Continued from here.

Epistemology

Onticology, like all variations of object-oriented ontology, is realist in its orientation. In defending a realist ontology onticology holds that the vast majority of objects, actants, beings, or entities are independent of humans and are what they are regardless of whether any humans regard them or register them. In short, onticology rejects any anthropomorphic, idealist, or anti-realist thesis to the effect that to be is to be the correlate of mind, spirit, the body, the human, language or otherwise. While it is certainly the case that knowledge is necessarily dependent on the object to which it relates, the converse does not hold true. Objects are not dependent on being known, regarded, perceived, or spoken about. As such, and to put it in Aristotlean terms, knowledge is an accident of objects, not objects an accident of knowledge. As Althusser so nicely puts it, “[n]o doubt there is a relation between thought-about-the-real and this real, but it is a relation of knowledge, a relation of adequacy or inadequacy of knowledge, not a real relation, meaning by this a relation inscribed in that real of which the thought is the (adequate or inadequate) knowledge” (Reading Capital, 96). Althusser goes on to remark that “[t]he distinction between a relation of knowledge and a relation of the real is a fundamental one: if we did not respect it we should fall irreversibly into either speculative or empiricist idealism” (ibid.). Onticology categorically endorses Althusser’s verdict. It is a fundamental necessity to distinguish between those relations that belong to the object and those that belong to knowledge. Contemporary philosophy continuously confuses these two very different sorts of relations.

Naturally the question arises of how it is possible to surmount our relation to the object so as to determine whether objects themselves possess the properties we encounter in relating to objects. In other words, given that we can only ever relate to the object in relating to the object how is it possible to surmount this relation to get at the being of the object itself? Much more will have to be said about this later– and the answers will be surprising with respect to standard prejudices about realism –however, for the moment it can be said that onticology takes its epistemological inspiration from the transcendental realism of Roy Bhaskar. Among other things, Bhaskar sought to provide a transcendental grounding for the sciences. Insofar as onticology defends the thesis that the field of being is much more vast than the field of objects investigated by the natural sciences, it parts way with the thesis that the domain of being is exhausted by the domain of natural objects. However, the general form of Bhaskar’s argument holds for our realist purposes.

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A transcendental argument seeks to elucidate the conditions under which certain acknowledged practices and forms of cognition are possible. Kant, for example, asked what must be the case for mathematical judgments to be possible. How is it both that we are able to extend our knowledge, as if by magic, through mathematical judgments and, more significantly, that these judgments are able to provide genuine knowledge of the world despite the fact that these forms of reasoning are not based on experience? Part of Kant’s argument consisted in claiming that mind imposes the forms of space and time on the data of experience. In other words, space and time are not attributes of being itself but rather of the mind that regards being. Insofar, Kant argues, as mathematics is ultimately a rumination on the nature of space and time taken in their most abstract form and insofar as the mind imposes space and time on the manifold of sensation, it thus follows that a priori judgments about the nature of spatio-temporal relations are possible that anticipate the structure of actual-space times without directly experiencing these space-times. Why? Because any manifold of sensation must necessarily be structured by these forms imposed by intuition.

These arguments are well known so I only gloss them to remind readers of the nature of transcendental argument. These arguments come in many flavors. Thus, for example, when Saussure seeks to investigate the being of language and distinguishes between langue and parole he is making a transcendental argument to account for speech or the conditions under which certain speech acts are possible within a particular language. Langue or the synchronic system of signifiers is the condition under which parole or speech is possible. Here Saussure’s particular version of transcendental argument differs from Kant in two ways: First, langue is culturally and historically variable, whereas Kant’s a priori categories and forms of intuition are invariant, unchanging, and universal across culture. Second, Kant’s a priori forms of intuition and categories of the understanding are imposed by mind, albeit in the form of transcendental subjectivity, whereas Saussure’s langue is a collective structure that belongs to no subject in particular. What both thinkers share in common is the recognition that it is necessary to have recourse to conditions that are not themselves given in the given but which are nonetheless that through which or by which the given is given. In the case of Saussure it is taken as given that we speak and communicate. That is not disputed. The transcendental question is how this is possible. Likewise, in Kant, it is taken as given and beyond dispute that we make mathematical judgments, that these judgments apply to the manifold of intuition and are not just fictions or webs spun by a spider with no correlate in the world. The transcendental question is how this is possible. To answer these questions we need to have recourse to something other than the given or experience.

So too in the case of Bhaskar. Bhaskar asks how science is possible and why, in particular, we must have recourse to experiment in science. As such, Bhaskar is engaged in a transcendental inquiry. However, what distinguishes Bhaskar’s transcendental inquiry so much from prior transcendental inquiries is that it does not have recourse to mind, culture, language, or the human in formulating its answer, but rather to the world. In effect, Bhaskar asks not what our minds must be like for science to be possible, but rather, in a jaw dropping and audacious move, what the world must be like for science to be possible. In short, if our science is to be possible– and since it is actual we know that it is possible –the world must be a particular way. And this way in which the world must be is intimately linked to the fact that we must engage in experiment in order to conduct our science.

