Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, May 10, 2010

Outflanking Parmenides: epistemology, ontology, pragmatism

One of the live issues in the Speculative Realist online debate of late concerns "relations" vs. "objects:" is an object constituted by the totality of its relations, or not? This is sometimes equated with a debate between a doctrine of "internal" or "external" relations, respectively. An internal relation is a relation that is constitutive of the thing in question, as on some accounts the fact that I am my parents’ son has a great deal to do with my genesis. Bradley formulated a radical version of the doctrine of internal relations that held that in some sense any given thing was its relations and nothing more; that all relations were internal. There is something about the doctrine of internal relations I find attractive (it is closely isomorphic with certain characterizations of sunyata – emptiness or “mutual arising” in Buddhism), but I am also very sympathetic to the argument that relations without relata is an incoherent proposition. I tend to think that Harman’s insistence that every object is always infinitely more than its qualities, or its relations, might be able to mediate this apparent impasse, but I am not yet sure.

Jeremy Trombley characterizes the discussion (in a comment on Steven Shaviro's blog) as "no longer a debate about epistemology versus ontology, but...wholly in the realm of ontology." This description is at the heart of the anti-Kantian side of Harman's position. Harman is pro-Kant when it comes to the thing-in-itself; anti-Kant when it comes to the claim that the divide between the in-itself and the phenomenon is the same as that between nature and the human mind. I am not confident enough to attack Harman's exegesis of Kant here, though I feel sure that one could argue that Kant need not be read as privileging the human so thoroughly (I think that when Kant talks about "rational beings" he means just that, not human beings per se); but the point isn't one of interpretation anyway. I am suspicious of the critique of epistemology in general. I don't accuse Harman of this, and Trombley's line is a single sentence in a comment so I don't assume this characterizes his whole position either. But I do notice in some Object-Oriented rejoinders to critique, frequent recourse to the distinction between epistemology and ontology. It isn't always as brusque as "Look, this isn't about epistemology, we're doing ontology here," but the distinction is drawn and drawn quite often.

I want to be clear about my motivations. I don't believe that Levi Bryant or Graham Harman has stupidly forgotten that whenever a human being does philosophy, there's a human mind at work. I'm not interested in critiquing OO thought as such; I believe in engaging any philosophy to see what can be done with it, to see what follows if, in Harman's words (Prince of Networks p121), we ask "what if this book, this thinker, were the most important of the century? How would things need to change?" Rather, what concerns me is that the distinction between epistemology and ontology can become, for those who are excited (as am I) by the possibilities of this revitalization of metaphysics, a kind of shorthand that does not need to be thought through. It is all too easy to gloss over this step. What follows is part of my attempt to think it through.

In the recent online debate, several times the OO side has claimed to be able to integrate the relationist side. Baldly put, this seems to come down to a claim that one must have relata in order to have relations; to reduce the object to only its relations is to make the object disappear; and then, lo and behold, so too do the relations. But grant that there are objects, and there can be relations too. Thus, it is held, the object-oriented philosophy can include the claims of the relationists, but not vice-versa. As I have said, I find congenial the claim that “relations without relata” is incoherent, or at least very problematic. I am less sanguine about claims of one side to be able to easily integrate the other.

I do find it notable that this is just what is also said about epistemology; we can have epistemology if we start with ontology, but if we start with epistemology we can never get to ontology because we are stuck in the human-world interface. While of course not all relationists champion epistemology against ontology, the epistemological relation itself can be held to be a particular kind of relation which either is, or exemplifies, what is essential in relations per se. This in fact is one way of describing what Meillassoux calls correlationism; and Kant, the founding figure of correlationism in Meillassoux's genealogy, started precisely with foundations of knowledge; what we can talk about and make claims about is the phenomenon, because this is what we can know; the thing-in-itself is forever beyond our grasp.

Speculative Realism, in whatever guise, has its sights fixed upon the mutated Kantian claim (mutated because Kant himself does not put it so strongly) that we cannot think what is outside thought. The argument that when we do so, we turn it into something inside thought, is deemed a tautology, and a mere tautology. Kant had banished ontology to the realm of the noumenal: there is a thing-in-itself, but we know nothing whatsoever about it; what we see and how we can think of the thing is what & how our minds oblige us to think. Meillassoux invented the word "correlationist" for this; correlationism holds that we cannot ever think reality in itself, but only the correlation between reality and thought. For Meillassoux, this is crazy-making; it means that you can't understand science the way science understands itself. You always have to insert a little caveat, under your breath, along the lines of "well, it looks that way to us." This is the opposite of Galileo's apocryphal eppur, si muove; whereas Galileo covertly asserted that the earth did really move, the correlationist asserts (again covertly) that we're in no position to say what might really be the case. It is as if Meillassoux thinks that the correlationist really thinks that the world came into existence a moment ago, complete with fossils, records, and memories.

