Reductionism and Materialism

As seems to be the case with half of the philosophy blogosphere, I have just been to Dundee, at the Real Objects or Material Subjects conference. It is somewhat strange meeting so many people from the internet in the flesh. I had a very good time of it though. The papers have were of an excellent standard and the discussion was stimulating. I might have gone a bit over the top at points though, as evidenced by Graham’s experience of me (here). I don’t really get to talk to people about philosophy that much, and so I tend to get a tad over enthused at conferences. My apologies to anyone who has been hit by the full force of this enthusiasm. The one point that I got consistently from anyone who reads the blog is that my posts are perhaps too long and involved at times. As such, I’ll try to keep this one short. My main aim here is to explain the issues I had with Graham’s paper. In this post I’ll explain the two I made in the questions after the paper, and I’ll handle the problem I accosted him with after it in a separate post.

To briefly explain Graham’s paper – ‘I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed’ – he gave an account of two different forms of materialism, which he called ground floor and first floor materialism, and then presented arguments against both. Graham takes first floor materialism to be exemplified by Zizek and Badiou, and it is characterised by conceiving the real in minimal terms as a kind of excess in relation to human knowledge. This position ‘overmines’ objects, but effectively collapses into correlationism. I’ve got no particular problem with this characterisation. Ground floor materialism on the other hand ‘undermines’ objects, by reducingthem to some deeper metaphysical principle or fundamental substratum. The bulk of Graham’s paper was the dissection of a specific example of this form of materialism, namely, the ontic structural realism of Ladyman and Ross in their book Everything Must Go. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, and if nothing else, Graham’s paper makes me want to read it more, although I will most definitely keep his criticisms of it in mind. However, I’m not going to rehearse them here, as I don’t have any real problem with them.

Instead, I’m just going to present the basic points I made in response to the paper as a whole.

1. Varieties of Reductionism

There are actually at least two senses of ‘reductionism’ that Graham is appealing to, and that have been thrown around elsewhere on the blogosphere (I’m thinking in particular of Peter Gratton‘s claim that all anti-realism is reductionism). On the one hand, there is the classical sense of reductionism, which indicates a certain conception of the relation between the various domains of entities dealt with by the different sciences. This form of reductionism holds that the laws governing the entities at a given strata of reality are completely derivable from the laws governing the levels of reality beneath them (e.g., that chemical laws are derivable from physical laws). This sense of reductionism can actually be split in two itself, into a strong and a weak form. The weaker sense of reductionism is a methodological presupposition of the natural sciences as classically construed, and it is opposed to emergentism, which characterises the more modern methodological paradigm exemplified by complexity theory. This needn’t necessarily be committed to the idea of a fundamental level of reality to which the rest is reducible (e.g., physics). The stronger form differs simply in that it is committed to such a fundamental substratum. Physicalism is the classic form of strong reductionism in this sense.

The second sense of reductionism, which Graham is directly concerning himself with, is characterisable independently of any particular relation to the sciences. Indeed, Graham introduced it by using the example of the presocratics, who tend to ‘reduce’ entities to some deeper metaphysical principle, but one which is obviously not conceived in terms of the sciences (e.g., apeiron, water, fire, etc.). The important point here is that the strong form of the first kind of reductionism is also reductionism in the second sense, but that there are kinds of reductionism in the second sense which are not reductionism in the first sense at all. Interestingly enough, Ladyman and Ross are not reductionist in the first sense at all, despite still being reductionist in the second sense, for Graham. My final thought on this is that more needs to be done to explain exactly what this second sense of reductionconsists in, as it has nothing to do with the of derivability of laws. I want a better grasp of what Ladyman and Ross, Anaxamander, Ian Hamilton Grant, and others have in common, and I’d really prefer us to use a different word than ‘reductionism’, given the complicated relation between this and the primary sense of the word. In short, we need a new concepthere, and we need to get clear about its content.

2. Putting the Matter Back in Materialism

Although I accept the arguments Graham presents against first floor materialism, and I think I accept his arguments against Ladyman and Ross specifically, these arguments seem primarily to rest upon the problems or inconsistencies the epistemological commitments of these positions generate. I can’t go into this in great detail without actually presenting his account of, and arguments against Ladyman and Ross, but I don’t really want to back up this claim here. Rather, the point I want to make is that the epistemological commitments that cause these problems aren’t essential features of materialism qua materialism. The core of materialism must be some form of explicitly metaphysical commitment. Now, I think we can identify such a core metaphysical commitment, although I also think what it shows is that the first kind of materialism Graham identifies (that of Zizek and others) isn’t actually materialism in any useful sense.

In essence, materialism is the claim that to be is to be material, and this amounts to the claim that everything that is must be manifest in some kind of substratum. Different forms of materialism conceive of the nature of this substratum and the way such manifestation functions in different ways, but they all exclude the possibility of entities that cannot somehow be situated in it. The point is that materialism is about matter, in the Aristotelian sense, even if there is no consensus on what matter is, or what it is for it to be formed. It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I think Deleuze is a paradigm materialist in this sense (see here), and that the specific arguments Graham deploys in his paper do not touch him, insofar as his metaphysical materialism is not bound up with problematic epistemological commitments (at least not the ones Graham identifies in Ladyman and Ross).

To state this point properly, if…

a) My identification of the core metaphysical commitment of materialism is correct;

b) This conception of entities as manifest in a substratum entails a commitment to reductionism in the second sense;


c) This core metaphysical commitment is genuinely independent of the epistemological commitments that cause problems for both of the kinds of ‘materialism’ that Graham identified in his paper;

…then, there are potential forms of ‘undermining’ or ground floor materialism that Graham’s main arguments don’t undermine, Deleuze being a good example of such positions.

3. To Be Continued…

Graham did present another argument against the two forms of materialism he identified, but it wasn’t really directed at materialism per se, but at all forms of realism that deny his own peculiar conception of reality as that which is withdrawn from all possible experience or knowledge of it. This is his argument that complete knowledge of a thing would have to be the thing, or at least be able to take its place. I think this is a bad argument, but exactly why I think so will have to be spelled out in the next post.

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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.

11 thoughts on “Reductionism and Materialism”

  1. Yeah, Alex is right Pete, don’t worry too much. You are actually inspiring 🙂 I felt so overwhelmed (in a good way) by your encyclopedic Hegel that I realized the need to tackle it more seriously. It’s been a pleasure meeting you.

  2. Thanks for the support guys. There’s a follow up post in the works, though it’s quite a bit longer than this one. Should be up soon. Alex, I’m emailing you about prog!

  3. Just to second what others have said here, it was great to meet you and I really appreciated your sincere passion for philosophy.

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