guernicaMikhail, over at Perverse Egalitarianism, has had enough regard for me to write a rather snarky post responding to the posts I’ve been developing around the Ontic Principle. Since I consider Mikhail a friend, I’ll choose to ignore his snarkiness, assuming that it arises out of a place of befuddlement rather than hostility, and instead take this as an opportunity to further clarify some of the claims I’m making. Mikhail begins by remarking that,

In a series of posts, Larval Subjects is trying to articulate a sort of new philosophical approach that, he argues, is necessary to consider. Since posting a comment is usually a matter of an immediate reaction, at least for me, it is easier for me to tackle an issue or two in a form of a post. Alright, let’s start from the end of the story, a post called Hegemonic Fallacy. It opens with a rather strange sentence:

The danger faced by any object-oriented philosophy, especially in its beginnings, is that readers will conclude that the aim is to speak of things as they are in themselves, independent of any humans, thereby denying all that is human.

What is this a “danger”? The readers are in danger, I am assuming, of making their assessment of this “object-oriented philosophy” in terms of old philosophical habit of separating the in-itself from for-us. Actually, it seems as though it is the danger for the new philosophical position, not so much the readers, the danger that from the very beginning it will have to address the issues of already-posed philosophical problems. I don’t see how this is a danger at all or even a problem – why shouldn’t a “traditional view” expect, in fact, demand explanation of any “newcomer”?

Mikhail is right that I could have made this point more clearly. What I was targeting in my post entitled “The Hegemonic Fallacy” was variants of the nature/culture, science/culture, objective/subjective, and fact/value divide that often characterizes Modernity. For those who work implicitly within these categories, it is often assumed that if one rejects one side of these dichotomies then they must be affirming the other. If, for example, you reject subjectivity you must be endorsing objectivity. If you reject culture you must be endorsing nature or science.

read on!

platos-caveWhen we work within these dichotomies– dichotomies that are often unconscious in our thought like the glasses Heidegger describes in Being and Time that are so near they are further than the far –it often happens that one side of the dichotomy is used to explain the other side of the dichotomy. In semiotic terms, one of the sides of the dichotomy is marked and the other is unmarked. To illustrate my point, compare the difference between evolutionary psychology and Lacanian psychoanalysis. The evolutionary psychologist chooses the side of nature as his explanatory principle. Nature is the marked term. All allegedly cultural formations are then explained in terms of evolutionary adaptations. I here refer to cultural formations as being “alleged” because, from the standpoint of the evolutionary psychologist these cultural practices are in fact natural results of evolutionary adaptations. By contrast, the Lacanian treats culture as the marked term within the binary, thereby explaining allegedly natural human behaviors as, in fact, the result of cultural formations such as the signifier.

Now, if I say that object-oriented philosophy faces this particular danger, then this is because talk of objects tends to be assumed as falling on the side of nature, objectivity, and science as opposed to culture, society, and subjectivity. This is a result of our Modernist inheritance that divides the world into two kingdoms. In the post to which Mikhail refers, my immediate aim was to head off this assumption from the outset, underlining that the aim of object-oriented philosophy is not to choose nature over culture, objectivity over subjectivity, or science over culture. Rather, what object-oriented philosophy seeks, at least in my formulation, is an ontology that is rich enough to make a place for a variety of different types of difference, whether these be cultural differences or natural differences, without reducing one form of difference to another form of difference. My version of object-oriented philosophy is interested in the gears of things, how they fit together, how parts work together and at odds with one another, and is thus opposed to principles that contain all the other differences in advance. For example, my version of object-oriented philosophy looks dimly on both the Lacanian tendency to reduce all other beings to the product of signifiers, but also looks dimly on the evolutionary psychologists tendency to trace all cultural formations back to natural principles of evolutionary psychology. In my view, both of these forms of thought would be examples of the Hegemonic Fallacy. By contrast, an object-oriented approach would be robust enough to recognize both that the movement of the planets about the sun is not simply a product of signifiers, and that all sorts of cultural processes were involved in this discovery. In other words, it would recognize the reality of both the movement of the planets and the cultural processes. It would think the assemblage and assembly of these differences without reducing one difference to another. Where the one approach looks for one principle, one ground, from which all the rest arises, an object-oriented approach instead advocates a flat ontology where beings exist in assemblages without one element of that assemblage defining all the rest.

Quoting more from my post, Mikhail goes on to say,

Here the grumpy tradition is speaking for itself:

Here the interminable, inexhaustible, objections will begin. “But it is still you, a subject, a human being, talking about objects! How do you propose to overcome the manner in which your mind gives form and structure to the world?”

Is that not a legitimate question? Just because one might not like it or consider it bothersome to explain oneself, or be annoyed by the obligation to respond to such questions, does not mean that one can simply dismiss the questions. How are these issues addressed?

