An Interview with Catherine Malabou on Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality by Catherine Malabou, translated by Caroline Shread, Polity, 2016, pp. 240.
Tembusu College, National University of Singapore
Cutting the figure of contemporary critical thought on the life sciences since the 1990s, three elements bring the work of Catherine Malabou together. First, there is her characteristic reanimation of the Western cannon, the heritage of continental thought that she demonstrates prefigures several specificities organising the outlook of today’s bioscience. Her oeuvre outlines figurations — plasticity, epigenesis — that feature in the classic philosophical texts that have re-emerged as key scientific modalities. From the beginning, Malabou’s work calls attention to the complexities of these figures as they appear in the original texts. Second, Malabou continuously engages with emerging and often experimental trends in philosophy today outlining their position within critical discourse. In addition, she does not shy away from seriously engaging research in the hard sciences, particularly new discoveries in various fields of bioscience and their discursive moves.
With its exposition of Kant, her latest monograph Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality (2016) is a challenge to critical thought on several fronts. Malabou responds to speculative realism and, particularly, Meillassoux’s After Finitude (2008), where the question of the status of the transcendental emerges through the consideration of time. Malabou folds this discussion back into her reading of Kant’s conceptualisation of epigenesis that allows her to state, “[epigenesis] can count as an example of the empirical concept of production, but it can also be considered as the schema of the idea of system, a symbolic representation of the whole” (Before Tomorrow 182). Thus, Malabou’s deep readings of Kant in Before Tomorrow assess the possibility of antecedence as equally important to post Kantian continental thought and the status of the empirical in material science. In this interview we engage Malabou on the major moves of her book and how it relates to her previous works, as well as what it means to speculate in the direction of “tomorrow.”
In the interview, Malabou shares generously on her journey into an engagement with emergent discourses in science and gives a frank account of the development of her thought from her time as the student of Jacques Derrida on. She explains how, from What Should We Do With Our Brain? (2004), she makes the case that philosophy must engage new science, particularly given that the prerogative of scientific development is just as much ontological as empirical. In the interview, Malabou asks: “At a time when the mind, the psyche, the organism find themselves fundamentally redefined and reelaborated, how could philosophy remain indifferent to a revolution that is precisely a philosophical one?” In her argument for science’s integral engagement of “the philosophical” and vice versa there is not only a case for the importance of truly interdisciplinary perspectives in today’s critical thought but also the demonstration that the stakes for not acting are high. On the one hand, we get a sense of the centuries-long separation of those forms of knowledge that we might call “science” or “philosophy” today. On the other, we have the image of two powerful contemporary forces quibbling in minor regions of their discourse over ideas as integral to humanity as time, reality, and embodiment. In the meantime, the actual problem, the question of the possibility of truth, remains irresolvable. Ranging from the mischaracterisation of Descartes to the medical approach to depression, in the text that follows Malabou clearly illustrates the operatives maintaining the status quo of the landscape of knowledge today, and shines the light once more on the knots that might yet continue to be unravelled.
To bring time, as did Heidegger, or history, as did Foucault, into the transcendental was already a way of relinquishing it. But that’s not all. The neurobiological revolution of the late 1980s, which must at last be acknowledged, and which brought to light a set of questions that are not entirely germane to the analytic tradition, also undermined any notion of the transcendental. Recent discoveries about how the brain functions have, in their own way, challenged the supposed invariability of laws of thought. (xiii)
Sorelle Henricus (SH): Since your first book, so for over twenty years now, alongside continental philosophy, you’ve been taking into account major thematics from contemporary science. You’ve continuously stated that critical philosophy must take scientific discoveries integrally into account. In this way, your work has consistently demonstrated an approach — through readings of Hegel, Kant, and more recent thinkers — to what we might call “philosophy” and “science,” particularly biology, today.
Your recent move to the “epigenetic” widens the approach from thinking an organ (the brain) toward a more general process of thinking biological life. Could you elaborate on the imperative to continue to think seriously about contemporary science from the continental perspective and perhaps even for it? I’m trying to get here at what your thoughts are on going as far as to say it is maybe a matter of survival for the continental tradition of philosophy.
