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Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction Paperback – 8 Nov 2007
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'[A] powerfully original work which determinedly sets in motion profound and searching questions about philosophy in its relation to the universe described by scientific thought, and to human ends [...] Forcibly disabusing use of the assumption that we have somehow dealt with the problem of nihilism, this book reawakens, and even intensifies the toubling, disruptive power for thought that it once heralded.' - Robin Mackay, Parallax
'Nihil Unbound makes good on many of its promises, chief among them providing the reader a rare experience: actual philosophical discovery [...] Brassier's [...] work provides stunning evidence of at least one of Adorno's contentions: "Thought honors itself by defending what is damned as nihilism."' - Knox Peden, Continental Philosophy Review
'Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are the most renowned incarnation of a contemporary European philosophy finally in the process of stepping out from under the shadow of Kantian transcendental idealism and its complex, two-hundred-year aftermath [...] Ray Brassier too is one of the thinkers at the forefront of these exciting new developments.' Adrian Johnston, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology
Bold, learned and ambitious, this book marries Continental and analytic approaches in philosophy to provide a thoroughly original perspective on nihilismSee all Product description
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If, like me, you have a background in the naturalist/physicalist realism predominant in Anglo-American philosophy, Brassier's book is likely to leave you frustrated, if you can even make it to the end. It starts out well enough, with a discussion of Sellars's notion of the 'scientific image' and the necessity of accepting the disenchanted picture of reality uncovered by the natural sciences. However, having made a few steps along the analytic pier, the book proceeds to take a deep plunge into continental waters, and never resurfaces.
I'm not necessarily opposed to engaging with continental philosophy - the critique of Adorno and Horkheimer in Chapter 2 seems pertinent, for instance - but the particular crop of (largely French) thinkers favoured by Brassier reinforces every negative stereotype about useless obscurity. Chapters 3-5 discuss the work of Meillassoux, Badiou, and Laruelle, each of whom has his own incommensurable system of abstract, pseudoscientific jargon. Meillassoux appears to be fighting a battle against post-Kantian idealism (aka 'correlationism') which, while reasonable, seems bafflingly dated and redundant from an analytic perspective. Brassier tries to link it to the tenuously related projects of Badiou's mathematical ontology and Laruelle's 'non-philosophy', in paragraph after paragraph of increasingly tortuous prose. (Sample sentence: 'The object = X unilateralizes its own transcendent objectification by instantiating the identity (without synthesis) between its being-foreclosed and that of the real; as well as the duality (without distinction) between this unobjectifiable identity and the difference between its objective being and its being-nothing.') Having struggled through this, you are treated to painful disquisitions on Heidegger and Deleuze, after which the final chapter on extinction comes as light relief.
The thing is, I already agree with most of Brassier's conclusions, but fail to see how much of the discussion in this book does anything to substantiate them. It feels a bit like someone trying to convince you of the viability of genetics by drawing a diagram of a steam engine annotated with hieroglyphics. If you thrive on the self-contained abstract systems and conceptual paradoxes of modern French philosophy, and are thus drawn to the crypto-idealist speculation that seems to be speculative realism's chief focus, you may well find parts of this book enlightening (and for that reason, I give it 3 stars rather than 2); otherwise, if you seek a work of philosophical realism that actually engages with the nihilistic implications of empirical science, I would recommend James Ladyman and Don Ross's Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, or else Alex Rosenberg's provocatively manifesto-like The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions.
Metaphysics has returned in the form of a neo-scholasticism appropriate to transhumanist speculation.
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In order to understand Brassier's Nihil Unbound, it is important to have a general understanding of Brassier's beliefs as well as a familiarity with the term nihilism. Nihilism is the negation of meaningful aspects of life. It is most commonly discussed in terms of existential nihilism which claims that life is without purpose. Brassier is highly critical of contemporary philosophers whom he identifies as safeguarding the experience of meaning. Brassier criticizes Heidegger as a significant advocate of the centrality of meaning. Much of Nihil Unbound is devoted to Brassier's idea of the logic of disenchantment. Brassier advocates the disenchantment of humanity with its own centrality in regards to reality.
