April 2012

Over at Fragile Keys Tim has a wonderful post elaborating on his philosophy, drawn from Jean-Luc Nancy, of “being-with”. I can’t respond in detail right now as I’m getting ready to head out camping and will be unconnected for the weekend, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage:

This would be the heart of the differend, perhaps: For me, everything is “related” because we all share this common structure of being-related-to, even if this just means being-related-to-myself. Because we are all there, we are all also with something else, even if that something else is myself! Not “related” in some scheme of interconnection, not “forged together” in some purposeful collaboration between humans and/or nonhumans, but simply being-related-there by dint of the fact that being-there is structured (“internally,” if you want) as being-with — as being-with-its-(other-)self (withdrawn, subtracted, split, divided, etc.). This is a “with” that cannot be destroyed, since its always literally there wherever any being is.

In my view, the claim that the with cannot be destroyed since it is already literally there wherever being is is a thoroughly dogmatic claim since it fails to account for the conditions of possibility of being-with and being-related. It merely asserts that beings are related, treating this as a primitive ontological factum, without grounding this possibility. I think this is one of the problems with the suspension of the natural attitude practiced by phenomenology that has clearly influenced Nancy (whom I admire with Tim). Because we have suspended the natural attitude, because we have “bracketed the world”, we feel as if we are entitled to say we are just related because I’m able to see my student Cameron sitting over there “immediately”. Having banished the independent and material world we then feel that we need not attend to things like the fact that I am only able to see Cameron over there by dint of electro-magnetic waves traveling between me and him that both take time to travel and that can fail to travel.

The epoche is fine as a methodological device deployed to allow us to describe experience so as to get at what must be explained, but it becomes dogmatism when it is deployed to legislate ontology on the basis of how we experience the world and when it is used to banish things such as the fact that relations can only occur materially and that as a result of the absence of many material interactions there are many unrelated things. While I think phenomenology has taught us much of value, I also believe that it has done tremendous damage to ontology and metaphysics by leading us to believe that we can infer structures of being from structures of lived experience. Some will say that I’m being unfair to phenomenology here– and yes I know that Nancy is not working solely within a phenomenological tradition, but his inheritance comes out clearly here –but let’s not forget that in Ideas Husserl directly says that the natural world cannot be the condition for consciousness because consciousness is the condition of the natural world. This entails that the manner in which lived experience is structured allows us to legislate the structure of being, that being and lived experience are identical. The price of this is incredibly high, requiring us to reject all sorts of things from other disciplines such as the points about time of travel and information theory with respect to relation I’ve been making.

I’ve officially gone full nerd:

This volume will convince readers that the swift ascent of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to worldwide popularity in the 1970s and 1980s is “the most exciting event in popular culture since the invention of the motion picture.”


Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy presents twenty-one chapters by different writers, all D&D aficionados but with starkly different insights and points of view. It will be appreciated by thoughtful fans of the game, including both those in their thirties, forties, and fifties who have rediscovered the pastime they loved as teenagers and the new teenage and college-student D&D players who have grown up with gaming via computer and console games and are now turning to D&D as a richer, fuller gaming experience.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, “Heroic Tier: The Ethical Dungeon-Crawler,” explores what D&D has to teach us about ethics and about how results from the philosophical study of morality can enrich and transform the game itself. Authors argue that it’s okay to play evil characters, criticize the traditional and new systems of moral alignment, and (from the perspective of those who love the game) tackle head-on the recurring worries about whether the game has problems with gender and racial stereotypes. Readers of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy will become better players, better thinkers, better dungeon-masters, and better people.

Part II, “Paragon Tier: Planes of Existence,” arouses a new sense of wonder about both the real world and the collaborative world game players create. Authors look at such metaphysical questions as what separates magic from science, how we express the inexpressible through collaborative storytelling, and what the objects that populate Dungeons and Dragons worlds can teach us about the equally fantastic objects that surround us in the real world.

The third part, “Epic Tier: Leveling Up,” is at the crossroads of philosophy and the exciting new field of Game Studies. The writers investigate what makes a game a game, whether D&D players are artists producing works of art, whether D&D (as one of its inventors claimed) could operate entirely without rules, how we can overcome the philosophical divide between game and story, and what types of minds take part in D&D.

