I noticed this on Leiter’s blog. This is a great resource, for sure.
The other day I bought in a used bookstore an introductory text on cognitive science by Paul Thagard. Inside this book I found a list of 47 items titled ‘Life’s To Do List’. Admittedly, the juxtaposition of a list like this–written in an adolescent, loopy handwriting, partly in blue and partly in pink–with a book from MIT Press on cog sci is odd, if not plainly bizarre. Most of the items on the list are cliches: #1 Find true love; #5 Watch sunset on the beach; #27 Go on a carriage ride. The fact that #29 ‘VEGAS!’ follows #28 ‘Give bone marrow & save someone’ is humorous and endearing at the same time.
I say that the list is cliched, but it’s also unbearably hopeful and sincere. My impression is that it’s written by someone quite young or somewhat restricted in their activities. They have never slept under the stars (which is easily crossed off the list, I think) or picked wildflowers in a field or owned a pet or written a love letter. To find this list, at this moment in my life, in a book on cognitive science, has left an impression on me. I’m torn in many directions at once.
I skipped over this paragraph from Levi’s latest post, wherein he basically renders redundant my post on potentiality.
I fully endorse Harman-Latour’s critique of the concept of potentiality as it is posed. In my view, the challenge is to think a concept of potentiality that does not treat an object as already containing actualities of what the object will be in virtual form (as in the case of an acorn already containing the adult oak tree, but virtually). Along these lines, I’ve tried to argue, following Deleuze, that there is no resemblance between a power, potentiality, or potency, and the actuality that it comes to actualize. Potentiality, power, potency is pure capacity, pure “can-do”, pure ability. As such, it tells us nothing of the form that the actualized power will take when it becomes a quality or what I call a local manifestation. These potentialities are what I call, following Spinoza, “affects”, or the capacity to affect and be affected. They are structures of the object, they aren’t featureless, yet they do not embody any determinate qualities. In this regard, it is completely misleading to suggest that the power of an acorn contains an oak tree. No, acorns contain the possibility of all sorts of unique and aleatory movements (under specific conditions) that might become an oak tree.
I need to read more carefully and thoroughly next time.
There’s been a discussion unfolding at Larval Subjects on the status of potentiality, along with some of the questions that the concept raises for object-oriented philosophy. Levi’s gone back and forth with Michael of Archive Fire, generating a lot of content for discussion and disagreement. Since I’m working through Harman’s Prince of Networks, and fortuitously ran across some stuff on potency, I’d like to add some thoughts on potency to the discussion, particularly as they arise in Latour’s concept of actants.
The concept of potentiality is a necessary one, I think, but it has at least a couple of senses to it that may be easily run together. The first is its teleological sense, which we find in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The second is less determinate and might be called the indeterminate sense, which is what I take Levi to have in mind when he talks about capacities for affection. Another way to characterize this difference would be to say that there is a filled and an empty form of potentiality, the former being teleological and the latter indeterminate or vanishingly small. Let’s take the ready-to-hand idea of an acorn to flesh this out.
We can look at the acorn as potentially a full-grown oak tree, which is to say that in some sense it is actually a tree. We can mean that this potentiality is in the acorn, really in it, and that the acorn is destined to be an oak tree. It posses the algorithm or recipe that will results in an oak tree. On this reading–which is the teleological reading–the acorn is read less as what it actually is, an acorn, and more as what it is supposed to become. The potentiality of the acorn is thus full of the reality of the tree, which is not to say that the acorn contains the fully-formed oak tree, but that something like the oak tree-as-telos is really in the acorn. (It’s cheating to ask where this is, so don’t ask that.) This potentiality enables the acorn to change into a tree, but it constrains the acorn to change only into the tree. Any other sort of change or failure of growth must be seen as a kind of corruption of the acorn’s potential, or a malfunction of the program that is supposed to generate the tree as a result.
Another way of looking at the acorn is to look at is as fully actualized. This is taking the acorn on its own terms, rather than reading it as something that is not-yet-a-tree. I would prefer to take the acorn on its own terms, just as I think we need to see children as actual entitires, rather than immature proto-adults (as I touched upon in a distant post). Leave them kids (and acorns) alone! This is just another way of saying that we should look at immaturity affirmatively, rather than negatively (or as a lack). If the acorn is seen as fully actual, with no potential, then we get the question, ‘But how do we then explain change’? This question is quickly answered if we take the acorn to be fully actualized, but with potentiality (in its indeterminate, empty form) as part of that actuality. Potentiality would merely be the capacity to change or be changed, instead of a predetermined fate or essence. And here we may say that the indeterminate form of potentiality is effectively a kind of virtuality, if we mean by this term a form of potentiality that is real without being actual (this may entail an inconsistency, but I don’t feel like thinking through that proposal right now). In any case, with the empty form of potentiality we must regard change as coming from the outside of the acorn; change must be seen as an ecological event, not something explained on the basis of some superstitious plan that resides inside of the acorn and constitutes its really true essence. What the acorn becomes or changes into, then, is completely dependent on the other objects, actors, and agents conspiring with or against it. Here is where I think Latour is quite helpful.
