423. Objects and events
Objects have components with properties, in what DeLanda called ‘assemblages’.[i] The components and properties are actual, and yield a potential or capacity that is virtual, actualized in interactions with objects in the environment, in events.
I agree with DeLanda that objects have a history, with a beginning and an end. Certain conditions have to be met for the object to retain its existence. In particular, to live, an organism must keep its metabolism (temperature, fluids, feeds, waste) within certain bounds of tolerance.
For potential, DeLanda used the example of a knife, which can be used in different ways: for cutting meat or for fighting. One enabling feature is its sharpness, which determines how and what it can cut.
In item 420 of this blog I proposed that the identity of an object is determined by its potential, which is open to unforeseeable actualisations. A screw driver may be used to drive in a nail, in the absence of a hammer. Potential is also limited, in unforeseeable ways, by the object’s composition and its properties, and conditions for survival, as indicated above for an organism.
According to DeLanda potential cannot be enumerated, is open-ended, contingent upon conditions, but actual properties can be listed. I disagree with the latter. There are two problems with it.
First, how deep into the object does one go to specify its components? A physical object may be analysed into its molecules, but those can be analysed in its atoms, and those, in turn, are made up of fundamental forces that physicists have been unable to agree upon for 50 years.
Second, what criterion or perspective does one use to look at components or properties? Which would be relevant? Can one always know what is relevant? Encountering new contexts may shift the way of looking at components and properties.
So, I remain in agreement with Harman that one cannot enumerate all properties; some remain ‘hidden’.
Potential is open-ended, in its actualization, and actualization can feed back into properties. Thus there is upward causation, where the object affects its environment, or the wider object it is part of, and downward causation, where the environment affects the properties of the object, within limitations imposed by composition and properties.
This is in contradiction to DeLanda, who proposed that downward causation does not affect the object’s composition and properties. That, the underlying idea is, would jeopardize the independent, enduring existence and identity of the object, and hence realism.
The sharpness and design of a knife may be adapted depending on needs and opportunities encountered in its use. Serration may be added to the blade. Design may be differentiated for different uses, as DeLanda acknowledged. He used the example of stone tools, first used for cutting, boning, scraping meat, and for fighting, and differentiated for different uses.
To turn to an example of a non-material object, consider language. In a sentence, in an action context, words actualize one of their potential meanings (here meaning in the sense of reference), but new meanings may be added to its repertoire.
That is most pronounced in poetry, where meanings are shifted or new meanings arise.
In upward causation, the meaning of a sentence is a grammatical function of the words in it. In downward causation the sentence actualizes a possible meaning of a word in it.
In an earlier item in this blog (36) I used the hermeneutic circle to analyse this upward and downward causation of meaning. Insertion of universal concept (‘paradigm’) in a sentence (‘syntax’) actualizes one of several possible meanings, and the context can add a new meaning to the repertoire of meanings of the universal.
The actualization of an object’s potential is an event, but can that also be an object in its own right? Harman saw events as higher order objects.
A word actualizes its possible meaning in a sentence, but the sentence is also an object, indeed of a higher order. But events do not necessarily produce objects.
Whether something is to be considered as an object or an event depends on the context, in particular the time frame (but not only on that). An organism is an object in the time frame of its life but in the time frame of evolution it is an instant, an event, in the actualization of the potential of a genome.
So, one condition for an object is continuity relevant to the context at hand.
Harman used the example of a crash between airplanes as a higher order object. I doubt that. There is hardly a coherence of parts relative to the time frame at hand, let alone an enduring coherence. Also, it is a bit of a stretch to see it as the realization of a potential. It is more the destruction of it. Can one meaningfully say that the crash has components that yield its potential?
However, the coherence between components can be intermittent, discontinuous but recurring. Earlier, I gave the example of the design of a house, to be built in projects.
DeLanda used the example of the constellation of warrior, horse, and bow with arrows that was used by nomad tribes (such as the Mongols conquering Europe). For that coherence to persist, the warrior does not have to sleep and eat on the horse (though they have been reported to do so).
[i] Manuel DeLanda, 2016, Assemblage theory, Edinburgh University Press.