Ktismatics

7 September 2009

Are Illusions Real?

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:35 pm

Empirical psychologists frequently rely on deception and error in order to infer how cognitive processes work. When intersubjective agreement is total regarding some phenomenon, then it’s impossible to distinguish between the nature of that phenomenon and the way in which the human subject perceives that phenomenon. The research psychologist tries to open up a split. Optical illusions are common enough examples. In one well-known example, two perfectly parallel lines appear to bow apart from each other in the middle. The lines are constructed in such a way as to deceive the human perceptual system. Or researchers can construct deceptive problems for subjects to solve. If subjects tend to make particular kinds of errors on tasks for which the right solutions are well-defined a priori, then the errors can be attributed to quirks of human subjectivity that caused the subjects to misapprehend the nature of the problem.

In one study,  the researcher displays four brands of a particular product on a table, arrayed from left to right. The researcher asks the subjects to choose which brand they regard as best and why. Subjects make their choices and offer their rationales. In fact, all four displayed products are identical. Empirically, it turns out that, on average, subjects prefer objects on the right side of the display to those on the left. In explaining the basis for their choices, the subjects describe (nonexistent) differences in quality without ever showing any conscious awareness of what must actually have motivated their choices. The subject perceives differences in the individual objects, but these differences are illusory. They’re actually responding to an unconscious subjective preference for arraying objects that tends to be a characteristic bias of human subjectivity.

From the researcher’s point of view, subject’s errors in task performance and misattributions in accounting for their own behaviors are real enough. Errors and self-deceptions are counted, categorized, analyzed statistically, interpreted theoretically. Again, though, what motivates this sort of work is to use these errors as a means of distinguishing perceptual-cognitive processes from the external phenomena they’re processing. The errors are real in the paradoxical sense that they present real evidence of human limitations in discerning external reality accurately.

The physical sciences make progress by identifying and controlling for observational error caused by limitations and biases in human perceptual-cognitive capabilities. To the human eye, the moon and the sun appear to be just about the same size. But it turns out this is an illusion resulting from intrinsic human limitations in judging distance between the eye and the observed object, especially when the distances are enormous. The apparent size-equivalence of sun and moon to the naked eye is real enough, in the sense that it’s a real illusion pointing to real limitations in humans’ ability to perceive the external world accurately. What interests the astronomer, though, are the actual sizes and distances of the sun and moon.

I grasp the “object-oriented” contention that my perception of the size of the sun is just as real as the sun itself. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help finding this ontological equivalence rather dissatisfying when trying to distinguish illusion from fact, subjective from objective, the apparently real from the really real.

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52 Comments »

  1. The *misperceptions* are real, the *object* of the misperceptions isn’t. Just ask my longtime companion Olive Oyl.

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    Comment by Hegemonizing Scientist — 8 September 2009 @ 2:08 am

  2. Yes, let’s get down to cases, HegSci. Before getting to Olive Oyl, I’d like to delve into the lunar-solar example a bit more. “Naive” humans have always perceived, and still do, that the sun and moon are roughly equal in size and in distance away from the earth. It became possible to build a cosmological model of what the objects of these perceptions must be: an earth-centered universe, with sun and moon rotating around the earth at nearly the same speed. This concept of the cosmos achieved widespread intersubjective support throughout the pre-modern world. From a perceptual and then also from a cognitive point of view, this “naive” model was more influential, and hence more “real,” than any other model.

    The sun and moon were influenced not one whit by this model. Then as now, the sun is vastly more massive than the moon. Similarly, the physical earth and everything contained in it — including humans and their brains — were and still are dwarfed by the sun. From the standpoint of gravity and all that goes with it, the heliocentric model has always been more influential, more real, than the earth-centered model. For that matter, the sun itself, being more gravitationally powerful, would be regarded as a more real object than the moon or the earth or all the humans put together.

    To summarize: In the pre-Copernican human civilization the earth-centered model of the universe was a more powerful, more real cultural artifact than the heliocentric universe. In that same pre-Copernican physical universe, the heliocentric (model of) the universe was a more powerful, more real array of forces and objects occupying space, including those objects called humans. Isn’t it appropriate then to talk about two or even three different kinds of reality? There’s the intrasubjective human perceptually-constructed reality, in which the sun and moon are equal in size and distance. There’s physical gravitational reality, with a massive sun at the center. And then there’s the intersubjective human socially-constructed reality, which once coincided closely to the intrasubjective perceptual reality but which now coincides closely to the gravitational reality.

    All three of these realities — perceptual, sociocultural, gravitational — attempt to account for the sun and moon as “objective” objects. It turns out, though, that the perceptual solar system accounts as much for the human perceptual system as for the objects of perception. Similarly the sociocultural solar system accounts as much for the widespread adoption of thoughts and beliefs as it does for the sun and moon as objects. Of the three realities, the gravitational one comes closest to separating the external objects from the human construal of those objects.

    None of this seems particularly startling. The question is whether the idea of multiple realities “works” better than the alternatives. On the one hand, we could regard gravitational reality as the one true reality, with perceptual and sociocultural construals of that reality as more or less accurate, more or less illusory. On the other hand, we could assert that all these realities are equally real, refusing to distinguish among them ontologically. On the third hand, we could speak of realities relative to the kinds of objects and forces that interest us. I’m reminded of alternative world maps in atlases: one shows distribution of flora; a second, the topography; a third, population densities.

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    Comment by john doyle — 8 September 2009 @ 7:15 am

  3. Would I be right in thinking, John, that you’re suggesting in certain circumstances one should extend equal ontological weight to (a) the objects of empirical explanation from an era of paleolithic whimsy, and (b) the objects of scientific explanation in an era of X-Ray and Neutron Interferometry?

    If so, there’s a fascinating new philosophical school, developed almost exclusively on the web, that holds just such a notion as its guiding principle.

    Make no mistake, we’re living in a wonderful age.

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    Comment by Hegemonizing Scientist — 8 September 2009 @ 8:28 am

  4. The operable phrase here is “in certain circumstances,” HegSci. If your intention is to compare the acceptance and influence of alternative conceptual models of the universe in specific places and times in human history, then the earth-centric model held sway for a long time over most of the populated world. That particular model or paradigm dominated sociocultural reality. All the while, all unbeknownst to beknighted humanity, the massive sun was holding the earth in its thrall and the earth, the moon. What’s needed to talk about such observations, both true, are different kinds of objects, of forces, perhaps also of realities.

    Sociologists and their fellow travelers refer to “socially-constructed realities” to describe things like generally-accepted cosmologies and pantheons and politico-economic systems. There is the accepted paradigm for describing the universe, and then there is the universe itself; there is the widespread description of the gods, and then there are the gods themselves. Both the paradigmatic “object” and the “objective” object are of interest; they overlap but are not identical. What should the earth-centered model of the universe be called if not a socially-constructed “reality”? A “model of reality”?

    Even within the physical sciences, a gravitational model of the cosmos can afford to ignore differences between molecules in the sun. Is it reasonable to distinguish gravitational from molecular realities, or should they be called models of reality?

