In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, Peirce proposes his infamous pragmatic principle:
Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. (Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 31)
While I don’t accept the highly positivistic reading of this principle that Peirce proposes– for him it must make some difference to our five senses –I do nonetheless think he here articulates a good rule of thumb for evaluating concepts we should entertain and concepts we should just ignore. Here are a couple of examples. Suppose someone approaches me with the claim that everything in the universe doubles in size every 30 seconds. While this is certainly a provocative and interesting thesis, it is not clear that it’s something that we should entertain for long. If everything in the universe doubled in size every 30 second, then this “phenomenon” would be undetectable because everything, relative to everything else, would be exactly the same size. Thus, for example, while my ruler at T2 would now have inches that are two inches long compared to my ruler at T1, I would have no way of knowing this because all of the relative sizes of everything would be the same. Consequently, while it might be true that this is happening, there’s just no way anyone can know anything about it and thus it makes no difference in our thought.
Now, it’s likely that there aren’t many people arguing that everything is doubling in size every 30 seconds, but we do find philosophical debates that are analogous to this. One debate that comes to mind is the debate between free will and determinism. The determinist argues that insofar as we are a part of nature, all of our actions are predetermined such that we have no say in them. If I commit murder, for example, it wasn’t that I chose to commit murder. I no more chose to commit murder than the ocean tides choose to rise or ebb. Rather, this action was ineluctable given causal chains that begin with the beginning of time (if time has a beginning). Following Peirce’s principle, it is likely that even if this thesis is true, we’ll be inclined to simply ignore it. Why? Because even if it is true we will still experience our actions and the actions of others as actions we chose and that we’re responsible for. I simply cannot escape the impression that I’m the one that chooses to walk across the room.
It is these kind of claims that Kantian, post-Kantian, Anglo-American, and scientists denounce as “metaphysical”. A metaphysical claim is a claim that makes no difference. Consider the arguments that some conciliatory religious believers try to make. The scientists are right, they say, to claim that the account of creation depicted in Genesis is untrue, and that species evolved through a process of evolution. However, they continue, there is no contradiction in the claim that God fulfills his plan through evolution. Quite right! There is no contradiction in the suggestion that God fulfills his plan through evolution. However, the problem is that the introduction of supernatural agency into evolutionary processes produces no difference in how we investigate evolutionary processes. In other words, the supernatural supplement adds nothing to our account of evolution and therefore we’re left wondering why we should include it at all. This is a perfect example of a metaphysical thesis in the derogatory sense.
It seems to me that one of the single greatest challenges that proponents of withdrawn objects face is this charge of proposing an empty metaphysical abstraction that makes no difference. I resolve to treat the object as withdrawn from all relations such that we have no access to it whatsoever (this is not, incidentally, my concept of withdrawal). In this way I seek to preserve the object form all erasure under relation. Yet in doing this, what has happened? Have I not won a Pyrrhic victory? Insofar as I’ve claimed that the object is withdrawn from all relation and access, I’m also led to the claim that nothing can be said of the object qua object because the object is withdrawn. As a consequence, the object becomes, at the level of concepts, an empty point. As thoroughly withdrawn, I am unable to say anything of the object. Any quality that I might attribute to its reality is necessarily a quality for me (in relation), and not a quality of the object itself. And this is true both metaphysically (in the non-pejorative sense) and epistemologically. It’s not just that the object is empty for me, the person seeking to know the object. No, it is also that the object is empty for any other object, because the real being of the object is withdrawn from each and every object, existing in a self-contained vacuum, unable to touch any other object.
In other words, it seems that withdrawn objects conceived in this way, can make no conceivable difference because they are so thoroughly withdrawn that they are unable to touch or be touched by anything else. The object-oriented philosopher might protest, claiming that the positing of real objects makes a profound difference at the level of inquiry. For example, they might argue against a thinker like Derrida, characterizing Derrida’s position as the view that there’s an infinite semiosis of signifiers that are never reach a final signifier, such that the object can never be brought into presence in language. To this the object-oriented philosopher responds that while the object can never be brought to presence in language, that it can only be alluded to, the object can nonetheless be present to itself. Yet from the practical standpoint, it’s not clear how this claim makes any difference or how it differs from the claim that the universe doubles in size every 30 seconds. Strangely the object-oriented philosopher has both conceded the Derridean point (as he’s characterized it), while nonetheless thumbing his nose at the Derridean conclusion that we can’t pin down the object insofar as it’s asserted that the object can be present to itself. The literary critic is nonplussed because regardless of whether the object is present to itself, the literary critic is in exactly the same position as she was before. As a result she’s left scratching her head, wondering why she’s supposed to stop doing what she was doing before. In other words, the withdrawn object has made no real difference to her concrete, existential practices and relation to texts.
What the object-oriented philosopher has to explain is what difference withdrawn objects might make. Yet in answering this question it seems that it’s necessary to concede that withdrawn objects make differences that aren’t withdrawn. This isn’t a retreat back to correlationism, but rather the suggestion that perhaps what’s important in object-orientation doesn’t lie in withdrawal as it’s been dominantly conceived.