Complementary or Just Confused? Thoughts on Complementarity: Anti-Epistemology after Bohr and Derrida, by Arkady Plotnitsky


Plotnitsky’s book held out some interest for me, particularly in terms of the debate between Zizek and Barad, and the impact of Bohr on the latter. Unfortunately it was disappointing in terms of its failure to question the basic terms of its own critique.

Part of the issue is that Plotnitsky is so enthused with Bohr and Derrida that his references to other thinkers appear to be exclusively based on their interpretations, primarily Derrida’s, since Bohr spent less time discussing other thinkers. Thus one has to remind oneself that “Hegel” in Plotnitsky means “Derrida’s Hegel”, Heidegger likewise “Derrida’s Heidegger”, even Plato succumbs and appears solely as “Derrida’s Plato”.

This has bearing on the phrase that is never quite defined but serves as a handy way to dismiss anyone other than Bohr and Derrida. That phrase is “a (more) general economy of thinking”. At no point is this “economy” itself put into question – why, for instance, thinking should be consumed under an “economy” in the first place, or even what economy means in this particular usage. A more general thinking of economy might be called for before a general economy of thinking is able to write off all of philosophy, Derrida and to the degree of his involvement in philosophy, Bohr, of course, excluded. Perhaps Plotnitsky needs to spend more time with Marx, although I suspect if he does it will only be with Derrida’s Marx.

That the thinking of Bohr (and science in general) betrays a particular restriction is likewise not put into question. Bohr’s claim that quantum mechanics is a “complete” description vs Einstein’s claim that it is not puts this restriction into sharp relief. Science has an overwhelming assumption that measurement alone comprises a sufficient and necessary description of any thing. That this fails spectacularly is seen in that science cannot do without “ordinary language” and indeed specifically metaphor, “poetic” language. That the assumption is rarely questioned demonstrates nothing other than the difficulty of unravelling the intertwining of rationality, history, conceptuality and accountability. The question, in order to be properly generalized, has to move beyond whether an “account” can be made of something, to why “account” is necessary or even relevant in terms of understanding things.

Bypassing “Derrida’s Hegel” for something more closely related to the thinker by that name, Hegel saw that Kant had already described the noumena as having “no positive content”. It’s not a great leap from that to seeing noumena as precisely a (self) limiting negation of and by phenomena themselves, insofar as they are phenomena. The subject, as well, for Hegel, is precisely a limiting negation of and by the self. Thus Bohr’s “discovery” of phenomena as self-delimiting, implying nothing beyond themselves, is already the case for Hegel. But Hegel thinks science as well in a more general sense, as rational and historical, and therefore not in itself reason proper, which can only come at the end of both.

Despite metaphysics’ (and physics’) numerous attempts, from Parmenides to Nagel, to make rationality a priori, it remains a human development as any parent can attest to, and thus must itself be based on something non-rational. We could look for the origin of rationality, assumably, in human history, or perhaps pre-history. The origin in fact is on the boundary between the two – rationality and history arose together and necessarily so. When Hegel said that the rationality of history was “not a result”, of course it cannot be a result of either rational thinking or historical exegesis, since it simultaneously means the history of rationality, in that they arose and belong together. History, thought in an appropriate way, is centred on the “historical record”. In fact historians are obsessed with the historical record, and for good reason. History as rational accounting-for the historical record arises via analogy from ratio as measuring in the sense of “balancing the books”, accounting-for a set of bookkeeping entries as the past in the sense of what “has been”. Natural history is merely a further extension of the same metaphor, and natural science the further extension of accounting as accounting-for the natural-historical record. The provenance of purely mathematical description as both necessary and adequate as a “complete” description now becomes apparent and obvious.  The provenance of rationality, predicated on non-rational metaphor, simultaneously becomes obvious.

Whether and how far the metaphor is justifiable is debatable, but that science is a very restricted view of things should be apparent. Science is technological in that it views things precisely as economic, as “enframed”, Gestell in Heidegger’s term. It’s not accidental that “gestell” is the root of the German word for “apparatus”.

Ironically, while Plotnitsky coos approvingly of Derrida’s focus on writing and the trace, he fails to see that this is precisely what reinscribes Derrida as a (negative) metaphysician of presence. Presence always means being as having-been, precisely as having-been in the historical record. The earliest writings we have are all bookkeeping records of particular transactions, writing itself is always at root analogous to accounting. Differance, as a written record of (ex)change, only serves to cover up (ex)change as what originally determines any thing as such.

