Unity Versus Multiplicity in Object-Oriented Ontologies

Are objects unities?  Identities?  Or, on the other hand, are they multiplicities?  This question is answered in different ways in different kinds of object-oriented ontology.  Object-oriented philosophy (represented by Graham Harman) is more focused on unities and identities, whereas onticology (represented by Levi Bryant) prefers multiplicities.  Consider Bryant’s remarks in a recent post:

While objects there are, these objects are neither unities nor identities.  No, they are multiplicities.  The object-oriented philosopher, in a desperate gambit to preserve identity, declares that identity and unity are withdrawn. […]  Such is the phallic logic that haunts object-oriented philosophy.  [….]  The onticologist, by contrast, declares that objects have no unity or identity.  Rather, for the onticologist, objects are pure multiplicities.

Bryant brings up Leibniz and Deleuze/Guattari to elaborate on this point.  An important aspect of Bryant’s position is that objects are wholes and those wholes are parts amidst other parts.  Similarly, when the object-oriented philosopher (Harman, to be specific) affirms the identity of objects, it is not to privilege the whole as opposed to parts.  In short, object-oriented philosophy and onticology both avoid simple whole-part oppositions in their respective definitions of objects.  However, the question or unity or multiplicity nevertheless divides these two approaches to OOO.  Accordingly, Harman (mentioning Deleuze but not Bryant) recently made the following comments about the unity-multiplicity conflict in light of his own call for more attention to Aristotle (in contrast to Žižek’s call for more Hegel).

[A]s long as it remains fashionable to take easy cheap shots at unity and identity with appeals to such concepts as “difference” and “multiplicity,” then you’ll know that we’re still running on the fumes of Generation Deleuze, which was fresh and liberating from around 1995-2007 but now threatens to become last night’s vinegary red wine.

In other words, Harman appreciates Aristotle (as well as Husserl) for positing a unity and identity of objects, and he thinks that the Deleuzian distaste for unity and identity is getting stale.  Harman isn’t dismissing everyone working with Deleuze, he’s “just saying that it’s time to stop adopting all of Deleuze’s heroes and spitting on all of his villains.”  I assume that Harman wouldn’t consider Bryant’s appeal to “multiplicity” as one of the “easy cheap shots” being taken at unity and identity.  It is a shot nonetheless.

I’m not taking sides yet.  I’m just paying attention as object-oriented philosophy and onticology continue developing.  It is nourishing food for thought.  I’ve been deeply influenced by Aristotle and Deleuze, and this question of unity versus multiplicity makes me want to read, re-read, and rethink.

Climate Change in Michigan: Buckeyes are Coming!

How do you get people in Michigan to care about climate change?  Let them know that the Buckeyes are coming.

The USDA has updated their Plant Hardlines Zone Map for the first time in over a decade.  It’s the map that indicates what plants can grow in which regions of the country.  Ann Arbor has moved from zone 5 to the warmer zone 6, which is the zone in which the Ohio buckeye tree grows.

Football is far from irrelevant to environmental ethics and policy.  That’s funny, but it’s also true.

Speculative Philosophy and the Specter of Religion

Reflecting on an upcoming conference, Thinking the Absolute, Levi Bryant posted some thought-provoking remarks on the implications of the speculative turn in philosophy for thinking religion.  The topic reminds me of the anthology edited by Anthony Paul Smith and Daniel Whistler, After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion (2010). 

Bryant’s concluding remarks are right on.  “[I]f the speculative project of philosophy is only complete in thinking both existence and being and their relation, this entails that there is a paradox at the heart of metaphysics. For in striving to think existence, philosophy must think that which is anterior to all thought, that which cannot be represented, and that which evades all conceptual determination. If the speculative project of philosophy is to be completed philosophy must think that which cannot be thought or the unthinkable. Such is the move beyond correlationism and the condition under which it might be possible to exorcise the endlessly returning specter of religion. How this might be done, I don’t know, but such seems to be the projecting [sic] uniting all variants of speculative realism.”

