Beyond Materialism and Idealism, a Philosophy of Organism?

Levi Bryant offered some ideas about materialism earlier this week over at Larval Subjects. I read and commented on his post while screeching through the BART transbay tube on my commute home from work. My comment, asking about “ontological constructivism,” was rushed and ill formed. Now that I’m moving more slowly, and have a keyboard large enough for all ten of my fingers, I wanted to take the time to further expand and contextualize my question.

Bryant’s reflections on the paradoxes of materialism spoke precisely to some of the problematics emerging recently in a reading group I’m participating in at CIIS with Adam Robbert and others. We just finished Mark Taylor’s reader Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Prior to DiC we read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and prior to that Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. (Next is Deleuze and Guatari’s What Is Philosophy?). Bryant’s materialism is meant as a direct challenge to the authors excerpted in Taylor’s anthology. With Kant (with whom the reader begins), there began a line of thinkers committed to transcendental philosophy. This lineage has more recently been pejoratively renamed correlational philosophy by Meillassoux and other Speculative Realists. It may not be entirely fair to identify Derrida (with whom Taylor’s reader ends) as a transcendental thinker. But I do think I can say that, as a careful reader of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his work must be understood as a respectful but nonetheless critical response to this tradition. You could almost say that Derrida’s texts were an attempt to out critique the critical (or transcendental) philosophers by bringing to attention that which is even more a priori than concepts and intuitions: namely, writing. As Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”–usually translated as “there is nothing outside of the text,” but perhaps best translated as “there is no outside-text.” For object-oriented thinkers like Graham Harman and Bryant, Derrida is public enemy number one (though for slightly different reasons). For Bryant, Derrida must be read as a linguistic correlationist, as one who denies the reality of anything outside the contextual domain of semiogenesis. We must, of course, remember that the play of différance prevents an author from finally fixing the meaning of the text (I almost said “of their text,” but textual ownership is precisely what Derrida is taking issue with). Derrida’s correlationalism is not, then, the sort that would place all objects in relation to a transcendental subject, since as I understand his deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, the subject itself (along with the objects it represents) only becomes possible in and through writing. Nonetheless, meaningful signs, even if infinitely contextual, for precisely this reason only ever point to themselves. There is no “Great Outdoors,” as Meillassoux says, that writing might grant us cognition of.

Derrida owes much to Saussure’s binary semiotic theory. I prefer a different starting point in regard to meaning-making: the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s triadic semiotics redistributes meaning beyond human signs, inviting us to consider the various ways other beings interpret and refer to themselves independently of us. Peirce, and other thinkers in his lineage like James and Whitehead, seem to me to stand outside the framework of Bryant’s post. These thinkers qualify as what I called “ontological constructionists” in my original comment. Unlike “social constructionists,” it is not merely we human beings who create all meaning. Rather, all beings, in becoming-with one another (and so becoming-other than themselves), are generative of meaning. For this reason, Whitehead generalized the notion of “society” such that it included organized collectivities of any kind (not just humankind).


As Bryant frames the correlational paradox, any thinker claiming to be a materialist necessarily “proceeds through concepts.” This despite the fact that materialists understand themselves to be “[attempting] to grasp that which is other than the concept.” Bryant wants to place matter beyond and before all thought as “absolutely exterior” and unrepresentable. This is all fine and well. The clear and distinct concepts of reflective self-consciousness cannot in any way touch the darkness of materiality. But I’d like to suggest that attending to the imaginal tides of affect and aesthesis as they flow to-and-fro across the fractal edges of conscious experience may help bridge the otherwise gaping chasm between mind and matter. Attending only to thought and conceptuality, or to transcendental structures of intentional directedness toward the eidos of appearing objects, artificially widens the gap. Dwelling instead upon the way emotional vectors vibrate through and between bodies, we begin to realize that the old abstract categories of mind and matter no longer hold any water. They leak. By entering into an aesthetic–or better, poetic–rather than a conceptual time-space, we no longer need to shroud matter behind the representational mirages projected onto it by a mind which, as materialism would have it, can only be conceptualized in absentia, as not present, as somehow both identical with and yet alien to materiality. I qualified the term “aesthetic” with “poetic” above, because it is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empirical and rational schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy,” contrasting it with the more foundational mode of “causal efficacy.” When I refer to entering an aesthetic or poetic time-space, I mean attending again to the causality of sensuality, to the way aesthesis links us up with real currents of energy in our cosmic, biotic, and psychic environs. This is James’ radical empiricism, adapted by Whitehead following his protest against the bifurcation of nature. I’ve written about this in a short essay on the importance of Wordsworth’s nature poetry for Whitehead’s account of perception. For Whitehead, nature is “what we are aware of in perception” (The Concept of Nature):

“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.

In making this demand I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known.

This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. It may be that the task is too hard for us, that the relations are too complex and too various for our apprehension, or are too trivial to be worth the trouble of exposition. It is indeed true that we have gone but a very small way in the adequate formulation of such relations. But at least do not let us endeavor to conceal failure under a theory of the byplay of the perceiving mind.

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream” (29-30).

The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman treats this issue brilliantly in Emotion: A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and Their Meaning for Therapy

“If energy were the underlying substrate of the universe, i.e., its ‘truth,’ and if emotion were the way in which it manifested itself to the mind, then the creative artist through his emotion would be apprehending this truth from within” (68).

So in summary, while I agree with Bryant’s criticism of the variety of transcendental, phenomenological, and (Saussurean) semiological philosophies of access for the way they reduce the mode of being of the non-human to that of the human, I do not think his bifurcated materialistic alternative provides us with a more coherent ontology. We’re left, instead, with irresolvable paradoxes (like the hard problem of consciousness, for example).


3 thoughts on “Beyond Materialism and Idealism, a Philosophy of Organism?

  1. The triadic semiotics of CS Peirce and the related capacity to get beyond the destructive dyadic logic of modernism is, in fact, the critical step into a new and very different postmodern worldview in which relation and communication supercede substance and isolating nominalism. Peircean semiotics forms the basis for a re-conceptualization of the life sciences as biosemiotics, and what John Deely has called the “postmodern recovery of ‘person'”. It also grounds the possibility of a new way of understanding the critical role of context and allows for complementarities rather than contrary dead-end binaries that pretend that context has no influence and importance and leave us stuck in the mud of Pythagoreanism where everything is a final QED and there is no room for the middle ground, the uncertain, the vague. It’s just basically “my way or the highway” without a path forward–ideological warfare where in order for me to be right, you must necessarily be wrong. Check out the writing of John Deely, the late Walker Percy (Southern physician-novelist), Peter Ochs (my teacher at UVA), Arran Gare (particularly), and others who lead us toward a constructive postmodern world linked to Peircean semiotics and the intricate infinite web of triadic relations that form a semiotic safety net reflecting the underlying unity that pervades Nature.

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