Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pluralism in Review: The Eightfold Way

While this is not the last post in my pluralism series—for I have to write an introduction to the collected series—it’s the last substantive post. While I do not introduce any new conceptions, I do make some adjustments here and there. First I take a look at the relationship between philosophy and the other disciplines: What’s philosophy doing that they are not and cannot?

Then I review the entire system by hanging it on eight key propositions. I started that with the two propositions I adopted from Harman, to which I subsequently added two more. I’ve now thought through the entire discussion and decided that it boils down to eight propositions, including those initial two.

That analysis and reduction, that’s serious work, but at this stage it is also provisional. Asserting that these eight (or five or ten) ideas are the ones that matter, that’s a good way to focus one’s thinking. And an enterprise like this needs focus or it will fall apart. But it is also provisional, for the work has just begun.

Finally, I offer a few concluding remarks on what I see the next steps to be, next steps which I will not, however, be taking any time soon.

Philosophy Among the Disciplines

Let’s go back to where I began in From Objects to Pluralism, with a passage from Harman’s interview at ASK/TELL:
...the reason to focus on objects rather than on “language, social change, sexuality or animals” is because philosophy is obliged to be global in scope. If philosophy were to give one of these other entities a starring role, it would have to reduce the rest of the universe to them. “Language is the root of everything.” Here, you are choosing one specific kind of entity to be the root of all others, and there is no basis for this. Sociology tends to view all reality in terms of its emergence from human societies and belief-systems. Psychology treats all reality as made up primarily of mental phenomena. Physics deals with tiny physical objects and says that everything is made out of them, except that physics is useless when trying to explain things like metaphors, the Italian Renaissance, the meaning of dreams, and so forth.

All these other disciplines focus on one kind of object as the root of all else in the world. Only philosophy can be a general theory of objects, describing Symbolist poetry and the interaction of cartoon characters just as easily as the slamming together of two comets in distant space.
As I said in that post I had two reactions to this post, and they are related.

My immediate reaction was to be skeptical of the claim that Harmon and his intellectual companions had anything particularly interesting to say about cartoon characters. Why’d I think that? Because I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking a writing about cartoon characters over the last several years and that work included descriptive work of a kind that’s not at all characteristic of these object-oriented philosophers. That is, I was in my mind claiming specialized expertise on the topic of cartoon characters and it wasn’t at all obvious that these philosophers had anything particularly interesting to say about them. It the very least, I’d not then read them as saying interesting about cartoon characters and that hasn’t changed since then, though I now know, as I didn’t then, that Latour seems to have been the one to put Popeye into the repertoire of standard examples.

And THAT perhaps ungenerous little quibble is but an instance of the larger issue, which is that of the relationship between philosophy and “all these other disciplines,” the ones that “focus on one kind of object as the root of all else in the world.” Of course, in the last half of that statement Harman is doing a bit of careless editorializing—this is, after all, an interview, not a formal publication. Not all those other disciplines claim their particular objects of interest to be the root of all else in the world. Some may—physicists likely—but most do not.

But that issue, of the relationship between philosophy on the one hand the specialized disciplines on other, has been with me ever since reading that interview and it certainly has been on my mind while elaborating my preliminary views on a pluralism. What is it that I have been doing? Sure, there’s a sense in which, having done it, I must know what I’ve been doing.

But it’s a preliminary investigation, not a completing synthesis. Is it a prolegomena to a reasonable intellectual project or is it the ante room to another intellectual purgatory? There is, of course, no way to tell, except to take a few more steps. But in which direction, toward what end?

* * * * *

An old cliché has it that back in the ancient times there were the various practical arts—basket weaving, hunting, metal working, cooking, farming, wine-making, potting, and so forth—and there was philosophy. Philosophy covered the intellectual waterfront. I mean, Aristotle was one man, but look at his intellectual range (see the appendix, Aristotle and Now). Over time various disciplines split off from philosophy and established themselves as autonomous disciplines. It wasn’t so long ago, for example, that much biology was done in the name of natural history or simply nature. Biologists were badged as naturalists. And psychology only started breaking off in the later 19th Century.