Jon Cogburn is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Louisiana State University. He served as a founding member of Louisiana State University’s AVATAR (Arts, Visualization, Advanced Technologies and Research) initiative. He is co-author of Philosophy Through Video Games (2008). Mark Silcox is Associate Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma. He has worked as a freelance writer and designer in the video game industry. He is co-author of Philosophy Through Video Games (2008).


Introduction – Rolling a Wisdom Check

I: Heroic Tier – The Ethical Dungeon-Crawler

1. David Merli, Heroes of Virtue?
2. Jon Cogburn, Beyond (Chaotic) Good and (Lawful) Evil?
3. Chris Bateman, Chaotic Good in the Balance
4. James and Mona Rocha, Elf Stereotypes
5. Heidi Olson, Dude, Where are the Girls?
6. Mark Silcox, Elegy for a Paladin
7. E.M. Dadlez, Being Evil
8. Brandon Cooke, Why (Fictionally) Being Evil is (Actually) Fine

II: Paragon Tier – Planes of Existence

9. Mark Silcox and Jonathan Cox, The Laboratory of the Dungeon
10. Jon Cogburn and Neal Hebert, Role-playing Magic and Paradoxes of the Inexpressible
11. Levi Bryant, The Intentionality of Objects
12. Timothy Morton, The Worlds of Dungeons and Dragons
13. Levi Bryant, A Role of the Dice
14. Monica Evans, The Secret Lives of Elven Paladins

III: Epic Tier – Leveling Up

15. Carl Ehrett and Sarah Worth, What Dungeons and Dragons is and Why We Do It
16. Pete Wolfendale and Tim Franklin, Kant on the Borderlands
17. Chris Bateman, Dungeons & Dragons & Dice &… Prop Theory for Role-Play
19. Timothy Christopher, Justice is not Blind, Deaf, or Willing to Share its Nachos
20. Jason Rose, The Gunpowder Crisis
21. David Aldridge, “To Know My Character Better than He Knows Himself”

For the last few days Tim of the great Fragile Keys and I have been having a debate on the nature of relation and whether everything is related to everything else. Today I think Tim articulated a point that marks our fundamental point of divergence. Tim writes:

I understand all that, but we’re still in disagreement. I’m still here in the world with entities that I have absolutely no relationship to, that have no effect on me.

Here my aim is not to pick on Tim because even where our discussions get heated I consider him a friend and value both his generosity in responding to me at all and our discussion and what I get out of our discussions. I learn a lot from Tim even though we don’t always come to agreement. Rather, Tim’s remark allows me to get at a broader point– that I probably haven’t sufficiently articulated –that I believe is important. At the risk of putting words into Tim’s mouth, when he says that he’s still there in a world with entities even though they have no relation to one another, this is exactly where I diverge.

Tim seems to conceive world as a container that entities are in. For me, by contrast, the world is anything but a container. Ultimately there are no containers, there are just relations between entities. And as a consequence, in the framework of my ontology, a world is nothing but a network of relations between structurally coupled entities. These relations take work to be maintained (they always threaten to fall apart; and this can be a good thing) and they take time to happen and be forged. They aren’t given. For this reason, worlds can both grow through new entities coming to be related and worlds can decay and disappear as a result of relations and interactions breaking down, entities disappearing and so on. Worlds are ecologies, with the caveat that ecologies are not containers but rather entities or units interacting with one another.

The result of this is that where relations end, a new world appears. The universe (and already we’re speaking poorly with the definite article) is a pluriverse. And each verse or universe is oasis, a network of relations, discontinuous with other verses, universes of worlds. Each has its own specific logoi such that there isn’t one pattern or law that pervades them all (though there can be commonalities among worlds, perhaps due to sharing common lineages), because each universe is a unique ecology. It is for this reason that I don’t speak of the onto-cartography, but rather speak, in the book I’m working on now, of onto-cartographies. There isn’t one spatio-temporal matrix in which all entities co-exist, but rather a plurality of cartographies.

While I believe that all of this is ontologically true– why would any materialist speak of the world when all the entities in that alleged field aren’t related? –I also believe this thesis has significant political consequences. All political problems have a spatial and temporal dimension, a cartographical dimension, pertaining to networked spaces and relations or what is related to what in hierarchies. More significantly, half the problem is that often entities do not share a world with other entities at all. This is more or less how it is with dim objects. The immigrant, the homeless, the excluded, and the marginalized are those beings that are largely without access to a world in which they still must strangely dwell. Part of the work of politics consists in forging those relations, breaking other relations, and modifying the relations of the entire world as a result.

