Ktismatics

29 November 2009

Direct Cognitive Encounter

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:15 pm

Yesterday I was running south on Knox Avenue, past the middle school on my left and a park on my right. I became aware of a male voice yelling, the sound coming from in front and to the right. I looked toward the source of the voice: a guy is standing there looking at me. I keep running, looking toward this guy, when suddenly emerging out of the background visual array I detect an object flying through the air toward me at speed, just about to hit me. Immediately I recognize it as a frisbee. I could have tried to catch it in stride, but I figured that this guy who yelled and who had almost surely thrown the frisbee was probably playing frisbee golf, a game for which the park is equipped. I pulled myself back from the frisbee’s trajectory, letting it sail past me. I yelled to the guy “almost a hole in one,” and ran on.

In an earlier post I presented a brief case in support of the idea that minds and brains have direct access to themselves. Can a case be made that minds/brains have direct access to the real world as well?

Shaviro, in a recent post, writes:

I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.” This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access. In Kant’s account, we are affected by things-in-themselves, even though we can never know them.

That’s fine as far as it goes: I can get hit by an object even if I never see it coming. If the object hits me without my knowing beforehand what it is, my encounter with it, though direct, will have been only partial: its color, the material from which it’s made, the cause of its specific trajectory — these and other properties of the object would not participate in the encounter. But what if I do see it coming, recognize it as a frisbee, realize that it’s probably going to hit me if both it and I continue on our current paths, decide whether to catch it or to take evasive action? Isn’t my cognitive interaction with the frisbee just as direct as if it had hit me without my knowing what it was? For that matter, doesn’t my cognitive interaction with the frisbee encounter more properties of the frisbee than if it had merely hit my body without my prior awareness?

If it is possible for objects to encounter one another directly, and if cognition is a form of inter-object encounter, then I suggest that it’s possible to have direct cognitive encounters with objects.

One could contend that cognition is indirect because it’s a higher-order processing capability, interpreting perceptual inputs which are in turn mid-level interpretations of raw sensory inputs. Arguably some sort of transformation or translation of inputs takes place at each hierarchical level of the organism’s functioning. However, the relationships between sensation, perception, and cognition aren’t entirely separate and hierarchical. When I see a colorful flat object sailing toward me from the direction of a frisbee golf course, I’m prepared, unconsciously and without sequential delay, to compare the pattern of sensory visual inputs with my stored cognitive schema for frisbee. Cognition emerges bottom-up from sensation and perception to be sure, but cognition also exerts top-down effects on sensation and perception. In fact, this top-down impact of cognition enables the sensory-perceptual apparatus to render even more accurate information about objects than would otherwise be the case.

There’s no reason to reduce cognition to lower-level brain activities like sensation and perception. Minds interact with the world cognitively: that’s what they do. Even if all sorts of transformations take place at lower levels to produce the emergent properties of minds and thoughts, these emergent entities are real in their own right. To contend that other kinds of inter-object relations like physical touching can be direct while cognitive interactions can only be indirect is seemingly to dismiss mind as something less than an object. Either that, or mind must be a qualitatively different sort of object that engages in qualitatively different sorts of encounters with the real.

Isn’t it a variant of idealism to view cognition as being not quite physical enough to touch the real? It’s a sort of inverted idealism, in that cognitive encounters are deemed incapable of accomplishing what raw physicality can achieve in the realm of the real. I am supposed to regard my cognitive encounter with the flying object not as a means of gaining more complete access to some real thing that’s about to strike me, but as a filter or screen that inserts itself between me and the real, blocking whatever direct access I might otherwise have experienced.

Shaviro goes on:

So I agree with Levi and Graham that an object never cognitively grasps any other object in its entirety. (This is what Levi calls epistemological anti-realism). My non-vicarious version of ontological realism consists in claiming that objects do directly encounter (or affect) one another — only they do so non-cognitively. This is precisely why our ontology can be realist, even when our epistemology is confessedly anti-realist.

Okay fine: let’s presume that it’s not possible cognitively to grasp another object in its entirety. But can’t knowledge, like other kinds of inter-object encounters, be incomplete but also direct? Knowledge isn’t only a mechanism for constructive interpretation of the real; it’s also a kind of recording device. If the object had physically struck me it would have recorded one sort of impression, a tactile one. Instead the object recorded cognitive impressions: it’s an orange frisbee, errantly thrown by that yelling guy in the park, aimed not at me but at one of the holes on the golf course.


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68 Comments »

  1. (… Hiding from work …) Hi John,

    Neat argument here, and I thought I would poke my nose in the room and say a few words, since I think there’s a really interesting problem that your post foregrounds: knowledge of reality, awareness, and conceptual simplification. Let’s see if I can’t make some sense o fit.

    First off, Shaviro is right to say that noumenon supposedly affect subjects. There are, of course, well known problems with this claim, as well as dissenters. So Shaviro’s claim is contentious (minimally because ‘affection’ would have to be distinct from ‘causation’ because ‘causation’ is a category, etc.) What’s more important, i think, and what no one in these debates seems to be picking up on (why, I don’t know) is that (1) Kant is a scientific realist, (2) that consciousness/awareness for Kant is coextensive with cognition (producing truth-valuable propositions), and (3) judgments involve the subsumption of the manifold of experience under a concept (this is basically Harman’s analysis of apophansis).

    Viz (1): I don’t know why folks forget that Kant said “Empirically real, Transcendentally ideal.” Fact is, phenomena are as real as it gets, they’re certainly not like a table cloth covering the really real things in themselves. And an empirical intuition simply is an object. ‘The transcendental,’ by contrast, amounts to the criteria that make our real world experience intelligible. It’s a metatheory — for the mathy folks, a semantics for some language L, which allows us to model stuff. So, on the one hand, all the talk about ‘doubling the world’ problems of ‘genesis’ etc simply misses the point. Moreover, you can get harman’s account of withdrawn objects without things-in-themselves (as we’ll see, intuitions are infinitely rich singularities that are simplified in the act of judgement in order to present a single ‘mark’ capable of referring to an indefinitely large set of particulars). So at bottom, the realism/anti-realism debate is nothing more than an argument concerning the metaphysics of meaning and truth. Talk about ontological realism is talk about truth-makers. So my sense is that the current discussion s are actually poorly framed. Especially when Kant is invoked, because he is certainly a realist in empirical — i.e. scientific — matters, but simply holds that the source of meaning and truth stem from a specifically cognitive achievement.

    Viz (2): turns out that Kant has a rather interesting account of consciousness, as an 3-fold act of synthesis: the synthesis of apprehension in intuition, the synthesis of reproduction in imagination, and the synthesis of recognition in a concept (see here for more). What you’ve described viz the flying frisbee fits quite nicely with Kant’s description of the syntheses (i.e. awareness of some thing, moving towards orientation in space, planning and projection, to finally discursive achievement). What’s really interesting about the process is that information or detail is shed, rather than increased. The point being simply that our access to reality is indirect not because of the phenomenon/noumenon distinction, but because consciousness is coextensive with our judgments about reality, and these judgments are propositional. Now, propositions provide only indirect access to things (one can only catechrestically ‘grasp’ or ‘get a hold of’ something in language).

    Viz (3): For concepts to do any work they must involve some form of simplification (an indefinite number of instances being picked up by a single concept, a single designated quality or n-ary relation). To the extent that that’s true every intuition undergoes a specific kind of simplification when it is subsumed by a concept and synthesised by consciousnes into a proposition. The whole process basically plays out the way that HArman describes tool-being — save of course for the need for ‘infinitely withdrawn objects’ and the various externalisms it implies. The problem, in short, appears at a phenomenological level, not an ontological level. So the attempt to separate out the epistemological from the ontological is not so easily done, since the separation itself presupposes epistemological notions. It’s a kind of metaphysical Robinsonade (despite being alone on the island of ontology, the robinsonades have brought all of their epistemological know how with them)

    Comment by Alexei — 30 November 2009 @ 9:36 am

  2. Hey Alexei; glad I could provide a distraction.

    You’re right: I’m accepting Shaviro’s contentious contention that the thing in itself affects subjects. He’s already setting himself apart from both Bryant and Harman by accepting that an object can have a direct encounter with another object. However, he’s walling off the subject’s cognition from direct encounters; i.e., a fire can directly encounter cotton, but my mind cannot. In this move Shaviro isn’t just deprivileging the subject’s cognitive encounter with the real; he’s handicapping it. So you could say I’m trying to restore flat ontology by pushing minds back up to equal footing with other kinds of objects. All this by way of recapitulation rather than response.

    “all the talk about ‘doubling the world’ problems of ‘genesis’ etc simply misses the point.”

    Is this with reference to whether cognitions about real objects have to represent those objects? I agree: that seems beside the point. There is some evidence that brains do store information about, say, the physical environment in a way that corresponds structurally with the relative positions of the stuff comprising the environment. But that’s not the topic under discussion.

    Thanks for the link on Kant’s view of the mind, which I’ll read later. You say that, for Kant, phenomena are real but the meanings and truths of phenomena are ideal, imposed on phenomena by mind. I suspect we’d agree that, with respect to my close encounter with the flying object, it’s impossible to disentangle the raw sensory-phenomenological from the cognitively-attributed meaning — which I suppose makes us co-occupants of the dreaded Correlation. Presumably my neural network contains a pattern-matching template that allows me to distinguish frisbees from other sorts of objects, and this template is more likely to be invoked by certain environmental circumstances (the sailing motion of the object, its proximity to a frisbee golf course). These sorts of pattern-matching activities are taking place unconsciously and autonomously, beneath the level of what we’d ordinarily regard as cognition. But it’s still cognitive: the frisbee template has assembled itself from encounters with similar objects taking place in games that are themselves cognitively constructed; not all cognitive processing takes place consciously. For human subjects, phenomena and cognition are linked all the way down.

    But because phenomena cannot be unbundled from cognitions about them, it’s hard to make a clear distinction between the raw thing and the meaning-enwrapped thing. The sailing object is going to hit me; it is a frisbee; the yelling guy in the park was yelling at me; the guy was playing frisbee golf; the yelling guy threw the frisbee; he did not intend to throw it at me in order to hit me or for me to catch it; the aim of his throw was grossly inaccurate; etc. I made most of these inferences unconsciously, based on comparing features of the specific situation with templates and scripts I’ve compiled from prior similar situations. Do these inferences impose cognitive meaning on the real empirical event, or do the inferences extract additional information from the real event that aren’t readily available through raw sensation and perception? I think it’s the latter rather than the former. The object really was a frisbee; the yelling guy really did throw it; he really didn’t intent to throw it at me; etc.

    “What’s really interesting about the process is that information or detail is shed, rather than increased. The point being simply that our access to reality is indirect not because of the phenomenon/noumenon distinction, but because consciousness is coextensive with our judgments about reality, and these judgments are propositional.”