What’s THAT historical sequence about? Is it about the world, the mind, or both? In the abstract one could imagine that, with sufficient time and mental capacity, a single mind could know everything. Would that then mean that everything was just one unified discipline?

I suspect not. The pluralist ideas I’ve been elaborating are not simply an accommodation to the limits of the human mind. The world really is various, so I believe, and so is resistant to being gathered up in a single conceptual system.

That is, if you read these various posts you won’t find anything about DNA or natural selection, though I talk about the Realm of Life. Why not? Because those are topics for specialized disciplines, not pluralists philosophy. Similarly, though I talk of the Realm of Matter I say nothing about atoms, quarks and Higgs Bosons, or even gravity and motion. Why not? Because those are topics for specialized disciplines, not pluralist philosophy. Further, though I do mention Popeye, I use him only as an example of a fictional creature. I say nothing about how he moves, how he acts, what sounds like, what he looks like, much less how audiences react to him and talk about him among themselves. Why not? You got it: Because those are topics for the discipline of cartoon studies, not pluralist philosophy. However much cartoon studies may interest me, I don’t want to get it mixed in with my philosophy.

Similarly, though Harman talks about fire and cotton (e.g. in The Quadruple Object, pp. 44-45) he says nothing about carbon, oxygen, oxidation, atoms, atomic bonds, and so forth, because, I assume, they belong to the language of chemistry, not philosophy. He probably knows something about such things, but he’s not a chemist and the details are irrelevant. By contrast, Levi Bryant does talk about entropy, and introduces it into his system; but what he says about it is wrong (though a recent post, Social Ecology and Entropy, is an improvement over his older work). Similarly, he talks about complex dynamics, attractors, and phase spaces, and gets them wrong as well. More recently he’s introduced a post on networks by using what appears to be an illustration from a technical source; but, you guessed it, much of what he actually says about networks is wrong.

You can’t build a useful philosophical system, or any other conceptual system, on fundamental misconceptions of concepts in successful use in other disciplines. But no one can possibly understand the technical details of a multiplicity of other disciplines. This is a limitation of the human mind and has no bearing on the nature of the world being described, though, of course, the human mind and its biopsychological substrate and social infrastructure can itself be an object of inquiry. How can discourse be constructed so that individual minds can operate effectively and that different individuals can collaborate effectively in arriving at a mutual understanding of the world?

Alas, I don’t know. What I do know is that, over time, as collective thought about the world becomes more elaborate and diverse, the social structure of knowledge has become differentiated and different regions in that structure have become the responsibility of different groups. That requires a process of Latourian negotiation (as I discussed in Facing up to Relativism: Negotiating the Commons and will discuss below) among thinkers. Such negotiations are typically long, complex, and painful to all involved. This process is a difficult and often contentious one, and as knowledge has become parceled out, making connections between the different parcels becomes difficult, as does maintaining the coherence and integrity of the whole. Such is the process and cost of intellectual advance.

We all know that.

I believe we are deep into such a negotiation now, and have been for some time. The object-oriented ontologists have offered a family of proposals about metaphysics. Harman’s contribution includes explicit statements about intellectual responsibilities among various disciplines. Bryant, too, has made such statements. But he has also ranged farther among a variety of disciplines and ventured more deeply into their territories than Harman has. While I have expressed considerable reservation about the results he has achieved in such scouting expeditions, I don’t doubt that philosophy must undertake such expeditions. If I have followed his writing with some care over the past year that is because his expeditions afford me an opportunity to look over his shoulder on those expeditions and conduct my own reconnaissance.

These posts on metaphysical pluralism are my contribution to that ongoing negotiation. What I have done, in effect, is take some ideas from Harman and Bryant, and Latour as well, run them through my own intellectual experience and come up with a proposal on how to conduct the business of metaphysics.

