Learning to Love the Wisdom

Homo technologiensis

of Industrial-Technological Civilization

A confession of enthusiasm

Allow me to give free rein to my enthusiasm and to proclaim that there has never been a more exciting time in human history to be a philosopher than today. It is ironic that, at the same time, philosophers are probably held in lower esteem today than in any other period of human history. I have recently come to the opinion that it is intrinsic to the structure of industrial-technological civilization to devalue philosophy, but I have discussed the contemporary neglect of philosophy in several posts — Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, and Beyond Anti-Philosophy among them — so that is not what I am going to write about today.

Today, on the contrary, I want to write about the great prospects that are now opening up to philosophy, despite its neglect in popular culture and its abuse by the enthusiasts of a positivistically-conceived science. And these prospects are not one but many. In some previous posts about object-oriented philosophy (also called object-oriented ontology, or OOO) I mentioned how exciting it was to be alive at a time when a new philosophical school was coming into being, especially at a time when academic philosophy seems to have stalled and relinquished any engagement with the world or any robust relationship to the ordinary lives of ordinary human beings. (As bitterly as the existentialists were denounced in their day, they did engage quite directly with contemporary events and contemporary life. Sartre made a fool of himself by meeting with Che Guevara and by mouthing Maoist claptrap in his later years, but he reached far more people than most philosophers of his generation, and like fellow existentialist Camus, did so through a variety of prose works, plays, and novels.) Now I see that we live in an age of the emergence of not one but of many different philosophical schools, and this is interesting indeed.

Philosophical periodization: schools of thought

Anyone who discusses so-called “schools” in philosophy is likely to run into immediate resistance, usually from those who have been characterized as belonging to a dubiously-conceived school. As soon as Sartre gave an explicit definition of existentialism as being based on the principle that existence precedes essence, Heidegger and Jaspers explicitly and emphatically denied that they were “existentialists.” And if we think of the hundreds years of philosophical research and the hundreds of philosophers who can be lumped under the label of “scholasticism,” the identification of a school of “scholastic” philosophers would seem to be without any content whatsoever.

Nevertheless, some of these labels remain accurate even when and where they are rejected. While Heidegger and Jaspers rejected the principle that existence precedes essence, there is no question that all three of these great existentialist thinkers were preoccupied with the problematic human condition in the modern world. Similarly, the ordinary language philosophers had their disagreements, but there were unified by a method of the analysis of ordinary language.

The school of techno-philosophy

With this caveat in mind about identifying a philosophical “school” that will almost certainly be rejected by its practitioners, I am going to identify what I will call techno-philosophy. In regard to techno-philosophy I will identify no common goals, aspirations, beliefs, principles, ideas, or ideals that belong to the practitioners of techno-philosophy, but only the common object of philosophical analysis. Techno-philosophy offers an initial exploration of novel ideas and novel facts of life in industrial society, and especially the ideas and facts of life related to technology that rapidly change within a single lifetime.

What makes the school of techno-philosophy interesting is not the special rigor or creativity of the philosophical thought in question — contemporary Anglo-American academic analytical philosophy is far more rigorous, and contemporary continental philosophy is far more imaginative — but rather the objects taken up by techno-philosophy. What are the objects of techno-philosophy? These objects are the novel productions of industrial-technological civilization, which appear and succeed each other in breathless rapidity. The fact of technological change, or even, if one would be so bold, rapid technological progress, is unprecedented. As an unprecedented aspect of life in industrial-technological civilization, rapid technological progress is an appropriate object for philosophical reflection.

The original position of technical society

The artifacts of technological progress have been produced in almost complete blindness as regard to their philosophical significance and consequences. What techno-philosophy represents is the first attempt to make philosophical sense of the artifacts of technology taken collectively, on the whole, and with an eye to their extrapolation across space and through time. In fact, the very idea of technology taken whole may be understood as a conceptual innovation of techno-philosophy, and this very idea has been called the technium by Kevin Kelly. (I wrote about the idea of the technium in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium.)

Thus we can count Kevin Kelly among techno-philosophers, and even Ray Kurzweil — though Kurzweil does not seem to be interested in philosophy per se, he has pushed the limits of thinking about machine intelligence to the point that he is on the verge of philosophical questions. Thinkers in the newly emerging tradition of the technological singularity and transhumanism belong to techno-philosophy. Academic philosopher David Chalmers, known for his contributions to the philosophy of mind (and especially known for formulating the phrase “explanatory gap” to indicate the chasm between consciousness and attempted physicalistic accounts of mind) was invited to the last singularity conference and tried his hand at an essay in techno-philosophy.

Bostrom and Ćirković and techno-philosophers

The work of Nick Bostrom also represents techno-philosophy, as Professor Bostrom has engaged with a number of contemporary ideas such as superintelligence, the Fermi paradox, extraterrestrial life, transhumanism, posthumanism, the simulation hypothesis (which is a contemporary reformulation of Cartesian evil spirit), and existential risk (which is a contemporary reformulation and secularization of apocalypticism, but with a focus on mitigating apocalyptic scenarios).

Serbian astronomer and physicist Milan M. Ćirković has also dealt with many of the same questions in an admirably daring way (he has co-edited the volume Global Catastrophic Risks with Bostrom). What typifies the work of Bostrom and Ćirković — which definitely constitutes the best work in contemporary techno-philosophy — is their willingness to bring traditional philosophical sensibility to the analysis of contemporary ideas, and especially ideas enabled and facilitated by contemporary technology such as computing and space science.

The branches of industrial-technological philosophy

Industrial-technological civilization is created by practical men who eschew philosophy if they happen to be aware of it, and those with a bent for abstract or theoretical thought, and who desire a robust engagement with the world, turn to science or mathematics, where abstract and theoretical ideas can have a direct and nearly immediate impact upon the development of industrial society. Techno-philosophy picks up where these indispensable men of industrial-technological civilization leave off.

Once we understand the relationship between techno-philosophy and industrial-technological civilization (and its disruptions), and knowing the cycle of science, technology and engineering that drives such a civilization, we can posit a philosophical analysis of each stage in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization, with a philosophy of the science of this civilization, a philosophy of the technology of this civilization, and a philosophy of the engineering of this civilization. Techno-philosophy, then, is the philosophy of the technology of industrial-technological civilization.

