Ray Brassier
Nihil Unbound

Enlightenment and Extinction
Palgrave/McMillan 2010

xi Nihilism is not a pathological exacerbation of subjectivism, which anuls the world and reduces reality to a correlate of the absolute ego, but on the contrary, the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the “values” and “meanings” which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable.
Philosophers would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.

2 Destroying the manifest image
3 In “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”, Wilfried Sellars proposes a compelling diagnosis of the predicament of contemporary philosophy. The contemporary philosopher is confronted with two competing “images” of man and the world: on the one hand, the manifest image of man as he has conceived of himself up until now with the aid of philosophical reflection; on the other, the relatively recent but continually expanding scientific image of man as a “complex physical system” (Sellars, pg. 25) - one which is conspicuously unlike the manifest image, but which can be distilled from various scientific discourses, including physics, neuro-physiology, evolutionary biology, and, more recently, cognitive science.

The contrast between the manifest and the scientific image is not to be construed in terms of a conflict between naive commonsense and sophisticated theoretical reason. The manifest image is not the domain of pre-theoretical immediacy. On the contrary, it is itself a subtle theoretical construct, a disciplined and critical “refinement or sophistication” of the originary framework in terms of which, man first encountered himself as being capable of conceptual thought.

The myth of Jones

Sellars proposes a philosophical fable about our (speaking) ancestors who have acquired language but who lack any conception of complex mental states and processes we take to be the precondition for any sophisticated cognitive behaviour.

4 When attempting to explain human behaviour such as anger, their resources are limited to a set of dispositional terms – e.g. “bad-tempered” - which are operationally defined with regard to observable circumstances - such as “ranting and raving” - these in turn being deemed sufficient to explain the observable behaviour - in this case, “rage”.

These operationally defined dispositional concepts severely restrict the range of human activities which can be explained. (The ancestors) lacked the conceptual wherewithal for explaining more complicated behaviours. It is at this stage in the fable that Sellars introduces his “myth of Jones”.

Jones is a theoretical genius who postulates the existence of internal speech-like episodes called “thoughts”, closely modelled on publicly observable declarative utterances. These “thought-episodes” are conceived as possessing the same semantic and logical properties as their publicly observable linguistic analogues, and as playing an internal role comparable to that of the discursive and argumentative role performed by overt speech.
By postulating the existence of such internal processes even in the absence of any publicly observable speech-episodes, it becomes possible to explain hitherto inscrutable varieties of human behaviour as resulting from an appropriately structured sequence of these internal thought-episodes. Similarly, Jones postulates the existence of episodes of internal “sensation” modelled on external perceptual objects. “Sensations” are understood as instances of internal perception capable of causing cognition and action even in the absence of their externally observable counterpart. Following a similar pattern of reasoning, Jones goes on to postulate the existence of “intentions”, “beliefs”, and “desires” as relatively lasting states of individuals which can be invoked as salient causal factors for explaining various kinds of behaviour: “He pushed him because he intended to kill him”, “She left early because she believed they were waiting for her, ”He stole it because he desired it”. The nub of Jones’ theory consists in establishing a relation between persons and the propositions which encapsulate their internal thought episodes.
Jones teaches his peers to explain behaviour by attributing propositional attitudes to persons via the “that” clauses in statements of the form: “He believes that…”, “She desires that…”, “He intends that…”. Though not yet recognised as such, these propositional attitudes have become the decisive causal factors in the new theory of human behaviour proposed by Jones; a theory which represents a vast increase in explanatory power relative to its behaviourist predecessor. All that remains is for individuals to learn to use this new theory not merely for the purpose of explaining others’behaviour, but also to describe their own: one learns to perceive qualitatively distinct episodes of inner sensation just as one learns to understand oneself by ascribing beliefs, desires, and intentions to oneself. The theory is internalised and appropriated as the indispensable medium for describing and articulating the structure of one's own first person experience.

5 The philosophical moral to this fable consists in Jones’ philosophically minded descendants coming to realise that the propositional attitudes stand to one another in complex logical relations of entailment, implication, and inferential dependency, and that Jones’ theory exhibits a structure remarkably akin to deductive-nomological models of scientific explanation. For these philosophers Jones’ theoretical breakthrough has provided the key to uncovering the rational infrastructure of human thought; one which is crystallised in the sentential articulation of propositional attitude ascription. “Beliefs”, “desires”, “intentions”, and similar entities now become the basic psychological kinds to be accounted for by any theory of cognition.
But what is the ontological status of these psychological entitiess? It is striking to note that though Sellars himself attributes a functional role to them, this is precisely in order to leave the question of their ontological status open. According to Sellars, “thought-episodes are in language-using animals as molecular impacts are in gases, not as “ghosts” are in “machines”. However, unlike gas molecules, whose determinative empirical characteristics are specified according to the essentially Newtonian lawfulness of their dynamic interaction, “thoughts” in Sellars’ account are introduced as purely functional kinds whose ontological/empirical status is yet to be determined.

Boe: functional – Luhmann: the transition from asking “What-questions” (ontology - essence) to asking “How-questions” (function – procedural).

Accordingly, for Sellars, the fundamental import of the manifest image is not so much ontological as normative, in the sense that it provides the framework “in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provides the ambience of principles and standards (above all those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives”. Thus, the manifest image does not so much catalogue a set of indispensable ontological items which we should strive to preserve from scientific reduction; it indexes the community of rational agents.