Objects, Realms, and Arenas without End

Let’s review the basic building blocks of the system I’ve been exploring. We start with two propositions taken over and modified from Harman:
1. Objects: Individual entities of many different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. Abundance: These entities enter into relations with other entities but are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by the sum of all possible relations.
That’s where I start; that much I’ve gotten from object-oriented ontology. I’ve gotten two other ideas as well. From Levi Bryant I have the idea that objects tend to occur more or less stable configurations of other objects, which he calls regimes of attraction. From Harman I have the idea of vicarious or indirect causation. Taken together we have:
3. Realms of Being: In the large objects exist in patterns of relatively stable interactions among multiple objects. These are relations of indirect or vicarious causality. Analytically, we need to separate the roles from the entities that assume them. This is the core of what will become a distinction between culture and society.
As a matter of observation, human beings organize their activities through a complex structure of beliefs, attitudes, practices, customs, and artifacts that collective make up culture. Even the simplest society will have multiple Realms of Cultural Being. Let us further understand that Realms of Cultural Being, by definition, include all the nonhumans participating in the Realm, whether they be animal, vegetable or mineral, terrestrial, subterranean, marine, or even extra-terrestrial—we steer by the stars, no?

In some respects the idea of Realms of Being is comparable to Latour’s notion of modes of existence, each with its own felicity conditions. But I don’t know how far the parallelism holds. For example, he recognizes religion as a mode of existence. I would recognize each specific religion as a Realm of (Cultural) Being. This may be a trivial difference, it may not. He doesn’t recognize science as a mode, while I would assign each scientific disciplie to a Realm of (Cultural) Being. However he does recognize Reference as a mode, and the various sciences would likely be found there. But just how this would work out in detail is up in the air at the moment.

For some more remarks on Latour’s modes of existence, see my post, Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence.

Then there is the concept of a Life Way, which I’ve introduced at the level of the individual and also at the level of the group. Here things get, alas, tricky. At the level of the individual I developed the Life Way concept in terms of behavioral mode and unity of being (see Unity of Being). But what, pray tell, is unity of being, which I introduced in discussing ethical criticism?

Rather than reprise that earlier discussion, which I DO like, let me repeat and emphasize that this series of posts IS provisional. I’m making it up as I go along and, though I’m doing the best I can, some things are going to be messy.

The relationship between behavioral mode, Realms of Being, and unity of being is one of those messy areas. So the definition of unity of being which I am about to offer is a bit different from my earlier formulation, but it is, I believe, consistent with it.

This definition depends on the fact that behavioral modes are neurochemically coded in the brain so that recall of one’s activities is biased by one’s current neurochemical state; that I’ve said in the earlier discussion. Consequently there is a need for a neurochemically neutral state of mind in which one can recall and reflect on the events of one’s life. That earlier discussion didn’t talk about a need. That need, in this formulation, is what unity of being is about, thus:
4. Unity of Being: Humans desire the ability to access and reflect on memories of events in one’s life. The extent that that is achieved is called Unity of Being.
One of the central projects of specifically human culture is to create the symbolic and ritual means through which group members can achieve Unity of Being. This process gives rise to morality and expressive culture as cultural practices and to ethics and aesthetics as intellectual disciplines.

I’m almost tempted to assert that THAT’s what culture is for: Unity of Being.

Boy would it ever be elegant to assert that! But I won’t. Not now. Maybe later, way later, and after considerable reflection.

With that in mind, let’s return to Life Way, which, as I’ve indicated, I’ve defined both with respect to individuals and groups (Unity of Being 2: Choosing Life Ways). Any given individual is going to live in various Realms of Cultural Being. That collection of Realms is a Life Way.

