Frames /sing


The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences

The Pleroma and Creatura: Bateson

Gregory Bateson, a father of modern cybernetic has some very important things to say about the nature of differences, and has been fruitfully appropriated in any number of ways, primarily due to his very powerful defintion of Information as “a difference that makes a difference”. But it should be noted that Bateson’s approach to differences is one that drives a very firm, dualistic line between Mind and Matter, one that follows Carl Jung’s categories of the Pleroma and Creatura:

The significance of all this formalization was made more evident in the 1960s by a reading of Carl Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead, of which the Jungian therapist Jane Wheelwright gave me a copy. I was at the time writing a draft of what was to be my Korzybski Memorial Lecture and began to think about the relation between “map” and “territory.” Jung’s book insisted upon the contrast between Pleroma, the crudely physical domain governed only by forces and impacts, and Creatura, the domain governed by distinctions and differences. It became abundantly clear that the two sets of concepts match and that there could be no maps in Pleroma, but only in Creatura. That which gets from territory to map is news of difference, and at that point I recognized that news of difference was a synonym for information. (Angels Fear, Introduction)

For Bateson, the separation is one of processes, and not one of Substance like it is for Descartes, but all the same, it imposes a strict heirarchy which privileges the mental over the physical. A stone simply is restricted to the domain of the Pleroma, while any differential making process, even the simplest of biotic discrimination is given over to the realm of Creatura:

It is, of course, true that our explanations, our textbooks dealing with nonliving matter, are full of information. But this information is all ours; it is part of our life processes. The world of nonliving matter, the Pleroma, which is described by the laws of physics and chemistry, itself contains no description. A stone does not respond to information and does not use injunctions or information or trial and error in its internal organization. To respond in a behavioral sense, the stone would have to use energy contained within itself, as organisms do. It would cease to be a stone. The stone is affected by “forces” and “impacts,” but not by differences. (Mind and Nature, Chapter II)

To most of us this is a perfectly acceptable, perhaps even obvious designation. There seems a powerful instinct that tells us that a stone simply is not in any sense like an amoeba, which is to say, what a stone does (if it does anything at all) is somehow categorically different than what an amoeba does (though both can kill you). The difficulty arises for anyone who wants to theorize in a way that does not privlege the Mind over Matter. This begins perhaps as a desire to not privlege human realities over animal realities, and then ultimately to give over to even the animate some kind of “right”, some play in the game in determining what is “real” and thus “what matters”. When Mind (in some form of Idealism) becomes the heirarchial source point of what matters, somehow this all slips back into a remote solipsism of the merely human world (and then even, the Western world, or the American world, or white upper middle class academic world). If one instanitates a fundamental primacy between the Pleroma and Creatura, wherein the Ceatura determine the status of the Pleroma in heirarchial, a priori fashion, something of the Mind/Bodd, Spirit/Matter dichotomies that have long haunted philosophy are dragged forward (often with explicit political consequences of such binarism).

The Difference that makes a/the Difference

For this reason one must keep in mind the essential metaphysical base from which Bateson is employing his work (Marx makes just such fateful Nature/Culture distinction from the start as well).  If one is going to grant equal footing to the non-human (and non-biotic) actor in the world, this essential binary must be categorically undone. As long as one has divided up the entire world into realms, one realm becomes paramount, and the line merely shifts.

What Bateson has in mind when he speaks of “a difference that makes a difference” is the way that information connects what is “out there” in the world to the “in here” of a cybernetically organized system. To put it most simply, the internal relations within a system form a boundary which is sensitive to only particular kinds of disturbances (a blind person does not turn his head to see someone waving to him from across the street, a tick does not drop from its leaf when a breeze blows). The difference out there in the world that makes a difference in here, is for Bateson the difference that makes a difference, it connects inside to outside.

But out of a completely unintended difference in the way that Bateson has framed his defintion of Information, I would like to use his notion of difference differently. Because I am not interested in giving priority of mind over matter, I am less concerned with the way that mental systems exercise dominance over physical structures (picking out what matters so as to eventually predict and control it), I am not going to follow the breadcrumbs of difference from outside to inside. This is far too Idealist for me. Rather, I want to see if we can talk about differences in such a way that the things a stone is doing, and the things that an amoeba are doing, are in someway signficantly related (and such that the actions of each are given footing).

Bateston states his defintion of Information in at least two ways in separate works.

