Playing with Kant and OOO
Carl Sachs and I shared a session at last week’s North Texas Philosophical Association meeting. Sachs gave an interesting paper about what Kant calls “the affinity of the manifold.” I’d just been gathering my notes for a post on Levi Bryant’s chapter in The Democracy of Objects on the “virtual proper being” of objects (I’ll finish putting this together soon) and the intersection sparked the following playful annexation of Kant’s transcendental philosophy. There are limits to this approach, but I think it gets at something useful with respect to the character of an object-oriented approach.
On Kant’s account, phenomena are composite. The a priori transcendental structures we bring to bear format the raw intuitions given to us by particular objects. Phenomena result.
In this story, we can know objects as formatted phenomena, but the objects themselves withdraw into obscurity. The objects per se are unknowable “things in themselves.”
Also in this story, we can know about the a priori transcendental structures we bring to bear, but only indirectly. We don’t have any direct access to our own transcendental structures. We can gather information about the transcendental horizons that structure all possible experience for us only by deciphering the common features manifest in particular, actual phenomena.
One basic question about this set-up is: how could transcendental structures legitimately format the intuitions contributed by objects if the intuitions don’t themselves already come with some formatted structure? If they don’t come with some kind of preformatting, however raw, then why would we even need intuition? What would intuition have contributed?
In response to this problem, Kant agrees that intuition must itself contribute some structure independent of the transcendental structures we bring to bear.
Further, Kant claims that there is a kind of compatibility between our transcendental structures and the intuited structures that allows them to interface in the production of phenomena. Kant calls this the “affinity of the manifold” because the manifold of sensation, in order to be formattable, must come with some preformatted structure that has an affinity for the particular kind of additional formatting that we will impose on it in its constitution as a phenomena.
This is where things get interesting: what about the structure contributed by the object?
Object Oriented Philosophy (OOP) is especially interested in this. I’m thinking out loud here (this isn’t a redux of anything I’ve read), but what if we described the OOP position as something like this:
“Objects” also contribute structure to the constitution of a phenomenon just like “subjects” do because, in a crucial respect, objects are just like subjects.
In what respect?
Say that phenomena are manifest. In relation to these phenomena, subjects are split between (1) the withdrawn transcendental structures they bring to bear on experience that lay out horizons of possibility for their experience and manifestation, and (2) the given concrete phenomena that get constituted. Or, subjects are split between (1) their withdrawn transcendental selves and (2) their given phenomenal selves.
The OOP position is that all objects are similarly split between (1) the object’s own withdrawn transcendental structures, and (2) the object’s local actualization as a phenomenal self.
Take a rock: a rock is split between the particular qualities it manifests in relation to a given situation and the general structure of possibilities for variable manifestation that it itself contributes to those particular manifestations.
Here, all phenomena depend on the interface of multiple transcendental structures in concrete phenomena. Phenomena are the product of these negotiated interfaces.
Key caveats (off the top of my head) follow:
(1) The number of transcendental structures in play are multiplied.
(2) Transcendental structures get “individuated” and historicized. That is, all transcendental structures are, in the Derridean sense, quasi-transcendental structures that are tied to particular, concrete, contingent histories.
(3) The term “phenomena” must no longer be understood as an epistemological category, but now as an ontological category. That is, the interface of multiple transcendental structures doesn’t produce the ephemeral “appearance” of an object but the creation/manifestation of an actual object.
(4) Transcendental structures only require something like consciousness if they are epistemological. Even in human experience, the transcendental structures operate without our conscious awareness of them. Consciousness is not an essential element of a non-epistemological transcendental structure.
(5) We can speak about the withdrawn character of the object (the “thing in itself”) in the same way we can speak about our own transcendental structure: by indirectly reading the common features of its manifestation across multiple changing relationships. This reading of the object’s withdrawn structure of possible manifestations will never be complete, but this is also true of any reading we might give of our own withdrawn structures of possibility. In short, objects, though split, are not unknowable black boxes.
(6) Transcendental structures evolve as a result of the ways they are concretely actualized and as a result of the way they get mutually structured by the material contributed by the other parties in their environment. Feedback loops of competitive interplay shape all the parties involved.
(7) To claim that objects contribute formatting to the constitution of an object is not to say that they “care for” or have an intentional relation to the direction they contribute to manifestation. This reflexive dimension may be unique to humans. But it is to claim that objects do directly contribute to the direction of a formatted manifestation.