Saturday, March 31, 2018


363. The causality of concepts

In preceding items in this blog I adopted ideas from ‘object-oriented ontology’ (3O). An object has an inside, of components that cohere in some way, with a certain endurance in time and across conditions, and it has an outside, where it has effects and from which it draws influence.  

In the dynamics of change of objects, in the interaction between what ‘is in them’ and what ‘they are in’, for interactions in which humans are involved I use the multiple causality of Aristotle, with its efficient cause (actors), final cause (goals), material cause (things used), formal cause (method, knowledge, theory, technology), conditional cause (circumstances), and exemplary cause (such as role models). 

Are concepts, universals, abstractions objects? Platonic ideas are eternal and identical across contexts. Do they have components? For universals, presumably the components would be its particulars. What is their coherence? One might say: by an essence of the universal, but I don’t believe in such essences. The particulars have overlapping connotations. New particulars can arise, and they may shift the universal, in a shift of connotations, which raises some doubt about its endurance. For an example I used the case where someone used a stuffed cow for a chair.

Concepts do take part in causality. They produce effects. They can act as an efficient cause: playing a role in an argument. As a final cause, a goal: a concept to be analysed. As a material cause: the stuff of discourse. Formal: the method of investigation. Conditional: effects from the educational system, symbolic order/ideology. Exemplary: act as a paradigm.

According to Harman events are also objects. He gives the example of a collision between two airplanes. First there are two objects: the planes. Then a third object: the collision. Then a fourth object: the consequences of the crash. That seems odd. Yet there may be some argument for it. It does satisfy the criterion for an object of having components, with coherence in the form of succession in a causal process. But the coherence is hardly stable.

Take a stumble on the stairs. What are its components’? The initial loss of balance, bumps along the hobbling down, the final smack on the floor, the sprained ankle and a broken arm? What is their coherence? Stages in a process of causality? How stable is that coherence?  

The crux of an object is (relative) stability of composition. It does allow for change at some ‘lower’ level, of the components, but not their structure. For example, a body that stays the same while changing its cells.

By contrast, the crux of an event is change, of the structure of an object (its ‘inside’) or of its relation to its ‘environment’ (movement, metabolism, effects, phenomenology). A train is a coherent object that moves in space.

Acts are also events, and in them actors can create objects, demolish them and affect them even while they retain their identity. If I say something to someone, and he/she understands and learns from it, he/she is affected while staying the same person. So, here again, there must be a way of affecting objects while they retain their identity, and for that I employ the notion of a script, as described in the preceding item in this blog.

Is a book an object, as 3O claims, or only a node in a network of sense, as Foucault claimed? I can be both at the same time, like an object as a node in a script as an object. But the network of meanings in books seems tenuous, as an object. What is the coherence of sense? Two books will share many words, but if sense varies with the context, those words have many different meanings across books. They do share grammar, within a language. Coherence will increase in a genre of books, or as an item in the oeuvre of a specific author. But the coherence within a book is much stronger: in spatial continuity (the book), coherence in a plot, continuity of characters, or line of argument, lettertype, font size, paper, authorship, readership, publisher, bookshop/website, reviews.

Is Alice wonderland an object? I think she is. What are her components and the coherence between them? They are not empirical. To investigate them you have to ask the author, who is likely to say that whatever is not mentioned in the book you would have to imagine yourself. Could she appear in a book as a cosmonaut?  Perhaps. As a sausage? Hardly. Outside relations are with other characters in the book, the red Queen, for example, who tells her that you have to run to stand still. Coherence in fiction might be logical, though that does not always apply, not in the Snark, for example, who is probably hunted precisely to dodge logic. Whether it ‘works’ is a literary or dramatic matter, judged by critics. It has real effects, such as a reader buying the book, or being spired to write one him/herself.