Catherine Malabou (CM): I first have to develop a short autobiographical intellectual narrative in order to answer this difficult question. I wrote my PhD under Jacques Derrida’s supervision. From the mid-eighties up to mid-nineties (I defended my PhD in 1994), I have followed Derrida’s work very closely and walked on the philosophical path he had so powerfully opened: deconstruction. Around 1990 though, I started noticing that something in his way of thinking was undergoing a profound change. Many of his disciples have argued that this change could not be assimilated to a theological turn. Yet, I do think it was one. Themes like messianicity, indeconstructibility, the utterly other, et cetera, started to appear, and secretly at first then more and more overtly, I became doubtful about the goal of deconstruction. In the very beginning, “grammatology” was presented as a new science. Grammatology was supposed to replace Saussure’s semiology, and Derrida characterized it, in Of Grammatology (1977), as a “positive science”. Such a science never saw the light of the day, and the project of elaborating it was given up. Derrida’s work gradually became more and more turned toward literature, complex aporetic problems, interminable discourses on the impossibility of all possibilities, and then finally toward the mystic issues I just mentioned. At some point, it became clear to me that I could not go farther on this path. Something in me started to resist; you might call it my rationality. This may not be a deconstructive/deconstructed concept, but never mind. I love this word, “rationality”. I do think, and will always do, that no philosophy is possible outside of rationality even if rationality needs constant critique. As we know since Kant, the dialogue between rationality and critique is constitutive to the very activity of reason.
Around the same time that I was having those doubts, I started reading about the brain and what is known under the name of “neurobiological revolution,” as Jean-Pierre Changeux phrases it, that is the paradigm shift introduced in neurology by the discovery of neuroplasticity. From this moment on, I never stopped trying to evaluate the consequences of such a paradigm shift for philosophy. After my first book What Should We Do With Our Brain? (2004), I went on questioning the implications of cerebral activity for the theories of mind as well as for the theories of psychic life. This gave way to further books (Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing (2009), Ontology of the Accident (2012), The New Wounded (2012)). Later on, I extended my field of interest to molecular biology in general and epigenetics in particular. This formed the core of one of my latest books, Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality (2016) in which I argued, against speculative realism, that the transcendental point of view on sciences (on biology in particular) was not incompatible with a vision of the world as highly contingent. As you know, speculative realism argues that the world is constantly modifiable, that there is no such thing as physical necessity, and that Kant can only argue in favor of this necessity out of unfounded dogmatism. Once again, for me, the transcendental, which is in Kant the fundamental structure of rationality, does not induce any limit to the plasticity of the world but, on the contrary, allows access to it. Kant defines the goal of his third Critique, Critique of Judgment (2001), as elaboration of the “legality of the contingent.” Legality of the contingent: this could be a perfect definition to science in general.
To go back to your question: continental philosophy definitely has to reexamine its relationships with contemporary scientific research. This not only with mathematics but also with physics, biology, as well as geology (cf. the Anthropocene) and with human sciences as anthropology, archeology (cf. cognitive archeology), psychology, and linguistics, to name but a few.
At a time when the mind, the psyche, the organism find themselves fundamentally redefined and reelaborated, how could philosophy remain indifferent to a revolution that is precisely a philosophical one? I am still amazed by the absence of curiosity for brain research from so many of my colleagues, by their ignorance of the most recent biological challenges of genetic determinism, or the notions of code or program. The infamous concept of “biopolitics” lays foundation on an antique state of biology…
In the same way that in biology, epigenesis refers to the entirely separate production of a new being, psychological epigenesis describes the fact that new souls result from reproduction. Kant did not return to this argument, yet it already contains an essential element: the idea of combining a generic model with the independence of the offspring that come of it. (61)
Now, one might ask, how does this alter the meaning of epigenesis? Confronted with this new understanding, what does the biological meaning of this term become? (92)
SH: Your tracing of themes that relate to what we call “life science” today as being already at work within the philosophical canon hints at a correlation between modes of “thinking nature” and “thinking thought” that begins as far back as Aristotle. From “plasticity” to “epigenesis” your work seems to say, “Look! It’s already all here in the old texts of the Western tradition. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater by thinking today only within our own regions, by remaining bound by our established modalities.” Following this line what do you think are the further implications for the distinctions that are in place today between “science” and “philosophy” (and the infinite variations and preferences of emphasis even within these traditions)?
