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.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Object-Oriented Orientalism

Fine post from Amod concerning Speculative Realism, Ayn Rand (of all people), and the permutations of philosophy in China and India. He points out that Rand positions herself as a strong critic of Kant for some of the same reasons that the Meillassoux-inspired critique does: its too-strong separation between the human mind and the world of objects. Rand felt that in conceding that the mind could not grasp "the things themselves," Kant had surrendered to the forces of irrationalism; from here, it was spitting distance to the psychologism that Frege diagnosed in Husserl's first work, for instance. Now Levi Bryant has rejoined (rightly, I think) that what Rand rejected in Kant is to a large extent what both Harman and he, in their various ways, accept: namely, that there is a rift between objects, which Kant mistook for a local phenomenon between the human mind and other objects, but which Harman has rightly universalized, restoring to all things their lonely alienation. Whereas, what Rand wants to champion against Kant is a kind of anthropocentric grandeur--just the sort of thing that Harman's Object-Oriented take wants to jettison.

These points are, as I say, fair enough. Just because you're anti-Kant, it doesn't mean you're a Speculative Realist. Rand is probably more one example of what Harman might call a
naive realist. Likewise, Bernard-Henri Lévy's recent work, De la Guerre en Philosophie, made a lot of headlines lately when it was noted that he'd cited The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant by Jean-Baptiste Botul as part of a broadside against the Sage of Konigsberg, failing to note that Botul is a nom de plume for French journalist Frédéric Pages, whose two works (there's one on Nietzsche too) under the moniker are clearly spoofs (as you might guess if you coin the correlate of, say, "Marxism" or "Darwinism" with Botul's name instead). But Lévy, while comparable to Rand in some ways, is not very close to S.R., and scoring points against him, while fun, isn't the same as making an argument against Harman or Meillassoux. (Parenthetically: What are these sorts of Sokal-farce dramas are supposed to prove, anyway? I've read quite a few reports now of Lévy's gaffe--he seems to be taking it with fairly good grace, so far--but I've found no, zero, nada, reviews of the substance of his anti-Kantian polemic [if anyone knows of one please comment]; it's as though his citation of a false name somehow invalidated his whole argument).

Back to Amod's post: the more interesting of his comparisons are with Indian and Chinese philosophy. Now I admit, I get very suspicious when great big terms like this, potentially encompassing centuries, get put on the table. "Greek" philosophy presents a very different visage if you look at Aristotle than if you look at Plotinus or at Maximus Confessor, and the same is true in reading "Chinese" thinking via Mencius or Moh Tzu or Hui Neng. As for "Indian," classical sources list various schools that are strongly divergent in premises, arguments, and conclusions. This divergence continues well into modern times (just compare Aurobindo with, say, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), and one has to back up quite far before these differences blur into a generic "subcontinental" philosophy. Amod is not making these sorts of mistakes (he clearly knows the material far better than I); I just have a nervous tic that makes me specify this when the subject is first introduced. And Amod skirts the question of differences in doctrine in a way I generally approve of: by reference to aesthetics. The typical piece of Indian art, in no matter what style, from a period of many centuries, features a human (or humanoid--it can be a divine or animal figure) in the center as an actor; the typical Chinese artwork, within the same parameters, is a landscape or some incidental scene. Amod's lesson: Indian thought, all due caveats made,
tends towards subjectivism, the valorizing of the human agent, even if the ultimate version of this subjectivism is the emptying it of all specific content; on the other hand, Chinese thought tends towards a preoccupation with objects, the mountain or the grass or the cat or the snow.

This suggests to Amod that Speculative Realism's tendency is more "Chinese" than "Indian." Bryant reads this analogy as something of a misunderstanding, and Amod, to his credit, acknowledges that he's just starting to read S.R.-ists, but I think he's closer to the mark than Bryant gives him credit for (if I'm reading Bryant rightly). Of course, Bryant is (expressly) speaking not for all in the big S.R. tent, and some of Amod's points pertain more to Brassier (in his amenability to the Churchlands' eliminativism, for instance) than to Harman. Bryant responds to Amod:

Yes and no. Remember that
for OOO there’s only one species of being: objects. The consequence that follows from this is that humans are objects too. As a result, humans can’t be excluded from ontological questions. They are every bit as interesting to the object-oriented ontologist as the relationship between, to use Harman’s favorite example, the relation between cotton and a flame.

