objects and sensations

Michael at Archive Fire has a couple generous responses to my recent posts on sensation. You can find his remarks here and here. First, I want to say what I like about his own contribution to the discussion. Second, I’ll clarify a few things about my own position.

Michael writes: “What you want to call a thing’s “qualities” I call its immanent properties. I prefer to use the term ‘properties’ because the word ‘quality’ carries with it the connotation of ‘being perceived’ by the subject. In fact, I argue that entities are temporal assemblages of immanent properties – and thus vulnerable to a myriad of affects (assailing and being assailed) on multiple scales, and from various angles, depending on the circumstances obtaining within the wider ecology of forces, flows and things.”

I’m perfectly fine with the term ‘property’ instead of ‘quality’, and in fact I’ve used property and quality alike. Sometimes interchangeably, but now I’ll be sure to make a distinction or avoid quality altogether. As I said, I take an objects disposition to be constituted by its singular gathering of properties, or what Michael calls a ‘temporal assemblage of immanent properties’. For his part, I’d like to hear a little more about what temporality entails here, as well as why ‘immanent’ is used as a qualifier here. Are there transcendent properties of objects?

Michael also wants to know what I think objects are. Provisionally, I’ll say that objects are singular composites of properties with the power to effect sensations.  Indeed, they are assemblages without a substantial core. No core is needed, properties simply hang together for some time until they can no longer do so. The identity of an object is determined by its capacity to affect other bodies. In this sense, I like Michael’s suggestion that my understanding of objects has a resonance with the Latourian notion of actant. Likewise, my understanding of objects derives from Spinoza’s conception of bodies given in Part II of the Ethics, the so-called ‘brief preface concerning the nature of bodies’ (at P13). Bodies are identified by the effects they can produce, or what they can cause. This capacity derives from their disposition, which I see as dictated by a given state of their plasticity (their capacity to give and receive form [James], or affect and be affected [Spinoza]). For me, I’d like to talk about what sensations a body can produce; the language of cause may be too strong for me. Sensations are caused, it seems, but they are more than mere effects. Their conditions of actualization require more than the presence of some sentient creature. (The language of ‘disposition’ I borrow from Stephen Mumford’s book Dispositions.)

As to the point that we need to be able to distinguish between sentient and nonsentient bodies. I agree, there must be a distinction. I think its a difference of degree, not of kind. So, on my broad definition of sensation all bodies or objects are sentient, but humans have a more complex sentience than, say, a stone. However, the sentience of humans is not more complex than a community or an ecosystem–far from it. The confederation of bodies in an ecosystem renders that system’s sentience drastically more complex and multidimensional. This is my attempt to avoid anthropocentrism about sentience, despite admitting that humans have a greater degree of sentience than stones. In addition, I’d say that humans have perception, which perhaps only some other animals have, and cognition. It is at these levels that I would distinguish them from other entities.

If you read this, Michael, I’d like to hear more of your reasons for disavowing the ‘inter-mediate gap between entities’ where qualities would appear to one or the other of these entities.


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Contemporary philosopher.
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One Response to objects and sensations

  1. michael- says:

    Hey Tom, let me answer some of your questions in order:

    1. It doesn’t matter to me so much what term we use to talk about an entity’s actual being, so long as there is some acknowledgement of how that being is ‘in-itself’ beyond what we say about it. I find Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities as wholly inadequate to understanding the ‘intimate’ nature our encounters with the world. And I don’t know why some philosophers want to perpetuate that myth when we have so much empirical data suggesting a much more ‘direct’ psychology of experience?

    My thinking comes close to what the experimental psychologist J.J. Gibson wrote about how our relations with the world are immediately detected and not secondarily deduced “in the mind” by a disembodied consciousness. Gibson notes that the nervous system directly “resonates” to the ecological information available in the environment. So qualities does “appear” to us – rather, sensation happens between two embodied objects. Animals are capable of a first-order perception. Hence my rejection of the “gap” between perception and being.

    2. With regards to temporality, I mean exactly what you write here:

    “..objects are singular composites of properties with the power to effect sensations. Indeed, they are assemblages without a substantial core. No core is needed, properties simply hang together for some time until they can no longer do so.”

    Being is time. Properties “hang together”, or territorialize (DeLanda), until they do not. And because all things are in relation, and all things are open systems, there will come a point when each and every ‘body’ comes undone, or deterritorializes. The duration (Bergson) and dynamics of bodies in relation to each other in situ is what constitutes and brings forth worldspaces, or what I call ontic-niches. Even simpler, we could just say that matter and energy (primordial affective force?) flow constantly only temporarily coalescing into the eddies and vortices we call ‘objects’.

    3. The reason I often (sometimes excessively) use the qualifier “immanent” a lot of the time is to constantly emphasize my position that there is no transcendent principle or external cause to the world, and that the process of life is fully contained in itself. ‘

    In the longer response to you posted at my site (and in full here), I use immanence in a technical way to signify the dual actuality of entities. Here is what I wrote there:

    It is important to note that for me an entity’s properties are immanent in two ways: first, every entity is nothing other than the extensive and intensive properties it consists of – properties that are radically specific to whatever that thing actually is. As Tom puts it, an entity is “a collection of properties whose singularity is defined by its disposition”. And this “disposition”, for me, is an entity’s embodied structural capacity to affect and be affected. Secondly, all the qualities or properties an entity embodies emerge from, and are assembled by, the same preexisting immanent background of energetic-materiality and natural processes. This ‘background’, or what we might simply call ‘reality as such’, is literally what affords beings their being-ness. That is to say, all particular entities are collections or assemblages of properties and elements available in the wider, pre-human ecological worldspace. And because of this affinity or continuity all entities are of this world and act in the world at the same time. And it is this continuity or dual actuality in the world that allows entities to interact more or less directly, or ‘intimately’ with each other (depending on their proximity and relationship).

    [ To be continued with points 4, 5 and 6 later tonite… ]

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