As I said in my post on Platonic dialectic, everything begins with an encounter. Encounters occur in a space of immanence. The Real erupts in the …

Plato and Transcendental Argument

In this series of posts I’m trying to proceed as naively as possible, refusing philosophical questions, and just describing things as they appear. The key examples in an earlier post is that the earth appears to be still and that the sun and moon appear to rise and set such that we’re stationary and at the center of things. Of course, we now know this is just an appearance and that the earth is actually spinning and that it’s a sort of an illusion of perspective. We distinguish between the appearance and the reality. I’m beginning with this naive realism that temporarily suspends the appearance/reality distinction for methodological reasons to capture salient features— especially surrounding value —that are difficult to derive in the philosophical attitude and that I think tend to get overlooked. I want to treat value in all its forms as realities of our experience that pervade every aspect of the world we navigate. Hence the thesis that the world shines with values. The philosophical question then becomes that of why some people see them and others do not? Why are some of us blind to them in the way that some people are color blind? Is it that they values are just subjective or is there something else going on? With that question we enter the philosophical attitude that distinguishes appearance and reality. Take the example of genocide. How can people do this to others. Is it that the worth and dignity of persons is just subjective, social constructs? I’m not so sure. Why? Because the same people who do these horrific things to others treat other people as ends in themselves in other aspects of their lives. They see the shine of value dimly and inconsistently. This suggests to me that these atrocities come from elsewhere, requiring extensive rhetorical conditioning to lead us to see the persecuted group as worthless and to be destroyed. To get to that thesis, however, I need to begin with the pre-philosophical experience of value to see how it actually shines in experience before we begin to philosophically reflect.

The central thesis of wilderness ontology is that the wilderness is all there is. In beginning from the premise that the wilderness is all there is it is necessary to practice the distinction between the signifier and the signified. When we hear the signifier “wilderness” the signified we think of is that of undomesticated lands outside of civilization. We think of phusis or that which grows and blooms out of itself if it’s own accord, untouched by human techne. This signified, however, must be refused. It is precisely this association, this signified, that is foreclosed by the thesis that the wilderness is all there is. To say “all” is to say “without exception”. This is precisely the point of wilderness ontology: it aims to trace a plane of immanence, to think Spinozist substance (but turning about the modes as Deleuze proposed), in a manner that unsettles and complicates our unconscious but always operative distinctions between nature and culture, form and matter, mind and body, and all the rest. Henceforth, the wilderness will no longer be a place you go to or visit because if the wilderness is all there is you are always already there. As I sit here writing this on my couch in the living room I am no less in the wilderness than when I am in the rain forests of Costa Rica. If I abuse and pervert language in this way in the name of forging a concept and deducing the concepts that it calls forth, then this is because I believe the Anthropocene is the horizon of all thought today, that it is that which calls us to think today, and the nature/culture distinction that forms the philosophical unconscious of Western thought since it’s beginning— that informs every discipline and our entire system of values —is a hindrance and obstacle to thinking the Anthropocene. In the Anthropocene we discover the Planetary, our withness and amongness with being. Such distinctions are no longer tenable.

The wasteland is the complement to the wilderness. The wasteland is both a lived reality embodied in floating islands of garbage in our oceans, 145°F temperatures detected by satellites this last week in India, mass extinctions, and endless climate related natural disasters, but also a way of thinking in which everything is reduced to instrumental or means/ends rationality. In the wasteland everything is reduced to a use and the only telos is profit. There is a twilight of absolute values, those things that are valuable for their own sake and nothing else, in the wasteland. These absolute values are that for the sake of which we live, yet they dim and grow faint. Beauty, friendship, love, health, knowledge for the sake of satisfying our curiosity and not for the sake of profit or new technologies…. In the wasteland all of these values or attractors take flight such that we can scarcely discern them and think people are sentimental fools when they speak of them. The wasteland is what we must escape even if it increasingly overwhelms us in an absolute desert.

