Metaphysics


It appears that I’m having trouble falling asleep this evening, which isn’t good as I have to be up early. In response to my last post, Tom of Grundledung was kind enough to remind me of a post I wrote nearly a year ago on the issue of normativity. On the one hand, I’m pleased by this post as it seems that my thoughts have been fairly consistent on these issues since they last flared up. On the other hand, as I review Tom and Pete’s comments, I find myself even more perplexed and wonder if we aren’t just talking about entirely distinct issues (i.e., talking past one another).

In a passage I quote in the post from last year, Pete writes:

I think the best point that can be made here is that there is more to normativity than ethical normativity. There is at least also rational normativity, which is prior to, and a necessary condition of, anything like ethical normativity. I would claim that it is indeed impossible to coherently deny the force of rational normativity. Regardless of the specific content of the fundamental norms of rationality (though we could suggest, for instance, the obligation to divest oneself of incompatible commitments), one must acknowledge that if one is engaged in an argument, then one is bound by norms which determine how the argument should take place, and that they are the same norms that one’s interlocutor is bound by. To put it another way, one may at time make claims like ‘well, I just use the word ‘justice” differently from you, but one cannot claim ‘I just argue differently than you do’.

This fact testifies to the binding character of certain fundamental norms that we implicitly acknowledge insofar as we engage in discourse at all. Some, myself included, think that this provides the possibility of a foundational approach in philosophy, in which deontology is indeed prior to ontology, grounded in that which none of us can deny insofar as we want to say anything at all. Whether or not such fundamental deontology can be extended beyond the theoretical into the realm of the practical and thus the ethical (as discourse ethicists like Habermas and Apel have attempted) is another matter.

I find myself grumbling a bit at Pete’s these that argument is necessarily grounded in certain norms. While I share with Pete a commitment to the principle of non-contradiction and identity, I also believe that we should look to rhetoric and how real life arguments function when raising this sort of question. The rhetoricians, I think, would have a very different perspective on this issue. With that said, I’m willing to follow him here.

For me the problems emerge when Pete asserts that deontology (and again, is this a specific Kantian reference or is “deontology” being used in a broader sense with which I’m not familiar) is indeed prior to ontology. What exactly is being claimed or asserted here? Is Pete making the claim that certain normative commitments are prior to inquiry, or is Pete making the claim that normativity is prior to being. These two claims are very different and have very different implications. If the former, then I don’t think the speculative realist, of whatever stripe, really has much of a dispute with Pete. Such a thesis doesn’t, I would think, commit one to correlationism or undermine realism. The realist here, I think, can simply shrug his or her shoulders and say “sure, there are norms that govern inquiry.”

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Having learned a bit of “Texan” since moving to Dallas five or six years ago, I am compelled to say that y’all need to quit being so interesting. Now that the semester is over and my grades have finally been submitted I’m back to work on The Democracy of Objects. Consequently, as I unsuccessfully announced a couple weeks ago, I’ll be participating far less frequently so as to finally pull everything together. Incidentally, if anyone is interested I need a good copy editor for the MS once it’s completed. I expect that the draft will be done by the end of July. I’d like to have it to OHP by the end of August. If anyone is interested in this thankless task, please let me know. I can’t offer any compensation, though you will get a prominent place in the acknowledgments.

Before getting back to work, I wanted to draw attention to this post on primary and secondary qualities by Graham Harman. J.N. Nielson, to whom Graham is responding, writes:

Just before leaving on vacation, pursuing my recent interest in object oriented ontology, I got copies of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency and Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, but I didn’t bring them with me and didn’t have much time to skim them before departure. Interestingly, though (and a prima facie impression), Meillassoux’s book begins with a rehabilitation of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and it is difficult for me to see how this distinction can be reconciled with any sense of phenomenology (such as referenced in Harman’s title) however broadly (if not promiscuously) construed.

Nielson’s post is replete with a number of interesting and important questions about mereology and flat ontology to which I can’t, at the moment, respond. In his response, Harman points out that, in fact, phenomenology and OOO does advocate a version of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. As Harman writes:

…it is senseless for Husserl to speak of qualities that could not be present to some perceiver, and in that sense Locke’s version of primary qualities doesn’t exist for him, no.

