Thursday 14 February 2013

Whitehead, Latour, the reality of events, irreduction

Levi is back with some thoughts on realism, flat ontology and so on:
I just can’t agree with Whitehead regarding things like rainbows and the beauty of sunsets.  Oh sure, I think these things are real enough because they involve the properties of light coupled with brains. ... I draw a distinction between “exo-qualities” and “endo-qualities”.  An endo-quality is a quality that resides in the thing itself.  It’s there regardless of whether or not anything relates to it.  An exo-quality, by contrast, is something that only emerges in a relation between two or more entities.
Interesting stuff!  Forgive me my rambling:

Isn't 'light + rain + brain' an object itself?  Sure, they're objects individually and the rainbow qua aesthetic object only exists by their becoming related but, in Whitehead's terms, doesn't this combination of things forms a unique actual occasion?  In your terms doesn't it form an object, emergent from and irreducible to its component parts?  From the perspective of the rain droplets the rainbow may be merely exorelated as it is an event that the rain constitutes by entering into relationships with other things without exhausting the rain's own specificity.  However, from the perspective of the rainbow qua aesthetic event itself the rain droplets are endo-related because they are part of the event.

The fact that this event requires a brain is, therefore, neither here nor there -- it also requires a body, water, air, sun, particular atmospheric conditions, etc.  Rainbows aren't real in the same way that rain drops are real -- this is certainly true.  But this is a perspectival question since you could equally say that, from the perspective of an oxygen atom, the water molecule that it constitutes along with two hydrogen atoms isn't 'real' in the same way as the atoms themselves.  The water molecule isn't 'real, out there' because without the oxygen atoms there would be no molecule.  Similarly, the rainbow isn't 'real, out there' because without the perceiving brain there is no rainbow, only water in air forming a prism that diffracts light.

If there is a difference between these two examples it is because you have introduced a distinction between cognitive apprehension and other kinds of relations -- not an indefensible argument but one that must be made carefully.

So, beauty isn't a property of the droplets or the lightwaves or even these things together but we can definitely say that it is a property of the rainbow.  Beauty is a property of the rainbow so long as we accept that the rainbow is constituted by perceiving beings as well as rain, light, etc. -- that it is not an object perceived by a subject but an object that includes a subject.  The rainbow is not beautiful unless it includes a mind that perceives it as such but that doesn't mean that beauty is not a property of the rainbow itself, that beauty is confined to the mind.  It just means that it is contingent upon the precise constitution of the aesthetic event.

I'm just thinking 'out loud' now but we could say that two people looking at the 'same' rainbow won't experience beauty in the same way, therefore beauty is only in their minds.  But Whitehead could just say 'well, they're not looking at the same rainbows, then'.  They're looking at the same droplets and light rays, perhaps, but not the same rainbows.  So, rainbows are subjective, as is their beauty, but they are subjective in the sense that they include one and only one perceiving subject.  They are not a subjective apprehension of an external objective reality as this would mean perceiving subjects transcending objective reality, all looking out on the same, singular reality but experiencing it severally.  But they are a singularly subjective apprehension in the sense that these aesthetic events -- the rainbow qua beautiful thing -- can only include one perceiving subject.  When two or more people look at the 'same' rainbow they are experiencing two different events that merely share some constituent parts.

So, it's not a case of several subjects perceiving a singular reality but several aesthetic events involving an overlapping plurality.  This makes sense to me but it clearly requires a category of 'subject' distinct from other kinds of objects because there are many objects within a rainbow -- billions of water droplets, innumerable lightwaves, etc. -- but, for it to be a 'subjective experience' in the manner I described, it can contain only one subject.  Add another subject and you have two aesthetic events.

Although perhaps we are not trapped in our individual subjectivity.  Perhaps if we talk about, write about, paint about our experiences of beauty and if we share the same cognitive and aesthetic preconditions with other subjects then we can share experiences of beauty.  Perhaps through social, artistic processes we can draw our experiences together and perhaps we can meaningfully talk about multi-subject aesthetic events.  But those subjects would have to be drawn together by other conditions beyond the isolated events themselves.  We'd have to be drawing in further mediators, as it were.

Anyway, on Latour's principle of irreduction, people seem to forget what he actually says:
1.1.1 Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything
• I will call this the 'principle of irreducibility', but it is a prince
that does not govern since that would be a self-contradiction
That's his first principle in its entirety and each part of it is significant.  People often fixate on the 'irreducible' part and think that the principle is all about everything being unique and sui generis and nothing being articulable in terms of anything else.  I recall Ray Brassier in his review of Irreductions being most upset at how Latour said, first, that everything was irreducible but then proceeded to reduce everything -- even science, the horror! -- to his own terms.  He didn't realise that this is actually Latour's entire point! -- that the only way of understanding and perhaps even existing in the world is via an infralanguage (or something similar) that articulates other things in its own terms, thus reducing and rendering articulable what may be irreducible in its entirety but is not entirely irreducible.  (But then I don't think Brassier even really tried to understand that book -- his intention was damnation, not fair reading.)  Latour later calls this process 'formatting' and it's really the core of his whole philosophy.

Anyway, I'm all for unflattening the ontology.  Flattening it is just a first, critical step taken to erase all the fallacious distinctions that others have made in error.  Ultimately, having reduced everything to a single type, one must be able to make categorical distinctions within that typology.  Perhaps subjectivity can be suitably rearticulated in the manner I described above, or some other way.