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

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Does the matter withdraw? Does the withdrawal matter?

Levi Bryant has posted a brief take on one of the two hard (and deceptively simple) questions that I think must be faced by any philosophy which takes its lead from Harman. [Update: in a follow-up post, Bryant distinguishes further between his own conception of withdrawal and Harman's before moving on to elucidate his own position more.] Both these questions have to do with the "withdrawn" object. One of them I asked some while ago--how do such metaphysicians know there are any such objects? This question can easily get disregarded in the enthusiasm for doing ontology rather than epistemology. I happen to think this is a dicey game, but I don't think it renders Harman or Bryant unable to continue doing their work. It just means we should place them more in the line of Descartes (despite Descartes' supposed epistemological bias) than of Locke or Hume--they are after "clear and distinct ideas"--and that's no surprise, as we know that the stakes of the crusade against correlationism are set by Meillassoux as the answer to "Hume's problem." When you recall that one half of Harman's project comes to us courtesy of Husserl, this makes perfect sense. Husserl had already set his face against Kant when he declared in the Logical Investigations that
What is true is absolutely true, is true "in itself." Truth is identically one, whether men or non-men, angels or gods, apprehend it. (I sec.36; p79)
The other question, which Bryant is addressing now, is what difference the thesis of the withdrawn object makes. Bryant rightly compares it to the question of whether everything might be doubling in size; one could add any number of others. ("Could the world have sprung into being half a second ago complete with fossils and records?" is a popular one.) These are the questions that critics of "metaphysics" like to lampoon as pointless. A passage from Wittgenstein always occurs to me in this context:
“a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism. (Philosophical Investigations 271)
Bryant compares the withdrawn object to the infinitely receding transcendental signified beloved of deconstructionists. And here too he's right, though I read this in a slightly different way; Terry Eagleton objected to deconstruction that the problem with deconstruction was that it "left everything as it is." That we can "allude" to the in-itself may not strike us as very significant, if that's really all we can do. Some while ago I blogged on this notion of allusion, and there I remarked that to me this allusion is very much like the Socratic spinning of a "likely story;" the example that comes to mind if the account of anamnesis in the Meno, another instance in which an infinite regression threatens. Latour's account of mediation is another. Latour essentially thinks we trace mediation until we get bored--i.e., his is a pragmatist solution. Harman's way out of this is to give us a circuit between real and sensual objects, but this (as he realizes) still leaves us with a very strange situation, and one could be forgiven for thinking it "just pushes the question back a stage." But it is worth recalling that Eagleton's comparison derives not from Marx (though there is a similarity with the famous line about interpreting the world vs. changing it), but rather from Wittgenstein, who believed that what we could only allude to was precisely ethics:
if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing.
It is philosophy itself, Wittgenstein famously held, that "leaves everything as it is" (P.I. 124). Despite the gulf that would seem to separate Wittgenstein (at least in his familiar role as prophet of the linguistic turn) from Speculative Realism in general and OO-thinking in particular, here I think we see a place where object-oriented thought comes close to seeing in any object at all what Wittgenstein sees in ethics--and that seems to me to be extremely significant. (I have earlier juxtaposed before Harman's claim that "aesthetics is first philosophy" with Wittgenstein's that "ethics and aesthetics are one.")

John McDowell (who would seem to be very close to the quietism of Wittgenstein in some ways) is at pains in Mind and World to avoid the consequence that our empirical thinking is a frictionless spinning in a void, a possibility he thinks is raised by what, following Kant, he calls the spontaneity of our judgment--the fact that we decide when we judge, and do not feel caused. Although McDowell is thinking of minds and their decisions, this is in some measure quite analogous to the question of causality in general as it arises for Harman (and I presume for Bryant, though I have not read Democracy of Objects closely yet), because Harman has followed Whitehead in thinking of every interaction as prehension. McDowell thinks he has a way to safeguard against this result. It depends upon granting a distinction between human and animal consciousness (McDowell calls the latter "proto-subjectivity") which may or may not strike one as being the sort of "basic ontological rift" that Harman objects to. For McDowell, the problem arises on the side of subjectivity--it's free, so it seemingly offers no purchase for the natural world to impinge on it; for Harman and Bryant, the problem arises on the side of the (real) object--it withdraws, so how does it interact with anything else?

