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.
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.