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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

DIY packs substances

In Book H of the Metaphysics, Aristotle considers being as act and as potentiality and claims that one thing turns into the other solely by the concourse of an aitia of the third kind (of a so-called efficient cause). He develops an aspect ontology of substance where being-qua-sunolos is act while being-qua-matter is potentiality. But for each thing there ought to be a bit of matter that is that thing in potentiality - a specific bit of matter that composed this table and would not compose any other table (or any other thing). The material composition of this table is such that it will compose this table and nothing else. It is like a DIY pack, like an ikea item: ideally, the materials in the pack would build exactly the table drawn in the figure associated to it. This is the Aristotelian substance: it has a matter aspect and a form aspect.

Around 1044b35 he puts the problem of the wine and the vinegar: is wine the matter of vinegar? He has to say no as wine could cause something other than vinegar (that it does is because of the concourse of a sumbebekos). It is therefore not simply an efficient cause that would turn one thing into the other. The account of substance according to which substance-in-potentiality turns into substance-in-act by pure efficient cause becomes clearer in the next book, at around 1048b to 1049a (part 7). Something is a thing in potentiality only if it could become nothing else but that thing in act and only an efficient cause is required for that purpose. Aristotle says: a house in potentiality is so only if there is nothing that could stop it from becoming a house and no material that needs to be added or subtracted. This is again the connection (now in potentiality) between substance and resistance: substance requires resistance, it ought to resists all diverting. (Incidentally, Aristotle does pave the way for the claim that nothing is substantially anything.)

A-ism blues

Last week I was lecturing on A-ist realist alternatives. To be sure, A-ism (the thesis that time is made by events and not merely by a succession of states) is plausible but McTaggart threw a curse on it by being convinced that it makes realism about time impossible. What I always found attractive in A-ist realisms is that they tend to consider reality as filled with points of view, with perspectives, with positions. The relative becomes true and this seems like the way forward to consider alternatives to a plot metaphysics where reality is to be contemplated as a view from nowhere. But if we consider the issue of time alone, it is indeed hard, as McTaggart had it, to be both A-ist and realist. To be sure, realist A-isms would probably be the best way to be realist about events (that ought to be past, present and future but cannot be past, present and future at the same time). As far as time is concerned, however, things look bleaker...

Consider first standard A-ist realism: presentism. This is the thesis according to which only the present time exists. Well, it is at least a bit of time so we are faring better than anti-realism about time. Or are we? The now is either a span of time (with a duration) or a point in time with no duration at all. If it is a span of tie with a duration then obviously the A-series paradoxes come back in their full force and are not dispelled by presentism itself. If it is a point with no duration it is not clear what really we are being realist about - the spectre of McTaggart's unreality of time is back. Now, let's move to neutral or non-standard realisms, as Kit Fine calls them. First, the realist position that gives up the idea that reality is absolute and claims it is relative to a tense perspective (there is past reality, present reality, future reality and no such thing as reality tout court). Well, this seems to be a way to exorcise events. Nothing ever happens as reality is split in a way that nothing turns into something else except when they move from one perspective to another. The A-series itself is not real in any perspective and, as there is no reality beyond perspectives, it is plainly not real. The second form of neutral or non-standard realism is fragmentalism, the position advocated by Kit Fine. Fragmentalism adds a perspective-free layer to reality, an über-reality, composed from the assemblage of the different perspectives. Über-reality is not coherent and it is not indexed in terms of tense. As a consequence, it is a B-ist reality where no event can even take place. In fact, in fragmentalism, there are no events in the realities relative to tense perspectives (as in the first non-standard realist position) and no event in über-reality. It is a type of B-ism (and as such it entails anti-realism about events).

Is there a way out for a realist A-ist? I'm sure there is. Maybe the way forward is to bite the bitterest bullett and swallow the idea that reality is neither absolute nor coherent and never neutral. In other words, take the A-series as face-value and connect reality with a tense position (a position in time) and stop trying to organize the A-series in its allegedly simpler components. Maybe A-ism should start out with a straightforward defense of events and then move on to time as the (real) home for them. Time is not prior but rather is composed by events (and the rhythm of their repetition).

