The triumph of technological rationality and of the sciences as a whole has by no means provided answers to humanity's great questions. Instead, it has raised new and old questions and problems. To orient ourselves in the twenty-first century, we must take a new look at the central categories of philosophy that, often unbeknownst to us, continue to shape our everyday thinking. Future Metaphysics is an attempt at restating the importance of the great metaphysical categories for the present: how our contemporary predicament forces us both to reclaim them and to give them a radically new twist. Armen Avanessian re-examines and displaces categories like substance and accident, form and matter, life and death, giving them an unexpected twist. What if the idea of accident, for instance, had to take into account the many new kinds of glitches, crashes and crises - from finance to ecology, from technological catastrophes to social collapses - that permeate our culture and make everyday news? Can we keep on using this concept as it was traditionally meant to be used when risk and chance have become part of the very substance of our world, so rendering the distinction between substance and accident meaningless? The other concepts and distinctions require a similar interrogation, giving birth to a new metaphysical landscape, where the most urgent realities of the twenty-first century impinge on the most fundamental categories of thought.
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Table of Contents
Theory Redux series
Series editor: Laurent de Sutter
Alfie Bown, The Playstation Dreamworld
Laurent de Sutter, Narcocapitalism
Roberto Esposito, Persons and Things
Graham Harman, Immaterialism
Srećko Horvat, The Radicality of Love
Dominic Pettman, Infinite Distraction
Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism
Helen Hester, Xenofeminism
Franco Berardi, The Second Coming
Armen Avanessian, Future Metaphysics
Translated by James C. Wagner
Copyright © Armen Avanessian 2020
This English edition © Polity Press, 2020
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataNames: Avanessian, Armen, author. | Wagner, James A., translator.Title: Future metaphysics / Armen Avanessian ; translated by James C.WagnerOther titles: Metaphysik zur Zeit. EnglishDescription: Medford : Polity, 2020. | Series: Theory redux series | Translated from German. | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Summary: “This book is an attempt at restating the importance of the great metaphysical categories of substance and accident, form and matter, life and death for the present: how our contemporary predicament forces us both to reclaim them and to give them a radically new twist”-- Provided by publisher.Identifiers: LCCN 2019023993 (print) | LCCN 2019023994 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509537969 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509537976 (paperback) | ISBN 9781509537983 (epub)Subjects: LCSH: Metaphysics.Classification: LCC BD113 .A9313 2020 (print) | LCC BD113 (ebook) | DDC 110--dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019023993LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019023994
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This book began with a spontaneous request in early 2018 from Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director of the V-A-C Foundation. I was invited to curate a large-scale exhibition at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) that summer, which would involve me writing roughly ten short texts – on the topic of my choice – for as many rooms of the museum. The thematic freedom, along with the experimental opportunity to frame the rooms of the exhibition – itself a rehearsal for a future institution currently under construction – as the chapters of a yet-to-be-written book, allowed me to compose, undisturbed, what ultimately grew to far more than just ten wall or catalog entries, all of which found their way into this equally spontaneous book.
Of course, many of the ideas and motifs collected here have occupied me for quite some time, not least in collaborative works with close colleagues such as Victoria Ivanova (on the question of institutional realism) and especially Anke Hennig, with whom I was working on a book about questions of technology, politics, and gender at the same time as I was writing this one. I would like once again to express my gratitude to Bernd Klöckner and Joseph Wallace Goodhew for their editorial supervision of the German original. Many thanks as well to everyone at Polity Press who worked together with me on this project, including Elise Heslinga, John Thompson, my translator James C. Wagner, and especially Laurent de Sutter for inviting me to publish this book as part of his series.
This book was written, with a strong feeling of expectation, for the future (and initially dedicated to my “future family”). That future has since arrived as a joyous present. I dedicate this book to my son Adrian.
Origin of man now proved. – Metaphysics must flourish. –
He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.
BAD TIMES, BUT GOOD TIMES FOR METAPHYSICS – Our society is suffering at every level from overwhelming challenges and crises of meaning that we have forgotten to conceive as metaphysical. The leaps in technology or advances in physics and other natural sciences that once sallied forth to alleviate or even liberate us entirely from our earthly problems are not necessarily of any further help to us. To the contrary, we are increasingly confronted by collateral damage from modernity’s technological revolutions (climate change, for example) that threatens the life forms of our planet – humanity included – and thus more than ever raises questions which cannot be approached empirically.
Even where the triumphs of modern science have indisputably led to improvements in the quality of life and longer lives overall, ever increasing life expectancies and the transhumanist fantasy of unending life give rise to new metaphysical questions on a par with those concerning the possible disappearance of our species. To put it dramatically, whether eternal life is imminent or the human race as a whole is at risk of going extinct in what has pointedly been dubbed the “Anthropocene” age – a world dominated by transhuman “Homo” sapiens and a world without humans both confront us to an unprecedented degree with metaphysical problems.
