Tuesday, September 11, 2012

From Objects to Pluralism

This is a somewhat revised version of the essay which I originally posted on July 18, 2012. I have revised it to take account of Levi Bryant's recent work on onto-cartography and to incorporate Graham Harman's notion of vicarious or indirect causality. To do this I expanded the section, Patterns of Relations Among Objects, and added a new section, Indirect Cause and Realms of Being. The rest of the essay remains the same.

* * * * *

. . . we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher, but to take example from our two recent speeches. The single general form which they postulated was irrationality; next on the analogy of a single natural body with its pairs of like-named members, right arm or leg, as we say, and left, they conceived of madness as a single objective form existing in human beings. Wherefore the first speech divided off a part on the left, and continued to make divisions . . .  
–Plato, Phaedrus (265e-266a)

Having hazarded that pluralism is the Next Big Thing I now feel some obligation to clarify what I mean by pluralism. As it’s object-oriented philosophy that brought me to this dance, I’ll use it as a vehicle for so doing.

First, using a passage from a Graham Harman interview, I raise the question of the relationship between philosophy and the more specialized disciplines. I then continue with Harman in a section where, in effect, I ask: What can we build with objects and relations alone? By way of illustration I bring up the case of knowledge representation in the cognitive sciences, where complex conceptual systems are constructed from just that, objects and relations.

Then I take an excursion into the work of Levi Bryant, whose concept of regimes of attraction indicates the existence of relatively stable patterns of relationships over large collections of objects. I then go into full tap dance mode, suggesting that we can construct Realms of Being from that notion plus Harman's conception of indirect causation. Realms of Being, that the world consists of many different ever evolving Realms, THAT’s what I mean by pluralism. Given that, the task of metaphysics is to figure out what those Realms are and how they’re interlinked.

I conclude with some more general remarks.

A General Theory of Objects?

As a way of setting the stage, consider the following passage from Graham 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.
My immediate and quite spontaneous reaction to that was a less than charitable: And just what can philosophy tell me about cartoon characters? I asked that question in my capacity as someone who has a specialized interest in cartoons and so has spent hours upon hours going through cartoons scene by scene, shot by shot, and even frame by frame, trying to figure out how these things work. It would be too much to expect a philosopher to look at cartoons in such detail.

But just what WOULD I expect of a philosopher? I don’t need a philosopher to tell me that Popeye is, in some sense, real. I know that already, that’s why I care about them and study them. Nor do I need a philosopher to tell me about the difference between the real object on paper or in celluloid and the image in someone’s mind. That’s been around for a long time. I don’t see that philosophy has anything new and interesting to say about that.

But then, just what does philosophy have to offer the other specialized disciplines? Do they have need of Harman’s “general theory of objects”? I have my doubts. Does ANYONE, other than philosophers, have need of a general theory of objects? If the answer to that question is “no” does that mean that such a theory has no use?

We are now in very dangerous territory. I want to make one not-so-digressive remark and then continue on by suggesting that perhaps what philosophy has on offer, even Harman himself, is not quite or not merely a general theory of objects, but something nearby.

That not-so-digressive remark is that literary criticism has, in the past few decades, drawn on various philosophies as interpretive systems. I figure that any half-way interesting philosophy can serve in that capacity and serve, not only literary criticism, but cultural criticism and related humanistic pursuits. Indeed, these disciplines tend to shade into philosophy, at least philosophy of the Continental kind, if not the Anglo-American kind.

But Harman’s claim, it seems to me, is wider. He’s claiming, if I read him rightly, all of knowledge and not just the hermeneutical humanities. Philosophy, once again, is going to cover the whole territory. I think the claim is a valid one.

I also believe we need to think, not just about objects, but about what I’m provisionally calling Realms of Being. Specifically, what I propose is that we use a general theory of objects in explicitly constructing an account of Realms of Being where the Realms constitute an unfolding large-scale organization of objects.

Building Materials: Objects and Relations

Let us continue with Harman, who has said that his philosophy has two basic principles:
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.
Yes. And furthermore, in The Quadruple Object Harman asserts that “the basic rift in the cosmos lies between objects and relations in general: between their autonomous reality outside all relation, and their caricatured form in the sensual life of other objects” (pp. 119-120).

