For Jason Hills
by Adam Robbert
Over at Immanent Transcendence, Jason Hills has been exploring (and pushing) the relationships between nominalism, universals, and realism, particularly as they are thought in the context of OOO. I find myself with a brief moment to contemplate some of the issues Jason is raising, so I’m taking the opportunity to write a quick response. Jason writes:
What’s the point? Without a realism of universals, of which the phenomenal qualities are a case, then any experience becomes arbitrary. We run into all the problems of empiricism that Hume and Berkeley exposed. Should we then seek shelter in Kant and psychologism? Qualities are law-like by-products of human experience that have no basis in external reality? No.What is at stake? Without a reality of universals, then phenomenology really is every bit of trash that most analytics think it is. This is in part why they almost universally denigrate it–because they are NOT REALISTS about universals, and thus they think that mere experience is hokum. And thus they retreat into a neo-Cartesian position of thinking that what is really real is the rational and intellectual, err … “scientific.” This was part of Husserl’s ferocious critique in the Crisis; they mathematized being and did not even realize it.
These comments arise in the context of a discussion some of us have been having over at Matt Segall’s always industrious and creative blog Footnotes To Plato. At stake seems to be the status of universals in Whitehead’s process metaphysics, and, similarly, how such notions might transfer over into OOO-land. I’m certainly open to further exploration on these topics (I don’t think any one should feel ashamed about struggling to think the status of universals in one’s philosophy, it is certainly contested and important territory), however, I do have some thoughts in response to Jason’s comments. And, for further disclosure, when I think “OOO” I do not think it apart from the important alliances it has with process philosophy, ANT, science studies, situated knowledge practices, and cosmopolitics — they all merge and depart from one another in important ways that only strengthen their role as a speculative ecosystem of thought. That said, here are some comments.
First, I’m not convinced that realism requires universals, save for perhaps one. That universal would be contingency as in Meillasoux’s “hyperchaos” (within which even the laws of physics are contingently unfolding) and/or Whitehead’s “ontological principle” (within which no actual occasion can enter into the universe from nowhere, and must rather emerge from a constitutive set of historically occurring patterns or relations). Here I have always been confused by why Whitehead would call his “eternal objects” “eternal” given that the premise of his ontological principle seems to preclude both the eternality of either entities or patterns in the universe, and the fact that his metaphysics denies any entity the ability to be outside or external to the universe (and thus not really transcendent or eternal).
I see two options here 1) re-work Whitehead’s metaphysics so that “eternal objects” actually deserve the name through a ontological justification of such entities or 2) drop the name all together and come up with a new one that better describes the formative, participatory patterns Whitehead seems to be referring to (Matt Segall seems to think that participation, in Whitehead, goes both ways from creatures to forms and vice-versa, if thats the case I again think the term “eternal” should be dropped). Here Whitehead is among the most generous of philosophers and always caveats his philosophy with an appeal to the limited nature of abstractions, Whitehead encourages a rethinking of his premises whenever necessary.
In the context of the ontological principle I don’t think contingency amounts to the same thing as arbitrary (as Jason indicates in his post). Rather, as Isabelle Stengers notes in a memorable phrase, we are not affirming the relativity of truth through the ontological principle but, rather, the truth of relativity. A difference that makes a difference if there ever was one. This also connects to Jason’s charge that, without universals, a philosophy cannot be considered properly realist. I disagree as this seems to unnecessarily equate realism with both secular and religious versions of ontotheology, which I don’t think necessarily follows from considering oneself a “realist.”
The final question lurking around these parts of discussion has to do with the ontology of numbers and mathematics. In the recent essays I have been preparing, I feel that I have made a pretty solid case for (or at least am approaching a solid case) for the ecological ontology of knowledge but, and I admit full ignorance here, have a great deal of difficulty thinking the ontology of mathematics. Here the question of universals still looms. If my very limited understanding of Badiou is correct, than he seems to be arguing that ontology is rooted in mathematics, my own line of thinking here would like take this in a more Whiteheadian direction as Badiou’s ontology — please correct me someone if I’m wrong — seems to create a new materialism that suffers from many of the same bifurcations that old dualistic materialisms suffer from (i.e., making an ontological distinction between apparent and causal nature, where for Whitehead these are integrally united in the philosophy of organism).
OK. That was more than I had planned to write and I apologize for any details I have glossed over. These are important, open-ended questions and this response hopefully can be approached as a learning moment for myself and everyone else whom might find these questions interesting.