RETIRING THE ANIMAL LABORANS – Human beings are natural-born philosophers. To be human, Martin Heidegger once wrote to his mistress Elisabeth Blochmann, is to philosophize, and the philosophical tradition is filled with definitions of man as an animal metaphysicum and animal rationale. This metaphysical and rational animal is also a working animal, an animal laborans. And indeed, philosophers, no less than sociologists and economists (revolutionary as well as bourgeois), have traditionally agreed that man may be defined through his labor as Homo faber.
With the establishment of modern capitalism beginning in the sixteenth century, and industrialization in the eighteenth century, the lives of most working- and middle-class people (at first primarily men) came to be defined, and their conceptions of themselves shaped, by their occupation and employment. Today, however, the notion that an occupation lends human life internal stability (Helmut Schelsky) is at best only partly true. It is rather much more a major source of bourgeois insecurity, not least because the boundaries between work and non-work have become fluid. According to the sociologist and renowned expert on risk Ulrich Beck, the system of standardized full employment – familiar only since the latter half of the twentieth century, and often assumed to be the normal condition of liberal capitalist societies – “is beginning to soften and fray at the margins into flexibilizations of its three supporting pillars: labor law, work site, and working hours.”1 The animal laborans is thus becoming problematic in an entirely new way, regardless of whether we are talking about physical or intellectual labor (if such a distinction – itself metaphysical – were still at all appropriate).
ON HEAVEN AND EARTH – Disparaging or pitying remarks about philosophers being out of touch with the world are as old as philosophy itself, dating back at least to the sixth century BCE, when a Thracian maiden famously mocked Thales of Miletus for falling into a well while gazing up at the sky. A well-worn prejudice has it that metaphysics stands in direct contradiction to reality, making it a hopelessly obsolete or old-fashioned way of thinking. Metaphysical thought’s dubious reputation can also be seen in the negative connotations that the word “speculation” has taken on over time. Particularly since the advent of modernity two centuries ago, it has often been employed as a purely pejorative term: “mere speculation” in the sense of baseless ratiocination untethered from reality.
Books on the history of modern philosophy report a turn away from naive belief in philosophy’s ability to come to grips with matters directly and toward an epistemology that precedes all established knowledge. Philosophy’s metaphysical or speculative energies have never truly abated, however, not least because metaphysical questions always have historical connotations and thus continually reemerge as we grapple with currently prevailing sciences and technologies. Perhaps philosophy’s speculative energies always experience an upsurge anytime there is a technological revolution. The first Ionian and Greek cosmologies and natural philosophies elaborated by Anaximenes, Anaximander, and Thales would then also be responses to the acquisition of writing, the settling down of Homo sapiens, and the accompanying transition to agriculture.
Thales, for example, according to a less widely circulated anecdote, is supposed to have come into his wealth as a direct result of his knowledge of astronomy, which allowed him to predict the yield of olive harvests. The rise of modern philosophy likewise cannot be separated from the invention of the printing press, nor the emergence of new speculative approaches today, from the need to respond to digitalization, which – as is becoming ever clearer, although it only began a few decades ago – is radically transforming our society.
MANDATORY MEMBERSHIP IN A CLUB NO ONE WANTS TO BELONG TO – If we look at the modern history of metaphysics, particularly that of the last few centuries, we notice a tendency among philosophers to toil away at what they believe to be unresolved metaphysical questions in the work of their predecessors. The “crusher of everything” Immanuel Kant did this with the skeptic David Hume; the pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer with Kant; the self-proclaimed “transvaluer of all values” Friedrich Nietzsche with Schopenhauer; Martin Heidegger with Nietzsche’s frantic efforts to turn the history of metaphysics upside down by taking recourse back to pre-Socratic philosophies; Jacques Derrida with Heidegger, with the insight that metaphysics ultimately cannot be overcome …
At the same time, of course, we can also observe historical shifts that shed light on the changes in meaning of what various epochs have understood as metaphysics. In the early modern period, with the renaissance of philosophy in the sixteenth century, we see increasingly sharp critiques from humanists such as Rabelais, Montaigne, and Erasmus against university philosophers, whom they considered to be irrelevant and out of touch with or even hostile to life (since which time words like “academic,” “scholastic,” and “metaphysics” have often had a negative ring to them).