Meillassoux’s argument is not merely that this is nonsense, but that it makes nonsense of science. It is not what science means. Much like Roy Bhaskar, Meillassoux argues that to understand science as science understands itself, you have to grant that it is making realistic claims, not claims about how things look but claims about what happened and what happens. Similarly, the ontologist in Harman's or Bryant's way of seeing things is talking about how things are, not about how things seem to us or about how we get our impression of how things seem. And could this perhaps be what correlationism is: the eliding of the distinction between epistemology and ontology?

This is not to say that the OO philosophy has no account of how we get such impressions; it has. This is what allows the claim of integration to be used against correlationism in just the same way as it is against epistemology. For instance, Bryant maintains that OO-thought can absorb, "integrate," whatever objections the correlationist throws at it, because it systematically outflanks the correlationist:
The battle cry of OOO is “don’t reduce objects to subjectivity!” What OOO objects to is not the thesis that when humans relate to objects they color it with their subjectivity in all sorts of ways. This is one of the reasons that OOO is so sanguine about correlationist critiques of realism. It’s not that we think that what these theorists are pointing out is outright false ...rather it’s that OOO theorists can integrate all of these claims while maintaining a realist stance. It’s already built into our ontology.
While I broadly agree with this account of Bryant's, there is something in this formulation that troubles me. The difficulty is in the "realist stance," and in "building in" the claims correlationists make. This difficulty hinges on an ambiguity in the use of the word "ontology;" do we mean here the actual field of ontology, or do we mean the discourse thereof? For, since the discourse of ontology is itself a human construct, it really doesn't matter what claims you build into it, if it's you building them in. What we need is "the things themselves." We want, in short, not a stance we adopt, but an ontology dictated to us by the things.

"OOO theorists can integrate all of these claims while maintaining a realist stance. It’s already built into our ontology." How so, integrated? By virtue, again, of being based upon Kant’s noumena/phenomena distinction, but universalizing it. There is nothing shocking for OOO in the claim that we don’t ever see the thing in itself, because nothing does. Any two objects bumping always and only ever encounter each other as phenomena.

But if that’s the case, how does OOO ever justify its talk about objects in the first place? How does it know there are any?

Bryant says in a different post:
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. But again, this is an issue of epistemology, not metaphysics. Metaphysics does not tell us what objects exist (that can only be known through inquiry), it only tells us that to be is to be a generative mechanism or an object.
Metaphysics here is opposed expressly to epistemology, but it is also foundational for a certain kind of epistemology: it dictates how we must think about "objects" and how we must think about "being." I take this to mean, when we say "object," this is how we use the word; this is how the concept shall work. As mentioned, Bryant (like Meillassoux) is following or at least resonating with Bhaskar here: to say that that "object" always means an "object-of-thought" simply drastically misconstrues what science means.

Thus the OO-theorist thinks they can outflank correlationism. But that's exactly what the correlationist thinks, too. To every brusque dismissal of epistemology in the name of ontology, the correlationist can respond "how do you know?" From here we can either appeal to evidence (which lands us with either Hume or with "naturalized epistemology" a la Quine); or to reason. If we take this second path, we meet another fork in the road: we can appeal either to an a priori option (Husserl takes this) or a grammatical one. Harman takes the phenomenological path, and he believes he has guarded enough against the idealist temptation in Husserl to be safe. The grammatical option is to rejoin, "that's what we mean when we say 'objects'." This, as I (mis?)read him, is the tack Bryant, following Bhaskar, takes in the citation above. And from here, we're back to a question of hermeneutics and interpretation--back to Quine's ground (indeterminacy of translation). It is possible of course by continued encounter and dialogue to persuade one's conversation partner that we have to adopt such-&-such a meaning to talk coherently, that to to otherwise is to fall into contradiction. But is this Socratic ploy a mode of persuasion alone, or is it something stronger? How do we know?

The sharp-eyed will have spotted that the moment we make this distinction between the actual matter of ontology on the one hand, and the "discourse" of ontology on the other, we have left ourselves wide open to whatever linguistic turn is coming around the bend. Once we concede that any given philosophy is a way of talking, there is a "merely" just waiting to be inserted. Neo-pragmatic ways of treating it as just another fashion are not going to be parried by distinguishing ontology from epistemology.

Of course, for a time, it may be that most thinkers will not be interested in this objection; the Rortyan moment may have more or less passed, and Speculative realism may well come to hold the field, so these kinds of relativisms may just be boring--for now. Rorty, the bad boy of American Pragmatism in the last generation, scandalized a lot of folks by urging us all to get over talking about capital-T Truth and just worry about making convincing and interesting conversations, and, also, playing nice with each other--refraining from cruelty. Rorty acknowledged that, having abandoned the claim to any theory of What the World is Really Like, or of How We Should Really Act, he couldn't try to rationally convince anyone that rationality, or indeed cruelty, was "Wrong;" he just wanted us to see that "talking that way" wasn't getting anywhere, was a bore, and that we should move on to something more diverting.

