Epistemology


It appears that I’m having trouble falling asleep this evening, which isn’t good as I have to be up early. In response to my last post, Tom of Grundledung was kind enough to remind me of a post I wrote nearly a year ago on the issue of normativity. On the one hand, I’m pleased by this post as it seems that my thoughts have been fairly consistent on these issues since they last flared up. On the other hand, as I review Tom and Pete’s comments, I find myself even more perplexed and wonder if we aren’t just talking about entirely distinct issues (i.e., talking past one another).

In a passage I quote in the post from last year, Pete writes:

I think the best point that can be made here is that there is more to normativity than ethical normativity. There is at least also rational normativity, which is prior to, and a necessary condition of, anything like ethical normativity. I would claim that it is indeed impossible to coherently deny the force of rational normativity. Regardless of the specific content of the fundamental norms of rationality (though we could suggest, for instance, the obligation to divest oneself of incompatible commitments), one must acknowledge that if one is engaged in an argument, then one is bound by norms which determine how the argument should take place, and that they are the same norms that one’s interlocutor is bound by. To put it another way, one may at time make claims like ‘well, I just use the word ‘justice” differently from you, but one cannot claim ‘I just argue differently than you do’.

This fact testifies to the binding character of certain fundamental norms that we implicitly acknowledge insofar as we engage in discourse at all. Some, myself included, think that this provides the possibility of a foundational approach in philosophy, in which deontology is indeed prior to ontology, grounded in that which none of us can deny insofar as we want to say anything at all. Whether or not such fundamental deontology can be extended beyond the theoretical into the realm of the practical and thus the ethical (as discourse ethicists like Habermas and Apel have attempted) is another matter.

I find myself grumbling a bit at Pete’s these that argument is necessarily grounded in certain norms. While I share with Pete a commitment to the principle of non-contradiction and identity, I also believe that we should look to rhetoric and how real life arguments function when raising this sort of question. The rhetoricians, I think, would have a very different perspective on this issue. With that said, I’m willing to follow him here.

For me the problems emerge when Pete asserts that deontology (and again, is this a specific Kantian reference or is “deontology” being used in a broader sense with which I’m not familiar) is indeed prior to ontology. What exactly is being claimed or asserted here? Is Pete making the claim that certain normative commitments are prior to inquiry, or is Pete making the claim that normativity is prior to being. These two claims are very different and have very different implications. If the former, then I don’t think the speculative realist, of whatever stripe, really has much of a dispute with Pete. Such a thesis doesn’t, I would think, commit one to correlationism or undermine realism. The realist here, I think, can simply shrug his or her shoulders and say “sure, there are norms that govern inquiry.”

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Having responded to Pete’s critique of the concept of translation in my previous post, I now move to his other criticisms. Insofar as I’ve provisionally laid the groundwork for some of my major claims this post should, hopefully, move a bit more quickly. After ridiculing the idea of translation that has, on this blog, been written about in great detail, as a mere metaphor, Pete goes on to remark that:

This is not in accord with Kant’s account, because Kant has a complicated transcendental machinery that establishes what objective representation is and how it can be prone to error. Inference plays an important role within this story, insofar as concepts are inferentially articulated for Kant. Precisely what I was accusing Graham of here was that he doesn’t have anything resembling this transcendental machinery (and I suspect he can’t), and something like it is necessary in order to give an adequate account of the structure of thought and the possibility of error it involves. There’s a question as to whether Graham is capable of providing anything like this given the meagre (and ontologically loaded) resources he’s given himself, and there’s a further question about whether he’d even want to, given that this would make his panpsychism far stronger than he’d like it to be (at minimum he’d definitely not want to say that all objects are capable of making inferences).

I cannot speak for Graham’s object-oriented philosophy, but only for my own onticology, but already two points are worth noting in connection to Pete’s point: First, as I already mentioned in my last post, the critique of Kant is not that Kant is mistaken, but that he is limited. What Pete refers to as Kant’s “complicated transcendental machinery” is what onticology would refer to as a particular machinery of translation. In other words, if Kant’s account of mind is fairly accurate– I’ve said that I don’t think it is, but all the same… –then onticology and object-oriented philosophy can fully integrate Kant’s account of the mind’s mechanisms of translation as depicted by Kant. In this respect, Pete is barking up the wrong tree. OOO’s thesis is not that Kant is mistaken about the nature of mind, but rather that what Kant says of mind is more or less true of all substances. Put a bit differently, Kant’s analysis of mind is system-specific and therefore fails to reach general ontology. Kant is engaged in a transcendental anthropology pertaining to how minds of the human sort translate objects. OOO’s point is that every substance has its own endo-consistency that translates the world in its own particular way. Nothing, therefore, prevents OOO from observing how observers such as minds observe or translate the world.

