May 2009


Now that I’ve finally completed all my grading, I can relax and enjoy my Summer:

Publication Projects

Write my second book, Being and Difference: An Essay in Object-Oriented Ontology, which develops a number of the claims I’ve been developing here under the title of “Onticology”.

Complete my contribution for The Speculative Turn anthology on the Ontic Principle.

Chase down the contributors to The Speculative Turn, edit their work, and get’er done.

Write an article for the Deleuze and Ethics anthology coming out with Edinburgh University Press on Deleuze’s ethics of the event, showing how this account of the ethical provides a strong alternative to deontological and utilitarian ethical theories, based on problems rather than generalized rules. Unfortunately James Williams has taken some of the wind out of my sails on this with his extremely interesting and generally excellent study of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense.

Write the author’s response to the reviews of my book.

Write a review of Hoy’s book on temporality.

Reading

Learn Category Theory through Lawvere and Schanuel’s excellent and highly accessible Conceptual Mathematics.

Read Badiou’s Logics of Worlds and find something in it to complain about.

Give Graham’s Guerilla Metaphysics the second close reading it deserves.

Finish reading the Brassier books I’ve started.

Finally get around to reading Iain Hamilton Grant’s book on Schelling.

Teaching

Teach two sections of Intro to Philosophy. I am seriously praying this doesn’t happen.

What’s on your plate this Summer?

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For those who are interested, Badiou’s Logics of Worlds is now available.

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.

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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.

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I was delighted to wake up this morning– um, well, really this afternoon… I was up very late grading and have much more yet to do –to find a comment by Lee Braver in response to my post Problems of Immanence. Lee writes:

This is a really interesting topic, and one at the heart of my book. Its 2 epigraphs directly raise the issue:

“The all-decisive question… [is] What happens when the distinction between a true world and an apparent world falls away? What becomes of the metaphysical essence of truth?”

~Heidegger

And, somewhat as a response,

“Truth is a thing of this world”
~Foucault

Once Kant closes off the possibility of correspondence with a reality that transcends our grasp of it, the notion of truth must undergo profound revision, which I take to be one of the core projects of continental thought. Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and early Heidegger all wrestled with new understandings of truth but were still entangled in the traditional sense. It was Heidegger’s later work, building on “aletheia,” that decisively broke with traditional understanding on my reading, freeing the post-modernists to experiment more radically.

Nietzsche correctly diagnosed the danger of swinging from absolute metaphysical foundations to complete nihilism (to which many relegate po-mo), which leaves the problem of how to carve out a path between these extremes. What does truth mean where there is no transcendent umpire to issue infallible rulings, or even a realm of objects existing in absolute separation from us to supply even a conceptual foothold for comparing our beliefs with their objects? In classes, I call this a “just-us-chickens” epistemology: how do we determine what’s right when it’s just us humans, endlessly squabbling? On one reading, this is what Hegel’s absolute (ab solus) knowledge teaches us.

Okay, back to grading as I’m way behind right now!

Jon, I have a lot of sympathy with what you’re sketching out–it sounds a bit like Rorty’s picture of animals making complicated noises at each other. The problem in reducing discussions to the level of causality is that normativity falls out of the picture. Builder A can respond positively or negatively to B’s bringing him a block upon A’s speaking “block,” but Wittgenstein wants to maintain the idea that B’s action’s being right or wrong is not determined entirely by A’s satisfaction or lack thereof. This correctness cannot lie coiled within the command or A’s mind, of course, but Wittgenstein frequently claims that it must still be there, somewhere (in wider society’s reactions, according to some). Now, we may want to simply jettison this evaluation; all there is is people’s interactions and reactions and the demand for over-arching normativity is just a metaphysical hang-over. My sense is that the vast majority of analytic philosophers emphatically demand retaining it, while continentals get a lot less excited over its loss. But it is something to consider.

I haven’t read Lee’s book yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it over the summer. In response to Lee’s remarks, what I’m looking for is something that retains the best of correlationism or anti-realist positions– preserving their kernel of insight –while nonetheless situating it within a realist framework. In other words, in adopting a realist position I think it would be a mistake to re-inscribe the division between culture and nature, where the “real” is on the side of nature and the side of culture and spirit is somehow something other than the real. Here I find Latour’s critique of this distinction in texts like We Have Never Been Modern and The Politics of Nature to be deeply compelling and right on the mark. Moreover, if the split between nature and culture is inscribed in this way we will eventually, as Alexei points out, find ourself back at all the questions that first motivated the Kantian position. I think this is one of the major differences that distinguishes the Object-Oriented Ontologies of Graham and I, from the realist ontologies of folks like Brassier and perhaps Meillassoux. What is needed is not a sharp reinscription between mind and world, culture and nature, but a flat ontology where all of these things are elements of the real. I have outlined what such an ontology would look like in very schematic forms in my post Principles of Onticology (and here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In developing this ontology it should be noted that I proceed experimentally in much the same way that Freud proposed the Death Drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. That is, in proposing the Ontic Principle (the principle which states “there is no difference that does not make a difference), I do so in the spirit of a hypothesis, saying “suppose we were to begin with difference as the ground of being rather than sameness or identity as Parmenides did, what would follow and how would we have to rethink our understanding of Being and beings?”

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In response to my post Problems of Immanence, Jon writes,

I think you are absolutely right that the key is to think of beliefs etc as objects in the world. This may be simplifying the problem too much, but I think that early Heidegger and late Wittgenstein go some way towards doing this (the problem of reference is just a linguistic version of the problem of the external world; and I think Heidegger was working against both in Division One of Being and Time; and that maybe Graham’s non-correlationist Heidegger is a really promising direction in solving or dissolving both problems).

