What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional. Continue reading
It’s not uncommon to hear someone propose the ethical injunction to “treat people like individuals.” It’s mostly used in reference to the complicated ethico-political problem of negotiating intersecting group dynamics: ages, genders, sexes, races, classes, ethnicities, religions, abilities, capabilities. What does it actually mean? Continue reading
A good theory must ultimately draw distinctions between different kinds of beings. However, it must earn these distinctions rather than smuggling them in beforehand, as occurs frequently in the a priori modern split between human beings on one side and everything else on the other (see Latour 1993 [We Have Never Been Modern]). This answers the question of why an object-oriented approach is desirable: a good philosophical theory should begin by excluding nothing. And as for those social theories that claim to avoid philosophy altogether, they invariably offer mediocre philosophies shrouded in the alibi of neutral empirical fieldwork. (Harman, Immaterialism, p. 4)
In Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Polity Press, 2016), Graham Harman applies his object-oriented philosophy to social objects. The book functions as “a compact list of the first principles of object-oriented social theory, which I have also called ‘immaterialism’” (126). This presentation of an object-oriented social theory includes a detailed analysis of one particular social object, the Dutch East India Company. Someone might think that this is just another book of object-oriented philosophy, tracing out the same principles that Harman articulates elsewhere. In some sense that’s true, but there’s much more going on than that. In what follows, I briefly sketch some key contributions that this book makes to the ongoing development of object-oriented philosophy. Continue reading
Coexistentialism: Unbearable Intimacy, Ecological Emergency. The manuscript is finished and off to the publisher. It’s around 110,000 words. The best thing about coexistentialism is the “co-,” indicating an ecological redistribution of Heidegger’s Mitsein (being-with) to include all beings, human, nonhuman, and otherwise. The worst thing is the “ism,” which is no doubt risky; it can degenerate into a lazy substitute for thinking along with other “isms,” but it could (I hope) facilitate solidarity, shared struggle, shared suffering, and shared feasting. Existence is not the best or the worst, neither optimus nor pessimus. It just is: existence. Continue reading
In his Corpus (Fordham, 2008), Jean-Luc Nancy develops something like an object-oriented ontology. Instead of an object or actor as the primary focus of his orientation, it is a body, a corpus, and instead of Latour litanies, he develops a catalogue.
Hoc est enim: this world-here, stretched out here, with its chlorophyll, its solar galaxy, its metamorphic rocks, its protons, its deoxyribonucleic double helix, its Avogadro number, it’s continental drift, its dinosaurs, its ozone layer, the stripes of its zebra, its human beast, Cleopatra’s nose, the number of petals on a daisy, the ghost of a rainbow, the style of Rubens, a python’s skin, André’s face in this photo taken on January 16, this blade of grass and the cow that grazes on it, the nuance of an iris in the eye of the one reading this very word, here and now? (p. 33).
…we’d need a corpus: a catalogue instead of a logos, the enumeration of an empirical logos, without transcendental reason, a list of gleanings, in random order and completeness, an ongoing stammer of bits and pieces, partes extra partes, a juxtaposition without articulation, a variety, a mix that won’t explode or implode, vague in its ordering, always extendable… (p. 53)
A corpus of tact: skimming, grazing, squeezing, thrusting, pressing, smoothing, scraping, rubbing, caressing, palpating, fingering, kneading, massaging, entwining, hugging, striking, pinching, biting, sucking, moistening, taking, releasing, licking, jerking off, looking, listening, smelling, tasting, ducking, fucking, rocking, balancing, carrying, weighing … (p. 93)
A corpus of the weighings of a material, of its mass, its pulp, its grain, its gulf, its mole, its molecule, its turf, its trouble, its turgidity, its fiber, its juice, its invagination, its volume, its peak, its fall, its meat, its coagulation, its paste, its crystallinity, its tightness, its spasm, its steam, its knot, its unknotting, its tissue, its home, its disorder, its wound, its pain, its promiscuity, its odor, its pleasure, its taste, its timbre, its resolution, its high and low, right and left, its acidity, its windedness, its balancing, its dissociation, its resolution, its reason … (p. 99)
A world where the body is squeezed, febrile, fibrillated, engorged, engorging on its own proximity, all bodies in a promiscuity thick with microbes, pollutions, defective serums, excessive fat, and grinding nerves, obese, emaciated, ballooning, vermin-mined, cream-smeared, burning, gleaming, toxin-stuffed, losing their materials, their waters, turning to gas in the vomit of war or famine, nuclear infection or viral irradiation. (p. 103)
…places are just so many spasms, rubbings, viral and bacterial swirls, gasolating bodies, immunitary bodies, immuno-depressors, in an indefinite reticulation of sequence-bodies, message-bodies, dissolving, coagulating, contaminating, replicating, cloning, breaking, streaking, biting, the whole chemical, archi-chemical corpus, an overpopulation of acidic, ionized psyches, bristling with the blind signals of a world of bodies in which bodies, identically, decompose the world. (p. 105)
Hoc est enim corpus meum…
Aristotle is underrated. He is not some dry systematic thinker who abstracted and oversimplified the insights of his teacher. Plato and Aristotle are too often reduced to straw men who are guilty of establishing the structures (especially dualisms) that have caused most of the world’s subsequent problems. Some people rescue Plato by reminding everyone of the complexities inherent in his use of dialogues, but it’s been harder to rescue Aristotle, due in part to a long history of Latinate translations (substance, actuality) that have made it hard for some of us to appreciate humor and passion for truth. The translations of Aristotle by Joe Sachs are a breath of fresh air. Sachs makes it easier to see that Aristotle is not the dualistic straw man that many make him out to be. Aristotle is much weirder than that. In fact, his attention to individual things makes him a forerunner of Whitehead’s ontological principle, Latour’s actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology. Paraphrasing Heidegger, if you want to understand contemporary philosophy, you should study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years. Using Sachs’ translations, let’s just look at the basics.
