Saturday, March 3, 2018

359. What things?

I follow Tristan Garcia and Graham Harman in adopting a very liberal, wide ranging notion of things, as I did in he preceding item in this blog. Things are anything one can think or talk about, be it dikes, dogs, dreams or delusions. Objects, somewhat more restrictively, I take as things one can interact with, and that can resist us, literally objecting to what we say, think or do. That notion of an object is still very wide, but does seem to exclude things like dreams and delusions.

What different kinds of objects are there? Heidegger distinguished ‘Sein’, non-human things, and ‘ Dasein’, human things, which are different in having thought, self-consciousness, awareness of death, etc. Similarly, Sartre talked of things ‘in themselves’ (‘en soi’) and things ‘for themselves’ (‘pour soi’), again non-human vs. human. Garcia objected to this.[i] The difference between human and nonhuman is not absolute: Humans are also animals, some animals have something that looks, in part, like language, self-awareness, a sense of death, and altruism.

Nevertheless, this difference matters, even if it is not absolute. Humans do have features that animals don’t, such as a language with a grammar.

Another customary distinction is that between material and abstract things. Garcia questions that also. If one accepts his view, discussed in the preceding item, that there are two aspects to any thing: what ‘is in it’ and ‘what it is in’, then a chair is not only something with legs, seat, armrests, made of wood or metal, but also something subject to use, or to discussion, generating experience. And the latter is mostly immaterial. Conversely, an abstract thing, such as an idea, is expressed by way of speech or writing, which are material.

Yet, here again, though not absolute, the difference is still important. Garcia proposes that things can be more or less spatially and temporally ‘continuous’; ‘chunky’ and ‘durable’. That also is not absolute, and depends on scale or perspective. Take a piece of slate, the example Garcia uses. When you look at it on a microscopic or submicroscopic level, continuity in space falls apart: you see molecules hanging more or less separately, non-continuously, in mostly empty space. The slate is durable but in the very long run that also will erode.

However, what is relevant to human experience is how continuous an object is on that scale, in human experience, between the microscopic and the macroscopic, and between the instantaneous and the long run. Sufficiently continuous in time and space, as seen by humans, to be relevant to activities like foraging, fighting, building, fleeing, attacking, etc. 

And here the difference is important, as I argued earlier in this blog. Objects that are continuous, in human experience, behave differently, in important ways, from objects that are not. As I said in an earlier item, if you move a chair from one room to another, it remains the same. If you move a word from one sentence to another its meaning changes. Continuous objects were salient for survival in the long period of the evolution of humans as hunter-gatherers. Spatial discontinuity of an enemy in a group of enemies is a very different matter from a single enemy, a spear that can at any moment dissolve in the air is not of much use.

The salience of continuity was such, I propose, that it became defining for objects in general, imprinted as such in the evolution of the human mind, in its construction of concepts and language. And now we treat abstractions, such as meaning, happiness, identity, culture, democracy, and so on, by analogy to continuous objects, while the crux of them is that they are subject to differentiation between people, contexts, and moments. I have called this an ‘object bias’ in conceptualization, which is now putting humanity and society on the wrong foot, jeopardizing the current evolution and survival of humanity.

Garcia discusses how the intuition of ‘substance’ used to dominate old ontologies, such as those of Aristotle, Spinoza, and Descartes. I propose that this also was due to the salience of continuity in human experience. Substance is the pinnacle of both continuities.

[i] Tristan Garcia, 2014, Form and object; A treatise on things, Edinburgh University Press.

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