Ivakhiv chimes in on the relations discussion here. I won’t comment now, but I did want to address a comment Michael of Archive Fire makes in response to Ivakhiv’s post. I’ve often found Michael to be rather belligerent, combative, and disdainful in his questions, so I seldom respond to him, but while I have little interest in entering into dialogue with Michael (everything seems to be a fight or about tearing things down with him), I do think his question raises an important point that might be on the mind of other readers. Michael writes:

OOO seems to have a strong tendency towards an anti-epistemological stance, in that they seem to continually philosophize away the every-present issue of HOW we know reality ‘frames’ WHAT we can possibly know. An aversion to “correlationism” seems to justify this ‘leap of faith’ into, what i would call, a brute realist ontology.

I don’t think this is quite right. OOO does not have an aversion to epistemology and, in fact, develops a rather elaborate epistemology or theory of how knowledge is produced. What OOO objects to is the thesis that epistemology is first philosophy in that sense that questions of epistemology must precede any inquiry into being. For OOO it is ontology that is first philosophy. Moreover, there can be no hope of a coherent epistemology without ontology as first philosophy.

I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag as these arguments make up the second chapter of The Democracy of Objects. If I follow Michael’s criticism correctly, he is falling prey to the common fallacy or line of reasoning that we must first know objects in order to make claims about what they are and that therefore epistemology precedes ontology. I’ll get to why I believe this is a fallacy in a moment, but for the moment I must clarify why I advocate the thesis that ontology precedes epistemology. In The Democracy of Objects I follow Roy Bhaskar’s transcendental argument for the existence of objects. Bhaskar’s argumentation is interesting because it inverts transcendental argumentation, treating it as an inquiry into the nature of the world rather than minds knowing the world.

read on!

Bhaskar’s transcendental question is “what must the world be like in order for science to be possible?” For Bhaskar, the conditions for the possibility of science are not to be found in the mind (or, for that matter, society), but rather in the nature of the world or being itself. If science is possible, then the world must be a particular way. Roughly Bhaskar cites four ontological conditions for science:

1. We must be causal agents capable of acting on the world.

2. It must be possible for objects to be out of phase with events or actualities (Bhaskar is here very close to my distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation).

3. Objects must behave differently in open systems than they do in closed systems.

4. Being must be stratified, differentiated, and structured.

Note that these conditions of science are strictly ontological. They are not claims about our knowledge of being, but are rather claims about the being of beings. Now why are these the conditions under which science is possible? Here I will focus on the second and third condition. Bhaskar’s thesis is that experimental practice is not intelligible in the absence of being structured in this way.

Why do we engage in experiment? Why do we conduct experiments? Precisely because objects or what Bhaskar calls generative mechanisms behave differently in open and closed systems, and this for the reason that objects or generative mechanisms can be out of phase with events or actualities. In open systems generative mechanisms or objects can be active without producing certain events or actualities due to countervailing objects or generative mechanisms, they can be dormant, producing no events or actualities at all, or they can be entangled with other generative mechanisms in such a way that they produce very different actualities. This is what it means to say that objects or generative mechanisms can be out of phase with actualities or events.

Here, then, we find the rationale for scientific experimentation, and this rationale is ontological, not epistemological. Recall that for both Kant and Hume– as well as much subsequent philosophy of science —causality is defined or understood as a constant conjunction of events. Given A, it is said, B follows. Bhaskar’s point is two-fold: First, the constant conjunction of events is the exception in nature, not the rule (indeed, he will argue that most constant conjunctions of events require the causal agency of sentient beings to occur), and second, were the thesis that causality is a constant conjunction of events true, there would be no need for experimentation because these sequences of events would occur in nature of their own accord. If experiment is necessary, then this is because objects or generative mechanisms can be out of phase with events. Experiment creates closed systems in which constant conjunctions of events can occur, thereby creating circumstances in which objects are in phase with events. Yet none of this activity would be intelligible were it not ontologically the case that objects can be out of phase with events and that objects behave differently in open systems and closed systems. These are ontological premises of science, not epistemological premises.

Now much of my ontology is built on these claims by Bhaskar, though I do believe I expand that ontology significantly and take it in very different direction. Within the framework of onticology, Bhaskar’s thesis that we must distinguish between objects or generative mechanisms and events becomes my distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestations. Moreover, it will be noted that the thesis that we must create closed systems in order to discover constant conjunctions of events implies that objects or generative mechanisms are independent of their relations. For if objects were their relations it would be impossible to detach them from relations to create closed systems.

Now, returning to Michael’s criticism, I believe that it is based on a fallacious bit of reasoning because, quoting Bhaskar, it trades on a conflation of philosophical knowledge and scientific knowledge. Philosophically we can articulate what being must be like in order for certain practices to be possible. However, the philosophical knowledge that objects must be split, that they behave differently in open and closed settings, that they must be independent of their relations, and so on does not entail we know what objects exist. To arrive at this knowledge we have to engage in the arduous work of investigation and inquiry. To be sure, we know of the existence of certain objects because they make up the familiar furniture of our entanglements with the world, but there are many other objects we are scarcely aware of. The point, however, is that ultimately the premises of our knowledge are ontological in character, such that ontology is first philosophy and required to render our practices intelligible.

Now one might object that our science is not possible, that it doesn’t really exist. That’s fine so far as it goes. I am not a foundationalist and am not making claims to unassailable foundations. I believe that this desire for unassailable foundations is what got philosophy into the correlationist deadlock. The premises of my argument are the existence of science and perception (Bhaskar makes a similar argument for perception). If one does not accept these practices and capacities as legitimate practices and capacities, then I have nothing to say. However, if we begin from the premise that we have these capacities and that science exists as something more than a pseudo-practice, then these are the ontological requirements for these capacities and practices. Having said this, I hasten to add that although my argument proceeds from the nature of scientific practice, it in no way is designed to suggest that only natural beings are real beings. Natural beings, I argue, are a subset of being, not exhaustive of being. What is important here is the form of the argument.