As a negative physics, itself always part of ontotheology, Bohr’s work winds up rather precisely modelling the ontology of negative theology. The “bottomless abyss” is not deep, however, but is bottomless because it is not even shallow. It is any arbitrary line, horizon as such.

Just as the metaphysical theologians of the time sensed a destructive power in Eckhart’s negative theology, despite his obvious religiosity, Einstein sensed in Bohr’s abandonment of the founding principle of experimental science, the necessity and adequacy of a coherent mathematical description of reality, a potential to destroy physics, natural science even insofar as it is predicated on the mathematical projection of reality. Put simply, if experiment can make no truth claim to anything beyond the predicates of the experimental gestell itself, it fundamentally doesn’t say anything interesting, nor anything that wasn’t already thought and as such allowed for the projection of that particular experimental gestell in the first place.

It’s tempting to look for some sort of “general thinking” that could discriminate between, for instance, Heidegger’s rethinking of Logos and Hegel’s “system of science”, which is also a rethinking of Logos, however the idea that complementarity in Bohr or alterity/differance in Derrida is any more than another useful but limited tool of critique, and that no such tool can overcome the need to actually think, and remain, abide by, what is thought, is a fantasm. The notion that Bohr (and Derrida) “displace” metaphysical (and physical) terminology is unsustainable. It’s more the case that, as Beckett would put it, even an anti-writer inevitably must use some words. Rather than “displaced”, as often as not the manner in which Bohr and Derrida use such terms is simply confused. While it’s not the whole truth (and Derrida’s simplistic versions of Hegel, Heidegger etc are themselves useful but limited tools to help his own insight) there is a partial truth to the comment made by a professor of Derrida’s on one of his theses – “completement inintelligible”.

As an example of the use of such a tool, complementarity can be useful in dealing with the radically different descriptions of nothing as the self-negating in Hegel and drive in Schelling. Although radically different and apparently contradictory, perhaps both are necessary approaches to a truth that resists determination.  Complementarity itself can never be the truth of such a pairing, though.

My point isn’t to belittle the achievements of Bohr or Derrida, but to understand in what way they themselves have fairly rigid restrictions on what can be thought, and to note that the difficulty in understanding either, along with the other anti-* thinkers mentioned along the way, that although philosophy, metaphysics, physics et al require a rigor of thinking well beyond the mere exactness of mathematics or simplistic logic ultimately derived from Aristotle (and we would do well to remember that Aristotle didn’t posit his deductive logic as a tool for judging thinking, but as a means of winning a popular society game of the time), any anti-thinking, whether that thinking is philosophical, metaphysical, theological or scientific must be phenomenally more rigorous even than the thinking it opposes, precisely because it is dependent for any meaning on the very terms of the thinking it opposes, and the entire dynamic, systemic linguistic structure of which any such terms are not finally inextricable from. That Bohr avoids the cop out of not attempting to speak in rich language, confining himself to the formalized world of mathematics as so many physicists try to do, is commendable. True displacement of such terms is difficult at best, difficult to accomplish, but even more difficult to judge whether in fact anything has been accomplished, other than the negation engendered by simple confusion. Nor is it always clear if this confusion lies on the part of the reader or the writer, and in many cases, when it is clear, it is because it is clearly on the side of the writer.

Bohr doesn’t displace but precisely places measurement as such, in its modern scientific guise, by asking what questions measurement, and therefore experimental mathematical science itself can be expected to answer. From Descartes to Kant, the period of epistemology as a significantly relevant area for thought, the question is crucial. The anti-epistemologist par excellence, however, came shortly after Kant, and we know him as G.W.F. Hegel. Marx, Nietszche and Heidegger, together with their own complementaries, may have cut the body of epistemology apart and scattered its bones to the four corners of the Earth, but Hegel and his complementary Schelling, together with their anti-mediator Holderlin, had already ensured it was good and dead. That Bohr, largely, accomplished this revolution within the conservative milieu of physics is a tremendous achievement.

