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The Myth of the Given: Nominalism, Naturalism & Materialism, by Ray Brassier

From Post-Kantian Thought and the Production of Subjectivity in Contemporary Art

“The myth of the given,” as proposed by the American philosopher Wilfred Sellars, is as much a problem for art as it is for philosophy. Effectively, it is a model of perception that proposes there is a world (i.e., objects) that can be spontaneously apprehended (or “given” to perception) without the perceiving consciousness (i.e., the subject) applying any recourse to reason (i.e., the subject need not apply any of its cognitive capacities to receive the “gift” of the perception of “the given”).

Ray Brassier’s lecture outlines this concept and details other terms used by Sellars, such as “the manifest image” and the “scientific image,” showing how the former challenges the latter and augments it in what Sellars calls “synoptic vision.” Simply put, “the manifest image” is a mode of perception that includes stimuli and processes which the human brain is capable of cognizing unaided, including intentions, thoughts, and appearances, which are apprehended through “correlational induction,” leading, for example, to practical and moral claims. The “scientific image,” however, extends the range of possibilities for thought beyond the unaided perceptual capacities to include imperceptible entities. For example, the physical sciences may demonstrate that matter is mostly composed of empty space, but empirical descriptions cannot access nor account for this.

In detailing such ideas, Brassier proposes a genuinely critical post-Kantian ontology, i.e., a theory of being that can account for and take to task Kant’s critique of dogmatic metaphysics. He works towards a critique of recent “flat-ontologies” (theories of being which flatten out being and its appearance, both objects and subjects, noumena and phenomena), stating that “they must be conceptually incoherent, because you can no longer explain what it means for something to be the thing that it is, and nor can you explain why there is a discrepancy between different systems of properties of objects in the world.”

Brassier says that “whilst the manifest and the scientific images are distinct,” in that the manifest image is the image of the phenomenal and the scientific image is the image of the noumenal, “Sellars shows that their borders or the boundary between them is methodological, and is constantly being renegotiated by cognitive progress.” For Brassier, this means that there is no absolute dimension of appearances and nothing is absolutely given (i.e., apparent). So, he continues, “in order for something to appear there must be something in-apparent (or encoded) within it. In other words, every phenomenon has a noumenon embedded within it, and it is the noumenon that secures the reality of the phenomenon.” We can summarize this by saying that it is the scientific image that establishes the reality of the manifest images. Thus, Brassier concludes that “empirical theory, in Sellars’s words, is a ‘self-correcting enterprise,’ but where more positivistic naturalists appeal to ‘empirical evidence’ as the sole arbiter of theoretical revision, Sellars’s rationalistic naturalism grants a key role to philosophy as legislator of categorical revision.” It demystifies the relation between noumena and phenomena, opens the door to the possibility of the incremental grasping of noumena both practically and speculatively, and allows for the possibility of an infinite expansion of knowledge and perception, albeit beyond traditional categories of “the human.”

And so, making an analogy with the proposition of a post-Kantian art, we could propose that if art can operate as a technology of “synoptic vision,” as opposed to its more familiar and popular operation akin to “the manifest image,” it could gain a huge potential to drive the development of epistemology, ontology, and aesthetics beyond a reliance on “the given” and towards a genuinely political agency.

Ray Brassier is a philosopher working at the American University of Beirut, known for his work in philosophical realism. He is author of Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction.

This lecture was part of a series of workshops and seminars, titled “The Matter of Contradiction: War Against The Sun,” organized and initiated by Sam Basu, Fabien Giraud, Ida Soulard, and Tom Trevatt in collaboration with Inigo Wilkins, and was held at the Mute magazine offices at Limehouse Town Hall in London, March 1–3, 2013.

March 2, 2015

Mute Magazine

Curated by

Matthew Poole