Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology

13 June 2010


Newton, not Kant, was the focus of the Enlightenment ideal of natural reason, as in the famous lines of Alexander Pope -- Nature and nature's laws lay hid in Night. / God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light

In several posts — A Formulation of Naturalism, Two Thoughts on Naturalism, and Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation — I have attempted to give explicit formulations of the idea of naturalism as it underlies contemporary scientific and philosophical thought. It has just occurred to me, in the wake of my recent posts about object oriented ontology — Metaphysical Responsibility, The Loss of Objecthood, and Back to shop class! — that another approach to naturalism may be made by way of object oriented ontology.

Thinking about the posited “flat” ontologies of various formulations of object oriented philosophy I recalled an evocation of flatness from a decade or more ago in Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry by Colin McGinn. Colin McGinn made a name for himself in philosophy by denying that philosophy can answer many of the traditional questions of philosophy — including, paradigmatically, the mind-body problem — but on the way to promulgating the inefficacy of philosophy McGinn outlined a number of interesting philosophical positions, for example:

“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.” (pp. 2-3)

Now this first sentence I have quoted comes off a lot like the rejection of correlationism that is central to many approaches to object oriented ontology. To have this parallel extension of Copernicanism in McGinn immediately followed by an ontological principle that appeals to the flatness of naturalism’s account of the world is almost eerie. It wouldn’t be eerie if we knew that the recent object orient philosophers had been reading McGinn or recent analytical philosophy, but they seem to spend most of their time in the company of Heidegger and his continental epigones. In any case, it is remarkable that both analytical and continental thought should be converging, from different directions, on a similar philosophical goal.

McGinn’s Transcendental Naturalism invokes a implicit flat ontology of the world as it is, apart from distortions introduced into our picture of the world by our cognitive architecture. Thus McGinn, like the object oriented philosopher, must begin with a robust metaphysics of the most traditionally Western sort, with a fundamental distinction between appearance and reality. While earlier philosophies in the Western tradition (especially since Hume and Kant) laid greater emphasis upon our perceptual architecture than our cognitive architecture, it is important see that this is a difference in emphasis and not a difference in the essential nature of the undertaking. One could discover a kind of “transcendental naturalism” in Kant as well — despite Kant’s paradigmatic correlationism — but it would need to be formulated mutatis mutandis with McGinn: “Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our perceptual limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle.”

In Two Thoughts on Naturalism I maintained that naturalism takes science at face value, and it is clear that in Quentin Meillassoux’s work science once again has a central place in continental epistemology. I say “once again” because from the latter part of the nineteenth century through the twentieth century science had a problematic relationship to continental philosophy. While philosophy during this period was dominated by Marx and Freud — the former claiming to the scientific, the latter actually being scientific — the spirit animating the appropriation of Marx and Freud was not scientific, and this is one of the developments that led to a profound split between continental and analytical thought. Analytical philosophy had a very different way of being influenced by the dramatic gains in scientific knowledge that occurred in the twentieth century.

Thus with Meillassoux’s frank engagement with contemporary scientific knowledge we find ourselves in a milieu more like late Enlightenment era thought. In other words, we find ourselves in a situation more like the Kantian epoch, when the great discoveries of Newton were being assimilated by philosophy. For Kant certainly took the science of his day seriously, and he was able to distinguish the best science of his day — Newton, and all that Newton represents — and so to avoid the all-too-common philosophical pitfall of engaging with pseudo-science.

Even though the apparent unity of object oriented philosophy is to be found in its rejection of Kantian correlationism, we see that on another level an acceptance of Kantian naturalism is as much a point of agreement in the diverse body of speculative realist thought. And I will say that it is high time for a return to the ideals of the Enlightenment in continental thought. The kind of naturalism that we find in the Enlightenment has much in common with contemporary naturalism — the interest in explanatory mechanisms as well as the interest in minimalist formulations that go no further afield than necessary, which latter is certainly the spirit animating Hume — and can be clearly differentiated from the quasi-scientific naturalism of twentieth century continental thought. Just as interesting, Enlightenment naturalism is equally distinct from the science-mimicry of analytical philosophy during the twentieth century.

To posit a flat ontology is to posit a world that is flatly natural in McGinn’s sense, and to posit a flatly natural world is to posit an ontology that is flat. How one accounts for the apparent deviations from flatness then becomes a central question. There are different ways to do this, but, as I noted above, we have through this shared interest in a flat world a new convergence between continental and analytical philosophy — despite many manifestations of both that continue to be mutually exclusive — and this shared interest has much in common with the spirit of the Enlightenment as it was once expressed in philosophy.

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