A Definitive Introduction to Metamodern Metaphysics

Let us ask a question. Is it accidental that a pronounced moment of post-metaphysical thinking appears alongside the political projects invested in disarming and disempowering world institutions, or those invested in dismantling patriarchy, and the remaining after-effects of colonialism? Following WWII, the horrors of Nazi gas chambers and fears of atomic warfare had demanded that the human animal rather problematize the use and application of technology alongside the operation and orientation of power. Because of the ugliness of these concerns, we should not be surprised that academic philosophy too was also subordinated to sociological concerns and preoccupied with the tools on offer by way of sociologic. In a little-referenced paper from 2003, titled The Problem of Critique, Steven M. Feldman identifies this turn away from metaphysics and towards a certain epistemological sociology, one that goes by the name of metamodernism,

“Metamodernism not only rejects epistemological foundationalism, but further dismisses these concerns as insignificant in comparison to other more pressing issues. Metamodernists tend to emphasize the operation and orientation of power.”

“Jürgen Habermas, for instance, unequivocally declares himself to be postmetaphysical.”

Feldman epitomizes this period of thought by reference to the debate surrounding intellectuals such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida, among others. At the same time, we should acknowledge that narratives such as Feldman’s metamodernism indicate that their author is standing at some distance from that which is described. Feldman’s metamodernism places us in a peculiar and novel historical vantage point. Such a position allows us to experience relief from worn problematics; we might also find ourselves favorably positioned for a unique interrogation of the suffering of today. Interestingly, we might ask if metaphysical questions would again be useful, and particularly when addressing the challenges of a “metamodernity”—namely,

a problematizing of labor;

a problematizing of rootlessness;

a problematizing of the other; and,

a lack of care.

Of course, given this list, and when looking into the history of metaphysics, we have reason to suspect that the subjectivist metaphysics of René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger, for example, would be satisfactory in addressing metamodern challenges. We can be sure that a post-subjectivist thinking was not only required of the post-WWII project, it is also present for us today. However, to believe that a post-subjectivist metaphysics could be achieved by way of a “collective”, “social”, “national”, or “identity” subject would also be a deception. In each of those descriptions, human being remains the subject matter, as it has since the inception of the modern era. What is required of a metamodern metaphysics is a new subject which can account for the natural power of not only the human animal, but also non-human animals, machines, intelligent programs, and even algorithms as well. In this article, I will announce such a subject. I will also frame the thinking space which treats of this subject. Finally, I will conclude by considering what questions a metamodern metaphysics faces. But before all of that, a few remarks on subjects are required.

Remarks on subject matter and subjects

Subject is a word which comes down to us by way of Latin subiectum, subicio (from sub, “under, beneath, at the foot of” and iacio, “I lay, set, establish, build, found, construct”). The present infinitive of iacio is iacere. Fundamenta iacere means “to lay the foundations”. Within scientific disciplines, various objects serve as subject matter, such that all discourse within that discipline is directed towards those grounding subjects. For example, man in the case of anthropology; psyche in the case of psychology; or society in the case of sociology. Modern metaphysicians have taken their own subject matter to be variously a cogito sum, a transcendental subject, da sein, or the dividual (as in the case of Giles Deleuze and some metamodernists). However, these “subjects” are not merely subject matter for philosophers. They are, at the same time, a description of a subiectum which is prior to the world and which accounts for its being. These subiecta have been expressed by I or, as in the case of da sein, mine. In this article, I will refer to these metaphysics as subjectivist. This is on account of the fact that in each case, the subject matter refers to human being—whether that being is described in terms of mental faculties or whether it can be exemplified by the social commerce of the human animal. As is well known, this type of description has dominated metaphysical discourse since the seventeenth century, especially following Descartes. However, an understanding of the subiectum became more pronounced later in the story of modernization. Kant’s metaphysical architectonic, likely above all else, has encouraged the necessity of the word “subject” in later metaphysical discourse. Therefore, it is worth our time to recapitulate Kant’s philosophy. We will use this starting point as a departure by which we will bring ourselves through history and up into the state of metaphysics as we find it today, such that we can pivot around this history and announce the subject matter and subiectum of a metamodern metaphysics.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

