It would be easy to suppose that philosophical caution with respect to Plato, Aristotle, and Husserl and their emphasis on the unity and identity of things simply arose from seeing them as boring middle-agers who serve up retrograde ideas and from a desire to take fashionable cheap shots at these thinker so as to jump on the latest bandwagon. If this dismissal is particularly convenient, then this is because it treats criticism of these thinkers as arising from ad hominem motivations and therefore boils down to a series of fallacies of relevance. In other words, insofar as whether or not one is a boring middle-ager serving up retrograde ideas is irrelevant to whether or not these concepts are ontologically true, one could safely ignore these criticisms and continue as before. Unfortunately matters are not so simple.
As Deleuze and Guattari argue in What is Philosophy?, all concepts arise in response to problems that precede them, and this is above all the case with the concepts of multiplicity and difference. What is at issue here is not a simple desire to get with the latest fashion or youthful exuberance, but rather an attempt to develop an ontological discourse adequate to the real of being. If the concept of substance is to be retained– and I believe it should be preserved –this requires a significant reworking of this concept in light of these problems. Any ontology that fails to respond to these problems will prove inadequate to what we have come to know in our historical moment. Here it’s above all important to note that problems do not spell the ruin of a philosophical position, but rather are the motive force that leads to the genesis and formation of concepts.
In my view, the problems that motivate a criticism of Platonic, Aristotlean, and Husserlian orientations can be sorted into 1) intra-philosophical problems, 2) empirical problems, and 3) political problems. Here I will focus on Aristotle as he is the primary lineage from which object-oriented ontology draws its positions.
1:) Ontological Problems: Aristotle begins well. He makes a firm declaration that being qua being consists, in its primary signification, of what he calls “primary substances”. Aristotle’s primary substances are those things we refer to as individuals or objects. They are entities like rocks, trees, persons, cats, aardvarks, hammers, and so on. A primary substance will just be any individual thing that exists. Aristotle will argue that primary substances are subjects of predication that are not themselves predicated of anything else. Thus, for example, someone might predicate “brownness” of me when saying “Levi has brown hair”, but “Levi”, the person, is not predicated of anything else. Rather, I am an entity that exists as an individual in my own right and autonomously, rather than an entity that only exists in something else. Here a number of questions arise:
(a) Problems of Individuation: How are we to simultaneously think the being and becoming of substances? Substances both become yet persist as being that substance. What is it of substance that becomes and what is it of substance that persists? The Aristotlean conception of substance seems to fall into aporia insofar as it treats form as that which is identical in substance, while treating accidents as that which change. Due to this decision,
(i) The Aristotlean conception of substance is unable to account for the individuality of substances because forms are generically the same for all substances belonging to that type, e.g., the form of catness is the same for both Tasha and Tabbi. Form is thus unable to capture the individuality of a thing, yet we wish to claim that all substances are individuals. What concept of substance would allow us to capture the individuality of substances? Form won’t do it so we need a more refined concept of substance.
(ii) All we ever know of substances is known through the qualities of substance. Yet the qualities of substance are– as Hegel notes in the first moment of The Phenomenology of Spirit –the domain of the universal. Consequently, if substance is always individual, the substantiality of substance must be something other than qualities. As such, to find the substantiality of substance we must peel away all the qualities of substance to see what remains. But since the only determinations of substance are qualities, when we peel all those qualities away we find nothing. That is, the substantiality of substance turns out to be a bare substratum. Yet here we encounter a problem similar to that we encountered in (i): insofar as all bare substrata are bare, there is nothing left to distinguish one bare substratum from another. This would entail that all substances are identical to one another, once again erasing their individual identities.