Before moving onto Latour, let me just add that if we hold to a teleological notion of potentiality, then we cannot see the acorn as being anything but an immature oak tree. We might find it obvious to think that the acorn cannot grown into the north tower of the World Trade Center or anything else besides and oak tree. That’s fine. But if we begin to think of the promise of genetic modification, then we quickly come to imagine future acorns that look like your standard issue acorn but actually grow into, say, an elm tree. It is politically dangerous, too, to think of an infant girl as fundamentally a potential adult woman. This kind of thinking only sets us up to judge any deviations from womanhood–social, aesthetic, behavioral, biological, surgical, performative, what have you–as a form of deviance, and not in a positive sense. The full sense of potentiality can only see deviations as accidents or corruptions, which is wrong. Such thinking leads us to the absurd conclusion that an acorn that fails to grow into an oak tree is somehow unreal or only partly real, and this simply because it did not fulfill its destiny. The mistake is to align potentiality with destiny or fate. Likewise, it seems to imply that a person’s profession or social role is external to who they are, a mere accident tacked onto their true nature. An infant is a potential adult, an adult is an actualized person. That’s the nature of things. Unless you want to say that a person is born a blue collar worker or born a CEO, but I don’t suspect that many want to say such things anymore. That they are a professional writer, dancer, or plumber is not an expression of their potential (it would seem), but just a contingent accessory that can be removed like a layer of clothing. This seems both true and false. On the one hand we tend to think of person’s as defined or constituted by what they do, but on the other hand we do not want to say that this constitution is necessary. But it is necessary, because given the actuality of things (and the series of events leading up to tending from this actuality) the world could not have been otherwise. This is not the work of potentiality, but the result of a series of actual events whose dynamic generation we cannot possibly diagram or imagine (I’ve got Spinoza on the brain here).
Latour’s concept of actant does a better job at dealing with things and accounting for their action. It does so by letting things be what they are at any given moment. (Most of this is taken from Harman’s Prince of Networks, pp. 28-29). Harman points out that Latour dismisses the idea of potentiality just like he dismisses the notion of power, both of which explain nothing and tell us nothing about objects. Latour is a full-blown actualist. Now, I think it’s possible to see Latour’s actualism as compatible with what I’m calling the empty form of potentiality. So, besides the fact that it doesn’t explain anything, what’s bad about potentiality, for Latour? For one thing, it absolutely neglects the way in which objects depend upon others for their capacities to act or to be. It is to regard the acorn as something that does not need water, sun, and soil to grow. As though an acorn left on its own would become the oak tree it was meant to be. Potentiality, then, leads to a kind of metaphysical isolationism that simply does not exist in the grand scheme of things (but see Levi’s recent post on ‘dark objects’), and at the practical level leads us to ignore all of the ‘minor’ players–valets, janitors, gusts of wind, dust particles–that are needed to sustain the ‘major’ figures–heads of state, business executives, college deans, medium-sized objects like tables, dirt mounds, cars. As Harman puts it (p. 28), ‘The claim to have potential is the claim to be more than what one currently is, without admitting that one must haggle and borrow to change one’s current state’. And sometimes, or perhaps always, the haggling and borrowing is an asymmetrical affair where one side is the dominating force and the other the quiescent. Just think of the Strauss-Kahn business lately. See how fragile his ‘power’ is, and notice all the things conspiring against him, from texts and tweets to large-scale media coverage and New York law enforcement officials. Potentiality is not something possessed, it is rather something that is enacted by the allies and enemies to which one finds oneself attached.
Thinking about objects as actants compels us to see them as fundamentally relational and dependent on others for their actuality and change. Does this mean, worries the object-oriented philosopher, that object reduce to their relations? Not necessarily. It does not follow that an object lacking potential will be exhausted by its relations, for none of those relations fully capture the object or cause it to be everything it can be. Objects, as Harman puts it, withdraw from any given relation. To take a common example in this discussion, a cotton ball will not be exhausted by the application of flame, just as the application of water does not exhaust that same cotton ball. We need not say that the cotton ball is potentially flammable and potentially soggy, and so sogginess and burning are already contained within it. It is possible to simply take the wet or burning cotton ball as disparate events, neither of which contains–or is deducible from–the other. Harman cites Aristotle, Metaphysics IX: does a sleeping builder cease to be someone who builds while asleep? Of course not, answers Aristotle, because the ability to build is potentially in the builder. But why say this? Why not say that the builder is only a builder upon awakening provided that the tools, crew, materials, and mental and physical abilities that conspired before going to bed actually conspire upon awakening. Failing this conspiracy, the builder ceases to be a builder actually and potentially. Everything hinges on the actual ecology of things, to use Bennett’s phrase.