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Over at Jon Cogburn’s blog, Pete Wolfendale has written a lengthy response to one of my comments. I’ve decided to respond here as, for some reason, I’m unable to blockquote comments over at Jon’s blog, making it more difficult to formulate responses. Pete writes:

The idea of translation is a nice metaphor, but that’s what it is – a metaphor – and it needs cashing out. The simplest way to cash it out is that the effect the affecting object has upon the affected object is in some way dependent upon the affected object, i.e., that the same object will produce different affects upon different things. However, this is something that everyone accepts, and they can accept it without having to talk about ‘real objects’ or ‘proper being’ that withdraws. Maybe you can enlighten me as to the correct stronger way to cash this out, and how this solves any of these issues.

Hopefully Pete will be happy to discover that I “cash” this concept out in great detail in chapter four of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Interior of Objects”. Before proceeding to briefly discuss how I cash this concept out, it’s necessary to make two points. First, it’s necessary to note that there are a number of ways in which Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology differ. Second, it’s necessary to explain why I hold that these questions can only adequately be comprehended in terms of a model of withdrawal. The simplest way of explaining why objects must be thought in terms of withdrawal goes back to Aristotle’s concept of substance. In his account of primary substances in the Categories and Metaphysics Z, Aristotle is careful to note that substances are not identical to either their qualities or their parts. I discuss this in detail in chapter 2 of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Paradox of Substance”.

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Graham has a post up responding to mine and discussing Meno’s paradox. Graham writes:

That particular passage in the Meno is important to me, so I’ll just say that I interpret it differently. I don’t think that’s Socrates saying that knowledge comes before being. I think it’s Socrates saying that an eidos is prior to its qualities. In other words, the point is not that we have to know a horse before considering its being, but that we have to know a horse before asking about horse-qualities. So I read the paradox differently: namely, how can a thing be prior to its own qualities? There’s a bit about this early in The Quadruple Object.

No disagreement here from me. I did, however, want to make one further point about Mitsu’s argument from perception. Does Mitsu really wish to claim that the amoeba constitutes his being? This conclusion follows directly from Mitsu’s argument about how the amoeba encounters the drum set. If he doesn’t wish to arrive at this conclusion, then why? There are only two possible conclusions here, both of which lead to the collapse of Mitsu’s argument. The first possible conclusion would be that it is not possible for the amoeba to constitute Mitsu’s being because humans are somehow special in the order of being by virtue of being the only beings capable of constituting other beings from a primordial flux. The second possible argument is that the amoeba doesn’t constitute Mitsu’s being through perceiving Mitsu, because Mitsu is a substance or independent being in his own right and how something perceives another being has nothing to do with that being’s status as a substance.

Now, one might expect me to argue that the first possibility is mistaken because it is anthropocentric. However, while this is true, this is not my argument. If we follow Mitsu in the first counter-argument (which really is the disavowed, yet fully embraced, premise of all correlationisms), we have to note that Mitsu has conceded the existence of at least one object: Namely, Mitsu himself. From here it’s but a short step to asking why humans or Mitsu should have this privileged status within the order of being? Moreover, it’s quite remarkable that any being should be able to perform this feat like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, carving up a structureless world, a pre-individual flux, into discrete packets or units. If we grant the second argument, then, of course, we’ve conceded the existence of withdrawn substances that have their own being regardless of how other substances perceive them.

And here I get to the basic point of this brief post: Those who advise us to observe the observer– and readers should know that chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects is devoted to precisely this –somehow seem to miss the point that the very act of observing the observer or observing how observers observe, presupposes the existence of an observer that is doing the observing of observers. Far from undermining the thesis that substances or objects exist, in other words, this move presupposes the existence of at least one substance or object. And as a consequence, this move is incapable of consistently maintaining the thesis that the world is a product of how observers perceive other objects.

In response to a previous post responding to Christopher Vitale and my post on OOO and Epistemology, there’s been some interesting discussion of precisely how objects are individuated. Responding to a remark by Graham Harman, Mitsu lays his cards on the table and remarks that,

In response to your question about why I don’t want to go so far as individual objects, I would reverse the question and ask, why bother going so far as individual objects? The idea that there is some sort of ground with properties or patterns which are in some sense independent of perception or perspective it seems to me gets you everything you need to have a speculative realism without the complication and bother of positing independent objects.

