Theory as Critical or Speculative

Are our theories in philosophy critical or speculative in nature?

By “speculative” I understand any position which claims to have knowledge of reality or being through intuition, reason, method, or some other means without accounting for the conditions under which this knowledge is possible and the limits to which it is subject. It is in this respect that a speculative philosophy is subject to enthusiasm and fanaticism . . . Enthusiasm is like taking a passing idea and raising it to the status of the secret of the universe, while fanaticism consists in dogmatically and tenaciously holding to such an idea regardless of whether or not one can provide reasons defending it. In contrast, by “critical” I understand a position which takes account of the conditions and limits that knowledge is subject to, thus establishing what can be known and what claims can be considered dogmatic.
-Levi R. Bryant, Difference and Givenness

By this understanding much of philosophical theory is speculative in that it fails to seek the limits of its knowledge, of the geometry of its own epistemic spaces, their definitions and their relations to the overall context of possible knowledge and what might constitute a reasonable or sufficient type of relation thereof. Any theory which cannot account for such conditions and limits and takes them for granted or as givens is logically inferior to a likewise identical theory which in addition provides an overall epistemic and logical context establishing bounds upon the scope of its claims.

In order to establish these conditions and limits and thus raise our theories from the speculative to the critical type we must endeavor to impregnate them with a strong and grounded psychological framework - they must at all times be connected to a deeper understanding of the human psyche, its methods of operation, its logic, its fundamentals and processes. Without this sort of self-knowledge any claim cannot be evaluated with regard to its possible epistemic status. Logical or linguistic analysis are necessary here also, but as these both fall back upon psychology they are seen as secondary, as consequences of a more essential psychological position.

This ties theory necessarily into the practical, into the real-world - the hypothetical as dependent upon the concrete, the demonstrable. Yet much of the problem in framing a psychological position without the need to establish an extensive and exterior or largly irrelevant empirical experimental basis of cases, tests, methods, theories, observations etc lies in the absence of common symbols for the transferrence of this self-referential and self-validating psychological knowledge; we cannot communicate this sort of human perspective, these potential limits or conditions under which thought originates and operates without a common language capable of relaying and structuring this information. And this touches upon precisely the original issue of speculation: speculative theory fails to ground itself to anything other than the abstract, misty and vague other-wordly illusions of the hypothetical, the mystically self-evident and a-scientific. Where speculative theory has no need for such associations and standards, such general contexts of discourse or discussion will evolve no common symbols for the effective communication of stable and meaningful psychological ideas.

Psychology, being grounded both in the real-world spaces of scientific empiricism and validity as well as the real-world personal experience of self-discovery and introspection - as well as presupposing an internal consistency and inflexible honesty and sincerity with oneself which is of necessity lacking to a large degree in the speculative perspective - does not thus lend itself well to speculative theory. Rather, speculative theory would prefer to remain within the mystical realms, the wholly uncommunicable, the faith-based or atomic and unqualified descriptions which invoke enthusiasm and fanatical dogmatism rather than a neutral and objective critical analysis. . . . examine many of our theories and we will find enthusiasm and fanaticism, as the author above defines them, in all levels and at all points along their ways, from premises to arguments to conclusions. This alone is strong enough evidence that most of our theories in philosophy (I am speaking of the ideas and arguments put forth on this website as well as more generally, of the broad discipline of philosophy proper) are not operating from within a critical perspective.

Without a strong framework of psychological knowledge, and the common language or symbols and concepts that the communication of this knowledge presupposes, a theory will have a difficult and perhaps even impossible time transitioning from the speculative to the critical. Of course the question arises: does this imply that the epistemic must be essentially grounded in the ontological? In a sense, yes, it does - but not without qualifying conditions properly limiting this relation to the practical and essential factors within the scope of the specific theory’s claims and assumptions. It is not a claim about epistemic status per se but rather a more specific requirement imposed upon a theory itself. If we are to form critical theories in philosophy we must endeavor to expand our understanding of the human limits of and conditions under which knowledge actualises or is even possible at all - and I argue that this understanding cannot occur sufficiently without a new and extensively real-world or directly derivable self-knowledge and “textbook” understanding of common human psychological elements.

