A number of questions have emerged surrounding just what I might have in mind when evoking a “flat ontology”. To be honest, I am myself still working through just what a flat ontology might be. I draw this concept from Manuel DeLanda’s Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy. There DeLanda writes that while,

[c]leary, there are many differences between species and organisms, the most obvious ones [are] differences in scale. Sptially, a species has a much larger extension than an organism since it is typically comprised of several reproductive communities inhabiting geographically separated ecosystems. Temporally, a species also operates at much larger scales, its average life span being much greater than the lifecycles of organisms. But the fact that species are constructed through a historical process suggests that they are, in fact, just another individual entity, one which operates at larger spatio-temporal scales than organisms, but an individual entity nevertheless. One philosophical consequence of this new conception of species must be emphasized: while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. On the other hand, the new approach demands that we always specify a process through which a whole emerges, a process which in a Deleuzian ontology is characterized as intensive, first of all, because its description involves the basic ideas of population and heterogeneity, two fundamental concepts which chracterize a mode of biological explanation known as population thinking. (47)

Object-oriented ontology faces a decision where the ontology of objects is concerned. On the one hand, OOO can choose the route of treating universals and individuals as real objects, which are nonetheless ontologically distinct. This move could be called “Platonist” or “Husserlian”, insofar as it would affirm the existence of essences or universals as distinct from objects. The Platonist approach would thus agree that there is one type of object such as the “horseness of horses” that exists independently of another type of object, all those individual horses.

By contrast, there is DeLanda’s radical nominalism which argues that only one type of entity exists: individuals. If DeLanda’s ontology is flat, then this is because it consists entirely of individuals and nothing but. Species and genera, for example, are not some sort of entity that is other than individuals, but are rather individuals at a different level of scale. Lest one immediately exclaim that this thesis is absurd, it’s worth noting that it has a strong pedigree. Stephen J. Gould, for example, argues exactly the same thesis in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Where pre-Darwinistic theory treated the species as a type (an essence) distinct from individual tokens (individual instances of the type or essence), Darwinistic theory treats a species as a population, located in time and space, at a larger scale than individual organisms. A species is, under this model, a thing, albeit a very strange thing, that exists in time and space.

read on!

Of these two options, I am deeply sympathetic to DeLanda’s radical nominalism. What worries me is the question of how far DeLanda is willing to push this thesis. Within my own ontological framework, I have no desire to reproduce the distinction between the real and the unreal. This follows from the ontic principle, which states that if something makes a difference then it is real. Since signs, fictions, lies, fantasies, and all the rest make differences, it follows that I’m committed to the thesis that these things are real. Fictions, for example, are real forces in the world. All of DeLanda’s examples are of the physical sort, pertaining to material objects like biological organisms and the genesis of crystals and hurricanes. While I find little to disagree with him on regarding physical objects– while retaining the important caveat that physical objects cannot be reduced to the processes by which they are produced –I think one of the more significant contributions of object-oriented ontology is the introduction of incorporeal objects that are not simply the objects of intentions.

The question that emerges here is whether the rejection of the type/token distinction can be extended to incorporeal objects like signs as well. Can ontology be flat even where objects like signs are concerned? Can we imagine an ontology that makes sense of entities like signs without the type/token distinction? An ontology of signs where all signs are individuals? Clearly this is a strange way of thinking about signs as we are so accustomed to thinking that there is, on the one hand, the sign-type, and, on the other hand tokens of the sign in speech or writing or some material embodiment. Then again, it was strange for thinkers who had not yet made the Darwinian leap to think of species not as a type but as one individual among other individuals. Perhaps a similar move could be made in the case of signs.

In my own view, the concept of replicators can be made to do the heavy lifting in place of the concept of types. Rather than speaking of a sign-type that stands over and above every instance of a sign-token like the relationship between the linguistic type “horse” and every instance that the term “horse” is used, we can instead think of signs being replicated or copied throughout a social field, reproducing themselves through being copied in various media whether that media is brains, zeros and ones, writing on paper, a recording on a record and so on. This will, of course, generate a number of interesting questions. Unlike many of the objects we’re familiar with that have a continuous existence in time, these objects can pop in and out of existence, ceasing to exist when, for example, that record is no longer played, and jumping back into existence when the record is played. Similarly, signs will no longer represent or stand for anything, but will enter into assemblages with other objects just as an ingredient enters into a recipe.

When it comes to the functioning of signs like “soccer mom” I am more than happy to make this move. Indeed, I think this understanding of signs as individual objects that are replicated sheds a lot of light on Deleuze’s notion of sense, Baudrillard’s simulacrum, Quine’s inscrutibility of reference, and Derrida’s theses about context. The stumbling block I always run into, however, is the case of mathematics. The worry I perpetually find myself running into– which is why I’ve been so hesitant to flesh out my commitments where flat ontology is concerned –is that the rejection of the type/token distinction in favor of a universe that is composed only of tokens without any types destroys mathematics. This is a consequence I have a difficult time swallowing.