The first question that comes to mind in response to Mitsu is that of how patterns differ from objects. In Mitsu’s comment I note that he pluralizes the term “pattern”, suggesting that he believes that there are a multitude of different patterns in the world. Are these patterns different from one another, or are they all the same pattern? If Mitsu suggests that patterns are different from one another, he’s already come very close to conceding the existence of objects. If Mitsu holds that there is only one pattern, I would like to know how closed settings in the experimental setting are ever formed. For if everything is one and interconnected, then it seems that it would be impossible for anyone to ever isolate things in the way we do in scientific experiments.

Mitsu goes on to argue that,

Again I want to make it clear that what I am objecting to is not so much the idea of independence as the idea of objects. (1) The most fundamental objection (no pun intended) I would have is that there doesn’t seem to me to be any objective (again, no pun, etc.) criterion for establishing the boundary of an object, or a way of dividing the world into these supposed objects. (2) An “object” it seems to me is by definition a separated out part of the world which has some kind of boundary defined in some way… but how do we define such a boundary, except in reference to a perceptual convention of some kind? I might consider this aggregate over here to be a “drum kit” as an object, but the amoeba certainly doesn’t interact with a drum kit as an object. In some sense, the whole idea that the world ought to be thought of in terms of objects brings us back to the human-centric fallacy which I understand SR to be critiquing in the first place.

The first point to note here is that Mitsu’s concept of pattern is no less immune to the sort of criticism he’s advancing in point 1, than the concept of object. It’s difficult to see how the concept of pattern avoids the sort of problem of cognitive individuation Mitsu is leveling at OOO than the concept of object. I make this point not to reject the notion of patterns, but to point out that if Mitsu is evoking the existence of patterns, he must do so on ontological grounds, not epistemological grounds. This point is of such vital importance that nothing in OOO can be understood absent a clear grasp of this argument. I have outlined this argument in two previous posts (here and here) and invite Mitsu to read these posts carefully, especially the second one.

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In response to my recent post where I offhandedly remark that object-oriented ontology does not advocate a representationalist epistemology or a correspondence theory of truth, Jim expresses some worries:

Representationalism, crudely construed, is the thesis that we can represent the world as it is. Thus representationalism is both an epistemological thesis (a thesis about the nature of our knowledge) and a naive realism (the thesis that the world is like the manner in which we perceive it). This is the only way I can understand Vitale’s questions: Vitale seems to be working on the premise that OOO is a representational realism that argues that we can represent objects as they are.

Please help me out here. I am a big fan of OOO, but now I am a bit confused and a little bit worried. I am also very, very frustrated!

Primarily, I’m worried about your rejection of ‘representationalism.’ Maybe I just don’t understand your critique.

If we start saying things like: “We can never really hope to know the world as-it-exists,” then what is the point of doing science? We might as well just stop studying physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, etc.

Seriously, I am looking for a reason to study these things.

If we can never hope to come to ‘represent’ the world as-it-exists, then what is the point of carefully measuring things–e.g. taking blood samples, core samples, urine samples, etc–and putting all of our observations and measurements into notebooks, etc? What a waste of time!

If we can never hope to understand and represent objects ‘as they are,’ then why should anyone study the (so-called) natural sciences? We might as well just stop pouring money into these silly, naive disciplines. That money would be better spent elsewhere.

I hope I am just misinterpreting your views; but, I thought OOO was different from social constructivism, which is also sceptical about science, and feminist critiques of science, which make it seem as if science is somehow evil, wrong, ‘patriarchal’ and ‘masculinist,’ etc.

Seriously, who wants to study something that is either ‘horribly, horribly evil’ or hopelessly naive?

If we can never hope to represent things as they REALLY exist, then what the hel* are we doing?

I’m in a bit of a hurry to get out of the door right now, so I’ll have to keep my response brief, but a couple of points are in order. My rejection of representation is not a rejection of knowledge. One of the central distinctions in my version of object-oriented ontology is the distinction between the virtual proper being of an object and the local manifestations of an object. The virtual proper being of an object is what is withdrawn and is that which can never be directly touched, encountered, or represented. The local manifestation of an object is the particular manner in which an object actualizes itself in the world in the form of qualities and properties. The point of this distinction is that an object can locally manifest itself in a variety of ways depending on the relations it enters into with other objects. However, none of these local manifestations exhausts the virtual proper being of an object.

