No Future? Catherine Malabou on the Humanities

On February 19, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Catherine Malabou has an intriguing piece on the vexed question of the relationship between the “humanities” and science in the journal Transeuropeennes here.

It is dominated by a clear and subtle reading of Kant, Foucault and Derrida’s discussion of the meaning of Enlightenment and modernity. Malabou argues that the latter thinkers attempt to escape Kantian assumptions about human invariance by identifying the humanities with “plasticity itself”. The Humanities need not style themselves in terms of some invariant essence of humanity. They can be understood as a site of transformation and “deconstruction” as such.  Thus for Derrida in “University Without Condition”, the task of the humanities is:

the deconstruction of « what is proper to man » or to humanism. The transgression of the transcendental implies that the very notion of limit or frontier will proceed from a contingent, that is, historical, mutable, and changing deconstruction of the frontier of the « proper ».

Where, as for Foucault, the deconstruction of the human involves exhibiting its historical conditions of possibility and experimenting with these by, for example, thinking about “our ways of being, thinking, the relation to authority, relations between the sexes, the way in which we perceive insanity or illness “.

This analysis might suggest that the Humanities have little to fear from technological and scientific transformations of humans bodies or minds; they are just the setting in which the implications of these alterations are hammered out.

This line of thought reminds me of a revealingly bad argument produced by Andy Clark in his Natural Born Cyborgs:

The promise, or perhaps threatened, transition to a world of wired humans and semi-intelligent gadgets is just one more move in an ancient game . . . We are already masters at incorporating nonbiological stuff and structure deep into our physical and cognitive routines. To appreciate this is to cease to believe in any post-human future and to resist the temptation to define ourselves in brutal opposition to the very worlds in which so many of us now live, love and work (Clark 2003, 142).

This is obviously broken-backed: that earlier bootstrapping didn’t produce posthumans doesn’t entail  that future ones won’t. Even if humans are essentially self-modifying it doesn’t follow that any prospective self-modifying entity is human.

The same problem afflicts Foucault and Derrida’s attempts to hollow out a reservation for humanities scholars by identifying them with the promulgation of transgression or deconstruction. Identifying the humanities with plasticity as such throws the portals of possibility so wide that it can only refer to an abstract possibility space whose contents and topology remains closed to us. If, with Malabou, we allow that some of these transgressions will operate on the material substrate of life, then we cannot assume that its future configurations will resemble human communities or human thinkers – thinkers concerned with topics like sex, work and death for example.

Malabou concludes with the suggestion that Foucault and Derrida fail to confront a quite different problem. They do not provide a historical explanation of the possibility of transformations of life and mind to which they refer:

They both speak of historical transformations of criticism without specifying them. I think that the event that made the plastic change of plasticity possible was for a major part the discovery of a still unheard of plasticity in the middle of the XXth century, and that has become visible and obvious only recently, i.e. the plasticity of the brain that worked in a way behind continental philosophy’s back. The transformation of the transcendental into a plastic material did not come from within the Humanities. It came precisely from the outside of the Humanities, with again, the notion of neural plasticity. I am not saying that the plasticity of the human as to be reduced to a series of neural patterns, nor that the future of the humanities consists in their becoming scientific, even if neuroscience tends to overpower the fields of human sciences (let’s think of neurolinguistics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuroaesthetics, or of neurophilosophy), I only say that the Humanities had not for the moment taken into account the fact that the brain is the only organ that grows, develops and maintains itself in changing itself, in transforming constantly its own structure and shape. We may evoke on that point a book by Norman Doidge, The Brain that changes itself. Doidge shows that this changing, self-fashioning organ is compelling us to elaborate new paradigms of transformation.

I’m happy to concede that the brain is a special case of biological plasticity, but, as Eileen Joy notes elsewhere, the suggestion that the humanities have been out of touch with scientific work on the brain is unmotivated. The engagement between the humanities (or philosophy, at least) and neuroscience already includes work as diverse as Paul and Patricia Churchland’s work on neurophilosophy and Derrida’s early writings on Freud’s Scientific Project.

I’m also puzzled by the suggestion that we need to preserve a place for transcendental thinking at all here. Our posthuman predicament consists in the realization that we are alterable configurations of matter and that our powers of self-alteration are changing in ways that put the future of human thought and communal life in doubt. This is not a transcendental claim. It’s a truistic generalisation which tells us little about the cosmic fate of an ill-assorted grab bag of  academic disciplines.