In order to stave off any suspense, yes it is a legitimate question and I don’t believe I’ve ever said otherwise. Nor, I think, have I simply dismissed the question or attempted to “wish it away” as Mikhail has suggested. When Mikhail originally posted an equally snarky response to my diary insulting my knowledge of Kant, my very first response to him was that indeed, I need to develop a stronger argument against correlationism. Moreover, a number of arguments against correlationism can be found throughout my diaries devoted to the development of my object-oriented metaphysics and in the various discussions that have ensued following those posts. What makes Mikhail’s own response so interesting is that rather than suggesting ways in which a stronger argument might be made, he simply dismisses the attempt altogether and “defends tradition” against those “young upstarts”.

Rather than suggesting that Mikhail is dishonestly representing my actual position in suggesting that I am simply dismissing or wishing a way the arguments that underlie the various forms of correlationism or philosophies of access, the principle of charity dictates that Mikhail must simply be unaware of the arguments I’ve made. On the one hand, I have evoked Roy Bhaskar’s arguments surrounding transcendental realism, while on the other hand I have continuously evoked my argument developed around Hegel’s critique of the in-itself in The Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic. I have, however, conceded that I am not myself entirely convinced by these arguments and am still working on the issue.

Quoting me again, Mikhail goes on to say,

LS argues, or at least boldly states, that the above-mentioned “traditional” question misconstrue the main “problem”:

What object-oriented philosophy opposes is not culture, society, or mind, but rather those metaphysics – and they are metaphysics – that declare that one difference makes all the difference…

I call this reduction of difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference, the Hegemonic Fallacy. The hegemonic fallacy can occur in more or less extensive forms. Thus, in the case of those theologies where everything is dependent on God as in the case of Leibniz or Spinoza, we have a rather extreme form of the hegemonic fallacy. By contrast, the relationship between form and matter as conceived by Aristotle or categories and intuitions as conceived by Kant are both less extensive forms of the hegemonic fallacy insofar as matter and intuition still contribute some difference, but in a less important way with respect to form and the categories.

Ok, I like all this whole “metaphysics that declares that one difference makes all the difference” stuff, but I am afraid that I have absolutely no idea what it all means. Let’s take Kant as presented in the above paragraph: “[the relationship between] categories and intuitions as conceived by Kant [is] a less extensive form of the hegemonic fallacy insofar as matter and intuition still contribute some difference” – let me be honest here, I have absolutely no clue as to what this means.

Here, finally, we’re getting somewhere. Rather than impugning my understanding of Kant and situating the issue around hermeneutics or interpretation, making the unreasonable demand that in order to criticize another position one must first give a detailed analysis of that position rather than simply referencing its root claims (one wonders why this charge isn’t made against Kant’s references to Hume in the Critique), Mikhail finally raises a point that might have to do with philosophy. Mikhail admits that he doesn’t understand what it is that I’m saying (it’s a shame he didn’t simply start with this in our discussion). I will set aside a more detailed discussion of just what I’m getting at with my Ontic Principle until later, and instead focus for a moment on the Hegemonic Fallacy.

remingtonmissionaryLet us, for the moment, set aside philosophy and instead take an ordinary historical example. I take this example from Latour’s Irreductions. A missionary returns from the New World and declares that his success in converting the “savages” was the result of the word of the Bible. Here the word of the Bible is treated as the ground of the entire success. This would be an example of the Hegemonic Fallacy. One difference, in this case the word of the Bible, is treated as the difference from which all the other differences (the conversions) arise. What the missionary fails to notice is that he would not have been able to successfully convert the “savages” without the soldiers that forced the savages into church, the scientists that diminished the value of their “idols”, the engineers that created their guns, etc. The Hegemonic Fallacy occurs when we attribute the movement of a car to pushing the gas peddle. Again, the strategic aim of the Hegemonic Principle is to draw our attention away from ultimate foundations that purport to function as the ground of all other differences to inter-linkages in an assemblage.

We see something similar in Kant. The matter of intuition or sensation is treated as– to use one of Graham Harman’s words –“unformatted matter”, matter without structure, that only takes on form through the imposition of categories of the understanding and the a priori forms of intuition. Like a cookie cutter that imparts form to dough, the matter of intuition is treated as purely passive. Here we have one difference contributing all the difference, such that sensibility is simply a place holder like a variable in a mathematical function. Likewise with the relation between form and matter in Aristotle’s physics, or God and creatures in Leibniz’s metaphysics. I don’t know how to say it more clearly than that. The strategic aim of the Hegemonic Fallacy is to give voice to all differences, without one difference overdetermining all the rest. In other words, those who seek to avoid the Hegemonic Fallacy seek to examine the interrelationship of assemblages of beings, each contributing their differences, investigating how these difference vie with one another giving rise to various beings and forms of organization.

