Self-Constraints V (Constructivism)

Radical constructivism begins from the assumption, as philosophers since Kant often do, that there is an essentially unbridgable gap between the knowing subject and the external world and that, because this gap is always mediated by fallible sense organs and imperfect cognitive structures, there can be no representation of the world that matches it perfectly, only approximations that more or less “fit.” Thus the outside world remains unknowable, and focus is turned toward the processes of knowing, the adaptation of the knower to its environment, how each knower filters what they receive from the world through the lens of their own structurations of experience, and so on. Taking Ernst von Glaserfeld’s “An Introduction to Radical Constructivism” (pdf) as exemplary of this approach, I would like to briefly bring it into contact with some basic tenets of non-philosophy and in this way clarify some of its points. How do the two differ?

1) Division. Glaserfeld writes, “our knowledge can never be interpreted as a picture or representation of that real world, but only as a key that unlocks possible paths for us.” Statements like this assume a stance of defeat (false humility?), but in fact they only register the defeat of a certain type of knowledge. Here there is an abyss between absolute reality out there somewhere and our experience or representation of it, where this abyss is assumed to be absolute. For Laruelle, this abyss or “epistemo-logical” distance already presumes too much–a division between Man and the Real, instead of thinking them in their immanent radical identity. This distance, yet another version of the originary ‘fall’, sets thought on a hopeless trajectory to recover the supposedly lost unity of inside and outside, internal and external. But this assumed constraint remains unperceived. To begin instead not only from the Undivided, but from its immanence, the Real-One, implies another sort of experience, a different treatment of the human Lived.

According to the axioms of non-philosophy, Man is in-One before being–before being the subject of knowledge or experience, and so before being-in-the-world or being-in-philosophy–before being divided into self-world, ego-self, or any of the other doublets that the technology of division can generate. Furthermore, the One is immanent without being mediated by anything whatsoever (knowledge, traces, history, cognitive structures, objects, matter…). Glaserfeld wants to focus on, “how cognitive structures or knowledge might be related to an ontological world beyond our experience.” But what if this division between intelligence and environment already credits intelligence with too much? This search for correspondence overlooks that this very search roots itself in the Real. As does the constantly repeated operation of division, though in spite of itself. Through a somewhat naive reference to spontaneous selfhood, intelligence divides itself off from the external world, forming a face-to-face between it and itself. Non-philosophy, on the contrary, presumes given the immanent One, without any inherent opposition and thus forming but “one face” with the Lived.

2) Axiomatics. Too little attention is paid to Laruelle’s explicitly non-philosophical use of language. He is trying to import into philosophy a more scientific usage of symbols that would be “without logos,” that would not suffer through the procedures of nomination and sufficient definition that lead philosophy to constantly legitimate its own linguistic decisions. More deeply, non-philosophy begins one time each time from the Real as without-logos, as without needing to pass through knowledge and its structures, which therefore can take nothing away from it or add anything to it. The issue is to invent a use of language that could model or “clone” this silence of the Real, though without presuming to generate this silence qua discourse. The axiomatic approach that Laruelle adopts is based on the mere adequacy of “first terms,” not on the approximation of concepts to intuitions, or cognitive structures to those of the presumed-external world. These first terms (Real, Man-in-Person, etc.) do not “designate” anything, they do not indicate or “name,” not even to the extent that Glaserfeld still believes he can refer to perceptual objects, cognition, etc. It is also wrong to ask what sort of knowledge these first names make possible – there’s no increase here, no development, only less arbitrary or more rigorous descriptions or modelizations of immanence, which is indifferent to those descriptions though not hampered by them.

