Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Contradiction of Object-Oriented Ontology

It was requested that I repost a condensed version of my argument about why certain forms of object-oriented ontology are inherently contradictory. Levi and any other scholar that uses this method will have the same problem. I will establish the context and then give the argument.

In a comment on Matt's blog, Levi writes,

"Yes Jason, I’m a nominalist and believe that mathematical and logical generality is only a syntactic phenomena. I don’t see that as a “problem”, but as a real feature of the world. I would also disagree with the thesis that signification can exist without these [neurological] systems.

As for Matt’s question about how “matter forms itself”, this is already an odd question that begs the question. Matter doesn’t “form itself”. It is always already formed. That form can take new forms as a result of interactions between new entities, but there’s just no such thing as unformed matter. Again Matt reveals way in which the analogy to the craftsman works in his thought. He’s the one under the burden to show that there is unformed matter, not me."

I discuss how Levi continually misrepresents his interlocutors and then challenge him to respond to the following.

"Let me repeat my core argument that I posted on my blog awhile ago that explains the problem of methodology that, prima facie, Levi must overcome.

Given a standpoint of scholastic realism, which argues against the post-Kantian positions of most continentals, for which there are excellent arguments, abduction as an inference is no longer simply reducible to anthropocentrism. [This is my view.] If one accepts the contrary, nominalism, then abductive inference is simply reducible to anthropocentrism given the necessity of abductive criteria.

“Form” is a logical tool arrived at via abduction, and it offers an explanation for real phenomena that many opponents either do not explain or explain away, such as explaining intentionality or qualitative consciousness. A “form” does not exist, and not “form” or “general descriptive category of reality” is particular. All matter is “formed,” for both Matt and myself, but you, Levi, cannot use the word “form,” “structure,” etc. without equivocation since you deny real generality. I’ve discussed ways out of this problem on my blog, but you seem to want it both ways. Feel free to cite pages of your works that would correct me."

In the first passage, I show that Levi's use of "transcendental" method commits him to either begging the question or contradicting himself, since he must give some reason for making any inference in his adoption of transcendental method, yet any reason he gives is prima facie from his own anthropocentric perspective. (See my earlier post today where someone else discusses this problem of OOO.) Since he is also an avowed nominalist, which is to believe that only particulars exist and no real general descriptions can be given, then he cannot use the transcendental method to escape from anthropocentrism, since any claim he makes at any time cannot generalize by his own admission. In conclusion, he must either reject the transcendental or any equivalent method, or his "flat ontology" since he must elevate himself as a special object telling us what the other objects must be, i.e., anthropocentrism.

I cannot write this with certainty, but I am sure that Harman does not use this method, and I cannot speak to Morton, Boghost, etc.


  1. I am suspicious of Levi's claim to nominalism since it seems to render the establishment of some all-leveling "object" type impossible. I think this is more fundamental than the problem of anthropocentrism since anthropocentrism once again depends on the existence of at least two abstract entities between which we can distinguish in general. I lean toward nominalism myself but it is a tough road to hoe.

    More fundamentally, Harman's focus on the essentialist "inside of things" involves a contradiction. This passage from Guerilla Metaphysics is key:

    From all of this, we conclude that guerrilla metaphysics or object-ori­ented philosophy finds its sole topic in the molten dynamics of the interior of things. All along we have sought to clarify two problems: the reality of an object itself, and the possibility of relations between separate objects. And both of these problems gain clarity only when we reflect on that cru­ cible, furnace, and alchemist's laboratory that the interior of a thing truly is. The reality of a thing is its internal reality, which is nothing but a carni­val or kaleidoscope of elements, and relations between separate things become possible only within this smoldering, circus-like interior. These relations occur vicariously by means of an allure that comes into contact with a thing's elements and bring into play the entirety of that thing itself even as it recedes into inaccessible distance. To offer another metaphor, we need a kind of subatomic or nuclear metaphysics, but one that probes the interiors of all sizes of objects, not just minute physical atoms. This meta­ physics has also been described as a form of quadruple philosophy, since it arises from the intersection of the aforementioned two axes of division, which are not quite what Heidegger thought them to be. The causal/physical bond pertains to each object insofar as it is walled off from its neighbors in vacuum-like isolation, even as each of them leaks a bit of radiation into the interior of the others. The sensual bond is what allows each of the sensual objects on the interior of another object to extend its tentacles in the form of elements, which then mutually interfere with one another. What we are confronted with is an infinite series of sealed cham­ bers, but chambers showing countless trapdoors, slides, and portholes allowing movement from one entity to the next.