Great topic LM!

Might there, though, be room for considering a division of labor here? Is there a place for “visionary perspective”, or must perspective always be analytical? Also, is there any possibility for explicit speculation, … is the issue, rather, maintaining adherence to categories, and not mistaking speculation for anything other than what it is? Afterall, the vast amount of the history of philosophy is arguably dependent on a significantly speculative foundation, isn’t it?

Indeed, we ought always to have within our analytical framework spaces for dissent, uncertainty, possibility - for a vision forward and away from the constitutive structure currently in place. I do not think that the requirements of critical analysis preclude the existence of possibilities for growth, change, departure.

Speculation will undoubtedly play an important role in these exterior spaces. I think that speculation can be wrapped onto a more critical analysis, in that speculating might be connected to these established analytical framework through the mediums of logic, association, conceptual overlap, even abstraction or desire are not inherently in opposition to this process. The problem as I see it comes in when speculation is done without reference to a critical framework - the nature of this relationship can be debated or studied and I am by no means an expert here, but regardless a relationship ought to exist. And conversely, ‘pure’ analysis would be seen as detrimental or undesirable just as much (or maybe slightly less than) ‘pure’ speculation - from the point of view of constructing reasonable, falsifiable, concrete, practical or logically consistent theories, that is. If religion or irrationalism is the goal of theory, then certainly critical analysis need play no part in it.

Perhaps in not mistaking speculation for what it is not we could avoid some of the undesirable pitfalls associated with free or unbounded speculation. I personally love speculation, free of the constraints of reason or logic - but I keep it where it belongs, and as you say, categorically separate from other types of theorising. And in the sense that the vast amount of the history of philosophy proceeds from a significantly speculative foundation, this separation or compartmentalisation is even more important, else we get lost down the rabbit hole and never come up against something real or at the very least justified. . . . of course this is a compartmentalisation that does not ignore the relationships and connections between critical analysis and speculation, between reason and faith, between the rational and the irrational. Often speculation proceeds along reasonable and rational lines, and is only unable to ground itself in a more concrete or practical analytical foundation - absent complete irrationality or an absolute tyranny of mysticism or meaninglessness, speculation in and of itself occupies more properly that place alongside and at the horizons of critical analysis, as you pointed out.

Perhaps the issue here lies in bringing forward a more strict or accurate definition of the types and roles of speculation. What do you think?

Short answer - both. It’s not a dichotomy; creativity and analysis are both part of the business of philosophising. Creativity builds up, analysis shaves away… too little analysis and our ideas do indeed explode into unsupportable nonsense (and cease being practical philosophy), too much analysis and we are left a solipsistic island of vanishing certainty on which to teeter (and cease doing practical philosophy).

… in practice, of course, this means a position which takes account of the conditions and limits that Levi R. Bryant believes knowledge is subject to. So he’s simply expressing his opinion that his judge of the quality of a philosophy is the quality of its epistemology. If it passes, it’s ‘critical’ - hence, his tone leaves us in no doubt, ‘good’ - and if not, it’s ‘speculative’/‘bad’.

This is one approach, and the typically Anglo-Saxon analytical one (meant as descriptive rather than pejorative). There are of course other approaches; philosophy need not pare itself down to the barest bones of what is, but must be useful, or emancipatory, or simply creative. To paraphrase Deleuze, it could be that the purpose of philosophy is not to represent the world and replicate it faithfully in thought, but to create new concepts as tools to enquire about the world.

Bryant’s definition of fanaticism, “… holding to such an idea regardless of whether or not one can provide reasons defending it”, already raises questions of justification. It seems as though fanaticism is a disregard for justification, but in that case we are all fanatics in some sense. Some of our knowledge simply is certain - as we have the intention to make it certain, we define certainty in such a way. Even if you take an extreme rationalist view that the world consists of propositions, our practical experience is that some propositions are simply norms; the rationalist argument depends on such norms in order to construct itself. All arguments, including epistemological ones, do and must.

