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What is Object-Oriented Ontology?
A definition for ordinary folk
December 8, 2009

Recently I was speaking to a writer about my recent work. She's doing a feature for a local magazine on creativity research and design practice in the region. I've been fortunate to get a lot of press over the years, and it's become increasingly important to me to find ways to make my work comprehensible and applicable to a general audience.

We talked about a number of projects, from games at the studio to my recent Atari work to my forthcoming book on newsgames. But this was the first time I'd tried to talk to a journalist about my new work in object-oriented ontology. It was challenging, and I didn't do a good job. I was unprepared. I don't yet have an elevator pitch for OOO. But then again, OOO doesn't have one for itself either.

But wait, you might say, there's a section about OOO in the Wikipedia entry for Speculative Realism. True, but it's not really meant for public consumption. When speaking to a general audience, 500 words is too much. When speaking to the general public, terms like a priori, Heidegger, correlationism and anti-realism ought to be avoided.

But wait, you might say, why would a discipline of philosophy need or want to explain itself to a general population? This is the domain of specialists, and some will hold that we cannot or should not "simplify" our nuanced positions for the unwashed masses. This is wrongheaded. I'm of the general belief that academia has a responsibility to the public interest, but more than any other philosophical movememt in recent memory, OOO stands to benefit from the deep engagement of ordinary people, since it returns the attention of philosophy to the real, everyday world.

So, I thought I'd try to work on a simple, short, comprehensible explanation of object-oriented ontology so I don't find myself in this bind in the future. My goal is to assume zero knowledge whatsoever about the history of philosophy or its current trends, even if that means massive oversimplifcation. I've also hoped to offer a characterization of the overall approach of OOO rather than any one position within it. Here's what I've come up with so far:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology ("OOO" for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, sandstone, and Harry Potter, for example. In particular, OOO rejects the claims that human experience rests at the center of philosophy, and that things can be understood by how they appear to us. In place of science alone, OOO uses speculation to characterize how objects exist and interact.

This is tentative, and I'm posting it here to seek feedback and discussion, not to declare myself victorious. So, have at it.

Update: Here's an alternate version, crafted based on some of the excellent discussion below. I'm sure I'll go through a few of these before finding the right one.

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology ("OOO" for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally--plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.

Comments (80)
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So, actor-network theory would be a way of studying OOO?

You might want to say, "can *only* be understood".

It doesn't seem like the description clearly delineates it from science. Speculation (at least in Whitehead's sense) plays an important role in science. A fruitful question to ask an object-oriented ontologist, I think, is "what prevents you from being a physicalist"?

Should I leave Harry Potter in there? I'm not sure that all OOO approaches have this perspective on fictional objects. Moreover, as Nick Montfort just mentioned to me, it might not be the best rhetorical move to put that point in such a short description. Unless that's precisely the reason to do it.

@Mark
Yes, OOO has a strong relationship with ANT, although each of us has our own take/use on the matter.

@Asher
I'm not sure if the "only" adds or removes clarity. In any case, I was very interested in getting the differentiation from science in there. You can see it peering over the top, but adding clarification also adds words. Any ideas?

I do think that item could go. We have different views on the ontological status of Harry Potter. I find Marie-Laure Ryan's discussion of the ontological status of fictional/imagined entities persuasive here, and find it useful to distinguish between objects such as bonobos and fictional entities. But whether or not you agree, it muddles a characterization of OOO to include a fictional entity in the list.

Nick, at the risk of hijacking my own thread, I think there are interesting and important differences between fictional and non-fictional entities, but I also think that their existence itself is fundamentally identical.

Perhaps the fact that the discussion can so easily turn to that one claim is the best evidence to remove it, as it is a distraction. Also, it would reduce the paragraph by two words.

I'm also thinking that "DVD player" is not the best object to include in that list. I wanted to include a man-made aggregate object, but perhaps that one is too, well, time-dependent to offer clarity. Or am I overanalyzing?

According to OOO, does the money in my bank account (not wallet!) exist?

To actually hijack your thread, I see a problem with you view that every fictional, imagined, and presumably even mentioned entity exists in the same way. It makes true statements of nonexistence impossible. To say "A pink, winged elephant does not exist" calls into being the pink, winged elephant that is mentioned; the statement makes itself false as soon as it is uttered. Similarly.

The DVD player, on the other hand, doesn't bother me.

@Carl: Yes
@Nick: I'll respond to this in more detail later.

Sorry to hijack the hijack, I guess Harman would agree on Nick's 'Pink, winged elephant' intervention, but that the pink winged elephant would be a Sensual Object of intention, which is obviously dependent on you (a real object) and is not a real object per se, but it nonetheless fills the world with qualities and notes as much as anything else, and has an impact on real objects. (i.e it could influence a 'real' object, say, a picture or website of a pink winged elephant, which again has differing qualities) Also other objects interact with their own sensual objects of intent. Harman would also argue that this is the only way two objects can ever touch through vicarious causation. Perhaps signifers are examples, par excellence?

I don't understand the last sentence, particularly the "In place of science alone" part. Those five words do not make sense to me in that order.

"that everything exists equally" isn't a particularly useful statement. If "everything" means "everything that exists", it's almost a tautology (since it isn't worth remarking that you don't believe in different degrees of existence — almost nobody does). If it means "any claim of the form 'X does not exist' is false", including such possible values of X as colorless green ideas, even primes greater than two, and an omnipotent God that can create a stone so heavy he can't lift it, then it merely consigns the verb "exists" to meaning nothing.

This is sort of similar to what nick said, I guess.