CM: Of course what I just said about the astonishing disengagement of continental philosophy from sciences, generally speaking, is also true the other way around. We are currently witnessing a strong return of positivism within the scientific realm. In France, many cognitive scientists, for example, dismiss all recourse to philosophy to determine what consciousness is. They argue that philosophy is only about metaphysical claims that are of no help for understanding perception, memory — conscious life in general. According to them, despite of all critical and deconstructive enterprises, philosophy has remained trapped into the Cartesian vision of the ego as a substance, and of consciousness as the absolute point of departure for all intellectual and even sensuous activities. The situation in science departments is absolutely dramatic, as it includes no philosophical training at all. In France once again, medical students follow an eleven-years cursus with no epistemology or philosophy class at all. They just have a rough formation in ethics reduced to practically nothing. Neurobiologists sometimes refer to philosophy but always to the analytical tradition. It then seems more than important to remind scientists from all fields that biological categories have been first elaborated by ancient Greek philosophers. Epigenesis is a good example. It was first used in the Aristotelian tradition to design the variability of the offspring, and the development of living individual, what we now call ontogenesis. Descartes himself was a great thinker of the brain. Contrarily to the vulgar vision that too many people have of him, his theory of passions is anticipative of contemporary neurobiology. It is true that Descartes posits the existence of the mind and the body as that of two distinct substances, or realities. But it would be a profound error to limit Descartes’ discourse to thus dualism. In the Passions of the Soul (1989), he clearly explains that passions are what accomplish the unity of the mind and the body through cerebral activity. It then appears that without the brain, the mind would not be interested in surviving. In a certain sense, deprived of the brain, the mind and the body would die each on its own end without caring about each other. We have to not forget that the unity of mind and the body is a third substance in Descartes that is kept alive by cerebral activity.
If scientific discourses go on ignoring the philosophical resources of its conceptuality and way of setting up problems, this will also affect solutions to these problems. Of course, scientists can answer they don’t care about philosophy: their books sell well, the public is credulous, they perfectly can remain deaf and blind to philosophical issues. But they will be affected by such a behavior to the extent that they won’t be able to always solve the issues they pretend to solve by their own forces. For example, despite incredible progress accomplished, neurobiologists are still unable to cure depression. Prozac is not enough. Not to speak of neurological diseases. I do think that philosophy, even if not endowed with therapeutical magical power, is absolutely necessary to help elaborate an approach to the psyche that does not only rely on anti-depressants and chemicals. People should become aware of the fact that science in reality progresses without progressing. I mean that technologies are improving, new discoveries are made, et cetera, but there is an obvious stagnation of the results. For example, people live longer today thanks to scientific development. But what is old age? How to deal with dependent persons? Alzheimer patients? Where and which are the scientific answers to his questions?
The concepts you are mentioning, epigenesis, plasticity, et cetera, clearly appear as interdisciplinary concepts that show a very old and solid intricacy of science and philosophy. These concepts should be indicative of what should be developed in the future: a new collaboration between researchers from these different fields. Not, once again, for the sole beauty of the gesture, but on the contrary for the sake of efficacy in problem-solving processes.
