Objects, Intuitions, the Imaginary, and Language


David and Goliath Play Chess, Siegfried Zademack

by Bill Benzon

I’m heading toward language, imaginary objects, and the cognition of ontology. But I’m not ready to go there, not yet. There’s some preliminary hemming and hawing I want to do, so bracketing, as it were.

What’s with Withdrawal?

I’m thinking intuitions and how they inform our understanding of this, that, and the other—one of my current hobby horses. In one of the sessions at the recent Object-Oriented Ontology meetings in NYC someone asked Graham Harman, more or less: “What’s this about objects withdrawing? How can they do that? Who’s doing the withdrawing?” Those aren’t the exact words, but I believe they’re a reasonable rendition of the (vague) sense of the question.

Harmon, of course, was stumped. He’d been asked to explicate perhaps the originating metaphor behind his philosophy. Harmon knows very well that there’s no agent in the hammer, for example, that’s somehow pulling it back from someone who sees it, grasps it or hears its impact. That’s not it at all. But… What could he say? There’s nothing behind the metaphor beyond the sense that, no matter what one does to or with a physical hammer, there’s always more. Always.

It’s like someone who’s learning chess. They say to the teacher: “Tell me why bishops move diagonally and castles move rectilinearly or I won’t play.” The only answer to the question is: “Convention.” If that’s not good enough, then asking the question amounts to a refusal to play the game. So it is with: “What’s this withdrawal stuff?” If you want to play the game, if only out of curiosity, then you must accept the language at face value and see where it leads you.

Which is what I’ve been doing for these past several months. Now I want to ‘push back’, as the current idiom has it. Just a little.

While I’m willing to accept the foundational language of ‘withdrawal’ and so forth at face value, I’m not quite sure what the implications are.

Objects and Objects

Let me explain. The rock bottom intuition on which Harman builds his metaphysics is the distinction between real and sensual objects. He begins the first chapter of The Quadruple Object by observing (p. 7): “On my desk are pens, eyeglasses, and an expired American passport. Each of these has numerous qualities and can be turned to reveal different surfaces and uses. Furthermore, each object is a unified thing despite its multitude of features.” And he goes on from there to mention Egypt, an ideal sphere, and a unicorn, among a dozen or so others. They too are objects, but I’m not entirely sure how to take intuitions developed through thinking about say, a hammer (Harman devotes two chapters to Heidegger’s tool analysis) or an apple, which seems to be my own default example, and apply those intuitions to those other often very different kinds of objects.

Consider atoms, more or less as modern science understands them—well, probably less, as I’m working from poorly remembered high school chemistry and physics. Though they are physical things, we have no direct perceptual or kinesthetic experience atoms as individual objects; we know them only in the aggregate as things such as, well, hammers, apples, pens, eyeglasses and passports. So just what IS the sensual as opposed to the real atom? I suppose that what we’re talking about is the sensual atom that one atom is to other atoms. I don’t even know what the sensual atom would be to me. Is it the atom as I merely think about it? But which atom? Any old atom? And, while one apple is different from another apple, though perhaps only in small ways, it’s my understanding that there is no difference between one cesium atom and another; they’re all alike.

What of a nation, such as Egypt or the United States? I’ve got a box full of old income tax filings along with associated documentation. That’s a fairly direct manifestation of the United States as nation-state. A couple of years ago I had to get a passport and so I had to do several things: get a birth certificate, get a photo, fill out an application, submit them and pay a fee. That whole process is a manifestation of the United States. Decades ago I went through a rather longer and far more complicated process to become a recognized as a conscientious objector to war and therefore exempt from induction into the military.

All of that, and much much more, is my ordinary, untutored, naïve experience of the United States. How does the philosophical analysis of objects into real and sensual add to that? In the case of an apple, my naïve experience says I can fully grasp it, as I can literally grasp it. The philosophical analysis tells me, no, I can’t fully grasp the apple, that the apple is ever withdrawing. Well I don’t need any philosophic analysis to tell me that the United States is way way beyond my experience of it and always will be. So, how do I differentiate between my ordinary experience of the United States and my philosophically tutored experience? Is there such a difference at all?

I don’t know. Perhaps the basic intuitions gained from the philosophical analysis of an apple or a hammer can be applied to atoms and nations, not to mention any number of other objects. But I’m not sure. So, for the moment, I’m going to bracket them out and say that I’m interested only in human scale physical objects.

Imaginary Objects

That’s still granting quite a bit, it seems to me. Enough to work with in developing a contrast with imaginary objects at human scale, such as unicorns and centaurs, or Hamlet, Sailor Moon and Bambi.

At this point we have a minor terminological problem. In ordinary usage, hammers and apples are real objects while unicorns and Bambi are not, they’re imaginary. But philosophically, unicorns and Bambi are real as well. I have no problem with that. But that makes “real” ambiguous as between philosophically real and commonsensically real. For the moment I propose to substitute factually real for commonsensically real.