How might this be done?  I don’t know either.  It is no small task: to think the unthinkable and thereby move beyond correlationism and empower the exorcism of the endlessly returning specter of religion.  The task of exorcism is not unlike what Deleuze describes in Nietzsche and Philosophy [Columbia UP, 1986] as philosophy’s “enterprise of demystification,” which demystifies religion, morality, the State, and, of course, philosophy’s own mystifications.  Thinking the unthinkable is active and affirmative, but its demystification is also profoundly sad.  “A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy” (p. 106).

Plato and Ecstatic Trance

In a passage from the Phaedrus (265a), Socrates provides an outline of the varieties of mania, of which there are two main types, “one arising from human diseases, and the other from a divine release of customary habits.”  Although discourses such as that in the Timaeus (86b) focus on mania as a disease, specifically dementia (anoia), the passage just quoted from the Phaedrus focuses on mania as it arises from divine release (theias exallages), wherein a god inspires a frenzy that brings one beside oneself (exallos) and out of one’s habits. 

A little later in the Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus recapitulate what they have agreed are the four divisions of this divinely inspired mania, naming each form according to the god that inspires it: 1) the mania of prophetic divination, inspired by Apollo, 2) the mania of rites (teletai), inspired by Dionysus, 3) the mania of poetry, inspired by the Muses, 4) and the mania of love, inspired by Aphrodite and Eros.  Of the four forms of divinely inspired mania, Socrates and Phaedrus agree that the enthusiasm of erotic mania is the best because it brings one to love and remember the ideal truth of beauty, of which all earthly appearances are imitations and reflections. This erotic mania is the focus of the account of Diotima’s speech in the Symposium, which suggests the possibility that Eros inspires a love for the Beautiful (which is intertwined with the Good), and only on the basest level is this love manifest as a love of boys (pederasty). 

Erotic mania is the best type of mania according to Socrates because it inspires a love analogous to the love of wisdom inspired by what is called in the Symposium philosophical mania (philosophon manias)—a love of ideal form expressed through the logos.  This is not to say that any type of mania not inspired by Eros should be inhibited or completely suppressed, but that other forms of mania are less immediate ways of participating in the Good and the Beautiful.  The only type of mania that Plato’s dialogues ever speak of suppressing is that of ritual mania, which is basically a mania of ecstatic trance.  In both the Laws and the Republic, the songs, rhythms, and dances that accompany weaknesses of the soul are deemed unfit for the citizens of the ideal polis, and ritual mania is said to be one way in which such weakness of the soul becomes manifest. 

Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy attempts to overturn the Socratic condemnation of Dionysian ecstasy as degeneration.  Against Socrates, Nietzsche argues that this madness was the source of the greatest joy for the Ancient Greeks, and that the rationality and morality attributed to Socrates are negations of life, which are characteristic of the disintegration of Hellenic culture.

Even though Socrates speaks of erotic mania as the best and of ritual mania as a weakness of the soul, in the Phaedrus he speaks of benefits given through each form of divinely influenced mania, saying that the “greatest of blessings come to us through madness, when it is sent as a gift of the gods.”  Socrates and Phaedrus agree that the Greeks have benefited from the ritual mania inspired by Dionysus, which consists in using prayer, song, dance, cathartic purification, and sacrifice to evoke the arrival of the deity.  Socrates speaks about how divinatory and ritual mania have worked together for the people, with the oracles divining and prescribing the proper rituals to perform in order to invoke a deity to help cure somebody of a disease and bring them back to a sensible state of mind. 

In sum, Plato’s writings are generally supportive of mania insofar as it cures diseases (including other diseases of mania) and promotes rationality in individuals and throughout the republic.  However, the trances and spirit possessions of ritual mania are generally regarded as expressions of weakness that should be withheld from the citizens.  Ritual mania is only deemed helpful in the Phaedrus, and then it is limited to its role in curing disease and curing other weaknesses of the soul.  To put it briefly, Plato suppresses ecstatic trance in favor of reason.  I would argue that this goes hand in hand with Plato’s suppression of the pharmakon.  I’ll say more about that another time.