The preface provides a general outline of the book. It is divided into three sections. The first section concentrates on the theme of destroying the manifest image. Chapter one distinguishes manifest images of man from scientific images of man. Brassier explains that "the scientific image describes `what there really is,' it has an ontological purchase capable of undermining man's manifest self-conception as a person or intentional agent" (7). He argues against the discourse of folk psychology and suggests that the emerging science of cognition could potentially eliminate the concept of belief altogether. The elimination of belief would make the scientific image and subsequently truth, more accessible. Chapter two analyzes the relationship between reason and nature as demonstrated by Freud and Hegel. Brassier explains the concept of enlightenment through the evaluation of the works of Adorno and Horheimer. He explains that for Adorno and Horheimer, "enlightenment reason is driven by an inexorable drive to conceptual subsumption which subordinates particularity, heterogeneity, and multiplicity to universality, homogeneity, and unity, thereby rendering everything equivalent to everything else, but precisely in such a way that nothing can ever be identical to itself" (34). Brassier disputes this understanding of enlightenment because it instills inherent purpose through its discussion of individuality. However, he champions his own explanation of enlightenment as the ultimate path toward truth, understanding, and reason. Chapter three summarizes Quentin Meillassoux's critique of correlationism. Meillassoux challenges the Kantian emphasis on correlation between the object and the observer. He does so by presenting the problem of ancestrality. Meillassoux discusses a concept called the arche-fossil which he defines as the givenness of a being anterior to givenness. For the correlationist the arche-fossil is a contradiction; Rather than a contradiction, Meillassoux presents the arche-fossil as a paradox. The idea of ancestrality also presents the issue of thinking a time without thought. This problem foreshadows Meillassoux's discussion of the Kantian idea that it is unthinkable that the unthinkable be impossible. Brassier discusses potential correlationist rebuttals to Meillassoux's presentation of the arche-fossil. He then evaluates what he deems Meillassoux's three unexpected consequences from the absolutization of contingency: "First, that a contradictory entity is impossible. Second, that it is absolutely necessary that contingent entities exist. Third and lastly, that the laws of nature themselves are contingent" (69). Ultimately Brassier confronts Meillassoux's declaration of truth as guaranteed by its ontological referent.
Chapter four begins the second part of the book: "The Anatomy of Negation." Chapter four is a description of Alain Badiou's support for Quentin Meillassoux. Badiou is able to circumvent some of the contradictions of Meillassoux's argument by negating intuition. Brassier claims that Badiou's contention sacrifices intuition only to develop an equally disturbing contradiction involving inscription. Chapter five focuses on the debate of idealism. Brassier attempts to reconcile the idealism of correlation and the idealism of mathematical inscription and intuition. Brassier employs the work of Francois Laruelle, a French philosopher, in order to examine a speculative realism that operates on the basis of negation. Brassier explains that he interprets Laruelle's work not as a "non-philosophical suspension of philosophy but rather [a] uncovered non-dialectal logic of philosophical negation: viz., `unliateralization'" (120). Brassier references Laruelle in order to complete the tasks of the naming of the real and the evacuation of the real. At the end of chapter five, Brassier begins his discussion on space and time.
The final section of the book is titled "The End of Time.". Brassier evaluates the relationship between time and death in the works of Heidegger and Deleuze. Brassier claims that Heidegger, in his book Being and Time, has succumbed to the temptation to "simply deny the ontological autonomy of `time itself' and to reduce it to our temporality" (156). Brassier explains that Deleuze surprisingly endorses several ideas similar to that of Heidegger. Chapter seven cites Nietzsche's argument for overcoming nihilism. In an evaluation of the concept of the necessary being Nietzsche declares that appearances are worshipped and therefore, "the lie - and not the truth is divine!" (219). This quote supports Brassier's belief in nihilism. Lastly, Brassier acknowledges Freud's theory of the death-drive as the key to understanding "the will to know and the will to nothingness" (xii).
In conclusion, Brassier supports reason at all costs. He argues against philosophy as merely a method of enhancing the self-esteem of mankind. His main point involves the inevitability of extinction. Because extinction is inevitable, it has already occurred in logical time. Therefore, the subject of philosophy is already extinct and philosophy is ultimately the organon of extinction. For Brassier humanity has no intrinsic value. This explains his focus on nihilism. He advocates a philosophy that is completely void of sentimentality.
