Friday, August 24, 2012

Harman’s Ontology on a Single Level and Objects as Wells of Abundance

I've revised the post to clarify the relationship between abundance and autonomy.
In my first post on literature and pluralism I argued, almost as an aside, that Harman’s 2-level ontology, real and sensual objects, could be interpreted as a single level. In this post I wish to restate that interpretation and explore it just a little bit.

Harman’s Core Assertions

Let us start with Harman’s elegant encapsulation of his philosophy in two propositions:
1. Individual entities of various different scales (not just tiny quarks and electrons) are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. These entities are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations. Objects withdraw from relation.
My initial reaction to that was: What happened to sensual objects? In my current interpretation of his thought they are unnecessary because they can be derived from the existence of relations.

After all, an object that exists utterly without relation to any other object cannot have any sensual objects in its ‘interior’—I believe that’s a term Harman uses in this context. If two objects exist in relation to one another, than each will have a sensual object of the other in its interior. Further, the nature of that sensual object depends strictly on the nature of the relationship, no? It follows from that that positing the existence of these sensual objects adds nothing to our understanding of the ontological situation. They are redundant.

Abundance and Autonomy

It is thus apparent that, in an imagery of abundance rather than of withdrawal, real objects are sources or wells of abundance, while sensual objects are not. As real objects enter into relationships with one another, abundance is drawn forth in those relationships. And it is this abundance that is most important in understanding the autonomy of real objects. They are autonomous, not in the sense that they are not dependent on other objects—they may or may not be—but in that they are endless sources of abundance within their own Realm.

Thus the acorn depends on its immediate environment for the nutrients it needs to sprout, take root, and become an oak tree. It is not autonomous from that environment. But it is abundant in the world in that it persists through a wide variety changes, shocks, and insults, and continues to convert its inputs into, ultimately, more acorns and hence more oaks.

Each Realm is characterized by its own form of abundance, abundance which may or may not depend on other Realms. Just how that works in detail, well, that’s obviously the major conceptual task for ontological pluralism and far beyond the scope of a blog post.

A Visual Notation

Let’s restate this idea with a simple visual notation. Consider the following three diagrams:


In 1 we have two real objects, A and B, in some undefined relationship. In 2 I’ve added the appropriate sensual objects in lower case letters in the interior of the real objects, b inside A, and a inside B. In diagram 3 I’ve moved b and a onto the relationship, treating it as a label or name for that relationship. So, 3 shows real objects A and B in relationship ba with one another. Think of relation ba as drawing abundance from objects A and B.

Now, in fact, if we wish to continue with this style of thought, we probably need something more to label that relationship. We want to develop a typology of relationship types, though just what that typology consists of is not obvious to me.

For example, consider the earth and its moon. We could call that a gravitational relationship, but that’s not quite what I’m after. I’m thinking more along the lines of symmetrical. The earth may exert a greater gravitational pull on the moon, than vice versa, but the two objects relate to one another in the same way.

By contrast, consider the relationship between a migratory bird and some star, one of those that this particular species uses as a guide post in its migrations—for we know that birds, like humans, do navigate by the stars. That star plays an important role in that bird’s life, but the contrary is unlikely. In fact, it’s unlikely whether the star registers the bird in any distinct way at all. That relationship, then is quite unlike that between the earth and the moon. Not only is this relationship not at all symmetrical, it’s so lopsided that calling it asymmetrical doesn’t seem quite right. Perhaps it’s simple a one-sided relationship.

With that in mind, let’s revisit the relationship between the sun and the earth. Why not call that two-sided, to indicate that both objects influence the other, but asymmetrical, indicating that one objects exerts more influence than the other? The relationship ship between the two stars in a double-star could then, following the same convention, be called two-sided and symmetrical.

And so on, for I assume that other relationship possibilities would emerge with further exploration. And, we have to consider relationships between more than two objects. It’s not at all obvious to me, for example, that the gravitational relationship between the sun, the earth, and the moon, may be ontologically considered to be the conjunction between three two-sided asymmetrical relationships (sun-earth, earth-moon, sun-moon). Perhaps it can, perhaps it can’t. I’ve not even attempted to think it through.

