Having learned a bit of “Texan” since moving to Dallas five or six years ago, I am compelled to say that y’all need to quit being so interesting. Now that the semester is over and my grades have finally been submitted I’m back to work on The Democracy of Objects. Consequently, as I unsuccessfully announced a couple weeks ago, I’ll be participating far less frequently so as to finally pull everything together. Incidentally, if anyone is interested I need a good copy editor for the MS once it’s completed. I expect that the draft will be done by the end of July. I’d like to have it to OHP by the end of August. If anyone is interested in this thankless task, please let me know. I can’t offer any compensation, though you will get a prominent place in the acknowledgments.

Before getting back to work, I wanted to draw attention to this post on primary and secondary qualities by Graham Harman. J.N. Nielson, to whom Graham is responding, writes:

Just before leaving on vacation, pursuing my recent interest in object oriented ontology, I got copies of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency and Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, but I didn’t bring them with me and didn’t have much time to skim them before departure. Interestingly, though (and a prima facie impression), Meillassoux’s book begins with a rehabilitation of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and it is difficult for me to see how this distinction can be reconciled with any sense of phenomenology (such as referenced in Harman’s title) however broadly (if not promiscuously) construed.

Nielson’s post is replete with a number of interesting and important questions about mereology and flat ontology to which I can’t, at the moment, respond. In his response, Harman points out that, in fact, phenomenology and OOO does advocate a version of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. As Harman writes:

…it is senseless for Husserl to speak of qualities that could not be present to some perceiver, and in that sense Locke’s version of primary qualities doesn’t exist for him, no.

But there is still the distinction in Husserl between essential and inessential qualities. The tree need not display this particular exact configuration of light and shadow and exact distance and angle from which it is seen. Through eidetic variation we can conceive of the tree in many other different perceptual configurations without the tree changing. These adumbrations are secondary qualities. The primary qualities (though not in Locke’s sense) are those that belong to the eidos of the object: those features that it cannot lack under pain of ceasing to be itself. These are known categorially, not sensually. My difference from Husserl (and from Meillassoux, as will be mentioned shortly) is that I don’t think they can even be known categorially. The intellect and the senses are ontologically equivalent on this question. Both are modes of access to the things themselves. Neither sensations nor thoughts are the thing themselves.

Harman then goes on to remark that,

For me, the primary qualities of the thing are those that exist apart from all relation, even inanimate causal relation. This is not in Locke, for whom primary means “independent of the mind,” whereas for me it means “independent from all relation whatsoever.” This is also how I read Heidegger’s ontological difference, incidentally. To say that any being has a deeper being means that it’s still something outside its relations.

It is important to note Harman’s distinction between eidetic primary qualities and real primary qualities. This distinction will become much clearer with the publication of The Quadruple Object. There Harman presents us with ten diagrams representing the structure of objects, one of which is as follows:

For Harman, objects, as it were, are Janus faced. They have both a real dimension and a sensuous dimension. Moreover, each of these dimensions is divided between the object as a unity or what I would call a “totality” and the object’s qualities. The point here is that no object can ever be reduced to its qualities. What Harman calls “real objects” and “real qualities” consists of that “half” of an object that withdraws from all contact with other entities or objects. What Harman calls a “sensuous object” is, as I have put it, what an object is for another objects. Sensuous objects only exist in the interior of another real object. A sensuous object is, for example, the way a flame grasps cotton. Perhaps another way of formulating Harman’s distinction between real objects and sensuous objects would be to say that real objects are profoundly non-relational. They are, as it were, the depths of an object withdrawn from all relation. By contrast, sensuous objects are profoundly relational, which is why I say that they are objects for another object.

One point I’d like to make is that while OOO and Meillassoux’s transcendental materialism both fall under the moniker of “speculative realism”, it does not follow that these positions are in accord with one another. About the most that OOO shares in common with Meillassoux’s transcendental materialism is a critique of correlationism and an advocacy of realism. However, it seems to me that OOO and transcendental materialism diverge quite a bit in the specifics of their respective ontological hypotheses. For Meillassoux, root being is what he refers to as hyper-chaos, which strikes me as a sort of apeiron. By contrast, OOO advocates an ontology composed of discrete objects. There can be no question of beings or objects emerging out of a primordial chaos.

Moreover, it seems to me that OOO and transcendental materialism have a very different understanding of what science aims at. Meillassoux famously seeks to rehabilitate the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Traditionally the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is understood as the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Primary qualities are said to be “in” the object itself regardless of whether anyone relates to the object, while secondary qualities are understood to exist only in relation to a perceiver. To illustrate the concept of secondary qualities, Meillassoux gives the gorgeous example of being burnt by a flame. When my finger is burnt by a flame, he remarks, the pain is not in the flame, but rather the pain only exists in my finger.

When Meillassoux is articulating the distinction between primary and secondary qualities he inadvertently uncovers a much more fundamental ontological feature of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities than the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Rather than speaking of the difference between primary and secondary qualities as a distinction between the objective and the subjective, we should instead speak of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities as a distinction between the non-relational and the relational. Primary qualities are non-relational qualities insofar as they are in the object itself regardless of whether it relates to any other object. Secondary qualities are purely relational insofar as they only occur in relation to other objects.

If this characterization of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is granted, I believe we get a very different characterization of what science is up to than the one Meillassoux appears to implicitly endorse. Meillassoux, it seems, wishes to claim that science aims to discover primary qualities. However, when we look at actual scientific practice, we discover that science aims at precisely the opposite. Science traffics in secondary qualities and nothing but secondary qualities. If this thesis is to be understood, I must once again emphasize that “secondary qualities” refer not to subjective qualities, but to relational qualities or what I call “exo-qualities”. Meillassoux muddies the whole issue by situating the question as a question of the difference between the objective and the subjective (for a flat ontology such a distinction is largely meaningless because there aren’t two distinct domains, world and mind), rather than as a distinction between the non-relational and the relational.

What interests the scientist is not the question of what the primary qualities of an are, but rather with what objects do when they enter into relations with other objects. As Deleuze and Guattari put it in What is Philosophy?, scientists create functives, which are nothing but ordered relations among objects. Thus, for example, when chemists calculate the molar weights of elements in a chemical equation, what interests them is what properties or qualities are produced when these molar weights of different elements enter into relation with one another in a chemical reaction. It is the relations that interest them, and therefore the secondary qualities or exo-qualities that they seek to discover.

And if this is the case, then the philosopher is justified in pointing out that the scientist and science knows nothing of objects. For objects are precisely that which withdraws from all relations and science is nothing but the study of relations. Having said this, I hasten to add that this does not entail that philosophy is somehow superior to science or that science traffics in illusions. The domain of the real includes both what Harman refers to as real objects and sensuous objects. “Sensuous” is not a synonym for “appearance” or “illusion”. It is not something to be pierced to get at the “true reality” behind the mere “appearances”. All that I am here saying is that science is exclusively concerned with the domain of the relational and is one way in which the relational is approached by humans. In addition to the domain of exo-relations and exo-qualities, however, philosophy is also interested in the domain of withdrawn objects which disappear in relational modes of investigation.

Advertisements