Philosophy in a time of model drift

In parallel to the emerging school of techno-philosophy, there is a quasi-philosophical field of popular expositions of science by those actively working on the frontiers of the sciences that have been most profoundly transformed by recent developments, and which are still in the process of transformation. This is the philosophy of the science of industrial-technological civilization, and it is distinct from traditional philosophy of science. The rapid developments in cosmology and physics in particular have led to model drift in these fields, and those scientists who are working on these concepts feel the need to give these abstract and theoretical conceptions a connection to ordinary human experience.

Here I have in mind the books of Brian Green, such as his exposition of string theory, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, as well as criticisms of string theory such as Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. Some of these books are more widely ranging and therefore more philosophical, such as David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes — and Its Implications, while some appeal to a traditional conception of “natural philosophy” as in David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. While these works do not constitute “techno-philosophy” as I have characterized it above, they stand in a similar relationship to the civilization the thought of which they represent.

The prospects for techno-philosophy

As techno-philosophy grows in scope, rigor, depth, and methodological sophistication, it promises to give to industrial-technological civilization something this civilization never wanted and never desired, but of which it is desperately in need: Depth. Gravitas. Intellectual seriousness. Disciplined reflection on the human condition. In a word: wisdom.

If there is anything the world needs today, it is wisdom.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Truth is Out There

It is a demonstration of the perennial character of philosophical thought that one of the fundamental distinctions that has defined Western philosophy — the distinction between realism and idealism — finds itself clearly instantiated in contemporary popular culture. For realism may be adequately summarized as the view that “the truth is out there” while idealism (which admittedly takes many forms) is equally well summarized either by the “new age” idea that you make your own reality, or by the academic parallel to this, which is deconstructivism, in which anything can mean anything. Everything old is new again.

I just finished listening to Timothy Ferris book, Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. Timothy Ferris is one of my favorite science writers, and indeed his earlier book The Red Limit is one of my favorite books.

While Ferris frequently invokes the kind of anti-philosophy that I have become accustomed to encountering in the writings of scientists, he also cites philosophers has diverse as Hegel and Wittgenstein (the latter of whom he has read thoroughly enough to even know his wartime journal, which is not widely read). Despite these philosophical citations, his philosophical formulations remain true to scientific anti-philosophy in their thoroughly naive spirit. For example, he frequently employs the idiom of the objects of astronomy being “really out there” as a kind of visceral reminder of realism:

“Once the sky was fully dark I had a look at the Triangulum galaxy, which at a distance of less then three million light-years from Earth is a local object by intergalactic standards. Its rangy spiral arms, tangled with glowing clouds of gas, spilled out beyond the field of view. As often happens, I was struck by the fact that all these things, unimaginably big or small or hot or cold as they may be, really are out there. Like giant squid or loaves of French bread — and unlike, say, postmodernism or public opinion polls — they confront us with the regality of the materially real.”

Timothy Ferris, Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, 2003, p. 64

For Timothy Ferris, the truth is out there, as poignantly palpable as any any visceral sensation. Which leads us to another, better known, visceral assertion of realism, from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

The responses of Samuel Johnson and Timothy Ferris may be charitably characterized as an embodied philosophical doctrine, a practical realism arising from an engagement with the world. This practical realism is better known as scientific realism, which is an ontological doctrine. The corollary of scientific realism as expressed in scientific practice is methodological naturalism.

Acts of practical realism, as engagements with the world, constitute what Bertrand Russell called the enlargement of the self. I previously discussed Russell’s conception of the enlargement of the self in Too see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. It is important to understand that Russell is not talking about the enlargement of the ego, but rather the antithesis of this. Russell also calls this an ethic of impersonal self enlargement: “when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects.”

This is the moral component of science, which makes practical realism not only an intellectual imperative but also a moral imperative, and by way of the moral imperative — being primarily intellectual and intangible — we draw closer to a purely theoretical realism.

It is interesting to note that Russell employed the idiom of “objects” in the Russell quote above, since this point of view shares some similarities with object oriented ontology in its various forms. I have discussed this recent philosophical school in several posts, and I suggested a moral interpretation, an object oriented axiology, in Metaphysical Responsibility.

In Russell’s sense of an impersonal enlargement of the self through scientific understanding we have a concern for objects for their own sake, which “adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects.” Russell felt a metaphysical responsibility to the objects of science. I think that Boswell felt a metaphysical responsibility to the perennial character of stones, as Ferris feels a metaphysical responsibility to the stars and the galaxies.

The astronomer takes responsibility for planets, stars, and galaxies and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. The paleontologist takes responsibility for bones and fossils and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. The physicist takes responsibility for fundamental particles and the mathematician takes responsibility for numbers and each seeks to give an account of their chosen field of endeavor that gets the objects right for their own sake.

All of these are examples from the natural sciences, sometimes also called the “hard” sciences, and although it would be a little more difficult to give the parallel formulations for the social sciences, with certain qualifications I think that the parallel cases hold.

In Object Disoriented Axiology I cited a short quote from Jung, “No one has any obligations to a concept…” as embodying the antithesis of the perspective of object oriented axiology. Jung’s claim was simply a special case of moral nihilism — a moral nihilism directed exclusively at those who employ concepts, which is ultimately and eventually all of us.

The formulations above from the physical sciences, taking as my examples the astronomer, the paleontologist, the physicist, and the mathematician, have their conceptual parallel in the philosopher. The philosopher takes responsibility for concepts and seeks to give an account of them that gets them right for their own sake. In this parallelism of science and philosophy, we can see also a parallelism between practical realism and theoretical realism. The philosopher formulates a pure theoretical realism in light of his responsibilities to concepts. In so doing, the philosopher gives the science of concepts, as scientists give the philosophy of non-conceptual objects.

Thus, despite the fashionable anti-philosophy of many scientists, that often leads them to say unkind things about purely philosophical inquiry, I see the enterprises of science and philosophy as parallel undertakings, and I grant the scientists their due in this endeavor. A complete account of the world cannot be written without the contributions of scientists, who give an account of scientific objects from the point of view of those who feel an obligation to these objects. But a complete view of the world is equally elusive without the contribution of those who give an account of non-scientific objects.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Separating the Inseparable

For the Sake of the Objects Themselves

The bête noire of the recently emergent philosophical school of speculative realism (which also goes by other names, but I will make it easy on myself and employ only this formulation, whatever its inadequacies) is correlationism. What are the speculative realists rejecting? What is correlationism? Quentin Meillassoux, in his After Finitude, offers an explicit characterization:

“…the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of correlation. By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.”