    Regarding the relative gravitas of a naive cosmology versus a modern one, in olden times the earth-centered universe pulled most human minds to itself, even if it was an inaccurate rendering of the way the physical universe actually operates. Socially-constructed realities and gravitational realities can, for pragmatic purposes, be regarded as “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

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    Comment by john doyle — 8 September 2009 @ 8:56 am

  5. Even within the physical sciences, a gravitational model of the cosmos can afford to ignore differences between molecules in the sun.

    Since Newton’s gravitational equations are concerned with a body’s total mass, then yes.

    Socially-constructed realities and gravitational realities can, for pragmatic purposes, be regarded as “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

    Not if you’re designing or flying a spacecraft.

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    Comment by Hegemonizing Scientist — 8 September 2009 @ 9:47 am

  6. This is a valid point: societies that believed in an earth-centered universe didn’t just share a set of cultural norms; they believed THAT something was true about the universe. Sociologists might not care whether the belief was true; they’re concerned about the spread and influence of the belief. For someone studying medieval society, the heliocentric solar system is irrelevant even if it’s objectively true. Likewise with the example in my post: for the research psychologist, the subjects'(self-deceptive) bias toward objects displayed on the right side, as well as the (false) attributions subjects use to explain their choice of the (illusorily) better product, are the important facts. The objective of the study isn’t to grade the subjects’ performance vis-a-vis objective reality, but rather to understand the psychological reality that resulted in these demonstrated biases, deceptions, and illusions.

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    Comment by john doyle — 8 September 2009 @ 10:28 am

  7. Hi John,

    Are illusions real? They certainly have real effects. Perhaps that’s what you mean. The pre-Copernican reality had real effects on how humans lived and organised themselves, how they perceived themselves and the universe. I guess they still do, and not necessarily to the bad: sunsets are often quite beautiful. But sunSETS? That’s an illusion, isn’t it? Does that make it a delusion? Unreal? Not a real object, so to speak?

    “there’s a fascinating new philosophical school, developed almost exclusively on the web, that holds just such a notion as its guiding principle.”

    HS, that is one of the funniest lines I’ve read in a while. Like your name too.

    “Socially-constructed realities and gravitational realities can, for pragmatic purposes, be regarded as ‘nonoverlapping magisteria.’

    Not if you’re designing or flying a spacecraft.”

    But what if you are just watching the sun go down with a martini?

    Even if we share a reality because we’re in the same room, why should my experience of existence – my ontology – exactly reflect (in structure) that of a spider in the corner for it to be valid? Or reflect that of an astronaut circling the globe?

    Does all this mean the existence of different realities, or different constructions of reality over time? Or different, and often mistaken for a particular aim of understanding, experiences of the same reality? Do all objects have the same ontological status? Well, do they have to? (And I don’t think that they do…)

    This was a confused response of mine – so please mash the crap out of it if you want.

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    Comment by NB — 8 September 2009 @ 10:29 am

  8. But what if you are just watching the sun go down with a martini?

    But the sun doesn’t “go down”, NB.

    Does all this mean the existence of different realities?

    Only if you systematically confuse the sociology of knowledge with ontology.

    Do all objects have the same ontological status?

    I reckon it’s fair to say Phlogiston’s lacking a certain something in that regard (what with it not existing, having never existed, and there never being any possibility of it having existed – Oxygen gets all the luck!). Just don’t tell Latour, since in his words, words – according to Graham Harman – “we should not hesitate in endorsing”: “Golden Mountains, phlogiston, unicorns, bald kings of France, chimeras, spontaneous generation, black holes, cats on mats, and other black swans and white ravens will all occupy the same space-time as Hamlet, Popeye, and Ramses II.”

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    Comment by Hegemonizing Scientist — 8 September 2009 @ 11:38 am

  9. http://www.amazon.com/Its-All-Playing-Shirley-Maclaine/dp/0553272993

    You can purchase this paleolithic yet profound text at amazon.com. Devotees of The Cult of Shirley also refer to it as ‘Life Is an Illusion’. Ms. MacLaine hails from Richmond, Virginia. In an important discussion yesterday about the difficulty of arriving at why ‘force’ needed to exist at all, since nothing would have done just as well, we ended up deciding on ‘society’ as the only possible life-choice.

    “we should not hesitate in endorsing”: “Golden Mountains, phlogiston, unicorns, bald kings of France, chimeras, spontaneous generation, black holes, cats on mats, and other black swans and white ravens will all occupy the same space-time as Hamlet, Popeye, and Ramses II.”

    I really have not been able to fasten on this sort of thing even as it’s become trendy, because it all just reminds me of the usual Gemuttlich Coffee High. ‘Society’ does not always mean only what Lady Bracknell was referring to, just not some of the web-based nerdistries, which cannot be called ‘society’, technically speaking. There’s also the not small matter of the inclusion of ‘Popeye’ with Laurence Olivier and the Ten Commandments, but we must needs point out that Black Swans already do exist and that in certain avant-garde ballets even unicorns have been endorsed by Nutcrackers.

    ‘For someone studying medieval society, the heliocentric solar system is irrelevant even if it’s objectively true.’

    No, it used to be objectively true, but no longer is. As well, by now there IS no ‘medieval society’.

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    Comment by mark — 8 September 2009 @ 12:07 pm

  10. John, Great post and good questions. It seems we need to reference different layers of the real, as you alluded to in maps that show flora, fauna, etc, depending on what we are engaged in. A figure from a dream has no actuality but can affect my state of mind very deeply, and through influencing my choices result in various ramifications. Maybe this could be called the affective real or subjective real, I’m sure someone’s come up with much better terms for that.

    And then there’s those realities, laws of nature, that we engage with when we plan a moon mission, etc., all those things that the Scientific Materialist saves the stamp of authenticity for. Those instances when various inventors’ dreams have given them incite into technology are interesting, as when Edison mined the border between his unconscious and conscious mind for models that guided his technologies. It’s kind of like a self-willed evolution in knowledge that comes about through intense engagement with objective problems as the question percolates in the deeper realms of the mind, that deeper part that seems to need to communicate through symbols. The unreal directing us towards the real. Maybe that’s why Picasso meant by “painting is a lie that tells the truth.” But truth is another category entirely, and sometimes it seems like the real masks the truth. Which is perhaps why Jung’s statement “Yesterday’s perception is tomorrow’s deception” withstands the test of time.

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    Comment by amarilla — 8 September 2009 @ 12:58 pm

  11. “But the sun doesn’t “go down”, NB.”

    No, it doesn’t. The world twirls.

    But that wasn’t really my point. I know that the sun doesn’t “go down”, but I still say it and feel that I am right to do so. Would you call someone who had said to you, “We just watched the sun go down”, a liar or delusional? I suspect you wouldn’t. Consequently, would you be supporting delusion or untruth?

    “Does all this mean the existence of different realities?

    Only if you systematically confuse the sociology of knowledge with ontology.”

    Can you elaborate on the confusion and/or difference between the sociology of knowledge and ontology?

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    Comment by NB — 8 September 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  12. ‘If so, there’s a fascinating new philosophical school, developed almost exclusively on the web, that holds just such a notion as its guiding principle.’

    I wonder if that is the one about the Eden, the fully reloaded one? like, you know, going back there? I’ve thought about this ALL DAY, and I just can’t get the eternity of it out of my head. I’m sure Dudley would feel the same way, god rest ‘er soul. I mean, after all, who really DOES go to Carnegie Hall anymore, when you really think about it? Mostly parvenu Scientologists, I’d guess.