In parallel with this, the orientation of those philosophers who dedicated themselves to metaphysics also changed in terms of content. Indeed, the rationalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (e.g. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) covered a far greater range of topics than did, say, the theologians of the Middle Ages. Metaphysicians now occupied themselves not only with eternal being, the highest substance, or God, but also with a host of related questions: man’s relation to God, the essence of the mortal or immortal soul, the connection between body and mind, the problem of the possibility or impossibility of free will in sensual beings, etc. Put bluntly, all those questions that could not easily be assigned to another philosophical discipline such as logic, epistemology, or ethics were henceforth deemed to be metaphysical. It is no coincidence that this same period gave birth to “ontology,” that discipline which deals with questions of being, existence, or substance, what for centuries prior had been considered the true object of metaphysics.
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE’RE NOT SURE WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT – The self-critical reorientation and reinvention of metaphysics in modernity also correlates with an essential change – in the full meaning of that word – in what metaphysics previously had dealt with, namely, an immutable, everlasting, substantial, divine essence or the true being or nature of all that which exists. As physics and other increasingly “empirical” and natural sciences dedicated themselves to this nature, submitting physis to their categorizing grip, the branch of philosophical thought called meta-physics naturally had to reorient itself. Owing to its high degree of abstraction, not even the rationalistic realignment of philosophy ushered in by Descartes was immune to renewed criticism by empiricist thinkers such as Hobbes, Hume, and Berkeley. These critiques were joined in the eighteenth century by skeptical positions that posited the impossibility of metaphysics or even went so far as to deny that it had any right or reason to exist. Its questions were somewhere between unanswerable (according to milder skeptics) and meaningless (according to more radical critics); in any case, there was no point in getting oneself mixed up in metaphysical adventures or the adventure of metaphysics.
A fundamental difficulty in defining metaphysics certainly lies in the fact that there is no prevailing consensus as to its object. Does it even have an object, in the way that biology explores life or economics the field of the economy? Aristotle’s definition of the object of metaphysics as the highest of all things had long-lasting repercussions (extending well beyond medieval philosophy). Unlike other philosophical disciplines, such as ethics or logic, he asserted, metaphysics was concerned with the divine, the prime mover (itself unmoved), or, in less theological terms, with (immutable) being as such, the substance underlying everything, or with purely logical principles such as the law of identity (A=A).
If conversely, however, as Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten postulated in the mid eighteenth century, metaphysica est scientia prima cognitionis humanae principia continens: i.e. if metaphysics is that science which contains the first principles of human knowledge, then does it still have a timeless object at all, beyond things that can be known? Or does it now only occupy itself narcissistically with human knowledge itself? Like Buster Keaton at the end of Samuel Beckett’s Film, finally free of all pursuers and outside interests, philosophy, late in its career, looks itself in the eye and is startled to find that there is hardly anything left to see when one sees only oneself. Philo-sophy is constantly in danger of losing sight of what it ought to know due to its sheer occupation with or love of knowing.
A SCIENCE WITHOUT AN OBJECT? – “Metaphysics is a questioning in which we inquire into beings as a whole, and inquire in such a way that in so doing we ourselves, the questioners, are thereby also included in the question, placed into question. Accordingly, fundamental concepts are not universals, not some formulae for the universal properties of a field of objects (such as animals or language). Rather they are concepts of a properly peculiar kind. In each case, they comprehend the whole within themselves, they are comprehensive concepts. […] Metaphysical thinking is comprehensive thinking in this double sense. It deals with the whole and it grips existence through and through.”2 With such pronouncements, Martin Heidegger sought to uncover once again the radicality of philosophical questioning, its ability to get to the root of things. Elsewhere, he writes: “[I]t is not just that the object of philosophy does not lie at hand, but philosophy has no object at all. Philosophy is a happening that must at all times work out Being for itself anew […]. Only in this happening does philosophical truth open up.”3 The question then is whether philosophy’s lack of an object represents the final blow to its already dubious reputation or whether, on the contrary, it offers it an advantage. For in the modern era – that is, after God is dead (Nietzsche) and the notion of an eternal substance can no longer be presupposed as self-evident – the fact that metaphysics must always first prove that it has a reason and right to exist can also be seen as an opportunity. Perhaps its potential lies precisely in its peculiar objectlessness. For “beyond the object” in no way means the same thing as “beyond all objectivity” or “purely subjective.”
NO BEGINNING OR END IN SIGHT – If we take a look back to the fourth century BCE at the supposed inventor of the discipline, it becomes apparent that Aristotle himself did not actually write any “Metaphysics.” Indeed, the word does not even appear in any of his writings. (He writes instead of “first philosophy” or “first science.”) The assumption that his Metaphysics is concerned with something behind or above the realm of the physical is as widespread as it is mistaken. Rather, the work that founded an entire tradition owes its title to an editorial problem.
Around a hundred years after Aristotle’s death, a certain Andronicus of Rhodes found himself faced with the question of what title the fourteen books or book chapters following Aristotle’s Physics
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