In class last week we began discussing Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the debate between Aristotle and Plato. For Aristotle, it is basically what he calls “primary substances” that are really real. Primary substances are basically what we call things. Persons are primary substances, as are rocks, trees, gods, stars, etc. Anything that is an individual is a primary substance. Aristotle says 1) that a primary substance is that which exists in and through itself, and 2) that every primary substance is a subject of predication that is not itself predicated of anything else. Thus, for example, we say of Joe that he has brown hair, but we don’t say Joe (the person, not the name) of anything else. Joe exists in his own right. What Aristotle refers to as “secondary substances” exist only in primary substances. These secondary substances are basically anything of the order of a predicate. Colors are secondary substances, as is “human”, as are shapes, as is justice. These are all things that can only exist in objects.

For Plato, by contrast, what is really real are not individual things, but rather patterns (what he calls the “forms”). Thus, for example, justice is not merely a predicate of just acts, just persons, just institutions, etc., but rather is itself an entity that exists in its own right independent of all these things. Perhaps this is best thought in terms of The Matrix (yeah, I know, you’re all groaning… “not another Matrix reference by a philosopher!”). When you’re in the matrix you experience a world populated by objects. You’re eating this steak, talking to that person, hold that phone, driving that car, etc. In reality, however, all of these entities are expressions of a more fundamental reality: the computer code composed of zeros and ones. These zeros and ones are true reality. The entities that we encounter are just expressions of that more fundamental reality.

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At the end of the day, one is really a Platonist or an Aristotlean. This is not to say that you hold to their particular philosophies avant le lettre, but rather that you either hold that the world is composed of individual entities or that patterns are the fundamental reality. There are lots of variations in between and many have worked out various orientations of these philosophies. This might seem to be a minor academic issue, but where you fall makes a real difference. For Plato, for example, what we really desire is not the beautiful person but beauty itself (the form or the pattern of beauty as such). As a consequence, my desire for the beautiful person, painting, etc., is pure folly. All of these things are pale copies of the form of beauty itself. In the political realm, of course, this will mean that what we desire is justice itself, not just institutions, persons, laws, actions, and so on and so forth. In Aristotle, by contrast, the situation is just the opposite. It is beautiful persons, paintings, novels, flowers, etc., that we desire precisely because beauty is a predicate and not an entity in its own right. Likewise with justice.

At any rate, when teaching Aristotle’s critique of Plato, I teach it in terms of reification. In a nutshell, Aristotle argues that Plato is guilty of reifying predicates. Reification is that operation whereby someone treats something that is not an object as if it were an object. Thus, for example, a couple years ago South Park had a great episode about the financial downturn, where the citizens of South Park reified the economy. When the economic downturn took place, they concluded that they had angered the economy. If times were to look good again, they reasoned, they would have to show their devotion to the economy. To do this they decided to sacrifice all of their spending habits, adopting an ascetic life, so as please the economy. Here’s a clip that gives a sense of the episode:

The full episode can be found here. The joke, of course, is that they are the economy. The economy is not an entity over and above their actions, but rather is those actions themselves. If they elect not to spend, they will “anger” the economy all the more as no money will circulate making things worse. Such is the nature of reification. In the case of Plato, the reification is different. The problem with Plato– if there is one –is that he treats predicates, adjectives, as if they were entities in their own right. But I’ll set this aside here.

Now as I gave this lecture I began to get a sense of just why people get worked up when all of us object-oriented ontologists talk about objects. The worry, I suspect, is that we risk reifying all sorts of things, personifying them in the way that the citizens of South Park reify the economy. I share these concerns. However, for me this gets to the fundamental point. When I speak of any object, I am not speaking of a sodden clod that just sits there doing nothing. Rather, my objects are processes, dynamic systems, or networks populated by all sorts of processes. Economy (or better yet, economies) are not entities over and above the transactions that take place within them. They are these activities. However, these activities are irreducible are also irreducible to the entities that participate in the activities within them. It is the assemblage, the organization, the pattern that characterizes these activities that constitutes the being of the object. Yet without these ongoing processes, the object would be nothing. This is no less true of stones, stars, trees, organisms, and so on than it is of economies. In a way, every object is a bit of a vampire. Each object perpetually draws inputs from other objects to sustain itself, even while being independent of these other objects. Economy can’t exist without economic transactions of a variety of sorts. But it is rather indifferent– horrifically –to those entities making the economic transactions. Likewise with the way in which a body draws on the outputs of the cells that compose it. There’s lot more to say here, but I have to leave off for the moment to go make dinner.

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