Reference already exists in a non-representational way in the structure of our practical activities (and if Graham is even half correct, in the structure of the pre-human world too), as does something analogous to predication (the “as structure”) and communication (”the they”).

We primordially use words to “point out, predicate, and communicate” (Being and Time, Section 33) as ways to co-ordinate our practical activity in the manner of the block language at the beginning of Wittgenstein’s Investigations. When person A says “block,” person B hands him a “block.” It is indeterminate whether this is an assertion or a command. It’s a word that does something in ethology of the builders.

But, if one properly understands objects (again, I follow Harman as I understand him) then pointing out, predicating, and communicating are all things that happen non-linguistically.

I know there’s a literature around whether or not you can get a coherent notion of falsity out of Heidegger’s truth=alethea? And I think this is the same issue as you raise. But I think the other stuff in Being and Time maybe allows you to circumvent it.

Here’s a stab that may be stupidly pragmatist, but maybe if you have a non-Cartesian understanding of language, then falsity is in some manner just a species of plans-gone-awry? Our prelinguistic ancestor attacks too big of a bear and doesn’t come home. Or person B hands Person A the wrong thing when Person A says “block.”

There are obviously lots of problems with this: (1) is there really anything analogous to plans gone awry in the non-biological world? If not, does having to appeal to at least creatures that respond to selective biological pressures make one guilty of correlationism, and perhaps reinstate some for of Dualism? and (2) As Nietzsche argued in his more plausible mode, the equation of truth and what works is really implausible. A Heideggerian pragmatist model of word meaning better not yield a pragmatist model of truth.

There are a lot of interesting things going on here that I can’t immediately respond to as my brain is mush from grading all day, debating all day, and commencement, so hopefully Jon will forgive some free association. I especially like the points Jon draws out on Heidegger and predication with respect to objects themselves (rather than propositions about objects) and his reference to Wittgenstein’s “block game” at the beginning of the Investigations. For Heidegger, predication is something that is already at work in our relation to the object itself. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment, but one of the key points not to be missed about Heidegger’s conception of aletheia is that it identifies a strata of truth that precedes the relation of correspondence between a proposition and an object. The interesting thing here in the reference to Wittgenstein is that there’s a way in which, under a model of immanence, words themselves become blocks. We get, as it were, blocks entering into relations with blocks (though different types of blocks). As such the relation between word and thing would be a sort of network of different types of objects relating to one another but also enjoying a sort of autonomy with respect to one another, not a relation between entirely autonomous domains.

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basic_category1One of my great frustrations is that I lack the mathematical background to understand Category Theory as I think Badiou is really on to something in his most recent work engaging with Category Theory. If someone has a recommendation for a very rudimentary introductory text (and I already have Goldblatt) I’d be eternally grateful. I am something of a peculiarity when it comes to Badiou. When I first began reading him ten years ago I was deeply invigorated by his daring to say “Truth”. Moreover, I was struck by his claim that maths are a form of thought in the context of a philosophical academic space dominated by Heideggerian romanticism and a hostility towards all things mathematical.

Nonetheless, coming from a much more network based and systems theoretical perspective, I’ve never found myself particularly intrigued by his account of the Event or Truth-Procedures, or non-relation and subtraction, being more fascinated by his discussion of situations. I think Badiou just gets it wrong here as to how change takes place. I think Badiou gets things backwards. The question isn’t how we move from non-relation of pure multiplicities qua multiplity without one to relation or being qua appearance, but rather how we move from relation to subtraction. In other words, Badiou places non-relation before relation whereas relation should have ontological primacy. The mystery is not how things come to be related as his most recent work would suggest, but of how something comes to be subtracted from a network of relations. In his most recent work with Logiques des mondes, Badiou seems to move in this direction while still maintaining the ontologically untenable thesis of the primacy of set theory where there are no intrinsic ordering relations among elements of a set and where everything is unrelated to everything else. I can get how this is powerful for thought, but nonetheless find it ontologically untenable (and here I think Badiou’s notion of Truth suffers from an implicit and unstated notion of ontological truth vis a vis the manner in which the elements of an Event reflect the situation of Being in set theory as pure multiplicities uncoded by the encyclopedia. Better had he begun his ontology with the theory of categories and sought non-relation from the relationality there.

If the work on appearance and Category Theory is so exciting, then this is because it conceives objects as pure relations or morphisms. An object’s identity, under this model– and here I’m speaking in a very thumbnail sort of way –is entirely exhausted in its status as a pure source of an action and as an action on another object as its target. In short, the identity of an object is an extended identity, like an underground assemblage spreading out to a variety of other objects, that includes its transformations on other objects in the group. Where a Derridean or Lacanian might argue, for example, that the object is subverted by its “semblable”, mirroring, or doubling in relation to another object that it requires as a prop to “make itself be”, the Category Theorist could argue that this just is (here I’m poking Graham) the identity of the object.

The object’s identity just is these functional morphisms between source and target. Now I know Graham here is having conniptions in this description of objects as it denies objects any sort of internality or withdrawal independent of their relations, but it’s at precisely this point that things become really interesting. For the relational nature of an object in Category Theory, if I’ve understood things properly, can be self-reflexive as well. In other words, we need not have arrows running from a source object to a target object, but can also have arrows or morphisms running from out of an object and back to an object in an identity function. That is, in proper autopoietic fashion, the object can be both its source and target as depicted in the three objects in the category above. In other words, here we would get the sort of “rigid designators” Graham talks about in his vacuum packed withdrawal, while still under a relational account as reflexive self-relation. I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, but it feels important. At the very least, this would be a way of thinking objects as acts rather than substances with predicates.

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