TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Naturalize This! Analytic Philosophy and the Logic of Reactive Neutralization

For the past twenty years, a sizeable segment of analytic philosophy has been openly promoting naturalization, a process that has implicitly defined the goals of this philosophical strand since its very inception. The object of naturalization is so diffuse as to include epistemology and phenomenology, jurisprudence and education, power and responsibility, and, indeed, any human phenomenon whatsoever. The sheer extent of this devastating trend makes it a good candidate for close critical scrutiny, which can help us diagnose the condition of analytic thought, structurally incapable of a sober self-assessment, and to explain its pernicious political consequences. What distinguishes naturalization in all its multi-faceted manifestations is, above all else, its reactionary core. Unlike naïve or pre-critical naturalism, it defensively responds to the denaturing of ways of thinking, as well as of socio-political and economic institutions, accomplished in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and literary studies, among other disciplines. It is not difficult to identify the reasons behind this quintessentially conservative reaction: critical thinking is threatening to the status quo, with which much of analytic philosophy is aligned. At the institutional level, a glance at the predominance of analytic philosophers in U.S. academia suffices for one to realize just how useful they are in their function of providing the ideological justification for the perpetuation of political and economic injustices both inside and outside the university. Those wishing to maintain this skewed balance of power understand that a simple dismissal of threatening currents of thought is not an effective strategy; rather, they strive to appropriate, domesticate, and finally neutralize whatever deviates from their self-proclaimed norm. And, most remarkably, the reactive and reactionary tendency toward naturalization proceeds in the name of overcoming the split between opposing styles and approaches to philosophy, reconciled on the grounds of an already hegemonic school of thought. The type of reaction exemplified by naturalization falls under the classical Freudian category of disavowal, the simultaneous acknowledgement and repudiation of a threatening piece of reality (such as, in the case of psychic reality, sexual difference). After a drawn-out process of de-naturalization, that which is natural is no longer accepted as a given but is, instead, re-established as the normative ideal in a gesture that, at once, recognizes and neutralizes the previous deviation from the norm. Of course, claiming its “natural” status, the newly recuperated normativity vehemently refuses its association with any social, legal, or political conventions, thereby effacing the evidence of its own, rather sloppy fabrication. Under this pretext, naturalization attempts to bring critical thought back into the fold of positivity, invariably modeled on the positivism of the natural sciences, and, in so doing, to assimilate everything in its path to the thinking of identity and instrumental rationality. Under the title of naturalization, which remains suspiciously vague in a discourse ostensibly committed to the rigors of argumentation and clarity of expression, we encounter nothing more than a reductivist comprehension of nature as a set of empirically verifiable causal relations and quantities of force. The proponents of this approach are loath to ask the obvious ontological question “What is nature?”—surely, bound to affect their reactionary operation. More precisely, they have no intellectual resources at hand for raising the question regarding the meaning and the being of nature, because to “analyze” the latter, to break it down into quantities and relations of effective causality, is tantamount to giving a one-dimensional response, or to foreclosing the questioning and critical impulse in the first place. Nature is not an analytic concept and, therefore, it fails to shore up the machinations of naturalization in a meaningful way. Abdicating the traditional prerogative of philosophy, the analytic worshippers of reductivism inherit the modern scientific conception of the natural, which serves as the gold standard for the translation of phenomena from all domains of human activity into so-called hard data. This is not to say that the category of nature as such holds no promise for the thinking of ontology rid of its metaphysical overtones; indeed, much work is still to be done in this field. Only when “nature” is thus denatured (that is, released from the scientific-analytical straightjacket) would it be desirable to bring it to bear upon the various domains of human life. Naturalization would then play the opposite role to the one it fulfills today: it would signify the liberation of the political, cultural, cognitive, social, and economic spheres from the double yoke of positivism and scientific determinism. Before this happens, however, reactive naturalization will carry on its massive transcription of the oppressive teleologies of the past into the ever more tyrannical ontology of the present. The paradigm shift in modern science saw the collapse of the idea of nature, which had remained largely unchanged since Greek Antiquity, and the rise of a mathematized natural ontology. Considering that the pre-modern teleology of nature used to justify the static and oppressive socio-political arrangement of its time, a dire need for re-grounding domination in the new scientific order becomes palpable. All this will come as no surprise even to a novice reader of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. It is, nonetheless, worth examining some of the details of the conceptual