Materialism, Subjectivity and the Outcome of French Philosophy

By Burns, Michael; Smith, Brian | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Materialism, Subjectivity and the Outcome of French Philosophy


Burns, Michael, Smith, Brian, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


Adrian Johnston is well known for his work at the intersection of Lacanian psychoanalysis, German idealism, contemporary French philosophy and most recently cognitive neuroscience. In the context of the current issue, Johnston represents the most complete development of a contemporary theory of Transcendental Materialism. In the following interview we explore both the implications ofJohnston's previous work, as well as the directions his most recent projects are taking.

Michael Burns: At the 'Real Objects or Material Subjects?' conference you closed your paper with the line, 'materialists and humanists, it's time to unite: the day is ours'. I was wondering if you could flesh out what a 'materialist humanism' would look like in the contemporary philosophical climate?

Adrian Johnston: Since the conference at Dundee last year, I have had a chance to recast what I was getting at with reference specifically to Hegel. In particular to the section of the Phenomenology of Spirit entitled 'Observing Reason'. One of the things I'm in the process of working out on the basis of these texts, such as the piece I presented in Dundee, is the notion that instead of us philosophically having to impose an external check on the sciences, especially the natural sciences, in order to leave room for some of the things we might be interested in, and which we don't feel can adequately be accounted for within the explanatory methodological frameworks of the sciences, we can, instead, taking a Hegelian dialectical phenomenological approach, argue that at this point one can step back and see the natural sciences themselves developing out of their own resources a sense of their limitations, vis a vis the things that, philosophically speaking, we are interested in. We can begin to account for how the sciences, on their own terms, are necessarily incomplete and that they can actually pinpoint the ways in which they're incomplete. Hegel already tries this, when talking about the emergence of the life sciences out of 17th and 18th century science, going back to Bacon and Galileo, but of course culminating in Newtonian mechanical physics. Hegel points out how these disciplines nonetheless have to rely on formulating their own terms; they develop a distinction between the animate and the inanimate and a notion of life, but they produce a notion of life out of themselves that they thereafter can't contain or can't do justice to. And, of course, the section on 'Observing Reason' famously culminates in the absurd doctrines of physiognomy and phrenology as the example of the last attempt to rein in what these sciences have produced out of themselves back within their own confines. I think that there's something very much along these lines that's going on in an even more striking fashion with the science of the last few decades.

So, to go back to your question: In the final lines, or rather the last few paragraphs, of the piece I presented in Dundee, the idea is that we don't need to feel at this point threatened by the sciences as our adversaries. The old phenomenological or Frankfurt School critical theory narrative about how these disciplines have imposed this reductive levelling down of rationality and that we have to fight this is still very much a part of today's discourse on biopolitics etc. that, to me, is completely wrongheaded and in fact misidentifies what the problems are and fails to realize that even if the individual scientists themselves might be committed to some reductive or eliminative ideology, some sort of crude scientism, that the sciences themselves, and certain scientists of varying degrees of consciousness, are aware that there is this weird kind of dialectical mutation that's occurring in those disciplines that can be productively put to work. Continuing to misrecognize and neglect that internal self-critique perpetuates a false debate that goes back essentially to things like Husserl's complaint about the sciences at the start of the 20th century. …

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