On the Ontological Principle

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In my previous post, I outlined Levi’s Principle of Translation, which states that “all transportation is translation.” This principle opposes the idea that objects are mere passive items which simply acquisece to influences upon them. Instead, onticology is an ontology of resistant objects, which struggle with each other. The point of these dramatic metaphors is to insist that influences must be taken up by objects, where this involves a ‘fusion of differences’. For example, when oxygen and water cause iron to rust, then the iron itself is active here, entering into a network with the oxygen and water to produce the difference, rather than being a mere container for their effects.

One of the philosophical upshots of this principle is that objects are not simply vehicles of some set of differences. In other words, they are not inert items that can have a form imposed upon them and yet not redound upon the process of formation. I think Levi thinks this is significant because it is incompatible with certain types of correlationism, where a correlate would determine objects without being determined and with the object playing no role in its determination. (Again, I will stress that I think the concept of correlationism is a red herring.) In this way, it helps to avoid Levi’s Hegemonic Fallacy, namely that difference cannot be reduced to ‘one difference that makes all the difference’ or ‘the most important difference’.

I take the Hegemonic Fallacy to be Levi’s main target. This is significant because it not only sets him against correlationism but also against the speculative realisms of people like Ray Brassier. Brassier embraces eliminativist lines of thought and would doubtless not shrink from the charge of scientism. Here, materialism would seem to introduce matter as ‘one difference that makes all the difference.’ In contrast, Levi is keen not to debunk the human and his ontology is oriented to be open ended and inquiry led: if it is found to make a difference, then it is real — whether it be Oedipus, evil, Edith Piath or an electron. This is captured in the Ontological Principle which results from the Ontic Principle: “Being is said in a single and same sense for all that is.” Indeed, this is all that Levi thinks can be said about being qua being; thus, ontology must be pursued on the ontic level, dealing with beings themselves.

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The Ontological Principle demands a flat ontology. One contrast here would be with vertical ontologies, where one sort of being overdetermine the rest. Correlationism and platonism would fit the bill here. However, Levi refuses to equate the univocality of being with a univocality of translations. In other words, no one type of being dominates others, and they all sit alongside each other, but that does not mean that every object must act and be acted upon in the same way. This comes out in this Deleuze passage which he quotes:

Being is said in a single and same sense [...] of all its individuating differences or intrinsic modalities. Being is the same for all these modalities, but these modalities are not the same. — Difference and Repitition, p.36

So, we can make sense of existence at “different levels of scale” whereby each level is not reducible without remainder into another level. This idea — no reduction without remainder — Levi calls the Principle of Irreduction. One consequence of this principle is that “the relation between individuals is not one where one type of individual explains the rest without remainder, but where processes of translation must take place.” Levi’s example is DNA. It is a condition of my body existing and explains my anatomy, but cannot serve as an autonomous explanation since it must act upon resistant objects which take up that action according to their affections: “DNA, in unfolding, must nonetheless undergo translation as it transports itself [...] and the body formed in translation with DNA produces its own differences.”

It is at this point which I am interested in the explanatory consequences of onticology. This is because I am sympathetic to something like the Ontological Principle and also want to accomodate different explanatory modalities within it (note here that my concern is primarily explanatory rather than metaphysical, though I don’t think I am guilty of Levi’s Epistemic Fallacy). In my case, I want to hold onto a form of naturalism which does not degenerate into scientism. Thus, I reject supernatural entities, like divine beings, along with platonic Forms (sympathetic readings of Plato aside). But I also resist any hegemonic move on behalf of the natural sciences to act as final arbiter for acceptable forms of explanation. The main clash here come with our understanding of rational agency, which I think neither requires nor can be given an exhaustive explanation in natural-scientific terms. This is because many of the locutions which we (legitimately) use in explanations of rational agency — such as ‘justified’, ‘perceptive’ and ‘immoral’ — are not employed as empirical descriptions of behaviour but ascriptions of a standing in what Sellars calls the ‘space of reasons.’ A different mode of intelligibility is required to characterise the empirical properties of natural objects than to characterise rational proprieties like entitlement, permission or inaccuracy.

