I haven’t been posting must lately as I’ve been recovering from a persistent bout of the flu and basically feel as if I’m living at the bottom of the ocean where my cognition is concerned. Recently Dan has asked what it is that entitles me to claim that being is composed of substances, and has charged me with presenting a circular argument for the existence of objects. I develop my argument for what warrants us in claiming being is composed of objects in sections 1.2 – 1.4 of The Democracy of Objects, but here’s a quick breakdown of the argument for anyone who’s interested. Hopefully I make some sense in my impaired state!

Dan writes:

You begin in a kind of philosophical “in medias res” with your opponent correlationism and — I think well and rightly — suggest that the problems you find there are unnecessary. However, you still take the idea of objects and preserve it without justification: that is what I mean about it being as “axiom.” You then adapt Bhaskar for whom objects are also already a given. You valorize experimental practice as if this were not front-loaded with operational presumptions about the status of objects even as the “posthuman” (I prefer “nonhuman” as it is less freighted with the progressivism that is the hubris of the Enlightenment). However, even if one believes in the non-human materiality of experimentation — which one can through a commitment to immanence and not “objectivity” — the presumption that this production of relations indicates the certainty of “closed” “withdrawn” or “autopoetic” things is an unwarranted surplus. Certainly scientists call conjunctions of relations “things,” but this is not an argument but only shows a habit of interpellation I thought you were at pains to eschew. You quote Bhaskar “intransitive objects of knowledge are in general invariant to our knowledge.” The circularity of this relative to the concept of objects seems obvious: it presumes objecthood.

Dan, I think, conflates the conclusion of my argument with the reasons through which I arrive at this conclusion. The portion I’ve bolded most clearly indicates where he conflate the conclusion of the argument (that being is composed of intransitive objects) with the argument itself. It is this that leads you to see a circular argument where there is none. The question is that of how I arrive at the conclusion that being is composed of objects. The premise of my argument is experimental practice. In other words, the nature of experimental practice provides the reasons for concluding that intransitive beings exist. I take it as given and uncontroversial that we engage in experimental practice. The question now becomes 1) what is the nature of scientific practice (what are we doing when we do experiment?), 2) why do we engage in experimental practice?, and 3) what is ontologically presupposed by our experimental practice? It is only with 3 that we arrive at the conclusion that being is composed of intransitive objects and this conclusion is based on reasons drawn from the answers to questions 1 and 2.

Admittedly, this chain of reasoning can be somewhat difficult to follow as I am pursuing two different aims in my analysis of scientific practice. First, I am seeking to determine what warrants the conclusion that being is composed of substances or objects. Why, in other words, are we ontologically justified in this conclusion? Second, I am also trying to determine what general features characterize the being of substances.

Put crudely, the answer to question 1 is that an experiment consists in carrying out operations on some entity under controlled or closed conditions or in a specified context. I carry out an experiment when I act on some entity in a specified context or well defined set of conditions to see how that entity behave under those conditions and in response to these actions.

This leads to question #2: why do I do this? I do this because the powers of the entity I’m operating on do not reveal themselves under ordinary conditions. That is, the entities upon which I act behave differently in ordinary settings than they do in controlled settings. Consequently, if I wish to determine what powers are unique to the entity I’m acting upon, I must control the setting in which this entity is acted upon to 1) determines what powers belong to this entity, and 2) distinguish these powers from the powers of other possible entities. That is the rationale, put crudely and in a nut shell, behind experimental practice.

read on!

It is at this point that we can begin to draw ontological conclusions from the structure of experimental practice. Roy Bhaskar, from whom I draw my argument, asks “what must the world be like in order for the practice or activity of experiment to be intelligible?” In other words, experiment only makes sense as a practice if the world is a particular way. First, in order for this practice to be intelligible, then it follows that there must exist objects intransitive to our minds, language, culture, and the natural context in which they ordinarily exist. Why? Two reasons: a), if entities were purely structured by our minds or language, there would be nothing to discover in an experiment because the being of the entity would already be there in the construction. This is why the objects cannot be, as Dan suggested earlier in another comment, “…the convenience of language and subjectivity which alone circumscribe such closure.” Were the “joints” of being to be purely the result of the way we circumscribe or carve being through language and mind, experiment would have no intelligibility. It would be like Quixote tilting at windmills or playing with his own reflection in a mirror. But what experiment seeks to disclose is precisely that which is not our own reflection or image; that which is not the result of how we circumscribe or carve being. b), and more importantly, experiment requires that the world come in discrete chunks precisely because the formation of controlled settings would not be possible were not the generative mechanisms we seek to investigate separable from broader contexts. In other words, in order to create a controlled setting it must be possible to sever beings from other relations so as to determine how the being behaves in isolation. That separability is an ontological condition for the activity of an experiment and must be a possibility that belongs to beings themselves, not be something simply produced by us and how we carve the world. This entails that the world must be made up of substances. Bhaskar calls these substances “generative mechanisms” because these mechanisms are capable of generating effects. I call them “objects”.