1. A difference that makes a difference.

2. The difference that makes the difference.

It might sound trivial, but in the spirit of acknowledging even the smallest of differentiations, of this variation between the definite and indefinite article, I would like to spin out a profound distinction which maps onto a fundamental ontological distinction of Medieval Scholasticism. Much of Scholasticism spent its time trying to iron out the remarkable, but underdeveloped semiotic point that Augustine made, that signs transcend the Culture/Nature dichotomy. There are natural signs, and their are signs of convention. And (natural and cultural) signs are defined as:

“a sign is something which, offering itself to the senses, conveys something other to the intellect,” (Signum … est res praeter speciem quam ingerit sensibus, aliud aliquid ex se faciens in cogitationem venire) (Augustine De doctr. chr. II 1, 1963, 33)

Attempting to work out the full consequences of an ontology of the semiotic which transcended the Nature/Culture barrior, Scholastic philosophy realized that there must not only be material signs “out there”, but also mental signs “in here,” and much ado was made on how to connect the two (until in modern times gradually questions of signification became a questions of representation…many like to put this at the foot of Descartes, or even the Locke, but it is not altogether clear that this is the case).

A product of this debate was the two classifications Ens Reale and Ens Rationis. A real thing, and a rational thing. These are treated in various ways, often as the difference between “physical being” and “logical being”, but I want to speak much more broadly, without precision. An ens reale is a thing in the world, and an ens rationalis is a thing in the mind. Is here that I want to propose a loose though hopefully enlightening homology.

1. A difference that makes merely a difference  is an ens reale.

2. The difference that makes the difference is an ens rationis.

Leaving behind Bateson’s use of information as the thing that connects inside to outside, as an ontologist I want to speak of differences in their variety of states. Following Plato’s initial definition of being as the capacity for anything to affect or be affected, as found in the Sophist, the general sense of the reality of differences is that anything that makes a difference in general, “a difference” has being, and is ens reale. But any difference that is strictly internal  to a closed horizon relation of parts, is an ens rationis, that is which is to say, it is a difference that makes the difference, recursively. In this way, and event out there in the world, perhaps lightning strike, is an ens reale difference insofar as it is not taken with in an overarching internal circuit of relations, and its effect upon the human organism, that actual internal differences which are within the horizon of person, are each ens rationis. It is important to keep track though, that every ens rationis is an ens reale. The question is: Is every ens reale also an ens rationis. I think they are.

Spinoza’s Bodies as Certain or Fixed Ratios

As I mentioned previously, Spinoza’s defintion of Body is far more rich that it is often taken to be. More than simply a billiard ball image of circulating motions (which is how it appears at first glance), his panpsychic metaphysics grants some degree of mind (Idea) to any extensional expression, such that even the simplest of bodies in composite have a foothold in the mental. Here is the definition in bodily terms:

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies. E2p13a2d

It is quite interesting that Spinoza finds what separates out one body or individual from another is a certain or fixed ratio, certa ratione. It seems safe to say that not only living things preserve for Spinoza through a certa ratione, but also taken to be inanimate things. We have here the potential for categorical description that crosses through the Pleroma/Creatura divide that Bateson privleges. The ultimate question is: Do abiotic wholes which do preserve through a certa ratione, also achieve within that horizon of “individual” an order of differences that allows us to say that they are each ens rationis.

It is hard to know exactly what Spinoza has in mind: when he describes this perpetuation of communicated motion, for instance, is it a different sense of body than that brought about by external causes in the earlier part, When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or it is simply the internal specification of those external forces? What we can do is use the definition as tellingly as possible. What I suggest is that differences that are internal to an object or body as Spinoza sees it, are differences that are indicative of a mutuality of effects. A change in this part of the body effects a change in another part of the body, and then another, and so forth, such that the whole is still maintained. And there need not be the cybernetic closure that Bateson enjoys with Creatura. The entire world would seem vectored with communicated balances between bodies that however briefly or enduringly remain in ratio with each other. These mutuality of communications I hold is the threshold for an ens reale to be an ens rationalis. The cybernetic closures which map a territory are certainly different kinds of internal organizations of horizons, but rocks, breeze patterns, neuron rhythms, photon pathways, planetary equalibriums, dust corners, electron loops, all possess an internal coherence of differences which is preserved, and in which a single difference (I would say) semiotically indicates consequences of internal coherence. Stones “think”.

