Oops: Speculative Realism

(Via the wikipedia entry, which isn’t bad, and Graham Harman’s brief tutorial . . .)

Speculative Realism relies on two key principles, the Principles of Correlationism and Factiality. The first characterizes the mainstream of “Western philosophy” since Kant (Kant → the Idealists → phenomenology/analytic philosophy); the second, Speculative Realism.

The Principle of Correlationism

We can know only the correlate of thought and being; what lies outside that correlate is unknowable.

(The term was coined by Meillassoux in After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency [2006; Continuum, 2008].)

  • We can “know” things only insofar as we can think them (Kant, for example, posits a set of categories that serve as our cognitive operating system).
  • We cannot “know” things-in-themselves — tho we can imagine them (Schopenhauer, for example, imagines the thing-in-itself by analogy with “will”).

I.e., philosophy is based in the interplay of human and world (it is anthropic).

As a result, most Kantians concern themselves primarily with “access,” namely, how humans come to interpret things and the world — thus, epistemology, language analysis and critique. Ontology, inasmuch as it is done at all, is political: it represents a conflict over what exists. (See Meillassoux on correlationism.)

The Principle of Factiality

Things could be other than they are.

(See Meillassoux on factiality.)

Cf. what Levi Bryant calls the Ontic Principle: there is no difference that does not make a difference (a.k.a. Latour’s Principle: there is no transportation [relation between two “actors” or objects] without translation [a labour that produces something new in the process]). Everything counts. Thus,

  • no object is simply the bearer or vehicle of another object;
  • humans contribute only one difference among others.

Speculative Realism takes factiality as its starting point.

A Speculative Realist Genealogy

As against naïve realism (the world is as it seems) and transcendental idealism (the world is not as it seems), Speculative Realism holds that the world is — or, rather, can be — not as it seems.

Harman constructs a genealogy of post-Enlightenment philosophy in these terms:

  • Kant and Husserl are weak Correlationists (sceptics).
  • Hegel, Wittgenstein and Heidegger are strong Correlationists (idealists) and reject the Principle of Factiality.
  • Meillassoux, Harman, Grant and Brassier et al. are strong Factialists (speculative realists/materialists, a term coined by Brassier in 2007) and reject the Principle of Correlation.

Speculative realists thus return to Hume: they reject the necessity not only of all physical laws of nature, but all logical laws, including the Principle of Sufficient Reason — with the exception of the Principle of Non-Contradiction, upon which the Principle of Factiality relies.

Object-Oriented Philosophy

Yet, against what Harman calls anti-realist “radical philosophy,” which either

  • “undermines” objects (objects are the surfaces of the Real [cf. Schopenhauer, etc.]) or
  • “overmines” them (objects are bundles of qualities [cf. Hume, etc.] or relations [cf. Latour, Whitehead, etc.]),

and against most of the other Speculative Realists, he returns to objects: hence, the term Object-Oriented Philosophy (OOP, a term coined by Harman in 1999; cf. Tool Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects [Open Court, 2002] and Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things [Open Court, 2007]).

All things, whether physical or fictional, are equally objects.

  • When objects combine, they create new objects; objects can both come to be and pass away.
  • An object is an infinite recess; there is no “bottom” to the series of objects.
  • There are two types of objects: real objects (everyday things, e.g., cotton) and sensual objects, which can interact (caricatures of things, e.g., the cotton that burns).

So, for Speculative Realism, philosophy is based on one world, made up of objects (it is Copernican — or, to put it simply, realist).

Furthermore, ontology is independent of politics: it cannot be validated in terms of its political effects or be used to serve political ends, for example, to determine a political program or to ontologise political arguments; nonetheless, ontology can enable us to understand how to leverage power, i.e. to translate political thinking into action (see Nina Power). (See Harmon on “Object-Oriented Philosophy.”)

Further Reading


The PoWeR of Process: Rewriting

For a simple outline of the three phases of the academic writing process — prewriting, writing and rewriting, here focussing on the last — see this Prezi presentation, “Academic Writing: The PoWeR of Process.”

Academic Writing: The Power of Process

Deduction, Induction and Abduction in Academic Writing

In academic writing, deduction, induction and abduction can be read as modes of argumentation:

  • deduction: finding data to support an argument.
  • induction: finding an argument to explain some data;
  • abduction: supplying a warrant that enables us to move from data to argument.