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    Comment by Peter Cook — 8 September 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  13. I know that the sun doesn’t “go down”, but I still say it and feel that I am right to do so. Would you call someone who had said to you, “We just watched the sun go down”, a liar or delusional? I suspect you wouldn’t. Consequently, would you be supporting delusion or untruth?

    I’m merely suggesting that genuine knowledge only begins when we methodically discard the self-evidence of the phenomenological life-world. Prior to Copernicus, for example, the sun did indeed “go down”, in the sense that people literally believed that the sun had traversed an arc across the sky.

    Can you elaborate on the confusion and/or difference between the sociology of knowledge and ontology?

    Ontology is concerned with that which may truly be said to exist. The Sociology of Knowledge deals with the extent to which those groups charged with the generation of knowledge are affected by a variety of social factors. It’s a not uncommon for those in the humanities seeking to deflate the claims of the sciences to confuse a sociological claim – the truism that science proceeds within a social context – with half-baked epistemological and ontological ones to the effect that what’s commonly understood by the term “objective knowledge” is essentially impossible, an attitude typified in Latour’s claim that “Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome – Nature – to explain how and why a controversy has been settled”.

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    Comment by Hegemonizing Scientist — 8 September 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  14. The *misperceptions* are real, the *object* of the misperceptions isn’t.

    That is SO FUCKED UP. Who needs it?

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    Comment by Peter Cook — 8 September 2009 @ 5:40 pm

  15. Someone who isn’t stoned?

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    Comment by Hegemonizing Scientist — 8 September 2009 @ 5:46 pm

  16. ‘equal ontological weight to (a) the objects of empirical explanation from an era of paleolithic whimsy, and (b) the objects of scientific explanation in an era of X-Ray and Neutron Interferometry?

    That’s even more fucked up, because it’s not so much that it’s false but that it clearly has a goal that it’s concealing. On the other hand, it is, as well, completely untrue. Because the problem with it is not that certain empirical explanations might be outmoded, but that ‘previous eras’ were all, by just being previous, ‘eras of paleolithic whimsy’. Really just gross.

    ‘Consequently, would you be supporting delusion or untruth?’

    Of course that’s what it is, anybody can see that. HegSci is one of the bodies without organs, most likely, who has determined that untruth is real, and therefore it’s hardly a step before untruth is truth. But of course she’s right, untruth is truth too. Could even be a matter of taste. To be sure, delusion is surely real as well, it might just be that it’s ephimeral, and ‘truth’ as is conventionally accepted, just seems to last longer.

    Virtual Edens are also pure hell, of course, and these philosophical movements on the web which promote them are all de-sexed machine-growths. A chacun son gout, although these ghoulish things are always trying to crawl up your ass. You just have to slug them. now and then. Anyway, what’s so surprising about supporting falseness? That was one of Nietzsche’s favourite things, way more than raindrops on roses.

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    Comment by Peter Cook — 8 September 2009 @ 5:56 pm

  17. Someone who isn’t stoned?

    You wouldn’t know, I daresay.

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    Comment by Peter Cook — 8 September 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  18. And also HAR HAR HAR, truth in stonedness. I was thinking on the street today that surely the real truth is drug usage.

    so that ‘one should extend equal ontological weight to (a) the objects of empirical explanation from an era of paleolithic whimsy, and (b) the objects of scientific explanation in an era of X-Ray and Neutron Interferometry and habitual drug use?’

    I don’t mean you personally, mind you, in that we have no interest, of course. But these sly ways of introducing these things are not unfamiliar with previous ‘persons’, although I doubt you are familiar with these.

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    Comment by Peter Cook — 8 September 2009 @ 6:07 pm

  19. This thread has moved in an unexpected directions, but I’ll try to catch up as best I can on the bits that grab me.

    Phlogiston isn’t real as an elemental property of the universe, so from a material standpoint it’s unreal, nonexistent. Phlogiston as an epistemological theory about the material universe is false. Even when phlogiston was a popular theory, even when people didn’t know it was a false theory, it was false all the same.

    Phlogiston theory did come into existence as a human invention. People really did think it, and in large numbers. So phlogiston theory, while epistemologically false, was psychologically real — it occupied space in people’s brains — and socioculturally real — it constituted a widely-held belief.

    I presume we’d agree that material inventions are real — airplanes, tables, French horns, and so on. It seems that the disagreement centers on non-material inventions — songs, ideas, beliefs, fictional characters. Ideas and beliefs get confounded because they carry epistemological baggage — they are ideas and beliefs ABOUT something, so they may or may not be true. But I don’t see why a false idea is any less real qua idea than a true idea. Songs aren’t about anything, so they’re a clearer example of a non-material invention.

    Fictional characters are by definition unreal as people, but they are real inventions. There is no possibility of saying what the “real” Popeye is like as a person: even small children understand the difference between cartoon characters and real people. But Popeye really is a cartoon character: words and drawings depict him, people can conjure up images of him from their memory, and so on. Popeye is a non-material invention, not unlike a song. He isn’t a false representation of a real person; his reality as an invention includes his nonexistence as a person.

    I’m afraid I’ll have to pick up on some of Amarilla’s and others’ thoughts tomorrow.

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    Comment by john doyle — 8 September 2009 @ 8:23 pm

  20. Oh and also, I don’t think there’s anything antiscientific about asserting Popeye’s reality as a fictional character. It’s possible to study systematically the “texts” which refer to Popeye, to attempt to make inferences about authorial intent, to evaluate the characteristic story arcs leading up to his opening the can of spinach, to evaluate his relationships with Olive Oyl and Bluto, etc. It’s also possible to evaluate readers’ subjective perceptions of Popeye and to compare them with the texts for accuracy and distortion. No one who undertakes such systematic investigations is under any illusion that Popeye is a real person. He’s a human invention and a cultural artifact, and as such he becomes an “object” of study. Talking about abstract human concepts like “moral corruption” or “Tarantino’s style” isn’t that different from talking about Popeye.

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    Comment by john doyle — 8 September 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  21. And still another thing… It’s contended that the speculative realists are decentering metaphysics from the human sphere, where reality isn’t reducible to what humans can know about reality. What’s particularly notable about the object-oriented subset of SR is that most of the controversial new objects they propose are human inventions like theories, fictional characters, and metaphors. This is a very different sort of concern from that of Meillassoux or Brassier, who want to be able to talk about natural reality in the absence of human perceivers and knowers. I wonder if Brassier ever talks about the reality of Popeye or even of hammers when there are no cartoon readers or tool-users left in the universe.

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    Comment by john doyle — 8 September 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  22. I presume we’d agree that material inventions are real — airplanes, tables, French horns, and so on. It seems that the disagreement centers on non-material inventions — songs,

    No, we wouldn’t. I see no reason whatever to agree with anyone that something is real because it’s material. I don’t know why that should be ‘obvious’. A song or anything that can be perceived is just as real as an airplane, and that’s a good point, because it then just becomes about the word ‘real’ and that itself is not real if it has to be material, and it isn’t. ‘Reality’ isn’t material, so why is material real? YOu use a non-real thing, the word ‘real’, to determine what is real, and then decide somehow that the only things we’d definitely decide are real are planes and French horns, but we want them to be the only definite things that are real, which is sometning that isn’t material, and therefore might not be real. So the word ‘real’ is to some degree an idea, at least it’s more of an idea than it is a physical object. So maybe reality,

    Yes, agree a false idea is just a real as a true one, just more meretricious.