Bhaskar outlines two general features that the world must have in order for 1) our science to be possible, and 2) to explain why experiment is necessary. Let us take the second question first. Why is experiment necessary? If the empiricists were right and all our knowledge originated in sensation then we would be hard put to explain why experiment is necessary. Here it is noteworthy that Kant fully takes over the empiricist line of thought which holds that knowledge must be grounded in sensation. Rather, if experiment would be superfluous, then this is because it would be sufficient to simply observe nature passively and link the appropriate sensations, whether through a priori categories as in the case of Kant or modes of association as in the case of Hume. No, if experiment is indispensable, then this can only be because objects do not manifest their powers or capacities under ordinary conditions. Objects do not manifest or “give” their powers under ordinary conditions. Rather, it is only under the highly structured and isolated conditions of the experimental setting that we are able to encounter– or better yet, dis-cover –the powers that lie within objects. As a consequence, passively given sensations are not the origin of knowledge. Ontologically, then, the condition under which experiment is both possible and necessary is only in a world where objects can act without manifesting their act in either nature or for a perceiving subject.

As such it is necessary to distinguish the being of objects from the manifestation of objects. While objects are acts, these acts are not identical with their performance in either nature (events where no humans are about to perceive them) or with their performance for humans. Rather, the proper being of the object is not its performance or manifestation, but the generative mechanism that serves as the condition under which these performances or manifestations are possible. As Graham Harman will argue– though in a very different theoretical constellation –the being of objects is essentially withdrawn or hidden. No one has ever perceived a single object, but we do perceive all sorts of effects of objects. Traditional epistemology has confused these effects with the objects themselves. Fortunately we do occasionally manage to cognize objects through a sort of detective work that infers these generative mechanisms from their effects; without, for all this, ever exhausting the infinity of a single object. At any rate, if objects were not withdrawn in this way, the practice of experiment would be unintelligible.

This leads to Bhaskar’s answer to the first question: What must the world be like for science to be possible? Note, this is not a question about mind or culture, but about the world itself, regardless of whether or not humans exist. Once again, knowledge is an accident of objects, not objects an accident of consciousness or cognition. If science is to be possible– and I would argue, if any human practice is to be possible –then the world must be structured and differentiated. The world must have joints or, as Harman puts it, the world must be composed of “chunks”. Why is this the case? Let us return to the question of experimentation and the conditions under which experiment is possible. We will adopt two possible hypotheses pertaining to the ontological nature of the world independent of humans:

1) As certain mystics and contemporary crypto-mystics would have it, the world is an undifferentiated One-All that is only subsequently segmented or partitioned into discrete beings by some form of human agency whether this be through cognition or language (in the case of language we might think of Saussure’s and Hjelmslev’s undifferentiated “sonorous matter”).

2) Entities are the sum totality of their relations to all other entities in the universe.

The first hypothesis is easily dispatched on two grounds: First, this hypothesis fails to register the contradiction in its own utterance. At the level of explicit content, it claims that the world is an undifferentiated One-All that is only subsequently segmented into discrete beings, yet what it misses at the unconscious level of its own utterance is that it registers at least one structured differentiation that is not undifferentiated within this One-All: Namely, the agency through which the One-All subsequently comes to be differenciated. Certain anti-realist, transcendental philosophers will, in a gesture that is all too cute, claim that the agency by which the world is segmented cannot properly be said to exist, thus attempting to resolve this contradiction through a sleight of hand. However, as Meillassoux has shown in After Finitude, all attempts on the part of transcendental anti-realist philosophies to treat the transcendental subject as a non-existing or non-objectile agency that does not itself exist end up, all too clearly, attaching that conception of finitude and the segmentary work with which it is charged to the body (a differentiated being or generative mechanism). Second, suppose the anti-realist transcendental philosopher were to convince us through his appeals to the non-existence of the transcendental, would we still encounter problems? Like Atlas, transcendental subjectivity is charged with the monumental task of segmenting the formless apeiron of the One-All from out of primal chaos into a supremely segmented world. But this world appears to us to be too slippery for even a titan like Atlas to grasp. Were the world, prior to and independent of humans genuinely a formless apeiron it would contain no differences providing hand-holds for Atlas to grasp in his segmenting activity. Consequently, no segments could ever come into being. Yet everywhere we encounter segments, so the world must not be a formless One-All, but must rather be structured and differentiated even if structure and differentiation are transformed in their encounter with the human.

With this first hypothesis dispatched, let us investigate the second. The being of entities consists entirely of their relations to all other entities. Suppose, however, this were the case. Were this true then it would not be possible to form the closed systems necessary for experimental practice as it would be impossible to ever isolate an object or generative mechanism from the open system that leads to the covering of its generative powers. Yet we do engage in experiment and therefore do isolate generative mechanisms. While it might be the case that no generative mechanism is ever completely isolated from relations to other entities, it nonetheless follows, in principle, that objects are independent of their relations. Thus, while onticology readily recognizes that objects enter into relations, nonetheless onticology rejects the ontological thesis that objects are their relations. As Harman has noted, all sorts of ontological implications and questions follow from this thesis of a relationless object.

Note, then, how Bhaskar has inverted the nature of transcendental question and even epistemology itself. The transcendental belongs not to the mind, culture, or language (though in certain instances, yet to be discussed, it will), but rather is a property of the world itself. Moreover, it is ontology that is the condition of epistemology, not the reverse. The world must be a certain way in order for knowledge to be possible and these ontological conditions cannot be swallowed by an epistemological reduction to questions of what is given for or to consciousness. Moreover, one condition under which epistemology is possible is that of a world in which humans do not exist. This is a dramatic way of asserting that these are properties or features of being itself, not the relation of the human to being. Now, Bhaskar’s meditations are concerned with the ontology required for science to be possible. With these epistemological trivialities out of the way I hope to show that the form of this argument extends much further than the natural beings or generative mechanisms investigated by the sciences. But that investigation will have to await future posts.

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