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The Necessity of Angels: Caputo and the ‘Warrior Realists’

First, I want to thank Tripp Fuller and Indiana University Press for facilitating this “blog tour,” and encourage everyone to check out the previous posts available here.

In chapter 10,Facts, Fictions, and Faith: What Is Really Real after All?Caputo continues to put his thesis of “perhaps” in play with some of the biggest names in contemporary

9780253010100_p0_v1_s260x420continental philosophy. Here, Caputo sets out to take on what he dubs “Warrior Realism,” and others call Speculative Realism. Caputo sets his sights on Quentin Meillassoux’s (pronounced may-yah-sue) critique of “correlationsim” which he believes as corrupted philosphical thought and its ability to say anything meaningful about the world itself. In this first post, I’ll simply try to give Meillasoux a bit of background and fair treatment.  If you don’t want to hear a lot about Meillassoux before diving into Jack’s critique, then skip this section in between the *’s.


In his seminal work After Finitude, Meillassoux starts out by bringing to the fore the question of what have traditionally been called primary qualities. Secondary qualities are qualities of a thing that are produced in some relation to another thing. For example, when your finger touches a flame and you feel the sensation of heat, or burning, this is a quality that, we can assume, the flame itself does nor perceive, it does not burn itself. Meillasoux’s project does not involve these kinds of qualities, but primary qualities, or qualities of the thing itself, the flame as if there is no finger for it to burn. In short, to bypass getting stuck speaking about secondary qualities, Meilassoux, unsurprisingly given his mentor was none other than Alain Badiou, posits that mathematics are the thing that can tell us about things in themselves, or the universe, without recourse to relation. There is, in other words, a rehabilitation of the objects of relation themselves, or the related terms, rather than the relation itself.meillassoux

For those familiar with Kant, he is an obvious target and exemplar of such correlationism. Kant, along with other transcendental idealists,  took it upon themselves to mediate between idealism and realism.  Kant urged that knowledge has an a priori component that allows rational subjects to make s synthetic a priori judgements about the world. Synthetic a priori judgements are not about the world, they are about the world as it is experienced by subjects possessing certain a priori principles. Metaphysics, then, is about the conditions of experience. For Kant, the conditions of experience are: Sensibility (space and time, both subjective), understanding (intuition, concepts/categories), and reason (makes sense of world by applying a priori categories… 12 of them). This transcendental idealism of Kant meant not that objects in our experience conform to our concepts, not the other way around. Hence, in this mediating philosophy between realism and idealism, there is the necessity of what Meillassoux calls correlation, we cannot have knowledge of objects themselves, they are process through those 12 a priori categories (e.g. causality, plurality, unity, possibility, existence, etc.).

As Graham Harman points out in his treatment of Meillasoux, Meillasoux obviously rejects this correlational aspect of Kant, but happily follows Kant in his critique of “dogamtic metaphysics,” or metaphysics’ insistence on saying something about the world without first talking about how we can come to know the world in the first place. Therefore, Harman formulates Meillasoux’s idea of correlationism is that philosophers have thought that if we try to think beyond thought, we thus turn whatever that is into a thought, and return to square one. Unlike other Speculative Realists and Object Oriented Ontologists, Meillassoux also thinks there is something to privilege about the human-world relation (over object-object relations) while at the same time radicalizing the relationship to show that there must be things independent of this relationship or thought itself.

Meillassoux further asserts that the finitude exemplified or founded in Kant’s system is not unique to human knowledge, finitude is part of the stucture of all existence, objects themselves contain an obvious finitude in failing to grasp the nature of their condition or the existence of other objects. However, even if the human-world relation stands at the center, this is what can, in radical form, tell us about experience or relation independent objects “in themselves.”

