Where Is The Object?


So with Realism Wars™ probably still raging somewhere, I am taking a mental health break, I was thinking of Karatani’s parallax, borrowed by Zizek and made into a book. It’s not really that important to me what Zizek has to say about it, what’s fascinating is the very experience of parallax, I found it hard to explain to myself and to others until I discovered came across a cool trick (or read about it somewhere and then forgot where it came from and am now claiming to have come up with it myself):

Hold up a pencil in front of you, close your right eye and notice the pencil’s position vis-a-vis something that is farther away (outside or on the wall), then look at it with left eye closed and again with your right eye closed.

You don’t have to do it more than a couple of times to see that the pencil “moves” – well, you could do it for a while and freak out your wife/roommate/arresting officer, but I don’t recommend it. I’m assuming this is how 3D vision works or those cool pictures where you have to cross your eyes and all of that pre-CGI fun. I know all of this is naive and even childish, but my question is: Where is the pencil that I am holding in front of me?

I know that this is called naive realism to suggest that pencil is where I see it is – in my case, it is seemingly in both places at once – but I’ve began to wonder recently if naive realism is actually the coolest and the weirdest realism there is, and we don’t really need sophisticated types of realism to freak us out. Let me explain. 

Naive realism is the most powerful philosophical position, even if it is not the most comprehensive or the most consistent – one can easily pock holes in it with a simple pencil exercise or one can offer a sophisticated (Hegelian, a la Zizek) solution about the collapse of the subjective-objective distinction or some such, but still naive realism persists and will persist – and I think it’s good. In a sense, if Descartes is a father of modern philosophy, then, since his starting point in Meditations is clearly some sort of naive realist position, naive realism is the first really modern philosophy: 

But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.

Of course, Descartes arrives at some rather peculiar conclusions, conclusions I have noticed we often celebrate without knowing much about them – for example, when praising Descartes’ contributions in Intro to Philosophy one rarely hears of his “argument for the existence of God” and its really central role in the Meditations. But clearly we can relate when Descartes declares one to be insane to doubt the very basic data of senses – we can of course pretend to be all complex and subtle in our philosophical exchanges, but in real life it naive realism all the way: I’m reaching for a teapot, pouring myself some tea, put the cup up to my mouth and take a sip. I should be insane to doubt all these movements as my movements and my actions directed at a specific objects that is right there

I’m sure a small army of excellent examples and citations from sophisticated discussions of this experience is rattling their weapons at your fingertipc threatening to be typed into a comment box, but bear with me for just another moment.

It is indeed insane to doubt the sense, yet, as the story goes, Descartes ends up with exactly that with only “I think” and “I exist” being known with absolute certainty – but in this sense, it seems to me that anyone arguing against naive realism should be indeed rebuffed with a charge of insanity: “Are you insane? What do you mean that the object that I see might not be the way I see it?” 

Isn’t the scandal of philosophy, unlike what Kant thought it was, precisely this insanity of suggesting that the world is otherwise than how I see it? 

Any thoughts?

36 thoughts on “Where Is The Object?

  1. M.E.:” for example, when praising Descartes’ contributions in Intro to Philosophy one rarely hears of his “argument for the existence of God” and its really central role in the Meditations.”

    Kvond: I think that this is wonderful point. In fact I suspect that Descartes is nearly incomprehensible without his arguments (implicit, explicit) for God. Perhaps the greatest interpretive abuse of Descartes has been trying to call things “Cartesian” atheistically. Its just not what he had in mind.

    I would say as well that his thought experiment is likely better seen as a pegagogic exercise, one’s use of the imagination to focus the mind on the substance surity, and not an authentic attempt to find bedrock, and build a philosophy ground-up (as it is often represented). As you suggest, as much as Descartes journies imaginatively “into the mind” he is perhaps better thought of as a Realist, and a semiotic realist at that.

  2. To add…

    M.E.: “but in this sense, it seems to me that anyone arguing against naive realism should be indeed rebuffed with a charge of insanity: “Are you insane? What do you mean that the object that I see might not be the way I see it?””

    Kvond: It is pretty much only when you are shown another way of looking at an object, and you see it in that way, that this does not seem insane. And even in the pencil experiment, one has no real problem affirming that the pencil “really is” where each eye sees it, despite the contradiction.

    Sense-making demands the experience (and therefore the assumption) of a real and direct source of shared experience.

  3. This is Donald Davidson’s position, as (following Quine) he argues about the ability of a field-linguist who attempts to translate the language of a native whose language he knows not a single word of. Pointing to pieces of the world and uttering sounds is primary sense-making and learning. The assumption of a shared, real world, whose features we must be each responding to (however divergently), is a base assumption of any sense-making. We may assume that some of the other person’s beliefs are false, but if we are able to understand them at all, it is because we see both of us responding to the same world, and the same aspects of that world. As much as we like to philosophically undermine this, it always comes back as a ballast to upright the boat.

