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Friday, 30 December 2011

Object-oriented ontologies vs materialisms: what is at stake 1 (Objects and concepts)

Been thinking more and more in terms of two poles: object and matter. In a sense, process philosophy is engaged by Harman as part of his war machine against materialism. As he says when discussing what he sees as the drawbacks of Latour's metaphysics (in The Prince of Networks), Latour's alliances, black boxes and tests of force are not enough to exorcise the notion of matter altogether. He pledges that objects can provide a more thorough measure of the exorcism he deems necessary. He sees in the appeal to matter an operation of undermining objects that ought to be resisted as much as those operations to overmine them and explain them away in terms of impressions or appearances. The appeal to matter is not the only one among such undermining operations. In process philosophy itself, it is common to invoke something like the Simondon's principle that individuation always precedes individuals. In other words, that there is a process of constitution of objects that is somehow underneath each individual object. This individuating level undermines objects and paves the way away from a realism about objects. This conflict with the undermining forces within his own ranks is something Harman believes he can administrate. He can say that once there are objects throughout, they are also present in whatever level the individuation of (other) objects takes place. In fact, the debate is reminiscent of Duns Scotus and his attempt to exorcise matter by appealing to haecceitas as an individuating principle: an object-oriented conception of individuation appeals always to what is already individuated.

It is interesting the way object-oriented ontology makes use of process philosophy and of Latour in particular. Latour's focus on alliances, actants and tests of force comes to the effect that there is no ready-made individuated item in the world. This is the lesson of his principle of irreduction: nothing is itself reducible or irreducible to anything else. Objects, in an object-oriented realism, are themselves irreducible to anything. Latour's ontology is one of radical bricolage. But one can use some of this process philosophy bricolage to an object-oriented ontology where objects are never reduced to something else and no object in particular is such that it cannot be reduced to some other object. Harman tries to place objects as the furniture of the world and start out the bricolage from them – all process can only come when objects are already in place. Objects provide an intrinsic measure of individuation and they relate to each other in a way that depend on nothing but the current (actual) alliances (between objects).

The issue of actualism is crucial in the object-oriented ontology vs materialism debate. Materialists like Hamilton Grant see matter as a realm of potentiality. Matter is thought as full of powers, it is vibrant and capable to engender bodies – materialism is a way to avoid somatism (by undermining objects or bodies). Object-oriented ontologies share the actualism of process philosophy – Latour's abhorrence of potentialities, say. It is all about actual objects and their relations – no causal powers, no disposition inherent to objects, no (significant) embedded capacities distinguishing an object from another. Bryant's onticology is a mid-way house in this respect: objects with powers, virtuality without an appeal to matter.

But I'm mostly interested in the similarities between the matter-object debate concerning ontology on the one hand and the immediacy-concept debate concerning thought content on the other. Those who defend a sensorial given that precedes all conceptual operation appeal to what underlies individuation and provides (arguably private) content to the organizing (social, public) concepts. Those who defend that all thought content is conceptual hold that a sensorial given is just too much of a message that can be interpreted in any way we want as it involves no individuation. Wittgenstein famous ingenious child who crafted a term for her toothache before learning how to associate the term “toothache” with public signs of pain (Investigations, I, 257) is an example. The pain is there but there is no mental content because the child doesn't know how to individuate what her crafted word is denoting (does a headache qualify; or an equally disturbing metallic sound or maybe a very cold wind?). No message can be delivered without concepts because only concepts individuate. Those who defend a given insist that animals, machines or our instincts (and maybe all dispositional items capable of Molnar's physical intentionality) can discriminate without possessing concepts (ticks discriminating mammals, sugar discriminating water, our nerves discriminating something inconvenient in our teeth). They address the issue of how discriminating starts, how and at which point the sensorial given becomes capable of delivering a contentful message.

The debate goes on and on; but it does go on and on in ways that resemble the one between materialism and object-oriented ontology. On the one side those who believe that there are concepts all the way (or objects all the way) and on the other those who take concept formation from non-conceptual material (or object-formation from a non-object material) a crucial issue. On the one side those who take the level of concepts (or objects) to hold a high degree of sovereignty (and are in pains to explain how the world affect them, like Davidson attempts to do with his multiple triangulations). On the other side those who place concepts (or objects) within a greater picture and take their powers to come from somewhere else – and not only from their internal arrangements. Those who insist that there are no message without concepts take the sensorial given to be like noumena in the sense of a blind absolute. Just like object-oriented ontology can take any appeal to matter as an appeal to an unaccessible absolute. Those who appeal to the sensorial given tend to see there the conditions of possibility to all concepts – just like Schelling saw in Nature the conditions of possibility for all bodies. If the analogy holds, attachment to objects in ontology are somehow like the attachment to concepts concerning thought content. The issue is whether there is more to the world than ready-made objects, more to content than ready-made concepts.


  1. Yes, it is a way forward to think beyond objects through what is beyond concepts and vice-versa.