Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragment of a Conversation on Immanence

Yesterday’s conversation is still percolating along at Larval Subjects. I wanted to cross-post here the most recent comment I’ve made (minus its chatty introduction), mainly because these are issues – in a very condensed form – I’ve been meaning to take up here, in part because they gesture toward how I might think about addressing some of the questions Nick has recently raised on this blog.

I’m somewhat hesitant about the duplicated post because it risks a situation where, for example, someone offers a quite fundamental critique over at Larval Subjects (or here) that doesn’t flow through to the cross post (including, perhaps, the points that Discard and Sinthome have already made in the original thread – it may be that my suggestions have, in a sense, already been fundamentally undermined…). I’d strongly suggest that readers interested in the topic consult the original thread, as the position I’m outlining here does not reflect any kind of achieved consensus in the overarching conversation (and the post may make more sense, as well, with the original context in view)…

Note that, because this was written as a comment, and I haven’t edited it for re-posting here, the style is more appropriate for a comment than for a stand-alone post…

[Updated to note that, because this discussion is continuing in some detail, readers actually are much better off, I think, reading the discussion in its original location, where they can assess my comments in light of critiques and questions that Sinthome has posed.]


There may be more and less abstract concepts of immanence at work in the broader discussion we’ve been having. In your most recent post, you’re using “immanence” in the way I would generally use “materalism” – as an assertion of the non-necessity of appealing to transcendent explanations. (“Materialism” having been one of those words that has been historically flattened, such that the reflex assumption seems to be for people to gloss it as an assertion about economic caussation, rather than an assertion about secular causation…) I have no problem with the strategic notion of using “immanence” in place of “materialism” or “secularism” as a strategy in discussion – or just as a term perhaps more likely to be understood, because it’s not so freighted with history.

My point has been that there is something specifically and deeply inconsistent with asserting a concept of immanence as a stance. I think the move to materialism/immanence entails an obligation to explain how we have become aware that our world can be conceptualised in this way – that we do not need the hypothesis of transcendence – and also how particular immanent dimensions of our world render it plausible for people to jump to the conclusion that a subject-object divide exists.

If we are also historical materialists – if we believe that the nature of our social world has changed over time, and that some of the concepts we are trying to explain have a historical dimension – then this points in the direction, I think, of explaining how something about the practices and habits of thought constitutive of our social world suggests both the subject-object dualism, and the possibility to arrive at concepts like “historical materialism” or a historically-oriented notion of immanence…

If we don’t believe there is evidence for historical shifts, then we could perhaps explain the concept of immanence, and the perception of a subject-object divide, with reference to more timeless concepts (this is, in fact, a very common move in scientific texts that want to explain, e.g., aspects of ethics or morality – to put forward an argument that something in our makeup as biological creatures causes us to perceive and think about the world in specific ways). If we find evidence of meaningful historical change persuasive, however, this avenue is not open to us.

If we still want to assert the hypothesis of immanence in these circumstances, I think the form of the argument would have the structure of: (1) pointing to some specific dimensions of our historical environment that have suggested to us the possibility of immanence; (2) pointing to some specific dimensions of our world that have suggested the existence of a subject-object divide (a divide that, among other things, makes conceptually available to us the constellation of standards for “objectivity” – e.g., that something be reproducable across history); (3) recognising the historically-generated character of our notions of “objectivity” – such that we recognise the way in which any evaluative standards related to this concept must themselves be understood as standards for us; and (4) examining aspects of our historical environment – including concepts like “immanance” whose historical resonance we have already attempted to explain within our theoretical approach – to see whether we might be able to test the validity of these concepts for the analysis of other historical periods.

It is in this sense, in the discussion with Nick for example, that I have suggested that it might be possible, from within a “historical materialist” framework, still link to more conventional notions of truth claims – reconfigured by our recognition that these are lessons we have taught ourselves, concepts for which we have “primed” ourselves, for specific reasons, at a specific moment in time. But concepts which then become provisionally available for us to wield as hypotheses about other human societies, the natural world, etc.

This same orientation might react back against the sort of the discussion we’ve been having about religion and subjective experience. (Some of what I’ve been trying to do in this particular thread is to experiment with whether and how we can be robust with the assertion you made – and with which I agree – at I Cite: that ultimately we have no means to evaluate someone’s subjective experiences, to assess the authenticity of those experiences, when that person asserts that authenticity…)

So, the historical generation of the concept and practice of a “subject” (an individual subject, in this case, although an analysis of collective subjects can also be carried out) also releases concepts – of authenticity, for example – that can then potentially be applied validly, when reconfigured as historical concepts.

I’ve thought a great deal more, personally, about the ramifications for this approach for bodies of thought like the natural sciences, than I have about this approach for understandings of subjective identity. But I suspect that the resonance of quite important political values – the ideals of respect and non-coercive communication, for example, that you mention in your post – can be historicised in this way.

I suspect – but this isn’t a strong or important point to me, on a personal level – that our historical experience of subjecitivity might also leave a reservoir of something like “non-generalisable, authentic personal experience”, to which people could refer in accounting for, e.g, religious experience, experience of personal relationships, and other meaningful experiences whose generalisability to others cannot be assumed, but whose importance to a given individual can nevertheless be asserted with reference to ideals and normative standards (like Habermas’ notion of authenticity) that are generally understood…

Within this framework, the concept of immanence or “historical materialism” does remain a hypothesis or theory, I think – but in something like the way the theory of evolution remains a theory: not as some kind of expression of scepticism about the limits of what we can possibly know, but as an expression that we have developed the theory through an attempt to interpret our experiences after extended reflection. The theory may become extremely powerful, to the degree that it becomes difficult to conceive how its central tenets would ever be challenged – but there is a value, I think, to retaining an in principle agnosticism and tentative openness to the possibility that an alternative, more powerful theory is always in principle possible. (That, and I don’t personally think anyone has done enough serious and systematic work within this framework that we can afford to treat this as a well-established and foundational theory at the present moment in time…)

I realise this is all very condensed… I’m just trying to give a better sense of why I tend to intervene when you try to assert as a stance something that I think needs to be explained as something we have learned – that represents a hard-won historical insight.


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