The first is the best in practice: outline an argument based on what you already know about the topic, then research to fill in the gaps (= active reading). This mode cuts down the amount of reading you have to do — and allows your voice to remain strongest in your writing.

The second is the most common — but less effective: research the topic, then come up with an argument based on your research (= reactive writing). This mode is problematic because you can easily get bogged down in over-reading — and your voice can easily be drowned out by others’.

The third deepens your critique: get clear about the assumptions that underlie — or condition — your argument (= active writing). To do so is to problematize — even defamiliarize (or alienate!) — your argument, which will make your voice more distinctive . . . given that these assumptions go unquestioned in most arguments.


The modes in detail . . .

FIgure One:

The terms “Fact,” “Rule” and “Case” are medieval nicknames for the propositions that would be called the “conclusion” (C), “major premise” (MP)  and “minor premise” (mp) respectively, in the simplest form of deductive syllogism.

  1. rule, law, major premise (MP)
  2. case, cause, minor premise (mp)
  3. fact, effect, conclusion

Thus, we have the following scheme:


Deduction takes a Case, a mp of the form X => Y,
matches it with a Rule, a MP of the form Y => Z,
then adverts to a Fact, a C of the form X => Z.

  1. All bachelors are unmarried males.         Rule/MP
  2. Hank Moody is a bachelor.                        Case/mp
  3. Hank Moody is an unmarried male.        Fact/conc.

Deduction allows deriving b as a consequence of a (deriving the consequences of what is assumed).[1]

= applying a law, i.e., finding data to support an argument.


Induction takes a Case of the form X => Y,
matches it with a Fact of the form X => Z,
then adverts to a Rule of the form Y => Z.

Statistical syllogism

  1. 90% of humans are right-handed.
  2. Joe is a human.
  3. Joe is probably right-handed.

Argument from analogy

  1. Joe is tall, skinny and athletic.
  2. Hank is tall and skinny.
  3. Hank is possibly also athletic.

Induction allows inferring a from multiple instantiations of b when a entails b (inferring probable antecedents as a result of observing multiple consequents).[2]

= inferring a law, i.e., finding an argument to explain some data.


Abduction takes a Fact of the form X => Z,
matches it with a Rule of the form Y => Z,
then adverts to a Case of the form X => Y.

  1. The lawn is wet.
  2. If it rained last night, then the lawn would be wet.
  3. It rained last night.

Abduction allows inferring a as an explanation of b (inferring the precondition a from the consequence b).[3]

= assuming a law, i.e., supplying a warrant that enables us to move from our data to our argument (i.e., a hypothesis, a warrant or backing, a condition).

Even more succinctly . . .

Table 2:

N.B. A fourth type is retroduction, which is “reasoning from consequent to [hypothetical] antecedent.”[4] Peirce sometimes calls it “Hypothetic Inference.” It “depends on our hope, sooner or later, to guess at the conditions under which a given kind of phenomenon will present itself.”[5] This is a legitimate use of the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, a.k.a. affirming the consequent.

[1] Synagögé.

[2] Epagögé, “bringing in”: “the adducing of particular examples so as to lead to a universal conclusion; the argument by induction” (Webster’s).

[3] Anagoge, “dragging away”: “An indirect argument which proves a thing by showing the impossibility or absurdity of the contrary”; a reductio ad absurdum (Webster’s).

[4] C. S. Peirce, “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God” [1908], CP 6.469-70.

[5] C. S. Peirce, Letter to F. A. Woods [1913], CP 8.385-88.

I-Hood: Fichte on Construction

Fichte (1762-1814)

For Fichte, according to Daniel Breazeale, construction, i.e., thinking through the self or “I-hood” (Ichheit), has six distinctive features. It requires a “postulate,” i.e., a question or occasion, that serves as

  1. an invitation or summons or challenge . . . to engage in an act of abstraction (from all that is not the I) and reflection (upon whatever remains in consciousness following such an act of abstraction)” (6), i.e. philosophical construction is a process of thinking — thinking as doing or making, rather than merely contemplating. Its “prerequisite” is
  2. an act of radical abstraction from the ‘objective’ or ’empirical’ contents of consciousness,” which characterizes the “philosophical standpoint” (7); and its “organ” is
  3. the capacity for reflection, attentiveness, or intellectual intuition,” i.e., “a direct awareness . . . of what ‘happens’ when one tries to think the I” (8). The process nonetheless requires
  4. synthetic thinking,” which “attach[es] to some previously constructed concept a new concept, one not already contained in the previous one, but instead somehow presupposed by it” (10), i.e., grounding it (à la Leibniz) and “dialogizing” it, i.e., opposing it (à la Spinoza) and transcending it (à la Hegel). These heuristic principles are driven by
  5. imagination” (12), i.e., the “feeling for truth” that characterizes the “philosophical spirit”: “the capacity to think creatively, to engage in ‘inspired guesswork'” (13).
  6. N.B. The scope of construction is limited to “the domain of the pure subject-object,” i.e. “I-hood” (14).