By contrast, I think the specific list of examples of things that exist is a helpful contribution to explaining your notion of "existence".

I am a physicalist, myself, so I don't have any clear ideas. To me Harry Potter is "just as" real as anything else, but his existence is physically in brains. I suspect that an Object-Oriented philosopher would see this as being too epiphenomenal. Anyway, I don't have an answer, but maybe that distinction points in the right direction.

I am not a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination, so I figure I'm your target audience for your simple definition. I think what might be missing from the description is an example, if it's at all possible -- it's hard to see how DVD players, Harry Potter, and sandstone are related (and maybe the point is that they're not) and *how* they can make us understand existence. So why are you examining DVD players? And what does it mean for sandstone (which I wouldn't call an object, by the way) to have an "equal status" to a DVD player?

On the other hand, maybe I'm completely missing the point, so here's a brief layman's rephrasing of what I think OOO is based solely on your short explanation:

"Object-Oriented Ontology is the study of existence with respect to *things*. It argues that we can better understand our world and ourselves by examining the objects in the world without placing them in the context of the people who made them. Proponents argue that all objects, from stones to space shuttles, are equally important to our reasoning and lead to better understanding existence through examining their characteristics and interactions."

Gillian Smith on December 8, 2009 7:05 PM

I passed this around briefly to non-academics, obviously biased by who I know. The last sentence caused pretty universal problems, being regarded as surprising and at the very least in need of explanation. Not sure how you'd elaborate on it concisely, though.

The 2nd-to-last I also got a few questions about, but nobody really objected, just befuddled reactions as to what it was saying and why. When I explained that it was directed at antirealist positions in Continental philosophy, they understood it, but I think it was regarded as superfluous (there are not many people outside of academia, at least who I've met, who believe trees don't "really" exist independent of the human experience of trees).

Lots of great comments here. Particularly the litmus tests from those of you previously unfamiliar with these trends.

Before responding to a few of you directly (in a subsequent comment), I'm going to try to summarize some trends here, in the interest of moving the draft forward.

(1) Not all positions in OOO deal with fictional objects like Harry Potter in the same way, and moreover that example suggests too many questions when seeing the concept for the first time. So, removing it seems a good idea.

(2) There's a risk of some, particularly scientists, reading anti-scientism into this description. There is a measure of anti-scientism in OOO, but only as an opposition to reductionism and the inherent correlationism of scientific practice. That's why the speculation is necessary; one can never "just find out." This issue needs to be addressed. It might be hard to speak to both anti-realists and scientific reductionists at the same time.

(3) While the list of objects is a help, more concreteness might be helpful. Its hard to know how to do this without adding more text, but maybe there's a reason to have a short and long version of a definition. The short one would be something like the one above, the longer one that plus 2-3 examples.

@nick
You're overanalyzing the problem. The utterance about a non-existent entity, the sign for that entity, and the entity itself (possibly non-existent) are different things.

@hunty
The idea is that science is insufficient to describe things, because it always races to the bottom (reductionism). We can't understand the DVD player simply by its components, or the components by their transistors, or the transistors by their atoms. Thus the "alone."

@Kragen
No, it simply argues that fundamentally, things are no less extant, no less valid than people, or animals, or ideas.

@Asher
I think there's certainly room for more physicalist variants of OOO. This is what you've been dancing around for some time really.

@Gillian
It's not a bad effort for a first shot! The main problem I see is the focus on ourselves. OOO doesn't particularly care to put human understanding at the center of philosophical effort. It's fine of course.

I agree with most of the others here that the Harry Potter example should be dropped. I think discussions of symbolic or cultural entities are a very specific problem in OOO that will be difficult to follow for those who are not familiar with the basic framework of the philosophy. Best not to start with claims that, on the surface, appear absurd when pitching OOO.

Someone asked whether or not OOO has a criteria for existence. For me the criteria is simple: anything that has causal powers is real, full stop. If the film Twilight is a real actor then this is because it has all sorts of economic effects, leaves all sorts of teenie boppers breathless, leads people to model their relationships on the characters of the film, etc. Does Twilight require brains and persons to exist? Sure. But just because one thing is grounded in another thing it doesn't follow that that entity is reducible to the entities its grounded in. Were this the case we would have a very difficult time explaining things like social structures, economies, language, etc., that transcend the agency of any one particular person and have emergent laws and patterns governing them. I don't see a difference in kind between entities like Twilight and entities like money. In this respect, I think the theorist that suffers from methological neuro-individualism of the neo-liberal positivist variety will have an extremely difficult time explaining collective structures like economies if they don't grant reality to these things.

For the layman I suspect that the significance of OOO is very difficult to get because in certain respects it already fits common sense assumptions about the world. As someone in this thread already noted, people outside of academia already more or less advocate such a view in their folk-ontology. However, the thesis that anti-realist assumptions are only relevant to academic departments is mistaken, I think. Let's not forget that these assumptions guide a good deal of research both inside and outside the social sciences. Moreover, from the opposite end, a sort of vulgar physicalism governs a good deal of research in psychology and sociology departments that, in turn, have a big impact on social policy. OOO critiques the anti-realist turn with its introduction of a wide variety of real objects that cannot be reduced to correlates of human thought. OOO critiques vulgar variants of positivism in social sciences like psychology through the introduction of cultural objects that are real, have very real impacts on a variety of lives (e.g., economy and ideology), and that can't be properly understood in their functioning when we restrict talk to individual brains.