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, p. 5

While Meillassoux specifically cites Kant, one feels that it is rather the Cartesian tradition that is the real target. Meillassoux is a Frenchman, and the Cartesian tradition remains institutionalized in France in a way not unlike the way in which Kantianism is institutionalized in the Germanophone world. After all, Descartes initiated philosophical modernism by asserting cogito ergo sum, which connects thinking and being in a particularly intimate and essential way.

In the twentieth century the Cartesian tradition was primarily represented by Husserl’s phenomenology, and it is impossible to read Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism without supposing that he is calling out Husserl. Husserl didn’t call his phenomenology correlationism, but rather formulated his position in terms of intentionality, but it amounts to much the same thing.

Here’s what Husserl has to say about intentionality in his classic and very condensed book (that begins by invoking Descartes in the first section of the work) Cartesian Meditations, eponymously named for Descartes himself:

“Inquiry into consciousness concerns two sides (for the present we are leaving out of consideration the question of the identical Ego); they can be characterized descriptively as belonging together inseparably. The sort of combination uniting consciousness with consciousness can be characterized as synthesis, a mode of combination exclusively peculiar to consciousness.”

Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, section 17, p. 39

Later, in section 20 of the same work, Husserl elaborates:

“Intentional analysis is guided by the fundamental cognition that, as a consciousness, every cogito is indeed (in the broadest sense) a meaning of its meant [Meinung seines Gemeinten], but that, at any moment, this something meant [dieses Vermeinte] is more something meant with something more than what is meant at that moment “explicitly”.

Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, section 20, p. 46

Throughout the Cartesian Meditations Husserl uses “correlate,” “correlates,” “correlative,” and “correlatively” quite freely to express aspects of intentionality, and there is no question that Husserl is the source of the “co-givenness, of the co-relation, of the co-originary, of co-presence, etc.” (p. 5) to which Meillassoux refers.

The explicit rejection of correlationism, then, among the speculative realists, is an explicit rejection of Husserl and the phenomenological tradition. This is interesting for us in several ways, but what I will point out at present is that it points to the continued vitality of the phenomenological tradition that it should still inspire such explicit renunciation.

I must point out here that much post-war continental philosophy — indeed, the greater part of what we now think of as “continental” philosophy — is an unambiguous rejection of Husserl and phenomenology, and these are rejections that go in different directions. Foucault was clearly reacting against phenomenology, as was Derrida, who was a very careful reader of Husserl, and very careful in his renunciation of phonocentrism (or phonologism, call it what you will, as this is also a movement that goes by many names) that he found in Husserl. But Foucault and Derrida cannot even themselves be assimilated to or reduced to a single “continental” tradition, since they went in different directions and criticized each other quite unambiguously.

The point over which Foucault and Derrida most clearly and explicitly differed is itself interesting in the present context, because it was the Cartesian cogito that was their point of difference (or, if you prefer, différance). In Foucault’s seminal work on madness he gives a brief exposition of the Cartesian conception of madness (and how it crucially differs from dreams and mere error) at the beginning of the second chapter. Derrida tore this passage from its context as exemplary, and devoted an essay to it, “Cogito and the History of Madness” (published in Writing and Difference). Foucault responded in turn with his “Reply to Derrida” (this has been published in the newly translated History of Madness). This is an oddly stilted and, in a sense, Freudian dialogue, because each speaks of Husserl by carefully avoiding him. Husserl has become the stern father, in whose absence his children have become unruly, prodigal, and profligate. And they know it. It would make an interesting project to re-formulate their dialogue in explicitly phenomenological terms.

As I see it, the speculative realists stand a little closer to Foucault (despite the Heideggerian influence that is present in common in both Derrida and speculative realism), since the anti-humanistic human science toward which Foucault was striving is also, in a sense, the object oriented ontology toward which speculative realism is working. But, as I said, while speculative realism and earlier forms of continental philosophy have in common their rejection of phenomenological intentionality, they are different reactions.

Earlier continental philosophy had as its twin fascinations Freud and Marx, and these do not play anything like the same role in speculative realism. The structuralist rejection of phenomenological subject-centered philosophy was, like positivism in the Anglo-American tradition, explicitly anti-metaphysical and scientistic. Speculative realism seems to take the scientism in a new direction, although without abandoning it, and is in no sense anti-metaphysical. Indeed, I have previously written of some speculative realists that their work constitutes an Apotheosis of Metaphysics, and their appropriation of contemporary science seems to point toward a metaphysical science, the inversion of Husserl’s aim of a scientific metaphysics (i.e., philosophy as rigorous science).

There is a sense in which it is a noble philosophical ambition to sunder thinking and being, so that each might take up the separate and equal station to which nature entitles them. Yet much of this effort seems to focus on freeing up objects to participate in an object oriented ontology, as though the Husserlian call to philosophical arms — to the things themselves! (Zu den sachen selbst!) — becomes something like, to the objects themselves! (Zu der Gegenstandes selbst!), with objects now explicitly understood as separate from thought in a way strangely parallel to the explanations that always had to be added to Husserl, such that by “things” he meant our experience of things.

Of course, the legitimacy of beings without thinking implies the equal legitimacy of thinking without being, unless one takes an explicit position of rejecting thought in itself, and indeed among the alternative formulations of speculative realism we have speculative materialism, which is how I think Meillassoux identifies his position (though I may be wrong about this; I’m not sure).

Taking objects on their own account and dispensing with thinking, as though it had no role to play in the world, is the traditional position of scientific realism. Are we to identify speculative realism with Anglo-American scientific realism? Certainly not simpliciter. But how exactly the two differ and what exactly the two have in common is an investigation that I will leave for another time.

While I certainly would not want to privilege any being or form of being on the basis of its relationship to thinking, I would equally eschew the valuation of thought based on a privileged relationship to being. If we bring thought and being together in an intentional relationship, we avoid this problem, as we avoid all the Humean problems that have bedeviled Anglo-American philosophy since Hume pointed out the difficulty of identifying any identity for the self that was not identical with some perception — that is to say, some object in the Husserlian sense. But when thought and being are sundered it is more difficult to say how this difficulty will be met.