Everything always begins with an encounter. A crisis of life or thought. A son is rotten while his father is good. Would it be just to escape from prison when I’ve been unjustly found guilty? Another son is accusing his father of impiety. There’s always an encounter, a question. And make no mistake, these encounters happen by chance. They are genuine events that surge up within the regularity and routine of life, problematizing it and calling our commonplaces into question. Perhaps this, then, is the first lesson of Platonic philosophy: there are no “questions or problems of philosophy” if by that one means eternal and abiding questions to which philosophers might propose differing solutions and then debate amongst themselves. There is no, for example, question “what is knowledge in general?”, but rather only ever questions like what is knowledge in archaeology, or physics, or engineering, or football, etc., and it is always a crisis with something that doesn’t fit that precipitates this question. True and genuine philosophy always begins with an encounter and is therefore fragmentary for this reason. System builders dream of an end to encounters. They dream of banishing the real and its return.

What Plato says of the dialectic is mysterious. We rise, he says, from the cases in the world to a principle. Then we descend back to the world. We look among different instances of justice that we think we’ve encountered— justice in the classroom, in the workplace, at the vending machine, with taxes, in the courtroom, etc —and then we make what Peirce called an abduction, extracting a double of these particulars, a general formula. For example, what is common to these instances of justice that are so very different? What is the formula— f(x) = 3x + 5 —that is their common pattern? Perhaps we infer that justice is fairness. That will be the form (I realize this isn’t Plato’s answer in The Republic). Getting the grade one earned based on the quality of work done, a reasonable price on a drink from the vending machine, a fair wage for work, a sentence proportional to the crime, etc. These things are all so very different, yet they have a common pattern.

We ascend into the heights of abstraction and now, from abstraction, we descend back to the world with transformed vision. In the Allegory Socrates talks about how the prisoner who returns from the outside world can now scarcely see. Rather, she sees differently. Having grasped the form-ula we now see with an eye towards what calls or beckons us to fairness. Are there things we have missed that pertain to justice or fairness? Are their imperatives that we didn’t before see or discern? But also, are there things we before thought were fair or just that turn out to be unjust? Perhaps we advocated the fair tax. Superficially it might seem fair and just to tax everyone at exactly the same percentage rate. But then I notice that Walmart makes far more use of the highways and military (to maintain safe shipping routes) than I do. Shouldn’t they pay an amount proportional to the use they make of public services? Gradually, in our descent the world becomes re-ordered and re-thought as we submit it to the test of the form-ula, transforming our vision or practice. We need not believe in the reality of forms to be Platonists. We need only believe in the power of thought to transform our vision or practice through the formation of concepts. Being a disciple of a philosopher never means bowing before the letter of their text— that’s a scholar, not a philosopher —but rather means being inspired by a vector and intensity in their thought, a spirit, that you vary, mutate, and carry on like dancing sparks across time on a Jacob’s ladder.

I remain in the pre-philosophical attitude. The aim here is the resist the urge to theorize, to explain, to cite, but just take note of experience. As a result, I’m doing a poor version of phenomenology. That must be bracketed as well. This is doomed to failure as theorization and what one has read will always creep in, but I must try. The aim is to note those features of experience— not my experience yet, just experience —that are salient and that will perhaps become grounds for a transition to the philosophical attitude. I am seeking after the grounds of questions worth asking. I am not seeking answers from others or their theories.

The world shines with value and imperatives. It beckons to me, calling me to behave towards the things of the world in appropriate ways. I experience their value as in the things themselves. I do not experience them as coming from me. It is the thing itself that calls for regard. I will not ask whether the values come from me or are in the things themselves, nor will I wonder how they might be grounded or defended or address the specter of relativism. It is enough, in the pre-philosophical attitude, in the world of appearances that the values present them as out there in the world, as real, as there in the things in themselves.

The world first presents itself as split or divided between that which is of value and that which is not of value. These values are not economic, nor are they prices. Perhaps it would be better to say that the world presents itself as that which is indifferent and that which shines with import. It is difficult to describe the indifferent because it goes unnoticed. It falls into the background and does not call to us to attend to it.

The values are not homogenous or of one kind, but manifest themselves in different ways and to different degrees. The dead crow I found in my yard the other day is an occasion of sadness as a magnificent bird is gone, but also signs with a sense of menace, danger, and disgust. It calls for me to behave appropriately towards it both out of respect for it even though it will never know, and to protect myself from potential disease or sickness. It is a fallen being in its passage from the living to the dead.