But that’s not sufficient. Perhaps for a simple-hunter gatherer group all individuals share the same Realms of Cultural Being, though I’m not sure about young children. But that won’t do for more complex collectives (to use Latour’s term) where we have division of labor among the humans and considerable specialization of activities of all sorts. Many, if not all, specializations will have their own Realm, which means that no one human individual will operate in all Realms. So the Life Way for the collective must necessarily contain more Realms that those for any individual human members of the group. Thus:
5. Life Way: A Latourian collective, with human and non-human members, is considered to participate in all the Realms in which any member of the collective plays a role. The ‘envelope’ of those Realms is called a Life Way.
As another matter of observation I take it that human collectives have Life Ways that differ from one another. Some of these differences are minor, some are not. This gives rise to a bunch of problems generally discussed under the rubrics of multiculturalism and cultural relativism. To the extent that different collectives must live with one another, those differences must either be eliminated or somehow “encapsulated” so they cease to be problematic.

Thus:
6. Latourian Negotiation: Collectives having different Life Ways have been interacting through a process of negotiation in which differences among Life Ways are resolved and commonalities created or not depending on the desire to extend the boundaries of the larger more inclusive collective. The outcome cannot be predicted or foreseen.
I discussed Latourian negotiation in Facing Up To Relativism: Negotiating the Commons. The essential point is that such negotiations take place without a judge and without regulative goals beyond that of negotiating in good faith. All is up for grabs, nothing is certain.

Human groups summon and are subject to a wide range of nonhuman beings and, as Latour has observed in We Have Never Been Modern (p. 108, there are similar passages in Politics of Nature):
The collectives are all similar, except for their size, like the successive helixes of a single spiral. The fact that one of the collective[s] needs ancestors and fixed stars while another one, more eccentric, needs genes and quasars, is explained by the dimensions of the collective to be held together. A much larger number of objects requires a much larger number of subjects. A much greater degree of subjectivity requires a much greater degree of objectivity.
So, over time, larger and more diverse collectives have emerged in history. More objects and more different kinds of objects have been brought into commerce with one another. At this point in history we are facing the need for all the objects on earth to self-organize into a single collective.

The outcome of that project is, of course, not foreseeable. The prospect brings me to our last two propositions. I note that we began with objects (propositions 1 and 2), and organized them into Realms of Being (3). Propositions 4, 5, and 6 are concerned the organization and evolution of Realms of Being in which human actors take leading roles.

Let us now consider a most speculative matter, one I took up at the end of Matter, Life, and Culture (so far).
We have objects. Objects are organized into Realms of Being according to stable patterns of relations among them. I’m now wondering whether or not there is an even higher level of organization among Realms. Let us provisionally—and here I’m just making things up—call them Arenas. Each Arena is constituted by several, perhaps many, Realms of Being.
Let’s make this a seventh proposition:
7. Realms of Abundance: Realms of Being are organized into Realms of Abundance, of which three have appeared to far: Matter, Life, and Culture.
Propositions 4, 5, and 6 are about the Arena of Culture. Let me offer an eighth and last proposition:
8. The Fourth Arena: The current global Latourian negotiation brings us to the edge of a fourth Arena of Abundance. If it goes well, that’s where our successors will dwell.
As for the nature of this Fourth Arena, I cannot say. If you want to observe that, gee, that Fourth Arena seems a bit like Marx’s dissolution of the state in the achievement of communist egalitarianism, well, yes, it’s like that, if not in terms of internal mechanism and causal forces, then in the role it plays in a certain (my) system of thought. If you want to observe that gee, that Fourth Arena seems a bit like the Singularity of which the transhumanists dream, well, yes, it’s like that, if not in terms of internal mechanism and causal forces, then in the role it plays in a certain (my) system of thought. If you want to observe that gee, that Fourth Arena seems a bit like the Rapture... well, you get the drill.

I will note, however, that I’m not making any predication about what kind of governmental formations will exist at that time. I don’t see much prospect for a miraculous emergent computer that will outthink humans seven way from infinity. Nor does it seem likely that the good will rise up into the heavens. Just what WILL happen, how could I possibly know?

As a convenience I have listed the eight propositions in a single appendix and omitted the intervening discussion.

