Iain Hamilton Grant on how continental philosophy got real“Speculative Realism” was coined as an umbrella term by Ray Brassier for a 2007 workshop held at Goldsmith’s, University of London, to describe a project common to many contemporary philosophers. Rather than being a doctrine or theory, it describes the philosophical practice of those philosophers who disagree with what is, particularly in contemporary “continental” philosophy, the standard position: that the only philosophy possible for finite, human experience is a philosophy of that experience. Those philosophers who gathered at the 2007 workshop – Ray Brassier, Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux and myself – have in common both their rejection of the standard position and a commitment to varieties of realism. The 2007 workshop, and the 2008 successor event held at the University of the West of England in Bristol, therefore had as their broad agenda the working out of speculative strategies for overcoming the standard position.
Particularly in the “continental” philosophical tradition, the standard position has been powerful since Kant’s “Copernican revolution”, which brought about the “transcendental turn” in philosophy: no longer should we ask how our knowledge corresponds to objects, but rather how objects correspond to our knowledge. We investigate therefore not what we know, but under what conditions we know what we know. Phenomenology and Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology both stem from this tradition, as do those philosophies that assert a “correlation”, to use a term coined by Meillassoux in his 2008 book After Finitude, between thought or language and the world. Since, however, any philosophy that asserts the priority of questions concerning what we can know over what there is follows the standard position, all philosophical antirealisms, whether in continental philosophy, the philosophy of language, moral and political philosophy, or the philosophy of science, share the standard position.
Accordingly, the increasing numbers of philosophers interested in and identifying with speculative realism draw on a wide variety of philosophical problems, more usually associated with Anglo-American as opposed to continental philosophies. Those attending the first Speculative Realism workshop, for instance, discussed eliminativism and the philosophy of science; the metaphysics of powers and the philosophy of nature; object-oriented philosophy; and modality and ontology. The second workshop concentrated specifically on the nature of matter and the problem of materialism, drawing on materials from the philosophy of science and political philosophy, but also from Renaissance philosophy and the post-Kantian tradition alongside problems in contemporary metaphysics. For many contributors to these debates, the general revival in the fortunes of metaphysics in recent years across both main philosophical traditions entails a revaluation of philosophical resources from the history of metaphysics: theories of causation, philosophies of nature, idealisms and rationalisms.
Clearly realist (science, nature, objects and ontology), what makes these theories speculative is the degree to which Kant’s obstacles to realism are taken seriously, despite the theories’ objections to them. Therefore, rather than simply asserting realism against the standard position – to which the holder of that position might easily respond that the mere fact that a theory is being proposed reduces that theory to something posited by a finite rational being – speculative realism asserts that speculative means are the only ones available to philosophy for overcoming Kant’s Copernican revolution. Such realists, in other words, are also realists about the roots and grounds of the “transcendental” philosophies that Kant and his successors put forward. The challenge speculative philosophers therefore pose to standard realists is how they propose to account for the domain of experience within their realisms, since any realism that cannot do this must be considered simply to deny that experience, with all its objects, moods and stable characteristics, takes place at all.
Meanwhile, Speculative Realism continues to gather contributors on an international scale: it is taught in graduate programmes in the US, conferences are held in many universities, and an anthology of works will shortly appear in German. The roster of those attracted to the position continues to grow, and the number of workshops and conferences is correspondingly on the increase. The fact that contemporary philosophy has also recently seen a rise in neo-Hegelianism, in the work of Robert Brandom and John McDowell, for instance, demonstrates the centrality not only of the problem of realism, but also that of transcendental arguments in contemporary philosophy. Like these philosophers, speculative realists persist in trying to solve the questions Kant posed two centuries ago.
Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, Ray Brassier (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)
Iain Hamilton Grant is lecturer in philosophy at the University of the West of England and author of Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (Continuum)