The mess on my patio cooking table shines with a sense of irresponsibility on my part. It issues an imperative for me to clean it, one that will not cease making these demands to me until I restore it to the state in which it ought to be. Our dog is an end in herself, an absolute. She is not a tool to be used to pull a sled or guard us or for entertainment– at least not in the sense that we play a game for entertainment or watch television –but is her own purpose and valued for her sake. Even when she is irritating as she was last night when, terrified by the rain storm, she climbed all over our heads in bed seeking comfort, there is a demand that we attend to her and comfort her. This demand does not issue from her even as she makes it, but rather is just what is right. A feeling of anger and rage comes over me as I hear the dogs a few houses over crying and barking, chained in the back yard away from their people in the rain or on a bitterly cold night. This is no way to treat a dog. It is a violation of their dignity, an abuse.

There are those places and things that are sacred and that call to be treated with reverence. I know of no other word for it. These places and things call for us to behave in certain ways and to attend to them in certain ways. One does not laugh or speak in a loud voice when they visit Auschwitz. You do not take selfies of yourself in this place. It is a sacred place that demands reverence. It shines with an aura of what happened there. Likewise, in Svaerholt, you not throw garbage on the ground of this wilderness and in the midst of these ruins, even if all sorts of flotsam blows in and washes up on the shores. This place is to be treated with care and reverence. Similarly you do not carve your initials in Stonehenge or belch loudly in a temple or church even if you’re an atheist.

Others call to us in all sorts of ways as well. As you walk through a doorway you don’t simply let a door slam shut if someone else is behind you. You hold it open as you enter so that they might enter too. This is a recognition and acknowledgement of their personhood and there are millions of tiny gestures like this. The beautiful demands that it be attended to, that it be sheltered and protected. It is a sacrilege to removed the mountaintop to mine or to cut down the redwood trees because of their beauty and singularity. The stone formations in Goblin National Park call for us to protect them and we hiss when we see others push them over because they are unique, beautiful, exist only in this place, and took thousands of years to form.

Everywhere the world is pervaded by value and shines with value and these values are what structure our action and comportment towards them. They are the teloi and the ends of our action, that for the sake of which we act, and are the ultimate meanings in our lives. They are that which make life worth living and are that for the sake of which we do everything else.

I will begin, to the best of my ability, with the pre-philosophical attitude. In this I am surely doomed to fail. The pre-philosophical attitude is that stance in which there has not yet been a split between appearance and reality. The way things appear is the way they are. There is not yet any sense that in reality things might be different than they appear and for this reason there is not yet any call for philosophical reflection. I am trying to begin as Plato’s prisoner in the cave staring at the wall where what you see is what you get and there is not yet any reason to question what I see. In the pre-philosophical attitude the earth is stationary, I know what it is that I think, the sun and moon rise and set, etc. Everything is as it appears. I begin in the pre-philosophical attitude to begin thinking once again about things and objects. I am not suggesting that the pre-philosophical attitude should be the authority that decides what things are.

Nothing could be more evident than that we are surrounded by things of all kinds. Some of these things are inanimate and natural such as rocks. Other things are inanimate and technological or carry the imprint of human work such as the table at which I am now writing. Yet others are living like my dog sitting next to me or my wife sitting across from me or the bird flying in the sky. As I write the last sentence I involuntarily cringe. To call my wife, dog, and the bird flying in the sky things seems to denigrate them. It seems offensive.

Already I have learned two things: First, I have learned that things or objects belong to different kinds. There are inanimate things, technological things, and living beings. To this list we should add art things such as the painting that hangs on my wall. They are all things, but they differ– perhaps –significantly from one another. I will have to inquire into what those differences are and what distinguishes them at some point. But I will have to start by some time asking myself what makes a thing a thing in general or what is common to all these things as things.

Second, I have learned that things have different degrees of value. If I wince in counting my wife and dog as things, then this is because calling them thus suggests that they are of equal value to rocks when that certainly not the case. They differ in value and dignity than the mere rock. Even placing my wife and dog in the same category fills me with a sense of unease, for while my love for our dog is immense and I would risk or lay down my life for my dog without even thinking about it (e.g., if we were on a lifeboat I would share our limited food with our dog), nonetheless there is something unsettling in putting my wife and a person in the same category with dogs and birds. This worth is not of an economic or monetary kind. It is not a price. Rather it is an esteem or dignity. Perhaps later we will have to explore whether this shouldn’t be questioned.

