Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oblivious Philosophers; Enlightenment and Extinction, Part 3


In the last post we saw Brassier commending the work of Paul Churchland's Eliminative Materialism while at the same time criticizing the fact that Churchland ascribed pragmatic virtues to both the brains function (generally speaking) and a circumscribed theory of the brain based on this same ideal of pragmatism. This paved the way for the concept of anti-correlationism where Brassier wants to rigorously dismantle conceptual thought from Philosophy, and any sort of being in general. Later on, he gives a much more concrete example of this anti-correlationist gesture in the concept of the arche-fossil first prescribed by Quentin Meillassoux. What is an arche-fossil? "An 'arche-fossil' is a material indicating traces of 'ancestral' phenomena anterior even to the emergence of life." This description already functions to separate "life" from an anterior phenomena. This anterior phenomena is understood by philosophers as a potential to manifest into an us. Beyond this, philosophers in the post-Kantian style will ascribe "transcendental" properties to this anteriority by admitting that while they can't know anything that happens prior to being, they can know that certain things always had to be the case independent of our existence. It's where we find Husserl saying that Euclid's geometrical theorems would exist independent of anyone existing. The basic idea in this example is that the geometrical universe would operate the same way regardless of it being seen as having laws for us. But this can't be said for Brassier. We can't freely ascribe our laws to something that was never a matter of lawfulness. At the heart of Brassier's argument is the simple distinction between existing and not existing, and if consciousness (the nervous system) did not exist, then nothing can be said of it. What natural science discovers as existing independent of us is surely vast, and it's this vastness that philosophers are oblivious to because they think everything is in relation to them (the manifest image). We will let Brassier speak for the vastness of what natural science discovers and in doing so, we will come to understand how what has been discovered by science is minimal to the philosopher par excellence. This lack of understanding by the philosopher will further establish the nature of man to attribute everything outside of himself to himself (anthropomorphism) that we even saw in the scientific thought of Paul Churchland's placement of values upon consciousness. This anthropomorphic gesture is much more conspicuous in the philosopher than the scientist. Brassier will find it most strictly in what's understood as post-Kantian philosophy.

