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Cory Stockwell reviews The Technique of Thought

Ian JamesThe Technique of Thought: Nancy, Laruelle, Malabou, and Stiegler after Naturalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 247 pp.

Review by Cory Stockwell

15 April 2020

While the title of this brilliant book is written in the singular, it should, to my mind, be read through the lens of what one of the thinkers addressed in the book, Jean-Luc Nancy, has referred to as the singular plural. For as Ian James establishes from one chapter to the next, in meticulous readings of contemporary scientific and philosophical texts, the real is irreducibly multiple, which means that there can never be “any overarching metaphysical or philosophical principle that would subsume that multiplicity into a unitary foundation or ground” (p. 221). Consequently, one of James’s main concerns throughout the book is to establish the ways in which the thinkers he names in his title construct techniques for approaching physical reality in all its multiplicity; taken together, these techniques form the foundations of what he calls “post-Continental naturalism.” This new naturalism counters not only “scientism,” the idea that science has rendered philosophy unnecessary by arriving at a total understanding of reality (the plurality of the real suffices to undermine this prejudice), but also the way certain strands within traditional naturalism have set up a continuum between science and philosophy: James argues not that the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy, François Laruelle, Catherine Malabou, and Bernard Stiegler harmonizes with science, but rather that a series of provocative discontinuities between their philosophy (or, in Laruelle’s case, nonphilosophy) and science provokes a creative tension within which post-Continental naturalism might be elaborated. In a chapter entitled “The Relational Universe,” for instance, James forges a dialogue between Nancy and figures such as the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem, the biochemist Nick Lane, and the astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, demonstrating ways in which the “entanglement” of their thinking gives rise to “a naturalized realism articulated by means of a haptic ontology of sense” (p. 89). The book will appeal to philosophically inclined scientists who are interested in forging links between their own fields and those working outside of the scientific community. From a humanities standpoint, I believe the book will interest not only readers of the thinkers on whom James focuses, but more broadly, those working in branches of fields such as object-oriented ontology and new materialism who take warding off ecological disaster as one of their explicit aims; even more broadly, I believe it will appeal to general readers who seek new ways of thinking about, and practicing, environmental politics. While James never deals explicitly with this theme, our current ecological predicament is clearly one of the subtexts of the book, arising from time to time, as when he notes in the conclusion: “To ignore the demands of the real is to risk destruction and annihilation” (p. 226). In its multiple responses to these demands, James’s post-Continental naturalism forms a deeply original ecological thought.