(ii) If we are not to fall into this problem we thus need a concept of substance that locates the individuality of substance elsewhere than in their qualities and that doesn’t lead to a bare substratum that renders it impossible to distinguish one substance from another. It is something like this problem that has led some object-oriented philosophers to argue that the individual being of substances is withdrawn. Here one argues that there are a set of qualities that distinguish one substance from another, but that these qualities are withdrawn from us. There seem, however, to be a few problems with this strategy. First, this strategy seems to conflate epistemological questions with ontological questions. Withdrawal seems to be an epistemological phenomenon, not an ontological phenomenon, yet the issue was one of determining what those features are (haecceities) that individuate one being from another, not whether we have access to them. Second, one might respond that the question has been answered insofar as it is “real qualities” that are doing the work of individuation, yet here, once again, we encounter the problem of the gap between the universal and the particular: the domain of quality is the domain of universality and essence, yet an ontology of substance requires us to get at the individuality of substances. Regardless of whether or not qualities are withdrawn, they still have the feature of being indifferent universals, thereby failing to capture what is individual in the substantiality of substances. Third, it does not seem that object-oriented philosophers present an argument for withdrawal that isn’t based on an appeal to authority. It is said that we can conclude that objects are withdrawn based on Heidegger’s analysis of tools or Husserl’s analysis of objects. In and of itself this is not a problem insofar as the object-oriented philosopher could contend that the appeal to authority is just shorthand for the arguments those authorities make, but the problem is that it’s not clear that arguments drawn from the descriptive domain of phenomenology can be deployed to drawn ontological conclusions. In other words, the fact that things withdraw from us in our interaction with them does not entail that objects in themselves are withdrawn. One would require a different sort of argument to demonstrate that withdrawal is an ontological or metaphysical fact.
(iii) Endurance. At the level of their materiality substances are constantly changing. In an organism cells are born and die. In inorganic entities atoms are constantly lost and gained. What is it, exactly, that remains this individual across these changes? If we say that substances are individuated by the matter, then we will be forced to claim that each material change entails the formation of an entirely new substance. Yet this seems wrong. Just because my cat loses hair it does not seem that we should claim that my cat is an entirely new individual. Rather, my cat remains this cat. So if the individuality of my cat does not reside in her matter, where does it reside? Once again, form seems like a good candidate as my cat’s pattern can persist while the matter of which my cat is composed changes. Yet, once again, this leads to problems pertaining to the generic index of form. On the one hand, if two entities share the same form are we then to conclude that they’re the same individual? Why, for example, should we claim that my car is a distinct individual from other cars of the same make? On the other hand, if we do wish to claim that my car is a distinct individual it follows that what individuates the individuality of substance must reside elsewhere than in form.
(b) Development, Creation, and Destruction: Additional problems with the concept of substance with respect to issues of development, creation, and destruction. (i) If we wish to follow Aristotle in claiming that it is form that accounts for the individuality of substances then we’ll run into problems when attempting to think the development of entities. Remember form was supposed to account for the identity of substance or that which remains the same in a substance despite changes in accidents. Form would thus be that which persists as the same and which therefore guarantees the fact that this substance is still this substance. However, a developmental process is not a change pertaining to the accidents of a substance, but rather is a change pertaining to the structure or form of a substance. In other words, development seems to be the becoming-other of form. Yet if this is the case then it would seem to follow that form can no longer do the work of maintaining the identity of substance. We’re thus led to claim one of two things: Either substances have no identity because forms change in developmental processes or the form of substances never changes and all developmental change is really accidental change. Neither conclusion seems acceptable.
(ii) Similarly, how, within an Aristotlean framework, are we to think the emergence or creation of new substances? Clearly if being is, as Aristotle suggests, composed of substances then it follows that new substances must emerge from substances that already exist. Substances have to be born of substances. So far so good. However, in thinking the emergence of form we must think transitional states where the substances out of which a substance emerges are both themselves and something else and where the substance that is emerging both is and is not. Yet if form is that which accounts for the identity and individuality of substance, then such transitional states seem to be foreclosed insofar as form must remain identical to ground this identity and individuality.
(iii) Additional problems emerge with the destruction of substances. The destruction of something or its death is a radical change. It is the dissolution of that thing or its collapse into entropy. However, if we relegate change to a substance’s accidents and treat form as that which remains the same throughout change, then it is difficult to see how a radical change like destruction could ever take place. Destruction is a change that pertains not simply to the qualities or accidents of a substance, but that dissolves the very form of a substance. Consequently destruction requires us to think a form of change that affects the form of substance. Yet if we’ve concluded that form is 1) withdrawn, 2) independent of all relation, and 3) that which remains the same throughout changes, then it is difficult to see how any type of change can affect the form of substance. Object-oriented philosophers have attempted to argue that objects are destroyed through a destruction of their parts. In other words, the destruction of a substance’s form takes place through a destruction of of a substance’s parts. Yet here, once again, problems arise: First, granting that objects can gain and lose material parts as in the case of a body gaining and losing cells or a person getting a haircut, how are we to distinguish the destruction of parts where the form of the substance nonetheless continues and the destruction of the parts of a substance that lead to the destruction of form? Second, do we not here encounter the problem of transitional states where the form of a substance both is and is not itself? And finally third, how is it possible for the parts and accidents of a substance to interact with the form of a substance when that form is withdrawn from all relation?