But there is still the distinction in Husserl between essential and inessential qualities. The tree need not display this particular exact configuration of light and shadow and exact distance and angle from which it is seen. Through eidetic variation we can conceive of the tree in many other different perceptual configurations without the tree changing. These adumbrations are secondary qualities. The primary qualities (though not in Locke’s sense) are those that belong to the eidos of the object: those features that it cannot lack under pain of ceasing to be itself. These are known categorially, not sensually. My difference from Husserl (and from Meillassoux, as will be mentioned shortly) is that I don’t think they can even be known categorially. The intellect and the senses are ontologically equivalent on this question. Both are modes of access to the things themselves. Neither sensations nor thoughts are the thing themselves.

Harman then goes on to remark that,

For me, the primary qualities of the thing are those that exist apart from all relation, even inanimate causal relation. This is not in Locke, for whom primary means “independent of the mind,” whereas for me it means “independent from all relation whatsoever.” This is also how I read Heidegger’s ontological difference, incidentally. To say that any being has a deeper being means that it’s still something outside its relations.

It is important to note Harman’s distinction between eidetic primary qualities and real primary qualities. This distinction will become much clearer with the publication of The Quadruple Object. There Harman presents us with ten diagrams representing the structure of objects, one of which is as follows:

For Harman, objects, as it were, are Janus faced. They have both a real dimension and a sensuous dimension. Moreover, each of these dimensions is divided between the object as a unity or what I would call a “totality” and the object’s qualities. The point here is that no object can ever be reduced to its qualities. What Harman calls “real objects” and “real qualities” consists of that “half” of an object that withdraws from all contact with other entities or objects. What Harman calls a “sensuous object” is, as I have put it, what an object is for another objects. Sensuous objects only exist in the interior of another real object. A sensuous object is, for example, the way a flame grasps cotton. Perhaps another way of formulating Harman’s distinction between real objects and sensuous objects would be to say that real objects are profoundly non-relational. They are, as it were, the depths of an object withdrawn from all relation. By contrast, sensuous objects are profoundly relational, which is why I say that they are objects for another object.

One point I’d like to make is that while OOO and Meillassoux’s transcendental materialism both fall under the moniker of “speculative realism”, it does not follow that these positions are in accord with one another. About the most that OOO shares in common with Meillassoux’s transcendental materialism is a critique of correlationism and an advocacy of realism. However, it seems to me that OOO and transcendental materialism diverge quite a bit in the specifics of their respective ontological hypotheses. For Meillassoux, root being is what he refers to as hyper-chaos, which strikes me as a sort of apeiron. By contrast, OOO advocates an ontology composed of discrete objects. There can be no question of beings or objects emerging out of a primordial chaos.

Moreover, it seems to me that OOO and transcendental materialism have a very different understanding of what science aims at. Meillassoux famously seeks to rehabilitate the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Traditionally the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is understood as the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Primary qualities are said to be “in” the object itself regardless of whether anyone relates to the object, while secondary qualities are understood to exist only in relation to a perceiver. To illustrate the concept of secondary qualities, Meillassoux gives the gorgeous example of being burnt by a flame. When my finger is burnt by a flame, he remarks, the pain is not in the flame, but rather the pain only exists in my finger.

When Meillassoux is articulating the distinction between primary and secondary qualities he inadvertently uncovers a much more fundamental ontological feature of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities than the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Rather than speaking of the difference between primary and secondary qualities as a distinction between the objective and the subjective, we should instead speak of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities as a distinction between the non-relational and the relational. Primary qualities are non-relational qualities insofar as they are in the object itself regardless of whether it relates to any other object. Secondary qualities are purely relational insofar as they only occur in relation to other objects.

If this characterization of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is granted, I believe we get a very different characterization of what science is up to than the one Meillassoux appears to implicitly endorse. Meillassoux, it seems, wishes to claim that science aims to discover primary qualities. However, when we look at actual scientific practice, we discover that science aims at precisely the opposite. Science traffics in secondary qualities and nothing but secondary qualities. If this thesis is to be understood, I must once again emphasize that “secondary qualities” refer not to subjective qualities, but to relational qualities or what I call “exo-qualities”. Meillassoux muddies the whole issue by situating the question as a question of the difference between the objective and the subjective (for a flat ontology such a distinction is largely meaningless because there aren’t two distinct domains, world and mind), rather than as a distinction between the non-relational and the relational.