Gillian, while OOO certainly wants to examine things I think it would be a mistake that it is not interested in the persons that produce them or how they are produced. It just refuses the move of reducing things to human ideas of things. For me one of the more interesting dimensions of OOO is precisely what happens when objects interact. Humans are one example of objects interacting with other objects that both change objects and are changed by the objects they interact with.

As a previously very interested but frequently confused onlooker at the work of various OOO-ists, I must say that this exercise has given me a much higher level of access than any summary to date.

One question---(from my utterly ignorant layman perspective)---about that difficult last line. Your re-expression of it, Ian, as "speculation is necessary; one can never 'just find out,'" still leaves me uncertain. Do you mean that OOO-ists see a need to characterize objects in ways that can't be tested by experiments? Just want to make sure I understand.

I was going to suggest going with *more* abstract entities, because without them it sounds a lot like like naturalism. Reductionism is a pretty thin difference, since there a lot of naturalist positions that are non-reductive.

As a suitable layman (I know nothing of OOO, and little of formal philosophy):

I get at least the surface of this. A philosophy based around objects, without a human-centric bias. Your list of the various objects made me wonder what constitutes an "object", given that everything you listed is composed of many smaller objects. (That, then, took me on a tangent of wondering how you'd discuss OOO when it seems tough just nailing down a definition of "object".)

Then, I wonder, where do you go from there? This is a philosophy of objects, and presumably their relationships... what are the benefits of this approach over comparable philosophies? I guess I feel like the definition needs a context of some sort, though I can see how things will get sticky if you have to provide a snapshot of the contemporary philosophy landscape just to define a member of that set.

Ian, with all due respect, I think your description is sort of terrible!

I think Levi puts his finger on why when he talks about the ways that OOO corresponds to common sense folk ontology. When confronted with the notion that "all things exist" I can't imagine any other layman reaction besides, well of course they do, so what?

I don't think that OOO makes much sense extracted from the philosophical conversation it is a part of. I think you need to give the layman a glimpse of this conversation, sketch out the context of OOO, give them a sense of what is at stake, why it's important and interesting.

When Levi was talking Twilight I started to get a better sense of these issues, I begin to see OOO in the context of these other conceptual frameworks - on the one hand social constructivism and on the other scientific reductionism - that tend to dissolve the ordinary things that surround us and out of which our lives are made.

Now, maybe I've gotten it wrong, but if that's right, maybe you could figure out a way to communicate the project of OOO within that dynamic, maybe you could explain (for example, if this is true, and I have no idea if it is) that OOO wants to acknowledge and respect the explanatory power of these other frameworks - of semiotics and structuralism (in which objects tend to disappear into complex symbolic systems and social gestures) and empirical materialism (in which objects tend to disappear into complex formulae of particles and waves) - you don't want to dismiss these frameworks or reject them, but you want to reassert the power of thinking and talking about things without having them disappear so much, and that furthermore this third way might provide some useful negotiation between the first two which, let's face it, have been yammering past each other for quite some time now.

Layman (and experts) are interested in arguments and the hot sex that comes after them and I think helping to explain the role OOO plays in the drama of contemporary thought is a good angle.

Frank, a very interesting point. Something along the lines of (this is just off the top of my head):

In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.

@Robert
I'm glad to hear that we may be making progress here! About not "just finding out," one of the precepts here is that objects may have "secret lives" that we can't fully characterize. Harman gets there via Heidegger, by holding that all real objects recede into themselves interminably. So, even if we can describe something about an object in the world, we do not exhaust the object by doing so... the world must seem very different to the apple or the panda than it does to us.

@Erik
Object is a tough term. The key here is that we don't apply a reductionism; everything gets to be an object equally, part and whole. Levi and I have sometimes referred to it as a "promiscuous ontology" or a "slutty ontology."

As for the rest of your comment, read Frank's above and my reply to him and tell me if it helps at all?

Here's an alternate version of the original, with Frank's suggestion and my revision taken into account, and Harry Potter banished:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology ("OOO" for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.

It's a bit longer than the original, but an interesting alternative. Thoughts? Is the non-human-centeredness lost?

I like the new version quite a bit, though it is a different take on it. The non-human-centeredness isn't really there, yeah, though I'm not sure how to put it in concisely. A popular view of scientific naturalism is that it's already not human-centered, ontologically speaking (humans are just one of the many things that can be aggregated out of bits of matter), and explaining how OOO's non-human-centeredness is different (perhaps partly by explaining how scientific naturalism isn't as non-human-centered as it might initially seem) starts getting pretty involved.

OOO as a "third way" between eliminativist materialism and eliminativist idealism is what drew me to it initially, so rhetorically I like that framing.

Bonobo monkey's is always a good choice in any elevator pitch!

Interesting challenge, and I think you're making progress. I think the biggest problem in this is that there's still just enough to get a blank look and maybe an obviously-false "I see...". If you're aiming for the layperson, you'll need something sweet to get their attention right off; to make them care enough to actually think and understand what you're talking about. What is the benefit of OOO? Why SHOULD they care about OOO? I've learned in my dealings with semantic metadata that what you're really doing in these cases is akin to selling a change in how people think: if you can't answer those questions compellingly and concisely, it may not be the right TIME to explain it as more than a throw-away one-liner.

But beyond that, I don't have any else to offer that hasn't been said already. Good luck!

Levi: Interesting, although now I'm a little confused... is OOO not human-centered in terms of how it thinks about particular objects, but humans can be considered "objects" in themselves?

Ian: I like your reformulation much better, and don't mind that it's a bit longer. I feel like I understand it better now, and although I'm sure some of that comes from following the discussion, I do feel like emphasizing the difference between OOO and other philosophical viewpoints was the most helpful. It doesn't seem to this layman like your new explanation is at all human-centric.

