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, June 16, 2010

Eternity and objects

I have been thinking of late about the debate between theorists who see an entity as irreducibly itself, and those who claim that any entity is only insofar as it is related to other entities. When I am in a Buddhist frame of mind I tend to have a great deal of sympathy with this latter position. The Buddha's teaching of pratityasamutpada, variously translated as Mutual or [Inter]dependent [Co-]arising or Origination, asserts that everything arises and passes away as a continuous ongoing intercausal process. This teaching seems to me to be very close to claims inspired by Bradley, Whitehead, Deleuze, or Latour, to the effect that any entity just is the sum of its relations at any moment. This means that a being is not the same as it was an instant ago; that you cannot, indeed, step into a river twice, not just because the river has changed but because you have. Of course, this also means that it is nonsensical to refer to “a river,” or indeed to oneself. And to this last point, the Dharma replies, “exactly.”

This may strike some as playing fast and loose with Buddhist teachings. Stcherbatsky, whose two-volume Buddhist Logic is still a valuable work 80 years after its publication, warns that

although the Buddhist doctrine of causation has attracted the attention of scholars at the very outset of Buddhistic studies in Europe...there is perhaps no other Buddhist doctrine which has been so utterly misunderstood. (vol I, p 141).
The notion of mutual co-arising, it is sometimes asserted, has little or nothing to do with cosmology, or even ontology; it is a primarily soteriological doctrine about the occasions of suffering, and even what ontological import it has functions in the soteriological context. This is fair enough. But I think it is admissible to use the teaching in the way I am here, and certainly later Buddhist cosmology does this. (Stcherbatsky notes a number of mutations in its meaning from school to school in the course of history, and he is not alone). Amod notes the contrast between Indian Buddhism and some more modern (and indeed more Western) strands: they both assert the causal interdependence of things, but only the more recent trends tend to affirm it; for earlier Indian Buddhism, as well as other Indian schools, the chains of interdependence are all chains entailing suffering, and the ideal is to disentangle oneself from it. Amod sees this as starting to shift once “Bodhidharma goes to the East,” more or less; once Buddhism finds itself in China, in a Confucian or Taoist cultural milieu, interdependence begins to be more affirmed; the ideal becomes less the individual arhat seeking release, and more the sage learning to be in harmony with the Tao. Hence the shift is really is not all that recent; but it is certainly true that the forms of Buddhism that have caught on in the West have tended to be (if I may overgeneralize) of this sort, and not so much the Theravada; and that, in the western context, this aspect (the affirmation of interdependence—understanding it as affirming it) has been more and more stressed.

The most obvious parallel to such thinking is in ecology. Here it is easy to see how animal and plant, predator and prey, environment and climate, mutually determine each other in what seems an irreducibly complex and interdependent web. Any change in any part of this system has repercussions far away. Raise the mean temperature of the water by two degrees and the algae growth is affected; the cycle of fishes’ reproduction shifts to earlier or later in the year; migratory patterns of other animals alter. It is easy to see why, in an era of greatly heightened concern for the impact of human choices and policies on the environment, the doctrine of pratityasamutpada would seem congenial to so many.

What is notable is that this is a doctrine about genesis and corruption, as Aristotle would say. That is, about the way things come into being, and pass out of it. That is, it is about things in time. And it does not take too much of a push to construe it as an account of time, because it gives an ontological priority to change. (Note, I don’t claim this of the Buddhist doctrine itself, at least as originally formulated; I can’t really claim to understand the Indian philosophies of time). This is essentially a Nietzschean doctrine of constant flow, in which there is no such thing as identity. Indeed, for all his critique of Buddhism, Nietzsche is to some degree responsible for making the West ripe for this message. Where he succeeded in his critique was in assuring that the message would be received in the mode of affirmation: Yea-saying. Nietzsche is surprisingly close to F.H. Bradley here (or perhaps not so surprisingly, as the affinities between Nietzsche and idealism are very strong; to see them, all one really needs to do is lose the “-ism.”) Bradley does formulate a kind of doctrine of internal relations, it is true, but he also sees that this is problematic, and argues that neither external relations (which lead to an infinite regress, because the relation winds up being a third thing alongside its terms) nor internal relations (because “a relation without terms is mere verbiage”) are intelligible. Thus objects per se, and relations per se, are unintelligible; the only thing that is intelligible is the Whole. For Nietzsche, on the other hand, neither is the Whole intelligible; there is only chaos.