  4. “as much as Descartes journies imaginatively “into the mind” he is perhaps better thought of as a Realist”

    That’s what Meillassoux does. 2nd paragraph of After Finitude:

    “The terms ‘primary quality’ and ‘secondary quality’ come from Locke, but the basis for the distinction can already be found in Descartes.”

    And then on page 3, where Meillassoux puts forward his main realist thesis…

    In order to reactivate the Cartesian thesis in contemporary terms, and in order to state it in the same terms in which he intended to uphold it, we shall therefore maintain the following: all those aspects of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully conceived as properties of the object in itself. All those aspects of the object that can give rise to a mathematical thought (to a formula or to digitalization) rather than to a perception or sensation can be meaningfully turned into properties of the thing not only as it is with me, but also as it is without me.”

    There’s an extra bonus embedded in this ode to Descartes: Meillassoux provides a one-sentence summary of how he distinguishes between primary qualities and secondary qualities.

  5. “Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you shall begin by doubting everything, and says that there is only one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were ‘as easy as lying’. Another proposes that we should begin by observing ‘the first impressions of sense’, forgetting that our very percepts are the results of cognitive elaboration. But in truth, there is but one state of mind from which you can ‘set out’, namely, the very state of mind in which you actually find yourself at the time you do ‘set out’ — a state in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you cannot divest yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubt has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all the reality out of you, recognize, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt, in the least. Now that which you do not at all doubt, you must and do regard as infallible, absolute truth. Here breaks in Mr. Make Believe: ‘What! Do you mean to say that one is to believe what is not true, or that what a man does not doubt is ipso facto true’? No, but unless he can make a thing white and black at once, he has to regard what he does not doubt as absolutely true.”

    Peirce, “What Pragmatism Is” (1905).

  6. Mikhail and Kvond both seem to be implying that the “shared world” of human subjects implies some sort of really existing shared world, an point that is “proven” via the experiment of linguists in the field. However, the fact that humans default position is a “naive” realism does not at any point get at the underlying point of speculative realism or, more importantly, philosophy in general. The Realism Wars(tm) is, I believe, a philosophical investigation into the transcendental structure of the world. There is no reason to presuppose that our experience of the world touches on the reality of the world itself. On the other hand, a large number of experiments in physics have touched on truly counter-intuitive aspects of the physical world (e.g. non-locality). To come back to a line that seems to be flying around this debate: Who are you going to believe Physics or all of our “lying” eyes?

  7. John, I have mentioned this citation at some point – primary qualities are mathematizable qualities – but on page 81 he talks about it again and states that the actual working out on that proposition about math is to come. Why? I am not sure. If I understood our latest exchanges, if realism is correct and Kant is wrong, i.e. the mind does not “impose” anything (or does very little), I don’t see why we can’t just go back to Descartes in terms of saying “what I perceive clearly and distinctly is the way I perceive it”?

  8. Stellar, my issue with things like this, i.e. “look, physics tells us that this object is really like that” is not that I should not believe physics, I don’t think it’s a matter of faith (and it is faith, let’s face it, it’s based on the authority of science, but I am not a scientist and I don’t know if something is true, I trust that it is, I believe that it is) – the issue is that looking at the world with a microscope (for example) and looking at the world without my glasses are two different experiences that are still somehow grounded in the idea of the “real world” – in that sense, if Hume was a physicist and studied quantum mechanics during the day, he would still be able to play billiards at night…

  9. Mikhail,

    That’s what I meant when I said that AF reads like a prequel — he takes his shots at the Correlation without really make a positive argument supporting the mathematization of primary qualities. Meillassoux consigns “what I perceive directly and clearly” to the realm of secondary qualities. The question to me is why “those aspects of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully conceived as properties of the object in itself.” This is what I was going on about at Speculative Heresies. Mathematical patterns can exist in the object yet be scientifically useless. What is it in scientists’ heads that lets them distinguish spurious from meaningful mathematical patterns in the world?

  10. But yes, I take your point about the naive realism — just obsessing on my own train of thought. I think, btw, that Harman would regard “what I perceive directly and clearly” as primary properties of a fused self+pencil object.

  11. SC: “There is no reason to presuppose that our experience of the world touches on the reality of the world itself.”

    Kvond: Then, perhaps, the problem lies in your (and others) literalizing the idea of “touches”.

  12. Kvond: Now consider that I am using the word touches metaphorically. So….There is no reason to presuppose that our experience of the world “touches” on the reality of the world itself. Where are we now?

