Saturday, May 16, 2009

The furniture of the universe does not rely upon us for existence or for essence

Realism Through the Eyes of Anti-Realism
from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
After grading all day and making substantial progress (hopefully I’ll be done tomorrow, yay!), I sat down and read the introduction and first chapter of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. Although I am of the realist orientation myself, I can already tell that this book will be deeply valuable to my own philosophical project. [...] What I do not endorse is the anti-realist thesis that all objects are constituted (in the non-Berkeleyian sense) by mind or some other agency like culture.
One final point, Braver’s initial description of the realist’s metaphysical thesis help to distinguish different orientations among Speculative Realist orientations of contemporary realism. The realist, as Braver describes her, is committed to the thesis that there are objects that are not dependent on humans. As Roy Bhaskar and Quentin Meillassoux so beautifully put it, we must conceive a world without humans, a sort of wild open. However, Braver then goes on to distinguish between trivial dependent entities like beliefs and real independent entities. Attitudes towards this distinction actually define something of a fault line among Speculative Realists. Speculative Realists like Ray Brassier, Nick Srinicek, and perhaps Quentin Meillassoux (I can’t speak to Iain Hamilton Grant’s Position here) would wholeheartedly endorse Braver’s description. To be real, for these realists, is to be independent of humans. Object-Oriented realists such as myself, Graham Harman, and Bruno Latour adopt a more egalitarian ontological position. Our view is not that the puff of matter on the other side of the universe is somehow more real than the United States (an entity dependent on humans). Rather, the Object-Oriented Philosophies are united around the thesis of a flat ontology in which there is no hierarchy of being or modernist distinction between culture and nature. There is just being. Being is pluralistic and differential, coming in many kinds and flavors, but it is no less real for all that. [...]

In A Realist Theory of Science, Roy Bhaskar develops a realist metaphysics of science and theory of inquiry that both integrates the mind independence of objects and integrates the findings of philosophers of science like Kuhn, Feyerabend, Foucault, etc., that accentuate the role that politics, history, the social, power, training, etc., play in the process of inquiry. For Bhaskar, scientists aren’t born but must be built. They are the result of an ontogeny. However, Bhaskar argues, this ontogenesis of scientists, while resembling certain aspects of anti-realism, does not lead to the anti-realist conclusion that we can never “grasp a bit of the real” through scientific inquiry.

In my own case, my ontology forbids or prohibits anything like a simplistic correspondence theory of truth based on a sort of mirroring between world and object. The basic principle of my ontology– what I call the Ontic Principle –states that there is no difference that does not make a difference. To be, I hold, is to make a difference. Not necessarily to you or me or anyone else (I’m a realist, after all), and not necessarily to any other object in the universe (the object could be completely unrelated), but nonetheless a difference in some manner, way or form is made in being. To be is to act. From this principle follows what I call “Latour’s Principle”. Latour’s Principle states that there is no transportation without translation, or that no object is ever simply a vehicle for another difference. “Transportation”, of course, refers to the transport of difference from one object to another. “Translation” here should be understood in terms closer to the translation of DNA into RNA, than the translation of something into another language.

To say that there is no transportation without translation is to say that there is no difference imposed on another entity wherein the target or receiving entity does not contribute its own differences translating the difference from the source object (cf. my recent post on Category Theory). My skin does not simply transport sunlight as I weed my garden, but rather it translates that sunlight, creating a dark pigment that constitutes a tan. Likewise with the relation between mind and world. In the relation between mind and world, just as in the case of any other relation between objects, there is a translation that takes place that cannot be characterized as a simple transport of the difference embodied in the object to the mind as a simple wax table. [...]

In a post-quantum, post-Darwinian world it is difficult to know what it could possibly mean to claim that there is a totality of all objects, for we have learned that new types of objects come into being at both the atomic level and at the species level. Indeed, if we go with Gould’s biological orientation, our ontology becomes even more exotic, including a variety of different ontological levels differing in scale and temporally individuating themselves (i.e., differing from themselves) in natural history.

But setting aside appeals to history, we can refer to the positions of various realists as well. Realists such as Deleuze and DeLanda would object to this thesis on the grounds of systems thought, as assemblages of objects themselves, in turn, form objects that possess their own properties. As a result, there are no grounds on which there could ever be a complete catalog of beings. Moreover, this thesis seems to be premised on the idea that beings or entities are unchanging, yet if beings or entities are processes, events, verbs or becomings– as most current evidence seems to suggest –this thesis seems to be significantly challenged. In the case of my ontology, such a thesis couldn’t possibly hold by virtue of Latour’s Principle.

Like Leibniz’s universe where each monad represents the entirety of the universe from a particular point of view, Latour’s Principle entails a sort of ontological relativity that is ontological (and not simply epistemological). That is, quoting Deleuze, it entails a Truth of Relativity rather than a Relativity of Truth. Yet this Truth of Relativity holds not simply for subject-world relations, but for any object-object relation. My skin grasps the sun from a particular point of view and under a particular translation. Finally, in the case of Graham’s metaphysics, the infinitely withdrawn nature of objects that only touch through a sort of vicarious causation undermines the possibility of a privileged point of view on the universe. Another Leibnizian.

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