Mikhail goes on to say,

This is pretty clear – not one privileged difference, one difference that makes all the difference, but many differences, as many as possible, I suppose. Now look, I’m not very up on the recent philosophical jargon, but I always thought that something like “proliferation of differences” would eventually result in no difference clear enough to discern any difference.

imageaspxI agree that we must avoid a “night in which all cows are black”, where we can only speak of chaos or noise without differentiation. I have spoken of this often on my blog. However, the thesis that there are many different types of differences or that there are a plurality of differences is entirely different than the declaration that there is only chaos. Following Bergson, I hold that chaos is a sort of transcendental illusion where one form or order is measured by another form of order and found lacking of that order.

By way of example as to what I’m getting at with the Hegemonic Fallacy, I simply want to avoid those forms of thought where, for example, it is held that everything about a person can be explained by their DNA (another form of the Hegemonic Fallacy). DNA, of course, contributes an important difference, but so do rates of development whereby proteins reach one another, the availability of materials in the environment for the assembly of cells, the altitude at which a body develops, etc. Likewise, not only does DNA make a difference, but the body that develops in part based on a particular set of chromosomes also makes a difference that can’t simply be reduced to DNA. That body is dependent on its DNA but can’t be reduced to that DNA. It too “makes a difference”. This is far from a night in which all cows are black, though admittedly it can get pretty complex.

I have said this before, but the aim of “more difference” as oppose to the aim of “less difference” only makes sense if there is a choice, i.e. the traditional reduction of all differences to one difference (that makes all the difference) is problematic if it is an actual choice to emphasize one relation and ignore all the others – that it is not the case is easy to show from Kant: we do not choose to be confined to the proverbial submarine, we are whether we like it or not, he provided arguments, all I see in this new object-oriented philosophy is a frustration with the situation, but no real way out as of yet.

Once again, I agree, it only makes sense if there is a choice. Any philosopher making such a claim is obligated to make an argument demonstrating this, and I believe I have made a few arguments along these lines. Additionally you’ll find yet another argument showing how this might be possible in my book Difference and Givenness. Moreover, I would argue that Kant is caught in the midst of a confusion that results from the Epistemic Fallacy. Kant believes that questions of being can be reduced to questions of our knowledge or access to being. However, the ontological cannot be reduced to the epistemological. It is one thing to develop an account of how beings appear to us, it is quite another to argue that this is what beings are. Now Kant himself is caught in something of a contradiction. On the one hand he restrict being to appearances, yet on the other hand speaks of the in-itself. Yet if he evokes the in-itself he is already evoking a signification of being that isn’t simply for-us.

Mikhail remarks further that,

But maybe I misunderstand the phrase “to make a difference” – admittedly, there might exist some sort of a wordplay here between “making a difference” as “changing” and “making a difference” as literally “creating a new difference” – in another place LS uses a difference formula of “one difference that truly matters” – how to make sense of all of this?


I am personally all about signing hymns, and I sense some passion behind LS’s pronouncements, but I fail to see what I am most desperately looking for, that is, an argument: my main problem not just with the citations, but the whole excitement over this new object-oriented philosophy is a simple (and arguably grumpy) attitude: wishing that it be so does not make it so.

I have purposefully left the phrase “there is no difference that does not make a difference” vague and underdetermined to allow the greatest possible scope or plurality of differences. I do not wish to formulate an ontology that predelineates or predetermines what sort of entities there are. That aside, let me attempt to show that the Ontic Principle is not simply a wish. Now, I confess that the Ontic Principle is, for me, a beginning point. That is, the question is if we grant the Ontic Principle, what implications or consequences follow?

However, for those who aren’t convinced by such beginning points, I’ll try another strategy. Perhaps Mikhail will accept this as an argument– even if it’s a bad argument; a weak argument is still a weak argument, after all –and will refrain in the future from suggesting that I’m merely wishing things away and instead address my actual arguments. I wouldn’t, after all, expect anything less from someone who so tirelessly defends the virtues of close reading.

1930_cranked_stripes_450So here goes. Suppose that we ask ourselves what constitutes the most basic thing we can say about any being, object, or entity. Parmenides asked this question and returned with the answer that “being is and non-being is not”. I applaud Parmenides for this answer because it is truly modest. Who could deny that being is and non-being is not? Well, with my Ontic Principle, I am attempting a similar gesture. What, I ask myself, is the most basic thing I can say about any being? And when I ask myself this question, the answer that returns to me is that every entity differs. Not only does an entity differ from me and from other entities, but it itself differs. It is a difference or a number of differences. Now, I think this is a modest principle, a minimalist principle. I do not say that beings are monads or forces or appearances or forms or sets or expressions of the will to power or syntheses of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real or effects of differance. I leave all these further determinations aside for the moment so as to not prejudge the issue. Beginning with the Ontic Principle I simply state that beings are difference. Due to the minimal intension of this proposition I am thus able to establish a maximal extension for the reference of this proposition, guaranteeing in advance that no entity will be excluded. Try, if you like, to deny that minimally beings are difference. I don’t see how anyone can. If the principle is guilty of anything it is not lack of argument, but rather triteness. However, from this beginning point difference can be further and further specified allowing us to examine a variety of different relations and beings.

