Object-Oriented Philosophy


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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Over at Jon Coburn’s blog, we have been having an interesting and productive discussion about normativity that has, I believe, clarified (at least for me) a number of issues and helped to define some basic differences. Apart from some brief moments of ugliness that led to an unexpected and very welcome burying of the hatchet between Mikhail and I, the comments accompanying this post are, I think, a good read. I had been working under the impression that normativity was synymous with deontological ethics (no doubt because it’s only ever people deeply influenced by Kant that I hear raising issues about normativity as a cornerstone to theory), but I’ve been disabused of this notion and assured that it refers to something far broader. I outline some of my own problems with Kantian deontological approaches to ethical questions, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Pete Wolfendale has promised to write a post about this, which I very much look forward to as I’ve found myself perplexed for years as to just what all the ruckus is about and why it’s considered so important to those coming primarily out of the Frankfurt School (here it’s important to qualify that Pete tackles these issues not so much from the Frankfurt School perspective, but from the Brandomian perspective).

Over the course of discussion, one of the claims that was made by “anonymous” is that discussions of normativity are primarily about the metaphysics of meaning. As anonymous puts it,

The problem, so far as I see it, is that this very discussion — the one you want to have about normativity — can’t even get off the ground until we all realize that normative ethics isn’t a metaethics, that a metaethics is not coextensive with normativity, and normativity is largely an issue concerning the METAPHYSICS OF MEANING, the basic nature of rationality, and a structuring feature of our shared world. It is, as Jon pointed out precisely Humes problem concerning the medium of imperceptible necessary connections.

Pete very quickly followed this up, qualifying anonymous’ suggestion, emphasizing that it is about “the metaphysics of meaning or lack thereof” and that normativity pertain to discussions about correctness and incorrectness.

Now, it seems to me, coming at these issues from my Luhmannian perspective, that the concept of meaning is necessarily more basic and primordial than either notions of correctness and incorrectness, or issues of rationality. From an object-oriented standpoint, one of the reasons I’m attracted to Luhmann’s systems theory is that it emphasizes the autonomy and independence of systems, along with their closure. While systems do enter into relations with other systems, these relations are external and systems are independent entities.

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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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Morton’s The Ecological Thought is truly a marvelous little book. In the second chapter, Morton begins to take apart the concept of the environment, which could likewise be thought as a deconstruction of the concept of the world. A while back, when I gave my Georgia Tech presentation on flat ontology, someone asked me why I deny the existence of the world or universe as an object. I’ve struggled with this question ever since.

On the one hand, I think there’s the formalist way of demonstrating the non-existence of the world. In many respects I began this blog with a formalist demonstration of the non-existence of the world. The formalist demonstration comes largely out of Lacan and Badiou, and relies heavily on set theory. There are a couple of different ways in which the thesis that the world does not exist, can be argued. On the one hand, we can evoke Cantor’s paradox. Here the argument would run that a set of all sets cannot exist because the power set of a set is always larger than the set from which it is derived. As a consequence, we cannot form a totality out of the world. Another way of making this argument– which Lacan implicitly employs in his graphs of sexuation –would be to deploy Russell’s paradox pertaining to the set of all sets that do not include themselves as members.

While I am deeply fond of these arguments, I think they’re problematic from a metaphysical point of view. As philosophers like Hallward have noted, it’s not clear that we can jump directly from the properties of mathematics to the properties of existence. Let’s take the argument for the non-existence of the world from Cantor’s paradox to illustrate this point. What is the power set of a set? The power set of a set is the set of all subsets that can be constructed out of an initial set. Suppose, then, you have the following set: {x, y, z}. The power set of this set would be as follows: {{x}, {y}, {z}, {x, y}, {x, z}, {y,z}, {x, y, z}}. This works fine mathematically, however what the power set is implicitly saying is that all of these different sub-sets can exist. However, when we talk about the world, it is not clear that entities can enter into all possible relations with one another. Because, as Harman puts it, entities are behind firewalls, or as I put it, entities only maintain selective relations with other entities in the world, it seems possible that a totality could exist.