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    Comment by Peter Cook — 8 September 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  23. So maybe reality, as I was saying, can’t be the decider of what is real, since it might not be. What I want to know is why we want to make distinctions between what is real and unreal? As long as we wish to make the unreal something that exists and has effects, why does it matter if it’s true or not? It only matters whether or not it’s dominant. But I still don’t know why we decide that material means ‘real’. Certainly no basis for any kind of religisiou belief, since that’s bound to be as unreal as all holy hell.

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    Comment by Peter Cook — 8 September 2009 @ 9:12 pm

  24. HS,

    “I’m merely suggesting that genuine knowledge only begins when we methodically discard the self-evidence of the phenomenological life-world.”

    So you would discard the phrase “the sun went down” as a piece of genuine knowledge? Do you regard scientific knowledge as the only genuine knowledge available to human beings? Your phrase also suggests a scepticism similar to Descartes, who was also a scientist and mathematician of course, but who’s most famous, methodical discarding of self-evidence ended and began with a piece of knowledge he regarded as self-evident: cogito ergo sum – an excellent proposition ethically and politically, but a very poor one epistemologically.

    “It’s a not uncommon for those in the humanities seeking to deflate the claims of the sciences to confuse a sociological claim – the truism that science proceeds within a social context – with half-baked epistemological and ontological ones to the effect that what’s commonly understood by the term ‘objective knowledge’ is essentially impossible”

    That is true and it is something I inveigh against. Newton’s theories work absolutely and without fail on the terrestrial level at least. I would ask anyone who argues that they are merely social constructions of knowledge to go walk off a cliff. This is objective knowledge about the world, natural law. If people say that one couldn’t call that objective knowledge or a law of nature I would like to hear what they considered to be ‘knowledge’ at all, let alone objective knowledge.

    “Ontology is concerned with that which may truly be said to exist.”

    I presume you would argue that ontology must be subsumed under the natural sciences or is even identical with the natural sciences. However, perhaps because you are a “hegemonzing scientist”, you may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You replied to John’s comment that scientists can ignore differences between molecules in sun by saying that “Since Newton’s gravitational equations are concerned with a body’s total mass, then yes.” Scientific knowledge is localised; ie it is concerned with the matter in hand and can draw out objective, scientific truth about the universe as a result: the sun has a total mass of…etc. Yet, you seem unwilling to afford this privilege to other modes of life. Perhaps you have slipped into the sociology of knowledge: “the extent to which those groups charged with the generation of knowledge are affected by a variety of social factors”. In any case, is knowledge that the sun went down last night and rose again this morning excluded from objective knowledge, or even excluded from knowledge per se; ie just subjective judgment?

    Your example “Prior to Copernicus … the sun did indeed “’go down’, in the sense that people literally believed that the sun had traversed an arc across the sky” is not a good one because the sun does indeed traverse an arc across the sky. That is not just our belief or delusion, it is literal truth because you have included the context “across the sky”. If you had said that, prior to Copernicus, people literally believed that the sun traversed across the sky in the Ptolemaic manner then you would be right and science has since proved that belief to be false. However, it is a leap from there to say that “genuine knowledge only begins when we methodically discard the self-evidence of the phenomenological life-world”. And that leap is an example of the sociology of knowledge, and also why you don’t call someone who told you they saw the sun go down as delusional or a relic from an earlier age.

    Science proceeds from a context, not just a sociological one but an experimental one, in order to demonstrate a truth. That is the reason for its success (I am building a spacecraft not drinking a martini) and the reason why it can be disputed; ie the revolutions in physics (which have sadly been used as a justification for almost any theory outside that field). Because science can be disputed, some people feel that this is evidence of no objective, scientific truth. They are wrong, of course. However, it seems that your criterion for ontological truth discounts everything but scientific knowledge in the same way as some people discount scientific knowledge as objective. It is totalising: if you discount differences between molecules in the sun, how can you really say you know its total mass, or anything at all????! How can you say that you know that the sun went down when the earth actually revolves around it????!!! I know it because I saw it. In this case, I would consider someone who questioned my knowledge through the phenomenological life-world to be crazy.

    I know that Peter Cook existed. I know that he died. He is probably a subject of study. I know that his existence continues to have actual effects on my being and that of others, including this blog (although not from a spiritworld).

    This is why I agree with John’s comments such as “Fictional characters are by definition unreal as people, but they are real inventions.” Inventions (and discoveries) are real in as much as they are inventions. They have real effects. And not just delusional ones. Popeye cartoons may inspire laughter, political cartoons may inspire knowledge. The spider and I share the same earth even if we have vastly different perceptual realities. This is has some bearing on ontology, no?

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    Comment by NB — 9 September 2009 @ 6:24 am

  25. Do you regard scientific knowledge as the only genuine knowledge available to human beings?

    It’s certainly the least dogmatically presumptuous source of objective knowledge that we have, because whilst it allows for – even encourages – bold conjectures, it’s in the nature of the enterprise that these be subject to exhaustive experimental corroboration.

    I presume you would argue that ontology must be subsumed under the natural sciences or is even identical with the natural sciences.

    Philosophers, insofar as they are willing to recognise the natural sciences as a valid, preeminently successful source of objective knowledge, only have to refrain from arbitrarily positing entities without any conceivable scientific explanatory purchase. Whether that counts as subsuming ontology to the natural sciences, or just reigning in its speculative pretensions, I really wouldn’t know.

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    Comment by Hegemonizing Scientist — 9 September 2009 @ 8:51 am

  26. “Do you regard scientific knowledge as the only genuine knowledge available to human beings?

    It’s certainly the least dogmatically presumptuous source of objective knowledge that we have, because whilst it allows for – even encourages – bold conjectures, it’s in the nature of the enterprise that these be subject to exhaustive experimental corroboration.”

    I would agree – in ideal! Unfortunately, it is also prey to “the extent to which those groups charged with the generation of knowledge are affected by a variety of social factors”. That does not mean that there can never be objective truth or genuine scientific knowledge. It is also well known that scientific knowledge occasionally produces two different answers that, as far as we know, are both objectively true – as in the much-worn wave-particle measurements.

    “Philosophers, insofar as they are willing to recognise the natural sciences as a valid, preeminently successful source of objective knowledge, only have to refrain from arbitrarily positing entities without any conceivable scientific explanatory purchase. Whether that counts as subsuming ontology to the natural sciences, or just reigning in its speculative pretensions, I really wouldn’t know.”

    Don’t be coy now, HS: you do know.

    Well, it’s called philosophy, not science. Why should philosophers refrain from positing such entities? Because it’s a pre-eminently successful source of objective knowledge? But you haven’t answered my point about the objectivity of watching the sun trace an arc “across the sky” or that it is perfectly reasonable and not unscientific for someone to say that they know the sun has gone down. In fact, it is unreasonable and unscientific to demand that they do not posses such knowledge and should not say such things. But that’s what hegemonizing is all about, I suppose…

    Like

    Comment by NB — 9 September 2009 @ 9:27 am

  27. I know that Peter Cook existed. I know that he died.

    Thanks for the update, oh yes, about 13 years ago it seems. Survived Dudley, but that’s about it, it seems.