    I agree with the former assertion but not the latter. To identify this particular object as a member of the category of objects called “frisbee” I can eliminate details about its movement and color and size. But I don’t have to compare the abstracted features of this specific object with a set of propositions about frisbie-ness: flat, circular, shiny, about the size of a plate, etc. Propositions can describe these common features of frisbees, but I don’t have to invoke those propositions in order to infer that the object is in fact a frisbee. It’s more likely that I have non-propositional patterns of information stored in my brain, compiled from prior encounters with other frisbees and overlaid upon each other. The common parts of the frisbee pattern are reinforced with repeated encounters; the detailed differences are lost.

    This is the same sort of “cognitive” activity that happens when a frog encounters a flying object: is it an edible bug, or something else? The frog doesn’t rely on propositional descriptions of insects; it relies on the pattern-matcher. A pattern that eliminates unnecessary details is more useful and parsimonious than one that retains the detail of every bug the frog has ever encountered. So the elimination of detail is an adaptive mechanism for detecting the most important features of the real, in order that the frog might react in an appropriate way to the environmental phenomenon. The scaling up from frog brains to human brains is an incremental one.

    So now, Alexei, we can see whether our mutual translation of one another’s discourses is working effectively. Am I responding to your philosophical points? Where do we go next?

    Comment by john doyle — 30 November 2009 @ 11:48 am

    • Thanks for this response, John. I think some — in fact most — of what I wrote was more ramble than response, and used your post as a springboard. Such is the danger of writing interesting stuff, I suppose. By and large, though, I think we’re more or less on the same page. HAving re-read my response, my basic point was that the minute one distinguishes between ‘cognitive’ and ‘non-cognitive’ encounters, one situates oneself squarely within a philosophical space of meaning (a transcendental space, a meta-theoretical one), and all the other cognitive elements. And I don’t see how the distinction allows us to talk about unobservable entities and interactions in any other way than as essentially related to this space, or via thought experiments. In effect, admitting the distinction begs the question (i.e. involves a petitio principii, minimally ‘there are real unobservables’). Moreover, given such a cognitive split, it seems more likely to me to be a epistemological realist and an ontological anti-realist rather than the reverse, since we cannot by definition have any knowledge of the ontologically real without reducing it to the epistemological. Here, I simply don’t know what it means to be ontolgoically real, and empirically ideal. And I have a deep sense that there’s some kind of confusion about the basic terms of the debate here (at least on my part), and I would very much like to see clear defintions of the terms (especially since defining ontology as ‘the study of being qua being’ or ‘the study of what is’ isn’t very helpful to me). Anyway, that seems to have been my initial set of points, although much less clearly stated.

      As for the everything else you’ve said in your response to my comment: yes, I think we basically agree (again I was sloppy in my comment and didn’t quite differentiate Kant’s position form my own. My one point of resistance has to do with the process of identifying, focusing on, and reacting to the frisbee. So far as I can tell, what you’re describing is precisely what Kant talks about in his threefold syntheses.

      The question concerning the meaning of the frisbee indepenendently of these syntheses is much more difficult, as your frog-example points out. I take your point that ‘meaning’ may not be propositionally structured for frogs, but it may also be the case that the black dots it eats don’t have any meaning for the frog at all (some basic reflex, which has no content past a causal transmission of force). Anyway, I’ll have to think about it some more (I know Fodor has written a bit about frogs and representation, maybe I’ll dig that up).

      Unfortunately, I have to run, so I can’t take up the rest of your points (save to say that the propositional structure of reality is Kant’s notion, not necessarily mine). I hope this clarifies.

      The next step, I guess, would be to see whether we can formulate a conception of meaning independentally of the traditional ideas of what can support meaning (e.g. propositions, representations, concepts)

      Comment by Alexei — 30 November 2009 @ 2:38 pm

      • “I have a deep sense that there’s some kind of confusion about the basic terms of the debate here (at least on my part),”

        I have the sense that you understand this whole thing differently than I do, and I have the uncomfortable feeling of almost but not quite grasping your viewpoint.

        For example, you say something like…

        So at bottom, the realism/anti-realism debate is nothing more than an argument concerning the metaphysics of meaning and truth. Talk about ontological realism is talk about truth-makers.

        …and I think you’re talking about the same thing as I am. When I go on about theories of theories and justification of ontologies, this is what I’m talking about. And it is a subject that is not mentioned much by either Graham or Levi. I have no idea why. It seems (to me, at least) to be at the heart of the matter.

        But then you say something like…

        the minute one distinguishes between ‘cognitive’ and ‘non-cognitive’ encounters, one situates oneself squarely within a philosophical space of meaning (a transcendental space, a meta-theoretical one), and all the other cognitive elements. And I don’t see how the distinction allows us to talk about unobservable entities and interactions in any other way than as essentially related to this space, or via thought experiments

        …and I wonder if I’m really understanding you. As far as I can tell, we can’t do *any* philosophical work (or any thinking about reality at all) without putting ourselves in this space. An ontology *is* basically a thought-experiment. It’s made of concepts and ideas, which don’t easily hook up to the world.

        Maybe my confusion is related to the question-begging you note with respect to the cognitive/non-cognitive distinction. I think I see what you are saying. If I observe (as a third party) a non-cognitive encounter, it is made “cognitive” by my observation. And through a mental trick, I can subtract myself from the scenario and say that the same non-cognitive encounter could happen without my being involved. I would call that a presumption rather than a contradiction — in other words, I’d say that we are supposing that the “unobserved” exists, not the “unobservable”. But on the other hand, the presumption is that what would happen would be what I observed — and it’s really the observation that is the grist of my mental mill. But at this point, we’re back to that philosophical space, which I don’t see as producing anything but the obvious point: “everything we can think is thought rather than reality”.

        My feeling is that if it’s a presupposition rather than a contradiction, then it’s okay to press ahead, in the hopes that we’ll get the whole way around the philosophical mobius strip and sneak up behind the presupposition.

        Sorry for the rambling. I’m hoping that one of my points will make it clear to you what I’m missing.

        Comment by Asher Kay — 30 November 2009 @ 10:23 pm

      • I suspect that yesterday was a particularly inarticulate, dumb kind of day for me, Asher, so your suspicions are probably all grounded. Let’s hope today is better. I don’t remember using the word contradiction though. I did say that distinguishing between observables and unobservables (in this particular situation) begs the question, and therefore involves a potentially vicious circularity (or a non-productive self-referentiality, which would be OK if we were doing some science. It would amount to hypothesis construction and experimentation. But it makes for a weak argument for realism. Of course, I can live with a presuppositional — lemmatic, really — Realism. In fact, I think a Humean realism based upon habit and comfort is about the best we’re able to achieve. But it just seems so bizarre to me that people are willing to put so much weight on such a fragile supposition, without really investigating it (and admittedly, Harman essays an argument for a realism, which i simply don’t buy. Levi, by contrast, just picks up a ball and starts running (where? on what field? according to what rules? what ball is he holding?; it’s hard for me to see how there’s an argument in there at all — not to be a jerk about it, but I don’t actually see what problem or exigency he’s responding to, what objectology is meant to articulate, identify, resolve, etc. In a word, the whole thing seems unmotivated.)

        Anyway, claims of contradictoriness aside, my point about cognitive and non-cognitive interaction and metaphysics is more or less the one you identified. My point was simply that the distinction requires a meta-level of analysis (since it’s not one you can find in experience), which puts you in a squarely ‘transcendental’ space. And this space is only coherent when one talks about ideal conditions — concepts, rather than things.

        Now, to clarify the what seems to be the sticking point about cognitive/non-cognitive, let me use Kant’s language, for a moment: empirical intuitions — objects that have affected us, or can affect us — are ‘proleptically conceptual.’ They fit our concepts (call this the theory ladenness of affection). The trick is to deomonstrate their fitness for one another, which can be articulated at the metatheoretical level (if dropping a name helps, think of John McDowell’s work). I don’t think, however, that metaphysics proceeds by way of thought experiment. Mind you, I’m not an ontologist, or particularly interested in ontology. But my feeling has always been that ontology is essentially a way of articulating the basic categories — the semantics — of human commitment. It’s a way of developing an image of the world (think Dieter Henrich, rather than Deleuze) that situates and relates the basic units of meaning to one another, and helps delineate what further beliefs or commitments we need to hold as a consequence. It articulates our semantic responsibilities, as it were. Ontology is uninformative to the extent that it does not spell out our commitments. If there’s any merit to HArman’s work, it’s that he really does try to spell out a certain kind of commitment to objects and whatnot (manifest in his polemics against distance, reflection and critique, and in favour of an intimate closeness and vulnerability).

        Is that any clearer?

        Comment by Alexei — 1 December 2009 @ 7:32 am

      • Yeah, it is clearer. I think we are actually in agreement about most points — especially the meta-level part. I see ontology in perhaps a broader way, with things like scientific theories counting as ontologies, but that’s not a huge thing, in my opinion. The things that I count as ontologies spell out commitments and also justify them on a metatheoretical level as pertaining to the world. It is the metatheoretical level, I think, that we both see as being missing in Graham’s and Levi’s writings. The metatheory of most scientific inquiry is boring, pragmatic, and somewhat sketchy for philosophical work, but it’s there.

        Comment by Asher Kay — 1 December 2009 @ 11:07 am

      • Well I’m glad it’s clearer for you two — I frankly have next to no idea what’s even being discussed, let alone the points of agreement. I see nothing about frisbees in any of it.

        Comment by john doyle — 1 December 2009 @ 11:13 am

      • I suspect that Asher is just playing nice…. I know the following kind of question usually yields a dumb stare (at least when I use it in a classroom), but here goes anyway: what appears to be the most incomprehensible claim you’ve seen either Asher or me make in this exchange, and why do you find it incomprehensible?

        Comment by Alexei — 1 December 2009 @ 11:49 am

      • What do you mean, Alexei? No, just kidding. Okay, some exegesis:

        “distinguishing between observables and unobservables (in this particular situation) begs the question, and therefore involves a potentially vicious circularity (or a non-productive self-referentiality, which would be OK if we were doing some science. It would amount to hypothesis construction and experimentation.”

        Observable = colorful sailing disk; unobservable = frisbee. Observable = disk about to strike me; unobservable = thrown erratically by the yelling guy. You’re saying there’s no point in making these distinctions because observables are also implicated in meaning distinctions?

        “Of course, I can live with a presuppositional — lemmatic, really — Realism. In fact, I think a Humean realism based upon habit and comfort is about the best we’re able to achieve.”

        You mean that we just assume realism without demonstrating it, because it’s easier for humans to act as if realism is true?

