Levi Bryant, in a recent blog entry, argues against the reductionist critique that would see only subatomic particles as “real,” since they are the building blocks of everything on a larger scale. Reductionism argues, in effect, that larger entities (such as “trees”) are not actual objects, but only our own way of constructing or organizing a quantum reality that we cannot perceive directly.
In opposition to this, Levi rightly says that, if quarks and leptons are actual objects independent of our own perceptual projections, then things like trees are actual objects independent of our own perceptua projections as well.
However, I am not sure I agree with Levi’s reasons for defending the independence of objects of all scales. Or rather, I do agree, more or less, with his first argument:
The point that a rock contains atoms, electrons, and other particles besides, does not undermine the thesis that the rock itself is an object, nor does it make the rock less real than the particles it contains. While it is indeed true that the rock cannot exist without these particles, the pattern or structure or system that characterizes the rock is nonetheless what characterizes the rock as a distinct object.
This is one way of understanding Whitehead’s insistence that philosophy must not “explain away” anything, but must accept the reality of the beautiful sunset as well as the reality of photons of different energy levels. (The point of Whitehead’s example is precisely that the beautiful sunset is part of “nature” just as much as the photons are, and that it cannot be “explained away” as being merely a subjective human interpretation, or as involving “secondary qualities” instead of primary ones, etc. The sunset, every bit as much as the photon, is itself a real object, irreducible to the way that human consciousness posits and grasps it).
But I disagree with his second argument:
All objects are independent of one another. This is where the mereological thesis gets really strange. The particles that the rock contains are themselves independent objects and the rock itself an object independent of the particles that it contains. Thus, while the rock cannot exist without these particles, the rockness of the rock is nonetheless independent of the particles that contain it.
This is the defining thesis of object-oriented metaphysics, held by Graham Harman as well as Levi, that I cannot make sense of. I do not see how it is possible, or conceivable, for anything to exist independently of everything else. For it is only due to other things that any particular thing can exist in the first place. I am not reducible to the particles and atoms that compose my body,Â just as I am not reducible to the oxygen I breathe, the food I eat, the language I speak, the clothes I wear, and the money that sustains my existence in this society; just as the tree is not reducible, either to the atoms that compose it, or to the sunlight and atmosphere that sustain it, the animals that help to fertilize its seeds, etc. But it seems to me to be incoherent to essentialize this “not reducible to” by equating it with some sort of absolute existence, in and of itself. A dependent being is not reducible to what it is dependent upon (or to what, in turn, is dependent upon it); but neither can it be posited as a self-contained being altogether apart from the other beings upon which it depends
To even propose such a thesis of substance, or object-independence — as Harman and Bryant do — is to freeze objects in time, and to rule out the reality of genesis, becoming, and transformation. It is to posit an endurance that is somehow independent of time, i.e. that time only affects secondarily, contingently, from the outside as it were.
This is where (as usual) I prefer Whitehead’s account to the more recent “object-oriented” one. Whitehead fully recognizes how a thing, or an object, is independent of, and irreducible to, its causes, components, and supports or preconditions or milieu. But he goes to great lengths to prevent this independence from being hypostasized as an enduring substance. A Whiteheadian “actual occasion” (or “actual entity”) is in fact independent of everything contemporaneous with it (just as Bryant and Harman claim);No entity is merely a passive result of what precedes it, because every entity makes a “decision” with regard to the “data” that it “prehends” (perceives, touches, is affected by, etc.). Indeed, the independence of an entity/occasion in the present is precisely the consequence of its “decision” with regard to its past. Contemporaneous decisions made by different entites do not influence one another, which is why things can be different, and the new can be produced, even within a common environment or a common set of antecedents.
However — such an “actual entity” is not a substance (in Harman’s sense) or a subsisting object (in Bryant’s sense), because it precisely does not endure. That is to say, it is a process rather than a substance. Once it happens, it is done; it is now dead, or (as Whitehead likes to put it), “objectively immortal” — it is now a mere datum for other processes to come. In this way, the entity is not independent of its antecedents and consequences. It comes out of those things that it makes a decision about, and it influences the rest of reality as something about which other entities must make a decision. It cannot be completely prehended or apprehended by any following entity — it is always grasped only partially and incompletely, just as Harman requires of objects in relation to other objects. And yet it is in its essence relational, because it arises out of already-given data and donates itself to the future as data.
In other words, the punctuality of Whitehead’s actual occasions, the fact that they are “perpetually perishing,” is what gives them over to temporality — in contrast to the way that time remains necessarily secondary and external for the “object-oriented” thinkers. Or, Whitehead’s doctrine of actual occasions does in fact meet all the criteria of Harman’s and Bryant’s object-oriented thought, while at the same time being essential temporal and relational in a way that their notion of object-independence is unable to compass. Harman and Bryant are right in what they require of objects; but there is more to it than they are willing to compass. Whitehead doesn’t contradict the “object-oriented” argument, so much as he places it within a wider context of relations. What Harman and Bryant see as an opposition, is for Whitehead rather a contrast.
I am not really saying anything different from what I say in my formal article critiquing Harman, which I will be delivering tomorrow as a talk at the SLSA conference in Atlanta; and which will appear, together with Harman’s own spiritedÂ rejoinder, in the forthcoming volume The Speculative Turn. But I think that Bryant’s formulations in his latest blog posting have allowed me, or spurred me, to make one aspect of the argument clearer than it was before.
[Note to self: this is still incomplete. I need to write also about how Whitehead conceives "societies", which can be objects that more or less endure through time, like myself or a tree. Societies are composed of actual entites, but not in the way that physical objects are composed of subatomic particles; there is a crucial "mereological" argument here, one that I still need to work out better -- but that differs from Bryant's account of parts and wholes. Also, I need to broaden the sense in which Whitehead's approach bridges the gap between object-orientation on the one hand, and the emphasis on becoming and transformation and crystallizations of the actual out of the virtual that one finds in Bergson, Deleuze, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Harman regards this as an irreconcilable opposition -- for him, there is no middle ground between the object-orientation of his own thought, Bryant's, and Latour's, and the process orientation of the above-mentioned thinkers. But Whitehead precisely undoes this dichotomy -- and that is something else that I still need to work out more fully and cogently].