by Steven Craig Hickman
On Dark Realism
The question for speculative realism then becomes: of what does speculation consist? The answers to this are as diverse as the field of speculative realism itself. What they have in common, however, is a desire to break with the recollective model of knowledge as well as the authority of phenomena, and to engage problems that are, roughly speaking, metaphysical in nature.
—Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism
For me there is no natural or supernatural, we’ve been imposing human categories on the Real for so long that the these categories of thought have become reality rather than Real. Now that the actual Real is resisting our categories of thought we are left pondering all our idiotic axioms. The Real is what resists our explanatory explanandum; that is the only viable realism. It’s so dark and unknown that we must start from the beginning, erase the human categories of thought and begin negotiating and communicating with the resisting forces of the Real. This is not a War but an admission of absolute alterity in all relations. The non-human other is speaking to us, but we are not listening. Time to enter the dark…
Reading a recent essay by Eugene Thacker on Mark Fisher’s last book before his untimely death The Weird and the Eerie, he reminds us of a statement by H.P. Lovecraft from that horror writer’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu”:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
This notion that our brains (Mind) were not evolved to correlate all the contents of our cultural knowledge, but were instead evolved to help us replicate our species and to survive in a hostile environment is a part of this limiting factor of the Mind. The other is what R. Scott Bakker terms the problem of “medial neglect“. As Scott puts it:
The problem is basically that the machinery of the brain has no way of tracking its own astronomical dimensionality; it can at best track problem-specific correlational activity, various heuristic hacks. We lack not only the metacognitive bandwidth, but the metacognitive access required to formulate the explananda of neuroscientific investigation.
A curious consequence of the neuroscientific explananda problem is the glaring way it reveals our blindness to ourselves, our medial neglect. The mystery has always been one of understanding constraints, the question of what comes before we do. Plans? Divinity? Nature? Desires? Conditions of possibility? Fate? Mind? We’ve always been grasping for ourselves, I sometimes think, such was the strategic value of metacognitive capacity in linguistic social ecologies. The thing to realize is that grasping, the process of developing the capacity to report on our experience, was bootstrapped out of nothing and so comprised the sum of all there was to the ‘experience of experience’ at any given stage of our evolution. Our ancestors had to be both implicitly obvious, and explicitly impenetrable to themselves past various degrees of questioning.
This inability of the brain to track “its own astronomical dimensionality; it can at best track problem-specific correlational activity, various heuristic hacks,” is the same thing H.P. Lovecraft meant when he spoke of the “inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents”. This acute blindness to the reality within and without, to the intrinsic and extrinsic facets of our own singular being and the Real or Outside is to be faced with the fact that move and have our being within an absolute darkness of which we know nothing. Like Plato’s mythical cave fantasists we project a fantasy reality onto the darkness of the cave walls and call that our world. Where Plato erred is in adding the notion that while we sit in the dark there exists behind us and outside us, beyond the universal chaos of time and space some other world– a world of pure forms (eidos, Ideas, substantial forms, etc.) that are the true sources of all our fake copies. So that the task of philosophy was to guide us back, to remember that this other immortal realm exists and that this is where our true home is beyond time and space. Problem is that Plato made this up; or, should we say he provided in his time a secularization of the mysteries of the Pythagorean-Orphic traditions that had been passed down through hundreds of years of Greek history from the early Shamans of those long forgotten sects and cults of the mysteries. Nothing is ever made out of whole cloth, instead Plato attributed his discoveries to his mentor Socrates so that Plato as a novelist of Ideas became for all intents and purposes the first Science Fiction author.
As Scott says above our ancestors, and such thinkers as Plato assumed they were providing us a way of grasping the world with thoughts, concepts, etc., when in fact they were providing us only an ignorance of our ignorance. On providing the “process of developing the capacity to report on our experience”, one that “was bootstrapped out of nothing” – thinkers like Plato provided a mere fiction and human fabrication of axioms, concepts, mind-tools: a set of evolving meanings to defend ourselves against this blindness –medial neglect. Instead of providing us a way of confronting the Real, they masked it leaving us in a human made world, one that enforced the recollection of knowledge (technics) as the Real. But sadly we began to take these fictions of reality as the Real – as knowledge of things as they are in themselves, while forgetting the little problems and resistances that didn’t fit or cooperate or mesh with these tidy and orderly little axioms, concepts, notions, etc. That is till later philosophers and then scientists began to realize the accumulation of errors in our linguistic world of cultural and symbolic exchange.
By the time Immanuel Kant came along the divisive state of philosophy and philosophers about this state of affairs was so great that two schools of thought had pitched their tent at the extreme poles of this quandary: the empiricists and rationalists. On the one side were those that believed all knowledge came from experience, on the other were those who believed it came from Reason alone. (Of course I have reduced this to a cartoon, but the general outlines are in that statement.) What Kant did was not to try to reconcile these two worlds of the empirical and rationalism, but rather to turn the tables on the world itself. For him neither experience or Reason held any absolute priority, rather we must turn to the source of knowledge in the categories of thought themselves. So he began documenting the schemas (forms) within the mind that impose and restrict (limit) what we can know about experience and Reason (knowledge).
