The Series of Objections to “Object” Consciousness
Larval Subjects posted a round-up of the latest OOP (Object-Oriented Philosophy) weblog discussion, as everyone seems to be seeking the “New” metaphysics (one if reminded of Nietzsche’s clever, and unfortunately philosophical reminder that one should hate the “Good” that is in the mouth of one’s neighbor [BGE 43]). Cordiality all around, but metaphysics (the logical necessities) in the mouth of another invites objection. These were my three posted objections, in their order:
1. The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception
2. The Bounce of the Being of Beings
3. Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod)
Larval Subjects though finds my main objection to Graham Harman’s ontology of necessarily hidden objects as they are caught in a Husserlian/Heideggerian Four Fold, not even remotely applicable, (how can hidden objects be a product of optical metaphorization?). This is surely a clue that I have done a very poor job of making the nature of my point clear for each time I see it summarized, the nature of my point seems to not be there in the mouths of my summarizers. This is my fault. The purpose of this post is to set some of the history backdrop for the nature of my critique, a backdrop which may make my critique more plain, at least in concept. Then, when plain, it can be debated whether it applies.
Part of the problem with my critique is that it cuts so broadly across the swathe of Philosophy, hitting at all the fibers of terms that have developed from Descartes on, that arguing about it within the vocabularies of those derived terms is counter-productive. It touches such elementary philosophical analytics dyads Self/World, or subject/object, and even Being/Non-Being, overturning something of the each of these terms even when separated out from their traditional dyad partner.
And part of the problem is that my point is a historical one, that is, I am tracing the genaology of a thought back to a moment in theory, and perhaps it requires that one understand this moment in theory in order to understand the subtle perniciousness of the continuity. It is for this reason that I’ll summarize something about what was going on when the exact anatomical nature of the eye meet the Cartesian idea of the ideal shape of a lens, all brought in metaphor to a concept of consciousness itself, the Cartesian concept of Will organized around the idea of a Central Clarity of Object.
The Hyperboliod Lens, Bending Rays Toward the Center of the Eye
Come out of the Perspectivist Tradition of a Theory of Vision which for centuries thought that vision consisted of a point by point correspondence of rays coming from a place in the object directly to the back of the eye, like so many uninterrupted strings, Kepler was the first to make rigorous discovery of how rays radiated out in all directions from all the points of an object, and were generally refracted and refocused on the back of the eye (to over-simplify the history). Part of this discovery was his proposal/discovery that the lens of the eye was hyperbolic in shape, a shape which focused dispersing rays from a central point toward a perpendicular which was the lens’s axis, as the illustration shows:
This meant that by the very nature of the hyperboloid lens of the eye (it turns out it is not a hyperbola), rays coming from a central point are most perfectly focused, and those coming from cones at angles which are not on the axis of the lens, are confusedly focused to the edges of vision, as he explains in his Paralipomena:
All the rays of the direct cone are gathered together at one point in the retina, which is the chief thing in the process; the lines of the oblique cones cannot quite be gathered together, because of the causes previously mentioned here, as a result, the picture is more confused. The direct cone aims the middle ray at center of the retina; the oblique cones aim the rays to the side…
…so the sides of the retina use their measure of sense not for its own sake, but whatever they can do they carry over to the perfection of the direct vision. That is we see an object perfectly when at last we perceive it with all the surroundings of the hemisphere. On this account, oblique vision is least satisfying to the soul, but only invites one to turn the eyes thither so that they may be seen directly (174).
As you can see, he goes further than simply stating this relative confusion of the border, but tells us that the sides of the border “carry over” their measure of sense to the perfection of the central vision, a central object. And this physics of sense is seen in the very satisfactions of the soul. That is, the soul and Nature are in agreement.