Clark, A. 2003. Natural-born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press.







CFP: SEP-FEP 2014 Utrecht, 3-5 September

February 19th, 2014 | Author: johnm


The Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy

Joint Annual Conference


Philosophy After Nature

Utrecht University

3-5 September 2014

The Joint Annual Conference of The Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy in 2014 will be hosted by the Centre for the Humanities, the Faculty of Humanities and the Descartes Institute, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

Plenary speakers
Professor Michel Serres, Stanford University, Académie française

Information and Thinking/l’information et la pensée

respondent: Professor Françoise Balibar, Université Paris-Diderot

Professor Rahel Jaeggi, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Critique of Forms of Life

respondent: t.b.a.

Professor Mark B.N. Hansen, Duke University
Entangled in Media, Towards a Speculative Phenomenology of Microtemporal Operations

respondent: t.b.a.

The SEP/FEP conference is the largest annual event in Europe that aims to bring together researchers, teachers and others, from different disciplines, interested in all areas of contemporary European philosophy. Submissions are therefore invited for individual papers and panel sessions in all areas of contemporary European philosophy. For 2014, submissions that address the conference’s plenary theme – Philosophy After Nature – are particularly encouraged. This would include papers and panels that are after nature in the sense of being in pursuit of nature’s consequences. We invite perspectives on critique, science, ecology, technology and subjectivity as bound up with conceptions of nature and  experiment with various positions in contemporary thought.

Abstracts of 500 words for individual paper submissions and proposals for panels should be sent to Rick Dolphijn ( by 17 May 2014. Proposals for panels should include a 500-word abstract for each paper within the panel. Proposals from academics, graduate students and independent scholars are welcome.
Conference committee: Rosi Braidotti, Bert van den Brink, Rick Dolphijn, Iris van der Tuin and Paul Ziche.

Enquiries: Rick Dolphijn (

Tagged with:

People and cultures have some non-overlapping beliefs. Some folk believe that there is a God, some that there is no God, some that there are many gods. Some people believe that personal autonomy is a paramount value, while others feel that virtues like honour and courage take precedence over personal freedom. These core beliefs are serious, in that they make a difference to whether people live or die, or are able to live the kinds of life that they wish. People fight and die for the sake of autonomy. People fight, die or (institute gang rapes) in the interests of personal honour.

Some folk – the self-styled pluralists – believe that respect for otherness is a paramount political value. Respecting otherness, they say, is so paramount that it should regulate our ontological commitments – our assumptions about what exists. I must admit that I find this hard to credit ontologically or ethically. But it is also unclear how we should spell the principle out. So I’ll consider two versions that have circulated in the blogosphere recently. The first, I will argue, teeters on incoherence or, where not incoherent, is hard to justify in ethical or political terms. The second – which demands that we build a common world – may also be incoherent, but I will argue that we have no reason to think that its ultimate goal is realisable.

According to Philip at Circling Squares Isabel Stengers and Bruno Latour think that this position should enjoin us to avoid ridiculing or undermining others’ values or ontologies. Further, that we should:

grant that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says.

I’ll admit that I find first part of this principle this damn puzzling. Even if we assume – for now – that it is wrong to attempt to undermine another person’s central beliefs this principle seems to require a) that people actually embrace ontological commitments that are contrary to the one’s they adhere to; b) pretend not to have one’s core beliefs; c) adopt some position of public neutrality vis a vis all core beliefs.

The first interpretation (a) results in the principle that one should embrace the contrary of every core belief; or, in effect, that no one should believe everything. So (in the interests of charity) we should pass on.

b) allows us to have beliefs so long as they are unexpressed. Depending on your view of beliefs, this is either incoherent (because there are no inexpressible beliefs) or burdens believers that no one is likely to find it acceptable.

So I take Philip to embrace c).  His clarification suggests something along these lines. For example. He claims that it is consistent with respecting otherness to say what we believe about other’s idols but not to publicly undermine their reasons for believing in them. Thus:

Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them.  You are thus permitted to say ‘I do not follow that god, he has no hold over me’ but you are not permitted to say ‘your god is an inane, infantile, non-existent fantasy, grow up.’  And it’s not just a question of politeness (although there’s that too).  The point is to grant others’ idols and deities an existence – one needn’t agree over what that existence entails, over what capacities that entity has or what obligations it impresses upon you as someone in its partial presence but to deny it existence entirely is to ‘declare war’ – to deny the possibility of civil discourse, of pluralistic co-existence.