Rorty's talk about style and good taste in philosophy makes a lot of philosophers want to climb the walls; did he really think there were no damn criteria for a good argument?! What the hell was he going to say to the person who asks "why be moral?" or "why be rational?" Rorty thinks talk about realism is just that--talk, and talk with no good purpose. But the S.R. bunch all, in different ways, want to sweep all the preoccupation with language and talk aside, and revitalize an full-blooded metaphysics with unapologetic discussion of real entities and real qualities. Rorty held that in the wake of Hegel, we could now dispense with such talk:
In practice, though not in theory, [Hegel] dropped the idea of getting at truth in favor of the idea of making things new. His criticism of his predecessors was not that their propositions were false but that their language was obsolete. By inventing this sort of criticism the younger Hegel broke away from the Plato-Kant sequence and began a tradition of ironist philosophy which is continued in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.(Contingency, Irony, Solidarity pp 78-9)
or again:
To think of Wittgenstein and Heidegger as having views about how things are is not to be wrong about how things are, exactly; it is just bad taste. (Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature p 372).
This would seem, at first, to be the sort of thing no Speculative realist would have any truck with. But scratch the surface and you discover a remark like this from Graham Harman:
One good definition of philosophy is this: try to determine the dominant ideas of today that bore you the most, and then discover a way to make them obsolete.
This remark seems to me to be of a piece with of Harman's inheritance from Latour.
Nothing is by itself either logical or illogical, but not everything is equally convincing. There is only one rule: 'anything goes;' say anything so long as those being talked to are convinced. (The Pasteurization of France, p 182)
Harman is not naive about the price involved in making ideas obsolete. In citing this passage in Prince of Networks (p 23) he comments:
Perhaps we can [even] show that Lamarck was right and Darwin was wrong, but there will be a high cost in theoretical labour and initial public ridicule, and our efforts may ultimately fail.
As he notes, one needs to "convince" not just particular human listeners but also any number of other things. The effort to rehabilitate Lamarck would involve alliances with fossils, long strands of genetic and epigenetic molecules, research grant bureaucracies, Drosophila melanogaster. One significant difference between Latour, Harman, and Bryant on the one hand, and Rorty on the other, is that the former believe that such non-human actants can raise objections to our claims. In other words, for OO philosophy, certainly science at least is not just a "way of talking," since talking is not the only way persuasion happens.

But what about ontology (or onticology) itself? What kind of persuasion happens here? Is raising the question merely obtuse?

When Meillassoux poses the problem of strong correlationism, he juxtaposes it to Parmenides:
"Being and thinking are the same" remained the prescription for all philosophy up to and including Kant, [but] it seems that the fundamental postulate of strong correlationism can be formulated thus: "being and thinking must be thought as capable of being wholly other." (After Finitude, p 44.)
For all its critique of correlationism, OOP does not want to reinstate the Parmenidean equation. Indeed, it strikes me that at least one way to take Harman’s argument that one never encounters a real object is that OO thought is still at the old task announced in the Sophist, (241d):
testing the strength of the philosophy of our father Parmenides, proving by force that in a certain sense, non-being is, and being is not.
[Addenda 5/12/10: The internet is a good way to fine chop any pretensions one has to originality. Here is a post from Levi Bryant, that certainly did not have my own in mind, but is responding to a comment (on Adrian Ivakhiv's blog Immanence) by Michael, of Archive Fire (who has also responded). Bryant says:
Michael writes:
OOO seems to have a strong tendency towards an anti- epistemological stance, in that they seem to continually philosophize away the every-present issue of HOW we know reality ‘frames’ WHAT we can possibly know. An aversion to “correlationism” seems to justify this ‘leap of faith’ into, what I would call, a brute realist ontology.
[But]....What OOO objects to is the thesis that epistemology is first philosophy in the sense that questions of epistemology must precede any inquiry into being. For OOO it is ontology that is first philosophy. Moreover, there can be no hope of a coherent epistemology without ontology as first philosophy.
…If I follow Michael’s criticism correctly, he is falling prey to the common fallacy or line of reasoning that we must first know objects in order to make claims about what they are and that therefore epistemology precedes ontology.
After a lengthy and articulate explanation of his own project and how it draws upon Bhaskar's philosophy of science (and which makes me impatient for The Democracy of Objects), Levi concludes his post thus:
Michael’s criticism, I believe… is based on a fallacious bit of reasoning because, quoting Bhaskar, it trades on a conflation of philosophical knowledge and scientific knowledge. Philosophically we can articulate what being must be like in order for certain practices to be possible… ultimately the premises of our knowledge are ontological in character, such that ontology is first philosophy and required to render our practices intelligible.
(A side-effect of my late discovery of this recent argument from Bryant is that my post now weirdly reads to me as though it is a lot more about Bryant than it was before. So I want to clarify that I have no particular theorists in mind, especially not as targets for attack; if anything, I'm critiquing my own incipient (and perhaps incoherent) speculative realism.)