3) Epistemology. For the Real is sufficient unto itself without being named, thought, acted upon, known, or related to us. Such a “vision” is quite different from the constructivist view, which stops half-way when recognizing the insufficiency of knowledge or experience-based constructions. It stops because it contents itself with a give-and-take between knowledge and the world, continuing to search for criteria to decide if the image it creates is a decent “fit” or not, continuing to obsess over the individual’s subjective tainting of the images. Non-philosophy sees all this “conceptualization” in a relation of unilateral duality with the Real. It acknowledges that all (including scientific) thought is on the ‘side’ of the transcendental and does not reciprocally affect immanence. Here it is close to the modesty of the radical constructivist, but there are not two sides, no opposition but only “one face” of the Real, such that what appears on the ‘transcendental side’ (that of thought, representation) is inseparable from it, caused by it, determined by it in the last instance. For the immanent real is without transcendence, and whatever transcendence there is has a priori fallen in-immanence, has been brought down or weakened in it. Thought is thereby open to countless experimentations because all its inventions are seen to be caused, though only in the last instance, by the Real and to have their radical identity in-One.

What is at issue here is not so much the insufficiency of our knowledges (yet another critical, falsely humble warning), but the sufficient “knowing” of the Real that we are without knowing it – of a Real which is radically foreclosed to thought, yet discovered without effort, without imagination, without searching for it, in-immanence. Non-philosophy tries to model this nonlearned “cognizance” of immanence (a priori peace…) as that which needs no ‘second step’ through philosophy or discourse (i.e., through cognitive structures, through adapted experience, etc.) to be known. It is an immanent gnosis, the Real-in-person: “The genericity of man is to be a knowledge that does not itself ‘know’, a Lived which is thus not reflexive and cumulative” (1). Reversing the epistemo-logical hierarchy, non-philosophy is thus non-epistemological in principle: it invents with or from the Real as the already-Discovered, rather than assuming a division that must falteringly rediscover its outside-opposite, mediating it through the structures of experience and negotiating it through decisions of knowledge – everything which has to do with the philosophical subject and the “I” as center of representation.

4) The Real. Non-philosophy is therefore given the Real without any operation of donation or givenness, and thus non-phenomenologically (not in reference to a presumed-transcendental self) and non-ontologically (not in connection to any perceived topology or configuration of beings). The Real is not reducible or comparable to anything we would call “reality,” nor does it refer to some state of being of the world out there. On the contrary, it is precisely this ontic-ontological determination that the Real under-determines radically and immanently, rendering it itself undecided or indeterminate. So whereas philosophy and constructivism assume something ‘out there’ that experience must go to, non-philosophy sees the Real-One immanent ‘prior’ to experience, even though they form one-face or one “front” with it (a unilateral duality). This has the added consequence that experience itself, the Lived affect, is a priori broken from the circuit of self-reference and auto-affectivity, from the psychologism of atomic individualities that Glaserfeld has to embrace (for example when he writes, “I alone can take the responsibility for what is being said on these pages,” exposing another aspect of spontaneous philoosophy). The Lived is instead without circularity, without reference to a Mind or a Life, without what Laruelle calls “double transcendence” (a transcendent self standing out of the world’s transcendence). The Lived is instead taken axiomatically to be in-One and thus generic, of one face or one “jet” with the immanent Real (think the front of an ocean wave, the tip of a stream). We might say that, one time each time, the Real is the non-“realistic” surprise to reality, a surprise that sub-venes or is in precession over any construction, un-doing or under-doing it, and with it undermining the World as such – and this includes its apparatus of reception, the so-called “experiencing subject.” [To better describe this surprise turn of “under-determination,” the non-standard phase of nonphilosophy speaks of the immanent Real as wavelike (as opposed to corpuscular, which is clearly Glaserfeld’s orientation insofar as judgments about objects of perception remain his concern) and as virtual or futural, as constantly in-flux (the quantic clinamen), but without ever being redoubled into a self or flattened out into a plane.]