What I propose is that that’s all we need to construct an account of the Realms of Being, that and a university’s worth of knowledge from the specialized disciplines to inform the construction. Philosophy cannot exist in a vacuum.

What do I have in mind? Something a bit like mathematics. Mathematicians build rich conceptual structures using only a few foundational notions. But mathematics is not my immediate model.

Knowledge representation is. Knowledge representation arose in the cognitive sciences in the 1970s and 1980s where methods were needed to represent human knowledge in computers. Some investigators were interested in solving practical problems, e.g. so-called expert systems for medical diagnosis or the configuration of large computer systems, while others were interested in simulating human reasoning. In all cases researchers needed a way of representing knowledge in a form that was tractable by computers but also rich, flexible, and robust.

Many schemes made us of graph theory, a branch of topology. A graph is a network:


In artificial neural networks the nodes in the graph represent neurons while the links between the nodes represent connections between neurons. In cognitive or semantic networks the nodes typically represent concepts while the links between nodes represent relations between concepts. Here’s a simple example:


This network, while it has fewer elements than the first one—and both are just very small fragments of real networks—is nonetheless more complicated because it has more information. The nodes and links are all labeled and those labels are important.

Notice that we have two kinds of nodes, square and round. The round nodes are entities while the square ones, of which there is only one, are actions. Person, Fred, hit, bat, ball, and thing are all concepts.

Correlatively, ISA (is-a), AGT (agent), STR (instrument) and OBJ (object) are relations between concepts. ISA means, well, is a: Fred is a person: bat and ball are things. Fred is an agent (AGT) in an act of hitting where bat is an instrument (STR) and ball is the object (OBJ)—where object is understood in a cognitive or linguistic sense, not a metaphysical one.

So, in this little fragment we’ve got two kinds of concepts, entities and actions, and four kinds of relations between them, agent, instrument, object and is-a. This, of course, is only the tiniest fragment of a real cognitive network. And real networks have more than two kinds of concepts and four relations. Maybe we’ve got a dozen or more kinds of relations and a similar number of conceptual kinds. But not much more, as the idea is to represent as much knowledge as you can using as few primitive elements (concepts and relations) as you can.

I’m proposing something similar in metaphysics. Harman says that the world consists of objects, on the one hand, and relations among them on other. OK. So what can we build from that? I understand quite clearly that constructing a representation of how people think about the world is different from constructing an account of the world itself. One justifies a representation of thought by invoking evidence about how people actually think. One justifies a representation of the world by invoking evidence about how the world works, evidence that is the province of many specialized disciplines. Physicists, geologists, chemists, art historians, and so forth don’t operate as though each object under their purview is utterly unique in kind nor that each relationship between two or more objects is utterly unique. They group objects into classes of different kinds.

That’s all we need. Let’s go back to the passage I’ve quoted from The Quadruple Object, this time continuing on (pp. 119-120):
...the basic rift in the cosmos lies between objects and relations in general: between their autonomous reality outside all relation, and their caricatured form in the sensual life of other objects. Whatever the special features of plants, fungi, animals, and humans may be, they are simply complex forms of the gap between objects and relations, just as heavier chemical elements arise from hydrogen and helium. By no means does this imply that mentality is reducible to neuroscience or string physics. For our principles forbid that any specific kind of entity could be the building block for everything else in the cosmos. Instead, everything plays out in the strife between concealed objects and the twisted of translated forms in which they appear to other objects.
I’m proposing only that those “complex forms of the gap between objects and relations” have a pattern and I’m calling that pattern Realms of Being.

What is more I believe that both Levi Bryant and Harman have taken steps along this path.