This would lead to the notion that whatever the so to speak Real World is in-itself we can know nothing, all we can know is the way the world is given to us by our Mind (i.e., the actual world disappeared and was replaced by how it conformed or imitated the inward forms, categories of thought within the intelligible residing a priori within us). All this would form what Quentin Meillassoux in his work After Finitude. Meillassoux would set as the main task of that work a way out of Kant’s correlational circle, saying,
The first decision is that of all correlationism– it is the thesis of the essential inseparability of the act of thinking from its content. All we ever engage with is what is given-to-thought, never an entity subsisting by itself.
This decision alone suffices to disqualify every absolute of the realist or materialist variety. Every materialism that would be speculative, and hence for which absolute reality is an entity without thought, must assert both that thought is not necessary (something can be independently of thought), and that thought can think what there must be when there is no thought. The materialism that chooses to follow the speculative path is thereby constrained to believe that it is possible to think a given reality by abstracting from the fact that we are thinking it.
The point of the first statement is that we never touch the Real, all we ever know is the our own fictions of reality rather than the Real (i.e., the brain patterns and shapes and processes the real world then gives us its interpretation of that world, so that when we see things what we are seeing is only what our brain has given us rather than the thing as it is in-itself.) We live according to Kant in a Hall of Mirrors closed off in a circle of thought about reality rather than actually knowing it as it is. It’s this problem of being cut off from the Real that is at the heart of all philosophy since Kant. What Kant did is force thought to turn inward upon itself, to state that all we can ever know of the world is what is given to us: a world for-us rather than a world out there independent of the mind. This would come to be known as the Anti-Realist position of which all philosophers whether of the Continental or Analytical divide would have to deal with, overcome, accept, or in general come to terms with.
As Meillassoux shows us in that second paragraph the problem for both realist and materialist philosophers is simply put: How do we think things without imposing or conforming them to our a priori categories? If the world is independent of our Mind how to think it without these categories of thought. Is that possible? This paradoxical task is at the core of most current speculative realisms and materialisms, one that as of yet has no solution. Which leads one to ask: Is there a solution to this paradox or not?
The Phenomenological Moment: Husserl and Heidegger
Before we set off down this rabbit hole let’s dig a little deeper into just what correlationism is within current philosophical circles that are tackling this issue. During the Twentieth Century Continental philosophy would almost become synonymous with phenomenology as set forth in the works of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger his pupil. They would inherit all the issues and problems of Kant and Kant’s heirs, the German Idealists. As Tom Sparrow tells us,
Many phenomenologists will fight tooth and nail against the claim that phenomenology necessarily ends, or should end, in idealism. They will argue that this claim completely misses the radical program of phenomenology, or they will assert that phenomenology operates outside the idealism/ realism schema and, consequently, cannot be idealism. However the phenomenologist resists the charge of idealism, their resistance will be premised on the claim that phenomenology does not recognize the subject/ object dualism as fundamental, but rather subject and object always come as an inseparable pair.
Quentin Meillassoux would describe such thinkers “who insists on the irreducible dependency of subject and object, thinking and being: the correlationist”. (Sparrow, p. 86) In Meillassoux’s terms there are both a strong and weak version of this correlationist stance in philosophy. The strong view of correlationism is the view that the in itself is neither knowable nor thinkable, while the weak view (Kant’s position!) states that the in itself is thinkable but not knowable. (Sparrow, pp. 35-36) Of course this second positions begs the question: What is the difference between thinking something and knowing it?
After Kant’s short lived belief that we could follow Plato’s advice and know the eternal forms residing in the intelligible world he’d come to deny it, saying that our understanding is incapable of insight into an intelligible world, which cleared the path toward his mature position in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), according to which the understanding (like sensibility) supplies forms that structure our experience of the sensible world, to which human knowledge is limited, while the intelligible (or noumenal) world is strictly unknowable to us. So the divide between thinking and knowing is one of limits. We are limited only to the way our brain (Mind) structures the world for-us through the schemas or categories of thought and sensibility. Outside that we can know nothing of what the world is in itself. We can think it but not know it in fact or act.