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Traces: direct reference, cryptography and Kabbalah

On Friday, moved to a great extent by a growing fever, I started speculating about the nature of the contrast between direct reference and a Frege-Russell approach to denotation (in the rough way Kripke portrays such approach in N&N). Direct reference has that referring is not an act verb (like to build or to dig) but rather a position verb (like to be located, or to find, or to stay). Once I am in a given position, I make reference. I bump into something that refers - to refer is to make use of work that is already done, by whatever there is aided by communal (public) ears. Reference is not like reaching out but rather it is like stumbling upon. To successfully refer (even without noticing) is more like a discovery than an invention. Words are linked to things and no construction effort is required - it is as if there is more to language than what a speaker and a hearer do, know or are educated to believe. I once compared direct reference to written language - and to the grammatological turn. When something is written, it is not only about us communicating here, but there is an established corpora of written text, open to interpretation but present in all linguistic act. I would now compare direct reference to cryptography: interpreting doesn't matter, what matters rather is that if I get the password right, something happens. Shamanism. The magic of mantras: techno-shamanism. Words do things in the world - it is not about our agency, it is about their powers that we may or may not acknowledge, that we may be aware of, that we may access. These powers of words are there because words have left their marks where they have been - the causal story that connects a proper name to a baptism, for instance. Retrieving the thing from the world is a job of reading off these traces - the traces are there whether we know them or not. It is like magic (a magic prism... as Wettstein called his book with an epigram where wisdom is greeted in Hebrew) but also like anything we meet - and not anything we build.

In my class on Friday I then ventured suggesting that there is an underlying contrast between the atheistic humanism of the Frege-Russell approach and the Jewish mysticism of direct reference. Maybe fever made me go too far. Direct reference posit names tied to their bearers by a rigid tie that invoke bearers independently of what is known about them - names are like words in a sacred language that we inherited, in the language of creation. Names are tracking devices that trace back any occasion of their utterance to an original, ancestral act, to a beginning which is the beginning of what is named. A little bit like Kabbalah...

Friday, 14 June 2013

Note on accelerationism (and the Accelerate manifesto)

I was thrilled to find Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek's Accelerate Manifesto which has been around for about a month. Less thrilled to read it. Not only the discussion is very sketchy (no concrete proposals) but also not to the point. I take that the Accelerationismusstreit is not really about favoring or not technology (or technological advancement) or defending horizontalism or local action. The issue is really about whether a desired post-capitalism is brought about by instituting a device that accelerates the speed of the flows within the socia. The issue is, I take, of whether we should struggle for further deterritorialization or we should rather resist the drive of capital to speed interactions up. It is a many faced issue: the ontological discussion has to do with whether to think in terms of flows or production and registration is to think in terms of a scheme of work and goods, as Benjamim Noys points out, and maybe to break with capitalism requires also a break with this scheme. Other discussions have to do with whether the internet flow of sharing (including the internet of things which is coming up) is a flow that overtakes capital (as Negrians once maintained - and I believe Neonegrism is a likely development to be seen in the near future). This has to do with the very issue of whether devices of alternative economics - oxydating money, gift-giving etc - can scale up (an idea that systems of holoptic credit are playing with, in ideas such as Jean-François Noubel's). I guess a point can be made in favor of accelerationism in all these debates and the Manifesto is silent about most of them. To be fair, they do mention D&G's point that capitalism de-territorializes while re-territorializing, which is a crucial point to discuss Nick Land's hopes and to understand the crux of the matter in an accelerationist criticism of capitalism (and not only of neoliberalism). I believe that capitalism reinforces elements of the economic family, privatizes and medicalizes deliria and other politically relevant subjective states (D&G's point in the Anti-Oedipus) and, most important, depends on the human induvidual - the agent of economic action. The accelerationist criticism of capitalism should look for something that de-territorializes what capitalism keeps well in place.

But the Manifesto also talks, strangely enough, about planning (The Plan married to The Network, it says). I guess planning is something that accelerationism makes us think about. To be sure, some planning is probably part of an accelerationist conspiracy against capital. But planning as such strikes me as too slow, too overtaken by capital itself and too human to be part of an accelerationist toolkit. Also, planning is based on information misdistribution, as Wark points out in Celerity, a good criticism of the Manifesto. The very idea of planning needs an accelerationist critique.
Also, Benjamim Noys contrasts accelerationism (and all its consequences) to planning. In any case, the unqualified appeal to planning in the Manifesto seems to make the whole proposal dangerously close to pre-accelerationist anti-capitalism. Further, it is not enough to prescribe a marriage (between planning and networking). It seems just like a centrist proposal, as Wark points out. Something about the dowry should also be mentioned...

