The Loss of Objecthood
18 May 2010
In a couple of posts, Negative Organicism and Submergent Properties, I considered those ontological features of the world that are changed by the gathering of individuals (or, if you prefer, objects) into larger wholes and particularly organic wholes such that the identity of the constituent parts becomes occluded by the identity of the whole that emerges from the aggregation of the parts.
It is not unusual to recognize that a whole can represent something that is more than the sum of its parts. I wanted to point out the wholes might also be less than the sum of their parts. And, while I am writing this (stranded in the transient spaces of the DFW airport), I realize that any sense in which the identity of individuals is occluded by the inclusion within a larger whole represents a loss, and in this sense every whole of this type — i.e., a whole that occludes the identity of its constituent parts, like the occlusion of individual atoms within a molecule — involves at least some degree of submergent properties. Whether an organic whole that has submerged the identity of its individual component parts also possesses emergent properties is another question. It strikes me as entirely plausible that a whole might possess both emergent properties and submergent properties.
A thorough-going analysis, of course, would distinguish four categories of wholes based on distinctions implicit in the aforementioned: 1) wholes that possess neither emergent nor submergent properties, 2) wholes that possess emergent properties only but no submergent properties, 3) wholes that possess no emergent properties but which do possess submergent properties, and 4) wholes that posses both emergent properties and submergent properties.
I wish that I had some learned object oriented ontologists among my readership, as a question now poses itself to me, and I don’t know enough about this novel tradition to even guess how it might be answered; nevertheless, it strikes me as interesting. Just before leaving on vacation, pursuing my recent interest in object oriented ontology, I got copies of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency and Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, but I didn’t bring them with me and didn’t have much time to skim them before departure. Interestingly, though (and a prima facie impression), Meillassoux’s book begins with a rehabilitation of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and it is difficult for me to see how this distinction can be reconciled with any sense of phenomenology (such as referenced in Harman’s title) however broadly (if not promiscuously) construed.
Anyway, to my question: given the loss of objecthood experienced in wholes of the third and fourth categories outlined above, in what sense can we maintain a flat ontology and a democracy of objects when objects are submerged and lose their identities in certain wholes? Certainly we know that most objects, and possibly even all objects, are temporary. Thus it should be expected that some objects will submerge and disappear even while other objects emerge into the world to begin their own temporary existence. This should not be problematic for any ontology (though it was certainly the central problem for Plato). We need not maintain that a whole composed of many previously existing individuals objects is somehow “better” or “higher” than the objects that preceded it in order to still be discomfited over the apparent hierarchy of objects that together constitute objects that in turn constitute further objects.
As I said, this was only a question. I don’t have an answer to offer. It would be reckless for me to suggest how the object oriented ontologists would answer this, since they have probably already answered this obvious question in their works, with which I am not yet conversant. But it seems to me that formulating the loss of objecthood in terms of submergent properties would be a profitable way to give some focus and precision to the question.
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