Monday, August 27, 2012

What’s an Object, Anything, Everything?

One of the many avatars of Anonymous posted a bunch of questions about my recent post, Harman’s Ontology on a Single Level and Objects as Wells of Abundance. While the questions had a certain wise-guy attitude about them, they nonetheless collectively raise an important issue: What’s the distinction between philosophy and the many specialized intellectual disciplines? So, I’ve decided to answer those questions as a way of exploring that issue just a bit.

I do not expect to answer them definitively nor do I expect to define the distinction between philosophical questions and questions in the specialized disciplines. All I want to do is indicate how I’d begin approaching the issue, and that’s to consider many examples. Anonymous’s list is a useful set of examples. Some are nonsense and some seem deep and beyond any answer I can give; most are somewhere in-between.


The questions end up being framed as questions about Human’s thought, which makes sense, of course. But I am not Harman and do not speak for him. I do, however, find his ideas useful, though I suspect that the use I make of them is not something that Harman himself would do.

More importantly, I have never considered any of my posts about Harmon’s ideas as ‘ground-level’ posts suitable for those unfamiliar with Harman’s own writing. I assume some knowledge of his work. That doesn’t change in this post, not at all.

The fact is that the idea of a metaphysical object is a subtle one. And while Harman does give definitional statements, in The Quadruple Object and elsewhere, it would be a mistake to think that, once you’ve read those statements you know what he’s talking about. You don’t. Think of those statements as guide posts at the beginning of a path. You still need to walk the path by reading what he says at some length so as to get a feel for the kind of intellectual work he’s doing with the idea.

The remarks I make here aren’t going to change that.

The Questions

Let’s begin by numbering the questions. I’ve taken Anonymous’s comment and simply placed numbers in it for purposes of identification:
1) a. What's the relationship between some water and the same water ten minutes later when it's turned to ice? b. And is that one object, or two?

2) a. What's the difference between some ice, and my memory of some ice? b. Are they the same object? c. Is my memory even an object?

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

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

5) 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?

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

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

8) Not to be a total drag, but in this "ontological" scheme, an object seems to be anything you can think of, and 9) a "relationship" is what you're calling the act of thinking about any two or more "objects" at the same time, 10) 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.
Some Answers: Framing Metaphysics

These answers aren’t intended to be complete. They’re shoot-from-the-hip indications of how I’d go about threading my way through this mess.

Let’s start at the end.

On eight, an object seems to be anything. And to a first approximation it seems that way, doesn’t it? If so, what of it? I suspect, however, that it isn’t so, but I’m nowhere near having thought it through. Here you really need to read Harman to get a feel for the kind of conceptual work he wants of the object concept.

On nine, no. Thinking has nothing to do with relationships between objects unless, that is, you’re thinking about thought itself.

Now the thing us, unlike Harman, I’m quite interested in thinking about thought. As I’ve indicated in a number of posts, including Ontology in Perception and Thought and The Great Chain of Being as Conceptual Structure, I’ve done quite a bit of work on this. But that’s quite different from what Harman’s up to, and what I’m up to when I use his ideas. Figuring out the basic categories of the world is different from figuring out the basic categories of the mind.

On ten, about moving the ball down the field, what ball and what field? Metaphysics is not about providing explanations that supercede or replace those provided by specialized disciplines. Just what it IS up to, that’s a tough question.

I don’t have a clear sense of what Harman thinks he’s up to. What I’m up to is figuring out Realms of Being, which is my concept, not Harman’s. And that is distinct from specialized disciplines. But getting a beginning grip on that has taken me several posts, with at least one more planned:

I’m planning to do a post on Life as a Realm of Being.

In my view it is the task of metaphysics to sort the world into these Realms of Being, but not to propose answers for questions within those Realms. That’s the province of specialized disciplines.

More Answers: Objects

Here’s some quick, shoot from the hip, answers:

ONE: 1a. In physics the transition from water to ice is a phase change. I haven’t thought about it metaphysically and so don’t have an answer. 2b. One object or two? I haven’t thought about it metaphysically and so don’t have an answer.