Local manifestations take place by objects interacting with one another. A rock encounters flowing water in one way when it sits at the bottom of a stream. It encounters water quite a different way when it’s falling from the sky towards that water at hundreds of miles an hour. Right now British Petroleum is discovering that objects behave quite differently when they’re under thousands of feet of water.

When we’re doing science what we’re doing is placing objects or generative mechanisms in particular contexts or relations to other objects to discover how they act or what they do. That is, we’re acting on objects to provoke actions in objects so as to see how objects act under these conditions. And in doing this, we are placing objects in relations. I’ve written about this in my post entitled The Mug Blues.

So here’s the nub of the matter: Objects are independent of their relations and withdrawn from their relations. Knowledge-production always consists of placing objects in relations or acting on them to provoke actions in them. Consequently, what objects are independent of these relations is something we can never know precisely because we only ever encounter objects in relations and objects only ever encounter one another in relations.

Does that entail that knowledge is useless or an illusion? No. It just entails 1) that knowledge is a description of actions within these relational networks, and that 2) other actions can be provoked in objects when placed in different relational networks. Think about cooking. What is the being of garlic? Can you really say? No, all you know of garlic is how it behaves in a variety of different ways when cooked in a variety of different ways and related to a variety of different ingredients.

Jim seems to have a problem with feminist and social constructivist critiques of knowledge. If these critiques are taken to entail that knowledge is illusory or a fabrication, then I quite agree. Unfortunately, because of distinction between the natural and the artificial that haunts the tradition of Western thought, our tendency is to hear the word “construction” as implying “artificial” or “false”, rather than entailing the arduous work of assembling diverse objects together in a formation that manages to stand or persist. However, if feminist epistemology and social constructivism is understood as the careful investigation of networks of relations among objects in the production of local manifestations, then I’m all for these sorts of investigations as I believe they follow directly from my ontology. All manifestation or actuality is local manifestation or actuality. In this connection, I’m quite in agreement with Donna Haraway’s concept of situated knowledge.

The point is not to confuse objects with their local manifestations or actualities. These actualities or local manifestations are produced by objects, but objects always harbor a volcanic excess and the power to surprise when placed in different networks of relations to different objects. When I reject representationalism I am rejecting naive realism’s tendency to equate the being of objects with what is essentially local or a situated manifestation. As a consequence, I am drawing attention to the relations in which an object enters in producing a manifestation and the manner in which we act on objects to produce particular manifestations.

I’ve just begun Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism?. So far, despite its interest from the perspective of debates surrounding post-structuralism and second-order systems theory, I can’t say that it is getting off to a very auspicious beginning. Here’s the problem: Cary’s argument seems to proceed by way of the signifier, signs, information, and second-order systems. In short, he proceeds by way of phenomena that are nonetheless human. His introduction, for example, makes a lot of Foucault’s Order of Things announces the end of man. But how does Foucault do this? Foucault does this by championing discursive structures and power in history. Yet these are still human phenomena. Here we’re still within a correlationist framework that pitches the issue in terms of specifically human phenomena.

In my view, the claims of anti-humanism, post-humanism, and those forms of theory that claim to be overcoming anthropocentrism are all too often highly overstated. Until you have an ontology capable of thinking objects without any reference to the human or human phenomena, you still remain in an anthropocentric and humanist orbit. Foucault in his discussions of power and discursive structures, Lacan in his discussions of the signifier and the real, Derrida in his discussions of the play of the signifier and the trace, Luhmann in his discussions of social systems as communication systems, all remain nonetheless all too human in their focus on the primacy of human phenomena with respect to everything else. Of this group, Luhmann is probably the best of the bunch insofar as he at least recognizes the existence of other systems that are not human or social in nature. But still he insists on tracing everything back to the distinctions our systems make in observing these systems.

The point here is not to reject Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, or Luhmann. Not at all. The point is to recognize that they conflate regional ontologies with ontology as such, treating modes of access as determinative of what things are. But the questions of how we have access to entities and the question of what things are are entirely distinct and are not to be confused with one another. Until we overcome our tendency to make that confusion we have not attained a posthumanist philosophy. But like I said, I’ve only just begin reading Wolfe’s book so perhaps I’ll be surprised as it proceeds.