The back-&-forth between objects and discourse which Harman refers to in his remark that one needs to “convince” objects, is what Bryant calls science, as opposed to philosophy or metaphysics; it tells us about specific objects and their relations, rather than "what objects must be." But I am not sure that a confusion about this is what motivates the epistemologist to ask "how do you know?" As Bryant writes in his rejoinder to Michael,
ultimately the premises of our knowledge are ontological in character, such that ontology is first philosophy and required to render our practices intelligible.
Now one might object that our science is not possible, that it doesn’t really exist. That’s fine so far as it goes. I am not a foundationalist and am not making claims to unassailable foundations. I believe that this desire for unassailable foundations is what got philosophy into the correlationist deadlock.... [I]f we begin from the premise that we have these capacities and that science exists as something more than a pseudo-practice, then these are the ontological requirements for these capacities and practices.
Or, as Plato's Stranger says (op. cit. 241e):
Unless these words are either disproved or accepted, no one who speaks about false words, or false opinion—whether images or likenesses or imitations or appearances—about the arts which have to do with them, can ever help being forced to contradict himself and make himself ridiculous.
Here Bryant comes very close to the place where, as Wittgenstein would say, our spade is turned. Explanation comes to an end; we are left with practices--or, indeed, the assumption of practices. My feeling is that relationism (the argument that every thing is only its relations), pressed to its conclusions, does indeed mean that science stricto sensu doesn't exist, that it is (in Bryant's terms) a pseudo-practice. I wonder how close I am to just accepting this as the way things are. In a deconstructive mood, I might argue that that every practice is such a pseudo-practice, or is "already contaminated" with such a "pseudo-". This is to have recourse to a kind of argument that I doubt will appeal to the ontologist qua ontologist; but it might leave open the possibility of a sort of Hegelian aufhebung between ontology and epistemology.]


  1. Hey, thanks for quoting me - even if it does misrepresent my position. :)

    I don't pretend to understand all of the philosophical background in this discussion so I'll leave that to the actual philosophers. But this part of your post struck me:

    "... to understand science as science understands itself, you have to grant that it is making realistic claims, not claims about how things look but claims about what happened and what happens."

    What's interesting is that in many cases scientists have already run into this very problem of epistemology vs. ontology and have often chosen an approach that could be called "correlationist." I'm speaking particularly with regard to physics.
    Physicists have been using quantum mechanics (QM) for almost 100 years now, but QM is nothing more than a statistical model that predicts the behavior of atomic and sub-atomic particles. It works really well, but nobody really knows why. Some physicists (notably Neils Bohr) thought that the ultimate claims to reality don't matter - in other words, we don't have to know why QM works, as long as it continues to work. Others (Einstein for example) thought that we would eventually be able to explain what was really going on inside of atoms. To this day, despite numerous valient efforts (David Bohm, String Theory, etc.), there is no generally accepted explanation that goes beyond QM.*

    Now, QM is, admittedly, a pretty extreme example, but other scientists have run into such barriers as well. Ecologists have struggled to define an ecosystem, biologists an organism, and so on. Scientists that run into this barrier generally choose the pragmatic solution of ignoring the metaphysical claims and the ultimate Reality of the object and focusing on what we can observe empirically. In other words, there may be limits to our knowledge of the world around us, but that doesn't mean that we should stop exploring or that we can create the world arbitrarily out of our apprehension of it. I don't think we need to abandon metaphysical inquiry - we've been doing it for tens of thousands of years, why stop now? And it is valuable to think about it and push our boundaries. However, as I mentioned on Michael's blog, I think that metaphysical claims ought to be humbled by the very tangible epistemological limits.

    This is why I argued for an entanglement of epistemology and ontology - where objects, ideas, and perception are all placed on equal footing (an onto-epistemology or an epistemic-ontology?). I don't have the qualifications or the time to pursue it myself, but I'll keep watching here and on the other blogs to see what comes about.

    *There's a story about Bohm I read somewhere in which he visited some college to give a lecture on his theory of the implicate universe. He talked for a long time, writing complex equations on the board, and by the end of the lecture most of the audience (made up mostly of humanities students and professors interested in his theory) was confused and in awe thinking he must have said something genuinely brilliant. He then took questions from the audience, and one of the physics professors stood up and said "That's nice philosophy, Dr. Bohm, but where's the physics?"