    • SC,

      Well, if you are merely talking about whether or not our experiences metaphorically touch the reality of the world, I would say we are getting somewhere, because then we can investigate just what it is that we do or do not think that our experiences are doing. For instance, our finger, as far as we are usually concerned (those intents and purposes), “touches” (literally) the table. But what would it mean for us to have to decide whether our experiences “touch” (metaphorically) the table. Clearly our experiences are part of our interactions with tables and chairs, but I think it a mistake to think that we have to prove, philosophically, that this participation is some form of metaphorical touching. I think that there are very good reasons to presuppose that our experiences “touch” metaphorically the table, that is, they are connected to the processes of interaction. Most of these reasons are reasons of pragmatic consequence; there is traction in that kind of “touching”. Now, whether our minds “touch” the table, is just part of the same game. As to the “transcendental structure” of the world, I have no idea where such a structure gets you, other than to further along the metaphor is doing some kind of “touching” (which is exactly how Descartes saw it, light vibrating as if up along a string, right up the spirits of the nerves and into the semiotic brain). But, this is a metaphor. I’m not against thinking in metaphors, I do it all the time, but we should keep track of where we are being distinctly metaphorical and when not.

      • I, rather, think that speaking of in terms of metaphors get us nowhere, or gets nowhere that we have not already been. I want to speak about literally touching the world, or not literally touching the world. Thought is capable of operating on levels other than metaphor. Which is not to say that we have to abandon metaphor in descriptions, conversations, etc. There is nothing particular interesting in asking the question in terms of metaphor as this is the mud in which philosophy has been spinning its tires in for the last century.

  13. Mikhail

    More importantly for Hume, he would leave through the door and not the window. But it seems that the closing line of your comment dismisses the questions of fundamentals, or grounds, as they are not practical concerns and do not change how I interact with the world of my everyday life. Have I missed something?

  14. I don’t want to get anyone angry here, but where the pencil is spatially has little to do with the adaptations your brain evolved in order to perceive the pencil-in-space.

    Your two eyes see from different distinct points spatially, and then the two pictures are integrated in your brain into one 3D picture. We have two eyes because without at least two, we wouldn’t perceive depth at all. Insects and some other creatures that have several eyes can actually see a full panoramic view of the entire landscape, nearly 360 degrees in every direction–even behind them and above them.

    If you were blind, or born with no eyes, the pencil would still be someplace on a spatial matrix. Although, to further complicate matters, quantum mechanically, that place where the pencil is might not be one-place-at-one-time.

  15. Mikhail:

    David Hume, “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”

    “Whether your scepticism be as absolute and sincere as you pretend, we shall learn by and by, when the company breaks up: we shall then see, whether you go out at the door or the window; and whether you really doubt if your body has gravity, or can be injured by its fall; according to popular opinion, derived from our fallacious senses, and more fallacious experience.”

    I thought you were eluding to this with your Hume studying QM and then playing pool.

  16. Stellar, thanks for the reference – I of course did refer to Hume but I did it a kind of “look at me I know Hume” way without any specifics, you know?

    Anod, your comment with all that knowledge is indeed very angering – what is this “spatial matrix” you are speaking of? (that’s a serious question, though) Can you elaborate?

    The explanation of how my eyes work is, of course, instructive, but I would file it with physics explanations – important but otherwise useless in terms of explaining my awe at the “moving pencil” of the parallax.

  17. SC: “There is nothing particular interesting in asking the question in terms of metaphor as this is the mud in which philosophy has been spinning its tires in for the last century.”

    Kvond: Which is of course why I pointed out that you were speaking in metaphor, for I have no idea what it would mean for the mind (brain?) to be literally touching the structure of the world. If the mind literally touches it, so does everything else.

  18. I’m sure sure why yet but I like this talk of “literal” – it seems that what we’ve called “naive” realism could be easily a sort of “literal realism” although of course there’s going to be all sort of confusions. What I mean though is that there is certainly a kind of similarity in speaking of literally touching the world and naive realist positions that the world is the way it is perceived (or it is the way it is). In the same way that the metaphors are not out, the possible errors about the world in naive realism (or talk of science tell us how much things are from a different perspective, perspective that I cannot have unless I use instruments, calculation and other additional artificial means) are not out.

    My only question here would be about “touching” – why “touching” I ask?

  19. Wouldn’t “spatial matrix” be a kind a stand-in for “absolute space” and all its issues that I think were brought up already (space in Leibniz/Clarke as either a relation – no objects, no space – or a container of sorts)?

    What about that Martin Jay work – Downcast Eyes – that argued basically that most of Western philosophical tradition is oriented towards modeling itself on vision. I read it a while back. In this case, the pencil would only move when you look at it with one eye at a time – not necessary a “natural perspective” to begin with – where is naivete then? What’s the difference between looking at a pencil in a microscope and looking at a pencil with one eye at a time? Both are pretty artificial situations, don’t you think?

