hot-peppersIn response to my post on Reid’s discussion of Dark Matter, Jerry makes a number of terrific points, leveling a valuable critique against my distinction between the transitive and the intransitive. Jerry the Anthropologist writes:

I’m not sure I’m convinced by this transitive/intransitive distinction you are making. You well know I’ve been unhappy with cultural constructionism as a position in anthropology. And we both agree that human knowledges have histories; therefore in your terminology knowledge is transitive. But the world or the real, in accordance with Margaret’s Pepper Principle, has its processes by which all forms emerge. It follows that the world too is transitive, just not necessarily in the same way thought or knowledge is. Certainly we can’t undertake an anthropology if we avoid processes anymore than we can have an anthropology which reduces processes simply to what knowledge we might have of those processes. Perhaps again I’m just quibbling with you over terminology. I very much take your point that the real, as you put it, can really knock us on our butts. On the other hand folks have lived quite well and for very long time in worlds organized by (mis)understandings of the real–Na understandings of human conception do not support the idea of paternity having consequences in the world, so they don’t and the Na survive and have done so for at least 800 years. Put another way, there are sciences which do not conceive of their activities as putting nature to the rack and which further produce forms of knowledge (transitive by our shared definition) which our sciences have very grave difficulties grasping; I’m thinking here of forms of Chinese medicine, especially those having to do with the movement of chi.

Those familiar with the early work of Roy Bhasker where he first developed his transcendental realism will immediately recognize that I draw this distinction from his thought. I have a number of the save reservations that Jerry outlines in his post. It seems to me that the distinction between the transitive and the intransitive is not so much a distinction between the changing and the unchanging, so much as it is a distinction about object independence.

A robust realist ontology requires that some– not necessarily all –objects are independent of humans beings. When the distinction between the transitive and the intransitive is drawn, what attention is being directed towards is that some objects of knowledge do not themselves change with changes in these bodies of knowledge. Consequently, contra Hegel where the object of knowledge changes with changes in knowledge of the object, the distinction between the transitive and the intransitive argues that the object remains the same regardless of whether there are changes in knowledge. Similarly, where a radical Foucaultian might argue that there is no reality in itself but only ever shifting discourses as to what is real, the transcendental realist would argue that the object remains what it is regardless of what various discourses say about it. The radical constructivist will either claim 1) that the discourse makes the object, or 2) while there is a world radically different than the one described by our discourses, we can only know the world of our discourses. As Lacan put it, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”. The realist, by contrast, will affirm both that there is a world of objects not constructed by our discourses and that we can have knowledge of elements of this world (gained through painstaking labor, of course). Consequently, while the transitive dimension of theories, beliefs, social organizations, etc., are ever changing the objects are themselves intransitive to these discourses and are what they are regardless of what we say about them. It is not the discourses that make these objects what they are.

read on!

fig15aNow, if I understand Jerry the Anthropologist’s point correctly, it is important to emphasize that objects themselves can be transitive in the sense that they are changing. This can be seen most clearly in the case of biology. Not only do genes change over time through natural selection as argued by evolutionary theory, but, if Susan Oyama’s compelling argument in The Ontogeny of Information is true, these changes take place at the level of the individual. Oyama argues that no neat distinction can be drawn between so-called “nature” and “nurture”.

animal-cellNow this thesis is a commonplace in biological circles, however, Oyama significantly radicalizes this thesis, showing how at each stage of development, we have a constant interplay between genes, tissue development, and environment such that information cannot be said to be “already there” (in the genes, for example), but rather where information presiding over development is actually produced through this complex interaction. This is a complex interaction that takes place at the level of individual cells, for example, as they either hinder or assist one another in a larger scale emergent organization. It is also an interaction that takes place in constant interplay with an environment where factors such as temperature, pressure, available nutrients, light, moisture, water, etc. Indeed, studies with rats, for example, indicate that a decisive difference is made in rat development depending on whether or not male odor is present in the next at birth. Lacan noted something similar with the development of gender in certain species of pigeons which, apparently, must see another pigeon to develop in a particular way. Further, each stage in the ontogenetic process both generates new sources of information both from within the cells and the genome and closes off other possibilities.

Now the key point is that these processes are aleatory, driven by chance and surround, and provide a unique outcome in each circumstance. Such, I believe, is the idea behind Margaret’s Pepper Principle. Moreover, unlike Aristotlean entelechies or Hegelian actualism where the entity is said to be complete when it actualizes its formal cause (which, for living critters, is identical to its final cause), these processes cannot be said to terminate at any particular point in the history of the critter’s development. It is an ongoing process in constant interaction both internally and externally. Because environments tend to remain fairly reliable or constant in the grand scheme of things, we’re thus led to a sort of transcendental illusion in which we place all information in the genome as a predelineated engineering blueprint, failing to see that unformity in result (i.e., species-specific resemblances among individuals) has a lot to do with uniformity in the environment. In other words, the interactive dimension of ontogeny becomes invisible to the researchers eye.

The point of this short detour through Susan Oyama’s constructive interactivism is to underline an example of real objects (organisms) that are transitive in every fiber of their being. However, the point not to be missed is that while these beings are transitive just like any society, language, etc., if Oyama and other biologists like her are right, these natural processes are intransitive to our knowledge and discourses about them. That is, these processes would be what they are regardless of whether or not any scientist theorized them. The knowledge of the process does not, in any way, change the object itself, because the intransitivity of these transitive objects does not include our knowledge of these processes as a part or element of these processes. In short, transitivity and intransitivity must be understood in relative terms, referring to relations of dependency.

With that said, I strongly suspect that there are a number of objects of knowledge where the object of the knowledge is not intransitive to the knowledge of the object. Here we encounter genuine reflexivity in forms of knowledge. Thus, it’s like that the objects of knowledge in disciplines such as psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, etc., are not intransitive to knowledge of these objects. If this is the case, then it is because the objects of this knowledge are responsive to knowledge of these objects. For example, when the economist reports on the state of economy, his object of knowledge is not indifferent to these pronouncements but is led not to invest, for example, based on this knowledge of the object. Likewise, when a psychoanalyst reports a diagnosis to his analysand or offers an interpretation, this produces a change in the analysand that modifies the entire analytic situation. However, while objects in these disciplines are reflexive in this way, this doesn’t bar the existence of real and independent causal mechanisms in these objects, nor does it entail that the object inquired into is merely constructed with no independence of its own. Rather, what we get is something like two attractor points in a dance with one another that form a system or an assemblage.

A final point. It seems to me that the question of whether or not people get along just well regardless of whether what their beliefs refer to or not is an independent issue with respect to questions of ontology. The Enlightenment ideal has it that true beliefs about the world are deeply connected to our flourishing as human beings. As a result, it is also committed to the thesis that false beliefs undermine the possibility of human flourishing. It seems to me that this connection between true belief and human flourishing is based on a faulty premise and that, as Jerry points out, people get along just fine while having many mistaken beliefs about these things (it’s also important to note that these false beliefs are real as well, and produce differences). Rather, while ontology might occupy itself with questions of what is, there is nothing in knowing what is that entails human flourishing or improved social relations… Though I do think that our ontology will have a massive impact on the sort of inquiry we engage in, the sorts of questions we ask, and that this might lead to a number of benefits.