Stone Cognitum

There is a perspective of stones, one that is not reducible to the way in which differences in stones make differences upon us. In this sense, as Graham Harman says in Latourian fashion, stones translate other stones when they encounter each other. (I do not see how such a claim can be separated out from panpsychism.) The internal relations that make up a stone (semiotic, of each an ens rationalis), are also each an ens reale (a difference that makes a difference) which can make a difference that makes the difference to us (or some other internal set of relations), is itself also a difference as ens realis.

There are several interesting ways to procede from this, but the one that I would like to take up follows through from my last post on Spinoza, and that is that any ens realis (a difference that makes a difference), is not only already a difference that makes the difference in the internal expression of Substance as a modal whole, and thus an ens rationalis. But it is already caught up in any number, perhaps an infinite number, of ens rationalis horizoned closures. In this way, differences which are semiotic to an internal whole of differences, are also because real, differences that are internal to a plethora of bodies that cross cut that body. That “fixed ratio” is tugged at from any number of other “fixed ratio” directions, as parts of its coherence respond not only to an external horizon of differences, but also to their participant share in a cross-sectioning fixed ratio, communication whole. Any ens rationalis is Semiotically Conjoined to a variety of mentalizations.

For this reason, it is not just that the totality of coherent differences that make up a body are occluded from us, selected out by our cybernetic, ratioed closure, but also that the semiotic investment of those differences is occluded from that body itself, the coherence of its inside/outside closure. And the same is said of our own body (bodies, really).

There is another aspect which should be grasped so that we don’t fall too deeply into any Subject/Object binary. And this is something I will develop later. Because ultimately an entia rationales closure is itself a perspective, when one or many entia rationales closures come into supportive relationships to each other they can be read as forming new bodies. This is to say, when we come to know something else and intimately relate to it in a bodily, the boundary between us and it at least is semiotically problemized (if we seek to keep them completely distinct). Thus, it is not merely the case that the “kernel” of relations of an object we engage is kept from us, like a forever retreating shadow, but also the case that as we engage an object (an aspect of our environment), we at a very real, semiotic level (that is, at the level of entia rationales), become it.

Thus, as the carpenter uses his hammer, or the lens grinder his grinding lathe, there is a communication of motions which exceed the boundary of bodies, forming one of two (to some degree). The world is felt, mutually, through the performance union of both bodies. It is for this reason that Tommaso Campanella tells us: To know is to be, cognoscere est esse. This is not a metaphorical transformation of the subject into the object, but rather a real, substantial in-form-ation, binding the two bodies both epistemologically and ontologically, through the ordering of their mutual coherences. If the object of the hammer remains somewhat blind to the carpenter (some of its variety of aspects still hidden), these aspects must be accorded their place within the causal, and hence semiotic, internal relations of the body (body + body). Ultimately, these differences can only be the differences of Conjoined, and thus often silent, Semotic inherence at the bottom of any entia rationales closure, the way that an ens rationalis is necessarily polyvalent to a variety of cognitioning, and therefore persisting, bodies.

7 responses to “The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences

  1. ktismatics February 3, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I understand that you’re interacting particularly with Sinthome’s ontic principle here, but you’re also alluding to Dr. Zamalek’s tool-being object-orientedness. I’ve not seen the two of them discuss it, but I’d think that Zamalek would reject the “difference that makes a difference” criterion for establishing the ontic status of an object. Since for Dr. Z objects make differences in one another only vicariously, and since those differences never touch the essential nature of the objects, making-difference is excluded tout court as a distinguishing feature of a separate object. Difference resides inside each object — that’s what makes gives it ontic distinction. But that difference is some combination of the object’s properties, as well as its unique wholistic integrity, rather than the processes that operate on the object or that brought it into existence. This I think puts Sinthome on the empirical side of Dr. Z’s occasionalist-empiricist divide among philosophers.

  2. kvond February 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm


    Well, actually I’m not really addressing Levi’s use of the “difference that makes a difference” determination because he too does not follow Bateson closely, I am addressing Bateson’s defintion which is an Idealist-type, inside/outside connection. As I’ve pointed out Levi’s so called Ontic Principle is as old as Plato’s Sophist, so that really is where I am beginning. Or…What happens to Bateson’s defintion of information if we strip it of its Idealist priority? This not a place at all where Levi would go, as he already has stated in rather emphatic terms that he has no interest in the validity of a panpsychic reading of Being. My interesting really is in the philosopher Tommaso Campanella.