    Like

    Comment by Peter Cook — 9 September 2009 @ 9:30 am

  28. “Thanks for the update”

    No problem, Pete. Good to hear you’re doing well. You know, you should revive your old LBC character Sven for the blogging generation.

    Like

    Comment by NB — 9 September 2009 @ 9:38 am

  29. still possible that, although ‘Newton’s theories work absolutely and without fail on the terrestrial level at least’, they also might not always be ‘objective truth’. If misperceptions are real and the objects not, there’s always somethning, isn’t there? I remember when Voyager was at Uranus, and water at temperatures over boiling ‘didn’t boil’. Or at least that was how it was described. Someone said to me ‘yes, it was amazing that the water didn’t boil’. Is it not possible that the seeming irrefutable Newtonian theories, because seem to always work, might not eventually be seen to work? Is it possible that we just can’t argue with them right now, because nothing has come to disprove them? How do we know that such things are set for eternity? Obviously we think they ‘apply’ now, but I don’t think it matters if they’re ‘real’ or not. We accept them as all those verified and established things, but are we sure that science won’t evolve to the point where even these are no longer applicable? Maybe that’s naive, I don’t know.

    ‘But that’s what hegemonizing is all about, I suppose…’

    yes, that’s what it’s all about, don’t knock it till you’ve got it.

    Like

    Comment by Peter Cook — 9 September 2009 @ 9:43 am

  30. No problem, Pete. Good to hear you’re doing well.

    No thank you. Wasn’t doing well, so step into something more comfortable.

    Like

    Comment by Mark — 9 September 2009 @ 9:51 am

  31. “untruth is real, and therefore it’s hardly a step before untruth is truth.”

    This surely is one concern about a “flat ontology,” though I’m quite sure that SciHeg doesn’t subscribe to it. Similarly, “imaginary is real, and therefore it’s hardly a step before imaginary is actual.” I don’t know if ontology is the proper arena for categorizing entities, but I don’t see why not. Scientific subdisciplines divide up the kinds of entities and forces they study, while at the same time asserting that pretty much everything can be investigated scientifically. Untruth is a proper subject of scientific investigation, and human error often provides more knowledge than accuracy. What did Tolstoy say — all right answers are pretty much the same, but every error is unique…

    Watching the sun set is the way the earth’s rotation is perceived from here on earth. The perception hasn’t changed just because the scientific understanding of the phenomena has changed. Again, visual perception is a perfectly valid field of scientific study; perceptions are real albeit sometimes misleading epistemologically. Even a perfectly indifferent slo-mo movie camera, holding no cosmological beliefs whatever, would show the sun setting. Perception is a POV shot.

    Amarilla spoke of Edison’s semiconscious imaginings as informing his scientific hypothesizing while awake. Just last week I had a conversation with an astrophysicist who, when puzzled by something, consciously thinks about it before going to sleep in hopes that his unconscious mind will work on the problem and “reveal” the answer to him in the morning. It works fairly frequently for him, apparently. Of course now we’re slipping into epistemology, but again, as was the original focus of this post, the unconscious is another realm of scientific investigation. It doesn’t always give up its secrets easily, but I don’t think it’s intentionally trying to hide from us.

    I confess I had to do a wiki search for Peter Cook…

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    Comment by john doyle — 9 September 2009 @ 1:18 pm

  32. What did Tolstoy say — all right answers are pretty much the same, but every error is unique…

    I am so glad to finally hear this. It proves that great geniuses, even COUNTS and other GREAT MEN, talk shit a lot! and then we fucking start quoting them.

    Like

    Comment by Mark — 9 September 2009 @ 1:48 pm

  33. Well I might not have gotten the quote perfectly right, Mark, but what does that matter? Here, let me go look it up… Ah yes: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” First line of Anna Karenina.

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    Comment by john doyle — 9 September 2009 @ 1:57 pm

  34. “all right answers are pretty much the same, but every error is unique…”

    You know, John, I much prefer your formulation to the one that begins Karenina.

    Like

    Comment by NB — 10 September 2009 @ 1:56 am

  35. Reminds me of “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.” — Mark Twain. All innoculations against the Power Principle parading around as objective truth and convention.

    Like

    Comment by Amarilla — 10 September 2009 @ 8:38 am

  36. Interesting the attraction to novelty and anomie (perhaps the charm of deformity even?), instead of the happiness of families and the expedience of ‘right answers’. But I do admit that isn’t quite accurate either: the other day I didn’t want to talk to Bank of America anymore beyond precisely what I asked, furthermore another call came in on Call Waiting. We were somehow cut off, so the rep even called me back and interrupted the other call–incroyable, n’est-ce pas? Since what I was asking wasn’t very important anyway, I just wanted to get rid of this tedious nonsense. But I thought probably what she’d do was pull some of the credit line, since banks have been doing that even when you have a zero balance (Amex did that to me). Instead, without talking any further to me, she increased my credit line by $4000, which I didn’t even want. If I’d wanted the increase, that would mean that having given the wrong answer (refusing to answer because no time, I don’t even know what the questions were, but the aggressiveness got on my nerves, she even said things like ‘with the economy ‘n’ all’) had actually served the Power Principle, I guess.

    But generally wrong answers are charming, collectible curios, aren’t they? They are the things you ‘learn from and GROW!’ when you’ve had a setback. Right answers, at least when they are about something finite, like directions to some place, or what sex a person is (if any), or what a person’s name is, will tend to set you on the path to a joyful righteousness. For example, I know what Ktismatics’s and traxus’s real name is, and this has not bored me and cry out for a return to emptily amusing.

    I actually find the AK version no more convincing than John’s version. This would mean that happy families were all boring, and one could argue that this is a matter of taste again. I don’t think happy families are boring and that they do have much variation in them. Tolstoy doing purple prose in an opening sense is what that’s all about to me. Many unhappy families are unhappy in a similar enough way. Glad you put it, though. I normally have never liked the fact that I never completed AK, I wish to acknowledge your invaluable assistance, John, in making me determine never now to complete it. The Garbo version is much better than the book (not to mention that horrible Vivien Leigh version, where she flounces all over the place.)

    Like

    Comment by Mark — 10 September 2009 @ 10:27 am

  37. Tolstoy doing purple prose in an opening sense

    ‘sentence’ not ‘sense’

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    Comment by mark — 10 September 2009 @ 10:44 am

  38. Illusion plays a leading role in Anna Karenina: real love affairs deceptively concealed, false loves propped up by imagination, happy facades disguising despair, omens, madness… The confusion between reality and illusion, the awareness that things aren’t always what they appear to be, the simultaneous desire to unveil the terrible Truth and to protect oneself from it — these themes have provided the driving force for untold numbers of tragic stories. Perhaps the resignation of never really knowing the truth about inveterately reticent Objects disguises the horrible fear that these same Objects may one day reveal themselves completely…

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    Comment by john doyle — 10 September 2009 @ 2:05 pm

  39. Here’s something I just read in Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies:

    “Creative work is very hard, and some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to begin. To start, you have to believe that it’s going to turn out well. And so often it doesn’t. I’ve talked to novelists, conductors, painters about this. Unfailingly, they all admitted that self-deception was important to them. Perhaps a better word is ‘belief.’ But I tend to be a bit more cynical about it, so I use ‘self-deception.'”

