Notes on Structure- Part 3, Philosophical Materialism

For the purpose of this essay, in consideration of social ontology, we will assume several general ontological and epistemological features in accordance with “philosophical materialism,” the position under-girding critical realism.1 The doctrine of philosophical materialism is composed of three interlocking principles:

Cogito ergo material girl

First, reality’s “being” occurs solely within an immanent plane of possibilities, bounded by its spatial and temporal dimensions. Such immanence entails ontological materialism, which asserts the stratification of reality and emergence2 of independent properties and causal powers at each level. Higher levels supervene on the lower in a relationship of unilateral dependence, but are not reducible to them in terms of the laws that govern the lower. Consequently, the social unilaterally depends on agental practice and psychology, which in turn is presupposed by more fundamental levels: biology, chemistry and physics. The theory of emergence is an axiom of such a stratified model of reality, and suggests, for instance, psychology is not merely applied biology, nor chemistry applied physics. The stratified nature of reality and theory of emergence counters reductionist models such as “eliminative materialism” in philosophy of the mind and scientific reductionist models that ultimately seek to explain all being in terms of particle physics, string theory or some other master explanans. As well, the reductionist project to link individual and group behavior to natural selection and genetics, undertaken most vigorously within evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, is problematized.

1The theory of materialism we employ is described in “Materialism.” Bashkar, Roy, from A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Tom Bottomore, ed. 1999. Blackwell Publishers Inc. (369-373).

2The term “emergence” has two distinct meanings. The common usage denotes historical emergence, with no implied ontological claim necessary, in the sense of some entity or process coming into existence at a particular time and place. For example– “fascist ideology emerged in the post-WWI era as a viable political program out of debates over the perceived weakness of liberal democracy and dangers of communism.” In contrast, the theory of emergence examines the conditions of possibility for an ontological emergence of independent existent layers of reality and causal mechanisms that operate there. This second meaning informs the following: “social structures emerge from agental practice, becoming the conditions for the future reproduction and transformation of practice.”

[The second and third aspects are due soon]

8 thoughts on “Notes on Structure- Part 3, Philosophical Materialism

    • Geoff, interesting question, as speculative realism appears to have some overlap with scientific realism. I wonder if speculative realists claim Roy Bhaskar’s work as foundational to their movement. Bhaskar’s “A Realist Theory of Science” (1975) is the classic text in scientific/ critical realist thought and makes a similar attack on Kant’s idealism and Hume’s empiricism to reclaim ontology. Bhaskar later turned to dialectics, reinterpreting his earlier work, and it is here where the two movements might conflict. Bhaskar critiqued the tendency of ontological monovalence and lack of determinate absence in western Phil in general and Hegel in particular. If there is a tension, it may revolve around ontological “indeterminacy,” or contingency though I don’t understand what this means for speculative realists.

      I found this open book– worth looking at:

      Below is a statement I like by Zizek, which concludes the above book about speculative realism, because it touches on the interlocking of epistemology and ontology, which is a central concern of critical realism. Of course when Zizek says below stuff like: ” how does reality redouble itself and start to appear to itself, ” I lose his train of thought, once again…

      “And this brings me to the great underlying problem: the status of the subject. I
      think that, in its very anti-transcendentalism, Meillassoux remains caught in the Kantian topic of the accessibility of the thing-in-itself: is what we experience as reality fully determined by our subjective-transcendental horizon, or can we get to know something about the way reality is independently of our subjectivity. Meillassoux’s claim is
      to achieve the breakthrough into independent ‘objective’ reality. For me as a Hegelian,
      there is a third option: the true problem that arises after we perform the basic speculative gesture of Meillassoux (transposing the contingency of our notion of reality into the
      thing itself) is not so much what more can we say about reality-in-itself, but how does
      our subjective standpoint, and subjectivity itself, fit into reality. The problem is not
      ‘can we penetrate through the veil of subjectively-constituted phenomena to things-inthemselves’, but ‘how do phenomena themselves arise within the flat stupidity of reality
      which just is, how does reality redouble itself and start to appear to itself’. For this, we
      need a theory of subject which is neither that of transcendental subjectivity nor that of
      reducing the subject to a part of objective reality. This theory is, as far as I can see, still
      lacking in speculative realism.”
      19. See Quentin Meillassoux, ‘Potentiality and Virtuality’, in this volume

      • Thanks for the tip about that volume. I had looked at it a couple of times but hadn’t picked it up yet.

        what page where those comments from Zizek. he pretty much expressed my initial reaction to speculative realism (but that is probably because I’ve read so much of Zizek already…)

    • The Zizek quote I gave is in the last chapter of the book, p 406, an interview with Ben Woodward. The quote is the last paragraph of the book..

  1. Do you agree there seems to be an urge in the reduction to a posteriori information (mind as chemistry, etc) to simply discover a correspondence between language and life world items, to simplify and thereby ignore the framework within which this information is generated by the language reductionists employ? I am trying to be sure of the conflict as you see it.

    • Scott, I am sorry, I am having a little trouble understanding your question here. What do you mean by a “framework”? I take it that “information” is eg., the chemical or biological level of reality. Is a framework the particular mode of science targeting a level? And I am not quite sure what you mean by “correspondence between language and life world items.” Is this referring to the “correspondence theory of truth” or more of a Wittgensteinian language game approach?

      The basic conflict is between reductionism and emergence. Emergence is a little tricky and controversial, but it appears to be the only way to counter reductionist models of reality, which for me interested in the socio-cultural world, is essential to refute ontological individualism and the explicit antihumanism of ontological structuralism (which are the real game I am after).

      An alternative is the “unity of method” approach of positivism for both natural and social science, and all the correlations, constant conjunctions– behavioralism tripe.

      Social science reductionism, especially to the biological or attempts at “social mechanics” are motivated to legitimate the knowledge with the same stature as “real” science, ie., physics.. An envy or something..


  2. Sorry, I jumped into this at the urging of a pal (Tristan Hasell); I am actually a writing teacher particularly concerned with the way writing pedagogy attempts to foster a particular idea of ontology in students. This is done rather thoughtlessly; one might say it is a huge ideological blind spot. At any rate, I and another couple of friends, an economist and an anthropologist, are endeavoring to read Hegel and some other things this spring to develop clearer questions. I am not yet comfortable with your group’s terminology and will have to patiently catch up. Not that I expect folks to slow down on my account. There is an awful lot of attention being paid Hegel of late, relatively speaking, and scant mention of Bertrand Russell anymore. Very interesting.

    “Framework” was a hasty substitute for structural reality created by “emergent causal powers.” I can understand this as an alternate description of what Wittgenstein was referring to with ‘words games.’ He had another flank of the same elephant, so to speak. Hegel, of course, was also contending with this in Phenomenology of mind. I think I agree, so far, that the reductionist doesn’t take this problem into account. I suppose that’s why I am not comfortable with the “word game” understanding, which is critical but also makes the entire problem sound at first trivial. If we go right at language we find we haven’t the equipment for the exam. It too becomes another emergence. In the reductionist position, it appears to me there is a desire to rely on correspondence as knowledge. Objects are directly linked to signifiers (Colin McGinn thinking) and reality becomes an endless series of analytical puzzles. I will keep reading (and reciting, “wofon mann nicht spreken kan, duruber muss mann schwegen.”)

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