If it takes a whole confederation of objects and forces to actualize something, and if potentiality does not exist fully formed in an object, then in what sense might something be said to have potential? To the extent that it can negotiate or vie, or be compelled to act, by other actants–this is the empty (or minimal) form of potentiality. Objects change. Perhaps we have to postulate an originary clinamen to explain how the chain of change got started; so maybe we have to hold to that speculative proposition to get things off the ground. Once in motion, I think that seeing things as actants does just as much to understand them as framing things in terms of teleological potentiality. Instead of looking for ghostly potencies, however, we have to get on our hands and knees to see how things actually interact.
Levi’s got a string of recent posts clarifying the difference between objects, actants, and processes. The latest post proposes the concept of ‘dark objects’, or objects that exist without having any effect on other objects. It’s worth reading all the posts together, if only to see how Levi’s OOO differs from the process-relational view on objects, championed by Adrian of Immanence and others. It will be interesting to see, now that both Adrian and Levi have purchased Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead, how things shake out concerning the master of process philosophy. I anticipate that Leon of After Nature will have some useful things to say, too, especially with regard to how Peirce figures into the mix.
Although I’m still a bit reluctant about my grasp of Noe’s position, I think I understand his position on the reality of properties. Say the problem we’re concerned with is something like, If I can only ever access an object from a particular perspective, can I ever claim that the object really is x, y, or z? Noe says yes, we can. He offers the example of a plate when discussing shape and a wall when discussing color. The plate really is round; the wall really does have a color. (This idea that color is real deserves its own post, so I’ll be brief about it here.)
Perception is an embodied process. As such we can only get a look at things from particular perspective. When we look at a plate from a particular angle, it appears elliptical. Why is this? Because round objects like plates appear elliptical to embodied, perceiving beings like us. This is one of their objective properties. Noe calls these ‘P-properties’ (perspectival properties). These P-properties only manifest themselves relationally, but this does not mean that they are subjective. They are real components of experience, they reside not in our minds but in perceptual experience.
By the same token, the color of an object is something that varies as we change our view on the colored object or as the ambient conditions of the room (say) change. Perception always involves a triangle of experiential elements: subject, object, ambient condition (what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘levels’). But if the color is constantly changing and can only appear to a being with the sensorimotor capability to pick up the light reflected off the surface of the colored object, doesn’t that mean that color doesn’t really exist, or that it’s subjective? Not at all. We can tell the actual color of an object because we understand how a given colored object responds to our shift in perspective or the changes of environmental conditions (lighting, shade, etc.). Colored objects are disposed to change appearance in certain determinate ways; to have a given color is to affect and be affected the environment in a finite set of ways.
The plate looks to be circular (it really does) and it looks elliptical from here (it really does). The wall looks to be uniform in color across its surface and it appears brighter, where it falls in direct light. A theory of perceptual content needs to acknowledge and account for this dual aspect of perceptual content. (Action in Perception, 164)
Noe’s ‘enactive’ view of perception can account for both aspects. For Noe, perception is a way of accessing how things are and how things look. (A lot of his argument hangs on the distinction between how things are and how they look, which is and is not equivalent to the noumenal/phenomenal distinction.) How do we get to the ‘thing itself’? By apprehending how it appears to us + understanding how this appearance varies for beings who actively engage objects. ‘How things look…is precisely a feature of the way things are. Looks are genuine, relational properties of things. But looks are not relations between things and your mind; they are relations between objects and the environment in which you find yourself as a perceiver’ (164). The key point here seems to be that we cannot take appearances/perspectives as a kind of wall that separates us from the way objects really are because we are embedded in the same environment as those objects. To perceive something is to enact the appearances afforded by that something, not to occlude the reality of that something by erecting a wall between the phenomenal thing and the thing in itself.
John Berger is releasing a new book inspired by Spinoza called Bento’s Sketchbook. Here’s the description from Verso’s site:
The seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza—also known as Benedict or Bento de Spinoza—spent the most intense years of his short life writing. A sporadic draughtsman, he also carried with him a sketchbook. After his sudden death, his friends rescued letters, manuscripts, notes—but no drawings.
For years, John Berger has imagined finding Bento’s sketchbook without knowing what its pages might hold, but wanting to see the drawings alongside his surviving words. When one day a friend gave Berger a beautiful, virgin sketchbook, John said “This is Bento’s!” and he began to draw, taking his inspiration from the philosopher’s vision.