Next Steps

That then is the system as I currently see it, eight propositions. Perhaps its really only six or seven, maybe it’s nine or ten. It’s in that region, a half dozen to a dozen, no more, no less.

I see a few obvious points of entry for further development. I sketched a quick graphic notation for representing relations between objects in the post, Harman’s Ontology on a Single Level and Objects as Wells of Abundance. A notation is just a notation, but that notation is about understanding Realms of Being, a central concept in this system. I think having a perspecuous visual representation will be important.

In particular, I think it will be crucial in understanding the structure of Cultural Realms, where we have a great variety of human and non-human actors. I think a fair amount of work has yet to be done in sorting through behavioral mode, Realms of Cultural Being, Unity of Being, and Life Ways. That’s where we’re likely to lose or gain a major proposition.

And that’s where we’re going to see whether the concept of Arenas of Abundance is useful or just extraneous decoration. I think it will prove useful, that is, I think it will help us to understand the structures and processes of Being, as opposed to the structures and processes operating within the various Realms of Being, the processes and structures being investigated by the other specialized disciplines—for metaphysics is a specialization, no? In particular one would like to know whether these Arenas are just a descriptive generalization or convenience or whether or not they are, well, you know, real.

That’s going to depend on whether or not patterns of relations between objects originating within a single Arena are different from patterns of relations among objects in that originate in different Arenas. Is the relationship between the North Star and the Moon different in kind from that between the North Star and a bird on long distance migration or that between a farmer and the Moon? I would think so, but I’d also like to run through hundreds of such examples. That’s what this business of Arenas is about, sorta’.

And then we have that sixth proposition, about Latourian negotiation. What I’m wondering here is whether or not that’s sui generis or whether it’s a special case of a wide classes of processes operating in heterogeneous collectives. It might, for example, be a case of what theoretical biologists and mathematicians call evolutionary game theory, but I don’t know.

As for that last proposition, the emergence of a Fourth Arena, we shall see, or our grandchildren will, won’t we?

Appendix: An Eightfold Metaphysics

Here are the eight propositions as set out in the main article, but without surrounding discussion.

1. Objects: Individual entities of many different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. Abundance: These entities enter into relations with other entities but are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by the sum of all possible relations.

3. Realms of Being: In the large objects exist in patterns of relatively stable interactions among multiple objects. These are relations of indirect or vicarious causality. Analytically, we need to separate the roles from the entities that assume them. This is the core of what will become a distinction between culture and society.

4. Unity of Being: Humans desire the ability to access and reflect on memories of events in one’s life. The extent that that is achieved is called Unity of Being.

5. Life Way: A Latourian collective, with human and non-human members, is considered to participate in all the Realms in which any member of the collective plays a role. The ‘envelope’ of those Realms is called a Life Way.

6. Latourian Negotiation: Collectives having different Life Ways have been interacting through a process of negotiation in which differences among Life Ways are resolved and commonalities created or not depending on the desire to extend the boundaries of the larger more inclusive collective. The outcome cannot be predicted or foreseen.

7. Realms of Abundance: Realms of Being are organized into Realms of Abundance, of which three have appeared to far: Matter, Life, and Culture.

8. The Fourth Arena: The current global Latourian negotiation brings us to the edge of a fourth Arena of Abundance. If it goes well, that’s where our successors will dwell.

Appendix: Aristotle and Now

As an exercise, let’s take a crude look at what’s happened to philosophy in the centuries since Aristotle. Let’s take a look at Introduction to Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon, which consists of selections from a range of Aristotle's works. They’re arranged under various headings as follows:
Logic,
Physics,
Psychology,
Biology,
Metaphysics,
Ethics,
Politics,
Poetics,
Rhetoric.
Most of these Aristotelian topics have now become separate disciplines. That’s certainly the case with physics and biology, also psychology and politics (political science) and arguably poetics and rhetoric as well. We’ve now got various specialized logics that are more like mathematics than philosophy. And that leaves ethics and metaphysics remaining for philosophy.

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