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Aristotle and intensionality

I've been a bit taken by the wonders of Book Zeta while teaching about substance and gignomenon. Substances are generated out of other substances by phusis, or techné or by tautomaton. Tautomaton, to automaton, is of couse very interesting as a word. It relates to spontaneity, to chance and to the automatic. I thought of an ontology of the automaton - related to suneches and symbebekos. There is a dimension of the up for grabs that is automaton: spontaneously generated as opposed to being produced by something else. The automaton is not ruled from the outside, it is ungoverned, it is unchained. The automaton is causa sui in this sense: it is in the open. This, I believe, will grab more of my attention in this blog soon, I believe.

The main thrust of Zeta is, I take, his account of how forms are in rebus. A substance can be seen as a combination of matter and form (sinolos) and as a form. Well, Plato's account has that forms (or universals) are outside, they are extensional items. Aristotle's alternative amounts to an intensional ontology: things can be seen qua objects or qua forms. A property is not outside while participating in the object but rather in the object as an aspect of it: not only we can see the property (or the form) in the object but the property is there under some aspect. The first casualty is the principle of the indiscernibility of identicals. The same table is material and not material - material qua object and not material qua form. The trick is to turn Plato's duplication of the world into a duplication of the object - an intensional duplication. It is as if the objects has a mode of presentation in which it is a form. The property of being a table can be detected in the object, not because it relates to another thing (i.e. the Idea) but rather because the property is there, albeit not isolated from matter in all its aspects. His example (around 1035a) is that flesh is not a part (meros) of the concave, but it is part of the nose. Objects are indiscernible if their aspect is the same. There are parts of a thing under some aspects but not under some other aspects. It seems as if the difference between ante re and in rebus amounts to a difference between an extensional and an intensional realism about universals. Universals are separated from the sinolos (from the object) but only to the extent where they are in the object (as an aspect).

Monday, 3 June 2013

A biographical remark on the up for grabs

Ever since I started concentrating in metaphysics I have been focusing on alternative modalities (or, rather, in movements in the modal hexagon of oppositions involving possibility, impossibility, necessity, possibility that not, the absolute and the nabla). First I wondered whether dispositions could be taken as a modality that cannot be reduced to any other - and what would happen if we think in terms of dispositional connections instead of necessary connections. Then I met the Speculative movement and became slowly more confortable with Humean accounts. I thought that there is more to metaphysics than what would have our vain criticism of necessary connections. Things could be up for grabs - in themselves. When I read some process philosophy (and consequences thereafter including OO ontologies and materialist takes such as Bennett's), I thought there would be a way to make the for-us/in-itself distinction (connected to substantiality, see the previous post) itself not necessary. More and more things could be thought as up for grabs and yet not dependent on the human ways. But speculative realism was more than process philosophy - it also involves those who defend the absolute facticity and those who defend the historicity of contingency (both called speculative materialists). In all cases, it somehow seems to draw on a message that I would call generalized Darwinism.

I thought metaphysics would have to deal with the main issue of Book Epsilon of Aristotle's Metaphysics - no episteme (pratike, poietike or theoretike) deals with symbebekos. There is no science of the accidental. Or is it? I thought this is what informed Kant's Humean misgivings with the standard form of doing metaphysics - no necessary connections to be found, nothing to be done. Meillassoux, in fact, hinted quite in this directions with his speculative argument for the principle of facticity. But the issue is, what can be done with the accident? Is there a way to bring it to thought? Is there at least a thought of the accident? Maybe it has to do with indexicality, with singularity, with being among concreta. Or maybe it has to do with what is we engage when we know things by heart (Lucian Freud once said he prefers not to know more than few things, but by heart, as I said in a previous post). I then started gathering resources to conceive this episteme of the symbebekos (floors, plans, spaces of suneches - pure contact, see Metaphysics Delta 1016a7 -, linguistic contact, exceptions etc.) The tool kit to conceive what is up for grabs.