(c) Some Conclusions: From the foregoing we can see why the concepts of multiplicity and difference arise. Far from being a fashionable rejoinder to “retrograde concepts of middle-agers”, problems internal to the nature of substance necessitate the invention of the concepts of multiplicity and difference. In other words, if the concept of substance is to be retained and the aporia it generates are to be overcome, then the concept of substance must be substantially revised. The concept of difference arises out of issues of just how to account for the individuality of substance. Aristotle had undermined substances by seeking to locate their individuality in form. This treatment of individuality renders it impossible to distinguish one substance from another when both of those substances belong to the same type, thereby erasing the individuality of substance. Arguing that the individuality of substance is there but withdrawn doesn’t help insofar as 1) we continue to treat what is withdrawn as an essence or qualities, thereby encountering the problem of the universal yet again, and 2) we fall into a night in which all cows are black insofar as nothing can be said of this withdrawn essence beyond the fact that it exists. The concept of difference would be that which allows us to get at the individuality of substance.
Similar exigencies call for the concept of multiplicity. Wherever the identity of substance is conceived as a hpokeimenon or substratum serving as a support for accidental qualities, all sorts of aporia emerge. Multiplicity invites us to think the identity of substance not as an unchanging substrate but rather as an activity on the part of substance over the course of its ongoing life. The advantage of this concept of substance as multiplicity is that it allows us to think the temporal endurance of entities while these entities nonetheless change, while also allowing us to think both the developmental unfolding of entities and their eventual demise in those instances where ongoing activity cannot continue.
2) Empirical Objects: A number of discoveries we have made pertaining to the natural world call into question the traditional concept of substance. Here my remarks will be brief. In treating the substantiality of substance as enduring form, Aristotle’s conception of substance directly contradicts evolutionary theory. Because form can neither be created nor destroyed, Aristotle is led to an ontology in which species are eternal and unchanging. Just as the form or essence of a triangle neither comes to be nor passes away, the form of the human neither comes to be nor passes away. Individual entities are, for Aristotle, just variations of these enduring forms. Moreover, for Aristotle, form comes first and individuals second. That is, forms are primary both ontologically and epistemologically. Yet Darwin reverses all of this. In a vein that is more Aristotlean than Aristotle, Darwin argues that individuals are ontologically primary and that they precede the formation of species. Far from being eternal, species are both precipitated out of individuals as statistical populations or averages, and can pass away. If our ontology is to be adequate, it needs to begin from the premise of a genesis of forms out of individuals, rather than treating forms as enduring substrates lying beneath accidental changes and providing the support of their being. It is this that the concepts of difference and multiplicity attempt to provide.
Similarly, neurology seems to call into question the existence of forms as substrates beneath accidental changes. When we investigate the nature of mind we do not seem to find anything like enduring persons, but rather instead encounter only distributed networks where unity and identity only exist as enacted rather than as a substrate supporting accidental changes. In other words, it increasingly looks like self and personhood are processes and activities, like they are multiplicities, rather than substrates lying beneath change and activity. It would be easy to argue that things only appear this way because substance is withdrawn and science “knows nothing about objects”, yet if we make this move we’ve thrown all empirical investigation out the window, undermined all possibility of falsification, and granted ourselves the right to claim whatever we might like. Given that this is a very high price to pay to preserve the concept of substance as an enduring substrate supporting accidents, it seems better to revise our understanding of substance along process-oriented lines and treat substances as multiplicities.