translation of nature with the view to outlining the general strategy its practitioners adopt. In the legal domain, “natural law” presupposes the pre-modern, teleologically inflected ontology of nature; this kind of law works when an entity fulfills its telos or function well. The universal principles inherent in this image of the law are metaphysically determined in keeping with the objectively fixed hierarchy of ends and, later on, the standard of truth emanating from the word of God. Legal positivism is usually taken to be the exact opposite of natural law, though, in fact, it is nothing but the end result of the global translation of the old notion of “nature” into the categories of modern science. The naturalization of jurisprudence, with the attendant conceptualization of legality on the basis of cause-effect relations, enables the same legal oppression as the one that marked the pre-modern notion of the law. What both approaches have in common, then, is their insistence on the objectively fixed meaning of the law, whether it is defined by the teleology of nature, by the word of God, or by the impoverished ontology of effective causality. Each of these precludes legal hermeneutics that, at least potentially, unhinges the meaning of the law, opens up a multiplicity of interpretations, and, in doing so, de-naturalizes social domination. When it comes to thinking itself, naturalization aims to extinguish the critical impulse that emerged in post-Kantian philosophy after an objectively preordained epistemology had crumbled. The natural order of thought depended upon formal logic, the thinking of the identical as identical, which in its stability and immutability was said to resemble the eternal repose of the gods. The Hegelian critique of formal logic was only the beginning of the de-naturalization of thinking explored, in various ways, in twentieth-century philosophy by Theodor Adorno, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, to name but a few emblematic authors. As a reactionary response to these philosophical inroads, the recent rush to “naturalize the mind” takes two distinct forms. On the one hand, it can revert back to the pre-modern paradigm and insist on the absolute tyranny of formal logic. On the other, it can bow to the modern conception of the natural and translate mental processes into the scientific-reductivist terms of cognitive science. This second option is the one to which the school of “naturalizing phenomenology” wholeheartedly subscribes. Here we have a case of naturalization that is extremely revealing as to the goals of analytic philosophy and as to the bizarre ways in which it disfigures its naturalized objects. Husserlian phenomenology is impossible without a rigorous reduction, bracketing, or suspension of the natural attitude—whereby the world in which we exist is pre-comprehended on the basis of common sense and empirical experiences—and of scientific conclusions about reality. To naturalize phenomenology is to rob it of its ownmost critical bent, in the absence of which the phenomenological method and the provisional conclusions this method points toward turn insipid and get neutralized. Forcing phenomenology into the cast of cognitive science and indulging in a mathematical modeling of phenomenological descriptions, the movement of naturalization destroys Husserl’s aspiration to re-ground human knowledge and the sciences themselves on philosophically sound foundations. As a consequence, the very crisis of the European sciences Husserl tackled in one of his most important late works is intensified, such that the means of overcoming it are subsumed to the pure abstractions and to the exigencies of positivism marking the modern scientific rationality. The glimmer of hope in any crisis, be it the crisis of the political system, of global economy, or of thinking, is not that, once it passes, everything will return to “business as usual,” but that it will qualitatively transform the system it affects. In other words, the crisis holds the potential to de-naturalize ossified beliefs and practices by showing that they are neither universally applicable nor indispensable. The crisis of the global markets puts in question the assumption that capitalism is the natural mode of organizing economic life; the crisis of liberal democracy shatters the dogmatic view that it is the natural way of coordinating political life; the crisis of philosophy, literally split between the “Continental” and the “analytic” strands, defies the idea that there is a single method or path leading us to an objective truth. At the same time, the crisis does not provide a panacea from uncritical modes of thinking and action, since it can undergo a meta-naturalization (and, hence, be neutralized) as soon as its threatening, destabilizing effects are used to consolidate the same logic that culminated in disaster. For instance, instead of turning into an occasion for re-considering the basis of economic life, the crisis of capitalism has spawned the most unjust excesses of this economic system to date, whereby wealth is further redistributed from the bottom up, from the taxpayers to the banks and transnational corporations. The crisis of philosophy, similarly, has led to the entrenchment of its most uncritical elements, claiming the right to represent this entire academic discipline today, the elements that attempt, at any price, to naturalize and neutralize critical thought. In the face of this onslaught, the response has to be both harsh and rigorous; we must lucidly identify the enemies of thinking—those opposed to its free flourishing—and set them in the context of intellectual history, wherein they will finally appear as the reactionary dogmatists and civil servants of the socio-political status quo that they are.

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