Review: Philosophical Turns: Epistemological, Linguistic, and Metaphysical by Robert V. Wess

Greig Henderson, University of Toronto

Cover of Philosophical Turns

Robert V. Wess, Philosophical Turns: Epistemological, Linguistic, and Metaphysical. Parlor Press, 2023. 288 pages. 978-1-64317-370-2 (paperback, $34.99) 978-1-64317-371-9 (hardcover $69.99) 978-1-64317-372-6 (PDF $29.99) 978-1-64317-373-3 (EPUB $29.99)

The new wave of contemporary criticism rejects both the depth model and the hermeneutics of suspicion that goes with it.  Critique gives way to postcritique, and styles of disenchantment such as symptomatic reading, ideological demystification, and new historicism are seen to be passé.  Reparative styles of criticism supplant paranoid styles, and critics like Rita Felski and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick have proposed that literature should be equipment for living rather than equipment for debunking and politicizing. “We know only too well,” Felski writes, “the well-oiled machine of ideology critique, the x-ray gaze of symptomatic reading, the smoothly rehearsed moves that add up to a hermeneutics of suspicion. Ideas that seemed revelatory thirty years ago—the decentered subject! the social construction of reality!—have dwindled into shopworn slogans; defamiliarizing has lapsed into dogma.” In a similar vein, Sedgewick maintains that the hermeneutics of suspicion is a “quintessentially paranoid style of critical engagement; it calls for constant vigilance, reading against the grain, assuming the worst-case scenario, and then rediscovering its own gloomy prognosis in every text.”

This postcritical turn is connected with surface or distant reading, a way of reading that supposedly supplants deep and close reading. As Elizabeth Anker and Rita Felski point out in their introduction to Critique and Postcritique, this way of reading works “against the assumption that the essential meaning of a text resides in a repressed or unconscious content that requires excavation by the critic. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus urge greater attention to what lies on the surface—the open to view, the transparent, and the literal (thin description, just reading, the visible rather than the concealed).”

In literary and cultural studies, the postcritical turn has embraced this new way of reading, while relentlessly exposing the limits of critique. Postcritique, however, is not confined to the fields of literary and cultural studies; it coincides with new directions in contemporary philosophy, namely speculative realism and its rejection of what Meillassoux calls correlationism, “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.” “Because of correlationism we have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of precritical thinkers, the outside which is not relative to us and [which exists] in itself whether we are thinking of it or not.” Thinkers placed under the banner of this new realism—Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, and Bruno Latour among them—share with the post-critical turn in literary and cultural studies a fatigue with the theoretical frameworks that take for granted the inaccessibility of the thing in itself, whether that thing be a text or an object. Despite their divergent styles of approach, these thinkers are united in their quest to go beyond the epistemological problem of human access to reality as well as to rethink and unseat the linguistic paradigm and the constructionist premises that undergird it.

In Philosophical Turns, Robert Wess explores and analyzes the turn away from the linguistic paradigm. To illuminate this metaphysical turn, Wess engages in what Richard McKeon calls historical semantics—the changes in subject matter effected by philosophical turns—and philosophical semantics—why philosophers analyzing the subject matter in place during a historical period disagree with one another. Wess foregrounds starting points and ultimate priorities. “Seeing beginnings,” he writes, “entails seeing clearly the subject matter of philosophy, which in turn entails seeing that the subject matter of philosophy changes in ‘philosophical turns.’” The focus is on what we can learn from the turn from a reigning ultimate priority to a new ultimate priority.

This is not uncharted territory. Thomas Kuhn has written about paradigms and paradigm shifts while Louis Althusser has written about problematics, structures of presuppositions that constitute a discourse and its enabling historical conditions. The problematic defines the objects within a field, fixes lines of inquiry, delimits the form of the solutions thinkable within its limits, and determines forms of inclusion and exclusion, the questions asked and those that go unasked.

Wess has written astutely about Althusser in Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism, but his new book is not concerned with Althusserian concepts of ideology and the interpellation of human subjects. Wess’s turn here is to Richard McKeon, and this turn, I think, is a turn toward trying “to see what happens when an ultimate priority based on subject matter X is displaced in favour of one based on subject matter Y.”

