Mikhail sent me the following post in email, giving me permission to post it if I so desire. I think it gets at a number of important differences and assumptions, so it might be of general interest to others. Following Mikhail’s post you will find my reply. I hope others interested in the realism/anti-realism debate and OOO take the time to read through the post as I think some key points are made here, as well as some arguments potentially central the epistemological grounds of OOO and why the “speculation” of OOO is not simply “making things up”. Basically I rehearse Roy Bhaskar’s argument for transcendental realism, trying to show why I think that epistemological questions can’t properly be resolved without robust realist ontological claims. However, there’s an important caveat here. While I’m strongly inclined to endorse the form of Bhaskar’s transcendental argument for ontological realism, I am more circumspect about the ontological claims he is making. In other words, it is possible to endorse much of the reasoning that leads Bhaskar to the conclusion that we can know something of mind-independent objects that exist regardless of whether anyone knows them, while rejecting the specifics of this ontology on the grounds that it is inadequate.

I think this particular exchange is not about SR/OOO/OOP or anything that has been discussed so far, it’s an old philosophical issue and this is why I think it is important to address as it seems to underlie
many of the disagreements. I’d like to begin with some very basic issues before going any further. You write:

“In my view this position undermines the possibility of any fallibilism so we’re left without the means of determining why we should choose one theory over another.”

This is important. Now just because a position undermines a certain possibility does not mean that it is wrong, just that it is inconvenient. I hope we agree on that. Therefore, say, if skepticism has a good argument, we cannot simply say that if we accept that argument we will be deprived of certain possibilities. I take your observation to mean more than just an expression of preference – if we cannot have an access to the world, we cannot have a true theory of it, because it’s neither true not false and cannot be shown to be
either true or false. I agree.

Now let’s slow down here a bit and see what’s going on. As you say, this is not a real point of disagreement, it’s just a statement and it has consequences. This is going to be very primitive not because I’m being condescending, but because I found of late that most of the disagreements seem to be about very small things we overlook because we think of ourselves (I mean myself primarily) as having long overcome these problems. It seems to me that you are affirming a kind of duality: there’s a level of the world and there’s a level of the mind (the theory of that world) – am I correct in reading you this way? An immanent “inside” and a transcendent “outside” – of course, as we both know from Descartes/Kant, we need a
“third” level, a point from which one can compare the two – the world and its theoretical description – and declare it to be adequate. Let’s reject Descartes’ solution and forget about God or anything that’s
truly “outside” and stick with Kantian types of solution that places that “third” on some transcendental level.

read on!

A central aim of Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is to diagnose what he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. In a nutshell, the epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis, often implicit, that ontological questions can be reduced to epistemological questions. The idea here is that ontology can be entirely resolved or evaporated into an inquiry into our access to beings, such that there are no independent questions of ontology. As an example of such a maneuver, take Humean empiricism. As good Humean empiricists, we “bracket” all questions of the world independent of our mind and simply attend to our atomistic impressions (what we would today call “sensations”), and how the mind links or associates these punctiform impression in the course of its experience to generate lawlike statements about cause and effect relations.

Note the nature of Hume’s gesture: Here we restrict ourselves entirely to our atomistic sensations and what can be derived from our sensations. Questions about whether or not our sensations are produced by entities independent of our mind are entirely abandoned as “dogmatic” because we do not have access to the entities that might cause or produce these sensations, but only the sensations themselves. Consequently, the order of knowledge must be restricted to what is given in sensation. Hume’s epistemology is thus based on a thesis about immanence or immediacy. Insofar as our minds possess and immediate relation to our sensations, we are epistemically warranted in appealing to sensations as grounds for our claims to knowledge. We are not however, warranted in appealing to objects, powers, selves, or causes because we do not have sensations of these things. Consequently, all of these ontological claims must be reformulated in epistemological terms premised on our access to being. If we wish to talk of objects, then we must show how the mind “builds up” objects out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of powers, then we must show how the mind builds up powers out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of causality we must show how the mind builds up an idea of cause and effect relations through impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of selves and other minds we have to show how mind builds up our sense of self and other minds out of impressions and cause and effect associations.

