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"Philosophy is not science's under-labourer"


An interview with Ray Brassier
N1kala Andonovsk1

"Speculative realism" is the buzzword well as of the object·oriented ontology of


reverberating in Continental philosophy Graham Harman.
circles with a vigor unseen since the era
of 'deconstruction'. Originally coined for a Here we welcome Ray Brassier. lhe
2007 conference at Goldsmith's, Speculative 'godfather' of Speculative Realism and the
Realism (SR) is less a designation for a author of Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment
homogeneous philosophical movement and Extinction (2007). Brassier,
than an umbrella term for a currently a professor at the
group of closely related American University in
philosophical projects Beirut, hes been a staunch
sharing a common defender of metaphysical
en•?my. The enemy - realism and one of the
picturesquely dubbed most vocal advocates
'ccr-reletionism' by of the scientific
SR pioneer Quentin disenchantment
Meillassowc - is "the of the wo:ld. In
idea according to bis debut book, a
which we only ever fascinating dfalogue
have access to the with philosophers
correlation between as diverse as Sellars,
thmking and being, Churchland and
and never to either Gilles Deleuze, he
fenn considered apart champions nihilisrn as
from the other"' This (on Ma necessary consequence
SR accounts) standard position of the coruscating patency of
has been the reigning dogma of reasori. arid hnice an invigorating
20Lh century Continental philosophy, from vector ofiriCell.ectual discoveryu:z
post-Kantian philosophies of representation Brassie: 's re-th in king of the relationship
to Heideggerian ontologizations of the between though t and reality is as 1nuch
human 'lifeworld'. Taking its cue from the of a challenge to cognitive "ra.d1cal
paralyzing impasses of this standard view, embodiment� theories as It is to
Speculative Realism defines itself as an Continental orthodoxy. We eskecl Ray about
altempt to step out of that "ccrrelationisi his general views on philosophy, as well as
dea dlo ck " and question both the Kantian about some of the specific aspects or his
restrictions of philosophical &ccess and work
the phenomenological privileging of
human experience. This imperative has
Ray the last 150 vears can easily beseen
been a shibboleth of the philosophies of gs a process qfgraduql reljnqujshjnq of
SR's front row quartet: of the speculative
phjlosophjcal tenitory: First�
ov�rcoming of correlationism in the works
physics then fngtyralizedJ epistemqlogy
of Meillassoux and Ian Hamilton Grant, of
to psvcholoqy and most recently even
the resoluie nihilism of Ray Brassier. as
ethics t:J the proponents of the new neo.
·Philosophy is not sciences under-labourer· I Nikola Andonovski

Darwinjqn consgmus jn eyqlytWnary 'progress' of waves wearing away rock. The


theqry Whqt are the consequences ofthis history of philosophy is the progressive
hqndjna over? What in vour view is the unfolding of the conceptcal labyrinths
mle ofphilosophy tqdqy? ls the mjnjmql implicit in apparently simple questions
task ofcongptual cJadficgtiqn stjU the about knowledge, truth, and thought. I'm
benchmqrh: for phjWsqphi.;inq? Or is there struck by the underlying continuity of
sqmethinq mqreZ fOut ofaU the "speculative this fundamental problematic, however
realists"wu were arouablv the (egsl eager convoluted its historical windings, from
to 's:pecylate' J Plato and Aristotle, through Kant and Hegel,
right up to contemporaries lilte Brandom
I don't see the process as one of unilateral and Bediou.
relinquishment on philosophy's part. And So while I remain committed to the idea
although I think philosophy's historical that philosophical theorizing cannot
development is necess!lrily bound up with afford to ignore the findings of the best
that of the sciences, I don't accept the contemporary science, I don't believe
Lockean 'underlabourer' conception of philosophy is merely the handmaid of
• empirical science either. Philosophy's
the relation between philosophy and
science, according to which the telos of relation to science is neither one of
all philosophical enquiry is to reach the grounding nor one of subordination.
point at which conceptual analysis can Philosophy is at once continuous and
be supplanted by empirical investigation. discontinuous with the sciences. On the
Certainly. philosophy bu h ad to give up one hand, it cannot afford to ignore the
its naive pretension to legislate about ways in which biology and physics have
everything, and this rtlinquishment bas reconfigured basic conceptual categories
been part of the process of its historical like species, individual. space, time, and
unfolding. But I think this pruning process causation; on the other hand, philosophy's
is fundamentally conducive to philosophy's essentially abstract conceptual subject
growth. Philosophy is peculiar in that matter is not such as could ever be fanned
it grows intensively, not extensively. It out to empirica l science.
progresses by refining and sharpening the So in answer to your question: yes,
scope of certain persistent yet empirically conceptual analysis is the minimal
intractable questions, which every benchmark for philosophizing, the very
sustained attempt at thinking, whether least one bas to do in order to qualify
empirical or a priori, runs into sooner or as engaging in philosophy. But although
later. Cynics like to depict the history of conceptual clarification is necessary,
philosophy as the sterile reiteration of it is not a sufficient condition for
conceptual confusion. This disparagement philosophizing. The analysis of conceptual
of philosophy is common to both skeptics structure remains the p:;erequisite for
and positivists. Unlike these cynics, I constructing a bridging theory of the
do perceive a kind of progress in the divide between conceptualization and
history of philosophy, but it's one that reality. Thus I don't believe philosophy
is not straightforwardly linear. It's the is or ought to be essentially speculative.
Schx>l/7