In The Ecological Thought Morton proposes another way to reach this conclusion. As Morton writes, “[t]here is no environment as such. It’s all ‘distinct organic beings.’ Existence is coexistence or, as Darwin puts it, ‘adaptation'” (60). A moment later, Morton goes on to draw out the implication of this thesis: “There is no static background. What we call Nature is monstrous and mutating, strangely strange all the way down and all the way through” (61). How, then, does Morton’s thesis challenge the existence of the world? Ordinarily, when we think of the environment or the world, we think of it as a container, not unlike the way Kant thinks about time and space. However, if the environment does not exist as such, but is rather consists of organic (and I would add non-organic) beings, then we can no longer speak of an environment or a world as such. For each change that takes place in an organism, the environment itself has also changed. All other organisms must now adapt to this organism and the original organisms, in turn must now adapt to these new adaptations. A rather striking example of this is the manner in which early microorganisms transformed the atmosphere from a toxic brew of noxious gasses (to critters like us) into an atmosphere saturated with oxygen. Indeed, they were so successful at this that during the precambrian period there was so much oxygen in the atmosphere that there were giant dragonflies (critters you definitely wouldn’t want to encounter on a dark night), six foot long centipedes, and lightning storms would create raging forest fires. Of course, it’s also for this reason that evolution is not teleological and can’t be described in terms of progress.

A third way of making this argument would be through onticology. As I argued in an earlier post drawing on systems theory, every object is a system organized around a distinction between itself and its environment. While I do indeed retain Maturana and Varela’s distinction between allopoietic machines (non-living objects) and autopoietic machines (living objects), I nonetheless argue that every object exists in a state of closure such that it only maintains selective relations to its environment. The paradox, then, is that the distinction between system and environment is a distinction made by each object itself. As such, every system or object constitutes its own environment. If this is the case, then we cannot talk about an environment as such. This would be a consequence of the withdrawal of objects.

Take a micro-organism like the fascinating tardigrade. The tardigrade, depicted to the left above, is a multicellular, microscopic organism that has eyes and fully formed legs. Among its more amazing characteristics is that it can be exposed to extreme heat such that it entirely dehydrates. When this occurs, it withdraws its legs into its body and turns into a little pellet that appears to be dead. However, add some water to its dish and it puffs back up and resumes movement. It is similarly able to endure extreme cold. A strange stranger indeed! However, my point here is that for all intents and purposes, frogs, persons, rocks, etc., do not belong to the environment of tardigrades. The point, then, is that we cannot talk about an environment but only, rather, a multiplex or mesh of environments that perhaps enter into relations of structural coupling with one another without possessing any overarching unity.

Over at Cogburn’s blog I noted that there’s a debate brewing over whether or not Kant advocates the thesis that we can know things-in-themselves. Of course, Kant’s thesis is that things-in-themselves exist, but that we can never have knowledge of them. Consequently, any knowledge we do have only applies to appearances or phenomena, or how things are given to us. Whether things exist in this way apart from us, the Kantian contends, is something we can never know. For example, things-in-themselves might be merely “thing-in-itself”, or a single unitary being without discrete entities. Sometimes it’s suggested that while Kant is a transcendental idealist, he is also an empirical realist. From the thesis that Kant is an empirical realist, it is then argued that Kant endorses the existence of the objects discovered by science as things-in-themselves. This severely misconstrues what Kant means by “empirical realism”. Let’s have a look:

I understand by the transcendental idealism of all appearances the doctrine that they are all together to be regarded as mere representations and not things in themselves, and accordingly that space and time are only sensible forms of our intuition, but not determinations given for themselves or conditions of objects as things in themselves. To this idealism is opposed transcendental realism, which regards space and time as something given in themselves (independent of our sensiblity). The transcendental realist therefore represents outer appearances (if their reality is conceded) as things in themselves, which would exist independently of us and our sensibility and thus would also be outside us according to pure concepts of the understanding. (CPR, A369)

Having carefully distinguished between transcendental idealism and transcendental realism, Kant then goes on to introduce the concept of empirical realism:

The transcendental idealist, on the contrary, can be an empirical realist, hence, as he is called, a dualist, i.e., he can concede the existence of matter without going beyond mere self-consciousness and assuming something more than the certainty of representations in me, hence the cogito ergo sum. For because he allows this matter and even its inner possibility to be valid only for appearance– which, separated from our sensibility, is nothing –matter for him is only a species of representations (intuition), which are call external, not as if they related to objects that are external in themselves but because they relate perceptions to space, where all things are external to one another, but that space itself is in us. (A370)

All “empirical realism” means for Kant is that objects (in the Kantian sense, i.e., as opposed to things) appear in space. However, here we must recall that for Kant, space is not something that belongs to things-in-themselves, but rather issues from mind as the form of intuition. Whether or not things-in-themselves are spatial is, for Kant, something we can never know. Clearly, then, Kant’s empirical realism is certainly know metaphysical realism about objects in space. Whether the world in-itself is anything like the world we know is, for Kant, something that we can never know. The claim that Kant was an empirical realist is not a rejoinder to the sorts of charges the speculative realists are leveling against correlationism.