Sailor Moon

So, how do we analyze the difference between factual and imaginary objects? It may be sufficient, as Levi Bryant has suggested in a discussion of texts as factories, to observe that Bambi and unicorns lack referents in the factual world. But I’m not sure what that gets us. Or, perhaps it gets us there too quickly. For it tells us little or nothing about our experience of unicorns and Bambi, nor of how we know that they lack referents in the factual world.

If unicorns lack referents in factual world, then how can we have any experience of them at all? Well, we can draw pictures of them, weave tapestries about them, tell stories and write poems about them, all of which, as physical things bearing representations, do have referents in the factual world. But we also make representations of factual things. So, what’s the difference between representations of factual and imaginary things?

At this point it seems to me we’re at the edge of dangerous territory: epistemology. If we’re not careful we’re going to be assaulted by Cartesian malignant deities trying to fool us, or not. And we don’t want that. It’s not epistemology that I’m after. Rather, if you will, I’m after a world in which epistemology has work to do.

If, for some reason, it’s impossible to conceive of any but factual objects, then we have no need of epistemology. That’s not the world in which we live. We can conceive of imaginary objects. We have need of epistemology so as to sort unicorns, hippopotami, and the Loch Ness monster into the imaginary, factual, and doubtful bins, respectively.

Language and the Mind

What’s epistemology have to work from? That’s the question. And it seems to me that that question brings us to language, the mind, and the collective (to use Latour’s term). On the mind, I offer my standard observation from Weston La Barre’s The Ghost Dance (Delta, 1972, p. 60): “The fact that he dreams first forces on man the need to epistemologize.” At what point were our ancestors first able to remember both dream events and real events, to compare them, note the differences, and wonder about those differences?

Surely our ancestors had to use language to talk about and compare their various experiences, dreams and factual. And I’m guessing that it is through that talking that they would begun sorting their experiences into different domains. That is, the sorting out is a process that takes place in the collective and, once the collective has arrived at a determination, e.g. unicorns are imaginary, Komodo dragon lizards are factual, that determination can be taken at face value and the laborious reasoning and negotiation behind it can be, well, all too often in fact IS, forgotten.

Language is indifferent about the factuality of things and, as Harman has noted in his recent Ask/Tell interview, while “language cannot make the things directly present… The attempt to set up rules for how to use language logically to refer to the real world rather than referring to mere illusions is hopeless.” He’s right, and I have no intention to take up that Sisyphean task. But I do note that it is language that makes it so easy to take intuitions forged through the philosophical analysis of a hammer and apply those intuitions, at face value, to anything that language treats as a object, such as unicorns, atoms, nations, time machines, galactic clusters, Bambi, anthropogenic climate chaos, and prions.

Of course, language also treats language and the mind as objects. And I suppose that object-oriented ontology may do so as well, sticking them out there among all the objects, including the humble apple. Which is to say, that they are available to us as we attempt to sort things out.

And that’s what we’re going to have to do. If we want to understand how it is that we unicorns, hippopotami, and the Loch Ness monster into the imaginary, factual, and doubtful bins, respectively, then we’re going to have to think about language, the mind, and the collective. All of them. As for whether or not that understanding is of a philosophical kind, or some other kind—compositionist?—well, I’m not so sure that it matters.

But it would be nice to have, wouldn’t it?

That sorting-out is where I see a place for ontological cognition. Keeping in mind that ontological cognition, as I understand it, is about how the mind works, not how the world works, ontological cognition plays a critical role in sorting things into the factual, imaginary, and we don’t know bins. Our experience of unicorns IS different from our experience of horses and narwhales, and ontological cognition plays a role in sorting out the difference. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s another conversation, for another day.

The crucial point is simply that ontological cognition is necessary in a world where epistemology is necessary. It’s not the same as epistemology, but it IS a tool used by epistemology. I’m now proposing it as a tool to be used by object-oriented ontology.

Another day.

ADDENDUM: Plato’s Rock Bottom Intuitions

Tim Morton had a recent post about Plato’s advocacy of geometry. I offered an old notion of mine that geometry is the source of Plato’s rock-bottom intuitions about the Forms:

Well, Tim, one of my pet ideas is that Plato got the idea of the Ideal Forms from geometry. One of the things that gets pounded into you in middle school geometry class is that the triangles we actually draw (yes, with compass and straight edge) aren’t ‘true’ triangles. They’ve always got defects. But the abstract triangles in geometrical constructions and proofs, they’re ‘true’, they’re ‘pure’. So, take that insight from geometry, where it becomes very ‘real’ through practice, and extend it to everything. Hence The Forms.

Piece originally published at  New Savanna Creative Commons License