Friday 22 June 2012

Bryant on Being Qua Mechanism; the Baggage Thereof

Levi Bryant writes:
What we need is not a conception of being composed of objects, but rather of machines. Nor is it a pan-psychism, organicism, or vitalism that we need, but rather a pan-mechanism.
It's a very long and interesting piece that's still in development and is well worth the read. I'm sympathetic to the general thrust of it but what concerns me is whether mechanism is really a good metaphor for being.

Machines aren't generally understood as dynamic or evolutionary. They remain operational only within fairly limited ontological parameters. If a machine's composition changes radically then this generally means that it breaks down. In this respect, it is fundamentally brittle and necessarily reliant upon maintenance. Its ontology is highly dependent upon other things and it only remains what it is while it remains more or less ontologically consistent or stationary.

Real machines are a little too rigid, fragile and needy to serve as a metaphor for beings altogether. Moreover, machines as they are popularly imagined tend towards the other extreme and appear far too rational, coherent and solid (e.g. in Newtonian physics/metaphysics, which implies mechanical aspects of reality to be timeless, rational and holistic, like clockwork).

On the one hand, machines are too weak for mechanism to be a useful metaphor for being. And, on the other hand, machines, as they are often understood, are also too strong to be a useful metaphor for being. Being in general seems much more plastic than mechanical. (Plastic in the sense used by William James: "plasticity ... the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.")

The machine metaphor may be as old as philosophy itself but I'm not sure that it does justice to things.

That said, there are, of course, only so many words that we can appropriate for thought and I struggle to think of any that are obviously better (e.g. being qua organism has its own problems) but mechanism certainly carries some baggage with it.