Progress Isn’t Just Criticism But Creativity ("Realism & Philosophy's Future" Part 2), Composing, 25/10/2013

My essay “Realism and Philosophy’s Future,” discussed yesterday, included another element aside from my critique of Graham Harman’s philosophy. This other element I consider the most important takeaway from the essay: it lays out a vision for what precisely is philosophical progress. Harman’s thought basically becomes a case to clarify precisely what my conception of progress is. 

Here’s how it works in “Realism and Philosophy’s Future,” on which, despite a very bad start to the day, I’ve actually finished my post-review edits Thursday night. It’s basically a case study of the speculative realists, particularly Harman and Levi Bryant, contrasting their approaches to philosophy to illustrate a conception of philosophical progress that, in this essay at least, has two elements. 1) A social conception of progress, having the personal confidence and originality in thought to move beyond your influences. Take me, for example. My own work is significantly influenced by that of  Gilles Deleuze, but I don’t like to call myself Deleuzian, and I don’t think there’s a single true perspective his writings generate that constitute the only genuine philosophical problems. Essentially, a socially progressive philosopher is a Young Hegelian, and a socially conservative philosopher is an Old Hegelian. 2) What I’ve called in the new version of the essay a conceptual conception of progress. Yes, I know it’s a little silly. But this is basically about having that originality of thought to move beyond your influences in the first place, identifying the limits of their own thinking and what has changed in the world between their time and yours which changes how you engage with philosophy.

This was the second rejection the essay had received. I had originally sent it to a top journal specializing in Continental philosophy, but within a couple of days of my sending it, the editor wrote me a very kind email saying he liked “Realism and Philosophy’s Future” very much, but that it wasn’t really in their remit, and recommended I send it to a cultural studies journal. I received the rejection from that cultural studies journal Tuesday, which included a pretty thorough critique. Aside from the usual kinds of recommendations (ex. more direct quotations instead of paraphrases) was the suggestion that I cut the conception of progress, along with major references to the other speculative realists, and make this an essay solely about critiquing Harman. 

I simply do not want to do that. It’s a matter of my own philosophical priorities. I don’t just want my publications to be grist for the mill of critique upon critique upon critique. I don’t consider it progressive for philosophy to consist of people arguing against each other ad infinitum over smaller and smaller scopes. I explained earlier this week that this approach to scholarship is a major element of what drove me away from philosophy of mind. I never conceived of this essay as a list of why Graham Harman is wrong about stuff. 

It's fascinating what Google Image Search will turn up when
you search one-word concepts like 'conformity.' I find it
remarkable that in a culture where we praise rebels and an
evolutionary science that stresses the importance of
mutation for adaptation and survival, we encourage
conformity and quietude within our institutions like the
academy. Intellectual history is a study of mutants and
innovators, yet our education system discourages
mutation and innovation.
I composed “Realism and Philosophy’s Future” as an engagement with the speculative realists as a case study in figuring out what separates good philosophy from bad, what delineates a living, vibrant tradition of thought from a snake that eats itself tail-first. This is a continual problem for the discipline of philosophy, especially given how integrated it is today with cultural norms of disciplinary fragmentation, and undermining the confidence of young researchers in their originality. The worst feedback I’ve always had on my work is advice to think smaller, to produce nice ordinary essays that touch on a single topic in a single sub-discipline. That’s never been how I approached philosophy, and I’ll never approach it that way. I write like the people I think make valuable contributions to the tradition because I want to make valuable contributions to the tradition myself. I don’t think this is an illegitimate goal for a young writer to have.
This isn’t the first time I’ve taken issue with a peer reviewer before, although as far as "Realism and Philosophy's Future" is concerned, I'm just going to send it to a different journal next week. For my essay in Doctor Who and Philosophy on the Doctor as a Nietzschean Übermensch, one of the three reviewers said I had misread Nietzsche: The Übermensch was a revival of the ancient Greek strong man, he said. 

When I sent the editors my pre-publication revisions, I told them I wouldn’t follow the recommendations of that reviewer because he was wrong. Nietzsche is very clear that you can’t go back to the uncomplicated strong man who takes what he wants. Such a figure is always vulnerable to attacks by the morality of self-hatred and resentment, so the new strong man has to incorporate noble versions of the virtues of forgiveness and generosity into his values to protect himself from reactionary Christianity. I explained my case clearly to the editors, and they agreed with me to dismiss the critiques of reviewer #2. 