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Footnote: In regard to what I wrote above on, “The structuralist rejection of phenomenological subject-centered philosophy,” cf. my post By indirections our directions find…

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Metaphysical Pride

24 February 2011


Dore's illustration of the Fall of Satan.

Aiax. Will you subscribe his thought, and say he is?

Ag. No, Noble Aiax, you are as strong, as valiant, as
wise, no lesse noble, much more gentle, and altogether more tractable.

Aiax. Why should a man be proud? How doth pride
grow? I know not what it is.

Aga. Your minde is the cleerer Aiax, and your vertues
the fairer; he that is proud, eates vp himselfe; Pride is his owne Glasse, his owne trumpet, his owne Chronicle, and what euer praises it selfe but in the deede, deuoures the deede in the praise.

[Enter Vlysses.]

Aiax. I do hate a proud man, as I hate the ingendring
of Toades.

Nest. Yet he loues himselfe: is’t not strange?

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act. II, scene iii (First Folio Edition)

Holding pride of place among the Seven Deadly Sins, pride has a bad reputation, and it was pride of course that was the occasion of Satan’s fall. Even outside a strictly theological context, we have the above-quoted passage from Shakespeare on pride, in which The Bard artfully, true to holding up a mirror to nature, shows the divided human attitude to pride: pride is hated, and yet even those who publicly condemn pride seem to love themselves. No doubt Satan, too, condemned pride before being cast out of Heaven.

Aristotle's “Great Souled Man” puts pride in a very different context than that which we have inherited from the Christian Middle Ages, when the narrative of pride was that of the sin that resulted in Satan's expulsion from Heaven.

In antiquity, pride had a better reputation. In my recent discussion of Aristotle’s Great Souled Man, as he appears in Book IV, Chapter 3, of the Nichomachean Ethics, I noted that this particular virtue (μεγαλοψυχίαmegalopsuchos or megalopsychia or megalopsukhia, depending upon your transliteration of the Greek) in Aristotle is at times translated as pride, though at other times it is rendered magnanimity, and still other times as great souled. In Aristotelian fashion, it represents the mean between the extremes vanity and pettiness.

A few days ago I was reading Sartre’s War Diaries and came upon another interesting treatment of pride, what Sartre called metaphysical pride, and the passage was striking because it almost seemed as though it was conceived in parallel with what I wrote about metaphysical responsibility and metaphysical modesty as exemplifications of an object oriented axiology (i.e., an axiology consistent with the metaphysical values implicit in an object oriented ontology).

However, Sartre’s exposition of metaphysical pride has a particular purpose in his diary, as it occurs in the course of a long entry (most of Sartre’s entries are long; the bulk of his writing is at times stunning) of 24 February 1940 in which he describes in detail his almost complete lack of interest in owning anything. He discusses his childhood during which, “money used to drop from the sky like ripe fruit” (p. 249), while his later years are contrasted to his friend’s various attitudes to personal property. Indeed, this entry in Sartre’s war journal could well be called Pride and Property.

In any case, this is what Sartre wrote:

“The first reason I don’t want to own anything is metaphysical pride. I’m sufficient unto myself, in the nihilating solitude of the for-itself. I should find no comforts in the substantial substitutes for myself. I’m not at ease except in freedom, escaping objects, escaping myself; I’m not at east except in nothingness — I’m a true nothingness, drunk with pride and translucid. Yet that doesn’t resolve the metaphysical question, since, proud or not, since I’m a lack and precisely lack the world. So it’s the world I want to possess. But with no symbolic substitute. That, likewise, is a matter of pride.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, The War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phony War, November 1939-March 1940, Pantheon Books, New York, 1984, p. 251

Sartre goes on in a similar vein for some time, eventually revealing that he wants to the possess the world as knowledge. (This is the philosophical quest, is it not?) Elsewhere in his war journal, Sartre also invokes “metaphysical dignity” (p. 82), “metaphysical inhumanity” (p. 300), and even “metaphysical optimism.” Though many people familiar with existentialism might hesitate to associate it with optimism, anyone who knows Sartre’s writings knows that he asserted that it was not the pessimism of existentialism that offended others, but its fundamental optimism. I agree with this.

From reading Sartre’s war journal it seems clear to me that the circumstances of the war caused him to think with great concentration and intensity upon the concrete situations of individuals, bringing his metaphysical sophistication and subtlety to bear upon the actual problems that actual people experienced in the ordinary business of life. Existentialism is the true pragmatism. Indeed, the war was not yet over when Sartre published his great metaphysical treatise, Being and Nothingness. I think much of its content can be obliquely ascribed to the war, and even to Sartre’s experiences as a soldier.

Apart from the particular circumstances of Sartre’s life that inspired the reflection, what exactly is metaphysical pride? Unlike metaphysical responsibility and metaphysical modesty, metaphysical pride can be understood as a metaphysical vice or a metaphysical virtue. While from the perspective of contemporary thought this makes pride ambiguous, pride does not necessarily retain this ambiguity in all contexts. It has often been observed that the Machiavellian sense of Virtù, sometimes mistakenly conflated with virtue, represents a condition of vigorous self-assertion that might be good or evil by turns, and it would not be too far off the mark to say that a metaphysical Virtù is nearly equivalent to metaphysical pride.

Sartre's war journal is quite remarkable, and it is a great loss that much of it is missing. Sartre liked his formulation “being-for-war” so much that he used it several times, but his exposition of this idea was in the first notebook, which was lost soon after being written. It would be a worthwhile exercise to compare Sartre's journal from the Second World War side-by-side with Wittgenstein's journal from the First World War.

There is also a close relationship — though not an identity — between pride and Aristotelian excellence, i.e., Aretē (ἀρετή in the original Greek, and sometimes translated as “virtue,” just like Machiavelli’s Virtù). Throughout Aristotle’s ethics there is a clear implication that human beings take pleasure in achieving excellence, and in so doing experience a proper sense of pride. Thus a metaphysical excellence would be the proper occasion of metaphysical pride, an in so far as “the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them” (Rackham translation of I.7.1098a), then metaphysical good is the active exercise of the Being of beings in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several ontological excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them. In short, metaphysical excellence is ontological bella figura.

