In response to a previous post responding to Christopher Vitale and my post on OOO and Epistemology, there’s been some interesting discussion of precisely how objects are individuated. Responding to a remark by Graham Harman, Mitsu lays his cards on the table and remarks that,

In response to your question about why I don’t want to go so far as individual objects, I would reverse the question and ask, why bother going so far as individual objects? The idea that there is some sort of ground with properties or patterns which are in some sense independent of perception or perspective it seems to me gets you everything you need to have a speculative realism without the complication and bother of positing independent objects.

The first question that comes to mind in response to Mitsu is that of how patterns differ from objects. In Mitsu’s comment I note that he pluralizes the term “pattern”, suggesting that he believes that there are a multitude of different patterns in the world. Are these patterns different from one another, or are they all the same pattern? If Mitsu suggests that patterns are different from one another, he’s already come very close to conceding the existence of objects. If Mitsu holds that there is only one pattern, I would like to know how closed settings in the experimental setting are ever formed. For if everything is one and interconnected, then it seems that it would be impossible for anyone to ever isolate things in the way we do in scientific experiments.

Mitsu goes on to argue that,

Again I want to make it clear that what I am objecting to is not so much the idea of independence as the idea of objects. (1) The most fundamental objection (no pun intended) I would have is that there doesn’t seem to me to be any objective (again, no pun, etc.) criterion for establishing the boundary of an object, or a way of dividing the world into these supposed objects. (2) An “object” it seems to me is by definition a separated out part of the world which has some kind of boundary defined in some way… but how do we define such a boundary, except in reference to a perceptual convention of some kind? I might consider this aggregate over here to be a “drum kit” as an object, but the amoeba certainly doesn’t interact with a drum kit as an object. In some sense, the whole idea that the world ought to be thought of in terms of objects brings us back to the human-centric fallacy which I understand SR to be critiquing in the first place.

The first point to note here is that Mitsu’s concept of pattern is no less immune to the sort of criticism he’s advancing in point 1, than the concept of object. It’s difficult to see how the concept of pattern avoids the sort of problem of cognitive individuation Mitsu is leveling at OOO than the concept of object. I make this point not to reject the notion of patterns, but to point out that if Mitsu is evoking the existence of patterns, he must do so on ontological grounds, not epistemological grounds. This point is of such vital importance that nothing in OOO can be understood absent a clear grasp of this argument. I have outlined this argument in two previous posts (here and here) and invite Mitsu to read these posts carefully, especially the second one.

read on!

Despite having responded to Mitsu’s style of argument on a variety of occasions, I will briefly reiterate the argument here. Why does the distinction between arguments advanced on ontological grounds and arguments advanced on epistemological grounds matter? Why is this distinction important. The common assumption in philosophy is that questions of epistemology must precede questions of ontology. The idea here is that we must first know an object (or in Mitsu’s case, a pattern) before we can begin talking about the being of the object. This hearkens back to Meno’s paradox in Plato. In the Meno Socrates asks “how can we inquire into the nature of virtue without first knowing virtue?” And if this constitutes a paradox, then this is precisely because if we already know virtue, then we have no reason to inquire into the nature of virtue.

Mitsu’s question is a question of access to objects. His point, if I understand him correctly is two-fold: First, he is making the claim that in order to talk about the being of objects then we must first have access to objects. Second, he is suggesting that our access to objects perhaps has nothing to do with what reality itself is like. This is the point of his example of the amoeba and the drum set. The amoeba doesn’t encounter the drum set as a drum set, and thus we should be skeptical of the idea that entities like drum sets are independent or real entities at all. Mitsu’s thesis is thus that the being of an object arises not from the object’s own independent structure, but rather from the distinctions we make. This is the correlationist gesture par excellence. To be sure, Mitsu concedes that there’s something other than the amoeba, but he wishes to argue that there’s no reason to suppose that this something is anything like how the amoeba experiences it because the nature of the being that the amoeba is a function of the amoeba’s distinctions, not of the being of this other-being itself.

