Beginning with Descartes’ cogito, discussed last week, and later developed in intricate detail by Kant, the buffered self emerges by cleaving up existence into two halves: subjects (the cogito, mind), and objects (the world around us, matter). That this philosophy has been successful is an understatement: almost everyone today can distinguish between what is subjective and what is objective, and most associate subjectivity with either personal experience or with error, and objectivity with factuality and truth. It is against this mythos that my recent philosophy argues, offering a different understanding of objectivity, and thus a different perspective on the subjective.
Both of the competing mythologies outlined in the first part, positivism and anti-realism, descend from this Enlightenment philosophy, which is responsible, among other things, for providing the contemporary sciences with their foundations and motives, and for dividing academia into arts and sciences. Positivism elevates objectivity above subjectivity, placing the truth entirely into the objective and thus valorising the sciences. Anti-realism is not the reverse of this, but picks up a different strand in Kant, who recognised that there was a rift between subjective experience and things-in-themselves, such that human subjects are cut off from reality because this noumenal world of objects (as Kant termed it) is completely unknowable through sense perception.
All contemporary views of reality respond to Kant in some way. For instance, object-oriented ontology positions itself as a substantial break from Kant who is accused of correlationism. This is a purported error that speculative realist Quentin Meillassoux characterised as the idea that we only have access to the correlation between thought and being, but never to either considered in isolation. According to Graham Harman, whose work is the wellspring of the object-oriented ontology movement, objects are withdrawn from one another; the Kantian rift between subject and object thus applies between all objects, not just human subjects, a philosophy he develops from Heidegger. Nothing has access to the real, which is always beyond the rift (a term that I am borrowing here from object-oriented ontologist Timothy Morton).
This is a fascinating attempt to break from both anti-realism (by decentralising the thinking subject) and positivism (by keeping the real always out of reach), but it is clearly a sophisticated extension of Kantian noumena, and not a break from it. Reality is still just-out-of-reach for the object-oriented ontologists, it is just that it is so for everything, and not just for humans. Reality is cloaked in obscurity, and thus the only kind of realism that is plausible must find clever ways to speculate (hence, speculative realism). There is an excess of the real, always beyond reach, and this limitation on access to reality applies for all things.
Contact with Reality
At the turn of the twentieth century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was struggling to incorporate the new discoveries of physics (relativity and quantum mechanics) into a philosophy of reality, and modified Kant in a different way. Reworking Kant’s foundational Critique of Pure Reason, Whitehead suggested that all entities encounter each other through a process of contact he termed prehension. When you put an apple upon a table, the apple prehends the table and the table prehends the apple, while you prehend both through your hand and vision.
Whitehead was an influence upon Harman, and in Whitehead’s extension of Kant’s philosophy to all things, we can see the commonality. But Whitehead offers the opposite move to expanding the Kantian rift, suggesting that our sense experiences are objective, and that subjectivity only comes in when we interpret those experiences into subjective forms. Again, we’re working with Kant’s toolbox, but Whitehead’s claim that sense impressions are objective is a radical break since it downplays the importance of the rift.
Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor look to Heidegger for a very different path to Harman’s. If object-oriented ontology has correlationism as its bugbear, for Dreyfus and Taylor it is mediational theories, which all descend from Descartes’ splitting of the world into subject and object. Against this, they suggest that Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the later work of Wittgenstein suggest a contact theory in which there is:
…a re-embedding of thought and knowledge in the bodily and social-cultural contexts in which it takes place. The attempt is to articulate the framework or context within which our explicit depictions of reality make sense, and to show how this is inseparable from our activity as the kind of embodied, social, and cultural beings we are. The contact here is… something primordial, something we never escape. It is the contact of living, active beings, whose life form involves acting in and on a world which also acts on them. These beings are at grips with a world and each other; this original contact provides the sense-making context for all their knowledge constructions, which, however much they are based on mediating depictions, rely for their meaning on this primordial and indissoluble involvement of the surrounding reality.
Like Whitehead, Dreyfus and Taylor downplay the significance of the rift. They, however, run into problems when they try to incorporate the work of the sciences into their scheme, and are forced to afford scientific investigation a rather special status when they say “You can't explain [science] to anyone while avoiding all such words as ‘true,’ ‘correct,’ ‘real,’...” This for me, as for other commentators on their book Retrieving Realism (e.g. Eric Gerlach), is a substantial weak point in their otherwise brilliant critique of mediational theories.
In Wikipedia Knows Nothing, I back Dreyfus and Taylor’s contact theories of reality – we, and indeed all things, are in contact with the reality we live within – but I resolve the question of the sciences through Isabelle Stengers’ concept of a reliable witness. The sciences are engaged in translation of the knowledge of objects – it is this which deserves the name objective knowledge, and viewed this way it entails no magical road to truth (as Plato effectively claimed philosophers possessed, and positivists sometimes imply scientists possess). The strength of the sciences lie in their capacity to develop apparatus that resist objections, and this is subtly different from understanding their assertions as real or true.
If we are all in contact with the realities we live within, but different things prehend each other in different ways, then we live in a multiverse, an idea offered by William James at the end of the nineteenth century; an each-form of reality, instead of an all-form. Dreyfus and Taylor talk of plural realism to make a similar point, and I have developed the same idea from the work of novelist Michael Moorcock (from whom the physicists inherited the term ‘multiverse’ in a rather different sense). Rather than associating reality with that excess beyond anything’s ability to encounter, we can place reality right here with us, in contact with all things, yet being experienced differently, and yes, ultimately mediated by imagined worlds – but worlds that can only be understood by virtue of our living within them.
Viewing reality as a multiverse does not mean denying any claim of the real, as anti-realism attempts, but acknowledging the different ways of being in contact with reality. It means acknowledging different real worlds instead of making reality a grail that it always just out of reach. If this feels alien, it is because we are accustomed to the modern scheme of belief and reality, subject and object, which presumes – following the long tradition descending from Plato – a single true universe, a unitary reality. Kant’s rift between this and the subject, whether or not it is extended to all things, is not incorrect, it just places the emphasis in the wrong place. Yes, there is an excess of the real, but it is just as much present in the different contact that all things have with reality as it is hidden beyond them.
For more about what it means to live in a multiverse, my new book Wikipedia Knows Nothing is available from ETC Press as a free PDF, or from Lulu as a paid paperback or ebook.
The opening image is a painting by Romanian artist Veres Szabolcs; I am uncertain of the title, but I found it here, on a list of emerging painters at the Modern Edition website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.