Before highlighting features of Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (“Critique of Pure Reason”), I should note that during Kant’s time, Isaac Newton’s mechanics had a profound impact on the interpretation of the natural world. However, Kant acknowledged that nature and its causal mechanisms did not merely appear, but was rather conditioned. Speaking colloquially, there are conditions which inform or form the image of whatever we discover in nature. Today, we know Kant’s conditions as the conditions of possibility. For Kant, Reason is the description of that condition. It is only by way of the faculties of Reason that Newton’s nature can be apprehended at all. For Kant, nature is defined as the totality of all appearances that can be synthesized together according to the a priori faculties of Reason. A priori refers to that which is prior. In Kant’s philosophy, this means prior to experience. Reason is sufficient for what Kant calls analytic judgements. Supplanting Reason with experience, we come to a synthetic judgement—a synthesis which produces a consciousness of nature. Now, even for readers who are unfamiliar with Kant, you should immediately notice that Kant’s architectonic of Reason could also be described as the architecture of the mind—that is to say, through the language of psychology. Kant’s critique is that Reason (our mind) has limitations. Whatever falls outside of Reason, is unknowable. Thus, Kant sets the limits of both physical and metaphysical description. Kant was eager to place any schematizing of the causal-occult beyond the disciplines of science—whether that science produced a physical or metaphysical description. Recalling from Max Muller’s translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,

“We rightly consider objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.”

Kant’s description is also said to be transcendental. Transcendental philosophy can be understood as any philosophy which emphasizes an individual’s direct relationship with nature, in which no intermediating entity is necessary. This may seem like a largely unimportant distinction to any individual living in secular society. But consider the various religions in which the ideal world can only be arrived at through doctrine. Contrary to this, Kant’s transcendentalism does indeed place the individual in a direct relationship with nature, even if nature is understood by Kant in a quite peculiar and unnatural sense. Throughout the rest of this article, I will refer to Kant’s transcendental architectonic as psychological, never minding the nuances which might keep “psychological metaphysics”, such as that of Kant’s, distinct from the science which we know as psychology.

Now, what may strike any one of us is that if we were to simply accept the conditions of possibility by way of Kant’s rational model of consciousness, then we would have only explained how the intuition of appearances and their motion is possible. What would be explicitly lacking in this form of description is an explanation as to which object adheres in consciousness. The problem asked about here can be further considered by way of the following example: consider that lightning is not tantamount to or merely a type of electromagnetic discharge. At most, we could say that the description electromagnetic discharge is a refinement of the description lightning. But we could never say that one is more true or even more accurate than the other universally and in all cases. This means that the question as to whether the object “lightning” adheres in consciousness following a flash of light in sky or whether “electromagnetic discharge” adheres cannot be decided upon by the synthetic judgement alone. Rather, those descriptions must be conditioned by something other than subjective consciousness. Therefore, in order to answer this question, we must admit that a more robust metaphysical architecture would be needed to describe the conditions by which objects adhere in consciousness. As is well known, the question regarding the which is one which Sein und Zeit (“Being and Time”) answers by way of a more robust and anthropological thinking.

Heidegger’s Being and Time

Heidegger’s move away from Kant’s psychological philosophizing and towards a certain anthropological orientation provides for a more robust understanding of the conditions of possibility. This is apparent in the opening paragraphs of Being and Time, which make it clear that the subiectum of Heidegger’s architectonic is something other than the I myself. Rather, the subject matter of his investigation, da sein (“being there”), is in each case mine. While this claim is well known to scholars, reminding ourselves of the text may be helpful. Recalling again from John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson’s translation of Being and Time, we can repeat from section 25,

Da sein is an entity which is in each case I myself; its being is in each case mine. Even if one rejects the ‘soul substance’ and the thinghood of consciousness, or denies that a person is an object, ontologically one is still positing something whose being retains the meaning of presence-at-hand, whether it does so explicitly or not. Substantiality is the ontological clue for determining which entity is to provide the answers to the question of the ‘who’ [of da sein].”

