (2010). Vibrant matter a political ecol- ogy of things. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN

[16] Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound, 148-149.

[17] Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound, 223-226, 234-238.

[18] Ray Brassier interviewed by Marcin Rychter "I am a ni- hilist because I still believe in truth", Kronos, March 4,


[19] Fabio Gironi, 'Science-Laden Theory, Speculations 1, p.



8 External links

Pierre-Alexandre Fradet and Tristan Garcia

(eds.), issue “Réalisme spéculatif”,


here :

in Spi-

no 255,

winter 2016 -- introduction

Collapse – a journal featuring contributions by “speculative realists”

Quentin Meillassoux in English at the Speculative Realism Conference Recording of Quentin Meillas- soux’s lecture in English at the inaugural Speculative Realism conference

Post-Continental Voices - an edited collection of in- terviews that contains interviews with speculative re- alists.



9 Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses

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