6 In this regard, the primary component of the manifest image is the notion of persons as loci of intentional agency. Consequently, although the manifest image is a “disciplined and critical theoretical framework”, one which could also be said to constitute a certain kind of “scientific image” - albeit one that is “correlational” as opposed to “postulational” - it is not one which we are in a position simply to take or leave. For unlike other theoretical frameworks the manifest image provides the ineluctable prerequisite for our capacity to identify ourselves as human, which is to say, as persons: “Man is that being which conceives of itself in terms of the manifest image. To the extent that the manifest image does not survive - to that extent man himself would not survive” (Sellars)

What is indispensable about our manifest self-image, Sellars concludes, is not its ontological commitments, in the sense of what it says exists in the world, but rather its normative valance as the framework which allows us to make sense of ourselves as rational agents engaged in pursuing various purposes in the world. Without it, we would simply not know what to do or how to make sense of ourselves - indeed, we would no longer be able to recognise ourselves as human.

Accordingly, Sellars, echoing Kant, concludes that we have no option but to insist that the manifest image enjoys a practical, if not theoretical, priority over the scientific image, since it provides the source for the norm of rational purposivness, which we cannot do without. In this regard, the genuine philosophical task would consist in achieving a properly stereoscopic integration of the manifest and scientific images, such as the language of rational intention would come to enrich scientific theory so as to allow the latter to be widely wedded to human purposes.


49 The enigma of realism - the arche-fossilancestral phenomena anterior to the emergence of life. Natural science produces ancestral statements. (13,7 – 4,5)

50 They are enigmatic because of the startling philosophical implications harboured by their literal meaning, that seems to point to something which violates the basic conditions of conceptual intelligibility stipulated by post-Kantian philosophy.

Post-Kantian philosophers share one frundamental conviction: that the idea of a world-in-itself, subsisting independently of our relation to it, is an absurdity. Objective reality must be trancendentally guaranteed, whether by consciousness, intersubjective consensus, or a community of rational agents…
It is our pre-theoretical relation to the world (Dasein,life) which provides the ontological precondition for the intelligibility of scientific claims.

If the idea of a world-in-itself, of a realm of phenomena subsisting independently of our relation to it, is intelligible at all, it can only be inteligible as something in-itself or independent "for us". This is the reigning doxa of post--metaphysical philosophy: what is fundamental is neither hypostized substance nor the reified subject, but rather the relation between un-objectifiable thinking and un-representable being, the primordial reciprocity or "co-propriation" of logos and physis which at once unites and distinguishes the terms which it relates.
This premium on a relationality in post--metaphysical philosophy - whose telling symptom is the preoccupation with "difference" - has become an orthodoxy which is all the more insidious for being constantly touted as a profound innovation. Meillassoux has given it a name:

51 correlationalism:
Correlationalism affirms the primacy of the relation between thought and its correlate over the metaphysical hypostization of representationalist reification of either term of the relation.

Correlationalism never denies that our thoughts or utterances in at or intend mind-independent or language-independent reality is; it merely stipulates that this apparently independent dimensional remains internally related to thought and language. Thus contemporary correlationism dismisses the problematic of scepticism, and epistemology more generally, as an antiquated Cartesian hangup: there is supposedly no problem about how we are able to adequately represent reality, since we are “always already”outside ourselves and immersed in or engaging with the world. Note that correlationism need not privilege “thinking” or “consciousness” as the key relation - it can just as easily replace it with “being in the world”, perception, sensibility, intuition, aspect, or even flesh.

Correlationism insists that there can be no cognizable reality independently of our relation to reality; no phenomena without some transcendental operator - such as life for consciousness or Dasein - generating the conditions of manifestation through which phenomena manifest themselves. In the absence of this original rear relation and these transcendental conditions of manifestation, nothing can be manifest, apprehended, thought, or known. Thus, the correlationist will continue, not even the phenomena described by the sciences are possible independently of the relation through which the phenomena become manifest. Moreover, the correlationist will add, it is precisely the transcendental nature of the correlation as sine qua non for cognition that obviates the possibility of empirical idealism. Thus, Kant maintains that known things are not dependent upon being perceived precisely because known things are representations and representations are generated via a transcendent or sentences of categorical form and sensible material. Syntheses is rooted in pure apperception, which yields the transcendental form of the object as its necessary correlate and guarantator of objectivity.

52 “Thus we can say that the real things of past time are given in the transcendental object of experience; but they are objects for me and really in past time only insofar as I represent to myself (either by the light of history or buy the guiding clues of a series of causes and effects) that the regressive series of possible perceptions in accordance with empirical laws, in a word, that the course of the world, conduct us to past time-series as the condition of the present time.

Kant Critique of Pure Reason

For Kant, then, the ancestral time of the arche-fossil cannot be represented as existing in itself but only as connected to a possible experience. But we cannot represent to ourselves any regressive series of possible perceptions in accordance with empirical laws capable of conducting us from our present perceptions to the ancestral time indexed by the arche-fossil. It is strictly impossible to prolong the chain of experience from our contemporary perception of the radioactive isotope to the time of the accretion of the Earth indexed by its radiation, because the totality of the temporal series coextensive with possible experience in self emerged out of that ideological time wherein there simply was no perception. We cannot extend the change of possible perceptions back prior to the emergence of nervous systems, which provide the material conditions for the possibility of perceptual experience.