One example of how this becomes possible is what Meillasoux calls the “arche-fossile,” which presents a conundrum for Kantian reason. While a fossil merely bares the marks of the past, an arche-fossil is old enough to tell us about conditions before life even emerged on earth. This kind of prehistoric science might, for those sympathetic with Meillassoux, seriously jeopardize all post-Kantian philosophy in its assumption that we simply can’t speak objectively about the world “out there” independent of our experience. Science, at least in this respect, does a pretty good job of describing the world or universe before life or Dasein existing to think, relate, or be thrown into it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ***

Caputo picks up his hammer (in a Heideggarian sense of course, his theory is not a hammer until he uses it to bash Meillassoux!) and goes to work on Meillassoux for the basic assertion that “objects fall from the sky,” and says that this kind of thought is a fundamentalist about obectivism as any Christian fundamentalism (200). To substantively counter Meillassoux, and other “Warrior Realists,” Caputo turns to philosopher of science Bruno Latour. The question about “reality” is quite tiresome when non warrior realists confront their opponents. Caputo says the problem is this:

Once we point out the role that is played by practicing scientists in constructing a scientific account of things, have we relativized science, absorbed the real into the mind of the scientist and destroyed the objectivity of science? Does not “the real” (objectivity) demand the absolute disappearance of human intervention (subjectivity)? Are not objectivity or reality and subjectivity or human investigator inversely and unilaterally related instead of being directly and bilaterally related, as demanded by the notion of correlation? Latour’s thesis is that if you asked practicing scientists that question (in a way they could understand) you would be greeted with dumbfounded and uncomprehending silence. The very opposite is true. The more complex the scientific community, the more sophisticated scientific instruments at its disposal, the more elaborate the mathematics, then the more real the result, not the more “subjectivistic.” In short, the more construction, the more reality… (200).

Through Latour, we can begin to see that the dichotomy between subject and object, or construction and reality, is not really the issue. The way science is actually practiced, the distinction is between successful and unsuccessful constructions. Physicist Niels Bohr agreed with this well before Latour, as he define scientific theory as not something that simply seeks to represent nature “in itself,” but to give us rules for manipulating objects in the world and then a language we can use to communicate or describe our results. By way of example, Caputo employs Latour’s case study of Pasteur’s famous discovery that yeast is a living organism. The pasteuronly way Pasteur could make this discovery, Latour explains, is through an ingenious series of plots and stagings, through which he was able to “trick” the microorganism to appear. Naive realism, then, is that which tries to “erase Pasteur from the scene.” It is not simply the case that the yeast existed in a living identifiable form before Pasteur came along and performed his successful experiments. Rather, in collaborative process, Pasteur worked with the yeast, they were not merely “there” before Pasteur came along, Latour insists. Experiments are not a matter of passive objects and active subjects, or passive subjects taking in the content of the objects or enviroment around them.

This is why Caputo follows Latour in thinking that we have been “blackmailed by modernity” (204). The choice is not between “omnipotent human creator (Feuerbach on religion) or an omnipotent transcendent reality (Barth on God).” There is a drive for purity of thought in the Warrior Realists which is even willing to cut off our access to the real in order to preserve its objectivity (for a great look at quests for purity of thought, see Jeff Robbins’ excellent Between Faith and Thought). Unlike these realists, Latour somewhat ironically insists that transcendence, by which he means truth or others might substitute God, never comes into view (for us) in the first place without the work of human hands. There is a direct proportion between mediation and transcendence, as Caputo paraphrases.

By the very arrival of the angel, we are instructed about the necessity of angels, of images, messages, and mediators; every parable is a parable of the necessity of parables. The angel is the “dangerous supplement” (Derrida) of/ from God, which is the point being elaborated so brilliantly in Michel Serres …The question is not how to make unconditioned contact with reality but how to find the right conditions under which it is possible to make contact with reality at all. Without the right conditions, the result is not unconditioned reality but a total lack of contact with reality…Unconditional access to reality is an illusion, like the illusion of Kant’s dove that thinks it would be able to soar all the more freely but for the resistance offered it by the wind.(206-7).

Theologians of the perhaps, Caputo concludes, are as interested in reality as anyone. Physics, Caputo surmises, is indeed as close to metaphysics as we can get (212). The role of meta/physics is then to tell us about the real (oui, oui, viens! as Jack always says) but “we still need to talk about the real inter-relations of the real, of the chiasmic intertwining of human reality with reality at large, the curling up of reality that takes place in human reality.” This is of course no surprise for anyone familiar with Caputo, and the “curlings up of reality,” plays, intertwining, traces, etc make up his Derridian impluse.