What interests the scientist is not the question of what the primary qualities of an are, but rather with what objects do when they enter into relations with other objects. As Deleuze and Guattari put it in What is Philosophy?, scientists create functives, which are nothing but ordered relations among objects. Thus, for example, when chemists calculate the molar weights of elements in a chemical equation, what interests them is what properties or qualities are produced when these molar weights of different elements enter into relation with one another in a chemical reaction. It is the relations that interest them, and therefore the secondary qualities or exo-qualities that they seek to discover.

And if this is the case, then the philosopher is justified in pointing out that the scientist and science knows nothing of objects. For objects are precisely that which withdraws from all relations and science is nothing but the study of relations. Having said this, I hasten to add that this does not entail that philosophy is somehow superior to science or that science traffics in illusions. The domain of the real includes both what Harman refers to as real objects and sensuous objects. “Sensuous” is not a synonym for “appearance” or “illusion”. It is not something to be pierced to get at the “true reality” behind the mere “appearances”. All that I am here saying is that science is exclusively concerned with the domain of the relational and is one way in which the relational is approached by humans. In addition to the domain of exo-relations and exo-qualities, however, philosophy is also interested in the domain of withdrawn objects which disappear in relational modes of investigation.

In response to my recent post on reification Joshua Mostafa raises an excellent question. I started to respond to him in the comments, but my response began getting rather lengthy and because his question is so astute (and so comedically well executed!) I decided to post it on the front page instead. Joshua writes:

Really enjoying your posts as they pop up in the feed reader I use.

Would mass be the ‘endo-quality’ underlying weight? If so, are there any of these exo-qualities you mention that cannot be extrapolated from combinations of such ‘endo-qualities’ in the objects which are (or may in the future) participating in foreign relations? I am wondering whether it might be more parsimonious to view these exo-qualities as the potential combination of the qualities of their respective objects.

Otherwise every object possesses a number of such exo-qualities that tends to infinity – for instance, a cat could be said to possess the quality “yowling when fireworks tied to tail”. If you were to allow the chaining of such qualities, you could say “apt to hiss and spit when humans approach *after* an incident of tying fireworks to its tail”. And one could extend this ad absurdum. So where does one draw the line?

This is a really good question. I’m pretty hesitant whenever it comes to pinning down endo-qualities. Is mass an endo-quality? It’s hard to say as mass, as I understand it, changes depending on the velocity at which an object is moving. As such, mass would be a quality that emerges from relations and would therefore be a local manifestation of an object. It might be that Harman is right here and that what I call endo-qualities are what he calls real qualities. Real qualities, like real objects, are, for Harman, completely withdrawn and therefore they are never touched by another real object, much less perceived or determinable by us. Ontologically we would therefore be warranted in asserting that they exist, but could never say anything about what they are for a particular object.

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In my view one of the most under discussed aspects of Harman’s variant of object-oriented philosophy is his theory of the structure of objects and the division within objects between real objects and sensuous objects. The tendency is simply to talk about objects simpliciter, ignoring this complexity that resides in objects. I suspect that a lot of this will become clearer with the release of The Quadruple Object.

Graham schematizes the relation between real objects and sensuous objects in the following diagram:

I can’t give a complete commentary on Harman’s diagram as it would require a book in itself (indeed, there is not just one diagram but ten diagrams in The Quadruple Object), so I’ll limit myself here to a few brief indicative remarks. First, the distinction between real objects and sensuous objects is not the traditional distinction between appearance and reality. In the traditional distinction between appearance and reality the task is to pierce the veil of appearances so as to reach true reality. For Harman, the key points not to be missed are 1) that real objects are always withdrawn (Harman) or in excess (me) of any of their sensuous (Harman) manifestations (me), and 2) that objects only encounter each other as sensuous objects, never as real objects.

This brings me to another important point. When Harman refers to sensuous objects, he is not simply referring to objects as they are for humans or for animals, but objects as they are for any object. Thus, for example, a real rock no less encounters another rock as a sensuous object than a human encounters a dog as a sensuous object. The domain of what Harman calls “the sensuous” is a genuinely ontological domain pertaining to relations among all objects, not a domain restricted to philosophy of mind or epistemology. Moreover, the domain of the sensuous is not the domain of the unreal, but is perfectly real in its own right.