Patterns of Relations Among Objects

Let’s start with Bryant. Here’s a passage Bryant posted on 27 October 2011 in Do Attractors do Anything?:
With Graham and Latour, objects have to go through all the translations and transformations to get from one object to another. In other words, for me acorns do not virtually contain oak trees. Rather all sorts of translations have to take place to get from acorns to oak trees, and the oak tree that evolves from the acorn is a genuine and novel creation in the universe. There’s nothing that is pulling the acorn to the oak tree. Potentiality or virtuality are important dimensions of objects for me (and here I guess Graham and I still diverge), but when I think of virtuality/potentiality, I don’t have something like the acorn containing an oak tree in mind, but rather something more like the potential energy contained within a tautly drawn spring or rubber band. The translations still need to take place. The translations still need to take place. Virtuality also just means that something must be susceptible to affecting and being affected by other things for interactions to take place.
As Bryant well knows, acorns cannot become oaks all by themselves. There is no little oak inside the acorn (as the preformationists believed) that just gets bigger and bigger. The acorn requires certain causal forces, or opportunities, if you will, in order for an oak tree to sprout and grow.

And that implies a problem. For the point of objects are that they are autonomous. But in what sense can an oak tree be autonomous if its very existence is dependent upon a proper environment? Bryant is aware of the issue, though I’m not quite sure that he resolves it. Here’s a passage from The Democracy of Ideas, Chapter 5 (p. 196):
In this connection, we can ask ourselves how it is possible for objects to be constrained despite their autonomy, independence, and self-determination. In many respects, it is the distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation, coupled with the concept of regimes of attraction that allows us to theorize these constraints. For while, in their virtual proper being, objects withdraw from any of their actualizations in local manifestations, while every object always contains a reserve excess over and above its local manifestations, nonetheless local manifestations are often highly constrained by the exo-relations an object enters into with other objects in a regime of attraction.
The language of constraint allows him to conceive of the object as autonomous. That is, the object, in its virtual proper being, really is free and independent it’s just that, um, err, well, in any actual context it is subject to constraints. I submit that the on the obverse of at least some of those constraints we find dependency, resources on which the object depends. The acorn will not become an oak without water, sunlight, nutrients of many kinds, who knows what microbes in the soil, soil of a proper consistency to hold the root system, and so forth. At the same time, the availability of these things will constrain the growth of the tree.

So, there IS a problem, which I wish to set aside for a moment. What's important is simply the acknowledgement of all those necessary exo-relations. Bryant has a term for them in Democracy, Chapter 4 (pp. 169-170):
I refer to networks of exo-relations like this as “regimes of attraction”. Regimes of attraction are networks of fairly stable exo-relations among objects that tend to produce stable and repetitive local manifestations among the objects within the regime of attraction. Within a regime of attraction, causal relations can be bi-directional or symmetrical or unidirectional or asymmetrical. Bi-directional causation is a circular relation in which two or more entities reciprocally perturb one another in response to each other.
That’s what I’m after: “networks of fairly stable exo-relations that tend to produce stable and repetitive local manifestations among ... objects.” A regime of attraction* is a pattern over objects and relations. All oak trees require pretty much the same regime. Details will vary, of course, but the general requirements are fixed. My proposal is that, when considered at a sufficiently high level of generality and ranging over a diverse collection of objects, a regime becomes, in effect, a Realm of Being. Living Things could thus be thought of as a Realm of Being.

I note further that Bryant has recently outlined his next project in paper have gave this September at the University of Dundee, The Gravity of Things: An Introduction to Onto-Cartography (which you can download here). This onto-cartography seems to be, at least in abstract conception, similar to what I am proposing as Realms of Being. Bryant opens the paper with a discussion of gravity, first in the classical case where it involves action at a distance then in general relativity where it is reconceived as a curvature of space-time. He proposes a metaphorical sense of “gravity” which he uses in outlining onto-cartography.

