Random Thoughts #5: Idealism, Materialism, Psychoanalysis and Other Responses

Just the other day, someone responded to my last post (here) and made a good point in regards to following the status quo in academia. For example, people like to follow the idea that just because someone is well known, there ideas are more valid over others; he also brought up the dangers of using an old idea / context and placing it onto the new—such is the case between psychoanalysis and psychology. He made a specific example of this with my last post where I ruminated about Lacanian-Zizikian psychoanalysis. Personally, I would not jump to conclusions so quickly. Anyone who read my previous post would already know that I don’t follow the status quo, even if I read a lot of famous works. Like I said a few posts ago, I could often careless about these things.

One must recognize that there is a reason why some philosophers are famous. Sometimes they are for good and bad reasons. In cases like Jacques Derrida and Alain Badiou for example, their ideas are not only far reaching, they offer an account for nearly all modes of thinking across many disciplines. There is a reason why people situated Derrida’s thoughts at the summit of philosophy. This is not an exaggeration because his thoughts represented the end of a predominant branch of continental (European) philosophy. Simply put, these people aren’t famous without reason. Once you understand them, their ideas could be applied into every other discipline and represents a major shift in thought. In fact, they are famous because they try to account for why there are all these different disciplines and perspectives in the first place. This is why I can respect most academic disciplines because I recognize their importance and merit. Maybe it is because I had always been more of a big picture oriented thinker which makes me focus on certain thinkers over others.

Since Lance denied my comment for whatever reasons (or maybe he just didn’t read it), I decided to turn my initial comment and expand it as a response. To be sure, I have no interest in starting some internet feud over something that is a matter of intellectual position. I don’t have much time to do such thing anyway. When I have time, I prefer doing other things like take naps and eat French fries because I’m more or less retired from academia. Lance’s concern in regards to replaying old context into new is understandable. But he speaks for himself in regards to using old contexts and placing onto “newer” ones. For example, he uses Kierkegaardian thought and places it onto disciplines that proceeds Kierkegaard’s ideas. One can tell right away by his use of the title “Either/or” which references a famous book by Kierkegaard. I’m not surprised since I was once given the honor to read one of his books that uses Kierkegaardian ideas of faith to deal with contemporary problems of other philosopher’s works. There is nothing wrong with what he is doing because I think everyone does this. I am pointing this out because it seems like he got caught in his own blind spot.

I don’t speak of this old / new idea as a problem because it is the inevitable nature of interpretation. Instead of thinking that replaying or bringing back old context is futile to new ways of thinking, I take on the position that interpretation is fundamental to human existence and the production of truths regardless that they are of old and new ideas. This view is largely owed to my years of studying Derrida’s deconstruction, which is more or less about the problem of interpretation and communication. It’s not that reapplying an “old context” or idea to the new is futile; or that people would assume old contexts and definitions of the old will forever remain the same in the new. But rather, every time we reinterpret an old idea from the future (i.e. contemporary present), the context will inevitably change. There are many reasons for this, one of them is because interpretation, context and knowledge are influenced by space and time. In case you are wondering, I have always adopted this stance throughout much of the existence of this blog. The infinite repetition of every instance of time from past to future are never identical to each other. Interpretation is never static.

We exist in space and time which consists of a future that might change how the past is perceived. Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet is one of the perfect examples of this past/future dialectic in relationship with knowledge. I won’t talk about this film today. My point is that if meanings of words and events remain the same every time we reinterpret them from the future, there would not be new interventions or new interpretation of anything. Many new ways of thinking and emerging fields comes from reinterpreting past thinkers in a new way (i.e. look at Lacan’s interpretation of Freud; Zizek’s interpretation of Hegel, Marx, Lacan; Derrida on Heidegger and Husserl, Meillassoux’s interpretation of Badiou, Locke and Hume, etc.). Obviously, I can’t say that every time we make these interpretations or bring back old contexts, we are guaranteed to produce new meanings and knowledge. There is a chance that it will, and a chance that it wont. But that’s okay. What’s important is that we interpret and try to understand it which may possibly lead us to something more interesting.

Lance’s criticism on psychoanalysis where he pointed out how psychoanalysis holds little water is not new. I don’t think psychoanalysis is out of date or holds little water—for it accounts for certain aspects of the human mind and problems that psychologists (and philosophers) seem to ignore. While the psychological criticisms of psychoanalysis are valid in many ways, the problem with various scientific disciplines is that it presupposes the human mind and consciousness (though not all of them do this). In other words, some scientists takes for granted that they are first and foremost thinking conscious subjects who are able to look into a microscope and are able to produce knowledge. But how does this process work? How do they justify these knowledge as such? 

