Realism


Over at Cogburn’s blog I noted that there’s a debate brewing over whether or not Kant advocates the thesis that we can know things-in-themselves. Of course, Kant’s thesis is that things-in-themselves exist, but that we can never have knowledge of them. Consequently, any knowledge we do have only applies to appearances or phenomena, or how things are given to us. Whether things exist in this way apart from us, the Kantian contends, is something we can never know. For example, things-in-themselves might be merely “thing-in-itself”, or a single unitary being without discrete entities. Sometimes it’s suggested that while Kant is a transcendental idealist, he is also an empirical realist. From the thesis that Kant is an empirical realist, it is then argued that Kant endorses the existence of the objects discovered by science as things-in-themselves. This severely misconstrues what Kant means by “empirical realism”. Let’s have a look:

I understand by the transcendental idealism of all appearances the doctrine that they are all together to be regarded as mere representations and not things in themselves, and accordingly that space and time are only sensible forms of our intuition, but not determinations given for themselves or conditions of objects as things in themselves. To this idealism is opposed transcendental realism, which regards space and time as something given in themselves (independent of our sensiblity). The transcendental realist therefore represents outer appearances (if their reality is conceded) as things in themselves, which would exist independently of us and our sensibility and thus would also be outside us according to pure concepts of the understanding. (CPR, A369)

Having carefully distinguished between transcendental idealism and transcendental realism, Kant then goes on to introduce the concept of empirical realism:

The transcendental idealist, on the contrary, can be an empirical realist, hence, as he is called, a dualist, i.e., he can concede the existence of matter without going beyond mere self-consciousness and assuming something more than the certainty of representations in me, hence the cogito ergo sum. For because he allows this matter and even its inner possibility to be valid only for appearance– which, separated from our sensibility, is nothing –matter for him is only a species of representations (intuition), which are call external, not as if they related to objects that are external in themselves but because they relate perceptions to space, where all things are external to one another, but that space itself is in us. (A370)

All “empirical realism” means for Kant is that objects (in the Kantian sense, i.e., as opposed to things) appear in space. However, here we must recall that for Kant, space is not something that belongs to things-in-themselves, but rather issues from mind as the form of intuition. Whether or not things-in-themselves are spatial is, for Kant, something we can never know. Clearly, then, Kant’s empirical realism is certainly know metaphysical realism about objects in space. Whether the world in-itself is anything like the world we know is, for Kant, something that we can never know. The claim that Kant was an empirical realist is not a rejoinder to the sorts of charges the speculative realists are leveling against correlationism.

Over at Networkologies Chris Vitale has another interesting post up responding to my last post. As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to blogging right now because I’m in the middle of completing The Democracy of Objects. I did, however, wish to respond to a single question in Vitale’s post because it came up in his previous post as well. Vitale remarks,

And exo/foreign-relations are then those which produce specific qualities or manifestations of the cane toad in a given situation: for example, in this temperature, the toad seems happy, but if I raise the temperature, he seems quite perturbed. Or in a different color light his skin seems a different hue of toady greenish-brown (an example of Levi’s cup example). That is, the toad’s still the same cane toad either way, just he acts or appears differently. Correct?

But I still worry there is a sort of subjectivity which sneaks into the back door here. To an expert on amphibians who knows a cane toad from a non-cane toad, this is all well and good. But to a my little nephew (he’s 2 years old!), all frogs and toads, and perhaps even lizards, are simply ‘froggies!’ Who is correct? Furthermore, to an electron, aren’t both frogs and toads simply patterns of sub-atomic particles? To an electron going through the cane toad, there’s no toad there in the first place – unless there’s a quasi-human subjectivity lurking implicit somehwere in here. Is there? And if not, why not?

A little later Vitale goes on to remark,

I do think there’s a need for something LIKE subjectivity here, but a subject that is perhaps ‘blown up’, dispersed, multiplied and variegated so as to be the property of every tiny bit of the cosmos. I find myself thinking here of Steely Dan’s famous lines, ‘these are the days/ of the expanding man’, which is poetic but doesn’t really fit, for the subject is more than expanded here, but blown to multiplicitous smithereens. When each event-particle in the universe is a proto-subject with its own perspective on what is, we’ve really gone beyond the subject-object distinction in any traditional sense, as well as at least traditional forms of the epistemology/ontology divide. In fact, we’ve gone holographic.

I think both relational and object-oriented approaches need something like this. Otherwise, who gets to decide the necessary/sufficient conditions for the dissolution or creation of an object? Or if an object is eternal or not? But if there are gradations of subjectivity and perspective which ‘decide’ these issues, then we’ve got something like correlationism perhaps, but a correlation which, in Meillassoux’s terms, has been absolutized, but also, given a multiplicitous twist. For then the universe-in-its-universing becomes the multiple subject that makes these sorts of distinctions.

In response to a number of other remarks throughout Vitale’s post, I have not said that objects are potential objects. I have said that objects are populated by potentials to produce various properties. That is an entirely different claim. It seems to me that Vitale is confusing manifestations of objects with their virtual proper being. This is the only way I can understand his very strange conclusion that object-oriented ontologists such as me or Graham are logically required to hold that objects are eternal.