Leaving aside (for the moment) the question of the Whole, any more proximate object of reference is ruled strictu sensu out of bounds by this doctrine: relationalism taken to its extreme makes it impossible to say “river,” or “tree,” or (the Buddha’s point) “me,” because these are just congeries of flux. This creates problems not only for the science of ecology (which had thought to gain a metaphysical tool in this doctrine, but finds it a two-edged sword) and indeed for all science, but for ordinary discourse as well—not to mention philosophy. Indeed, it has snared us in a performative contradiction, since “particular objects of reference” cannot even exist. And this is why I think it does violence to our experience to try to speak as if relationalism were true tout court.

Yet it is indisputably true, in some sense. The ecological sciences are not just the latest form of neopagan ideology; a fish out of water is not the same as a fish in. I am indeed different than I was last year, or even an hour ago. Does it make sense to say I am "the same person"? Yes. Does it make sense to say I am different? Yes. We have to do justice to both these intuitions.

Against all of the above, Bryant and Harman have each put forward a version of “onticology” (to use Bryant’s term), championing (in my shorthand) relata over relationships. Aside from Harman’s curious occasionalist doctrine of causality, to which the following points are not unrelated (but which I won’t comment on directly here), their most famously problematic assertion is that “objects withdraw” from each other; that is, no object, as it really is, is ever encountered by any other. As I have often reiterated, this means that between any two things lies the separation Kant found between the in-itself and the phenomenon. When my fingers touch the keys on the computer keypad, there is a sensory experience in the finger and some sort of physical impact in the key, but neither finger nor key “really” meets the other. This has seemed like “a difference that doesn’t make a difference” to many commenters; Mikhail Emelianov remarked about it that it is like saying “that my toy soldiers come alive as soon as I fall asleep,” which I have to admit is about as good a line as Harman’s gloss that “the moon is made of fingers” according to correlationism. However, although I smile at the line, there is still something I think is right in Object-Oriented philosophy, by which I mean, right precisely about objects. It isn’t just that no object is ever exhausted (a la Shaviro, if I understand him correctly) by another, because there is still an indefinite amount of other relations it can enter into, in potentia, though this is a (so to speak) related point.

Chris Vitale, in a couple of recent posts at Networkologies, has put a number of good queries to Harman and to Bryant, which I won't unpack here; but I do want to note one interesting point. Vitale appeals to Whitehead (rightly, in my opinion), but he notes that Whitehead posits "eternal entities," which he thinks is unfortunate. Both Harman and Bryant have several times offered rebuttals of claims that their theories require eternal objects. Everyone seems agreed; whether it’s you or your opponents whose account might entail eternal objects, this would be a serious liability, something to be warded off. I am not so sure.

The problem seems to me to hinge on an understanding of time. I want to be careful because I don’t want to sound as if I am accusing anyone of forgetting some basic distinctions, but I look in vain in the online debate (which is where this has transpired so far) for any interpretation of eternity that would mean something other than “endless time.” This is the “bad infinity” that Hegel declined. Whereas, the Platonic, Patristic, and Scholastic tradition is at one in maintaining a distinction between this sort of ever-lastingness (which we ought rightly to call sempiternal), and eternity, which is outside of time. Boethius, for instance, early in Book V of the Consolation of Philosophy:

The common judgment, then, of all creatures who live by reason [is] that God is eternal. So let us consider the nature of eternity; this will clarify both the nature of God and his way of knowing. Eternity is the complete, simultaneous and perfect having of everlasting life. This will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time.
Note that while the life of God is called “everlasting,” it is possessed “simultaneously,” all at once. Boethius spells out this contrast with creaturely existence thus:

… it is one thing to progress, like the world in Plato's theory, through everlasting life; another to have embraced the whole of everlasting life in one simultaneous present.
I cite Boethius as a representative figure, between the ancients and the medievals, who underscores that this is “common judgment,” thereby, I take it, establishing that this (in his opinion) is a received feature of the philosophical tradition. Suffice it to say that, with all deference to the fine gradations scholarship loves to find, one can see this notion of eternity-as-timelessness in Parmenides, Aristotle, Philo, Plotinus, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on.

