Having another go at epistemology in OOO

I remember reading an interview somewhere with Ray Brassier where he referred to his big work, Nihil Unbound, as a “botched job.” I can’t recall why he thought that (it’s a fantastic work) or what he thought he needed to get right for next time, but I really admired him for saying it. Scholars and artists put so much of themselves into their work that it’s hard not to over-identify with it. It’s hard not to stand by your work, even if there’s something incomplete or perhaps wrong about it. Part of that is ego, but part of it is ethos. And ethos is real. It belongs to audience just as much as it does to the speaker/writer. If you’re publicly honest about the shortcomings of your previous work, you might get some points for that honesty–but how can you expect anyone to invest their time and trust into the next one?

With that in mind, I’m on the road to completing (or rectifying) that which was incomplete (or wrong) about my past work on OOO and epistemology. This includes my book and a recent article that never survived the editing process. Much of the inspiration for revising my thinking comes from the second of my blog-mediated conversations with Eric Taxier, whose sharp insights into object-quality tensions led me to a very different reading of ontography. I’ve never really put much stock into academic conferences but, man, critical engagement does matter.

Anyway, here’s a very rough introduction to a new essay I’m writing in which will attempt to apply a more systematic treatment of the matter. I submit it here not to illicit feedback (not just yet, anyway), but to thumbtack it onto the wall, to try to stay within the bounds of the few basic tasks I’ve laid out for myself:


Why Don’t Objects Have Properties? (subtitle forthcoming)

There is a perfectly efficient answer to the titular question of this essay: People in the analytical tradition tend to talk about ‘properties,’ whereas those in the phenomenological tradition like to talk about ‘qualities,’ even though they’re all essentially dealing with the same thing. Object-Oriented Ontology speaks with a phenomenological accent, so it uses qualities.

But the question deserves a little more thought because the answer to that question turns out to involve much more than disciplinary markers. The question calls for a more substantive response precisely because it is a question of substance. For one, Phenomenology begins from an interest in objects of experience and evokes the derivative term qualia, the characteristics of phenomenal experience, unique to a particular phenomenal experience.* ‘Properites’ on the other hand are inextricably bound to the longstanding debate about the existence of universals. This is by no means to say that everyone who makes use of ‘properties’ believes in universals–indeed, the varied traditions of nominalism exist either to explain away universals or banish properties altogether–but those who talk about properties cannot do so without at least implicitly addressing the problem of universals. In this essay, I will be sticking primarily to Graham Harman’s formulation of Object-Oriented Philosophy; however, there is no strain of Object-Oriented Ontology of which I am aware that takes seriously the notion of universal properties. Whether materialist or immaterialist, universal properties would seem to be relegated to the realm of idealism, and OOO in any flavor is firmly committed to realism.

In the following section, I will discuss the reasons why universals are so incompatible with OOO and, and why entering the universals debate by invoking ‘properties’ would seem to be an unproductive distraction. I will follow up that discussion with some reasons why universal properties nonetheless return from the dead time and time again, even for those who sail under the realist banner. There, I will also touch upon some alternatives already proposed for those who like what universals do but who cannot stand the idealist aftertaste.

In the second part of this essay, I will argue that OOO still needs to explain what theoretical labor–that is, the intuition of an object’s real qualities–looks like in the absence of universal properties or a developed understanding of tropes in the quadruple object model, and also how the beginnings of such theoretical labor is possible for objects which lack the intellect for intellectual intuition. I will then propose just such an understanding, one that both takes on the repetitive work that universal properties do and allows for a sensual rather than strictly intellectual beginning of eidetic reduction or theoretical labor.

*The terms qualia and quale are far more common in Philosophy of Mind than they are in Phenomenology. Indeed, the idea of qualia, as it appears in Philosophy of Mind would have been problematic for Husserl, since qualia exist as differentiated experiential data rather than being tied to a particular object of the experience.


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