        “But it just seems so bizarre to me that people are willing to put so much weight on such a fragile supposition, without really investigating it”

        Investigate what: the habit and comfort? the presupposition?

        “I don’t actually see what problem or exigency he’s responding to, what objectology is meant to articulate, identify, resolve, etc. In a word, the whole thing seems unmotivated.”

        You mean why is he bothering with it?

        “My point was simply that the distinction requires a meta-level of analysis (since it’s not one you can find in experience), which puts you in a squarely ‘transcendental’ space. And this space is only coherent when one talks about ideal conditions — concepts, rather than things.”

        I.e. distinguishing real from experiential requires talking about concepts rather than things?

        “proleptically conceptual”

        I.e., describing conceptually something that precedes conceptualization?

        “The trick is to demonstrate their fitness for one another, which can be articulated at the metatheoretical level”

        That the concept fits the pre-existing thing being conceptualized?

        “if dropping a name helps, think of John McDowell’s work”

        Well I went to my favorite source, Wikipedia, which tells me that McDowell supports realism without empiricism, but that’s about all I got out of the entry relevant to this discussion. Sensory experience that’s accurate versus deceptive he discounts, but I couldn’t figure out why.

        “I don’t think, however, that metaphysics proceeds by way of thought experiment.”

        By what does it proceed then? Reason? Real experimentation?

        “But my feeling has always been that ontology is essentially a way of articulating the basic categories — the semantics — of human commitment.”

        I.e., not the basic categories of the world, nor even of human perception?

        “It’s a way of developing an image of the world that situates and relates the basic units of meaning to one another, and helps delineate what further beliefs or commitments we need to hold as a consequence.”

        So you resolve the phenomenon/meaning distinction in favor of meaning? And meaning comes from human commitment?

        “(think Dieter Henrich, rather than Deleuze)”

        Wikipedia offers no info whatever other than that Henrich is a contemporary philosopher in the tradition of German idealism.

        “If there’s any merit to Harman’s work, it’s that he really does try to spell out a certain kind of commitment to objects and whatnot (manifest in his polemics against distance, reflection and critique, and in favour of an intimate closeness and vulnerability).”

        Commitment to objects, or to building an OOP without trollish bad faith?

        So, which specific claim do I find most puzzling? If my understandings are accurate, then I guess the issue is why you regard it as fruitless to try to understand the nature of things. Is it because you think science, despite its weak metatheories and its habit-bound credence in realism, is better suited to the job than is philosophy? And that philosophy rather than science is better suited to exploring the semantics of meaning and human commitment?

        Comment by john doyle — 1 December 2009 @ 12:35 pm

      • Gee john, sounds like I’m speaking martian! Too bad you didn’t number these issues for ease of reference.

        But here goes, starting at the bottom and working my way up:

        why [do] you regard it as fruitless to try to understand the nature of things. Is it because you think science, despite its weak metatheories and its habit-bound credence in realism, is better suited to the job than is philosophy? And that philosophy rather than science is better suited to exploring the semantics of meaning and human commitment?

        yeah i think that’s it. If you’re interested in reality/nature/things, then you should be doing science. In fact, I don’t think metaphysics has ever been about objects, as much as it has been about the conditions of intelligibility for objects. So if you want to understand the nature of things, do science. If you want to know why scientific investigation is a meaningful enterprise, then do metaphysics. So I suppose my point is that if you want to figure out what ‘reality’ consists in/of, then you need to go get your hands dirty.

        Commitment to objects, or to building an OOP without trollish bad faith?

        forget the troll-business! Harman makes his position pretty clear in everything he’s ever written on this matter: the advantage of OOP is to bring us ‘closer’ to things, rather than distance us form them. He aligns this distance with the theories of reflection and critique (basically every philosophy that comes out of Kant and Hegel), and is trying to ‘overcome it’ through OOP. his point is pretty much ethical, actually. The question, to my mind, is whether the ethics or the metaphysics comes first. Said slightly differently, Harman’s OOP provides the semantics for a mode of ethical comportment, which doesn’t reduce things to their instrumental value for human beings. That fine and good. I just wish he would come out and explicitly state it. At any rate that’s what I take away form his metaphysics. That’s its promise.

        Wikipedia offers no info whatever other than that Henrich is a contemporary philosopher in the tradition of German idealism.

        A Pity. Henrich introduces the notion of a (moral) image of the world, which is responsible for thematizing certain context-dependent demands, as well as modes of affirming/responding to them. Deleuze thinks of ‘image’ as what philosophy needs to escape form.

        So you resolve the phenomenon/meaning distinction in favor of meaning? And meaning comes from human commitment?

        I’m a nominalist, so yes, meaning is a specifically human — or at least a sapient or sentient — achievement; there’s no meaning in itself. The relationship of meaning to phenomena is complicated, and depends how ‘Kantian/Hegelian/Idealist I’m feeling. Most days I’ll say that there’s no distinction between meaning and phenomon, because there’s no such thing as thing in-itself, but I don’t have a firm position on the matter and I waffle (I don’t think concepts exhaust objects, precisely because concepts operate according to simplification/subsumption; there’s always a remainder. but that’s not a metaphysical claim, I don’t think).

        “But my feeling has always been that ontology is essentially a way of articulating the basic categories — the semantics — of human commitment.”

        I.e., not the basic categories of the world, nor even of human perception?

        think of my point as if I were talking about a programming language like C++. Eevery ‘object’ can be built up in this language, but the set of extant objects does not exhaust the language. Metaphysics stands to (say) physics the way that C++ stands to a computer program.

        “I don’t think, however, that metaphysics proceeds by way of thought experiment.”

        By what does it proceed then? Reason? Real experimentation?

        engaging in metaphysics is like creating C++. It’s definitional, and hence based more or less on reason. Now, McDowell wasn’t helpful, so let’s forget him. Put his name under erasure, if you will.

        “proleptically conceptual”

        I.e., describing conceptually something that precedes conceptualization?

        “The trick is to demonstrate their fitness for one another, which can be articulated at the metatheoretical level”

        That the concept fits the pre-existing thing being conceptualized?

        OK, proleptically conceptual means something like formalizable/systematizable. what presents itself fits with our cognitive apparatus in such a way that it is knowable, conceptualizable. Intuitions are proleptically conceptual because they fit our concepts perfectly (at least in most cases).

        I.e. distinguishing real from experiential requires talking about concepts rather than things?

        Yes, exactly.

        Finally,

        Observable = colorful sailing disk; unobservable = frisbee. Observable = disk about to strike me; unobservable = thrown erratically by the yelling guy. You’re saying there’s no point in making these distinctions because observables are also implicated in meaning distinctions?

        . I was usually ‘observable’ more in the sense of a scientific entity that can be observed (directly or indirectly, it doesn’t matter), versus unobservable, but theoretically necessary entities (WIMPS, MACHOS, Dark Matter, Super-Strings, etc). the examples you give are both frisbees for me: one is simply more syenthetically presented….

        Comment by Alexei — 1 December 2009 @ 2:24 pm

      • 1. Everything *I* said must have been perfectly intelligible.
        2. C++? Are you living in the stone ages, man?
        3. “I’m a nominalist”. Okay — now it all makes sense.

        Comment by Asher Kay — 1 December 2009 @ 2:51 pm

      • 2. C++? Are you living in the stone ages, man?

        I was thinking of John, who appears to be longer in the tooth than either of us. I almost went with Fortran….

        Comment by Alexei — 1 December 2009 @ 3:05 pm

      • Say, have I ever told you boys the story of Lisp?

        “engaging in metaphysics is like creating C++” sounds like some sort of ultranerdy marketing slogan, a recruiting poster for metaphysicians in an alternate universe. I do think someone ought to write about the parallels between the two forms of OOP. I remember seeing Ian Bogost sort of dismiss it, but I think that was premature. Programmed objects have properties that can detach and interact with properties of other objects in a kind of plasmic mediational space, even while the object itself remains intact. An object can even exist with no properties whatever, suggesting the hermetic essence…

        Comment by john doyle — 1 December 2009 @ 4:24 pm

      • I’ve only heard murmurs of ‘LISP’ emanating from the darker hallways of the comp sci dept. Next to the green bucket of glop that one person keeps trying to make perform some function, and the machine vision people, there’s always a dusty old LISP book. Hallowed be its name, for it still frightens the grad students…..

        I too was initially struck by the surface similarities of the two OOPs. I’m sorry to hear that Bogost discounted the idea so quickly. I thought it would have been particularly fruitful, given the fact that ontology is part of OOP (at least in a comp sci sense).

        Comment by Alexei — 1 December 2009 @ 6:04 pm

      • Alexei – You mean This book?

        Not as bad as this one. Ah – those were the good old days!

        Comment by Asher Kay — 1 December 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    • By Crom, I think that is it! The other one looks like some unholy necronomicon, the like of which only madmen and fools have ever dared to open. I mean really, Assembler gives me the heeby jeebies. Can you actual code in assembler?!

      Comment by Alexei — 1 December 2009 @ 7:21 pm

      • My god, you heathen! Those books look horrid! Is that what you were reading while I was reading Dumas and Scott as a kid? I pity you…

        Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 1 December 2009 @ 10:01 pm

      • That was my second language, after BASIC. My first PC was a TRS-80, which ran on a Z-80. There just weren’t many choices back then. These days, I wouldn’t even consider assembly language, unless I were writing for a teeny tiny embedded device or something like that.

        Surprisingly, assembler is not the most hideous language in existence. I was researching esoteric programming languages for a novel I was working on, and I came across some doozies.

        The worst of them was the aptly named “brainf*ck” language, which consists of only 8 characters. I believe it was proven to be Turing complete. A language called Befunge is too weird and obfuscatory even to be described. Another aptly-named language, Whitespace, consists only of line-feeds, spaces and tabs, making it slightly difficult to read.

        Others were more playful. A language called Beatnik runs based on numeric instructions that are determined by computing the Scrabble score of each word in the program (it’s called Beatnik because the programs end up sounding like beat poetry). Programs in Chef take the form of recipes, while programs in Shakespeare are structured as Shakespearean dialogs.

        Comment by Asher Kay — 1 December 2009 @ 11:24 pm

      • Mikhail – My parents didn’t have a lot of books around. The only time I came across Scott as a kid was seeing his picture on a card in the “Authors” game at my grandparents’ house. For some reason, they didn’t include Dumas. I think it was only British and American authors.

        Comment by Asher Kay — 1 December 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  3. I think I’ll read your Kant link tonight and see if anything else comes to mind.