I think "humans" should be included as an object on the list to demonstrate parity and to get outside the usual subject/object hierarchy. An explicit comment about the place of the human I think should be inserted to underline the point.

Question:

So, am I as a human being one distinct object from conception to death as folk ontology takes it? How do you deal with the sorites paradox on one hand, and the lack of an essential quality of being an individual on the other?

Comments:

I think the explanation to Frank is fine and can stand on its own without the expansion given at 11:36.

Possibly wrong explanation of my understanding of triple-O:

I like the remark about Twilight. I think it might be captured punchily as something along the lines of "Anything with a causal influence on other things is a real thing." The point being that objects are collections of means of influencing itself and other objects (as in a programming language where an object is data plus methods for dealing with it). So, a leaf can be interacted with by sunlight (which causes it to grow) or fire (which destroys it), and if eaten by a cow, it interacts with the cow by causing it to grow. If swept up into a pile of leaves, it causes the pile to be. Thus causal communication has different modes and media appropriate to different pairs of interacting objects. We as humans aren't privy to all the pairs of interaction possibilities, but their still there and real.

This post is fascinating for the very reason that I'm delivering a paper on OOO, Harman, Heidegger and Algorithmically Generated Artworks for AAH 2010, to which the lively discussion here may be replicated there in different modes I'm certain.

I'm guessing many objections will emerge here, (At least as far as conceptual / post-formalist practice goes, 'art objects' are obsolete, in favour for systems of meaning, or least deferred systems, Burnham, etc), I have a hunch that some might mistake a return to objects as a return to formalism, or hidden forms which can only be found in the respective art object. Whilst some parts of OOO do resonate with formalism art, the conclusions are far from clear. How objects relate to each other and parts of themselves, tracing the fissures, would be key here.

But I hope the talk will be as lively as this. (Lets not get started on dialogues between Art historians and Latour, 'missed' and 'encounter' are two words which spring to mind - nod to Harman's blog)

Robert Jackson on December 9, 2009 5:50 AM

I DEFINITELY like your new definition, and think that it sums things up nicely, and in a way that's easily grasped even by anti-philosophists like me. :)

From the comments--seems there's a second and deeper gap than that between philosopher with background etc, and the regular joe. I mean, those for whom any single sentence or claim they didn't understand, rather than leading to questions about their own assumptions: to what this confusing claim meant in the context of OOO: to the possibly different use of common words... instead, it signals a failure of the explanation as a whole. When the part about x makes no sense, instead of asking what x means in context of the explanation, the immediate assumption is that the explaner has it wrong and his explanation makes no sense.

That's the sort of thing that just goes on in endless circles. There are plenty of non-philosophers who at least have acquired a few useful habits by of way of critical thinking--for those who haven't (outside their field of practical experience... I mean, anyone in the building trades, for instance (plumber, carpenter, electrician et al) knows a great deal about critical thinking when it comes to plumbing, say...more than a set of skills: real problem solving is involved)... but when it comes to thinking about and trying to understand what makes a good president, whether creationism should be taught in school... or Object Oriented Onotology, he/she's totally out to sea.

So as usual I drag a thought totally off subject... how this demonstrates to me how desperately important it is to include the general features of problem solving and critical thinking, and what it means to assume, as seems often the case, that critical thinking is field specific and each discipline should be left to teach it in context of its own specialty (English Across the Curriculum, etc... )

Then again, maybe this isn't so off subject... I'm thinking of the operations involved in critical thinking as real--a reality related to but distinct from their applications, and it's accepting that distinction that makes it possible to think of them as teachable. Does this point to a philosophical problem, then, in the idea of field specific reasoning and writing--and a quite useful pedagogical implication for OOO?

I like the new definition, too, and of course I think that it should be returned to for refinement.

Someone mentioned that these ideas need to be 'sold' to the layperson with something catchy. Personally, I think the OOO approach ought to be more relevant than ever to the layperson. Isn't it the case that (broadly) reductionist theories/explanations are trumpeted daily in our culture? Here I'm thinking of Freakonomics, fad diet plans, soundbite politics, etc.

OOO respects the (limited) explanatory power of theories (leaving open the possibility of their rejection upon scientific investigation), and also respects the (limited) causal power of those theories as objects acting in the world/discourse/culture.

Is OOO the same as common sense? I'm not so sure. With respect to ideas/theories/explanations, common sense seems to oscillate wildly from total denial ("There's no such thing as 'ideology'!") to total reductionism ("There is no outside of ideology!"). I don't think the realism of the OOOists seems like the common sense of my neighborhood at all. Sometimes it seems absolutely radical, in fact.

I realize here that I've concentrated on the kind of reality OOO ascribes to theories/discourses and have neglected the kind of reality ascribed to trees, but mainly because I think that that is an easier bit to grasp, at first. People will understand the importance of non-reductionism in the first and that may help step them up to non-reductionism (...the withdrawal of) the second, no?

One more thing: it would be dangerous to let OOO become identified with a different kind of common sense: the New Age, little-bit-of-this, little-bit-of-that, everyone-believes-what-they-want worldview. OOO is not a blending of all the world's many explanations, but a respect for the reality of many different kinds of objects.

We will definitely need to answer the question, "In what sense, then, is God real?"

anxiousmodernman on December 9, 2009 12:09 PM

@Asher
I understand why you suggest adding more abstract entities, but I fear that adding "friendship" or "lewdness" some such would introduce the same confusion as does "Harry Potter."

@Gillian
Yes, humans can most certainly be considered objects. I take your point about distinguishing OOO from other positions; I think I've started down that road in the second effort, although I'm concerned about introducing more jargon too.