Speculation can be given a positive valence, Bye js Che sjtyation really this black­
if it means a th eoriz ing uninhibited by and-wbjtel The last twp decqdu saw
utilit arian constraints. But even the most Che ememency qfmqvemencs such AS
abstract specula ti ve register, harbours enqctjyism for example which quempt
latent ideological implications; the question tq sc«e clear Uom che pjgfalls qr" both
being whether or not those implications extreme oosicions Does your adherence to
are predictable. More often however, nacyraJkm ngnqrily rnmmjt you CO a full
speculation serves as a pretex: for arbitrary, gbqndqnment qffolk Chegrizing?
self-indulgent fancy.
Ultimately.philosophy is at Nothing is ever black and
cnce analytic IJld l'fllthttlc.
Nothi1111 white, but 5ometimes i tis
It analysn lD otdet to philosophically necessary
1J11tbeslze. This I• not is ever /Jlock to render it so. I am
an original deftnlt.lon;
it i1 venerable, pitrbeps .� nd white, hut aware of enactivism,
embodied cognition,
evm hackneyed. but
Someti�nes it 1\ and the extended mind
it's one I believe to hypothesis. and while I
be ee1entially comet. '!philosophicull)' think t h e se approaches
The role of philosophy perform a philosophical
lodar la to nformulato �necessary tu
service by pointing ou.t the
mamablw qutltfon• about r:ender it so. explanatory deficiencies of
the natun of mind, meaning, a certain representarionalist
and reality not only in light orthodo1Cy in the philosophy
Df physics, biololY• and cognitive of mind, I find clsims about
scimce, but also taking into account the enactivism's philosophical radicality to
most theoretically sophisticated var:ieties be mudl exegerated. Much of it �trike s
of social theory, pa rti cu la rly in the Marxist me u Ar11totelluiam ia. a cog�itive
tradition. aciutUlc dre11. Enactlviat critiques
of repr�sentationali.sm are certainly
Yuu are pargjculady interested in the inst.rucli\'e, but their proposed alternative
.fit between humqn uperience and the is all tco familiar. Enactivism invites us
.{cjrntjfic yncferstandjnq ofthe wqdd �lo understand the regularity of the world.
L11->1Il...intervjew wjth Bmm /e1.:en yqu we are e�periencing a.t every moment,
dlaraccerized Che issue in cenns ofq but wichou! any point of1·eference
d.eillUm.:. "Concemporary philosophers can independent of ourselves that would give
be mrted into two basic camps: in the certamty to our descriptions and cognitive
first, there are those who wan! to explain assertions. Indeed the whole mechani sm
scien ce in cenns of human experience; ofgonerating olU'nlw•. ••describers
in �he second, there are those who want and ob#rwrl t.U. u.s dear our world. a1
to explain human experience in tenns of
the IWf'ld wldch we bring forth in our
science.../ side with those in tire second coexistence with ochers. will Always haw
camp". .1 precisely that mi.Ktw·e of regularity and
"Philosophy is not science's under-labourer" I Nikola Andonovski

mutability, that combination of solidity epistemically perspicuous accounts of the