If we refuse this (generally modern) notion of time which tends to conflate eternity with sempiternity, then the “eternal objects” of a Whitehead-inspired object-oriented philosophy offer a very different (and rather postmodern) version of the oldest philosophical tradition in the west; a tradition the renewal of which has been called for by the likes of Levinas, Strauss, Patocka, and Badiou; the tradition most often discredited, most often refuted, most often misunderstood: Platonism.

The “eternal objects” of the sort I have in mind are the aspect of any object, the “side” if you like, that faces away from us in time. Within time, things come into being and pass away; they are determined by the churning or flow of a fractal interdependent causality. But eternally, in what one might not hesitate to call the World Soul, things are themselves, alone with the alone. In a metaphysics that remains to be articulated, they are the modern or postmodern analogues of the logoi of the Stoics and of Maximus Confessor. They might be, in the spirit of the original occasionalists, the ideas of each thing in the mind of God.

Why might one want to revive such an out-of-fashion philosophy, whether Stoic or Platonist or Patristic, even with a cheering section like Levinas and Patocka? Because such a philosophy underlies the western aspirations of spiritual attainment. No less than Buddhism, no less than Nietzsche, the great ancient philosophers strove to articulate an ontology that would make sense of and (even more importantly) make possible the spiritual dimensions of human experience. I am on record as frankly seeking a route to legitimate “re-enchantment” of the world, a “second naïvete” in Ricouer’s phrase, that can be upheld in our age. Like Amod, I am a little suspicious of modern Western Buddhist attempts to forge this out of interdependence alone. Interdependence, by itself, gives us only the wheel of birth and death. Buddhism claims to articulate the way to “stop the wheel,” by truly understanding it; a way that involves the cessation of desire. But by this very token it is hard to understand how to understand the desirability of this cessation. The religions of the book offer a very different account of desire; and their theologies all presuppose Platonism (though they may also put it through the looking-glass).

The eternal object is, as it were, precisely the face of the object in the sense Levinas uses the term. In The Man who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (Zizek’s favorite Catholic thinker, it always seems), the protagonist attains a kind of epiphany, as though he sees into

…the mystery of the world. When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained. …Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front——
Now, even a “glimpse” is forbidden according to Harman or Bryant, but I am not [yet] arguing that the “eternal object” withdraws in the same way as they do; I am unsure whether the account requires it. That is not the only way in which this rough suggestion (and that’s all it is at this point—a “speculation”) diverges from both of them. Still, I think it could be worked out, not only as coherent in itself, but as consistent with the spirit I think is motivating Speculative Realism and indeed onticology. Before one says, for instance, that good and evil have nothing to do with Harman’s way of reading readiness-to- and presence-at-hand, I remind that Harman’s call for “aesthetics as first philosophy” is an express counter-offer to Levinas’ claim that “ethics is first philosophy.” To this I add only the word of Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.421: “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”

One might say, for shorthand: objects have souls.


  1. Skholiast - That's a very thought provoking post (and ambitious in how much territory it covers!). I like your summary of pratityasamutpada, and agree that Buddhism's "going East" played an important role in its becoming "affirmative" (though I think that Nagarjuna and the Madhyamikas deserve mention in that context as well; perhaps Amon is oversimplifying a little to make the contrarian point that Donald Lopez, Ian Harris, David McMahan (The Making of Buddhist Modernism) and others have made already).

    Regarding Nietzsche's being "to some degree responsible for making the West ripe for this message," I would just add that the emergent (at the time) sciences of geology and biology, and especially Darwin, Haeckel, and the like, were probably even more responsible, especially if you consider how influenced the Romantics, Transcendentalists, and early conservationists (like John Muir) were by the sciences. The interplay between western science and glances eastward (to Buddhism, et al) goes back to well before Nietzsche.