@Will
I do have "plumbers" in there for that very reason... not enough you think?

@Robert
Indeed, one of the things I very much like about this new trend is the different style and mode of conversation, compared to many academic contexts.

@Jacob
I see your point, and it might suggest that the reactions of different sorts of people need to be taken into account if I'm serious about a general explanation of our position. But that also assumes that we're going to carry through that general position beyond mere marketing. I'm personally committed to that, although I'm not sure I've fully grasped how challenging it might be.

@Ian
I understand the distinction between sign and entity signified, but in this case I'm suggesting that, in a world with only one type of existence, it would seem that any mention of an entity causes it to exist as much as anything else does. Perhaps the "Don't think about a cow" argument is relevant here: We can't think or speak about something that doesn't exist if mention of a thing gives it the same type of existence as everything else.

Asher,

I'm confused. I'm not sure what Harman's position is here, but in my case, depending on what one means by "naturalism", I am wholeheartedly a naturalist. What is it you're seeing in OOO that leads you to the conclusion that it's not (or given that there are different proposals, can't be) a naturalism? You keep coming back to the issue of physicalism in neurology so I wonder if it doesn't revolve around something pertaining to that issue.

For my own part, a workable and robust ontology has to be capable of including things like ecosystems, climates, economies, social structures, etc, as genuine generative mechanisms or objects. In the context of your remarks about physicalism, perhaps the reference to ecosystems will prove illuminating. It's hard to be clear about this, but I'll try. If I dig my feet in when you propose physicalism, it's because when instances of social or cultural entities come up your proposal seems to be that they should simply be placed in the brain and that exhausts their being. While I am fully agreed that these entities cannot exist without brains, I think such a move significantly distorts the nature of these entities when this move is made.

Here the parallel to ecosystems is potentially illuminating. Ecosystems cannot exist without all sorts of critters, trees, microbes, soil structures. Nonetheless, I think, we'd be mistaken were we to claim that the ecosystem is those critters, trees, microbes, soil types and so on. Ecosystems have powers or causal capacities that any of these individual entities do not have. While ecosystems cannot exist without those trees, mosses, animals, microbes, and soil types, it is not the same as those entities. Here it's the relations that matter. If an ecosystem is a distinct object from all of these entities then this is because 1) all of these entities intertwined with the ecosystem come into existence and pass out of existence while the ecosystem continues to exist (e.g., those animals die and new ones are born), 2) because the ecosystem has its own distinct structure or organization that functions according to its own laws and patterns distinct from that of the entities that are embroiled within it (what I call its "endo-consistency" or "endo-relational structure"), and 3) because it has generative or causal powers distinct from its elements. That said, there's nothing spooky or non-natural about ecosystems compared to the organisms that compose it. It is a natural entity at a different level of scale. This is one of the reasons I've been writing so much about OOO and meriology.

The situation is the same for social or cultural entities. My thesis is not that social and cultural entities are not natural entities. Not at all. Rather, my thesis is that these entities are entities at a different level of scale than that of the bodies and brains that it requires in order to exist. Consequently, if we're talking about brains when talking about cultural or collective entities, we're not talking about the appropriate object. We're talking about something that is a necessary condition for the existence of these objects, but by talking about a part that is a condition for these objects we become blind to the endo-relational structures and laws that belong to objects like economies, societies, language, artistic objects, etc.

Roy Bhaskar's The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences is an excellent read on these issues. It has the virtue of being exceptionally clear and well argued and shows why social entities need to be treated as distinct objects or generative mechanisms.

@Nick

What do you think of Latour's argument in early works like Irreductions that there are degrees of reality as a function of the alliances an actor or object has with other objects. Perhaps this would get around the worry you're raising. In this connection, things like imaginings could be granted an ontological status as they do have genuine causal powers, while nonetheless it could be maintained that they're rather weak beings insofar as they don't have many alliances with other actors allowing them to sustain their ongoing existence in time. This could work quite nicely, I think, in grading degrees of existence for social or collective entities in terms of how entrenched they are.

In granting everything the same type of existence I don't think it follows that everything has the same power of existing, nor that everything has the same range of possible effects as other existents. Clearly a rock has a greater power of existing than the sorts of imaginings you're evoking. It's more resistant than the imagining and has more power to affect other entities. On the other hand, imaginings can go from being very sleight in their power of being to being very strong and intractable as in the case of superstitions, prejudices and ideologies that can poison entire societies. It took a long time for the potato to take off in Europe, for example, despite the fact that they were having huge problems with their grain harvests due to the "Little Ice Age". Even though the potato was a hearty and good cold weather food, part of this delay in becoming central to European diet had to do with all sorts of prejudices about ground foods and the people of the Americas from whence the food came. Here we get imaginings that had a tremendous impact on the social field. Similar examples could be given about the role that superstition played in how the plague was responded to in Europe.

Levi - would you say that there's anything about an ecosystem that is not physical? If there is "more" to an ecosystem than the physical things that make it up, their physical relations, and the emergent properties of the system, is the "more" in some way non-physical?

"...everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, sandstone, and Harry Potter..."

This sounds like the Imaginationland episodes of South Park.

"The idea is that science is insufficient to describe things, because it always races to the bottom (reductionism). We can't understand the DVD player simply by its components, or the components by their transistors, or the transistors by their atoms. Thus the 'alone.'"

