In response to my post on individuation, Paul Reid-Bowen of Pagan Metaphysics raises an interesting and difficult question on object-oriented pedagogy. Paul writes:

If you have a moment, a practical and pedagogical question. I quite appreciate Bhaskar’s epistemic fallacy, but do you have any useful advice or strategies for shifting students back to ontological questions and away from epistemological ones. It seems to me that most of my undergraduates are epistemologists, correlationists and subjectivists by default. Sometimes I’m successful in pulling them around to the ontological questions, but there is a real tendency for them to (a) engage in the epistemic fallacy and (b) wholeheartedly embrace various kinds of correlationism when asked to reflect on metaphysics. I realise that this could easily balloon into a very big topic, namely how one teaches OOO, but any thoughts would be much appreciated.

In many respects I believe that correlationism is the spontaneous ideology of our time. It is so deeply ingrained in our thought that whenever questions of what being is are raised we immediately gravitate towards questions of how we perceive or know beings. Here the Marxist in me wants to link the correlationist way of thinking to the rise of capitalism and the information revolution (is it a mistake that the correlationist argument largely finds its seeds in the 17th century?), though I’ll save this analysis for another day. If I had the courage to do it, I think I would do something similar to what Bateson describes doing in one of his classes in Mind and Nature.

read on!

I always have mixed feelings about Bateson as his tone strikes me as a bit new agey, but when he’s good he’s really good. At the beginning of Mind and Nature Bateson talks about how he was teaching a group of art students one semester. Knowing that they would likely be hostile to science, he struggled over the question of how to reach them. He finally decided to begin the first day of class by bringing in a paper bag with a cooked crab inside of it. After placing the crab on his desk he asked them the following:

I want you to produce arguments which will convince me that this object is the remains of a living thing. You may imagine, if you will, that you are Martians and that on Mars you are familiar with living things, being indeed yourself alive. But, of course, you have never seen crabs or lobsters. A number of objects like this, many of them fragmentary, have arrived, perhaps by meteor. You are to inspect them and arrive at the conclusion that they are the remains of living things. How would you arrive at that conclusion?(6)

The brilliance of Bateson’s pedagogical strategy is that it directly confronts his students with the mystery or problem of life. Had he walked into the classroom and simply asked “what is life? how do we define life?” it is likely that he would have been confronted with a series of rote textbook definitions or commonplaces in response to his question. However, by setting up the exercise in the way that he does, he forced his students to confront the phenomenon of life itself. In doing so, Bateson performs a sort of Husserlian epoche, suspending the domain of the commonplace and encouraging students to look.

It seems to me that a similar gesture is required with respect to metaphysics. Hegel ridiculed Leibniz for instructing the women of the court to go outside and compare leaves to see if any two of them were alike, but in encouraging the women of the court to do this, Leibniz was encouraging them to engage in practical or “empirical” metaphysics. We need to do something similar in the classroom. Rather than asking students what substances are, we should encourage them to engage in exercises that lead them to discover what objects are. For me, lurking in the background of everything I write, is my engagement with gardening, cooking, my childhood that heavily involved all sorts of building and craft, and my daughter.

With gardening I’m constantly astonished by how different one and the same plant is from other plants in the garden, but also how they differ from season to season and how they differ depending on how I change my technique and what new substances and plants I introduce into the garden. It’s much the same with cooking. I’m fascinated with how different one in the same ingredient is when mixed with this ingredient rather than that ingredient, or when cooked in this way, rather than that way… And here too I’m fascinated by how the mixture of ingredients precipitates a new substance or entity.

My daughter, who is now three and a half, has precipitated a true revolution in my thinking about the world. Prior to the arrival of my daughter, I think, deeply influenced as I am by Foucault, Bourdieu, and Lacan I was unconsciously a sort of behaviorist in my understanding of human nature. I think I advocated a strong environmentalist thesis to the effect that persons are simply products of the environment in which they’re individuated. What my daughter has taught me is the withdrawal of objects from their relations. This is best thought in terms of my recent post on Luhman. What I’ve discovered through my daughter is that all substances are abyssal black boxes. They are influenced by their surroundings, but they relate to their surroundings through their own internal structure or organization, generating deeply surprising responses to the world around them. She quite literally constitutes and creates her own being. I can’t make her be anything and each way in which I influence her will be structured or transformed into states of her being through her own organization. When McLuhan says that “the medium is the message”, this is, I think, what he meant. The medium, the object, organizes the message that it receives in its own terms.

I suppose, then, that my point is that an effective object-oriented pedagogy needs to pose metaphysical questions concretely. Students need to directly encounter objects themselves, rather than merely speak of objects from a stance of removed reflection. This direct engagement with objects makes it far more difficult to fall into the correlationist frame of thought. I suspect that this is one of the reasons that experimental scientists and engineers tend to be realists. The encounter the manner in which objects are unforgiving and obtrusive. I think this is also the reason that theoretical mathematicians tend to be realists. This was the greatness of phenomenology. It said “go look!”

However, here it’s important, I think, to be careful. It is not enough to simply look at objects. This is where Bateson’s pedagogical exercise breaks down. The crab sits still on the table. It’s important to encounter objects in action, interacting with other objects and the world around them. Philosophers spend too much time looking at things that sit still and not enough time looking at things in motion as in the case of a plant growing of food cooking. But it is only when objects are interacting that we encounter one of Aristotle’s definitions of substance: a substance is that which can entertain contrary qualities at different points in time while remaining the substance that it is. What we discover in engaging in objects in motion are the demonic hidden powers of objects that only unleash themselves under certain conditions.