Heidegger’s thought seems to be this: when making the investigation into the conditions of possibility, we must admit that someone is making the investigation. When someone does, da sein presents itself as mine. So, the who of da sein is already informed by the I—whether I am Martin Heidegger or Justin Carmien. At the same time, we can see that the I is also a burden for Heidegger. After all, Heidegger himself warns that his methodology may present a certain deception,

“The assertion that it is I who in each case da sein is, is ontically obvious; but this must not mislead us into supposing that the route for an ontological interpretation of what is ‘given’ in this way has thus been unmistakably prescribed. Indeed it remains questionable whether even the mere ontical content of the above assertion does proper justice to the stock of phenomena belonging to everyday da sein. It could be that the ‘who’ of everyday da sein just is not the ‘I myself’.”

For this reason, Heidegger must confess that,

“The word ‘I’ is to be understood only in the sense of a non-committal formal indicator, indicating something which may perhaps reveal itself as its opposite.”

Now, because da sein presents itself as mine and because Heidegger acknowledges that da sein may perhaps reveal itself as its opposite, he is burdened with the task of constructing a terminology-set which is delicate enough to speak about da sein from this point in his development onward (that is to say, as the who of da sein turns into its opposite). In moving onward, Heidegger introduces the concept of mitsein (“being with”). This is the being of the “everyday da sein” which is spoken of in the previous quotations. Heidegger uses the phrase “everyday da sein” to distinguish from the authentic Self, the I who is making the investigation. Early in the development of Being and Time, Heidegger makes these moves, working his way through the burden imposed by his methodology. Then, once finally settling into the description of the transcendental architecture itself, he answers the who of da sein. Section 27 of Being and Time provides the famous formulation,

“The ‘who’ is not this one, not that one, not oneself, not some people, and not the sum of them all. The ‘who’ is the neuter, the das man.

So, if I were to say, “man’s place in the world is in subjection to God” then the “man” I refer to answers the who of the da sein, which is, at the same time, mine, presuming then that I am a God-fearing Christian. The who is the anyone. Consider that even without having individualized some one in particular, we can understand that one can write with a pen, one can sit on a chair, and one can open a door. To make the point clear, one cannot write with the number three, sit on a cloud, or open a color. These are not possible. Without further qualification, we would not know what these statements mean.

With da sein properly defined, Heidegger can advance his development and shed light on the question as to which object adheres. He does so by borrowing a thought from Søren Kierkegaard—specifically, Kierkegaard’s nivellering (“leveling”) of possibilities. For Heidegger, Einebnung (“leveling down”) limits the possibilities available in the moment of the now. In recalling section 41 of Being and Time, we remember that,

Da sein’s projection of itself understandingly is in each case already alongside a world that has been discovered. From this world it takes its possibilities, and it does so first in accordance with the way things have been interpreted by the ‘one’. This interpretation has already restricted the possible options of choice to what lies within the range of the familiar, the attainable, the respectable—that which is fitting and proper. This leveling off of da sein’s possibilities to what is proximally at its everyday disposal also results in a dimming down of the possible as such.”