5) Decision. One quote from Glaserfeld shows how much priority he places on this aspect: “decisions determine what is to be categorized as ‘existing’ unitary objects and what as relationships between them. Through these determinations, the experiencing consciousness creates structure in the flow of its experience. And that structure is what conscious cognitive organisms experience as ‘reality’.” We should once again note the extreme credit given to the cognitively-informed structuration of experience – as if because thought stepped in somewhere, the Real somehow needed to step out for good! But how could that be? Isn’t this expulsion just a sign that thought would like to remain in control of everything – holding it at a distance all the more certain because so cautious and non-‘idealistic’? Whereas the constructivist still thinks he needs a picture of reality (and must impose a distance of meditation through imagination no matter what), the non-philosopher sees or “knows” the Real to be Given-without-giveness, without needing pictures or constructs or any form of mediation whatsoever (=Vision-in-One). Of course this forces a change in how we view and use language and images, but it is not a matter of imposing new restrictions, skepticisms, or paranoias about our thought’s “insufficiency.” The Principle of Sufficient Philosophy fails not simply because of its hubris in trying to over-determine the Real, in assuming that it can decide what the Real “is.” Nor is it because it dooms itself, through its false humility, to the gradual process of constructing, with its own meager devices, a “more or less reliable world.” It also fails because the Real is an instance that is sufficient prior to thought’s workings – prior to being, prior to logos, before philosophy is even entered – indeed the Real is foreclosed to these, and thus likewise is Man. There is a Laruellean parody of Latour here: “we have never been philosophers,” but only generic-humans. Whereas the radical constructivist, with his obsession with the mediation of cognition and his insistence upon the absolute division between Man and the Real, cannot help but continue to philosophize in despair of itself and “adapt” itself to the so-called sufficient external World of beings, etc…

When Glaserfeld, summing up the dilemma posed to the radical constructivist, writes that, “the ‘real’ world manifests itself exclusively there where our constructions break down,” he takes up a position we could compare with Zizeks’s notion of the Real as the immanent impasse of symbolization, the supra-discursive “rupture or gap which makes the order of discourses always and constitutively inconsistent and non-totalizable”(2). This is again symptomatic of the All/not-All cage philosophers continually trap themselves in (itself based on an unperceived logocentrism without bounds). As if the only solution to the trap was to find the right ‘keys’, to pound away at those we already have, progressing forward without ever dreaming of escaping (the constructivist’s case), or to smack the lock with a sufficiently powerful hammer, to embody this point of pure antagonism as subject (Zizek’s case). Non-philosophy, on the contrary, does not just “aim” to release us from this cage (the world-form); it starts axiomatically from the (non-discursive) Real-One as a priori “subtracted-without-subtraction” from that cage, from the immanence of a (material) subtracted from the World-capture. It is not necessary to drive our constructions to a breaking-point, to torture our language and ourselves, to thrust ourselves into decisions that make us despair or tear us apart, or to force any sort of intentional operation whatsoever, to attain the Real or come closer to attaining it. Indeed, it is nothing to “attain” at all, unless we want it to be what we want it to be, which of course isn’t the Real but its hallucination. For non-philosophy, the Real is rather given-without-givenness one time each time prior to… X.

What distinguishes non-philosophy is that it is not an acquisition of knowledge with regard to what we don’t know, but a defense of the knowing of the Real that we are without knowing it. To this end, it puts to work a generic use of knowledges for the sake of “producing” this we-don’t-know-it (the Future-in-person): “To produce the unknown with the known rather than the known with the unknown—such is the operation of the generic matrix…” (3). There is no imposed modesty of knowledge here; the epistemo-logical hierarchy is simply inverted by the immanence of the Real, which is foreclosed to it. Nor is there any need to admit that our models must fail, leading to slow modifications constrained by our previous steps and dooming us to alienation. There is rather an imperative to invent an existence in the Real without knowing the destination of our invention beforehand, and without letting it be constrained by any All whatsoever. This lived knowledge “of” (caused by) the Real, this “real primary knowledge,” is not taught to us, but practiced.

(1) Laruelle, Francois. The Speculative Turn. p. 250.
(2) Zizek, Slavoj. The Speculative Turn. p. 409.
(3) Laruelle, Francois. Christo-Fiction. p. 61.

[Note: special thanks to Matthias Mauderer on the Francois Laruelle Facebook page for posing the question about non-philosophy’s relation to radical constructivism. This text is a modified version of my original response to his question.]

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1 Response to Self-Constraints V (Constructivism)

  1. Rex Styzens says:

    Most interesting. I don’t know Laruelle’s work, but his non-philosophy compares favorably with what I am learning from J-L Nancy. Your comment about epistemology reminded me that I don’t know if Nancy has an epistemology. But Nancy does ontology, and I doubt that non-philosophy aims in that direction.

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