Saturday, March 24, 2018

362. Relational ontology

I argue for a dynamic, relational ontology, where objects develop in relations with other objects that form, enable, object and oppose each other, in relations.

Andrew Benjamin also argued for a relational ontology[i]. He posited that the relation is primary to the singular object, because the individual object arises from the relation. I find it difficult to claim which is primary, since the relation between the object and the relation is circular: singulars produce relations, which produce singulars.

One thing is clear: the ‘thing in itself’ that has produced so much debate in philosophy, does not exist..

Relational ontologies arose before, among others with Alfred N. Whitehead and Bruno Latour. With the latter, the human being is constituted in networks. Against such ontology, two opposite objections have been raised.

The first objection is that relations change constantly, and if a human being is determined by those relations, then he/she no longer has a stable identity. And when they thus adapt to circumstance, they lose their role as opposing objects.

The second objection is that if all objects are formed by relations with all other objects then that also applies to those objects, so that there is only one all-encompassing object.

According to the first objection there is no identity, and according to the second there is only one single identity.

These objections are easily waved aside. The first assumes that with a change of relation an object changes entirely. The second assumes that there are relations with all other objects. Both can be untrue. A relation may affect only parts of an object, and most relations concern only some, not all other objects.

The question then is how an object can change only partly, not entirely or essentially. Is there, then, an essence that remains the same? As I argued earlier in this blog, I don’t believe in essences. How, then, can it work? How can an object change under a change of relations and yet maintain an identity, without having an essence?

According to Tristan Garcia the identity of an object is determined by what goes in and what goes out, in particular the difference between them. That reminds of the notion of added value of the added value of a firm, in economics: the difference of value of sales and value of purchases, as a measure of production (and the basis for VAT). But I want to open up the black box that transforms inputs into outputs.

That can be elucidated with the concept of a script that I discussed before (see the preceding item in this blog). I used it in my studies of innovation, and it is useful here also. A script is a network of nodes, connected by lines that can represent succession in time, causal effect, inference, or sharing of things (resources, ownership, legal identity, …). The structure constitutes identity, without need for any notion of essence.

The system is recursive, i.e. the nodes are themselves also scripts (subscripts), and the whole is embedded in a wider script (superscript). Take the example of a restaurant. That has a script of nodes of entry, seating, ordering, eating, paying and leaving. Paying itself has a script, or a collection of scripts, such as paying cash, by card or an app on the phone. The restaurant is embedded in a wider script of location, parking, supply of goods, monitoring by health authorities, insurance, safety measures, …

This yields an operationalization of the idea, adopted from ‘object-oriented ontology’,  that an object has two dimensions: of what is in it, here the the nodes and their subscripts, and what it is in, the superscript. The script can change in several ways: in its component nodes, e.g. a novel method of payment, in the restaurant script, where the basic character of the script, its overall structure, remains the same. Or it can change in its structure, the composition, say, in the transformation into a self-service restaurant, with a different sequencing of nodes: first selection of food, then payment, then seating and eating. Note that this has consequences for the nodes and their subscripts:  selecting food now entails carrying a tray. Note also that it changes with many things, but not with everything: consumer tastes, new dishes, regulations, but not ice skating, mountain climbing, or elections.

Is there an essence? Eating, perhaps? But the service and self-service restaurants would then be essentially the same. And one can also eat at home. Is the essence ‘eating out’, then? That also applies to a picnic.

Does this solve the philosophical puzzle, and with that the criticism of relational ontology?


[i] Andrew Benjamin, 2015, Towards a relational ontology, Suny Press.