For the moment, though, I have learned that I must inquire into value and how we rank things in terms of dignity and worth. It is as plain as day to me that some things are filled with an aura of dignity and worth, yet what is this strange phenomenon of value that shines forth from some things? What is this esteem and from whence does it come? In the pre-philosophical attitude it seems self-evident that the redwood forests, the beautiful animal, the rock formations of Goblin National Park, the person, the work of art shine with dignity and that it is sacrilegious to destroy or harm them. I grasp it immediately in these things just as I see things immediately and experience a sort of animal faith that they are really there and not just illusions. Yet this worth, this value, this dignity is not a feature of things like their color, texture, and heft that I can point to. Yet it’s there. How is this to be thought?

I now glance up at the sky as a cloud passes. Is that cloud a thing or object I wonder? Somehow the cloud seems less an object than a cat, table, rock, or person. It somehow seems wrong to call the cloud an object, but surely it is something? And what of the crowd I saw yesterday milling about campus? Is it an object or is it just a group of persons? In other words– now a third thing, this time a question –where do we draw the line between objects and, for lack of a better word, non-objects? We seem to rank some things as more things than other things. Why? And should we? I will leave off here, hoping that questions will begin to percolate marking the transition from the pre-philosophical attitude to a philosophical attitude where how things appear no longer indicates that it is so evident as to how they are.

If I were to evaluate philosophy by aesthetic criteria, I would say that a good philosophy should not be the equivalent of khaki pants, button downs, and loafers. Somewhere Deleuze says that a philosophy that causes no tears, no one to cry, is worthless. I don’t know that good philosophy need hurt, but I do think all good philosophy startles, surprises us, and fills us with a sense of wonder. It upsets doxa or common sense and commonplaces. It shouldn’t do this for the sake of being contrarian or counter-intuitive or shocking, but out of necessity: the necessity of the real or that which is unseen and unmarked in thought. A philosophy that simply confirms all that we think should be the case, our sense of how things ought to function, is a state philosophy and no real philosophy at all. If it carries no aura of the strange, the defamiliarizing, if it doesn’t unsettle and disquiet, it hasn’t fulfilled its function as philosophy. There’s a whole highly successful genre of philosophy that’s the equivalent of khaki pants. It’s celebrated because it confirms what we already thought and “makes sense”.

A talk I gave in London this morning about my recent work today.

My article on the pandemic in the journal Identities can be found here.

I’ve been having a lengthy discussion with a very good friend about normativity and how we go about determining values. One of the things that keeps coming up is the question of what ethical implications my version of object-oriented ontology. In particular, they ask whether my flat ontology is making the claim that all things are equally valuable or have equal worth. This question isn’t unique to my friend. It’s something that has come up since I first proposed flat ontology years ago. When I first started receiving this question I was completely caught off guard. Flat ontology is a thesis about what is and how things are, not a thesis about values and worth. It is not making the claim that a flea is as valuable as a human being. It is the thesis that fleas are real and so are human beings. Given the curious tendency of people to convert ontological claims into value claims, I’ve come to suspect that there’s some feature of our psychology that leads us to do this. I’m not sure why, but I encounter it so frequently that I find it difficult to escape this conclusion.
None of this is to say that I don’t think there aren’t political and ethical implications of my work, just not how one might think. When I reflect on my articles, The Democracy of Objects, and Onto-Cartography, I think the entire aim of my work is to help people ask better questions. I’ve said this for years, but now that I think about it, I’ve seldom explained what I mean by a better question. There’s a very real sense in which my work isn’t aimed at philosophers. I get very impatient with debates in philosophy about who interpreted a philosopher better, or whether we should be Kantians or Hegelians or speculative realists, or whether Heidegger got it right or Badiou got it right. These all have merit and value, but they’re not what I’m after.
If I were to sum up the spirit of my work, I would say that it is a philosophy of design. When I say I want my work to help people to ask better questions, I’m talking about better questions with respect to the world we live in and how it is put together. I see design problems everywhere and I see a lot of cruelty in our world because we don’t reflect on design and how it enhances or detracts from our lives. Take education reform. A feature of both Bush and Obama’s education reform was to link federal funding of schools to student performance. The idea was that if a school is performing poorly we should withdraw funding to get the teachers and the school to get their act together. I think this is a terrible design solution. The idea is that the schools are failing because teachers aren’t doing their job (notice also that at a certain point we began demanding teachers get more training– at least a master’s degree –so they would be competent at their jobs). These sorts of design solutions are profoundly superficial in their analysis of the problem.
read on!