Daniel has written a lengthy post responding to my remarks about objects yesterday. I can’t possibly respond to all of it and remain true to my parental duties, teaching duties, and other projects, so I wanted to restrict myself to commenting on a particular passage. Daniel writes:

My next problem resides particularly in Levi’s account in the apparent epistemological consequences that seem to follow from these metaphysical thesis. Particularly, the consequences that follow given the epistemic inaccessibility of how real objects must correspond to their real powers, as inferred through their local manifestations; and how many real objects correspond to local manifestations(quantity). We are thereby left in the dark about how local manifestations are suitable indexes to infer integrate real objects as their causal, virtual anchors. For example, the redness in the billiard ball is by implication the redness of a virtual power in a real, virtual object. But this doesn’t help us in determining the qualitative identity of this virtual object, or indeed about whether the local manifestation corresponds to a virtual power in one virtual object or many.

Levi seems perfectly at ease with accepting this result. He claims that indeed we have no resources to attain certainty about the qualities or integrity about the real counterparts to the local manifestations we perceive, and so that construing knowledge around certainty appears an incommensurable demand. Yet I think my worries are not so much about certainty as a condition for knowledge, but about the possibility of degrees of adequation. If there are no epistemic criteria to distinguish which descriptions/perceptions/actions might be better suited to coin their real counterparts than any others, then it seems we are delivered back into a form of correlationist agnosticism about the real, where the latter is thinkable, perhaps even as the necessary anchor for our experience, but never known in its ontic specificity. Therefore, the virtual powers we take to be manifested in actuality might correspond to anything our verbal stock might want to stipulate is in the ‘great outdoors’. There might be a theory about how experience or experimentation isolates objects in a way that restricts the scope of individuation, but this is a tricky issue for OOO given the irreductionist thesis.

In my view, an obsession with how we represent the world or how propositions hook on to reality is a endemic to a great deal of philosophy of science and epistemology. In this model of philosophy, we begin with a proposition– say, “bacteria cause fermentation” –and then seek to determine how this proposition hooks on to the world or represents it. All the emphasis is placed on the truth-conditions of the proposition or those conditions that would determine its adequacy to what it purports to represent. There are a variety of reasons that I find this approach problematic, but I above all believe that such an approach suffers from beginning with results (propositions purporting to count as knowledge) rather than the process by which these results are produced.

read on!

Zeroing in on one particular passage in the quote above, Daniel writes,

Yet I think my worries are not so much about certainty as a condition for knowledge, but about the possibility of degrees of adequation. If there are no epistemic criteria to distinguish which descriptions/perceptions/actions might be better suited to coin their real counterparts than any others, then it seems we are delivered back into a form of correlationist agnosticism about the real, where the latter is thinkable, perhaps even as the necessary anchor for our experience, but never known in its ontic specificity.

He then goes on to suggest that my position commits me to the thesis that what we determine does and does not count as an object is merely an index of our linguistic categories. Such a claim, I believe, is both a symptom of a representational/propositional bias in discussions of knowledge and a straw man.

In my previous post I was very careful to emphasize experimentation, yet reference to experiment appears nowhere in Daniel’s post. Rather, all that we see in Daniel’s post is reference to propositions and questions of how they hook on to the world. And indeed, if we don’t examine actual engagement with the world, then the question of how propositions hook on to the world turns out, in many instances, to be deeply mysterious. It comes to seem as if any proposition is as good as another (that there’s no criteria for “degrees of adequation”).

If we are to answer the question of how there are “degrees of adequation” and why all propositions are not on equal footing, I believe we have to look at our actual material engagements with the world, with the way we arrive at these propositions, and not simply at the propositions themselves. This is one reason I was careful to emphasize experimentation– which, once again, notably disappeared in Daniel’s response –in my last post. In The Mangle of Practice Pickering presents a very nice picture of what I have in mind (my “phenomenology of the encounter” and analysis of the passage from the sentiendium to the memorandium to the cogitandum in Difference and Givenness articulates a similar logic). Pickering writes:

In Constructing Quarks, I had argued that scientific practice is centrally a process of modelling, but, looking back, I had failed to appreciate sufficiently the open-endedness of modelling. One can try to extend a given scientific culture in an indefinite number of ways. What the history of Morpurgo’s [a particle physicist] experiments showed was that, to put it crudely, most of those ways do not work. [my emphasis] When Morpurgo sought to extend the material and conceptual strata [my emphasis] of his culture, the bits did not usually fit together. “Resistances” continually arose in his work relative to the material-conceptual alignments he needed to achieve to produce facts. And from the indefinite range of possibilities, certain specific modelling vectors were singled out in his practice precisely in that they did issue in such alignments. Practice as modelling, I thus realized, has an important real-time structure, with the contours of cultural extensions being determined by emergence in time of resistances, and by the success or failure of “accomodations” to resistance. This temporal structuring of practice as a dialectic of resistance and accomodation is, in the first instance, what I have come to call the mangle of practice. (x – xi)