Let us now return to the difference between arguments that are ontologically driven and arguments that are epistemologically driven. The first point to note with Mitsu’s argument is a point I’ve often made to Mitsu in discussions with him and is self-referentially driven. Mitsu seems to ignore the fact that his argument already concedes the existence of at least one object. What object is that? Certainly not the drum set. Rather, Mitsu concedes the existence of the amoeba. In order for the amoeba to grasp anything as anything at all, it must exist as an entity, substance, or object. In short, Mitsu’s argument can only get off the ground through the presupposition of at least one argument. And this is a central reason that I have always found Mitsu’s arguments about how observers constitute objects unconvincing: these arguments always forget that the observer is an object. This brings me to Joe W’s riff on Mitsu’s point:

If a frog encounters a fly, the frog is the one drawing a distinction between the fly and other objects (of course I take your point that this distinction and experience of the fly never exhausts the fly itself, etc. – my point is that the material ground that constitutes the fly as the frog sees it is that which the frog never fully exhausts; the part that withdraws is that which forms the intrinsic conditions of the object’s existence, but which the frog cannot access when it separates out that object as he perceives it). But, if a pool of water encounters the frog that just leaped into it, the water experiences a material ground only–a set of environmental forces that impact it in one way or another; and in this sense the frog is equivalent to and indistinguishable (from the water’s pov) from the wind, the rain, a fish that swims through it, and a rock that is tossed into it.

I see no reason to assert that the water as an object encounters a tossed rock as another object, unless you add a third term: the observer that draws these object distinctions. I cannot see a way that water or rocks can draw these distinctions on their own.

Rather than speaking of a frog and a fly or a frog and water, let’s instead speak of the relation between the frog and the amoeba. Mitsu has already conceded implicitly that amoebas exist through his argument. However, here we encounter precisely the sort of problem Joe W. advances about the relation between water and the frog when we think about the relationship between the amoeba and the frog. The amoeba does not encounter the frog as a frog, nor does the frog encounter the amoeba as an amoeba. From the standpoint of the frog’s experience, the amoeba is indistinguishable from air or water. The frog is every bit as indifferent to the existence of the amoeba as an amoeba, as the water is indifferent to the existence of a rock or a frog or the wind. There’s no real difference here. It might as well not exist. However, here’s the rub: does the fact that the amoeba’s non-existence within the frogs Umwelt have anything to do with the amoeba’s existence? To claim that it does– as both Mitsu and Joe W. appear to do –is to be led to the peculiar conclusions that it is the entities distinctions that make other entities what they are.

Here, then, we arrive at the difference between epistemologically driven arguments and ontologically driven arguments. Epistemologically driven arguments will always pitch questions of what beings are in terms of our access to these entities. Quoting Mitsu again, “An “object” it seems to me is by definition a separated out part of the world which has some kind of boundary defined in some way… but how do we define such a boundary, except in reference to a perceptual convention of some kind?

As can be clearly discerned in this passage, Mitsu changes the issue. Rather than treating the question as a question of what beings are, Mitsu transforms the question into a question of how we know what things are. And because Mitsu has transformed the question from the issue of what must belong to entities by right in order to be entities, regardless of whether anything else knows these entities to the question of how we know entities, Mitsu finds himself confronted with the question of givenness or access.

Having transposed a properly ontological question into an epistemological question, and having thereby arrived at the problem of givenness (his reference to perception) or access, Mitsu now notices that different entities or observers perceive the world differently, i.e., that the world is given in different ways to different observers. The amoeba doesn’t encounter the drum set as a drum set. A person who is color blind cannot see the color purple. Etc.