At the level of the form of the argument, not the content, nearly every philosophical orientation since the 18th century has made the Humean move. While the content of these positions differ, the form of the argument remains roughly the same. That is, we perpetually see a strategy of attempting to dissolve ontological questions through epistemological questions. This move always proceeds in two steps: First, one aspect of our experience is claimed to be immanent or immediate. Second, the furniture of our ontology is then dissolved through an analysis of those entities with reference to this plane of immanence or immediacy. The immediate can be impressions as in the case of Hume, the transcendental structure of mind as in the case of Kant, the intentions of pure consciousness as in the case of Husserl, or language as in the case of late Wittgenstein or the thought of Derrida. Other examples could be evoked. In each case, the gesture consists in showing how the being of beings can be thoroughly accounted for in terms of our access through this immanence or immediacy. The point is that we no longer treat the entities in our ontology as existing independently of this field of immanence or immediacy, but now see them as products of these modes of access. Whether the world is really like this independent of our chosen regime of construction is a question that is abandoned as dogmatic.

read on!

In response to a recent post, Paul Bains raises a number of questions that I believe are worth responding to as they often come up in relation to object-oriented ontology. Paul writes,

Trees = ‘big’ multicellular perennial green plants (which obviously lack semovience/self-movement).

So, at the risk of the deadly repetition here’s the thing:

The class of nonhuman natural objects is not as simple as we might think – e.g. we think it includes ‘trees’ and honycombs rather than ‘periodic oscillations’ (Sonigo) where these apparent entities are subjective categories.

In a previous post LS refers to something like the non-epiphenomenal level of complexity of the organic….
I’m no physicist but I suspect some of them might demur.

There might be many smaller objects but not some many ‘classical’ ones.

Now this is likely to be dismissed as some kind of valorizing of the sub-atomic – but within the domain of ‘natural non-human objects’ the sub-atomic might be the real thing.

Of I would never actually say that – just curious as to how those non-anthropocentric ‘tree-believers’ really, really, believe in trees – The same way they believe in ‘neutrinos’ or ‘black holes’…or God.
Altho there might (for Whitehead?) be a god without any trees.

I really cannot say anything about Sonigo as I know nothing of his work.

image1With respect to Paul’s comment here, there are two particularly relevant claims advanced by object-oriented ontology. The first of these claims is mereological or about part/whole relations. For the object-oriented ontologists, objects contains other objects in much the same way that Russian dolls contain other dolls. The point that a rock contains atoms, electrons, and other particles besides, does not undermine the thesis that the rock itself is an object, nor does it make the rock less real than the particles it contains. While it is indeed true that the rock cannot exist without these particles, the pattern or structure or system that characterizes the rock is nonetheless what characterizes the rock as a distinct object. Here it is worthwhile to think of Zubiri’s characterization of existents or objects as “systems of notes” in his book On Essence.

read on!

In a recent remark responding to one of my posts, Dan quotes me and goes on to propose some critical commentary on my claims:

“While the sun certainly enters into political compositions within being, the sun is what it is regardless of whether or not politics is. Presumably the sun was over 5 billion years ago when our solar system accreted. Humans have existed for only about 200,000 years.”

I like you am drowning in undergrad papers that have an ability to drain what little intelligence I have, but this quotation seems indicative of a modality I have tried to flag and discuss in the past, what I nominate “science valorization.” This kind of utterance seems to me fine if everyone subscribes to a certain pattern of speech, a set of rules about narrating the world but it does not seem to me to reflect the usual standard of thought found here in other contexts. There are many issues here but the basic one perhaps is the claim to continuous past entities through time for which little present evidence of identity persists. Let’s say since we are all fond of difference that that chain of events called man or that called the sun evolve (I pick this since you are pro-evolution) but that the changes cannot be shown to be continuous or governed by one variable. Then the identification across time becomes not a statement of fact but a rhetorical injunction or a juridical limit. We find ourselves back with all the problems of essence and a platonic ontic. And what did this win since it gave up the very real it seeks?

While I always appreciate Dan’s comments– even if he might think otherwise –I often have a very difficult time understanding them as they strike me as extremely dense and elliptical. When I first read this comment, I interpreted the charge of “valorizing science” as a charge of dogmatically accepting scientific claims. This reading seemed suggested by the fact that Dan goes on to discuss my remark about the sun in terms of rhetoric, talking about utterances, patterns of speech, and whether or not everyone agrees with those patterns of speech. Since Dan talks about consensus (whether everyone agrees), it seems clear to me that Dan is making rhetoric the measure of reality. If I am portraying his position correctly, the thesis would be that there are different language games, science is one language game among others, and therefore it is dogmatic to “valorize science” because such a valorization fails to self-reflexively recognize the manner in which it is a language game among others.

This interpretation seems warranted as Dan goes on to remark that,

Levi, The majority of what you say strikes me as political and rhetorical, and a clear analysis then would have to be within those disciplinary vocabularies if we “wished to participate in a dialog with others.”