A Climbing Poem

In previous posts, I discussed the possibility of interpreting poems in terms of their poeticity (i.e. as their own integral units) and not reducing them to their references or their relations to speakers and listeners.  I also considered how this would lend itself to an object-oriented linguistics, for which poeticity does not happen only in poems but in all sentences, phrases, words, morphemes, and phonemes.  Linguistic objects have references and they have relations to speakers and listeners, but they are also alien substances radically different than those references and relations.
When you affirm the poeticity of a linguistic object, you can discuss the capacities harbored within the object itself.  Consider an example: William Carlos Williams’ poem, Poem


As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty

The poem is “about” a climbing cat, but the poem is not reducible to its referential relationship to actual cats.  The poem itself harbors cat-like capacities of climbing.  The cat-like climbing of the poem is not evident merely from the description of the cat’s adventure, but also from the patterns of sound that are manifest in the poem itself.  For instance, the climbing of voiceless plosives: [t] climbs from its place with [k] in ‘cat’ to its place with [p] in “the pit of/ the empty/ flowerpot.”  Furthermore, [t] climbs from [k] to [p] in three stages, each with four lines.  Therefore, the stanzas of the poem also appear to be in a state of climbing (or Gestalt shifting) from four three-line stanzas to three four-line stanzas.  Similarly, the voiced interdental fricatives in each stanza climb to new positions within each subsequent stanza.  Every climbing that takes place in the poem bears the cat-like movement of climbing over given obstacles and stepping carefully into an empty clearing.  Thus, the dental [t] climbs over the given backness of the velar [k] and fills in the empty frontness of the labial [p].  Climbing is the emptying of the full and the filling of the empty.  There are many other patterns in the poem that resemble the climbing of the cat. 

Twenty of the twenty-seven words in the poem (approximately ¾) are monosyllabic.  Four words in the poem are disyllabic: over2, forefoot6, into10, and empty11.  The other three words in the poem are trisyllabic: jamcloset4, carefully7, and flowerpot12 (the subscript numbers represent line numbers from the poem).  Five of the twelve lines in the poem are composed only of monosyllabic words.  No line has more than one polysyllabic word.  A closer look at the way these words are arranged in the poem will reveal a climbing of words from lines with only monosyllabic words to lines with a polysyllabic word, specifically a trisyllabic word.  There is only one polysyllabic word in the first stanza (stanza A), and it is the disyllabic over2.  Moreover, stanza A is the only stanza without a trisyllabic word.  Stanza B has two polysyllabic words, the trisyllabic jamcloset4 and the disyllabic forefoot6.  The trisyllabic word carefully7 appears at the beginning of stanza C immediately after forefoot6 at the end of stanza B.  Stanza D has the most polysyllabic words with one in each of its three lines: into10, empty11, and flowerpot12.  Along the same line, stanza D is the only stanza that does not have at least one line composed entirely of monosyllabic words.  Stanza A has two lines of only monosyllabic words (1 and 3), stanza B has one such line (5), and stanza C has two such lines (8 and 9).

The climbing from monosyllables to polysyllables does not occur as a consistent increase in polysyllabic words throughout the course of the poem.  The main climb occurs through a series of smaller climbs.  The disyllabic over2 in stanza A is the first movement out of pure monosyllabicity.  In stanza B, the movement out of monosyllabicity progresses, with only one line (5) not bearing a polysyllabic word.  This movement progresses through the first word of stanza C, carefully7.  However, at this point the careful climbers move back down to base camp out of the thin air of polysyllabic words.  The two lines after carefully7 are the only two consecutive monosyllabic lines in the poem.  With five consecutive monosyllabic words, these two lines have more consecutive monosyllabic words than any others in the poem.  Thus, the final ascent to polysyllabicity, which will take place in the last stanza, is prefaced by a long stay in monosyllabicity.  Finally, the lines of stanza D each bear a polysyllabic word.  (The first line of stanza D appears sore-thumbed because, with four words and five syllables, it has the more words and syllables than any other line.)   The poem ends with two consecutive polysyllabic words (empty11 and flowerpot12).  This pinnacle of polysyllabicity was foreshadowed in the part of the climb that culminated in the only other pair of consecutive polysyllabic words, forefoot6 and  carefully7, which were separated by a stanza break.