In her keynote address at the Philosopher’s Rally, Elisabeth von Samsonow made a striking observation. The incest prohibition, she remarked, is not so much a family knot, as it is an ontological knot. Moving into the third millennium, she contended, would require that we overcome the incest prohibition. My jaw dropped to the ground. Was she advocating for all of us to have sex with our mothers and sisters?

Yet in claiming that the incest prohibition is an ontological knot, that it is not an issue of family romances, it was quite clear that she was– I think –talking about something quite different. What she seemed to be saying was that the philosophical discourse of ontology has hitherto been organized around the incest prohibition and, in particular, a structure of masculinity. In chapter 6 of The Democracy of Objects, I attempt to demonstrate that philosophy is organized around the masculine side of the graph of sexuation (the left side above). This is the basic structure of ontotheology and theism, where one term is privileged above the others as present to itself, without division and split, and as the sovereign that both legislates over all the others and as the origin of all the others. This structure is what I playfully refer to as “phallusophy”. \

read on!

The longer I live the more Lucretian I become and the more I become convinced that he is the greatest of philosophers (I’ve kept a copy of De Rerum Natura beside my bed for fifteen years now). Like Spinoza, Lucretius somehow managed to love the world for itself, to seek no transcendental supplement that would redeem it, and to explain the world in terms of principles immanent to that world. It was Lucretius that came to mind this morning when I read a remark by Tim responding to one of my posts. Tim writes:

I don’t mean to get into semantics, but I think people are going to be confused with statements like “The moon has to forge its relationships with the ocean.” Rhetorically, it’s just a bit strange to talk about things that are basically accidental, incidental, coincidental, non-teleological, instantaneous, and in a sense, “default” — as being “forged.”

Tim’s point about the rhetoric of “forging relations” is well taken. In speaking of forging relations I don’t wish to imply any teleology or purposiveness. If he prefers I am happy to rephrase what I have in mind by saying that relations have to happen or take place. Relations are not given, but rather have to take place or be formed.

It is with respect to this happening or taking place of relations that I’d like to focus on Tim’s thesis that there is an instantaneous relation between the moon and the earth. It is with this thesis of the instantaneous that Lucretius becomes relevant. The first axiom of Lucretius’ philosophy– and one that I share –is that “…nothing at all is ever born from nothing” (Humphries, 24). By this Lucretius means that there are only natural causes and that, above all, there is never any action at a distance. In order for two entities to interact whether informationally or causally they either have to touch or transmit “signals” through space and time to one another. In the case of the sun and moon it simply isn’t true that gravitational effects are instantaneous. Like anything else, gravity can move no faster than the speed of light. Like a diffraction pattern or a concentric wave produced by throwing a stone in a pond, gravity proliferates throughout space in a growing wave pattern and this takes time. It takes 1.26 seconds for the gravity of the moon to reach us and 8 minutes for the gravity of the sun to reach us.

read on!

An interesting and distressing post by my friend Z. on facebook:

As a member of the fucking third world, whatever I say, write, or publish about continental philosophy does not count because first and foremost I am supposed to talk about the fucking Islam and how it can be reformed according to fucking Western standards.

Situated in Turkey, he finds his voice perpetually stolen and usurped by the Continental tradition in which he works. On the one hand, he has a desperate and immediate need to think his own circumstances and situation; while on the other hand, he is only able to do so through Western proper names and sequences of enunciation due to how journals, conferences, and institutions in Continental philosophy are organized. Paraphrasing the Austrian philosopher and artist Elisabeth von Samsonov (right above), “we speak only through our ‘fathers’ in Continental philosophy.” Unless you are yourself a “father” (Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Badiou, Deleuze, Foucault, etc.) or one of those rare “mothers” (Butler, Irigaray, Bradoitti, Haraway, etc.), you must speak, like the merchant in Dune’s spacing guild, through the microphone of the father. No enunciation is accepted without “As Foucault said…”, “As Derrida said…”, “As Deleuze said…”, etc. Thus, while we are told to move beyond the Oedipus, phallocentrism, and to work in a logic of difference, strangely we end up reproducing the very structure of Oedipus, phallocentrism, and identity! Due to the way in which Continental philosophy relates to the history of philosophy and fathers, it is animated by an inherent conservativism that seeks to reproduce the voice of the fathers and that severely restricts the possibility of other voices and problems.

