a growing misunderstanding

September 14, 2009

In a number of references to my work in the blogosphere lately, I’ve read that I think all objects are equally real. This is untrue. I believe, instead, that all objects are equally objects. But real objects are only one kind for me. The other kind are the intentional objects.

These two kinds of objets differ from each other in various important ways. Real objects are not dependent on the entities that relate with them. They withdraw or hide from all contact. Intentional objects are completely dependent on the entity that encounters them (which, for me, need not be a uman or even an animal). Moreover, intentional objects do not hide. Saying otherwise is a frequent and understandable mistake, but Husserl’s intentional objects are by no means “concealed” in the way that Heidegger’s are. It is true that for Husserl there are an infinite possible number of profiles of a mailbox. But it doesn’t really matter, because a mailbox is not a sum total of profiles for him. Intentional objects are always already present for Husserl (and for me). They are simply encrusted with additional, accidental information that is not part of the essence of these objects.

The notion that “all objects are equally real” can be ascribed, not to me, but to Latour in Irreductions. The reason Batman is just as real an actor as neutrons, in Irreductions, is that Latour defines actors as anything capable of modifying, transforming, perturbing, or creating something else. It is a relational definition of reality. And given that Batman can indeed affect other actors, by causing a heroic or sad mood, or by motivating the attendance of films or the purchase of toys, then in that sense Batman is real. But it is important to note that Latour no longer holds to this position. His “modes of existence” project treats fictional entities quite differently from scientific ones and other kinds. There is no account of the “later Latour” in Prince of Networks simply because Latour hasn’t published his book yet. He has a few articles out on the modes of existence project, but not enough yet that I can safely say I grasp what he’s doing.

But even in the early Latour (the only one we know in the published books so far), if all actors are equally real, not all are equally strong. It is by no means true that Latour regards any random superstition as no worse than the most rigorous theory. He simply has a different definition of what “rigorous” means than scientific realists generally do. He doesn’t think it’s a matter of the mind accurately copying states of affairs outside the mind. He thinks, instead, that truth is a matter of translation, and that translation requires allies.

In its neglect of translation, most scientific realism is in fact not realism, since it confuses realities with the various bundles of qualities that are ascribed to them. A genuine reality is not something that can be replicated by features. Scientific realism does, in fact, veer towards positivism in most cases, since it is generally quite unconcerned with how realities are distorted or transformed through translations.

Hence, much of what is said about Latour is said with little to no homework being done. You can’t just do drive-by shootings where you pick 3 or 4 extreme-sounding statements in an author and then gloat over how idiotic the passages sound. Reading an author is always a balancing act: “The first point makes some sense, but nevertheless…”

As made clear throughout Irreductions, I do not endorse its view of all actors as equally real. Someone put this “Flying Spaghetti Monster” thing on my Wikipedia article, and I’m sure it was meant well, but it’s simply untrue that I view the Flying Spaghetti Monster (an example I never use) as “equally real” in comparison with a tree.

All I’m saying is that there are things called intentional objects, that ontology must include them in its general theory, and that it’s bad philosophy just to sneer at them and eliminate them and pretend that the only entities that exist are the ones made of physical materials, or the ones that are mathematically formalizable. There seem to be people in philosophy whose jouissance is most tied up with debunking and denouncing the illusions of others. But even illusions are part of our world, and must be positively enclosed in a good philosophy.

The “everything is equally an object” move in my work is not the same as Husserl’s or Latour’s initial gestures, despite the similarities. Latour does it in order to make strength of alliance the only criterion of greater and lesser reality. Husserl does it to make presence in consciousness the only criterion of reality. Neither of those is true of my position. Au contraire, in my work “everything is equally an object” is a way of building real and intentional objects into the same theory, whereas both Latour and Husserl exclude real objects form their philosophy altogether.

I’m not sure I can state it any more clearly than that. But the point of my long lists of objects is not to efface the difference between the real and the fictional. It is to say that the real and the fictional both belong to a deeper theory.

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