I wonder if this isn’t the reason that Graham insists that objects are entirely actual. I confess that Harman’s endorsement of the actuality of objects has always perplexed me because it seems to fit uneasily with his thesis of withdrawal. If objects withdraw from their relations and what he calls their sensuous qualities, then why would he call them fully actual? For me the term “actuality” has connotations of presence or what is manifest. When I say this I do not intend to imply that qualities or actualities are present for a consciousness or a perceiver (nor should Graham’s “sensuous objects” be understood as sensations had by a mind), but rather as present or actual in the world. The water in my glass is now actual as liquid. For me the domain of actuality refers to qualities or local manifestations. If, by contrast, Graham is using the term “actual” to denote real, then the nature of our debate is quite different. For me the virtual proper being of an object is entirely real and determinate. It is not a possibility. In this sense the virtual proper being of an object would be actual in the sense Graham uses the term. The point is that this virtual proper being is in excess of any qualitative manifestations of the object. If something like this is going on, then Graham and I are a lot closer than I originally thought, though I still do insist that this virtual dimension of objects is characterized by powers or potentials, which are not to be confused with possibilities.

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I find it amusing that whenever I proclaim that my blogging is going to become less frequent for a time, I suddenly find myself engaged in heavy blogging. I don’t know if this is an idiosyncrasy of my psychology, or something general to human beings, though I do know that for myself when I try to prohibit myself from doing something I suddenly feel compelled to do it. And so it goes.

At any rate, I wanted to make a brief remark about object-oriented ontology and reification, because I wonder whether or not the relationism debate isn’t, in part, motivated by worries about reification. I think this worry might especially animate those who are committed to process-oriented ontologies. Here, I think, the term “object” can work against object-oriented ontologists insofar as “object”, in ordinary language often connotes something static and fixed, a mere dead clod. I think this conception of objects is an unfortunate remainder of our modernist heritage, which tends to see the domain of nature as a domain of mechanism where brute and unchanging particles interact in deterministic ways, and the domain of culture as a dynamic domain of spirit and freedom where change can take place.

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For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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In response to my recent post on Endo-Relations and Topology, Will writes:

“Rather, the proper being of the object is not its performance or manifestation, but the generative mechanism that serves as the condition under which these performances or manifestations are possible…”

“…No one has ever perceived a single object, but we do perceive all sorts of effects of objects….”

So far so good…

“Fortunately we do occasionally manage to cognize objects through a sort of detective work that infers these generative mechanisms from their effects; without, for all this, ever exhausting the infinity of a single object.”

What I fail to grasp is how we do not introduce the unity of the “single object” through this retroactive cognition.
Alternatively, what lets us suppose that these “effects” can be “owned” by a single object?

This is a good and fair set of questions. The first point to note is that these are epistemological rather than metaphysical questions. That is, they are questions about how we come to know objects, not questions about what objects are regardless of whether or not we know them. It is important not to conflate these two domains of philosophy. The properties of a being are no less a properties of a being if we don’t know them. All I’m minimally committed to metaphysically is the thesis that objects are generative mechanisms and that generative mechanisms can fail to actualize such and such a property when they function in open systems. When I say that an object can fail to actualize a particular property in an open system I am not making a claim about our perception of the object. I am making a claim about the manifestation of the object in the world, regardless of whether any perceivers exist or not. Manifestation is first and foremost manifestation to a world not a perceiver or a knower. The point is that the object can be present in the world, without exemplifying a particular quality of which it is capable. For example, when fire burns in low gravity environments it flows like water. On earth, by contrast, flames lick upwards towards the sky. The capacity of fire to flow like water is non-manifest on Earth but is nonetheless a power of the object.

I outline this line of argument, drawn from the early work of Roy Bhaskar, in the two manifestos on object-oriented ontology in the side bar (here and here). The thesis that effects are products of objects relies on a transcendental argument. In other words, such mechanisms or objects must exist if our practice is to be coherent. Now Will asks “how do we not introduce the unity of the ‘single object’ through this retroactive cognition?” The answer is that this can happen. Why? Because knowledge and inquiry are fallible. In other words, there’s no guarantee that our representations of the world will map on to the world or carve the world at its joints.

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In my development of the ontology of objects within the framework of onticology I have tried to argue that objects are not their local manifestations or actualizations, but rather a virtual endo-relational structure composed of relations among attractors, singularities, powers, or generative mechanisms. It is this virtual dimension of the object that, in my view, constitutes the proper being of an object. This virtual dimension of the object, I argue, constitutes its substantiality. Consequently, it follows that no object ever directly encounters another objects, but rather objects only ever encounter one another as local manifestations of their virtual proper being. The proper being of the object, its virtual structure, is always in excess of any of its local manifestations.

This model of objects is proposed, in part, to account for the identity of an object throughout its variations. Objects continuously vary or change as their conditions change, yet there is something of the object that remains the same. But what is this something? Certainly it can’t be the local manifestations or actualizations of the object because those local manifestations change with shifting conditions or changes in exo-relations to other objects. It is this insight that leads many, I think, to overmine objects by reducing them to their relations to other objects. Yet as Harman has compellingly argued, this line of thought fails to provide the conditions for the possibility under which these variations are possible. As a consequence, it follows that the identity of an object cannot be something in the appearance (to the world, not to humans), local manifestation, or actualization of an object, but must reside in another dimension of the object. And because the object can undergo variations while remaining that object, it follows that the proper being of the object, its substantiality, must be something that does not manifest itself. It is there everywhere in the object, without ever becoming present in the world. It is the “principle” of the object, its “essence”, its “style of being”, without being something that we could ever find in the local manifestations of the object.

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In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

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