In construction, we reflect on what is happening to the “I” when we abstract from experience to think through an idea.

The problem is: what do ideas have to do with the I? Or, to put it another way, how does “synthetic thinking,” which works with ideas, get us to the I?

Here’s one solution: this requires a kind of thought-experiment in which we think about the I by not thinking about it.

  1. We assume the I and ideas “work” similarly.
  2. We pick an idea.
  3. Because the I is foundational (self is primary) and dialectical (a self implies an other), we examine the grounds of that idea and explore its contradiction.
  4. This leads us to new ideas.

This is “I-ing” the idea — or, rather, this is the I at work.

For Fichte, this is the I. His method of construction is thus genetic, i.e., construction generates the I:

what such a method displays is precisely a transcendentally ordered process in which each stage in the philosophical construction of the self springs necessarily from the preceding one as the condition for the very possibility of the same.


the various realms and structures of ordinary actual life can be grasped philosophically only as products of the transcendental self-construction of the I. (15)

Or to offer another, simpler solution: thinking is how the I acts. To reflect on the I, we examine it in action, i.e., in the process of thinking.

What Fichte offers us, then, is a way to think of thinking (a.k.a. the I) as positional, a way to think beyond identity politics towards positionality. When we argue, we are — or ought to be — at once constructing a self and an argument, not to mention a world.

Putting it somewhat less clearly, to pose a question and propose an answer is to take up a position that presupposes a positioning, the positing of a self and a world.

Only Connect!

A conventional narrative of the evolution of civilization suggests that society has gone from a highly collective, as it were, centripetal society to a less collective, centrifugal one: “the centre cannot hold,” etc, etc. — hence narratives of modernity as individualizing, increasingly multicultural, relativist.


For example, in Liquid Modernity (Wiki) Zygmunt Bauman elevates “individualization” to the defining principle of modernity, describing it this way:

“individualization” consists of transforming human “identity” from a “given” into a “task” and charging the actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the [32] consequences (also the side-effects) of their performance. In other words, it consists in the establishment of a de jure autonomy (whether or not the de facto autonomy has been established as well). [. . .] Needing to become what one is is the feature of modern living — and of this living alone. Modernity replaces the heteronomic determination of social standing [via “estates,” i.e., “locations of inherited belonging”] with compulsive and obligatory self-determination [via “classes,” i.e., “targets of manufactured membership,” in the first wave of modernity or roles in the second wave]. (my emphasis; 31-32)

This principle is a symptom of a larger historical movement of de- and reterritorialization, of uprooting and transplanting:

Early modernity “disembedded” in order to “re-embed.” While the disembedding was the socially sanctioned fate, the re-embedding was a task put before the individuals. (32)

Bauman remains skeptical about his re- or the trans-: in “second” or “reflexive modernity,”

no “beds” are furnished for “re-embedding,” and such beds as might be postulated and pursued . . . often vanish before the work of “re-embedding” is complete. There are rather “musical chairs” of various sizes and styles as well as of changing numbers and positions, which prompt men and women to be constantly on the move and promise . . . no satisfaction of “arriving,” of reaching the [35] final destination, where one can disarm, relax and stop worrying. (33-34)

Nomadism — ethnicity, tribalism, and other loose or minimal collectivities — becomes the norm in modernity. Or, to switch the metaphor from solids to liquids, we moderns are taught to value liquidity: solvency, fluidity, rhythm — the dissolution of (old) bonds and the permeation of barriers.

To extrapolate (and to put a little pressure on the metaphor), a liquid tends to seek its level: it is “democratic.” But it can be pressurized: a steady state — like a ideal loose collectivity — tends to be transient (if that’s not a contradiction in terms).