In any case, it is a red herring - all ‘speculative’ theories provide justification. Even the wildest flights of fancy in philosophy are not simple bullet-pointed manifestos, but assembled arguments, collections of aphorisms, structured presentations aimed to convince. Is fanaticism (within the context of philosophy) not rather the continued belief in spite of contradictory evidence/argument?

Excellent point, thanks :slight_smile:

If it is any consolation or clarification, Bryant is interpreting Deleuze here along Kantian lines, in order to arrive at an answer to the question of how Deleuze avoids the charges leveled against both the empiricist’s overanalysis as well as the transcendentalist’s or phenomenologist’s underanalysis, or overspeculation. But I tend to agree with you that we ought to separate our understandings of what these types of theorising are as theory qua theory, within their own assumptions and given spaces, from the reality that a theory is a human construct imposing and imposed upon by certain limits of language, conception and perception - not to mention the additional fact of the practical or real-world application or presentation of theory. I like how you subjectify the distinction between critical and speculative theory to the theoretical realm itself, along with its limitations and potential problems (or maybe simply its lack of universality or of a monopoly on “truth”). Not to defend or rebuke Bryant here, I was using him to make a broader point, but I do consider his separation of critical and speculative as useful as well as relevant to theory construction. Any oversimplifying you see in him here may only be the result of a quote lifted out of a quite specifc context.

Absolutely, you would be preaching to the choir with that one, to be sure :smiley:

Perhaps we could see fanaticism as the disregard for falsification or for the potential thereof, rather than of justification, I can definitely see this. I will have to think some more on it. Certainty and justification are tough nuts to crack on their own, to be sure, without bringing them into a different conversation of theorising itself. I think the questions of certainty and justification do raise serious issues with the whole examination of critical vs specualtive theory, yet while interesting I also do not think these questions need derail the discussion entirely, or sink it - we might carry on a conversation here regarding theorizing and its types while benching for the moment certainty and justification, if only for simplicity’s sake. But I will have to think a bit more about this, and refine my views here sometime soon, thanks for your input.

An issue that has always made me queston myself is that the only ‘objective’ information I can get on any given topic is from other people, and I often wonder whether my beliefs are flawed and that I’m just too stubborn to admit it and am going through the endeavour of poking flaws in the ‘objective’ view if it doesn’t coincide with my own just so I don’t need to change.

I like to think though that I don’t place much emotional attachment to my understandings, and desire to improve and change my views if new ones are better suited.

The main problem though, is that it’s extremely hard, for me at least, to have faith in another’s singular opinion enough to change my own views because I ask for proof that can’t usally be given. So how does one know when they’re being critical or speculative?

‘There must after all be something meaningful to do, something with more content, something more interesting than what I’m doing now’, you tell yourself. And the only thing you can do is to change yourself, hmm? But in reality there is no possibility of completely overhauling your past experiences and thinking that have made you what you are now. The only change takes place in your thought structure, you begin to think differently and therefore to experience and feel things differently. Basically however everything remains exactly as it was. You can change your clothes and only wear the most ‘fashionable’ clothing just to be ‘in’, but inside you are still the same. Wanting to understand is only useful for changing small things in yourself. There is nothing you can do to change the past. In the hope of changing things in the future, you remain stuck with the present, which is in fact the past.

All this is to assume that we sometimes go to the extent of allowing ourselves to regard our present lives as appearing to have absolutely no meaning so we go searching for a meaning, we search for a goal. As long as there is the search for a goal, and the search for meaning going on, there’s the possibility of wandering around restlessly.

Finishedmen isn’t it a vital part of man that he wants to change things, doesn’t really matter what. We have a brain, with a memory of the good and the bad in the past, and an imagination enabling us to think of a better future. What if the act of creating if where meaning is to be found?