To separate the possibility from all totality — from all the possibles (Hume) and from all the conditions of possibility (Kant) — is the work of the philosophy to come, which marks its rediscovered affinity with mathematics. Indeed, this question is more urgent than ever. This relation can no longer depend on a critique of pure reason and assumes a renewed access to the absolute understood as the reality of a world devoid of all anthropological priority — including when this priority is hidden behind a deconstruction of what belongs to the human. (128)
SH: This begs the question of the future and “tomorrow,” the theme of your most recent book. As you have brought out there is a long history of cohabitation between the approaches to “thinking nature” — in what we call today “science” and “philosophy” — that are often elided because of the tendency to think knowledge categorically (which you ironically demonstrate through a reading of Kant). However, you also propose that attempts to come to terms with these categories through philosophical gestures that, in your words, “relinquish the transcendental” may not be the best way forward. Could it be possible perhaps to articulate a broader perspective on this “moment” we find philosophy caught within? For example, in your mapping of the relevance of certain ideals of the continental tradition you demonstrate how, despite attempts to do away with them through the centuries and even until today, none have fully succeeded. Could movements such as speculative realism or new materialism, which you take very seriously in your recent work, be read then as symptoms of the progression of knowledge is it is manifested now in the twenty-first century?
CM: The quote from my book that you are referring too here (prior to your question) does not reflect my opinion. It is a translation, in my language, of Quentin Meillassoux’s attempt to think beyond Kant in his book After Finitude. I made clear, in After Tomorrow, that I was not following this path. Before I explain why I don’t consider myself a speculative realist, let me state that no philosophical doctrine ever will be able to “succeed,” as you say, in elaborating a vision of the world able to become consensual, universal even, both cognitively and morally convincing for a vast majority of people all over the world. There are and will always be several philosophies emerging at each epoch, mostly competing with each other. The question is then not to attempt at reducing this plurality, but how to think philosophically the plurality of philosophies. Negativity, skepticism, dialectical thinking are inherent to philosophy. This is not to say that philosophy is aporetic and does not lead anywhere, but that philosophy means dialogue. Philosophy is the opening of meaning as dialogue. Everything starts with a dyad. Speaking always means responding. The first utterance is always an answer, even where there is no question. If there is something like a question, it comes from an answer. Philosophy is the answer to the absence of an originary question. That is why, paradoxically, philosophy is essentially a questioning process.
From this, I would affirm that speculative realism does not escape this general state of affairs. It is a philosophical trend just like any other, born from a dialogue with other trends. It will be challenged in its turn. Second, I would also affirm that sciences are not so different from philosophy when it comes to the origin of their inquiries. There is a great epistemological tradition, in France, led by Gaston Bachelard in particular, that insists on the dialectical character of the history of sciences. Each scientific discovery is an answer, a negative one: it says “no” to start with (see Bachelard’s book La Philosophie du Non 1966).
The dialogical character of thinking is paradoxically the only way to move forward. And there is actually a philosophical progress. Speculative realism is progressive to the extent that it allows for an extremely helpful and powerful revision of criticism. But again, this does not mean that speculative realism is the ultimate philosophy.
My problem with it starts with its arrogant way of claiming that all past philosophies are modalities of “correlationism,” that is, of the subject-object relationship. The “real” is what would escape such a correlation and would be indifferent to any subjective approach. First, I don’t think that any philosophy from the continental tradition can be reduced to correlationism. Second, one can wonder about the political and social value of such a “real,” whose connection with the Lacanian or Marxist real is never interrogated. As if speculative realism had invented the concept of the real!
The problem is not so much, as is too often assumed, the reduction of the cultural to the biological, but rather the relation of the neuronal subject to itself, the way in which it sees itself, perceives itself, or is auto-affected — a problem that has never been considered on its own count. Critique, understood here as thinking the brain, is still necessary. The task of developing a critique of neurobiological reason is urgent and is one of the fundamental challenges facing contemporary philosophy. (153)
SH: Even if we might be able to convince “continental philosophy” to take contemporary science and its discoveries seriously (as you have paved the way for), what strategies can we employ to think or intervene in knowledge, to move it forward, today? What I mean, for example, is with genetics, even given the recent uptake by contemporary scientists of the principles of epigenetics, the world of scientific research marches ahead with its own priorities and goals — gene editing is the latest attempt at reifying the genetic as “code.” This is now an old question for the field of continental thought, but I’ll ask it anyway. Amongst all this — the progression of the industrialisation of knowledge production and practice in the sciences and outside of it, the shrinking in many places of the truly critical “humanities” in universities, and the drive toward “interdisciplinarity” thought in the sense that the humanities become a resource for capital driven, technologically based industry — what is the role of continental thought in the climate of knowledge today? Is there a place for critical thought alongside and together with the sciences beyond a certain performativity of knowledge that occurs in both “philosophy” and “science” today? (I mean performativity in the widest sense of the term and also leave it to your interpretation.)