I must admit that I find this principle of respect puzzling as well. After all, some of my reasons for being an atheist are also reasons against being a theist. So unless this is just an innocuous plea for good manners (which I’m happy to sign up to on condition that notional others show me and mine the same forbearance) it seems to require that all believers keep their reasons for their belief to themselves. This, again, seems to demand an impossible or repugnant quietism.

So, thus far, ontological pluralism seems to be either incoherent or to impose such burdens on all believers that nobody should be required to observe it. There is, of course, a philosophical precedent for restricted ontological quietism in Rawls’ political liberalism. Rawls’ proposes that reasonable public deliberation recognize the “burdens of judgement” by omitted any justification that hinges on “comprehensive” ethical or religious doctrines over which there can be reasonable disagreement (Rawls 2005, 54). Deliberations about justice under Political Liberalism are thus constrained to be neutral towards “conflicting worldviews” so long as they are tolerant and reasonable (Habermas 1995, 119, 124-5).

However, there is an important difference between the political motivations behind Rawlsian public reason and the position of “ontological charity” Philip attributes to Stengers and Latour. Rawls’ is motivated by the need to preserve stability within plural democratic societies. Public reason does not apply outside the domain of political discourse in which reasonable citizens hash out basic principles of justice and constitutional essentials. It is also extremely problematic in itself.  Habermas  argues that Rawls exclusion of plural ethical or religious beliefs from the public court is self-vitiating because comprehensive perspectives are sources of disagreement about shared principles (for example, the legitimacy of abortion or same-sex marriage) and these must accordingly be addressed through dialogue rather than circumvented if a politically stable consensus is to be achieved (126).

Finally, apart from being incoherent, the principle of ontological charity seems unnecessary. As Levi Bryant points out in his realist retort to the pluralist, people are not the sum of their beliefs. Beliefs can be revised without effacing the believer. Thus an attack on core beliefs is not an attack on the person holding those beliefs.

So it is hard to interpret the claim that we should grant the existence of others’ “idols” as much more than the principle that it is wrong to humiliate, ridicule or insult people because of what their beliefs are. This seems like a good rule of thumb, but it is hard to justify the claim that it is an overriding principle. For example, even if  Rushdie’s Satanic Verses “insults Islam” having an open society in which aesthetic experimentation and the critical evaluation of ideas is possible is just more important than saving certain sections of it from cognitive dissonance or intellectual discomfort. Too many people have suffered death, terror and agony because others had aberrant and false core beliefs to make it plausible that these should be immune from criticism or ridicule. A little personal dissonance is a small price to pay for not going to the oven.

So what of the principle that we should build a “common world”. This is set out by Jeremy Trombley in his Struggle Forever blog under the rubric of “cosmopolitics”. Jeremy regards this project as an infinite task that requires us to seek a kind of fusion between different word views, phenomenologies and ontologies:

The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.

I think there a number of things wrong with cosmopolitics as Jeremy describes it here.

Firstly, seeking to alter beliefs or values does not necessarily reduce agency because people are not their beliefs.

Secondly, some worldviews – like the racist belief-systems that supported the European slave trade – just need to be imposed upon because they are bound up with violent and corrupting socio-political systems.

Thirdly, I know of no Enlightenment thinker, or realist, for whom “unmediated access to reality” is a sine qua non for knowledge. Let’s assume that “realism” is the contrary of pluralism here. It’s not clear what unmediated access would be like, but all realists are committed to the view that we we don’t have it since if we believe that reality has a mind-independent existence and nature, it can presumably vary independently of our beliefs about it. In its place, we have various doctrines of evidence and argument that are themselves susceptible to revision.  Some analyses of realism suppose that realists are committed to the claim that there is a one true account of the world (the God’s Eye View) but – as pointed out in an earlier post – this commitment is  debatable. In any case, supposing the the existence of a uniquely true theory is very different from claiming to have it.