In homage to an unjustly neglected philosopher, the turn to McKeon is a brilliant tactic as is Wess’s new beginning. Stories about the linguistic turn tend to start with Saussurean semiology and move through Russian Formalism to structuralism to poststructuralism. Usually bypassed are logical positivism and the ordinary language philosophy that flows from it. Wess rightly sees logical positivism as integral to the linguistic turn insofar as it makes language its subject matter even if it stops short of conceiving words as prior to things.

For McKeon the subject matter of philosophy always involves thing, thought, language, and action. He offers us a grammar in the Aristotelian sense of a set of verbal terms or categories by means of which a discourse can be analyzed. Different philosophical systems emphasize different parts of the tetrad: realism and materialism emphasize thing; idealism emphasizes thought; logical positivism, structuralism, and their cognates emphasize language; while pragmatism and pluralism emphasize action. The combinatory possibilities, of course, are endless, but McKeon’s point is that any statement about the changes in subject matter effected by philosophical turns must deal with the four terms he has isolated even if it would subordinate one to the other.

Although it runs counter to the idea of philosophy as progressive evolution, McKeon is entranced by the recognition that “truth, though one, has no single expression . . . and [that] truth, though changeless, is rendered false in the uses to which it is put.” This rejection of linearity and teleology, Wess maintains, means that “regardless of changes in the subject matter of philosophy, philosophies all have principles, methods, interpretations, and selections that have affinities with one another, manifesting ‘perennial philosophy,’ despite differences in subject matter.” The interrelations among things, thoughts, language, and action are open-ended in principle and offer opportunities for disposition and transposition, the task of historical semantics being to explore the combinatory possibilities as they reveal themselves in various philosophical systems. Logical positivism is a case in point.

Wess starts out by noting that logical positivism displaces the subject matter of thought in favour of the subject matter of language. According to logical positivism, the meaning of a proposition is its method of verification. A proposition has meaningful content if and only if it is capable of being verified or falsified by empirical evidence. Metaphysical propositions do not fare well under this criterion. Nor do aesthetic, religious, and moral propositions. They are quite literally non-sense. There are words that have an empirical referent (sense) and words that do not (nonsense). By means of philosophy, then, statements are explained; by means of science they are verified. Wess argues incisively that although logical positivism makes language its subject matter, it is grounded in “the commonsensical view that words are posterior to what they are about” and stops short of making language the ultimate priority.

Structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism make language the ultimate priority, but for Anglo-American audiences, the ascendancy of “the linguistic turn” is enshrined in Richard Rorty’s eponymous 1967 collection of twenty-eight essays by logical positivists and ordinary language philosophers. In later books, he articulates his pragmatist take on structuralist, poststructuralist, and postmodern thinkers. As Wess explains, advocates for the linguistic turn maintain that we cannot transcend language. We cannot find a point of view outside of all linguistic frameworks from which the world will appear as it is. We cannot think without thinking in a language. As Derrida famously puts it, there is nothing outside the text. Language is prior to that which is mediated through language. For Rorty, knowledge is not “a matter of getting reality right, but a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.”

Wess’s discussion of W.V.O. Quine on the two dogmas of empiricism, the pragmatic utility of the myth of physical objects, and the indeterminacy of translation; of Donald Davidson’s coherence theory of truth and rejection of the dualism of scheme and content; and in general of the rhetoricizing of philosophy and the attendant dangers of succumbing to “the tyranny of the new” is as resistant to summary as it is brimming with insight. Wess’s main point is that those who think they are erasing philosophy are actually rhetoricizing it, the reality of language consisting of redescription succeeding redescription and not of words striving to correspond with facts or objects. The prime characteristic of language, McKeon says, is that meanings are arbitrary; therefore, any word can mean anything and often does. In a similar vein, Davidson says “there is no word or construction that cannot be converted to a new use by an ingenious or ignorant speaker.”

Such language-centeredness is inimical to Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman, the two proponents of the metaphysical turn that Wess subjects to cogent, extensive, and meticulous analysis. Rejecting correlationism and the epistemological problem of human access to reality with which it is obsessed, Meillassoux aims to retrieve the “great outdoors” we have lost, the “absolute outside” that is not relative to us and exists in itself whether we are thinking of it or not. For him, thought is capable of the absolute despite the supposed destruction and deconstruction of metaphysics. What Wess calls chaotic pragmatism is Meillassoux’s acceptance of the necessity of contingency.

