Criticism I: On Navigating Between the Tension of Mechanism and Personhood

fluxIt has been a while since I have attempted a post on this blog. This absence from posting is due to a number of reasons, none of which are pertinent to the point of the current post and the future trajectory of the blog. Suffice to write that too much time is now past to pick up, without qualification, the aim of my last post. Yet, pick this aim up I must and so the current post is both an attempt to frame again the core of my last post, namely, an attempt to self-critically reflect upon the nature of discourse, the person and that concept that, perhaps, to blithely due to its vogue status in the academy, we call “critique.” To be more specific, my aim here is to simply pose a question with regard to an underlying tension, which manifests in the early stages of the critical enterprise in the German Aufklärung and to describe where my own research lies at this stage with regard to undermining this tension.

In the previous post I wrote about what I see as a need in contemporary discussions of critical pedagogy, via a critique of theology as a discourse, to realise anew an immanent notion of the subject, or more appropriately, the Person(s) as the cite in which discourse emerges and from which one finds intelligibility for any said discourse. To sumamrise in this way however, is to expose the tension that the Aufklärung brings to bear upon thinking thought.

This tension is that which Frederick Beiser describes as one between materialism in one instance, which to be precise is really to say a particular “kind” of materialism, and a skepticism on the other.[1] On Beiser’s reading, the lapse into the former, a skeptical idealism of the mind, forces the sort of extreme correlationist logic that Meillassoux takes aim at in After Finitude.[2] This is the sort of paradigm in which one must even strain the language of “thinking only the correlate” to describe how the world beyond the minds ideas or categories can be thought. Where a true correlationism might exist in the wake of Kant[3], here the correlation exists in the form of the subject’s inference of the Being of something external to the ideas of the mind.

In contrast to the skepticism of certain thinkers, the alternative position in which Beiser locates the Aufklärung is that of an extremist affirmation of the mechanical materiality of the world. Here the subject, or at least a subject that one defines as possessing some form of universal capacity i.e. ethical, religious or reasoning capacity, is dissipated into nature and laid bare relative to cause and effect. In short,

“Since criticism ends in skepticism, it undermines naturalism, which is committed to the independent reality of nature and the necessity of scientific laws. Since naturalism results in materialism, it undermines criticism, and more specifically its claim to be in possession of universal and necessary standards of reason. For materialism ends in relativism, given that it claims that everything, including human rationality, is the product of material forces at a specific time and place.[4]

Given Beiser’s description, I wish to focus upon a particular aspect of this tension that I believe relates explicitly to the situation and direction I sketched in the previous post. In that instance, my goal was to explicate a picture of what I take as the current situation of the humanities, with theology occupying a particularly noticeable place as an example of this situation. That situation, which was later picked up as the topic for two detailed posts by Sean Capener and Joel Harrison, is one in which the humanities, co-opted by the sort of capitalist logic that would reduce pedagogical projects to economic ‘use’, cannot justify its nature beyond decrying the continuing decrease in its funding and other material forms of devaluation. In short, what is (possibly) lacking on the part of the humanities and those who would propose a critical defense of a given humanities discourse, and it was here that theology served as our primary example, is a self-reflexivity with regard to the phenomenological occurrence of their discourse.

What I mean to say here and what was meant in the previous post is that it is one thing to look the material devaluation of the humanities in the face and decry its occurrence as devaluation, which is probably cooperation with a fascist capitalism or something like that. However, much in the same way that we sought to illustrate theology’s lack of self-awareness for how discourse forms, it seems that projects which locate themselves within the central motif of “critique” lack a similar awareness for how critique functions in tandem with certain assumptions regarding the constitution of persons. To say this is not to disagree with the necessity for recognizing the immanent plane in which one makes or feels or constructs critical projects. Rather, it seems that with regard to such projects there is a temptation to gloss over the metaphysically-laden question(s) of personhood and that relation to the intelligibility of critical assertions.

Yet even this way of framing the issue in either the affirmative or negative, here in a positive assertion, for an explication of the link to personhood brings us back to the issue Beiser locates in the Enlightenment. The balance is not only one struck between an immanent mechanism contra transcendence. Rather, even the move toward an immanence that locates its primary referent in the constitution of the person is vulnerable to critique in the somewhat realist sense that such a move may, in the face of something like maths, in end be nothing more than a severe anthropocentrism. My own assertions in the last post play into this issue. Discourse, I am predisposed to argue, is essentially a human undertaking, a human endeavor that bespeaks an eschatological constitution of the person to move beyond the constraints of their current situatedness. But this is a claim that must be made in the face of such a tension between a project like Meillassoux’s that points us toward a reality that does not care for our predispositions and an awareness of our complicity in thinking.

I am going to stop here and leave open this thread for discussion. What do you think? What are the issue at hand? And what have I missed in my analysis?

[1] Ameriks, Karl, The Cambridge companion to German Idealism. 2000, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 20-21.

[2] Meillassoux, Q., After finitude : an essay on the necessity of contingency. 2008, London; New York: Continuum. p. 5. “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.”

[3] For Kant the process of knowing occurs in the projection of the categories of the mind onto the world. This interactive projection onto the external ‘stuff’ of the world is an example of what Meillassoux aims to critique, namely the correlate between thinking and Being as the only concept-object one is able to think. While this correlation between the mind’s categories and the world negates the possibility for knowledge of the in-itself of the world apart from the projection, Kant’s project still appears to allow the possibility for thinking the space exterior to this categorical projection.

[4] Ameriks. Cambridge Companion to German Idealism. p. 21.


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