Over at Ecology Without Nature, Morton cites one of the questions he received at DePaul:
I was interested in how your work and other critiques of correlationism deal with the question of epistemology and justification. Kant’s critique of our attempt to grasp the real is precisely a caution against onto-theology… I wonder how these worries about falling into an onto-theology that can never ground itself or provide justification are dealt with in such a critique of correlationism.
In response, Morton says a bit about the sciences. I personally think epistemology has little to do with science and that it makes little in the way of contributions to the sciences. Scientists just do not bother themselves with the finger waving of the epistemologists and the rules they claim govern inquiry into the world. The closest we get to epistemology having an impact on the science is in the critiques that folks such as Foucault, Haraway, Latour, Gould (The Mismeasure of Man) etc., where systematic biases in various discourses are disclosed. In a number of respects, epistemology is a thoroughly parasitic discourse that is of interest and importance only to philosophers.
The question Morton cites here strikes me as being based on a fundamental and very common misunderstanding about the nature of what OOO is claiming and arguing. It confuses epistemological realism with ontological realism. Epistemological realism is the thesis that our representations represent entities as they are in-themselves. Epistemological realism is the thesis that we can represent other entities in the world as they are. Ontological realism is the thesis that entities are irreducible to our representations of them.
OOO, as I understand it, is incapable of epistemological realism. OOO makes no claim to represent entities as they are in-themselves. Within the framework of OOO such representations are impossible because entities are withdrawn. Withdrawal entails that realist representation is impossible. Here special attention should be paid to the details of Harman’s actual arguments. Harman does not argue that Kant is wrong to say that we can’t represent things-in-themselves but rather only ever encounter phenomena, Harman argues that what Kant says of human-object relations is true of all object-object relations. What Harman thus contests is Kant’s privileging of the human-object relation, not the basic thesis that humans “distort” the in-itself.
Within my framework, this same point is arrived at through the resources of second-order cybernetics. Second-order cybernetics argues that all systems (what I call “objects”) are 1) operationally closed and structurally open, and 2) self-referential. Operational closure is the thesis that operations taking place within a system only ever refer to one another, not an outside or external world. Neurological events only ever refer to other neurological events. Immune system events only ever refer to other immune system events. Thoughts only ever refer to other thoughts. Communications only ever refer to other communications (not the minds or brains of those that communicate). And so on. Structural openness, by contrast, means that systems are nonetheless open to perturbations from the world around them. This would be what Kant refers to as the manner in which the mind is affected by the world, though with a greatly extended scope, no longer referring simply to human minds but nervous systems, other animals, social systems, etc., etc., etc.
The self-referentiality of systems or objects refers to the manner in which objects relate to their environment. Every system faces an environment that is far more complex than the system itself. If a system is to endure or exist it must reduce this complexity. It is here that we encounter the self-referentiality of systems. Systems are self-referential in two senses: First, in the sense that their internal operations only ever refer to other internal operations. Second, in the sense that their openness to their environment is a product of the system’s own distinctions. There’s a very real sense in which every system or object creates it’s own environment. This is why, as I argued in a recent post, we must distinguish between Umwelt and world. Umwelt refers to the environment created by the system through its own self-referential operations. World refers to what exists independent of the system or object in question. The point is that the latter can never be reduced to the former. Systems in the environment of another system– say, for example, my cats or other persons –can never be reduced to my Umwelt. I encounter them within my Umwelt in a particular way as, what Graham calls “sensual objects”, yet they are always and everywhere irreducible to my sensual objects just as I am irreducible to my cat’s sensual objects. If this doesn’t provide one with all the critique of ontotheology one desires, I don’t know what does.
“…sensual objects are the way in which one real object encounters another real object. That real object encountered, however, is withdrawn from the real object that encounters it.”
Then do we ever encounter the real object? Can we ever know it? Or can we only hope to know the sensual objects that exist within ourselves? How is this different from correlationism? Maybe I’m missing something…
Nope, Jeremy isn’t missing a thing. As I understand it– and maybe others disagree with me –the OOO critique of correlationism is not a critique that would finally deliver us to the real itself or things-in-themselves. It is not an epistemological realism. OOO’s critique of correlationism is a critique of the privileging of human correlation. Put differently, OOO multiplies correlations, it doesn’t get rid of correlations. There is the way humans correlate to the world, bats correlate to the world, rocks correlate to the world, aardvarks correlate to the world, hurricanes and tornadoes correlate to the world, social systems correlate to the world, dust mites correlate to the world, etc., etc., etc. Another way of putting this would be to say that OOO strives to take up the point of view of other entities on the world. A number of entities correlate to the world in rather uninteresting ways, but a number of entities correlate to the world in very interesting ways. This is what is meant by “second-order observation”. In second-order observation we are not observing another object, but are rather observing how another object correlates to the world about it. We are striving to adopt the point of view of that object. Rather than encountering the object “for ourselves”, we are striving to observe how the object encounters the world “for itself“. What is it like to be a bat?
A number of questions change at this point. Let’s return to the question of knowledge. Philosophers often assume that questions of knowledge are questions of how a human relates to the world. While it is certainly true that humans as individual persons are knowers, this hopelessly confuses the question. The sorts of knowledge that epistemology generally explores– what counts as scientific knowledge –do not pertain to a relationship between human beings and worlds. Rather, they pertain to a relationship between social systems and the world. Humans belong to the environment of these social systems; which is to say that they are outside of it. This follows from the closure of systems. The body of scientific knowledge is composed of communications, not neurological events, ideas, or thoughts. These communications only refer to other communications and are regulated by distinctions immanent to those communications. The question of the epistemology of science is thus not a question of how a mind relates to the world, but of how a particular type of social system, the scientific social system, relates to the world and how its communications are structured. In other words, we here have an entity– the scientific social system –that must be understood in its own terms just as the manner in which a bat relates to the world must be understood in its own terms, and where the individual human being or mind is relegated to the environment of this system.