That doesn't sound like the science I know. The science I know works at multiple levels: subatomic, atomic, molecular, cellular, morphological, organismal, population, habitat, celestial body, star system, etc. The rules are the same across the levels, but they play out in very different ways. (Notably, scientific discoveries *led to* the invention of the DVD player, so it's pretty weird to say science doesn't understand DVD players!)

I'm getting a vague idea that OOO offers another lens onto existence that includes science but goes beyond it, but I don't have a clear idea what that lens is supposed to show.

@Ian: “I do have "plumbers" in there for that very reason... not enough you think?”

No, as the salience of putting “plumber” on equal footing with a dvd player is not evident without minor detour into history of subject being perched on the pedestal. Perhaps go in depth with one object and illustrate it via Hume --> Kant --> OOO (for example) recovering what problems they were grappling which would frame their approach.

I would even be tempted to be a little controversial and mention the G(od) word, but that would risk alienating some people.

Asher,

Yes, when I talk about emergence and strata I'm not making a spooky claim about some other type of being besides the physical.

"Yes, when I talk about emergence and strata I'm not making a spooky claim about some other type of being besides the physical."

That would seem to make you a physicalist.

@Levi: Do you see that as consonant with the people who describe themselves as "ontological emergentists", then? E.g. the sort of thing described here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/properties-emergent/#OntEme

The very tentative is interesting but...
it does get tricky and you can't get too complicated. I'm losing track but the last tentative looked on the way:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology ("OOO" for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation [combination] of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much [as] with ourselves.

Causality isn't there and of course no diff between being and existing - 000 is also 'neutral' with regard to a diff between imaginary and 'extra-mental..

The fundamental claim that 'everthing exists equally' (in terms of its causal status) - any 'thing' with causal status exists - is the node of it all.
And that's where you can't make it short and easy/sexy.

All this would need more clarification about causality (whether vicarious or efficient - or otherwise) and those 'objects' that initiate causal series (ab initio) rather than reacting to, or continuing them (traseunt causality).

Objects are not all the same in their causal power - some are both sinks and sources (like empsyched beings). but that's not for 'lifts', (elevators in some countries).

Factual research is only certain of two things about this unoriginated portion of reality. First, that it is not an entity: it is but does not exist (in the proper sense of "ex-sist" – that is, coming out from something else). This is so because, as Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) stressed, one could not explain things that are entities in terms of other entities. The notion is frequently named the "ancient-India lesson," because piling up entities, such as mighty elephants, massive turtles, and oceans, or any more modern and powerful cosmological keystones such as big bang-injected humongous energies, is now clearly seen as starting never-ending series. Second, that it is a personal reality, in other words that the nonentitative, unoriginated portion of reality takes decisions conferring actuality to what it wishes in a conative way analogous to that which one uses for nodding the head or forming a thought. This is so because it cannot be nonpersonal, that is to say a network of distinctions or necessary Fate, since distinctions do not suffice to confer actuality on the being of realities..
. Mario Crocco, Palindrome. http://electroneubio.secyt.gov.ar/a_palindrome.htm


@Asher
If you like that term, yes. I have serious reservations, however, about the manner in which you apply neurology to questions of psychology as I do not believe that person's can be separated from the social world, i.e., the neurological is only a small part of the story and has, in my view, very limited explanatory power with respect to psychological structures.

@Mark

Yes, absolutely.

Levi - Okay. As far as I'm concerned, those issues have to do with explanatory efficacy rather than the nature of something's being.

@Asher

Point taken. However, I think it is an ontological question; namely, what is a person? Consider the difference between a feral child and a child brought up with humans. Both share the same neurology but are vastly different. How we answer this ontological question will significantly impact research and treatment.

Levi - I would say that they exist equally :)

More seriously, though - If you're saying that an ontological theory has to be careful about the perspectives it forecloses, I completely agree. I'm not claiming anything more than the fact that there aren't any non-physical differences between the two kids. Observation will reveal some important neurological differences between the two (and other differences at other levels).

Great discussion.

If I may ask an uninformed question, what is the relationship between this "object-oriented ontology" and what usually comes up in a search as "speculative realism"?

Charles, OOO is a variant of speculative realism, although it's worth noting that speculative realism is less a set of positions than a name for approaches with common gripes, specifically a position against what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism.

I just thought of a kind of Monty Python scene in the elevator where after hearing the def of OOO the respondent says:
'But this is the ontology of Duns Scotus (the 'dunce') - following Ibn Sina, or as Deleuze put it, being is understood as neutral, indifferent to the distinction between the finite and the infinite, the singular and the universal, the created and the uncreated. (DR, 35). God and ticks, trees and stones, imaginary worlds and impossible objects have one sense, or univocal being. What is new about your OOO - replacing univocal being with univocal causality? And hurry up, I'm busy.

@Asher

I don't want to hijack the thread as this is not the topic of discussion, but I think your remark gets to the core of our differences:

More seriously, though - If you're saying that an ontological theory has to be careful about the perspectives it forecloses, I completely agree. I'm not claiming anything more than the fact that there aren't any non-physical differences between the two kids. Observation will reveal some important neurological differences between the two (and other differences at other levels).

In my view, the feral child and the human are entirely different types of entities. They aren't both persons. The feral child is a being that has a lot of the hardware that person's have, but that's as far as it goes. Now I would agree that we would find profound neurological differences between the feral child and the child raised within the social world, but this is precisely why psychology cannot adopt the stance of methodological individualism, i.e., simply analyzing individual persons divorced from their context. One of the most marked neurological differences, of course, would be in the absence of developed language regions in the brain (as in the case of the famous feral child, Genie).

