What is Idealism Anyway?

I’m in the middle of writing a somewhat huge post about normativity in response to some of Levi’s recent (fairly scathing) writings on the matter, and this (along with producing work for my supervisor) has meant I’ve not responded to some of the other (from my perspective) problematic claims he’s been making (e.g., vis a vis transcendental philosophy), but I can’t resist questioning his recent claim (here), which Graham Harman perhaps (?) agrees with (here), that materialism is just a disguised form of idealism. Given the way it’s formulated, it leaves me wondering what exactly Levi thinks idealism is anyway.

There is a certain danger in broadening a term so much, in order to undermine positions you oppose, that it ceases to be useful for that or any other purpose, except insofar as it still invokes some resonance with or connotations from its original and more limited meaning. I’ve often felt that this is a serious danger with the term ‘correlationism’ (which I believe is a genuinely important and interesting concept), but it seems that ‘idealism’ has perhaps gotten there first (and subsumed a whole chunk of correlationism while its at it).

Before making any substantive points, it’s first important to acknowledge the main point Levi makes in that post, namely, that realism and materialism are not the same. I’m perfectly happy with this. Of course, I think materialism is the preferable form of realism, but this is another debate entirely (I’ve ventured some initial points on my worries about Levi’s anti-materialism here).

Now, on to the actual disagreement. Here is the quote that I’m concerned with in full:-

In this connection, I think Harman provides the proper argument against materialist realisms. Harman’s argument is basically that philosophical materialisms (I won’t impugn the good scientists that frequent my blog) are idealisms. If they are idealisms then this is because they begin with an idea of the real, of what being is, and then set about translating all beings into this model. In this regard, Harman accords well with the theses of Laruelle in Non-Philosophy II, whom I detest, but whose points are nonetheless well taken. To begin with an idea of what is real is to begin within the framework of an idealism that allows the concept to dictate being. By contrast, object-oriented ontologies, paradoxically, do not begin with a thesis of what is real, they do not allow an idea to dictate being, but rather hold that we do not know what the real is, only that the real is.

My real problem with this argument is that it seems to conflate the content of a position with the manner in which it is justified or elaborated. Are there any materialists that actually hold that the real is beholden to any ideas? Is this an implication of their position that they simply aren’t owning up to? Or are we talking about something like performative idealism? (The content of what you say is not idealist, ah, but the way you say it!)

I’m not going to deny that there are plenty of what we might call naive materialists, who take it to be obvious that what is real is what is material, and that nothing that is immaterial can be real. But is naive materialism synonymous with materialism anymore than realism is synonymous with materialism? No. There are many of us materialists who actually try to argue for the position that the real is the material, and who accept that the claim is precisely not obvious. We accept that we should, by inquiring into the nature of the real, uncover what the real is. We simply think that by doing this we discover that the real is material.

Now there is a vaguely Laruellian position that could be found around here, which Levi points to, namely, that all ways of determining the real, by making claims about what the real is, are in some way fundamentally inadequate, and that we must therefore content ourselves with the radical independence of the real (the brute fact ‘that the real is’) from any way of determining it. However, this can’t be Levi’s own position, because he does want to say something about what the real is (in terms of his account of objects as self-differing and translating one another’s differences, etc.), he just disagrees with the materialist picture, insofar as he takes it not to be pluralistic enough. This kind of ontological pluralism does not sit well with non-philosophy (even if non-philosophy is pluralistic in its own, quite radically different way).

Levi and Graham previously put forward a simple characterisation of what they think constitutes idealism: if a philosophy cannot say anything about the way non-human objects interact in a way independent of humans then it is idealist. I have my own problems with this characterisation, insofar as I think it is at best necessary but not sufficient (it strikes me that Hegel could pass muster here), but on this account materialism is a perfectly acceptable realism. Materialism can talk all day about non-human objects interacting in themselves, and at no point would it make recourse to an idea of materiality within its explanations. Yes, its explanations can deploy the idea of materiality, but that’s a different matter altogether. Using a concept and mentioning it are different things.

In short, if this is the best argument OOO has against materialism it should be worried, and materialists should not. It seems that really this is meant to be a criticism of the methodology of some materialists, and there may as of yet be something interesting in this, but it has been overplayed.

Now, if we want a more restrictive but thereby more useful characterisation of what Idealism consists in, I think we can make do with the following: any position is idealist if it holds that, in some sense, the fundamental structure of reality is the structure of thought.

This captures both objective and subjective idealisms (Hegel and Berkeley), although it doesn’t capture Kantian transcendental idealism, which we can classify (a la Meillassoux) as weak correlationism. It does raise some questions about strong correlationists such as Heidegger, insofar as for them thought is involved in the fundamental structure of reality, even it is not identical with it, but I think these are precisely very interesting questions. This is obviously a tentative definition, but I think it does the trick for now.

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

5 thoughts on “What is Idealism Anyway?”

  1. De: “Levi and Graham previously put forward a simple characterisation of what they think constitutes idealism: if a philosophy cannot say anything about the way non-human objects interact in a way independent of humans then it is idealist.”

    Kvond: I still have no idea what groups Harman with Levi, other that Levi’s desire to be included in the SR club. It would be nice if Levi wrote a clear post about all the things he agrees with Harman on, and also all the things that he disagrees with Harman one. He’s very good at these kinds of writings, and it would be most helpful.

    But your above quote is absolutely hilarious. Have you read Harman’s essay on Causation? A link to a copy of it is posted in my review here: http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/02/11/how-do-the-molten-centers-of-objects-touch/ . His theory of how objects interact apart from human beings is PURE Idealism, in fact it is a bizzare Husserlian extension that objects hold within their objectness intentional objects (what Harman calls “vicars”) of other objects. The theory is so non-sensical (but colorful), and his essay so lacking in explanation of what actually does happen between objects that are not humans, it takes Husserlian Idealism to its limit. Can it be that you are not an Idealist if you take Idealist presumptions and just give them to all objects in the world? How odd.