Well, as Bryant says, "yes and no." Humans don't have anything to do with the cotton-flame relation, on Harman's account (unless they happen to witness a particular instance); this is what being an anti-correlationist means. I don't say that accepting this means we go all the way with eliminative materialism (and clearly Harman doesn't say so either), but I think it does mean that we are far more in tune with the spirit of a Chinese landscape that doesn't seem to require a viewer, than to an Indian scene turning about the center of a dancing god or warrior or princess. Bryant seems to read Amod's post as bespeaking a kind of entrenched obstacle, indeed even a correlationist obstacle, to getting where OO-thought is coming from; a tendency to always read "object" as the corollary to "subject" (= "Chinese" and "Indian," respectively):

I think Amod’s post reflects the connotations of the term “object-oriented”. Upon hearing this term the hasty reader might immediately conclude that “object-oriented” signifies the opposition of being “subject-oriented”, such that we are to be “objective” or “scientific”, as opposed to examining the human element....I believe Amod’s post is a testament to how deeply the connotations of words (like “object”) and certain oppositions (subject-object) are embedded in our metaphysical unconscious.

I read Amod quite differently, and stepping far away from the immediate context of S.R.-related debates--away from Kant and "realism" and so on--to the very different context of Asia, has helpfully reframed some of the questions for me, even if at the risk of orientalism (mine, not Amod's). By itself, Amod's post suggests to me that the indifference to the special status of the subject is more an attitude than a doctrine, and indeed--it occurs to me--might not even be capable of completely coherent formulation as doctrine. The emphasis on subjectivity or on object is, precisely, a matter of emphasis. In conjunction with Bryant's response, it suggests that OO-thought might be too glib in assuming it can shed just this dualism.


  1. Thanks, skholiast. To be sure, it is always an overgeneralization to some degree to speak of "Indian" and "Chinese" thought (or even the more accurate "South Asian" and "East Asian" thought) as coherent units. (As you note, I overgeneralized about Speculative Realism itself as well.) But I think such overgeneralizations are in some ways crucial to thinking through the big issues. One of the things I love about blogging, as opposed to academic writing, is that you don't have to be nuanced all the time. In academia - at least unless and until you have somehow manage to tame the semi-mythical beast known as tenure - you must hedge every bet and cover every butt, qualify every statement in terror of a nitpicky review besmirching your reputation and your career. Here, one can (so to speak) shoot first and ask questions later - start out by making the big general claim, and then qualify it in response to one's interlocutors. I find such an approach much more congenial. The point applies to nothing so much as these grand generalizations about traditions: yes there are exceptions and yes they're not unities, but still, some generalizations can legitimately advance our thought. Even Janet Gyatso, a professor of mine who's a harsh critic of essentialisms, still once referred to Indian and Chinese philosophy in class in terms very similar to the ones I used in my post, after a minute of saying things that amounted to "I'm not supposed to do this."

    Re Rand, see my reply to Levi's post. I'm certainly not saying that Rand and SR are similar just because they happen to criticize Kant - after all, nearly every post-Kantian philosopher is similar in that respect. There's a reason why I chose Rand and not BHL: what Rand specifically singles out for criticism in Kant, as far as I can tell, is almost exactly what SRists would call correlationism. I have no idea what the grounds are for BHL's critique of Kant, beyond his sex life or lack thereof. But unless he's specifically talking about correlationism or something like it, then he doesn't merit comparison to SR in the way that I claim Rand does.

  2. I wonder if I could ask for a little help on this topic. Cheating I know as I haven't read all the relevent material but I don't quite get how objects can "withdraw" from each other. I take it as axiomatic that outside a supercollider or the heart of a star objects never come in contact with each other, it is always the accompaning forces--gravity, magnetism, etc--that interact while matter itself remains isolated. The distance between an electron and it's attracting proton is of such a scale that it reminds of the distance of our sun to a neighboring star. Matter is always isolated and the only *response* of one object to another, in so much as there is any such thing as an object outside human definition, would always be indifference. Even planets colliding would be a non event for the matter that makes up those arbitrary objects. If the interaction is of such a force to break up ordinary matter into it's quantum equivalents all you've really done is change the scale. So my question is, am I being a closet correlationist by saying objects are in a certain sense only real in a human mind or are they being correlationists to assume that objects have interactions that merit the name?