  2. For my two cents worth it seems hard to say objects don't precede thought-or to risk technical terms I'm sure I don't know the nuances of-ontology precedes epistemology. Even if you say that some deep grammar is necessary for us to make any sense of the objects we perceive it just begs the question: how did this grammar evolve? Somewhere up the family tree there were functional, pragmatic, survival driven interactions between objects in which real information about those objects was exchanged. So unless you are willing to embrace the extreme position that the world was created with the first thought(logos?) objects have been interacting and slowly, through biological intermediation, been creating an understanding of each other long before the first sentient creature (or multicellular creature for that matter) ever existed.

    I'm just going to leave aside the discussion of flame's relation to cotton--it seems to me an unknowable thing; a position contrived for the argument; an oddly misplaced anthropocentrism or perhaps a biocentrism. I'm sure I just don't get Harman's point here but anytime objects interact they must in some way perceive each other even though that perception is just nuclear forces or electromagnetic waves empty of consciousness or thought.

    I understand science to be the exact opposite of metaphysics. Where as the metaphysician is looking for a priori statements or some fundamental ground of being the scientist is merely testing the world and observing reactions. He then builds theories about what he has seen but it is alien to the discipline that he must somehow know what it all means before going forward. Not to say some scientists don't like to work from a grand scheme but it isn't necessary. I find it perplexing that some would ask the scientist in some metaphysical way "how" he knows. He only really knows that it keeps happening over and over again and that pattern can be predictive of other happenings. I think it a fair question for the scientist to ask why does it matter how I know? Unless of course I'm studying how one knows as a particular discipline.

  3. Dy0genes: "I find it perplexing that some would ask the scientist in some metaphysical way "how" he knows."
    This statement puzzles me, in a comment which otherwise presents me with little to raise my eyebrows at. I'm not sure how to get at what you mean by "in a metaphysical way," but surely "how do you know?" is the most legitimate question one can possibly ask a scientist! So I am not sure I can grant what is otherwise an intriguing opposition, when you say "I understand science to be the exact opposite of metaphysics." On this, I note that Harman recently observed on his blog that Kuhn's distinction between "normal" and "revolutionary" science can be parsed in his terms by saying that normal science is the investigation of properties of objects; revolutionary science happens with the discovery/construal of new sorts of objects. My sense is that normal science does indeed operate as you suggest; but a "paradigm shift" requires a different sort of reflection.

    I'm tempted to say that epistemology and ontology are reverse and obverse of each other, but tempted here means that I'm a bit wary of this "solution" as too easy. My bias is towards a Whiteheadian panexperientialism-- it's "encounter all the way down." So I would be inclined to say that "if quarks could talk," they'd be asking themselves "how they know" about whatever it is that quarks encounter.

    This "how do you know?" question strikes me as very like the Turing test, incidentally. If we really do anticipate intelligent machines, this question-- and the interface with ontology-- will get more and more relevant.

  4. Jeremy, welcome and thanks for responding. I have thought a bit about the quantum mechanics question, but as I commented over on Archive Fire, these sorts of empirically discovered limits may be flimsy hooks for hanging our metaphysics on. This is not to say that physics has no philosophical ramifications. Your other example, ecology, also appeals to me, particularly because it strongly emphasizes the relational context in which each "thing" comes to be. This is a place where the OO critique seems quite pertinent, because ecology as a science depends upon abstractions and "reifications" which it must then decry in its more relational ramifications. E.g.: ecology, amassing an impressive array of statistics and other, harder data, can show how the fish population in this stream is impacted by the algae, the root systems of plants along the bank the rainfall in the mountains, and so on; and these are in turn effected by a whole host of other concrete factors; and so on and on. But the end result of this is to say that nothing can be studied in isolation--that there are no "closed systems" in Bryant's terms. Since science in fact depends upon such closed systems, this seems to me to be an example of crossing out your own presuppositions. I don't read this as a reductio, however, but more like a Kantian antinomy.

    Bohm is a pretty fascinating character and I doubt that his legacy is played out. As you no doubt know, he developed a strong meta-reflective interest in the process of dialogue, over and above whatever "content" the exchange happened to be "about." This is philosophy at its rawest-- the question never letting the questioner out of its sight.

  5. Simply put the scientist only knows because the world continues to behave in the way it did last time. When it doesn't he will no longer know what he thought he knew. I guess one could find oneself on such a height of theory that one forgets the solid blocks upon which the theory is built. He answers the question of "how" by demonstrations of objects and could but doesn't necessarily need to attempt an explanation of how we perceive or process that demonstration. What I'm trying to get at is this encounter is a fundamental experience that differs little from when a flower turns to the sun. It only becomes a metaphysical question when one starts to ask "but really, DO I know what just happened?" Frankly, that question seems to me a little pathological. The whole non-human world seems to happily know what it knows without such ado. And as to the quarks asking how they know, well I have no reason to suspect them to be afflicted with that peculiar human ailment.