Descartes though was the first scientist/philosopher to actually do the mathematical work which shows the refracting powers of hyperbolic lenses (having discovered the Law of Refraction, a fact of discovery still under dispute). The precise gradation of hyperbolic lenses were impossible to make the time, and Descartes became fairly obsessed with making an automated machine which would be capable of grinding them, a doomed endeavor. Spherical lenses suffered from aberrations, which after Descartes were generally presumed to be solved with the Ideal Hyperbolic Lens. But Descartes did something more to Kepler’s notion of natural, hyperbolic center of object focus. He made the benefit of the periphery a quantitative measure (one sees more things via the periphery), but not a qualitative measure. He attaches to a concept of qualitative central clarity his most important concept of Will. The relatively confused border only serves help us direct our free Will in the right direction (oddly, this contradicts the sheerly quantitative measure of the periphery, for numericity alone is not helpful); the clarity in a way seems to speak for itself:
There is only one other condition which is desirable on the part of the exterior organs, which is that they cause us to perceive as many objects as possible at the same time. And it is to be noted that this condition is not in any way requisite for the improvement for seeing better, but only for the convenience of seeing more; and it should be noted that it is impossible to see more than one object distinctly at the same time, so that this convenience, of seeing many others confusedly, at the same time, is principally useful only in order to ascertain toward what direction we must subsequently turn our eyes in order to look at the one among them which we will wish to consider better. And for this, Nature has so provided that it is impossible for art to add anything to it. - Seventh Discourse
One can see that Descartes rather easily transfers this notion of central object clarity to central idea clarity. The quelling of confusion comes from separating out the lone clear thing (object/idea) from the many things you might be confusedly taking in. Interestingly, he appeals to the precision vision of the craftsman whose “delicate operations” are supposed to reflect this intentionality principle of consciousness clarity. Ignored is that the craftsman is able to narrow his/her attention due to the very clarity of perceptions of the entire border of the process (the process borders are not confused, but stable); and even more so, it should be pointed out that if one really notices what a craftsman is attending to, it is not a central object, or a central idea, but rather the potentiating dissonance at the center of the project. At the center of the craftsman’s gaze is not a clarity, but an eruption:
Rule 9: We must concentrate our mind’s eye totally upon the most insignificant and easiest matters, and dwell upon them for long enough to acquire the habit of intuiting the truth distinctly and clearly.
…We can best learn how mental intuition is to be employed by comparing it with ordinary vision. If one tries to look at many objects at one glance, one sees none of them distinctly. Likewise, if one is inclined to attend to many things at the same time in a single act of thought, one does so with a confused mind. Yet craftsmen who engage in delicate operations, and are used to fixing their eyes on a single point, acquire through practice the ability to make perfect distinctions between things, however minute and delicate. The same is true of those who never let their thinking be distracted by many different objects at the same time, but always devote their whole attention to the simplest and easiest of matters: they become perspicacious.
- Descartes, The Regulae, Rule 9
Narrow or Broad?
That is the historical stage. From here I will move faster. While many did embrace both the physical theory that hyperbolic lenses would solves all the aberrations of spherical lenses, and the metaphysical theory that central clarity of an object/idea is constitutive of a directed, Willing consciousness, and key to truth pursuits, Spinoza who was a lens-grinder, and designer of optical instruments and as he will become known as, a metaphysican, did not.
In two letters Spinoza discusses the insufficiency of Descartes’ hyperbolic lenses (which again, did not exist). From his objections we get a firm clue into the nature of his metaphysical objections to Descartes, objections which cut the very nature of how consciousness, the mind, and the Will is conceived. Spinoza’s objection to the hyperbolic lenses is simple:
“Moreover, it is certain that, in order to see an entire object, we need not only rays coming from a single point but also all the other rays that come from all the other points” (Letter 40).
He draws a diagram to illustrate the problem, and its solution. A hyperbolic lens can concentrate rays only come perpendicular to its axis, a spherical lens has an infinity of axes, so despite a small amount of aberration, clarity is achieved broadly, by bringing as much relational clarity together across the full breadth of the retina. (I superimpose a red-line hyperbola to illustrate Spinoza’s point.)
