Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Unbounded Qualities of Objects

The Other Side of Withdrawal

The need for philosophy and its place in the intellectual world may be self-evident to you. But, as I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s not self-evident to me. Thus, as I’ve been thinking about object oriented ontology and related matters over the past year or so, I’ve been wondering: What’s this for? What can it do that can’t be done with other conceptual tools?

While I suppose I could try to take OOO at face value, that would be an artificial and not very useful exercise. Rather, I wish to locate philosophy within matters that have concerned me even though I have not attempted to develop them in a philosophical manner. My recent posts on Kuhn, Gibson and OOO mark one properly philosophical line of though. A recent post by Harman reminded me of another. The post is a long one about an open letter written by one Belhaj Kacem. Though it’s interesting in full, here’s the bit the set off bells:
1. At least twice, and arguably three times, Belhaj Kacem claims that I believe the primary qualities of things can be directly known by mathematics. Absolutely not! That’s Meillassoux, not me. I disagree with that claim completely.
There we are, “qualities of things” and “can be directly known” – those phrases are what clicked.

You see, for some time now I’ve been entertaining the notion that things can have an unbounded number of qualities, only some of which will come into play in any given interaction with an object. Measurement is a kind of interaction in which human investigators assess this or that quality of an object. And, as we know, the problematics of measurement have loomed over the past century or so.

This notion—that objects have an unbounded number of properties—didn’t JUST occur to me out of the blue. It came to me through a specific train of thought about the emic/etic distinction in anthropology (e.g. see discussion in this post). That distinction, as you may know, is a generalization of the distinction between phonemics and phonetics in linguistics. Roughly speaking, phonetics is the study of the sound qualities of speech while phonemics is the study of the sound qualities active in a particular language.

The distinction arises because only some aspects of speech sound actually matter within a given language. And an ear trained to the phonemic qualities of one language may well miss the phonemic qualities of another language. Thus English speakers will miss the tones (phonemics) so important in Mandarin, but those tones will nonetheless show up on a spectrographic recording (phonetics).

That is to say, speech sounds have more qualities than any language actually uses. How many more? Why not just say that speech sounds have an unbounded number of qualities? How ever many qualities have been measured, identified, and named, it’s always possible to define one more.

But what makes speech so special? Why not just generalize to everything?

And so that’s what I’ve done. Now, the previous four paragraphs don’t qualify as a careful or even rigorous argument. I could probably do better. But just what KIND of argument would I be making? While the argument makes empirical claims, about speech sounds and measuring them, about the qualities of objects in general, and measuring them, I don’t see the argument as, in the end, an empirical one. For what kind of empirical program would that require? Are we going to attempt to ascertain all the qualities of all the objects in the world in order to find at least one object that has only a finite number of qualities? What’s our criterion to establish ‘proper’ qualities and to determine when an object’s run out of them? That doesn’t strike me as a very plausible prospect.

No, such an argument would have to be philosophical in character.

But why, you ask, would you want to argue such a thing?

That’s a good question, and all I’m prepared to say at the moment is that an answer is going to be philosophical in kind, no?

I note only that, if objects are ever withdrawing, as Harman argues, could one not see that as a consequence of their having an unbounded number of qualities, some of which will be withheld in any given interaction?

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