February 2012


Of all the presentations I’ll be giving in the next few months, the one that’s caused me the most consternation is Liverpool Hope’s Thinking the Absolute conference. As described in its announcement,

This conference invites proposals which critically consider this speculative turn in philosophy and its implications for thinking about religion. To what ‘end’ is speculation leading? Does it simply announce the closure of religion and its subordination to a philosophy of the absolute, nature or the ‘All’? Can it open new lines for a philosophy of religion which is not wedded to the Kantian horizon? Is speculation itself open to Kierkegaardian critique as yet another move to position and reduce ethical and religious claims, sacrificing the future on the altar of abstract possibility? Does renewed attention to the canon of speculative idealism offer a way beyond the impasse between relativism and dogmatism?

The problem here is that I’m just not sure what I have to say on the topic of religion situated in these terms. I don’t want to engage in the rather mechanical exercise of elaborating what an object-oriented theology would look like and why such a theology would undermine any importance we might grant to theology altogether. Nor do I wish to go in with guns blazing as the atheist object-oriented materialist seeking to demonstrate why any and all theologies are mistaken. Nor, finally, do I wish to show how object-oriented ontology recommends a mode of sociology analysis that focuses on religious practices and objects rather than beliefs in the formation of religious collectives and forms of subjectivity.

It seems to me that the real question ought to be what it is about philosophy as it has historically unfolded that perpetually leads it to be haunted by the invitation of religion as an irresistible supplement. In other words, rather than raising the question of whether we should choose philosophy or religion (clearly we should choose philosophy), and rather than adopting the stance of the new atheists and asking whether the ontological claims of religion are true or false (from a factual perspective they are false), I would instead like to ask what it is about philosophy that almost ineluctably leads to the necessity of religion as a supplement that fulfills something that philosophy cannot itself fulfill. Why, in other words, does philosophy encounter the “eternal return” of religion as a necessary supplement that surmounts the limitations of philosophy?

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If, as I argued in an earlier post today and in a post entitled “Objectile and Agere” written long ago, to be a substance is to be an act, then Nietzsche’s conclusion follows as a matter of course. As Nietzsche writes in the third essay of On The Genealogy of Morals,

[T]here is no “being” behind the doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is simply fabricated into the doing—the doing is everything.

Objects don’t act. To say that objects act would be to say that there is something, objects, that either act or do not act. But if there is no doer behind or underneath the deed, then we must say rather that objects are acts. The substantiality of substance is the substance’s activity. Likewise, we cannot suggest that substances or objects are products of becomings as Massumi seems to suggest in Semblance and Event because the substantiality of a substance is not a product or outcome of becomings or activities, but rather the substances are their activity. There isn’t first one thing, becomings or activities, and then another thing, objects that are the result of these activities. There is just the one thing, these activities, that is the substantiality of the substance. The idea that the objecthood of a substance is a product of a becoming that precedes it is premised on an arbitrary and subjective cessation of activity on the part of one who observes a substance that is not itself reflected in nature. Rather, when activity ceases so too does substance cease.

It is because substances are acts, because there is no “doer behind the deed”, but only the deed itself, that substances are dynamic systems. A dynamic system is a unity that exists only in and through its activity. Where that activity ceases so too does the system. Where the system ceases, so too does the substance. I cease to be a substance at that point where operations of my body cease and no longer to continue to produce cells and vital functions necessary for life to sustain itself. I cease to be a substance when my body no longer acts. Likewise, it follows that if there is no doer behind the deed, then the individuality of the substance or system is not a subject that lies beneath accidental changes, that identity is not an abiding sameness that is invariant throughout change, but rather that identity itself is an activity on the part of the system. The identity of a substance is a performance on the part of the substance, an activity, that accomplishes itself from moment to moment until the substance dissolves.

Over at Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews John Protevi has published an excellent review of Nathan Jun’s and Daniel W. Smith’s Deleuze and Ethics with Edinburgh University Press. Here’s a snippet chosen absolutely at random for no particular reason whatsoever:

nstead of organizing this review by sequentially treating each essay, I will highlight three themes that recur across the essays. The first two are familiar to even casual readers of Deleuze: the productive ontological and the experiential; the third, which we can call the “static ontological,” is less well-known but receives welcome attention in two of the essays.

First, let us examine the productive ontological theme by which (subjective and institutional, but also physical and biological) identities are produced as the resolution of a differential or “problematic” field. This differential production licenses the critique of a “tracing” relation that posits transcendental identities as grounds of empirical ones. Among the essays to consider under this rubric are the ones by Bell, Bryant, Gilson, Jun, Daniel W. Smith, and Žukauskaitė. Let us consider the Bryant and Jun essays as exemplifying this theme.