Here, if I understand Dan correctly, “disciplinary vocabularies” are treated as the condition for science, such that a “critical” discourse first requires an analysis of the disciplinary vocabulary or language game we are playing so as to demonstrate the manner in which this disciplinary vocabulary or language game socially constructs its objects. If, then, a discourse that makes claims directly about the world without first engaging in this self-reflexive analysis of disciplinary vocabularies or language games is dogmatic, then this is because it fails to recognize, pace a rhetorical variant of Kant’s Copernican revolution, the manner in which its object is a product of these language games rather than an entity in its own right.

read on for the really good stuff!

Why is it that all the interesting and fun things happen when I’m drowning in grading? In response to Nina’s recent post raising questions about the recent realist turn and focus on ontology in continental thought there have been a flurry of responses. Nick was quick to throw in his two cents with three posts on the relationship between politics and ontology over at Speculative Heresy (here, here, and here), arguing that ontology is completely independent of politics such that it is precisely for this reason that ontology forces us to do politics. Over at Planomenology, Reid chimes in, arguing against Nick’s thesis, attempting to show how politics and ontology cannot be separated. Over at Naught Thought, Ben analyzes the political uses and misuses of references to the natural and the unnatural. Meanwhile, on her facebook page, Nina writes with some amusement that,

…at just how many responses a cryptic, no-names-involved paragraph can generate. But now feels she has to respond to everyone. This could take some time.

To which I respond writing that,

I didn’t take it personally or see it as an attack. I do, however, wonder if you aren’t running together object-oriented versions of SR with Brassier’s eliminative materialist versions of SR. As far as my own positions go, I’m pretty much on board with some synthesis of Marx, Sartre, and Badiou where politics is concerned. My gripe with much … Read MoreContinental political theory is that it’s far too focused on the discursive and semiotic as the sole site of the political (Zizek’s critiques of ideology, for example), ignoring the economic, technological, and material. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in objects.

I have to get back to grading, but I wanted to make a couple of points about Nick’s line of argument, separating the political from the ontological. In his first post responding to Nina Nick writes:

I have to admit that I’m always surprised at how many people disagree with my claim that reality exists independently of politics. It seems like such an obvious statement to me. Which is not to say that they can’t be related in particular cases, but that the study of ontology can be done without a regard for politics, and vice versa. And so I want to respond to what I see as the main line of refutation that people have put to me. I put this forth honestly, and would be quite happy to have someone show me the flaws in my thinking.

As I posted on Twitter a while ago, for me the argument is extremely simple:

1. a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans
2. politics is a human-centered realm
3. therefore, a realist ontology needs to be separate from politics

Since (1) is true by definition, and (3) is the conclusion from the premises, the problem arises with premise (2). And, indeed, it is my contention in this post that those who deny politics and ontology are separate, deny it because of a ‘neutered’ definition of politics.

Here I find that my position is much closer to Reid’s over at Planomenology than to Nick’s. Where Reid argues that ontology can’t be evacuated of politics, Nick sees a sharp division between the political and the ontological. While I do not agree with Reid’s thesis, presented in comments over at Speculative Heresy, that everything is political, I also find it difficult to understand how politics can be outside of being. In other words, I think that Nick’s position is implausible on simple mereological grounds.

read on!

Returning to the theme of transcendental arguments once again, why is it that these arguments have taken the form of a transcendental idealism rather than a transcendental realism. Recall the basic form of transcendental arguments as nicely articulated in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Transcendental arguments…

…characteristically center on a claim that, for some extra-mental proposition P, the indisputable truth of some general proposition Q about our mental life requires that P.

Thus, for example, we indisputably make causal judgments (proposition Q). Judgments of necessity or causal judgments cannot be derived from sensation. Therefore, there must be a category of causation in our mind that functions as the condition for the possibility of making these judgments. I develop this line of argument in more detail here.

Now, the question I am asking is why mental life, consciousness, mind, language, society, or communication is being granted a special privilege in these arguments? I suspect that the answer lies in some thesis about the immanence of mind to itself. In other words, we locate these transcendental conditions in mind (or language, or communication, or perception, or the social) because we implicitly hold that we have direct access to these domains whereas we do not have direct access to objects transcendent to us.

However, if the last 300 years of philosophy have shown us anything, it has shown us that we do not have any direct or immanent or immediate access to our own minds. As Lacan liked to say, following Freud, the subject is split. This is true even in Kant, as can be seen in both the paralogisms and the the deduction where Kant distinguishes between the subject as phenomena to itself, the transcendental unity of apperception, and the subject in-itself. Similarly, phenomenology increasingly discovered just how elusive givenness is in intuition, or how there is no immediacy in consciousness.