Now the facts of optics are not ultimately important here. Indeed Descartes and Spinoza were both wrong for a variety of reasons. What is significant is the way that opticality and focus as they are theoretically conceived work to ground fundamental conceptions of how consciousness is. As we can see, Descartes notion of an object/idea centered free Will and consciousness was foregrounded upon first Kepler’s idea that the eye itself had a lens of the shape that Descartes had theorized would be best for the improvement of magnified vision. The question is, once this anatomical, naturalizing foundation is kicked away, and once Descartes’ theological imperative for an essentialized Freedom of the Will is let go of, what has come of the picture of consciousness itself as essentially a Central Clarity Consciousness. Spinoza, as he does away with the Freedom of the Will, does so by dismissing the notion of a pictorial Mind, in which Ideas of varying clarity play like objects of varying clarity:
E2p48 – In the mind there is no absolute, or free, will, but the Mind is determined to will this or that by a cause which is also determined by another, and this again by another, as so to infinity.
Scholium – We must investigate, I say, whether there is any other affirmation or negation in the Mind except that which the idea involves, insofar as it is an idea – on this see the following Proposition  and also D3 – so that our thought does not fall into pictures. For by ideas I understand, not the images that are formed at the back of the eye (and, if you like, in the middle of the brain), but concepts of Thought [NS: or the objective Being of a thing insofar as it consists only in Thought]; – trans. Curley
Ultimately for Spinoza as he minimizes the human in the universe, an idea of the mind is only an expression of Substance, and has for its object a state of its body. It is not composed of something that is Intentionality, an object of thought. But more than this, Spinoza’s panoramic understanding of clarity, that object clarity comes from the relative clarity of the entire field of vision, and not from some core surety, reveals the very comprehensiveness of his metaphysical approach. It is not that a single, central proposition “Cogito ergo sum” or any other that could provide real clarity, but rather the entire interlocking breadth of coherence (it is for this reason that some contemporary philosophers have found Spinoza to be a Coherence Theorist of Truth). The clarity comes from abroad, so to speak. It is for this reason that he calls his propositions of the Ethics “the eyes of the mind” (in a very rare metaphor). No one proposition could function as a clarity, just as no central rays from an object could. It is the width of them that brings clarity (and it is for this reason that he argues that one in reasoning must pass as fast as possible to the Idea of God, Substance, and Idea of comprehensivity of cause and explanation, a field upon which any proposition then considered may receive its own sharpness).
How Can Not-Seeing the “object” Come from CCC?
Now briefly Larval Subjects (and probably Graham Harman and many others) does not see how Cartesian Central Clarity Consciousness pervades Graham’s hidden object ontology. As a brief answer, one must not just look at Graham’s conclusions, but also the constituent parts of his conclusion. As Graham himself put forth, he relies upon Husserl’s Cartesian “intentional object” to make up his Four Fold, from which his “hidden objects” are derived:
My own concept of objects is of a fourfold tension that erupts into view most clearly when you look at the two domains of intentional objects (Husserl) and real objects (Heidegger, in my reading at least).
Perhaps this is a misreading on my part, but I do not consider Husserl’s split of the object within consciousness to have removed him from the Intentionality of Consciousness composed of a Central Clarity picture which Descartes put forth. By my accounting, to rely upon this conceptual designation, even in part, is to partake in a mistaken and oversimplified view of the nature of Mind. (And to no small point, in partaking of it, one brings the human-centricist aspects which brought it into view in the first place.) So, for those confused as to why I could claim that Graham is offering up a wrongful optical metaphor when he is asserting objects which cannot be seen at all, one has to keep track of the foundations of the “hidden object” (its place in the Intentionality reduction of Consciousness). It is not just that Graham’s ontology is caught up in an opticality (a general metaphorization of mental clarity with optical clarity), but rather is caught up in a specific model of opticality and consciousness, that clarity is CENTRALIZED (sorry for the caps, but his point seems to be slipping out summaries). This problematic central object of consciousness be it a phenomenological object, or an idea, composes several again essentialized dyads. Upon it is grafted a primary (clear) figure/(confused) ground distinction, a Being/Non-Being binary, and ultimately even a Self/World problematic (to name a few). Once Consciousness is assumed to be CCC, much binary machination can be performed. By simply crossing out the object, through the reflections of Non-Being, pointing to its insufficiency, saying that the object is forever in retreat from this constitutive relations (and thus “hidden”) becomes simply a product of the this mistaken object-centered characterization of consciousness itself.