This attempt to retrieve the great outdoors is not to be confused with the attempt to reinstate traditional philosophical realism. True, what exist are facts, but facts are contingent, and contingency itself is the one necessity. As Wess points out, Hume’s skepticism about whether it is possible to prove in the future that the same effects will follow from the same causes is taken further by Meillassoux, who unequivocally asseverates that we could a priori conceive a chaotic modification of natural and physical laws. For him, there are three basic inscriptions of values in philosophies of being: in antiquity, eternal justice in a celestial world; in Rousseau, eternal justice in childlike pre-social being; in Hegel and Marx, evolving justice in a communitarian ideal embedded in a teleological narrative of improvement.

For Meillassoux, narratives of eternal or evolving justice are mere lingering chimeras. What he calls “may-being” is the possibility of lawless change and the thinkability of contradiction. Believe in God, he says, because He does not exist. Atheism leaves no hope for the dead, and religion’s existent God is the one who permitted them to die in the first place. In the spirit of Nietzsche, this is how to philosophize with a hammer. Wess skillfully navigates this dense terrain and reproduces the inimitable flavor of Meillassoux’s style of thought, something no review is capable of conveying.

Wess argues that unlike Meillassoux’s version of speculative realism, Harman’s object-oriented ontology is a metaphysical turn that valorizes perspectivalism. Such a “flat ontology,” Harman says, prevents “any premature taxonomies from being smuggled into philosophy from the outside,” ones like the “implausible taxonomy between human thought on the one side and everything else in the universe on the other.” For Heidegger, the practical is prior to the theoretical; for Harman, the practical and the theoretical afford perspectives that are equally valid. An “is” is prior to “use.” A bridge is a different object of perception for the driver, the sniper, the suicide, the architect, the vandal, the seagull, the insect, and so forth. No totality of perspectives is ever able to access the object. Though real objects are unchanging, sensual objects vary from perceiver to perceiver. As Harman reflects, “reality itself is weird because reality itself is incommensurable with any attempt to represent or measure it. . . . When it comes to grasping reality, illusion and innuendo are the best we can do.”

For Harman, signs have an ultimate signified, the real object whose nature is precisely not to become present. The thing-in-itself is something we deduce from the fact that no number of views of a house suffice to add up to a house. “The important thing is that any object, at any level of the world, has a reality that can be endlessly explored and viewed from numberless perspectives without ever being exhausted by the sum of these perspectives.” Real objects withdraw—with them we have no contact; sensual objects do not—with them we have contact. As Harman puts it, “the sensual is what exists only in relation to the perceiver,” whereas “the real is whatever withdraws from that relation.” But, Wess reminds us, “the perceiver is also a real object, the source of the sensual object,” as when a perceiver sees a bridge or house. “Conversely, a real object can stand alone, producing no sensual objects, while in a ‘dormant’ state.”

What, in the end, one might ask, is the ultimate status of the metaphysical turn towards a new realism? Contingent and uncertain, one might answer, for Harman is well aware of the precarity of all philosophies, including his own. For him, “philosophy is historic because any statement can turn into a platitude once the surrounding conditions have changed, and philosophy is more about outflanking platitudes than about making eternally true propositions. . . . Every statement is doomed to become an empty platitude someday.” Wess expands on this point. “During its day,” he notes, “a statement is a Rortyian ‘normal’ discourse, but it soon becomes a platitude when displaced by an upcoming ‘abnormal’ discourse. . . . This is a formula for rhetoric’s tyranny of the new,” a formula for an arrogant rhetoric that triumphantly soars beyond the dated propositions and problematics that inevitably have sunk into the graveyard of the given.

Philosophical Turns is a tour de force, a sophisticated and erudite book that not only captures the cognitive and emotive rhythms of the contemporary philosophical conversation surrounding speculative realism but also becomes a distinctive voice within that conversation. A reviewer can but adumbrate and applaud the density, complexity, and richness of the arguments Wess prosecutes with rigor and artfulness, paying homage to him just as he paid homage to Richard McKeon, his mentor.

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