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    Comment by john doyle — 10 September 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  40. ‘Perhaps the resignation of never really knowing the truth about inveterately reticent Objects disguises the horrible fear that these same Objects may one day reveal themselves completely…’

    I don’t know about ‘resignation’, at least not always, given that sometimes it’s hardly a matter of choice. Not to criticize your sentence, but I might also use this version of the the clause: ‘the fear that these same Objects may one day reveal themselves completely, which would almost certainly be most horrible.’ That could account for some of them being so ‘inveterately reticent’, they’d rather come across as all conventionally swaggering-rococo as long as they can. Not to mention the ‘obtuse’ qualities determinedly closed objects often have.

    Like that about ‘certain amount of self-deception being necessary’ for creative work. Would add that that is always easy to come by, even if you end up writing more ingenious and cleverly manipulated fiction than I do. Fortunately or not, my own self-deception may come from just living as I have, which people have called fictional, so I just take some of that down and then I call it fiction. One of my friends said the first book, which you’ve also read, ‘wasn’t really fictional’. Maybe not, I just write what I write. Remember when you wrote me ‘did you really have that encounter with that young man?’ Oh lord, John, the only thing I thought was distinguished was that he had such a garish Prince Albert. Airheads like that are pretty dyed-in-the-wool, so that otherwise, it was rather pedestrian. (but please continue calling me by my fake name, everybody else gets to :) and I want to learn the arts of dissimulation better)

    ‘the simultaneous desire to unveil the terrible Truth and to protect oneself from it’

    Yes, because we can’t manage to think that we want to experience all of this Truth, since some of it won’t seem necessarily terrible. Maybe another facet of illusion is that it is ‘part of the truth’. Because, if things may not be as they appear, or both the appearance and the ‘being’ may be ‘real’, as you say.

    Ready for your Doylian closeup, M. Lacan?

    Like

    Comment by Mark — 10 September 2009 @ 4:45 pm

  41. From a recent Graham Harman post: “But even illusions are part of our world, and must be positively enclosed in a good philosophy.” I agree. Harman clarifies his current position by saying that Popeye is just as much an “object” as you or I or the mailbox, but he isn’t as “real.” Popeye, says Harman, is an “intentional” object, entirely dependent on the effects he produces in others. Popeye’s essence doesn’t withdraw from interactions; rather, his existence consists entirely of interactions.

    Not bad. Does the hammerness of a hammer depend entirely on its interactions with intentional hammer-wielders? Presumably not: a rock rolling down a hillside can pound things in its path — i.e., it can interact in a hammerlike way with things — even without intent. What about the fictional hammer wielded by Popeye in a cartoon, or the fictional rock rolling down the hillside? No materiality to them, hence not as “real,” per Harman.

    But hammerness, even in a material hammer designed for that purpose, certainly doesn’t withdraw from interaction. The implication is that any object, or even any property of an object, that depends on intentionality, isn’t as real as objects and properties that don’t depend on intentionality. So language, ideas, songs, fictional characters — none of these sorts of objects are as real as rocks and galaxies and atoms and prairie dog towns. And the intentionality of movies, elevators, billboards, jobs, money, and so on are intrinsically relational and not withdrawn into the hermetic isolation of these objects, hence they aren’t as “real” property-wise as their non-intentional properties.

    I’m not ontologist, but this seems a lot like materialism to me. To me the problem lies in this sense of the essential withdrawn essences of fully real objects. I just don’t see why that should be a necessary assertion. I guess part of the goal is to avoid the phenomenology of empiricism, where something is real only to the extent that it is observed doing something in the universe. But I can’t see why, when someone uses a hammer as a hammer, the hammerness property becomes by definition an inessential and less-real part of the hammer-object.

    Says Harman at the end of his post: “But the point of my long lists of objects is not to efface the difference between the real and the fictional. It is to say that the real and the fictional both belong to a deeper theory.” Curious. Previously he’d distinguished between speculative materialism and speculative realism. It sounds like he’s moving in a materialistic direction now. Or else he’s going to pull together materialism and idealism into some grander synthesis.

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    Comment by john doyle — 15 September 2009 @ 4:35 am

  42. “To me the problem lies in this sense of the essential withdrawn essences of fully real objects. I just don’t see why that should be a necessary assertion.”

    Yes, I agree with this, John. But can we know the total essence of fictional characters such as the Narrator in A La Recherche (because they are intentional) as opposed to real people such as Marcel Proust?

    I don’t read much of either Graham’s or Levi’s blogs – not because I don’t find them stimulating but because I can’t seem to find the time. I remember reading something recently by Levi where he challenged the SR/OOO sceptic’s question of “how can you know?” in relation to the hidden essence of an object. My question would be “what are you hoping to know?” What does the assertion of the essential withdrawness of real objects add to knowledge, even perhaps the to knowledge that you don’t know them? What is there to say about that? I don’t know.

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    Comment by NB — 15 September 2009 @ 6:25 am

    • “But can we know the total essence of fictional characters.”

      That’s part of Levi’s argument today in support of fictional characters as real objects: the essence of the character withdraws from the reader. But that’s also why I wrote the post just after this one called “Who Is She Really?”. I invent a fictional character and write about her, but a goodly part of who she is emerges from the writing itself. Would you say that Proust have the last say about the narrator of his fiction, NB? Or does his narrator withdraw even from Proust? A fictional character doesn’t exist in the same way as a flesh-and-blood human. If we assert that there’s an essence of the fictional character that eludes all writers and readers, where does this essence reside? It seems that you’d have to invoke some form of idealism at that point, that the fictional character is something like a spirit-being who manifests or reveals herself — but not completely! — in print and in readers’ brains.

      “What does the assertion of the essential withdrawness of real objects add to knowledge”

      The standard answer is this: you’re conflating ontology with epistemology. They’re not talking about what can be known, but about what is. It’s “speculative” realism, which means in part that the speculated-about doesn’t necessarily turn into the known-about. The essence of an object always withdraws from any interaction, including human attempts to know it: this is the sort of thing that an antirealist like Kant would say, isn’t it? Suppose we pose the opposite speculation: an object always seeks interaction with other objects, including human minds, but interactors are never completely successful in encountering the full essence of the object encountered. Just as plausible, if not more so, IMHO.

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      Comment by john doyle — 15 September 2009 @ 7:59 am

      • A real phenomenon is that each and every time one experiences a ‘static’ work of art, its reality changes. There is some similarity, but each experience of a good book, poem, movie, play, painting etc. is always fresh and so a new creation. If OOO has its way we would end up with innumerable such not so real ‘objects’.

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        Comment by samcarr — 19 September 2009 @ 9:48 pm

      • There are two parts to the argument, both of which have merit. First, a phenomenon is the manifestation of an object to an observer. The realist question is is: what is the object when no one is looking at it? I think that one is pretty much an accepted view of realists and non-realists alike. Realists contend that something can be said about objects absent human observers, whereas non-realists say that even saying something about the object already implicates the sayer’s subjectivity in the statement.