But what if civilization were evolving in reverse? What if the drive to individualisation, etc, in modernity were just a reaction to the increasingly collective and centralized nature of society? The principal force in modernity would be connectivity — and thus collectivity.


Marx and Engels called it interdependence:

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence in every direction. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. (The Communist Manifestosec. 1)

Leaving aside the not-so-implicit colonialism of this assertion of a connective commons, perhaps we moderns, then, would be better to value entanglement: networks, evolution and involution, threads — the forging of (new) bonds and the enfolding of layers. If entanglement is the sine qua non of interdependence, whether it is seen to emerge from independence (like the “mastery” of the old West — or the newly mega-rich) or dependence (like the slavery of its Others — or those other than the mega-rich), we cannot ignore it, so we might as well embrace it.

What’s the Story with Academic Writing? A Narratology of the Academic Essay (Part One)

A summary of my talk at the (Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association [AULLA]) Storytelling in Literature, Language and Culture conference in Auckland (8 Feb 2011) . . .

It has become a commonplace in writing programmes and other scriptophilic zones of the academy that the mainstay of academic writing, the academic essay, as taught, written and read, is formulaic and deforms what can be thought and written in the academosphere — and that story has only a marginal role in the academic essay. The story, we are told, is not good for the academic essay.

By way of a provisional answer to the question posed in the title . . .

1          story: the essay is neither written nor read in the academosphere

The standard answer to the question might be that there is no narrative in the academic essay — except perhaps as a grabber/hook in introductions or to convey or contextualise data that requires it. This might be seen as a bad thing. This might be a reason why academic writing is not usually read for pleasure, is less readable than it need be, and is not read so much as mined or fished.

Two moves recommend themselves: we can [#2] uncover the back story of the academic essay or [#3] include more story in it (to “storify” it or uncover the “big stories” in it). To the first . . .

2          history: the essay as written and read to measure . . .

The “mo” (pre-linguistic turn) answer to the question as a matter of fact might be to historicise academic writing: to ask how it got to be the way it is (i.e., it originates in the disputatio and epigram), to provide a historical back story for academic writing. Narrative was excluded from the essay because of the logical (scholastic) and scientific (Baconian) bias of early academic writers, these biases being exacerbated by humanities scholars trying to scientise their writing, to mobilise the authority effect of science (and science writing), and the increasing scientism of the university as an institution, and by academics using the essay to assess students.

Through these processes, the scientific paper that reports on research, viz. epistemic (expository/epideictic [for display]) rather than heuristic (performative/personal) writing, comes to dominate the academy.

  • epistemic: “relating to knowledge or its verification,” from Gk epistēmē “knowledge.”
  • heuristic: “serving to discover or find out,” from Gk heuriskein “find.”

Joseph Wright, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768).

What we know as “academic writing” emerged with the research university in von Humboldt and Kant’s reforms of the German university at the end of the eighteenth century, which reforms demanded continuous examination by others and of oneself (accountability) by means of [a.] numerical governance and grading (calculability) and [b.] an insistent process of writing by, about and “around” students (grammatocentrism) (see Keith Hoskin on the genealogy of the knowledge “ecosystem” of the modern university).

Or secondly: we can include some more story in it — to “storify” it or uncover the “big stories” in it . . .

3          story+/Story: the essay is written and read (to a degree) . . .

The “pomo” (post-linguistic turn) answer to the question as a problematic might be to put some narrative in — after the example of New Historicism — somehow to reflect the nature of writing as narrative and/or to acknowledge the metanarratives and justify our appropriation of the metanarratives in which such writing must be embedded (becoming aware of the frame story), thus to uncover the big stories embedded in academic writing — for example, the story that academic writing mimics scientific enquiry.

Arataki Visitor Centre, Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, Auckland.

Or the best: in a twofold move that intersects both options, we can map the forms of story in the academic essay to see why stories have become formulaic and deformative.

4          stories

The non-standard — and most salient — answer to the question is to map the narrative forms, the story arcs, that are implicit in academic writing, in order to disclose its possibilities and the reasons it has been closed down. This requires a mapping (topology/symbolic geography) of the essay as narrative, i.e. imaging (via a visual outline or metaphor) as an alternative to scripting (a verbal outline).