    Comment by john doyle — 30 November 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  4. This is some interesting stuff, Sirs. I have seen comments on LS and all, but I’ll confess that I haven’t read the post itself, it was too long with too many names and even a video with all the usual lecturing crap, but this post is crisp and clear. I don’t get the whole “direct access to mind” thing, I’ll be honest (again) – not in the sense that I don’t understand it, but in the sense that I don’t get it as a problem or as a solution or as anything really. Levi’s point that since we don’t even have a direct access to our minds (whatever that means, as you point out, it means different things in different contexts), then we shouldn’t privilege our human access (because we don’t have it) and let the objects speak – it’s all one big pile of nonsense to me (or maybe it’s because I ended the semester with Wittgenstein’s Blue/Brown Books, don’t know), it makes no sense. Okay, so Descartes’ assumption that I am immediately aware of my own thinking and therefore I exist has been criticized almost immediately (see Objections and Replies), there’s nothing new about it that we haven’t heard. Okay, so there this unconscious business (neatly packed in various boxes) and we don’t know what it does and how it does it but it does it. So I’m a mystery to myself, I do things I don’t know for what reason, I make decisions without making them and so forth. Where, if I may be insistent, is anything object-oriented or new or even remotely philosophically interesting about all these questions? It’s all been done before, many times, every time I teach Descartes I talk about it. What is so original, innovative and, importantly, if we are to speak Harmanese, what is there to like about this new idea? Or, how it is useful at all? What does it allow us to do? I posed a very simple question to the Son on his blog about it, but never got an answer (it was probably too dump of a question), but here it is again: how does proposing that we don’t have a direct access to our thinking (whatever that means), help us construct a flat ontology of access (of humans to objects, objects to objects etc etc)? Does it not create a world full of barriers, a world full of obstacles to be overcome, a world full of for-us/for-it and in-itself? If Kant’s philosophy supposedly puts us in a small submarine, locks us inside our own mind, then the Levi’s chamber is even smaller – I’m stuck within my own head and I don’t even directly know it because I don’t have a direct access to it to begin with. I’m sure it’s just a matter of misunderstanding – I’m misunderstanding something, right?

    You know I’ve gotten into a habit of reading bits of Kant, Fichte or Hegel after all these “debates” about object-oriented ontology and shit – do you know why? IT HELPS ME CLEAR MY MIND…

    Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 30 November 2009 @ 8:40 pm

    • I’ve often felt like Fichte’s younger, dumber brother: I can’t help but look up to him, but then he says stupid things about the Volk after a few beers, and we exchange blows. Then we won’t speak for awhile (he’s a totally paranoid jerk — thinks folks are spying on him). Then some family holiday rolls around, and all is forgiven….. Suffice it to say, I don’t feel that way about Hegel, and Schelling just creeps me right the hell out…

      Comment by Alexei — 30 November 2009 @ 9:10 pm

  5. […] Apparently John at Ktismatics was already musing upon the selfsame subject of direct access to the world. It's more evocatively put than this post *and* it doesn't require a […]

    Pingback by Ontology, Justification, Direct Access, and Drano « Dead Voles — 30 November 2009 @ 9:34 pm

  6. “Knowledge isn’t only a mechanism for constructive interpretation of the real; it’s also a kind of recording device. If the object had physically struck me it would have recorded one sort of impression, a tactile one.”

    Eerie, John. I’m talking about being burned by Drano, and you’re talking about being struck by a frisbee.

    Comment by Asher Kay — 30 November 2009 @ 10:31 pm

    • Hey Asher, I just read your post. It is eerie, the convergence on my proposition that human cognition is one way of interacting with objects, while you suggest regarding physical interaction as a kind of cognition. Either we’re both on to something, or we’re deluded in similar ways. I’ll go hang out on your post tomorrow. The Drano on the hand thing though: wasn’t that Tyler Durden’s baptismal rite for encountering the Real?

      Comment by john doyle — 30 November 2009 @ 10:46 pm

  7. Hey, you guys are the philosophers; I’m just the (antique) empirical psychologist, trying to contribute my little bits of (obsolete) understanding to questions and propositions already being posed.

    I thought that my railing on the possibility of direct (albeit limited) access to one’s own mind was relevant to a secondary proposition of object-oriented ontology, viz. that no object has direct access to any object, including itself. Rather, the issue was framed in response to Descartes et al’s privileging of human consciousness, which as you say Mikhail has been beaten up before. So perhaps that discussion was a tempest in a teapot philosophically speaking. Psychologically speaking it’s an interesting empirical question: what kinds of knowledge do humans have about their own mental processes? But of course that’s the subject of an earlier post; this post is about direct access of minds to other objects.

    As far as I can tell, denying direct access ensures that objects maintain their primacy and individuality. If direct access is allowed, then objects can transform each other into completely different objects, which dissolves the universe of objects into more of a slurry of inchoate matter. Process rather than objects then becomes the main shaper of matter into discrete but temporary entities. This prioritization of process over objects moves into philosophical territory occupied by Deleuze, maybe also Whitehead, maybe also Spinoza. But you guys tell me: is that how you understand the philosophical issue of direct access?

    I’m personally unclear how indirect access preserves object independence. For Graham, objects interact inside an inter-object plasm that is itself a merged separate object. Doesn’t this move destabilize the universe of separate objects, potentially merging them into one giant plasm, especially since objects do seem to rub and bump up against each other all the time? For Levi, objects translate one another rather than interacting directly. But say a text is being translated from Russian into English. The translation doesn’t happen by itself: there must be a translator who has access to the original document and who knows both languages. The translator creates the new text by performing some transformative process on the original text. What’s important isn’t the mere presence of the translator, but of the translating process which he enacts. So now does process trump objects a la Deleuze?

    I don’t understand why the universe has to be either one or the other, either objects or processes. Why can’t it be both? There are billiard balls and there is some force that sets them in motion, causing them to bump into each other. Or why can’t objects and processes be interchangeable, like in Einstein’s equation linking mass and energy together?

    I’m just rambling now. Why is this stuff important or interesting? Maybe because we’re talking about it? I suppose from the position of profound posthuman nihilism none of it matters anyhow.

    Comment by john doyle — 30 November 2009 @ 10:42 pm

  8. Since I’m on confessional path tonight, I’m going to admit that I don’t get the “translation” imagery/concept either:

    “But say a text is being translated from Russian into English. The translation doesn’t happen by itself: there must be a translator who has access to the original document and who knows both languages.”

    I think that is if you take “translation” to mean “translation” and not “translation” – I don’t know what Levi means by “translation” when he talks about objects interacting (directly, indirectly, some third way). Yes, most of us use the word “translation” in terms of a person who know both languages trying to render one into the other (however imperfectly) – are we talking about issues of language? signification? how do objects translate? what do they translate? why use the word “translation” with all of its human-oriented baggage? why not come up with your own way of thinking this particular issue?

    I’m sure there’s a dozen of posts that Levi already wrote about it, but I’m just looking for a short version.

    Short version of my comment, John, is the following: I’m with you on all of that confusion, as a philosophically inclined person [solidarity fists up!]

    Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 30 November 2009 @ 10:57 pm

  9. Maybe it’s my empirical bent, but examples help me clarify the abstractions — I always liked math better when I could replace the letters in equations with actual numbers. So I think about this frisbee encounter: if it hits me it seems like a direct encounter. You could say that the impact is a translation of the shape of the frisbee itself, a sort of inversion, the concavity of impacted skin conforming to the convexity of the object. Or you could say that the energy with which the object was flying through the air is translated into a proportional amount of pain. Fine, but why isn’t this sort of translational encounter a direct one? There’s not even the space between cause and effect that has to be filled in by something. But if neither the frisbee nor my body is doing the translating, who or what is? That sort of thing. I don’t intend to make these remarks as criticisms from nowhere or whatever. I think it’s a legitimate puzzle. But you’re right: maybe Levi has already explained why translation still isn’t direct, and I just wasn’t ready to hear it yet. I believe that Latour regards translation as direct, but I’ve not read the primary sources. Maybe it’s still a puzzle for Levi that he’s not ready to solve yet.

    Comment by john doyle — 1 December 2009 @ 9:06 am

  10. Good points all around. Let me ask a dumb question: is it fair to replace “direct” with “immediate” and “indirect” with “mediated”? If it is, then it’s clearly a matter of mediation in any access – if the mind doesn’t have an immediate access to itself (parts of it count), then everything is mediated – what/who is this mediator/mediating point?

    Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 1 December 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    • I think this is actually a devilishly difficult question. If “everything” is mediated, then you end up with an infinity of mediation. For my own part, when I say “direct access”, I mean it in contrast to a sort of Cartesian viewpoint that sees the mental as occupying a different realm from the physical.

      On the other hand, one could argue that things always happen in a field or medium – although this might just be the consequence of the human inability to think about things without breaking them into at least two parts. I’ll have to ponder this further.

      Comment by Asher Kay — 2 December 2009 @ 9:20 am

      • Asher,

        I wondered whether you (and Doyle?) weren’t using the term “direct access” in this way. As you know, I’m more or less a physicalist where mind is concerned, believing that “no brain no mind”. I think Lucretius already gave all the arguments one needs to see that this is the most compelling hypothesis as far back as the first century BCE: Drugs effect thought, when we’re sick our thought is affected as well, when we suffer some sort of brain damage we can no longer think in the same way, etc. Consequently, I think it’s beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no mind without brain and the only question remains is how the emergent phenomenon of consciousness is produced.

        I think we have to draw a distinction between direct access and direct relation. I think you (and Doyle) are talking about direct relations between things. Access is an epistemic category whereas relation, in this context, is an ontological category. My mind has a direct relation to my brain, clearly. However, this does not entail that my thought has access to what’s going on in that brain. I have no idea what my neurons are doing as I write this post. Hell, had I not been told, I wouldn’t even know I had neurons! I have no access to these processes. This does not mean that there isn’t a direct relation between mind and brain. Consider the fact that there are so many competing theories of mind. We can ask, why are there so many competing theories of mind? Part of the reason for this is precisely that we don’t have direct access to brain. As a consequence, it becomes possible to fall prey to the illusion that somehow consciousness is a substance other than brain.

        Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 11:20 am

  11. I think it’s fair to make this replacement, though I don’t know what technical philosophical terminology is involved. I agree that if things don’t have immediate access to themselves, then they probably don’t have immediate access to other things either. This was where I thought Levi was going. But he said in discussion yesterday that he accepts at least limited self-access of mind, and that his point was to counter (yet again) the Cartesian foundation of self-awareness as the basis for philosophy. Still, we’re left with mediated relations between objects, and the question of who/what does the mediating and where.

    Comment by john doyle — 1 December 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  12. To be fair to Descartes, it’s not self-awareness only that serves as the basis – that is I think a convenient and popular later misreading of Meditations – it’s also God. Objectologists, in fact, must love Descartes because he’s very much into that sort of “God makes things happen” stuff – well, not him actually, but folks like Malebranche and other Western occasionalists. But already in Meditations all of this is pretty clear: “I think, I exist” is a very minimal point of certainty that disappears as soon as it appears, we need God and his power of preservation (or, if I could be so bold, mediation) to have any sort of real thinking and real foundation.

    Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 1 December 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    • No disagreement here, Mikhail. I outline this in my recent post dealing with the subject. The first step is to establish an absolute foundation that cannot be doubted (the pure immanence of consciousness to itself). That doesn’t get us very far, however, because we can still doubt our bodies, external objects, the existence of other minds, and our memories (all things we have mediated relations to). The next step becomes one of examining the contents of our consciousness to see if we have any ideas or concepts that could establish transcendence or something external to or own being with certainty. God or the infinite proves to be the only candidate that fits this criteria because, D argues, being finite beings we could not have ourselves produced this idea (lots more bells and whistles here, but that’s the gist of one of the arguments). Once the existence of God is established as absolutely certain we can then proceed to deduce mathematical truths and other truths about the external world. He still proceeds, however, on the foundation of self-certainty of consciousness.

      Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 11:10 am

      • Actually, I’ve been thinking about this mind self-access business today. I kind of see where you’re going with it, at least in terms of critiquing Kant and critical philosophy in general. I think my confusion was mostly directed at some wider implications. Since we’re on the same page with Descartes and his God – I think you explain it nicely above, I would only disagree with the verb “to establish” (I think your position is only stronger that way, we don’t establish self-consciousness in D, we sort of stumble upon it, it’s given to us by natural light, it’s self-evident – which is why Hobbes’ objection is so awesome: “how do you know that a body cannot think?” even though it applies to D’s dualism, it indirectly hits at his “self-evident” description of thinking – sorry, longish parenthesis) – I think I see how this can become a critique of Kant and so forth.

        Certainly then we have to distinguish between something like “thinking” which we have (do we?) and “direct access to what makes thinking possible” which we don’t, as you argue. So if we cannot even figure out what makes us think (to use the title of that Ricoeur/Changeaux book), how can we then claim any knowledge or lack of it vis-a-vis objects. Is this your position then?

        Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 2 December 2009 @ 11:31 am

  13. That’s how I read Decartes too: God is the mediating party between me and my self-awareness, and of my awareness of the world. It seems to me that, by preserving mediation, the objectologists are positioning themselves inside the tradition. Graham in particular, by invoking the hermetically sealed essence that never interacts, seems pretty Kantian regarding the unapproachable noumenon. A more scientifically-oriented realism wouldn’t make the assumption that some aspect of an object must forever remain untouchable.

    Comment by john doyle — 1 December 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    • John,

      I tend to interpret Harman’s claim differently, though I’m not sure if I’m imputing my own ontological claims to him and we have very different ontologies on this point, or if I’m saying the same thing using different words.

      Graham in particular, by invoking the hermetically sealed essence that never interacts, seems pretty Kantian regarding the unapproachable noumenon. A more scientifically-oriented realism wouldn’t make the assumption that some aspect of an object must forever remain untouchable.

      Think about the periodic table of elements. Take an atom of hydrogen. This atom is “an object” or “generative mechanism”. Now consider all of the relations hydrogen can enter into with the other elements on the chart. In each of these relations the hydrogen will behave in different ways or produce different qualities. Nor is this restricted to relations between two atoms such as a relation between hydrogen and oxygen. We get different results depending on the number of atoms of the same kind linked together and when we link multiple atoms of different kinds together to form molecules. New properties emerge in all these linkages and presumably there’s no limit to the number of possible linkages.

      Drawing on this example, when Harman says that objects are “withdrawn”, I take it that he means that because no object ever fulfills the totality of all possible relations to objects there is a depth to objects that is never fulfilled. Objects are always capable of more. One additional caveat. Graham does not say that objects do not interact, but rather says they interact at the level of their properties or qualities.

      Now here’s why I’m unsure of whether Harman and I are just saying the same thing in different ways or whether there’s a genuine ontological difference here between us. When Harman argues that we run into a metaphysical problem of how objects causally interact, I have a hard time seeing why this problem exists. In my view, the excess of an object over any of its actualizations is merely the result of the fact that it only has limited connections or relations with other objects and therefore only actualizes limited properties at that time. The other possible properties the object could actualize are just potentials that the object could actualize were it to enter into other relations. There can be internal processes in an object that lead it to actualize certain properties or certain properties can be actualized as a result of external relations with other objects. Harman seems to take the withdrawal of objects far more literally than I do, treating objects as genuinely hermetically sealed rather than as just containing an excess of potentiality over actuality such that the object is never exhausted by any of its actual states. I am not sure why this move on Harman’s part is necessary.

      Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 11:42 am

  14. This post and discussion surely representing the apex of my amateur philosophizing, I believe I’ll take the victory lap and retire from further OOO investigations, leaving the field to the pros.

    Comment by john doyle — 1 December 2009 @ 10:42 pm

    • No way, man. Once you’ve been accused of missing the whole point of the discussion and admonished to go back and read your Heraclitus and Al Ghazali, there’s no turning back.

      Comment by Asher Kay — 1 December 2009 @ 11:43 pm

  15. I have this odd feeling of being totally out of my depth with this OO discussion. For one thing, since doing some basic physics a very long time ago, I’ve thought that my objects are not sufficiently real. I don’t properly factor in time, for example, an ‘object’ is only at best one snapshot of a thing. Then there’s the feeling that the universe is some sort of a continuum, so, do ‘objects’ exist at all except as my perceptions of reality. which may just be a practical function of how my mind happens to function, more of a ‘survival simplification’ than being in any sense an accurate reflection of reality.

    In any case I know I am out of my depth, though your discussion here is fascinating. It is almost allegorical. If you guys are talking real philosophy, then what sense I try to make out of that seems more to be a sense of isolated flashes of light surrounded by utter darkness. My mind is busy then trying to organise these illuminati into some sort of an order of sense – else my survival in the blogosphere will be severely threatened.

    Comment by samlcarr — 1 December 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  16. This post is a nice primer on what I mean by translation:

    http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/11/18/of-translation-ontological-realism-and-epistemological-anti-realism/

    There are a few others I’ve written recently as well. Mikhail, since you want a simple primer, the basic idea is that when one object impacts another the second object transforms that impact according to its own internal structure. This is just Kantianism 101 generalized to all objects.

    It is important to note that the thesis that objects never touch is Harman’s thesis, not my own. I have no problem with the idea of objects touching. My thesis is rather that objects always transform the impacts they receive from other objects, producing new outputs as a result that do not resemble the inputs that went into the object. As for whether or not objects have access to themselves, this is an issue only when we’re talking about self-reflexive objects like persons or subjects, social systems, etc. There is always a degree of opacity in a self-reflexive object’s relation to itself. My criticisms of transparency, as I made clear to John, are directed primarily at philosophical orientations like phenomenology, not Descartes. My discussion of Descartes (and Hume) was a historical set-up for this broader problematic. I am disappointed that John has not made this clear in his own comments, but perhaps he didn’t follow the actual discussions and arguments.

    Asher, I have written extensively on issues of epistemic warrant and justification, especially in the context of Bhaskar’s transcendental realism. You are, of course, under no obligation to read my blog and my posts on these issues, but you should at least blunt your criticisms if you’re unfamiliar with these lines of argument.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 1 December 2009 @ 11:38 pm

    • Will a search on Bhaskar and Larval Subjects do the trick?

      Comment by Asher Kay — 1 December 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    • Levi – I took a look at some of your Bhaskar posts, and I think you’re misunderstanding what I’m looking for. Bhaskar’s argument applies to a general sort of realism. What I’m wanting to see is a justification for your particular brand of realism.

      It’s good to see that you’re interested in these questions, though, and I apologize if my criticism seemed too severe.

      Comment by Asher Kay — 2 December 2009 @ 12:23 am

    • Thanks, I feel though that if I read it (and I did actually read it before), I will want to present my opinion and it could lead to more discussion and “thumos” type of engagements, maybe I’ll just chill then, you know?

      Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 2 December 2009 @ 11:33 am

  17. I believe that I have provided extensive justification for my particular brand of realism and that it is intimately bound up with those discussions of Bhaskar. But it could be that you just don’t understand what my brand of realism is. You’ve complained about how difficult it is to read Badiou and Brassier, claiming that their books are unclear. I wonder how you would respond were a person to complain about an advanced book on computer programming being unclear. Perhaps background knowledge in the relevant literature is a necessary condition for understanding certain issues? I bet you’d say as much about a computer programming book. It’s odd that you don’t extend such a courtesy to philosophy.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 12:32 am

    • Perhaps it’s an issue of my not understanding. I’m willing to entertain that notion, and I’m certainly willing to read a lot of background to understand things. I haven’t really said anything that’s critical of your ontological theory itself for precisely this reason. But I do think I understand Bhaskar’s argument as you’ve presented it (I’ve been making a similar argument for some time to boot), and I’m not seeing anything in those posts that relate to difference, translation, or Popeye as you’ve been talking about them these many months. If you can point me to something, I’m more than happy to take a look. Everything I read, I read charitably, mere computer programmer that I am.

      Comment by Asher Kay — 2 December 2009 @ 12:55 am

      • I’ll spell out the argument which I’ve spelled out already in a variety of posts on Bhaskar. Bhaskar doesn’t simply establish that we must be committed to realism in order for our practice to be coherent and intelligible. He makes a number of substantial ontological claims as to what the real must be like. According to Bhaskar (and I’ll forego the arguments here as I’ve been recounting them in elaborate detail on my blog for the last couple of weeks), reality must be differentiated and structured independent of humans, it must consist of causal mechanisms or generative mechanisms that can act without producing an observable difference (due to functioning in open systems with a variety of generative mechanisms acting as well), and reality must be stratified in the sense that higher order generative mechanisms such as those we find in biology are based on lower order generative mechanisms such as what we find in physics and chemistry, etc.

        How does this map on to my ontology? What is a generative mechanisms? It is something that generates. What does it generate? It generates differences. It produces something. If I speak vaguely using blanket terms like “differences”, this is because the exact differences produced are a matter of concrete empirical inquiry. They can’t be decided from the armchair. So here’s the first correlation: my “objects” are roughly equivalent to Bhaskar’s causal or generative mechanisms. Where is translation involved in all of this? When generative mechanisms or objects interact with one another, each generative mechanism has its own internal structure. As a consequence of this one generative mechanism translates the differences produced by another generative mechanism, producing a new result as a product of these interactions. This is one of the reasons that generative mechanisms can be active without producing the sort of result they would produce in the closed environment of the laboratory or an observable result, then this is because of the interaction of multiple generative mechanisms or objects that either produce a new result as a consequence of their interaction with one another, or that are such that the differences the generative mechanism or object would produce in a closed environment are inhibited as a result of the intervention of another generative mechanism. For example, a number of genes were active in your development from a fetus to adulthood but it’s very rare for there to be a one-to-one mapping between gene and phenotypal characteristic due to the interaction of genes.