This has very real world consequences professionally and intellectually for all of us working in the tradition of Continental philosophy, but is especially problematic with respect to race, gender, and ethnicity. Because of how these discourses are institutionally organized– and make no mistake, these institutions form what Morton calls a “hyperobject” –those that come from other sites of both geography and identity find their voices strangely stolen from them even as they strive to articulate their problems, world, issues, and so on. Our speech is only legitimate within this hyperobject if it is articulated through French and German fathers. Our capacity to pose our own questions, our own problems, and to articulate our own concepts is taken from us. The point here is not that we should abandon and ignore the tradition, but that there is a hegemony in how this system is set up from the get-go. This is part of what I have in mind when I talk about “phallusophy” rather than “philosophy”. Phallusophy is, in part, a form of thought organized around fathers (and please note I’m not saying that we should kill the fathers– as Freud taught us, the return even worse and more despotically then –but that we need a flatter, more egalitarian intellectual space; and here one should note that I have plenty of fathers of my own).

read on!

In Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost introduces the idea of “exploded view diagrams” to get at the composition of objects. This idea resonates nicely with my claims about mereology. Mereology, it will be recalled, is that branch of mathematics, logic, and philosophy that studies the ontology of parthood relations. The thesis of my mereology is three-fold: 1) every object is a composition of other objects. In other words, there are no simple subjects, but rather every object is an aggregate or assemblage. 2) The objects of which an object is composed are themselves independent of the object they compose. That is, no matter how tightly intertwined with the larger-scale object they compose, these objects do not lose their individuality and independence. They remain entities, units, substances, systems, monads, or objects (all synonyms for me) in their own right. As a result, it follows that since objects are split between their local manifestations and virtual proper being, no larger-scale object never fully accesses the smaller-scale objects that compose it. Rather, larger-scale objects only ever encounter local manifestations of these smaller-scale objects. Consequently 3), no object ever manages to totalize the parts of which it is composed. There is always a lack of “fit” between a larger-scale object and its parts (smaller-scale objects), such that there is necessarily an internal strife within each and every object. The categories of community and totality are never fully achieved for any object. As a consequence, each object necessarily has an internal entropy that it must contend with to continue its existence. It’s as if the parts that compose an object are perpetually clamoring for their own independence, threatening the fabric, continuance, or endurance of the larger-scale object they compose.

All of this is very abstract, so Bogost’s use of exploded view diagrams helps to put flesh on just what these issues of mereology are all about. As Latour argues and as Harman reminds us in Prince of Networks, objects are black boxes. That is, in their being as units, their multiple-being is withdrawn or hidden. As units, the multiple-being that makes up an object disappears insofar as the unit has achieved temporary “harmony” or “consensus” among its parts. The unit has managed to form an alliance among its parts that allows it to navigate or stave off entropy decay, such that it is able to continue or endure in time and space.

read on!

Drawing on Alfred North Whitehead, Didier Debaise made an interesting observation about the nature of propositions in his keynote at the Philosopher’s Rally (which was an amazing success and experience). While I do not share Debaise’s “subject-oriented ontology” where everything becomes a subject (rocks, planets, mantis shrimps, etc), I strongly feel that our difference is largely rhetorical rather than philosophical. I believe that there’s a strategic value to referring to all entities– including humans –as objects at our historical juncture, while he believes there’s a strategic gesture in referring to them all as subjects. In the end, however, we’re both making the claim that all entities are monads that integrate their world in their own peculiar and unique way. Our real difference lies elsewhere. He believes that every monad/subject/object expresses the entirety of the world, while I reject the thesis that every entity is related to every other entity. I think there’s a great danger in holding that things ontologically come pre-related. On the one hand, I think this view is just mistaken ontologically. As a materialist I take it as “axiomatic” that relations can be forged no faster than the speed of light. Indeed, in most cases relations and interactions don’t even move at this speed. Look into the history, for example, of constructing the great trans-Atlantic cables and all the constraints that emerged with respect to how quickly information could be transferred across these cables. Every entity, I believe, has it’s own openness to the duration of entities both above and below the speed of its own duration, such that many of these other durations cannot even be registered at all. The point is that relations must be forged. They aren’t given.