    As far as Graham’s “tool being” and “object orientation” these too were not things that I immediately had in mind. These are rather thoughts that I have been developing for a while in terms of necessary expansions of Spinoza’s metaphysics (that is, there are implicit consequences that follow from the definitions he makes about a body), as they relate to Campanella’s cognoscere est esse. It just so happens that my recent engagement with Graham’s Object-Oriented Philosophy sharpened and accelerated my cybernetic reading of Spinoza, mostly because I feel that Graham’s pursuit of deepening the flat ontologies of post-structuralism really are best served by a turn to Spinoza and panpsychism, and the embodied transformations that occur with epistemic change (a move he resists to a great degree, though perhaps mostly due to the fashion of Spinoza’s appeal these days).

    So when you sum:

    “Since for Dr. Z objects make differences in one another only vicariously, and since those differences never touch the essential nature of the objects, making-difference is excluded tout court as a distinguishing feature of a separate object. Difference resides inside each object — that’s what makes gives it ontic distinction.”

    Graham’s objection makes no sense in a Spinoza’s metaphysics because the essence of objects is not cut off from their manifestation. One can read the essence of an object (any body) as residing in Substance/God/Nature under an aspect of eternity, but then expressed modally in the full richness of its modal manifestation. The modal expression of the essence is the fully concrete path of its existence and action. The essence is and acts modally. This immanent relation thus is not fundamentally one of tension, but of expression. But additionally, any delineation of an object is already shot through with cross-sections of other objects (in Spinoza, bodies), which is the point I’m trying to bring forth in my notion of Conjoined Semiosis. Because Graham’s object orientation is skewed by a Central Clarity of Consciousness (that is to say Idealist) conception of Being, he is already locked into an Idealist binary conception, giving the illusion of an essential binarism. One binary breeds so many others, twos on twos.

    What I would like to tell Graham is that the primary retreat of the object, the chasm of its essence and its qualities, is an ontological illusion born of his Idealist vocabulary heritage (Husserl to Descartes). The tensioned retreat is rather a product of the objects Conjoined Semiosis, across its fabric, with other objects (not mere reciprocality).

    The difference does nto reside inside the object because there is no vector which determines one extensional/ideational expression to be an object more than any other (Graham is too concerned with the object that floats in the mind’s eye, surrounded by a simplification of nothingness, this is not how conciousness is). The difference resides across the object, as a product of its inside/outside delineation. Which is to say, it is not reduced to some existential retreat (which is rather captured in immanence), but by the very warp and weft (in particular the cross weft semiosis) of its concrete manifestation: the intergral parts of an object are already integral to other objects. The difference is directional.

    As I say though, this reading of mine is only occasioned by Graham’s Object-Orientation. His Idealist foundations I feel are countervailing to his post-human ontological ambitions which will eventually send him towards all out panpsychism (he is inching closer). In general, I find the pre-occupation with objects under a prima facie simplicity of essentialized border already a symptom of an optical metaphor that philosophy should surpass. Any object is already vectored in real, semiotic investments against itself.

    As to Levi, honestly his metaphysics seems to be in deep transition or oscillation, and I am not quite sure where it is heading. It seems pulled in every direction, Latour, Lacan, Deleuze, Bateson. What we share is that both of us have been long influenced by early readings of Bateson and some affinity for Deleuze, but that is probably about all. I wish him the best of luck, but he does not seem amenable to questioning.

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  4. ktismatics February 4, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Sorry for not following up, but I’ve gotten distracted.

    “A stone does not respond to information,” says Bateson. “To respond in a behavioral sense, the stone would have to use energy contained within itself, as organisms do.”

    I’m not going to make a strong argument here, but consider a stone breaking loose from a boulder at the top of a hill. The stone contains potential energy within itself. It responds to information: I’ve not reached my equilibrium point in this environment; I can release kinetic energy by rolling down the hill, thereby getting a little bit closer to the center of the earth that’s drawing me to itself. This I think is at least one realist’s interpretation of a stone using information. Is this panpsychist or no, do you think?

  5. kvond February 4, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    I’m about to post something on just this point, the question of Spinoza’s panpsychism and how to read it. It includes a reference to Augustine’s claim that stones are indeed sentient to some degree, making just the point that you seem to be making (minus the concept of potential energy).

    Bateson is rather interested in narrowly defining “respond” so to favor the aspect of mind that makes a strict category.

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