Any agent in the world that can attain to metaphysical excellence, and can bask in the immediacy of the metaphysical enjoyment of an achieved perfection, will experience metaphysical pride, and rightly so. Metaphysical pride is predicated upon metaphysical excellence. I think Aristotle would have recognized this as readily as Sartre, though I don’t think Aristotle would have used this language, and I don’t think Sartre would have invoked the Aristotelian anticipation of his position.

What about the dangerous and destructive aspects of pride, presumably raised to a higher order of magnitude (or, at least, a higher level of generality) in metaphysical pride? But little imagination is necessary to conceive of the potential disasters of metaphysical pride, and perhaps it would not be out of place to observe that metaphysical pride goeth before metaphysical destruction.

There are few greater affronts to the world than a virtue that has been twisted beyond recognition into a vice. We find this, unfortunately, quite often in relation to honor. Honor is the source of much that is valuable in the world, but when it is distorted by the baser impulses of human nature, and insult is added to injury when agents are so self-deluded that these baser impulses are interpreted as virtues, “honor” so distorted becomes worse than if the idea had not existed at all, because its degradation is used as a pretext for inflicting harm and suffering with a clear conscience. So it is with so-called “honor killings.”

From the example of how something as dignified as honor can go wrong, it is easy to imagine how pride can also go wrong. Of course, the Occidental tradition has been deeply sensitive to the follies of pride; perhaps this is an instinctive correction to Occidental individualism, which, if exposed to the idea of pride without a cautionary narrative, might well be more harmful than if the very idea of pride had never been conceived. Metaphysical pride gone wrong, twisted and distorted by the baser impulses of human nature, would be (and has been) a metaphysical affront to the world.

Confined within a bourgeois discussion of property ownership — which, paradoxically, is what Sartre does — metaphysical pride scarcely attains to the level of a virtue or a vice simpliciter, and certainly not to the level of metaphysical virtue or metaphysical vice.

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In the heyday of positivism during the early twentieth century it would have been easy to believe that the venerable distinction between appearance and reality, which has been a central source of Western metaphysics since the beginning of Western civilization, was on its way out, fated to end up on the ash heap of history. Philosophers pursuing research programs as diverse as those of Russell and Husserl approximated, without explicitly endorsing, the positivist’s phenomenalism. Was Russell’s neutral monism or Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology idealist or realist? It is difficult to say, and it is difficult to say precisely because twentieth century philosophers were seeking to transcend and surpass the traditional dichotomies of Western thought.

Russell and Husserl represent something more subtle and sophisticated than the schematic phenomenalism of the second-tier positivists. If one wanted to be uncharitable one could call this “vague” instead of “subtle,” as the pronouncements of positivists do have the virtue of schematic clarity, but I still think that “subtle” is the right word. And neither Russell nor Husserl entirely took leave of the distinction between appearance and reality.

Russell begins his little “shilling shocker” The Problems of Philosophy with a chapter on Appearance and Reality, in which he concludes:

“It has appeared that, if we take any common object of the sort that is supposed to be known by the senses, what the senses immediately tell us is not the truth about the object as it is apart from us, but only the truth about certain sense-data which, so far as we can see, depend upon the relations between us and the object. Thus what we directly see and feel is merely ‘appearance’, which we believe to be a sign of some ‘reality’ behind. But if the reality is not what appears, have we any means of knowing whether there is any reality at all? And if so, have we any means of finding out what it is like?”

Husserl, a close contemporary of Russell, did not employ the language of sense-data that we find in English philosophy of the period, but he generated his own terminology that served a similar function. I am thinking in particular of the distinction between noesis and noema. Individual intentional acts are like noetic pieces of a puzzle, and the puzzle is the noema. As we begin to perceive some object, we have a noema of mostly unfilled intentions, and as we have more noetic moments to contribute to the noema these unfilled intentions are either filled or shown to be illusory, remaining unfilled.

In both the cases of Husserl and Russell the apparent infinitude of appearances threatens to swamp the singular reality that they clothe. Time and again we find references to the proliferating multiplicity of appearances, even while the pursuit of an elusive reality continues, which latter, it seems, must be ultimately one and whole. We can take the radical step and decompose the object into its appearances, or we can retain the distinction between appearance and reality and continue to do traditional Western metaphysics.

In this context it is interesting to note that object oriented ontology, as it is now being formulated by a number of thinkers, constitutes something of an apotheosis of metaphysics in its embrace of a complex scheme of appearance and reality. I am thinking of what Graham Harman calls the quadruple object. Harman gives a nice précis of his thought in now Peirce got there first, which culminates in the fourfold structure of the object:

1. objects are irreducible to any relations with other objects

2. while dependent on their component pieces, they are also irreducible to those pieces

3. objects merely encounter caricatures of each other, and in ontological terms this happens in the same way whether a human or animal is involved or not

4. the fact that objects cannot encounter each other directly means that only indirect relation is possible

5. however, we cannot follow either the occasionalists (who make God the sole medium of relation) or Hume or Kant (who invert occasionalism by making human habit or categories the only known site where this occurs)

6. there is an infinite regress of objects, but not an infinite progress toward ever larger ones, up to and including the “universe as a whole” (which doesn’t really exist for me)

7. both real and sensual objects are polarized between an object-pole and a quality-pole

8. this yields a fourfold structure, which generates not only space and time, but their previously disowned sisters which we might term essence and eidos

The above illustration of the quadruple object I have taken from Y’All Need to Stop Being so Interesting!, and a Note on Primary and Secondary Qualities on Levi R. Bryant’s Larval Subjects blog. It illustrates the ten possible interrelations between the four elements of the quadruple object (that’s my terminology, and may not be what OOO folks employ). Professor Bryant writes:

“For Harman, objects, as it were, are Janus faced. They have both a real dimension and a sensuous dimension. Moreover, each of these dimensions is divided between the object as a unity or what I would call a “totality” and the object’s qualities. The point here is that no object can ever be reduced to its qualities. What Harman calls “real objects” and “real qualities” consists of that “half” of an object that withdraws from all contact with other entities or objects. What Harman calls a “sensuous object” is, as I have put it, what an object is for another objects. Sensuous objects only exist in the interior of another real object. A sensuous object is, for example, the way a flame grasps cotton. Perhaps another way of formulating Harman’s distinction between real objects and sensuous objects would be to say that real objects are profoundly non-relational. They are, as it were, the depths of an object withdrawn from all relation. By contrast, sensuous objects are profoundly relational, which is why I say that they are objects for another object.”

