One of the issues that’s repeatedly come up in debates surrounding various camps of speculative realist thought is the issue of whether or not the category of “object” should be retained within realist orientations of thought. Thus, in a recent post, Alex of Splinteringbonestoashes writes,

In using “object-oriented philosophy” as the term for any realist (anti-correlationist) position, isn’t there the danger of absolutising the object as realist ontological unit? I’m uncertain that, say, Brassier would want to limit himself in such a way for example, especially given recent critiques of metaphysical schema which rely upon objects as their basic structural component (I’m thinking particularly of Ladyman’s “Who’s Afraid of Scientism” in the latest Collapse). Indeed whilst it makes perfect sense to talk on a folk-metaphysical level about giving objects their proper attention (as you and Graham Harman do), to think at least as much about the interactions between inanimate non-human actants as human ones, does this not remain overly wedded to the very level of correlated folk-knowledge any realist must attempt to escape from? If the crucial component of science for realist philosophies lies in its anti-intuitive findings, leading to a continual disenchantment of the manifest image, why ought we to continue to think in terms divorced from these findings (i.e.- to remain at the level of “objects all the way down…”). Ladyman’s “Ontic Structural Realism” for example strikes up a radically eliminativist approach to objects tout court, in contrast OOP seems to remain overly in hoc to the visualisable structure of the objectal.

Before commenting further on this remark, it’s first important, I think, to point out that while all object-oriented philosophies are necessarily realist philosophies, not all realist philosophies are object-oriented philosophies. In order to qualify as an object-oriented philosophy the ontology in question must minimally argue that objects are 1) the minimal units of being (paraphrasing Whitehead in the first chapter of Process and Reality, “‘Actual entitites’– also termed ‘actual occasions’ –are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real” (PR, 18)), and 2) that these objects exist in-themselves or are not dependent on mind or the human to be what they are. Examples of object-oriented philosophies would thus be Aristotle, Lucretius, Leibniz, Whitehead, Latour, Graham, Harman, and myself. Note, all of these philosophies are wildly different, but they all share the common claim that objects are the minimal unit of being and are independent substances.

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By contrast, Spinoza and Deleuze would be good examples of a realist philosophy that are not object-oriented ontologies. If Spinoza’s ontology is not object-oriented, then this is because for him there is only one substance in the universe and everything else is an affection (predicate, quality, property) of that one substances. Likewise, Deleuze’s ontology is realist (at least under my reading), but is not object-oriented in that all discrete individuals are local individuations of the One-All in a manner similar to Spinoza’s one substance. In relation to these two orientations of realist thought– monist orientations and object-oriented ontologies –it is noted that Kant’s empirical realism is not a realist ontology. If this is the case, then it is because Kant’s epistemology forbids the claim that objects in-themselves are as they appear for-us. For Kant we cannot know one way or another, so Kant’s empirical realism is restricted to the phenomenal world and remains agnostic as to whether things-in-themselves are as they are for-us. By contrast, the philosopher advocating a realist position is making a claim about things-in-themselves, not things as they are for-us.

Setting aside, then, the question of whether all realist philosophies are object-oriented philosophies, the more pressing issue is whether object-oriented ontologies fall into what Alex calls “folk-metaphysics”. Those familiar with the writings of Paul and Patricia Churchland will recognize folk-metaphysics as a variant of their famous folk psychology. Folk psychology would, roughly, be the common sense psychology we possess whereby the actions of persons are explained by reference to things such as beliefs, desires, emotions, centralized agency, etc. In short, we attribute a causal function to things such as beliefs. Thus, for example, we might explain Tom bringing roses to Mary by reference to Tom’s belief that women like flowers and his desire to earn Mary’s affection. Arguing from the thesis that the mind is the brain, the strong eliminativist argues that these mental states do not actually exist and therefore can serve no causal function in the mental processes of persons. This conclusion is reached through neurology. Consequently, in neurology we cannot speak of centralized agents presiding over decisions because there is no centralized agency in the brain, no “man in the machine”, but only a non-linear network of neurons acting in response to one another, giving rise to action as an emergent effect of a set of heterogeneous processes without centralized control. Likewise in the case of beliefs, desires, and emotions. The eliminativist thus argues that folk psychology confuses cause with effect, treating effects as causes where these effects are themselves nowhere to be found in the assemblage or network that constitutes the brain.

Transposing the eliminativist arguments against folk psychology to the realm of ontology, we can then ask whether the objects defended by object-oriented philosophy are not themselves the result of a “folk metaphysics”. In other words, just as the folk psychology is guilty of naively claiming that things like centralized agency, desires, and beliefs play a causal role in thought and action, the folk metaphysician would be guilty of claiming that the real exists in the manner that we perceive it. Thus, for example, folk metaphysics might lead us to the conclusion that time and space are homogeneous containers that everywhere exist in the same way, such that all objects are contained within one and the same space and all objects are simultaneous with one another in the present. It might also lead me to the conclusion that my desk before me or the tree outside my window is solid because this is how it appears to my five senses. In short, folk metaphysics– if, indeed it is something to be avoided –consists in the danger of naively transposing the world as we perceive it into the world as it is.