Thus on pages 5 and 6: “In particular, a central thesis of onto-cartography is that space-time arises from things and signs. Onto-cartography is thus the practice of mapping the spatio-temporal paths, the gravitational fields, that arise from interactions among things.” Then, he takes up Braudel on 15th Century Cologne: “The infrastructure in which the Cologne of the 15th century was embedded formed a massive gravitational field defining spatio-temporal paths along which becoming and movement was structured.” After giving some examples and going on to emphasize that “All of these things are differences contributed not by signs, not by signifying differences, but by the properties of things themselves.” And then he arrives at this passage on page 12:
The practice of onto-cartography is simply the analysis or mapping of spatio-temporal gravitational paths produced by various things and signs in a given situation or world. If this practice must be empirical, then this is because nothing allows us to decide in advance what entities and semiotic beings inhabit a situation, how they interact, what paths they produce, how they behave in this particular context or environment, and so on. The project of onto-cartography is massive and likely not to be the work of any one person because it is profoundly multi-disciplinary, requiring knowledge of the natures of the things that inhabit the situation, their specific properties, literature, mythology, semiotics, political theory, history, various sciences, technologies, etc. The difficulty of this practice is further exacerbated by the fact that many things crucial to understanding the gravitational field of a situation never make it into texts or the archive; at least, the archive that people in the humanities tend to be familiar with.
From my point of view this passage confuses the analysis of what I’m calling Realms of Being, which is a philosophical task, with the analysis and discovery of causal mechanisms and laws, which belong to the many specialized empirical disciplines that have emerged over the last three millennia. How things interact, in an abstract sense I’ll discuss in the next section, that’s what I’m interested in. The philosophical project I’m proposing IS a large one, but it does not require that a philosopher be a physicist, a biochemist, a geologist, an archaeologist, a sociologist, and so forth. It only requires that the philosopher consult which with folks. It’s not at all clear to me that Bryant’s project entails.

Indirect Cause and Realms of Being

What them, IS IT that I am proposing? First I’ll deal with the problem of object autonomy, which I’d pushed aside, and then move on to his notion of vicarious or indirect causality.

In The Quadruple Object Harman says (p. 123): “An object is real when it forms an autonomous unit able to withstand certain changes in its pieces.” So, while all living things require and are dependent upon energy input and appropriate nutrients, each individual organism retains its identity as an object despite the replacement of all its atomic parts (that is, individual atoms) over time. Even replacement or modification of parts at large scales will not necessarily destroy or degrade the identity of individual living things. That is the sense in which these objects are autonomous.

The existence of Realms of Being can be derived from Harman’s notion of causality, which he terms vicarious causation in a 2007 article and which became indirect causation in The Quadruple Object (Chapter 5). Here’s a passage from the 2007 essay, “On Vicarious Causation” (which you can find in Collapse, Vol II: Speculative Realism, p. 190):
For several centuries, philosophy has been on the defensive against the natural sciences, and now occupies a point of lower social prestige and, surprisingly, narrower subject matter. A brief glance at history shows that this was not always the case. To resume the offensive, we need only reverse the longstanding trends of renouncing all speculation on objects and volunteering for curfew in an ever-tinier ghetto of solely human realities: language, texts, political power. Vicarious causation frees us from such imprisonment by returning us to the heart of the inanimate world, whether natural or artificial. The uniqueness of philosophy is secured, not by walling off a zone of precious human reality that science cannot touch, but by dealing with the same world as the various sciences but in a different manner. In classical terms, we must speculate once more on causation while forbidding its reduction to efficient causation. Vicarious causation, of which science so far knows nothing, is closer to what is called formal cause. To say that formal cause operates vicariously means that forms do not touch one another directly, but somehow melt, fuse, and decompress in a shared common space from which all are partly absent.
So, there we have it. Science is stuck with “reduction to efficient cause” while philosophy has this vicarious causality to map out.

Though it took awhile for me to get used to it, I certainly have no objection to vicarious or indirect cause. As far as I can tell it amounts to saying that objects do not exhaust their “resources” through interaction with one another. As Harman says, he’s dealing with the “same world as the various sciences but in a different manner.” Yes.

In fact, it seems to me that what I’m up to is, in effect, looking at various typical and repeated patterns of vicarious causation and organizing them into Realms of Being (see, e.g., this post: Harman’s Ontology on a Single Level and Objects as Wells of Abundance). Something that “is closer to what is called formal cause” strikes me as being just the tool for that job. Realms of Being are revealed in the formal structure of causal relationships in the cosmos (yes, I know, “formal structure of cause” is not quite the same as “formal cause” but then neither is vicarious or indirect causation). Working out the causal laws and mechanisms is a job for the specialized disciplines. Working out the overall structure of causal relations is a job for philosophy.