and shifting sand, so typical of human structural links between phenomenology
experience when we look at it up close."4 and folk theorizing, as exemplified
This is as succinct an encapsulation of the by Metz.inger's self-model theory of
correlationist credo as one could wish for. I sub�ectivity, or Pascal Boyer's work on folk
confess I fail to see what is philosophically metaphysics, and the metaphysical inflation
challenging about it. Certainly, it challenges of phenomenological experience that leads
Cartesian dualism, but is this really still philosophers like Maturana, Varela. and
the hallmark of contemporary philoaophical Thompson to promoto o kind of now-age
radicality?The enactivist critique of Protagoreenism.
representationalism is too easily co-opted
by the brand of tubthumping anti-dualism In the humanjtjp jt hgs almqst become a
whose affinities with new-age spiritualism clichd tq lament the three big blqws tq the
have been rightly denounced by 2.iiek •primary narcissism" of man· Copernicus
and others. 1 don't find it coincidental Darwjn and Freud But voa have been
that a philosophical ideology that a stgunch defender qfthe traumatjc
places such a metaphysical premium
e
disenchantment qfthe world In Nihil
on embodiment and affect should Unbound vpu pmpqse a view thar can
arise precisely at that juncture where the pqhqps best be cgptured by the sloaan
full spectrum dominance of neoliberal "the primacyofthe theoretical·�
capitalism bas successfully extirpated the "Nihilism is not an existential quandary
ideals of rationalist universalism both in but a speculative opportunity. Tflinking has
theory and in practice. A metaphysics of interests that do not coincide with 1hose
embodied affect is a retreat rather than of living" o. Why exactly dqes njhjljsm rnrrv
an advance from the impasses of subject­ this libemtjng pqtential?
object dualism. I think the challenge now
is to re-conceive the theory and practice
Because it's not possible to carrf on making
of rationalist universalism in post­
sense of ourselves or the world in the way
computational (i.e. non- an tbrop ologic all
we have been for the past two and half
terms. Inferentialism provides some
thousand years. Or rather, it's no longer
of the resources required to do just
possible to do so in good intellectual
this. It preserves the normative kemel
conscience. Of course, one can always
of rationalism, while discarding its
silence the latter by abandoning reason
metaphysical shell. This is to say that
and truth in name of sensation and life.
Sellars and Brandom retain Hegel's
I've tried to show why the attempt to do
insight into the historicity of reason,
so generates incoherences that stymie
while jettisoning the neo-Aristotelian
philosophical thought altogether. But even
substantialization of mind which mired (or those who are unwilling to forego truth
orthodox Hegelianism in theology.
in the name of life, the question is whether
So in answer to your question: my
philosophy is to be mere nostalgia for some
adherence to metbodolc;gical naturalism
supposedly prelapsarian harmony between
commits me to discriminating between
man and world, or whether on the contrary
Sc/Y.xJl/9

it should reassert its originacy kinship way as to explain how real negabvity fuels
with the sciences and strive to push our dialeclics even as it prevents dialectics
cognitive capacities to their limits in order from incorporating its own negativity. Real
to test the grip of our organic equilibrium. negativity splits the logos from within,
Obviously, this assumes that thought can be while fI'Om without it splits signification
compelled by interests that transcend those from reality. The goal is to understand
of the organism, and this is of course an how non-conceptual negativity determines
idealist-ultimately Platonist-trope, which dialectical negation, while preventing
I not only admit but em brace , since I hold, negation in the concept from fusing with
along with Plato and Hegel, that rea) n egativity.
th e com puls ion of the concept
allows reason to incorporate �ihil Unbound.Yt:iI!l
death. But Nihil Unbound an emphatic portrayal of
only skims the surface of phjlosqphy gs qn "organon
the underlying issue: if of extinction"'..I!H. •wiu
one believes, as I do, that to know"' marked by the
the imperative to think is trauma ofextinction is
compelled by irrecusable via phjlosqphy rendered
rational obligations, commensurate with
then the acknowledgment the objective reqliw of
that the validity of the extjnction But dqes this :mrt
categories Qf sense that have qfpqsjtion not simply echo the
been available to us for two ffi:jdeqqerian pathos of tiniiude?
millennia have now lapsed irrevocably, Aren't yqu proposing here a forrn of
carries with it the injunction to transform authenticitv qfthe disappearing self. an
the structure of sense. However, I now ethics ofnihilism perhaps?
realize the issue is more dialectical than
I thought in Nihil Unbound, because the Yes and no. Yes, if by 'authenticity' one
bo undary between sense and senselessness understands the rationalist imperative
is historically determined and the formal to transform the structure of sense
strJcture of sense allows for a fundamental in accordance with the norm of truth,
reconfiguration in what can ar.d cannot according to an impersonal ideal of
be meaningfully experienced. \'lfhat is collective cognitive authenticity that would
conspicuously absent from Nihil Unbound, be Hegelian rather than Heideggerian.
but what I am currently trying to elaborate, No, if 'authenticity' is understood in a
is an account of the generative status of personal-existential register in terms of
the negative that would not lapse back the ontological propriety of the individual
into some sort of dubious emanationism. self. Extinction is not just the cosmological
The problem consists in articulating the transcoding of Heideggerian finitude, but
relation between the dialectical structure its speculative sublation in the form of a
of conceptual discourse and tl:e non· new synthesis of thought and object, or
dialectical status of the real, in such a subject and death-a dead subject. This
"Phi/osophy is not science's under-labourer" I Nikola Andonovsk1

