Just some quick remarks on materialism as I’m in the midst of completing paperwork today. One of the fault lines among the OOO theorists is the divide between the materialists and the realists. Harman describes his position as a realism, while I describe mine as a materialism. I take it that materialism is necessarily a realism insofar as it begins from the premise of human-independent entities that are not dependent on thought. In certain respects, materialism is ontologically a more restrictive position than the sort of realism that Harman advocates. On the one hand, Harman’s object-oriented philosophy wishes to hold open the possibility that while there are material entities, it’s possible that other non-material objects exist such as, for example, numbers. On the other hand, Harman contends that materialism is one way in which objects are undermined or erased. As he remarked at the CUNY round-table in New York with me, Jane Bennett, and Patricia Clough, the New York Stock Exchange cannot be accounted for in materialist terms as it cannot be reduced or properly understood in terms of the brick and mortar of the building, the windows, fiber optic cables, etc. If I understand Harman’s critique of materialism correctly, the point is that the New York Stock Exchange has an organization that is greater than the sum of these parts. Indeed, many of these parts can be removed, while the New York Stock Exchange will, within reason, continue to exist. Computers break down and are removed, yet the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) endures. New phones are added and the NYSE continues. Buildings are changed, yet it’s still the NYSE. To ignore this is to miss what is proper to the NYSE as an object and to undermine this object by absurdly reducing it to its material parts. It is something over and above these parts that constitutes the NYSE, not those parts as such.
In addition to the label “onticology”, my position could be called “object-oriented materialism” (OOM); and, were we specifying “Bryant’s object-oriented materialism” we could call it BOOM! I generally share Harman’s critique of reductive materialism, agreeing that we cannot reduce objects to their material parts. The cat that walks around my living room and the cat that some cruel bastard has blown up in a microwave both have the same material parts, yet clearly they are two distinct objects. In other words, it is not just the parts that matter, but how those parts are organized or related. However, here I don’t see why this observation should lead one to reject materialism. The materialist need only claim that all entities are materially embodied, not that all entities are reducible to elementary parts. In other words, there’s no inconsistency between materialism and theories of emergence. And, of course, emergence pertains to the organization, the relations, among those parts and not simply the parts simpliciter.
This leaves the problem of changing parts and persisting or enduring entities. When I get a haircut or grow new hair am I the same person? Harman seems to argue that for the materialist, if the parts change then the entity is no longer the same entity. Yet this would only hold if the being of the entity were individuated solely by the parts of which the entity is composed. If, by contrast, entities are individuated by both their parts and organization, then so long as that organization is maintained, the entity persists. All that’s required is that that organization be embodied in some way.
Materialism is sometimes criticized on the grounds that we don’t have a well developed concept of matter. In my view, far from being a black mark against materialism, this is a point in its favor. In this connection, I’ve been increasingly influenced by Katerina Kolozova’s discussions and deployment of the thought of Laruelle. Among all that I’ve read on and by Laruelle, Kolozova’s treatments are the first that have helped me to see the importance and significance of his form of critique. Among other things, Laruelle locates a sort of circularity internal to philosophical thought wherein that concepts of that thought end up determining the real. Here the problem is that philosophy structurally becomes locked in a circularity that far from reaching the real, determines the real by thought. Viewed in light of this thesis, the absence of a concept of matter is a strength of materialism rather than a weakness. Were we to have a well developed concept of matter we would find ourselves locked in the correlationist circle, such that we end up claiming that thought and being are identical. The absence of a well-defined concept of matter indicates that while thought, like anything else, is material, matter is nonetheless radically alterior and foreign to thought. The concept of matter is not– as per Plato’s requirements in the Meno –something that we possess in advance, but is rather a moving target that grows with our exploration of matter over the course of history. It is not something that we have already, but rather something that we must discover. Off to finish my syllabi.