The devices by which the one levels the possibilities may be well-understood. We can remember that in teaching Heidegger, an example is often made of the 1980 South African film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. In this film, a Coca-Cola bottle is discovered by African Bushmen, who immediately take the bottle to be a tool, interpreting it and putting it to use for many purposes (a hammer, a rolling pin, a pestle, and a weapon), but important for us, none of those purposes match those that are open in the Western world, as we understand the possibilities for a Coca-Cola bottle. In very dramatic instances, such social conditioning is described in terms of the sacred and the taboo. However, for Heidegger, social mechanisms such as the sacred or the taboo are not merely restrictive—and much like Kierkegaard, for Heidegger too, leveling is not a negative condition. Though, unlike Kierkegaard, for Heidegger, the positive possibilities which emerge in leveling are not to be found in the grace and gifts from God. For Heidegger, leveling down does not convey any moral sentiments. Rather, Heidegger’s leveling down belongs to his transcendental architectonic. For Heidegger, leveling down conditions the possibility of the authentic Self from out of the possibilities available to the one. The possibility of authenticity constitutes the positive possibility inherent to leveling down. Heidegger’s architectonic maintaining, the Self is explanatorily dependent on the one. This is to say, the Self is always a derivation or modification of the anyone. So, without leveling down, there could be no authentic Self.

Of course, at the same time, and for those of us harboring a more liberal spirit, we may want to outright reject Heidegger’s socially oriented conditions of possibility. However, if this is the case, let us remind ourselves that these conditioning mechanisms would remain even in a political landscape where personal responsibility and individual or group liberties are pronounced. Even in cultures such as those of the West, and particularly the United States—where choosing personal pronouns and gender identity, for example, seem to be increasingly necessary (and which indicate a profound expression of individual power over the social commercium)—this could never count as proof against the Self’s conditioning in the one. After all, a culture of choosing personal pronouns and gender identity may actually count as proof of the Self’s conditioning. It is reasonable to assume that a deconstruction of gender institutions would only be necessary in a culture which had dramatized the differences between the masculine and the feminine to such an extent that it could no longer maintain. We might even find evidence of this dramatization of the genders in the American popular culture of the 1980s. If this history is correct, this would then also account for why such instances of individual self-expression are not as pronounced in cultures outside of the West, and particularly outside of the United States.

The reign of “sociological metaphysics”

When looking back through the history of Western philosophy, it seems that Heidegger stands at the inception of a new era of philosophizing. You may call to mind the later efforts of Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrestled with Heidegger’s Being and Time early in his career, and which eventually led to the creation of disasters such as the Being and Nothingness. To a certain extent, I can even include Judith Butler, whose performativity is a perverted reading of the philosophy of being, which follows when interpreting being exclusively within the narrow discipline of a society of individuals and when continuing to animate John Locke’s individual and its legal rights. Sociological philosophies such as these take the human animal’s commercium as the condition of possibility, but revert their attention back to the experience of the individual human animal within this commercium. We might even say that this prioritization of the individual human animal and its experience is the defining difference between “anthropological” and “sociological” philosophizing. For us today, it might be hard to continue with either prioritization of human being.

For those of us standing with considerable distance to Heidegger and to every other philosopher of subjectivity which came before him and after him—for us—we must ask, from where does the category “human being” come? If we are committed to phenomenology, much like Kant and Hegel before Heidegger, then we must notice that the category human being is assigned to phenomena often simply on account of a physical appearance which is located similarly to this being. In this way, a discrimination is often made: if something looks like a human animal, then its being is that of human being. And, of course, to be fair, such discrimination has been generally correct in the past. What is more?—the human animal is apparently not the only one to find physiological discrimination helpful. Dogs are excited by dogs, and birds flock with birds of their kind. A species preference can be observed in the natural world. And yet, despite this, advancements in machine learning may test the physiological bias for the discrimination of human being. In a way, the forward advancement of technology might return the human animal to nature. It might also lead to rendering the expression “human being” meaningless.

Now, to Heidegger’s credit, and when looking back through history towards a particular period of human civilization, we can see that the conditions of possibility into which one has been “thrown” could be indicated by the various human tribes, villages, communities, industries, or nations which we find recorded into history by the human hand. However, when looking at our own era today, we might find these forms of human organization merely types, and only particular instances of, various environmental “work-worlds” which indicate da sein. However, once we are released from the grasps of the Western bias towards human being (heretofore, christened with the metaphysical category “man”—a subject over-and-above as uniquely distinct from nature), we find that any such ontological hierarchy collapses. In the advent of this collapse, we are liberated to raise the question as to what subiectum presents itself in the absence left by human being. When standing within the void, the very conditions of possibility for the being of the world—including human being, non-human animals, machines, intelligent programs, and even algorithms—finds expression as the bare commercium itself.