Just as the cat climbed over the jamcloset into the flowerpot, so did [t] climb from [k] to [p] (i.e., back to front), and so do the words of the poem climb from monosyllabicity to polysyllabicity.  There are a few other ways through which the passage from stanza A to stanza D can be seen as a climb that culminates in the “empty flowerpot” being stepped into.

1. I said that carefullyand flowerpot12 are related as the only two polysyllables to follow consecutively.  These two words also bear the sound-pattern of climbing.  The last [k] of poem (from which [t] steps down to [p]) happens in carefully7, along with an [r], [f], and [l], none of which appear again until flowerpot12, wherein [r] climbs to the right of the consonantal line as [f], [l], and [r].

2. There is also somewhat of a climbing with the labiodental fricatives, wherein [v] (voiced) in line-final position climbs to [f] (voiceless) at word initial positions.  Out of the three voiced labiodental fricatives, two are line final (line 3 and 10) and one is the onset of a line-final syllable (line 2).  Out of the five voiceless labiodental fricatives, three are line-initial (line 5, 6, and 12) and two are at the onset of the second syllables in line 6 and line 7.  Thus, [v] climbs away from voice at the end of the lines 1 and 2 toward voiceless at the beginning of the lines 5, 6, and 7, back to voice at the end of line 10, finally stopping at the voiceless beginning of line 12.

3. Another interesting pattern might be more of a mirroring than a climbing, over maybe both.  The words per line in stanza B mirror the words per line in stanza C.  Lines 4, 5, and 6 have 2, 3, and 1 word(s) per line respectively.  Lines 7, 8, and 9 have 1, 3, and 2 word(s) per line respectively.  Thus, the pattern is 2, 3, 1, 1, 3, 2, and between the pair of one-word lines is the stanza break marking the middle of the poem.

In short, virtual capacities of climbing are at work in the poem itself.  The more that you lay out the patterns in the poem, the more you can feel the pull of the poem’s poeticity, its attraction and its withdrawal from all references and relations.  I’ve been looking over Williams’ Poem off and on for almost a decade now, and although the poem and I are becoming companions, I have not gotten any closer to touching its unfathomable depth.

Hurry Up and Slow Down!

I like slow reading, the slow food movement, slow cookers, and other kinds of slowness.  Sloths are adorable, far from apathetic or uncaring (in contrast to the “sloth” of the Christian seven deadly sins).  Slowness is a virtue.  I agree with those scholars and activists who argue that the pervasive focus on quickness and immediacy (dromocentrism) in our global civilization is detrimental to human and environmental wellbeing.  For the sake of humanity and the future of life on Earth, people must shift quickly out of their fast-paced lifestyle.  If you’re privileging immediacy, stop immediately!   Slow down as fast as you can!

Outside of Time in Time

There is a radical temporality of things, such that any present thing harbors an uncanny past that is always already past, never present or presentable.  This past that was never present is, for Maurice Blanchot, an “outside of time in time.”  It is inescapably ungraspable.  The infinite obscurity of this radical temporality is what makes creativity possible.  In the nothingness of this night, an actor creates that which is not created and is not able to be created.  Consider a couple of quotations:

“In this time what appears is the fact that nothing appears.  What appears is the being deep within being’s absence, which is when there is nothing and which, as soon as there is something, is no longer.  For it is as if there were no beings except through the loss of being, when being lacks.  The reversal, which, in time’s absence, points us constantly back to the presence of absence–but to this presence as absence, to the absence as its own affirmation (an affirmation in which nothing is affirmed, in which nothing never ceases to affirm itself with the exhausting insistence of the indefinite)–this movement is not dialectical.  Contradictions do not exclude each other; nor are they reconciled…. In time’s absence what is new renews nothing; what is present is not contemporary; what is present presents nothing but represents itself and belongs henceforth and always to return.  It isn’t but comes back again.  It comes already and forever past, so that my relation to it is not one of cognition, but of recognition, and this recognition ruins in me the power of knowing, the right to grasp.  It makes what is ungraspable inescapable.”  Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), pp. 30-31.

“Now, in this night, I come forward bearing everything [le tout] toward that which infinitely exceeds the all.  I progress beyond the totality that I nevertheless tightly embrace.  I go on the margins of the universe, boldly walking elsewhere than where I can be, and a little outside my steps [mes pas].  This slight extravagance, this deviation toward that which cannot be, is not only my own movement leading me to a personal madness, but the movement of the reason that I bear within me.  With me the laws gratitate outside the laws, the possible outside the possible.  O night, now nothing will make me be, nothing will separate me from you.  I adhere marvelously to the simplicity to which you invite me.  I lean over you, equal to you, offering you a mirror for your perfect nothingness [néant], for your shadows that are neither light nor absence of light, for this void that contemplates….  I am the origin of that which has no origin.  I create that which cannot be created.”  Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure, trans. R. Lamberton (New York: David Lewis, 1973), pp. 107-108.

Debating Religion and Science with a Post-Secular Prophet

A Time article from a few years ago presents highlights from a debate between two scientists of evolution and genetics, Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins.  The topic: the tension between religion and science (as the article puts it, “God vs. Science”).  I work with a lot of people doing religious studies and theology, and I find that Dawkins doesn’t get the respect he deserves not as a scientist (he gets that respect) but as a theorist of society and religion.  I consider Dawkins an ally in a war against the anti-intellectualism propogated by some forms of religiosity. 

Dawkins and Collins both make some good points throughout the debate.  Perhaps the best point is this: Dawkins (an atheist) and Collins (a Christian) both agree that religion and science are not the non-overlapping magisteria envisioned by Stephan Jay Gould.  For better and for worse, religion and science overlap all the time.

They discuss the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God, although without explicitly designating them as such.  Referring to the statistical improbability of the natural laws that have allowed life and human consciousness to emerge in the universe, Dawkins finds no reason to posit a God to explain the cause of those laws.  Perhaps further research will reveal a unified theory for which those laws and constants are not so improbable, or perhaps our universe is one among multiple universes, thus also diminishing the improbability.  Collins disagrees that a unified theory is coming and, using Ockham’s razor, he claims that God is a better explanation than a multiverse because it is a simpler explanation.  I am not convinced by that use of Ockham’s razor.  The multiverse hypothesis makes fewer new suppositions than the God hypothesis.  Both hypotheses posit something external to the universe, but the externality of the multiverse hypothesis is just a multiplicity of finite things (more universes), whereas the God hypothesis posits another thing (God) and also has to posit a different (transcendent, eternal) order of being for that thing. 

They discuss miracles (Collins is fine with them, Dawkins thinks they’re anti-science and anti-intellectual), but what’s noteworthy is that they both follow Hume (implicitly) in defining miracles as violations of the laws of nature, which I think is simply a bad definition.  They also touch on morality, which Collins derives from God and Dawkins derives from evolution (like Darwin’s evolution of social sentiments, which is Drawin developed out of Hume’s and Smith’s concepts of moral sentiments).  Collins’ divine morality results in cosmic tensions between good and evil, whereas Dawkins takes a more Nietzschean tone is asserting that there is no good and evil as such, there are only good things and bad things that happen in particular contexts.