I mean by 'binding extinction'. But such µrc·ject. Sellars helped m e realize ht at the
binding can only be collectively realized at a utanomy of concept1ial r ti nality is the
a o
the level of rational reflection, this being indispensable precondition for defending
understood not in terms of individual the truth of nihilism and hence for
consciousness, but as the conceptual prosecuting the kind of radical conceptual
explicitation of the implicit content of revision which I believe nihilism entails.
impersonal rational norms. (I What is most important for me in
owe this insight to Robert Sellars' thought, but what
Brandom's bri lliantly Because I'm s ti l trying to properly
l
reconstructive reading of grasp, is his two-tiered
Hegel.I The suggestion it's not - <
account of lhe relation
is that the 'subject­ be�ween mind
of-death' emerges possible to carry o" and world. What
as the historically prevents Sellars'
appropriate fonn
on making sense i:f rejection of the
for contemporary
ourselves or the wor.f, give11 from l psi ng
a
rational collectivity. into conceptual
How this 'subject­ in the way we haV< idealism is his
of-death' might be difficult but crucial
collectively realized been for the past t ; ' account of the
as a new form of interp:ay between
reason is what I am and half thousan - the nonnative,
currently trying to
years. rule-governed
elaborate by examining do main of linguistic
what Hegel. Sellars, and signification and t e causal/
h
Brandom have to say about the neurophysiolog1cal dimension of
link between reason, nature, and history. what Brandom calls 'reliable differential
responsive disposilions' Like Kant before
In the pas! few years you have been him. Sellars synthesizes iflsights from
jncreasinalv engaged with the work of rationalism and empiricism. His e mph asis
Wilfrid Sellars. Whv is he so important for on the autonomy of the conceptual aligns

your developing system' And concurrentlv him with rationalism, but it is tempered
what is vour take on the possjble by a n.aturall1ttc acknowledgement of' the
jdealistic resonances pf Sellars' rejectjon mind's evolved. status. This has important
of the 'given'? How dq YW combjne the conaequences for his conception of
unaYDidable entrapment jn discourse truth. Sellars believes it i.s possCble to
with the claim that vqu've defended sq 111concile truth u cohMmce, wbich. in his
qdqmantly: the .<:rienti6c rmcl'lw�rinq of system amounts to rationally warranted
= assertibility, with truth as correspondence,
whic:h he describes in terms of the relation

Only be lat edly I


have come to eal r izebow
of 'picturing' between linguistic utterances
construed a.s 'natural linguistic objects
'
indispensable S l la s' work is for my
e r
School/ 11

and the empirical events or objects to the latter. Thus I wholeheartedly applaud
which they are causally connected and Meillassoux's attempt to wake continental
which the signifying counterparts of these philosophers from their "correlationist
natural linguistic objects are about. Thus, slumber"'. But I think it would be a grave
Sellars maintains, one can dispense with mistake to throw out the baby of Critique
any invocat.ion of the empirically given with the correlaUonlst bathwater. In fact,
while preserving the representational I think the proper import of the criUque
l1nlr. between linguistic assenion and of correlationls.m. has been misunderstood
empirical reality. Obviously I'm caricaturing (perhaps even by Meillassoux himself'?). In
what is in fact an exceptionally subtle my eyes, it is not Kant but rather the neo­
and complex theory, but I take Sellars' pragmatist and post-Heideggerian strains
crucial proposal to be that it is possible of contemporary anti-Kantianism that
to abjure all recourse to the given while e:r.emplify what is most objectionable about
acknowledging the mind's determination correlationism.
by the physical order. I hope to be able After Finitude is a philosophical
to do justice to the power and subtlety intervention, not a historical treatise,
of Sellars' thought in the future, if only
• and so to complain that its acco:ant of
to amend for my woefully inadequate post·ICantian philosophy is somewhat
treatment of him in Nihil Unbound. He is cavalier would be to completely miss the
an extraordinary philosopher and the full point. Ne-.rertheless. it would be fair to say
extent of his philosophical achievement has that the book is not sufficiently attentive
yet to be realized. to the question that precipitated Critical
philosophy-namely, "'What is the root
The critjcism ofspegdatjve realism yery of the relation between represenration
often revplves ground q sinalr issue the and rea: lity ?" This inattentiveness tends
jdg that the general qntjpqrhy towards to vitiate the credibility of Meillassoux'
'cqnylatjqnism' mtqjk a cqnmmjtant own speculative solution to the problem of
qntipqthy tqwqrds qny fcmn. qfcritjque ancestralit7, given that the latter essentially
0 prjq that many mnfemPPD1Cf recapitulates Kant's original question, viz.,
philmqphers are unwilling to PR¥i Whqt "How is mathematized natural science able
Y vpyr yjew on this? ls the prniect of to tell the truth about reality?" I now believe
'df:Cranscmcfenrqlization' in danger pf that Kant's 'weak' or purely epistemic
resrqring mme sort ofmeculatjye naiyetj? correlationism is, ironically enough, far
stronser than its 'strong correlationist'
I fiadthe e xpr ession'speculativ e realism' successor, which presumes to be able to
increasingly meaningless. What I admire dispense with the problem of the 'in·itselr
llhout lhllluoaux'1,,,.. l'UUlua lo altogether. In this regard, Sellars' critical
tb1 ch.U.... It Hto out to =tinomlal reconstru::tion of Kantianism is exemplary
phllmoph1rw wha think bnt :wahwcl th1 precisely insofar as it revises Kant's 'weak'
'-•of the relo!loo - pbllooophy empirical realism by according science
ud. Iha nalllnll Kl.1m.CH and wha cam:mu. access to noumena, while avoiding the
la lnwb Kant .. tblr mKU9 rar lamriDI difficulties that dog Meillassoux's own
"Philosophy is not setence's under-la.bcJurer· /Niko/a Ardonovski