Introducing the πραξις-πολις

In looking for directives for expounding upon the commercium, no longer “social”, we can return to a period of history just before human being as subiectum had been prepared for the West by Plato. Our directive for expounding upon the commercium, begins by looking towards the natural philosophers.

For the natural philosophers, there was no theory apart from practice. Theory, as the Ancient Greeks understood it, was the highest mode of ενεργεια (enērgeia, “the actualizing of potential”), but they understood it only as the supreme realization of genuine πραξις (praxis, “doing”): the innermost determining center of their entire existence as a people. For these ancients, theory springs forth from doing. It is dependent on it. In order to understand this doing of a people, I ask you to think of the doing by way of an analogy. Imagine, for example, some amorphous and primordial ooze which, by way of its practical dealings within its environment, draws definition in that environment, such that this organism not only comes to a “theory” about the world, but also has its descriptions which belong to that theory—whether that theory is of material nature, and includes descriptions such as food and chair, or whether that theory is moral, and includes in it, for example, feminism and liberty. You could think of this amorphous organism then defining itself with theories about itself also, perhaps as a human animal, maybe a child, and then you could then further think of this process of articulation within the environment by way of a child’s development—this process then accounting for the learning of objects such as mom and spoon, or even the object me. The amorphous organism, together with its environment, comes to its form through πραξις. With this picture in mind, you could then think of this process of the coming into being of the definition of the organism as that belonging to a superorganism—say a human tribe, a nation, or a “society”. In this case, πραξις is not the condition for cognitive representation, but rather the condition of language, culture, and every other “external” phenomenon. This analogy of the primordial organism helps us to consider exactly this amorphous object—this doing in general. This doing, πραξις, is a condition for the world to be articulated, as the world which it is, in its intellectual or theoretical form. It is the condition for the description of any science, from psychology and sociology to material economics. Inasmuch, this primordial commerce is prior to even material description. That is to say, πραξις is prior to the discipline of physics, which is, after all, one type of language or theory. And all of this is to say, this particular conception of a doing, πραξις, as a primordial commerce, belongs to metaphysics. It is the condition of any individualized and authentic Self.

Let us then also recall that in Ancient Greece, the πολις is where one found himself at home in a language, already within a λογος, which projects towards a future for that πολις. Within this “project area”, so to speak, we find our λογος (logos, “language, logic”)—that is to say, we find that which organizes activity towards the ορισμος (horismos, “horizon”)—it organizes πραξις. Πραξις refers to the economic dealings which project towards the ορισμος. Everything disclosed before that ορισμος is the πολις. All possibilities and any object of value which projects towards the ορισμος is what constitutes the “material” of the πολις. This may include hammers, cement mixers, wayfinding signs, or other values such as economic competition and individual liberty. The πολις indicates the condition for the being of this “material” too. Only on account of the πολις—this primordial state of being—is any articulation of objects possible—and this includes any objectification of any particular you or me. With both the πραξις and the ορισμος towards which that πραξις projects, we can announce the subject matter of a metamodern metaphysics as the twofold object, the πραξιςπολις.

Πραξις refers us to a commercium, as what we are looking at;

πολις to the commercium, as where we are looking from.