CM: It is obvious — how to remain blind to it? — that the space, credit and budget allowed to the Humanities is shrinking everywhere. It is a global phenomenon. In my university, Kingston University in the UK, we are under a “realignment plan.” Nobody knows exactly what that means, except that all the departments that are concerned with critical theory are threatened. The goal of all this is clearly to erase all possible challenging and contestation of current politics and ultra-liberalism (even “neo” is too soft to characterize what is going on). You are right that culture, learning, and skills are capital driven. Critical theory is said to be unproductive. Which is, of course, a lie. It is true that there are few jobs in the Humanities. But are there so many more in sciences? Or law? It would be interesting to know the ratio of registered students and the professional outcomes. Young people are discouraged from studying philosophy or history under false pretexts. All the PhD students I have supervised in my career have jobs by now. All of them. They are either academics, art critics, gallery directors, designers, or journalists. Philosophy is a discipline that opens the world, develops curiosity and audacity, and gives the impetus for creation. This should be said and repeated. Philosophy will help you find your place in the world, professionally, symbolically, intellectually. I mean philosophies studies, not these stupid “popular philosophy” events, like “philo cafés” or “nights of ideas” or whatever. No, I mean philosophy based on text reading, reasoning, thinking and learning of the canon.
At the same time, I don’t think that philosophy and critical theory should develop only in the academia. It is of course extremely important, as I just said, but it cannot be the only Lebensraum, or vital space, for critical thinking. Clandestinity, diasporic spatiality, hiddenness, secrecy, have always been conditions of possibility for philosophical thinking. Today, many important philosophical events, new trends, cutting edge books, talks, conference, et cetera, happen here and there, outside universities, written and organized by young people, with very little money. Philosophy happens at the interstices of power and well-established institutions. There is a dialectic to be found between public and private modalities of philosophizing. The current situation is worrying, as I said to start with, but, at the same time, extremely challenging. It is perhaps when everything is so dark that new liberating concepts and thinking can emerge. As we know, crisis, the very concept of crisis, is the etymological root of the word critique.
To answer the last part of your question, I don’t think that we have to write a new version of Husserl Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1965)! In that powerful text, Husserl states that philosophy has to provide scientific knowledge with a new ground. After Descartes and Kant, who worked in that very direction, we have to find an even more solid basis for scientific cognition, and such is the task of phenomenology. Such a basis Husserl finds in transcendental ego, the ego in its almost purity, a purity that neither Descartes of Kant have been able to reach. Of course, philosophy today has lost, for good reasons, this grounding phantasy. Nobody thinks that it can be the roots on which science can develop. This said, science cannot be the ground for philosophy either. It seems that we are experiencing such a foundational reversal today. Instead of this meaningless game, we have to work for a common, dialectical exchange between philosophy and science, emancipated from any archeological foundation but oriented toward the decisive question of the becoming of humanity, particularly in its relations with the non-human…
Bachelard, Gaston. La Philosophie du Non. PUF Presses Universitaires de France, 1966.
Descartes, Rene. The Passions of the Soul: Les Passions De l’Âme, Translated by Stephen Voss, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1989.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
Husserl, Edmund. Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, Translated by Quentin Lauer, HarperCollins, 1965.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment, Translated by Professor Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Revised Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Malabou, Catherine. Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality, Translated by Caroline Shread, Polity, 2016.
—. The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Translated by Steven Miller, Fordham University Press, 2012.
—. The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity, Translated by Carolyn Shread, Polity, 2012.
—. Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction, Translated by Carolyn Shread, Columbia University Press, 2009.
Meillassoux, Quentin, and Alain Badiou. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Translated by Ray Brassier, Continuum, 2010.