Ontological Commitments


The new issue of Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism is out and it looks fantastic. The question this issue seems to be asking is ‘what is speculative realism, if it is anything at all?’ Contributions to the issue are divided in two sections, titled “Reflections” and “Proposals,” and offer an eclectic gathering of interpretations and understandings of the current state of affairs in the continental realism sphere of philosophy. Do check it out.

Of the bunch, I really enjoyed the article by Manuel DeLanda titled “Ontological Commitments“. It is only three pages, but it is typical DeLanda in that it cuts right to the chase. Below is an excerpt that maps out what DeLanda believes the issues are between current speculative orientations:

Any philosophy commits itself, explicitly or implicitly, to assert the existence of the entities that it intends to describe or explain. Philosophers who deny the truth of this statement—affirming for example that specifying what kinds of entities populate their world constrains their ability to think—usually assume an implicit ontology which is, for the same reason, uncritically accepted and poorly analyzed. Hence, declaring one’s ontological commitments from the start should be standard procedure in philosophy. Although ontologies vary widely, and it is unwise to try to fit them into a rigid taxonomy, for the purposes of this brief essay they can be classified into three categories: idealist, empiricist, and realist. For the idealist philosopher there are no entities that exist independently of the human mind; for the empiricist entities that can be directly observed can be said to be mind-independent, but everything else (electrons, viruses, causal capacities etc.) is a mere theoretical construct that is helpful in making sense of that which can be directly ob- served; for the realist, finally, there are many types of entities that exist autonomously even if they are not directly given to our senses. These three different ontological postures have many variations, so that the number of possible commitments is much larger.  

The only part of this article I don’t agree with in his defence of the ‘virtual’. Object/assemblage capacities are not withdrawn potentials but are the expression of what happens in situ among and between actual entities with determining properties. Capacities are expressed in the meeting and mingling and negotiation between already existing potent/vibrant materialities – with each dynamic entity contributing to the emergent state of affairs or ‘situation’ (or matrix). If by ‘virtual’ DeLanda means what is possible, or that which can be actualized between existing entities but has yet to be, then I’m on board. Otherwise… I’ll have more to say about this topic some other time.

For now, here are a few more juicy bits [also posted on twitter #ontography] which resonate with my own philosophical dispositions, and why I consider my position a variant of speculative realism:

“once a philosophy adopts a realist ontology its first task is to delimit the kinds of entities that it considers legitimate inhabitants of the world.” (p. 71)

“There is simply no way to specify the contents of an autonomous world without speculating, since this world may contain beings that are too small or too large, and becomings that are too fast or too slow, to be directly observed.” (p. 71)

“A property is emergent if it is produced or synthesized from the actual interactions between the parts of a whole. In any particular case, for any given physical, chemical, biological, or social whole, a variety of interactions may give rise to an emergent property, and this redundancy in the means to synthesize a whole’s properties is what ensures that it cannot be reduced to the properties of its parts.” (p.72)

“The ontological commitments of a philosophy have a direct effect on the way it frames the problem of knowledge: ontology may not determine epistemology but it clearly has important consequences for it.” (p.72)

“In my version of realism… the concept of emergent property implies that social properties cannot be reduced to psychological ones; psychological properties cannot be reduced to biological ones; biological properties cannot be reduced to chemical ones, and so on. This implies that the world is objectively stratified into semi-autonomous layers, each layer demanding a different strategy to extract knowledge from it. There is no single method that fits every stratum, and a variety of approaches are needed to produce true statements about the entities populating each layer… knowledge is produced not only by representations but by interventions.” (p.72)

Read the entire article: Here

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