UPDATE: As I get further in Wolfe’s book I’m finding that it’s much more interesting and complex than I initially thought. In the introduction Wolfe writes:

To return, then, to the question of posthumanism, the perspective I attempt to formulate here–far from surpassing or rejecting the human –actually enables us to describe the human and its characteristic modes of communication, interaction, meaning, social significations, and affective investments with greater specificity once we have removed meaning from the ontologically closed domain of consciousness, reason, reflection, and so on. It forces us to rethink our taken-for-granted modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes and affective states of Homo sapiens itself, by recontextualizing them in terms of the entire sensorium of other living beings and their own autopoietic ways of “bringing forth a world”– ways that are, since we ourselves are human animals, part of the evolutionary history and behavioral and psychological repertoire of the human itself. (xxv)

Towards this end, Wolfe deploys the second-order cybernetics of Luhmann, Varela, and Maturana. Luhmann, especially, is one of the undiscovered gems of theory. If you’re interested in his work start with The Reality of Mass Media, and then proceed to Social Systems. In discussing “different perceptual modes” of humans and animals, Wolfe is simultaneously quite close and exceptionally far from object-oriented ontology.

First Wolfe’s proximity to object-oriented ontology. One of Harman’s most significant contributions to contemporary debates has been to note that the difference between the mind/object gap and any other object/object gap is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In other words, the gap pertaining to relation is, for Harman, ontological, not epistemological. As Harman so nicely puts it,

…there is no object at all, whether animal, floral, or mineral, capable of caressing the skin of another object so perfectly as to become identical with it or otherwise mirror it perfectly. When a gale hammers a seaside cliff, when stellar rays penetrate a newspaper, these objects are no less gulty than humans of reducing entities to mere shadows of their full selves. To repeat, the gap between object and relation is inherent in the nature of things, and not first generated by the peculiarities of the human mind. The fact that humans seem to have more cognitive power than shale or cantaloupe does not justify grounding this difference in a basic ontological dualism. (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 81)

In evoking different modes of perception in different critters and in drawing of the second-order cybernetic theory of Luhman, Maturana, and Varela, Wolfe appears to make a very similar point. Indeed, in chapter 4 or 6 of The Democracy of Objects (I haven’t yet decided where to place the chapter), I draw on similar resources to discuss the “interior of objects” and their relations to other objects. My move here is to ontologize Luhmann’s and Maturana’s essentially epistemological claims about systems and their environments, information, and self-referentiality. This strikes me as a direction Varela is moving in as well. What Wolfe wishes to draw attention to are the unspoken anthropocentric biases that govern our discussion of a host of issues. He argues that second-order cybernetic systems theory significantly challenges a number of these assumptions and allow us to discuss modes of perception that aren’t human.

However, if Wolfe’s thought is nonetheless remote from object-oriented ontology, this is for two reasons: First, Wolfe still seems to think these issues in epistemological terms. Rather than seeing selective relations entertained towards other objects as a general ontological feature of each and every object or as a fundamental feature of the world itself, Wolfe seems to adopt the pessimistic thesis that this marks the impossibility of our knowledge. Yet this thesis only follows if one worked from the premise that knowledge is a matter of representation or adequatio intellectus et rei. If, as Harman has argued, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world, this model of knowledge was mistaken from the outset and we need to significantly rethink our epistemology as a consequence. Here the skepticism that has characterized post-structuralist thought is ripe for a Zizekian “healed by the spear that smote you” move. Far from being a limitation of specifically human knowledge, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world. It’s the very nature of being. This Wagnerian move is at the heart of Harman’s ontology.

Second, while Wolfe indeed makes advances by extending thought to the domain of the animal and those with disabilities (he has an inspired reading of Temple Grandin), nonetheless he suffers from illicitly restricting these claims to the living. That is, a non-living/living dyad still seems to function in his thought, restricting these “modes of perception” to the living. Yet if Harman is right, these points are every bit as true of rocks and cotton as they are of aardvarks and humans. Here, I suspect, Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology will be especially interesting. For if I’ve understood Bogost correctly, Alien Phenomenology wants to raise questions like “what is it like to be a rock or a computer circuit”, thereby opening discourse to nonhuman and inanimate domains.

Over at Amazon I notice that Wolfe’s book has received some negative reviews. It appears that one of two (or maybe both) things are going on here. Either Wolfe’s reviewers lack a background in theory and are frustrated with a book that presupposes some knowledge of theory, or Wolfe’s reviewers harbor anthropocentric sentiments and are irritated at his dethroning of humans from the center of being. At any rate, if you’ve read his book and received it favorably consider writing a positive review to offset these unfair reviews.

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