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kvond

Its “objects” All the Way Down

Turtle Oriented Philosophy (TOP)

Harman has a brief note voicing his complaint that people take the “Its turtles all the way down” as some kind of knock-down argument presumably against his own claims about objects:

Why is the phrase “turtles all the way down” always taken as a game-ending slam dunk, even when the alternative adopted is “the final turtle at the bottom of the world”?

If you don’t want an infinite regress of entities, the choices are:

(a) a finite regress to some ultimate constituent of the cosmos

(b) no regress at all, with everything remaining on the surface of human access and nothing hiding beneath

Neither is a very good choice.

The way that he sets up his dichotomy is perhaps somewhat revealing for the position he holds. There is something called an “entity” (presumably an “object”) taken from Medieval philosophy, the combination of which makes up the constituency of the universe. What has to be explained is the causal regress of these “entities”. When we take this “entity” notion and translate it to “turtles” we begin to see something of the problem. The way we think of “objects” as objects (with boundaries, insides and outsides, etc) is a product of our visual, everyday sense of the world, just as an American Indian might feel that the whole world rests on the back of a turtle (something he is very familiar with).

So, when we take up Harman’s cruel alternative “a”: (a) a finite regress to some ultimate constituent of the cosmos, the reason why this is a “good” choice is that the so called “ultimate constituent of the universe” isn’t best seen as an “entity” (or an object, or a turtle). It is of a nature that is not like the kinds of things our visual cortex gives to us. It is probably best seen as a kind of process, one would have to say.

The problem with Harman’s approach is that all he can see is turtles, this kind of turtle and that kind of turtle, and really for this reason his science of causation, how turtles relate to turtles is quite devoid of real explanations for the real world. When looking for causal explanations or the relationship between things he can only ask the question: But what kind of turtle is it?, not a very helpful question at times. Though one has to admit that imagining the world full of turtles and nothing else is a wonderful and entertaining thing to do.

What Alice Has to Say

There is a curious, melancholy character in Alice in Wonderland, the “Mock Turtle“, whose name and identity is made up of the very recursive nature of a faux turtle soup:

Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, “Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?”

“No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”

“It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,” said the Queen.

(Alice in Wonderland, chapter 9)

What we want to say is that like the mock turtle there is something of a confusion over what we “are” and the process and naming of soupmaking.

[Shaviro gives good context to the discussion here]

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9 responses to “Its “objects” All the Way Down

  1. Amarilla September 17, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Hilarious!

    Kvond: So, when we take up Harman’s cruel alternative “a”: (a) a finite regress to some ultimate constituent of the cosmos, the reason why this is a “good” choice is that the so called “ultimate constituent of the universe” isn’t best seen as an “entity” (or an object, or a turtle). It is of a nature that is not like the kinds of things our visual cortex gives to us. It is probably best seen as a kind of process, one would have to say.

    This is so well expressed!

  2. Paul September 17, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I must be dumb but can you spell this out a bit. I read this as GH saying that ‘a’ isn’t a ‘good’ choice – in fact neither a nor b are very good…

    I’m not sure I even grasp H’s position yet. I don’t have any of his books! As you know it’s only recently that I’ve stumbled bleary eyed out of the woods…H is claiming that there are ‘objects’ all the way down… which is neither the not very good a or b???

    ‘As mentioned, factual research only knows for sure two things about this unoriginated portion of reality that enacts once at a time the actuality of all present nows, complete with their force and space scales, successive shapes, and consecutive eclosions. First, that it is not an entity: it is but does not exist (in the proper sense of “ex-sist,” i.e. coming out from something else). (because, as Heidegger stressed, one could not explain everything, which are entities, upon another entity: the notion is often called “the ancient-India lesson,” as piling up entities, such as mighty elephants, turtles and oceans or any more modern and powerful cosmological keystone, is now clearly seen as starting never-ending series).

    And secondly, it is a person, in other words the non-entitative, unoriginated portion of reality takes decisions in a way analogous to that which one uses for moving a finger or forming a thought (because it cannot be a non-person, that is to say a network of distinctions or necessary Fate, since distinctions do not suffice to confer actuality to the being of realities).’

    [the being of realities is not ‘existentially neutral’ as Etienne Gilson would say in Being and some philosophers].

    Now imagine that you, the unoriginated portion of reality, decide to generate free entities. How do you do it?’
    ‘You erect a nature, whose galaxies, stars, planets and living beings follow general rules of transformation and evolve impersonally. This is done so that you, the apodictic or unoriginated ground of all reality, although immediately supporting everything in its ever-present origination, never appear in doing your job. Because if you appeared, e.g. exposing any intent that free beings love you or support your project and thus value freedom, you would coerce them to be free, annulling any genuine freedom for them.’

  3. noen September 17, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Another possibility is that the world is ontologically incomplete. That the world is, as it were, hung upon the air without foundation or support.

  4. Paul Bains September 18, 2009 at 5:32 am

    and there are endless possibilities. Or are there? Is phil ever cumulative – does it know more about the ‘world.’ As I commented on LS, what is the diff btwn scienc and phil. Deleuze and Guattari had some v. definite thing to say about this. Phil as the creation of concepts…and what did they say about science? And art? I can’t remember exactly…except that it was sets of conceptual distinctions they made?
    Wasn’t the whole thing about ontology that it wasn’t a theology or a physics?

    • kvond September 18, 2009 at 10:18 am

      Paul,

      I am fond of sometimes Wittgenstein’s distinction between the grammatical and the empirical, but not in the way that he meant to use it. Philosophical disagreements about the “grammatical” (just the way that we used words) were for him nonsense, literally. Whereas, because philosophy can be seen as conceptual creations, disagreements of this sort or attempts to change the DNA of our empirical experiences and sense-makings. It never really ends. But, the rationality of coherence, and therefore bowing to argument, plays a very large part in these “grammatical” revisionings and testings-out. For me, Graham (and Levi) are big on the revisioning part, the “speculative” part, but grammars are rewritten more coherently. And, for instance, versions of Turtle Oriented Philosophy (TOP) are a little mistakening. There is only so much that can be done with the notion of “objects”, as Wittgenstein was also shrewed to point out.

  5. Amarilla September 18, 2009 at 10:15 am

    noen: “That the world is, as it were, hung upon the air without foundation or support.”

    That’s incredibly beautiful poetry, which is perhaps the best means for describing reality. It is impossible that interpretive or reflective thought will ever represent it. Our means of knowing are inadequate. Kvond quoted Wittgentstein a while ago: “Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.”

    • kvond September 18, 2009 at 10:20 am

      Interestingly, just as you posted in response to Paul I included more thoughts on Wittgenstein and the distinction, though not with the mystical directionality you are favoring here. One could say, I believe that how the tea cup is shaped makes a difference. Or, is a difference that can make a difference.

    • noen September 18, 2009 at 8:14 pm

      It isn’t mine. It’s Zizek’s ontology, or one that he endorses. He expounds on it here Materialism and Theology. I prefer this to turtles or even today’s string theory: “It’s math all the way down”.

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