The result is Bento’s Sketchbook—an exploration of the practice of drawing and a meditation on how art guides our gaze to the world: to flowers, to the human body, to the pitilessness of the new world order and the forms of resistance to it.
Leon has posted a generous reply to my questions of yesterday. One thing I should say straight off is that I think Leon is doing important work bringing Peirce into the continental discussion, so I’m eager to learn from him. I’m reading more Peirce because of him! For now I’d like to pull out two quotes from his post and push him to say a little bit more. In the following quote I feel like there’s a bit of sleight-of-hand going on, a rick that is familiar in theophenomenology:
In a Scholastic manner Peirce basically states that its “fetishism” to say that God “exists” like a stone or tree “exists.” He is rather interested in how the natural world and its processes can lead one to find the hypothesis of a divine creator a compelling one, and once one adopts that hypothesis, to see what its practical effects upon conduct might be. There is also a phenomenological sort of reportage here: what is it like to experience the suggestion of such a hypothesis? In being awestruck, why is deity the most compelling hypothesis that the cosmos itself seems to suggest?
The trick is the transformation of religious sentiment into evidence for the divine, with the qualification that this is no irrational leap of faith, but something completely natural. There are books out there about a ‘faith instinct’, which isn’t really what Leon is talking about here. But if we want naturalistic grounds for religious faith, perhaps a faith instinct theory could buttress Peirce’s firstness-feeling for God in the NA (“Neglected Argument”)?
Here’s the second quote, on Spinoza:
Spinoza. With Spinoza’s God, there *is* no real difference between nature naturing and natured natured. And, there is no real freedom in his system, either. Parallel modifications of the one divine substance. But with Peirce (and others such as Heidegger or Schelling) we get ontological difference and also freedom, or spontaneity and variation from law. Feeling is the medium of communication between the generative conditions of the world where this freedom originates, and the world. Yes, potency takes on special significance. And I’d say, on this point, if anything, its Deleuze (not Spinoza) who comes closest, actually, to developing a theistic naturalist metaphysics (unbeknownst to him!) Why? For one, its the conditions of generativity – the abstract machine, as it were – that is the divine nature. This positions the ground as a unique *transcendental* ground empowered with an ultimate feature: the power of creativity. And so Tom asks: why tack back on terms such as God or Spirit if we would like a thoroughgoing naturalistic metaphysics? We don’t. This ground is fully part of nature, yet supercedes nature’s ordinariness. It is “super” natural yet contained *within* the natural. A “natural supernaturalism,” if you willl.
Leon’s right to point out that Spinoza’s monism dictates that there is no ontological difference between nature naturing and nature natured for Spinoza. It is crucial that he does not make such a distinction, because if he would have, then it would be quite easy to construe nature naturing as divine–which is what Leon and Corrington have done, it seems. Why make that move? It seems that the impulse for the latter is to preserve real freedom and real chance (Peirce’s tychism). This can only be done, it seems, if a real ontological distinction is drawn between the two aspects of nature. This seems disallowed for Leon because it runs the risk of fracturing nature in undesirable ways. The way to avoid this fracturing, it seems, is to say that potency (and spirit) are fully natural; they’re what bring chance, spontaneity, and freedom into the deterministic order of nature. So is chance/freedom simply posited as existing? Spinoza would say that when we believe in chance/freedom, we fundamentally misunderstand (or fail to imagine) all of the links in the causal chain of nature. Someone like Althusser, in his “Underground Materialism” essay, would like to replace chance into the materialist tradition (Spinoza too). But Althusser is trying really hard to pinpoint the locus of chance in each of the figures he considers. It seems that with Peirce, it’s a matter of being compelled to believe in the divine by virtue of being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of the cosmos. This, however, is a passive affect for Spinoza, not the kind of thing that rational belief is built upon. So, is the religious Peirce giving up his earlier rationalism in his later work and the NA?
Again, why can’t we just see the transcendental ground of nature–potency, nature naturing, plane of immanence, abstract machine, what have you–as nature (or matter)? Why call it God or the divine? Is there compelling reason to divinize the ground, or is it simply a viable hypothesis? If it’s just a hypothesis, then it’s merely one amongst many and it would seem that the law of elegance (Ockham’s Razor) would be applicable here. In any event, I think my point is clear enough.
Dylan Trigg has announced on his blog that his new book, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, is set to be published by Ohio University Press in January 2012. The book has a glowing endorsement by Ed Casey (who has a new website, by the way), the leading figure in the phenomenology of place tradition that Trigg is working in.
Levi’s got some quite plausible remarks about why SR/OOO emerged when it did. He argues that OOO reflects a sensibility that arises in the transition between two cultures of technology, in the transition between old and new media. He seems to be on to something here.