    SC, what about that whole Derrida take on the metaphor as in metaphoricity and abstraction are basically two sides of the same coin – can’t think abstractly without the mechanics of producing metaphors? Or maybe I’m confused about it in Derrida…

  20. Well, I thought this was a continuation of Realism Wars but it seems to be a sort of collective reflection exercise – went over to Larval Subjects to see maybe the action moved there, but found only some summaries of Latour. Honestly, for someone who is so adamant about the continential habit of exegesis and skillful summarization (didn’t he call it dismissively “book reports” some time ago?), that guy is very good at it himself – it reads as though he needed to run back to his comforting summaries and praises to calm himself down, not unlike Mikhail here who also likes to post on some minute esoteric aspects of Kant right after the heat of the battle. You guys aren’t as different as you think you are, I think…

    • No, I guess we are back to our comfortable corners, only in this case I suppose I was probably more likely to be the one immersing myself in the thought of some authoritative and comforting figure (of the father) but here I am asking stupid questions without even a word about Kant – it won’t last long though, I promise, I will be back summarizing away pretty soon. I might even develop an additional useful habit of referring the readers to my summaries as a way of addressing any possible questions: “I already summarized this before, see here and here” sort of style – what do you think?

  21. Well, objects exist in space-time. They exist somewhere in particular.

    Sometimes creatures who have visual perception capabilities see these objects.

    But the objects that are there, in space-time, are there whether you can see them or not.

    I guess I’m saying that seeing pencils move doesn’t mean that pencils are moving. It means your ability to see the pencils is based on vantage points in space-time that send seemingly contradictory–but not really contradictory–info to your brain to be integrated.

  22. I thought the whole point of calling it “naive realism” is that it is somehow mistaken about the “real reality” which is not the way it appears to us, is this not so? Maybe I’m late to this discussion, but it seems that if we say something like “pencil is/exists in point A, even if I see it in points A’ and A” if I close each eye” we are basically just saying something like “I perceive the pencil as being in point A” and get into all sorts of philosophical trouble.

  23. Sometimes creatures who have visual perception capabilities see these objects.

    I know you probably mean it in some ironic way, but are there creatures that have visual perception capabilities that see the objects in a very different way?

  24. Jackson, this not being technically a part of Realism Wars, I was trying to approach the theme from a different perspective, i.e. from assuming that “naive realism” is the best kind of realism and work my way from that position.

    You’re right, I do like summarizing and doing “book reports” and I never claimed otherwise. I don’t know whether Levi’s motivation in pursuing a series of summaries of Latour is a way to psychologically recover from the argument, and I don’t think he was rejecting the whole of Continental tradition of commentary, just its abuses…

    • Mikhail: “Jackson, this not being technically a part of Realism Wars, I was trying to approach the theme from a different perspective, i.e. from assuming that “naive realism” is the best kind of realism and work my way from that position.”

      I feel like I was trying to do a similar thing when I brought up the issue of parallax and antinomy over at Larval Subjects. Only later did I come to the crippling realization that our debate had been a mere smokescreen for the transferential bond between analyst and analysand, through which Levi deftly confronted me with the enigma of my desire.

  25. For anyone jonesing for more realism wars, there was a small skirmish here in case you missed it, hidden under one of the “book reports”:

    http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/04/29/latour-hybrids/#comments

    Actually, I tried my best to keep it from being a “war” or too hideously polemical, not because I mind polemics, but because I felt like I was annoying him the whole time and didn’t want it to be like that. So, I’m not too serious about the “skirmish” thing. But it touched on the old theme, perhaps in a slightly different way, one that I thought was valuable, although I think Levi felt we were just rehashing the same debate. I won’t respond to the last comment, because the argument seems to be exhausted now. But I post the link in case anyone has anything to add.

    • Frank, I read your exchange with Levi again this morning, I think it gave me a sense that you, like me, were dismissed from the very beginning of that exchange. But it is good to know that apparently philosophers should be acquainted with all the sciences and their arguments, I have something to work on now.

  26. Bryan, that was of course due to the simple fact of you being wrong on so many different levels about Malabou – you know the rule, don’t you? Wrong about Malabou, wrong about everything else…

    Frank, thanks for the link, I’m sure the argument is never exhausted – it’ll be back.

  27. Ironic? Nope. But yes, some animals see differently than others. Very differently. Mountain lions and other large cat-like superpredators are believed to see the world in digital-looking black-and-white pixels. This makes the movement and size of other creatures easy to detect, and prey easier to stalk from a distance.

    But then, if you’re holding a pencil, your tactile senses are just as important as your sight is in perceiving where it is spatially…

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