Objects and Joints

I realized today, while browsing Philip Kitcher’s book “Science, Truth and Democracy”, one of the things I find fascinating about object-oriented philosophy: That it inverses the claims of the kind of “weak realism” so common in the kind of analytic philosophy that is sensitive to pragmatism without being Richard Rorty. Philip Kitcher is a classic example.

Kitcher defends a version of a correspondence theory of truth, it seems, and presents an extended (and I really mean extended, it constitutes an entire chapter) analogy to cartography in order to make his point. Quite interesting, in fact. Now, as far as I understand no version of object-oriented philosophy accepts representation and truth as correspondence, favoring instead concepts like translation and so on.

However, Kitcher rejects the possibility of “carving nature at the joints”. Kitcher describes the view he opposes as follows: “The world comes to us prepackaged into units, and a proper account of the truth and objectivity of the sciences must incorporate the idea that we aim for, and sometimes acheive, descriptions that correspond to the natural divisions.” (Kitcher, p. 43). Such a view cannot be maintained, he claims, since we divide the world into units based on our own interests, and any claim that one can pick out “natural” objects or divisions is inevitably colored by our own interests and capacities. Dividing the space around me into tables, chairs, windows and walls is natural for me, but I cannot claim that it is natural tout court.

Against this, object-oriented philosophy claims that one can distinguish objects from pseudo-objects. The point has been made on several occasions, but perhaps most clearly by Graham Harman in this post on his blog. Here, he makes two points: 1) That one can never know for sure whether an object is a real object or a pseudo-object. 2) That this does not rule out the possibility of distinguishing between them, on an a posteriori and revisable basis. In other words, it is possible to carve objects at their joints, though one will always remain fallible in doing so.

In other words, Kitcher’s weak realism keeps correspondence truth, and rejects joints of nature. Object-oriented philosophy, on the other hand, rejects correspondence truth, but keeps the joints of nature, i.e., of objects.

But Philip Kitcher’s way of arguing against the “carving nature/objects at their joints” thesis highlights something interesting. For his main point is that the carving can only ever be “natural” for us, with our specific interests in mind. That conclusion obviously cannot be admitted by object-oriented philosophy, since the objects it aims to understand are supposed to be (except obviously human-related objects like nations and so on) independent of humans and human existence. Nonetheless, I think there is a pretty strong pragmatist argument against the “joints of nature/objects” thesis. And I am not sure those arguments can be countered simply by the standard anti-correlationist rejoinders, and will try to outline why in another post. In any case I’m curious to see what arguments there are that objects have natural joints, as well as what criteria can be mounted for distinguishing the joints, i.e., separating the real objects from the pseudo-objects. In other words: 1) Can an object-oriented philosophy afford a distinction between object and pseudo-object? 2) If so, can the distinction be used in practice, and by what means?

In Harman’s reading of Delanda, he suggests that the main criterion of a real object as opposed to a pseudo-object is redundant causation. He says: “The basic idea is that the same emergent assemblage might have arisen from any number of different processes, rendering the exact details of its history irrelevant”. I have to admit that I fail to grasp how redundant causation is to function as a criterion of a real object. But I’ve ordered Delanda’s book from the library, and look forward to reading it. I’ve just noticed a reading group dedicated to the book has begun, which I will now want to follow closely, I might even try to participate if I can get the book in time.

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