I just began The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton and am finding it compulsively readable. If anything else, Morton is a vivid and talented stylist. It’s likely that Morton, if he’s familiar with it at all, thinks that object-oriented ontology and onticology are a part of the problem. As Morton says early on, “…the form of the ecological thought is at least as important as its content. It’s not simply a matter of what you’re thinking about. It’s a matter of how you think” (4). A little further on Morton remarks that “[e]cology shows us that all beings are connected. The ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness” (7).

It is here, no doubt, that the most radical difference between Morton’s ecological thought and onticology/object-oriented ontology is to be found. Onticology begins with the premise that being is fundamentally composed of substances or objects and that these substances are both independent of one another and autonomous from one another. On the surface, then, nothing could appear further from ecological thought. Nonetheless, either I am schizophrenic and believe that I can square the circle, or I am correct in arguing that onticology is profoundly relevant to ecology and is deeply ecological in spirit.

While I applaud Morton for his investigation of relation and his attentiveness to relation, it is my view that ecological thought is doomed to go astray so long as it asserts an ontological relational internalism, or the thesis that beings are their relations. This, for two reasons: First, ontological internalism generates a theoretical pessimism, for insofar as it holds that beings are constituted by their relations it is also necessarily committed to the thesis that beings cannot be otherwise. This, I believe, is among the profound implication of the concept of split-objects and Harman’s withdrawn objects. Within the framework of my onticology, the point is that beings can never be reduced to their actuality, that they are always in excess of their actuality, and that it is this actuality is a product of the contingent relational networks into which a substance enters into. The paradox is thus that far from leading us to ignore context and relations, the thesis that objects are independent of their relations, that they withdraw from their relations, that objects are never identical to their local manifestations or actualities, actually leads us to become more attentive to contexts and relations precisely because these play a key role how objects actualize themselves in a local or contingent context and because lurking in the back of our mind is the knowledge that objects can always actualize themselves differently in other sets of relations.

In this regard, the concept of split-objects accords very nicely with Morton’s concept of “strange strangers”. As Morton writes,

The ecological thought imagines interconnectedness, which I call the mesh. Who or what is interconnected with what or with whom? The mesh of interconnected things is vast, perhaps immeasurably so. Each entity in the mesh looks strange. Nothing exists all by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself.”… Our encounter with other beings becomes profound. They are strange, even intrinsically strange. Getting to know them makes them stranger. When we talk about life forms, we’re talking about strange strangers. The ecological thought imagines a multitude of entangled strange strangers. (15)

While onticology takes leave of the thesis that nothing can exist all by itself– while certainly acknowledging that such disconnection can produce radical change for the worse in an entity –it heartily endorses the thesis of the strange stranger that goes even to the heart of the entity itself. And if this is the case, then it is because each entity is split between its local manifestation and the volcanic excess it harbors within itself at the level of the virtual. As Spinoza famously said, we do not know what an object can do.

The second reason ecological thought is doomed to go astray without a robust concept of substance is that genuinely ecological thought requires us to think the difference that substances make when they enter new collectives or regimes of attraction. Drawing on my favorite example, we need to be capable of thinking what happens when cane toads are introduced into the ecosystem of northern Australia or Queensland. The point here is that while it is indeed true that entities often come “interconnected”, these relations are external to the objects they connect. Entities can shift in and out of these relations and when they do not only are their changes in the new regime of relations into which they enter, but they themselves undergo transformations as a result of these new relations. My point, then, is that substance and connection alone are not ontologically sufficient. We need to retain a central place for substances within ontology.

Morton is at his best when he tears the concept of nature to shreds. On the one hand, nature has always been thought in a relation of exteriority to the human. We are told, there is the domain of culture or society, the domain of freedom and history, the moral realm, belonging exclusively to the human. By contrast, we are told that there is the mute, passive, and dumb domain of nature outside of the realm of the cultural. Already, in tearing down the nature/culture divide in the way that thinkers like Latour and Morton attempt to do, a fundamental shift in perspective begins to take place. On the other hand, tremendous damage has been done to ecological thought and the environmental movement as a result of new agey chants about holism, spirituality, the divinity of nature, and the wisdom of nature as some sort of self-balancing harmonics that always equals out (as if there aren’t numerous black holes in various galaxies that do not daily devour beautiful ecosystems). The soon we get away from these conceptions of nature, the sooner we quit divinizing nature, the sooner we can begin seriously thinking ecologically.

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