This is clearly a very robust distinction between appearance and reality that even extrapolates beyond the traditional appearance and reality distinction to a quadripartite distinction. In this sense, object oriented ontology represents not only a return to traditional Western metaphysics of appearance and reality, but also an apotheosis of metaphysics. This is a profoundly traditional, if not conservative, exemplification of the tradition of Western thought.

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whole and part

Now it is already fall, and I find myself harking back to some thoughts I had in the spring. I have mentioned previously that I planned to return to my post on The Loss of Objecthood, but was dealt a setback by the theft my computer which had my manuscript for this reflection by way of return. (Is it irony or destiny that this reflection upon loss should have been followed by a loss, demonstrating personally and poignantly the catastrophe of loss?) What I still hope to say about this needs to be said, but it is complicated and the exposition will therefore take some effort. In the meantime, I have another idea that I can relate in relatively brief compass.

In The Loss of Objecthood, Negative Organicism, and Submergent Properties I considered the possibility of wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, in contradistinction to the more familiar idea of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. The distinction implicit in this recognition of negative organicisms also points to the possibility of a trichotomy: wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, and wholes that are equal to the sum of their parts.

This mereological trichotomy in turn suggests the possibility of what we may call the conservation of identity. What do I mean by the conservation of identity? Allow me to attempt an explanation.

When a number of individual objects join together and become parts of a larger whole, it sometimes seems to be the case that the individual identities of the objects are lost within the unity of the whole. This would seem to be a straight-forward case of negative organicism, but it also seems to be the case that the loss of individual identity is often compensated by the simultaneous acquisition of a corporate identity derived from the whole into which the object has been absorbed as a part.

In this latter case, when the many become one, the loss of individual identities means that the total number of identities in the world has been decreased by the emergence of a whole that submerges these individual identities, and in this sense there is no conservation of identity. But in so far as every object that previously had an identity still possesses an identity, even if this identity has been substituted with another identity, then there is a conservation of identity at the level of a one-to-one correspondence between objects and their identities.

Contrariwise, when then one becomes many, and a corporate identity collapses, the objects that were the constituent parts of the whole re-gain their individual entities even as they lose the identity conferred upon them by the mereological participation in the identity of the whole. In this case there would appear to be an increase in the absolute number of identities in the world, but again the conservation of identity is maintained at the level of one-to-one correspondence between objects and identities.

This one-to-one correspondence between objects and identities could be understood to be a function of the famous Quinean dictum of “No entity without identity.”

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Object Disoriented Axiology

15 September 2010


C. G. Jung

It took Joseph Campbell to drive me to Jung. Jung is one of those authors that I know that I should read, but when I have tried to read him I have been too bored to continue. But Jung is a consistent reference for Campbell, and Campbell is a consistent reference for my thought, so Campbell’s many citations of Jung’s last book Memories, Dreams, Reflections finally pushed me into examining this book, and in it I finally found a book by Jung that speaks to me. I don’t say that I agree with it, or with most of it, only that here is a text with which I can engage.

C. G. Jung's late autobiograpical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections

A life as fully lived as Jung’s is of course filled with interest and incident, and the telling of it in this late memoir is fascinating, but for today I will focus on a single sentence that appears in passing, with no special emphasis. First, for context, here is part of the paragraph in which the quote that interests me is embedded:

“…substituting for psychic reality an apparently secure, artificial, but merely two-dimensional conceptual world in which the reality of life is well covered up by so-called clear concepts. Experience is stripped of its substance, and instead mere names are substituted, which are henceforth put in the place of reality. No one has any obligations to a concept; that is what is so agreeable about conceptuality — it promises protection from experience. The spirit does not dwell in concepts, but in deeds and in facts. Words butter no parsnips; nevertheless, this futile procedure is repeated ad infinitum.”

Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, New York, p. 141

This passage from Jung, with its subtle anti-intellectualism (he goes on in the next paragraph to say that intellectuals were his worst patients), puts one in mind both of the familiar Marxist critique that intellectuals create ideal utopian worlds of justice in lieu of actual justice in the real world (think Plato’s Republic) as well as Bertrand Russell’s ironic response to Bergson:

“All pure contemplation he calls ‘dreaming’, and condemns by a whole series of uncomplimentary epithets: static, Platonic, mathematical, logical, intellectual.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 722

Bertrand Russell is almost as good a foil to Jung as Freud; both were rationalists to the core. Jung was not. Jung had a near-death experience that was important to him personally, and which he described in Memories, Dreams, Reflections in detailed terms:

It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents… I knew that I was on the point of departing from the Earth… The sight of the Earth from this height was the most glorious thing I had ever seen.

After contemplating it for a while, I turned around. I had been standing with my back to the Indian Ocean, as it were, and my face to the north. Then it seemed to me that I made a turn to the south. Something new entered my field of vision. A short distance away I saw in space a tremendous dark block of stone, like a meteorite. It was about the size of my house, or even bigger. It was floating in space, and I myself was floating in space.

An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a black Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon a stone bench. He wore a white gown, and I knew that he expected me. Two steps led up to this antechamber, and inside, on the left, was the gate to the temple. Innumerable tiny niches, each with a saucer-like concavity filled with coconut oil and small burning wicks, surrounded the door with a wreath of bright flames.

As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me – an extremely painful process. Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am. I am this bundle of what has been and what has been accomplished.

This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. There was no longer anything I wanted or desired. I existed in an objective form; I was what I had been and lived. At first the sense of annihilation predominated, of having been stripped or pillaged; but suddenly that became of no consequence.

Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, New York, Chapter X, “Visions,” pp. 289-291.

This is a very short and highly edited version of Jung’s near death experience. He goes on about it for several pages, and not surprisingly. Many of those who have had near death experiences are are deeply moved by them, and feel that their life has been altered ever after.