Politically, many of our problems revolve around non-relation or the fact that no relations are present between two or more regimes. In my own thought I distinguish between dark, dim, bright, and rogue objects (and perhaps gaseous objects as well, I’m still thinking on this). A dark object is an object so thoroughly unrelated that it is there in a situation but does not manifest itself at all in the situation. For example, my living room, where I’m now typing, might be filled with all sorts of dark objects that go completely unregistered in this situation. Perhaps me or my daughter will happen to perturb them in just the right way and they’ll suddenly manifest, pinning us to the wall or causing us to be pushed out the window. A dim object is an object that minimally manifests itself in a situation but only very dimly and in a marginally related way. Immigrants, the homeless, leftists (in the States), women at academic philosophy conferences, etc., are all examples of dim objects. They are there, they are manifest, but only dimly. Their voices go unheard with respect to majoritarian organization and policy. Bright objects would be those entities that strongly manifest themselves in a situation, exercising a strong gravitational pull on other entities. For example, white males and the 1% in the United States are bright objects. Numerically they aren’t majorities, yet they nonetheless organize a plurality of the social relations. The same could be said of certain technologies and foods that organize how we live. Rogue objects, finally, are objects that erupt within situations from without. Hurricane Katrina, the revolutionary, OWS, etc., were rogue objects that suddenly and out of nowhere manifested themselves in a situation, reconfiguring the relations of that situation.

The point is that politics is not so much about relation but non-relation. Hank Oosterling, in his media-ontology– what he nicely calls “radical media()crity” (“city of relations/mediums) –has it right in his focus on relation, but is wrong to ignore that these relations must be forged or engineered (he recognizes this completely, however, at the level of his practice). Like Oosterling, it is above all relations or what happens when things that relate that interest me; not individual entities in isolation. I just always make the caveat that things don’t come already related; they must be engineered, built, constructed. In this regard, leftist politics is always an engineering of relations through rogue objects for dim objects. It strives to more thoroughly relate the unrelated, the dim. By contrast, rightwing politics is a practice that strives to engineer relations that make bright objects brighter and to ensure that dim objects remain dim or minimally manifest.

Back to Debaise’s remarks on propositions. Following Whitehead, Debaise emphasizes that truth-functionality and entailment are not enough to capture the nature of propositions. In addition to this, we need a logic of events capable of capturing– what I would call, in my language or terminology –the situatedness of propositions in regimes of attraction. In other words, propositions resonate in very different ways depending on differences in the regime of attraction in which they occur. He gives the nice example of the proposition “Crossing the Rubicon” to illustrate this point. When I articulate this proposition and when Caesar articulates this proposition, logically the propositions are identical. The truth-value of the propositions “Didier crosses the Rubicon” and Caesar crosses the Rubicon are the same. But at the level of events, these propositions are quite different. When Didier crosses the Rubicon, nothing really happens beyond his own experience of crossing the Rubicon. By contrast, when Caesar crosses the Rubicon he himself undergoes an incorporeal transformation making him either a criminal general or emperor, and Rome undergoes an incorporeal transformation as well, shifting from being a republic to an imperial state. Truth-functionally and at the level of logic, the two propositions are the same, but at the level of events the entailments and logic are quite different.

My aim here is not to reject the formalisms of logic. Rather, the point is to indicate that formalism is not enough to account for the richness of worlds or logoi. The danger that resides in approaching situations purely in terms of truth-functional logic and structures of entailment is that it risks keeping dim objects dim and bright objects bright by failing to attend to the networks of relation and non-relation that organize the logoi of these situations. What we need is a propositional language rich enough to account for the richness of situations and the structure of events possible in these situations.

In response to a discussion unfolding in an earlier post, the always thoughtful Dan remarks:

Levi, you write: “Invariably I find some variant of the hylomorphic assumption in every argument against materialism. It’s always the same old saw: matter is un-form-matted or unformatted and thereby in need of form.” I am not even sure I share the terms of this discussion, so it’s hard to think that I will fall into this invariance even though I do not share all your convictions about ontics. “Form” is used here as if it had clarity and certainly the philosophical tradition seems largely in this mode where the arguments become — as here — about its existence or not or the relations between supposed “things” and forms. Since this site valorizes science, it might be worth mentioned that there are — depending on whom you ask — 3, 4, or 5 states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma, helium 2/Einstein/Bose condensate) and only one — a very unlikely one — corresponds to what individuals usually refer to under form. Indeed, some physicist comedians see the solid as just slow liquid. I am NOT contending — before I get help — that form is unavailable in the non-solid BUT that its attributes are more complex, dynamic, and open than most of the models that haunt philosophy. Further, I have followed to some degree your versions of more flexible form notions though they seem to share an intrinsic commitment to abiding integrity/coherence I see as imposed. If — as I believe — form “in nature” is transitional and interactive, permeable and unstable, and these are its usual characteristics, then the emphasis on a choice between form and formlessness is unhelpful.

