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: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: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.
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.Or, as Plato's Stranger says (op. cit. 241e):
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.
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.]