Of course, given my appeals to the ancients and to the proximity of the πολις, you might wonder if I am not proposing an outright archaic metaphysics. Certainly, in light of the material benefits produced of a globalized economy, appeals to locale have been seen as anachronistic, isolationist, and (at their worst) manifestations of underlying xenophobia. And there is also a pressing technological objection: not only has transportation brought people from different ethnicities and nations within arm’s reach of each other, but communications technology too—specifically, those platforms provided of the internet—should also prove to us that πραξις has reached global expanse. By way of these and other planetary technologies, the human body has been augmented with paraphernalia such that we are wont to call our experience post-human. According to this narrative, the human animal is now in the hands of the god technology, which is, after all, that by which our modern economy functions. This is, no doubt, a clever move by the accelerationists and other proponents of technological solutions to modern problems. However, we should not be seduced into rejecting our appeals to the ancients without further clarifying proximity. What should be noted is that ορισμος too, as I am using the word here in this article, belongs to a metaphysical architectonic. As such, to speak of ορισμος as definitive of a locale is incorrect. The ορισμος does not indicate a physical locale, even if, for the most part, local canvases are still where we find a proximal dealing with the environment. However, with remote working a real possibility nowadays, each one of us will have to consider the relationships between both the proximal and the locale more penetratingly; because, after all, if we are honest with ourselves when standing in the here and the now, we must admit that the metaphysics of the πραξιςπολις must resonate more profoundly than, for example, the epistemologist’s tabula rasa—Locke’s “white paper”. And, to be sure, even if we paint a story about “the global economy”, this story would still be supported by our metaphysics.

Introducing gravitas into the metaphysical architecture

Following Aristotle’s lead, Heidegger would say that any one of us has been thrown (perhaps we could say “born”) into its possibilities. However, we must beware that Heidegger’s Geworfenheit (“thrownness”) describes the existence of human being. As such, thrownness belongs to the subjectivist form of description. However, once placing human being in subjection to the πραξιςπολις, the subjective experience of thrownness must be explained by a gravity outside of any human animal’s experience—one which pulls one inward, towards the epicenter of the pole, only to push one outward and towards its horizons. Borrowing a word from Mozart, we might say that any one of us is a mere amanuensis to this primordial power. Any individualized self is explanatorily dependent upon having been drawn into a projection from which you would never wish to escape. This never is indicated by the lust for engagement which is experienced when pursuing your passions. It is equally indicated by envy when that lust is not able to be satisfied.

Outstanding questions in metamodern metaphysics

In order to advance metaphysics, metamodern metaphysicians must develop an architectonic of the πραξιςπολις which is more fundamental for the being of the world than the cogito sum, the transcendental subject, da sein, or the dividual. If this metaphysical description is to be truly progressive, then its explanatory power must be greater than what those prior descriptions have accomplished. At the same time, we should admit that this metaphysics would be needless if it were without consequence to real world issues and practical matters. Of principal importance to the metamodern political project is an understanding of both power and history. These two words direct our attention to particular obstacles which previous political projects have faced, but were not able to circumvent, such that we suffer from those same obstacles today. In a certain sense, this article is a call for those thinkers who stand between two chairs. On one hand, we are metaphysicians; on the other, we are politicians. In both chairs, we understand that treating metaphysics as a science has the potential to transform the political landscape. Or, perhaps we could say that metaphysics is the most abstract and therefore robust expression of that political landscape, and one that brings clarity to that landscape. When acting as “political metaphysicians”, and not strictly as “political strategists”, it is not up for us to decide which projects any human animal may take up, or whether they wish to animate any particular ethos in doing so. If this were our concern, we would place politics before metaphysics. But of course, this cannot be the case. Rather, for us, we restrict ourselves to a description of the conditions of possibility, and leave for later an understanding of which strategies follow consequently among certain peoples, places, and times.

First economics philosophy

In thinking of the name of the discipline which pursues metaphysical description as an answer to the questions of the metamodern paradigm, we can turn towards Aristotle’s τα περι της πρωτης φιλοσοφιας (that is, “the [writings] concerning first philosophy”). Of course, Descartes offers a more English-friendly term for this realm of thought; prima philosophia. And so, following the Latinized expression, we might say that we are here doing prima economics—prime economics. However, for ease of translation into English, let us simply name the thinking space of the commercium as first economics. In the thinking space of first economics, we are liberated from the modern individual-subject of “psychological metaphysics”, including even Heidegger’s anthropological form of description and the sociological priority too. For further ease, we may simply call the subject of first economics philosophy the project.