tiles_difference_cloudsTaking Parmenides as my guide, I can now, based on this modest, trite, principle, begin to ask what follows from it and develop reductio ad absurdem arguments against contrary positions just as Parmenides developed reductio ad absurdum arguments. Just as Parminedes asked what would happen if non-being is, I can ask what can happen if beings weren’t difference. For example, perhaps I can begin to construct an argument against the primacy of epistemology in philosophy since the 17th century. I can, for example, point out that wherever the thinker strives to articulate an epistemological principle, a principle of knowledge, they are evoking a difference. On these grounds, it can be said that the question of difference as such is more basic than the question of epistemology which instead asks what the most valuable difference is.

Likewise, in response to the correlationist I can point out that the object of knowledge either differs from knowledge of the object or does not differ from the knowledge of the object. If the object of knowledge does not differ from the knowledge of the object, then the object of knowledge is not distinct from knowledge and is therefore nothing at all. For how could something be that does not differ? However, if the object of knowledge differs from the knowledge of the object, then it follows that questions of ontology cannot be reduced to questions of epistemology or that being cannot be reduced to our knowledge or access to being. In other words, through this difference we have already passed from the domain of epistemology to the domain of ontology proper, where we are no longer talking about being for-us but the being for-itself. We might discover that we cannot say a whole lot about this being for-itself, but we might also discover that we can say a great deal once we begin to explore it. Such would be yet another argument against correlationism.

Mikhail goes on to say,

I will call it the Downer Principle. So according to the Downer Principle the statement such as “the Ontic Principle is, above all, a modest principle” just cannot be so because one proposed that it is, especially since it “asserts that to be is to differ and to produce difference.” I mean we are dealing with old, very old, philosophical concepts that are reinterpreted and rethought which is terrific – trust me, I am all about it – but to say that something determined what it is “to be” and somehow it is also “modest” is not doing it for me. However, my issue here is that – admittedly to simplify a bit – we are taking words like “being” or “difference” and we basically say: “Old philosophy sucks, man! It’s oppressive with its arguments and its systems and its hegemony, I wish we could do something different!” And then, of course, anyone who suggests that old ways might have their reasons is a defender of the authority of tradition, a sort of a downer who demands at least a resemblance of an argument, not just poetic pronouncements.

Mikhail must not think very highly of me to describe my motives in such a way. Or perhaps, insofar as Mikhail is interpreting my motives based on what would reasonably lead him to write things such as what I’m writing (how else does one interpret the motives of another?), perhaps he’s giving us insight into his own secret thoughts and desires. Whatever the case may be, it is odd that he would make such a charge against a blogger who has written so widely on various figures in the history of philosophy on his blog, who has shown so much respect and delight for the history of philosophy. That aside, I assure Mikhail that my motive in working these things out doesn’t simply arise from the feeling that “the tradition of philosophy sucks” and “the desire to do something different”. I notice that Mikhail gets a little defensive like this whenever the tradition of commentary in Continental philosophy is challenged. One gets the sense that for him philosophy is the practice of intellectual history. One wishes that he would simply admit that this is what he enjoys and not berate others for doing other things. Just as Mikhail gets the sense that those caught up in new trends of philosophy just think “the tradition of philosophy sucks, man”, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Mikhail is deeply threatened by any philosophical engagement that isn’t simply an engagement with the history of philosophy or a book report.

At any rate, the issue that motivates me here arises from a set of quite traditional philosophical concerns pertaining to questions about the nature of reality, the nature of being, questions of knowledge and truth, etc. More specifically, in the domain of political thought, I am especially concerned by a set epistemo-metaphysico assumptions that tend to ignore the role played by anything inhuman or non-cultural, and that reduce all social relations to language, culture, etc. In my view, questions of change become irresolvable when posed in this way. I invite Mikhail to use his hermeneutic skills in reading my paper critiquing these positions to get a better sense of what I’m after. I see these positions as direct heirs of Kant’s “Copernican” revolution. Finally, there is the simple delight and fascination with these questions themselves, with following the lines of a thought, and allowing that thought to go where it will even if it isn’t ultimately grounded. One risks, of course, reinventing the wheel and developing nothing of interest. However, the case is no different in that dusty tradition of philosophical commentary. We get a lot of bad commentaries filled with cliches and then a few luminous, highly valuable commentaries. Why not try one’s hand at philosophy?

I think Mikhail for giving me the opportunity to clarify some of my views and acknowledging that some of my assertions are poetically expressed.