        Second and more controversially, some would say that the phenomenon itself, being some admixture of object and observer, is an object in its own right, separate from both the object and the observer considered separately. So each subjective observation of the object generates a different object, albeit short-lived and limited in extension to the obeserver’s perceptual field. I think that Harman would now say that these phenomenal manifestations are objects but not real, whereas Bryant of Larval Subjects says that phenomena are real objects.

        Again, psychologists study phenomena systematically in an attempt to separate the distortions of subjective sensation and perception from the object being sensed and perceived. So for psychologists the perceptions are data. And phenomena are all the observer has to work with. To regard as unreal the subject’s idiosyncratically subjective view on the world is to assert that humans operate entirely inside the unreal. One way out is to take an idealist position: somehow humans gain insight into the real behind the sensual illusions. Another is to maintain that phenomena are some admixture of the real occluded in part by subjective and unreal distortion. Still, when considering human subjectivity as an object of investigation in its own right, perception and its distortions are the real thing.

        Consequently I tend to lean toward Bryant’s position: individual and changing subjective perceptions are real. However, I think there needs to be an explicit recognition that phenomenal reality is not just qualitatively different from the real object “behind” the phenomenon, but is also in some ways less real. On the other hand, a fully objective description of an object, even if such a description were possible, would not be an accurate description of any particular human’s perception of that object. From the POV of the perceptual psychologist, the perception is more real than the objectively real object of perception. It’s curious.

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        Comment by john doyle — 20 September 2009 @ 7:22 am

  43. “Would you say that Proust have the last say about the narrator of his fiction, NB?”

    Ontologically, maybe yes. He puts the pen down.

    Epistemologically, maybe no. Readers, commentators, writers, plagiarists, earwiggers etc discover, uncover, invent or miss other things in the text. Is that too Derridean?

    “If we assert that there’s an essence of the fictional character that eludes all writers and readers, where does this essence reside? It seems that you’d have to invoke some form of idealism at that point, that the fictional character is something like a spirit-being who manifests or reveals herself — but not completely! — in print and in readers’ brains.”

    Yes, I agree, but – er, let me get this right – isn’t Harman saying that all things are objects (in the universe, including the universe!), but some objects, such a fictional characters or illusions, only have a relational (intentional) reality? That is their essence, no? If so, I don’t get the point of demanding that they really be objects. What can be gained from that premise, including what knowledge about being in general?

    “you’re conflating ontology with epistemology”

    Yes, I am. Half-deliberately, I think. At the risk of conflating even more stuff, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Dejan on his blog about the reality of social relations, with me stressing their reality. We must have at least some knowledge about something’s existence (even if mistaken or very meagre perhaps) to embark on further speculation about that thing or about something else. The knowledge is a reality, but maybe the something isn’t. I known that there are people who believe in God. I know that that belief is part of their existence and organises their existence in some ways. I know what it’s like for someone to believe in God because it also sometimes affects my life. But I don’t know what it IS to truly believe in God. I can relate analogically, but I don’t know what it is for them. I don’t know what the experience of a tree is for a tree. Neither does Harman, right? Is this what continually evades? But what do they think they’re looking for? Or trying to say about “IS” for all things? And do I have to posit God as an object like any other before going on to stress their differences? I don’t see what would be gained by that premise, either positively or negatively.

    “The essence of an object always withdraws from any interaction, including human attempts to know it: this is the sort of thing that an antirealist like Kant would say, isn’t it?”

    I agree. I think I’ve said here before that it reminds me of reheated Kant. However, while Kant was trying to posit the very sensible idea that we affect the world just as much as we receive it (being part of it), he famously argued that knowledge about the world and being was possible via reason (an essential part of human being’s being). Is that something that OOO seems to want to discount in its speculations? Well, a rock might or a golden bird might reason very well but, like the lion who could talk, we wouldn’t understand them. The noumenal world is a good political maneouvre. Epistemologically and ontologically it does nothing IN ITSELF.

    “But even illusions are part of our world, and must be positively enclosed in a good philosophy.”

    I think this is a fine quote from Graham. I’m just not that convinced SR/OOO is a good philosophy…

    “Suppose we pose the opposite speculation: an object always seeks interaction with other objects, including human minds, but interactors are never completely successful in encountering the full essence of the object encountered. Just as plausible, if not more so, IMHO.”

    Yes, I’m more of this line too. We sometimes grab a piece of each other as we pass by. Sometimes we miss altogether.

    Like

    Comment by NB — 15 September 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    • This talk of ‘Marcel’ makes me think of the ‘unreliable narrator’. I just read the term was made recently, in 1961. The ‘Marcel’ is more interesting when he’s going on about his own sensitive impressions, whether the waves at Balbec like custard, creamed eggs, and Proust ‘disappears’ him into the more colorful characters. He’s fascinated by Oriane de Guermantes, but the 100 or so pages devoted to her salon makes you totally forget about ‘Marcel’. In ‘The Captive’, you hardly think of him, it’s all about Albertine. He’s weak physically, and can’t always take part, in that way like the real Marcel. Don’t know whether this is important, but just occurred to me.

      And narrators like Didion in ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ and other of her novels, in which Didion sometimes seems to be the narrator, as in ‘you know me. Or you think you do. The not quite omniscient author. No longer moving fast. No longer traveling light.’ (may not be exact all of that.)

      The whole idea of one’s one unreliable narrator(s) is very interesting, you can unreliably narrate your own story, as per John’s talk about ‘the real person’.

      Would be interested to hear some good examples of ‘the unreliable narrator’, am not sure I understand it that well. Thanks.

      Like

      Comment by Mark — 15 September 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  44. Among your several good points, NB, I’m struck by this one: if an intentional object is only relational, why call it an object? As far as I can tell, in Harman’s ontology there are only objects and nothing else. Now we’ve got real objects and less-real objects. Early in my readings of Harman I wrote a post asking whether gravity is an object. I still don’t understand what role forces play in OOO.

    Also this: “the knowledge is a reality.” Yes, it would seem that knowledge is an object. But I think knowledge of something is essentially relational, so knowledge would be a less-real object than that about which it is knowledgeable, or something like that. I presume that language too is a less-real relational object. I have a feeling that Harman is trying to think his way out of some impasses in his theory, so some of these assertions will be revised or retracted later.

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    Comment by john doyle — 15 September 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  45. Mark, your point about unreliable narrators is a good one. The reader ascribes character traits to the narrator, but then the author pulls the rug out from under the reader. Marcel is a strange hybrid, like the Henry narrator in Henry Miller’s novels — some combination of fact and fiction. So if we were to decide that Proust and Miller are real objects but Marcel and Henry are not, we would be making rather arbitrary distinctions.

    Some nonfiction authors come under condemnation by fictionalizing portions of their accounts. I read somewhere that this insistence on keeping fiction and nonfiction completely separate is characteristic of the American literary scene, that in Europe there’s much more acceptance of the blurry line between truth and imagination.

    You know, I really liked The Sixth Sense because of the games it plays with storytelling convention. We assume that the characters lead continuous lives, and that the author is showing us excerpts of those lives. In Sixth Sense we eventually discover that the main character in effect stops existing in between scenes.