Finally, of course, quantum mechanics significantly call for revisions of our concept of substance at the level of questions of individuation. Traditionally substances are thought as individuated by their location in time and space, yet phenomena such as non-locality present significant challenges to such a concept of individuals. Quantum mechanics calls for us to revise our understanding of substance in terms of findings such as wave-particle duality, non-locality, and subatomic particles that seem capable of continuously popping in and out of existence like Schroedinger’s notorious cat.
3. Political Problems: Perhaps the place where object-oriented philosophy has fared most poorly in its polemics with critical theory and post-structuralist thought has been the domain politics. In this connection, object-oriented philosophy has repeatedly demonstrated a sort of remarkable tone-deafness with respect to ethics and politics, ignoring what motivates critical theorists to approach essences, objects, and substances with suspicion and treating these issues as if they were abstract technical, philosophical problems. Here we must be careful, for we don’t wish to claim that ones politics ought to determine one’s ontology. But this is really the crux of the matter. While it is certainly true that politics doesn’t dictate ontology, it is also true that we can draw nefarious conclusions from ontology. And in this regard, ontologies can have very real social and political consequences.
If critical theorists have been extremely cautious with respect to concepts like “essence”, then this is because they recognize that these concepts are not merely descriptive but that they are normative as well. Insofar as the concept of essence is designed to capture that which is common to all instances of a kind, it also functions as a rule for determining what belongs and what doesn’t belong. In other words, essence decides who gets to speak and participate and who does not. Essences are rules for inclusion and exclusion in the social sphere. This entails that talk of essences has very real and concrete consequences in the political sphere. It is based on claims about the essence of the human that the Nazis authorized themselves to exclude and exterminate the Jews and other races. It was based on certain claims about the essence of the human that those that drafted the American Constitution entitled themselves to exclude slaves and women. It is based on certain essentialist claims about “normality” that people authorize themselves to exclude certain people from getting married or citizenship. And likewise, it is based on certain essentialist conceptions of masculinity and femininity, that individual men and women temporalize what is possible for them in the future.
In this regard, criticisms of the category of essence in the social sphere do not arise from any desire to be “fashionable” or out of a hostility to boring middle-agers and their retrograde ideas. Rather, these criticisms arise directly from the concrete role these ideas play in producing oppression and inequality. Yet again and again we find object-oriented philosophy running roughshod over these concerns, ignoring them altogether, and treating rejection of the category of essence as if it were borne of some irrational malice that does not arise from an honest place. Instead we get an abstract philosophical defense of essences completely divorced from the context of these problems that fails to recognize the way in which essences function self-reflexively in the social sphere as both descriptions and norms. In our view, if object-oriented philosophy is to be relevant to these discussions it is necessary that it respond to these concerns and demonstrate how it is capable of ably responding to these problems.
The issue is similar when it comes to discussions of objects and the debate surrounding objects and relations. Those critical of the category of objects are treated as if they have an irrational hostility towards objects based on the concept of objects somehow not being “sexy” compared to relations. We are then given an argument as to how relationism is incoherent so long as it doesn’t posit the existence of autonomous objects. Yet this rejoinder misses the whole point. From the standpoint of the critical theorist, the problem with the category of objects is not ontological in character, but lies in how this concept is politically deployed to obfuscate the nature of the social world in which we exist. What is at issue is not the ontological issue of objects versus relations, but the political issue of conceiving the social as a mere collection of individuals. When society is conceived of in this way our only recourse is to claim that individual people are solely responsible for their place in society as a result of the decisions that they have made and that those in more fortunate positions are entirely deserving of the privilege they enjoy as a result of how it arose from their labor and their labor alone. In other words, object-oriented philosophy unwittingly leads to an ideology in which our society is seen as just, and where any inequality and oppression that exists results purely from the action of individuals who are themselves responsible for where they are. As such, object-oriented philosophy prevents us from analyzing those dynamics that lead to these inequalities despite the well-intentioned efforts of individuals, making it more difficult to change these things.
Again, in our view, if object-oriented philosophy does not wish to embrace these conclusions it is obligated to show us how it can do at least as well as critical theory in explaining these inequalities and devising strategies for changing them. However, this requires object-oriented philosophy to engage in concrete analysis of how social assemblages function rather than repeatedly approaching these issues abstractly as an ontological debate over the primacy of substances or relations. Enough for now.