When I take a stand in my profession, it’s on the merits of my work, talent, and knowledge. On those grounds, if I’m engaging with people who respect hard work, talent, and knowledge, I win.


  1. Good two-parter Adam -- glad to see you're keeping the forward momentum despite the inevitable waves of rejection. As I've mentioned before, you've set out on a high-risk strategy of sticking to your guns and writing what you believe should be written, and I admire you for it. The rewards are high too -- you get to keep moving forward in the real task we all set out to do in this game, which is our personal processes of intellectual discovery.

    As for the Harman piece -- he sounds like a Heideggerian who hasn't moved past Kant. But he also sounds a bit like you, if you'll excuse the comparison: isn't there something to admire in his refusal to move past this point that he genuinely hasn't been able to work through? Most of us would follow Peirce and just get on with things, but I suspect you're enough like him that you'd be willing to keep working on the thing that confuses you most. Again, I admire it.

    But how that relates to the second part of your paper (as you describe it) is revealing, I think. You chastise Harman as I understand it not on Peircian pragmatist grounds (i.e. he's still stuck on this problem!) but on his failure to differentiate himself from what amounts to a guru. That's unquestionably a major problem throughout the humanities and social sciences (it would be interesting to consider whether it's a problem in the hard sciences). Using him as a lens through which to view this dysfunction in the academy seems quite reasonable and certainly defensible -- but again, most people would draw on Peirce to "prove" that this is indeed a problem.

    I guess I'm left wondering, if we want to be true to ourselves and work recklessly (let's say, in contrast to safely), what's to stop us from eating our tails? What tools are at our disposal to know that we're being the wrong type of unconventional?

    1. Here's a really rough framework of how I conceive of "working through a philosophical problem," or any problem in theory or life if you can isolate its core elements.

      Say my problem is trying to get principles X, Y, and Z to work together. They're complex concepts, and they require a lot of analysis to manipulate and explore. There are a lot of ways to use the concepts, and a lot of valid perspectives to take on them. But only so many — they aren't infinitely variable. So there are limits to how much we can manipulate those concepts to make them work productively together without changing X into W.

      I think Harman has reached this problem. He has this mutated-Kantian reading of Heidegger (because with GH, there isn't just the thing-in-itself unspecific even in number, but each object in the world has its dark mirror object constituting true reality; I think this is actually worse than the reading of Kant emphasizing the thing-in-itself) that cripples his Object Oriented Ontology approach. I'm willing to grant him that it's a faithful continuation and explication of Heidegger's perspective. But even if that's so, it still leads to the epistemic quietism that he can't get over. He's built a conception of reality (the real is isolated from all relations) where human knowledge is inevitably inadequate.

      You could even say that I agree with the Peircean idea: He should just get over it and move on. But my essay also diagnoses precisely why Harman can't: because of his fidelity to Heidegger like a guru. In the details of the essay, I note that Harman disparages pragmatism, analytic philosophy, and pretty much all philosophy of science. It's a symptom of his worshipful attitude to Heidegger. Because he can't understand that Heidegger isn't so great, he can't let go of the problem.

    2. Personally, as a non-philosopher, I'm perhaps all-too-willing to accept the limits of human knowledge and move on. But I'm happy to think that there are philosophers out there who will accept that only as a last resort.

      It is rather depressing to think that an adult would choose adherence to a guru over his own intellectual development, but I suppose is not so uncommon. Imagine how exhilarating it would be for him to just dump Heidegger's presuppositions and start afresh. But I suppose the reason he doesn't do that it because it would be scary to lose the sense of progress he assumes has been made. Husserl is a great model in this regard of someone brave enough to walk away from a tradition.

      I would be interested to try and dig even deeper than the issue of 'how' (how to avoid mental dead-ends) to the question of why: why do philosophy at all? Why should we avoid dead-ends? Peirce was comforted with a sort of engineering logic to it all: think clearly to fix problems; if there's a problem you can't fix with the way you are doing it, try another way, and if still doesn't work, go on to another problem. I don't expect you to have a tidy answer for that but it is something that might be worth addressing in your conclusion. For Harmon, I would say he would feel like abandoning Heidegger risks losing all the gains made in the 20th century. But gains for what? I agree with you that failing to have a good answer for that, the answer probably degenerates into hero-worship: the point of continuing Heideggerian practices is to venerate Heidegger himself.

      I would tend to adopt a strategic perspective: the end precedes the means. The end in my field is not truth but "a more better union" (let's say) -- but philosophers would probably bristle at the notion that someone else has already decided on what constitutes that "more better".