        Given that we live in a society where myths, fictions, falsehoods, etc., so fundamentally and detrimentally impact our social relations and political institutions, I’m always surprised that folks get worked up when I grant fictions like Popeye the ontological status of being real. Returning to Bhaskar’s thesis that reality is stratified or contains multiple layers where one layer is emergent from another, light is shed on this thesis. Each strata of reality is dependent on the lower level strata but each strata has its own internal laws and organization that, while they do not violate the laws of the lower level strata, are nonetheless unique to that strata and cannot be strictly deduced from that strata. For example, nothing about biology contradicts chemistry, but nonetheless the biological laws governing genetics, natural selection, etc., while being dependent upon chemistry, are unique laws, structures or patterns not deducible from chemistry. Society is one of the strata of reality with its own unique patterns, structures, or generative mechanisms. These generative mechanisms belonging to society are dependent upon lower level strata like the neurological, the biological, the chemical, and the physical, but also have their own autonomous organization and generative mechanisms. Among the generative mechanisms that produce differences in social relations and for social subjects are symbolic entities or symbols. Laws, contracts, signifiers, signs, and fictions are all instances of these sorts of generative mechanisms that have their own internal organization. The meme that global warming is a hoax is a generative mechanism that has a tremendous impact on social structures and relations. We need a place for these things in our ontology that doesn’t simply address them epistemologically in terms of whether they’re true or false (though we need to do that as well), but that also addresses their status as generative mechanisms or material realities that genuinely impact our social world.

        That’s just a thumbnail sketch of the cross-over between Bhaskar’s claims and my ontology. My ontology is not identical to his, though it does draw on a number of his concepts and arguments heavily. In my view it also deepens and expands that ontology in a variety of ways, taking it in directions that Bhaskar did not.

        I was not suggesting that you’re a mere computer programmer. I took umbrage rather with your rather unkind characterizations of Badiou and Brassier, where you seemed to suggest there’s some fault with them for working within the problematics of their discipline and heritage and assuming a certain knowledge on the part of the reader. Philosophy seems to be among the only discipline where we regularly hear this style of criticism. No one would feel that something is wrong with the author upon picking up a text and mathematical category theory and having difficulty immediately understanding it. They would understand they have to have a broad background in high order mathematics to understand that text. So too in a lot of these discussions. In my view, while authors certainly are at fault on occasion (and Brassier’s prose is terrible), it’s worthwhile to remember this. In your defense you did qualify that maybe you just lacked the background to understand Badiou and Brassier and couldn’t see why their claims were valuable and important. I think this is the case often in philosophy. Our claims that we don’t understand something aren’t really so much that we don’t understand it, but that we don’t know what it is for or what it is doing, what problem it solves, what issues it responds to, what new practices it generates and so on, and because, failing to understand what it’s for we wonder why we should invest the effort trying to understand it or make sense of it. That’s perfectly legitimate. I think a lot of this discussion about direct access has revolved around the question of “what is this argument for? what’s it doing? what, to quote James, is its ‘cash-value’?” And my arguments about direct-access to make a whole lot of sense when divorced from the tradition of idealism and phenomenology and how phenomenology in particular has functioned in excluding all sorts of things like neurology and physics and biology from philosophical discourse. I try to write a number of posts on what OOO is for on my blog. My post today, “Being an Actor-Network-Theorist and Object Oriented Ontologist is Hard!“, for example, was working in this direction, trying to draw attention to the sorts of things that my version of OOO is trying to talk about and think about and how this illuminates the world in a very different way than traditional modes of philosophical discourse. I fear I haven’t been very successful, however, in answering the “what is it for?” question for those who can’t see its value.

        Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 3:22 am

  18. And there is nothing general about Bhaskar’s realism, it is highly specific and excludes a number of possibilities.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 12:33 am

    • I think you’re misunderstanding what I mean by “Bhaskar’s argument applies to a general sort of realism”. Let me explain with a quote:

      Bhaskar’s thesis is that the world must be this way for our science to be possible and for our practice of experimentation to be intelligible; however, his ontological claims about what the world must be like do not tell us what generative mechanisms actually exist, how they are structured, what powers or capabilities they have, and so on.

      In this sense, Bhaskar’s argument could be said to give us something general rather than specific. You go on to say:

      What generative mechanisms exist is a task for direct inquiry in various disciplines, not something that philosophy can answer a priori. The case is similar with respect to translation. Philosophy can tell us that objects must translate one another when they interact and therefore draw our attention to the differences produced in interaction, but it has nothing of its own to say about what translation machines or mechanisms actually exist and how they are structured. This is the job of inquiry in other disciplines. Thus, for example, it falls to the biologist to investigate how leaves translate light into energy.

      While I’m willing to accept provisionally that different modes of inquiry are needed for these different questions, what I’m looking for is an answer to the question of *how* philosophy can tell us, a priori, that objects must translate one another.

      Comment by Asher Kay — 2 December 2009 @ 1:27 am

      • Asher,

        First, can you tell me what you understand by translation? If you’re attributing cognitive connotations to this term then all sorts of problems will ensue. While cognition is certainly important in the context of of self-reflexive systems like humans translating texts from one language to another, clearly cognition is not appropriate in the case of leaves and rocks. “Translation” is a stipulated technical term such as the use of the term “attraction” in physics, where clearly nothing like psychological attraction is involved and where certainly one body is not pulling another body.

        I think I gave the arguments as to why objects translate one another whenever they interact in my earliest formulations of onticology. If we begin from the premise that there is no difference that does not produce a difference, then when differences interact the differences receiving the difference will also contribute their own differences, producing something new as a result of these interactions. Were this not the case we would have a difference (the object receiving the difference of the other object) not making a difference which would violate the ontic principle or the first premise. This is a purely formal or a priori argument. I am also fine with a posteriori or observational demonstrations where we simply consult objects and note that whenever one object interacts with another, the object receiving the impact of the first object modifies that difference according to its own internal structure. Insofar as a philosophy is a meta-theory I think what’s ultimately important is what differences certain concepts and theses make in our investigations of the actual world or what they draw our attention to.

        Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 3:30 am

      • First, can you tell me what you understand by translation? If you’re attributing cognitive connotations to this term then all sorts of problems will ensue

        The point is probably moot for me, since for me, cognitive processes are no different in kind from any other self-reflexive, complex processes. It’s all physical in my book. But we’re talking about your idea of translation.

        Here are several issues I have with your argument:

        1. “Difference” does not seem well-defined. We have differences interacting, receiving, contributing and producing. By what agency do they do so? When you say, “there is no difference that does not produce a difference”, what is the means of production? When a difference produces a difference, is it producing itself? Something similar to itself? When it produces “something new”, is that thing itself a difference? What is the mechanism by which a difference can receive a difference? When it receives one, is it now two differences? Or does it somehow contain the difference it received, or does it incorporate the difference in a way that makes it continue to be one difference? When a difference contributes a difference to the difference it is receiving, where does the contribution go? You’ve mentioned many times that people tend to misunderstand your ideas — I would say that an idea like this is prone to be misunderstood.

        2. What is the motivation behind adopting the first premise? I can understand the need to adopt premises, but why this particular one? If I were to subsitute “bowl of oatmeal” for “difference” in your formal argument, its conclusion would have the same validity? What is it about differences that set them apart from bowls of oatmeal?

        3. In this argument, you do not mention the word “translation” at all. How is a translation related to a difference?

        4. Why would you consider the empirical observation to be sufficient?

        Comment by Asher Kay — 2 December 2009 @ 12:55 pm

  19. Mikhail,

    I also have to add that I’m not sure how I can be any clearer about why the inaccessibility of mind to itself is philosophically important. What more needs to be said?

    Point 1: The foundationalist argues that we have privileged access to our minds and not to objects.

    Point 2: Because we have privileged access to our minds our claims about our minds are epistemically well grounded, whereas our claims about objects are not.

    Point 3: Therefore claims that purport to speak directly of objects independent of mind are dogmatic whereas we can freely talk about our cognition of objects because we have privileged access to our minds.

    The point is simple: if point 1 fails to hold up under scrutiny– i.e., we do not have privileged access to our minds –then points 2 and 3 fall apart as well. By the lights of “critical philosophy” if point 1 fails to hold claims about the nature of our mind become every bit as dogmatic or speculative as direct claims about objects. Therefore “critical philosophy” loses its claim to being critical and can no longer dominate the field of how philosophical inquiry is to legitimately proceed on the epistemic front. At this point we can either fall into an utter skepticism advocating the position that we can’t know anything whatsoever whether about ourselves or the world, or reframe the questions of epistemology in more reasonable terms showing how it requires us to make well-founded ontological commitments both about our own nature and the world and that knowing is an ongoing process wherein our theories can often be mistaken. It’s a fairly simple argument so I’m not sure what is so hard to get. That doesn’t entail that you have to agree with the argument, only that if you’re a charitable reader the gist of the argument is easy enough to follow.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 12:46 am

    • Now to the business of “access to mind”:

      Point 1: No one argues (or must argue) that we have privileged access to our minds = straw man #1. We think, therefore we can say something about both our minds and objects it thinks. Not even Kant – your most persistent enemy – says anything remotely like “We have a privileged access to our own mind” – we have some access, because if we don’t, there’s no thinking, no philosophy. That’s pretty clear, I think. If you don’t agree, maybe you should read up some background literature on the matter starting with Plato.

      Point 2: No one claims Point 1, therefore your Point 2 = straw man #2

      Point 3: We should either be skeptics or we can just make shit up because there are no rules – therefore, thank you, you’re finally admitting that all of this is just making shit up – “critical God [Kant] is dead, now anything goes!” That’s fine with me, actually. When you get down to the points, you are making much more sense and it’s much more interesting to interact with you.

      Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 2 December 2009 @ 7:41 am

      • Mikhail,

        No one, including myself, has ever suggested that others do not have the right to engage in non-charitable readings of others. Of course they have the right. What is being claimed is that such readings are ethically wrong and reprehensible in philosophical discussion. Now, in this very post you critique me for not engaging in a charitable reading of the privilege of mind, i.e., your accusation that I’m engaged in a strawman. Hence you at least implicitly advocate the very principle of charity I am endorsing, yet you apply it selectively to matters that only suit you. If I say that this attitude follows directly from your own epistemological views, then this is because, as you’ve publicly confessed, you don’t believe there’s any way to compare theories with independent reality. As a consequence, for you everything becomes a sort of postmodern relativism where there are no standards beyond taste, emotion, and whatever one’s strategic commitments happen to be. Finally, in pointing out that such and such a reading is uncharitable I am exercising my right of defending my position and pointing out how someone else has engaged in a misinterpretation. In other words, I am standing up for myself and correcting the record.