This question of causality is not quite the same as the question Bryant raises of "so what?", but it is (I think) closer than it may at first appear. The causal question has to do with ontology; the what-difference question has to do with discourse. I have urged before that the difference between epistemology and ontology as philosophical practices is more fluid than rigid; and I expect that Kant still has a thing or two to teach us about this. This may seem like welcoming correlationism in again through the back door, which doesn't concern me as much as it would some. Bryant concludes by saying that
in answering this question it seems that it’s necessary to concede that withdrawn objects make differences that aren’t withdrawn. This isn’t a retreat back to correlationism, but rather the suggestion that perhaps what’s important in object-orientation doesn’t lie in withdrawal as it’s been dominantly conceived.
Or it might mean that correlationism is different from how it has been dominantly conceived. What if the question proved to be a sort of antinomy?

I am very pleased to see Bryant taking this issue on. For myself, I believe that these irruptions of the question of the infinite, and of propositions that have (apparently) no traction, are symptomatic of philosophy not just at its most "pointless" but also, potentially, at its best. One thinker's "pseudo-problem" is another's crux of the matter. Socrates does not stop being friends with people just because their every attempt to say what friendship is is stymied. Though the object "recedes", ones "allusion" to it still occurs--but it occurs in practice. Which means, in participation.


  1. "One thinker's "pseudo-problem" is another's crux of the matter."

    But the problem of determining whether a problem is a pseudo-problem or the crux of some "matter" is a real problem!

    I don't think subjectivism or relativism is tenable here.

    By examining carefully the statement of the problem, whether there are any solutions to it, and, if there are solutions, the implications of alternative solutions, we can determine whether it is a "pseudo-problem" or the crux of some "matter".

  2. I made an unwarranted leap over the concept of a "pseudo-problem" in my earlier comment, a common pitfall in philosophy!

    What is a pseudo-problem?

    Something that looks like a problem, but isn't really one.

    And how do we understand or recognize this feature?

    Is a pseudo-problem a question which does not make sense because of an internal inconsistency?

    Is it a question for which there is an obvious answer?

    Is it a question whose answer we can never know?

    Is it a question which is loaded with one or more of the previous three questions?

    I think a pseudo-problem falls into one of these four categories of questions.

  3. Hi Thill,

    while I would not want to dismiss the notion of the pseudo-problem entirely from philosophy and while I don't wish to embrace a full-fledged relativism, I am happier with a certain pragmatic attitude in this respect. If interesting results can be turned up by taking seriously what has earlier been dismissed as a pseudo-problem, I take another look.

    You will no doubt recall that the issue of pseudo-problems arose about a year ago here. I also addressed it somewhat earlier.

    In the first of these links, I quote Rogers Albritton, who said, à propos Wittgenstein's remark that philosophical problems ought to disappear when rightly understood (c.f. Investigattions 133), that he would "like nothing better.... I love metaphysical and epistemological theories, but I don’t believe in them, not even in the ones I like. And I don’t believe in the apparently straightforward problems to which they are addressed. However, not one of these problems has actually done me the kindness of vanishing.... And if there is anything I dislike more in philosophy than rotten theories, it’s pretenses of seeing through the “pseudoproblems” that evoked them when in fact one doesn’t know what’s wrong."

    That's pretty much my line too, except that I'm not sure what I should say I do with these questions if I don't "believe" in them.

  4. "However, not one of these problems has actually done me the kindness of vanishing.."

    Well, if one keeps asking the same question despite the availability of answers in the affirmative and negative, this could be due to the following:

    1. An obsessive-compulsive disorder.


    2. None of the answers are satisfactory.

    If (2) is the reason, one must also look at the span of time during which the answers, affirmative or negative, have been proposed and the acuteness of the thinkers who have sought to provide those answers.

    If that span of time is considerable and the acuteness of the thinkers who have proposed the answers equally so, and this happens to be the case with the "perennial questions" of philosophy, then one must seriously ask whether the question can ever be answered satisfactorily.

    If the question is such that we can never know the answer, and the lack of satisfactory answers despite the labor of acute minds over centuries makes it very probable that the question is of this type, then it is a pseudo-problem.

    Or, at the very least, we must investigate the meaning of the question to ascertain whether the correct answer can ever be known, whether it is a pseudo-problem.