    I've been reading Harman's blog and his many quite revealing observations. I get the impression that the dominant ideas of his day that most annoy him are the tenants of science and the hegemony they have over the world not-continental-philosophy. That makes me very suspicious when he tries to make distinctions about science. He is a hostile witness. He seems to constantly want to belittle the efforts of science (as many philosophers do) as mundane. They're just talking about the furniture of the world, right? Not even touching upon the really big questions. I find him ironic here. He wants to center the discussion on objects but not really. He wants the discussion to be about the discussion of objects and not real objects themselves. I disagree with him that there is any such thing as normal vs revolutionary science. Science becomes revolutionary when it's normal activity has accumulated enough evidence to overthrow our prejudices. Not to say there aren't revolutionary scientists. It's a rare person who can overthrow their prejudices even when the evidence tell them to.

    If science is indeed a pseudo-practice(and I have absolutely no idea what that means) it certainly is the most fruitful such thing in human history. Of course I include making fire and arrow points and planting crops as science.

  6. "He wants the discussion to be about the discussion of objects and not real objects themselves."
    This is just what I meant when I asked about ontology as discourse. However, I feel sure Harman would not agree with this characterization. I think he wants philosophers to have this discussion, but I am not sure he really needs scientists to be on board with it or not.
    I am myself a bit unclear on what Bryant means by 'pseudo-practice.' He denies being a foundationalist, but I am at a loss as to how what he is proposing (minimal ontological commitments for such-&-such a practice) differs from this, except that he seems to leave open the possibility that if you don't want to understand science as it understands itself, you are free to embrace correlationism; he just wants you to be clear that you can't have it both ways.

    For myself, I sort of see what you mean by calling Harman a hostile witness, but this seems a bit too strong to me. (Kvond might agree with you though). Harman's opponents are not scientists, but certain philosophers of science, who have a different construal of science than he believes is called for. A lot of folk thought (and still think) that Latour is anti-science as well. I just don't understand this. I see why people might think he is an idealist, at least in his over-the-top moments (e.g. "microbes did not exist before Pasteur"), but you don't spend your career doing science studies if you think science is pointless or just wrong-headed. Allow me to plug Latour's Pandora's Hope here, as well as Harman's Prince of Networks, on the off-off-chance that someone has not looked at these yet. (you can also find PON as a downloadable pdf.)

  7. What is it about SR or OOO or transcendental realism that makes them to be realisms? Is there a family resemblance to the classical form of realism viz. Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomistic realism where there is an underlying unity between the subject and the object. Put at its most general the 'idea' informs both the object and the mind or that the mind (active intellect) can grasp the form in the object. Similar notions are at work in the Advaita of Shankaracarya.

    They deny correlationism but what is the ontological structure that allows that denial or raises that denial above an intuition?

  8. @Skholiast - I see what you're saying now. I can't say what kind of hooks QM offers metaphysics (likely none at all when it comes down to it). Like I said on Michael's post, I prefer not to engage in metaphysics - I have nothing new to contribute and I don't have time or patience to wade through all the philosophical materials. I was just trying to point out the limits that Levi and any ontological or metaphysical project must address before claiming to have abolished epistemology.

    Have to say, though, I kinda like this quote from dy0genes:

    "The whole non-human world seems to happily know what it knows without such ado."

    I couldn't tell you why, though.
    You guys keep philosophizing. I'll go back to doing my school work. :)

  9. ombhurbhuva~~ "What is it about SR or OOO or transcendental realism that makes them to be realisms? ...
    They deny correlationism but what is the ontological structure that allows that denial or raises that denial above an intuition?"

    I see at least Harman and Bryant attempting the admirable project of a noumenology. It's not just an intuition, its a stipulation. What can we say about that about which we know nothing? Quite a lot, it turns out. So did we "know" it after all? This is perhaps a roundabout way of suggesting an answer to your question about the kinship (if any) between OO thought and "classical" realism.

    Among some of the other SRists, Ray Brassier I think wants to think through the limits of thought, its coming smack into the mute and indifferent thusness of a brute en-soi. He assumes, as dy0genes put it, that ontology precedes epistemology and really doesn't give a damn about it.