Aristotle’s investigation into nature (phusis) can be approached through the definition of nature offered at in the second book of the Physics. “Nature is a certain source and cause of being moved and of coming to rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not incidentally” (192b20). An investigation into nature, then, is an investigation into the sources and causes of motion and ultimately into being as such (Metaphysics 1003a22). Whatever has a source of motion inherent in itself is said to have a nature. Furthermore, whatever has this inherent power to move and change must persist and endure through the change of which it has the power. The cosmos remains a whole while its elements move and change (1040b9). The human being remains a human being while it becomes educated. The plant remains a plant while its parts change and grow.
Whatever has a nature, then, has being as an independent thing—thinghood (ousia), which is characterized by material (hule) stretching toward a form (morphe) (Physics, 192a 20). An independent thing as an active whole is said to be an underlying thing (hupokeimenon). A body is an underlying thing if it endures through the change of attributes. The underlying thing is always some material moving toward form. Moreover, deprivation of form is still form. Material is always swinging from form to form.
When investigating the nature of things, Aristotle examines the hypotheses of his predecessors. His definition of nature as a source of motion responds to the denial of motion by some philosophers, e.g. Parmenides (184b18). The natural way of an independent thing is sometimes identified with the unarranged material of the thing. The philosophers that hypothesized elements or atoms as the nature of things, e.g. Thales and Democritus, supposed that it was these elements or atoms that were the primary causes of things. Indeed, unarranged material is part of a thing and does affect its movement causally. However, the thinghood of a thing is also determined by its form, which is the look that is disclosed in speech (eidos) (193a30).
An investigation into nature must account for the material together with the form of independent things. Aristotle argues that the form of a thing is more indicative of its nature than the material (193b9). A thing is more itself when its form is being-at-work (energeia) than when its material is only potentially formed according to what has been disclosed in speech. Some of Aristotle’s predecessors identified the nature of a thing with its form, e.g. Pythagoreans and Platonists (Metaphysics, 985b-87b). They investigate the form of natural bodies as separate and motionless. Those who investigate merely the form or material of a thing (or the separated form and material) do not grasp its nature as a moving, changing, independent thing. Aristotle investigates the form of natural bodies as they appear with their moving material. The form of a natural body is always the form being-at-work with some moving material.
Let’s summarize what we know of Aristotle’s conception of natural bodies before we continue. Something has a nature if it is a source and cause of motion and change in itself. Thus, a natural body has the being of an independent thing (ousia), thinghood. The cause of motion in a natural body is its underlying material, which is forming itself to its look disclosed in speech, moving from the potency (dunamis) of form to the being-at-work (energeia) of form. To get a clearer and more complete understanding of the cause of motion in natural bodies, let us further explicate the relationship between form and being-at-work.
Aristotle argued that the form of a thing is more its nature than the underlying material, for the underlying material moves according to its look disclosed in speech. Furthermore, material is said to be what it is when it is being-at-work in its form, not when it is merely potentially in form. Thus, form is that which a thing keeps being in order for the thing to be at all. What a thing keeps being in order to be at all (to ti en einai) is often called its essence. Form, as was said earlier, is the being-at-work of material. Form is the being-at-work that a thing keeps on being in order to be at all.
Aristotle coins a term to describe this self-maintaining being-at-work by combining a word that means “complete” (enteles) with one that means “to be a certain way” (echein). In Joe Sachs’ translation, the resulting word means “being-at-work-staying-itself” (entelecheia), which is sometimes translated poorly as the Latinate “actuality.” Moreover, entelecheia puns on a word that means persistence (endelecheia) by adding a word that means finality or completion (telos). The completion of a thing is that for the sake of which it works. For a natural body, the form is its telos, and the being-at-work of form is being-at-work-staying-itself. Sachs also translates entelecheia as “holding together actively as a whole” (On the Soul, 412b9). My favorite translation is Ralph Manheim’s translation of Heidegger’s translation of entelecheia: “the holding (preserving)-itself-in-the-ending (limit)” (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics [Yale, 1959], p. 60).
We have discussed three different ways of causing or being responsible for a natural thing: the material of a thing, the form to which it has potential to stretch, and the final state of being-at-work-staying-itself as a complete, independent thing. Aristotle also discusses another cause of a thing, which is the original impetus for the movement of material toward form, sometimes called the efficient cause. The efficient cause of a natural body is what allows the other causes to come together. In this manner, the father causes a child (Physics, 194b30). Aristotle argues that the first cause—formal, telic, and efficient—of all motion and being is the being-at-work-staying-itself of intellect (nous), which exists co-eternally with potent material (Metaphysics, 1072b 20).
Before I say more about the role of contemplative intellect in causing the movement and being of natural bodies, I want to examine Aristotle’s conception of life, which will lead us to a discussion of the soul and intellect. That will have to wait for later.
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.