Over at Complete Lies Mikhail and I have been having a rather pleasant conversation about object-oriented ontology. Even though he is leveling criticisms at my position, I am deeply appreciative of the manner in which he has expressed them. At any rate, at one point in our exchange I think we really get to a fundamental difference between our respective philosophical intuitions. These issues are of potential interest to a wider audience so I thought I’d post them here. Mikhail, of course, is welcome to respond here too if he likes. At any rate, at one point in our exchange, I write:

It seems to me that you’re conflating theory with the world. An ontology is not the world but a theory of the world. It is possible for that theory to be mistaken. Noting that there are different ontologies is merely pointing out that there are different competing theories of what being is. Each of these theories are trying to get at the truth and each of these theories critiques other positions and offers arguments in favor of its position. I am not “polishing my perspective”, but presenting a position or theory of the being of beings. In other words, I am trying to get at reality or the being of objects.

To this Mikhail responds,

I might be conflating theory with the world since I don’t think there’s a pre-theoretical world and that I can ever compare a theory with a world it theorizes and therefore see how it does or does not fit. So for me there is no one true theory of the world, since that presupposes that I have an access to this world and so on.

I think this is a fantastic remark– offhand as it is –on Mikhail’s part because it really gets at the fundamental difference between realisms and anti-realisms. I think this is one major point on which I disagree with anti-realisms. In my view this position undermines the possibility of any fallibilism so we’re left without the means of determining why we should choose one theory over another. Because everything is already immanent to theory and because any criteria by which we might choose among rival theories is itself already an element of theory, we are unable to provide any “non-theory laden” criteria for choosing among theories. Now, this observation does not undermine Mikhail’s thesis because this could just be the way things are, but it is nonetheless an issue worth thinking about.

read on!

Additionally, this position, I think, leaves us without the means of determining why theories change over time, instead leaving us in the position of holding that theories just spontaneously bloom out of nowhere. Because there is nothing other than theories and because everything that we experience, talk about, or think about is already defined by a theoretical framework, it follows that any change a theory undergoes must itself be the spontaneous result of the theory or the mind from which the theory is spawned. In this respect, we become like Atlas, having to hold the entire weight of the universe on our shoulders.

Finally, evoking a line of argument from Andrew Collier in his book Critical Realism, it seems to me that every theorist, whether realist or anti-realist, is realist about something. The question is one of determining where the realism lies. It is with respect to this observation that delicious paradoxes of self-reflexivity arise with respect to anti-realism. In other words, anti-realisms, I believe, tend to forget to apply their own thesis to their own position.

In the claim that Mikhail’s making it seems that he holds that theories (not what they’re purportedly about) are real. But here we can ask the question “how do we have any more access to theories than we do to the world?” For example, we can argue that Kant has a theory and that it is possible for a person to be a Kantian. But what is it that gives the anti-realist access to Kant’s theory? No doubt the anti-realist will say “I read his books, the secondary lit, etc.” Good! But still this problem of access emerges with respect to the anti-realist’s relationship to Kant’s theory. Within the framework of the anti-realist’s thesis– that there is no world to which we can compare a theory to judge it –it seems to follow that there is no independent text to which the anti-realist can compare his interpretation of Kant. So what is it that warrants us in saying that Kant’s text (or any other theoretical text) exists at all?

The anti-realist could respond by saying “Yes, of course this is true! This is precisely what Derridean deconstruction and Gadamerian hermeneutics has taught us about texts!” But note, the problem now emerges with respect to Gadamerian hermeneutics and Derridean deconstruction because they are texts and we must account for how we have access to them. In other words, we are led to the conclusion that the thesis that Derrida’s text or Gadamer’s text exists is a unwarranted and dogmatic assertion because it fails to interrogate our access to these texts and the limits belonging to that access. As a consequence, we inevitably seem led to a solipsistic position where we can no longer claim anything exists but ourselves. But wait! Here I am reminded of a classic philosophy joke that really isn’t very good. “Descartes goes to a restaurant and has a wonderful and very filling meal. After his meal the waiter comes up to his table and asks ‘Would you like dinner, Monsieur?’ to which Descartes responds ‘I think not’ and promptly puffs out of existence.” In other words, applying the principle of parity, we must apply the question of access to ourselves as well and here we find that there is no real self to which we could compare our theory of ourselves. Therefore it would be dogmatic to claim that our selves exist!

At the beginning of his book Critical Realism Collier makes a profound observation:

Don’t worry, I am not going to argue for realism along the lines of ‘ten million sun readers can’t be wrong’– or the well-known bit of graffiti that parodies such statements. The point is rather that this apparent obviousness [of realism to the layperson outside of academia] presents a problem for realists. Two opposite problems, in fact: it might be thought that realism is too obviously true to be worth saying; or it might be thought that anything so obvious to commensense is probably false, like the ideas that the sun rises, that pigs sweat, that men are more rational and women more emotional, and so on. Oddly, these two objections are often combined: realism is both dismissed as obvious, and replaced by a non-realist account which is supposedly less ‘naive’.

But the following considerations suggest that the ordinary person’s realism is not necessarily more naive or likely to be wrong than the non-realism of some academics. Let us look at what might be called regional non-realisms. By this phrase I mean views that some particular group of phenomena or of natural or social forces, which are generally taken to exist, do not. An example would be the “Christian Science’ view that pain and illness are unreal. We will generally find that they are held by people who have no practical dealings with the region concerned. I am not, of course, claiming that all regional non-realisms are false. But a great many that are false sustain themselves by practical disengagement from the aspect of the world about which they are non-realists. I doubt whether any surgeons have been converted to Christian Science. Now academics, at least in the arts, are mainly engaged in meta-discourse– that is, talking about talking –and do not, in their professional capacity, interact much with extra-linguistic realities. They are therefore prone to non-realism about such things. (3 – 4)

Because academics in the arts primarily traffic in meta-discourse or talk about talk, they are realists about talk and non-realists about the extra-discursive regions with which they don’t deal. This is a suggestion worth pondering as we engage in these debates.

Alright, it’s been a long day so I’m done for the evening. Tomorrow is pretty hectic so it’s likely I won’t get to any comments before tomorrow evening or Friday, i.e., failure to post right away doesn’t mean your comment has been deleted.