Heidegger’s topologial post-ontology, as well, already makes the partial and inconsistent displacing of metaphysical terminology in Derrida largely irrelevant. Heidegger places by firstly restoring place to its pride of place as the phenomenon of which time-space is merely an occasionally useful approximation. Differance remains only the written record of originary (ex)change, and Derrida a sort of Heideggerean bookkeeper.

The anti-thinkers, for want of a better word, from Eckhart to Nietzsche (probably the most rigorous of them) to Dilthey, Lacan, Derrida, Laruelle and Zizek (and I’m sure I’ve left virtually everyone’s favourite out of the list) require, as Heidegger said of Nietzsche, a reading more rigorous than that required of Aristotle. Of course that means they also require a phenomenal rigor be present in their work to begin with, one that could reward such a focused and attentive reading. Bohr managed, through his abilities as a physicist, to put physics, and by extension the underlying assumptions of all the mathematical natural sciences in question. That Bohr’s work is all too easily reintegrated into business-as-usual interpretations of physics is more often than not precisely because he used determinately metaphysical terms in their usual, that is modern, sense without qualification. By “rational” he means what most physicists mean by it for the most part. By “complete” he means what most physicists mean by it for the most part. If anything it was Einstein who insisted on a “completeness” that goes beyond the pragmatic usage of everyday research, precisely because he recognized, whether clearly or not, that without the notion of the completeness of mathematical description the project of experimental, mathematical science is so circumscribed as to become nearly irrelevant, and certainly uninteresting. The slight discrepancies in predictive accuracy between competing models, most of which occur at scales of no pragmatic interest to people, combined with the notion that none of which models can make a truth-claim beyond that reality, under strict experimental conditions, behaves in a manner that is more or less consistent with the model’s predictions, hardly justifies the degree of contention on any side of a scientific argument. If philosophy is “thinking well about things that matter to human beings” it is becoming apparent that science is not among those things that matter in any fundamental sense. The failure of the claim that technology is in some way dependent on science (other than the weak dependency that science accounts-for whatever technology happens to reveal) and the realization that science is merely an effect of technology, which goes about its way completely unhindered by any scientific methodology or metascientific philosophy, will in the not very long term turn science into the emperor with no subjects, never mind merely a reduced wardrobe.

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4 thoughts on “Complementary or Just Confused? Thoughts on Complementarity: Anti-Epistemology after Bohr and Derrida, by Arkady Plotnitsky

  1. I stumbled upon your website accidentally in a Twitter search. Being a lover of philosophy and a great fan of Bohr I must enter my shallow nonsense into your deeper diatribe. Namely, Einstein thought quantum mechanics was incomplete because he did not understand it. Bohr knew it was complete. And indeed no experiment has refuted it in some 90 years. Understanding Bohr’s position does not mean I do not question Quantum mechanics weekly. That Bohr is correct is one of the greatest philosophical puzzles of all time, second only to Hume’s paradox so deftly understood by Schroedinger by switching levels from the logical to the evolutionary. I shall return to study your papter further, but now I must go.

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    1. I hope you didn’t take my musings as a criticism of Bohr. As with others, many of whom I number among the greatest thinkers I’ve read, any kind of anti-* thinking is intrinsically difficult because they “must use words” and the words always exert a pull back towards what they are attempting to think against, or at least outside. Einstein did brilliant work by assuming a mathematical continuum as an adequate description of physical reality, yet his success in doing so viz the discontinuities in Newton don’t guarantee the validity of the assumption. He saw Bohr’s work as anti-science because Bohr worked precisely with the canon of parsimony, which properly understood severely limits the truth claim of the experiment. Abandoning the mathematical projection of reality as tenable undermines all western science since Descartes first placed it on that foundation. It will be interesting to see the results as people who are not as quick as Einstein begin to catch on to the fact that, within the sciences, Bohr’s ideas are both revolutionary and devastating.