Based on this line of argumentation, we can now see why Bhaskar refers to the epistemic fallacy as a fallacy. The epistemic fallacy does not lie in engaging in epistemology. That would be absurd. Of course we should raise epistemic questions. The epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis that properly ontological questions can be fully transposed into epistemological questions. Because Mitsu (and Joe W.) have transformed questions of what beings are into questions of our access to beings, and because questions of access necessarily trace back to questions of givenness, givenness now comes to legislate what exists and what doesn’t exist. Mitsu is therefore compelled to argue that drum sets don’t exist and Joe W. is compelled to argue that frogs and rocks don’t exist. If this move is problematic, then this is because it always finds itself trapped in a self-referential paradox: To wit, it concedes the existence of at least one entity, and then uses how that entity observes the rest of the world through its own distinctions to erase the existence of other entities. Every argument of this sort driven by how we cognize or perceive the world will run afoul of this sort of problem.

The point here is that questions of ontology cannot, in any manner, shape, or form, be reduced to questions of epistemology. Put otherwise, claims about the being of beings cannot be transposed into claims about our access to beings. Wherever claims about the being of beings are transposed into questions about our access to beings, we end up with givenness legislating what exists and doesn’t exist based on what is given or accessible and we find ourselves trapped in self-defeating self-referential paradoxes where we simultaneously concede the existence of objects while denying their existence.

As a consequence, claims about the being of entities are arrived at in an entirely different manner than the epistemological question of access. The object-oriented ontologist is not claiming that we have access to beings, that they are given, but that the existence of substance is a necessary premise for a whole slew of our practices to be intelligible. In other words, the onticological thesis is that the world must be a particular way for certain practices like perception, experimentation, discourse, etc., to be possible and that the world would be this way regardless of whether we perceived, experimented, or discoursed about it. This is what is known as a transcendental argument. And here, once again, I invite Mitsu and Joe W. to read the two manifestos in the sidebar of this blog.

No one, to my knowledge, has better articulated the shift in thought necessary for understanding OOO than Joseph C. Goodson. Joseph writes:

When I first started reading object-oriented ontology here and over and Graham’s blog (and elsewhere), I, too, had this immediate reaction to read everything as epistemological claims. It takes a bit before really absorbing the fact that this isn’t an epistemological thesis, and that to say, “well, when we have access to objects, it is still a perspective on those objects,” etc, etc, is to completely miss the point. Of course we have a perspective, but the question of ontology is not what our perspective is, but what, if anything, must things be like in the first place to have any kind of perspective on them. It’s a really very different conceptual realm. It’s a very nice shift that can occur when reading your work or Graham’s, that suddenly you feel like your through the looking glass, seeing epistemological questions through ontology and not ontology through epistemology. And I think it totally works. In turning this obsessive, even fetishistic, interest in perspective inside out, it suddenly opens up a whole different kind of philosophical discourse. For those Derrideans here, just look at the breadth of ontological heterogeneity you see in Graham and Levi — you see things being discussed philosophically that would never be possible for Derrida, or that would never seem to be of interest to him. This is one of, if not the biggest pay-offs of OOO, as I see it: the ability to recognize otherwise mysterious and hidden agencies both in our life (biological, historical, technological, cultural, political, economical, etc, etc) as well those alien societies and ecologies of beings which populate the vast majority of the universe. If you want, the self-referential system of much of the textual, hermeneutical and deconstructive philosophies so selectively determines the world that its informational yield has been pretty well saturated. Which is not to say, as you do, that they reveal nothing in their excess or overstatement, but it is to say we aren’t doomed to endless — even morbid — discussion about human limitations. (I say morbid, as I recall when first reading Badiou, then going back to Zizek, how rather depressing Zizek’s Act really seems.)

This is it exactly. OOO doesn’t deny that all entities encounter other entities in their own unique way. This is, in fact, a core hypothesis of OOO. What OOO does reject is the idea that somehow the manner in which one entity grasps, encounters, perceives, or interacts with another entity has anything to do with the withdrawn being of that entity.