resort to 'dianoet:ic intuition'. con&emooraties on that list?


?bese reservations notwithstanding,
Meillassoux's speculative materiaHsm Thanks for the questions ... I'll pass on the
is in no way naive--on the contra1y, it final question-there are plenty of books
is an exemplary tour de force of critical I admire but none l wish I'd written. What
rationality. However much one might I fervently do wish is that I'd written a
want to take issue with their contentions, better book and that the next one will be far
it would be absurd to accuse thinkers superior.
like Meillassoux or lain Grant of being
'llllCrltlcol'. Porliapo ihooo lnollDa .... "°'"
J,(kifrltl11 �UOtlZ.A/Wr flnltud• f2008. p.61, Lcindon:
clwp.,. hoping It will llhooln th.. COn1Jn1111m
2.Rq h.uln; Nillll Unbound: Enlig.lllnim,... lond Ertl>11;1ian
ar tho ohllgadan ta proclnco coaYbidnr
rehutiala ar11e111....� ... crlUquo al 3.lwrn,B.Agal1u1anA::'f' �;/'J;.":'Jr::�:::�'h
Ray Brassi,..
Id.Damar of Grmt'• cr.llique ot pn.cciclsm. A\IG1laW.a1:lurp:ttwwiv.11y·wrii.N/1n1111lizo11•tagal11fl·
an1llnln·11ol•.h111> /
8U1llllllUMH1Z and Gnnthaw­ 4'Jf11m""'10.lfal1.1rana&Fra11dscoVal'rill.Tl•l TPW
aammeadahly dn:umspect In nladaa U11d!sr��°drn':'frtki���'1:f't:/,�'t:t,':J;(::V";,'/i
to the hlathor 111UTI1Undhig 'spec:uladve • edlllon
nlllnn'. Tho troubla le that th-wbo
!,Ra
h'::!:� 'tZM,���; ::,�1!!:".r"'a -;!,'tJ:,�
have seized upon the label to promote their
own work are precisely those who have
been most vocal about their antipathy to
critique. Their chief inspiration is Bruno
Latour (see Latour's 'Why Bas Critique Run
Out of Steam?'}. The brand of Latourian
metaphysics advertisiog itself under lhe
bann e r of 'speculative realism' strikes me
not only as confused but as profoundly
regressive. Tbosewho, unlike Meillassoux
or Grant, thhlk thby can al!'ord to lidestap
the J::anU.n problam of tb.e telatlon between
conceptuallzatian. cd n.Uty ere pecldlin1
cartoon metephysics for a pbll01aphicelly
�•nlahted -denhip. Tlieln la •
'rnllam' about anythiq and evtrything,
u ind.lacrlmlDate u it ii inan1. It is
specul11.tive' in the worst sense: 21rbiua1y
self-indulgent, and frivolous

Rqy: thank you yery much for your time In


the end a more fun qyestjqn· jfvoy hqd
to choose five philosophjcal bqqks yoy wish
YOU had Mitten whqt would thev be? Any