  3. Dy0genes,

    Harman's claim that objects "withdraw" from each other and yet manage to interact is the most challenging part of his position, I think. The sort of physical non-contact you mention (e.g., my fingers typing on this keyboard never actually touch the keys if you zoom in close enough) is different from (but perhaps related to... I will think about this) the withdrawal Harman means. Insofar as I understand him, Harman means that the "essence" of the cotton, the cotton-an-sich, is never encountered as such by the fingers that pick it or the fire that burns it. The fingers encounter its sensual qualities--the ensemble of which, at any given moment, makes up the "sensual object" which is the phenomenal cotton as presented to fingertips. But the cotton "in itself" always exceeds any encounter the fingers could have, even if they rubbed and stroked for an infinite time; indeed, Harman wants to say, it exceeds the sum of all possible encounters that anything can have with cotton, be it fingers, eyes, fire, the reasoning mind... anything.

    I am with him on the first bit, but I am undecided when he comes to "the sum of all possible encounters." There's something here I like, but also something I don't... I think it is the intimation that such a sum could exist at all. I am working on a post on this so I won't expand much on it here.

    You ask an interesting question-- "are they being correlationists to assume that objects have interactions?" Can you specify who you mean by "they", so I can be sure I understand you? I do think that Meillassoux would say that the first option you lay out--"objects are in a certain sense only real in a human mind"-- is correlationist.

    Best brief sources for grasping Harman's point about the "withdrawal" of objects from each other, I think, are either his "Intentional Objects for Nonhumans" essay, which you can find online, or chs 2 & 3 of Guerrilla Metaphysics.

  4. Thanks Skholiast, I will read the sections you suggest.

    When I say "they" I probably just mean Harman and those who follow him. I'm suspicious of his "panpsychologism". It is almost like rather than de-anthropormophizing Kant he anthropomorphizes the object. Which I hinted at by saying that there is no object outside the mind. That doesn't mean there is no matter outside the mind. Just that aggregating matter into defined objects is a mental activity. All *phenomenal* qualities are mental qualities that are not really inherent in the underlying matter, they merely emerge to a perceiver. I do not take matter to be capable of perception on that level. I think someplace you said that Harman is "Kant all the way down". What bothers me about this is that he is taking what I absolutely agree to be a completely human perspective and not stopping at the limit of the mind but tries to impregnate matter with it. I guess what I'm saying is that Harman is an uber-correlationist.

  5. "I guess what I'm saying is that Harman is an uber-correlationist."

    Funny, that's almost what Harman says about Meillassoux.

    OK., that's what I thought you meant by "they," and it's an interesting slant. I am somewhat tempted to [mis-]read Harman this way myself, and thinking about working it out in detail, but there are two or three projects competing for attention.

    Harman is at pains in Guerrilla Metaphysics to distinguish his position from panpsychism: in particular he says that there is an important difference between "forming images of things" and (on the other hand) "merely submitting to their blows." Panpsychism he seems to see as almost a kind of closet anthropocentrism, an ideological colonizing of the world with this human characteristic "psyche;" (most of this is in pp. 240-248). He also makes some crucial distinctions in sec. 9 of the "Intentional Objects for Nonhumans" paper. In some later papers I understand he edges a little closer to panpsychism, but I have not read these yet, except for a sentence or two where he acknowledges that he sees it (panpsychism) as a somewhat more compatible with his views than he had earlier thought. You and I are possibly on different sides on this; I am quite predisposed to find congenial the notion that there is a sort of incipient "I-Thou" even between quarks or whatever next-step-down there is. The best two-word gloss for reality I can think of is "pure encounter," and Harman elaborates a pretty interesting grammar for describing it as such. But he's doing what a philosopher ought to do--taking things you think you understand, and giving them a half-twist. This makes it easy to mistake him. In the end, I might decide I don't care that he wouldn't agree with my unauthorized use of his arguments, but for now I'm still trying to make sure I understand the rules before I break them.

  6. http://fqxi.org/community/articles/display/122

    Just read this article over at FQXi and thought that it might somehow pertain to the question of how objects could behave in a *panpsycish* way.