Nicely put. I agree with all of this save the suggestion that I valorize science. I take science seriously and give it a place as something other than mere social construction. That’s different than privileging it or valorizing it. An interesting moment occurred with the final keynote speaker, Roland Breeur, in Holland on Thursday. He was giving a talk on Sartre, Bergson, and Flaubert on the phenomenon of stupidity. His thesis was that stupidity occurs when the living becomes material and mechanical. For example a cruise ship crashes overseas and the police officer won’t let anyone step on land until they show their passports. Clearly a law has become mechanical in rigid here in a way that is both inappropriate to the circumstances and that is stupid. At the end of his talk I objected to his use of the term materiality to describe this phenomenon. I claimed that it was perfectly appropriate to refer to this way of behaving as mechanism, but that mechanism and matter are not the same thing. In other words, he was working with a 17th century of matter that has been thoroughly abandoned in the last few hundred years as a result of findings in quantum mechanics, complexity theory, chaos theory, and dynamic systems theory. What we have seen, by contrast, in these last hundred years is the way in which matter is both dynamic and creativity (the emergence of life being the most notable example, but there being many other examples besides, viz. chemical clocks). He rather gruffly responded to me that he’s a philosopher and that as a philosopher he is working with a philosophical concept of matter. I asked him whether he believed life evolved from matter and he said yes, but never consciousness because consciousness, following Sartre, is “The Nothing”. I’m not sure what this could possibly mean, nor why I should embrace this idea of The Nothing (though I concede that I need to give an account of it).

At any rate, it seems to me that saying that one can simply ignore these developments in our understanding of matter because “one is doing philosophy” is intellectually dishonest. As a Portuguese architect– Francisco Vasconcelos –put it to me afterwards, this response was a a bit like claiming one can happily continue claiming that the world is flat or that the Earth is at the center of the universe after Copernicus. The point is not that science should trump philosophy, nor that science can replace philosophy. The point is that we can’t simply ignore scientific findings, continuing on as we did before, pleading that we’re working with a “philosophical concept of x”, rather than a scientific one. If science shows us that that philosophical concept of x was thoroughly mistaken, then this calls for us to revise our philosophical concepts. This, I think, is one of the strongest insights of Badiou. Badiou forcefully argues that truths never come from philosophy, but rather always come from elsewhere in other fields of practice and thought: science, art, love, and politics. The task of philosophy is to think these truths and the compossibility of truths. While I don’t follow Badiou completely in this thesis– I think philosophy has its own domain of concept creation following Deleuze –I do think philosophy always unfolds in dialogue with its others. Why continue to treat the concept of matter in terms of passivity, inertia, and brute mechanism when we live in an age that has discovered that it is anything but these things? If the task of philosophy is to think the present and the new truths that have appeared in the present, why not completely abandon this tradition of thinking matter that has been thoroughly refuted? Mechanism and inertia exist, to be sure, but they are the lowest degrees of matter; they are matter in its least energetic and creative state.

Responding to a post by Matthew of Footnotes2Plato, Michael of Archive Fire nicely critiques the notion that we must presuppose formal causality as a distinct sort of causality. Defending forms, Matthew writes:

Forms can have no cause or effect independently of their realization in and through some actual occasion. But still, form cannot simply be reduced to its material instantiations, either. Forms, in Whitehead’s terms, are possibilities of definiteness. They determine (or allow occasions to determine) how an occasion will be characterized. If we dispense with forms as ontologically basic, we have not at all sided with concrete reality over abstraction. On the contrary, without the participation of eternal objects (Whitehead’s term for forms in his reformed Platonism), “matter” and “energy” can take on no definite quality. They remain vague abstractions lacking all particularity.

To this, Michael responds:

Here I think Matt is presupposing the function of the term in dispute (i.e.‘form’) prior to explaining why “matter” is incapable of expressing structure of itself.