  2. As I see it, Laruelle’s point is rather different. It is not that all ways of determining the real are inadequate, rather Laruelle argues that philosophy falls into a circular argument insofar as it is always based on a decision that is not itself grounded that divides the world into a faktum and a datum. Reid has an excellent post explaining all of this if you haven’t read it already:


    As I see it, Laruelle’s point is basically that a concept ends up determining reality such that all of reality is interpreted in terms of that conceptual decision. Thus, for example, in the case of materialism the materialist finds nothing but material support for his claims when referring to the world because he’s already decided that the world is materialistic. In other words, the argument is circular. Note, this would not be unique, for Laruelle, to materialism. If I’ve understood Laruelle correctly– a tall order —all philosophies are idealist because they all contain this circular structure where thought determines the real rather than the real determining thought. On this point, I think Laruelle has developed a pretty powerful critique of philosophy. In my view, onticology fairs a bit better as at least it is difference determining thought rather than thought difference.

    I also wonder whether your characterization of idealism does the job. Is it sufficient to claim that a position is idealist if it claims that the fundamental structure of realisty is the structure of thought? Whitehead seems to advocate this position in the sense that insofar as the superject is a product of being the structures of a subject’s thought will be those of reality. For idealism, I think, we need a thesis that is slightly stronger. A position is not idealist unless thought determines reality. Here, I think, is what is more or less common to all anti-realist or correlationist positions. Thought determines reality such that what reality might be independent of thought is completely prohibited as a question. Here Hegel becomes a hard call as he does not make this claim but instead attempts to establish the identity of substance and subject, the identity of identity and difference. There is no one term determining the other but rather a reciprocal determination. In this respect, Hegel’s position could just as easily be defined as a realism– which he occasionally says himself. For the speculative realists, then, the point of contention with Hegel would surround the question of whether thought is a necessary component of being or whether there is being without thought. For Hegel, of course, there can be no being without thought.

  3. Kvond: I have read the paper on vicarious causation, and I suspect I have similar worries about it to you. I do find the approach of simply generalising a phenomenological description of our internal life into the structure of all objects (and their interactions) to be quite problematic. I did start reading your review of the paper but got distracted part way through, I will get back to it though.

    Levi: I accept my characterisation of Laruelle was overly simplistic here, and I have already read Reid’s post on the matter (which I did find helpful). However, what one needs to use Laruelle’s position in the way you want to, is not only to accept Laruelle’s general characterisation of philosophical decision (which I’m not exactly inclined to) and a specific analysis of what the overarching materialist decision consists in. If you can find a specific circularity which is characteristic of all materialism, then that would be really interesting, but I don’t think you’ve quite shown it yet, or shown how it amounts to idealism.

    I suspect the kind of circularity you’re gesturing at is the idea that materialism does not let itself be confronted with counter-examples to the thesis that all things are material because it has decided in advance that these things do not exist and thus cannot provide good counter-examples. However, although it might be the case that some materialisms fall into this trap (and it would be a bad thing if they did), I don’t think this is characteristic of materialism as such.

    For instance, I’ve tried to show before how my own approach does not start from the assumption of materialism, but rather tries to work through what existence and reality are, and thus what it would be to advocate anything like the claim that all beings are material, before arguing for it. Of course, I haven’t yet provided a knock down argument for why one must adopt this position, but I haven’t exactly assumed it either. I do deny the existence of some entities prior to justifying materialism (my pseudo-beings: propositions, norms, fictional objects, etc.), but these aren’t rejected on materialist grounds.

    As for your own position vis a vis difference, I’m not sure its as innocent as you think it is. You want to get a lot out of your ontic principle (even if it is an ‘ironic’ principle), including at least some kind of process philosophy. Thus, when you’re claiming that all is difference, you seem to have a definite idea of what difference is (even if I must confess that I don’t know exactly what it is) which you are identifying with the real. It might be that this is a more minimal and pluralistic conception of the real than provided by materialism, but it is still seems to be a conception of it.

    I honestly can’t comment on Whitehead, as I’ve read very little (sadly), but I think your counter suggestion isn’t adequate. This is because it all depends on what you mean by ‘determining’ the real. In its most extreme form, only solipsism satisfies this, so we need to have something less extreme than my thinking determining the truth of what I’m thinking about. But then, how do we tone it down so as to actually capture the paradigm Idealist thinkers (Berkeley, Hegel, and maybe Fichte and the like)? I’m not sure I can see any way to tone it down that doesn’t collapse it into strong correlationism, i.e., the idea that there is no in-itself in-itself, but only and in-itself for-us.

    Really I think any description of idealism should manage both to characterise Hegel, and delineate itself from at least some correlationist positions, if not all. Meillassoux is very explicit in his positioning of Hegel as the paradigm of idealism against correlationism, and I think he’s right in doing so.

  4. De, I just wanted to direct your attention to the paper, I’m pretty sure that my speculative review will not be of much interest to your project. As you already have found the paper I can’t imagine how one can escape Idealism by turning all objects into phenomenologist creations (each with their own internal intentional objects). (But I do see, as I have mentioned before elsewhere, how one can escape the SR criticism of so called “correlation” through panpsychism.)

    Anyways, it is precisely in the issue of causation that Graham’s titular object orientation falls apart and shows itself to not be about objects at all. What Graham is after is the sensuous qualities in the world mostly as humanist projections, and “objects” are simply the abstract theoretical anchor on which to hoist them.

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