Bryant focuses on the distinction between pre-set “dilemmas” with a closed set of pre-given answers and true open-ended “problems,” those resting on a differential field of social forces in tension with one another, such that any intervention into the situation (or “assemblage” to use the technical term) will change the conditions for future interventions. Problems thus arise and persist in response to the introduction of novel elements in an assemblage; Bryant exemplifies this with a case study of the introduction of Texas legislation concerning vaccination against HPV (human papillomavirus). Bryant’s treatment resonates with Latour’s notions of actants and with Badiou’s notion of the unforeseen, what isn’t countable as part of the assemblage. In addition to these continental references, a confrontation with the mainstream use of Trolley Problems (which would precisely not be “problems” in the Deleuzean sense) would have been useful here, but I do recognize word count constraints and don’t hold this missed opportunity as a fault of Bryant’s essay.

Read the rest here. If Protevi’s review doesn’t convince you to check this volume out I don’t know what will!

Recently I’ve been rereading Etienne Gilson’s brilliant Being and Some Philosophers. The book is difficult to get these days, but if you’re interested in understanding the basic questions of metaphysics, I can think of few better books to read. Not only is Gilson’s book exceedingly clear, but it is tightly argued and nicely explores the problems of metaphysics that have haunted various philosophers from Parmenides to present throughout the history of philosophy. Gilson is at pains to argue that 1) part of the reason metaphysics has developed as it has is that the term “being” has, in fact, two significations, depending on whether it is treated as a noun, “being”, or a verb, “to be”. Under the interpretation of being as a noun, philosophers are drawn to articulating being and reality in terms of an answer to the question “what is being?”, which, in turn, leads us to ignore being as existence, conceiving it instead in terms of a structure of abstract possibility. By contrast, if being is understood as a verb, the focus is on existence or actuality. 2) Gilson is at pains to show that because existence or being in the sense of “to be” cannot be represented conceptually (recall Kant’s thesis that “being is not a real predicate”), philosophers have tended to ignore the signification of being as “to be”, thereby being led ineluctably to ignore existence altogether. And finally, 3) he is at pains to argue that emphasis on being as a noun leads philosophers in the direction of idealism and correlationism, concluding that being and thought are identical to one another as conceptuality is identical in both instances.

I won’t detail Gilson’s arguments and analysis here– which are both compelling and impressive –but simply draw attention to a passage that appears as Gilson begins to articulate what existence might be. Speaking in the context of Aristotle’s metaphysics, Gilson writes,

The question is to know what there is, in an individual subject, that makes it to be a being. In our sensible experience, which is the only one we have, the most striking indication we have that a certain substance is there is the operations it carries and the changes which it causes. Everywhere there is action, there is an acting thing, so that we first detect substances by what they do. Let us call “nature” any substance conceived as the intrinsic principle of its own operations. All true substances are natures: they move, they change, they act. And this leads us to a second characteristic of substances. In order thus to act, each of them must first of all be a subsisting energy, that is, an act. If we follow Aristotle thus far, we are entering with him a world entirely different from that of Plato: a concretely real and wholly dynamic world, in which being no longer is selfhood, but energy and efficacy. Hence the twofold meaning of the word “act,” which the medieval disciples of Aristotle will be careful to distinguish: first, the act which is the thing itself or which the thing itself is (actus primus); secondly, any particular action exercised by that thing (actus secundus). Now, if you take together all the secondary acts which a given thing performs, you will find that they constitute the very reality of the thing. A thing is all that it does to itself as well as to others. In such a philosophy, “to be” becomes an active word, which, before anything else, signifies the exercising of an act, whether it be the very act of “being,” or that of “being-white,” or any other one of the same sort. (43 – 44)

Here, with wonderful clarity and brevity, Gilson sums up what a thing is. As I have argued elsewhere, to be a thing is to be an act. And this in two senses. On the one hand, the endurance of any entity is not a fixed given, but is an activity on the part of that thing. The existence of a thing only continues and endures through activity. On the other hand, any quality that an object happens to manifest is an act on the part of an object. Sometimes these qualities will arise from activities internal to the thing, while at other times these qualities will be how the thing responds to being acted upon by other objects.

In both cases, the core of existence lies in activity. Existence as activity enjoys both an epistemological and ontological priority. Epistemologically, it is only through the acts of a thing that we can ever come to know the being of a thing. Ontologically it is only through the acts of a thing that a thing endures. In both cases, however, it cannot be said that objects are static or unchanging things. To be is to act and to act is to move and change.

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.

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