Edmund Husserl would introduce the concept of the epoché – a suspension of the natural attitude, which as Sparrow argues “is essential to phenomenology, drives a correlationist wedge between the world as it is represented in consciousness and the world as it stands outside of consciousness” (Sparrow, p. 36). This would lead to the notion of “intentional objects”:
Intentional objects are objects in the sense that they make up the “objective” side of the subject/ object correlation. They give themselves through their various appearances as transcendent unities, even though this unity is always only judged transcendent from within immanence. They are what intentionality takes to be objective, what it “means,” as Husserl puts it, even though their absolute transcendence remains phenomenologically unconfirmed. (Sparrow, p. 36)
The point here is that we never leave the correlational circle, that for all his prowess in developing the phenomenological method Husserl in the end failed to provide a way out of the Kantian dilemma. It’s as if mind independent reality is like a Black Box we can peer into only indirectly rather than ever perceiving directly so that Husserl fails in showing how intentional objects are actual objects with independent lives all their own. Of course in Quantum physics the same black box problem came to be partially solved by stipulating that reality is only what can be measured and quantified once a particle leaves the black box. But that leaves the black box intact and unknown, a problem that remains a problem for philosophers. Whatever the actual world is it is not the intentional unity of phenomenological thought about objects. It is only thought about thought-objects, not actual objects which are forever closed off in that black box outside the Mind.
Martin Heidegger would following his mentor take another stab at this black box problem. As Sparrow suggests Heidegger’s path unlike his mentor would lead him on a philosophical quest for truth, attempting to access the way things are without the distortion of our brain’s (Mind) distorting lens. This would lead Heidegger to examine the distorting lens, to critique the very structuring process which maps the world and provides our awareness of it, in this way he believed that the way forward in “mitigating distortion, is to first examine the instrument or means of access to truth” (Sparrow, p. 37).
In Heidegger’s view phenomenology is never merely a matter of description; it is always a problem of interpretation, or hermeneutics. (Sparrow, p. 38) Ultimately Heidegger against his mentor’s belief in ever substantiating the truth and validity of mind-independent objects without the need of presuppositions would lead him in the opposite direction. As Sparrow describes it
Heidegger gives up on the dream of philosophy without presuppositions and asserts instead the necessity of presuppositions. And furthermore, Heidegger’s fusion of Dasein and being, phenomenology and ontology, guarantees that his method will not aim at establishing the transcendent reality of objects, but instead will reveal the utter bankruptcy of our traditional belief in the independent existence of this reality. (Sparrow, p. 39)
This is the Anti-Realist position which would be taken up by the postmodern thinkers from Foucault to Derrida and such contemporary thinkers as Slavoj Zizek. This road led back to German Idealism. In Heidegger’s view realism is predicated on a false presupposition, namely, that the world of objects exists as present-at-hand, objectively independent of Dasein’s access to them, and that Dasein exists as an isolated subject or cogito. (Sparrow, p. 39) Yet, as Sparrow ironically puts it: “Given this assessment, it is curious that Heidegger asserts that entities exist independent of Dasein’s disclosure of them. He certainly does not provide the evidence to support this claim.” (p. 39) Ultimately the so called phenomenology of Heidegger led not to and understanding of the Real, but more often Heidegger, like Nietzsche and Hegel, abandons the noumena and the realism that depends on their autonomous existence in favor of an ontology that echoes Hegel’s objective idealism. As Sparrow tells us “when Heidegger writes as though he is a realist, this is his way of describing phenomenologically how objects in the world present themselves as if they existed independent of their manifestation to Dasein. Their absolute existence remains suspect.” (Sparrow, p. 43)
Sparrow provides a reading of what might be best termed the last phenomenologist, the philosopher Merleau-Ponty for whom the Real is that which resists the phenomenological reduction. This negative appraisal and affirmation of realism as resistance leads Sparrow to conclude: “If the reduction is indeed impossible, then the viability of the phenomenological method itself is undermined.” (Sparrow, p. 48) As Sparrow states it:
Like so many phenomenologists after Husserl, Merleau-Ponty is compelled to reassure his readers that, despite appearances, there is a world that exists beyond the world of perception. It is there before any analysis of it. And yet, at the same time, he contends that it is not possible to experience either subject or object as distinct from each other. The “objective world” is nothing other than the “world of perception.”
In other words the world is bound to the correlational circle of being given for-us. The independence of the world is not independent of our perception of it, it doesn’t exist independent of that perception but only within that perception of perception. So much for an independent world. In his harshest critique of phenomenology Sparrow concludes:
If it is conceded that the reduction or intentionality, or even the reduction to intentionality, is the sine qua non of phenomenology, it would still be the case that phenomenology cannot yield metaphysical realism. This means that any phenomenology which claims to practice a phenomenological method – and I have argued that this is the only meaningful sense of what phenomenology is – must be a form of correlationism. A phenomenology without a method can only remain a style of philosophy, and – insofar as it lacks the methodological tools necessary to establish realism – one ill-equipped to deliver the real on its own terms. Phenomenology, as such, ends in correlationism, if not idealism or antirealism.
So if phenomenology was a dead end for realism then what comes next? Is there a path forward, a way out of the correlational circle that is not an idealism or anti-realist project?
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