As its title makes clear, Nathan Brown’s Rationalist Empiricism: A Theory of Speculative Critique focuses on four disparate philosophical tendencies, or four ways of “doing” philosophy, which are arranged into two seemingly incompatible dyads: rationalism and empiricism, speculation and critique. Together, they amount to an organizational principle—a mesh through which the history of philosophy will be made to pass—and a challenge, the challenge of holding these disparate tendencies together. By way of introduction, I want to say something about this book as an intervention in the history of philosophy—emphasizing in particular its critical relationship to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
First, what does it mean to articulate, after Kant, rationalism—Brown describes it as “a philosophical orientation deploying the power of reason to push thought beyond the limits of experience, to explore what has to be thought according to the internal order and consistency of ideas”—and empiricism—“a philosophical orientation claiming the genesis of ideas in experience and grounding the determination of what is the case on the consistency of thinking with experiential fact” (3)? Here, the qualification—after Kant—is crucial. For if a return to rationalism or empiricism risks inviting the charge of pre-critical naïveté, an invocation of rationalist empiricism suggests instead something like a frontal assault on the Kantian project. As students of the history of philosophy know, when Kant set his transcendental philosophy against rationalism and empiricism, he also codified rationalism and empiricism for the first time as discrete, and opposed, philosophical methods. To affirm a rationalist empiricism, then, is to accept Kant’s characterization of the history of philosophy while denying that this history should lead to the establishment of transcendental idealism. The problem with Kant, as I understand it, is not a failure to make room for “what has to be thought”; Kant allows for what he describes as “the dogmatic procedure that reason follows in its pure cognitions; for that procedure is science (and science must always be dogmatic, i.e., it must always do strict proofs from secure a priori principles)” (Bxxxv). Nor can the problem with Kant be some neglect of “what is the case,” for the real effectivity of the latter is precisely what the Transcendental Aesthetic of the first Critique is supposed to secure. The problem, rather, is with Kant’s promise to ground reason and experience in the activity of a subject, a subject that is itself simultaneously real and ideal. The challenges to Kant’s formulation of this subject are well known; Brown’s claim is that Kant’s “transcendental deduction exposed, beyond its grounding of knowledge in conditions, the unconditional groundlessness of the subject of knowledge” (2) To acknowledge this groundlessness, to acknowledge the absence of the subject that is supposed to harmonize reason and experience, is to free rationalism and empiricism from the closure of the transcendental. It is, rather, to see them encounter one another in an endless process of challenge and correction.
“The delicate task of rationalist empiricism,” Brown writes “is . . . to preserve the distinction and autonomy of its methodological poles while also submitting each to the critical interrogation of the other, acknowledging and accounting for the discrepancy of their criteria” (3). This preservation of rationalism and empiricism in a dislocative unity, this refusal to establish for them a shared criterion, enables Brown to do justice not only to these apparently opposed tendencies within philosophy but also to the relationship between philosophy and what we might call, after Alain Badiou, philosophy’s exogenous “conditions.” Thus, Brown offers rationalist-empiricist readings of contemporary episodes in the realms of politics (in the progress of the political sequence “Occupy Oakland” between October 10, 2011 and January 28, 2012), of art (in the practice of the photographer and installation artist Nicolas Baier), and of science (in the 2018 redefinition of the kilogram according to the Planck constant). What is important here is, I think, in each case, the specificity of what is the case, even as it is submitted to the necessity of what has to be thought (or done).
Secondly, what does it mean to maintain together speculation and critique? Here, again, Kant is the starting point, but a starting point of a different sort. While the articulation of rationalism and empiricism suggests a return to a moment just before Kant—say, to that moment before the transcendental deduction carried out in the first Critique—the articulation of speculation and critique suggests nothing so much as the passage beyond Kant to Hegel. And yet, this apparent symmetry risks misleading us. While Brown indeed reads Hegel as moving beyond Kant’s transcendental critique so as to institute a version of speculative critique, it is equally right to emphasize that Hegel, in passing from transcendental to speculative philosophy, in interrogating the relation of thought to itself (outside of any subjective limits), nonetheless preserves the critical exigency adumbrated by Kant. Why is this so important? As Brown notes at the very beginning of Rationalist Empiricism, “insofar as speculation is opposed to critique, it can only give rise to dogmatism” (1); and he goes on to note the unfortunate outcome of twenty-first-century philosophy’s so-called speculative turn. The latter’s “most zealous promoters, converting the venerable legacy of speculative thought into the cultural capital of ersatz theoretical movements, have merely repeated the forms of dogmatism Kant and Marx rightly delimited while pretending to move beyond these critical delimitations.”
On the one hand, the deletion of the transcendental, which provokes an ungrounded exchange between rationalism and empiricism; on the other, the preservation of the critical within the speculative so as to ward off philosophical dogmatism. Rationalist Empiricism is at the furthest remove from the facile anti-Kantianism, the naïve realism, that has for more than a decade been the stock-in-trade of post-humanist, new materialist, and object-oriented “philosophers.” While the philosophical work that Brown carries out aligns his project with the “philosophy of the concept” championed in the twentieth-century French epistemological tradition—with that philosophical sequence reaching from Bachelard and Cavaillès, to Althusser, Badiou, and Meillassoux—Rationalist Empiricism does not, finally, present its readers with a system or a method. It is instead, Brown explains,
an orientation toward philosophical problems that seeks to intervene in and unsettle the methodological unity of the tradition. It is also an orientation toward political problems that seeks to intervene in and unsettle any programmatic unity of theory and praxis. Taking up such problems through their relation to the tradition involves engaging contemporary texts, the history of philosophy, and political theory not only in terms of one’s own “position,” but in terms of certain methodological approaches that do not necessarily cohere into a position or align with a single philosophical school. (30)
Rationalist Empiricism, it seems to me, not only offers a series of interventions in particular debates in the history of philosophy—the question of structure in Plato, of separation in Marx, of temporalization in Heidegger—but also, and fundamentally, recasts the history of philosophy and the relation of philosophy to its history (to what is the case, in the latter’s most expansive sense).
What follows is a symposium dedicated to this singular book. It comprises the lightly-edited record of an exchange of ideas that occurred at Harvard University over two sessions on 14 May 2021. The responses that follow take up diverse elements of Rationalist Empiricism’s argument. Nick Nesbitt takes up the book’s discussions of Marx and Althusser so as to ask whether a materialist rationalism—a project sketched in Althusser’s work of the mid-sixties—really needs an empiricist complement. Julia Ng engages with the book’s first chapter, with its discussion of Descartes in particular, which she locates within a tradition of twentieth-century Descartes scholarship reaching from Edmund Husserl to Martial Gueroult; and she goes on to question the priority afforded to (a pre-Kantian vision of) the intellect over the imagination. Tracy McNulty considers the relationship between rationalist empiricism and psychoanalysis, asking whether a theory of the unconscious and of fantasy might shed light on a remark of Bachelard’s that serves as the book’s epigraph and returns in the last chapter: “Empiricism and rationalism are bound, in scientific thought, by a strange bond, as strong as that which unites pleasure and pain.” Finally, Alexi Kukuljevic focuses most explicitly on the ontological claims that develop over the course of Rationalist Empiricism, emphasizing in particular the question of the gap between thought’s historical occurrence and the absolute to which thought lays claim. In each case, the responses—and Brown’s responses in turn—clarify and complicate the arguments of Rationalist Empiricism, its exceptional recasting of the relationship between reason and experience.