    Your defense of eternity is quite daring... It's making me think (very hard), and I expect I'll have more to say about it as I process it. Thanks for bringing all these issues together in such an interesting way.


  2. Adrian, many thanks for the response, esp. such an encouraging one. I admit I swallowed hard before clicking 'post' this time. It's not just the unfashionability (I tend to like philosophy that runs counter to the esprit du temps), and it's not just the ambition-- philosophy just is the reach exceeding the grasp. But I am not sure I really can work the details (& we know who lives there) to make such an account really function, as opposed to just being an interesting picture. My own strengths tend to be in synthesis and connection, and posing questions. I hope that this rises above mere free association and asking "but what about..." over and over. That said, I am quite serious about this and I mean to work to make it at least a plausible or respectable stance, even if it won't convince many.

    You are quite right that I skipped a lot of history, both on the Buddhist and on the Western side. Novalis, Emerson (who of course had no small influence on Nietzsche), and yes Muir should all be seen as part of this, among others. As to Nagarjuna, I'll mostly defer to Amod, but I suspect I agree with you. I'll be interested if Amod responds on this.

    I believe that Plato's ideas are a hypothesis, not a dogma--that he's a curious kind of pragmaticist--so I don't want to try to invent an unassailable kristallwelt of eternity, but to show access to experience.
    The crux for me is the link between 'doctrine' (ontology, epistemology, it doesn't matter) and one's stance in the world-- 'affirmation', spiritual practice, what Kasulis calls integrity and intimacy. I.e., between Kant's questions, what can I know? what must I do? and what may I hope?

  3. interested readers should read Adrian's post over at Immanence responding to some of this, plus giving some great music clips. (I can't say how pleased I am that, even though he demurs from a lot of what I say here, when Adrian was thinking of this, his mind went to music. As I have argued at length, this is where Plato's mind went too).

  4. To give this post the reading it deserved I had to abstract myself from the pixil world for a while, print it out and go down the garden. It's a big bite and you have to chew slowly.

    So if there are objects they are interdependent. Hegel whose 'Phenomenology' I'm reading at the moment doesn't get the it of it. We don't know objects, we never encounter the particular only the universal. We never step into the same river twice, we only step into 'river'. Shankara takes the line that our encounter with the particular would not yield the universal and that in fact the universal is planted in us already as a 'vedic word'. He doesn't elaborate on the demands this doctrine makes but I should think that the encounter with the novel thing evokes the capacity, the anamnesis or something of that sort. Does that mean that objects are dancing with invisible partners? What I think is that 'the back' (pace GKC) of this is the reality of being an object, what the being of an object is and how it is possible. Diversity is the question and unity is the answer. What makes perception possible is unity at a transcendental level. This is claim about how things must fundamentally be for them to appear as they do.

    There are many ways of being a thing. This is not SR speak on which my first touch is like Kaka's a trifle rubbery. What I think I mean is that if we situate the reality of being an object in the thing-in-itself then we have set in train the derealisation of the object. In any case that the thing-in-itself position can only be formulated when we have already had the encounter with the object.

    Your eternal object of Whitehead:
    "A colour is eternal. It haunts time like a spirit. It comes and it goes. But where it comes, it is the same colour. It neither survives nor does it live. It appears when it is wanted". Now that's full blooded Platonism.

  5. Excellent post, Skholiast. I think the scope is justified, and I like where you go with it. I am very sympathetic to attempts to find a Hegelian common ground: an object is what it is, and what it is depends on what it is related to. The trick is spelling out the details of the duality, and I think you make a good start at doing that here. So too, I have a lot of sympathy for Platonism, as you've probably seen on my blog.

    Adrian, it is probably worth mentioning Nagarjuna in this context; to say that nirvana is samsara properly viewed surely helps pave the way for the more worldly Chinese Buddhism. But it's important to note how that idea plays out in different contexts; in China the emphasis is clearly on the "samsara," in India on the "properly viewed." Santideva is pretty clearly a Madhyamaka; but he also sees the everyday structure of the world as bad, dangerous, suffering. Only bodhicitta holds out a hope against this; but it is extremely rare.