After grading all day and making substantial progress (hopefully I’ll be done tomorrow, yay!), I sat down and read the introduction and first chapter of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. Although I am of the realist orientation myself, I can already tell that this book will be deeply valuable to my own philosophical project. Braver begins the first chapter with a brief survey of the five core theses he sees as characterizing realist thought. An examination of these theses might be useful in clarifying just where my own Object-Oriented Philosophy diverges from anti-realist positions, but also diverges from classical forms of realism.
The core thesis of any realism is what Braver refers to as the Independence Thesis or R1 (where the “R” presumably denotes “Realism”). As Braver puts it,
The first component in the Realism Matrix is metaphysical: a set of objects or state of affairs, which does not rely upon us in any way, exists. The furniture of the universe does not rely upon us for existence or for essence, excluding trivial examples of things we have made or which depend upon us in a relatively obvious and uninteresting ways such as thoughts and beliefs. (15)
Here I think Braver identifies the shared position of any and all realist ontologies. To be a realist is to endorse the thesis that there are beings that exist independent of any correlation between mind and world. In other words, for the realist the verb “to be” is not shorthand for “to be correlated”. Rather, the questions of metaphysics involve an inquiry into being that possesses no dependency relation within a correlation. Such beings would be what they are regardless of whether or not we relate to them.
Understanding this point is of central importance to understanding the realist position. When the realist asserts that there is being independent of correlation or the relation between mind and world, the emphasis is not on the term relation, but on the term dependency. The realist, of course, recognizes that we must relate to the world to know the world. What the realist rejects, however, is the thesis that the being of the object related to in the relation of knowing is dependent on the subject relating to that object. Realists, of course, differ as to just what the nature of this independent reality is.
A second important point to note is that this is the metaphysical or ontological thesis of realism, not its epistemological thesis. In short, the question of how we can know these objects or whether we can know them at all is independent of the question of what these objects are. As Michael Devitt puts it,
An object has objective existence, in some sense, if it exists and has its nature whatever we believe, think, or can discover: it is independent of the cognitive activities of the mind… It is not constituted by our knowledge, by our epistemic values, by our capacity to refer to it, by our imposition of concepts, theories, or languages… For the realist, the world exists independently of the mental. (Quoted in Braver, 15)
The realist does not dismiss the epistemological question of how we come to know objects, but she does distinguish the epistemological question of how we come to know from the ontological question of what objects are. This is a point that must perpetually be kept in mind in debates between realists and anti-realists, because anti-realist positions, holding that objects are inseparable from their dependence in a correlation, run the ontological question and the epistemological question together. Quoting Devitt from Braver again,
…Devitt insists on defining realism solely in terms of its metaphysical commitments [my emphasis]. ‘Realism does not entail any doctrine of truth… No doctrine of truth entails Realism. I conclude that no doctrine of truth is in any way constitutive of Realism… Realism is about the nature of reality in general, about what there is, and what it is like.” (16)
In her vocation as a metaphysician, what interests the realist is not how we know objects, but rather what objects are. I, for example, fit Devitt’s description of the realist very well. While I am metaphysically committed to the existence of mind-independent objects, I have nonetheless learned the lessons of sociology, ethnography, the linguistic turn, hermeneutics, etc., and endorse a version of a coherence model of truth and knowledge. I have no qualms with the thesis that there is a difference between reality as it appears to us (constituted in a variety of ways by our cognition, the processes of our perception, language, our relation to the social, history, etc) and reality as it is in-itself. I even believe that these questions of constitution as explored by the phenomenologists, philosophers that have taken the linguistic turn, sociologists, historians, etc., are vital to any realist project. Moreover, it is my position that we only grasp the mind-independent real in bits and pieces and never immediately or without a good deal of work, and that much of what we take as knowledge can subsequently be discovered to be mistaken (something I believe is entirely mysterious for the anti-realist). What I do not endorse is the anti-realist thesis that all objects are constituted (in the non-Berkeleyian sense) by mind or some other agency like culture.
One final point, Braver’s initial description of the realist’s metaphysical thesis help to distinguish different orientations among Speculative Realist orientations of contemporary realism. The realist, as Braver describes her, is committed to the thesis that there are objects that are not dependent on humans. As Roy Bhaskar and Quentin Meillassoux so beautifully put it, we must conceive a world without humans, a sort of wild open. However, Braver then goes on to distinguish between trivial dependent entities like beliefs and real independent entities. Attitudes towards this distinction actually define something of a fault line among Speculative Realists. Speculative Realists like Ray Brassier, Nick Srinicek, and perhaps Quentin Meillassoux (I can’t speak to Iain Hamilton Grant’s Position here) would wholeheartedly endorse Braver’s description. To be real, for these realists, is to be independent of humans. Object-Oriented realists such as myself, Graham Harman, and Bruno Latour adopt a more egalitarian ontological position. Our view is not that the puff of matter on the other side of the universe is somehow more real than the United States (an entity dependent on humans). Rather, the Object-Oriented Philosophies are united around the thesis of a flat ontology in which there is no hierarchy of being or modernist distinction between culture and nature. There is just being. Being is pluralistic and differential, coming in many kinds and flavors, but it is no less real for all that.
Us Object-Oriented Ontologists thus occupy a strange position in this matrix, taking heat from both sides. With other Speculative Realists we hold that there is nothing privileged or special about human beings, such that they are included in every ontological relation. To be is not shorthand, for us, for “being-for-us”. On the other hand, with the correlationists, we include human phenomena (minds, culture, language, institutions, artifacts, etc) among the furniture of the real. We simply do not endorse the thesis that these human phenomena are constitutive of the real.
