what, then, is a quality?

The question is Peirce’s, from his “The Principles of Phenomenology.” His answer is one I endorse, but I would quibble with him about it is one born out of phenomenology. Against those who would have qualities depend upon the mind of their observer, Peirce thinks of qualities as dispositions inherent in objects. He does not use the language of disposition, but rather the language of potentiality. But he is clear that by ‘potentiality’ he does not mean potentiality as lack of actuality, but potentiality as a real capacity, and not merely some dormant can-be-actualized-but-that-depends-on-actualization. His whole discussion hooks up with Shaviro’s recent commentary on Molnar’s Powers, and works in support of my account of sensations. Here’s Peirce:

[A quality] is not anything which is dependent, in its being, upon mind, whether in the form of sense or in that of thought. Nor is it dependent, in its being, upon the fact that some material thing possesses it. That quality is dependent upon sense is the great error of the conceptualists. That it is dependent upon the subject in which it is realized is the great error of all the nominalistic schools. A quality is a mere abstract potentiality; and the error of those schools lies in holding that the potential, or possible, is nothing but what the actual makes it to be. (‘The Principles of Phenomenology’, in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler, Dover, 1955, pp. 84-85)

Peirce argues in the following way: an object that is red in the light is, by common sense, believed to be red when the lights go out. Now, if you believe that they are no longer red in the dark, then you must hold that they assume some other color in the dark, or that they become indeterminate with respect to their properties. Or you may believe that the object is no longer red, but that it has taken on some other determine color in the dark. In the latter case, there is no reason to suppose a specific quality that is not red; under the former, you still maintain the the object has some qualities, in which case you believe that the object possesses qualities that are not dependent on the perceiver.

As to the question of the indeterminacy of unperceived qualities, he reasons thus:

If, however, you hold that the bodies become indeterminate in regard to the qualities they are not actually perceived to possess, then, since this is the case at any moment in regard to the vast majority of the qualities of all bodies, you must hold that generals exist. In other words, it is concrete thins you do not believe in; qualities, that is, generals–which is another words for the same thing–you not only believe in but believe that they alone compose the universe. Consistency, therefore, obliges you to say that the red body is red (or has some colour) in the dark, and that the bard body has some degree of hardness when nothing is pressing upon it. (p. 85)

I’m in agreement with this ideas that red and hardness persist as real qualities even when no one is around to perceive them. It coheres with my idea of what sensation is, as I began to outline in brief here. What I’m keen to defend is the view that sensations really reside in things; that things emanate to radiate sensations, and that an object is in one respect a conspiracy of qualities whose autonomy is embodied in its singular capacity/disposition/power to effect other objects. In the end–and this will constitute my attempt to think objects in their own right–I’m working toward a speculative aesthetics that will try to imagine a world where qualities conspire into objects and exchange sensations without the facilitation of humans or other sentient creatures. Peirce, I think, is an ally in this project, although his phenomenology is not really an object-oriented ontology.

powers, dispositions (shaviro on molnar)

Steven Shaviro has a thorough post up on George Molnar’s book, Powers. This is great to see, as I think Molnar’s concept of powers, or Mumford’s account of dispositions, has something to offer the SR debates. I’ve drawn on Mumford in my own work, as I’ve found it a nice way to talk about plastic identities. Some brief remarks are here.

Molnars ontology, as Shaviro notes, relies on the notion that things/objects possess properties (‘powers), such as solubility or fragility, that are not reducible to their physical makeup. They harbor, then, ‘dormative powers’ that are perhaps most recognizable by folks working in medieval philosophy. While a fan of Molnar’s book, it seems that Harman remains suspicious of the idea that objects bear any kind of vis dormativa, as he says in some recent comments in response to I.H. Grant.  Shaviro points out the Harman/Molnar parallel:

The parallels with speculative realism go further; Molnar insists, as much as Graham Harman does, that a thing, or an object, is not just a bundle of properties or characteristics, but exists in its own right apart from and in addition to these. (Although Molnar, unlike Harman, endorses the basic scientistic move of reducing objects to their ultimate subatomic constituents, he doesn’t make the claim that this somehow renders objects of the sort that we can see and touch illusory).

But Shaviro goes on to point out that whereas Harman endorses what he calls a ‘vicarious’ causation, Molnar asserts the directness of causality. He also clears up a question I had in an earlier post about whether or not powers are virtual or actual, in the Deleuzean sense. Shaviro claims that powers for Molnar are actual in all instances, even when they are not being exercised:

The insistence on actual causality, and on actual relations (causality being one form of relation), makes for a significant difference between Molnar and Harman. Contra Harman, Molnar rejects any sort of “occasionalism”; he insists that causality is direct — and not merely “vicarious.” Like Harman and against Deleuze, Molnar claims that powers, even when they are not being exercised, are entirely actual qualities of things — they cannot be regarded as “virtual” or “potential.” They fully exist even when they are not manifested in particular events, as a result of particular relational encounters. But against Harman, Molnar insists that relations are as primary an ontological category as things or objects are.

I wonder if this does not mean that powers are virtual when dormant, rather than actual? If I have understood him, Deleuze wants to say that the virtual is real although not actual; it is more than mere potential, but less than actuality. In which case an unbroken vase is virtually fragile (possesses the real power of fragility) but its fragility is not actualized.

Shaviro goes on to draw some helpful connections with Spinoza and others. Check them out.

build a book

Thomas Gokey shows you how to build your own copy of The Speculative Turn. This is beautiful craft.

Perhaps the future of the local bookshop will be based on the DIY principle: bring in your own PDF and we’ll either assemble or help you assemble your own custom hard version of the text. Or maybe you can just do it at home using Thomas’s tutorials. In any case, anyone anxious about the future of the book will no doubt take solace in what Thomas is up to.