Some of the bitterest debates surrounding object-oriented ontology have unfolded around the idea of the reality of fictions. In all fairness, this has largely been my fault, rather than Graham’s. Harman has only maintained that fictions have the status of sensual objects rather than real objects. Within the framework of Graham’s object oriented philosophy, the claim that fictions are sensual objects is the claim that fictions can only exist on the interior of other, real, objects. For Graham, Popeye, for instance, can only exist on the interior of a real object such as my mind. Where I am able to exist independently, Popeye is only able to exist so long as I, the person who thinks Popeye, exists.
The thesis of my onticology, by contrast, has been that fictions are real entities in their own right. What I wish to claim, with my flat ontology, is that fictions are every bit as real as, for example, Popeye (or better yet, Twilight). This follows from my ontic principle developed in my article for The Speculative Turn. There I argue that any difference that makes a difference has a claim to reality. Clearly, when I’m claiming this, I’m not arguing that there is a physical entity like Popeye that eats, can punch people, gets strong when he eats spinach, etc. Popeye is real qua fictions. Nonetheless, Popeye the fiction is a real entity insofar as this fictional entity produces real differences within the world. In the case of Twilight, young women might model their amorous relations on these fictions. As a consequence, these fictions have real ontological efficacy in the world. They produce real differences. And honestly, why would we go to the trouble of critiquing so much myth and ideology if myths and ideologies were not genuinely efficacious in the world?
For me, the whole point of asserting the reality of fictions lies in theorizing the reality of the symbolic. My interest is not in fictions such as myths, novels, poems, and ideologies per se, but rather in theorizing how it is possible for symbolic entities such as money, social conventions, social identities, etc, can have a genuine reality. In my view, fictions provide a limit case for theorizing signs, symbols, and conventions in their purity. These entities, I believe, are irreducible to either the subjective (they’re never up to the whim of a particular individual mind), nor the objective. Put differently, they are neither physical objects like rocks, nor mental contents like mere imaginings. Money is not a thing nor is it merely an idea in the mind of a particular person.
Saussure, in his Cours, drove this point home with particular clarity when he wondered how it is possible for the four o’clock train to be late while remaining the four o’clock train. Clearly “being the four o’clock train” cannot be a physical quality of the four o’clock train because it is late yet remains the four o’clock train. Likewise, the four o’clock train can be a different physical train on Wednesday and Friday, yet still remain the four o’clock train. Finally, whether or not the four o’clock train is the four o’clock train has nothing to do with what individual minds believe. The four o’clock train is an objective reality independent of individual minds and physical properties, and therefore falls into a third class of entities: the symbolic. I outlined all of this long ago in 2006 in my post on the diacritical production of identity. My thesis now is that if we wish to theorize symbolic entities then we have to do so through a theory of fictions because fictions give us the most compelling case of symbolic entities that are neither physical entities nor subjective entities, but which nonetheless are real entities. Here I faithfully follow not only the Stoics and Epicureans in their claims about simulacra, nor do I simply follow Plato in his analogy of the divided line where he surprisingly grants images ontological reality, but I also follow Deleuze’s profound meditations on the reality of fictions in Difference and Repetition, The Logic of Sense, and Cinema II: The Time Image. As Deleuze argues in The Logic of Sense, it is above all necessary for us to discover a surface of sense, independent of propositional states and referents, that has a reality in its own right.
However, while drawing inspiration from all these trends, I also draw inspiration from symbolic logic. It is here that I draw particular inspiration from the logic or truth tables of material conditionals. A material conditional is an “if/then” statement. Here’s an example:
If Shamu is a whale, then Shamu is a mammal.
Shamu is a whale
Therefore Shamu is a mammal.
A material conditional has the form “P —> Q”. Now here’s what’s interesting about material conditionals: The only circumstance in which a material conditional is false is that circumstance in which its antecedent (P) is true and it’s consequent (Q) is false. In all other circumstances, material conditionals are true. Thus if the antecedent (P) is false and the antecedent is true the material conditional (P —> Q) is true. Likewise, if the antecedent of a material conditional is false and the consequent of a material conditional is false, then the material conditional as a whole (P —> Q) is true. I won’t bore you with all the details of why this is the case, as it involves a lot of logical equivalences between propositions. For the moment I will take it as face value.
Now there are a couple of points that follow from these points about material conditionals. First, the truth-functional logic that follows from the logic of material conditionals gives, at least, epistemological grounds for treating fictions as real. Ontologically fictions should be treated as real (not true) precisely because they are capable of producing truths despite being false. This entails that ideologies, delusions, fictions (works of art, narratives, novels, myths, religions) have a capacity to produce truth even though they are false. My second point is that this, in my view, calls into question the project of representational realism, eliminative materialism, or scientism where realist ontology is concerned. The representationalist, scientistic, or eliminativist wants to claim that truth can only be produced if the antecedent of a material conditional is true. If the truth produced by a literary work or a political movement based on fictional ideology, mythology, or religion (Martin Luther King’s religious belief for example) is false, the representational realist is necessarily committed to the thesis that such a political or ethical transformation can have no truth.
So here’s what I want to say: If the representational realist, the eliminative materialist, or the scientistic philosopher is truly committed to such a thesis, I want to see the thorough revision of symbolic logic that they develop to account for such a metaphysical position. In advancing such an argument, let’s remember that the so-called scientistic thinker and eliminative materialist is committed to rational account of inquiry, norms governing discourse, and all the rest. That’s what Brandom, after all, tells us. And this is what their “truth-functional” reason is committed to. So given the key role that material conditionals play in our foundations of mathematics (let’s remember all our Ladyman and Ross, our Sellars, our Brandom and how they wax on about norms and reason) and our sciences, are they willing to sacrifice the material conditional? Have they revised symbolic logic in such a way that they’re willing to sacrifice all the fruitful work that the material conditional and biconditional have accomplished? Will they rise to the challenge of giving us the new symbolic logic that refuses the possibility of a material conditional containing a false antecedent producing a true proposition? Inquiring minds want to know. So far I’ve only seen assertions, peppered with lots of truculent language and obscurantist reasoning (Laruelle) parading in the posture of rigor, but I have not seen this reworking of the basic principles of reason. So where is it?
I will also say that if these points about the material conditional are true– and it’s deeply painful for me to confess this –then our ideas of critique must be significantly transformed. If it is true that a false antecedent can produce a true proposition, then I can no longer inveigh against ideology, religion, mythology, fiction, etc., in the way I have in the past, and all the rest because all of these fictions (if they are fictions) have the power to produce the true. If that’s the case, then the question of whether or not something is an ideological mystification (a fiction, a myth, a religious belief) is largely irrelevant. The question then becomes that of whether or not that fiction is nonetheless capable of producing truth. I lack the resources to rework the foundations of mathematical logic, so I am unable to renounce the thesis that fictions can produce truth. Therefore, I am obligated to thoroughly– along Lacanian lines –rework the notion of what critique might be. I’ll stop there.