In a discussion like this I think Aristotle's understanding of the four causes or aitia is helpful. Aristotle says there's a material cause (what something is made of), a formal cause (the pattern or structure of a thing), the efficient cause (what brings a thing into being), and the final cause (or the pattern, goal, or aim of a thing). My dispute with certain appropriations of neurology is that it reduces the formal and efficient cause to the material cause.

Perhaps we can distinguish between strong neurological physicalism and weak neurological physicalism. For the strong neurological physicalist the material, efficient, and formal causes of personhood are going to be the brain and the brain alone. For the weak neurological physicalist, the brain will certainly be included among the efficient, material, and the formal cause, but so too will the social and interpersonal function as a material cause of personhood, an efficient cause of personhood, and a formal cause of personhood. For the weak neurological physicalist such as myself, brain will be a necessary but not sufficient condition for personhood. In addition to brain you will need the social and the interpersonal (i.e., two additional generative mechanisms or objects) in order to get persons. Under this view, the argument between a strong neurological physicalist and a weak neurological physicalist will look a lot like an argument between a person that argues that lightbulbs are what make lamps work versus the other person that argues that light bulbs, electric wires, electric sources, power plants, etc., as being what makes lamps work.

Sounds lovely. Although I have to say this makes me want to know how Harry Potter and sandstone interact, and whether this speculation is supposed to lead to a single picture, or if it can just explode in every direction!

For the last year I've kept coming across people saying they dislike "reductionism" and chopping stuff up, but when they give examples, mostly what they seem to dislike is people saying:
"this is just a consequence of my ideas, in a way I haven't worked out yet, so I don't need to listen to you, and neither does anyone else"

In other words people get pissed off when someone asserts the primacy of their field, as the root of all understanding.

I take more the view that it might be possible to link theories together in pretty cool loops, so that each contains the other in a way that partially affirms it's accuracy. In other words perspectives would grant each other conditional legitimacy, giving us a biological justification for physics, or a critical theory justification of theology, or maybe even a musical justification of architecture!

Now these justifications might be partial conditional, and ideally, would allow for any theory to justify itself in it's own terms, opening it it up to all kinds of self reference. Until then, loads of theories of stuff are beaten in foundational power by the theory "I know what's what and so I know that I know this"!

Yeah, I'm already feeling guilty about the threadjack. If you like, I could turn the conversation into a post at the Vole and we could pick it up there -- or we could discuss it at LS if that's better. I think a lot could be clarified.

In short, I think we are talking past one another to some extent. The key to it is the formal cause, which is how I am trying to frame "emergent" properties.

This is a very long list of comments. It isn't hard to see how explaining OOO ulitmately to the public is difficult when the theorists themselves cannot agree about the implications of its most salient points.
Now, as an almost non-philosopher myself (therefore I am qualifying myself as someone to be listened to, insofar as I am a listener-for-you that you should want to court), I notice that OOO is a theoretical name. You are asking me to understand what OOO is, or at least to come to some understanding of OOO based upon my real, lived experience. No, I am not a plumber, a teenie bopper, and I have never purchased a DVD player. I quite like my X-Box, however, and am currently playing 'Ghostbusters: The Video Game'. There is a bit where you have to knock the Staypuft Marshmellow Man off the side of a tall building. I like that bit. But alas this seems to be beside the point (and I'd rather play it than listen to a philosopher explain it, so let's just drop it). Now, I do already understand OOO insofar as I know that it is a theory that people in Universities might or might not want to quibble about. I don't exactly know how my 'access' to the distinctions and relations discussed in terms of OOO by academics is meant to be bettering to me. The funny thing seems to be that this lack of will-to-access seems to already be involved in my recognition of OOO as a theoretical name. Put another way, ‘undereducated’ people (including those with degrees I might add) know academics are tossers and will not buy their speculative books, giving their time to understanding them in a fair way. Maybe the whole affair of ‘speaking to the public’ (and in fact I would insist this means ‘undereducated’) involves a laughable notion of a fair and just society that we have to first accept before being ABLE to give our time to reading books about the nature of the universe. Those who do of course initially want to read clever books are usually middle class and probably tossers anyway, and it doesn’t matter that they are undereducated because they always speak plausibly, as my masters, and though they might get themselves on TV, I don’t like them. Summed up, I don’t think the will-to-access can be taken for granted, nor can you take for granted your wish to talk to the undereducated. There is not just philosophy in this world and there may be infinitely more important things in life than philosophy. Maybe reading books makes us less violent, whereas it might be important to address our temperament and try to make ourselves more violent. Maybe you disagree, but that’s neither here nor there until you combine that difference between us with a) your theory and b) the reason why your theory relates to me in the way in which you would like it to.

This is pure Husserl.stop pretending that you have invented something new.

Why ask for a post-autistic philosophy when you are creating the first autistic philosophy? Any philosophy that says there a child "exists equally" with and has no "special status" over a swimming pool only goes to prove why public-oriented philosophy will always have to privilege ethics over ontology. And if you consider ethics not philosophy, well... you've lost the people already. Why think in public if the public is just a group of persons and there are so many equally existing groups of objects?

I fail to see how OOO could answer "is" questions better, for the "general audience" than scientific naturalism or even social relativism except in a few cases (video games seem to be one). But since OOO doesn't seem to engage "ought" questions, it isn't even in the realm in which a "general audience" might ever care what one called "philosopher" has to say.

Clifton Jewett on July 8, 2011 11:12 PM

I must apologize, I got distracted and forgot my original idea to post here:

Why use the word "blinis" in an elevator pitch for a "general audience"? I guess I may have been living under a rock, but I've never heard of them and my Google search revealed that it refers to an object called "blintz" in English.

