Shaviro has a new chapter (warning PDF) up from his book on Whitehead and Deleuze. Well worth the read!

From a footnote:

My sense of Whitehead as a constructivist philosopher comes from Isabelle Stengers’ great book on Whitehead (2002). For Stengers, philosophical constructivism is non-foundationalist: it rejects the notion that truth is already there in the world, or in the mind, independent of all experience and just waiting to be discovered. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced within experience, through a variety of processes and practices. This does not mean that nothing is true, or that truth is merely subjective; but rather that truth is always embodied in an actual process, and that it cannot be disentangled from this process. Human subjectivity is one such process, but not the only one. Constructivism does not place human cognition at the center of everything, because the processes that produce and embody truth are not necessarily human ones. For Stengers, as for Bruno Latour (2005), the practices and processes that produce truth involve such “actors” as animals, viruses, rocks, weather systems, and neutrinos, as well as human beings. Constructivism also does not imply relativism; in a phrase that Stengers borrows from Deleuze and Guattari, constructivism posits “not a relativity of truth, but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative” (Stengers 2006, 170, citing Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 130). In insisting upon the truth of the relative, and upon nonhuman agents in the production of this truth, constructivism is ultimately a realism, in contrast to the anthropocentrism and antirealism of so much postmodern, and indeed post-Kantian, philosophy.

I confess that I find this conception of constructivism extremely attractive. Those who followed the link to Luhmann’s brief discussion of sociological systems theory will recall that for Luhmann the elementary distinction operating systems theory is the distinction between system and environment. This, incidentally, is a distinction absent in most structural, post-structural, and a good deal of Frankfurt school theory. It could also be said that it is entirely absent in Hegel. Deleuze seems to be a unique case by virtue of his distinction between the clear and confused with respect to Ideas or multiplicities in Difference and Repetition. For Luhmann, the key point is that the environment is always more complex than the system. In a very real sense, a system functions to manage complexity. Stengers’ and Latour’s constructivism is interesting in how it works with this phenomenon. As Stengers argues in Power and Invention, constructivism is certainly an inventiveness, but it is not an artificiality. That is, we cannot say that there is one thing, culture, and another thing, nature, such that culture is always construction that distorts nature and prevents us from ever relating to it.

Construction, rather, is a slice of chaos, or the production of a zone of clarity amidst the buzzing confusion of the world. Take the chemistry laboratory. The chemist works with elements and compounds that literally do not occur in “nature” in this particular form. A good deal of the work undertaken by the chemist concerns the purification and isolation of particular compounds so that they might be investigated under specified conditions. This construction is not an artificiality, it does not produce something “unreal” or merely cultural, but reveals real features of the world. These features are revealed in interactions. Unlike the old Aristotlean conception of entities in terms of predicates that inhere in a substance, an entity is a pattern of interactions with other entities. We discover what something is by examining how it interacts with other entities (its dynamic relations) and intensities and how it interacts with us. In a very real sense it could be said that every entity is a field of entities, of relations, of dynamic interactions. The thought of a predicate is just the thought of an entity divested of its relations to its morphogenetic field (the milieu of individuation, or the context, in which an entity takes on its properties). It is an abstraction. I am inclined, for instance, to say that my coffee mug is blue. Yet my coffee cup only is blue in being perturbed in a particular way, i.e., in being stimulated by the light of my lamp and sun such that light comes to reflect in a particular way.

All of this should lead us to wrinkle our nose at the much ballyhood claims of quantum mechanics, where it is argued that quantum properties are a function of the measurements of the observer. It is not that this thesis is mistaken, not at all. Rather, the problem is that such claims assume that there is something like quantum particles in themselves. Rather, quantum phenomena, like anything else in the universe, take on their properties as a function of their interrelations with other phenomena: In this case, the observer. What is to be thought here is the primacy of relations and interactions over predicates, properties, and substances. Here a thesis that is all too often taken as epistemological (a thesis about what we can know about quantum phenomena) becomes properly ontological: A thesis about how entities are, not how we represent entities. I suspect that a good number of skeptics that claim the world can never be known implicitly continue to adhere to substance ontologies. They assume that knowledge, were it possible, would be a representation of the object as it is in-itself sans relation, and then rightfully point out that any engagement with the world involves relations that prevent us from encountering the object as it is in-itself or its self-standing substantiality. All that is required to overcome this position is to point out that the object is nothing but these relations, such that skepticism need only a slight shift in perspective to become an ontology and critique of an inadequate metaphysics.

Constructivism, as described by Stengers and Latour, can, I think, be understood as the analysis of the way in which various systems manage complexity in their interactions with other elements of the world. These processes hold as much for observers, agents, rocks, birds, stars, planetary systems, and so on as it does for observing agents. In all cases what we get is selective sensitivity to certain features of the world for the entity in question, such that the object can never be thought as an in-itself sans relation and the subject can never be thought as transcendent to world or divorced from a world.

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