Finally, much hinges on what we mean by a common world here. I take it that it is not the largely mind-independent reality assumed by the realist since – being largely mind-independent – it exists quite independently of any political project. So I take it that Jeremy is adverting something like a shared phenomenology or experience: a kind of fusion of horizons at the end of time. If we inflect “world” in this sense, then there is no reason for believing that such an aim is possible, let alone coherent. This possibility depends on there being structures of worldhood that are common to all beings that can be said to have one (Daseins, say). I’ve argued that there are no reasons for holding that we have access to such a priori knowledge because – like Scott Bakker - I hold that phenomenology gives us very limited insight into its nature. Thus we have no a priori grasp of what a world is and no reason to believe that Daseins (human or nonhuman) could ever participate in the same one. The argument for this is lengthy so I refer the reader to my paper “Nature’s Dark Domain” and my forthcoming book Posthuman Life.


Habermas, Jurgen. 1995. “Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism.” The Journal of Philosophy 92 (3): 109–131.

Rawls, John. 2005. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press.




Tagged with:

On November 29, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Nature, has just published a dark philosophical tale by leading philosopher of mind Eric Schwitzgebel and Three Pound Brainer Scott Bakker. Enjoy!

Cetacean Personhood

On November 22, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Filippo Bertoni and Uli Beisel have written an interesting and intriguing essay on the ethical challenges posed by extending person-status to cetaceans: “More-than-human intelligence: of dolphins, Indian law and the multispecies turn” over at Society and Space. I only wish the terms in which their discussion is framed had been clearer. For example, they provide no working conception of personhood – though there are many philosophical candidates – and their passing allusion to sharing  “somatic sensibilities” is similarly vague. This is a pity because the philosophical and ethical problem they raise is genuine. Should we regard human-style personhood as the tip of an cosmic moral hierarchy from which the only way is down? If not, then how do we negotiate relationships between beings with lives that are phenomenologically different but perhaps not less valuable than humans?


Tagged with:

Xenakis and the Missing Structure

On April 20, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


[A slightly edited extract from my paper "Nature's Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology". Royal Institute Of Philosophy Supplement [serial online]. July 2013;72:169-188 with audio!]

Most listeners will readily distinguish an eight second sequence from Xenakis’ pioneering ‘granular’ composition Concret Ph.


and a loop that repeats the first one-second slice of it for eight seconds.


This is discernible because of the obvious repetition in pitch and dynamics.

Telling the looped sequence from the non-looped sequence is not the same as acquiring subjective identity conditions that would allow us to recognise the extra structure distinguishing the non-looped from the looped sequence in a different context (e.g. within the entirety of Concret Ph). What is discerned here is arguably a fact about the shortfall between type-identifiable phenomenology and non type-identifiable phenomenology (“unintuitable” or “dark” phenomenology).

As an illustration of this, the mere awareness that there is missing structure in the loop does not help settle the issue between virtualist and occurentist construals of that structure. It is plausible to suppose that the perceptual awareness of the missing structure in the Xenakis loop consists of virtual contents – a representation of tendencies in the developing sound rather than something like a constantly updated encoding of discrete sonic facts [1]. Indeed the virtual model would be consistent with the widely held assumption that our representation of temporal structure is accomplished via recurrent neural architecture that modulates each current input by feeding back earlier input.[2] But whether the contents of representations of temporal structure are virtual or occurrent in nature has no direct bearing on their conceptual or intuitive accessibility.


[1]Tim Van Gelder, ‘Wooden Iron? Husserlian Phenomenology Meets Cognitive Science’, Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 4, 1996.

[2]Op. cit.

Tagged with:

Phenomenology and Naturalism

On April 4, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

My article “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalized Phenomenology” is out in Havi Carel’s and Darian Meachan’s Phenomenology and Naturalism collection. Other authors include Michael Wheeler, Alison Assiter, Rudolph Bernet, Dermot Moran, and Iain Grant.

Tagged with:

An Allegory of Phenomenology

On February 10, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

A cinematic response to Scott Bakker’s excellent discussion of Dennett and informational neglect here

Internal Realism and Correlationism

On January 20, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

l'eternite_courbetOver at Agent Swarm, Terrence Blake claims that Quentin Meillassoux’s notion of correlationism  is excessively narrow since it disqualifies realist positions which respond to worries about access, objectivity and truth raised by transcendental philosophers from Kant through to Husserl, and Heidegger. I’m not sure if Meillassoux’s speculative solution works and I share his worries about Harman’s OOO. But I don’t see any reason to doubt that  the concept “correlationism” beautifully describes a range of contemporary anti-realist philosophies, not all of which are written in the  house style of the post-Kantian European tradition ((Kant, Hegel, etc.). Hilary Putnam’s internal realism is a particularly salient example of correlationism within the pragmatist/analytic camp because it wears its Kantian heart on its sleeve.