Before expanding on this passage, it’s important to clarify some of the terms Pickering uses. When Pickering refers to “extensions of scientific culture” I take it he is referring to extensions of reigning scientific theories. To extend a scientific theory is to extend it to a new domain of phenomena. Pickering’s initial point is that nothing predicts, a priori, how a particular scientific theory will be extended or applied. Will Newtonian theory be extended to explain the motion of the planets, the motion of moons about planets, the trajectory of cannonballs? None of this is decided in advance. Will developmental systems theory (a theory of biological development that emphasizes the interplay of genome and environment) be extended to model the development of wheat and other grains in various environments, to investigate the impact on maternal diet on fetus development, to investigate the impact of diet on mental health and functioning? None of this is decided in advance. There are countless ways in which any model or scientific culture can be extended.

When Pickering remarks that his earlier account of science as a “practice of modeling” was insufficient, he is claiming that the construction of theoretical models is not sufficient to describe what takes place in the science and why what takes place takes place. Taken in abstraction, Newton’s Principia fails to explain this possible route of physics arose rather than another possible route. There are always a variety of theories or models that appear and they are generally internally consistent and explanatory of the world about us. Why does science take one route rather than another route?

Pickering’s thesis is that to understand this, we have to look not at the models proposed by the sciences, but at the material practice of science. And when Pickering refers to the material practice of science, he is referring to the laboratory setting, the instruments and technologies used, the problems of engineering that emerge in the course of conducting research, and so on. As an aside, I find it telling that we see nary a reference to these things in Sellars, Quine, and Brandom, where the emphasis is on the proposition and inferences that are made from propositions and not practice (in Brandom, I find, “practice” refers to linguistic and discursive practices, not hands-on engagement with the world). If the focus on material practice is so important to Pickering, then this is because in the activity of extending models in the laboratory setting, we encounter all sorts of resistances from the world. Things never quite work out as we expect. It’s as if we have one person addressing himself to another person and the other person saying “no, that’s not what I meant!”

We encounter all the problems that emerge in putting together apparatuses that will allows us to investigate what we wish to investigate (Pickering maintains that scientific practice is primarily machinic— a thesis wonderfully concordant with McLuhan’s thesis about media as extensions –and makes the wonderful statement that “…science is regarded [as] a field of powers, capacities, and performances, situated in machinic captures of material agency” (7). Yet in putting these machines to work, we also find that the phenomena elicited, the phenomena provoked through the perturbations of our instruments, often surprise us. In other words, we find that what our models anticipated do not square with the phenomena produced as a result of us and our instruments acting on the world. This is what Pickering refers to as “resistances”.

Pickering refers to these resistances as “modeling vectors”. A vector is a movement in a particular direction. Insofar as many theories fail to produce any difference at all (i.e., when applied to the world the actions based on these theories don’t generate any particular difference in phenomena), insofar as many machines or instruments fail to do what they’re expected to do, and insofar as we encounter all sorts of surprising results in our experiments, these resistances become vectors of modeling that play a role in the unfolding and development of the theory. Note, the dimension of time is crucial here. Pickering is not approaching Morpurgo’s particle physics in its completed form as a journal article (which is a report of results where everything has been cleaned up), but is drawing our attention to the temporality of the unfolding of claims. That aside, the point is that these vectors winnow the range of possible theories. As an ideal limit case, the others simply don’t work. This is the dialectic of resistance and accommodation that Pickering speaks about. As we engage directly with the world, encountering resistances, we’re forced to revise our models to accommodate these new instances.

A few points can be drawn from the foregoing:

1. Resistance is an Index of the Real: Here we have to proceed with caution. Whether or not something resists has nothing to do with whether it is real. An entity can pass through other entities with an alacrity greater than that of a knife through warm butter, and be no less real for all that. Neutrinos are a good example of this. Due to their neutral charge they pass straight through most matter, but the fact that they seldom produce differences or perturbations in other entities has no bearing on whether or not they exist.

The claim that resistance is an index of the real is to be restricted to the epistemological register. In short, one of the ways in which we determine whether or not something is a being or entity is through encountering resistances.

2. A Central Task of Science is to Produce Resistance or Difference: A good scientific theory is a theory capable of producing differences through practices. Scientists are obsessed with the production of differences and it is therefore strange that so little mainstream epistemology discusses the activity of producing differences. An experiment is an activity designed to produce a particular difference. It is this aim of producing differences that leads to so many of the engineering problems scientists encounter in their work, for, as Pickering puts it, many of the differences scientists aim to produce require the “machinic capture of material agencies” because they lie above and below the thresholds of human perceptions of time, space, and quality. Thus, for example, the Haldron Collider has had to be engineered to produce energies great enough to produce those differences (local manifestations) and capture those material agencies that would allow us to infer the existence of the Higgs-Boson particle presiding over gravity. Likewise, the Hubble Space Telescope had to be engineered to machinically capture that light that would allow us to see into the remote past of the universe.