The second core thesis (R2) Braver attributes to realism is far more contentious, I think. This second thesis is epistemological, and revolves around the nature of truth.
[Realism] defines truth as the correspondence between (to cast my net widely– the difference don’t concern me at this point) thoughts, ideas, beliefs, words, propositions, sentences, or languages on the one hand, and things, objects, states of affairs, configurations, reality, or experience on the other; that is between something on the side of mind or language and something on the side of the world. (15)
While this is certainly a common realist position, I do not think it is the only realist position where truth is concerned. In A Realist Theory of Science, Roy Bhaskar develops a realist metaphysics of science and theory of inquiry that both integrates the mind independence of objects and integrates the findings of philosophers of science like Kuhn, Feyerabend, Foucault, etc., that accentuate the role that politics, history, the social, power, training, etc., play in the process of inquiry. For Bhaskar, scientists aren’t born but must be built. They are the result of an ontogeny. However, Bhaskar argues, this ontogenesis of scientists, while resembling certain aspects of anti-realism, does not lead to the anti-realist conclusion that we can never “grasp a bit of the real” through scientific inquiry.
In my own case, my ontology forbids or prohibits anything like a simplistic correspondence theory of truth based on a sort of mirroring between world and object. The basic principle of my ontology— what I call the Ontic Principle –states that there is no difference that does not make a difference. To be, I hold, is to make a difference. Not necessarily to you or me or anyone else (I’m a realist, after all), and not necessarily to any other object in the universe (the object could be completely unrelated), but nonetheless a difference in some manner, way or form is made in being. To be is to act. From this principle follows what I call “Latour’s Principle”. Latour’s Principle states that there is no transportation without translation, or that no object is ever simply a vehicle for another difference. “Transportation”, of course, refers to the transport of difference from one object to another. “Translation” here should be understood in terms closer to the translation of DNA into RNA, than the translation of something into another language.
To say that there is no transportation without translation is to say that there is no difference imposed on another entity wherein the target or receiving entity does not contribute its own differences translating the difference from the source object (cf. my recent post on Category Theory). My skin does not simply transport sunlight as I weed my garden, but rather it translates that sunlight, creating a dark pigment that constitutes a tan. Likewise with the relation between mind and world. In the relation between mind and world, just as in the case of any other relation between objects, there is a translation that takes place that cannot be characterized as a simple transport of the difference embodied in the object to the mind as a simple wax table.
This is also why I believe that Braver’s fifth realist thesis (R5), the passivity of mind with respect to the world (the Aristotlean analogy of the mind to wax receiving the imprint of an object), is also mistaken. No relation between objects is passive, and this certainly holds for the relation between mind and world. Realists such as Roy Bhaskar, Isabelle Stengers, and Bruno Latour, for example, emphasize the manner in which the production of knowledge is a highly complicated and active process. It involves the formulation of models, the creation of new technologies, the isolation of variables in a controlled environment, and so on and so on. Yet despite all these “mediations” or translations, the fact that bar patterns appear on both sides of the screen when only a single particle has been shot through the split panel comes is a surprise and discloses something real about our world. Those realists that emphasize the passivity of mind, of a mind passively regarding the world and copying it like a video camera, are philosophers that have never been in a laboratory or practiced as a psychoanalyst. They do not discern the work, the thermodynamics, behind the production of knowledge. Knowledge is constructed yes, but it is always constructed out of real objects, out of materials, and like any house that is constructed, it has the power to fall down or surprise us.
The third realist thesis (R3) in Braver’s portrayal is that of Uniqueness. In many respects, I find this thesis to be the most contentious of all. Braver quotes Putnum to articulate this thesis:
The metaphysics of realism traditionally included the idea that there is a definite totality of all objects… and a definite totality of all “properties”… It follows, on this picture, that there is a definite totality of all possible knowledge claims, likewise fixed once and for all independently of language users and thinkers. The nature of the language users or the thinkers can determine which of the possible knowledge claims they are able to think or verbalize, but not what the possible knowledge claims are. (17)
In a post-quantum, post-Darwinian world it is difficult to know what it could possibly mean to claim that there is a totality of all objects, for we have learned that new types of objects come into being at both the atomic level and at the species level. Indeed, if we go with Gould’s biological orientation, our ontology becomes even more exotic, including a variety of different ontological levels differing in scale and temporally individuating themselves (i.e., differing from themselves) in natural history.
But setting aside appeals to history, we can refer to the positions of various realists as well. Realists such as Deleuze and DeLanda would object to this thesis on the grounds of systems thought, as assemblages of objects themselves, in turn, form objects that possess their own properties. As a result, there are no grounds on which there could ever be a complete catalog of beings. Moreover, this thesis seems to be premised on the idea that beings or entities are unchanging, yet if beings or entities are processes, events, verbs or becomings– as most current evidence seems to suggest –this thesis seems to be significantly challenged. In the case of my ontology, such a thesis couldn’t possibly hold by virtue of Latour’s Principle. Like Leibniz’s universe where each monad represents the entirety of the universe from a particular point of view, Latour’s Principle entails a sort of ontological relativity that is ontological (and not simply epistemological). That is, quoting Deleuze, it entails a Truth of Relativity rather than a Relativity of Truth. Yet this Truth of Relativity holds not simply for subject-world relations, but for any object-object relation. My skin grasps the sun from a particular point of view and under a particular translation. Finally, in the case of Graham’s metaphysics, the infinitely withdrawn nature of objects that only touch through a sort of vicarious causation undermines the possibility of a privileged point of view on the universe. Another Leibnizian.
I’ll leave off here for now.