Particularly interesting is that, throughout the debate, Dawkins reiterates his openness to the possibility that there is something “incredibly grand and incomprehensible” that exceeds our present understanding.  It could be God, but it could be billions of gods, and if it is a God or gods, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to be the same as or similar to the God of transcendental monotheism.  Dawkins sounds more agnostic than atheist sometimes.  Not only agnostic, sometimes he sounds prophetic.  Just as prophets criticize idols and call for more authentic engagements with reality, Dawkins criticizes religion and calls for attention to the actual world around us here and now, rejuvenating wonder at the “magic of reality” while resisting any claims that posit an ontotheological superbeing .  A postsecular prophet?

“If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.”

Alien Phenomenology: Of, By, and For Things

I am anxiously awaiting the publication of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  Alien phenomenology is a great phrase.  It is important to distinguish Bogost’s alien phenomenology from that developed by Bernhard Waldenfels.  Reminiscent of Husserl, Schutz, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, Waldenfels’ Phenomenology of the Alien explores the place of otherness in human subjectivity, specifically with attention to the otherness given in one’s experience of one’s own body and in experiences of the corporeality of other people.  However, Waldenfels does not address nonhuman aliens (e.g., refrigerators, elk, quarks, fungi, libraries, the climate).  

For Bogost’s alien phenomenology, the alienness under investigation is that of all things, human and nonhuman.  The orientation toward the alterity of all objects calls for a weirder and more realist phenomenology, which uses speculative metaphysics and metaphor to account for things exceeding human access.  Focusing on “carpentry,” which includes operations and procedures for approaching and crafting particular objects, alien phenomenology is a crafty version of object-oriented ontology, making it particularly relevant for address social and environmental issues that call for practical procedures and for the creation of new policies, designs, institutions, etc.  

The development of an alien phenomenology that accounts for the agency and alterity of all things is a benefit to a global society full of real things clamoring for attention, things like farmers, rivers, economies, children, artworks, species, universities, families, subatomic particles, the climate, and so much more. 

Alien phenomenology is a philosophy of the things, by the things, and for the things.

Notes Toward Object-Oriented Linguistics

Words have conventional meanings, but do they also have their own meanings, apart from the meanings that humans assign to them?  For an object-oriented linguistics, a word is its own thing, distinct from any references or any speaker or listener that encounters it.  This would suggest that a word has its own meaning, its own style of being, its own virtual capacities.  This opens up old questions about how much meaning is given in the thing itself and how much it is determined by the word’s references and relations to the conventions and contingencies of speakers and listeners? 

Plato’s Cratylus revolves around the question of whether names are given by nature, which is the position of Cratylus, or by conventional agreement, which is the position of Hermogenes (383a).  Through a series of questions addressed to Hermogenes, Socrates arrives at the conclusion that a name is given by nature if it imitates the essence (and not the accidental qualities) of the thing it is naming.  “Well, then, if anyone could imitate this essential nature of each thing by means of letters and syllables, he would show what each thing really is, would he not?” (423e).  Furthermore, even individual sounds and syllables have the potential to symbolize the essence of a thing.  However, Socrates is aware of the difficulty of taking language to pieces to see if and where this symbolism is present:  we only have our opinions upon which to initiate such a task (425b-c).  Investigations attempted subsequent to Plato’s Cratylus have espoused many more opinions on the question of the relation between the sounds of names and that which they name: Stoics, Medieval nominalists, and modern linguists have all taken up this question of the relationship between signifying sounds and signified meanings.  A standard position held by many scholars today is that a signifying sound has an arbitrary relation to that which it signifies.  Even many textbooks in linguistic theory dogmatically presuppose the arbitrariness of the sign without even hinting at alternative interpretations of the sound/meaning relationship, except for brief mention of onomatopoeia, which is usually shown to still admit of arbitrariness.