Yet if we follow through the implications of these points, then it would seem that there’s no reason to privilege mind (or some variant thereof) in our transcendental arguments. In other words, all things being equal, why is it less plausible to argue for a transcendental realism? Rather than inferring a category of causality in the mind when noting the indisputable fact that we make causal judgments. Why not instead point to the indisputable fact that things change and therefore this change must have a cause? Inquiring minds want to know.

AAAADEskSs8AAAAAAE6XqwOver at the blog err…whateverz. snugglebus I has posted a couple of nice posts on Speculative Realism. Before getting to the actual content of the posts, I’d first like to note that I love it that here in the blogosphere making interesting and thoughtful remarks with names like “snugglebus”. Moving on to the content, snugglebug defends speculative realism against some criticisms by Giuseppe in his second post. As snugglebus writes:

Responding in the comments however, Giuseppe thinks I kind missed the point entirely. As he put it:

what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)?… I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientists when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels.

Ok – I’ll take the bait! I’m not an SR scholar, just an interested, but uninvested, spectator, so I might not be the most effective spokesperson, but this will help me start to work out my own thoughts on a group of thinkers who I have been following for a while now.

I think there is a lot more to the success of SR than a reactionary response to the fact that ‘physical’ science is saying ever more concrete things about areas that were once the preserve of social scientists. Just anecdotally SR people (see for example Larval subjects here) seem to be intensely interested in hard science and thinking its consequences (though SR is concerned above all with metaphysics, not philosophy of science). In fact I think it would be more productive to turn Giuseppe’s view on its head: isn’t it actually crude idealism that expresses the insecurity (in a very different, less modest form than Giuseppe meant) of social science? Doesn’t idealism sometimes seem to shut scientific ‘reality’ away, seeing science somewhere between a naïve enterprise at one end of the spectrum (whereas we know that ‘truth’ is a function of consciousness, power, signs etc.), or just a separate field that is at best interesting, but not our concern as social scientists…?

Obviously I cannot speak for all the speculative realists and, in fact, it is impossible to do so as our positions tend to be radically different. For example, beyond a rejection of the centrality of the human, my own thought shares almost nothing in common with that of Brassier’s. Brassier advocates a sort of eliminative materialism that leans heavily on the hard sciences, whereas I advocate a realism. While there is a robust place for the sciences in my ontology, I do not see the sciences as delivering us to “true reality” whereas all the other disciplines investigate things that are epiphenomenal or mere illusions. In this I follow Bruno Latour in his rejection of the nature/culture distinction, the division of the world into two distinct ontological domains– the domain of nature and the domain of the subject –and instead replace this division with collectives of human and non-human actors. This is quite a difference.

read on!

68Z0aBelow is the paper I presented at the RMMLA this morning. We had large audiences for the two Deleuze panels, great discussions, and my paper was very well received. My only regret is that I couldn’t really get into the details of Deleuze’s understanding of simulacra as “signal-sign systems” as the paper would have been twice as long, so I had to focus on his critique of Platonism. It’s absolutely gorgeous here in the mountains of Utah, though I’ve had a wicked headache since arriving as a result of the altitude. Hopefully that will go away by tomorrow. I should also add that I wrote this paper at the airport and on the flight here, so a number of my allusions are unreferenced. Go easy on me! At any rate, without further ado…

Interpretation hits the real.
~J. Lacan

The simulacrum enjoys a short life in Deleuze’s thought. Appearing primarily in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, the concept then disappears in his later thought. This is not, of course, so unusual in Deleuze’s work. As has often been observed, each of Deleuze’s texts creates a new conceptual constellation. However, later, in interview, Deleuze will remark that the concept of the simulacrum was a poorly formed, while nonetheless giving no explanation or account of just how this concept was poorly formed. In my view, if Deleuze was led to abandon the concept of the simulacrum, this was not for reasons pertaining to the endo-consistency of the concept or its ability to attain a coherence and consistency allowing it to stand and support itself, but rather for rhetorical reasons pertaining to phenomena of resonance and echoes within the philosophical tradition of representation. This rhetorical situation or set of exo-relations within the tradition of representation only intensified with the appearance of Baudrillard’s work which made the simulacrum its key concept, but in a sense directly opposed to Deleuze’s own intentions in mobilizing the concept. Where Baudrillard mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum diagnostically as a symptom of our times in a war against representation and the real, Deleuze, while sharing Baudrillard’s war against representation, mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of the real. In short, Deleuze mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of a realist ontology. If, then, there is a problem with the concept of the simulacrum, this problem is to be found at the level of the plane of expression where the signifier “simulacrum” continues to resonate all too easily with both the logic of representation and anti-realist thought that has dominated philosophy since the late 17th century.

