Thursday, 27 September 2012

Relata, relations, independence, externalism

Levi Bryant critiques Karen Barad's statement that "relata do not precede relations."

I find this whole question very difficult to grapple with because, it seems to me, we are lumping together far too many things.

Am I independent of the glasses on my nose?

Yes, I think that I am.  I can't see a damn thing without them but I won't perish if they are misplaced.  Equally, the glasses won't necessarily shatter or disintegrate if they are estranged from my needy fizzog.  I'm happy to say that the relation between my body and my glasses is one of independence.

Am I independent of the cold I had last month?

Yes, I am.  The remnants of that virus may leave traces in my body and, were I immunologically weak somehow, the virus could have killed me but it didn't, I persisted, I moved on.  My relation to the virus (whatever traces it leaves within my body) is clearly logically external.

However, both the glasses and the cold virus make me different to how I would be without them.  Therefore, it is incorrect to say that the specific form I take at present is independent of my history.  Counterfactually, I would probably have persisted had I never gotten that virus and I'd probably survive without my glasses but the absence of these things would make me different to how I am with them.

If I am made what I am by my history -- my past relations -- is it still accurate to say that I am 'independent' of my relations?  Clearly we are running up against different meanings of the word 'independent.'  I would still BE without these relations but I wouldn't be what I am without them.

And could I be without any relations?  Of course I could get by without my glasses and I wouldn't be at all upset if I never got a cold virus again but I would surely perish rather swiftly if the air got sucked out of the room.  Am I independent of all relations?  Again, this begs the question of what we mean, precisely, by 'independent.'

Well, according to etymonline.com, 'depend' derives from the Latin dependere "to hang from, hang down; be dependent on, be derived."  I thing that last word is the most telling: derive.  Could I exist without a great many of my relations?  Sure.  But do I derive nothing from them?  Hardly.  Could I exist without deriving anything from any of them?  I can't see how.

If every thing is a trajectory then everything is a derivation, everything hangs down from or latches onto its history.  Of course 'derivation' sounds a lot like 'translation' and we can think of it in similar terms: just because A derives from B doesn't mean that B determines A but it does mean that A wouldn't be A without B.  Like translation, every derivation is a transformation -- if you're 'hanging down' from something you can always 'hang down' from something else but you can't float away as if by magic.

Long story short: these questions would make a lot more sense to me if we didn't take words like 'relation' and 'independent' as if they name undifferentiated phenomena or as if their meaning is obvious.

If all relations are of the same sort then it does seem as if we must either be internalist or externalist.  However, if we pick that term apart a bit we can see that both internalists and externalists have a point.  Similarly, one thing's independence from another thing is as much a question of the meaning of 'independent' as it is a question of the metaphysics of relations.

I should add of course that Levi does make a distinction between different kinds of relations (endo and exo).  But I still feel that terms such as relation and, particularly, 'independence' can mean a number of different things and, as such, often cause antagonism when people mean different things by them.

No comments:

Post a Comment