Second, we can also infer that these generative mechanisms must differ from the qualities and events they are capable of producing. Why? Once again, the reason for this is found in the reason we conduct experiment. a) in ordinary contexts, generative mechanisms can either i) be dormant such that they are not active and therefore do not currently produce the events and qualities of which they are capable, or ii) their causal powers can be counter-veiled by the causal effects of other generative mechanisms or objects, such that we do not know a) which generative mechanism is producing the quality, b) the quality the generative mechanism is capable of producing is suppressed by the influence of another object, or c) the quality that currently manifests itself is an emergent result of more than one object acting in tandem with one another.

From this second point, we can conclude that generative mechanisms, substances or objects have a janus faced structure. On the one hand, generative mechanisms are to be identified not with their qualities or the events of which they are capable precisely because these events can fail to obtain and these qualities can fail to manifest themselves as, for example, when the generative mechanism is dormant. As a consequence, one face of the object consists of the powers that compose a generative mechanism. It is knowledge of these powers that we seek in experiment. On the other hand, the other face of generative mechanisms will consist of the qualities and events a generative mechanism produces when triggered in the appropriate way. We infer the powers of which an object is composed through the qualities and events a generative mechanism produces when triggered in the appropriate way under controlled conditions.

It is the analysis of the nature of experimental practice that leads to the conclusion that 1) being is composed of discrete objects, and 2) that objects are withdrawn. Were I not able to isolate beings I would not be able to engage in experiment. Given that we do engage in experiment and therefore do isolate beings, it follows that being must come in chunks or discrete units. Second, were it not possible for beings to be out of phase with the qualities and events of which they are capable, there would be no rationale behind experiment. As a consequence, it follows that the being of these discrete units must be withdrawn– to use Harman’s term –from any qualities we happen to encounter. Dan argues that my claims that objects or substances are withdrawn and that they are autopoietic substances is an “unnecessary surplus” in this discussion. In response to this, I note first that the thesis that objects are withdrawn arises directly and as a matter of course from the observation of the janus faced nature of substances or generative mechanisms. Second, I note that I do not make the claim that being is composed of autopoietic substances. I argue that being is composed of structured systems and that these systems come in two types: allopoietic systems and autopoietic systems. In other words, autopoietic substances are only one type of substance, not exhaustive of substance as such.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the transcendental argument I present above is not foundationalist in character, nor an assertion of certainty about the existence of objects. My argument is a conditional argument to the effect that if we engage in experimental practice, and if this practice is intelligible, then it follows that being must be composed of discrete substances, that these substances are divided between their powers and qualities, and that powers are withdrawn. Dan or anyone else is free to argue either that 1) we do not, in fact, engage in experiment but only appear to do so, or 2) that experiment is unintelligible as a practice. At that point all I can do is nod politely and part ways. Further, insofar as my argument pertains to general ontology or questions of what is generically the case for all beings, I make no claims as to which objects exist, or whether various entities we refer to as objects are, in fact, objects. In other words, I hold that we can be mistaken, believing that x is an object when in fact it is not. This is something that can only be resolved, in my view, through actual inquiry. Finally, Dan suggests that I illicitly privilege Enlightenment ideals in referring to practice. I confess that I’m led scratching my head in response to this charge. I guess Dan is claiming that I’m in the grips of some “metanarrative”. However, in my view, whether or not that’s the case is irrelevant to the actual substance of the argument. All I require is the concession that we do, in fact, engage in the activity of experiment. Whether or not experiment arises as a practice during a particular historical moment is immaterial to whether or not these conclusions follow transcendentally from the intelligibility of this practice.