Science wants to understand what happens outside of human existence. This arch-fossile gesture "provides the material basis for experiments yielding estimates of ancestral phenomena- - such as the radioactive isotope whose rate of decay provides an index of the age of distant stars. Natural science produces ancestral statements, such as that the universe is roughly 13.7 billion years old, that the earth formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago, that life developed on earth approximately 3.5 billion years ago, and that the earliest ancestors of the genus Homo emerged about 2 million years ago." Brassier privileges natural science here in being able to index an arche-history where nothing can be said of it except factual observations where we happen to be included in an approximation of our historical duration (2 million years). These statements aren't based on pure reason. We can't sit around and speculate to the fact that the genus Homo emerged approximately 2 million years ago. We can come to know this through scientific discovery, in this case the dating of a variety of fossils. Not only can we know what happened prior to human existence, but we can know protentive facts like the earth being incinerated in approximately 4 billion years, and that "eventually, one trillion, trillion, trillion years from now, all matter in the cosmos will disintegrate into unbound elementary particles." This is interesting stuff for Brassier and wonders why philosophers aren't more interested in these scientific discovery's (why don't philosophers watch Carl Sagan's Cosmos seriously?) "Philosophers should be more astonished by such statements than they seem to be, for they present a serious problem for post-Kantian philosophy. Yet strangely, the latter seems to remain entirely oblivious to it." Generally speaking, philosophy understood through Kant wants to understand the conceptual intelligibility of existence, but how can conceptual intelligibility account for something that wasn't conceptual? On top of this, why do these scientific discoveries not press on the philosopher to understand himself independent of himself at the "places" of the arche-fossil? "For all their various differences, post-Kantian philosophers can be said to share one fundamental conviction: that the idea of a world-in-itself, subsisting independently of our relation to it, is an absurdity." Again, Brassier labels Kant and philosophy that has followed Kant as the philosophy of the manifest image, and rightly so. It's Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason who sets out to understand the possibility of experience by ascribing transcendental categories to consciousness. For Kant, the transcendental aesthetic isn't space and time understood independent of us, the observers, but it's understood precisely as the cognitive preconditions for experience at all. In other words, space and time exist in so far as we experience a world as space and time. Kant doesn't say that space and time exist independent of us, and in this sense he's faithful to what he can and cannot say, but his intention on the other hand is just that, an intention. More specifically, it's an intention to privilege human consciousness as something that must be understood if we are to understand experience. What we infer from Kant's project is that he's concerned with how he can know, and not merely with how things happen independent of the fact that he can know. Kant isn't settled with the fact that he is a knower, but further wants to prop the knowledge status to a transcendental level by understanding how knowledge is possible in the first place by laying down preconditions for his knowing. In modernity (20th and 21st century "continental" philosophy), these transcendental categories become aggrandized into much more absolute and less specific categories as our "pre-theoretical relation to the world, whether characterized as Dasein or 'Life', which provides the ontological precondition for the intelligibility of the scientific claims listed above." The project of Ontology in general doesn't become one of understanding phenomena in general, but of our being in general. It's these pre-theoretical relations to the world that make it possible for theory to be possible in the first place. It's not difficult to understand Heidegger as a mystical/secular-religious thinker with his emphasis on Dasein that takes on a transcendental connotation of its own by signifying something that can't be put into words, yet is put into one word that signifies that it can't signify (this is a religious gesture). It's this attitude that makes Brassier incensed. "No wonder, then, that post-Kantian philosophers routinely patronize these and other scientific assertions about the world as impoverished abstractions whose meaning supervenes on this more fundamental sub-representational or pre-theoretical relation to phenomena." One obvious example of this is when Heidegger refers to scientific time as a "vulgar" conception of time. Instead, Heidegger wants to see time as referring to our finitude. Time is specifically our finitude. It doesn't exist outside of us. In this sense, he is squarely in the spot of post-Kantian philosophy. More specifically, Heidegger religiousizes death over life in order to make "Life" more mythological since it is finite. This is only possible through our time. Throughout all this, the focus is always on the idea that we die, that we are alive, that time is here for us to die. If Heidegger's nostalagizing instincts were to be truly faithful, it would have nostalagized not thinking about being towards death (the negation of the thought), but an alterity to our existence isn't in the purview of mawkish instincts. For Brassier, this post-Kantian attitude that we have just described through Heidegger can be found in what Meillassoux calls "correlationism." "Correlationism affirms the indissoluble primacy of the relation between thought and its correlation over the metaphysical hypostatization or representationalist reification of either term of the relation." In other words, we have "Life-World" and "thought." Neither of these terms are to be privileged over one another. We live in a reciprocal "co-propriation" where thinking and being exist together. It's here where we have the cosmopolitan sloganeering of "living alongside the world" that has become the money-marketers bread for green-technology. Correlationism affirms the absolute connection between us and everything else that can possibly be outside of us. Out of all the infinite contingent possibilities that can happen in the universe, they have to be in reference to us. It's this idea that Brassier will take to task in the name of anti-correlationism in the following pages of Enlightenment and Extinction. For now though, we get a sense that the philosopher (generally speaking) is scared of what's other than himself not being relative to himself. For however much this "pre-theoretical" realm would like to dazzle the reader with a sense of something larger than himself that he will never be able to understand, this bedazzlement may have a much more vulnerable center than what is initially understood. This secularized belief of "the world being larger than me" easily makes the subject satisfied as much as the evangelical who can forever forgive their sins. If anything, it's much easier to be satisfied in the transcendental concept of Dasein than the evangelical belief system because one has to do nothing except feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The religious believer had to go to church. The secular believer just has to think that he's smarter than religious believers. In this sense, the secular believer extends the sphere of pride 10 fold.

These final thoughts though were made on a sociological basis which is getting away from the strict thought that Brassier is conveying. Brassier stays within the limitations of the empirico-reality when critiquing post-Kantian philosophy. For him, "we cannot extend the chain of possible perceptions back prior to the emergence of nervous systems, which provide the material conditions for the possibility of perceptual experience." In other words, we can't perceive what was before the nervous system. Scientific discourse then operates not in reference to ourselves, but reference to itself, a philosophy that is not a philosophy if you will. It can borrow terminology it makes up for itself and apply it to its own studies without having to ask where this terminology "first came from." Spontaneous creation and and study happen all the time and is applicable to something that has nothing to do with us and no one is feeling guilty for the fact that we don't first have an understanding of consciousness because no one cares that we are thinking beings. We use what comes to us spontaneously to witness the arche-fossil in scientific terms. The axioms need no axioms. No descriptive science is first needed to "work from the bottom in order to get to the top." "Getting to the bottom of things" doesn't matter. To take place anywhere at anytime is the experience of science. It's the experience that anti-correlationism will hope to establish by decentering something called "the subject" of consciousness not in order to establish it's contradictory alterity, but to do what it does, independent of the hardened philosophical dialectic that have solidified contradiction as the absolute. Where Hegel combines contradiction into the absolute, anti-correlationism will show how contradiction is not an absolute because it's not possible in the first place because the predicate of alterity is already assumed in the concept of contradiction (making an opposite not something that is "other" than what is "now"). This nuanced logic of Meillassoux we will go into in the next post. For the time being, Carl Sagan is calling with that badass German ambient music as the background theme to the Cosmos. For the self-identified philosophers, there's hot tea to be sipped on and life experiences to be discussed amongst each other where no one actually listens and everyone simply talks.

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