The claim that this sort of rational intelligibility is irreducible to empirical intelligibility can be expressed by saying that the space of reasons is sui generis. It is this claim which I think we need to maintain, where Levi’s talk of the mind’s translations not being special seemed to threaten it. He has now clarified his position, where his talk of the lack of the mind’s specialness is only meant to stretch to it not being included in every relation. So, it seems that on these grounds there may be no source of objection to my approach, though there may be other reasons to object to it which stem from onticology. Nevertheless, in the next post I will fulfil my promise to say more about how we should understand the distinctively spontaneous translations of the subject, and how this bears upon metaphysical issues.

On the Principle of Translation

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Levi has been developing a version of object-oriented philosophy which he calls ‘onticology’. In doing so, he recommends understanding objects as ‘actors’ which produce ‘differences’ in each other. Significantly, these modes of production include but are not limited to causality, such that anything which produces differences counts as acting. I am not sure exactly what sorts of non-causal production Levi wants to allow here, but we might think of examples like individuation, such that something counts as information, say, because of its place in a informational network even if it does not have to be in causal relations with all the parts that make up the network. So, objects can act in both causal and non-causal ways. Levi thinks that we should understand this action in terms of translation:

The Principle of Translation states that there is no transportation without translation. What I mean by this is that when the difference of one object acts on another object it translates or transforms that difference in a way unique to the receiving object. Thus, for example, my pepper plant “translates” the difference of sunlight producing energy in the form of sugars that it uses to produce its fruit and leaves. The process of translation thus transforms the differences of other objects in a way particular to the object doing the translation.

A second way in which Levi expresses this idea is in terms of affect (in Spinoza’s sense). The affective aspects of objects are those through which it can act and be acted upon. If influences upon objects must be transmitted through their affections, then there is a sense in which the production of difference in an object must be particular to it. Levi’s example of this is the neutrino, whose small mass, high speed, and lack of charge leaves it with a limited set of causal powers to act and be acted upon.

Thirdly, Levi frames his Principle of Translation in terms of an extreme radicalisation of the Kantian insight about the activity of the subject, which he claims “transforms data of the world such that it does not represent the world as it is “in-itself””. The polemical suggestion is that Kant did not go far enough — why stop with subjects? So, Levi advocates a “generalized Kantianism of objects”. All objects are active because they transform what affects them, just as Kant rejects the Lockean idea that the mind is passive with respect to what effects it. This forms part of the call for a flat ontology, which develops a univocal analysis of objects which treats subjectivity and sociality as contiguous with everything else.

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There is something to be said for a flat ontology. We ought to be wary of supposing that reality contains discrete levels, where the relations between them become hard to fathom. For instance, Cartesian dualism is reviled for good reason; it is understandable how it arose in response to the pressures of a mechanistic philosophy of nature, but it nonetheless invites mystification. So too, more recent appeals to sociality risk reprising its mistakes in another key. Latour has done much to expose the emptiness of those sorts of social explanation which do not pursue to the composition of the social itself, and which he sees as the primary task of sociology. Levi introduces a further worry, that we turn to a vertical ontology, where one ontological level dominates — subjectivity being present in all relations, for example, as certain ‘correlationists’ are meant to believe (though see my previous posts on Meillassoux for my reservations about the charge of correlationism). But I think this should be kept distinct from the epistemological problems which would be created from a discontinuous ontology, which appear to force on us the explanatory task of showing how these distinct levels of reality interact. This kind of gap-bridging task — which rarely fares well — is the main fallout of non-flat ontologies.

Even with these difficulties in mind, I think that some of the aspects of Levi’s attempt to construct a flat ontology ought to be resisted. There is something distinctive about subjects which makes some forms of flat ontology problematic. We can talk both about objects translating objects and about subjects translating objects. But the translations of the subject include those of a unique kind, which are not adequately addressed by simply increasing the complexity of a unitary flat ontology. So, there is no objection to saying that objects are active and possess affections which translate influences upon them in particularised ways. But there is a highly significant type of activity which subjects engage in, which the Kantian tradition characterises as spontaneous. It is in virtue of their spontaneity that subjects are responsible for the translations which they undergo: and this brings with it many of the traditional distinguishing traits which have been used to mark out subjects, namely freedom, normativity, rationality and intentionality. In the next post, I shall say more about how we should understand the spontaneity of subjects and how that impacts upon metaphysical issues.

Realism and Correlationism: Some preliminaries

Over at Larval Subjects, Now-Times and Perverse Egalitarianism there has been a fractious debate regarding realism which has gone on for some time. This is in the wake of ‘speculative realism’ coming to increased prominence, under the influence of Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman. This realism has been contrasted with a correlationist position, which is taken to infect much contemporary philosophy.

