In a generous response to my post “Realism Through the Eyes of Anti-Realism“, Lee Braver writes:

Your discussion of translation is very intriguing and, when applied to mind-world interactions, it does sound a death knell for passive correspondence. This seems to be a version of Kant’s position–our mind’s activity (A5) in organizing experience rules out capturing (R2) the way the world is independently of our experience of it (R1). Then the question becomes, what sense can we attribute to the existence of this independent world (R1) if it remains forever closed off to us. Even the bits and pieces are heavily constructed and interpreted. I take your response to be something like, the existence and nature of an object consists in its interactions with other entities, something like some of Nietzsche’s musings on WTP, and this includes the mind, so that what an entity coughs up in our interactions with it is part of its very nature. Is that right? Of course, if an entity is the totality of its interactions (a la Leibniz), then it isn’t truly independent of us, since interactions with our minds make up 1 of its essential properties. Also, how do we differentiate between accurate/true/illuminating bits and pieces and false/misleading ones? Why go to all the trouble of setting up experiments if my mundane interactions with a thing are just as valid and real? But maybe I haven’t got your idea at all. BTW, Joseph Rouse is also really good on the construction of artificial environments in science.

This is an important and deeply challenging question that I am still working through myself. A couple of points are worth noting here. As I have articulated it, Latour’s Principle states that there is not transportation without translation. This is to say, there is never a transport of a difference from one entity to another entity where the target entity functions merely as a vehicle for the difference from the source entity. The first point to note with the Anti-Realist project would thus be that Anti-Realist positions consistently violate this principle. Here we get a curious inverted mirror between Anti-Realism and Realism. Where Braver rightfully criticizes a certain variant of realist positions for treating the mind as a passive locus (R5) that merely reflects the world as it is (what I would call “naive realism”), Anti-Realism falls into a similar positing of passivity, but with respect to the object. For the Naive Realist the relationship between world and mind, object and subject, is uni-directional and uni-lateral, such that the object does all the “work” and the mind merely receives and registers the object. Similarly, for the Anti-Realist, the relation between mind and world, subject and object, is uni-directional and uni-lateral, such that the object, now, is a passive vehicle of the mind’s synthetic activity, contributing nothing of its own beyond the manner in which it “affects” the mind providing it with matter for intuition.

In other words, for Anti-Realism the mind is not “translated” by the object and for Naive Realism the object is not “translated” by the mind. In both cases, these claims are based on certain assumptions about the nature of identity. In the case of Naive Realism, identity is placed “in” the object (R3), such that the object is exactly what it is and knowledge consists in discovering or reflecting this identity. Knowledge cannot change this identity in any way as to do so would be to distort the nature of the object. Identity-in-the-object is thus a sort of inert and unchanging identity. We are supposed to get to the object as it is beyond any of its shifting changes. We find a similar thesis with respect to identity asserted by the Anti-Realist position. Where it is the object that remains the same in the case of the Naive Realist position, it is the mind that remains the same in the Anti-Realist position. The mind does not become something other in its encounter with the object, but the object does become something other in its encounter with the mind.

read on!

However, given what we have come to know through neurology and developmental psychology, is this a tenable hypothesis? If neurology has demonstrated anything, it has demonstrated the untenability of functional accounts of mind (the modern heir of Kantianism in cognitive psychology). Brain research has shown that we find nothing like “hard wiring” or “computer programs” among the synapses of the brain. Rather, what we find is an account of brain where concepts and categories are emergent products that take place over the course of development and throughout life. This process is not a self-enclosed process within the brain, but rather is a bi-lateral, bi-directional process that takes place between brain and world. World “interprets” brain to the same degree that brain interprets world. Take the example of my grandfather, a crusty old man that spent his life at sea engineering bridges for the state of New Jersey. Were my grandfather to approach you from across a room for the very first time, you would notice that he has a very peculiar gait. This gait is the result of spending the vast majority of his life on tug boats, barges, boats, etc. His body, his walk, is literally “petrified” waves. He became what he was as a result of his encounter with the sea. Here his nervous system did not impose a set of categories, intentions, language, etc., on the waves of the sea, but rather the boats, the waves, the sea air and wind, etc., imposed itself on his body. He became what he is through this encounter with the other.

As a consequence, we cannot really say where objects or mind begin or end. We don’t have one domain, mind, and another domain world, but rather only bi-directional relations between mind and world. The problem with Naive Realism is that it places all activity and identity on one side, the object, and the problem with Anti-Realism is that it places all activity on the other side, the mind. In both cases, the claims are based on certain ontological assumptions about the nature of identity as it pertains to identity and objects.

All of this changes when we shift our notion of identity to one based on dynamic interaction. Here “properties” of an object are not predicates that intertly reside in the object, but are rather features that come-to-be through dynamic interaction with the world. Based on a reading of a certain moment in Hegel’s thought, I proposed such an account of objects (Existent(s))– what I call “ob-ject-iles” –a couple years ago before encountering Graham or his work, but which, I think, resonates nicely with his account of vicarious causation. There my focus was on Hegel’s critique of the Kantian thing-in-itself and his account of Existence in the Science of Logic and the Encyclopedia Logic. The aim here wasn’t to follow Hegel in his own project, but to liberate a particular concept of the object where the qualities or properties of an object are not elements that reside inertly in the object, but which, rather, are “drawn forth” from the object in its dynamic interactions with objects. Objects then come to be conceived as dynamic interactions that reveal or disclose their nature in and through their encounter with a field composed of other objects.