From the beginning of his work until the end, Deleuze dismisses the thesis that metaphysics is at an end or that it has exhausted itself. This affirmation of metaphysics should be taken seriously. Since Heidegger, there has been an unfortunate tendency within Continental thought to conflate metaphysics with onto-theology and philosophies of presence. Rather than following a path of thought that would metaphysically overturn onto-theology and the primacy of presence, the decision was instead made to either a) abandon metaphysics altogether in favor of humanist correlationism, or b) attempt to achieve, as in the case of Heidegger, a passage beyond metaphysics to something called thinking. By contrast, to affirm the possibility of metaphysics is to affirm realist ontology against the correlationisms that have come to dominate philosophy, suturing being and the world to the condition of the human. Within the constellation of French thought arising out of the late 60s, Deleuze is singular in this affirmation of metaphysics.

read on!

8872426.CleopatrasNeedleIn a lovely passage from Without Criteria, Shaviro writes,

Even a seemingly solid and permanent object is an event; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events. In his early metaphysical book The Concept of Nature (1920/2004), Whitehead gives the example of Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment in London (165ff.). Now, we know, of course, that this monument is not just "there." It has a history. Its granate was sculpted by human hands, sometime around 1450 BCE. It was moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria in 12 BCE, and again from Alexandria to London in 1877-1878 CE. And some day, no doubt, it will be destroyed, or otherwise cease to exist. But for Whitehead, there is much more to it than that. Cleopatra's Needle isn't just a solid, impassive object upon which certain grand historical events– being sculpted, being moved –have occasionally supervened. Rather, it is eventful at every moment. From second to second, even as it stands seemingly motionless, Cleopatra's Needle is actively happening. It never remains the same. “A physicist who looks on the part of the life of nature as a dance of electrons, will tell you that daily it has lost some molecules and gained others, and even the plain man can see that it gets dirtier and is occasionally washed” (ibid., 167). At every instant, the mere standing-in-place of Cleopatra’s Needle is an event: a renewal, a novelty, a fresh creation. (17-18)

It seems to me that Shaviro here draws a distinction between events that befall an object (its movements from place to place) and the event that an object is. We can even go one step further than Whitehead, pointing out that it is not simply that Cleopatra’s Needle gains and loses electrons, but these electrons are themselves in a constant state of motion, jumping from higher to lower and lower to higher states of energy.

This concept of objects as events is the most difficult thing of all to think. Our tendency is to think objects as substances in which predicates inhere. Take, for example, Aristotle’s categories. All of these categories are predicates that can be attributed to a substance. As I have argued elsewhere, in my article “The Ontic Principle” forthcoming in The Speculative Turn, the concept of substance responds to a real philosophical problem. This problem is the endurance of entities through or across time as this object. I denote this substantiality of the object with the expression “the adventure of the object” to capture the sense in which objects are ongoing happenings or events. In other words, events are not something that simply happen to an object as in the case of someone being granted a degree while nonetheless remaining substan-tially the same. Rather, objects are events or ongoing processes.

read on!

One of the more idiotic charges that sometimes come my way is that if difference is made a criteria for existence, then we are no longer able to make distinctions. I am not sure whether people who advance such charges are idiots, lack the ability to reflect, or have simply become stupid as a result of their knee-jerk attempts to dismiss speculative realist thought and object-oriented ontology in particular. At any rate, I clearly find this to be one of the oddest charges leveled against differential ontology. On the one hand, what else could we possibly mean by “existence” than difference? What else could existence possibly be than the capacity to make and produce differences? More to the point, however, on the other hand, if difference is the ultimate ground well, that entails that differences differ! Differential ontology allows as many differences as we might like. We can examine the differences that compose a piece of technology. We can examine the differences that compose a city. We can examine the differences that compose fictions and signs. We can distinguish all these differences. We can examine how and in what way these various differences make differences in other things. We can examine degrees of strength and weakness, ranging from things that make very slight differences to things like the sun that make extensive differences well beyond their own being.

The only qualification is that if something makes a difference it is. That is all. It is not being suggested that all differences are equal, that all differences are identical, or that all differences impact the world as extensively as other differences. In a certain respect, it could be said that OOO is an attempt to reset the philosophical clock. Rather than accepted a set of rather bad distinctions that we have inherited from the history of philosophy and that have led to a number of deadlocks in thought, OOO instead wipes the slate clean and tries to begin anew. There are many grounds upon which the various forms of OOO can be criticized. The inability to draw distinctions or speak about differences is not one of them.

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