    Stated more classically, there is no opposition between a single dank cave filled with shackled prisoners and a single well-ventilated outer wall where real objects are carried and from which they project their shadows. Instead, the universe resembles a massive complex made up of numerous caverns, outer walls, alleyways, ladders, and subway systems, each sealed off from the others and defining its own space, but with points of access or passage filled with candles and searchlights that cast shadows into the next. The cosmos is similar to a rave party in some abandoned warehouse along the Spree in East Berlin, where the individual rooms are each surprisingly isolated from all external sources of music, flashing lights, perfumed odors, and dominant moods-but in which it is quite possible to move from one space to the next, and in which the doorways are always flooded with faint premonitions and signals of what is to come.

    This smacks of having his cake and eating it too: the problems of postulating monadic entities but having them interact. He is forced to define barriers as mysteriously amorphous things that somehow separate while allowing interaction. Leibniz recognized this problem and at least entertained attempting to solve it with "substantial bonds."

    Luhmann's systems theory falls prey to the same problem and as far as I can tell he never even tried to address it. I have yet to be convinced that Harman has solved this long-standing problem. Until he does, I can't see how an OOO-style ontology can get set up, nominalist or no.

  2. David,

    I think that Levi should either give up nominalism or find a way around it. I agree that anthropocentrism is less fundamental, but I need to point that out to lock-in my critique. Months ago, I suggested various ways on my blog that historic philosophers have mounted internally consistent nominalisms while doing metaphysics.

    I also concur that Harman seems to perform a contradiction. Modernist metaphysics was able to argue for a monadology because the proponents were rationalists; they insisted that the structure of reality was akin to the structure of mind and rationality such that we may know the real through thought. To my knowledge, Harman is not a rationalist, and Heidegger certainly was not. I suspect asking the question of methodology is akin to convicting oneself of being a "philosopher of access," which would shift the burden from Harman and back to the inquirer ... but is not a valid logical move.

    Levi's philosophy does not share this problem, however, as he's arguing for a processional OOO. I think some analogous notion of withdrawal can be maintained. In fact, in my own program, the analogous notion is the asymmetry of time and temporal processes. Since thought occurs at the end of natural history, there is much that it cannot think. And since a process is not simply reducible to its dynamic grounding conditions, our epistemic limitation is not the ultimate limiting factor.

  3. Harman critiques Bryant, and I think our comments are mutually informative.

  4. I've been reading a fair bit about Wilfrid Sellars' nominalism recently and I think his is the most workable go at it. The effort required is immense, however, though the payoff if it works is quite high in terms of dissolving all sorts of other philosophical problems.

    I am not familiar with Levi's processional model, only Shaviro's processual model. I am assuming it to be a rationalistic Peircean model, simply because I don't see how to ground procession otherwise. With that assumption, a Peircean tychism can allow for many more speculative moves, though I can't see offhand how that would help OOO.

    It seems to point not to Heidegger but to Husserl and Cassirer: two versions of rationalistic, speculative inquiry, one phenomenological and one anthropological. As well as to two figures who seem to have followed that middle road in more recent times: Karl-Otto Apel and Ernst Tugendhat. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tugendhat has seriously nominalist tendencies.