There are two main forms of essay, the point-first or round-trip essay (the epistemic report on research) and the point-last or one-way journey (the heuristic essai).

type point-first (PF) essay point-last (PL) essay
image round-trip one-way
end returns to its starting-point arrives at an end-point
function epistemic heuristic
mode of writing expository, epideictic performative, personal
logic tautological dialogical
mood indicative, thus factual subjunctive, thus fictive
mode of address informative interactive

The first dominates writing in the academosphere, in the form of the thesis and proof essay, a.k.a. the five-paragraph theme, and at the level of the paragraph the Schaffer model. Why?

The PF essay embodies the econometric design-drive of the academosphere, which projects aims (teloi, i.e., ideal ends), objectives (skopoi, i.e. means) and clearly defined outcomes (ekbaseis, i.e. adequate ends), in the service of outputs, or rather, an efficient relationship between inputs and outputs. Everything in this end-stopped world must be seen as if in hindsight, in retrospective anticipation (i.e., from the outcome [o] backwards): they “will [always] have been” necessary. It is a future anterior world, a closed loop the process of which achieves a predetermined outcome (see the top left figure below).

  • The point-first essay embodies this design-drive: it can more readily be templated due to its tautological nature — we know where the story is going because its path is singular and returns to its starting point (see the right top figure below).
  • The point-last essay works against it: it can resist the template due to its dialogical nature — (it seems that) we don’t know where the story is going because its path is multiple and doesn’t return to its starting point, rather, in its most common versions it quests for or circles an endpoint (see right bottom figure below). (I say “seems” because many such essays — Derrida’s or Barthes’, for example — only appear dialogical, as do Plato’s dialogues, where Socrates’ eironeia turns out only to be a simulated ignorance in the end.)

So where to from here? The two point-last figures above give us two versions:

  • the essay that explores various paths until it decides on one (the upper figure), and
  • the essay that explores an issue from various perspectives (the lower figure).

(For more, see part two, which will follow anon . . .)

Coleridge on Peristaltic Thought

In ch. 14 of the Biographia Literaria (1817), Sam Coleridge describes the kind of peristaltic movement that for him describes active “IMAGINATION”:

Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed, how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking. There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive. In philosophical language, we must denominate this intermediate faculty in all its degrees and determinations, the IMAGINATION.

This idea represented Coleridge’s attempt to move beyond conflictual thinking — what his friend John Thelwall called his “theory of Collision of Ideas” — toward something more dialectical — “mutual Propulsions” (Collected Letters 1, 636).

Peristalsis is the sequential rhythmic contraction or undulation of muscles (Gk peri-stelleincontracting around“), especially in the bowel (which we know was a problem for Coleridge due to his intake of constipatory opiates). It is instructive to think how the movement of his bowels might have influenced his thinking (the nexus is there in our idea of digestion as nutritive or cognitive, as psychosomaticists — like Freud and Fliess — and those who suffer food allergies know).

(Re the image of the “cinque-spotted shadow”: Coleridge loves fives, hence his holistic “quinquarticular Dialectic” or “logo-noetic Pentad” — namely prothesis, thesis, antithesis, mesothesis [“the Indifference”] and synthesis, or two polarities and their “co-involution” — exemplified in his “Pentad of Operative Christianity” [Christ the Word, Scripture, Church, Holy Spirit and Preacher] from Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit, but also in the Powers of Nature [attraction, repulsion, contraction, dilation and centrality], the Colours [red, yellow, blue, orange/violet, green] and the races. His prime emblem is the “compass of nature.”)

Ephemeroptera (mayfly; from ephemeron, “lasting only a day” + pteron “wing”)

See also chapter 7 of the Biographia, where he uses a similar analogy, that of a kind of reculer pour mieux sauter (lit. withdraw to better leap), to describe how writers can best connect with their readers:

The reader should be carried forward, not merely, or chiefly, by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind, excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power; or like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses, and half recedes, and, from the retrogressive movement, collects the force which again carries him onward.

(MEM echoes this passage from Coleridge at “DRAGONS, DIGESTION, KNOWLEDGE FARMS: Peristalsis” [Faces of Sound 18 Apr. 2009].)

— — —

S[amuel] T[aylor] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria: or, Biographical Sketches of MY LITERARY Life and OPINIONS (New York: Leavitt, Lord and Co., 1834).

For Coleridge’s meta-science, see Trevor Hartley Levere, Poetry Realized in Nature: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Early Nineteenth-Century Science (Cambridge, England: CUP, 1981) [esp. 114-20].