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      1. I apologize that my comment was rather flip. I had been doing research for an article on another subject, and responded hastily. Not knowing anything about the works of Plotnitsky, I could not quite tell whether or not you were critisizing Bohr. Now I see you were not. My understanding of Bohr, from reading his papers in response to Einstein 24 years ago, is that Bohr was tragically a very poor communicator, on top of the fact he was trying to convey one of the hardest concepts known to man. There is the anecdote that Bohr yelled so vehemently at Schroedinger during a party at the latter’s house, that Schroedinger was driven to take to his bed ill. It’s a problem, when you have a profound I idea you cannot express, to refrain from yelling. Bohr, as I understand it, gained a reputation for stubbornness, which did not help his case among the more delicate philosophers, but was good enough for the hardcore physicists. Yes, anti-thinking does cause a linguistic problem, as you point out. One must invent new, yet comprehensible, terminology when engaged in anti-thinking, not always an easy task. Abstruse anti-Bohr philosopher Rietdijk invented the term “aha erlebnis” (the “aha” experience) for what was lacking in quantum mechanics. In a turnabout on Rietdijk’s term, I had an aha erlebnis when reading Bohr. Einstein was proposing modifying an experimental aparatus at the last second to measure momentum rather than position, and thought he had proved quantum mechanics wrong, since that thought experiment gave the wrong answer. Bohr replied that you have to take the apparatus as a whole. Aha! At that moment, I realized Bohr was right, and that Einstein did not understand. About Einstein’s assumption of a continuum, I thought about your remark. The problem is not so much that space (or time) is discontinuous, but that it is discontinuous at hugely different scales for different phenomena. For example, an electron in a two-slit apparatus essentially fills the entire apparatus (or at least its probability wave does) on a scale of, say, meters. But the tiny components of the apparatus itself are localized down the molecular scale. About the “truth claim of the experiment,” yes, quantum mechanics limits it: there are no deeper physical processes (hidden variables) underlying the expectation values. And one of the biggest outstanding challenges of modern physics, as is evident from the paramount journal Physical Review D, is reconciling the still-valid Einstein-Descartes continuum of General Relativity with the discontinuity of quantum mechanics. — K. Pomeroy

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      2. Your remark about the “aha” moment reminded me of Insight by Bernard Lonergan. The point of the book is to gain insight into insight itself, and he uses examples of insight from mathematics, physics, common sense and psychology, among other fields (obviously, being a polymath is of some assistance in writing such a book). One of the most insightful paragraphs in the book concerns the idea of the polymorphism of the mind and its relation to different areas of experience. What is a valid “thing” in one area may be completely ungrounded and invalid in another. A “thing” is not a “body” or what Lonergan calls an “out there now real”, and which has its validity in the biological realm of expeience, but a unity grasped in a set of data. What constitutes a valid unity, not to mention what constitutes valid data, is different for instance in politics versus physics. Science has the most difficult time with validation of the different areas of experience, because it can only count on verifiable observation, while “truth” in common sense is validated by our ability to get by in the world, “truth” in the biological experience is validated by successful survival and reproduction, etc. IT’s for this reason that the sciences have to be the most rigorous, aside from philosophy, which must be even more so since it can’t even rely on empircal verificaton. The following is a great quote that expresses why the ambiguity of a “thing” causes so much havoc.

        Animals have no epistemological problems. Neither do scientists, as long as they stick to their task of observing, forming hypotheses, and verifying. The perennial source of nonsense is that, after the scientist has verified a hypothesis, he is likely to go a step further and tell the layman what, approximately, scientific reality looks like.

        Already we have criticized the unverifiable image as a failure of science to follow its own principles; but now we can see the origin of the strange urge to foist upon the rest of mankind such unverifiable images. For both the scientist and the layman, besides being intelligent and reasonable, are also animals. As such, there is a inherent urge to want “our” things to be “really” real in the biological sense, which of course they cannot be, unless you are in that mode of experience.

        Much of the nonsense within the debates between Bohr and Einstein centers on this notion of whether or not the “things” of quantum experiment can be considered “really real”, and while Bohr is consistent in his use of the canon of parsimony, in terms of what can be implied by such experiments, the subtlety of Einstein’s argument lies in the fact that the truth-claim of experiment itself relies on the ability to describe reality adequately and completely via mathematics, which is precisely what is denied in complementarity. Denying the ground of the truth-claim of experiment restricts science to only asking about correctness rather than truth, a restriction Einstein was unwilling to accept.

        Although Heisenberg said that Bohr was always “more a philosopher than a physicist”, Heisenberg’s own view, that by definition experiment could not describe how reality is, but only how it behaves when subjected to specific actions, demonstrates a clearer view of the issue, and of the limitations of experimental science in general, than either Bohr or Einstein managed.

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