Realism and Materialism: Some sketches


There are too many ways to address the difference, to try and even partially grapple what the difference really means. In Speculative Realism broadly construed and the related fields generally realism is taken as deflationary and materialism is inflationary. Realism is taken to be more concerned with epistemology whereas materialism is more concerned with doing justice to the things themselves. In my view, the former tends to isolate rationalism for the sake of coherence whereas the latter hyperbolizes certain facets of subjectivity for the sake of a flat ontology (for humans to dig into reality not as specially tasked for such digging but as one thing among others). In many ways its a matter of ‘what can we know about is and what is not’ as opposed to ‘what could be for the most democratic idea of what is.’

Problems for each side: for realism the material complexification of the base units of rationality (ie the material composition of the human body, the human mind) such as discussions of the human binome or local ecologies provide an inflationary challenge to the deflationary impulse of explanation as reduction. While materialism often claims realism often focuses on reduction or is eliminativist this often overrides the necessity of limiting one’s field of thought or experimentation in terms of constraint and ground, that focus methodologically can lead to a kind of reduction which is explanatory but not necessarily ontologically reductionist.

Again the problem is of manifestation and representation and what kind of access we have and what access means. My problem with flat ontologies is that access seems to lose all connection to form ie such as in the example of affect replacing epistemology where affect is even less defined than epistemology. So there is a double move of not only replacing epistemology with affect (which is dependent on sense as a purportedly ‘lower’ order or less human or however you wish to put it) but on replacing a defined system with a kind of connectivity. This replacement usually gets talked about in terms of affect being less human central than epistemology yet it is still required to function systematically but may hide behind description or rhetoric in the guise of ontology which is simultaneously about being and existence. The separation of being and existence seems necessary (at least methodologically) in order to not over-determine being in terms of existence but to speculate what being might be light so that existence is as prolific as it seems. And this is where the political comes in and where ‘what can we know about is and what is not’ becomes problematically mixed with ‘what could be for the most democratic idea of what is.’

In a inflationary sense one could argue that talking about our thinking in terms of affect reveals our similarity to other species or even inanimate objects if you want to go in that direction but that often shirks the power of technoscience to produce new objects which is not only a work of human minds but there is something about human minds, or the way human minds are receptive to inanimate objects (if you wanted to put it in affective terms) which seems fairly different. Monkeys cannot build rocketships but maybe their relationship to trees is ‘deeper’ or ‘more interesting’ or who knows what compared to ours. Maybe thought is about having shallow relationships to thinks which lets us create new things and not exist in a smaller mental or affective space? But this doesn’t mean epistemology can be cast in the dustbin, it requires flushing out, there needs to be good accounts of the difference in kinds of thinking.

Adrian Johnston has an interesting riff on the gap between materialism and realism here (at 1:30).


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