If it’s just a puddle of water at 10:00 AM and again at 10:10 AM, it’s one object at two different times. Same with a chunk of ice at two times. What’s at issue is the phase change. Does common sense recognize the identity of the water and the ice in a way that authorizes asserting that they are the same object? I suspect not, but haven’t really thought about it.

And then we have the problem of the caterpillar and the butterfly, or the acorn and the oak.

TWO: 2a. For one thing, one’s a physical object (the ice), the other’s a mental object (memory of ice). 2b. No, they’re not the same objects. 2c. Yes, your memory is an object.

THREE: It’s not entirely clear to me that any of these are metaphysical questions rather than mathematical questions. 3a. On the relationship between 3 and 4, are you considering them as cardinals or ordinals? 3b. Are you asking about 4 as a cardinal, an ordinal, or perhaps just as sign? 3c. You tell me about your square. Do you want a Euclidean answer or a topographical answer, for example. But in any event, that seems like a mathematical question, not a metaphysical one. 3d. As for that pesky Russellian set, that’s the same as the barber who doesn’t shave himself. It’s not clear to me that this is a metaphysical question. Seems to me it’s a garden variety paradox from the early 20th century.

FOUR: How would it turn out that fire is not an object? From a philosophical point of view the fact that fire moves and flickers doesn’t mean it can’t be an object.

For what it’s worth, Harman on fire and cotton (The Quadruple Object, p. 44):
When fire burns cotton, it makes contact only with the flammability of this mateirla. Presumably fire does not interact at all with the cotton’s odor or color, which are relevant only to creatures equipped with the organs of sense. Though it is true that the fire can change or destroy those properties that lie outside its grasp, it does so indirectly: though the detour of some additional feature of the cotton that color, odor, and fire are all able to touch. The being of the cotton withdraws from the flames, even if it is consumed and destroyed.
FIVE: On five, whether or not objecthood is a property of non-human reality or a principle of human knowledge; it’s both. But that’s my answer, not necessarily Harman’s. The notion of object as an organizing principle of human knowledge needs further consideration (see the posts I’ve listed above concerning the Great Chain and ontological cognition). There is the notion of object as category inherent in the human, most likely mammalian if not vertebrate, nervous system. But then there are abstract extensions, e.g. the notion of a mathematical object.

SIX and SEVEN: These are nonsense questions and not worth much comment. Language allows you to form all sorts of propositions, but there’s no guarantee that well-formed propositions are either sensible or interesting. Those two questions are neither sensible or interesting and the world is under no obligation to provide situations to which such questions might plausibly refer.

ADDENDUM: Shadows as Objects

In December I posed the question of whether or not a shadow is a metaphysical object. It’s not autonomous for it depends on the source of light, the occlusion, and some projective surface. If any one of them is missing, then there is no shadow.

Nor do shadows seem to be productive in any interesting sense. They are not, as far as I can tell—though I’ve not thought much about it—sources of abundance. So, for the moment I conclude that shadows are not metaphysical objects. They are things that exist only in relationships among metaphysical objects. When we see a shadow, our perception adds another dimension to that relationship.


  1. 1. the difference between water and ice is significant to humans with regard to the properties with which we can interact with it. (with luck) we can have a theory that helps us determine *why* these are two objects, as they plainly are. i.e. physics tell us this is a state change.

    2. memory is a process. (fire is a process). a thought is an object which is a discrete state of a memory process. it is an abstraction of an abstraction. the memory of ice is an abstraction of an object as aspects of that object are captured in a perception process. ie, objects exist, humans perceive objects and create memories of that perception process. the object as represented as a thought is a discrete abstraction of memory (which is some combination of a written word, a spoken word, and a concept)

    3. the relationship between '3' and '4' is contextually based. '3' and '4' themselves are concepts, unless we are talking about them as objects, meaning a physical representation of that numeral. and i yield to bill.

    4. fire is a process. (it's hard for me to not think of it as a process) but it can certainly be considered an object. our refinement of our understanding does not change our evolutionary perception of fire as humans. which is to say oversimply, fire = hot object therefore do not touch. *why* tells us about combustion, etc.