It is to the periphery that philosophy must look, I suggest, to the connectives. Much as in Spinoza’s diagram of the optics of the human eye, it is the field of (mental) vision which provides any such clarity experienced to be towards the center. And beyond this, if one is to embrace a post-human, or pre-post-Kantian philosophy of mind and object, one really should look right towards the center of vision, where a functioning dissonance, a living eruptive line forces itself up, in the midst of the object and between them. Attentiveness to the phenomenology of consciousness, the nature of the center, is what displaces the very essentialized notion of object (as privileged ontological unit), and as Spinoza would tell us, this living line is constituted by the very thought to thought affirmations of our Body under fluctuating degree of Being and Power…In a sense, Graham retreats from the human, but stops at the object because of a mistaken (and historically human-centricist) conception of consciousness. He simply does not go far enough. There is no reason to stop at the object as the final ontological stop. The fullness, the breadth of what we can do under that trajectory toward the ultimately unknown X, is not the hidden object, but Spinoza’s Substance.
Graham though now suggests that he is coming closer to embracing panpsychism (I believe he restricts his position to an essential dyad endo-panpsychism), so it may be that we will eventually come to find ourselves in agreement, perhaps as I come to better understand him.
[Addendum: Graham responds:
“Kevin thinks the periphery is where the action is. But I’m not sure what to say in response to this aside from what has already been written… Within the intentional sphere, it is simply the case that we do perceive objects and not fuzzy horizons. And within the real sphere, it can be logically deduced that the world is object-oriented, since the alternative is a slippery slope through fields of pre-individual intensities all the way to outright monism.”
My thoughts: The problem is not whether we do perceive objects, of course we do. The question is what is the means by which we do so, and what is their metaphysical grounding. That is, not only do we perceive objects, but our cognition is composed of many other aspects, and reliant upon a wide coherence of beliefs (and ideas are not clear in the same way that objects are clear). And as I point out, unless you want to pre-posit the “intentional sphere” as defined by its object, a category of reduction that I challenge, a close attention to the phenomenology of what we are aware of is not SIMPLY an object, but a dissonance within and across objects, not to mention aspects of the entire field. My entire point that the concept of the “intentional spheres” is miscontructed, both in terms of concept and in terms of phenomenal observation. By invoking the “intensional sphere” as a self-evident, and self-defined essentialization of consciousness, Graham simply performs the point I am making, that is, his “hidden objects” ontology is based upon the CCC conception, inherited from Descartes, and cannot operate without it.
As to the other horn of the dilemma that Graham proposes, “Either accept my hidden objects or slide into lump intensities (or monism)” the general conflation of lump intensities, what he elsewhere calls a “molten slag”, and monism is unwarrented, for Spinoza’s monism is not molten and not much of a slag. In fact it contains a vertical dimension carefully constructed along a degree of Being analysis along a vector of power. I don’t know if “Outright monism” is supposed to carry the rhetorical weight of something like “Outright Anarchy” or worse “Outright Balderdash,” but I would think that outright monism is preferable to implicit or only evocative monism. I have yet to read his objection to Spinoza’s notion to Substance, so I cannot really respond to this deadend. There are objects in Spinoza, and they even have essences. It is just that they have no ontological priority, as objects, over the expression of Substance, which they are.]
Here is Spinoza’s much neglected optical letters with commentary, if interested:
Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters
And a Word.doc version: Spinoza’s Optical Letters: Redux