Nihil Unbound is largely a compilation of weighty philosophical texts. The authors of these texts are loosely related not through their beliefs, but rather through their individual radicalism. Nihil Unbound is not intended for the casual reader. Its audience includes the academically proficient, if not solely advanced philosophers. At the end of the book, Brassier has identified his goal of universal philosophical realism, rather than actually accomplishing it.
Brassier views any and all attempts to formulate some sort of philosophy that would give life Meaning as pathetic, as i'm sure you noticed from the quote. But far from being some sort of snide remark, Brassier truly meant that when he said it and in fact the entire book is seemingly structured around proving that statement.
What Brassier does is simple. He begins by explaining the claim of each and every philosopher. And in most cases he goes in to great detail about what he likes about their particular philosophy. And as you might suspect Brassier finishes each chapter by destroying what that person said. But Brassier goes through this exact same process with everyone, and he does so systematically as well as teleologically.
What makes the book really predictable, however, is the fact that his problem or complaint with everyone is the exact same. Thirteen different philosophers and Brassier has the same complaint for them all. In the end everyone falls short of his radical standard. In their own particular way, each of these philosophers embrace and put forth nihilistic ideas. Some more than others, but all of them, at the last minute it seems, became afraid of where they were going and latched on to some idea or conception that one might find Meaning to existence in.
For the perfect example of what I am talking about I will briefly explain Brassier's problem with the "perfect Nihilist," Nietzsche. Nietzsche was all about Meaninglessness. He even tells this little anecdote that Brassier quotes, in full, before the beginning of chapter 7. The story can be summarized as such. 'There once was a planet full of ignorant beasts. These beasts thought that they were special because they had invented this thing called thought. But one day their sun exploded and their planet with them and they all died. The Universe, meanwhile, remained completely unaffected by the one time existence of the beast and continued on as if nothing had ever happened.' That was my version of the story, please read his sometime it is way better written than mine. But you get the point. And the point is that one day our sun will explode and then what about us. No really, what about us? Nothing, that's what. We aren't special, Nietzsche says. The sun will explode, our planet will be vaporized, or whatever, and everything that has ever called it home will die with it. Everything will die and none of it will ever have mattered.
Brassier reads this and says to himself, 'yes!' 'And anyone who thinks otherwise is pathetic.' But Nietzsche too fails Brassier in the end because of his, Nietzsche's, idea called the eternal occurrence. But i'll let you read that on your own. It's actually kind of interesting.
So what I have just provided is a skeletal structure, more or less, for what the book is about as well as give the formate for how Brassier attacks the issue. I didn't give you the how because I neither have the time to do it nor the brain capacity to do it justice. Also, if you are remotely interested in reading this book you will do so not because you care so much about the end result but because what you really want is the how. You want read how Brassier deconstructs the arguments.
And now a word about how I personally feel about the book. I am an unashamed and professing believer in Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior. I believe in the Trinity, that Jesus is God, and that the Bible is the Infallible word of God. I'm also PCA for those who care. But with that said I agree with Brassier and his conclusion. I also absolutely love that rather lengthy quote of his that I gave at the very beginning of all this. But how can you say all that? Those are diametrically opposed beliefs and that makes you an idiot. One might say. So I'll clarify.
Brassier writes what he does based on the premise that there is no God. He doesn't explicitly state that but I think i'm treading in safe waters by saying this, Brassier does not believe in God. It also should go without saying that philosophy for the last 200 years or so has pretty much agreed upon the non-existence of God. And I for one, two if we count Brassier, am sick of hearing philosophers deny the existence of God and then try to hold onto or straight make up some sort of universal Meaning to existence. If the big bang, for example, brought about our existence, there is no Meaning. There is then no Reason for our existence. The idea that our lives have Meaning or Purpose can only be maintained and are only consistent with a belief in an almighty creator.
Fundamentally, I disagree with Brassier. I believe in God, he doesn't. I believe that there is Meaning and Purpose, he doesn't. And where Brassier insists that the Philosopher who is still looking for Meaning is a pathetic sop looking to boost their self-esteem, I insist that all people are looking for Meaning, God created us that way. But from a strictly philosophical perspective I find his logic compelling as well as consistent.