Much to my surprise, I later discovered that this account of objects as object-iles or vectors of activity resonates deeply with the branch of mathematics known as Category Theory. As described by Badiou in his essay, “Group, Category, Subject”,

In category theory, the initial data are particularly meager. We merely dispose of undifferentiated objects (in fact, simple letters deprived of any interiority) and of “arrows” (or morphisms) “going” from one object to another. Basically the only material we have is oriented relations. A linkage (the arrow) has its source in one object and target in another.

Granted, the aim is ultimately for the “objects” to become mathematical structures and the “arrows” the connection between these structures. But the purely logical initial grasping renders the determination of an object’s sense entirely extrinsic or position. It all depends on what we can learn from the arrows going toward that object (whose object is the target), or of those coming from it (whose object is the source). An object is but the marking of a network of actions [my emphasis], a cluster of connections. (Briefings on Existence, 145)

Objects, then, are not to be conceived as inert points possessing properties, but rather as relational activities in relation to other objects. Things get really interesting with respect to how this modifies our understanding of identity. As Badiou remarks a bit further on,

What is interesting is the following: the categorical definition of group G makes G appear as the set of different ways in which object-letter G is identical to itself.

We have seen how identity in categorical thought is fundamentally isomorphism. Since all of the arrows of a group G are ismorphisms, each of these arrows registers an identity of G to itself. Accordingly, two different arrows represent the difference between two self-identities.

This means that the real purpose of a group is to set the plurality of identity [my emphasis]. Now we hold the principle for thought of this concepts ubiquity.

Among the different ways of being identical to oneself, there is “inert” identity, that is, the null action id(G) [my emphasis]. What a group indicates is that this identity is but the degree zero of identity, its immobile figure and at rest. The other arrows of the group are dynamic identities. They are the active ways of being identical to oneself. They show that what vouces for the One of entity G, over and above its empty literal fixity is the plurality of its internal connections through which it produces isomorphism and, thus, the multiple ways of manifesting its own identity [my emphasis].

The more you have different arrows, the more the letter G proves to be the name of a dense entity, a complex network of differentiated identities.

At this point we ought to evoke Plato’s Sophist, and the five supreme genera of all intelligibility. Being, pure Being and purely empty Being, is letter G, which is but the literal index of the One-that-is. Rest is id(G), inert identity to oneself as the stopping-point of all action. Movement is the arrows, noninert isomorphisms plaiting G in the active manifestation of its identity. Last in Plato’s list is the dialectic of the Same and the Other, which is made explicit in the difference of arrows. For this difference, in terms of difference, vouches for the Other. But this Other is also only the differentiating work of the Same because every “other,” being an ismorphism, is nonetheless a figure of the Same. (149)

The great mistake lies in the supposition that the being of the object is to be found in this inert identity– id(G) –rather than in the plurality of ways in which identify manifests itself in relation to other objects. It is precisely when the object is in act that we discover what the object is. When the object is inert it becomes akin to the meditative “omm” manifesting nothing. Badiou makes this point a bit more clearly by way of reference to Freud and Lacan:

It is now high time to say that the group works as a matheme for a thought on the Subject. It is formally adequate to what Freud and, later, Lacan attempted to record as its fleeing identity.

In the beginning, there is but a letter if we maintain that a proper name is the position of a letter-signifier in the Subject economy. As such the proper name is empty; it says nothing. The Subject presents itself instead as a plait consisting of the active figures of its identity. It is the signifying articulations wherein desire is presented, that is, the differentiated pieces of information of the initial letter wherein the same-subject ek-sists from the plurality-other of its identifications. The psychoanalytic cure is akin to unfolding the strands of the plait. It is the possibility of considering not the identity of inertia– which is only the null index of the proper name –, but of otherness itself, the plural and intertwined arrowing of immanent isomorphisms. (150 -1)

This plural network of identifications is not a betrayal or ruin of the subject’s identity, but is that identity. It is the means by which the subject discovers what it is.

At this point I return to Lee’s original remark:

Of course, if an entity is the totality of its interactions (a la Leibniz), then it isn’t truly independent of us, since interactions with our minds make up 1 of its essential properties. Also, how do we differentiate between accurate/true/illuminating bits and pieces and false/misleading ones? Why go to all the trouble of setting up experiments if my mundane interactions with a thing are just as valid and real?

It would seem that the situation is now even worse, for as I argued above we cannot determine where mind begins and ends, where object begins and ends. However, one of the first points to note is that the object is not the totality of its interactions or relations. This would return us to the uniqueness thesis (R3) that conceives the object as a static point defined by relations in a spatialized sense. Objects are not relations and interactions, but are relating and interacting. That is, we must think of objects as verbs, not nouns. As such, they can enter into and break away from particular relations and interactions. Why go to the trouble to set up all these experiments? Well if it is true that there is no difference that does not make a difference, the whole point of an experiment is to provoke difference. That is, by isolating the object under certain conditions and setting it into interactions with other objects, we begin to discover the differences that lurk within the object. Part of what we attempt to isolate in the experimental setting is precisely our interaction with the object. An electron microscope allows us to discern an object under conditions that far exceed our own perceptual structures. In manifesting the object in this way it calls into question our lived world and how it is organized. A radio telescope generates an entirely new sensibility that discloses stars in very different ways. In each case, what is being discovered are “inhuman” differences, or differences that differ from the differences towards which we are attuned through our own particular organization.