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    Comment by john doyle — 15 September 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    • Yes, I should have thought of the ‘Henry Miller’, which was likely the first time I became aware of the sensation of these two entities, long before ever having heard of it as a specific literary device.

      ‘In Sixth Sense we eventually discover that the main character in effect stops existing in between scenes.’

      Are you talking about the movie? I ought to see it. This idea of the main character ceasing to exist makes me think still more about ‘Marcel’, because the kinds of scenes in which he does exist are very different from the ones in which he disappears–so you do get a sense of the old social strata Proust was dissecting. He’s upper-middle-class wealthy, and all the scenes with his mother at Combray, with Francoise, to some degree with Saint-Loup even, or with Swann in his more bourgeois identity, as he visits Marcel’s family–and where the ‘life of fashion’ that Swann is secretly leading is always disparaged. The movement into this ‘life of fashion’ has scarcely a modulation, though, and ‘Marcel’ is there, but does cease to exist, because the aristocracy fascinates him and he lets them take over the entire stage–Odette (although not herself a real aristocrat, a courtesan, rather), Swann (in his double life), Basin and Oriane Guermantes, Charlus, the rest, with the Verdurins calling all these ‘tiresome’ and ‘bores’ till they manage to crawl up. You know ‘Marcel’ is peeking in when Jupien buggers Charlus, and you see him struggling, but totally cerebrally, with Albertine, but she gets bored with such crap, and freaks him out with a lament about not getting ass-fucked (quite shocking when you come upon this, since it’s a girl.) When his grandmother is there, you can see Marcel. He does meet Odette and Oriane, but quickly disappears into them for awhile, and interestingly (I’ve never heard this talked about, although it surely is), gets a kind of revenge on both of these most glamorous of the book’s women by looking back on them, once he’s ‘finished with them’, as ‘mediocre women’. Well, certainly not my type of guy, I’ll say, so nervous about going to Venice he makes himself sick and has to take to bed. Who needs it?

      ‘Some nonfiction authors come under condemnation by fictionalizing portions of their accounts. I read somewhere that this insistence on keeping fiction and nonfiction completely separate is characteristic of the American literary scene, that in Europe there’s much more acceptance of the blurry line between truth and imagination.’

      This reminds me of another Didion work, ‘The White Album’, the collection of essays I’ve liked most, because she has written the long first essay, also called ‘The White Album’, to sound like fiction–and this may be a style I’ve picked up on directly from here, because I read this essay many times. She always made all the events sound dark and fictional, but this had to do with the depressions and psychological states she was herself going through–but every event she mentioned was literally true–they are like beautiful vignette/shapshots, from the ‘vast Stalinist couch’ to the ‘elaborate Easter lunch’ that you can almost taste. The ‘big house in Hollywood on Franklin Avenue’ was slated for demolition to make way for a high-rise apartment building as far back as the mid-60s, when she was living in it, and that was still in effect when she published the piece. At a reading in 2001, I asked her about the house, and she got all excited to tell everybody that ‘no, the house is still there!’ So afterward, I went up again and asked her for the exact address and went there some months later. She wrote about it some more in ‘Where I Was From’ in 2003. But it had seemed perhaps more ‘legendary’ when you thought it was demolished, vanished, UNTIL…you went there, and all the ‘panel trucks’, which terrified her in her paranoia to the degree that she went out and took the license plate numbers of all of them and put them in a special drawer, because she wanted the police to find the culprits after they killed her, or whatever–there were still panel trucks parked outside the house in 2001–and the old house once owned by one of the Talmadge sisters was there, still once owned by them. It was so delightful a little continuing of the piece itself, and she even spiced it up a bit more by telling me ‘they put a new driveway around it’. And that was the house where you read of Janis Joplin coming to a party, and fake Chicken Delite men just walking in the front door to rob the place. But the reason she talked to me a lot about this was because I told her I’d just been out there the past weekend as well, and I had been thinking about her old house there, how she’d said in 1978 ‘I still reflect quite often on the big house in Hollywood’. And so then I said ‘Do you STILL think about it!’ She understood perfectly what I meant–that if she didn’t STILL think about it, that the piece was worthless, and that I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously any more. Whether or not it was a commercial instinct, I don’t know, but she said ‘Oh yes, they’re still with me.’

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      Comment by Mark — 16 September 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  46. I’ll assume you’ve heard about the surprise ending of Sixth Sense, which I found very effective. That the main character ceases to exist between scenes becomes a retrospective revelation in light of this ending. There’s also a nice psychoanalytic touch to the story, wherein the return of the repressed takes the form of dead people come to life, with the analyst occupying the psychic place of these dead repressed memories. The repressed material must come to some resolution in order for them to rest in peace.

    I’m taking another crack at the Proust, though I still find it slow going. I did recently reread Tropic of Cancer, enjoying it in a different way now that I too have spent some of my life in France. Surprisingly, Miller rarely describes his sexual encounters; there is nothing pornographic about his books. I’ve been trying to remember the novel, written before Miller’s I believe, by a guy from Colorado who went to California to write a novel. I tried various google search strings to find it, all unsuccessful. One string I googled was “self referential novel,” and the 7th item on the list was an old post from ktismatics. Not there either.

    You’ve mentioned Joan Didion many times, and I’m quite sure I’ve never read anything she’s written. Some day…

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    Comment by john doyle — 16 September 2009 @ 8:28 pm

    • I think there’s some non-fiction, some of it in Greece by then, but I think it starts in France, when Miller is talking about Anais Nin. Well, he doesn’t get very explicit with the porno, but there’s talk about telephone booth sex in NYC in ‘Tropic of Capricorn’, how he thinks of nothing else, and there’s some dirty talk in ‘Tropic of Cancer’. You know what I was thinking about since you brought him up, was his unusual loathing not only of the U.S., but in particular he seemed to hate New York more than anybody I’ve nearly ever run into. And it was a profound hatred. I thought about it for years, and thought it meant something. Now I don’t, at least not for me. In Capricorn, my favourite of his works, he calls New York ‘the grandest and most vacuous city in the world.’ At some point I forgot about this, but it had lasted a very long time. It must be 20 years now since I even remembered how his negativity about New York affected and depressed me, since I was here.

      Thanks for bringing up ‘The Sixth Sense’, I just requested it and will watch it, don’t know how I missed even knowing about it. But someone told me about the poet John Ashberry today, as well as educating me on Joseph Cornell. I’ve found that my knowledge of all fields, including the ones I’m best at, is always spotty, and that I’m good at some things, but nevertheless a dillettante. Well, that’s that, I guess. I remember a friend getting stoned in the 70s and telling me ‘well, you know, I’m attracted to dillettantism, too.’ Thank god he said that, because even though horrified, I might as well accept the truth.

      And that would explain the ease of indulging in Proust (which you don’t share.) It’s a veritable cornucopia for the dillettante, even though it’s more than that, of course. I think my point on this, while off-topic, of course, is that it it not true that dillettantes cannot also be creative as well, they are not merely ne’er-do-well layabouts (at least not all of them are all the time). I hope this helps other troubled dillettantes who are having trouble finding their own voices…

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      Comment by Mark — 16 September 2009 @ 9:11 pm


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