Clifton Jewett on July 8, 2011 11:14 PM

Clifton, OOO holds that ontology is where first-principles philosophy must begin, not ethics. That doesn't mean that one cannot pursue ethics nor that philosophers (and anyone else) can't be interested in humans.

Blini are commonly used as substrates for caviar. It's nice to find an object that's unfamiliar in a sea of familiar ones. A blintz has slightly different connotations in English. I guess if you really wanted to troll, you could point out that technically "blini" is already plural in Russian.

Ian Bogost on July 9, 2011 5:57 PM

Perhaps what I mean instead is that a "general population" could not become deeply interested in ontological questions without ceasing to become a "general population". I seem to realize that to describe a population as "general" is to give it a special status that ontological study would deconstruct. Nevertheless, the products of such questioning are often interesting to many and I appreciate and concur with your intent and actions to engage people outside of academia. I also suppose that seeing the term "general population" as an object with practical purposes could be more fruitful than other approaches.

I have no desire to troll and if Heidegger is on the table then it is indeed "nice to find an object that's unfamiliar in a sea of familiar ones". I've been hypothesizing lately that such moments of discovery are the experiences I desire most out of videogames. Nietzsche-focused videogame theorists (with Alex Kierkegaard at the helm) miss something fundamental to my relationship to games with their unflappable belief in Schwierigkeit Über Alles. I have hopes that OOO will see where they are blinded, and you have persuaded me to be in favor of blinis.

Clifton Jewett on August 2, 2011 5:08 PM

Yay blinis!

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hi,
Fascinating discussion. Is there any relationship between OO ontologies and the computer science concept of Object Oriented Design/Analysis, as the later is premised on modeling the world as a collection of 'objects'.

greg

Hi Greg,

The answer is, yes and no. Graham Harman coined the term Object Oriented Philosophy, knowingly borrowing it from computer programming, but also riffing off Bruno Latour's simiilar borrowing to talk about democracy in Making Things Public. Graham and I (and others) have had a few conversations about the similarities and dissimilarities between OO Philosophy and OO Programming. You can find some of that discussion (and links to others) here.

Ian Bogost on May 19, 2012 10:41 AM

Hello, I'm about to review, hesitantly, your book Alien Phenomenology for Leonardo Online Reviews. But before I do I wonder, because I am involved in 'Pataphysics, what you think about the possibilities for playing or 'playing' (if there's a difference) with aspects of OOO in ways analogous to 'Pataphysics perhaps 'playing' with or even inventing or denying the conventional possibilities of (amongst other things) objects and their relationships in real or imagined worlds? This given your involvement with games, though I know that's not the same thing.
Thanks if you have any comments or thoughts :-)

Brian Reffin Smith

PS - I should say I haven't READ the book either, let alone started to review it, so it's entirely possible my question wouldn't have been the same if I had; but I wanted to write to you before, not after I read it…

Hi Brian, it's an interesting question. I think there are indeed some connections to make between 'Pataphysics and the practice of carpentry I describe in the book. I suspect the problem, if there is one, has to do with 'Pataphysics' reliance on a kind of productive absurdism... some would say that I do this too, but I'm not sure if I'd agree. I'll be curious to hear what you come up with.

Ian Bogost on May 27, 2012 4:57 PM

Excellent description, particularly the revised version. In any case, your contemporaneity is at once both refreshing and thought-provoking, especially for one steeped in the practical considerations of philosophical discourse.

Marshal Payne on July 2, 2012 12:01 AM

I am a little late to this, but I had a couple questions about OOO that I don't think the description addresses.

First, I know it's mean to harp on the problem of the definition of an 'object', but it seems like a) it's a huge problem and b) as objects seem to be..well, the orientation of the position, OOO ought to have one.

I think the most interesting question to ask is: what makes an object discreet from another object? Is a car an object? If so, we must surely say that another object, the car's engine, is discreet from the car while also being a part of the car (there is nothing necessary about the engine's relationship to the car, i.e. it could just as easily be the engine of another car), and that what makes it part of the car is the fact that it is involved in the system that we're referring to when we use the word 'car,' in addition to its physical relationship to the rest of the car; but if this is true, then I think we are committed to saying that a human is a 'part' of the planet in basically the same way, because it's not clear exactly where we draw the spatial line between where the human ends and the planet begins. At the risk of being reductionistic, that's a real problem for the very idea of there being more than one object.

If OOO is going to take a more commonsense approach to that kind of question, then great. If so, I am interested in how similar you think it is to, say, Medieval Realism, where there basically aren't any of the Modernist, dualist problems involving substance, problems that anyone who wants to talk about objects these days will rub against. In fact, I think that would be great; what philosophy needs now is a reason not to fall into obsolescence at the hands of obscurantist elites.

But anyway, ahem, enough of the soap box. The other thing I have been trying to figure out about OOO is whether it's too unfashionable amongst academics to be viable as anything other than a fringe movement. Could it be that OOO is truly a strong response to the positivist-flavored scientism that's so pervasive?

I believe that the most interesting thing about OOO is not that it affirms the existence of what exists, but that is allows for very different categories of entities to act on the same plane of existence. Here concepts, things, persons, thoughts, mythic creatures, animals, institutions, etc. can all act together and combine into new objects.

Throughout the various versions of your account of Object-Oriented Ontology the first two sentences have remained the same:

"Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology ("OOO" for short) puts things at the center of this study."

1. Does this mean that OOO is "the philosophical study of the existence of objects or things"?

2. Is there a difference between an "object" and a "thing"?

Jackson Davis on January 12, 2014 12:29 AM

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