Bertrand Russell in a hospital in Trondheim after his plane crashed in the fjord.

Bertrand Russell was on board the flying boat Bukken Bruse in 1948 when it crashed upon landing. He was among 24 survivors of the crash; 19 people perished. Russell was 76 at the time of the accident.

Russell, too, had something of a “near-death” experience (though he never called it that, and never would have called it that), when he was in a plane that crashed and went into a fjord when landing in Trondheim, Norway. Nineteen people died in the crash; Russell and several other survivors swam to a boat and were rescued. Russell’s deadpan response to a question about the experience is classic:

“Everybody plied me with questions. A question even came by telephone from Copenhagen: a voice said, ‘When you were in the water, did you not think of mysticism and logic ?’ ‘No’, I said. ‘What did you think of?’ the voice persisted. ‘I thought the water was cold’, I said and put down the receiver.”

Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, 1998, p. 512

It is not difficult to see what the unknown questioner was angling for, especially by invoking Russell’s famous essay, “Mysticism and Logic.” But the questioner didn’t get what he came for, like the priest that appeared for Voltaire during the hour of his death, who came away with no deathbed confession.

My battered paperback copy of Bertrand Russell's collection of papers titled Mysticism and Logic.

But I have traveled rather far afield now, and I want to get back to the sentence — really, only a part of a sentence — that interested me. What particularly captured my interest in the first passage quoted above was this claim: “No one has any obligations to a concept…” Is this true? Is there no one who has, or feels, an obligation to a concept (or concepts)?

I for one certainly have known what it is like to feel an obligation to a concept. Perhaps my spirit dwells in concepts. But I am not the only one that feels this obligation to things of the mind. The whole idea behind logic and rigor is that of getting concepts right for their own sake, and getting a concept right for its own sake is all about our obligations to that concept. That this never seemed to have occurred to Jung — as I have noted, the quote is merely a comment in passing to which he gives no particular emphasis (sort of like “proof by hand-waving”) — says something about the nature of Jung’s intellect. We cannot help but note here that Freud the inveterate rationalist had his perfect foil in Jung, who has gone on to become a hero to obscurantists and the mystically-inclined for whom reasoning is more about grasping intuitions than formulating an argument.

Jung has formulated his claim in the moral language of obligation — or, rather, the lack of obligation — so that we are here in the presence of an axiological claim. I was struck by the claim because I immediately recognized that it constitutes an explicit rejection of the point of view of an object-oriented axiology. In this sense, Jung’s moral claim can be considered a claim of object disoriented axiology.

In a handful of posts from earlier this year — Back to shop class!, Metaphysical Responsibility, and Metaphysical Modesty, inter alia — I attempted to sketch the first outlines of an object oriented axiology. An object oriented axiology would be an axiology that takes as its metaphysical point of departure an object oriented ontology. The latter has been given various formulations by different thinkers. But an object disoriented axiology would be another matter entirely; I take it that a turn away from an object oriented approach is an object disoriented approach.

If an object oriented ontology recognizes the metaphysical responsibility that we have toward anything that might occur in a Latourian litany, a weakly object disoriented axiology would recognize some, but not all, of the obligations of metaphysical responsibility, while a strongly object disoriented axiology would deny any and all obligations of metaphysical responsibility to any and all objects. This latter position is a form of moral nihilism, and, however frequently instantiated in fact, is of little theoretical interest. The more obvious cases, and the more interesting cases, would be those in which a particular class of objects is single out either to deny obligations of metaphysical responsibility or to uniquely confer obligations of metaphysical responsibility. For example, I would assume that Jung’s object disorientation would take the form of singling out the class of persons from the class of all objects, and conferring upon them a privileged status in regard to our obligations under metaphysical responsibility. Thus the democracy of objects gives way to an oligarchy of objects.

Another approach that could salvage a strong formulation of object disorientation (rendering it distinct from mere moral nihilism) would be to deny that, e.g., persons (or some other subclass of objects) were objects at all (objects in the strict sense, whatever that sense may be), and further holding that, while objects are rightly denied any obligations under metaphysical responsibility, certain non-objects such as persons nevertheless incur obligations following from metaphysical responsibility. Thus the scope of our axiology is tightly constrained by the scope of our metaphysics.

Now, I hope the reader will have seen by this time that the implicit Jungian object disoriented axiology further implies an object disoriented ontology, i.e., a metaphysical position that constitutes the explicit and systematic rejection of object oriented ontology. Since object oriented ontology has only recently been given an explicit formulation in the works of Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Levi R. Bryant, and many others, we cannot look for any direct history of a reaction against it in the form an on explicitly formulated object disoriented ontology. Nevertheless, we can search for its prehistory, in implicit forms such as Jung’s implicit object disoriented axiology. But that is a task for another time.

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Metaphysical Modesty

17 June 2010


'Modesty' by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1825 – 1905

When less than a week ago I had all my most valuable possessions stolen from my pickup in Portland (which I described in A Serious Loss) while walking in Tryon Park, I mentioned that I lost my recently acquired books on object oriented ontology (Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics and Meillassoux’s After Finitude) and that this has slowed down my work in this area. I didn’t mention that although I lost my computer, my books, and my notebooks of ideas, the thieves left my cassettes of lectures on the philosophy of science untouched on the seat. Am I to conclude from this selective loss that the thieves were speculative realists and therefore not the kind of people who would want lectures on the philosophy of science or to whom one would want to rent a room? Not likely. Just a few days ago in Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology I mentioned the engagement of OOO with contemporary science. The criminal mind must remain a mystery to us.

The lectures are a series of 36 half hour talks on the philosophy of science as delivered by Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser of North Carolina State University and published by The Teaching Company (whose lectures I have had occasion to mention many times previously). Since I didn’t lose these, I was able to continue listening to them even while the rest of my work was rudely interrupted.

Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser

In lecture 26 on scientific realism I was interested to note that Professor Kasser invokes what he calls metaphysical modesty. The Professor characterizes metaphysical modesty as, “The way the world is does not depend on what we think about it.” Now, this is simply an alternative formulation of realism, but Kasser has chosen to express realism as a moral virtue, and particular as the moral virtue of metaphysical modesty.

Metaphysical modesty may be a little more plain that the more traditional virtue, but it is more universally serviceable.