    Jeremy~~ I go back & forth on how to assimilate the meaning of QM and other such richly theorized accounts of inscrutability. I hope not to have implied that science per se need not interest the philosopher. I do sometimes think that we're reaching a point at which nature is holding up a mirror to us. (That remark of Eddington's about the footprint, e.g.) My sometime reticence arises from one too many encounters with Tao-of-physics enthusiasts. And yet, newage trends aside, I can't shake the feeling they have a point.

    the remark from dy0genes you cite-- "The whole non-human world seems to happily know what it knows without such ado"-- calls to mind this essay by Lars Gustafsson on the cleverness of things.

  10. PS: I put the question to Levi on Larval Subjects as to what he meant by the distinction between project and pseudo-project, so perhaps we'll get more clarification than my own rooting about in the dark about another man's ideas. We'll see. He seems a busy man these days, & may not get to it.

  11. Prince of Networks page 109:" The model of the world as a hard layer of impenetrable matter tells us only that matter can shove other matter out of the way or smack it forcefully, with the added sweetener that cognitive science will no longer allow the human mind to be exempt from this process. But this merely takes inanimate causation as an obvious given while doing nothing to explain how it occurs. It is a metaphysics fit for a two-year-old: 'da wed ball pusht da gween ball...an da gween ball fell on da fwoorr"

    Permission, your honor, to treat the witness as hostile?

    I think Harman is wonderful writer and well worth reading. He is usually generous in his assessments and generally fair but there are times that his animus against someone/something shows through. Seriously, has anybody given a metaphysical explanation for cause and effect that improves upon the two-year-old's observations? I mean without resorting to some deity or inscrutable force? At least the materialists offer us forces that we can measure and do a little math on. I'm delighted by Latour's form of metaphysics but I don't see how a power struggle is really a superior explanation of causality than Newtonian mechanics. I have my biases but I don't really have a dog in the fight unlike the professional philosopher Harman does. I am happy to concede that there is something beyond physics but I'm going to resist comparing our feeble attempts to explain that a priori as the obsessions of a ten year old.

  12. "I don't believe that Levi Bryant or Graham Harman has stupidly forgotten that whenever a human being does philosophy, there's a human mind at work. "

    I don't think anyone ever suggested that they "stupidly forgot" the issue, more like "intentionally ignore and pretend that no one would notice it" - saying "but I'm doing ontology, not epistemology" a la Bryant is a trick that doesn't work. According to Kant, you can't do ontology without epistemology (that's that whole point of Kant, isn't it? there's no ontology without epistemology)...

  13. dy0genes~~ if you were looking for a good proof text, you certainly found it. My own feeling is that causality per se really doesn't have an explanation. Harman's attempt ("vicarious causality") strikes me as a gorgeous poem, a dazzling byzantine work of glittering epicycles, but no, I can't see it as any better than the wed ball pussht the gween ball. (What does Bradley say, bad reasons for what we already believe?) I suppose this might make me "a correlationist at heart." For me the pleasure of Harman's metaphysics is his audacity and his style. I think he's done some heroic work in almost single-handedly recouping Latour for English-language philosophy (as opposed to 'science studies'). Whether or not I agree with him is secondary to my admiration for his sticking to his guns, and (more importantly) his pushing things in new and interesting directions. But there's no doubt, his rhetoric does indeed show his allegiances; he's going for something "deeper than science", because (my read is) he wants to take back the properly philosophical territory he feels was unjustly / unnecessarily ceded to science. One might disagree about whether this was really so, but that's a different issue.

  14. Mikhail~~ welcome aboard!

    No, of course Kant argues that there is no ontology sans epistemology, and the cunning or perplexing or infuriating thing about OO philosophy in particular is that it takes the kantian distinction (noumena/phenomena split) as a ground from which to deny the kantian equation. As I have said, I'm not really 100% convinced this works, but I am not interested in tearing down OO thinking, because (as Harman more or less says himself of Meillassoux), even if it's wrong, it's wrong in interesting ways. (I know this might mark me as a philistine or a dilettante, but I am interested in what one can do with a thinker, what surprising or counterintuitive conclusions one can draw, what connections or contrasts one can make between them and anyone else. Thus I read promiscuously Schmitt or Mao or Kierkegaard or Aurobindo, not to mention the poets or novelists or scientists or mythologists or whoever, and see what happens. This does not mean I don't take philosophy seriously, but my own stakes are different and tend to aim at praxis).

    I strongly agree with you that "I'm doing ontology, not epistemology" does not really work-- or at least, it doesn't convince me in the absence of a more extensive rationale as to why I ought to grant this distinction the force it claims. I incline to think that epistemology and ontology are obverse and reverse of one another, but because I also see the force of certain elements in Meillassoux's argument against correlationism, I want to pay special heed to what this means, even if i decide eventually to embrace the label and wear it loud, wear it proud. What I really find myself wondering is: if, as Harman argues, every object "perceives," then the question of "epistemology" in some sense arises for every one of them. But of course since human beings seem to be the only "object" that worries about this, we're back to Heidegger's Dasein: the being for whom being is an issue. Lo! there's that old "human-world" split, again. On the other hand, we could say, No, being is just as much as "issue" for ball bearings or badgers or black holes, but we don't know how this happens for them. I don't think it's just anthropo-chauvinism to find this implausible. But if we grant it, I might argue that just as intentionality is (in Harman's mataphysics) universal, so too is correlationism.