Some, who view life as inscrutable by pointing to the myriad theories on the matter, just accept the meaning of it as something that is already operating inside of the extraordinary peaceful smooth functioning of the human organism. No doubt they have heard from others, and have even imagined in there own internal dialogue, many bewitching phrases of lofty, enchanted, made-up places, but have come to terms with the lack of feasibility in the actual existence of a true state of being where these notions are maintained through sustained permanence. There’s nothing wrong with the entertainment those thoughts provide. They can produce a temporary ‘elevated’ state. Don’t get me wrong. It’s all poetic and romantic stuff. But to put them out there as a genuine goal to achieve is to possibly put yourself in an awkward divided position: you are busying yourself with using certain thoughts to change yourself into a ‘better self’ that is the opposite of what you are inside yourself now. Now you are a lesser person, tomorrow you will be better.

Yet, there is the definite presence, of feeling or experiencing a peaceful state, that is there when you do not set ’peace’ as a goal (assuming ’peace’ is the best state to achieve). Any method or system used to bring about peace would be violence to the already existing peace. The same goes for the meaning of life: some find the meaning when they do not deliberately seek it out.

I don’t mean to close the door on bringing all thoughts into the mix. I’m sure you have, through combinations and permutations of ideation and mentation about thoughts, created your own thoughts which you call your own. Just as when you mix different colors, you can create thousands of pastel colors, but basically all of them can be reduced to only seven colors that you find in nature. What you think is yours is the combination and permutation of all those thoughts, just the way you have created hundreds and hundreds of pastel colors. You have created your own ideas. That is what we call ‘creative’ thinking. It’s all good. A few posters here mastermind a true sense of style with their words…. and that’s what makes it entertaining: the various styles we have. Artful expression.

However, I may just be emphasizing acceptance and appreciation of what I am when there is no wish or concern to be something other than what I am. Nature is busy creating absolutely unique individuals, whereas something has invented a ’meaning’ to which all must conform. That’s distorted. As a human body it is an extraordinary piece of creation. But as a human being he is inadequate because of the imposed ‘meaning.’ To be yourself requires extraordinary intelligence. You are blessed with that intelligence; nobody need give it to you; nobody can take it away from you. He who lets that express itself in its own way is natural, is real.

What is the 'meaning ’ you are talking about Diekon?


I’m just saying that the “imagining of better places” - and it needn’t always be all that lofty and grandioze - is just as much a part of that smooth functioning machine… part of what I am.

All lot of us have everything we need, yet we still go looking for something else. You blame “invented meaning” as the cause of this false, fabricated drive, whereas i see it as part of “the natural way”, if one chooses to speak in these terms. It’s what we do.

I think the overemphasis on acceptance, assuming a peaceful state et al, is the forced bit. We don’t allways want peace.

Pardon me if it seems I’m holding forth along a particular paradigm. One reason I like to emphasize the physical aspect is because of the propensity of the body to absorb disturbances within its constitution in order to restore itself to its natural peaceful smooth functioning. This natural peaceful state is necessary to maintain the sensitivity of the nervous system and the senses that, when operating at their (uninterrupted) peak, can work with the brain to oversee the safety and health of the organism.

A satisfaction or happiness, that’s associated more with sensual aspects or intellectually derived feelings, is sustained and prolonged by the constant involvement of thinking about it. Those sensations take root in the intellect, not in the body. The body rejects them with its objective always being a peaceful, smooth functioning.

These blips on the calm radar screen are certainly not to be hyped and avoided, and, obversely, the slow methodical practice of deprivation of thought to change oneself into something better isn’t a thing to be hyped and trusted.

Great insight!

Not sure how I missed this thread back when…

What is the relation between ourselves and the world we live in? Absolutely nothing except that the world you experience is the one that is created by you. You are living in a world of your own. You have created a world of your own experiences and you are trying to project it onto the world. You have no way of experiencing the reality of the world at all. You and I use the same word to describe a video camera. What you are holding is a pen, or a pencil, as the case may be. So, we have to accept all these things as valid because they are workable. They help us to function in this world, to communicate only on that level intelligently.