UPDATE: Over at Object-Oriented Philosophy Harman responds to my questions about his vicarious causality. I’m too tired right now to say much. I only got about two hours of sleep last night, so right now all I want is a nice dinner and glass of wine. One particular qualification. Harman tells me that it is Latour’s claim that causation always requires three terms, not Harman’s claim. Looks like I need to go back and read these sections of Prince of Networks more carefully. Fortunately for me I’m currently teaching it– and it’s a truly wonderful text to teach both by virtue of the excitement of its ideas and how nicely it is written and organized –so I should be able to go back through these key issues soon. There’s a chance that I won’t be able to get to anything substantial this week as I have three things I need to write, and exams to write up. Yay!

I think Harman is right to claim that for me causation is not really a problem. It is important to qualify what I mean when I say this. I am not claiming that I have a whizbang solution to the problem of causality that dissolves the issue. Rather, I am saying that I can understand the epistemological problem of causality, but I have a hard time understanding the metaphysical problem of causality. I more or less take causality as an ontological given and then proceed to analyze different types of causality (one-one, one-many, many-one, overdetermination, etc). This, I think, means that I need to look more deeply into debates about causality so I can get a better sense of what that ontological problem is.

Austin has a stellar and crystal clear post up on Harman’s theory of objects and vicarious causation. This is all the more impressive in that Austin does not himself advocate Harman’s theory of causation. In other words, Austin’s post is a model of what a charitable and accurate portrayal of a position should look like prior to engaging in criticism. I’m dog tired right now, having only slept for two hours last night (couldn’t make my mind stop), so I’ll only make a couple of brief points:

First, a word about why Harman’s theory of vicarious causation causes me (pardon the pun) to scratch my head. Full disclosure I hope I am not here repeating Shaviro’s criticism. I haven’t yet read Shaviro’s critique of Harman for The Speculative Turn and only passingly followed their recent discussion on some of these issues (sorry guys!) I understand the occasionalist argument that Harman is making (and Austin really does a beautiful job outlining it). Harman’s thesis, as I understand it, is that two objects can only be brought into a causal relation through the mediation of a third object. Where traditional occasionalist thought has God or mind (Hume’s empiricism, Kant’s transcendental idealism) as the third object that links other objects in causal relations (for example the role God plays in linking body and mind), Harman argues that there is no logical reason to restrict this to God, but instead argues that any object can serve this role of the “third”.

Now here’s what I don’t quite get (and it’s a genuine perplexity Graham, not an attack!). I don’t understand how this third mediator or object solves the problem. When I visualize Graham’s model of vicarious causality in my head, I envision it with a diagram similar to Peirce’s triadic model of the sign (upper left) as depicted by Floyd Merrill in his writings on Peirce. Merrill’s depiction of Peirce presents his model of the sign not as a triangle but as something like the “flux capacitor” in back to the future. In this way he thinks he opens up the sign to other relations and endless semiosis. Setting aside Merrill, here you have a relationship between a sign-vehicle, a semiotic object, and the interpretant. The interpretant does the work of linking the sign-vehicle with the semiotic object. This seems to be what Harman’s “Joliet” or “third” does in establishing a causal relation between objects.

Now here’s where I have a lot of difficulty following Harman’s idea. In traditional occasionalism where God serves the role of this third, I presume God has the power to link the completely unrelated because God is a whizbang, superpowerful, grand poobah powerhouse that can surmount any distance or separation. In other words, the appeal to God in this tradition is a sort of appeal to magic. In the secularized versions of occasionalism in Hume and Kant, mind is capable of acting as the third relating to the separate because mind is not relating objects but something strictly immanent to mind, namely sensations. The big debate between Kant is whether it is arbitrary association that effects this linkage or whether it is a priori categories. For Hume a causal claim is just a habit. Kant argues that we can’t get necessity from habit, so we need an a priori category containing necessity that mind contributes. But in both cases– setting aside Whitehead’s compelling arguments against Hume’s theory of association in Process and Reality –the linkage is possible because the impressions to be linked are already linked in the mind by virtue of being “in” the mind or immanent to mind.

What I have a hard time understanding in Harman’s position is how a similar move can be made for a secularized realist version of occasionalism. It seems to me that Harman’s “Joliet” must still link to uranium and must still relate to French politics in order to function as the mediator between the two. But what doesn’t the same problem that plagued occasionalist thought still plague these two relations? That is what I don’t get.

Another point. Austin writes:

As for all of the “head-scratching,” I think it is precisely this last point. Harman’s model of causality is decidedly pre-modern, which makes sense from the perspective of Heidegger scholarship when one takes into account his theological background, specifically his training in Scholastic philosophy. Levi’s philosophy, at least what I know if it, is rooted far more in structuralism, assuming we take structuralism as loosely as possible in its claim that what a thing means is not any positive claim, but is only a difference. A thing is not this or that. While he is a realist, it is a different kind of realism, with Harman being connected with the Aristotelian-substance tradition and Levi being connect with the Structuralism-difference tradition. Both posit a fundamental split, but they are different in kind. It only makes sense then that there would be head-scratching since they are reaching the same point (reality is made up of objects) through different claims (the heart of an object is a vacuous substance versus an object is that which is different from other objects).

While I certainly draw a lot from “difference-philosophy”, and while I certainly have a pretty extensive background with structuralist thought, I would say that my major point of reference is not structuralist thought, but cybernetics, complex systems theory, autopoietic theory, information theory, and developmental systems theory. Basically I think that dynamic systems theory and cybernetics kick the asses of the structuralists and that it’s a huge pity that French thought took the route of structuralism rather than cybernetics and systems theory (Lacan, at least, was familiar very early on with both cybernetics and Bertallanfy). I think a lot of nonsense and false problems would have been avoided had this theoretical alternative been adopted.

Like Harman I take the Aristotlean orientation of thought in that I am a substance ontologist. It is not the case, for me, that objects are simply “what differs from other objects”. Here I am thoroughly convinced by Deleuze’s critique of structuralism. As I’ve tried to argue, for Deleuze difference is not diacritical as it is for the structuralists, or a negation of something else. Difference from, as I’ve argued, is a derivative notion of difference that pertains to how consciousness posits and distinguishes objects. It does not get at what objects themselves are. I argue this point most clearly here. In my conception of objects, objects aren’t simply differences from other objects. Even if there were only one object in the entire universe, it would still be a difference engine, differencing away, despite having nothing to distinguish itself from. It would not even have space or time to distinguish itself from as I hold that space and time emerge from objects and relations among objects, not that objects are “in” space and time in the ordinary Newtonian sense. Perhaps the best analogue for my conception of objects or substances would be that of dynamic or autopoietic systems that are information processing machines. Object’s have an internal organization that I refer to as their “endo-consistency” or “endo-relational structure” that is an ongoing process or event that processes information. It is roughly the manner in which this endo-consistency constitutes and processes information that characterizes what I call “translation”.