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Both Adrian and Harman have expressed reservations about blog debates, so hopefully I won’t be crossing any boundaries by responding to them concerning the recent discussion about relations and objects. I tend to be just the opposite in many respects. Where Harman is of the sentiment that arguments should take place in written text, I find that I only come to know what I think in my interaction with others. In certain ways this has been the plague of my academic career. Where the ordinary order of things is to treat the published text as what as important and the exchange as derivative, I often experience an acute suffering when it comes to the written text. The written text, to me, feels like excrement, like a remainder, like a waste or a frozen petrification of a living object: Dialogue.

My genesis as a thinker began with chat rooms, moved to email discussion lists, and finally to the medium of blogging. And in all these cases my thought has been animated by a single insistent and painful desire: The desire for dialogue. In Lacanian terms, I suppose you could characterize me as a hysteric or a subject whose desire is structured around the desire of, not for, the Other. This pathology or symptom runs so deep that the only way I can convince myself to publish is by conceptualizing the written text as a necessary evil, or as a slow dialogue in the form of correspondence that is practiced as a consequence of limitations of space, time (Plato is dead), and geography. I conceive the written text as a missive, a letter, rather than a statue. And since dialogues or discussions are distinct objects, it follows that I am not the author of these posts and texts. And this for the very simple reason that in a dialogue one can never know what comes from where. If there is an author named “Levi”, then the name Levi can only name a space of entanglements, of discussions, of dialogues where it is impossible to determine what idea or concept might have originated from me and what ideas, concepts or arguments might have originated with my various interlocutors. And as I say this I shudder in disgust at the pompous self-indulgence of such remarks, as if I were channeling Foucault’s “What is an Author?”. Yet all the same, it’s true. Who can say what comes from where in a dialogue? In the worlds of philosophy, theory, and science, proper names denote tribes.

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[Update: The title of this post has been changed because apparently the term “value” attracts every spam outlet under the sun, leading to a few hundred links to bargain sites. Yikes!]

Over at Hyper Tiling Fabio has an excellent post up relating his impressions of Dundee. I confess that I’m extremely sad that I was unable to attend the conference. So it goes. A couple of remark in Fabio’s post caught my eye. Fabio writes:

Objects – this term, of course, has been powerfully (and almost single-handedly) thrown back into philosophical language by the work of Graham Harman and its creative synthesis of Latour/Husserl/Heidegger that goes under the name of –precisely– object-oriented Philosophy. I confess to have mixed feelings about Harman’s project, for if I (like many others) have been seduced by his —rhetorically vibrant— exhortations regarding the need for philosophy to break out of its correlationist constraints (the well known ‘fire-cotton’ rhetoric), and by his vigorous and fresh way of philosophizing, I remain (shame on me!) a relationist at heart, finding Latour’s hybrid actors more seductive entities than Harman’s vacuum-sealed objects.

I’m interested in hearing Fabio say more as to just what he means when he calls himself a relationist. Nothing about OOO prevents one from speaking about relations and from analyzing relations. What OOO rejects is the thesis that objects are their relations. There is a vast difference between the claim that there are only relations, and the claim that there are objects and the relations objects enter into. The former is ontological relationism, the latter is what OOO claims (at least in my formulation, though I think Harman and I are on the same page here). What OOO rejects is the thesis that all relations are internal relations. It has no problem with external relations.

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The more I think about the recent discussion surrounding Life After People and narrativity (here, here, here, and here), the more it seems to me that what is at stake is something similar to what Marx denounced under the title of “commodity fetishism”. Initially, this suggestion might sound very strange coming from an object-oriented ontologist, for commodity fetishism occurs when relationships between people are treated as relations between things. However, a bit of reflection reveals that what is at stake in the hegemonic fallacy and commodity fetishism are isomorphic to one another.

David Harvey gives a nice illustration of what is at stake in commodity fetishism in his latest (which is really quite good, by the way). There Harvey asks,

…what’s going on here [with commodity fetishism]? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price– the "how much" –is socially determined. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers– those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them. (39 – 40)

Note that while the supermarket situation disguises collective relations insofar as all we’re confronted with in the market is the price and the empirical properties of the head of lettuce, it does not follow from this that this disguise is an illusion in the ordinary sense. The lettuce, the price, and the cashier are all things that are really there. What is absent are the collective relations this lettuce embodies as congealed or crystallized labor.

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