        Your rejoinder here fails to understand the argument I am making or get the point of the argument. The point with respect to Kant is that his claims about mind possess no epistemic privilege over claims about objects. I am not claiming that Kant says that we must have direct access to our minds. I am claiming that in order for us to grant the anti-realists line of argument somehow our relationship to our minds would have to be more direct than our relationship to objects. Yet this is not the case, therefore there is no reason to adopt the anti-realist line of argument. The anti-realist is in exactly the same boat as the realist in the claims he is making about mind. There is thus no compelling reason to follow the anti-realist in his line of thought.

        As for your response to point 3, that is a gross distortion of my claim. I did not claim that we either fall into skepticism or make shit up. Rather, I have made numerous and extensive arguments for my realist claims… Arguments you have never addressed. These arguments are of the transcendental variety, based on what must be the case in order for certain practices we all agree exist to be possible. However, where the anti-realist asks “what must mind be like for certain judgments to be possible”, I instead ask “what must the world be like for these practices to be possible.” In addition to this I give arguments as to just why Kant’s mentalistic answers to his question fail to do the work he requires of them.

        Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 8:32 am

      • Levi, I think you’r confusing things here – I didn’t accuse you of being uncharitable in your reading of Point 1, I accused you of being wrong – big difference. Charitable/uncharitable is all bullshit, it’s like that Harman stuff about “likes” and “dislikes” when it comes to philosophical points – I don’t subscribe to that. It’s either right or wrong for me.

        To point out that someone is wrong (in one’s opinion) is not unethical in my book. Giving people a benefit of a doubt (aka “be charitable”) is a matter of preference, not an obligation.

        Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 2 December 2009 @ 9:54 am

  20. I see that further discussion has taken place after my retirement from philosophy: perhaps my retirement is the cause. Perhaps this is as good a time as any for me to summarize what I think about these matters, for my own clarity. But I’ll do that in a separate post.

    The purpose of this post was to propose that, IF objects enter into direct relations with each other, and IF cognition is one way in which sentient beings like humans relate to objects, THEN direct cognitive encounters may be possible. I suggested that not only might the raw physicalities of things directly accessible to our senses, but what might be termed the meanings of things might be directly accessible to our minds. On my close encounter with the flying disk, presumably the guy I heard yelling and who was looking at me really was yelling at me; presumably he really was the one who threw the disk; presumably he really was aiming at the target on the course and not at me. I had no direct sensory encounters with these inferences. If I’d been watching at the right time I could have witnessed empirically the phenomenon of the guy throwing the frisbee — assuming, of course, that my inference was correct and he was the thrower. However, I could never have seen or heard his intentionality in throwing. I was inferring something about the real behind the phenomena that led to my becoming aware of the frisbee about to hit me.

    My experience, and my interpretation of that experience, were examples of what Baskhar refers to as the real; i.e., the generative or causal mechanisms that produce actual events. The event of the guy’s frisbee throw might have turned out very differently: his aim might have been considerably better, sending the frisbee on a trajectory that I would never have even noticed; he wouldn’t have had to yell at me in order to attract my attention. However, even if the specifics of the event had changed, even if I had had no empirical experience of the event, the real generative mechanism producing the altered event would have been the same: that guy throwing the frisbee toward a target on the frisbee golf course.

    So is it legitimate to say that I had a direct cognitive encounter with the real generative mechanisms that set up my close encounter with the frisbee? That’s the possibility I was exploring. The generative mechanism — guy throwing frisbee at target — was real independent of my witnessing the event it generated. However, I did not directly witness the generative mechanism, either in its immediate causality (seeing the guy actually throw the frisbee) or in its intentionality (knowing that the guy was aiming at a target on the course). Were my inferences leading me away from the event and my empirical experience of the phenomena it generated, or were my inferences leading me toward the real generative mechanisms? And if it’s the latter, were my inferences leading me away from direct encounter with the real or toward it? I’m not sure, but these were the questions I was trying to explore.

    Time for breakfast, snow shoveling, etc., but I will get back to this discussion and some of the thoughts expressed last night while I was sleeping.

    However: unlike Levi, I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.”

    Comment by john doyle — 2 December 2009 @ 7:02 am

    • Or to put the point much more bluntly, the point of my onticology is to get our hands dirty by investigating the actual nuts and bolts of interactions, what’s involved, what’s relating to what, what’s contributing what to what, etc., rather than speaking in vague generalities about how this or that is a “direct contact” without discussing anything of the nature of that contact and how it works.

      Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 7:30 am

      • Can you clarify how this relates to your statement that “it is not for philosophy to answer how translation takes place in any specific relation between objects”? I’m having trouble envisioning where the dividing line is between philosophy’s responsibilities and those of other disciplines.

        Comment by Asher Kay — 2 December 2009 @ 9:38 am

  21. Ack John!

    However: unlike Levi, I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.”

    How many times do I have to repeat that what you describe here is Harman’s position, not my own? Within the framework of my ontology objects do relate to or touch one another. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about what you’re treating as “direct” in this post later today, though things are pretty busy here. The obvious points to make are that when that frisbee hits you it causes something like pain, etc. Pain is not in the frisbee, but comes from you. It is one way in which your body translates the impact of the frisbee. I give this as a very simple example because it’s so basic and obvious. As a cognitive scientist you are, of course, aware of a vast array of ways in which the brain and nervous system translates the world around you, producing something new as a result of interactions with that world.

    Maybe the easier way to think about these things is in terms of black boxes. A black box is a device that has its own internal mechanisms and that receives inputs from elsewhere and produces certain outputs as a result of these inputs. A telephone is a black box. What is the output? The voice of your friend that you hear. What is the input? Electric signals. There is no resemblance between the input (digital signals) and the output (the voice). The relation here between input, black box (phone), and output is translation. In this context, we can say that there are two distinct generative mechanisms interacting with one another: the electrical signals and the phone (there are many more, but I’ll keep it simple).

    When I give this example in class and ask my students what the input is, their first response is always to say that the input is voice. But the input is not voice, it is electrical signals. It is the output that is voice. It takes a lot of work and questioning before one of the students finally says the input is electrical pulses, not voice. What we have here is an example of a sort of “transcendental illusion”. Output is confused with the generative mechanisms themselves and with the world as it is. The generative mechanism mediating the output (the phone) gets forgotten, it’s internal structure and mechanisms are ignored, and the input into that generative mechanism (the other generative mechanism, i.e., electrical pulses) is completely forgotten and invisible. As a consequence, we are unable to properly untangle the generative mechanisms involved, what they contribute, and so on. This I think is a very simple and obvious example, but is generalizable to any relation between objects we might wish to talk about.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 7:29 am

  22. “Ack John! ‘However: unlike Levi, I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.’ — How many times do I have to repeat that what you describe here is Harman’s position, not my own? Within the framework of my ontology objects do relate to or touch one another.”

    Yes, I hear you, and I acknowledge that I had conflated your position with Harman’s on this point. However, I’m surely not the only one, since the “However, unlike “Levi” sentence you cite comes not from me but from Shaviro’s post about translation. I looked back at your post about translation and realism where you said this:

    “One of the claims of my ontology is that all relations between objects involve translation. No object ever encounters another object as it is directly, but rather objects translate one another and produce something new in that process.”

    You can see how someone might read this and interpret it as meaning that objects don’t encounter each other directly.

    Presumably the “as it is” qualifier is the key clause here: objects encounter other objects directly, but not as they are. That sounds to me like an indirect encounter, except when you continue by saying tha the objects “translate one another.” This suggests to me that the objects are encountering each other as they are, but that they also translate one another. If I translate a text from English into Spanish, I have a direct encounter with the English text and I also translate it. My translation may not be a perfect rendering of the original, but I do have the original in hand as well.

    My body experiences the pain as a consequence of being hit by the frisbee, but the frisbee really did have a direct encounter with my body — surely we’re in agreement there. At the precise event of interface between frisbee and body, before my nerves register the encounter and send the message to my brain, before the frisbee is deflected radically from its trajectory and plummets to the ground: is this encounter direct, before the translation into pain occurs? What do you think, Levi? Intuitively I’d think that the pre-translation encounter is direct.

    But now, even if we say that the interface is a direct encounter, I acknowledge that my sensory and perceptual awareness of the encounter is mediated by stuff happening at the molecular and neurological. Now my issue is this. My perceptions are real, in the sense that my nervous system generates them from external stimuli. What I perceive: is it real? I.e., is the frisbee itself a real thing as I see and feel it? I understand that what I see and feel might not be all there is to the frisbee, but this particular assemblage of emergent properties by which I identify this object perceptually as a frisbee: is the assemblage real? I think you’d say that it is. My pain receptors and rods and cones and motion detectors and so on don’t perceive the frisbee-ness of the sensory stimuli: these stimuli are assembled elsewhere in the nervous system. I’m not going to say that the assembly is a direct representation of the frisbee. However, my cognitively assembled template for frisbee at least describes or points to the emergent, macromolecular features of the object that characterize its frisbee-ness. Does this constitute a direct encounter between cognition and real object at the emergent level rather than at the microlevel?

    Comment by john doyle — 2 December 2009 @ 8:46 am

  23. Asher, for what it’s worth, I think you’re crititisms and comments are spot on. More explicitly said, Levi simply isn’t clear on most of what he’s talking about.

    Comment by Alexei — 2 December 2009 @ 8:49 am

    • I submit that ‘Alexei’ must be banned for writing a trolling post under a pseudonym. He does himself a disservice, which me must rectify. Shame on him!

      Comment by A. Tuffini Denouferchier — 2 December 2009 @ 8:51 am

  24. “John, Shame on you for not moderating this discussion properly! I demand you invoke the censorship protocols we introduced last week!”

    I was doing exactly that when I came across this censorious remark from one of the commenters on this thread. All snippy personal remarks are being excised; criticisms of ideas, whether justified or not, are allowed. Of of course everyone is still free to infer the real generative and causal mechanisms behind the actual textual events. Carry on, gentlemen!

    Comment by john doyle — 2 December 2009 @ 9:00 am

  25. Mikhail,

    For some reason wordpress isn’t allowing to respond directly beneath your comment. You write:

    Certainly then we have to distinguish between something like “thinking” which we have (do we?) and “direct access to what makes thinking possible” which we don’t, as you argue. So if we cannot even figure out what makes us think (to use the title of that Ricoeur/Changeaux book), how can we then claim any knowledge or lack of it vis-a-vis objects. Is this your position then?