I think Alex is right to raise worries over the dangers of folk metaphysics, but wonder whether it is fair to charge object-oriented philosophies with falling into folk metaphysics. Minimally, all object-oriented ontologies claim is that the world is made up of objects. However, when an object-oriented ontology claims that the world is made up of objects, a good deal of ontological work remains with respect to the question of what constitutes an object. Objects could be, as I claim with Whitehead, events. They could be indestructable atoms and combinations of atoms as argued by Lucretius. They could be ideal monads, as claimed by Leibniz. They could be, as I claim with Latour, assemblages made up of yet other objects. They could be, as Graham argues, infinitely withdrawn or vacuum packed substances that share no relation to anything else. The ontological question of what objects are remains open, such that there is nothing to prevent the distinguishing objects as they appear to us with objects as they are in-themselves” (note: there is nothing in the speculative realist position that prevents distinguishing between how things appear and how they are in-themselves. The speculative realist need not deny that things appear a particular way for-us. All the speculative realist is committed to is the thesis that if we manage to capture a bit of the real, these properties belong to objects in-themselves, not merely objects for-us.) The folk metaphysical error only occurs if we make the move of arguing– in line with naive realism –that objects are as they appear to us.

In this respect, one is not necessarily falling into folk ontology if they claim that trees are objects. I bring this particular example up because Nick of The Accursed Share, has, a couple times now, asked me what warrants my belief that trees are metaphysically real objects. If I’ve understood his question correctly, the question here is why I hold that the tree I perceive actually exists out there independently of my mind as a tree, rather than existing in some completely heterogeneous way that can’t be described in terms of objects? Put differently, the tree of my perception or lived phenomenological world presents itself to me as a unified and self-identical object that persists as the same throughout time. It appears to be an independent thing, to have green leaves, rough bark, a particular shape, etc., etc., etc. Yet what warrants the thesis that the tree is this way? Could not the appearance that I refer to as this “tree” instead, in its real being, be many objects rather than one object? That is, just as it is a mistake to believe that we really have a centralized self or seat of agency if neurology is true, wouldn’t it be a mistake to claim that the tree is a unified and single entity if the tree appearance, in its real and mind-independent being is a series of, say, events, or energy, or something else altogether?

When Nick or Alex raises this sort of objection against object-oriented philosophy– and make no mistake, I’m thankful that they have –I find myself largely in agreement with them, but I am led to wonder why this is an objection against object-oriented philosophy? An object-oriented philosophy is only committed to the thesis that the world is discrete, or as Graham would put it, made up of “chunks”. Yet this thesis leaves a wide degree of lassitude as to just what these chunks are. Thus, to take a somewhat clear example, contemporary subatomic physics, contra Lucretius, tells us that atoms are mostly composed of empty space and that therefore large collections of atoms related to one another are largely composed of empty space. Now from the standpoint of my lived perception, the wall before me certainly appears to be solid and without any empty intervals. Moreover, when I touch that wall it certainly seems that I am touching the wall, that it has texture, etc. However, physics further teaches me that I never touch the wall, but rather what I experience as touch is actually electro-magnetic resistance arising from forces between the atoms that compose my fingers and the wall.

Here the “wall” as it is and the wall as it appears are entirely different. And it could turn out that it would be a mistake to refer to the wall as an object at all because further metaphysical investigation might show us that the wall does not meet those criteria necessary for being an object. In other words, there is no reason to begin from the premise that the manner in which our perception individuates objects corresponds to how objects are themselves individuated. However, if there is some warrant in holding that trees are objects, this warrant arises not from trees existing in-themselves in the way that we perceive them, but rather from the manner in which elements of a tree hold together across time and space in an assemblage. That is, a tree would be an assemblage that maintains a unity in time and space– a unity whose boundaries might be quite different than those that we perceive in ordinary mid-level experience –which is itself composed of other objects (for example, cells). If it is argued that the tree is an object in its own right rather than simply a multiplicity of objects without any overarching substantiality of its own, then this is because the objects of which the tree is composed themselves hold together in patterned relations across time and space. Further, these assemblage of objects making up an object act in concert on other objects, exerting causal effects on these objects. Finally, the relations belonging to the elements that make up the tree-adventure possess elements of ongoing patterns that don’t belong to any of the sub-elements of the multiple alone. That is, there are particular phenomena of organization that only arise from the interrelations of the sub-objects making up the assemblage and that cannot simply be deduced from the properties of these sub-objects. From a single molecule of H20 we cannot, for example, infer that it has the power to flow or wet fabrics. It is only when molecules of H20 are conjugated with one another that these powers emerge.

Returning to the example of neurology, the brain or nervous system is an object in this sense. If the brain or nervous system is an object, then this is not because we perceive it as such, but rather because of how its component sub-objects, neurons, relate to one another in an assemblage. While we can learn a good deal about the brain through the investigation of individual neurons, the manner in which a particular assemblage of neurons come to be related to one another, how they communicate with one another, the sorts of ongoing, evental processes that unfold in the brain, are themselves a distinct level of organization that are themselves governed by their own principles or structures. Consequently, the mistake to be avoided from the standpoint of object-oriented philosophy lies not so much in avoiding folk metaphysics (though this is important), but rather in recognizing that there are different orders and levels of objects with their own form of organization.