Quite right. The central assumption of Matt’s critique of materialism– which is one I see quite often and not unique to him –is that matter is formless. The argument runs that because matter is formless (though this assumption is seldom stated outright), form must descend from elsewhere and be imposed on matter to give it structure. Continuing the argument, if this is the case, then it is because having already established that matter is formless (and this is never established in an argument by anyone) it is chaos, and because it is chaos, it could not give rise to form out of itself. Therefore form must come from elsewhere. And since we cannot imagine how form might descend on formless matter of its own accord, we are led to conclude that matter must take on form through the agency of a Demiurge or God that both contains the forms in its intellect and imposes them on matter giving it structure.

Such is the theory of hylomorphism that originated with Aristotle. It’s likely that Aristotle himself was not guilty of this crass form of hylomorphism where form and matter get reified and treated as distinct entities, yet this sort of hylomorphism is perhaps one of the most persistent tendencies of all speculative thought. We can readily see how people arrive at this idea and why they find it so persuasive. When looking at someone making clay bricks (or the equivalent) they note that the clay takes on a new shape as a result of the wooden form that the clay is pressed into. They thus reason

See! the clay was formless and now it has form. That form could have only come from the imposition of a form from without, and that imposition required the agent that both fashioned the form– in his intellect when he imagines and then in other matter when he makes the wooden form –that then imposes the form on the formless matter.

The problem is that clay is not formless. In fact, clay has quite an exquisite and determinate form at the molecular level. Indeed, it even has form at the molar level as a heap of clay. It’s just not the form that we would like it to have. What takes place between the wooden form and the clay is not an imposition of form on the formless, but an encounter between structured matters that generates a new structure as a result of the interplay of both of the matters interacting with one another. It is not an “active principle” (form) being imposed on a “passive principle” (matter) from without. Rather, both matters are structured, and both matters are simultaneously active and passive in relation to one another.

Invariably I find some variant of the hylomorphic assumption in every argument against materialism. It’s always the same old saw: matter is un-form-matted or unformatted and thereby in need of form. The problem is that those who advance this argument never give us any reason to suppose that there’s anything like unstructured or unformatted matter. Everywhere we look in the world we find matter that is exquisitely structured. We never find anything like a pure hyle. This is one of the central reasons that I find the process philosophy of Deleuze far more persuasive than that of Whitehead. Deleuze is able to do more with less. He doesn’t make recourse to ad hoc transcendent entities (forms, Demiurge, God) arrived at through analogical reason to rather inaccurate observations of how craftsmen craft– inaccurate because inevitably these models of craft presuppose the myth of the author where the author has everything planned out in his intellect in advance and simply fashions matter according to the model in his mind –but rather Deleuze sees structure as immanent in matter. Matter is pervaded by structure and singular potentialities. It’s never unformed, though it is always formable… In and through encounters between matters.

If I had a list of top five philosophical errors to avoid in metaphysics, hylomorphism would be among them. Everywhere we encounter the hylomorphist temptation in philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. We find it in the way that Kant talks about the relationship between concepts or the categories of the understanding and the sensibility. We see it in the way that Chomsky talks about deep grammar. We see it in the way that so many people talk about genetics as a blueprint of the organism and phenotype. We see it in the way that people talk about art and artists, implying that the meaning of the work is in the author and that he had an image in his mind that he merely “embodied” in the formless matter of paint. We see it in the way that many talk about society, suggesting that the social can only take on plan, structure, order, through the agency of a leader/king (the mirror of God on earth). We see it in the way that people often talk about society as a system of rules or laws, as if these rules and laws weren’t effects and formalizations of much fuzzier structures immanent to social relations. Examples could be multiplied endlessly. It’s extremely difficult to think in non-hylomorphic ways, but hylomorphism is certainly mistaken. And as the example of genetics, law, and the king indicate, it’s also dangerous. Matter is both structured and anarchic. Order does not descend from above, but is rather always a communistics or anarchistic result… Which is to say it is always the result of the collaborative interplay structured matters that are simultaneously passive and active. It’s hard to overcome our will to mastery (which is really, I think, what hylomorphism is libidinally about), but hylomorphism is metaphysically mistaken, epistemically mistaken, and politically and ethically dangerous. Bergson famously argued that there’s no such thing as disorder, but rather “disorder” is just the absence of order that we’d like to have for the sake of our own action or aims. Simondon and Deleuze make similar points, though in a far more refined way. These arguments continue to hold today, yet they still, I think, have not been heard. Ontology, politics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics have still not become flat… Which is to say, anarchistic and communistic.

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