Meillassoux introduced the term ‘correlationism’ to describe a non-realist position which claims that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” (AF: 5) As Meillassoux also puts it, the correlationist denies that it is possible to ‘consider’ the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Of course, this could mean any number of things. Whether correlationism proves to be a useful philosophical category depends upon how this claim is spelled out.

Kant is supposed to be the paradigm correlationist. This is because Kant was meant to disallow us knowledge of any object subsisting ‘in itself’. Instead, knowledge was to be restricted to objects as they are ‘for us’. Thus, Kant is said to have eroded the pre-critical distinction between primary and secondary qualities, since even central candidates for the status of primary qualities (such as its mathematisable ones) must be “conceived as dependent upon the subject’s relation to the given — as a form of representation.” (AF: 4)

Does Kant’s position get fairly characterised by the new realists? A lot of acrimony has resulted from the attempt to answer this question in discussions between Levi, Alexei and Mikhail. Both sides are now pretty entrenched, and that is when they are on speaking terms. I don’t want to reignite these ‘Kant wars’ but I will offer some comments on this issue in the next few posts.

Firstly, Levi has expressed some dismay that this question has become a focal point at all. It is, he thinks, another sign of a kind of hermeneuticism endemic in continental philosophy, which drives philosophers into endless debates over the meaning of texts at the expense of assessing their truth. Of course, detailed textual work is often extremely valuable, but — the concern is — many philosophers have stopped reading the work of Kant, Heidegger or Deleuze as tools in a larger quest to understand the world, but have taken this activity to be an end-in-itself. It is true that this is a problem, and I am equally frustrated when scholars turn into scholastics. But I do not think the charge applies in this instance.

Levi claims that Kant is the ‘inventor’ of correlationism and is a central example of a correlationist (though by no means a unique one). Moreover, there is repeated reference to his position — and perhaps more importantly, his vocabulary — in contrasting correlationism and the new realism. If there is a dispute over Kant’s position, where there is a risk of it being unclear, it is important to at least articulate this. Otherwise, the exposition of correlationism risks being unclear — where it has been to me, for one, until getting a handle on what reading of Kant is in play here (for example, regarding how ‘in itself/for us’ is being understood). More importantly though, Kant gives us a detailed and nuanced treatment of the ways in which being might be taken to be related to thought. If that account was buried under a problematic reading of him, then the substantive debate risks being all the poorer as a result. These two considerations should have some weight even amongst those for whom understanding Kant’s own thought is a secondary consideration.

Secondly then, moving to the issue proper, I want to flag some of my concerns over the use made of Kant. In these matters, I am predominantly in agreement with Alexei, who I think has done a sterling job in this respect. I suspect this is because we are familiar with much of the same recent literature on Kant which brings out just how complex and well-crafted a project transcendental idealism is. Here, I am thinking of Kant scholars such as Henry Allison, Karl Ameriks, Graeme Bird, Fred Beiser, Allen Wood, Onora O’Neill and Paul Guyer. Though by no means united, the sophistication of their approaches to Kant is commendable, and their sustained attention to detail has shown how Kant was aware of many of the standard charges against him (subjectivism, a priorism, emptiness, etc.) and either responded to them or developed the resources to do so. The point is not to be an apologist for Kant but to do justice to the power of his thought insofar as it promises to help us understand the world. I think that it still can, even if I am not (just as Alexei and Mikhail are not) a paid-up Kantian.

In the posts that follow, I will concentrate on three cases, with an eye towards why the readings of Kant matter. (I won’t address the recent hot topic concerning time and ancestrality, since I can’t devote the energy to it, especially as tempers are flaring once again.). Again, the aim will be to show why a focus on Kant is not a morbid fixation but a useful piece of the puzzle. I want to show how the cases I’ll look at bear upon substantive issues in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, even when abstracted from the historical issue of what Kant thought. Also, I shall try to counter the second-guessing of the motivations of critics of speculative realism, providing some symptomatological musings of my own. However, I also want to issue a plea for a bit of old-fashioned bourgeois civility, which would not go amiss on all sides. I’ve no interest in questioning other people’s intelligence or integrity. This said, the next post will be about what Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, and which Meillassoux and Levi attribute to correlationists.