These machinic captures and the differences they produce, in their turn, perpetually surprise us and create new vectors of modeling. Through his use of the Hooker Telescope, for example, Hubble discovered the Doppler shift at work in the movement of stars, leading to the demise of a static-state conception of the universe and an understanding of the universe as expanding. Likewise, Vera Rubin who was, at the time, a young mother looking for a quiet research project that would work well with her personal life, discovered that the stars at the edge of galaxies were orbiting far faster than they should be according to the laws of physics. A research project from which she expected no great fanfare or discoveries, played a key role in overturning our understanding of matter and the galaxies, leading to theories of dark matter.

3. Knowledge is Therefore Primarily Performative Rather than Discursive: A theory or model is more like an annual business report given to shareholders and CEOs than knowledge. It is shorthand for a whole series of mediations, activities, and events. The claim that knowledge is performative is the claim that it is to be located in the doing, in the activities through which it is produced, not a simple “correspondence” between proposition and world. If you wish to understand that knowledge and why people hold to it, you need to look back to their practices and material engagements with the world. This is why, I suspect, scientists often become impatient with philosophers, epistemologists, and philosophers of science of a certain stripe. All of those practices and feats of engineering, all of that careful machinic capture, gets ignored and questions revolve around the truth-conditions of the claims presented in a book (Newton’s Principia) or a journal article. The epistemologist asks the scientist “how do you know x is true?” The scientist then carefully talks about all the work that went into the Haldron Collider, the problems the team ran into, the read outs, how certain expectations were violated, etc., explain each step along the way that led to the conclusion that a particular particle or set of particles exists. By this time, the philosopher’s eyes have glazed over and, after politely listening for a few hours, he asks again “but how do you know it’s true?” Baffled and surprised the scientist takes his leave so as to get back to work.

Lacan describes this phenomenon in a memorable passage in The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Lacan argues that the discourse of the master (which he equates with philosophy) is a sort of theft of knowledge. “What does philosophy designate over its entire evolution? It’s this– theft, abduction, stealing slavery of its knowledge, through the maneuvers of the master” (21). To illustrate this point he refers us to Plato’s Meno.

Refer to the Meno, where it is a question of the square root of 2 and its incommensurable. There’s someone who says, “Hey, look, get the slave to come over, that little fellow, can’t you see, he knows.” They ask him questions, master’s questions, of course, and the slave naturally answers that the questions already dictate as their response. You find here a form of ridicule. It’s a way of scoffing at the character who is being taken apart here. It is shown that the serious business, the aim, is to make it known that the slave knows, but by acknowledging it only in this derisory way, what is hidden is that it is only a matter of robbing the slave of his function at the level of knowledge. (22)

What’s Lacan’s point? Lacan’s point is that the philosopher converts the slave’s know-how, gained through his practical dealings within the world, to the form of the proposition. What the philosopher is interested in is not the how of how the slave arrived at this knowledge (his knowledge of geometry won through carpentry and building, no doubt), but the what of that knowledge. The how is degraded and mocked, and the what is “liberated” (or, according to Lacan, stolen) in a way that also silences the slave and places him in a subordinate position. The performative dimension is effaced and treated as irrelevant (“what possible relevance does a discussion of instruments have to epistemology, they’re just tools, technologies, means to an end.” Yet if it’s true that knowledge is primarily performative not discursive, it makes quite a difference because…

4. The Space of Reasons is Performances, Activities, Instruments, and the Events They Produce: If you want the reasons as to why one holds that such and such is true, you have to look at their actual material engagements with the world. Texts divorced from this dimension of practice float about in such a way that it’s impossible to determine their truth conditions. They’ve been divorced from the ground of which they are expressions. This means that we need to understand things that us humanities types and philosophers are quite phobic of: engineering problems, mechanics, experiments, etc., etc., etc.

5. Degrees of Adequation: So long as we simply look at texts, representations, or propositions, one proposition seems to be as good as another. They all seem to belong to conceptual webs that “make sense”. Yet they are not all equal. There are degrees of adequation based on the differences that the model has consistently been able to produce in practice. Is that certainty? No. But where, outside of mathematics, do we ever find certainty? Again, in my previous post, I referred to degrees of probability.

6. What is Said Here is Not Markedly Different than What Takes Place in Perception and Ordinary Language: While a signifier alone is not sufficient to index existence, signifiers coupled with practice do allow for vectors of modeling to emerge that get at some of the joints of reality.

I’ll emphasize once again that these issues are distinct from questions of ontology. These are all issues of how we know and what warrants us in saying such and such exists. They are questions of epistemology. They are interesting questions, but they are nonetheless distinct from ontology. Ontology is concerned not with how we know things, but with what things are regardless of whether or not anyone knows them. As I argued in my previous post, arguing transcendentally we can say a great deal about what things must be prior to any knowledge of them. I’ll stop here.