What Jack overlooks is that these physics experiments that Latour references and we can now test empirically all started as metaphysics, or Gedanken, thought experiments, that he seems opposed to when he axiomatically asserts that “the best metaphysics is physics.” Caputo’s strategy, via Latour, is to imbricate the physical sciences with the constructivism of the social sciences, a both/and approach to science and post-structural thought. It is metaphysics, then, that is left out in the cold (and not even the “cold war realists” will touch it). The trouble is that just because we can do experimental metaphysics now does not mean that the thought experiments, a definition one might give to metaphysics, weren’t necessary to begin with. As Whitehead makes clear at the outset of Process and Reality, “metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of ultimate generalities” (8). Without the adventurous spirit of metaphysics, we wouldn’t have the ideas to test in the first place. Physicist Karen Barad in a published interview says as much, that “there has never been a sharp boundary between physics, on the one hand, and metaphysics or philosophy, on the other.” Thought experiments thought up by Bohr and Heisenberg, among other giants, were never expected to be tested, they were tools to think with. Of course now that we can test them, all the better, but the ability to test certain metaphysical propositions empirically in no way limits the necessity to “experiment” with thought to create new tools and concepts that can help us manipulate and understand the world in certain ways (Bohr).

Ultimately, affirming the danger of faith is to accept what Derrida called the “new humanities,” a blurring of the line between human and inhuman, or as is the case above, reality and construction. Faith, or a theology of the perhaps, in this instance, is the realization that “we have never been purely human;  we have never been purely alive; there has never been any pure human life.” Caputo cites Derrida to argue that “différance is shown to be the ‘dead’ element in the ‘living present,’ that is, the formal, neutral, or differential spacing of a technology embedded in the heart of living speech.” Hence, there might be said to be a kind of “technology” at the heart of humanity itself, a revelation that as human beings enmeshed in a world of language in signs, we cannot speak about ourselves without speaking of the technologies that, at least in part, compose our being.

Faith, for Caputo, is accepting that because of our hybrid identities, our “real” and “constructed” elements, we can never quite see what is coming, so we need a theology of “the event” (as many posts before me have touched on.” In this mode, theology becomes radical theology, which, of course, is not metaphysics but theopoetics. Instead of a Kantian system that shields us from knowing too much therefore allowing for a kind of fideism that believes simply because it can’t be proved wrong, Caputo’s “headless Hegelian” theology of the event/perhaps accepts the uncertainty of a world which always withdraws from our attempts to wrangle it or categorize it within our constructed systems. As we have seen, there are ingenious moments in which we can glean even revolutionary new facts about the way the world is, but the way the world is is always the way the world is with us, we are a part of the world we measure, take in, and come to know. Even though I reject Caputo’s swearing off of metaphysics as just as absurd a move as Meillassoux calling Derrida and foucault fideists, theology as theopoetics is still, in my view, a justified and effective response to a world such as ours. Theopoetics, as a drawing forth, is a practice for religious communities to engage in which might not be as different from Pasteur’s experiment as we might think. Certainly religious practitioners are not scientists, trading in the currency of empirica\tests with concrete, reproducible results to share with the world, which is why Caputo says that “religious traditions as so many ways that events take place, so many ways to make conditional historical response to the unconditional solicitations, invitations, injunctions, promises, and recollections, which take place as so many events” (221-2).

How we know about the world is inextricable from how we “intra-act” (a neologism of Barad) in the world. Knowing and practicing are bound together, and being responsible and accountable to the performances in which we all variously take part. Barad drives the point home by claiming that “things don’t preexist; they are agentially enacted and become determinately bounded and propertied within phenomena. Outside of particular agential intra-actions, ‘words’ and ‘things’ are indeterminate (Meeting the Universe Halfway 150). I think Caputo insists that we accept this indeterminacy, and through what he calls theopoetics, expose ourselves to the risk (rather than shielding our faith from in with Kantian epistemological postmodernism) of creating new and better meaning in the world, perhaps even changing it. This might be what the Bible meant by the Kingdom of God.

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One response

  1. Excellent summary.

    October 26, 2013 at 8:38 pm

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