And, of course, once we’ve added the sun to our little ontological play, it becomes obvious that gravity isn’t the only kind of relationship involved. There’s also light, light from the sun to the earth and to the moon, and reflected from both earth and moon to each. Those relationships change as relative positions change. What’s the core ontological ‘upshot’ of that and what’s physics? Off hand, I don’t know.

In any event, however that goes, the nature of the relationship would have to be indicated on the label for the line connecting the objects in a relationship.

Fire and Cotton

Let’s just set that aside for the moment and continue playing around with the above notation, limited though it may be. Let’s consider one of Harman’s favorite examples, that of fire and a piece of cotton. Here’s three simple diagrams:


Diagram 4 shows object F (fire) in relation cf to object C (cotton). We know that as that relationship continues the cotton will become ash and heat will be given off. In diagram 5 we treat FcfC as another object by enclosing it with a rectangle. That other object then becomes (the arrow) a third object, A (ash). The diagram says nothing about heat given off nor, for that matter, of the other combustion products. I don’t know whether or should do so or not, but I note here that we are doing ontology, not physical chemistry.

The complexity of the chemical reaction is not and should not show up in an ontological analysis, not of the ontology in question is that of the Common Sense Realm. These ontological diagrams are meant to be quite general. Diagram 5 might, for example, be or a war between Freedonia and Cashmania resulting in the constitution of a new state, Allyoopia.

Finally, in the continuing spirit of play, diagram 6 shows how the process depicted in 5 can itself be treated as an object. It’s simple; enclose it with a diagram. But then the verbal process is a simple one as well: Two objects in relation to one another constitute a third object.

Why Would One Want to Develop Such a Notation?

Recall that this issue arose in the context of developing a philosophical pluralism, as I outlined in From Objects to Pluralism. In that post I suggested that one could take Harman’s ontology and, by observing recurrent and stable patterns of inter-object relations, construct Realms of Being. If I were to set out to investigate those patterns of inter-object relations I would probably want to use some visual notation.

In such an investigation a Realm of Being would be more than a box with a label, as it is in the posts Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism 2, and Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism 3: The Reality of Fictional Objects. Rather, a Realm would be a collection of such simple diagrams, each indicating one of the patterns of inter-object relations characteristic of that domain. Let the unresolved notational issues I mentioned in the previous section serve as an indicator of the sorts of issues that would be taken up through developing a visual noatation.

Conceptual Style (Notation)

Um, err, aren’t you just playing around with those diagrams and stuff?

Sure, I’m playing around. You have a problem with that?

Well, that’s not serious and philosophy’s serious stuff, no?

Yes and no.

Yes and no?

That’s right, yes and no.

I don’t get it.

There’s serious and there’s serious. Do you want to put on a Stern Face and look like you’re Hard at Work doing Serious Stuff. That’s one thing. And, frankly, it’s not a very good way of working.

So you’re saying that kind of serious isn’t, well, really serious?

More or less. Real thought, exploratory thought, that requires playing around. That’s the only way we’ll arrive at something new.

Are diagrams necessary to such playing around?

That depends.

On what?

On the nature of the problems being investigated and on one’s intellectual style. I like diagrams, I find them useful. I think with them and through them. They aren’t simply illustrations of ideas I’ve otherwise worked out in verbal terms.



  1. What's the relationship between some water and the same water ten minutes later when it's turned to ice? And is that one object, or two?

    What's the difference between some ice, and my memory of some ice? Are they the same object? Is my memory even an object?

    What's the relationship between 3 and 4? What's 4? What's a square? What's the object that consists of the set of all of sets that are not members of themselves?

    What if it turned out that fire is not an object?

    What if it turned out that being an "object" is not a property of non-human reality, but rather an organizing principle of human knowledge?

    What's the relationship between all objects and all objects?

    What's the difference between gravity and addition (or composition)?

    Not to be a total drag, but in this "ontological" scheme, an object seems to be anything you can think of, and a "relationship" is what you're calling the act of thinking about any two or more "objects" at the same time, i.e. this scheme doesn't move the ball down the field even one inch. If I know what Harmon is talking about, what do I now know that I wouldn't know without having read Harmon? Nothing, as far as I can tell.

    1. I've posted answers here:

  2. I feel like that comment is coming off as rude, i apologize. it's not meant to be aggressive, i'm just charged up.

    1. Thanks for the apology. It's an interesting set of questions. I'll post some remarks about them in another post, perhaps later today or in a day or two.