  15. I certainly sympathize with the sentiment of "I don't care if it's wrong, I only care if it is wrong in an interesting way" but I don't see this sentiment in Harman's work (he does it with a "maybe I am wrong" but by the end of the sentence we find out that he's most likely not) and most certainly not in Bryant (who can never answer a simple question such as "Why should we prefer object-oriented approach over the good old subject-oriented?"). In other words, if someone sincerely proposed that they might be wrong but in an interesting way, and were not simply posturing, I would certainly pay more attention.

    As for epistemology/ontology, I can say this: I wish they were trying and getting it wrong, but they don't because there are only two possible outcomes if they do - it's either nonsense or it's anthropomorphism (yes, metaphors are great and all, but objects don't perceive each other - it's not a question of "how do you know they do or don't?" but "are you kidding me?").

    Now, I personally think that the distinction between epistemology and ontology does not exist after Kant. That is to say, to begin again to distinguish between epistemology and ontology is to intentionally and quite openly dismiss Kant's project, not to prove it wrong - it is to do philosophy as if Kant never existed. Is it being wrong in an interesting way? I think so, but I think it's fair to say (and I read you as suggesting so) that neither Harman nor Bryant ignore Kant as they pick and choose, that is in addition to constant angry Kant bashing without often a slightest understanding of Kantian subtleties. Kant is dismissed with a couple of smartass jokes and remarks - yes, yes, Bryant constantly reminds everyone that he wrote his dissertation on Kant, but it was a long time ago and I'm sure he could use a bit of a refresher course. In any case, my views are well-known, if you find something exciting and new in Harman/Bryant, so do I, but not in a good healthy philosophical way.

  16. Hello skholiast, glad to have found your blog.

    "This difficulty hinges on an ambiguity in the use of the word "ontology;" do we mean here the actual field of ontology, or do we mean the discourse thereof?"

    It is precisely this indeterminacy that I think needs to be maintained and reckoned with.In fact I view OOP as a response to this very ambiguity.

    "it’s not that we think that what these theorists are pointing out is outright false ...rather it’s that OOO theorists can integrate all of these claims while maintaining a realist stance. It’s already built into our ontology."

    I view this as very much a hegalian negation, of negating this ambiguity, of putting it in (a)place. A place that is put in reserve, insulated, and therefore pure - in order to avoid contamination. In which the 'truth' of this ambiguity can then be realized through OOP.


  17. Hi Will,

    Thanks for this comment (I am glad people still remark on "old" posts). I hope you'll hang around.

    Insofar as I am a "believer" in OOP-- and I admit that at least of late I find my habits of thought tending that way-- I tend to see it through a somewhat Hegelian lens. That is, my thought about objects tends to be along lines more or less laid out by Harman's take on intentionality a la nonhumans. But my thought about OOPitself is dialectical (and this always means, for me, that it tends towards Schelling and Kierkegaard). Metaphilosophy is still wrestling with Hegel 200 years later.

    My own gamble is that dialectics furnishes the roadmap for the promised happy reunion between object-oriented and relational ontologies; lately I have been struck by the fact that Bataille's so-caled "Hegelianism w/o reserve," seems to have got there ahead of me: his weird hyper-Hegelianism has the twist that it builds in the "nonknowledge" which (I take it) is the relation of any two real objects, each to the other's ding-an-sich. Though I am not sold on Bataille's obsession with transgression, I like his quasi-openness to the religious dimension.

    In which respect it is interesting too that you put matters in terms of contamination. The old laws of ritual (and ritual purity) that lie at the back of philosophy are never really dispelled.

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  19. I don’t think you can leave Hegel behind, but I think SR crew have done a Marx and stood Hegal on his head. What I find particularly troublesome is the certitude of a strategic bet of counting on one’s own ability to know limits, where the human starts and where it finishes. There is a certitude which I find reactive, ontology as first philosophy ( or any first philosophy for that matter) I find nauseating as it assumes the position of sovereign judge in what it chooses to assimilate or discard. It reduces or at the very least straightjackets discussion and it becomes rather tame.

    This is why I like Bataille, (and Derrida), as they can draw attention to areas of the negative that in my view elude the labour of the negative but at the same time does not reject it outright, and do so without entertaining a half-way-house. The silences which elide are not ejected in order to be retaken up by the dialectic, but (to use a French expression I very much like)"à même" with the movement itself.