I particularly noticed this use of metaphysical modesty because I had written a post on metaphysical responsibility, a term that I had picked up from the book Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford, which I initially mentioned in Back to shop class! Crawford introduces metaphysical responsibility as a responsibility that he has to inanimate objects (in his example it is a motorcycle that he is working on) in contradistinction to his fiduciary responsibility to the person paying for the work that he is doing. I suggested that this conception of metaphysical responsibility could serve as a point of entry to an object oriented axiology.

Three of the four cardinal virtues as depicted by Raphael.

Although Kasser is coming from a different perspective and from a different tradition, his mentioning of metaphysical modesty immediately made me realize that we could systematically expand our conception of object oriented axiology by re-formulating and re-conceptualizing all the virtues of traditional axiology in terms that are blind to human privilege and which make them metaphysically as application to any one object as to another.

Again, the object oriented virtues are plain in comparison to the tradition, but no less morally edifying.

For example, if we take the traditional cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude, corresponding to these in an object oriented axiology there will be metaphysical justice, metaphysical temperance, metaphysical prudence, and metaphysical fortitude. For some of these it would be difficult, right off the top of one’s head, to form a clear conception of what such a virtue would be if conceived in the context of an object oriented ontology and axiology, but the investment of a little thought would probably make this clearer to us over time.

It might be a little more of a stretch to find object oriented equivalents for the theological virtues, but these will no doubt be forthcoming once an object oriented theology has been formulated.

If we wanted to go even further afield we could posit object oriented equivalents of the theological virtues, to whit, metaphysical faith, metaphysical hope, and metaphysical charity. While I certainly won’t be the one to attempt to formulate an object oriented theology, I am equally certain that it is not far in the offing.

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Newton, not Kant, was the focus of the Enlightenment ideal of natural reason, as in the famous lines of Alexander Pope -- Nature and nature's laws lay hid in Night. / God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light

In several posts — A Formulation of Naturalism, Two Thoughts on Naturalism, and Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation — I have attempted to give explicit formulations of the idea of naturalism as it underlies contemporary scientific and philosophical thought. It has just occurred to me, in the wake of my recent posts about object oriented ontology — Metaphysical Responsibility, The Loss of Objecthood, and Back to shop class! — that another approach to naturalism may be made by way of object oriented ontology.

Thinking about the posited “flat” ontologies of various formulations of object oriented philosophy I recalled an evocation of flatness from a decade or more ago in Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry by Colin McGinn. Colin McGinn made a name for himself in philosophy by denying that philosophy can answer many of the traditional questions of philosophy — including, paradigmatically, the mind-body problem — but on the way to promulgating the inefficacy of philosophy McGinn outlined a number of interesting philosophical positions, for example:

“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.” (pp. 2-3)

Now this first sentence I have quoted comes off a lot like the rejection of correlationism that is central to many approaches to object oriented ontology. To have this parallel extension of Copernicanism in McGinn immediately followed by an ontological principle that appeals to the flatness of naturalism’s account of the world is almost eerie. It wouldn’t be eerie if we knew that the recent object orient philosophers had been reading McGinn or recent analytical philosophy, but they seem to spend most of their time in the company of Heidegger and his continental epigones. In any case, it is remarkable that both analytical and continental thought should be converging, from different directions, on a similar philosophical goal.

McGinn’s Transcendental Naturalism invokes a implicit flat ontology of the world as it is, apart from distortions introduced into our picture of the world by our cognitive architecture. Thus McGinn, like the object oriented philosopher, must begin with a robust metaphysics of the most traditionally Western sort, with a fundamental distinction between appearance and reality. While earlier philosophies in the Western tradition (especially since Hume and Kant) laid greater emphasis upon our perceptual architecture than our cognitive architecture, it is important see that this is a difference in emphasis and not a difference in the essential nature of the undertaking. One could discover a kind of “transcendental naturalism” in Kant as well — despite Kant’s paradigmatic correlationism — but it would need to be formulated mutatis mutandis with McGinn: “Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our perceptual limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle.”

In Two Thoughts on Naturalism I maintained that naturalism takes science at face value, and it is clear that in Quentin Meillassoux’s work science once again has a central place in continental epistemology. I say “once again” because from the latter part of the nineteenth century through the twentieth century science had a problematic relationship to continental philosophy. While philosophy during this period was dominated by Marx and Freud — the former claiming to the scientific, the latter actually being scientific — the spirit animating the appropriation of Marx and Freud was not scientific, and this is one of the developments that led to a profound split between continental and analytical thought. Analytical philosophy had a very different way of being influenced by the dramatic gains in scientific knowledge that occurred in the twentieth century.

Thus with Meillassoux’s frank engagement with contemporary scientific knowledge we find ourselves in a milieu more like late Enlightenment era thought. In other words, we find ourselves in a situation more like the Kantian epoch, when the great discoveries of Newton were being assimilated by philosophy. For Kant certainly took the science of his day seriously, and he was able to distinguish the best science of his day — Newton, and all that Newton represents — and so to avoid the all-too-common philosophical pitfall of engaging with pseudo-science.

Even though the apparent unity of object oriented philosophy is to be found in its rejection of Kantian correlationism, we see that on another level an acceptance of Kantian naturalism is as much a point of agreement in the diverse body of speculative realist thought. And I will say that it is high time for a return to the ideals of the Enlightenment in continental thought. The kind of naturalism that we find in the Enlightenment has much in common with contemporary naturalism — the interest in explanatory mechanisms as well as the interest in minimalist formulations that go no further afield than necessary, which latter is certainly the spirit animating Hume — and can be clearly differentiated from the quasi-scientific naturalism of twentieth century continental thought. Just as interesting, Enlightenment naturalism is equally distinct from the science-mimicry of analytical philosophy during the twentieth century.

To posit a flat ontology is to posit a world that is flatly natural in McGinn’s sense, and to posit a flatly natural world is to posit an ontology that is flat. How one accounts for the apparent deviations from flatness then becomes a central question. There are different ways to do this, but, as I noted above, we have through this shared interest in a flat world a new convergence between continental and analytical philosophy — despite many manifestations of both that continue to be mutually exclusive — and this shared interest has much in common with the spirit of the Enlightenment as it was once expressed in philosophy.

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objects 1

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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