Internal Realism is a philosophical oxymoron since it denies that there are things whose existence and nature is independent of human descriptive practices. The fact that Putnam expresses his variant of transcendental philosophy in the post-Wittgensteinian argot of linguistic practices and language-games rather than transcendental subjects or Daseins is largely irrelevant since the roles that language and subjectivity play in correlationist philosophies are, to put it bluntly, correlative (Perhaps, as Frank Farrell argues, “language” and subjectivity” are a hangover from the Nominalist God whose omnipotence extended to determining differences and similarities within an unstructured universe – See Farrell 1996). Meillassoux does not address analytic correlationism in After Finitude but his formulation of correlationism seems to apply to post-Wittgensteinian position for which language and practice assumes the mantle of the transcendental subject:

In the Kantian framework, a statement’s conformity to the object can no longer be defined in terms of a representation’s ‘adequation’ or ‘resemblance’ to an object supposedly subsisting ‘in itself, since this ‘in itself is inaccessible. The difference between an objective representation (such as ‘the sun heats the stone’) and a ‘merely subjective’ representation (such as ‘the room seems warm to me’) is therefore a function of the difference between two types of subjective representation: those that can be universalized, and are thus by right capable of being experienced by everyone, and hence ‘scientific’, and those that cannot be universalized, and hence cannot belong to scientific discourse. From this point on, intersubjectivity, the consensus of a community, supplants the adequation between the representations of a solitary subject and the thing itself as the veritable criterion of objectivity, and of scientific objectivity more particularly. Scientific truth is no longer what conforms to an in itself supposedly indifferent to the way in which it is given to the subject, but rather what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community.

Such considerations reveal the extent to which the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of correlation. By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined (Meillassoux 2006, 4-5).

Putnam is a modern Kantian because he regards ontology as internal to languages or conceptual schemes (though, for Putnam, unlike Kant, these categorical frameworks are historically contingent). There are no ontological facts that obtain independently of some fixation of language. Such facts would require the existence of a One True Theory of reality which, he claims, is precluded on model theoretic grounds:

The suggestion I am making , in short, is that a statement is true of a situation just in case it would be correct to use the words of which the statement consists in that way in describing the situation. Provided the concepts in question are not themselves ones which we ought to reject for one reason or another, we can explain what ” correct to use the words of which the statement consists in that way ” means by saying that it means nothing more nor less than that a sufficiently well placed speaker who used the words in that way would be fully warranted in counting the statement as true of that situation (Putnam 1987, 115).

As a number of commentators have argued the semantic considerations that motivate Putnam’s shift from realism to internal realism are precisely the one’s that motivated Kant to develop a non-representational account of concepts (See Moran 2000).  While Putnam is exemplary, similar considerations apply to Dummett-style anti-realism. Davidson is a harder case because, unlike Putnam, Davidson rejects epistemic accounts of truth (Davidson 1990, 307-9). However, Davidson thinks that what Tarski leaves out when he shows us how to determine the extension of the truth predicate relative to an object language L is a presupposition of our intersubjective practices of interpretation. Thus, as Jeff Malpas argues, Davidson is probably some kind of “horizontal realist” for whom the world must be understood as the open phenomenological background against which interpretative practices operate – thus looping us back to transcendental subjectivity in its most developed, subtle but still humanist formulation. Horizontal realism is still realism with something missing. It is not relativism, strictly speaking, but the “world” that it presupposes is more like Husserl’s pre-theoretically given Lebenswelt than Meillassoux’s great outdoors (Malpas 1991)



Davidson, Donald (1990). The structure and content of truth. Journal of Philosophy 87 (6):279-328.

Farrell, Frank (1996). Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the  World in Recent Philosophy ( Cambridge University Press).

Malpas, J.E. (1992) Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge      University Press.

Moran, Dermot (2000). “Hilary Putnam and Immanuel Kant: Two `internal realists’?” Synthese 123 (1):65-104.

Meillassoux, Q. (2006) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Ray Brassier (trans.). New York: Continuum.

Putnam, Hilary (1987). Representation and Reality. MIT Press.