    I see what you’re getting at, but I wouldn’t make the claim that we can’t even figure out what makes us think, but rather that thought can’t have the sorts of foundationalist pretensions, grounded in absolute certainty, that figures like Husserl or Descartes would like to attribute to it. In other words, what’s thrown out is foundationalism, not knowledge. The difference however is that any knowledge we do have is fallible and might have to be thrown out later on. Moreover, it takes hard work to get this knowledge, even about ourselves. I think this is the significance of neurology, cognitive science, and psychoanalysis. I won’t defend psychoanalysis here as I think we’ve all already talked it to death. If others don’t like that example, fine by me, stick to cog sci and neurology. The broader point is that each of these disciplines, in its own way, shows how thought takes place “behind our backs” or that thought, awareness, and certainty are not equivalent terms that imply one another.

    The good thing about Kant, I think, is that he is not a foundationalist. As I understand him, Kant’s transcendental methodology is not relying on a foundation of absolute certainty like Husserl or Descartes, but rather runs something like follows: “Hey, we make these judgments about the world and we all agree their true. Yet we can’t explain how we can make these judgments if all of our knowledge is derived from experience. Nor can are these judgments analytic truths. Since we make these judgments they must be possible. How are they possible? The mind must structure the world for them to be possible.”

    That’s only a thumbnail, of course. The nice thing about this kind of argument or transcendental arguments is that they rescue us from the obsession with finding absolute foundations that are unassailable. I disagree with Kant on a couple of points. First, I just don’t think his analysis of how experience is structured– especially in the case of causal judgments –gels with what’s actually involved in causality, nor do I think it does justice to our actual practice in building knowledge.

    Second, while I advocate the form of transcendental argumentation Kant invents, I can discern no compelling reason as to why the transcendental or conditions should be restricted to the domain or structure of mind, rather than the world. Kant asks “what must mind be like for synthetic a priori judgments to be possible?” Why not instead ask “what must the world be like for our scientific practice to be possible?” We all agree that our scientific practice reveals true things about the world, so what must the world be like for this to be possible? Here the form of transcendental argument has been retained, but it is no longer deployed in an anti-realist fashion. Just as certain things have to be true about mind in the case of Kant if we are able to make mathematical judgments and these judgments are synthetic a priori, certain things have to be true about the world if our scientific practice does indeed reveal things about the generative mechanisms that function in the world.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    • I see, This is interesting. I suppose I was under the impression that you were rejecting Kant’s critical philosophy. I guess I was wrong. I also like that you allow for various aspects of Kant to be adopted for new philosophical pursuits, I mean we all know how many different ways to read Kant there are out there. I’m still a bit confused about the idea of not having a direct access to our mind, but I would agree if that’s a sort of minimal “we don’t how thinking works, but somehow it does, so let’s run with it” – I can’t speak for Husserl, but even in Descartes I think that foundation is not in my mind, but in God who created it and makes it work (presently, not just by having created it in the past), so even in Descartes there is a sense of philosophical humility if you will that fits with your presentation of us knowing something.

      Here’s where I am with all of this, just thinking out loud here. I think your position and mine as well, since I agree with you here, is much closer to skeptical than to some sort of speculative position. That is to say, it’s difficult to be enthusiastic about human reason after Kant and one path is to be skeptical about claims that are outside of our limits (we can disagree as to how correctly Kant describes those limits, but limits they are – your assertion that we don’t have a direct access is a kind of critical point of imposing limitations), yet another path is to be wildly speculative in a Hegelian sense. I think the main problem here is that after Kant’s negative critical philosophy, we have a small area of knowledge and sciences are already doing all the necessary studying there. After Kant, technically speaking, philosophy is finished, i.e. if we buy into Kant, then we have to also accept that he’s already done all of the necessary philosophical work (recall Kant’s assessment of Fichte’s work – “He needs to stop with the bullshit and get to the business of applying my philosophy” I’m rephrasing here). So the second move then is to pretend that Kant didn’t exist. I’m not saying that’s what you are doing, clearly you are very much with Kant in certain aspects, but I remember reading Harman suggesting something like that. To go back to people before Kant and to pretend he never happened is a legitimate move, history of philosophy is for us to construct in whichever way we want. But, and it might sound weird, I think that were Kant never born and did not write any of his Critiques, his issues would have still made it into Western philosophy, because there was already a kind of proto-critical discussion going on and Kant didn’t just get his ideas (like a genius must) out of nowhere. In any case, I think your path is a kind of post-Kantian speculation and that’s why I’m surprised we’re not talking about Hegel, but I think I get it somewhat now…

      I think if you described your position as “optimistic skepticism” I would be totally with you on this matter, but when I hear bombastic titles like “speculative realism” or “object-oriented ontology” I get scared and run for my Kant.

      As per “translation” issue, I looked at your post (again) and I still don’t find the answer to the question John and I raised here – who is doing the translation of Object A into Object B? I agree with all of your points about translation, but I don’t get it vis-a-vis objects. I’m translating an essay as we speak, from French into English (neither is my first language), some places are easy and I can say that the meaning is basically the same in my version, some places are hard and I can say that the meaning is very likely different, but not that different, otherwise it’s not a translation. But all this time I am thinking “Would it be nice if this essay translated itself into an English translation like Levi’s objects?” But it won’t, there’s no translation without a translator – so for one object to translate into other it requiring that translating agency which, I can only guess, is somehow contained within it as part of it being an object? Is that fair to say?

      Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 2 December 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  26. Levi (from comment #13),

    “Graham does not say that objects do not interact, but rather says they interact at the level of their properties or qualities.”

    Right, I understood that from his Guerrilla book. There are relational properties and there is the hermetically withdrawn essence: one of the splits in the Harmanian object. It seems that the hermetic essence corresponds to the noumenon.

    “In my view, the excess of an object over any of its actualizations is merely the result of the fact that it only has limited connections or relations with other objects and therefore only actualizes limited properties at that time. The other possible properties the object could actualize are just potentials that the object could actualize were it to enter into other relations. There can be internal processes in an object that lead it to actualize certain properties or certain properties can be actualized as a result of external relations with other objects. Harman seems to take the withdrawal of objects far more literally than I do, treating objects as genuinely hermetically sealed rather than as just containing an excess of potentiality over actuality such that the object is never exhausted by any of its actual states. I am not sure why this move on Harman’s part is necessary.”

    I agree entirely with this. Full stop.

    More tentatively, even the Heideggerian toolness seems to work this way: when you use it as a tool its other properties recede; when the toolness is malfunctioning that feature recedes and the other physical features come to the fore. Over the history of the tool both figure and ground have their day in my interactions with it. There will be other properties of the tool that I never interact with, but a termite or a power saw or an electron microscope might.

    Comment by john doyle — 2 December 2009 @ 12:51 pm

  27. Asher,

    1. “Difference” does not seem well-defined. We have differences interacting, receiving, contributing and producing.

    Of course the term has to remain general because we’re doing ontology. That is, the term has to be general enough to capture all the differences without pre-determining them from the armchair. All philosophy can say is that the world is differentiated and structured. We have to go to the actual world to discover what these differences and structures are.

    By what agency do they do so?

    By the agency of generative mechanisms or what I call objects.

    When you say, “there is no difference that does not produce a difference”, what is the means of production?

    The answer to this question, generative mechanism, or object will differ depending on the type of phenomenon we’re talking about.

    When a difference produces a difference, is it producing itself?

    There’s a lot to respond to in this question that I can’t fully develop here. Again, however, the answer varies. Many objects have dynamic internal structures that produce themselves after a fashion. For example, your body makes its own cells, hair, etc. Of course, this requires other materials independent of the body to take place. All objects or generative mechanisms in some form or another are, I believe, dynamic or self-differing. For example, particles are spinning about in any atom. However, the production of differences can also be instigated by other objects or generative mechanisms.

    Something similar to itself? When it produces “something new”, is that thing itself a difference?

    Yes, of course. How else would it be something new if it didn’t differ from something else? However, sometimes the new thing is merely new properties in the object like you getting a sun tan, and at other times it will be an entirely new object like my daughter.

    What is the mechanism by which a difference can receive a difference?

    That is an object-specific or system-specific question. For example, bats have a structure that allows them to receive sound at levels I cannot even begin to hear. You and I are capable of seeing colors that other animals are not capable of seeing. This is a result of what I call our “endo-relational structures” or how we’re organized. The nature of these endo-relational structures is a question for concrete inquiry.

    When it receives one, is it now two differences? Or does it somehow contain the difference it received, or does it incorporate the difference in a way that makes it continue to be one difference?

    I think this depends on the relations involved, but in many cases received differences are incorporated, whereas in others new objects are produced. Generative mechanisms or objects, incidentally, are generally multiplicities of differences.

    When a difference contributes a difference to the difference it is receiving, where does the contribution go? You’ve mentioned many times that people tend to misunderstand your ideas — I would say that an idea like this is prone to be misunderstood.

    Again, sometimes it will simply be a new property of the object in question, in other cases it will be a new object. Returning to the photosynthesis example, the light is turned into sugars that are then used to produce new cells in the leaf.

    2. What is the motivation behind adopting the first premise? I can understand the need to adopt premises, but why this particular one? If I were to subsitute “bowl of oatmeal” for “difference” in your formal argument, its conclusion would have the same validity? What is it about differences that set them apart from bowls of oatmeal?

    I don’t think so. Who knows whether bowls of oatmeal exist or not? We have to come across them in the world to know that they exist. By contrast, we can be assured that existence is composed of differences while still recognizing that we have to get out there in the world to discover the precise nature of these differences. As such, difference functions as a first principle for ontology. When we talk of anything existing we’re basically saying that it differs. Additionally, there’s a normative consideration behind such a starting point. I think wide bodies of theory ignore all sorts of differences so it’s a reminder to keep track of those differences and grant them their proper ontological right.

    3. In this argument, you do not mention the word “translation” at all. How is a translation related to a difference?

    Untrue, the whole post is about translation. “Interaction”, “processing”, etc., are all synonyms for “translation”. The argument outlines the relationship between difference and translation.

    4. Why would you consider the empirical observation to be sufficient?

    I’m not sure what you’re asking here. First, I don’t like the word “observation” because it suggests that we can just passively look at the world and know it. Observation should be replaced by experimentation. We have to provoke objects and create artificial closed environments to see what they do. Second, I don’t think that any empirical experimentation is ever the final word, though many lead us to conclusions that are so well established that it is unreasonable to doubt them without good counter-evidence. Nonetheless, we have to leave open the possibility that there might be other generative mechanisms of which we were unaware that interfered with the generative mechanism we were trying to investigate and we have to remember that reality is stratified such that generative mechanisms at deeper levels of reality upon which mechanisms at higher levels of reality are based can influence the actualization in ways we’re not aware.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 2 December 2009 @ 1:31 pm

  28. Okay, since I just got an official “break up letter” from Levi stating that he will no longer comment here, I should withdraw my last comment on his position. Nevermind.

    Comment by Mikhail Emelianov — 2 December 2009 @ 3:32 pm


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