There are certain 19th century philosophies that does not presuppose the human mind or any modes of knowledge. One of them is phenomenology. This is the reason why phenomenology can never be naturalized as a science, despite what some “phenomenological scientists” say. While science presupposes the natural world and its knowledge as the product of human mind, phenomenology begins by not presupposing anything. It starts from the experience of your first-person point of view, where the experience of your conscious mind is given and embodied as phenomena. It is from this point where the subject must come to understand such phenomena in relationship their own bodies, external world, our intuition and ability to produce knowledge about all the “things” we experience in our lives. In certain ways, psychoanalysis also does something similar, but with far more skepticism. For psychoanalysts, consciousness is doing something that our consciousness is not aware—namely, it is influenced by our unconscious mind.

If you follow the trends of academia, you might notice that every now and then, there will be an idea, or a group of emerging disciplines that drives everyone crazy. Back in the 1950s, it was Foucault’s ideas on power and knowledge, then it was Derrida’s deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, now it is Badiou, Deleuze, Laruelle tagged along with Speculative Realism, New Materialism and Object Oriented Ontology. Don’t get me wrong, just because it is the trend to talk about these topics, it does not mean that scholars don’t write about old ideas anymore and reapplies them to the new. People still write many scholarships about them. Heck, people still write about Plato and Aristotle who are 2000 years old. Even Badiou, who is quite popular today, is a reader of Plato. Some of them are able to take these “old contexts” (ideas) of Plato and reinterpret them into contemporary times in ways that are both unique and original—Badiou being a good example of this (not to mention that Badiou is also a reader of Lacanian psychoanalysis).

While the current trends of contemporary academic disciplines like New Materialism, Object Oriented Ontology, and Speculative Realism are interesting and ambitious, some of them must be careful of not falling into a naive realism. I’m pretty sure scholars already spoke about this. A lot of these emerging disciplines deals with the classical problem between idealism and materialism. Which goes back to the main distinctions between many strands of Continental philosophy and science in general. The former has been focused solely on idealistic philosophies while the latter is largely materialist.

When people use the word “idealism”, they are thinking about an impossible perfect fantasy reality. But this is not always the case in philosophy. The conventional take on idealism involves how reality and its objects that human experiences are not the direct experience of these real objects. They are the experience of our sensory perceptions or phenomenon of these objects. In other words, there can be no knowledge that is conceived independently from our intuitive, sensory, and perceptual experiences. If you think about how you are physically reading this post and interpreting it through your mind via these modes, you may realize that there are many truths in regards to this idealist argument. Just think about it, if we both agree that the sky is blue, how do we know that we are thinking of the same form of blue in our minds? How do we know that my perception of blue sky is the same as yours? How do I know that your experience of interpreting these words are identical to my experience as I wrote them? Or rather, how do I know that my interpretation of Plato is identical to Plato himself, especially after so many different ways of translation and interpretation of his works?

On the other hand, materialism can be described as the idea that everything in our universe is made up of matter, something which is also intrinsically true. Even the thinking human mind is only possible due to matter (i.e. our brain). Hence, in order for humans to perceive anything in the first place, they must first and foremost have a physical brain, etc. How do I know we are thinking of the same blue sky? Use pantone codes. Yet on the other hand, how can anyone know that they have a brain if they do not perceive this knowledge through their consciousness? How do I know that the pantone codes are representing the same concept of blue in the other person’s mind? Overtime, many idealistic philosophies became dominant in continental philosophy. While some of the people who took up these emerging fields are reacting against phenomenology and other modes of idealistic philosophies, they are not reactionary fields.

Essentially, the emergence of New Materialism, Speculative Realism, and Object Oriented Ontology are attempts to conceive of knowledge, reality, and objects independent of the mind. While they have different approaches and tend to disagree with each other quite a bit, they are trying to think or speculate outside of idealism and directly into the material / real. In this sense, what is known as naïve realism is when someone thinks they have discovered knowledge that is independent of the mind, even when they haven’t (according to idealists—and even for certain psychologists) since they have to first perceive, filter, and process it through their minds. I don’t think every thinker in these newer fields falls into this trap—but some would say that they all do. Of the people that I’ve read, Graham Harman’s take seems to be the most convincing. He also seems like a cool dude and is a total rap god due to how fast he talks in some of his lectures.

I think idealism and materialism are important because they cannot exist without each other. They function as dualisms in many ways. Maybe one day, they will be able to unify. What I like about these newer fields is that they provide a breath of fresh air to thinking—even if I think it is a bit of a stretch to argue that a rock has consciousness. But they might be right. Who knows. 

The future is always to come.


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