    5. i didn't attend the 'thing in itself' lecture. but the question forces me to jump meta which tells me that there is a reason to consider what we call objects. thus we are merely refining our concepts of perception in the realm of philosophy. it doesn't help us avoid fire; even three year olds can do that. so yes, objects themselves as they exist in extra-sensory reality may actually be processes whose nature may never be discovered to humans. that doesn't stop us from objectifying them, which ultimately we must.

    6. they are concepts, we require context to answer, same as with '3' and '4'.

    7. yes, except to the extent we inform our concepts about the object. perhaps what you seek is an *irreducible* object. at this point i would explain the difference between newtonian physics and quantum mechanics. both describe the motion of objects. newtonian physics describes the motion of objects at the unaided evolutionary perception level of humans and abstracts *why* a ball flies the way it does. but we can catch that ball without understanding the concept of newtonian physics, and so a flying ball can remain objectified at a simpler resolve. we have no evolutionary need, on the other hand, to catch flying neutrinos. those objects must therefore be dealt with at a different conceptual resolve, which turns out to be non-newtonian. a flying ball can be evolutionarily irreducible. a neutrino cannot, because we cannot perceive it with our unaided hardware.

    1. 3. the relationship between '3' and '4' is contextually based. '3' and '4' themselves are concepts, unless we are talking about them as objects, meaning a physical representation of that numeral. and i yield to bill.

      Note that in Harman’s philosophical world, whether or not something is physical is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it is an object. Just as, in the physical, solidity or temporal duration is irrelevant. Sounds, for example, can be objects in this sense.

      4. fire is a process. (it's hard for me to not think of it as a process) but it can certainly be considered an object. our refinement of our understanding does not change our evolutionary perception of fire as humans. which is to say oversimply, fire = hot object therefore do not touch. *why* tells us about combustion, etc.

      Tricky stuff here. Language gives us the tools to think of anything as an object. That’s irrelevant to metaphysics, but causes problems. I’ve just posted an addendum on shadows, arguing that they are not proper metaphysical objects.

      That we can think of fire as an object is thus no big deal. What’s at issue is thinking of it as a metaphysical object in the sense of object-oriented ontology, or perhaps even in the sense of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which is a very different kettle of philosophical fish. Our evolutionary perception of fire, however, is most directly relevant to the psychology of ontology, but not to ontology itself.

      newtonian physics describes the motion of objects at the unaided evolutionary perception level of humans and abstracts *why* a ball flies the way it does.

      Note that we have experimental evidence that common sense physics and Newtonian physics are not the same.

  2. I'd like to counter the assertion that shadows aren't objects, in some respects they're quintessentially what it is to be an object - quote here from the Austrian mathematician Radon who early in the 20th C. worked out the abstract analysis of tomographic image reconstruction from projections, better than fifty years before tomography (as such) existed (as such): "Nothing is completely determined from a finite number of its views." Views, or projections, or shadows. There's a marvelous paper by a Los Alamos physical chemist, Charlie Strauss, "Maximum Entropy as Abstract Tomography" which does a fine job of imparting the sense of what perception does as being a kind of "triangulation", combining very many individually very weak "little perceptions" (Leibniz would call them) into the percept one experiences as "something". It is hard to imagine what an object would be without the perception of an object. The cybernetician W.R. Ashby also anticipated tomography by a half-decade or so, in a paper on "Constraint Analysis of Many Dimensional Relations" where he viewed shadows as cross sections of 3D "cylinders" but of course generalizable to greater number of dimensions. Curiously, the avant garde film-maker and 'little magazine' publisher James Sibley Watson, in the 1940s was working on a kind of moving 3D x-ray tomography, cf. .. Another anticipation of this perspective can be found in statistical operations on databases, so-called log-linear analysis with its historical roots in the American cryptanalyst Solomon Kullback's work at the precursor of the NSA.

    1. The question of whether or not a shadow is an object is one thing. But whether or not it is a metaphysical object in the sense of Harman's object-oriented ontology is a different question.