Tuesday, February 27, 2018


358. Existence

What exists? There are two questions: an ontological and an epistemological one. The ontological question is: what things exist in the world, and what are their relations with humans and with each other? An epistemological question is: to what extent and how do we have access to those things, how, if at all, can we know them? The latter question has long been dominant, and that makes sense, because if you don’t know if you can know things, what sense is there to speculate about them? However, some contemporary philosophers (Harman, Gabriel, Garcia) now aim to escape from the preoccupation with access, to take things at face value and see. Here I go along with that.

However, the issue of access is still relevant, and I will turn to that later, as I have done in previous items in his blog. In fact, the dynamic, relational ontology that I will argue for covers both questions, which cannot be separated, because ideas about things develop in interaction with those things, which does not mean that they are without error. 

As Harman and Garcia do, I allow for a wide scope of ‘things in the world’: skates, a musical score, a concert, an organization, an ideology, a policy, an opinion, ….[i]

Ontology entails a number of issues, and here I give only an introductory survey, to be developed later. To cut a long story short: Reality is what we can interact with. Largely in agreement with Harman, I believe that:

1.      Objects yield affordances: things we can do with them (tools, furniture, etc.).
2.      Objects are always partly hidden; do not reveal all their features (Harman adopts this principle from Heidegger). One cannot specify all its features, and what is revealed depends on the context, absorptive capacity and intentions of a subject.
3.      Objects have an existence beyond our experience with them.
4.      We can do things to objects, but do not necessarily control them (e.g. the environment).
5.      Many objects are emergent: are not merely assemblages of components but have properties that their components don’t have.
6.      Objects and humans develop in interaction with each other. Affordances are not constant: there may be unrealized potential, and that potential can change.
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Harman proposed that objects are to be looked at in two basic ways: in terms of their components, and in terms of experience or use of them. The first is the realm of science, with its analysis of components, the second that of phenomenology, with its view of use and experience. Garcia put it as follows: one can look at ‘what is in’ the object, and at ‘what it is in’. Harman claims that they are both reductionist, and need to be combined. They are combined, I propose, by virtue of affordances that objects yield (point 1). The first, looking at components, does not recognize emergence (point 5), and neither of the two deals with change (6).

Concerning point 1, objects can also yield opposition, the negative of affordances, resisting actions and ideas. An ‘object’ can literally object to them. And the ‘subject’ is literally subjected to an environment of objects.

Concerning point 2, features of an object may be hidden in several ways. One is tacit knowledge, wre one can do more than one knows. In one form, knowledge once was explicit, but is now taken for granted and cannot be specified. An example is the grammatical rules of a language learned at school, now correctly used without the ability to specify them. In another form, the object could never be fully specified, as in skill learned from a  master, in ostentation rather than specification of a practice. 

Concerning point 6, in this blog I have pleaded for a process philosophy, seeing objects as processes (item 342). In my view, and that of Andrew Benjamin, not singular objects but interaction is primary, since that is how objects, in particular people, are constituted, in relations. However, objects do have an existence that is stable relative to those relations. How that could work is a crucial issue to be discussed in a later item in this blog.

In human and social affairs I have pleaded for a restoration of Aristotelian multiple causality of action (efficient, final, material, formal, conditional and exemplary causes).

Objects form the material cause of the formation of ideas. As I discussed in the preceding item in his blog, it is because of their existence outside our knowledge and control that they can contradict ideas and thereby contribute to their correction and change. If they were not to some extent independent of our ideas, our ideas would not develop. I think that is the most convincing argument for objects to have an existence of their own, beyond our ideas.

The formal cause of conceptualization is ways of thought, partly predisposed by evolution.
Idea formation is not per se reliable. In particular, abstract ideas, such as ‘meaning’, suffer from an ‘object bias’ (item 29): they are conceptualized according to a metaphor of objects in time and space, resulting from the predominant need to adequately deal with such things during much of human evolution. I will elaborate on that in the next item.

I also like Harman’s idea of ‘hyperobjects’, with three properties:
7.      we get entangled in them, unable to get out
8.      they are not only local (the climate, markets)
9.      there can be object-object interaction without human involvement (in the weather)

In this blog I have discussed the notion of ‘system tragedy’, where people get entangled in social structures (organization, institutions, markets), in a complex of positions, roles, and interests, where they lose autonomy and freedom of ethical choice. This is an example of emergence. Such systems can be non-local (financial markets, for example).

This is a major problem for political economy: system tragedy arises, in particular, from multinational corporations that cater exclusively to shareholder interests, and can dodge government regulation or press for advantages, under the threat of moving business abroad, yielding a race to the bottom between nations, concerning social, legal and environmental conditions.

Now, do objects have an essence? That is the subject of a later item.  


[i] Harman and Garcia call this a ‘flat ontology’, because all these different things have an equal claim to existence. However, this term may suggest that there is no hierarchy of things, and I will argue that there is.