Despite the prevalence of the theory of l’arbitraire du signe in modern linguistics, there have been numerous investigations that demonstrate a much more intimate relation between sound and meaning—a relation called “sound symbolism” and “phonetic symbolism” by Edward Sapir, and called “phonosemantics” in some recent studies by Margaret Magnus and John Lawler among others.  This phonosemantics, although present in all language, is immediately apparent when a sign is not reduced to its relations to human speakers/listeners or to any autonomous signified, but when it is understood as a sign, as having its own structure and meaning, functioning poetically (in Jakobson’s sense of poeticity).  When understood poetically, equations of sounds and meanings appear in sequence(s) on the axis of combination, where “-ing” always means “-ing” and “str-” always means “str-”, and within every phoneme and morpheme are differential relations folding together the whole phonology and semantics of the language. 

These sounded meanings of messages themselves are virtual capacities that become manifest in references to a signified or in relations to speakers and listeners.  What are the phonosemantic capacities of messages themselves, and how do they become manifest in the relations and references of the messages?  Consider a  couple examples: 

In “A Study in Phonetic Symbolism” (Selected Writings, 1949), Sapir attempts to demonstrate that, despite the arbitrary allocations of sounds in conventional fields of reference, “symbolisms tend to work themselves out in vocalic and consonantal contrasts and scales” (p. 62).  Sapir discusses an experiment wherein subjects were asked to discern the relative sizes of objects that were designated by artificially constructed words.  Where the word mal was defined as “table,” the majority of subjects defined the word mil as a “smaller table.”  Thus, the /a/ in mal was perceived to symbolize a larger table than the /I/ in mil.  This perception was not based on an established convention, because the words were artificially constructed. 

Sapir hypothesizes that this symbolism may be due to some combination of the acoustics of /a/ and /I/ and the kinesthetic experience of /a/ and /I/ (p. 69).  Acoustically, /a/ has both more volume and more duration than does /I/.  Kinesthetically, /a/ is articulated with the tongue in a much lower position than when articulating /I/.  Thus, /a/ both sounds larger and feels larger than /I/.  From this, Sapir observes “that the symbolic discriminations run encouragingly parallel to the objective ones based on phonetic consideration” (p. 68).  In other words, when a signifying sound occupies more space and time, it symbolizes a larger signified than a signifying sound occupying less space and time.  To put it simply, bigger sounds have bigger meanings, which can become manifest in references to bigger things.  The big/small opposition is given with a vocalic opposition, and thus can accommodate big/small oppositions that appear in particular contexts.

This does not mean that the meaning of /a/ is largeness.  That is one manifestation of the virtual capacities of /a/.  Situated in another language, the same phoneme could manifest very different capacities.  Consider the words of night and day in French and Czech, particularly in light of their vowels (which are grave and acute, roughly corresponding to Sapir’s /a/ and /I/, respectively).  The Czech word for day, “den,” symbolizes the brightness of day (a chromatic sensation) with an acute vowel, whereas the Czech word for night, “noc,” symbolizes the darkness of night with a grave vowel.  However, the French “jour” (day) has the grave vowel in relation to the more acute “nuit” (night).  This apparent contradiction of symbolisms is really just different manifestation of the virtual capacities of grave and acute vowels.  Brightness is but one capacity.  The French language activates not the darkness but the intensity of the grave vowel, such that jour can refer to the work and movement that fill the day in contrast to the relaxed and mild motion of nuit.  In sum, the capacities of phonemes (e.g., grave and acute vowels) can become manifest in multiple ways, and those manifestations can enter into relation with manifestations of the various capacities of things (e.g., brightness and intensity of days and nights).

These are just some initial thoughts on object-oriented linguistics, the main point being that linguistic signs are phonosemantic things, which have virtual capacities (poeticity) as well as manifestations (i.e., references to signifieds and relations to speakers/listeners).  I’ve shown that a phoneme is a phonosemantic thing, but linguistic thinghood is not only at the phonological scale.  Morphemes, words, and sentences are also things.  I’m not sure if individual phonemic features are things or just parts or qualities of things (features like labial or dental, nasal or oral, stop or fricative).  A question I want to think about more is markedness, specifically in showing how a linguistic thing changes, develops, and enters into new relations.