Weak Nature Alone

Adrian Johnston’s latest, A Weak Nature Alone (volume 2 of Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism) aims among other things at forging an alliance with John McDowell’s empiricist Hegelianism, and gives positive mention to McDowell’s use of the Aristotelian concept of second nature. Johnston is the leading American exponent of Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian Hegelian provocations, and a neuroscience enthusiast. He wants to promote a weak naturalism that would nonetheless be directly grounded in empirical neuroscience. He claims neuroscience already by itself directly undoes “bald” naturalist philosophy from within natural-scientific practice. That sounds like a logical confusion between very different discursive domains, but I am quite interested in a second-nature reading of Hegel.

Broadly speaking, the idea of a weak naturalism sounds good to me. I distinguish between what I think of as relaxed naturalisms and realisms of an Aristotelian sort that explicitly make a place for second nature and assume no Givenness, and what I might privately call “obsessive-compulsive” naturalisms and realisms that build in overly strong claims of univocal causality and epistemological foundations.

Johnston likes McDowell’s rejection of the coherentism of Donald Davidson. McDowell’s basic idea is that coherence can only be a subjective “frictionless spinning in a void”, and that it thus rules out a realism he wants to hold onto. I enjoyed McDowell’s use of Hegel and Aristotle, but thought the argument against Davidson the weakest part of the book when I read Mind and World. If you circularly assume that coherentism must be incompatible with realism, as McDowell tacitly does, then his conclusion follows; otherwise, it doesn’t.

Nothing actually justifies the characterization of coherence as frictionless spinning. This would apply to something like Kantian thought, if it were deprived of all intuition, which for Kant is never the case. Kant sharply distinguishes intuition from thought or any other epistemic function, but nonetheless insists that real experience is always a hylomorphic intertwining of thought and intuition. Brandom brilliantly explains Kantian intuition’s fundamental role in the progressive recognition of and recovery from error, which — along with the recursively unfolding reciprocity of mutual recognition — is essential to the constitution of objectivity.

I want to tendentiously say that as far back as Plato’s account of Socrates’ talk about his daimon, intuition among good philosophers has played a merely negative and hence nonepistemic role. (By “merely” negative, I mean it involves negation in the indeterminate or “infinite” sense, which in contrast to Hegelian inferential determinate negation could never be sufficient to ground knowledge.) On the other hand, that merely negative role of intuition has extreme practical importance.

The progressive improvement of (the coherence of) a unity of apperception that is essential to the distinction of reality from appearance is largely driven by noncognitive mere intuition of error. Intuitions of error or incongruity explicitly bring something like McDowell’s “friction” into the mix.

Charles Pierce reputedly referred to the hand of the sheriff on one’s shoulder as a sign of reality. Like an intuition of error, this is not any kind of positive knowledge, just an occasion for an awareness of limitation. It is just the world pushing back at us.

According to Johnston, McDowell stresses “the non-coherentist, non-inferentialist realism entailed by the objective side of Hegel’s absolute idealism” (p.274). Johnston wants to put results of empirical neuroscience here, as some kind of actual knowledge. But there could be no knowledge apart from some larger coherence, and we are clearly talking past one another. Neuroscience is indeed rich with philosophical implications, but only a practice of philosophy can develop these.

Johnston wants to revive the Hegelian philosophy of nature. Very broadly speaking, I read the latter as a sort of Aristotelian semantic approach to nature that was also actually well-informed by early 19th century science. I could agree with Johnston that the philosophy of nature should probably get more attention, but still find it among the least appealing of Hegelian texts, and of less continuing relevance than, say, Aristotle’s Physics.

Johnston also likes Friedrich Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. In this case, I actually get more takeaway from Engels than from Hegel. Engels was not a real philosopher, but he was well-read and thoughtful, and a brilliant essayist and popularizer. His lively and tentative sketches were ossified into dogma by others. He did tend to objectify dialectic as happening in the world rather than in language, where I think Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel all located it.

But “dialectic” for Engels mainly entails just a primacy of process; a primacy of relations over things; and a recognition that apparent polar opposites are contextual, fluid, and reciprocal. However distant from the more precise use of dialectic in Aristotle and Hegel, these extremely general principles seem unobjectionable. (The old Maoist “One divides into Two” line, explicitly defended by Badiou and implicitly supported by Žižek and Johnston, not only completely reverses Engels on the last point, but also reverses Hegel’s strong programmatic concern to replace “infinite” negation with determinate negation.)

Engels did infelicitously speak of dialectical “laws” governing events, but his actual examples were harmless qualitative descriptions of very general phenomena. Much of 19th century science outside of physics and chemistry was similarly loose in its application of exact-sounding terms. In Anti-Dühring, however, Engels argued explicitly that Marx never intended to derive any event from a dialectical “law”, but only to apply such “laws” in retrospective interpretation. The “dialectics of nature” is another exercise in Aristotelian semantics. (See also Aristotelian Matter; Efficient Cause.)

It sounds like Johnston wants ontologized dialectical laws of nature, and will want to say they are confirmed by neuroscience results. Johnston also highlights incompatibilities between Brandom and McDowell that are somewhat hidden by their mutual politeness. This in itself is clarifying. I now realize McDowell is further away than I thought, in spite of his nice Aristotelian references. (See also Johnston’s Pippin.)