Over at Larval Subjects Levi has posted a ringing endorsement of naturalism and “materialism” designed to provoke a few readers within the Continental Philosophy/Theory community. The upshot of the post, as I read it, is that we live in a causally closed material world described by natural sciences. Interactions between entities described at different scales by physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy are the only sources of order and agency. Nothing happens in the world other than as the effect of an antecedent physical state. Secondly, Levi claims, that the anti-naturalism expressed in the humanities via transcendental phenomenology, transcendental pragmatics, poststructuralist textualism, etc. are all attempts to repress the traumatic wound that belief in materialism and causal closure delivers to human exceptionalism. I quote:
In Freudian terms, these are so many responses to the narcisstic wound of nature and materiality. It is not the subject, lived experience, history, intentionality, the signifier, text, or power that explains nature, . . ., it is nature and materiality that explains all of these things. If these things aren’t treated as natural phenomena, then they deserve to be committed to flames. The point is not that these other orientations have failed to make contributions to our understanding of the natural world, but that they have mistakenly treated these things as grounds of the natural world, rather than the reverse.
Some might demur from the psychoanalytic framing (does psychoanalysis have the empirical support that a naturalist expects from a source of ontological insight? Should one care?) but the sentiments are sound and philosophically energizing. If we admit materialism and causal closure then we need a decent theory of how the topics of the humanities fit into this world. If materialism is false or ill-defined, this needs to be demonstrated. The problem with a lot of recent continental philosophy is not that it is anti-naturalistic (Some of my best friends are anti-naturalists and we’re still talking) but that anti-naturalism has been a default attitude rather than a worked through position. This hauteur was perfectly exemplified by Simon Critchely at a conference some years back where he remarked that he didn’t care how consciousness was made by the brain since such an explanation could be of no relevance to phenomenology.
Maybe Critchely was right and still is; but it’s not obvious that you can insulate phenomenological description from its ontological basis in this way. There’s a problem to be tackled here, whether one is a student of Dennett or of Derrida. Such metaphysical indolence should be unacceptable within any school of contemporary philosophy.