Basics Revisited

With that in mind let me edit and amend Harman’s statement of the basic requirements of his metaphysics. The first two statements below are edited from Harman while I’ve added a third:
1. Individual entities of various different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

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

3. Realms of Being consist of specific kinds of entities in specific relations with one another.
I will even hazard a fourth proposition:
4. Our cosmos has evolved from one Realm to the many evident today. It is possible that Realms exist of which we are unaware. There is no obvious limit to the emergence of new Realms from existing ones.
Notice that I have removed Harman’s language of withdrawal. I prefer a language of plenitude, abundance, or fecundity.

It is because objects are inherently fecund that they can enter into an unbounded number and pattern of relations without exhaustion. Some of those patterns coalesce into new objects established upon new patterns of relations among themselves, thus yielding a new Realm with its own laws and relations. While the objects of this new Realm are constructed of objects and relations in pre-existing realms, they cannot be reduced to those objects and their relations.

So, What is the Scope of Metaphysics?

The scope of metaphysics thus DOES range over all the disciplines, as Harman asserted. And a general theory of objects is critical to this endeavor. But we need to augment that theory with a conception of patterns over objects and relations that are so consistent and widespread as to constitute Realms of Being.

It is the job of the metaphysician to identify those Realms. To do this the metaphysician must needs consult with in the many specialized disciplines, not to critique nor to reconstruct, but learn. What must the metaphysician learn? Whatever is necessary to get the job done.

That will have to be negotiated, negotiated among metaphysicians and specialists, and among metaphysicians themselves. I see no way of setting guidelines before the fact. The only thing to do is to wade in and get muddy with details.

* * * * *

* The term itself, “regime of attraction,” is an unfortunate example of the scientism that infests Bryant’s thought, but I don’t want to argue that point here as I’ve already done so in two other posts, one on entropy and another on attractors and phase space. The important point is the Bryant’s insight, that we should examine “networks of fairly stable exo-relations among objects”, does not depend on his misconstrued notions of phase space and attractors.


  1. I think I see what they are on about but may be bias on my part, I use the term pattern of reinforcement.

    "The only thing to do is to wade in and get muddy with details."

    Yes, I don't read much in English lit. rather limited to online O.O.O, cant say it strikes me as doing this, really I have no idea what it is up to. It uses text I am very familiar with but imposes a very different argument on them. It looks like an attempt to jackhammer texts to fit contemporary theory and discussion.

    I may be wrong it may be doing something else I am unaware of its an utterly alien culture and one I am not particularly inclined to want to understand more. Its not very open, only seems to refer to itself and seems in this regard somewhat conservative and a bit sneering. But I dislike labels and identifying with specific groups so again may simply be me and my particular set of dislikes, but O.O.O ticks a large number of boxes here in the manner it expresses itself.

    What it says and what it does appear to be somewhat contradictory to my eyes.

  2. Yes, OOO is very much its own world with its own jargon, though a jargon in the Continental tradition of philosophy. And, though it talks of objects, it's not at all "hands on." I not sure any philosophy is, but this sure is not.

  3. My comments are slightly unfair and repetitive made this point before.

    I really liked early work by J.J. Cohen it remind me of a more sophisticated version of what I was trying to do. I did not feel the need to read anymore further as his work was too theoretical for my taste. Was concerned that my own ideas were perhaps more influenced by the contemporary world around me than the sources themselves at the time and thought well I seem to have already drawn similar conclusions go my own road see what happens.

    But reading his stuff at the time was great as it gave me confidence had not come across anyone before who seemed so on topic.

    Recent stuff (only start reading it again after a ten year break) does nothing for me, get the occasional flash of agreement and in some of what is being written seems to have lost its way completely for me.

    I posted this today for entirely other matters but retrospectively it makes me wonder about O.O.O in English lit.


    Some times I wonder if it is something to do with the culture of American institutions. My post grad course was primarily filled with American students they had a very different far more competitive approach.

    The scale is also vast, huge number of people working in comparison to this side of the pond. I guess you may have to shout louder and maintain a distinct identity.

    Worry I may be losing something interesting but wading through the noise takes to much time

    1. "Worry I may be losing something interesting but wading through the noise takes to much time."

      I understand the problem. Not much you can do. Your own work has to take precedence.