Nathan of An Un-canny Ontology, responding to the same posts by Levi Bryant that I cited in my Tumblr workblog, asks the question: “What exactly happens during translation? What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?” After mulling over this question for some time, Nathan concludes “that objects predict, expect, or anticipate other objects – they recognize potential.”
Now, I am not sure that this is the right answer — or, at the very least, I would argue that it isn’t all of the answer. Nathan makes this claim because, for instance, “for leafs [sic] to translate photons of light into complex sugars, they must recognize the photons of light as photons of light.” I suppose this is true in a sense: leaves will not — cannot — translate just anything into complex sugars. But I don’t see why “recognition” has to be the precondition. If anything, I’d say that the leaf’s “recognition” of the photon is a consequence of, rather than a precondition for, its “translation” of light into sugar. Re-cognition, and indeed any form of cognition, always comes afterwards; it is the error of cogntivists (which we human beings, unavoidably misunderstanding ourselves, tend to be much of the time) to think that cognition is a ground of action, when actually it is a result of action.
I think that the source of this problem, in Nathan’s account, is the following. He says that ” objects first and foremost recognize each other,” precisely because — here paraphrasing Levi, and also to an extent Graham Harman — “objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly.” But as I’ve said before, my biggest disagreement with both Levi and Graham is that, for me, objects do encounter each other directly. (Whitehead’s actual entities are a bit like Leibniz’s monads, but actual entities touch each other directly, as monads do not. Cf. also Gabriel Tarde, who posits monads that — unlike Leibniz’s — interact with one another directly).
Levi puts it this way:
One of Harmanâ€™s core claims is that objects withdraw from one another or never directly encounter one another. This is the Kantian moment in Harmanâ€™s ontology. Where Kant holds that we never have direct access to the thing-in-itself, emphasizing the relationship between mind and thing-in-itself, Harman generalizes this thesis to all relations between things, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. This is precisely why Harmanâ€™s ontology, despite being an ontological realism is also an epistemological anti-realism. In my own ontology, I refer to this general feature of things with the concept of â€œtranslationâ€. As Gadamer (and Quine) taught us, every translation is a transformation. Â (from this post)
I largely agree with this (as I’ve said before, here and here). I think that it is precisely right to generalize what Kant says about the mind’s encounter with external reality to all interactions between/among objects. However: unlike Levi, I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.” This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access. In Kant’s account, we are affected by things-in-themselves, even though we can never know them. This is indeed the source of one of the most-remarked problems with Kant’s thought: he seems to be saying that, in some sense, things-in-themselves cause our perceptions of them, even though he explicitly says that causality is merely phenomenal (i.e. merely produced by the way our minds organize our sensations). There are two ways to resolve this dilemma. One is Hegel’s and Zizek’s way, which absolutizes Mind or Spirit or Subject, by saying that even the inaccessibility of things-in-themselves is in fact posited by the Mind in the first place. Obviously, I find this undesirable. The other alternative — or, more precisely, the move in the opposite direction — consists in distinguishing the way things affect other things from “causality” understood as a Transcendental Category (i.e. roughly, as a form of cognition). Causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that the mind is non-cognitively affected by things-in-themselves. Or — to make the speculative realist generalization — causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that an object affects, or is affected by, another object.This is one way of describing Whitehead’s distinction between “causal efficacy” (what I am calling non-cognitive affectivity) and “presentational immediacy” (which, for Whitehead, means the type of causal connection discussed by Hume and by Kant).
So I agree with Levi and Graham that an object never cognitively grasps any other object in its entirety. (This is what Levi calls epistemological anti-realism). But I disagree with their move of equating this cognitive inaccessibility with the claim that objects never directly encounter one another. My non-vicarious version of ontological realism consists in claiming that objects do directly encounter (or affect) one another — only they do so non-cognitively. This is precisely why our ontology can be realist, even when our epistemology is confessedly anti-realist. The translation that happens in every encounter between objects — i.e. when, in Whitehead’s terms, one object prehends another object — is a direct, but non-cognitive, encounter (in Whitehead’s terms, it is a process of feeling, in which an “actual entity” determines itself by making a “decision” about how it will feel that which moves it to feel. An object functions for another object, Whitehead says, as a “lure for feeling”).
[I know that Levi and Graham won’t agree with my account here, and probably Nathan won’t either. But none of this would have come clear to me — to the extent that it has come clear — if not for my puzzling over what they wrote].