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I’ve lately been trying to start understanding Speculative Realism, a contemporary movement within “continental” philosophy. Speculative Realism is of particular interest to me because, it seems, it is one of the first philosophical movements whose social network is focused on the Web. (One of its leading thinkers, Graham Harman, has his own regularly updated blog.) This is not yet the future I’ve been starting to imagine where the Web replaces universities and book publishing as philosophy’s institutional locus, since most if not all Speculative Realists are academics. Still, it’s an interesting first step.

Now what about the content of Speculative Realism, the ideas? It’s a difficult school of thought and I’ve only scratched the surface, by scanning of some of the websites. I am certainly not in a place to evaluate this emerging tradition’s arguments, not yet at least. But to help myself and others think through what Speculative Realism might mean, I’d like to try some preliminary comparison – what Charles Tilly would call “individualizing” comparison, the attempt to understand one phenomenon by drawing connections to others.

As I understand it so far, the most central idea in Speculative Realism is a critique of what the French Speculative Realist Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism.” I pinch Meillassoux’s definition of “correlationism” from Skholiast’s blog: correlationism is “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” Correlationism is an idea associated above all with Immanuel Kant’s epistemology, according to which our knowledge is limited to categories of human thought; it is thereby anthropocentric, focusing epistemology and metaphysics too much on the human subject and not enough on objects in the world. (Thus Speculative Realists like Harman often refer to their thought as “object-oriented philosophy,” a philosophy focused on the objects of knowledge, as opposed, presumably, to the “subject-oriented philosophy” of Kant.)

The first comparison that came to my mind when I read about this was one that I doubt Speculative Realists would find flattering: Ayn Rand. Rand blames Kant for most of the perceived evils of contemporary society, including even its supposed irrationalism, going so far as to call the austere Prussian “the first hippie in history.” Why? Because, in a word, of Kant’s correlationism! What most irritated Rand about Kant was the turn toward the subjective, away from the objective facts of the world; from here, she thought, it was a short slide into Communism, sacrificing human beings’ rational faculties. The merits of Rand’s interpretation of Kant and of post-Kantian intellectual history are dubious; nevertheless it intrigues me that in some respect she has found an unlikely bedfellow in the Speculative Realists.

The second comparison is a bit more far-reaching, and I think more intriguing. The more I read about Speculative Realism, the more this thought came to me: the basic goal of Speculative Realism is to make Western thought less Indian and more Chinese.

A while ago I noted that South Asian and East Asian thought are in many respects further from each other than they are from the West, and I’d like to expand on the point in the context of Speculative Realism. A central concern, possibly the central concern, of Indian (or more generally South Asian) thought has been the psychology of the human subject. One begins with the suffering subject, already conceived in some sense as separate from the world, and then that subject tries to detach even further from the world. The Yoga Sūtras and the Jainism of the Tattvārtha Sūtra take us even further than Descartes: we are trying to become pure subjectivity. Even Pali Buddhism, focused on the subject’s unreality, nevertheless focuses its attention on the inner subjective world. Reality in the Pali suttas is composed of five “aggregates”; only one of these (r?pa, matter or form) is physical, while the other four are all primarily within the mind. I’m not sure that this all is correlationist per se, but it is anthropocentric and privileges the subject in ways the Speculative Realists seem to oppose.

Turn to China, on the other hand, and one finds a philosophy concerned above all with the outer world, one that often speaks of the exterior world in interior terms. The closest word classical Chinese has for “emotion” is qing, which has more of a sense of “disposition”: one’s emotions are imagined in an almost behaviourist way, based on the way that they predispose one to react in the outer world. I say “almost” behaviourist because there’s some dispute about how much interiority one finds in the work of thinkers like Confucius: Ted Slingerland has argued there is a little, while Herbert Fingarette has argued there is none at all. (On Fingarette’s account Confucius begins to seem an eliminative materialist like Paul and Patricia Churchland; and at least according to the “Pathfinder” list of links I found above, the Speculative Realists are quite sympathetic to eliminative materialism and its attack on subjectivity.)

Either way, though, the lack of attention to the subjective world in classical Confucianism is striking. Aaron Stalnaker’s comparison of Augustine and Xunzi is instructive here. Both Augustine and Xunzi are deeply concerned with the bad tendencies in human nature; but for Xunzi this remains almost entirely at the level of behaviour. Not for him Augustine’s pained reflections on memory, worrying that he still enjoys the memory of past sins even after he’s stopped sinning; nor Augustine’s worries that he still sins in his dreams. The problem for Xunzi isn’t with what we think and feel; it’s only with what we do. On a first glance at Speculative Realism, this Confucian world seems a lot like the intellectual world they’d like to create. Nor is the nonsubjective world of Chinese philosophy limited to Confucianism; Ch’an Buddhism itself attempts to decentre the subject in favour of the natural world (rather than the mental aggregates of Indian Buddhism).

I recall Harman once saying something on his blog to the effect that you could tell the essentials of any philosopher’s thought from that philosopher’s aesthetics; and the point seems very much validated by classical Indian and Chinese aesthetics. Anne Monius once pointed out to me that classical Indian aesthetics are extraordinarily anthropocentric. Until the medieval Indian Muslims, and perhaps even after that, one does not find any paintings or statues depicting the natural world by itself, or even at the centre of a picture. The centre of every art object is a human or humanlike being. The closest one gets to a painting of a nonhuman is anthropomorphic animal deities like the monkey god Hanumān. It is the human(oid) subject that matters. The most characteristically Chinese style of painting, by contrast, is the landscape, in which human beings’ presence is tiny. This is object-oriented art.

I don’t know nearly enough about Speculative Realism to say anything about whether they’re right. My sympathies usually lie with Indian over Chinese philosophy, and strongly against eliminative materialism; so I view this new tradition’s ideas with considerable caution. But I’m not trying here to engage with them constructively yet – just to see if I can get a first grasp of what they’re up to. And it does seem like the idea, put crudely, is to make us less Indian and more Chinese.